A sticking point with many people is that Vaiṣṇavas insist that God has a specific form (rūpa), name (nāma), actions (līlā ), and attributes (guṇa). However, doesn’t that make God sectarian? The product of a specific culture, with specific clothes and language? Furthermore, why should God resemble human beings?
Definitions of birth, form etc.
Śrī Jīva examines this question in Anuchheda 47 of the Bhagavat Sandarbha. First he defines form, name, action and attributes. These definitions are below:
इति प्रकृतिजे लोके दृश्यते – The following definitions are applicable in the world born of material nature –
अवस्थान्तरप्राप्तिर्विकारः।तत्र प्रथमविकारो जन्म – A change of state is called transformation. In the body, the first such transformation is called birth (janma).
अपूर्णस्य निजपूर्त्यर्था चेष्टा कर्म – The effort an incomplete person makes to compensate for what is lacking is called action (karma)
मनोग्राह्यस्य वस्तुनो व्यवहारार्थं केनापि संकेतितः सङ्केतितः शब्दः नाम – The verbal symbol used to designate objects perceptible to the mind is called a name (nāma)
चक्षुषा ग्राह्यो गुणः रूपम् – The property of an object that is perceived by the eyes is called form or color (rūpa)
सत्त्वादिप्राकृतगुणनिदानो द्रव्यस्योत्कर्षहेतुधर्मविशेषो गुण – The specific characteristic that grants eminence to any object and which springs from the material guṇas, like sattva, is called a quality (guṇa).
The reason for denial of birth, form etc. in Bhagavān
Śrī Jīva cites the following verse from the Bhāgavatam:
na vidyate yasyaca janma karma vā na nāma-rūpe guṇa-doṣa eva vā tathāpi lokāpyaya-sambhavāya yaḥ sva-māyayā tāny anukālam ṛcchati
Bhagavān has no birth, action, name, form, virtues or vices. However, for the purposes of creating and destroying this material world, He accepts these perpetually by His internal potency.
This verse has an explicit denial of birth, action etc. in Bhagavān. Further, why is it said that these are ‘accepted’ by Him for acting in the material world? Acceptance implies either that there was a point in time in which they were accepted, and did not exist in Bhagavān before that, or that even if they were accepted eternally, they are not intrinsic to Bhagavān but external to Him.
Śrī Jīva explains the reasons for denial of attributes in Bhagavān [compare with the definitions above]:
यस्य च सर्वदा स्वरूपस्थत्वात् पूर्णत्वान् मनसोSप्यगोचरत्वात् स्वप्रकाशत्वात् प्रकृत्यतीत्वात् तानि न विद्यन्ते तथापि यस्तानि ऋच्छति प्राप्नोति!
[Material] birth is denied because Bhagavān is always situated in His own nature.
[Material] actions are denied because He is always complete.
[Material] name is denied because He is imperceptible even by the mind.
[Material] form is denied because He is self-luminous [i.e. His form cannot be seen through light reflected from it].
[Material] qualities are denied because He is beyond material nature.
Reconciliation of opposing statements in the scriptures which accept and deny attributes in Bhagavān
One may object that the word ‘material’ is not included in the above verse, and therefore is an unnecessary addition. The response is that there are numerous scripture statements that express both concepts: that Bhagavān has no attributes and He has attributes. Śrī Jīva provides examples:
Rejection of birth, action, form etc. –
निष्कलं निष्क्रियं शान्तम् – He is undivided, inert and peaceful (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.19)
अशब्दमस्पर्शमरूपमव्ययम् – He is imperishable; He cannot be perceived by the eyes, ears, or sense of touch (Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.3.15)
Acceptance of qualities or attributes:
सर्वकर्मा सर्वकामः सर्वगन्धः सर्वरसः – He performs all acts, possesses all desires, and has all fragrance and taste (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3.14.2)
Inserting the word [material] where qualities are denied allows reconciliation of seemingly opposing statements in the scriptures. Nor is such an interpretation unscriptural, because the Padma Purana contains an explicit verse to this effect:
योSसौ निर्गुण इत्युक्तः शास्त्रेषु जगदीश्वरः।प्राकृतैर्हेयसंयुक्तैर्गुणैर्हीनत्वमुच्यते – When the Lord of the cosmos is said in the scriptures to be devoid of qualities (nirguna), it means that He has no profane material qualities (PP 6.227.41)
The reason for the use of the word ṛcchati, “accepts or attains”
Then why is the word ṛcchati, “accepts” used? Does this word not imply that His qualities are temporary? Śrī Jīva replies:
“the verse says anukālam – which means “[He attains them] perpetually”, meaning that He is never bereft of them. It should be understood that there is a relationship of cause and effect between the actions manifested by the internal energy and their eternal nature.