The Aspected Nature of the Absolute Truth
Below are some verses from the Nyāya Sutra that discuss the nature of the Supreme Lord, and describe how He is one and many, how He is attained by devotees and yet never truly attained by anyone, and how the varied aspects of His personality are hidden inside the other aspects, such that knowing any aspect is knowing the full truth in one sense, and yet not knowing it completely in another.
Table of Contents
साधर्म्यवैधर्म्याभ्यामुपसंहारे तद्धर्मविपर्ययोपपत्तेः साधर्म्यवैधर्म्यसमौ
sādharmyavaidharmyābhyāmupasaṃhāre taddharmaviparyayopapatteḥ sādharmyavaidharmyasamau
sādharmya—similar nature; vaidharmyābhyām—and opposing nature; upasaṃhāre—upon the destruction of; taddharma—that nature; viparyaya—its opposite; upapatteḥ–logically concluded; sādharmya—similar nature; vaidharmya—opposing nature; samau—being equivalent.
Upon the destruction of similar nature and opposing nature, that nature and its opposite are logically concluded; the similar nature and the opposite nature being equivalent.
Whether a mother scolds a child or feeds the child, the intention behind it is the same—she wants to protect and nurture the child. When a prudent teacher appreciates the student or reprimands him, the intention behind both these actions is the same—the teacher wants to produce a well-educated student. Whether a noble king gives prizes to people who have done good work or delivers punishment to those who have done bad work, his intentions are the same—to create a moral and principled society. In the same way, the Lord has to be understood as beyond the dualities of this material world. His rewards and punishments have the same purpose—to purify the soul; His care and neglect are meant to deliver the same result—to liberate the soul from material entanglements. And the knowledge He imparts to the devotees and the delusions of success and failure He creates for the materialists have the same purpose—to enlighten the humble and confuse those who are arrogant.
Those who are conditioned by material dualities are unable to see this nature of the Lord. So, they think: If the Lord is like this, then He cannot be like that. But they are baffled in their judgment because the Lord is both. Thus, this sutra states that when the mundane dualistic way of thinking is destroyed, then one realizes that the Lord has a nature and its very opposite; in fact, both natures are equivalent. So, the Lord is benevolent toward His devotees and harsh toward the demons; He teaches those who are inquisitive, and He deludes those who are arrogant; He is visible to those who are seeking Him, and He is invisible to those who want to avoid Him. The same person is all the potentialities and qualities, but all those potentialities and qualities are not simultaneously manifest. They are rather manifest in different relationships based on different attitudes. Since the Lord can manifest everything, therefore, He is everything—even opposing qualities. But since the Lord doesn’t manifest everything simultaneously, therefore, He is not universally kind or harsh, visible or hidden, knowledge or delusion. Rather, He reveals Himself differently in various contexts. Thus, as the Absolute Truth, He is everything. But as some contextual revelation of this Absolute Truth, He is only one of the opposing qualities.
Thus, the Absolute Truth also becomes the contextual truth and if we combine all these contexts, then it seems that the Absolute Truth is self-contradictory. Therefore, we must recognize that the Absolute Truth is the potentiality for everything, but everything is not simultaneously manifest at the same time, place, situation, or in relation to every person. Thus, everyone can see the Lord differently, and yet, He is the one and the same person. This infinite nature of the Lord is understood by the person who has transcended the dualities of the material world. In this world, something is either hot or cold, either big or small, either heavy or light. But the Lord is all of these qualities simultaneously.
gotvāt—by being a cow; gosiddhivat—just like the attainment of a cow; tatsiddhiḥ–that (nature of the Lord) is also attained.
Just like the attainment of a cow by being a cow, that (nature of the Lord) is also attained.
The Absolute Truth follows the philosophy of tit-for-tat. If one is gentle and humble, then the Lord reveals His gentle and humble side. But if one is arrogant and proud of their power, then the Lord reveals a side that is also insensitive and very powerful. The cow is considered a very gentle animal in Indian culture. She gives milk, and therefore, she is like a mother. In the same way, if the soul becomes gentle and giving like the cow, the Lord also becomes caring and concerned toward the soul. This leads to a problem for many people. They ask: What is the Absolute Truth? And the answer is: He is whatever you are. You will see a nature of the Absolute Truth as a reflection of your nature.
Of course, every thief wants an honest accountant. Every killer wants to receive mercy. Every cheater wants to be given a fair trial. So, we may not like what we see. But that simply means that we have to change ourselves. We don’t have to conjure some fancy, intricate, or complicated understanding of the nature of the Absolute Truth. We just have to become whatever truth we want to see. If something is hidden from our vision, then it is as good as not existing. So, if we never see the harsh side of the Lord, it is practically as if that nature doesn’t exist. But, of course, it exists for those who are evil. So, the Absolute Truth is everything that we can imagine. And yet, He is one thing for each person. This means that there is great variability in the understanding of the Lord for each person. In one sense, there is nothing other than the Lord. If we receive harshness in our life, then that is a face of the Lord, which we are seeing due to our nature and past activities. And then if we see a successful and opulent life, that is also a face of the Lord that we are seeing due to our past actions.
Thus, the Lord is the only object; everything is some or the other face of the Lord. We are also a part of the Lord, therefore, when we see Him in a certain way, in one sense, He is seeing Himself. But of course, if the part has the choice to see a different face, then a different face of the Lord would be revealed to it. In this way, the Absolute Truth becomes self-conscious by desiring to see a different aspect of His personality, and then reveals that aspect to Himself.
sādhya—the achieved; dṛṣṭāntayoh—the vision; dharma—nature; vikalpāt—from the alternative; ubhaya—both; sādhyatvāt—from the object to be known; ca—also; utkarṣa—elevated; apakarṣa—degraded; varṇya—classes; avarṇya—classless; vikalpa—the alternative; sādhya—the object to be known; samāḥ–equivalent.
From the object to be known, both the vision that is achieved, and the alternative to that nature can be attained. Also, elevated and degraded, the classes and the classless, are equivalent alternatives in the object to be known.
This sutra continues the description of the Absolute Truth. The meaning of ‘absolute’ is that it is the potentiality for all the relative truths, and it can reveal anything that we can imagine, think, desire, or choose. The Lord is the source of the elevated spiritual world and the degraded material world. He is the source of the classful society of this world, where some people are higher than others, and the lower class serves the higher class. And He is the source of a classless or egalitarian society of the transcendental world where everyone serves everyone else, and they take pleasure in pushing each other forward and upward. Thus, the unity is the source of the diversity, but that unity is everything rather than one thing or nothing. The impersonalist thinks that the Absolute Truth is one thing—Brahman—and it is devoid of all the qualities, including personal individuality. And the voidist says that the ultimate truth is nothing—i.e., devoid even of consciousness. But these philosophies are rejected by all Vedic texts. Yes, there is a unity, which is devoid of duality in the sense that the Absolute Truth is everything. But that truth reveals itself differently to different individuals based on their nature, preferences, desires, and choices.
kiṃcit—a little; sādharmyāt—from the similar nature; upasaṃhāra—destruction; siddheh—achieved; vaidharmyāt—from the opposing nature; apratiṣedhaḥ—is not forbidden.
It is not forbidden to say that from a little bit of similar nature, from (within the opposing nature), the destruction of the opposing nature is achieved.
There are two kinds of aspect theories of reality. In the first, the aspect of an object is different from the object. For example, we can think of a particle and its properties. Each property of the particle is an aspect of the particle, but even if all the properties are removed, the particle remains. This type of aspect theory constructs a hierarchy between the property and the particle. This hierarchical theory of aspects is used in Sāñkhya while describing the material world. For example, the tanmātra or properties like shape, size, and color are aspects of the sense of seeing; likewise, red, green, and blue are aspects of color. The senses are the aspects of the mind; etc. This hierarchy, as we have noted earlier, produces an inverted tree in which the trunks are aspects of the root, the branches are the aspects of the trunks, and so on. When we come to the root, however, there cannot be aspects; the root has to be that one thing without any aspects. This kind of aspect theory of reality doesn’t work for the Absolute Truth when that truth is itself said to have aspects. Now, we have to look at the second aspect theory, in which one aspect is hidden inside the other aspect, and can manifest from within. When the hidden aspect manifests, then it absorbs the visible aspect within it, and that visible aspect now becomes the hidden aspect.
To understand this idea, we can think of multiple-personality disorder. Suppose that a person has two personalities—one good and the other evil. When the good side manifests, the evil side is hidden inside the good side. But when the evil side manifests, then the good side is hidden within the evil side. Now, if we apply the first type of aspect theory, then we would say that there is a “person” who is different from both good and evil sides, and that person chooses one of these sides and remains aware of which side has been chosen. But this doesn’t happen in the case of multiple-personality disorder because the person who changes these personalities isn’t merely putting on an act of being good and evil, being fully aware of the other side of their personality. They are rather completely unaware of the existence of the other personality aspect.
This second type of personality aspect theory is used in the yin-yang model where there are two opposite traits—yin and yang—and the yin exists as a small thing inside yang, while the yang exists as a small thing inside the yin. The ‘smallness’ can be seen as the depiction of something that lies unmanifest, and the ‘bigness’ can be viewed as the depicture of that which is currently manifest. Thus, yang exists inside the yin but is unmanifest, and yin exists inside yang and is unmanifest. So, when yin transforms into yang, then the cause of the transformation is not ‘outside’ yin. It was rather the yang property that existed in an unmanifest form within the yin property. This unmanifest becomes manifest and it “swallows” what was previously manifest. The result of this aspect theory is that yin and yang are just properties, and there is no need for an “object” that holds them as its properties but is different from the properties.
Thus, in the first type of aspect theory, there is a hierarchy, which ends at the root, and that root cannot have many aspects. But if the root itself has to be aspects, then we need another kind of aspect theory in which one aspect lies hidden within the other aspect, and when it manifests, it swallows the other aspect. In this way, one person can have many personality types, such that when one personality type is revealed, the other types are hidden. These personality types are not the aspects of some deeper-level reality. They are rather the byproducts of hiding many aspects within an aspect, such that all the aspects are present within each aspect; however, they remain invisible.
This sutra describes such an aspect theory in relation to the Absolute Truth, which is the root of the inverted tree. All these aspects are not the properties of some deeper-level object. They are rather the full object. One nature exists in a minute form within the manifest nature, but it is unmanifest. Then, when it starts growing, it completely absorbs the previously visible nature, such that it becomes minute and hidden inside. Thus, this sutra states that even if something exists in a minute form, it can grow and make the thing that is big and visible totally invisible. However, that invisible thing now becomes the minute reality within the visible, and it too can manifest subsequently, thereby, reversing the manifest-unmanifest relation. Ironically, the minute seed that grows to swallow the manifest nature preexists hidden within the manifest nature.
This kind of idea has been depicted in many traditional philosophies as the snake that eats its own tail. The part that is eaten becomes hidden within the part that eats. What is generally not shown is that the tail also becomes the head, and the head becomes the tail, and the process can then also be inverted.
sādhya—the object to be known; atideśāt—from a place beyond; ca—also; dṛṣṭānta—the occasions of experience; upapatteḥ–are logically created.
Also, from the place beyond (the reach of anyone), the object to be known logically creates the occasions of experience.
This sutra talks about the first type of aspect theory that we referred to in the last sutra, which are the aspects in the sense that properties are aspects of an object. Thus, the term ‘also’ is used, which, in the context, means that both types of aspect theories are applicable. The second type of aspect theory refers to the nature of the Lord, and the first type of aspect theory refers to the experience of the Lord by other living entities. To understand these two descriptions, we have to delve into the forms of the Lord as described in the Vedic texts.
These forms are known as Narayana, Vasudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha. Similarly, the forms are also known as Narasimha, Kūrma, Vārāha, and Vāmana. All these forms are based on the aspect theory of the first type, in the sense that they are called the parts, the part of the parts, and the part of the parts of the whole truth—Krishna. Then, each of these forms displays many different moods. For example, when Narasimha appeared, He was in the most ferocious form, and a very angry mood. He continued in that angry mood, even after killing Hiranyakaśipu, until His devotee Prahalad offered Him prayers and pacified His anger. Then, the same Narasimha became just like a loving father, and He placed Prahalad on His lap just like a father would do for his son. He then affectionately proceeded to place His hands on Prahalad’s head as if to assure him to not be afraid because he has the most powerful protector. These two aspects of the Lord—one fearsome and the other loving—are the aspects of the same person, but they are aspects in the second type of aspect theory. When one aspect manifests, then the other aspect becomes hidden.
But the aspects in the first type are simultaneously manifest. Thus, there are infinite Vaikuṇṭha planets in which the various forms of Lord Viṣṇu are present simultaneously. These are the first types of aspects. Then, in each aspect, there are many moods and personas which are manifest one after another. This manifestation requires us to understand the aspect in the second way. For example, in the Goloka planet, Krishna goes to the forest to graze His cows with His friends, and He becomes invisible to His mother and father for some time. Then in the evening He returns to His father’s place and becomes visible to His father and mother again. So, the same person transforms by hiding and revealing His varied personality aspects. These are the second type of aspects. Thus, both types of aspect theories have to be understood to fully understand the Lord.
Some people accuse the Vedic religion of “polytheism” because they don’t understand how reality is described to have many aspects. The variegated nature of the Lord’s persona is alien to other religions, which think of God as the “father in heaven”. Of course, God is the father too. But that is one of the aspects. He is also a son, friend, lover, mentor, teacher, master, and even a servant. For example, Krishna is a servant to His father, and He fetches His father’s slippers because He doesn’t want Him walking barefoot. That doesn’t mean that God is a servant to everyone. But if we become His servant, then by becoming the cow, the cow nature of the Lord is revealed to us. Therefore, God has innumerable forms either due to these forms being the eternally manifest aspects in different planets or due to various moods of the form being manifest one after another. This is the science of the Absolute Truth and it is unique to the Vedas, and the science is simply that the Absolute Truth is everything, but everyone doesn’t see the same thing. So, the Absolute Truth is not a Universal Truth—i.e., He is not the same for everyone. He is the collection of all the relative truths, which means that everyone can see Him in different ways, and those visions of the Lord are not fictitious or imaginary. They are all visions of the truth.
In Christianity, Islam, and other similar religions, the idea of God is married to the idea of a Universal Truth. “There is no God but our God”. If you don’t accept our God, then we shall kill you. The idea of Universal Truth comes from Greeks, and Romans married this idea to Christianity to create an impoverished vision of God as a Universal God. Then they proceeded to kill and enslave other people in the name of religion. This claim is also sometimes called Neoplatonism and it is used to explain the manifestation of the world from God, but ultimately it is a false idea because the aspects of God are not understood. The tolerant nature of the Vedic religion comes from an alternative doctrine of God, in which He reveals Himself to us according to our nature. So, there are potentially infinite visions of God, because the seekers are also infinitely varied. This alternative understanding of God is called “Absolute Truth” rather than “Universal Truth”. Universalism is the basis on which ideologies are imposed on others. But all Vedic texts, including Nyaya philosophy, reject this idea.
प्राप्य साध्यमप्राप्य वा हेतोः प्राप्त्याविशिष्टत्वादप्राप्त्यासाधकत्वाच्च प्राप्त्यप्राप्तिसमौ
prāpya sādhyamaprāpya vā hetoḥ prāptyāviśiṣṭatvādaprāptyāsādhakatvācca prāptyaprāptisamau
prāpya—the thing to be achieved; sādhyam—on achieving; aprāpya—remains unachieved; vā—alternatively; hetoḥ–the purpose; prāptya—on attaining; aviśiṣṭatvāt—from the universal; aprāptya—not achieved; asādhakatvāt—as if being unachievable; ca—also; prāpti—achievement; aprāpti—non-achievement; samau—are equivalent.
On achieving the thing to be achieved, the thing remains unachieved. Alternatively, from attaining the purpose, the universal is not achieved, as if being unachievable. Also, achievement and non-achievement are equivalent.
The philosophical understanding of the Universal Truth is predicated on the belief that there is an “idea” which we can grasp by our minds, and by that grasping, we have “conquered” that truth by the powers of our minds. This sutra rejects that conquest of the Absolute Truth. It says that even if you attain a vision of the Lord, the Lord is not conquered; He still remains unachieved, because He has infinite aspects and we only know one of those aspects. This sutra also refers to the Absolute Truth as aviśiṣṭa which means He is not bound by our individual cultural, societal, or religious ideologies. It doesn’t mean that He is not that vision. It just means that He is much more than that vision. It then goes on to say that the Lord is as if forever unachievable. But then one might say: If we cannot know the Lord, then why should we even try? And the answer to that is also there: The achievement and non-achievement are equivalent.
This sophisticated doctrine of the Absolute Truth rests on the second type of aspect theory in which the many aspects of the Absolute Truth are hidden inside each aspect. So, the person who sees the Lord as a father, may not see His child-like nature, but that nature exists within Him. If we get close to the Lord, then we will find that even the father is child-like, mother-like, son-like, friend-like, etc. This discovery of the Lord is an infinite process. The devotees of the Lord just get attached to one aspect of the Lord and they go to His place. Then they spend eternity discovering all His other aspects. Of course, if someone is not interested in any other aspect, then the Lord doesn’t reveal them. He can always remain the father or master if one so chooses. But that doesn’t mean that He is only the father or master. He is everything else, but it depends on who we are. Thus, if our nature changes, then the Lord also adapts to it.
This is the dance of the Lord with the devotee; as the devotee changes his or her personality, the Lord changes Himself too. So, dancing with the Lord is discovering His various aspects. Every dance move reveals a unique aspect of His persona that wasn’t seen before. It is not physical dancing, which is why those who are conditioned by physical thinking are advised to refrain from reading about the Lord’s dancing. The Lord’s dance is a semantic dance in which the same person reveals various aspects of their personality to the willing participant. This means that we have to be willing to see the Lord in a new way.
Many devotees of the Lord are not willing in this way. They prefer to see the Lord in one specific way. So, the Lord doesn’t dance with His father and mother, because they like to see the Lord in one specific manner. But the highest devotees of the Lord—the gopis—are not satisfied by only one vision. They want to see all the aspects of the Lord. So, the Lord dances with them, revealing Himself in ever new ways. This dancing is the limit of spiritual perfection. But even this dancing is limitless and eternal because no matter how many dance moves are made, the full personality of emotions, expressions, moods, and gestures is never known. So, the gopis know the Lord better than anyone. But even the gopis don’t know the Lord completely: They are eagerly waiting for the next dance to discover something new. Hence, the Lord is in one sense totally bound by the love of the devotee. In another sense, He is never attained by anyone. This binding and freedom are the contradictory nature of the Infinite. The free nature is Infinite, and the bound nature is something specific. The Lord is infinite specific things, so He is both bound, and yet He is completely free.