Dear Mr. Ted,
I would like to know a few things about the idea of neti-neti in connection with Vedanta philosophy. This is an idea that I have about the concept. Will you please go through it and let me know whether it is conceptually right?
Note (inserted by Ted): The meaning of the Sanskrit phrase, “neti-neti” is “Not this, not this.” In the following dialogue, an explanation is offered concerning why this phrase is used in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as a lakshana (i.e., a pointer or indicator) of the essential nature of Brahman (i.e., limitless conscious existence).
Tilak: (1) The nēti, nēti position is used to describe the differential ontology of Brahman. In Brahdāraṇyakōpaniṣad, the unknown author says, “Now, therefore the description (of Brahman): ‘Not this, not this.’ Because there is no other and more appropriate description than this ‘Not this’” (336).
Ted: The reason the rishi states that there is no other and more appropriate description of Brahman is that there can be no positive (i.e., objective) description of that (i.e., Brahman, the nature of which is limitless conscious existence) which is without attributes, qualities, or delineating boundaries. Thus, we cannot articulate what Brahman is in terms of qualities. All we can articulate is what Brahman is not. Once we have in this way negated all objective qualities, both gross and subtle, the mind is “catapulted” into a realization of the essential nature of reality—the limitless conscious existence that is adhishthanam, the “substanceless substance” that is the substrate of all objective forms, both subtle and gross.
Tilak: (2) In Vedantic philosophy, Brahman is bereft of any essence and is called nirguṇa (something without any qualities).
Ted: Brahman is not bereft of any essence. Though its essential nature is not an object, Brahman is not “nothing.” Brahman is limitless conscious existence-as-such. Brahman is nirguna because its essential nature has no objective qualities, attributes, characteristics, or delineable boundaries by means of which it can be distinguished from other objects. All objective forms, both gross and subtle, are comprised of a unique combined measure of the three gunas. As conceivable phenomena, however, even the gunas are objects, the substrate of which is Brahman (i.e., limitless conscious existence-as-such). Brahman “itself” exists ever independently of the gunas. Whether the gunas appear within and seemingly condition Brahman, Brahman always is.
Tilak: (3) To make Itself manifest, Brahman in conjunction with māya gets represented in innumerable forms.
Ted: Yes, this is the basic idea. Technically speaking, however, Brahman is not exactly working “in conjunction” with Maya because Maya is actually the material (though in its primordial state, this material is subtle) aspect of Brahman and, thus, is not something separate from Brahman. Maya is that aspect of Brahman that enables Brahman to appear to be something other than what it is. That is, Maya is that aspect of Brahman that makes Brahman appear to be objects when actually Brahman is essentially always and ever nothing other than limitless conscious existence. Just as clay modeled into pots, cups, plates, figurines, etc., never loses its essential nature as clay, so Brahman seemingly “modeled” into the vast array of objective phenomena, both gross and subtle, that comprise the manifest universe never loses its essential nature of limitless conscious existence.
Tilak: (4) Even though Brahman gets manifested in different forms, it is absolutely incorrect to identify the ultimate essence of Brahman with any of these essences.
Ted: Yes, as has been explained, Brahman is nirguna and, thus, has no objective qualities. Regarding your reference to “essences,” there technically is no such thing as multiple essences. The essential nature of all objective phenomena is Brahman (i.e., limitless conscious existence). I believe the “essences” you are referring to in terms of objective phenomena is the essential qualities that make a particular object unique from other objects and, thus define it as the object that it is, such as the heat and light of fire or the wetness and clarity of water. However, if we are to say that the “ultimate essence” of Brahman is limitless conscious existence, then it is correct to say that the “ultimate essence” of Brahman is not the same as the essential qualities that define objective phenomena.
Tilak: (5) Everything is Brahman, but nothing represents the ultimate essence of Brahman. It is to show this differential ontology of Brahman that Brahdāraṇyakōpaniṣad uses the phrase nēti, nēti.
Ted: This is correct.
All the best,