Why is the Absolute Referred as Formless and Nameless?

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    Sri Vasudeva Das

    Dear Rishiraj Prabhu,
    We know that the one of the purposes of the scriptures is to help us understand the nature of reality and situating ourselves in it. Understanding of the Personal aspect of Absolute Truth is the highest. But why then is this understanding so much complicated by the scriptures itself by calling it Formless, Nameless, Senseless? Doesn’t it make understanding the personal aspect complicated?
    The acharyas explain that such expressions clarify the non material aspect of the absolute.
    Can you 1. offer more elaboration/explanation of the such phrases 2. tell how do they help a prospective seeker/sadhaka.

    Ashish Dalela

    SB 6.4.33 uses words like anāma and arūpa, along with words like nāmāni and rūpāni.

    The general principle of Sanskrit is that when a- is prefixed to a word, then the meaning is non- rather than not-. For example, advyaya means non-dual, abheda means non-different, and avyatireka means non-separated. Impersonalists have converted these non- categories to not- categories. In personalist philosophy, we don’t agree with all these conversions.

    For example, when you perceive an apple correctly, your perception is non-different from the apple. This non-different is a combination of different and not-different. Your perception is different from the apple because there is an external apple. It is not-different from the apple, because the essential qualities of the apple such as shape, color, and size, are represented in your awareness. To perceive the apple correctly, your perception has to be different and not-different from the apple. The combination of these two principles is called non-difference. It is not the same as not-different.

    In the same way, anāma of God means non-name of God which is non-different from God in the specific sense of the name. The word arūpa of God means non-form of God, which is non-different from God in the sense of form. The word anāma refers to the names of God we chant; these are non-different from God. And the word arūpa refers to the deities of God we worship; these are also non-different from God.

    If the name we chant was completely different from God, then by chanting the name we could not realize God. If the name were identical to God, then if we did not chant the name, then God would cease to exist. Non-difference between God and His name means that if we chant the name of God, then we can perceive God. But if we don’t chant the name, then God has not ceased to exist.

    Similarly, if the deity were identical to God, then if we broke the deity, then God would cease to exist. And if the deity were different from God, then by worshipping the deity, we would not be worshipping God. Non-difference between God and His deity means that if we worship the deity we are worshipping God. However, if we break the deity, then God has not ceased to exist.

    SB 6.4.33 says: yo ’nugrahārthaṁ bhajatāṁ pāda-mūlam anāma-rūpo bhagavān anantaḥ nāmāni rūpāṇi ca janma-karmabhir bheje sa mahyaṁ paramaḥ prasīdatu. It can be translated as: That Lord, who has infinite names, forms, births, and activities, and who manifests due to His grace toward those who worship His Lotus Feet into non-names and non-forms of the Supreme, be pleased.

    I have done this type of technical translation just to clarify the meaning of anāma and arūpa. Prabhupada has done a slightly different translation by breaking it into multiple sentences and calling anāma and arūpa non-material names and forms. Both are equivalent if we know the difference between material and non-material names and forms. Let’s do that now.

    A material name was described by Shakespeare when he said: A rose by another name would smell as sweet. This is the Western conception of language under which names are arbitrary sounds used to refer to things. But in Vedic philosophy, we reject this conception of names. Rather, we state that if reality is understood correctly, then it can be given a name that if uttered can replicate the complete experience of the object, even when the object is not available for perception.

    Of course, this requires one to have a pure consciousness. For example, if someone says: “gopi-jana-vallabha”, then in a pure consciousness, the whole picture of Krishna with the gopis will appear automatically, as if they were standing right in front of us. This is because sound already contains the qualities of touch, sight, taste, and smell. Our consciousness can extract these properties from sound to various extents. A developed consciousness can extract more, and an underdeveloped consciousness is not able to extract. Hence, one has to develop their consciousness to extract the full implication of gopi-jana-vallabha from the sound. This is purification of consciousness.

    By this view of language, the correct name for a rose is only that sound that if uttered can produce the complete perception of the rose, including the rose’s odor. Therefore, the rose cannot be called by an arbitrary name. It has to be called only by that name which can potentially replicate its properties completely in our sense perception and thought as if we were perceiving the rose directly. Such a name is anāma, which means it is non-different from the rose. It is clearly not the rose, and yet, by uttering that sound, we can produce the sensual and mental experience of the rose.

    All names of the Lord are similarly those specific sounds that can replicate the complete sensual and mental experience of the Lord as if the Lord were present right in front of us. They are non-different from the Lord. Therefore, the meaning of the above verse is that the Lord, out of His grace, manifests into sounds we can chant and deities we can worship, to get the full experience of the Lord as if the Lord were directly present. This manifestation is nothing other than the specific syllables or phonemes in terms of which we write God’s names. These are not arbitrarily created by people. They are manifested by God’s grace, so that by chanting them, we can fully experience God.

    These types of names, which can produce the full experience of the Lord are not material names, because a material name is defined as that sound that doesn’t and cannot produce the full experience of the object it is describing. A non-material sound, however, is defined as that which can produce the full experience of the object it is describing. Hence we can say that anāma and arūpa are not material names and forms, and we can say that they are non-different from the object.

    An impersonalist, of course, will say that Lord has no name and no form because he converts non-name into no-name and non-form into no-form. We reject all such incorrect transformations.

    How the name and form are non-different from the Lord requires much more discussion, and if you are interested, you can read the Six Systems of Philosophy translation commentaries. It is not a trivial topic, that I can replicate easily here. The conclusion is that the words anāma and arūpa don’t mean nameless and formless; those are interpretations of impersonalists. They can be understood either as non-material names and forms (as Prabhupāda indicates in his translation), or they can be called non-different from the Lord (which Prabhupāda indicates in many other places).

    Ashish Dalela

    In Hindi, there is a proverb: आँख के अंधे, नाम नयनसुख. It means that the man is blind but his name is Nayansukh or one with the pleasure of seeing. Here, Nayansukh is a material name, which doesn’t reflect the correct properties of the person. If we tell someone about Nayansukh, they will think that he has eyes, because his name is Nayansukh, which would be false. It is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make that names have to reflect all the properties of a person.

    God’s names are those sounds that reflect the complete nature of God. If our consciousness is purified, then by chanting those names, we can see God. So, there are material names like Nayansukh which are contrary (or different) from the person’s nature. And there are non-material names that identify the complete nature of the person. For example, if someone is named Chaitanya Das, and he becomes a pure servant of Lord Chaitanya, then that name will be non-different from the person because by calling him by that name, we will see him serving Lord Chaitanya.

    All such names are given by pure devotees based on their vision of the soul’s future state, where they can see him or her serving the different forms of the Lord or His devotees in different capacities. They are not arbitrary names. But only the pure devotees can give someone a perfect name based on their future state.

    Sri Vasudeva Das

    Thank you very much, this had always been a very tough thing for me to understand. Although I had heard this ‘non dual’ principle in your books earlier, in this context it clarifies even further.

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