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What causes personalization of Brahman (Saguna)?

Is the base of all that exist is Saguna or nirguna ?

Dear Varun,

the answer to your questions depends on the school of Vedanta interpretation. According to Advaita of Śankara and several of his followers (especially Sureśvara) - nirguna Brahman is the highest form of Brahman, and it is avidya (or maya) which causes personalization. According to Mandana Miśra and Vacaspati Miśra avidya is not the same as maya, but I am not sure if I understand well their argumentation for the difference. According to them the saguna aspect is to the nirguna aspect like the turns and tangles of a serpent are to the serpent itself - they simply do not have real (i.e. eternal, unchanging) existence, unlike the 'real' nirguna Brahman.

According to Ramanuja and Madhvacarya, or Caitanya, on the other hand, it is the personal God, Narayana, which is the highest form, not nirguna Brahman. Nirguna Brahman could be compared to a person in deep sleep, whereas saguna Brahman - to the same person in the fully conscious and active state of awareness. And therefore the question should rather be reversed - What causes the Personal God to become "impersonal", as if, to loose His wondrous qualities? And this seems also to be the position of Bhagavadgita.

And of course the interpretations of the Kashmir Shaivism, or of the Patanjala Yoga, or of Samkhya, or of Nyaya (a.k.a. Carama Vedanta) are different yet. And Bhaskara's Bheda-abheda-vada Vedanta would tell you that the question itself is ill-formed, because in fact there is no real difference between the saguna Brahman and the nirguna Brahman, there is the identity-in-difference (or difference-in-identity) between the two aspects.

And of course the answer to the second question of yours also depends on the school of interpretation of Vedanta - but also on the meaning of the word "base" in your question. Do you undestand the 'base' to be the ultimate efficient cause of 'all'? Or maybe the material cause of 'all'? (i.e. the substance from which everything that exists is made). You may try to read several good articles on the "Indian theories of Causation" on the Internet, especially in the Interet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to get a clear image of several possible solutions to the division of causes.

Those who claim the nirguna Brahman to be the ultimate aspect, say that nirguna is the base of everything in the sense that it is the material cause. Nothing is independent of it. The issue is however about the efficient cause. If the 'all' and 'everything' is real, then the efficient cause is the Maya śakti (power of creation). If the 'all' and 'everything' here is unreal (illusory only), then the base (or efficient cause) is the avidya (or nescience) which causes something nonexistent to appear as existent. In fact those who REALLY BELIEVE in Advaita Vedanta do not really believe in the need of any efficient cause - according to them the material cause should explain everything. Efficient cause is not a natural or internal cause, it is alway external, but if everything in the deep reality are one with the nirguna Brahman (the real core and heart of the Advaita, or non-duality), whence can anything external come? It can only be our illusion.

Those, however, who claim that the saguna Brahman is the ultimate aspect, have no problem like that at all. For them the base of everything (both as the material cause and as the efficient cause) is the saguna Brahman, or God. God is everything so it can be the material cause of everything else (which emanates from Him, like in the Purusha-sukta of Rigveda) and can also be the efficient cause (once the entities emanate from God and separate from Him, they become something external to God, and God somehow external to them; so the God who is both within and without can act as an efficient cause).

Unless, of course, they do not claim, like e.g. Samkhya and Patanjala Yoga, that God is only the efficient cause - and the material cause is the prakriti; or likewise Nyaya-followers (Naiyayikas) who claim that God is 'only' the efficient cause (the coreator) but atoms of the five elements (mahabhutani) and innumerable eternal souls (atmans) - which are co-eternal with God - are material causes of the universe. Then the problem is solved by itself but beyond your original question: neither nirguna nor saguna Brahman is then the base of everything, but Prakriti is (or its synonym - Mahaabhutaani + AAtmanah - are).

All the best,



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Maciej St. Zięba


I can answer questions concerning Eastern (Oriental) philosophies and philosophers (Indian, Tibetan, Indonesian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese: Hinduist, Buddhist, Confucianist, Taoist and other; alas not Islamic or Jewish) - both in terms of notions and facts (history of their development). I can write in English, French, Esperanto, Polish and Russian, German, Dutch and Norwegian. I can also understand questions in Spanish and Italian.


I have been teaching Indian and Chinese philosophies since 1987, during 1999-2009 I co-ordinated a project on Oriental philosophies within the scope of the Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Powszechna Encyklopedia Filozofii) published in Polish by SITA-PL in Lublin (10 volumes, containing ca. 500 entries in Eastern philosophies, written by a team of a dozen of Polish scholars).

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philosophy (KUL, Lublin, 1976-81); M.A. in history of Indian philosophy (KUL, 1981); Ph.D. in history of Indian philosophy (KUL, 1989); other studies: Indian and Chinese philosophies (Institut Catholique, Paris, 1985-6); Tibetan language (INALCO, Paris, 1985-6); Chinese language (McGill University, Montreal, 1995-7).

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