I-1 Śrī Bhāshya | Rāmānuja | 8

Topic 8 - The Word ‘Ākāśa’ (ether) to be Understood as Brahman

Sutra 1,1.22

आकाशस्तल्लिङ्गात् ॥ २२ ॥

ākāśastalliṅgāt || 22 ||

ākāśaḥ—(The word) Ākāśa; talliṅgāt—on account of the characteristic marks of that (Brahman).

22. (The word) Ākāśa (ether) (is Brahman) on account of the characteristic marks of That (i.e. Brahman) (being mentioned).

We read in the Chāṇḍogya (I, 9), 'What is the origin of this world?' 'Ether,' he replied. 'For all these beings spring from the ether only, and return into the ether. Ether is greater than these; ether is their rest.' Here there arises the doubt whether the word 'ether' denotes the well-known element or Brahman.--The Pūrvapakshin maintains the former alternative. For, he says, in the case of things to be apprehended through words we must accept that sense of the word which, proved by etymology, is immediately suggested by the word. We therefore conclude from the passage that the well-known Ether is the cause of the entire aggregate of things, moving or non-moving, and that hence Brahman is the same as Ether.--But has it not been shown that Brahman is something different from non-sentient things because its creative activity is preceded by thought?--This has been asserted indeed, but by no means proved. For the proper way to combine the different texts is as follows. Having been told that 'that from which these beings are born is Brahman', we desire to know more especially what that source of all beings is, and this desire is satisfied by the special information given by the text, 'All these things spring from the ether.' It thus being ascertained that the ether only is the cause of the origin, and so on, of the world, we conclude that also such general terms as 'Being' ('Being only was this in the beginning') denote the particular substance called 'ether.' And we further conclude that in passages such as 'the Self only was all this in the beginning', the word 'Self (ātman) also denotes the ether; for that word is by no means limited to non-sentient things--cp., e.g., the phrase, 'Clay constitutes the Self of the jar'--, and its etymology also (ātman from āp, to reach) shows that it may very well be applied to the ether. It having thus been ascertained that the ether is the general cause or Brahman, we must interpret such words as 'thinking' (which we meet with in connexion with the creative activity of the general cause) in a suitable, i.e. secondary, or metaphorical sense. If the texts denoted the general cause by general terms only, such as 'Being', we should, in agreement with the primary sense of 'thinking', and similar terms, decide that that cause is an intelligent being; but since, as a matter of fact, we ascertain a particular cause on the basis of the word 'ether', our decision cannot be formed on general considerations of what would suit the sense.--But what then about the passage, 'From the Self there sprang the ether' (Taitt. Up. II, 1, 1), from which it appears that the ether itself is something created?--All elementary substances, we reply, such as ether, air, and so on, have two different states, a gross material one, and a subtle one. The ether, in its subtle state, is the universal cause; in its gross state it is an effect of the primal cause; in its gross state it thus springs from itself, i.e. ether in the subtle state. The text, 'All these beings spring from ether only' (Kh. Up. I, 9, 1), declares that the whole world originates from ether only, and from this it follows that ether is none other than the general cause of the world, i.e. Brahman. This non-difference of Brahman from the empirically known ether also gives a satisfactory sense to texts such as the following: 'If this ether were not bliss' (Taitt. Up. II, 7, 1); 'Ether, indeed, is the evolver of names and forms' (Kh. Up. VIII, 14, 1, and so on).--It thus appears that Brahman is none other than the well-known elemental ether.

This prima facie view is set aside by the Sūtra. The word 'ether' in the text under discussion denotes the highest Self with its previously established characteristics--which is something quite different from the non-sentient elemental ether. For the qualities which the passage attributes to ether, viz. its being the one cause of the entire world, its being greater than all, and the rest of all, clearly indicate the highest Self. The non-intelligent elemental ether cannot be called the cause of all, since intelligent beings clearly cannot be its effects; nor can it be called the 'rest' of intelligent beings, for non-sentient things are evil and antagonistic to the true aim of man; nor can it be called 'greater' than all, for it is impossible that a non-sentient element should possess all excellent qualities whatever and thus be absolutely superior to everything else.--Nor is the Pūrvapakshin right when maintaining that, as the word 'ether' satisfies the demand for a special cause of the world, all other texts are to be interpreted in accordance herewith. The words, 'All these beings indeed spring from the ether only,' merely give expression to something generally known, and statements of this nature presuppose other means of knowledge to prove them. Now these other means required are, in our case, supplied by such texts as 'Being only was this in the beginning,' and these, as we have shown, establish the existence of Brahman. To Brahman thus established, the text mentioning the ether merely refers as to something well known. Brahman may suitably be called 'ether' (ākāśa), because being of the nature of light it shines (ākāsate) itself, and makes other things shine forth (ākāsayati). Moreover, the word 'ether' is indeed capable of conveying the idea of a special being (as cause), but as it denotes a special non-intelligent thing which cannot be admitted as the cause of the intelligent part of the world we must deny all authoritativeness to the attempt to tamper, in the interest of that one word, with the sense of other texts which have the power of giving instruction as to an entirely new thing (viz. Brahman), distinguished by the possession of omniscience, the power of realising its purposes and similar attributes, which we ascertain from certain complementary texts-such as 'it thought, may I be many, may I grow forth,' and 'it desired, may I be many, may I grow forth.' We also point out that the agreement in purport of a number of texts capable of establishing the existence of a wonderful being possessing infinite wonderful attributes is not lightly to be disregarded in favour of one single text which moreover (has not the power of intimating something not known before, but) only makes a reference to what is already established by other texts.--As to the averment that the word 'Self' is not exclusively limited to sentient beings, we remark that that word is indeed applied occasionally to non-sentient things, but prevailingly to that which is the correlative of a body, i.e. the soul or spirit; in texts such as 'the Self only was this in the beginning,' and 'from the Self there sprang the ether,' we must therefore understand by the 'Self,' the universal spirit. The denotative power of the term 'atman,' which is thus proved by itself, is moreover confirmed by the complementary passages 'it desired, may I send forth the worlds', 'it desired, may I be many, may I grow forth.'--We thus arrive at the following conclusion: Brahman, which--by the passage 'Being only this was in the beginning'--is established as the sole cause of the world, possessing all those manifold wonderful attributes which are ascertained from the complementary passages, is, in the text under discussion, referred to as something already known, by means of the term 'ether.'--Here terminates the Adhikaraṇa of' ether.'