The Indian Apophatic Theology: The Nirguna Theology

Professor Matushka Cincy Mariyamma Thomas – (Research Editor – COS) – 31/10/18

Human beings have always tried to understand God through philosophies and have affirmed something of God, either as a result of speculation about the divine, or through the experiences, or as an affirmation of revelation about God. In the western world (west in comparison to the land of India) two methods of theological inquiry to understand God is suggested since the first century of Christian era by Dionysius of Areopagite namely the cataphatic (affirmative) and the apophatic (negative). When almost all the Christian denominations give more importance to the cataphatic inquiry of theology the Orthodox Christian go more for the apophatic inquiry of theology. Even though it was, the only terminology that Dionysius introduced, negation and affirmation in relation to God can be traced back in both western and eastern world earlier even to Christianity, tracing back into the traditions of Hebrew scriptures and classical Greek philosophy from where Christian theology took foundations. Less attempt is made to look at same concepts in other Classical philosophies like in Indian philosophy. We find in the Hebrew scriptures claims of God’s self-revelation, and followers of other religious traditions have both claimed similar revelations and Indian philosophy is said to be rich in such varieties of claims and it has celebrated the virtues of divine some times in extreme literal ways. But this affirmation of the divine has always been impeded by a sense of the mysteriousness of divine, leading to the negating of any affirmations about God, in human intellect and thus bearing testimony to the inadequacy of any human intellectual conception of God.

The Apophatic Ascent and Beatific Vision of God

Indian Apophatic Theology
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew prophet exclaiming in God’s name, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One” (Is 40:25), also the revelation of God’s name to Moses – “I am that I am” (Ex 3:14) is taken as an affirmation about God inviting or giving freedom for an apophatic interpretation, by theologians. Similarly, within the Greek philosophical tradition, we find Plato propounding in the Timaeus that “to discover the Father and Maker of the universe would be some task, and it would be impossible to declare what one had found to everyone”. In The Divine Names and in the Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysius said God was “beyond being,” “beyond divinity,” and “beyond goodness.” Thus, in place of the biblical description of God as a divine being, we may have nothing but an abstraction that cannot be spoken of intelligibly.

The terminology of “apophatic” and “cataphatic” theologies, that is, the use of negation (apophasis) and affirmation (kataphasis) in human ways of talking and knowing about God, can be seen in Indian philosophy with almost same connotations in the Saguna ( full of attribute) and the Nirguna (attributeless) concepts. Some, Vedantins are uncomfortable with positively expressed propositional truth statements, or affirmations. Instead, affirmations are spoken of indirectly or apophatically. Similar to the western apophatism, rather than making precise statements and clear affirmations about the nature of God, they speak by way of negation. But while explaining it we have to be aware that the whole nirguna concept as it is explained in the Indian concept cannot be compared completely with the Orthodox Christian understanding of the apophatic theology. More studies and deeper insights are indeed needed to study the Orthodox theology in the Indian concept where it is more closer than many Western Philosophies. But it can be understood that both tries to explain that it is difficult or almost impossible for our intellect to grasp and understand the whole aspect of universal, eternal, all-conscious and omnipresence of God. It is much easier for us to have a divine incarnation as a figurehead, towards whom we are able to direct our feelings.

netineti”– The apophatism in India –
तत्त्वमस्यादिवाक्येन स्वात्मा हि प्रतिपादितः ।नेति नेति श्रुतिर्ब्रूयाद अनृतं पाञ्चभौतिकम् ||
(tattvamasyādivākyena svātmā hi pratipāditaḥ
neti neti śrutirbrūyād anṛtaṁ pāñcabhautikam )( Avadhuta Gita 1.25 )
(“That thou art,” our own Self is affirmed. Of that which is untrue and composed of the five elements – the Sruti (scripture) says, “Not this, not this.”)

As stated earlier traditionally, Hindu theologians from the Vedanta group (as with many theologians among Eastern religions, including Eastern Christianity) are uncomfortable with positively expressed statements, about God. To explain more precisely, in the Indian philosophical tradition, one of the most well known phrases regarding the Ultimate Reality (known in Hinduism as Brahman) is found in the Upanishads. It is the expression, “neti, neti” which means “not this- not this”. The expression is meant to communicate that one cannot speak of Brahman/God directly and any positive statement is met with the refrain, “neti, neti”, not this, not this. This concept later on more explained is ascribed to the Advaita (non-dualistic) philosopher Sankara. The description of God , without any reference to the worldly or without limiting to human intellect, is called by Sankara as Parabrahma. This higher or transcendental point of view (paramarthika-dristi) cannot be described at all and therefore is called ‘nirguna’ (attributeless). Clear examples of this can be found throughout the philosophical and theological writings of both Sankara and Ramanuja. Both these writers, who are widely regarded as the greatest theologians of the Upanishads, known in the Indian tradition as Vedantists (end of the Vedas), speak apophatically about God.

The Nirguna Way of Theologizing 
With the ‘neti neti’ concept, when discussing the names of God, we assuredly conclude that not one of them can give us a complete idea of who He is. This means nirguna in all respects because ‘the being’ ‘sat’ is beyond all polarity and cannot be characterized using standard measures. To speak of the attributes of God is to discover that their sum total is not God. God transcends any name. If we call Him being, or if we ascribe to Him righteousness and justice, if we call Him love, He transcend being, in His love He transcends all justice. He is much more than human love can comprehend. Thus, God transcends all attributes that we are capable of ascribing to Him, be it omniscience, omnipresence or immutability. Ultimately we arrive at the conclusion that we can say nothing about God affirmatively: all discussion about Him remains incomplete, partial and limited, to each human intellect. Finally we come to realize that we cannot say what God is, but rather what He is not. Thus, God as nirguna is precisely what is explained in “Brhadaranyaka Upanishad,” which defines Brahman as neti-neti, or “not this, not that.” It corresponds to the western via negativa, a mystical approach that forms a part of the tradition of apophatic theology. This manner of speaking about God in apophatic (negative) theology in the west is opposed to cataphatic (affirmative) theology. In Indian philosophy it emphasizes mainly on the impersonal concept of God. It is a monotheistic view and gives more importance to the way of knowledge (Gyana Marga) than the other path of salvation. As a symbol of God’s incomprehensibility the traditional image of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to God, surrounded in darkness, was taken by both St Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite to speak about the divine darkness. To enter the divine darkness, in terms of Indian philosophy is through Gyana marga and is to go beyond the confines of being as understood by the intellect. Here the example of Moses encountering God and the Israelites remaining at the foot of the mountain, within the confines of a cataphatic knowledge of God is taken. In Indian terms also we can say Moses could enter the darkness; having separated himself from all things, he could encounter God, Who is outside of everything, Who is there where there is nothing. He is both Saguna and Nirguna and beyond the influence of time, shape and relativity. We can say that God is Light, cataphatically but in doing so we limit God to sensible light, like if take cataphatic notion of light of Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor where ‘his face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light’ (Matt.17:2), this is symbolically denoting the uncreated light of the Divinity that transcends all human concepts of light. Therefore, apophatically we can call the Divine light, the supra-light or the divine darkness, which is beyond the human comprehension. Thus, here the darkness of Sinai and the light of Tabor are one and the same. In the human understanding of God we often find ourselves relying more upon cataphatic notions since these are easier and more accessible to the mind. But due to the limits of cataphatic knowledge there seems to be lots of interpretations and explanations.

The Saguna Christ comprehending the Nirguna Godhead
The way of negation or nirguna or neti neti concept corresponds to the spiritual ascent into the Divine abyss where there is the silence of words, reasons fades, and all human knowledge and comprehension ceases, when it comes to God. It is not by speculative knowledge but in the depths of prayerful silence or meditation that the soul can encounter God, Who is ‘beyond everything’ and Who is a nirguna God revealing as in-comprehensible, in-accessible, in-visible, yet at the same time as living as God the Person. In the Saguna aspect, God appears in a human form making it easier for us to come closer. The incarnation of Christ can be the best to explain this as both the Saguna God whose incarnation can also be said was to show people the path to Nirguna God. Here in the theological approach, we prostrate our mortal and rational logic before Holy Mystery.

Of course, the lack of precision, at least from many Indian seers viewpoint, is not because of theological sloppiness, but because of a desire to preserve mystery – propositional truths are set over against the great mystery of God’s nature, a strong connotation as can be seen in Orthodox theology. In this regard, the theologizing from the Gangetic plains of India sometimes sounds similar to the theologizing which arises from the hot sands of by the Desert Fathers. Revelation is never exact and precise, only approximate and general. Revelation does not make statements of facts, it only points to mysteries. It is blasphemous, by some advaitic thinkers, to speak of God being moved with compassion or arising to judge, as all of this implies the modification of God’s essence. But, still, more care has to be taken when comparing Indian philosophy as many aspects have to be observed and meditated more keenly as not to fall in the traps of any heresies. A more in-depth theological insight into Orthodox theology and Indian philosophy is the need of the hour when it is more closer than Greek and other western philosophies.

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Brihad-Aranyaka II.3.6. An Accessible translation of the Upanishads, S. Radhakrishnan’s The Principal Upanishads. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1994.
Louth, Andrew. “Apophatic and Cataphatic Theology.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, edited by Amy Hollywood and Patricia Z. Beckman, 137–46. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
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Plato, Timaeus. (tr.) Benjamin Jowett.
Cataphatic and Apophatic theology.


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