[L. 139 | 149] 7 February 1965

How clever of you not to have come for me today! We have just had our heaviest rain for twelve months, an unexpected thunderstorm; and I have filled my cisterns and taken a much-needed bath. How irritating if I had left here a few hours before the rain, leaving the cisterns with an aching void in them! We needed this, even if only to save the cattle and the wild animals.

Thank you for the Hibbert Journals—in general suffocatingly parochial, but one or two things of interest. I shall not attempt to reply in detail to your letter (it will be easier to discuss it when we meet), but it seems worthwhile sending you a passage from Jean Grenier (Absolu et Choix, pp. 69-71) on the very question that you raise about a personal God as against an impersonal (neuter) Brahman. Here is the passage:

Consider the metaphysicians of the Vedanta. The view that before the Absolute everything is indifferent has not prevented them from acting as if the Absolute were not indifferent before anything whatsoever. In the speculative sphere this is the transition from the apophantic theology [théologie apophantique] to the prophetic theology: and so Sankara, while avoiding any definition of the Absolute, designating it only by negations (neti, neti), yet admits that one can refer to it using 'indirect expressions' (laksana), which 'aim at making known those things of which our mind, being finite, has no direct measure, because they are, at least, in a certain respect, infinite, and as such escape all generic commonality.'[a] This indirect expression approximates analogy. Thus one can in some measure know the Absolute. And in his commentary on the 'No, no...' which defines this Absolute according to the Brhad-Āranyaka Upanisad, Rāmānuja claims that this formula means 'Not thus, not thus', and that this 'No' does not deny that the Brahman is endowed with distinctive attributes, but only that it is not circumscribed by the attributes mentioned earlier.[b] For Rāmānuja, who admits 'the natural variety of Being and beings', minds and bodies exist as modes of the absolute substance. His monism is thus quite attenuated compared to that of Sankara, since he allows both positive attributes and modes of the Absolute. Even Sankara distinguishes between the unconditioned Brahman and the conditioned Brahman, between the impersonal Absolute and the personal God. How is that possible? It is because Brahman is transpersonal rather than impersonal, and the atman that serves it as a means of access is rather a self than a non-I, as Lacomte perceptively notes.[c] We know how the cult of the personal God (Isvara) triumphed more and more in India thanks to this transition, and also the piety accompanying every cult devoted to a god, whereas the importance of knowledge concerning the divinity declined. More and more, the Absolute approaches the individual.
     The Absolute is named, it is God, it has negative and even positive attributes; finally it can even enter into relations with the world, whether it be the supreme goal towards which the latter tends, or its Providence, or its Creator. The last stage is attained when God takes on a human form: the Incarnation actualizes the fusion between what is essentially composite and what is essentially one.
     The philosophers have proceeded in the same way, and each time they wanted to take hold of the real, their most abstract metaphysics evolved into a specific ethics. The cosmic thesis is thus practically untenable. Once granted, this truth raises the question of the suitable point at which to stop in the slide from the Absolute to the individual. Now, everyone selects his own stopping-point, and that is the whole history of theologies and philosophies. For speculation, in its beginnings, almost everything is a matter of indifference; at the extreme limit of the practical almost nothing is. This transition is inevitable.
We seem to gather from this that God as an utterly impersonal Absolute is no more than a metaphysical postulate, and in practice quite unthinkable (i.e., thinkable—to be a little Irish—only on paper). The concept of an impersonal God, in other words, in so far as it is actually conceivable, is always, ultimately, an extension of, or an abstraction from, the concept of a personal God; and thus beyond only in the sense that Bundala is beyond Hambantota. Utter impersonality, certainly, is attainable—it is the arahat—but one would scarcely think of calling him God (an equivocal concept, anyway; unless—to recall Bradley's comment on Herbert Spencer—it is merely the name we give to something when we don't know what the devil else to call it). And the reason is clear: the arahat, though no longer in any way personal, continues (until death) to be individual—he walks and talks, that is to say, just like any ordinary man (at least to the vulgar eye and ear), and whatever God might be, he (or it) is necessarily something manifestly extra-ordinary.

You say that personality is not (as it now seems to you) the highest value conceivable. I agree—provided you will let me at once qualify this statement by saying that it is a grotesque understatement: personality is the lowest value conceivable, the root of all evil. Of all reprehensible things (says the Buddha) wrong view—and sakkāyaditthi, 'personality-view', is the foundation of all other (ethically) wrong views—is the most reprehensible. But I think I hear you muttering, 'That is not what I meant. That is not it at all.'


[139.a] Lacomte, L'Absolu selon le Vedanta, p. 80. [Back to text]

[139.b] Ibid. p. 299 [Back to text]

[139.c] Ibid. p. 217 [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[139.1] 'not what I meant': 'That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.'—The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Selected Poems, p. 12). This is not the Ven. Ñānavīra's only allusion to T. S. Eliot: in the first paragraph of the Preface to the Notes, the phrase 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality' is taken from a line of Thomas à Becket in Eliot's verse play, Murder in the Cathedral. [Back to text]