Excerpted from Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines by Rene Guenon.
SHOULD the Supreme Principle, total and universal, which the religious doctrines of the West call ” God,” be conceived of as impersonal or as personal? This question has given rise to interminable and moreover quite pointless discussions, because it originates from partial and incomplete conceptions which it would be useless to attempt to reconcile without going beyond the special domain, theological or philosophical, where they belong. Metaphysically, it must be said that the Principle is at once both impersonal and personal, according to the aspect under which It is viewed : impersonal, or, if preferred, ” supra-personal ” in Itself ; personal in relation to universal manifestation, without however this ” Divine Personality ” partaking in the least degree of an anthropomorphic character, for “personality” must not be confused with ” individuality.” The fundamental distinction just formulated, by means of which the apparent contradictions between secondary and multiple points of view are resolved in the unity of a superior synthesis, is known in the language of Far Eastern metaphysic as the distinction between ” Non-Being ” and ” Being ” , it is no less clearly recognised in the Hindu doctrine, as follows necessarily from the essential identity of pure metaphysic beneath the diversity of the forms in which it may be clothed. The impersonal and therefore absolutely universal Principle is called Brahma , the Divine Personality, which is a determination or a specification of this Supreme Principle, implying a lesser degree of universality, is generally known by the name of Ishwara. Brahma in Its Infinity cannot be characterised by any positive attribute, which is expressed by declaring it to be nirguna or beyond all qualification,” and again nirvishesha or beyond all distinction ” ; on the other hand Ishwara is called saguna or ” “qualified,” and savishesha or ” conceived distinctively,” because He is capable of receiving such attributions, which are obtained by an analogical transference into the universal of the diverse qualities or properties of the beings of which He is the Principle. It is evident that an indefinite number of Divine Attributes may be conceived of in this manner, and indeed every quality enjoying a positive existence may thus be transposed by being envisaged in its principle ; each of these attributes, however, should be considered in reality only as a basis or support for meditation on a certain aspect of Universal Being.
It will be apparent from what we have said on the subject of symbolism how that same incomprehension which gives rise to anthropomorphism could have the result of turning the Divine Attributes into so many ” gods,” that is to say into entities conceived after the pattern of individual beings and endowed with an independent existence. This is one of the most obvious examples of idolatry, which takes the symbol for the thing symbolised, and which here assumes the form of polytheism ; but it is clear that no doctrine was ever polytheistic in itself and in essence, since it could only become so as the result of a profound corruption, which moreover happens on a large scale much more rarely than is commonly supposed ; in fact only one example of the generalisation of this error is known for certain, in the Graeco-Roman civilisation, and even here there were at least some exceptions among its intellectual elect. In the East, where the tendency towards anthropomorphism is non-existent apart from individual aberrations that are always possible though rare and abnormal, nothing of the kind has ever succeeded in coming to light. This will no doubt surprise many Western people, who, being only acquainted with classical antiquity, are prone to look everywhere for ” myths ” and ” paganism but it is none the less true. So far as India s concerned, the symbolical image representing one or other of the Divine Attributes, and which is called pratika, is most certainly not an “idol,”‘ for it has never been taken for anything other than what it really is, namely a support for meditation and an auxiliary means of realization, each person moreover being free to attach himself according to preference to those symbols which are most in conformity with his personal tendencies.
Ishwara is conceived under a triplicity of principal aspects, together constituting the Trimurti or ” triple .manifestation,” from each of which are derived other aspects, more particular and secondary in relation to the three principal ones. Brahma is Ishwara considered as the productive principle of manifested beings ; He is so named because He is considered as the direct reflection in the realm of manifestation of Brahma the Supreme Principle. In order to avoid all confusion it should be observed that the word Brahma, without an accent, is neuter while the word Brahma is masculine ; the use, current among orientalists, of the single form Brahman, which is common to both genders, has the serious disadvantage of obscuring this essential distinction, which is sometimes further marked by expressions such as Para-Brahma or the ” Supreme Brahma,” and Apara-Brahma or the ” non-supreme Brahma.” The two other aspects constituting the Trimurti, which are complementary to each other, are Vishnu, who is Ishwara considered as the animating and preserving principle of beings, and Shiva, who is Ishwara considered, not as the destructive principle, as He is commonly described, but as the transforming principle; these then, are truly universal functions, and not separate and more or less individualised entitles. Each person, with a view to placing himself at the standpoint best adapted to his own possibilities, will naturally be able to give precedence to any one of these functions, and in particular, because of their apparent symmetry, to one or other of the two complementary functions represented by Vishnu and Shiva : hence the distinction between Vishnuism and Shivaism, which are not sects as Westerners suppose them to be, but simply different ways of realization, both equally legitimate and orthodox. It should however be added that Shivaism, which is less widely diffused than Vishnuism and attaches less importance to exterior rites, is at the same time more elevated in a certain sense and leads more directly to pure metaphysical realization : this may easily be inferred from the very nature of the principle to which it gives first place, for ” transformation,” which should be understood here in its strictly etymological sense, implies a passing ” beyond form ” which only appears as a destruction from the special and contingent point of view of manifestation ; it is a passing from the manifested to the unmanifested, representing the return of the being to the eternal immutability of the Supreme Principle, outside which nothing can exist save in an illusory manner.
The ” Divine Aspects ” are each regarded as being endowed with a power or energy of their own, called Shakti, which is represented symbolically under a feminine form : the Shakti of Brahma is Saraswati, that of Vishnu is Lakshmi, and that of Shiva is Parvati Among both Shaivas and Vaishnavas, certain persons devote themselves more especially to the consideration of the Shaktis, and are for this reason called Shaktas. Furthermore, each of the principles we are discussing can be envisaged under a plurality of more particularised aspects, and from each of them also are derived other secondary aspects, this process of derivation being most often described as a symbolic filiation. We naturally cannot develop all these conceptions here, particularly as it is not our aim to expound the doctrines themselves but only to indicate the spirit in which they should be studied if they are to be really understood.
The Shaivas and Vaishnavas each possess their own special books, the Puranas and the Tantras, which form part of the body of traditional writings known collectively as Smriti and which correspond more particularly to their respective tendencies. These tendencies nowhere appear more clearly than in the way in which they respectively interpret the doctrine of Ivatiras or ” Divine manifestations” ; this doctrine which is closely bound up with the conception of cosmic cycles, deserves to be studied separately, but we cannot think of going into the subject at present. To conclude these remarks on the question of Shivaism and Vishnuism, we will simply add that, whatever the way each man may choose as being most in conformity with his own nature, the final end to which it leads, provided it be strictly orthodox, is always the same : the end in every case is effective realization of a metaphysical order, which will be more or less direct, and more or less complete, according to the circumstances in which it Is undertaken and the extent of the intellectual possibilities of each human being.