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In this chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the sage Yagnavalkya tells his disciple king Janaka about the levels of bliss among beings in different Lokas:

Now a hundred of these human blessings make one blessing of the fathers who have conquered the world (of the fathers). A hundred blessings of the fathers who have conquered this world make one blessing in the Gandharva world. A hundred blessings in the Gandharva world make one blessing of the Devas by merit (work, sacrifice), who obtain their godhead by merit. A hundred blessings of the Devas by merit make one blessing of the Devas by birth, also (of) a Srotriya who is without sin, and not overcome by desire. A hundred blessings of the Devas by birth make one blessing in the world of Pragâpati, also (of) a Srotriya who is without sin, and not overcome. by desire. A hundred blessings in the world of Pragâpati make one blessing in the world of Brahman, also (of) a Srotriya who is without sin, and not overcome by desire. And this is the highest blessing.

Here is what the Advaitin Acharya Adi Shankarachrya says about this verse:

This human joy multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy for the Manes. They are qualified by the clause ‘who have won that world of theirs,’ i.e. who have pleased the Manes by the performance of obsequial rites etc., and have won their way to their world. Their measure of joy is the human joy multiplied a hundred times. That again multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy in the world of the celestial minstrels. That again multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy for the gods by action—those who attain their godhead by their actions such as the Agnihotra enjoined by the Śrutis. Similarly one unit of joy for the gods by birth, those who are gods from their very birth, as well as of one who is versed in the Vedas, sinless, i.e. doing what is prescribed by the scriptures, and free from desire for all objects below the level of the gods by birth. That his joy equals theirs is gathered from the word ‘ca’ (and) in the text. That multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy in the world of Prajāpati, i.e. in the body of Virāj, as well as of one who is versed in the Vedas, sinless and free from desire—this has already been explained—and who meditates on him. That multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy in the world of Brahman, i.e. in the body of Hiraṇyagarbha, as well as of one who, etc.—already explained. After this mathematical calculations cease.

This is as good an opportunity as any to clarify some pieces of Advaita terminology I'm somewhat confused about. My question is, who are Viraj and Hiranyagarbha in Advaita terminology?

By default one might assume that Hiranyagarbha refers to the god Brahma, husband of Saraswati, because Brahma was born from a golden seed or Hiranya Garbha. But I get the sense that this is not how Advaitins use these terms. Here is how I think they use these terms:

Viraj = Karya Brahman = Brahma husband of Saraswati

Hiranyagarbha = Karana Brahman = Saguna Brahman

Karana Brahman refers to Saguna Brahman being the eternal reflection of Nirguna Brahman in the world of Avidya (according to Advaita), and being the cause of the material world. Karya Brahman refers to the fact that Brahma is a created being.

In any case, is my understanding of Advaita terminology correct? One thing that militates against my understanding is this Wikipedia article:

Hiranyagarbha, the collection of deities in the Hindu pantheon of gods, is not saguna brahman as popularly misconstrued. Sankara clearly says that hiranyagarbha is called brahman only because of nearness to brahman. After many millions of years, the devotees who reach the worlds of gods (hiranyagarbha), will reach the state of vishnu. This is called advaita siddhi and this state can be reached here and now by one who is free from all desires and blessed by the lord.

Wikipedia seems to be saying that Hiranyagarbha just refers to Saraswati's husband Brahma in Advaita terminology, but I think that's wrong. I think that's just a confusion due to the fact that as I said above Brahma is often called Hiranyagarbha due to the that he was born from an egg.

Are there any Advaita works that clarify this terminology? By the way, I should mention that at least according to the Sri Vaishnava sect (of which I am a member), Saguna Brahman is considered supreme and he's equated with Para Vasudeva or the highest Vishnu.

  • Being a part time (or convenience based) Advaitan, saguna Brahman = VAsudeva & nirguna Brahman = Atma is something I have understood so far. Have also seen Vishnu & Shiva being used respectively, with people adding mahA or sadA prefixes before it to make it more fine grained. In general Brahman & Brahma (BrahM) are same. Probably you meant BrahmA (or Brahmā). Now saguna Brahman (or VAsudeva or Vishnu) is not cause or creator of universe, but the universe itself. Not sure if Gita is qualified for Advaita, as there is no formal word in it. Hence putting as a comment. – iammilind Mar 27 '16 at 1:30
  • @iammilind The purpose of my question is not about understanding Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman; I know what those mean. I'm interested in what Viraj and Hiranyagarbha mean in Advaitic terminology. – Keshav Srinivasan Mar 27 '16 at 2:05
  • @iammilind By the way, since you brought it up, Advaitins believe that Ishwara, aka Saguna Brahman, is the creator of the Universe, in fact he is both the efficient cause and the material cause of the Universe (meaning Saguna Brahman is both the substance that the Universe is made of and the one who directs its creation, preservation, and destruction). At least that's what they believe from the relative perspective. in reality they believe that the Universe does not exist, only Nirguna Brahman exists. (Again, I suggest you read Adi Shankaracharya's commentary on the Mandukya Upabishad.) – Keshav Srinivasan Mar 27 '16 at 2:06
  • @iammilind And if you're asking if the Bhagavad Gita follows Advaita, as a Sri Vaishnava I would tell you no, it follows Visistadvaita :-) – Keshav Srinivasan Mar 27 '16 at 2:13
  • Check this site and this quora question. In the image you wil see, Ishwara or Saguna Brahman is in Nirgun Brahman as per Advaita, but if reversed, it can also be infered as Brahman being part of Ishwara. Further, Hiranyagarbha is Brahmaji who arose from naval of Lord Vishnu/Ishwar and means Subtle body or their collection, while Viraj is gross body or matter. In elemental form, Ishwara is Akasha and Hiranayagarbha is Prana and their combination leads to gross manifestation. – user3870 Mar 27 '16 at 7:12
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There is a discussion of Isvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat in the Chapter 'The Lamp of the Picture' of the Advaita text Pancadasi of Sri Vidyaranya Swami.

The Sruti, in the passage beginning with 'the consciousness in the deep sleep' and ending in 'He is the Lord of all' describes this 'sheath of bliss' as the Isvara.

Pancadasi translated by Swami Swahananda, VI.158

As the deep sleep state passes into dream state, so Isvara who is known as the sheath of bliss, transforms Himself into Hiranyagarbha, when He, the one, wills to be many.

Pancadasi VI.198

Hiranyagarbha or Sutratman, otherwise called the subtle-body, is the totality of the subtle bodies of all Jivas. He conceives Himself as the totality of all egoes or 'I'- consciousnesses, like the threads of a piece of cloth; and He is said to be endowed with powers of volition, conation and cognition.

Pancadasi VI.200

Like a tender offshoot of a germinated corn or like a tender plant sprouting, Hiranyagarbha is the tender bud of the world which is still indistinct.

Pancadasi VI.203

In Virat the world appears distinct and shining,like objects in broad day-light or like the figures of a fully painted picture or the fruit of a fully matured tree. In Virat all the gross bodies are plainly seen.

Pancadasi VI.204

In the Visvarupa chapter and in the Purusa Sukta there is a description of Virat. From the creator Brahma to a blade of grass, all the objects in the world form part of Virat.

Pancadasi VI.205

Swami Swahananda writes:

Here Isvara is the consciousness reflected in the totality of bliss-sheaths. ... Each individual soul, Jiva, has three states of consciousness; the waking (when the Jiva is called the Visva). the dreaming (when he is called Taijasa) and the deep sleep (when he is known as Prajna). Isvara, the collective consciousness, has also three corresponding states - the Vaisvanara, the Hiranyagarbha, and the Isvara. ... Just as the three states of a Jiva do not make him three, even so the three states of Isvara do not make him a triple personality. Just as Prajna, being the causal state of a Jiva, includes the other two sates of his and is the guide and controller of them; so the third state of Isvara, being the causal one, is the source, the indwelling Spirit, controller and guide of the other two and through them of the entire universe.

Pancadasi translated by Swami Swahananda

Now that we know wha Virat, Hiranyagarbha and Isvara mean in Advaita Vedanta, how are these three related to Brahma and Saguna Brahman? The creator Brahma is part of Virat according to Pancadasi VI.205.

Sruti says that this(pure universal) consciousness reflected in Maya is Isvara which controls Maya as well. The great Isvara is the inner ruler, ominiscient, and the cause of the universe.

Pancadasi VI.157

Isvara who is Cit reflected on Maya, is not the same as (Nirguna) Brahman, who is Cit, the attributeless existence. Isvara is what is called Saguna Brahman or Brahman with attributes in Advaita Vedanta.

Shankara of course considers Isvara or Brahman with attributes as ultimately unreal. He writes in his commentary on Brahma Sutra Bhasya III.II.18:

Since this Self is by nature Consciousness Itself, distinctionless, beyond speech and mind, and can be taught by way of negating other things, hence in the scriptures dealing with liberation an illustration is cited by saying that it is "like the sun reflected in water". Here the aspect kept in view is the one with attributes, which is not real and which is created by limiting adjuncts, as it is done in such texts, "As this luminous sun, though one in itself, becomes multifarious owing to its entry into water divided by different pots, similarly this Deity, the birthless, self-effulgent Self, though one, seems to be diversified owing to its entry into the different bodies, constituting its limiting adjuncts." Similarly, 'Being but one, the Universal Soul is present in all beings, though One, It is seen as many, like the moon in water" (Amritabindu, 12) and other texts.

Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya, III.II.18

  • But what is the relation between Viraj, Hiranyagarbha, and Ishwara to Brahma and Saguna Brahman? Adi Shankaracharya connects these beings to very specific Lokas one can attain in the afterlife. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 6 '16 at 15:04
  • Pancadasi VI.205 clearly says that the creator Brahma is part of Virat. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Apr 6 '16 at 15:35
  • OK, but Adi Shankaracharya says that one hundred times the joy of the gods "makes one unit of joy in the world of Prajāpati, i.e. in the body of Virāj," He seems to think being in the body of Viraj is far, far more enjoyable than life on Earth. In any case, what does Saguna Brahman correspond to here? Also, what is the Loka that "the body of Hiranyagarbha" corresponds to? – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 6 '16 at 15:39
  • Virat is the sum total of all gross bodies which includes the creator Brahma, Visnu, SIva etc (Pancadasi VI.206). Of course body of Virat will be more enjoyable than life on earth since that body contains the body of Brahma, Siva, Visnu and others.. Virat is the gross body of Saguna Brahman or Isvara. Hiranyagarbha is the subtle body of Isvara or Isvara's 'I' consciousness. I am not sure about the Loka that corresponds to the subtle body of Isvara. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Apr 6 '16 at 16:07
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    Then what did you mean by "Of course body of Virat will be more enjoyable than life on earth"? How can that be if life on Earth already involves being in the body of Virat? – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 7 '16 at 7:15

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