The Divine Self can be worshipped and meditated upon in two ways— saguna and nirguna . The saguna method, which is given a greater emphasis in Bhakti Yoga , the path of devotion, is to meditate upon God in the form of an avatar such as Rama, Krishna, Jesus, Buddha or others. It also includes the worshiping of God with the help of any name or form, or any concrete or abstract symbol. The nirguna method, which is highlighted in Jnana Yoga , the path of wisdom, implies meditating upon God as formless, attributeless and unqualified by any mental concepts.
From ancient times the followers of mysticism have repeatedly developed confusion regarding the correct understanding of these two methods of Divine worship. Many who follow jnana or wisdom have always looked down upon the method adopted by bhaktis or devotees, seeing it as sheer sentimentality. They hold as utterly absurd the belief that the Absolute Self Who transcends time and space could be talked to, touched, loved and enshrined in one’s heart. Devotees, on the other hand, often look down upon jnanis , considering them as dry intellectuals, devoid of the nectarine taste of Divine Love.
But those who truly understand these two methods do not find any contradiction in them. They are in the possession of an integral vision of Divine Worship—and such a vision needs to be promoted by an aspirant.
The Necessity of Combining Saguna and Nirguna Worship
The human personality has two distinct aspects: feeling and reason. The saguna method corresponds to the feeling aspect of the personality, and through it a person is led to integrate his sentiments into Divine feelings. The nirguna method corresponds to the rational aspect of the personality, and by following this method one is able to render his intellect subtle and pure. The two methods complement each other, for as the feeling aspect of the personality is integrated through saguna practices, an aspirant gains increasing purity of his intellect, and in turn, as the intellect is rendered pure through nirguna practices, his sentiments become more and more integrated and purified.
Therefore, these two continue to assist each other until, in the state of Self-realization, an aspirant’s bhavana or feeling becomes transformed into anubhavana , spiritual experience of Divine Bliss, and his rational aspect becomes transformed into intuition, the revelation of Pure Consciousness. And since in this sublime state both reason and feeling reach their ultimate unfoldment, a Sage then becomes at once all “heart” as well as all “head.” He realizes Brahman, Who is at once Absolute Bliss as well as Absolute Consciousness.
Those who are unable to appreciate the mystic art of worshipping the Supreme in human form should reflect deeply upon the examples of great Sages and Saints. They should ask themselves, what led Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who was a great devotee of Goddess Kali, to hold the view that the world is nothing but Brahman , which is the basic Non-dualistic tenet of Vedanta? Likewise, what led Sri Shankaracharya, one of the greatest exponents of Non-dualism, to dance in the temples of gods and goddesses and to compose verse after verse overflowing with devotion? They should further reflect upon the fact that the Upanishads, the Gita and the other texts of Vedanta are filled with instructions for adoring God in His saguna form, while they teach the nirguna form of adoration as well. And even those scriptures that are predominately devotional, such as the Ramayana of Saint Tulsidas and the Srimad Bhagavata of Sage Vyasa (where Lord Krishna is glorified), give abundant teachings pertaining to the attributeless Brahman and the illusoriness of the world-process.
Contrasting Saguna and Nirguna Worship
- Saguna worship holds on to something tangible—Divinity symbolized in a name and form, while nirguna leads the mind to mystic expansion wherein names and forms are negated and transcended.
- A Saguna worshipper may worship God in an image, for example, in a Shaligrama (sacred stone), in the Ganga (the sacred river), in a Divine statue in a temple, or any Divine form. He chooses a Deity, an Ishta Devata such as Krishna, Rama, Devi, Shiva and the like, and repeats the mantra (sacred name) of the Deity. A nirguna worshipper, on the other hand, disciplines his mind by meditating upon the sky or anything that gives him a sense of transcending the limited concepts of the world. He may meditate upon the abstract attributes of God such as Non-duality, Infinity, Pure Consciousness, and others. He also may adopt the Mahavakyas or Great Utterances, or any other elevating utterances for his mantra (for constant repetition along with mental reflection). “ Soham” —“I am That” and “ Aham Brahmasmi” —“I am Brahman ” are examples of nirguna mantras .
- A saguna worshipper adopts Murti Upasana (worship of God in an image) or Pratika Upasana (worship of God in a symbol). A nirguna worshipper practices Ahamgraha Upasana, which implies meditating upon an object with the attitude of being that object. It is the practice of identifying oneself with the object of meditation. This prepares the mind for the affirmation, “I am Brahman .”
- In the worship of the Divine Self, a saguna worshipper utilizes his senses, while a nirguna worshipper has to withdraw his senses in order to lift his intellect beyond the concepts of names and forms.
- A saguna worshipper believes in Divine Grace and learns the art of surrender. By surrendering to God he receives Divine Grace, which in turn overcomes all obstacles and enables him to attain the highest goal of Self-realization. A nirguna worshipper, on the other hand, believes in purushartha or self-effort, and practices disciplines in order to remove the gross and subtle impurities of his personality. He then aims at the negation of the ego by the practice of deep reflection.
- A saguna worshipper is like a person who views the panorama of nature through his window as he is comfortably seated in a house situated on a high cliff, while a nirguna worshipper goes out of the house and enjoys the beauty of nature by wandering freely among the mountains and valleys. However, both have their limitations. A nirguna worshipper is devoid of the comfort and stability of the saguna worshipper, and although he may have an expansive view, he may find himself lost in it. A saguna worshipper may close his windows and remain snug in the confines of his room, thereby depriving himself of the beauteous scenery around him. In other words, a nirguna worshipper can become too intellectual, while a saguna worshipper can become too enclosed in his sentiments.
- Saguna and nirguna forms of worship are complementary and supplementary to each other. Many aspirants begin with the saguna method, and as they advance, their intellects open to the grandeur of nirguna worship. Others who begin with nirguna worship eventually realize that the subtle impurities of the mind cannot be removed by self-effort alone, and so they then take recourse to saguna worship.
- Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa explained the relationship of the two methods by using the example of preparing an Indian sweet. In the preparation of this sweet there are two stages—when the wheat-cake is cooked in oil and when it is placed in syrup. The nirguna method corresponds to the first stage, while the saguna method refers to the second. Thus jnana (wisdom) is sweetened by bhakti (devotion).
- The saguna method of worship is like acquiring a microscope and enjoying the inherent beauty in every minute particle of creation. The nirguna method is like acquiring a telescope and looking into the vastness of the sky, thus revealing the celestial bodies. The former leads to the recognition of the inner grandeur that lies within the confines of each human personality, while the latter leads to the recognition of the transcendental glory of the Self.
- In the Ramayana, Lakshmana represents a saguna devotee, while Bharata represents a nirguna devotee. When Rama departed and went to live in the forest, he asked Lakshmana to remain in Ayodhya and continue serving his parents and protect the kingdom. But Lakshmana was utterly disinterested in that project; all he wanted was to follow Rama into the forest and enjoy serving Him. Bharata, on the other hand, also yearned to be with Rama, but he realized the greater responsibility of performing Rama’s will by staying at Ayodhya.
This signifies that though a nirguna worshipper, Bharata is yet ever devoted to the saguna form of Rama. And similarly, Lakshmana, though a saguna worshipper, often learns from Rama the nirguna knowledge of Brahman , the Absolute without attributes. In an ideal mystical unfolding, saguna must blend with nirguna , and nirguna must be mellowed by saguna .
- The nirguna form can be compared to invisible water vapor that permeates the atmosphere in the form of humidity, while the saguna form is like the fall of silvery snowflakes. The same Brahman, Who is invisible and beyond the mind and senses, assumes the role of a personal God by the force of the love of His devotees.
- Nirguna form of meditation enables an aspirant to remove gross impurities from his mind, while the subtle seeds of egoism, pride and desire are effectively removed through saguna as the stream of devotion sweeps over the mind.
- A nirguna devotee promotes the wellbeing of the whole world. He attains the state of performing the maximum good to the world by his inward state of renunciation and actionlessness. Though not acting, he becomes the performer of great actions. A saguna devotee, on the other hand, keeps himself ever busy serving the Lord in people around him, while inwardly he enjoys the serenity of Divine Surrender. And so, though acting, he does not act.
- When Arjuna asked Krishna which of the two methods is superior or better, He replied that the saguna method is more practical and effective. At the same time, he told Arjuna that both methods lead to the same goal. Finally, he explained the characteristics of those fully developed devotees in whom both the methods of saguna and nirguna have reached their utmost perfection. (See Gita, Ch. 12)
Therefore, although an aspirant should always have an understanding of the interdependence of these two methods, he must adopt the method that suits his psychological structure. Then, as he advances he must integrate both methods until he is rid of the gross as well as the subtle impurities of the mind. The fact is that there is no superiority of one method over the other, and both must be well harmonized in one’s spiritual journey. Let your intellect delight in the transcendental glory of the Absolute while your feelings clasp the lotus feet of the Lord deep within your heart. Let your intellect revel in the woodlands of Vedantic vichara (reflection on Brahman ) while your heart enjoys the melody of Krishna’s flute by the shores of the Yamuna River.
With permission from Swami Jyotirmayananda