A Synopsis by Amrutha MK (Research Associate, NIAS) – on “The Method of Néti Néti”
Lecture given by Prof. Diwakar Acharya on 24 March 2021
Series Title: Sanskrit Language & its Traditions: A Journey Through its History and Contemporaneity
Organised by: NIAS Consciousness Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India
Prof. Diwakar Acharya presented the tenth lecture titled “The Method of Néti Néti” for the series “Sanskrit Language and its Traditions: A Journey Through its History and Contemporaneity” on 24th March 2021. In the first section of the talk, Prof. Acharya gave a historical introduction to the expression of néti néti and analysed the method of néti néti. Then he highlighted the need to synthesize positive as well as negative interpretations of the ultimate reality using the method of néti néti. In the final section, he pointed out that this method of néti néti was not limited to the Upaniṣadic tradition only, rather it was present in some other traditions as well.
Yājñavalkya used the expression néti néti, as he described the self (ātman) in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and said that the self must be understood by the method of néti néti (na-iti, na-iti; not this, not this). Prof. Acharya explained what néti néti was and gave an account of the history of the use of the expression néti néti. In the first section, he quoted some references of the term néti néti as found in Śāṅkhāyana Āraṇyaka, Brahmasūtras, Bhartṛhari’s Dravyasamuddeśa, Śabara’s Śābara-bhāṣyam, and in the works of Śaṅkarācārya and Abhinavagupta.
In the second section, he analysed the question of why néti néti, citing Śaṅkara on Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad II. 3.11. Taking a cue from this verse, Prof. Acharya said that when there was a need to describe the nature of reality, the method of néti néti was required because both positive and negative aspects of presentation were necessary. To explain this method, he analysed the dialogue between Gā́rgya and Ájātaśatru in chapter two of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. As stated by Prof. Acharya this discourse demonstrated how one could rediscover the underlying truth and how a statement on the reality could be claimed as true or false depending upon the perspective of the epistemic agent. According to Prof. Acharya, the focus of this dialogue was to critically demonstrate what brahman and púruṣa were and the relation between them. However, the lecture focused on the analysis of the néti néti method for seeking the underlying truth. Prof. Acharya argued that with the traditional interpretation of continuous negation only a partial picture of the reality could be captured and to reveal the ultimate reality one must accept the varied perceptions of ultimate reality.
The discourse, as analysed by Prof. Acharya, is as follows. The discourse opened with a claim of Gā́rgya that he could teach what brahman was. Gā́rgya spoke from a specific point of view moving púruṣa from one locus to another claiming that each instance of them was brahman. This wavering position pointed out that Gā́rgya had an uncritical view perceived under certain conditions. He began with assuming a hierarchy of entities and sought their “primordial source”. As long as Gā́rgya located puruṣa in a fixed position, Ájātaśatru continuously went on countering Gā́rgya’s claims. Gā́rgya was unable to discard them and consequently, he gave up his claims. Upon Gā́rgya’s request, Ájātaśatru taught him what Brahman was. Ájātaśatru pointed out that the reality of reality cannot be defined and demonstrated that depending on the standpoint of the knowledge seeker different perceptions about the same entity were possible and with this realisation all boundaries of the specification would get dissolved instantly. Accordingly, relative to the standpoint of the knowledge seeker the same reality can be conceived in different ways. After denying all the uncritical statements of Gā́rgya, Ájātaśatru synthesised and presented the holistic picture and said that all these different forms belonged to the same principle (púruṣa). Ájātaśatru’s negation was not a complete denial of Gā́rgya’s claims rather he was denying them critically from an “epistemic standpoint”. In this way, néti néti involve critical negation and positive synthesis, by which the complete truth gets revealed in the end.
Prof Acharya pointed out that traditionally there were some philological issues in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.3.10 and the holistic presentation in the analysis was somehow misunderstood and the synthesis part of critical negation got lost in the process. Prof. Acharya mentioned that his attempt was to reconstruct the traditional interpretation of néti néti as he combined both positive and negative elements to understand reality. This crucial point was “somehow lost during the process of transmission and interpretation”. He concluded the lecture by saying that this method of néti néti was present in other traditions such as the Jaina and the Buddhist, as exemplified in the doctrines of Anekānta vadā and tetralemma of Nāgārjuna. The lecture was followed by an interactive question and answer session.
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