Vedanta is the essence of the Vedic thought, enshrined primarily in the Upanishads. Vedantic principles decentralise the question of the divine to the individual. They make an individual realise Satya – the Absolute Truth of Brahman (the Universal cosmic principle in the Dharmic framework) by looking within, not without. In doing so, the seeker of this Truth finds the paradoxical nature of this reality: it is both transcendent and immanent, both dynamic and unchanging. And most importantly, being existent and non-existent! It is in this final dismantling of the empirical, physicalist conception of reality that the reality beyond the empirical is placed.
The Ultimate Reality, being beyond the relative and worldly, cannot be described in terms of anything that is empirical and worldly. In short, it is best described as attributeless. Going one step further, not only is it attributeless but its existence itself cannot be defined in terms of positive or negative ontological premises. It both is and is not! However, in terms of what we see around us – the elements of nature, society and civilisation, objects and physical processes – the Ultimate Reality is definitely not confined to any of that. Thus, a Vedic Maharishi would suggest the Neti, Neti (not this, not this) approach, with regards to things that we can sense and understand in our worldly existence, as the best one can do to ‘define’ Brahman.
This apparent paradox of existence and non-existence, positive and negative, nothing and yet everything, is beautifully translated to a very absurd form of devotion in the Dharmic framework: Nindāstuti. Nindāstuti is a Dharmic paradigm of devotion through apparent censure! If binaries of any kind, be it of praise and censure or even of language and silence, all constitute the Ultimate Reality and yet the Ultimate Reality is not restricted to any of these, one can express one’s alignment with Brahman using censure and silence too, and not just praise and language!
This highly counter-intuitive idea cannot be easily comprehended, especially by those conditioned to think in terms of binaries and multiplicities in this world as well as those who do not understand the difference between God and gods. God, in the Dharmic framework, is One, is beyond all manner of space, time and causality, while gods are associated with derived manifestations and realities from the Ultimate Reality.
For instance, God does not single out the Devtas (noble celestial being, regarded as gods) for preferential treatment, often to later perturbations well-described in so many mythological stories such as those where Lord Shiva grants boons to the Asuras and Rakshasa like Ravana. One may ask why? And in the answer to that question lies a great truth of Dharmic thought:
SATYA – THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH TRANSCENDS THE BINARIES AND MULTIPLICITIES OF THE EMPIRICAL WORLD.
This is why, while Devtas in Hindu traditions are sometimes shown to have baser instincts and behaviours, such Lord Indra with his wrath, God or Brahman is shown to be indifferent to this. Praise and censure then are just two sides of the same coin: alignment and constant reflection on the Absolute Truth. The pieces composed for Nindāstuti are ones where we question the divine. Sometimes we even scold them and make unflattering comparisons, such as when Sant Tukaram Maharaj compares Lord Vitthala to a ghost in Pandhariche Bhoota Mothe! However, the key principle in this is that this censuring, this criticism, is not done with a spirit of disrespect or hatred.
It is done out of love and in union with the divine. It is like one mock-scolds or gives disparaging comments (in humour and affection) to a child or a friend or a family member one loves. It is done with the paradoxical idea that even when highlight some of the apparently negative sides of, say, a manifestation of the divine, we still highlight the divine essence while doing so. But most importantly, by doing this
NINDĀSTUTI TRIVIALISES THE WORLDLY AND THE EMPIRICAL, THE BINARY OF PRAISE AND CENSURE, THE IDEAS OF POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE ONTOLOGICAL PREMISES, AND SHINES A LIGHT OVER THE TRANSCENDENT REALITY OF BRAHMAN ITSELF
It is one of the most powerful tools to break through the veil of Maya (the illusory veil that hides the true essence of the divine, as per Vedantic thought). It takes the conception of Brahman beyond any understanding in terms of attributes, praises or even language! Ciranjiva Bhattacarya, in his seminal work Kavyavilasa, describes Nindāstuti as
निन्दास्तुतिरलङ्कारो निन्दाव्याजेन चेत्स्तुतिः
which translates to Nindāstuti is when from apparent censure, praise is implied. An example of Nindāstuti is
वाराणसी! वृथैव त्वामाश्रयण्ति महाजनाः।
भवभोगपरित्यक्तं यत्करोषि दिगम्बरम्॥
These lines from the Kavyavilasa speak of how Varanasi is to be apparently blamed for making great men take refuge in it, after denouncing worldly joys and pleasures and remaining as sky-clad (Digambara). But due to the association of the word Digambara with Lord Shiva and great spiritual power, it is also a praise of Varanasi, by saying that Varanasi makes a person denounce worldly pleasures and turn towards Lord Shiva. What is apparently blame and censure is actually praise!
There have been a number of musicians, poets and spiritual luminaries who have used this form of devotion. Purandara Dāsa, known as the father of Carnatic music, is remembered for his devotional pieces, with famous pieces such as the popular Devaranamas like Chandrachooda Shiva Shankara Parvati, Sharanu Siddhi Vinayaka, Neene Anatha Bandhu, Gajavadana Beduve and Gummana Kareyadire. He is also known for composing Nindāstuti such as Entha Cheluvage, a Nindāstuti on Lord Shiva in Raga Abheri. Sadhguru Sri Tyagaraja also is known for composing various pieces in Nindāstuti such as Abhimaanamu Ledemi in Raga Andhaali.
These may look like strong pieces to censure the deities but they are actually to praise and show love to them. After all, Nindāstuti is a form of Shleshakavya – a poetic composition that is laden with double-entendres and is looked upon as a form of Dvesha-bhakti – a devotion that is expressed through censure and even apparent maliciousness.
Besides this being a form of devotion we must all know about, this also brings to us an important lesson – of breaking the shackles of righteous indignation and exclusivism that one sees in various religious and spiritual traditions around the world. Dharma brings to us all a very different, quite counter-intuitive understanding of devotion, theism and spirituality in Nindāstuti.
I believe keeping the balance between employing this form of Bhakti and yet not using it as a license to insult or deride spiritual truths is important, and for this, I would like to suggest the principle of Viśiṣṭvividhīkaran (विशिष्टविविधीकरण) or qualified diversification that speaks of how one must always think dually: regarding the worldly alignment and association with God or Brahman in terms of religion, the conception of divinity in terms of social and cultural ideas, myriad forms of devotion, and yet always remembering that there is a level of unity, of oneness, beyond all this that remains unaffected, indifferent and beyond these concepts – of the Absolute Truth.
Even if one were to employ Nindāstuti or even general censure and criticism for anything or anybody in life, be it in the spirit of free speech and free will or in Bhakti – devotion and spiritual pursuits, one must never forget the unity transcending all this. The unity transcending the bounds of doctrinal elements of religions. The unity transcending the bounds of identities, ideas and ideologies.
NEVER FORGET THE UNITY, IN ESSENCE, OF HUMANITY AND OF UNIVERSAL TRUTHS THAT TRANSCEND THE APPARENT MULTIPLICITY THAT WE SEE AROUND US.
Only then shall we be firmly on the path to true liberation!