Negation of ideas can open the doors to salvation

Hari Ravikumar
Hari RavikumarSep 25, 2015 | 09:39

Negation of ideas can open the doors to salvation

Thomas Edison had conducted over nine thousand experiments trying to device a new storage battery but not a single one succeeded. One of his friends, Walter Mallory, overcome with sympathy said, "Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?" Edison replied with a smile, "Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won't work."


This little story tells us so much about the approach of assertion by way of negation, which the renowned eighth century CE philosopher Shankara propagated. The Sanskrit term for this is "neti neti" (na iti = not this) which essentially means "not this, not that."

When we define an object or an idea, we are basically limiting it. And the process of limiting something could be either positive ("this is what it is") or negative ("these are what it is not"). When the object or idea to be defined is straightforward and its characteristics are describable, then the positive approach is easier. But if the characteristics of what we are out to define are indescribable, then we resort to negating everything that it is not. This is also the import of the well-known Sherlock Holmes line: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."

Shankara is not alone in this approach of rejection and assertion. The Upanishads often speak of brahman, the Supreme spirit, as beyond form and beyond thought. Lao-Tzu says, "The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao" (Tao-Te-Ching, Chapter 1). Buddha famously refused to answer the fourteen questions (about space, time, creation, identity, and life after death) for the simple reason that they could not be answered in words; his silence is a form of negation. The European idea of via negativa (negative way) is a similar approach of using negation, but in an attempt to define God. A parallel in the Judeo-Christian tradition is, for example, the refusal of God to reveal his name to Moses (Exodus 3:13-14) or St. Paul's reference to the "Unknown God" (Acts 17:23). In the case of Islam, most schools believe the Qur'an to be completely true and thus deem the attributes of Allah (Qur'an 59:53-54, for instance) to be literal. However in some schools of Shi'a Islam and Sufism, they approach God using ta'til (negation) - a popular example being Bulleh Shah's poem "Bulleh ki jaana main kaun" (Bulleh! Who knows who am I?)


One of the most famous compositions of Shankara on this topic is his Nirvana Shatkam, the six-verse poem to salvation: 

  • manobuddhyahaṅkāra cittāni nāhaṃ
  • na ca śrotrajihve na ca ghrāṇanetre |
  • na ca vyoma bhūmirna tejo na vāyuḥ
  • cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |1|
  • (Thought, intellect, ego, life - these I am not
  • No ears, no tongue, no nostrils nor eyes
  • Not space, not earth, not fire nor wind am I
  • I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone)
  • na ca prāṇasaṅjño na vai pañcavāyuḥ
  • na vā saptadhāturna vā pañcakośaḥ |
  • na vākpāṇipādaṃ na copasthapāyu
  • cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |2|
  • (I am not energy, nor the five breaths
  • I am not the seven sources, nor the five layers
  • Neither speech nor limbs nor genitals am I
  • I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone)

[The five breaths are: digestive breath, excretory breath, upward breath that creates sound, balancing breath, and diffused breath that maintains body shape.

The seven sources of the body are: plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow, and semen/ovum.

The five layers are: realm of matter, realm of vitality, realm of mind, realm of wisdom, and realm of bliss.]

  • na me dveşarāgau na me lobhamohau
  • mado naiva me naiva mātsaryabhāvaḥ |
  • na dharmo na cārtho na kāmo na mokşaḥ
  • cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |3|
  • (No hatred nor passion, neither greed nor illusion
  • No arrogance, no vanity, no feelings of envy
  • Neither principles nor wealth, nor desire, nor liberation am I
  • I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone)
  • na puṇyaṃ na pāpaṃ na saukhyaṃ na dukhyaṃ
  • na mantro na tīrthaṃ na vedā na yajña |
  • ahaṃ bhojanaṃ naiva bhojyaṃ na bhoktā
  • cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |4|
  • (I am free of good and bad, comfort and pain
  • No prayers, no pilgrimages, no scriptures, no rituals
  • Neither the food nor the edible nor the eater am I
  • I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone)
  • na me mṛtyuśaṅkā na me jātibhedaḥ
  • pitā naiva me naiva mātā na janmaḥ |
  • na bandhurna mitraṃ gurunaiva śişyaḥ
  • cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |5|
  • (No doubt of death, no distinctions of caste
  • I have neither father nor mother; I was never born
  • Neither relative nor friend, neither teacher nor student am I
  • I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone)
  • ahaṃ nirvikalpo nirākāra rūpo
  • vibhutvā ca sarvatra sarvendriyāṇaṃ |
  • na cāsaṅgata naiva muktirna bandaḥ
  • cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |6|
  • (I am beyond thought, formless is my only form
  • I am the vitality behind the sense organs of all
  • Neither attached to anything, nor free from everything - all-inclusive am I
  • I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone)

We find an interesting counterpoint to the theory of negation in the writings of the fifth century CE grammarian, Bhartrhari. In his seminal work on grammar, Vakyapadiya, he discusses the paradox of unnameability - he says that by the very act of calling something unnameable gives it a name. It becomes signifiable precisely by calling it unsignifiable, for that has become its signifier.

While referring to the method of negation adopted in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6, Sureshvara (a primary disciple of Shankara) says that the objective of calling brahman as "not this, not that" is not simply to negate but actually to establish identity. We must keep this in mind while applying the approach of negation because it can easily lead us astray from our primary purpose - to define that which cannot be defined in words and to know that which cannot be grasped by thought.

Reference: Derrida and Negative Theology. Eds. Coward, Harold and Foshay, Tony. New York: SUNY Press, 1992.

Last updated: September 25, 2015 | 09:44
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