Vedā: Vyaṣṭi – Samaṣṭi

Vyaṣṭi and Samaṣṭi in Vedic philosophy

The concepts of Vyaṣṭi (व्यष्टि) and Samaṣṭi (समष्टि) are quite apt in describing the outlook and perspective of someone who has truly imbibed and internalized Vedic philosophy.

Vyaṣṭi denotes the individuality and separateness of things, and Samaṣṭi denotes the integral wholeness. There are other similar pairs of words to denote this pair of opposites — such as, vyāsa (to analyze or expand or differentiate) and samāsa (to contract or merge or integrate).

In the Vedas, the ṛṣis do not miss even the tiniest aspect of the universe in their universal rapturous vision of the complex and intricate interconnectedness of everything. The poetic genius of the ṛṣis is exalted by their deep enlightenment of the ultimate reality in its manifestation as the universe, even as it remains itself.

Vedic philosophy is unique in the world for its concepts of vyaṣṭi and samaṣṭi. Enlightenment or realization of the ultimate reality cannot happen without witnessing both vyaṣṭi and samaṣṭi together. The superficial separateness of things should lead to a recognition of the deeper connection, and the deep oneness of everything should be seen in expressions of diversity and variety in the universe.

This dynamism is at the heart of the nature of reality called Brahman. If this give-and-take dynamism between separateness and unity was not true, then we would not exist as individuals and yet be capable of recognizing the unity underlying diverse things. It is our own innermost nature that gives evidence.

This is abundantly evident in the Vedas. For example, the one and same Agni is said to be Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and all other gods:

  • Vasuśruta Ᾱtreya, RV 5.3.1

त्वमग्ने वरुणो जायसे यत्त्वं मित्रो भवसि यत्समिद्धः ।
त्वे विश्वे सहसस्पुत्र देवास्त्वमिन्द्रो दाशुषे मर्त्याय ॥
tvamagne varuṇo jāyase yattvaṁ mitro bhavasi yatsamiddhaḥ |
tve viśve sahasasputra devāstvamindro dāśuṣe martyāya ||
“You, Agni, are Varuṇa when born, and you are Mitra when kindled. O Son of Strength, in you are all the gods, and you are Indra to the mortal worshiper.”

In this verse, it is clear that Agni is identified with all the other gods, and in fact is said to envelop all gods. The verses following this one elaborate on Agni’s identity with other named gods. A similar theme is found in Gṛtsamada Bhārgava’s hymn RV 2.1 where Agni is literally identified with nearly all the named gods of the Vedic pantheon. [1][2][3]

Another example is the famous refrain in RV 3.55: “mahad devānām asuratvam ekam”— “Great is the single asura-ness of the gods”. [4]

And yet, all the gods also have their individuality. They are all also worshiped individually with their own characteristic features and feats (līlā).

This is the exemplar of the dynamism of vyaṣṭi and samaṣṭi.

Even in the Upaniṣads, the state of Brahman is described as a negation of all worldly pairs of opposites (samaṣṭi), and at the same time, as the source of all those opposites (vyaṣṭi).

For example, Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3.14.2,4:

“सत्यसङ्कल्प सर्वकर्मा सर्वकामः सर्वगन्धः सर्वरसः सर्वमिदमभ्यात्तः” — “satyasaṅkalpa sarvakarmā sarvakāmaḥ sarvagandhaḥ sarvarasaḥ sarvamidamabhyāttaḥ

“That Brahman is one whose every imagination becomes reality, who performs all actions, who smells everything, tastes everything, and envelops everything.”

And also, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.1.20:

“स यथोर्णनाभिस्तन्तुनोच्चरेद्यथाग्नेः क्षुद्राः विस्फुलिङ्गाः व्युच्चरन्त्येवमेवास्मादात्मनः सर्वे प्राणाः सर्वे लोकाः सर्वे देवाः सर्वाणि भूतानि व्युच्चरन्ति” — “sa yathorṇanābhistantunoccaredyathāgneḥ kṣudrāḥ visphuliṅgāḥ vyuccarantyevamevāsmādātmanaḥ sarve prāṇāḥ sarve lokāḥ sarve devāḥ sarvāṇi bhūtāni vyuccaranti

“Just as a spider creates its own web and moves around in it, just as small sparks fly out from a big fire, exactly the same way from this Ātman all energies, all worlds, all gods and all things have emerged.”

So the above examples demonstrate the vyaṣṭi aspect.

At the same time, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.8.8:

“अस्थूलमनण्वह्रस्वमदीर्घमलोहितमस्नेहमच्छायमतमोऽवाय्वनाकाशमसङ्गमरसमगन्धमचक्षुष्कमश्रोत्रमवागमनोऽतेजस्कमप्राणममुखममात्रमनन्तरमबाह्यं न तदश्नाति किंचन न तदश्नाति कश्चन” — “asthūlamanaṇvahrasvamadīrghamalohitamasnehamacchāyamatamo’vāyvanākāśamasaṅgamarasamagandhamacakṣuṣkamaśrotramavāgamano’tejaskamaprāṇamamukhamamātramanantaramabāhyaṃ na tadaśnāti kiṃcana na tadaśnāti kaścana

“It is not gross, not subtle, not short, not long, not red, not wet, not shadowy, not dark, not windy, not spacious, not connected to anything, does not taste anything, smell anything, see anything, hear anything, say anything, think anything. It is not bright, not breathing, has no mouth, has no measure, has no interior or exterior. It does not eat anything, nor does anything eat it.”

And also, Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 7:

“नान्तःप्रज्ञं न बहिष्प्रज्ञं नोभयतःप्रज्ञं न प्रज्ञं नाप्रज्ञं अदृष्टमव्यवहार्यमग्राह्यमलक्षणमचिन्त्यमव्यपदेश्यम्” — “nāntaḥprajñaṃ na bahiṣprajñaṃ nobhayataḥprajñaṃ na prajñaṃ nāprajñaṃ adṛṣṭamavyavahāryamagrāhyamalakṣaṇamacintyamavyapadeśyam

“It is neither internal consciousness nor external consciousness, nor both. It is not conscious nor unconscious. It is unseen, non-transactionable, ungraspable, without definition, unthinkable, without representation.”

The above examples demonstrate the samaṣṭi aspect.

Admittedly, the Upaniṣads contain more teachings on samaṣṭi, as seen in the various meditation aids such as madhuvidyā (Bṛ Up) and pañcāgni vidyā (Ch Up). This is because Upaniṣads are specifically meant to be pedagogical texts for the spiritual aspirant (sādhaka), whereas the Samhitā mantras are the expressions of deep vision of the ṛṣis who arethe spiritually accomplished (siddha). The siddha has seen both the samaṣṭi and vyaṣṭi aspects of reality, and sings ecstatically about both of those aspects. The sādhaka must focus on moving from the vyaṣṭi of the everyday world to the samaṣṭi.

Obviously from the above discussion, we see that the vyaṣṭi-samaṣṭi pair has meaning only in a realm of existence which exhibits aspects of both. If the frame of reference is always purely one of them and never the other, then from that frame there can be no realization of either of them. This is a paradox that has also seen a lot of thought in Hindu tradition—

For example, even in the Ṛgveda, RV 10.129.7:

“यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद” — “yo asyādhyakṣaḥ parame vyomantso aṅga veda yadi vā na veda

“The one who is the supreme, in the highest realm, he alone knows, or maybe he does not know.”

This mantra is wrongly interpreted as expressing agnostic or atheistic views. All it is saying is that the state of Brahman is the state of pure samaṣṭi, where there is nothing other than Brahman for it to know. So Brahman knows only itself, or it is as good as saying it knows nothing.

Another example is from classical Advaita teachings, where the significance of a human birth is emphasized repeatedly. It is only humans who are fortunate enough to experience the vyaṣṭi-samaṣṭi pair through the three states of consciousness (waking-dreaming-deep sleep). The realization of Ātman through the analysis of the three states (avasthā-traya-nyāya) is an important part of Advaita pedagogy. Here, the teaching is that the gods are so unfortunate because they do not experience the dreaming and deep sleep states, and hence they cannot attain the same realization of Ātman as human beings, and must take birth as human beings to attain mokṣa. Of course, this is a paradox of post-Vedic theology where the Devas are a separate class of beings subordinate to Brahman. Whereas in reality, the Devas are already part of the frame of existence of pure samaṣṭi of Brahman, which is why they do not have dreams or sleep.

[1] Essential Nature of Agni in the Rig Veda
[2] Agni — Part 2: Supreme ingularity, reconciliation of opposites
[3] Agni — Part 3: Divine Darkness, or Light withing the Darkness, or Divine Death, or Death before Life
[4] Asura in the Rig Veda

Author: Ram Abloh
March 28th, 2020
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