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Is Para a transcendental entity?


Para and Apara are two terms that we often come across while reading or learning things related to Indian philosophy. Para is said to be Brahman, the Absolute Truth or Reality. Even though Para is said to be the Ultimate Truth and Hinduism is about reaching It, why does almost everything related to Hinduism, such as Itihasas, Puranas, etc., fall under apara? Also, when a beginner student tries to understand these two concepts, the first resort they take would be to search the term and read a few articles online. How much justice would the English translation of the word ‘Para’ as transcendental, beyond this world, otherworldly, supernatural, etc., do to the actual sense in which it is conceived in the Indian context? How much would a student miss out on the essence of what the words really try to convey to the seeker? There is another striking question, if Para is permanent and Apara is something that is impermanent, then, as students of Hindu Studies, why do we need to give equal importance to both Para and Apara? Can’t we just negate everything that is Apara for its transient nature and channel all our attention towards Para?

When the West interacts with the Hindu traditions and translates Hindu texts into English, the issue of cultural difference is bound to emerge. The problem of translation cannot be properly understood without knowing how cultures differ. When someone from an entirely different culture, traditions, and religious background tries to explain the concepts of Hinduism, they would assess them in comparison to their own religion. For example, the concept of God in Christianity is entirely different from the Hindu God. The Christian God is a single entity, the one and only Creator, who is present in an entirely different world. You will have to die and cross this realm in order to reach Him. However, for the Hindus, their God is all-pervading and omnipresent, whom they can unite with through self-realization.  

When we interpret ‘Para’ as transcendental, the whole paradigm shifts to explain Para or Brahman as belonging to a different world or being supernatural. Apara on the other hand is conceived by us as all things of this world. This separation between the worlds creates confusion and a significant amount of knowledge with regard to the Hindu concept of God gets eliminated in the process. When in reality, Hinduism considers Para as the subtle entity from which everything has originated and to which everything would merge back.
Now, the next question in line is why do we give the same significance to  Para and Apara, if Para is the supreme Reality and Apara is the material things that we encounter with in our lives. Hindu shastras say that the road to Para is through the Apara. In order to attain Para, one must pass through the paths that are entangled with the Apara entities and the experience we gain from those interactions. This can be explained through the argument of Sri Balagangadhara. In the verse: 

 “Asato ma sat gamaya, Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, Mrutyor ma amrutam gamaya,” 
 ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय । तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय । मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय ।ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad — I.iii.28)

We pray to the Lord to take us through the unreal to real, through the darkness to light, and through death to immortality. This shows that we need to pass through one thing, which might be undesirable to reach something worthy: we need to endure worldly life to attain liberation. In other words, Apara entities are the doors through which one needs to traverse in order to reach the Para entity or Brahman. Also, this verse is often translated by using “from” instead of “through” (such as ‘from’ darkness to light, ‘from’ immortality to death). Sri Balagangadhara argues that even though both usages are grammatically correct, our constant tendency to use “from” over “through” subtly reveals our inclination to identify “Para” with transcendental.1 We cannot simply pray to take us from one phase to another without facing up the materialistic elements of that particular phase. 
1 Balagangadhara, S.N. “What do Indians Need, A History or the Past? A challenge or two to Indian historians” at the ICHR VII Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture, 2014. Accessed on: (03.03.2023).
It is important to note that these confusions are not the products of mere translation issues. Even if one succeeds in translating specific words accurately, certain structures remain at the conceptual level. It is crucial that seekers in the Hindu tradition are aware of the possibilities and consequences of incorrect translations and interpretations that have and are bound to come up with the use of non-Hindu cosmologies.  These issues have gained momentum, and students of Hindu Studies should be on the lookout. When we come across such a situation, it is important that we tackle the situation with a calm and clear mind, rather than becoming provoked and aggressive. This is because the task itself, an Apara card dealt for consideration, is a puzzle of our own lives to gain knowledge. In fact, one could be even thankful to our intellectual ‘opponents’ for giving us worthy puzzles to solve. 
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