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Not knowing any Sanskrit, but knowing a little philosophy and some Bengali I'd translate nirguna as nir-guna (no qualities); and this in the phrase:

nirguna Brahman

A term used in several places in the Upanishads.

And also, by opposition; and thinking of advaita; as 'not duality'; or rather 'beyond/before duality' (and by correspondance to Hegels opening on his Logic); I'd speculate that saguna means with all qualities; and this in the phrase

saguna brahman

Are these speculations along the right lines?

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You're on the right track!

Saguna means “with attributes.” Nirguna means “without attributes.” “Saguna Brahman” describes a God with (tangible) attributes. The term “Nirguna Brahman” describes a God with no (tangible) attributes (source).

According to Advaita as taught by Sankara, saguna brahman refers to Hinduism's god as identical with his own infinite jnana/knowledge/awareness (source).

Some consider Nirguna Brahman as Para Brahman, the highest Brahman. Others describe Nirguna Brahman as a state of being in which all distinctions are obliterated and are overcome (source).

See also: immanence.

  • Nice answer. The higher-level view would be that Brahman (the Real, Reality, the 'world-as-a-whole') has all qualities and no qualities. For our conceiving mind there would appear be these two aspects, while the truth would lie in sublating them and seeing their equivalence. Carl Jung saw this through his study of Alchemy and speaks of the 'Nothing' as having all qualities and no qualities. As Lao Tsu proposes, true words seem paradoxical. – PeterJ Oct 18 '17 at 11:48
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The risk to thinking about these distinctions, obviously, lies in the way one imagines that one understands what the “gunas” signify, the realm of qualities. There are many ways of formalizing qualities and characteristics as concepts. But one always goes astray if one decides to adopt one of them as though one could somehow pick up a meaning, put it away in a pocket, and walk off with it. To put saguna together with nirguna means opening a way toward understanding something entirely different from objects and the world of objects, which includes the view of oneself as the possessor and the knower of objects in the world of objects. A teacher has to feel out how far he or she can go in pointing out how the quality of mind determines such questions and such answers because it doesn’t help the student to push too far and to speak too elusively. Wherever one pauses along the way of understanding a transcendent meaning, one should remind oneself that the idea one embraces is likely to be step along the way, and the meaning only a pause toward recreating the quality of mind that reaches out toward the complete transformation of one’s mind. The difference between saguna and nirguna is the journey along that road. The question changes, therefore, to the determination: is there a destination? You can form an idea of who you are talking to by the way he or she responds to that question. If he or she can make you feel comfort in the understanding that the answer is not yes, and it is not no, and it is not both yes and no, nor is it neither yes nor no, then at least you can be certain that this teacher has not placed new obstacles in your path.

  • If you have references to those who take a similar view this would strengthen the answer and provide the reader with a place to go for more information. Welcome. – Frank Hubeny Jun 17 at 11:48
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Bhakti traditions are classified into two broad categories -saguna(with attributes) and nirguna(without attributes). The former included traditions that focused on the worship of specific deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and his avatars(incarnations)and forms of the goddess or devi, all often conceptualised in anthropomorphic forms. Nirguna bhakti on the other hand was worship of an abstract form of god.

  • not an answer. The question is asking about the difference between nirguna and saguna brahman, not between different bhakti traditions. – Swami Vishwananda Oct 19 '17 at 14:41
  • On the contrary this is a more fruitful direction than a logic/discursive answer especially for this kind of subject. It of course needs to be fleshed out by for example the vast difference in semantics that the word "Ram" has for Kabir and for Tulsidas. – Rusi Jun 17 at 2:25

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