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Neti neti

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In Hinduism, and in particular Jnana Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, neti neti may be a chant or mantra, meaning "not this, not this", or "neither this, nor that" (neti is sandhi from na iti "not so").

Neti neti is also an analytical process of conceptualizing something by clearly defining what it is not. One of the key elements of Jnana Yoga is often a "neti neti search."

Adi Shankara was one of the foremost Advaita philosophers who advocated the neti-neti approach.

Neti-neti is held as the approach to understand the concept of Brahman without using affirmative (and thereby inadequate) definitions or descriptions of Brahman, comparable to apophatic theology in Eastern Christianity.

The purpose of the exercise is to negate conscious rationalizations, and other distractions from the purpose of a meditation. It is also a sage view on the nature of the Divine, and especially on the attempts to capture and describe the essence of God. In this respect, the phrase succinctly expresses the standpoint of negative theology.


The form of that person is like a cloth dyed with turmeric, or like grey sheep’s wool, or like the scarlet insect called Indragopa, or like a tongue of fire, or like a white lotus, or like a flash of lightning. He who knows this-his splendour is like a flash of lightning. Now, therefore, the description of Brahman: “Not this, not this” (Neti, Neti); for there is no other and more appropriate description than this “Not this.” Now the designation of Brahman: “The Truth of truth.” The vital breath is truth and It (Brahman) is the Truth of that.

The significance of neti neti

In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students to describe God. He states "The Divine is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti).

Thus, the Divine is not real as we are real, nor is it unreal. The divine is not living in the sense humans live, nor is it dead. The Divine is not compassionate as we use the term, nor is it uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define God in words. All we can say, in effect, is that "It isn't this, but also, it isn't that either". In the end, the student must transcend words to understand the nature of the Divine.

In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, when we attempt to capture it in human words, we must inevitably fall short, because we are limited in understanding, and words are limited in ability to express the transcendent. The original texts shed light on the practice of neti neti as a tool to Self-realisation aka Brahman.

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