Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta authors claim that the whole world is made of the brahman and that everything else is nothing but a qualification of it/Him.
This philosophical-theological concept, it will be immediately evident, crashes against the (Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika) idea of a rigidly divided ontology, with substances being altogether different from qualities. In other words, the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika world if seen from outside is similar to the world of today’s folk ontology, the one influenced by scientism, while its structure resembles the one of Aristotle’s ontology.
It is populated by subject-independent entities which are ontologically solid and persistent through time and to which qualities accrue which need them as their substrate. It goes without saying that this is a reciprocal distinction (substances are not qualities and qualities can never become substances), since it is grounded in an ontological difference (akin to Aristotle’s ουσια). In other words, qualities cannot be further qualified by other qualities, since they cannot be their substrate (this leads to some complications, but I will not focus on the specific Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika answers now).
This scheme can not work if one wants to imagine the world as being constituted by just one reality (the brahman/God) with all the rest being an attribute of Him. In fact, this idea implies that there is one substance (God), which is qualified by further things which, however, cannot be called qualities, such as human beings and other material entities. Veṅkaṭanātha is not afraid of stating explicitly that his school does not use the term guṇa in a technical (pāribhāṣika) sense, like Nyāya did (Nyāyasiddhāñjana 4.4) and that for Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta everything can be considered a quality of something else when it specifies it.* This, however, does not amount to say that qualities and substances are only subjective constructs. The ontological grounding is provided by God’s existence as the world’s foundation. The fact that all human beings are qualifications (viśeṣaṇa) of Him is not a subjective construct, since it is rather a state of affairs which exists independently of all subjective minds apart from God’s one.
This brings us to the next step, namely, the importance of God’s existence to ground the world. Given that Viśiṣṭādvaita authors have given up the subject-independent ontology of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, they need another way to ground the objective existence of the world and this cannot be achieved but through God. He is ultimately existent and therefore we can opt for Being and avoid plunging into nihilism. But what tells us that the world as we see it is also subject-independent? The fact that it is conceived by God. It is a content within God’s knowledge. Thus, the main thing to be analysed for Viśiṣṭādvaita becomes the status of God’s knowledge. Knowledge is said, in Nyāyasiddhāñjana 4 and before that in Rāmānuja’s Śrībhāṣya ad 2.2.27, to be a substance. This seems a daring statement in a context which was used to the idea that cognitions are rather qualities of the self. Rāmānuja does not want, in fact, to deny that cognitions are qualities of the self, he only wants to state that they are also substances. They are, therefore, not kevalaguṇas ‘sheer qualities’ but rather dravyātmakaguṇas ‘qualifications being substances’.
The terminology used so far presupposes an ontological approach in which things exist outside, i.e., independently of the subject. In the case of Rāmānuja’s thought, the picture is further complicated by the fact that God Himself is in some sense (see Ram Prasad’s Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gītā Commentaries 2013) beyond (para as in param brahman) being, so that Rāmānuja’s cannot be easily called an ontology, nor, in Ram-Prasad’s terminology, an ontotheology. In other words, Ram-Prasad argues that God is not just an entity, though excellent. If this were the case, Rāmānuja would also be guilty of ontologising the Being, like all European philosophy after Parmenides. Instead, Ram-Prasad shows several passages by Rāmānuja in which he seems or appears to assume that God is beyond being and that He is clearly not just one entity, not even the biggest one encompassing all others within Himself. The Rāmānuja depicted by Ram-Prasad does not explicitly solve the tension between his theological “beyondism” (God is beyond being), with his accent on faith and devotion as ways to access Him, and his seemingly ontological statements about the plurality of selves and of material entities, so that one does not find an explicit solution reconciling both approaches. Hence, like all Europeans after Parmenides who have not fully understood Heidegger, one is left asking further ontological questions, such as whether God ultimately exists or not and whether the world exists within Him, as Him (panentheism), in dependence of Him… As a partial answer, one might note that the relation between God and the other material or conscious beings remains asymmetrical, insofar as they depend on God for their existence, whereas God could be related to other beings than the ones present in this world and might decide so through His free will. Thus, God is “in a different league”. He can decide to be involved in one or the other world and in fact does get involved in our world, which only exists because He wishes it to. And He does get involved by ruling from within ourselves and all other conscious and unconscious beings.
*As a homage to Veṅkaṭanātha I will also not try to render the Viśiṣṭādvaita guṇas with a term different than the one I use for the Nyāya guṇas. Viśiṣṭādvaita authors are not talking about other types of qualifications, they rather claim that what Nyāya authors call qualities are indeed not necessarily a different class from substances.
**I am grateful to Ch. Ram-Prasad for discussing with me the topic of ontotheology in Rāmānuja.