The concept of Brahman is said to be one of the foundational features of the Hindu philosophical understanding of existence (Chaudhuri 47). The root of the word Brahman is the Sanskrit brh, which translates as “to grow, increase, expand, swell” (Bernard 123). The word “Brahman” itself translates into “the Great, the Supreme” (Chaudhuri 47). The essence of Brahman is said to be in everything, despite the apparent disparity between the perfection of Brahman and the deficiencies and variances of the material (Bernard 125). In Advaita Vedanta, though Brahman pervades all of material existence, it is not correct to describe Brahman as manifest reality, because manifest reality does not in turn pervade Brahman (Chaudhuri 53). Brahman is not only the source of everything in the universe (Prabhupada 204), but also upholds the creation (Singh 261). In the Upanisads, Brahman is described as “truth and knowledge besides infinity” (Singh 63). Though Brahman is considered to be responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of existence, it is not considered a god or goddess to be worshipped, but instead is a concept to be meditated upon in an individual’s quest for understanding the nature of reality (Bernard 163-164).
Though transcendental matters are generally beyond the scope of human understanding(Bernard 118), Brahman can be understood as a logical necessity (Chaudhuri 60). The Vedanta indicates that Brahman, as a logical necessity, is the underlying principle which is attained from a careful examination of knowledge brought about by experience (Chadhauri 60). The Chandogya Upanisad claims that nothing that exists can have been brought about by something non-existent, and, by extension, the denial of Brahman is the denial of the self, an obvious contradiction (Singh 260).
While Brahman is an indivisible whole (Chaudhuri 61), it has two conditions. These conditions are Sat and Asat, which translate into “being” and “non-being” respectively (Bernard 124). To describe Brahman as Asat is to refer to the state of the universe during the period of Pralaya, which refers to the period between manifestations of the cosmos (Bernard 124). When referring to Brahman as Sat, one refers to Brahman as the most fundamental aspect of existence, upon which existence is contingent (Bernard 124). While Brahman defies attributive definitions, if one were to attempt to describe it rationally, one would be inclined to define it as pure being/consciousness/joy, or sat-cit-ananda (Chaudhuri 48). Brahman is pure being in the sense that it is beyond life and death (Chaudhuri 48). As pure consciousness, Brahman is all-knowing, though not in the Western sense of knowing all facts, but rather, Brahman is the source of consciousness and knowledge, or that which makes consciousness possible (Chaudhuri 49). When referred to as pure joy, Brahman is not the bringer of joy, but rather is exempt from subjugation to both pain and pleasure (Chaudhuri 49). However, one would be remiss to think of these terms, Sat and Asat, as defining Brahman. Indeed, “to call it a ‘being’ is to call it a definite ‘being,’ which it is not, and to call it ‘non-being’ is to deny it, which is not true” (Seksena 19-20). Yajnavalkya indicates in the Brhadaranyakopanisad that Brahman can only be described negatively, as “neti, neti – not this, not this” (Isayeva 116).
Brahman is the embodiment of all fundamental polarities, but these polarities are inseparable aspects of the same Ultimate Reality. For instance, Brahman is said to constitute both the masculine and feminine archetypes (Chaudhuri 50). Brahman is thought to exist in two inextricable forms or modes (Chaudhuri 47), which again represent a polarity. One of these modes is devoid of qualities and is hence known as Nirguna. The other, with qualities, is known as Saguna (Bernard 125). Nirguna Brahman is “the great Silence” which defies logic and attributive description (Chaudhuri 48). In some descriptions, Nirguna Brahman is the greater of the two because it is eternally singular and of the same character (Isayeva 114). Saguna Brahman is the agent that “performs” the creation, maintenance and destruction of existence. Indeed, Saguna Brahman can be described as the great universal artist, who creates not for any purpose other than lila; “the self-expansive urge of delight, the outflow of creative joy, the spirit of playful self-expression” (Chaudhuri 49-50). While it is counterintuitive to regard these polarities as part of the same indivisible whole, it is essential to keep in mind that Brahman is infinite and can therefore exist in several forms at the same time (Chaudhuri 51).
The earliest Hindu inquiries into the nature of the universe were outgoing, that is to say, concerned with the material world and not directly with consciousness (Seksena 13-14). In this regard, the Rgvedic period is characterized by the realization that all plants, animals and materials are part of a singular all-encompassing cosmic whole (Seksena 13-14). The Rgveda itself contains little metaphysical inquiry apart from the establishment of the notion of an inherent and universal reality which is the fundamental principle of the cosmos. This concept would act as a seed for later Upanisadic inquiries. Indeed, the Rgvedic hymn of creation indicates only that the universe manifests itself out of a compulsion towards possibility (Seksena 17-18). A second stage of Hindu inquiry followed, in which the concept of Rta, or a cosmic “principle of law,” was established. This period made no special distinction between the essence of man and that of the other animals, though there were indications that the role of man with regards to Rta was knowledge (Seksena 15-16).
The Upanisads are credited with making a vital contribution to Hindu philosophy, characterized by two declarations. First, that the Ultimate Reality is a timeless consciousness made of undiluted intelligence and bliss and, second, that said ultimate reality is the same as the self, or Atman (Seksena 21-22). The Vedantasutra was composed between 500 BCE and 200 CE and is credited to Badarayana, though there is some speculation that this is a pseudonym for Vyasa (Bernard 116). The Vedanta views the world, which it deems to have been masterfully created, to have necessarily been constructed by an intelligent agent who directs the the intricate forces that govern the cosmos. This intelligent agent is Brahman, the fundamental principle of reality which can never be exceeded by the mind (Bernard 120). Brahman is differentiated from Purusa of Sankhya in the sense that Purusa lacks both power and influence, and could therefore not be the primal cause of the universe. Nor could it be Sankhya’s Prakrti, “for then it would be an effect; and and effect cannot affect itself” (Bernard 120-121). Both Purusa and Prakrti are understood in Vedanta to be alternate forms of a single reality (Tiwari 66). Vedanta is differentiated from Vaisesika on the grounds that the latter claims Adrsta, “unseen, invisible, unknown,” is the initial cause of existence, while the Vedantist argues that the initial cause of the universe cannot reside in the soul, as Adrsta does, because the souls are said to be dormant during Pralaya (Bernard 122). In this regard, the notion of Brahman is the exceptional contribution to Hindu philosophy made by Vedanta (Bernard 123).
Liberation, or moksa, is the realization of Brahman, an instantaneous awareness of the fundamental oneness of the universe (Chaudhuri 55). Indeed, the realization that Brahman and Atman are identical (Tiwari 206) offers the only path to liberation from samsara (Isayeva 114-115). Atman is not to be confused with the ego but is rather a localized aspect of Brahman, while at the same time Atman is wholly Brahman (Chaudhuri 51-52). Atman could be described as “the universal principle of subjective existence” while Brahman could be described as “the universal principle of objective existence” (Chaudhuri 52). Knowledge of Brahman can never be attained through any form of inquiry or examination, but instead can only be achieved directly through intuition (Bernard 118). However, while knowledge of Atman can never be taught directly, one can be set upon the correct path to this realization by carefully studying sruti in order to avoiding straying too far from the mental condition that is necessary for liberation (Isayeva 120). The reason Atman cannot be grasped is that consciousness can never be made its own object in exactly the same way as an physical object cannot collide with itself (Isayeva 126-127).
Atman, or the Self, is identical to the cosmic and universal (Seksena 24-25). It is helpful to think of individuals as unique microcosms of a single undivided reality (Chaudhuri 53). Some heterodox Hindu philosophical schools, including the materialist Lokayata, considered the physical body to be identical with Atman, while the orthodox schools, such as Advaita, refer to the body as nothing more than a temporary veil imposed on the unchanging Atman (Isayeva 107-108). According to Sankara, Atman is the pure consciousness that resides at the root of all souls, which is identical to Brahman (Isayeva 114).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bernard, Theos (1947) Hindu Philosophy. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.
Chaudhuri, Haridas (1954) “The Concept of Brahman in Hindu Philosophy” Philosophy East and West. Vol.4, No.1 (April), 47-66.
Isayeva, Natalia (1993) Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1972) Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
Seksena, S.K. (1971) Nature of Consciousness in Hindu Philosophy. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.
Singh, Satya Prakash (2004) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. ed. D.P. Chattopadhyaya, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publisher Pvt. Ltd..
Tiwari, Satya Prakash (2009) An Insight in Hindu Philosophy – Life and Beyond. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications (P) Ltd..
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[Article written by Jason Schultchen (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.]