Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XXV

Gods and Goddesses - II Brahman

Continued from Part XXIV

The theology of the attributes and nature of the God has been a subject of human curiosity and debate in all civilizations since the earliest days. In almost all cultures and religions, in a monotheistic sense, the God is visualized as the supreme power, creator of universe and principal object of faith with the common attributes of omnipresence (all-present), omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipotence (all-powerful). Even the more recent yet the most dominant Abrahamic religions in the world, the Christianity and Islam are not exceptions as the God in Christianity is both transcendent and immanent as an eternal being who creates and preserves all things while the God in Islam too is indivisible, absolute, all-powerful and all-knowing ruler of the universe. The third largest religion in the context of following, the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), credited as the oldest surviving religion, too essentially holds Brahman as the Supreme God or the God of gods with similar nature and attributes.

In common parlance, the Abrahamic religions are treated monotheistic while the Hinduism as polytheistic due to the belief and worship of more than one deity. In spite of the fact that the majority Hindus worship different deities or even multiple deities simultaneously as per their sectorial tradition but every rational and well-informed Hindu agrees that these deities or gods are nothing but various manifestations of the same Supreme God Who is referred to as Brahman in the scriptures and remembered as Isvara, Bhagwan, Paramatma, Parmeshvara or Satchitananda in Hinduism. Brahman is also variously described as the Supreme Soul, the Supreme Self, the Supreme Consciousness, or the Universal Consciousness or the God of gods.

In Upanishads, Brahman is mentioned as indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute, infinite existence, and the ultimate entity Who is without a beginning and end, Who is hidden in all and Who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. He is both creator and created, known and unknown, with form and formless, and hidden in all. Brahman could only be realized through self-realization only and those who attain Him are said to have attained Moksha (salvation).

Brahman in Vedas and Upanishads

The Vedas are considered to be the oldest and original scriptures as also a source of inspiration and infallible knowledge in the Hinduism, which have been variously derived, interpreted and assimilated by its subsequent denominations, sects and traditions. According to many scholars who worked on Vedic scriptures and texts, Brahman is the Ultimate Reality, without a beginning and end, and the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. The term Brahman finds a mention in hymns at numerous places in the Vedas, particularly Rig Veda and Atharva Veda. The Brahman also finds references in the embedded texts of the Vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas and Aranyakas.

During the Vedic period, 33 Devas were conceptualized as mundane manifestations of the Brahman. The concept of Brahman finds a mention in numerous hymns of the Vedas. For illustration, the Rig Veda hymns 2.2.10, 6.21.8 and 10.72.2 and the Atharva Veda hymns 6.122.5, 10.1.12 and 14.1.131 specifically talk about Brahman. Then the concept is also found in different layers of the Vedic literature such as Aitareya Brahmana 1.18.3, Kausitaki Brahmana 6.12, Satapatha Brahmana, Taittiriya Brahmana, Jaiminiya Brahmana 1.129, Taittiriya Aranyaka 4.4.1 through 5.4.1, Maitrayani Samhita 3.12.1:16.2 through 4.9.2:122.15. Besides, the concept is extensively discussed in at many places in the principal Upanishads and Vedangas (the limbs of Vedas) such as the Paraskara Gryha sutra and Srauta sutra.

However, different texts do not present a single unified concept or theme; instead they portray a variety of themes and multiple possible interpretations. Consequently, in the post-Vedic era different schools of Hindu philosophy have analyzed and interpreted Brahman with different premises and conclusions. Then some Western scholars and Indologists hold that the Vedas conceptualized Brahman as the “the essence of the universe”, the “deeper foundation of all phenomenon” and the “essence of the Self (Atman or soul). The early Upanishads also refer to the Brahmavidya that is the knowledge of Brahman. According to Dr Radhakrishnan, the Indian philosopher, statesman and Ex-President of India, the Upanishads teach Brahman as the ultimate essence of material phenomena that cannot be seen or heard, but whose nature can be known through the development of self-knowledge (atma-jnana).

In the Taittariya Upanishad, Brahman has been described as the "satyam jnanam anantam brahma" (Brahman is of the nature of truth, knowledge and infinity). Brahman is a real, eternal, absolutely independent, non-contingent, and the source and ground of all things. He is both immanently present in the realm of materiality, interpenetrating the whole of reality as the sustaining essence that gives it structure, meaning and existential being; yet Brahman is simultaneously transcendent. Here are a few more citations from the Upanishads which illustrate the nature and importance of Brahman. Many scholars have given detailed commentaries on interpretation of these and many other such citations on Brahman:

Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman)
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10

Ekam evadvitiyam {That (Brahman) is one, without a second}
Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1

Prajnanam Brahma (Wisdom is Brahman)
Aitareya Upanishad 3.3.7

Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma (All this is Brahman or This whole universe is Brahman)
Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1

Among the oldest Upanishads, the Sandilya doctrine in the Chandogya Upanishad explains the metaphysical concept of Brahman in many ways. It insists that the Brahman is identical to Atman (soul), thus the Brahman is inside man. The Atman is stated to be the central theme in the majority of Upanishads, underlining that the core of a person's self is not the body or the mind but the "Atman" as the spiritual essence, eternal and ageless, of all living beings. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the hymn 4.4.5 equates Atman with Brahman, which reads as under:

“That self is indeed Brahman, as well as identified with the intellect, the Manas and the vital force, with the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air and the ether, with fire, and what is other than fire, with desire and the absence of desire, with anger and the absence of anger, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with everything identified, as is well known, with this (what is perceived) and with that (what is inferred). As it does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil it becomes virtuous through good acts and vicious through evil acts…”

Brahman in Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita explicitly acknowledges the Brahman (Supreme God) and individual soul(s) as eternal and real entities in several verses through various chapters. The concept of the incarnation of the individual souls, their delusion and bondage to the cycle of birth and death because of their gunas or qualities and desire-ridden actions are explained at length, including solution for their salvation. The questions and curiosities raised by the Prince Arjuna about the Brahman (Supreme God) have been well explained by Lord Krishna in the Chapter Eight.

Lord Krishna explains the nature of the Brahman in the verse 8.3 of Bhagavad Gita as under:

Sri-bhagavan uvaca:
Aksaram brahma paramam svabhavo’dhyatmam ucyate
Bhuta-bhavodbhava-karo visargah karma-samjnitah.

(Sri-Bhagavan said: The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called adhyatma, the Self. Action pertaining to the development of the material bodies of the living entities is called karma.)

About the nature and functionalities of the Brahman, Lord Krishna explained as under:

Kavim puranamanusasitara manoraniyamasamanusmareedyah
Sarvasya dhataramacintyarupa madityavarnam tamasah parastat. 8.9

(God is Omniscient, the most ancient and ageless being, the Ruler of all, subtler than the subtlest, the Support of all, and the possessor of an inconceivable divine form; He is brighter than the sun, and beyond all darkness of ignorance.)

Abrahmabhvanallokah punaravartino’rjuna
Mamupetya tu kaunteya punarjanma na vidyate.

(In all the worlds of this material creation, up to the highest abode of Brahma, you will be subject to rebirth, O Arjun. But on attaining My Abode, O son of Kunti, there is no further rebirth.)

This suggest that in this universe everything is transitory or temporary except attaining the grace of Brahman (Supreme God). At another place in the Chapter 13 verse 13, Brahman finds a reference as under:

Jneyam yat tat pravaksyami yaj jnatvamrtam asnute
Anadimat param brahma na sat tan nasad ucyate.

(I shall now reveal to you that which ought to be known, and by knowing which, one attains immortality. It is the beginningless Brahman, which lies beyond existence and non-existence.)

In fact the much debated Moksha or salvation in Hinduism is nothing but attaining the Brahman; the Bhagavad Gita verse 8.13 is relevant:

Om ity ekaksaram brahma vyaharan mam anusmaran
Yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim.

(One who departs from the body while remembering Me, the Supreme Personality, and chanting the syllable Om, will attain the supreme goal.)

Lord Krishna said that only by knowing and remembering Brahman one can achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death. It is through the liberation that an embodied Self returns to its original state of pure consciousness, which is immortal, blissful and imperishable because in that embodied state, the Self is the same as Brahman in their original nature. However, as entities the Supreme Self is absolutely expansive, pervasive and independent, while the Individual Self is dependent upon Him. This concept is similar to Advaita philosophy of the Vedanta School of Hindu Darshanas.

Lord Krishna who Himself was a manifestation of Brahman avoided being specific about the Ultimate Reality when he explained that Brahman was beyond ‘existence and non-existence’. How do we know then that what a devotee experiences in a transcendental and non-dualistic state is the Brahman Himself? Some scholars believe that Lord Krishna resorted to this narrative because He did not wish to draw boundaries around the Ultimate Reality that cannot be explained, defined or limited in definitive terms. At another place (verse 14.27), Lord Krisna personified Himself as the impersonal Brahman, which is immortal, imperishable and eternal and is the constitutional position of ultimate happiness.

Brahmano hi pratishthaham amritasyavyayasya cha
Shashvatasya cha dharmasya sukhasyaikantikasya cha.

(I am the basis of the formless Brahman, the immortal and imperishable, of eternal dharma, and of unending divine bliss.)

Brahman in Vedanta Darshana

Among the six major schools of orthodox Indian Hindu philosophy i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Mimansa, Yoga and Vedanta, the last one is the most popular and followed among the adherents of Hinduism. Vedanta literally means the "end of the Vedas", and largely endorses the analysis and interpretations of the core concepts and philosophies put forth in the Upanishads. Vedanta is again an admixture of multiple sub-traditions based on dualism and non-dualism derived from the triad of the principal Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Sri Bhagavad Gita.

All Vedanta sub-traditions talk about three principle entities or core elements i.e. Brahman – the Supreme Consciousness and ultimate metaphysical reality, the Atman or Jivatman (the individual soul or Self) and Prakriti that represents the empirical universe or existence in terms of physical world, body and matter. Brahman along with the individual Atman (soul) is the key metaphysical aspect of the Hindu philosophy and all Vedanta traditions while what we experience day-to-day is Prakriti, a third dimension and reality, which is ever changing and perishable, and also known as ‘Maya’ in Hindu philosophy.

The various sub-traditions of Vedanta are either based on dualism or non-dualism with key difference on the nature of Atman (soul) i.e. if it is distinct from Brahman or identical as Brahman. The dualistic Dvaita Vedanta holds Brahman and Atman as distinct entities, while the non-dualistic Advaita Vedanta uphelds the metaphysical premise that Brahman and Atman are same entity. Dualistic nature of Brahman and Atman gets support from the Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy while non-dualistic nature is endorsed by the Samakhya and Yoga schools.

According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is the root source, origin and end of everything, material and spiritual. Brahman remains the sole unchanging reality with no duality, no limited individual or unlimited cosmic soul, instead all souls across all space and time are one and the same. In other words, the universe and the soul inside each being is Brahman, and the universe and the soul outside each being is Brahman. The objective goal of Advaita is to learn that one's Self (Atman) gets obscured by Avidya (i.e. ignorance and false-identification). Once Avidya is removed, the Atman (soul or Self) is realized as identical with Brahman. Thus Brahman is not outside and separate but within each living being, and is Nirguna i.e. without attributes, ultimate and sole reality.

Advaita Vedanta considers Atman (soul) as self-existent awareness, limitless and non-dual. To put it in a simpler way, the Atman is Brahman, the Brahman is Atman; thus there is no distinction between Atman and Brahman. The knowledge of Atman (soul or Self) is synonymous to the knowledge of Brahman inside the person and outside the person. The realization of this cosmic truth leads to the sense of oneness with all existence, self-realization, eternal bliss and moksha (salvation). Among many distinguished scholars and acharyas, Adi Shankara (788-820 AD) is the most prominent and popular leader of the Advaita tradition.

On the other hand, Dvaita Vedanta is based on a dualistic interpretation of the Vedas by theorizing the existence of two separate real entities viz. the Brahman (Vishnu as Supreme Soul) and the individual soul (Atman or Jivatman), both as real and distinct realities. Here Brahman (Vishnu) is the supreme Self, somewhat similar to God of other monotheistic major religions, and the other subordinate and dependent reality is the visual universe comprised of individual souls and physical bodies.

In Dvaita Vedanta, the Moksha means the blissful and eternal union of the individual soul with the distinct and separate entity Brahman. Thus Brahman in Dvaita Vedanta of Hinduism is perceived as the highest perfection of existence, and an ultimate goal that every individual soul is expected to seek in its arduous journey of existence for achieving Moksha (salvation). Madhvacharya (1238-1317), a Hindu philosopher and scholar, was the chief proponent of the Dvaita School of Vedanta.

Nature and Attributes of Brahman

From the foregoing account, the most remarkable interpretation or concepts in Hinduism to nearly accurately explain the nature and representation or realization comes from the Vedas, Upanishads and Advaita School of the Indian philosophy. While Upanishads see Him as the highest, eternal, self-existent, indestructible, indefinable, indivisible, infinite, all pervading, omniscient, omnipotent, supreme, pure entity who is present everywhere with endless manifestations, infinite dimensions and powers. As per Advaita philosophy, Brahman is the only real existence and everything else is mere Maya or illusion. The scriptures have defined Him as Vibhutis (manifestations) and Amsas (aspects) as follows:

(Indeterminate): Brahman is known to be Asat (indeterminate or unknown) because he is without a beginning or an end; hence nothing can be said with certainty about him. The Upanishads say that people may think they know or understand everything about Him but the truth is they hardly know about Him. Similarly He is said to be both existent and nonexistent; while the atheists argue about his nonexistence and deny him, the agnostics believe that nothing is known or can be known of the existence of Him but the theists have a strong belief about his existence. Arguably one will not know a thing which is non-existent, thus both the atheists and agnostics acknowledge Him with a negative connotation. Bhagavad Gita described Brahman’s expanse in such form that entire universe with all its creation and manifestations is embedded in Him.

(Determinate): The scriptures describe Him both Sat and Asat at the same time; Asat for the reasons mentioned above and Sat because the nature represents His awakened and dynamic aspect. Such a contrast is a true reflection of Brahman who on one hand is beyond determination, on the other hand He is one who is complete in all aspects and who exists everywhere complete in all respects as eternal truth, knowledge and bliss.

Thus both Sat and Asat forms of Brahman together represents a sort of duality where He is both known and unknown, Murtham (with form) and Amurtham (without form), Saguna (with qualities) and Nirguna (without qualities), with material aspect and without material aspect, and both movable and immovable. He is creator in active form witness of all in a passive form. These contrasting characteristics represent His association and disassociation as Purusha with Prakriti (nature) and interplay of Gunas.

(Universal God): In Hinduism, Isvara also known as Bhagawan, Parmeswara or Paramatma is the lord of the universe as the highest and personalized manifestation of Brahman. Isvara is the source of five basic potentialities namely creation, preservation, destruction, concealment and revelation. Isvara is explained in the Upanishads as Sakshi Chiranyam (the witness consciousness) who controls Maya (illusion) and cause behind the desire ridden dynamism of the material world.

(Cosmic Self): It literally means the 'golden womb' or 'golden egg' symbolizing the source of the creation of universe or the manifested cosmos in the Vedic philosophy, also adopted in Bhagavada Purana to describe Lord Vishnu as creator. The Rig Veda 10.121 known as the Hiranyagarbha Sukta; one hymn mentions a single creator deity as the God of gods (without making specific reference to Brahman); later the Upanishads have identified it as Brahman or the Soul of Universe that Hiranyagarbha floated around in emptiness and the darkness of the non-existence for about a year, and then broke into two halves which formed the Svarga and the Prithvi.

“In the beginning evolved the Golden embryo, Born of what has been, the Lord existed alone. He has upheld the earth and the sky here..... To the radiant "who", do we offer worship with oblations.”

Hiranyagarbha represents the creative potency and soul consciousness of Brahman who in the Hiranyagarbha Sukta is identified as Brahma, the creator god. In a larger philosophical concept evolved over a period, Hiranyagarbha as first born is an aspect of Brahman that presides over the realities of nature (Prakriti) in universe

(Cosmic Body): In various scriptures, the Viraj has differently been explained which literally refers to sovereignty or splendour. In essence, the Viraj is the primeval being associated with creation, often personified as the secondary creator, and thus an aspect of Brahman. To put it another way, the Viraj is the sum of the all manifestations emerging out of Hiranyagarbha that represents the ego or body sense of it. The Upanishads have deduced that the Hiranyagarbha mixes the five great elements, namely space, air, fire, water and earth to manifest Viraj, the universal body, these elements first appearing in the subtle form and later in their gross form in different proportions to have diversity. Thus the Viraj represents the materialized aspect of Btahman with Hiranyagarbha as Cosmic Soul.

(Cosmic Being): Purusha is a complex concept evolved during the Vedic age and variously interpreted and defined in scriptures and texts. Purusha is an essential aspect of Brahman with common synonyms the Cosmic Being, Cosmic man or Self, Universal Consciousness and Universal principle that is eternal, indestructible, without form and is all pervasive. In Upanishads, the Purusha is explained with the Prakrti with the former as the unchanging, uncaused and non-material yet present everywhere while the latter is the material reality that constantly changes, transforms and transcends all the time. Purusha in effect is personified Brahman whose three aspects namely Isvara, Hiranyagarbha and Viraj are together responsible for all creation in the universe.

The Kala verbatim means time which is again a fundamental unit of the duality in terms of the time and timelessness of the existence. Brahman has both aspects of Kala and this duality exists with even individual soul. When a being is awake, the one has the sense of time but when in deep sleep, he (or she) loses the sense of time. The death is explained as the god of the mortal world, Yama in Vedas and other scriptures. The Kala is another name of the death too which represents a transformative of renewal and rebirth. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna as Saguna Brahman shows His Universal Form to Prince Arjuna as Kala too.

In post Vedic period, the most notable expression of Brahman emerged as the theological conception of the Trimurti, i.e., the Saguna manifestation of the Supreme God in three forms of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The Trimurti (the trinity) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Hinduism represents the triad of deities with the cosmic functions of creation, preservation and destruction, respectively. According to the scriptures, these gods in their highest aspect are the manifestations of Brahman Himself performing essential cosmic functions.

It is a Sanskrit term that describes the nature of the Supreme Reality as conceptualized in Hindu philosophy. It comprises of three words with the literal meaning as follows:

Sat - truth, absolute being or existence that is enduring and unchanging
Chit - consciousness, understanding and comprehension
Ananda - bliss (a state of pure happiness, joy and sensual pleasure)

Thus it means "Being Blissful Consciousness" which represents the sublimely blissful experience of the boundless and pure consciousness – another way of describing the subjective experience of Brahman. In the Vedanta philosophy, sat-chit-ananda is used as a synonym for the three qualities of Brahman.

Om: Brahman is also represented with the sound of Om or Aum, the pranava nada. It is the most sacred sound which precedes almost all Vedic hymns. Hence Om is often regarded as the sound-form and word-form of Brahman.

The scriptures, particularly Upanishads, describe Brahman in various ways. They symbolize soul, space (aakash) and even food with Brahman. He is ultimate recipient of all offerings as all deities are only His manifested forms. He is the highest achievable goal (Moksha) of human life through Karmayoga, Jnanyoga and Bhaktiyoga. Only He is the transcendental and eternal entity That transforms into the immanent and ingrained realities in the universe.


So many philosophers, scholars and religious gurus have attempted to interpret and describe worldwide the nature and attributes of God, named or addressed differently in different religions. It is also true that irrespective of their description, something is always found amiss in such details that leaves the scope of skepticism in the mind of the inquisitive person. It is also beyond comprehension why such an almighty God would inspire his followers to engage in coercion or evangelism to force or incite people of other faiths to follow a particular creed or religious conviction as being carried out in a mission mode by some religions in the world.

In that context, the definition and description of Brahman as propounded in the Vedas and Upanishads appears nearly perfect and accurate. For instance, when the scriptures explain Brahman as both Sat and Asat i.e. known and unknown, with form and without form, with qualities and without qualities, with material aspect and without material aspect, and both movable and immovable, it not only take care of the underlying ambiguities about God but also of the human reach and limitations. In essence, He is there but his expanse is such that no ordinary human being could exactly reach, perceive or understand him.

There is rather a simple way of understanding God (Brahman) and His potentialities. In this universe, there are numerous positive and negative emotions or energies (forms of Shakti) such as love, hatred, anger, fear, joy, disgust, surprise and so on, which are very powerful but without a physical form and invariably need an object for expression. On the same analogy, God is the highest and purest form of Shakti (energy) all-pervasive, all-wise, all-knowing and all-competent that needs special vision and medium to realize; even the aspects of the Nirguna and Saguna Brahman could easily be understood and explained on the similar analogy. The concept of Advaita philosophy explains it reasonably well. This is Brahman as Atman or soul within us and Brahman as the Supreme Soul around us and everywhere. Thus Brahman (Purusha) pervades the entire universe, and in combination and interplay with nature (Prakriti), He creates, perpetuates and extirpates the world.

Continued to Part XXVI 


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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