In Hinduism, Brahman refers to the supreme cosmic power, ontological ground of being, and the source, goal and purpose of all spiritual knowledge. Non-Hindus often translate Brahman as "God," but this is inaccurate. According to Hinduism, Brahman is said to be ineffable and higher than any description of God in personal form. Many philosophers agree that Brahman is ultimately indescribable in the context of unenlightened human experience. Nevertheless, Brahman is typically described as absolute truth, consciousness, and bliss (Sat Cit Ananda) as well as eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
Not only is Brahman seen as the basis of all that exists in the universe and the fabric of all being, but also mysteriously described as permeating all of non-being as well. Even the human soul in Hinduism, or atman, is widely believed to be connected to, or identical with, Brahman by many followers of Vedanta. While this notion is first touched upon in the Vedas, it was subsequently developed in detail within the Upanishads, the culmination of the Vedic texts.
Etymology and Early Formulations of Brahman
Originally the term Brahman was presented as a neuter noun in the Rg Veda, referring to the activity of prayer, with tonal accent on the first syllable. The term is derived from the Sanskrit root brh, referring to the process of growth or increasing. The concept of Brahman, then, seems to touch upon the expansion of breath in the chest which was seen as analogous to the spiritual extension of the individual performing the prayer from human to cosmic proportions. This sense of the term touches upon the sheer power of prayer experienced by the person who prays during recitation of the sacred words. Brahman was seen as the linchpin of sacrifice, bringing together humanity, deity, and the physical world. Material offerings and the prayers accompanying them were seen as connecting human beings to the religious ideal, with the spoken words resonating the correspondence created between divinity and sacrificer during ritual actions. Thus, the Brahman's power was the human realization through speech of the power of the gods themselves, a power which allowed them to become identical with the greater cosmic order. Speech was even deified in the form of the goddess Vac, who was regularly acknowledged as supreme ruler of the universe in the Vedic process of henotheism worship.
An alternate use of Brahman in the Vedas—a masculine noun with tonal accent on the second syllable—referred to the person who knows and speaks the aforementioned utterances. This individual came to be the observer who corrected difficulties in the execution of a sacrifice, one of the four main priests overseeing a ritual in systematized Vedic texts. The bridge constructed by those carrying out rituals experienced between the gods and brahman (the person performing the prayer) by way of the Brahman (the prayer itself) is most likely a precursor to the identifications of Brahman with atman which became so popular in the Upanishads, as well as the later monistic schools such as Advaita Vedanta.
Alternative etymologies argue that the term is derived from the Sanskrit root brah, which referred to speaking in riddles. Scholars suggest that such a root captures the enigmatic or paradoxical nature of the concept, in that Brahman is the cosmic riddle which cannot be solved by way of a direct answer, but rather by an answer that must remain unspoken. However, this theory and others concerning this root brah are faced with difficulties created by the multifarious connotations in which the term seems to be used in the Vedic texts.
Even with these original meanings of Brahman in mind, the Vedic texts contain ideas that foreshadowed later formulations of the term Brahman as the monistic ground of the universe. While the early Vedic texts are largely centered around henotheism and ritualism, phrases such as Ekam Sat, Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti (Truth is One, though the sages know it as many) (Rig Veda 1:164:46) suggest that Vedic sages had some awareness of a deeper unified reality underlying the multiplicity of physical forms and godly personalities they wrote about. As a whole, the Vedas provide numerous suggestions as to what this monistic essence actually is, with concepts such as hiranya-garbha (the golden germ), and deities such as Prajpati (the "Lord of Creatures"), Visvakarman ("maker of all things"), and Purusha (cosmic man who creates the universe with his dismembered parts), among others, prefiguring the cosmological ruminations of the Upanishads. Gradually, the notion of many gods was for later Vedic seers supplanted by the idea of a universal unifying principle, and speculation as to what exactly it entailed.
The term Brahman was greatly expanded in the Upanishads becoming the primary referent for universal oneness in the Hindu tradition. In the Upanishads, many of the external rituals of the early Vedas were turned inward, replacing physical sacrifices with metaphorical symbolism and the "internal heat" (tapas) of meditation. As such, it is not surprising that the definition of Brahman became more abstract. In the Upanishads, Brahman began to bear cosmological significance that it did not have in the Vedas, as it came to designate the impersonal causal principle which pervaded the universe. It is also here that Brahman is first considered to be the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever will be, including the human soul, or atman. Even the individual personal gods who played such an important role in early Vedic Hinduism were considered to be manifestations of Brahman. Despite such elaborate descriptions, Brahman is characterized as ultimately ineffable in the Upanishads. Due to Brahman's mysterious nature, it is best described by what it is not. This is evidenced in the following quote from sage Yajnavalkya:
It is not coarse, not fine, not short, not long, not glowing, not adhesive, without shadow and without darkness, without air and without space, without stickiness, (intangible, odorless, tasteless, without eye, without ear, without voice, without wind, without energy, without breath, without mouth (without personal or family name, unaging, undying, without fear, immortal, stainless, not uncovered, not covered), without measure, without inside and without outside. (Aranyaka III: 8:6)
The various Upanishadic texts provide numerous suggestions to probe the nature of this monistic essence and to describe more precisely what it is. The Taittiriya Upanishad, for instance, claims that the basic element is food. Verse 3.1 explains that "contingent beings are born of food, once born they live on food, dying they enter food." Hence, food, encompassing all matter, living and dead, is described as the constant foundation of the universe, which proceeds in an endless cycle of consumption. Moreover, like Brahman, breath is dependent upon it. In the Kaushitika Upanishad, Brahman is said to be breath itself, no doubt echoing the earlier understanding of the term from the Rg Veda. Verse 2.1 reports that Prana (breath) is Brahman...the mind (manas) is the messenger, speech the housekeeper, the eye the guard, the ear the informant." This verse suggests that breath is served by all of their sensory faculties, a microcosmic analogy for the process by which the supreme universal principle is maintained in the physical realm by its various constituent parts.
The Upanishads further attest to the monistic essence of Brahman by famously claiming that it is identical to the human soul, or atman. It is clear in some of the earliest Upanishads that this identification of soul with cosmic principle develops out of magical identifications of specific elements of the Vedic sacrifice with various objects in the physical universe. Perhaps no phrase in the Upanishads better captures this new monistic connotation of Brahman better than Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7. During a dialog between Uddālaka and his son Śvetaketu, the father states tat tvam asi, which translates to "that thou art." The concept of this neuter "that" is believed to refer to the oneness in the universe that subsumes all objects and persons, and has been interpreted to mean that the human soul or consciousness is wholly equivalent to the Ultimate Reality. Although this divinity is constantly a part of human experience, few humans truly realize this idea in their moral and contemplative activities; hence the simple yet profoundly significant equation is easier stated than experienced. However, realization of this ideal leads to blissful liberation, often referred to as a merger with the divine, as in Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.4: "he, my self within the heart is that Brahman. When I shall have departed from hence I shall attain him."
The concept of Brahman was further elucidated by the schools of Vedanta ("the end of the Veda"), each of which provided varied interpretations of the universal principle and its relation to atman. The first systematic investigation of Brahman however arose in the first or second centuries C.E. by the philosopher Badrayana. His Brahmasutra* provided a series of short, aphoristic statements that came to represent the starting point of the Vedānta philosophical inquiry. Badrayana synthesized many of the contradictory descriptions of Brahman found in the Upanishads and presented them as a more cohesive whole, helping to shape philosophical reflection in the centuries ahead. Verse I.1.2 succinctly summarized Brahman as that "from which the origin, sustenance and dissolution of this universe proceeds." Vedantics also came to generally associate the terms sat (being), cit (consciousness) and ananda (bliss) with the essence of Brahman.
Advaita (or "non-dualistic") Vedanata was the first of the great Vedanta schools. According to this school, atman is seen as indistinguishable from the supreme reality of Brahman. Developed by the South Indian philosopher Shankara (788-820 C.E.), as a response to Buddhism, Advaita declared that the entirety of the universe except for the highest, indescribable form of Brahman, is essentially an illusion. Thus, Brahman is the only thing that exists, making up the totality of reality. The ignorant perceiver views all particulars as independent realities rather than manifestations of Brahman. Even the traditional, personalized conception of god, or Isvara, is subordinate to Brahman, according to Shankara. Isvara is the manifestation of "saguna Brahman" (the aspect of Brahman which can be perceived), which exists in contrast to the ultimate "Nirguna Brahman" (the aspect which cannot be perceived). Nirguna Brahman is superior since it transcends all illusory spatial and temporal categories. Even Saguna Brahman reduces to Nirguna Brahman in the end, and is not separate from Brahman. Perceived differences between god and the individual soul are created by the error of superimposition, and only once dualism is negated do the notions of Ishvara and the soul dissolve, leaving the absolute Nirguna Brahman. Once this realization occurs, God and the individual merge into oneness with Brahman.
Visistadvaita (or "qualified non-dualistic") Vedanta was named for the limited elements of equivalence that the school's adherents acknowledge between atman and Brahman while making the claim that the personalized form of Brahman is ultimately transcendent. While the self is still connected to Brahman, it is only an incomplete part and not the same as the whole. Rather, it is characterized by its own independent reality and as such, remains subordinate to the supreme cosmic principle.
Visistadvaita was developed by the philosopher Ramanuja (1017-1137), who taught that both the soul (cit) and unconscious substance (acit) are real, though they are dependent on Brahman for their existence. He described them as parts of the "body of God," which "qualify" Brahman's non-duality. Therefore, God is the soul of all individual atmans as well as for the natural world. For Ramanuja, atman cannot be considered fully equivalent to God or Brahman, because it exists among a multiplicity of other souls and is dependent upon God, while maintaining a will of its own. Here Ramanuja deviates from Shankara's teachings, which he considered to be contradictory in their assertion that Brahman and the soul are non-dual. As well, Ramanuja did not cast aside the physical world as illusory in his formulation of Brahman, unlike Shankara. Instead, he claimed that the world of cit and acit (including time and matter) are absolutely inseparable, a condition known as aprathaksiddi.
Consequently, Ramanuja's prescription for reaching moksha was quite different from Shankara's call for an impersonal realization of non-duality. According to Ramanuja, moksha is achieved through bhakti (devotion to Isvara (God)), manifested in prapatti (loving self-surrender) to the Lord Vishnu. An individual was to cultivate an intense personal relationship with Vishnu by surrendering oneself to one's chosen deity. If such genuine loving surrender and devotion was achieved, then liberation would come from the grace of Vishnu, not from individual self-realization. Finally, moksha was described not as the state of merging into God (as in Shankara's description) but as experiencing Brahman-like qualities (such as bliss) while maintaining one's own individuality.
Unlike the other Vedanta schools, Dvaita ("dualism") Vedanta denies any identification between Brahman and atman. Rather, the essence of the universe, commonly spoken of by Dvaitas in personal form, is totally separate from the universe and souls within it. While Advaita Vedanta acknowledges that all human beings are essentially divine, Dvaita denies such an idea outwardly, instead construing Brahman as the wholly other, which must be revealed to humanity through a series of avatars rather than a process of spiritual introspection.
Dvaita was founded by Madhva (1238-1317), another philosopher and proponent of the bhakti movement. Like Ramanuja, Madhva took a strong stance against Shankara and also identified God with Vishnu. However, Madhva greatly opposed the monistic worldviews which had been upheld by other Vendanta schools. Instead, he claimed that reality was purely dualistic in that there is a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate Godhead, the individual soul, and physical matter. Madhva asserted an irreconcilable cleavage between creator and creation, believing that Brahman is separate from humanity and the physical world. As a consequence, Dvaita accepts the cosmological argument for the existence of Brahman, claiming that as creation, existing separate from god, provides a vision of his grandeur. Our world and the things within it, both sentient and insentient, are not illusory but independently real.
Madhva's Brahman is completely personalized, as he claims that the Brahman in the Vedas and the Upanishads is indeed Vishnu. Vishnu transcends all physical things, yet exists within them, as well. Moreover, Vishnu possesses fully perfected characteristics, quite unlike the indescribable Nirguna Brahman. Despite the numerous references in formative Hindu religious texts which describe Brahman as being without traits, Madhva claims that such descriptions are merely a reflection of the human inability to fully comprehend Vishnu's magnificence.
Dvaita Vedanta holds that all souls are independent, both from each other and from Vishnu, though God is responsible for each soul's existence and continuity. While Shakara took certain passages to suggest oneness between Brahman and Atman, Madhva reinterprets them to suggest a mere similarity. Like Ramanuja, Madhva also prescribed bhakti as the means by which to attain salvation. According to Madhva, realization of god is only attainable by experiencing his grace, grace which can only be attained through devotion without question. Dvaitas are particularly critical of the idea in Advaita that souls attaining liberation do not maintain individual identities when coming into union with Vishnu. Even once an individual attains salvation and the knowledge of Vishnu, their separation from him remains, as does the physical world and the distinction between all souls within it remains.
In the Dvaita tradition following Madhva, the idea of "Nirguna Brahman" has been greatly downplayed, as many feel that such a religious ideal is inaccessible to religion as it exists upon the everyday level. Philosophers such as B.N.K. Sharma have noted that such a nebulous conception of god prevents the attribution of anthropomorphic characteristics to Brahman, a difficulty which has been avoided by followers of the Dvaita philosophy. For Dvaitas, Brahman is not devoid of qualities, but rather replete with a dynamic character. These anthropomorphic characteristics are not perceived by Dvaitas to deplete Brahman's ultimate identity as supreme cosmic principle in any way.
Theistic schools of Hinduism which developed out of the bhakti tradition, such as Vaishnavism and Saivism, hold a personalistic view of Brahman comparable to that of Ramanuja. However, these schools often maintain a semi-monistic perspective that sees their chosen personal god as not only the supreme deity, but also the pantheistic essence of the universe. Thus, the personal god comes to adopt the cosmological significance of Brahman. Sri Caitanya, for instance, founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, taught that Krishna is the sole supreme entity in the universe, and all other conceptions of God are manifestations of Him.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the esteemed Hindu statesman and philosopher, is one modern Hindu thinker who has elaborated upon the concept of Brahman. Radhakrishnan explicates the relation between Brahman and the self with insights from modern scientific discoveries and comparative religion. He suggests that the progressive realization of the divine within each individual will allow humanity itself to be transformed towards a higher stage of spiritual evolution.
The concept of Brahman continues to play a role in Neo-Vedanta philosophy and that of smartism. Followers of these approaches may worship numerous gods, each of which considered to be an aspect of Brahman, so that they may in the process draw themselves closer to the larger, inconceivable Brahman. Although they worship numerous gods in practice, smartists cannot be accurately labeled as polytheists as their overt practices may suggest, since they ultimately acknowledge Nirguna Brahman as the one true divinity.
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