It will perhaps not be an overstatement to say that the texts in the Upanishads (especially in the earlier ones) revolve around the concept of Brahman. It has been variously described as Sat-citAnanda (truth-consciousness-bliss), the sub-stratum of all that exists, permanent all-encompassing reality, one without a second etc. The concept of Brahman is usually discussed together with the concept of Atman (Soul, Self). , the Upanishads do not present a solid monolithic theory about the two concepts. Therefore, the Upanishadic pointers about the nature of Brahman and Atman (and the relationship between the two) have been interpreted differently by different schools of philosophy that came about later.
THE NATURE OF BRAHMAN AND ATMAN
The Upanishads are thought to be primarily about Brahmavidya (knowledge of Brahman) and Atmavidya (knowledge of Atman or Self). The Upanishads contain several Maha Vakyas (or great sayings) about the nature of Brahman:
aham brahmāsmi (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 ) – ‘I am Brahman’
ayam ātmā brahma (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5 ) – ‘The Self is Brahman’
sarvam khalvidam brahma (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1 ) – ‘All this is Brahman’
ekam evadvitiyam (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1 ) – ‘That is one, without a second’
tat tvam asi (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 ) – ‘Thou art that’
prajnānam brahma (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3.7) – ‘Knowledge is Brahman’
The concepts of Brahman and Atman ultimately seek to answer the questions that are of central concern to the Upanishads – What is Real? What is not Real? In this regard, Brahman is expounded as the ultimately reality, the basis for all, that which does not change but from which all changes emanate. Together with the concept of Brahman, is the concept of Atman (soul or self). Post-Vedic schools of Hinduism that based their philosophy on the texts in the Upanishads tend to differ on whether Brahman is same as the Atman or if the two are different. Those that asserted that Brahman was the same as Atman tended to be either monist (e.g. Advaita Vedanta) or pantheistic. Their philosophy was considered as non-dual (no two). The duality schools (such as Dvaita Vedanta and Nyaya) however posited that Brahman and Atman were different. These schools tended to be theistic.
When we discuss the nature of Brahman and Atman, it will not be out of context to bring up the third concept that is central to Hindu metaphysics – the concept of Maya (the perceived reality). While Brahman or/and Atman is considered to be unchanging consciousness, Maya is said to be unconscious and that which does not reflect the true reality of existence. Maya is not illusion (as the word ‘illusion’ is generally understood) but something that is born, changes and dies. It is ‘illusory’ only to the extent that it ‘throws us off the scent’ and conceals our true identity (which is Brahman or/and Atman). Brahman-Atman (as opposed to Maya) is considered eternal, unaffected and the absolute reality.
IMPORTANT PASSAGES FROM UPANISHADS ABOUT THE NATURE OF BRAHMAN
The absolute, all-pervading, unknowable nature of Brahman:
“What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.”
(Kena Upanishad I.3-4)
“What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore”
(Kena Upanishad I.6)
[This passage seems to be pointing to the neti-neti (not this – not this) concept. It is reminding us that perceiving Brahman is beyond the understanding of human faculties]
“That from which all speech with the mind turns away, not having reached it, knowing the bliss of that Brahman, man fears nothing.”
(Taittirya Upanishad II.9)
“He is never seen, but is the Seer; He is never heard, but is the Hearer; He is never thought of, but is the Thinker; He is never known, but is the knower. There is no other seer than He, there is no other
hearer than He, there is no other thinker than He, there is no other knower than He. He is the Inner Controller – your own Self and immortal. All else but He is perishable.”
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad III.7.23)
“This Self has entered into these bodies up to the very tips of the nails, as a razor lies hidden in its case, or as fire which sustains the world lies hidden in its source….”
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.IV.7)
“It has hands and feet everywhere, and eyes, heads and faces everywhere, and It is possessed of ears everywhere. It exists among all the creatures, pervading all. “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.16)
“He is without hands and feet (and yet) moves and grasps; He sees, (though) without eyes; He hears (though) without ears. He knows whatever is to be known, and of Him there is no knower.
They speak of Him as the first, the Supreme Person (Purusham mahantam). “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.19)
“You are the woman, You are the man, You are the boy, (and) You are the girl too. You are the old man tottering with a stick. Taking birth, You have Your faces everywhere. “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.3)
“You, indeed, are the blue bee; You indeed are the green parrot having red eyes; You indeed are possessed of lightning in Your womb. You indeed are the seasons and the seas. You indeed are
without beginning; You exist as the Omnipresent, from whom have sprung all the worlds. “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.4)
“As from a fire kindled with wet fuel various [kinds of] smoke issue forth, even so, my dear, the Rig Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama Veda, the Atharvangirasa, itihasa, purana, vidya (arts),
Upanishads, slokas, sutras, anuvyakhyanas (elucidations), vyakhyanas (explanations), sacrfices,oblations in the fire, food, drink, this world, and all beings are all like the breath of the Infinite Reality.
From this Supreme Self are all these, indeed, breathed forth.”
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.V.11)
How to realize Brahman:
“His form does not stand within the range of the senses. No one perceives Him with the eye. Those who know Him through the faculty of intuition as thus seated in their heart, become immortal.”
(Svetasvatara Upanishad Iv.20)
“The wise man relinquishes both joy and sorrow having realized, by means of meditation on the inner Self, that ancient effulgent One, hard to be seen, subtle, immanent, seated in the heart and residing within the body.”
(Katha Upanishad I.2.12)
The above passages appear to recommend meditation and the path of knowledge as means to realizing Brahman.
SCHOOLS OF PHILOSOPHY AND THEIR INTERPRETATION OF BRAHMAN AND ATMAN
In order to further explore the nature of Brahman and Atman, it is useful to refer to the teachings of some Hindu schools of philosophy that based their message on the texts in the Upanishads:
As per Advaita (Non-Dual) Vedanta, Brahman is all and all is Brahman. It is the source and end of all things that exist. However, Brahman cannot be perceived (as in a subject-object perception) but it can be realized. As per Advaita Vedanta, when individual remove their ignorance (Avidya brought about by Maya), they can realize their Atman (Self) as being the same as Brahman (Ultimate Reality). Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without attributes) is held as the ultimate reality. For Advaita Vedanta, the Upanishads formed one of the three main sources of their teachings – the other two being the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutras.
Related texts in the Bhagavad Gita:
brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam
brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ brahma-karma-samādhinā
[For those who are completely absorbed in God-consciousness, the oblation is Brahman, the ladle with which it is offered is Brahman, the act of offering is Brahman, and the sacrificial fire is also Brahman. Such persons, who view everything as God, easily attain him]
yo ‘ntaḥ-sukho ‘ntar-ārāmas tathāntar-jyotir eva yaḥ
sa yogī brahma-nirvāṇaṁ brahma-bhūto ‘dhigachchhati
[Those who are happy within themselves, enjoying the delight of God within, and are illumined by the inner light, such yogis are united with the Lord and are liberated from material existence]
This school of Vedanta was founded by Ramanuja. His interpretation of the Upanishads is said to leaning towards “qualified monism”. Ramanuja asserts that while Brahman is the dweller of all things, it is also distinct and beyond all things as the immortal soul. Ramanuja recommends devotion and constant remembrance of personal God to attain realization of Brahman.
The Dvaita (Dual) School of Vedanta (founded by Madhvacharya) holds Brahman in the same position as that of God in major world religions. Here the atman (individual soul) is dependent on Brahman (God) but separate from it.
All Vaishnava schools perceive the Advaita concept of identification of Atman with the impersonal Brahman as an intermediate step of self-realization, but not Mukti, or final liberation of complete God-realization through Bhakti Yoga.
The Bhakti movement of Hinduism was built around two concepts of Brahman—Nirguna (formless, without attributes or quality) and Saguna (with form, attributes and quality). It is the same Brahman, but viewed from two perspectives, one from Nirguni knowledge-focus and other from Saguni lovefocus, united as Krishna in the Gita. Nirguna bhakta’s poetry were Jnana-shrayi, or had roots in knowledge. Saguna bhakta’s poetry were Prema-shrayi, or with roots in love. In Bhakti, the devotee.
UPANISHADIC BRAHMAN IN BUDDHISM & JAINISM
The spiritual concept of Brahman is far older in the Vedic literature, and some scholars suggest deity Brahma may have emerged as a personal conception and icon with form and attributes (saguna version) of the impersonal, nirguna (without attributes), formless universal principle called Brahman. In the Hindu texts, one of the earliest mentions of deity Brahma along with Vishnu and Shiva is in the fifth Prapathaka (lesson) of the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, probably composed in late 1st millennium BCE, after the rise of Buddhism. This critique of Brahma in early Buddhist texts aim at deriding the Vedas, but the same texts simultaneously call metta (loving-kindness, compassion) as the state of union with Brahma. The early Buddhist approach to Brahma was to reject any creator aspect, while retaining the value system in the Vedic Brahmavihara concepts, in the Buddhist value system. According to scholars, the term “Brahma loka” in the Buddhist canon, instead of “Svarga loka”, is likely a Buddhist attempt to choose and emphasize the “truth power” and knowledge focus of the Brahman concept in the Upanishads. Simultaneously, by reformulating Brahman as Brahma and relegating it within its Devas and Samsara theories, early Buddhism rejected the Atman-Brahman premise of the Vedas to present of its own Dhamma doctrines. The stand of Jainism on the concept of Brahman is contested among Scholars. The concept of a theistic God is rejected by Jainism, but Jiva or “Atman (soul) exists” is held to be a metaphysical truth and central to its theory of rebirths.
As we see above, the concept of Brahman and Atman is central to the Upanishads. The Upanishads concern themselves greatly with defining what is real (and what is not). Brahman is extolled as the all-pervading and undivided reality that cannot be perceived or realized through a practice e.g. rituals (interestingly, something that is prescribed in great detail in other parts of the Vedas). The various Upanishads do not seem to provide a solid unified answer on the relationship between Brahman and the individual self (Atman), and so leave open the possibility for different interpretations. In general, however, the Upanishads emphasize the path of knowledge and contemplation to discern the real from the unreal – in other words, to tell the rope from the snake.
(1) Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies – Vedas & Upanishads