Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Nature of Brahman


 A question is raised as to whether Brahman and the jīva are one and the same entity, for in the śruti there are many passages in which the interpretation can be applied to either of them or to both. In reply to this, the Vedānta-sūtra starts by stating that Brahman is the original cause of the creation, maintenance and annihilation of the material universes. Thus, from the outset, the distinction between the minute living entity and Parabrahma is declared and it will be further clarified in the text. Although it is true that words like ‘bhūma,’ ‘ātmā’ and ‘Brahman’ are indistinctly used as referring to either the jīva or the Supreme Lord, it is required to properly apply exegetical principles in given contextual instances. Brahman is thus etymologically defined:

atha kasmād ucyate brahmeti bṛhanto hy asmin guṇāḥ

(Govinda-bhāṣya, 1.1.2)

 "Why is Brahman called so? Because in Brahman all attributes expand unlimitedly."

This evidently contrasts with the living entity’s minuteness and limited power to act or manifest anything beyond the capacity of his respective material body and mind. Otherwise, the jīva would never be restricted by material adjuncts, therefore how could he possibly ever become unlimitedly powerful after liberation? And if the scriptures meant that there is no difference between the jīvas and Brahman, then there would be no point in using different terminology to refer to the same thing, nor any meaning in prompting someone to meditate on and worship an entity distinct from oneself. Here knowledge of the original nature of the soul is regarding relevant as far as it is part of the preliminary knowledge to understand the nature of Parabrahma, therefore it is considered imperfect and insufficient until it blooms in the comprehension of the soul and God.

 To understand the nature of Brahman, the Vedānta-sūtras give us some illustrations: just like a serpent’s coil forms one unity with the serpent itself, Brahman and His attributes also form an inseparable unity. When the scriptures state that Brahman is knowledge and bliss, the purport is not that Brahman is simply constituted of transcendental knowledge and bliss, nor that Brahman has them as Its qualities, but that Brahman is by definition the dharma and the dharmī, the very attributes and the possessor of those attributes. A subtler analogy is that of fire and its light: both are intrinsic. So is Brahman, for it is not possible to isolate either the qualities or the substance itself. Another example is time, which is generally classified as past, present and future, but in fact, the three are a single element. Instead of being put aloof from its different stages, time is the very principle that defines those stages. Similarly, God is one with His qualities, yet from Him come all the concepts of all attributes existent. In the Brahma Purāṇa it is said:

ānandena tv abhinnena vyavahāraḥ prakāśavat

pūrvavad vā yathā kālaḥ svāvecchedakatāṁ vrajet

"Although the Supreme is non-different from bliss itself, He is conventionally said to be different, just as light and its source, or just as time is divided into earlier and later phases.”

In the material world, one may circumstantially accept or develop some qualities for the time being, and then eventually give them up, but the qualities incorporated by Brahman are never originated nor decayed, but rather ever expanding. His qualities are primeval and the reservoir of unlimited varieties that give rise to all the reflections seen in the material plane. Moreover, there is ample evidence in the scriptures to prove that there cannot ever be any difference between God and His transcendental qualities. In the śruti it is said:

neha nānāsti kiñcana

(Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4.4.19,

 “Within the Supreme Lord there is no difference whatsoever.”

mṛtyoḥ sa mṛtyum āpnoti ya iha nāneva paśyati

"A person who sees difference between the Supreme Lord’s expansions attain death after death in this world."

yathodakaṁ durge vṛṣṭaṁ parvateṣu vidhāvati

evaṁ dharmān pṛthak paśyaṁs tān evānuvidhāvati

(Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 2.4.14)

“Just as rain water on the hills runs down into impassable places, similarly one who sees the Lord’s attributes as different from Him falls down.”

 In the Nārada-pañcarātra it is said:

nirdoṣa-pūrṇa-guṇa-vigraha ātma-tantro niścetanātmaka-śarīra-guṇaiś ca hīnaḥ

ānanda-mātra-kara-pāda-mukhodarādiḥ sarvatra ca svagata-bheda-vivarjitātmā

“The Supreme Soul is independent. His body is composed of faultless and fully transcendental qualities, devoid of the qualities of a body made of insentient matter. His self is totally free of internal differences, and His hands, feet, face, belly, and so on consist exclusively of blissfulness.”


There is a gulf of difference between the way God and His attributes are related and the way a material object and its adjuncts are related. A material object like a house may be constituted by diverse elements and suffer by their addition or reduction, but God’s status is never influenced by any external element, because all His qualities are of the same spiritual nature as He Himself, therefore devoid of all material frailties. This point is clarified by the smṛti in the following words:

jñāna-śakti-balaiśvarya-vīrya-tejāṁsy aśeṣataḥ

bhagavac-chabda-vācyāni vinā heyair guṇādibhiḥ

(Viṣṇu Purāṇa, 6.5.79; Govinda-bhāṣya, 3.2.31)

“Complete omniscience, power, might, opulence, strength, and splendour without any undesirable qualities is expressed by the word ‘bhagavān.’

To refer to both as if they were subject and object is merely a language limitation, just like saying that the wave is made of water. Here there is a mild redundancy, for unless there is water, there is no meaning for wave, but still we have different terms to qualify them. In a similar way, when the scriptures describe Brahman as the reservoir of all rasas, it is to be understood that He is both the rasas and the enjoyer of rasas. When Brahman is manifested in a form able to enjoy and reciprocate the sweetest varieties of rasas, that form is called Govinda, the giver of pleasure to His devotees.