You do not have to have been studying Advaita for very long to know that the words Atman and brahman both refer to the non-dual reality (even if are not yet convinced of this reality). After all, one of the four, particularly well-known mahAvAkya-s is ‘ayam Atam brahman’ – this Atman is brahman.
In fact, we have to expand this vocabulary. Atman usually refers to jIvAtman – what is sometimes (erroneously) called the ‘embodied’ Atman or even the ‘soul’. Also frequently encountered is the term ‘paramAtman’, and this refers to Ishvara, or saguNa brahman – that aspect of brahman which ‘manifests’ as the world, using the ‘power’ of mAyA. It is to be differentiated from the ‘real’, nirguNa brahman which is indescribable, unthinkable, infinite, unlimited etc. and is the ‘Absolute’, non-dual reality. (Note that paramAtman is often translated as ‘supreme Self’, and it might be thought that this means nirguNabrahman. But, if we are in the context of doing something in the world – being the ‘inner controller’, ‘witnessing’ or ‘perceiving’ or ‘creating’ – then it has to mean Ishvara, saguNa brahman, since nirguNa brahman does not do anything.)
Once you are much more familiar with the individual scriptural texts, you will know that sometimes these words are used almost interchangeably. For example, in his bhAShya on the Brahmasutras, Shankara uses the word ‘brahman’ throughout to refer to both nirguNa (brahman) and saguNa (Ishvara) – he expects that, by the time you reach this text (having studied all the major Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), you will know what he is talking about in each individual case! Continue reading →
Q: I want to ask about the following quotation from your series on upadesha sAhasrI – part 19 (upadesha sAhasrI compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda):
“Atma, though a knower of everything, is not a known object, because, if Atma were to be a known object it will need another Atma to know, leading to what is known as infinite regress (anavasta dosham). Atma cannot be known by itself, because, to be known by itself, it has to become both the subject and the object, which is not possible as one and the same entity cannot function as subject and object simultaneously.
We cannot also say that one part of Atma can be known by another part, as Atma is by definition partless. Thus, Atma is ever the knower but not known by others or by itself.
As Atma is self-evident, its existence needs no proof. That I am conscious is evident to me. The very search for proof is possible because of my being conscious. Thus, Atma is revealed as self-evident Witness Consciousness which illumines everything and which cannot be objectified by anything. This Atma is my real nature. All the known attributes belong to the known objects and cannot belong to the knower, Atma (consciousness).”Continue reading →
Q: There are two concepts, super-imposition and manifestation, in Advaita to describe the ‘relationship’ between Brahaman and the empirical world. Super-imposition means that the world is super-imposed on Brahaman. Manifestation means that the world is a manifestation of Brahaman. My doubt is as to how a manifestation can be super-imposition also? My gut feeling is that there is a subtle link between the two concepts which I am unable to ‘see’ because of the proverbial ‘ignorance’.
A (Dennis): They are each a metaphor to give the mind some insight into the nature of reality. The reality is non-dual so that all metaphors and all ‘explanations’ are ultimately untrue. The world and the jIva are mithyA. Brahman has no relationships. Use the metaphors and explanations of the scriptures and teachers to help guide the mind to realization of the truth but don’t ever take them as more than what they are. And do not worry if one ‘explanation’ disagrees with (or even contradicts) another. They all have to be dropped in the end!
As S.K. Ramachandra Rao relates in his Introduction to Sw. Satchidanandendra’s book ‘Salient Features of Shankara’s Vedanta’ ( a translation of ‘Shankara-Vedanta-Prakriye’ in Kannada language), the Swami decided to find out for himself what the real tradition of Shankara and the latter’s contributions to it had been, since he had suspected for some time that the former had been misrepresented by later advaitins. This desire took form in the way of a monograph he wrote in Sanscrit in 1929 with the title of ‘Mulavidya -nirasa. ‘He applied himself diligently to repeated study of Shankara’s works (Bhashyas on the three Prasthanas) for several years to convince himself that the sub-commentaries (of Vacaspaty Misra and Padmapada) had not done justice to the great master… It was in the year 1920, a year after his wife passed away, that he felt called upon to take this as a mission in his life’. Continue reading →
Q: Advaita says that ‘sarvam khalvidam brahma – all this (including all objects, which have form) is brahman’. Therefore, how can we say that brahman is without any attributes at all (including form)? Surely brahman must be both with and without form? Isn’t this what neti, neti means (not this, not that)?