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 nirguNa brahman. 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