Positive ‘definitions’ of Brahman are given by such expressions as satyam j~nAnam anantam brahma, in the Taittiriya Upanishad. The words are to be understood as svarUpa lakShaNa, i.e. a definition that differentiates what is described from all other objects. The example often given for svarUpa, which literally means ‘own form or nature’ is sweetness, as being the svarUpa of sugar. But the word ‘sweet’ does not actually convey the quality of sweetness; it only works if we have had the experience of tasting something that is sweet – then there is no problem at all. In the case of Brahman, however, we cannot have the experience of Brahman because it is not an object of experience. Our understanding of Brahman comes from the shruti.
In the expression, Brahman functions as the noun with satyam, j~nAnam and anantam functioning as adjectives. But, as already noted, Brahman cannot have any attributes so that we cannot really use adjectives at all. Therefore, instead of the noun-adjective relationship [visheShya-visheShaNa], this is what is called a lakShaNa-lakShya sambandha [relationship between an indirect pointer and the thing to be defined]. anantam means eternal, limitless; satyam incorporates the ideas of truth, reality and existence, and j~nAnam means knowledge. But a simple translation will not do – this is where the guru needs to come in to ‘unfold’ the explanation step by step. satyam, for example, has to convey the meaning of absolute existence; anantam, free from all limitations of time and space; never changing; j~nAnam, pure awareness, consciousness (neither knower, known object nor means of knowledge), and again unlimited. And so on!
When something outside of our experience is described to us, we gain only an indirect understanding of what is being said. An example that is often used is trying to describe to you the taste of a fruit that you have not actually tasted yourself. I can attempt to categorize it in terms of those fruits with which you are familiar but this will be very hit and miss. When you actually taste the new fruit yourself, the knowledge is immediate and direct. Now, in the case of Brahman, although we cannot experience it as an object, it is not something that is unfamiliar to us, since we are Brahman. Accordingly, when carefully explained, direct knowledge is possible.
As things stand at present, I know that I am “I” and that Brahman is “That” – it is unthinkable that I can be Brahman. I think I am an insignificant, limited, body-mind which is a created thing whereas Brahman is the unlimited, all-powerful, ubiquitous creator. How can we be the same? But the mahAvAkya tat tvam asi cancels out all of these contradictory elements and tells me that “I” am “That,” i.e. Brahman. This canceling out of contradictory elements, leaving an equality of the non-contradictory parts is called bhAga tyAga lakShaNa. The oneness that is pointed to (lakShaNa) is understood by “giving up” (tyAga) the contradictory parts (bhAga).
There is an excellent metaphor that explains how this works. Suppose that you and a friend, A, both went to school with a third person, X. Although you were not particularly friendly with X, you knew him quite well but, since leaving school you lost touch and have forgotten all about him. Today, you happen to be walking along with A and see Y, who is a famous film star, walking by on the other side of the street. You have seen films starring Y and admire him very much. A now makes some comment such as “Y has come a long way in the world since we knew him, hasn’t he?” You are mystified since you have never even spoken to Y as far as you know and you ask A to explain himself. A then makes the revelatory statement: “Y is that X whom we knew at school.”
“All of the contradictory aspects, that X is an insignificant, scruffy, spotty oik that you once knew at school, while Y is a rich, famous and talented actor, are all cancelled out, leaving the bare equation that X and Y are the same person. Furthermore, the knowledge is aparokSha – immediate. We do not have to study the reasoning or meditate upon it for a long time.
“In the example of tat tvam asi, the canceling out of body, mind etc. is possible because of what has gone before. We have investigated these beliefs and exercised our reason, negating the false impressions (neti, neti), as we did in Chapter 1. Without this preparation, there could not have been the sudden understanding that tat and tvam are indeed the same. On the face of it, the Neo-Advaitin teaching of “This is It” is also an example of bhAga tyAga lakShaNa. Here, however, the vital difference is that the mental preparation and reasoning to undermine our initial belief (that this is certainly not it) has not taken place. Although the true situation is already the case, the layers of ignorance have to be uncovered before this can be clearly seen. This is why there remains a need to follow the traditional “path,” even in today’s climate of supposedly superior understanding and fast-track capability.
[The above is quote from Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita, Dennis Waite, O Books, 2007. ISBN 978 1 905047 61 1. Apologies to those who have seen it before, since I have used it several times, but it is obviously relevant in this context.] Extract Link
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One of the most famous statements in advaita is attributed to Shankara as being an effective summary of the entire philosophy, condensed into a single sentence: brahma satyam jaganmithyA jIvo brahmaiva nAparaH (jIvanmuktastu tadvidvAniti vedAtadindimaH). (You may not have seen the last part of this sentence before; it is usually just the first part that is quoted.) It means: Brahman is the reality; the world is mithyA [just name and form of that same reality]; the individual person is Brahman alone and not anything else; (one who has realized this is a jIvanmukta [person enlightened in this lifetime] – thus announces the Vedanta philosophy).
D. B. Gangoli elaborates as follows:
“there is an Ultimate Reality which is eternally true (satyam), Pure Consciousness or Knowledge (j~nAnam), Pure Bliss, or Happiness (Anandam). This Ultimate Reality is called ‘Brahman’. The word Brahman means greater or bigger than all other things, an Entity beyond the limitations or restrictions of time, space, causation categories. There is another name, bhUmA, for this Entity. bhUmA also means super-abundance of greatness alone. Wherein nothing else is seen, nothing else is heard, nothing else is known, That alone is bhUmA (ChAndogya Upanishad 7-22 1). This has yet another name – AkShara. AkShara means indestructible. It has no changes like birth, growth, withering or emaciation, wearing out, destruction. Therefore, It has the name of ‘sat‘ or that which really exists. puruSha is one more name for It ; because It exists in toto or completely everywhere, It has been given this name.
“Because Brahman or the Ultimate Reality pervades all distinctions or divisions like time, space, states of consciousness etc and Itself shines in their forms also, to Brahman the name of ‘puruSha‘ suits in all respects too. The other puruSha-s (jIva-s) are not puruSha-s in the true sense; if they i.e. the souls or jIva-s, are called puruSha-s, then this Brahman will have to be called puruShottama. It has also the nomenclature of ‘Atman‘. Atman means the essential nature or core of Being, Whatever moving or immobile creatures there are in the world, whatever inert or insentient things exist in this world – for all those things this Brahman alone is Atman or the essential nature of Being. In all these names one opinion or purport is implicit ; that is – Brahman is ananta or endless, eternal. There are no time, space, things devoid of It. Apart from It a second entity does not exist at all. So much meaning is implicit in the sentence – ‘brahma satyam’ or ‘Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is satyam or the eternal or Absolute Truth or Reality.’”
[The Magic Jewel of Intuition (The Tri-Basic Method of Cognizing the Self), D. B. Gangolli, Adhyatma Prakasha Karyalaya, 1986. No ISBN. Note that this book is no longer available and you are unlikely to find it, since only 1000 copies were printed.]