What is Brahman? (Part 3)

(Read Part 2)

The superficially contradictory ‘descriptions’ of Brahman as ‘neti, neti’ and ‘sarvaM khalvidaM brahma’ [all this is verily Brahman] are brought out in adjacent verses of the Atma bodha, attributed to Shankara (Swami Chinmayananda translation):


  1. Brahman is other than this, the universe. There exists nothing that is not Brahman. If any object other than Brahman appears to exist, it is unreal like the mirage.
  2. All that is perceived, or heard, is Brahman and nothing else. Attaining the knowledge of the Reality, one sees the Universe as the non-dual Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute.

Here, it is first stated that the universe is not Brahman. But it is also said that any other appearance will be unreal, like a mirage. The mirage is a powerful metaphor because the water that appears is in reality only the sand upon which the appearance takes place. I.e. sand is the substratum of the water appearance, just as Brahman is the substratum of the world appearance. It is then stated that all appearances are, in fact, nothing other than Brahman. But this is realized, of course only upon enlightenment. Until then, the world remains very real. Similarly, to the seeker after water in the desert, the mirage is very real.

Here is what Sri Atmananda has to say on the aphorism ‘sarvaM khalvidam brahma’ from the Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1:

“The Truth about this world is that the Reality, which is imperceptible to the senses, appears as this world when looked at through the senses. The ordinary man sees only the appearance and attributes complete reality to it. At the same time, he sees also the changeability of the appearance, but he shuts his eyes to it. All spiritual paths attempt first to show the Reality behind the appearance. When looked at from the Reality itself, there is no appearance either.

“To take the disciples to the Truth, phenomenal illustrations are often made use of. For example take the gold and the ornament. The ordinary man, at the first glance, sees only the ornament. But on second thought, he admits that it is made of gold. He still lays greater emphasis on the form rather than on the gold, because he relies on his sensual perceptions. After some more thought, he admits that between the form and the gold of the ornament, the form frequently changes, while the gold remains constant. Since gold is the essential constituent of all gold ornaments and since the form is only a temporary appearance leaving nothing behind, he is forced to admit that the gold alone is permanent and that the form is merely an illusion. Thus, having been shown gold in its pure formless nature, he is asked to look at the ornaments from the standpoint of gold. Then he sees nothing but gold in the ornaments (just as a banker would). Even in the appearance it is the gold that appears and not the ornament. An ‘ornament’ is an ‘ornament’ only by convention, but actually it is only gold.

“Now applying the illustration to the Self and the world, having separated the world including your own body, senses and mind from the Self, you are shown the Self in its pure nature. Taking your stand in that pure Self, if you look at the world, you see the whole world as nothing but your own real Self. This is how you are helped to experience the Truth of the aphorism: ‘All is Brahman’. The object of Vedanta is not to help you not to perceive the appearance; but to help you to see the essence, even when perceiving the appearance through the senses.”

(Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda No. 1114 taken by Nitya Tripta – downloadable from http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/downloads/notes_pdf.zip or published by Non-Duality Press & Stillness Speaks, 2009, in three volumes, ISBN 978-0-9563091-2-9, -3-6 and -4-3.) Buy from Amazon US, Buy from Amazon UK

The Bhagavad Gita (13.14 – 15) points out that, though the Self is revealed through the functioning of the senses, it is nevertheless free from the senses; though it experiences the guNa, it is free from them; it is unattached but maintains everything. It exists both inside and outside all beings, moving and unmoving, It is incomprehensible because so subtle; it is far away, yet near.

Swami Dayananda mentions the metaphor of electricity in connection with this verse. “Electricity can say ‘I am all fans, I am all lights, I am all refrigerators; yet I am free from them all… A street lamp shines, illumining whatever you do in its light. It is neither happy nor miserable on account of good or bad things that happen under it. So too, I, Awareness, witnesses all and permits all… Free from qualities, Awareness sustains all qualities. It is undivided among divided things, like the space which is undivided, but appears divided because of walls. See the wonder of it. You are undivided, but appear divided.” [The Teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Dayananda, Vision Books Pvt., 1989. ISBN 81-7094-032-X. You can buy this from Arsha Vidya Gurukulam – http://www.arshavidya.org/.]

With modern teachers, there is a reluctance to use the word ‘Brahman’, perhaps because of concern that readers might drop the book like a hot potato, thinking that it is some traditional, Sanskrit-ridden, mumbo-jumbo. Instead, they try to use more familiar words that will not disturb anyone. This brings its own danger and I prefer to use the Sanskrit terms, since they will not already have prior connotations in the mind of the reader. Thus, the expression sarvaM khalvidam brahma has been metamorphosed into ‘Everything is Consciousness’. Here is Robert Adams, a direct disciple of Ramana Maharshi and thus not influenced by any traditional sampradAya:

“Everything is Consciousness – everything. When you ask ‘what is Consciousness?’, there is no valid answer. When someone asks me to write a book or give a lecture, then I have to explain Consciousness in about fifty different words, and each word has another fifty words to explain that, then those words have another fifty words. So your volume of the book is written. What does it say? “Everything is Consciousness.” I could have written one page. And in the middle of that page I would say: “Everything is Consciousness,” and the rest would be blank. This is the reason why I do not write books, because there is nothing to say. See how confusing it is? You read so many books during the week. Usually you do not remember what you read, and if you do, it’s intellectual. You are using somebody else’s words and not having your own experience.

“I don’t know what Consciousness is, but I am That. If I knew what Consciousness was, it wouldn’t be That, because I would be voicing a word and the word would be limited by the very voicing of the word. So Consciousness is a no-thing. It’s nothing you can pin down. It’s nothing you can describe. It’s nothing you can write a book about. Consciousness is Silence. Sometimes I’m saying Consciousness is Absolute Reality, which is more words, and I have to explain Absolute Reality.

“Consciousness is Ultimate Oneness, Pure Intelligence. Consciousness is all of those things. But what are those things? Again they are just words. Sometimes I say Consciousness is Love, Bliss, Sat-Chit-Ananda, Knowledge, Being, Existence. Those are just words. And you get a good feeling from the words, but the feeling doesn’t last too long, for you have not digested the words. You have not become a living embodiment of Consciousness.

“You are an asset to the human race, an asset to your Self, an asset to God. You are a wonderful person just the way you are. Just the way you are! Do not judge by appearances. Do not even judge yourself. You are a beautiful person just the way you are. When I say just the way you are, I am referring to your real Self, Consciousness. You are beautiful just the way you are. Not what you think you are. Not what you appear to be. Not what the world shows you, but just the way you are right now. Stand up tall. Do not be afraid any longer. There is nothing that can hurt you. There is nothing in this world that can actually do anything to you. You are free! You are the substratum of all existence. Everything is an image on Consciousness. The whole universe, all the planets, all the galaxies, are all images on Consciousness. And you are Consciousness. Know yourself and be free!”

[Silence of the Heart, Robert Adams, Acropolis Books, 1999. ISBN 1-889051-53-5.
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And here is ‘Sailor’ Bob Adamson, a direct disciple of Nisargadatta Maharaj:

“And when I say that pure consciousness is to be acknowledged rather than experienced, do not think that I am not extraordinarily content and thrilled beyond words in the periods when “the rubbish has been scraped away” and I am seeing clearly. Of course I am. The feeling is wonderful, and afterwards I even find myself labeling the occurrence an experience. But it is not an experience. The definition of “experience” is “the apprehension of an object, a thought, or an emotion through the senses or mind.” Pure consciousness, or presence awareness, is not that; it is more like the absence of that. As I see it, it only appears to be an experience because of how dramatically the clarity contrasts with my normal activity where thoughts and feelings obstruct my true nature.

“To call the clarity an experience is similar to referring to a ‘blue’ ocean and a ‘blue’ sky. Of course, they both appear blue and we experience them as such. But in reality they are not. If we want to know the truth, we must remember that they are not blue. Likewise, if we want to know the truth of our existence, we must see that unboundedness, or presence awareness, is not an experience. It is who we are. During periods when thoughts and feelings have so receded that I know my unbounded Self, the feeling is as good as or better than anything I have ever felt. But under close scrutiny, it is clear there is no experience occurring. The unboundedness that I am is beyond experience. I am constant, with no beginning and no end.

“And when I say that unboundedness, or pure consciousness, is forever present but is sometimes seemingly obstructed by ‘clouds’ (thoughts and feelings, and so on), I say ‘seemingly’ because, again, this is our experience, but it is not reality. It may be our experience that a mirage appears to be water or, or a rope appears to be a snake, but that does not make it real. The clouds of thoughts and feelings can obstruct our view, but they cannot obstruct our true selves any more than the rope can bite us or the mirage can quench our thirst. This is why the ancients said, ‘I am That, thou art That, all of this is That.’ They understood. They understood that everything is an expression of consciousness, even thoughts, feelings and desires. In other words, even the ‘clouds’ are consciousness. And they understood this whether they felt unbounded and peaceful, or agitated and restless, whether they felt good, bad, or indifferent.”

[Living Reality: My Extraordinary Summer with “Sailor” Bob Adamson, James Braha, Hermetician Press, 2006. ISBN 0935895-10-8.
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Go to Part 4

2 thoughts on “What is Brahman? (Part 3)

  1. ‘I, Awareness, witnesses all and permits all…’ (Dayananda)

    The terms ‘witness/witnessing’, in the same way as ‘experience/experiencing’, is fraught with difficulties, as they may suggest an object-subject relationship at the highest ontological level. Does Atma/Consciousness experience or witness anything? Could we not paraphrase the well known dicta: ‘That which cannot be expressed in words, but by which the tongue speaks…’? Thus: ‘That, while not being a witness/an experiencer, is what ’causes’ the mind (the jiva) to witnesses/to experience…’

    To say anything positive of or about Consciousness or Awareness is to limit it, as Robert Adams suggests in one of the above extracts. One can say, though, as “Sailor” Bob does, that ‘everything is an expression of Consciousness’. Consciousness is the substrate, not the agent, of every action. Not moving, or speaking, It allows what appears as movement or speech.

  2. You are quite right, Martin. You cannot even say ‘that which causes the mind…’ because brahman is kArya-kAraNa-vilakShana – beyond cause and effect. But Swami D knows all this and makes it clear elsewhere. This particular quote is from his Bhagavad Gita ‘course’, which is aimed at beginners to mid-level students, so he is taking it easy and using clear metaphors etc.

    Best wishes,

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