What is Brahman? (Part 4)

(Read Part 3)

Leo Hartong also uses the metaphor of clouds, as thoughts, in the blue sky of ‘I am’ awareness:

“Ramana Maharshi recommended that one investigates by asking the question ‘ Who am I?’ When asked who you are, there might be a hesitation as to what to answer; but when asked if you exist, there is no such doubt. The answer is a resounding, ‘ Yes, of course I exist.’ When the answer to the first question is as clear as the answer to the second question, there is understanding.

“The realization is that both questions have in fact the same answer. That which is sure of its existence –the innermost certainty of I Am- is what you essentially are. In other words: I Am this knowing that knows that I Am. The Hindus say Tat Tvam Asi (Thou Art That). In the Old Testament, God says, ‘ I Am that I Am.’ This undeniable ‘ I Am’ is not you in the personal sense, but the universal Self. Ramana Maharshi called the fundamental oneness of ‘ I Am’ and the universal Self ‘ I-I.’

“Watching from this understanding, I see how thoughts appear in ‘ my’ awareness like clouds in a clear sky and then, without a trace, dissolve back in to it. There’s even no need to proclaim that thoughts appear in my awareness. In Awareness suffices. Thoughts and everything else simply happen. Everything is, without a ‘ me’ orchestrating it from behind the scenes. The ego is as non-essential to thinking or to the general functioning of the body-mind organism as Atlas is to supporting the heavens. Just as the ancient Greeks at some point realized that, in fact, there never was a titan named Atlas supporting the firmament, you can realize there never was an actual ego supporting the absolute certainty of ‘ I Am.’“

[Awakening to the Dream: The gift of lucid living, Leo Hartong, Trafford, 2001. ISBN 1-4120-0425-X.
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The other, very common metaphor is that of waves in the ocean. There is certainly the appearance of waves, as well as foam and spray etc. but these are all simply different forms that we have named specially. There is only water. Similarly, there is only Brahman:

“The mind is like the vast ocean with infinite variety of creatures within it, on the surface of which ripples and waves of different sizes rise and fall. The small wave thinks it is small; the big one that it is big. The one that is broken by the wind thinks it has been destroyed. One thinks it is cold, another that it is warm. But all the waves are but the water of the ocean. It is indeed true to say that there are no waves in the ocean; the ocean alone exists. Yet, it is also true that there are waves!

“Even so, the absolute Brahman alone exists. Since it is omnipotent, the natural expression of its infinite faculties appears as the infinite diversity in this universe. Diversity has no real existence except in one’s own imagination. ‘All this is indeed the absolute Brahman’ – remain established in this truth. Give up all other notions. Even as the waves, etc. are non-different from the ocean, all these things are non-different from Brahman. Even as in the seed is hidden the entire tree in potential, in Brahman there exists the entire universe for ever. Even as the multicoloured rainbow is produced by sunlight, all this diversity is seen in the one. Even as the inert web emanates from the living spider, this inert world-appearance has sprung from the infinite consciousness.

“Even as the silk-worm weaves its cocoon and thus binds itself, the infinite being fancies this universe and gets caught in it. Even as an elephant effortlessly breaks loose from the post to which it is tied, the self liberates itself from its bondage. For, the self is what it considers itself to be. In fact, there is neither bondage nor liberation for the Lord. I do not know how these notions of bondage and liberation have come into being! There is neither bondage nor liberation, only that infinite being is seen: yet the eternal is veiled by the transient, and this is indeed a great wonder (or a great illusion).”

[The Supreme Yoga: Yoga VasiShTha, Swami Venkatesananda, Chiltern Yoga Trust, 1976. ISBN 81-208-1964-0.
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“While you have always known that you exist, have you ever really investigated that existence or knowing of it? Does presence have a place where it starts? Does it have a place where it ends? Does it appear to be bound by time? Is it now or ever changing? Did it get older as the body aged? Is it constant or moving? Do you expect that it will ever be different? Can you, even for a moment, get out of it? If thinking stopped would you still be present? Does anything affect that presence? Is it your presence or is it just presence? It is the real in a world of change and illusion. Don’t let the mind discount the presence—the beingness that you know is there. It will try, because it can’t turn that presence into a thing. But do you begin to see that presence is what is being pointed to with words like spaceless and timeless? Can it really be that simple?

“What about awareness? If someone were to ask you if you are aware, you would without hesitation say, ‘Yes, I am aware.’ It is something that you are sure of and there is no need or reason to question it.

Does awareness have a place where it starts? Does it have a place where it ends? Does it appear to be bound by time? Is it now or ever changing? Did it get older as the body aged? Is it constant or moving? Do you expect that it will ever be different? Can you, even for a moment, get out of it? If thinking stopped would you still be aware? Does anything affect that awareness? Is it your awareness or is it just awareness? It is the real and on that, the world of change and illusion appears. Again, don’t let the mind discount the awareness that you are, it will try, because it can’t turn that awareness into a thing. Do you see that awareness is what is being pointed to with words like spaceless and timeless?”

[Oneness: The Destination You Never Left, John Greven, Non-Duality Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-9551762-0-3.
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In the end, nothing can be said about Brahman – language is dualistic. We cannot even say that Brahman is advaita – advaita is a mithyA concept. This is why much is often made about communication through silence. Of course, this is a misunderstanding. We may resort to silence when language fails, so that sages are sometimes said to have replied to an ‘impossible’ question with silence – and this is treated as somehow profound. But silence can certainly symbolize Brahman, as it does in the mANDUkya upaniShad. Here, the word ‘OM’, is shown to consist of the three Sanskrit letters A, U and M, symbolizing the waking dream and deep sleep states respectively. But that out of which they arise, and that to which they return is silence. And, in the chanting of OM, it is the silence between the successive repetitions of the mantra that represents turIya or Brahman, the non-dual reality.

(The legendary Sage dakShiNAmUrti is supposed to have taught through silence but Swami Dayananda says that this is a misunderstanding. “…the word actually used is mudrA, meaning a sign made by the position of the fingers and should be interpreted as ‘language.’ He says that if He was silent, all our Upanishads would be in the form of blank pages! Silence is the appropriate response only when it is either inconvenient or might be misleading to answer.”
[Back to the Truth, Dennis Waite, O Books, 2007, ISBN 1905047614.
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The Language of God

We’ve collected
so many ideas,
haven’t we,
so many notions
about spirituality
and enlightenment –
what it is,
why we should seek it,
and what we will get
once we have
found it.

But before all those ideas,
before the mind spins
one more story about
what is needed,
and how we’re
going to get it,
before all of that,
what is here?


[This Is Always Enough, John Astin, Non-Duality Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9553999-5-4.
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Some Questions

Q: Is this sense of Being inert? This sense of I AM that Nisargadatta and others say to stay with. I AM ‘seems’ like the ground. What we are and what we are looking for. But isn’t this also content? Is being just more content? I’m not sure of my question. Being seems as transient as any other content. Can the other be without content? Awareness and I AM may be one but so is any other content.

A: ‘I’ am that in which everything apparently arises, exists and to which it returns. ‘I’ am that which is unchanging. In fact, everything is simply name and form of that same non-dual reality that ‘I am’.

 Q: If I (mind-body) cannot access Brahman (because Brahman is beyond any concept and, thus, beyond me, mind-body), how can I (mind-body) ever be that Brahman? At neo-advaita meetings we were told that we ARE that (Brahman). But who are ‘we’? Mind-body?

 The same question can be posed from the different sides:

 If I (mind-body) am not Brahman and cannot ever know Brahman, why bother with the teaching?

 If I (mind-body) am already Brahman but somehow still cannot know myself (Brahman), that simply sounds ridiculous!

 If I am NOT the mind-body but still somehow (?) cannot know Brahman, then who am I? I can surely observe how thoughts are arising and going away; hence I’m NOT those thoughts. But nevertheless I still do not feel myself as Brahman.

 If I am NOT mind-body and already Brahman, then where is the difference between the teaching and non-teaching?

A: You are not a body or mind. Whatever you aware *of*, you can be sure that you are not that. You cannot be an object of any kind – you are the ultimate subject. This is the reason why you cannot point to ‘I’ or give it any attributes. A crude analogy is that the eye can see all things except itself.

Your words indicate that you believe yourself to be a body-mind. [“If I (mind-body) cannot access Brahman…”] You *are* Brahman so that you are like the eye that cannot see itself. It is understandable that you find the concept difficult to ‘take on board’. This is why there is a need for teachers and a proven methodology for explaining everything. It is true that this teaching cannot ‘describe’ Brahman either but what it can do is give you pointers to the truth, stories and metaphors that enable you ultimately to come to a realization of the truth for yourself. (See the definition of bhAga tyAga lakShaNa for an example. The problem with neo-advaita is that it simply tells you that there is no person, no path etc., only Brahman, none of which actually helps you to come to this understanding.

You also point out that it is difficult to understand how you can be Brahman without knowing it. The problem is that dualistic knowledge – knower, knowing, known – takes place in the mind and the mind does not know that you are Brahman! The process of self-knowledge eliminating self-ignorance takes place in the mind and it is there that realization takes place when all of the ignorance has been dispelled. Without the benefit of proper teaching to enable this process, you will remain ignorant despite the fact that you are already Brahman.

Q: If Brahman is absolute truth, consciousness and bliss, is it valid to conclude that unhappiness is due to eternal bliss being covered over by ignorance; is mithyA and does not have an existence independent from bliss? Could we also say the same about other pairs of opposites – good/evil, truth/untruth, eternity/transience etc? Is it the case that evil is the absence of good and does not have an independent existence apart from good? I realise that “good” and “evil” are mental constructs but could you please provide some illustrations which would appeal to someone on the Way of Knowledge?

A: The word Ananda, used as a ‘description’ of Brahman is confusing. A much better word to use is anantam – unlimited. Happiness (of any degree, from mild to ecstatic) arises from and is the nature of the Self. The value of the word is in pointing us to the Self as the source of happiness.

Everything in vyavahAra is mithyA, including the world itself and the ignorance (mAyA) that apparently creates it. All of the pairs of opposites continue to appear until such time as investigation reveals that none of them exist separate from Brahman. Ultimately, you cannot describe anything in the universe as good/bad, true/false etc. because there is no ‘thing’ there to describe; every apparent thing is only name and form of the non-dual substrate – Brahman. (Of course, the pairs of opposites continue to be very relevant to the person who does not know this – for him the world is very real, along with all of its injustices and unhappiness.)

It is worth noting, too, that the ‘descriptions’ of Brahman (such as truth, consciousness bliss) are only relevant in vyavahAra. Swami Paramarthananda uses the metaphor of night and day. It is meaningful to speak about these while we are living on the earth (i.e. vyavahAra) but this would become meaningless if we lived on the sun itself (paramArtha).

 Q: My question concerns the ring of gold analogy for the changelessness of Brahman.

 I understand from the analogy that the ring is mithyA and the gold is Brahman.   The implication being that ‘change’ as we perceive it is only at the apparent level while the substance (Brahman) remains unchanged.  Is it then correct to say that Brahman does indeed change but only in form?   I believe the answer is ‘no’ since the Upanishads clearly state that Brahman is changeless.   That said, the fact remains that although I don’t perceive an object’s substance/essence (i.e. Brahman) my senses do gather information that results in thoughts leading to the experience of change in the world of objects.  But if Brahman doesn’t change even at the level of ‘form’ then I don’t know how to rationalize changeless Brahman with the experience of a changing world.

 Can you point me in the right direction on this one?

A: This is one of those ‘mixing levels’ questions. The changeless Brahman refers to paramArtha; the changing world refers to vyavahAra. Brahman is never amenable to objectification in any way, is attributeless and without name or form. The world is intrinsically dualistic; ever changing and *only* name and form. So Brahman doesn’t change. The apparently changing appearance of duality is the result of adhyAsa.

In the end it is part of the adhyAropa-apavAda teaching of advaita. First read Chapter 6 of the Chandogya Upanishad with Shankara’s commentary to learn all about vAchArambhaNa and then read the Mandukya Upanishad with Gaudapada’s kArikA-s and Shankara’s commentary to learn about ajAti vAda.

The following question and answers are relevant to this topic, being concerned with the nature of the Self and reality: 2, 3, 12, 13, 18, 40, 47, 51, 80, 86, 87, 99, 100, 102, 131, 153, 156, 157, 167, 190, 207, 209

This is the end of the essay on Brahman. Please feel free to initiate or join in a discussion on the topic by responding to this post. The topic of Brahman is open until the end of the month (Sept 2014).

2 thoughts on “What is Brahman? (Part 4)

  1. Brahman – A general word for the Self, the universal Self, the One Self

    Brahman is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root brih which means: to increase, to grow great or strong, to expand. Brahman literally means: growth, expansion, evolution. In Advaita, the word Brahman is commonly used to mean: the One self-existent impersonal universal Spirit, the source from which all things are created, maintained, and to which they return. Brahman is frequently defined as the Absolute Self.

    In Advaitic texts, such as the Upaniṣads, the word Brahma (masculine noun) sometimes replaces Brahman (neuter noun) and, in context, has the same meaning. Brahman should not to be mistaken for the personal creator-god Brahma (rajas), who is only one of a triad of prominent gods, the trimurti, which are manifestations or personifications of the three guṇas appearing from the disturbed equilibrium of Prakriti, the other trimurti are Vishnu (sattva), the maintainer, and Siva (tamas), the destroyer.

    Brahman is associated with the root brih (to expand) perhaps because of the experience of some jnanis in which their limited individual self consciousness expands into the unlimited greater universal consciousness at the ananda aspect of Self Realization. This is, almost certainly, not full realization, since bliss-consciousness is the final sheath surrounding the Self as the Absolute Brahman. Bliss-consciousness is impermanent and can be lost upon sounding the false ‘I am’ or ‘me’. The attempt by some advaitins to associate the word Brahman with the Absolute is problematic, since the etymological meanings of brih as growth, expansion, evolution, may be true of non-conscious Prakriti, but not of the Absolute which is unchanging and consequently subject to neither growth nor expansion. Generally, in Advaita, Brahman is believed to be the only real with everything else being an unreal superimposition upon it. The problem with this definition is that real and unreal are opposites and to define Brahman as real would be to admit it has a dualistic opposite, the unreal. Some Advaitins declare Brahman to be the unmanifest substrate, the substratum, which enables everything to manifest, and is the Truth, the fundamental basis of the here and now, that which is commonly separated by the mind into the dualistic division of world and self, but which is in reality One. Unfortunately, the word truth is also conceptual and dualistic, since truth has an opposite: false or lie, which again makes this descriptive use inappropriate for an Absolute claimed to be devoid of duality. Brahman probably has no name, no form, no identity, no characteristics, no qualities and no attributes, although commonly these may be superimposed upon Brahman.

    For Nisargadatta, Brahman means the emanation of the world, whereas to the Parabrahman the world does not exist. Brahman and Parabrahman are therefore clearly distinguished. By the use of the word Brahman here Nisargadatta appears to be referring to Isvara or Saguṇa Brahman which is ultimately illusory. Since the world is also ultimately illusory, dissolving at full realization, there is no conceptual contradiction in this definition, which has the merit of congruity with the etymology of the word Brahman. For Nisargadatta neither the Atman nor Brahman are absolute, since both the Atman and Brahman are reached and then transcended. The Parabrahman is not transcended because it is ever transcendental, since one cannot see, or know, or even be, oneself, the aloof Parabrahman.

    Advaita usually classifies the manifestation of Brahman into two forms: Apara-Brahman the lower manifestation, and Para-Brahman the higher manifestation. Another and different classification suggests there are three levels of Brahman: Saguṇa, Nirguṇa, and Para. At the universal level: (1) Saguṇa Brahman is Brahman associated with the manifestation and appearance of the three guṇas, and Isvara (God), located in the Sun, is a prominent example of Saguṇa Brahman. Saguna Brahman is associated with sattva and light. Since ordinary consciousness is essentially the presence of light energy active in the brain, or transmuted light energy engaging in a presentation of the world upon the screen of the mind, world and consciousness are essentially the same, the same light. In this sense Brahman, as Saguna Brahman, is the emanation of the world through the presentation of light, and the observation of reflective light, as the world. The Atman is said to be non-different from Brahman. The Atman is described by some jnanis to be a type of light or consciousness and therefore, by inference, the individual aspect of consciousness, which is the Atman, is not different from the universal aspect of consciousness, which is Isvara, or Saguna Brahman. (2) Nirguṇa Brahman is Brahman without the guṇas, without any characteristics or attributes. (3) The Parabrahman is the transcendental Brahman which is said to be the genuine Self, oneself identical with the Absolute. This is beyond both the manifest and the unmanifest.

    These same three Brahman at the individual level are: (1) Saguṇa Brahman which is complete identification with, and merging with, which ever god one is an incarnation of, which ever guṇa predominates in one’s nature (ie: rajas-Brahma, sattva-Vishnu, tamas-Shiva), for example: the bhogi (the enjoyer) upon the evolution of his being reaches the Ocean of Vishnu Loka and merges into that Brahman, which is a great mass of universal being, into which he disappears without trace, individual being merging with universal being. (2) Nirguṇa Brahman is when the sense of individual consciousness is replaced by that of impersonal awareness. In Nirguṇa Brahman there is no awareness of existence, there is awareness of awareness only. At this level a faint trace of duality remains, since there are two awarenesses, one observing the other. Because of this vestige of duality, Nirguṇa Brahman cannot be the non-dual Absolute. (3) Parabrahman is awareness which is unaware that it is aware. This is complete absence of duality. The Parabrahman is when being forgets itself, because the Parabrahman does not know that it is and it does not have the manifestation of the world. This may superficially suggest that the Parabrahman forgets itself and the solution is self-remembering. Self remembering does not apply to the Parabrahman. The Parabrahman cannot be remembered because it cannot be forgotten. The Parabrahman cannot be reached or attained because oneself is, and always was, and always will be, the timeless Parabrahman. The verb, to be, does not apply to the Parabrahman because it is beyond being and non-being. This makes the use of phrazes such as ‘I am the Parabrahman’ and ‘That thou art’ tenuous.

    Advaitins steadfastly refuse to admit any degree of duality into their system and to maintain the integrity of the advaitic concept of Brahman as non-dual, jnanis state that from the absolute point of view Atman, Saguna, Nirguṇa and Para Brahman, are all one. Therefore from the vyavaharika perspective Brahman may appear as two, three or even four levels, but at the paramarthika there is only the one alone.

    Although the Absolute, as the Parabrahman, is said to be transcendental (niṣprapañca), and thus indescribable (anirvaccanīya) and therefore beyond language, some advaitins use the concepts: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnisufficient, eternal, infinite, unchangeable, or even sat-cit-ananda (existence/being-consciousness/knowledge-happiness/bliss) in an attempt to say something about the Parabrahman. They appear to be referring to Saguṇa Brahman which is potentially describable. Even so, such conceptions usually fail because concepts are expressions of language which is a manifestation of the instrument of mind, and mind is bi-polar, one pole dynamic at its depth, the other pole static at its surface, whereas the Parabrahman is beyond the mind and intellect. For example: it is perhaps better to describe the Parabrahman as timeless rather than eternal, which is in time, but even the word timeless exhibits logical problems since Brahman is said, through his magical power or Shakti, to create time and space. Other advaitins state that Brahman does not engage in action, therefore the creation of anything, including time and space, cannot be attributed to Brahman. Descriptions such as these appear to be referring to Nirguṇa Brahman. Similarly, it is sometimes said that Brahman is not an object of consciousness or knowledge which implies that Brahman is not a something which can be seen or experienced, and consequently no one can know Brahman, and by inference… no one can know themselves. And so…. the problem of using language to say anything about the Parabrahman appears to be insuperable. Consequently, possibly, the only thing that can be intimated is that the Parabrahman is realized in silence.


    • If, as you say, ‘the problem of using language to say anything about the Parabrahman appears to be insuperable’, then why bother to say anything at all about it? What motivates you to try and categorize and interpret all of this? It really has nothing to do with anything except trying to identify with a cultural identity. Surely, you can’t expect to ‘realize’ any of this as it is part of your dream of your separate identity. At best, you develop an intellectual idea with other ideas that support it. This support is what keeps the idea of separation and realization going round and round. Cultural games, endlessly spinning until death shuts it down.

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