Brahman and Ātman in Upanishads


The quest after Brahman: the struggle and the failures.

The fundamental idea which runs through the early Upaniṣads is that underlying the exterior world of change there is an unchangeable reality which is identical with that which underlies the essence in man.

Upaniṣads are not systematic treatises of a single hand, but are rather collations or compilations of floating monologues, dialogues or stories.

There are no doubt here and there simple discussions but there is no pedantry or gymnastics of logic. Even the most casual reader cannot but be struck with the earnestness and enthusiasm of the sages.

They run from place to place with great eagerness in search of a teacher competent to instruct them about the nature of Brahman. Where is Brahman? What is his nature?

During the closing period of the Samhitā there were people who had risen to the conception of a single creator and controller of the universe, variously called Prajāpati, Viśvakarma, Puruṣa, Brāhmaṇaspati and Brahman.

But this divine controller was yet only a deity. The search as to the nature of this deity began in the Upaniṣads.

Many visible objects of nature such as the sun or the wind on one hand and the various psychological functions in man were tried, but none could render satisfaction to the great ideal that had been aroused.

The sages in the Upaniṣads had already started with the idea that there was a supreme controller or essence presiding over man and the universe.

But what was its nature? Could it be identified with any of the deities of Nature, was it a new deity or was it no deity at all? The Upaniṣads present to us the history of this quest and the results that were achieved.

When we look merely to this quest we find that we have not yet gone out of the Āraṇyaka ideas and of symbolic (pratīka) forms of worship.

Prāṇa (vital breath) was regarded as the most essential function for the life of man, and many stories are related to show that it is superior to the other organs, such as the eye or ear, and that on it all other functions depend.

This recognition of the superiority of Prāṇa brings us to the meditations on Prāṇa as Brahman as leading to the most beneficial results.

So also we find that owing to the presence of the exalting characters of omnipresence and eternality ākāśa (space) is meditated upon as Brahman. So also manas and Āditya (sun) are meditated upon as Brahman.

Again side by side with the visible material representation of Brahman as the pervading Vāyu, or the sun and the immaterial representation as ākāśa, manas or Prāṇa, we find also the various kinds of meditations as substitutes for actual sacrifice.

Thus it is that there was an earnest quest after the discovery of Brahman.

We find a stratum of thought which shows that the sages were still blinded by the old ritualistic associations, and though meditation had taken the place of sacrifice yet this was hardly adequate for the highest attainment of Brahman.

Next to the failure of the meditations we have to notice the history of the search after Brahman in which the sages sought to identify Brahman with the presiding deity of the sun, moon, lightning, ether, wind, fire, water, etc., and failed; for none of these could satisfy the ideal they cherished of Brahman.

It is indeed needless here to multiply these examples, for they are tiresome not only in this summary treatment but in the original as well.

They are of value only in this that they indicate how toilsome was the process by which the old ritualistic associations could be got rid of; what struggles and failures the sages had to undergo before they reached a knowledge of the true nature of Brahman.

Unknowability of Brahman and the Negative Method.

It is indeed true that the magical element involved in the discharge of sacrificial duties lingered for a while in the symbolic worship of Brahman in which He was conceived almost as a deity.

The minds of the Vedic poets so long accustomed to worship deities of visible manifestation could not easily dispense with the idea of seeking after a positive and definite content of Brahman.

They tried some of the sublime powers of nature and also many symbols, but these could not render ultimate satisfaction.

They did not know what the Brahman was like, for they had only a dim and dreamy vision of it in the deep craving of their souls which could not be translated into permanent terms.

But this was enough to lead them on to the goal, for they could not be satisfied with anything short of the highest.

They found that by whatever means they tried to give a positive and definite content of the ultimate reality, the Brahman, they failed.

Positive definitions were impossible. They could not point out what the Brahman was like in order to give an utterance to that which was unutterable, they could only say that it was not like aught that we find in experience.

Yājñyavalkya said:

“He the Ātman is not this, nor this (neti neti). He is inconceivable, for he cannot be conceived, unchangeable, for he is not changed, untouched, for nothing touches him; he cannot suffer by a stroke of the sword, he cannot suffer any injury.”

He is asat, non-being, for the being which Brahman is, is not to be understood as such being as is known to us by experience; yet he is being, for he alone is supremely real, for the universe subsists by him.

We ourselves are but he, and yet we know not what he is. Whatever we can experience, whatever we can express, is limited, but he is the unlimited, the basis of all.

“That which is inaudible, intangible, invisible, indestructible, which cannot be tasted, nor smelt, eternal, without beginning or end, greater than the great (mahat), the fixed. He who knows it is released from the jaws of death.”

Space, time and causality do not appertain to him, for he at once forms their essence and transcends them.

He is the infinite and the vast, yet the smallest of the small, at once here as there, there as here; no characterisation of him is possible, otherwise than by the denial to him of all empirical attributes, relations and definitions.

He is independent of all limitations of space, time, and cause which rules all that is objectively presented, and therefore the empirical universe.

When Bāhva was questioned by Vaṣkali, he expounded the nature of Brahman to him by maintaining silence—“Teach me,” said Vaṣkali, “most reverent sir, the nature of Brahman.” Bāhva however remained silent.

But when the question was put forth a second or third time he answered, “I teach you indeed but you do not understand; the Ātman is silence.”

The way to in­dicate it is thus by neti neti, it is not this, it is not this. We cannot describe it by any positive content which is always limited by conceptual thought.

The Ātman doctrine.

The sum and substance of the Upaniṣad teaching is involved in the equation Ātman = Brahman.

We have already seen that the word Ātman was used in the Ṛig-Veda to denote on the one hand the ultimate essence of the universe, and on the other the vital breath in man.

Later on in the Upaniṣads we see that the word Brahman is generally used in the former sense, while the word Ātman is reserved to denote the inmost essence in man, and the Upaniṣads are emphatic in their declaration that the two are one and the same.

But what is the inmost essence of man? The self of man involves an ambiguity, as it is used in a variety of senses.

Thus so far as man consists of the essence of food (i.e. the physical parts of man) he is called annamāyā. But behind the sheath of this body there is the other self consisting of the vital breath which is called the self as vital breath (prāṇamāyā Ātman).

Behind this again there is the other self “consisting of will” called the manomaya Ātman. This again contains within it the self “consisting of consciousness” called the Vijñānamāyā ātman.

But behind it we come to the final essence the self as pure bliss (the ānandamaya ātman).

The texts say:

“Truly he is the rapture; for whoever gets this rapture becomes blissful. For who could live, who could breathe if this space (ākāśa) was not bliss? For it is he who behaves as bliss.

For whoever in that Invisible, Self­surpassing, Unspeakable, Supportless finds fearless support, he really becomes fearless. But whoever finds even a slight difference, between himself and this Ātman there is fear for him.”

Again in another place we find that Prajāpati said:

“The self (Ātman) which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst, whose desires are true, whose cogita­tions are true, that is to be searched for, that is to be enquired; he gets all his desires and all worlds who knows that self.”

The gods and the demons on hearing of this sent Indra and Virochana respectively as their representatives to enquire of this self from Prajāpati.

He agreed to teach them, and asked them to look into a vessel of water and tell him how much of self they could find.

They answered: “We see, this our whole self, even to the hair, and to the nails.” And he said, “Well, that is the self, that is the deathless and the fearless, that is the Brahman.”

They went away pleased, but Prajāpati thought, “There they go away, without having discovered, without having realized the self.”

Virochana came away with the conviction that the body was the self; but Indra did not return back to the gods, he was afraid and pestered with doubts and came back to Prajāpati and said:

“just as the self becomes decorated when the body is decorated, well- dressed when the body is well-dressed, well-cleaned when the body is well-cleaned,

even so that image self will be blind when the body is blind, injured in one eye when the body is injured in one eye, and mutilated when the body is mutilated, and it perishes when the body perishes, therefore I can see no good in this theory.”

Prajāpati then gave him a higher instruction about the self, and said: “He who goes about enjoying dreams, he is the self, this is the deathless, the fearless, this is Brahman.”

Indra departed but was again disturbed with doubts, and was afraid and came back and said:

“that though the dream self does not become blind when the body is blind, or injured in one eye when the body is so injured and is not affected by its defects, and is not killed by its destruction, but yet it is as if it was overwhelmed, as if it suffered and as if it wept—in this I see no good.”

Prajāpati gave a still higher instruction: “When a man, fast asleep, in total contentment, does not know any dreams, this is the self, this is the deathless, the fearless, this is Brahman.”

Indra departed but was again filled with doubts on the way, and returned again and said:

“the self in deep sleep does not know himself, that I am this, nor does he know any other existing objects. He is destroyed and lost. I see no good in this.”

And now Prajāpati after having given a course of successively higher instructions as self as the body, as the self in dreams and as the self in deep dreamless sleep,

and having found that the enquirer in each case could find out that this was not the ultimate truth about the self that he was seeking,

ultimately gave him the ultimate and final instruction about the full truth about the self, and said:

“this body is the support of the deathless and the bodiless self. The self as embodied is affected by pleasure and pain, the self when associated with the body can­not get rid of pleasure and pain, but pleasure and pain do not touch the bodiless self.”

As the tale shows, they sought such a constant and un­changeable essence in man as was beyond the limits of any change.

This inmost essence has sometimes been described as pure subject- object-less consciousness, the reality, and the bliss.

He is the seer of all seeing, the hearer of all hearing and the knower of all knowledge. He sees but is not seen, hears but is not heard, knows but is not known.

He is the light of all lights. He is like a lump of salt, with no inner or outer, which consists through and through entirely of savour; as in truth this Ātman has no inner or outer, but consists through and through entirely of knowledge.

Bliss is not an attribute of it but it is bliss itself. The state of Brahman is thus likened unto the state of dreamless sleep. And he who has reached this bliss is beyond any fear.

It is dearer to us than son, brother, wife, or husband, wealth or prosperity. It is for it and by it that things appear dear to us. It is the dearest par excellence, our inmost Ātman. All limitation is fraught with pain; it is the infinite alone that is the highest bliss.

When a man receives this rapture, then is he full of bliss; for who could breathe, who live, if that bliss had not filled this void (ākāśa)? It is he who behaves as bliss.

For when a man finds his peace, his fearless support in that invisible, supportless, inexpressible, unspeakable one, then has he attained peace.

Place of Brahman in the Upaniṣads.

There is the Ātman not in man alone but in all objects of the universe, the sun, the moon, the world; and Brahman is this Ātman. There is nothing outside the Ātman, and therefore there is no plurality at all.

As from a lump of clay all that is made of clay is known, as from an ingot of black iron all that is made of black iron is known, so when this Ātman the Brahman is known everything else is known.

The essence in man and the essence of the universe are one and the same, and it is Brahman.

Now a question may arise as to what may be called the nature of the phenomenal world of colour, sound, taste, and smell.

But we must also remember that the Upaniṣads do not represent so much a conceptional system of philosophy as visions of the seers who are possessed by the spirit of this Brahman.

They do not notice even the contradiction between the Brahman as unity and nature in its diversity. When the empirical aspect of diversity attracts their notice, they affirm it and yet declare that it is all Brahman.

From Brahman it has come forth and to it will it return. He has himself created it out of himself and then entered into it as its inner controller (Antaryāmin).

Here is thus a glaring dualistic trait of the world of matter and Brahman as its controller, though in other places we find it asserted most emphatically that these are but names and forms, and when Brahman is known everything else is known.

The universe is said to be a reality, but the real in it is Brahman alone.

It is on account of Brahman that the fire burns and the wind blows. He is the active principle in the entire universe, and yet the most passive and unmoved. The world is his body, yet he is the soul within.

He creates all, wills all, smells all, tastes all, he has pervaded all, silent and un­affected”. He is below, above, in the back, in front, in the south and in the north, he is all this.

“These rivers in the east and in the west originating from the ocean, return back into it and become the ocean themselves, though they do not know that they are so.

So also all these people coming into being from the Being do not know that they have come from the Being....That which is the subtlest that is the self, that is all this, the truth, that self thou art O Śvetaketu.”

“Brahman,” as Deussen points out, “was regarded as the cause antecedent in time, and the universe as the effect proceeding from it; the inner dependence of the universe on Brahman and its essential identity with him was represented as a creation of the universe by and out of Brahman.”

This world principle is the dearest to us and the highest teaching of the Upaniṣads is “That art thou.

Again the growth of the doctrine that Brahman is the “inner controller” in all the parts and forces of nature and of mankind as the Ātman thereof, and that all the effects of the universe are the result of his commands which no one can outstep, gave rise to a theistic current of thought in which Brahman is held as standing aloof as God and controlling the world.

It is by his ordaining, it is said, that the sun and moon are held together, and the sky and earth stand held together. God and soul are distinguished again in the famous verse of Śvetāśvatara:

Two bright-feathered bosom friends
Flit around one and the same tree;
One of them tastes the sweet berries,
The other without eating merely gazes down.

But in spite of this apparent theistic tendency and the occa­sional use of the word Īśa or Īśāna, there seems to be no doubt that theism in its true sense was never prominent,

and this acknow­ledgement of a supreme Lord was also an offshoot of the exalted position of the Ātman as the supreme principle.

Thus we read in Kauṣītaka Upaniṣad 3. 9:

“He is not great by good deeds nor low by evil deeds, but it is he makes one do good deeds whom he wants to raise, and makes him commit bad deeds whom he wants to lower down.

He is the protector of the universe, he is the master of the world and the lord of all; he is my soul (Ātman).” Thus the lord in spite of his greatness is still my Soul.

There are again other passages which regard Brahman as being at once immanent and transcendent.

Thus it is said that there is that eternally existing tree whose roots grow upward and whose branches grow downward. All the universes are supported in it and no one can transcend it.

This is that, “...from its fear the fire burns, the sun shines, and from its fear Indra, Vāyu and Death the fifth (with the other two) run on.”

If we overlook the different shades in the development of the conception of Brahman in the Upaniṣads and look to the main currents,

we find that the strongest current of thought which has found expression in the majority of the texts is this that the Ātman or the Brahman is the only reality and that besides this everything else is unreal.

The other current of thought which is to be found in many of the texts is the pantheistic creed that identifies the universe with the Ātman or Brahman.

The third current is that of theism which looks upon Brahman as the Lord controlling the world.

It is because these ideas were still in the melting pot, in which none of them were systematically worked out, that the later exponents of Vedanta, Śankara, Rāmānuja, and others quarrelled over the meanings of texts in order to develop a consistent systematic philosophy out of them.

Thus it is that the doctrine of Māyā which is slightly hinted at once in Brihadāraṇyaka and thrice in Śvetāśvatara, becomes the founda­tion of Śankara’s philosophy of the Vedanta in which Brahman alone is real and all else beside him is unreal.