What is Brahman?

Brahman or the Supreme Self is beyond time and space, causation. He is limitless. He is tranquil. He shines with equal effulgence in all bodies. He cannot be any particular thing. He is chaitanya or pure consciousness. He is the jewel of jewels. He is the imperishable, inexhaustible supreme wealth, which no dacoit can rob.

A supreme principle exists. It is Atman. It is Para Brahman. It is imperishable, unborn, undecaying and undying. It is ancient. It is one. It is a mass of wisdom and bliss. It has neither name nor form. It has neither contraction nor expansion, neither beauty nor ugliness. Brahman is surrounded by an ocean of mind, an ocean of prana, vital force, and an ocean of ether and tanmatras, essence of the elements and senses. That unheard hearer, that unseen seer, that unthought thinker, that unknown knower is Brahman. That from which this world has come out, that in which this world exists, that in which it gets dissolved is Brahman.

Brahman or Atman or the Supreme Self is self-luminous. Brahman cannot be manifested by anything else. Brahman manifests everything. The doctrine of self-luminosity is one of the foundational tenets on which the entire edifice of Vedanta is constructed. Atman gives light to the sun, the moon, the stars, the lightning, the fire, the intellect and the senses. By the light of Atman all these shine but they cannot illumine Atman.

Brahman alone is the Infinite. There cannot be two infinities. If there were two infinities, there will be a conflict among the infinities themselves. One Infinite will be creating something, another Infinite will be destroying something. There can be only one Infinite. This Atman is the one Infinite Brahman. Everything else is its manifestation or expression.

Look within. What is the real ‘I’? That is the soul. That is Atman. That is Brahman. That is pure consciousness.

Nature of Brahman

Ananta, infinite, nirakara, formless, nirguna, attributeless, nirvishesha, without characteristics, adrishta, invisible, are His negative attributes. Sat-chit-ananda, truth-consciousness-bliss, satyam, truth, shantam, peace, jnanam, knowledge, are His direct, positive attributes. This is a description of the nature of Atman in Ishavasya Upanishad (v. 8):

Atman pervades all, is resplendent, bodiless, scatheless, having no muscles, pure, untouched by sin; far-seeing, omniscient, transcendent, self-sprung; he duly allotted to the various eternal creatures their respective functions.

The scriptures emphatically declare about the nature of Brahman: Akashavat Sarvagata Nitya – “Like the ether, He is omnipresent, eternal.” Ether and the ocean are the two objects in this world which can be compared to Brahman in a way with reference to His infinite nature. Ether is subtle, all-pervading and without any support. Brahman also is subtle, all-pervading and without any support (niralamba). Hence the comparison between akasha and Brahman.

Smile, laughter, singing, dancing, are expressions of your joyful condition. They give the clue that you are in essence an embodiment of bliss. They indicate that bliss is an attribute of the soul. They denote that Brahman is an embodiment of ananda (anandaghana). Brahman is a mass of intelligence (chidghana, vijnanaghana, prajnanaghana). He is destitute of any other characteristics. He is entirely without any sort of difference. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4:13), it is said: “As a mass of salt has neither inside nor outside, but is entirely a mass of taste, thus indeed has that Self neither inside nor outside, but is altogether a mass of knowledge.” Inside and outside are mental creation only. When the mind melts in the silence, ideas of inside and outside vanish. The sage cognizes one illimitable, homogeneous mass of consciousness.

An indescribable reality

The eye cannot perceive Him. The mind cannot reach Him. The gross worldly intellect cannot grasp Him. The speech cannot describe Him. The speech returns back along with the mind, as it is not able to describe Him in adequate terms. The sages declare, “We are baffled in our efforts to describe Him. His glory is indescribable. To describe Him is to deny Him.” How can a finite mind grasp the infinite? But He can be directly realized by that aspirant who is equipped with the four means of salvation, who does constant meditation, who has sharp, subtle and pure intellect.

As there is no language to describe Brahman or the Self to aspirants, sages generally take examples from the worldly experience to explain the nature of Brahman to the aspirants, for example, the comparison with akasha or sat-chit-ananda. The intellect can conceive of Brahman as truth-consciousness-bliss. That is the reason why these attributes are ascribed to Him. But Brahman is different from satchidananda also. This does not mean that Brahman is non-entity or zero, a negative concept or metaphysical abstraction. He is the only Reality or living Truth. He is Being. He is essence. He is a mass of knowledge or pure consciousness. He is the substratum for everything. Brahman is not simply this, but something far higher and far different. The above is only a provisional definition. Because we experience unreality, insentience and pain in this universe, we give the opposite attributes of sat-chit-ananda to Brahman. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2:4:13), it is asked: “Then by what should he see whom?” This clearly indicates that Brahman is not an object of perception. It is always the knowing subject.

There is neither an agent nor an object of action, nor an instrument. It is only in the physical plane that there is triputi or the triad: seer, sight and seen. Who can know the knower? How should one know Him by whom He knows all this? You could not see the seer of sight; you could not hear the hearer of the hearing; you could not perceive the perceiver of perception; you could not know the knower of knowledge.

Beyond illusion

Once, ten ignorant people swam across a river. On reaching the other shore, they began to count themselves to see whether all had reached safely. One man counted all the other nine and forgot to count himself, and began to weep bitterly. He thought that one man had drowned. The other nine persons also counted in the same manner, each man forgetting to count himself and began to weep. A bystander who was noticing their folly pointed out, “No one is missing. There are ten men here. The tenth man is yourself. You have failed to count yourself.” They were all immensely pleased.

Just as the men who failed to see, though near, the existence of themselves, for their minds were engrossed in counting the others, so also the individual being on account of ignorance is quite oblivious of his being in reality one with Brahman.

Thus Brahman, despite being atman itself, is not attained on account of ignorance. But when one is taught by the scriptures and the preceptor, one beholds the Brahman, the atman of all, to be his own Self. This is just as the men, who when reminded by someone else, found themselves again by knowledge.