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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Brahman and Atman - 1

Brahman and Atman are one and the same.

Who or what is Brahman? The root word is brh, to grow or to expand. It is the Ultimate Reality, the ground of the universe, the primordial Source of everything in this Universe. That which pervades every aspect of the universe is Brahman. When I was struggling to write this passage, I went back to the Taittriya Upanishad, thanks to Kanchi Periyaval.  Taittriya Upanishad ( Volume 2, section 7) says: “Asadva idamagra aasit. Thathou vai sadajaayata. Thadaatmanam svayamakrutha. Thasmaat thath sukruthamucchyata ithi” .  Translated into English, it says: “In the beginning all this was but the unmanifest (Brahman). From that emerged the manifest. The Brahman created Itself by Itself. Therefore It is called the self-creator”.

Brahman is called Sat (Absolute Truth), chit (Absolute knowledge) and ananda (Absolute happiness) in a positive mode. Since It transcends all concepts and ideas It is called Nirguna (quality-less) and Ananta (infinite). In a negative sense it is referred to as “neti”, not this by negating the visible Universe.

A story from Sankara’s analysis of Brahma Sutra is quoted by Tilak (Gita Rahasya Vol 1 page 567). Baskali, a student asks his master Bahva: “Please explain what Brahman is”. Bahva would not give an answer. Baskali asks again and Bahva remains silent. After being pestered by Baskali 3 or 4 times Bahva says: “ I have been giving you the answer all this time. Did you not get it? The form of Brahman cannot be described in anyway and therefore, remaining silent and not giving any description is the truest description of the Brahman”.

The same Brahman is also called by different names in the different schools of thought. They are:  Paramatman, Satchidananda, and Parabrahman in his Nirguna (Quality-less) phase and Iswara,Narayana, Shiva, and Shakthi in the Saguna phase (with name and form).

Since everything came out of IT, a part of It is in every living and non-living matter. That “part” of It, individualized is the Atman.  “How did that One Brahman become the many Atmans? ”, “Is there only ONE Atman or are there several Atmans? ” and “What is the relationship between Atman and Brahman?” are the questions from which different darshanas and schools of thoughts began.

Atman is defined by the root word an (latin animus), to breathe and by its actions as follows: Aapnoti ( it takes what it wants); aadathey (it makes that object its own); atthi (it will experience that object) and asthi (will move about taking a form). In English, an equivalent word is soul, the self. However, the concept of soul is closer to the idea of sukshma sarira of the vedic concepts. The concept of Atman reaches a stage beyond soul.

A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy gives seven different meanings to the word Atman. According to the Advaita school, atman is “the substrate of the individual and identical with the Absolute Brahman”. Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools call it the substratum in which cognition resides. Sankhya and Yoga schools define it as attributeless, self-luminous omnipresent entity and identical with consciousness or purusha. The Upanishads say that atman denotes the ultimate essence of the universe as well as the vital breath in human beings. It is neither born nor does it die. It is imperishable.

 Buddhism denies that there is anything called atman. (more about this later)

Tilak says that there are three different meanings for Atman; rather, the word atman stands for three concepts. 1.the antaratman, the one deep inside, the animating principle, which is one with paramatman in the advaita system 2. The self, in the sense of ownership, volition and knowledge (jiva) and 3. The mind, as one of the sense organs (manas). (page 988, Gita Rahasya of B G Tilak)

According to the Upanishads, Atman (Brahman) is something that can only be experienced. It is something that cannot be explained since it has no indicative mark. However, Upanishads and other scriptures try to convey the concept of atman in different ways. One passage in Kathopanishad (II:ii:5) comes as close to a definition of an undefinable as possible.  The passage states: Na pranena na apanena matryo jeevath kashchana; itharena thu jeevanthi yasmin ethou upashrithou. In translation it means that no mortal lives by prana (breathing out) or apana (breathing in); but all live by something else on which these two depend. That is the Atman.

Kenopanishad (sloka 4)  says: Since the reality of my consciousness, by virtue of which I am the witness, exists equally in all. I am not a mere witness in a single body. And since differences, origination etc are not inherent in the witness, the non-dual eternality of the witness is possible” That witness is Atman.

Adi Sankara takes the Vedic statement that sarvam khalu idam brahma and then adds two variations: atma cha brahma and jivo brahmaiva na aparah.  (pages 70,71 and 187 of Sankara’s Teachings in his own words. Bhavan’s  Publication, 1964). He argues that Self is different from the mind because Self understands the states of the mind, such as “I am sad, I am glad” etc. It is common experience for all of us to feel “I know this” and “I do not know this”. Therefore, knowledge and ignorance themselves are objects of knowledge of a “knower” (Kshetragna). The Self of man (Atman) is that knower of “all including knowledge and ignorance”. Thinking cannot reveal Atman, since the process of knowledge is dependent on Atman, the knower. Atman has to be posited before knowledge. Atman is the light of the witness itself.

In Atmagnaana upadeshavidhi, Adi Sankara’s explains Atman  as follows: I have a witness and so have you. This witness, this “I” of each one of us is indicative of samashti or a collective “I” state. That is atman (and according to Advaita, it will be Brahman also).  The continuity and the memory portions of the “I” (the jivan) and the ownership portion are properties of the mind which is illuminated by atman and when atman identifies itself with this entity.

In another Bhashya, Adi Sankara says that perceptions can vary but the characteristic of the seer is the “unchangeability”. Mind is the perceiver but subject to errors and changeable. We also know and say: “my mind was not there” etc. We also know how we do not “know” anything when we sleep. When we are awake we know. Thus, we know about both “knowing” and “not knowing”. Therefore there is something proximal to it.  That is the consciousness or awareness of the “I”, the ultimate Subject and not an object of anything else. It is self-luminous and is Atman.

In conjunction with buddhi (intellect) and ahamkara (ego), the atman gives the sense of an individual self. When this witness (atman) identifies itself with ahamkara, then it is called jiva(n). This corresponds to the soul in the west.

Drg Drshya viveka proceeds as follows: the form is perceived and the eye is the perceiver; mind is the perceiver of the eye (that is why in Vedic psychology, the mind is a considered a sense organ); mind is perceived and that perceiver, that witness is Atman. Every thought has a subject and an object. The ultimate subject without object, which illuminates our mind, is the Atman.

 Here are some more descriptions of Atman:

Kena Upanishad says: Atman is shrottrasya shrottram manso mano yad; vaachoha vaacham sa u pransya pranah; chakshuh cha chankshuh …..  It is the eye of the eye; the life of the life.

Kathopanishad calls it:  jagatah prathishtaam  dhurdharsham goodam anupravishtam Guhahitham gahvareshtam puraanam.  It is the foundation of this universe. It is difficult to see. It is deep inside every one of us since it has entered into the cave of our hearts. It is ancient.

Kathopanishd also says: anneeyan hi atharkyan anupramaanaath. It is beyond arguments, being subtler than subtle.

Yoga vasishta says: chinmatra chetyarahitham anantham ajaram shivam annadhimadhyaparyanthm yat anadi nirramayam.  It is pure consciousness, boundless, undecaying and auspicious. It has no beginning, middle or end. It is without any blemish.

Tilak’s  argument for the existence of atman is as follows. Juxtaposition of the body and the mind is called a sanghatha. Sanghatha in Sanskrit means an aggregate, like an emulsion. What is the force that keeps them together and activates them? An aggregate cannot give itself the knowledge of its own existence. The thing for the benefit of which the aggregate organs function must be distinct from the aggregate of body and mind. That is atman – kshetragna (the knower). That kshetragna (atman) cannot be the organs of perception (gneya) since perception depends on kshetragna. This argument is well-stated in the famous question by Yagnavalkya : “How can you know the knower?”  

(October 2014) After posting this blog I was re-reading Isa Upanishad. There is a definition of Atman in this Upanishad also. That definition stimulated the following thoughts on Atman and Self.

The Sanskrit equivalent of the word “Self” is “Atman”. In any language a word is intended to carry a meaning and words are created by humans. Our ancestors who created these words are worthy of our respect. They were enlightened individuals. Yet, they were humans, like us. They were ahead of their times. But they created these words at a time when they did not have access to all the new knowledge we have of the human body, the mind and the universe. It is appropriate to revisit the meaning of these words and it is not a disrespect to our ancestors.  

The words Self and Atman were intended to refer to “something” apprehended by the human mind on the basis of perceptions of this world and of the universe. All of the experiences of our ancestors showed (still the same for us) that physical things and life-forms come and go and change. Lightning strikes. Volcanoes erupt. Oceans swell and swallow everything on their path. The sun and moon get covered for no apparent reason. In essence, this universe and this life are impermanent, imperfect, fantastic, mysterious and often frightening. 

Our mind looks for causes and motives all the time. Where did all of this come from? Where did I come from? Our logic keeps going backwards with these questions and comes to a point where it says “All of this must have come from ONE thing”. If so, what is that THING? How did that one thing become many? 

The words Self and Atman were created to refer to that ONE THING. It is a word to refer to a mental apprehension of a sensation/perception of a THING beyond what is available for apprehension. Isa Upanishad names that ONE as Atman and defines it as follows (Isa Up 1:8): self-generated, eternal, transcendent, pure, “all-knowing” and “knower of the mind.  

The definition is appropriate in contrast to the impermanent and imperfect frightening universe. But, the problem I see with the above definition is that the list also included one other characteristic, namely “body-less”. This is true of the definition of the spirit and the soul in Western philosophy also. If we can let go of this part of the definition, it will be more in line with our modern knowledge and we can stop finding twisted explanations and circular reasoning to get at the mystery of this Universe.

(to be continued)

And here is the quote for this month: from "The Centipede's Dilemma". By Katherine Craster (1841-74) in Pinafore Poems (1871)

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.