Brahman is the Supreme, Absolute, impersonal reality in the Hindu religion. The notion is presented in the Upanishads, a series of philosophical texts written in part verse and part prose, the earliest of which probably date to the eighth century BCE. The Upanishads present various important concepts and doctrines including the nature of the self, which it describes as having three parts: a material body; a subtle body constituting thoughts, feelings, and experiences; and a pure consciousness called atman (1). Phenomenologist and historian of religion Ninian Smart explains that,
“The central concept in the Upanishads is that of brahman. This is sacred or divine power operative in the sacrifice and indeed within the Brahmin class itself. What power? The new insight of these texts is that the whole cosmos is as it were a sacrifice, and brahman is the holy power which informs and animates the whole of reality. Consequently the word came to be used as a name of the divine Ultimate, or of God, and is commonly written in English with a capital, as Brahman” (2).
In his analysis of the central Hindu texts, Juan Miguel De Mora writes that “all of Hinduism speaks of a single Brahman (neuter), of a single Supreme Truth, of one Ultimate Reality and of a single Absolute, that is, of one God alone, and that the different names given to the various manifestations of Brahman are but different denominations for the one…” (3).
Most Hindus believe that atman is identical with Brahman. They also believe that although people view themselves as separate their consciousness or soul is united with the Ultimate Reality of the universe. This can be understood through several images presented in the Upanishads. In the Chandogya Upanishad there is a well-known story of a dialogue between a sage, Uddalaka Aruni, and his son, Svetaketu. According to this story, Aruni asks his son to bring a fig from a tree and slice it open. Svetaketu obeys and once having cut the fig his father asks what he sees. Svetaketu replies by saying “seeds”, upon which Aruni asks him to now divide the seed. Svetaketu divides a seed and his father asks him what he sees, but the boy says that he sees “nothing.” According to Aruni, there is an important lesson here, which is essentially about the nature of reality: just as the seed is made of nothing so is the fig tree from which it comes. Its essence or soul is “nothingness.” According to this reasoning, the analysis of any solid object will inevitably lead to an invisible essence that is present within everything. This is what Brahman is, and it applies to human beings, just as it does to figs and fig trees.
Another image used to illustrate Brahman is in a dialogue about a bowl of water. In this dialogue, a boy is asked to taste the water from different parts of the bowl, and it tastes the same throughout. Then some salt is dissolved in the water and although the appearance of the water remains the same as before, all of it now tastes like salt. Just like the salt in the water, Brahman is present everywhere as the Absolute Reality. According to this image, there is an invisible, Absolute Reality that permeates everything, and that is within the person’s innermost self.
The concept of Brahman was further core to the practical dimension of ancient Hinduism, particularly in sacrifice. Brahman came to be seen as a sacred power both in the sacrificial process and the cosmos. The Brahmins, the priests and religious leaders of ritual life, thought of themselves as animated by the power of Brahman and, by consequence, enjoyed tremendous prestige and were sought by wealthy Indians and kings. Through the sacrifice of a cow or expensive items, the Brahmins attempted to control cosmic events and bring good fortune and material prosperity to those making the offering.
Although some of the images in the Upanishads about Brahman provide clarity, it is mistaken to assume that there is no diversity and possibly even contradiction. As Smart explains, “God is described in numerous narratives as taking many forms, and gradually there grew up the view that the different gods were so many manifestations of the One Divine Being. This idea, first expressed in Rig Veda, was among other things a way of synthesizing the myriad myths” (4). Some of the Upanishads, the Isa Upanisad (Secret Teaching of the Lord) for example, see Brahman as a personal Lord, or as Isvara. However, elsewhere it is presented without having qualities and said to lie beyond even speech itself. Given this diversity, later Indian philosophy concerned itself with the question as to whether Brahman or the Ultimate was to be understood as personal or impersonal. Some thinkers even tried to marry the two by seeing it to be both, such as personal in relation to the universe and creatures, but impersonal within its own nature.
1. Ambalu, S. 2013. The Religions Book. London: DK.
2. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 73
3. Miguel De Mora, Juan. 1997. “The Western View of Hinduism: An Age-Old Mistake.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 78: 1-12. p. 1
4. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 48.