Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) in Hinduism connotes the highest universal principle, the ultimate reality in the universe. In major schools of Hindu philosophy, it is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all that exists. It is the pervasive, infinite, eternal truth, consciousness, and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman as a metaphysical concept refers to the single binding unity behind diversity in all that exists in the universe. It is discussed in Hindu texts with the concept of Atman (आत्मन्), (Self), personal, impersonal, or Para Brahman, or in various combinations of these qualities depending on the philosophical school.
Sanskrit (ब्रह्मन्) Brahman is a neuter noun to be distinguished from the masculine brahmán—denoting a person associated with it, and from Brahmā, the creator God in the Hindu Trinity, the Trimurti. Brahman is thus a gender-neutral concept that implies greater impersonality than masculine or feminine conceptions of the deity.
History and Literature
It is a concept present in Vedic Samhitas, the oldest layer of the Vedas dated to the late 2nd millennium BCE. For example,
The Ṛcs are limited (parimita),
The Samans are limited,
And the Yajuses are limited,
But of the Word Brahman, there is no end. — Taittiriya Samhita VII.3.1.4
The concept is referred to in hundreds of hymns in the Vedas. The word Brahma is found in Rigveda hymns such as 2.2.10, 6.21.8, 10.72.2, and Atharvaveda hymns such as 6.122.5, 10.1.12, and 14.1.131. The concept is found in various layers of the Vedic literature; for example Aitareya Brahmana 1.18.3, Kausitaki Brahmana 6.12, Satapatha Brahmana 18.104.22.168, Taittiriya Brahmana 22.214.171.124, Jaiminiya Brahmana 1.129, Taittiriya Aranyaka 4.4.1 through 5.4.1, Vajasaneyi Samhita 22.4 through 23.25, Maitrayani Samhita 3.12.1:16.2 through 4.9.2:122.15. The concept is extensively discussed in the Upanishads embedded in the Vedas.
The primary focus of the early Upanishads is Brahmavidya and Atmavidya, that is the knowledge of Brahman and the knowledge of Atman (Self), what it is, and how it is understood. The texts do not present a single unified theory, rather they present a variety of themes with multiple possible interpretations, which flowered in a post-Vedic era as premises for the diverse schools of Hinduism.
According to Radhakrishnan, the sages of the Upanishads teach Brahman as the ultimate essence of material phenomena that cannot be seen or heard, but whose nature can be known through the development of self-knowledge (atma jnana).
The Upanishads contain several Mahā-vākyas or “Great Sayings” on the concept of Brahman:
|अहं ब्रह्म अस्मि
|Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10||I am Brahman|
|अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म
Ayam ātmā Brahma
|Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5||The Self is Brahman|
|सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्म
Sarvam khalvidam Brahma
|Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1||All this is Brahman|
|Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1||That [Brahman] is one, without a second|
Tat tvam asi
|Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 et seq.||Thou art that (You are Brahman)|
|Aitareya Upanishad 3.3.7||Wisdom is Brahman|
The Upanishad discusses the metaphysical concept in many ways, such as the Śāṇḍilya doctrine in Chapter 3 of the Chandogya Upanishad, among the oldest Upanishadic texts. The Śāṇḍilya doctrine is not unique to Chandogya Upanishad but found in other ancient texts such as the Satapatha Brahmana in section 10.6.3. It asserts that Atman (the inner essence, Self inside man) exists, it is identical with Atman, that the Brahman is inside man—thematic quotations that are frequently cited by later schools of Hinduism and modern studies on Indian philosophies.
Brahman Schools of Thought
The concept, its nature, and its relationship with Atman and the observed universe are major points of difference between the various sub-schools of the Vedanta school of Hinduism.
Advaita Vedanta espouses nondualism. Brahman is the sole unchanging reality. There is no duality, no limited individual Self nor a separate unlimited cosmic Self. Rather all Self, all of existence, across all space and time, is the same. The universe and the Self inside each being is Brahman, and the universe and the Self outside each being are Brahman, according to Advaita Vedanta. It is the origin and end of all things, material and spiritual. It is the root source of everything that exists.
The universe does not simply come from Brahman. According to Adi Shankara, a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, the knowledge that Shruti provides cannot be obtained by any other means besides self-inquiry.
In Advaita Vedanta, nirguna Brahman, that is the Brahman without attributes, is held to be the ultimate and sole reality. Consciousness is not a property of Brahman but its very nature. In this respect, Advaita Vedanta differs from other Vedanta schools.
Example verses from Bhagavad-Gita include:
The offering is Brahman; the oblation is Brahman;
offered by Brahman into the fire of Brahman.
It will be attained by him,
who always sees it in action. – Hymn 4.24
He who finds his happiness within,
His delight within,
And his light within,
This yogin attains the bliss of Brahman, becoming Brahman. – Hymn 5.24 — Bhagavad Gita
Brahman of Dvaita is a concept similar to God in major world religions. Dvaita holds that the individual Self is dependent on God but distinct.
Dvaita propounds Tattvavada which means understanding differences between Tattvas (significant properties) of entities within the universal substrate as follows:
- Jîva-Îshvara-bheda — the difference between the Self and Vishnu
- Jada-Îshvara-bheda — the difference between the insentient and Vishnu
- Mitha-jîva-bheda — the difference between any two Selves
- Jada-jîva-bheda — the difference between the insentient and the Self
- Mitha-jada-bheda — the difference between any two insentients
Achintya Bheda Abheda
The Acintya Bheda Abheda philosophy is similar to Dvaitadvaita (differential monism). In this philosophy, Brahman is not just impersonal, but also personal. That Brahman is the Supreme Personality of the Godhead, though on the first stage of realization (by a process called jnana) of Absolute Truth.
He is realized as impersonal Brahman, then as personal having eternal Vaikuntha abode (also known as Brahmalokah Sanatana), then as Paramatma (by process of yoga–a meditation on Superself, Vishnu-God in the heart)—Vishnu (Narayana, also in everyone’s heart) who has many abodes known as Vishnulokas (Vaikunthalokas), and finally (Absolute Truth is realized by bhakti) as Bhagavan, Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the source of both Paramatma and Brahman (personal, impersonal, or both).
All Vaishnava schools are panentheistic and perceive the Advaita concept of identification of Atman with the impersonal Brahman as an intermediate step of self-realization, but not Mukti, or final liberation of complete God-realization through Bhakti Yoga. Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a form of Achintya Bheda Abheda philosophy, also concludes that Brahman is the Supreme Personality of the Godhead. According to them, which is Lord Vishnu; the universe and all other manifestations of the Supreme are extensions of Him.
Saguna- Nirguna Brahman
The Bhakti movement of Hinduism built its theosophy around two concepts of Brahman—Nirguna and Saguna. Nirguna Brahman was the concept of the Ultimate Reality as formless, without attributes or quality. The two had parallels in the ancient pantheistic unmanifest and theistic manifest traditions, respectively, and traceable to the Arjuna-Krishna dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita. It is the same Brahman, but viewed from two perspectives, one from Nirguni knowledge-focus and the other from Saguni love-focus, united as Krishna (an 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu) in the Gita.
Nirguna bhakta’s poetry was Jnana-shrayi or had roots in knowledge. Saguna Bhakta’s poetry was Prema-spray, or with roots in love. In Bhakti, the emphasis is reciprocal love and devotion, where the devotee loves God, and God loves the devotee.
Jeaneane Fowler statement
Jeaneane Fowler states that the concepts of Nirguna and Saguna Brahman, at the root of Bhakti movement theosophy, underwent more profound development with the ideas of the Vedanta school of Hinduism, particularly those of Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, and Madhvacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta. Two 12th-century influential treatises on bhakti were Sandilya Bhakti Sutra—a treatise resonating with Nirguna-bhakti, and Narada Bhakti Sutra—a treatise that leans towards Saguna-bhakti.
Concepts of the Bhakti Movement
Nirguna and Saguna Brahman concepts of the Bhakti movement have been baffling to scholars, particularly the Nirguni tradition because it offers, states David Lorenzen, “heart-felt devotion to a God without attributes, without even any definable personality”. Yet given the “mountains of Nirguni bhakti literature”, adds Lorenzen, bhakti for Nirguna Brahman has been a part of the reality of the Hindu tradition along with the bhakti for Saguna Brahman. These were two alternate ways of imagining God during the bhakti movement.
The Buddhist understanding of Brahman
The Upanishadic doctrine of Brahman
Buddhism rejects the Upanishadic doctrine of Brahman and Atman (permanent Self, essence). According to Damien Keown, “the Buddha said he could find no evidence for the existence of either the personal Self (atman) or its cosmic counterpart (brahman)”. The metaphysics of Buddhism rejects Brahman (ultimate being), Brahman-like essence, Self, and anything metaphysically equivalent through its Anatta doctrine.
Merv Fowler statement
According to Merv Fowler, some forms of Buddhism have incorporated concepts that resemble that of Brahman. For example, Fowler cites the early Sarvastivada school of Buddhism, which “had come to accept a very pantheistic religious philosophy, and are important because of the impetus they gave to the development of Mahayana Buddhism”.
William Theodore De Bary’s statement
According to William Theodore De Bary, in the doctrines of the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism, “the Body of Essence, the Ultimate Buddha, who pervaded and underlay the whole universe […] was the World Self, the Brahman of the Upanishads, in a new form”.
According to Fowler, some scholars have identified Buddhist nirvana, conceived of as the Ultimate Reality, with the Hindu Brahman/atman; Fowler claims that this view “has gained little support in Buddhist circles.” Fowler asserts that the authors of several Mahayana texts took pains to differentiate their ideas from the Upanishadic doctrine of Brahman.
Brahma as a surrogate for Brahman in Buddhist texts
Concept of Brahman
The spiritual concept is far older in the Vedic literature, and some scholars suggest deity Brahma may have emerged as a personal conception and icon with form and attributes (saguna version) of the impersonal, nirguna (without attributes), a formless universal principle called Brahman. In the Hindu texts, one of the earliest mentions of the deity Brahma along with Vishnu and Shiva is in the fifth Prapathaka (lesson) of the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, probably composed in the late 1st millennium BCE, after the rise of Buddhism.
Buddhists attack the concept of Brahma
The early Buddhists attacked the concept of Brahma, states Gananath Obeyesekere, and thereby polemically attacked the Vedic and Upanishadic concept of gender-neutral, abstract metaphysical Brahman. This critique of Brahma in early Buddhist texts aims at ridiculing the Vedas, but the same texts simultaneously call metta (loving-kindness, compassion) the state of union with Brahma.
Early Buddhist approach to Brahma
The early Buddhist approach to Brahma was to reject any creator aspect, while retaining the value system in the Vedic Brahmavihara concepts, in the Buddhist value system. According to Martin Wiltshire, the term “Brahma loka” in the Buddhist canon, instead of “Svarga loka”, is likely a Buddhist attempt to choose and emphasize the “true power” and knowledge focus of the Brahman concept in the Upanishads.
Simultaneously, by reformulating Brahman as Brahma and relegating it within its Devas and Samsara theories, early Buddhism rejected the Atman-Brahman premise of the Vedas to present its own Dhamma doctrines (anicca, dukkha, and anatta).
Brahman in Sikhism
The metaphysical concept of Brahman, particularly as nirguni Brahman—attributeless, formless, eternal Highest Reality—is at the foundation of Sikhism.
One without a second
In Gauri, which is part of the Guru Granth Sahib, Brahman is declared as “One without a second”, in Sri Rag “everything is born of Him, and is finally absorbed in Him”, in Var Asa “whatever we see or hear is the manifestation of Brahman”. Nesbitt states that the first two words, Ik Onkar, in the twelve-word Mul Mantar at the opening of the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib, has been translated in three different ways by scholars: “There is one God”, “This being is One”, and as “One reality is”.
A similar emphasis on “One without a second” for the metaphysical concept, is found in ancient texts of Hinduism, such as the Chandogya Upanishad‘s chapter 6.2. The ideas about God and the Highest Reality in Sikhism share themes found in the Saguna and Nirguna concepts of Brahman in Hinduism.
Nam, Sat-naam, or Naam
The concept of Ultimate Reality (Brahman) is also referred to in Sikhism as Nam, Sat-naam, or Naam, and Ik Oankar like Hindu Om symbolizes this Reality.
Brahman in Jainism
Rejection of the Brahman concept
Scholars contest whether the concept is rejected or accepted in Jainism. The concept of a theistic God is rejected by Jainism, but Jiva or “Atman (Self) exists” is held to be a metaphysical truth and central to its theory of rebirths and Kevala Jnana.
Jainism accepts the Material world and Atman
Bissett states that Jainism accepts the “material world” and “Atman“, but rejects Brahman—the metaphysical concept of Ultimate Reality and Cosmic Principles found in the ancient texts of Hinduism. Goswami, in contrast, states that the literature of Jainism has an undercurrent of monist theme, where the self who gains the knowledge of Brahman (Highest Reality, Supreme Knowledge) is identical to Brahman itself.
Jaini states that Jainism neither accepts nor rejects the premise of Ultimate Reality (Brahman), instead Jain ontology adopts a many-sided doctrine called Anekantavada. This doctrine holds that “reality is irreducibly complex” and no human view or description can represent the Absolute Truth. Those who have understood and realized the Absolute Truth are the liberated ones and the Supreme Self (Paramatman), with Kevala Jnana.
Comparison of Brahma, Brahman, Brahmin, and Brahmanas
Brahma is distinct from Brahman. Brahma is a male deity, in the post-Vedic Puranic literature, who creates but neither preserves nor destroys anything.
Brahman is a metaphysical concept of Hinduism referring to the ultimate unchanging reality, that is uncreated, eternal, infinite, transcendent, the cause, the foundation, the source, and the goal of all existence. It is a gender-neutral abstract concept.
Brahman concept is predominant
The abstract Brahman concept is predominant in the Vedic texts, particularly the Upanishads; while the deity Brahma finds minor mention in the Vedas and the Upanishads. In the Puranic and the Epics literature, the deity Brahma appears more often, but inconsistently. Some texts suggest that God Vishnu created Brahma (Vaishnavism), others suggest God Shiva created Brahma (Shaivism), yet others suggest Goddess Devi created Brahma (Shaktism), and these texts then go on to state that Brahma is a secondary creator of the world working respectively on their behalf.
Further, the medieval era texts of these major theistic traditions of Hinduism assert that the saguna Brahman is Vishnu, Shiva, or Devi respectively, they are different names or aspects of the Brahman, and that the Atman (Self) within every living being is the same or part of this ultimate, eternal Brahman.
Brahmin is a varna in Hinduism specializing in theory as priests, preservers, and transmitters of sacred literature across generations.
The Brahmanas are one of the four ancient layers of texts within the Vedas. They are primarily a digest incorporating myths, legends, the explanation of Vedic rituals, and in some cases philosophy.