Thursday, October 17, 2013

Atman and Brahman

 In terms of Western philosophy, the main school of thought arising from the Vedas would be called Monism.


The Vedic realization is roughly the following - and a mere understanding from definitions is not enough, any more than the definition of mango tells you what the mango smells like and tastes like.  Please take the following to be approximate only.

In the course of life, I identify myself  with my body or my personality or my mind or my intellect.  Upon removal of this ignorance, I correctly identify myself with my Self, the Atman.  Roughly speaking, in the closest Christian terms, Atman is imperishable, incorporeal soul.

Another realization is that there is an ultimate grounds for existence, Brahman.  Roughly speaking,  in Christian terms, Brahman is the most impersonal conception of God that you can possibly have. In particular ascribing intentions to Brahman is a mistake.

With effort I am supposed to be able to lift the veil of ignorance, and these truths become manifest:

Brahman is consciousness (awareness).
This Atman (I) is Brahman.
I am Brahman.

Moksha is the removal of the ignorance that we have about these truths.    The Self dissolves into Brahman.  The cycle of rebirths is ended.


Or so they say.  I am telling you a secondhand tale, so for you it is thirdhand.   If this is meaningful, it is possible to know it firsthand, and only then is it meaningful.  In every few generations of Hindus,  there are one or two souls whom are believed to have acquired this firsthand knowledge, and who teach it.  (Many more supposedly acquire this knowledge but pass through unnoticed.)

No Hindu is obliged to believe any of this.  We are told though, that eventually each of us will tire of the cycle of births and then our thoughts will turn towards the attainment of moksha.  The pursuit of moksha as a sannyasi (renunciate) takes one outside India's infamous "caste system".

In the Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is teaching us what he found about Atman and Brahman, that is why he equates the two.


Hindus conceptualize the trinity of Brahma (different from the Brahman above), Vishnu, Shiva as having the functions of creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe.  (Perhaps this story will help.  The infinite Vishnus, Shivas and Brahmas in the infinite number of bubble universes over infinite time are all simply Brahman. )  For whatever reason, while there are lot of temples to various manifestations of Vishnu and Shiva, there are barely a handful to Brahma.   The story is that since Creation is already done, and since Hindus are a pragmatic race, they don't waste much time on him.

Harari might possibly mean this Brahma.  But enough time wasted on Harari.

PS: You can see the translation of Rg Veda X.97.11 here, and the word Atman has been translated as spirit.  I'm not sure whoever wrote the Wiki knows what they are talking about.
11 When, bringing back the vanished strength, I hold these herbs within my hand,
The spirit of disease departs ere he can seize upon the life.
PPS: Yaska in Wiki.   I looked him up because I am not aware of any surviving commentary on the Rg Veda by Yaska.  I'm only familiar with his Nirukta, which is a work of etymology of words of Vedic Sanskrit.   Looking at the citation in the article on Atman, that is given for the claim about Yaska, I believe it is a glossary or dictionary of philosophical terms.
Baumer, Bettina and Vatsyayan, Kapila. Kalatattvakosa Vol. 1: Pervasive Terms Vyapti (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts). Motilal Banarsidass; Revised edition (March 1, 2001). P. 42.
PPPS: You can see the relevant piece of Yaska on page 49 here: