The Essential Reality of God and Self (Brahman and Atman)

Isvara, the Supreme Self

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay explains the essential reality of God and Self or Brahman and Atman in Hinduism and the difficulties of understanding it.


In Hinduism, God and Self are used interchangeably. In many scriptures and Upanishadic verses, they refer to the same eternal, infinite and absolute reality. However, some schools of Hinduism not only draw a clear distinction between God and Self but also describe different types of individual selves such as the bound selves (baddha), the eternally free selves (nitya-mukta), the liberate selves (baddha), the eternally bound selves, and so on. In the following discussion, we present a few important views and philosophical notions regarding the essential reality of God and Self (Brahman and Atman) in Hinduism.

God (Brahman)

The highest and absolute God of Hinduism goes by many personal and impersonal names. However, in the Vedas he is mostly described as Self (atma or atman) or Supreme Self (paramatma) or Lord (Isvara) or Brahman. He has numerous manifestations, forms and functions. The Vedic Supreme God or Being who is without a beginning and without an end contains within himself all possibilities and realities. While his absolute reality is stable and permanent, his projected realities are impermanent and subject to modifications. Although for convenience we may consider him male, in reality he is without any specific gender and without any distinguishable form or feature, and usually mentioned as That (Tat).

The Upanishads affirm that he is indescribable, incomprehensible, indestructible, and beyond the mind and the senses, whose nature is bliss, who represents indivisible oneness, who is perfection, completeness and fulfilment personified and who exists in all beings as their very Self, and in whom all exist. He is the paramatman (the transcendental Supreme self), the source and creator of all. For the mortal beings who seek liberation, he is also the highest goal (paranadhama). As the material and efficient cause of creation, he brings forth all the worlds and beings from himself, using his own materiality and dynamic energy (Prakriti).

In his purest state, as Nirguna Brahman, he is without qualities (lakshanas), modes (gunas), dualities (dvanda), names and forms (nama rupa). However, in his manifested state as Isvara (Lord) or Saguna Brahman, he assumes numerous names and forms, qualities, colors, divisions and dualities. As the creator, he becomes all the diversity and objectivity which become manifested in the higher and lower worlds. Although we may see him as other than us or different from us due to our egoism, delusion and ignorance, in his absolute reality everything is Self or a projection of Self. His creation arises from him as a temporary projection or formation, just as the reflection of the sun or the sky in the water or the appearance of a film upon a screen.

The Vedas describe how Brahman manifested our world by assuming a form of cosmic proportions, known as Purusha (person). This Purusha is the Self of the world as well as the Self in all beings. In the beginning of creation, he performed a cosmic sacrifice using parts of his own body as an offering, for his own pleasure, and manifested worlds and beings, dharma and divine order.

As the subjective reality, the Supreme Self is present in all beings (jivas) as their very observer and enjoyer, hidden behind all happenings and beyond all notions of duality, change and objectivity. In the body, he is said to reside in the heart until death. As the lord of the breaths he is responsible for the functioning of the body, digestion of food, perception, thought, speech, awareness, discernment, intelligence and so on. As the supreme being, he moves the worlds, ensuring their order and regularity and their orderly progression from one division of time to another

The complexity of knowing the reality of Brahman

The concept of God, which is one of the most distinguishing features of Hinduism is so complex in its very conception, formulation and ideation that it makes God both determinate and indeterminate, existent and nonexistent, known and unknown, and with form and without form in the same breath. By presenting an all-inclusive and all-encompassing, multifaceted and multidimensional reality of God, the Vedas and Tantras makes any debate about his existence or proof of it a futile and facetious exercise.

The scriptures confirm it. They present him as an indeterminate reality, about which nothing can be said in certain terms. You can make sense of him relatively in the context of something, in comparison to something or from a particular perspective, but none can fathom his beginning or end. All that exists here and elsewhere is but a fraction of his infinite reality, which he supports by a fraction of his infinite power.

As one of the Upanishads affirms, if you think you know him, you probably do not know him, and if you think you do not know him, you may probably know him (because you understand his infinite nature and your own limitations). Therefore, truly enlightened masters of Hinduism do not engage in frivolous debates about God, nor do they try to explain or confuse those who have different notions of God. They prefer silence because they know that the observed reality of our minds and senses cannot truly fathom the true nature of the observer who uses them to witness the drama of life. Besides, his reality is such that he becomes and manifests in whatever way you worship him with your heart and soul.

God is subjective reality. The world which we perceive through our senses is the objective reality. We can grasp objects, but we cannot grasp that (the subject), which grasps. For example, you can hear the words of someone, but you cannot hear the hearer. You can see an image, but you cannot see the seer. Objective reality is dependent, whereas subjective reality is independent. All objects depend upon a subject to become known, whereas the subject does not depend upon any object to be known. It is known by itself. Further, objective reality can be perceived in a state of duality, whereas subjective reality can only be experienced in a state of unity or in the absence of duality. One can say the same about effects. An effect cannot exist without its cause, but cause can exist without producing any effect. Until you understand these nuances, you cannot easily grasp the correlation between God and his creation. Knowing the subject of all as the subject of one’s own reality and as one’s very Self, dissolving all notions of separation and distinction, is the essence of liberation and self-realization.

According to the expansive vision of the Hindu seers who composed the Upanishads in their exalted and expansive mental states, God is not to be found in the temples or on the tops of mountains or in sacred places, but within oneself as oneself. Brahman becomes self-evident when you restrain your mind and senses and withdraw into yourself to become the subject, the pure witness or the observer.

In that pure state, you become the witness Self who is neither the eye nor the ear nor the nose nor the mind nor speech nor breath, but the one reality for whom and because of whom they all function. This is the truth. The logic is very fundamental and inherent in the core aspects of liberation theology. It goes like this. If you are present, God is not known. If you are absent, God becomes known or self-evident. It is as if you (the ego) are the major obstacle to your liberation.

Hence, as the Upanishads vouch, the only way or the easiest way to know Brahman or experience his reality is to become Brahman himself without any duality, objectivity or separation. It is why renunciation is prescribed in all the ascetic traditions of Hinduism as a way to weaken and silence the ego and purify the mind and body to attain the pure consciousness of Brahman. For the same reason, the debate between the proponents of “Is” and “Is Not,” or the Asitik and Nastika vada, is never fully settled. For the atheists, who are full of themselves, God is not known. For the devotees who empty themselves, God becomes known by becoming their very selves.

However, although we know that Brahman represents the all-inclusive and all-encompassing reality, we cannot purely rely upon abstract and transcendental notions to pursue our spiritual goals or achieve liberation. To sustain our faith and persevere in our effort, and to understand the essential reality of God, we need concrete symbols, ideas, forms and concepts which will help us ground the mind in spiritual thoughts and the goal of liberation.

Even if we know that God is subjective reality, free from all entanglements and relationships, we still need to consider his objective forms and manifestations within the realm of our own minds to establish a conceptual relationship and engage our minds in his contemplation. Hence, in Hinduism devotees and spiritual aspirants turn their attention to objectified Brahman and his numerous manifestations and forms rather than the abstract Brahman.

Focusing their minds upon the objectified Brahman, having established a direct and personal relationship with him, they gradually transcend their duality and objectivity and enter the transcendental realm of pure consciousness through self-absorption. Hinduism offers many spiritual solutions and large body of literature to accomplish this noble goal. They are extremely useful to elevate the external forms of ritual worship into internal contemplative practices so that once can engage in a continuous spiritual sacrifice (antaryajna).

The Self (atman)

The self or the soul is called Atman, which literally means the breathing one. It refers to the person in the personality or consciousness of a being. It is essentially the pure and unadulterated subjective state, free from the influence of the mind, the senses and the ego. It is the witness to all that happens in the mind and body.

Atman represents the same essential reality as Brahman. In their purest state there is hardly any difference between the two. As the school of nondualism affirms, the existence of Atman as a distinct, individual entity is an illusion. It is but Brahman residing in the body of a being as its support. In many respects, it is the microcosmic aspect of Brahman, smaller than an atom and infinitely larger than the world, with the same pure consciousness. However, in the field of Prakriti, it becomes subject to illusion, bondage and the laws of karma. When it achieves liberation, it regains its true nature and returns to its purest state.

The Chandogya Upanishad equates Brahman with the all-pervading Self in the following words.

Truly what is called Brahman
is the same as that space outside a person
Truly that space which is outside a person is
the same as that which is inside the person
and that space which is inside a person is
the same which is inside the heart.
That is fullness. That is the unchanging.
One who knows this
invariably gains full prosperity and
unwavering happiness

Different schools of Hinduism differently interpret the relationship between Brahman and Atman. They can broadly be divided into three schools, namely those who believe that they are the same (Advaita), those who believe that they are different (Advaita) and those who believe that they are somewhat different (Vishishtadvaita). According to the first school, the individual soul is in reality an illusion. It has no existence of basis of its own. The same Brahman appears in the field of Prakriti and in the bodies of beings as an individual Self and as a temporary illusion, which disappears when the beings awaken to the indivisible and all-pervading reality of Brahman through liberation.

The dualistic schools (dvaita) hold that the individual souls represent the subtle body of God, while the materiality of the entire creation represents his gross body. Beyond them is the Supreme Self or the purest consciousness of God, which is entirely free from all relationships and formations. The duality between Brahman and Atman continues even after souls attain liberation. Their consciousness also differs in some respects. The third school holds that individual souls are the same as Brahman in some respects, but not the same in some other. Upon liberation they attain the consciousness of Brahman, but do not become dissolved in him. They continue to enjoy an existence of their own in the presence of God, having established sameness and nearness, which enables them to experience God as their very Self.

Unity in diversity

Hindus also worship several gods and goddesses. They are not different entities but different aspects of the same highest Brahman. In their deepest essence, they are the same as Brahman. They also have some features, qualities and energies, which distinguish them from other divinities and which are essential to perform their ordained duties to uphold Dharma and ensure order and regularity.

Devout Hindus worship them as their personal gods and goddesses representing the highest Truth. Some scriptures allude to the fact gods were once ordinary souls. They attained divinity or godliness through pure deeds or good karma. This is true with regard to all the gods and goddesses, including the three highest gods namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It also means that different gods may appear in each timecycle.

The gods are not different from Brahman. They are Brahman only in their purest and highest aspect. As a Sanskrit verse declares, "ekam sat viptra bahuda vadanti.” It means that truth is one but perceived and spoken in different forms. If God has many forms and if they are all the same in the final essence, it logically follows that he can be worshipped in many ways, and we can reach Him through any of his forms and manifestations. This is stated in the following verse.

Akasat patitam toyam yatha gacchati saagaram,
Sarva deva namaskara kesavam pratigacchati

It means that just as the rain water finally flows into the ocean, wherever it may fall, so also the worship offered to any god will ultimately reach the supreme God only.

According to Hinduism, life in all its aspects and forms is sacred, and every being is an aspect of God in a latent form. God creates the worlds and populates them with different beings for his own pleasure or enjoyment. A knower of the Self or a self-realized person (atma jnani) is but God in human form. He is worthy of veneration, especially so when his or her identity is fully merged in him. God resides in beings as their very selves in different states of purity, awareness and ignorance. These impurities do not exist in him, but around him as a cloud or obstruction. At times, God also incarnates upon earth as an obligatory duty to destroy evil and restore order.

The idea that the numerous divinities of Hinduism are but aspects of the same supreme reality is well described in the answer given by Yajnavalkya in the following verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Then Vidagdha Sakalya asked him: 'How many gods are there, O Yagnavalkya?'
He replied thus according to the offerings (nivid) made to them.
'As many as are mentioned in the hymn of praise addressed to the Visvedevas,
namely three and three hundred, three and three thousand.'
'Yes,' he said, and asked again: 'How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?'
'Thirty-three,' he said.
'Yes,' he said, and asked again How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?'
'Six,' he said.
'Yes,' he said, and asked again:' How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?'
'Three,' he said.
'Yes,' he said, and asked again: 'How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?'
‘Two,' he said.
'Yes,' he said, and asked again: 'How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?'
'One and a half (adhyardha),' he said.
'Yes,' he said, and asked again: 'How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?'
'One,' he said.

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