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Exploring the Limitless: Brahman in Advaita Vedanta

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We all experience the world as real, right? We experience all sorts of things. However, these experiences are limited by space, time, and form. So how can something limitless arise from a limited experience?

Brahman: Unveiling the Limitless Reality

Let us explore the concept of Brahman, the ultimate reality in Advaita Vedanta, through the lens of Satyam (truth), Jnanam (knowledge), and Anantam (limitless) based on Taittiriya Upanishad and the unchanging witness (waking, sleep, dream, and deep sleep states) based on Mandukya Upanishad.

The Challenge | Paradox: Limited Experiences, Limitless Reality

We perceive the world around us as real (Satyam) – objects like the chair we are sitting on, clothes we are wearing, the screen we are looking at right now etc. But these objects are limited in space, time, and form. The Upanishads describe Brahman as Anantam (limitless), yet our experiences seem finite.

Consciousness: The Key to Unlocking the Paradox

Advaita Vedanta offers a solution. Our experiences are a combination of conscious awareness (Jnanam) and objects. This pure awareness, also called consciousness, is the constant thread that persists throughout all experiences. Unlike objects, consciousness isn't limited by space, time, or form.

Witnessing the Ever-Present Consciousness

In deep sleep, even when the mind is inactive, a subtle awareness remains. This is the essence of consciousness, and it's always present.

Brahman as Jnanam: The Foundation of Experience

The Upanishads proclaim "experience is Brahman" and "knowledge is Brahman." This doesn't refer to the objects of experience but to the underlying consciousness (Jnanam) that makes all experience possible. This pure consciousness is Brahman.

Brahman is Satyam and Anantam: Unifying the Truth

By recognizing consciousness as the foundation of all experience, we can appreciate Brahman as both Satyam (truth, the ever-present reality) and Anantam (limitless). It's not limited to the objects we perceive, but it pervades them all.

The Waking Dream: Brahman and the Universe

Similar to how a dream world appears real until we wake up, Brahman is the underlying consciousness that gives rise to the universe we experience.

Freedom Through Realization

By realizing our identity with Brahman (pure consciousness), we can transcend the limitations of the physical world and experience lasting peace and fulfillment. We are not separate from the universe; we are one with it through Brahman.

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Now let's looks a bit deeper into each of these aspects of Brahman.

Beyond Duality: Unmasking the True Self with Brahman

Satyam: The Ever-Present Reality

Imagine you're holding a bottle of water. You perceive it as real, a solid object (Satyam). But is that the whole truth? Look closely. The water molecules are constantly moving, the bottle itself is made of atoms in constant vibration. The solidity is an illusion – a temporary arrangement within a vaster reality.

This vaster reality, the ever-present ground of existence, is Brahman as Satyam. It's the unchanging reality that underlies all these seemingly solid objects. It's like the screen on which the movie plays; the screen itself is constant, while the images projected on it change.

Here's the key: to grasp Brahman as Satyam, we need to move beyond the limitations of our senses and the ever-changing nature of objects. We need to seek the permanent reality that persists throughout all change.

Jnanam: The Pure Awareness

Now, how do we experience this unchanging reality? Here comes Jnanam, pure awareness or consciousness. Think about deep sleep again. Even when your mind is quiet and there are no objects to perceive, there's still a subtle awareness, a sense of "I am." That's Jnanam – the witness to all experiences.

Jnanam isn't limited by the content of our experiences, happy or sad, dream or waking state. It's the constant light that illuminates everything. To understand Brahman as Jnanam, we need to shift our focus from the objects of experience to the awareness itself. We need to ask, "Who am I that is having these experiences?"

Anantam: The Limitless Reality

Finally, Anantam – the limitless nature of Brahman. Imagine a vast ocean with countless waves rising and falling. The waves are like our experiences – limited in time and space. But the ocean itself, the source of the waves, is limitless. That's Brahman as Anantam.

For Brahman to be Anantha (limitless), it needs to transcends the limitations of space (Desha), time (Kala), and objects (Vastu parichaya).

Desha - Beyond the Confines of Space

Imagine a vast desert stretching out as far as the eye can see. That's how we typically perceive space – a container with boundaries. But Brahman as Anantam is not confined by these limitations. It's like the boundless sky that encompasses the entire desert. It's everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Think about a radio. The signal from the radio station isn't limited by the physical radio itself. It permeates the entire space where the signal can be received. Brahman is similar – it's the underlying reality that pervades all of space, not limited by the physical dimensions we perceive.

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Now, this might sound like the theory of 'Universal Consciousness', proposed to some extent by Panpsychism, which suggests that consciousness, to some degree, is a fundamental property of all things in the universe or New Age spiritual movements and philosophies, which use the term "Universal Consciousness" to describe a unifying field of awareness or energy that connects all things.

However, Advaita avoids terms like "Universal Consciousness" to describe Brahman because when we talk in terms of limitations, as in something is universal, then inevitably we are creating a doubt that there is something that is bound by certain limitations, which is where the duality comes in, whereas Brahman is Anantha (limitless). Here are some additional reasons:

  • Non-Duality vs. Duality: Advaita Vedanta emphasizes non-duality. Brahman is the sole reality, and everything else is ultimately an illusion (Maya). "Universal Consciousness" implies a single consciousness existing alongside the world, which introduces a subtle form of duality (subject and object).

  • Beyond Duality:  Brahman, in Advaita Vedanta, is not just a big mind or a cosmic observer. It's the very ground of existence, beyond the limitations of subject and object. "Universal Consciousness" might still be interpreted within the framework of our everyday experience.

  • Emphasis on Brahman:  Advaita Vedanta prioritizes understanding Brahman as the ultimate reality. "Universal Consciousness" might shift the focus towards a concept of consciousness, potentially overshadowing the core principle of Brahman.

Kala - Unbound by the Flow of Time

Our lives seem like a linear journey – past, present, and future. But Brahman as Anantam transcends this flow of time (Kala). It's like the unchanging ground beneath a flowing river. The river's water keeps moving, but the riverbed itself remains constant.

Consider a movie. The story unfolds in a sequence, but the film itself exists outside the story's timeline. Brahman is like the film – the ever-present reality that underlies the unfolding of time in the movie of our lives. Past, present, and future all exist within Brahman, but Brahman itself is beyond time.

Vastu Parichaya - Not Limited by Objects

We experience the world through objects – a chair, a tree, a book (Vastu parichaya). But Brahman as Anantam isn't limited by these objects. It's the very essence that gives rise to all objects, the formless reality behind the forms.

Think of a pot filled with clay. The pot has a shape, but the clay itself is formless. Brahman is like the clay – the infinite potential that gives rise to the countless forms we perceive as objects. The pot can be broken to a fine dust, however clay, which is the underlying reality will not change. The objects come and go, but Brahman remains as the ever-present source.

Since our minds are conditioned to perceive limitations, it's challenging to grasp something truly limitless. But by contemplating these ideas and meditating on the nature of pure awareness, we can begin to experience a glimpse of Brahman's infinite nature within ourselves.

Brahman isn't limited by the boundaries of our bodies or minds. It's not confined by birth or death. It's the infinite potential that gives rise to all the finitude we perceive. To understand Brahman as Anantam, we need to transcend the limitations of our ego and recognize our oneness with this vast reality.

This exploration of Anantam highlights how Brahman is not confined by the concepts of space, time, or objects. It's the limitless reality that underlies all existence, the source and essence of everything. As we delve deeper into this understanding, we move closer to realizing our own oneness with this limitless reality.

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Now, let's integrate the concept of Brahman with our waking, sleep, dream, and deep sleep states, drawing wisdom from the Upanishads.

Waking from the Dream: Brahman, Consciousness, and the Nature of Reality

The beauty of Brahman lies in its constant presence throughout all our experiences. We can explore this through the four states of consciousness:

  • Waking State (Jagrat): This is our everyday state of awareness, where we interact with the world through our senses. The Mundaka Upanishad (1.1.5) describes this as the state where we experience duality – the perceiver and the perceived. Here, Brahman is veiled by the mind and intellect, but it's still the underlying reality that allows us to have experiences.

  • Dream State (Swapna): In dreams, we create our own reality. Yet, there's still a sense of "I" that experiences the dream. The Mandukya Upanishad (2.1) calls this the "Taijasa" state, the experiencer of the dream world. Brahman, as pure consciousness, is the witness to these dream experiences.

  • Deep Sleep State (Sushupti): In deep sleep, there are no dreams, no objects, just a state of complete rest. The Mandukya Upanishad (2.1) refers to this as the "Prajna" state. Here, the mind merges with its source, and the veil of duality thins. We experience a sense of bliss and peace, even though we're not consciously aware of it. This state points towards Brahman as the underlying source of our existence.

  • Fourth State (Turiya): The Mandukya Upanishad (2.2) introduces a fourth state called "Turiya." This isn't a physical state but a state of pure awareness beyond waking, dream, and deep sleep. It's the state of Brahman itself, the unchanging witness to all experiences. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.19) beautifully describes this state: "That Self which is not known in deep sleep, though it is present there, which is not known in the waking state, though it is present there – that Self which does not know dreaming or not-dreaming is the Self which should be known."

The Path to Realization

By understanding these states and recognizing the constant presence of pure awareness, we can move closer to realizing our oneness with Brahman. Through meditation practices and self-inquiry, we can peel away the layers of identification with the limited self and awaken to our true nature as Brahman, the limitless reality that underlies all existence.

Remember, this journey isn't about achieving a specific state but about recognizing the unchanging reality that's always present within us. As we cultivate this awareness, we experience a sense of peace, freedom, and connection to all that is.

This realization isn't just intellectual understanding. It's a transformation of our being. Through meditation, self-inquiry, and ethical living, we can start to peel away the layers of identification with the limited self and awaken to our true nature as Brahman. It's a journey of self-discovery, and the destination is not a place but a state of being – a state of peace, freedom, and oneness with all existence.

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Now that we have a fair understanding about Brahman, according to Advaita Vedanta, let's wrap up this exploration of Brahman by contrasting it with the traditional God concept found in theistic models.

Beyond God: Unveiling the Impersonal Reality of Brahman

While Brahman might seem like a God at first glance, there are some fundamental differences in Advaita Vedanta:

  • Impersonality: Brahman isn't a person or a being with a form. It's the impersonal, absolute reality that underlies everything. Traditional Gods, on the other hand, are typically depicted as personalities who created the universe and interact with it.

  • Duality vs. Non-duality: Theistic models often portray a separation between God and creation. Brahman, however, transcends duality. It's the essence of everything, not a separate entity. There's no creator and creation in Advaita Vedanta; Brahman is all that is.

  • Immanence vs. Transcendence: Traditional Gods are often seen as outside of creation, transcendent. Brahman, however, is both immanent (present within everything) and transcendent (beyond limitations). It's like the ocean and the waves – the ocean is both the waves and the stillness beneath them.

  • Salvation vs. Liberation: In theistic models, salvation often involves worshipping a God and receiving God's grace. In Advaita Vedanta, liberation (Moksha) comes from realizing our identity with Brahman. It's a shift in perception, not an external reward.

  • Omnipresence:  In Advaita, Brahman isn't "present" in locations like a physical object or a location like heaven. Brahman is the very ground of being, the space within which everything appears to exist.

  • Omniscience:  Brahman isn't an all-knowing entity, possessing vast knowledge or intelligence, like how a traditional creator does. Brahman is the very ground of all reality, which gives rise to knowledge. Individual knowledge is seen as a limitation within the illusion (Maya).

  • Omnipotence: Brahman isn't a separate entity with unlimited power "acting" on the world. Brahman is need the creator nor a destroyer. Brahman does not influence the world as we know in any shape or form. Brahman is the source of all potential and the power behind everything that happens. Here are some analogies to explain how Brahman, in Advaita Vedanta, isn't exactly omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent in the way, God is traditionally understood: 1. The Ocean and the Waves 2. The Canvas and the Painting 3. The Sun and Sunlight 4. The Dream and the Dreamer Limitations of Analogies

  • Analogy: Imagine the ocean (Brahman) and its waves (the universe). The ocean is everywhere the waves exist, but it's not limited by the location of the waves. The ocean itself is still and unchanging, while the waves rise and fall.

  • Explanation: Brahman is the underlying reality, the ground of existence. It's not "present" in different places like a physical object. Everything arises from and is ultimately one with Brahman.

Shankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, refutes other schools and reconciles seemingly contradictory Upanishadic passages, like how Brahman should not be mistaken for a personal God or is the creator of this universe. Here are some examples of his arguments:

Reconciling Personal God Passages

  • The Upanishads sometimes mention a personal God like Ishvara. This might seem contradictory to the impersonal Brahman concept in Advaita Vedanta.

  • Shankara's Explanation:  Shankara uses the concept of upaya (skillful means). He argues that these passages are meant for beginners who connect better with a personal God concept. They are a stepping stone to ultimately realizing the impersonal Brahman.

  • Analogy: Imagine a teacher using colorful pictures to teach a child about a complex scientific concept. The pictures (personal God) are a helpful tool for initial understanding, but eventually, the child graduates to understanding the underlying scientific principle (Brahman).

Reconciling Creation Passages

  • Some Upanishads speak of Brahman creating the world. This might seem incompatible with the idea of Brahman as unchanging reality.

  • Shankara's Explanation:  Shankara argues that creation should not be understood literally. It refers to the world's manifestation from Brahman, like a spider spinning a web from its own substance. Brahman itself doesn't undergo any change.

  • Analogy: Imagine the sun (Brahman) and its rays (the world). The rays seem to emanate from the sun, but the sun itself remains unchanged. Similarly, the world appears to arise from Brahman, but Brahman is not affected by this appearance.

These are just a few examples of how Shankara uses logic, analogy, and scriptural interpretation to establish his Advaita Vedanta philosophy within the framework of the Brahma Sutras.

Brahman isn't/doesn't have to be a replacement for a God though, but rather a different understanding of the ultimate reality. It emphasizes the oneness of existence and the potential for self-realization within each of us.

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Shankara, despite his emphasis on non-duality, recognized the value of different spiritual practices, and promoted Bhakti through Smartism, as they all serve as ways to remove the veils of illusion and help us experience the ever-present Brahman.

Here's why Shankara despite his core belief in non-duality (Advaita Vedanta), promoted Smartism/Bhakti:

  • Catering to Different Needs:  Advaita Vedanta emphasizes Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge) as the ultimate path to liberation (moksha). However, Shankara recognized that not everyone is suited for this rigorous philosophical approach. Bhakti/Smartism offered a more flexible and inclusive framework.

  • Respecting Diverse Traditions:  Smartism doesn't prescribe a single set of rituals or deities. It allows for the worship of various deities within Hinduism (Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, etc.) This broad approach made it easier for people with existing devotional practices to integrate them into their spiritual journey.

  • Focus on the Ultimate Goal:  While Bhakti/Smartism allows for diverse practices, its core principle aligns with Advaita Vedanta: the ultimate goal is to realize the oneness of Brahman (the underlying reality) and transcend the limitations of idol worship. Practices within Smartism are seen as preparatory stages or aids on the path to self-realization.

  • Unity in Diversity:  Shankara might have seen Smartism as a way to bridge the gap between different Hindu traditions. By emphasizing the underlying non-dualistic principle and the ultimate goal of liberation, Smartism could promote a sense of unity amidst the diverse practices and beliefs within Hinduism.

Here's an analogy:

  • Imagine a mountain representing liberation (moksha), the ultimate goal in Advaita Vedanta.

  • The challenging, direct path to the peak is Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge). This represents Shankara's core philosophy, requiring self-study, discipline, and intellectual understanding of Brahman.

  • Smartism is like a network of trails leading up the mountain from various starting points. It acknowledges that people have different backgrounds, temperaments, and preferred practices. Some might start from the foothills of ritualistic worship (karma yoga), while others might begin higher up on the path of devotion (bhakti yoga).

  • All the paths within Smartism converge at the summit. Regardless of the starting point or practices, the ultimate goal is to realize your oneness with Brahman, the underlying reality.

The Wondrous Paradox:

The beauty lies in the paradox. Brahman is both the limitless reality and the essence of our own being. By delving deeper into this concept, we embark on a transformative journey of self-discovery, uncovering the limitless potential within ourselves and our connection to all that is.

This is just a glimpse into the vast ocean of Brahman. As we delve deeper with dedication and a sincere heart, the Upanishads promise a profound understanding of ourselves and the universe, revealing the limitless reality that lies within each of us.

Something to ponder upon

How does something limited as this physical universe and everything within it, including us, gets manifested from a limitless entity like Brahman? Is this 'Pure Consciousness' that is Brahman, different to, and how it is used in the modern scientific parlance? How about other animate/inanimate forms and objects, is Brahman applicable to them as well and if so, what role does it play?


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