Brahman, The Universal Self, The Highest God Of Hinduism
Summary: Brahman is the highest Supreme God of Hinduism. He is central to the Vedas and considered the silent and ultimate recipient of all the offerings in the Vedic rituals. Brahman is a mysterious being, unlike the gods that we know. In this essay, we present the significance of this mysterious deity, who is extolled in the Upanishads as the highest, Supreme and absolute God and the Creator of all.
Brahman is the central theme of almost all the Upanishads. Brahman is the indescribable, inexhaustible, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first, eternal and absolute principle who is without a beginning, without an end , who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe.
He is the incomprehensible, unapproachable radiant being whom the ordinary senses and ordinary intellect cannot fathom grasp or able to describe even with partial success. He is the mysterious Being totally out of the reach of all sensory activity, rationale effort and mere intellectual, decorative and pompous endeavor.
The Upanishads describe Him as the One and indivisible, eternal universal self, who is present in all and in whom all are present. Generally unknown and mysterious to the ordinary masses, Brahman of the Upanishads remained mostly confined to the meditative minds of the ancient seers who considered Him to be too sacred and esoteric to be brought out and dissected amidst public glare.
Though impassioned and above the ordinary feelings of the mind, the masters of the Upanishads some times could not suppress the glory, the emotion, the passion and the poetry that accompanied the vast and utterly delightful , inner experience of His vast vision. In the Mundaka Upanishad the mind explodes to reverberate with this verse," Imperishable is the Lord of love, as from a blazing fire thousands of sparks leap forth, so millions of beings arise from Him and return to Him." Again in the Katha Upanishad we come across a very poetic and emphatic expression, "In His robe are woven heaven and earth, mind and body...He is the bridge from death to deathless life."
The Brahman of the Upanishads is not meant for the ordinary or the ignorant souls, who are accustomed to seek spiritual solace through ritualistic practices and rationalization of knowledge. Discipline, determination, guidance form a self-realized soul, purity of mind, mastery of the senses, self-control and desireless actions are some of the pre-requisites needed to achieve even a semblance of success on this path. Only the strong of the heart and pure of the mind can think of dislodging layer after layer of illusion and ignorance that surrounds him and see the golden light of Truth beckoning from beyond.
He is not like the other gods either. He is incomprehensible even to almost all the gods. And He chooses not to be worshipped in the temples and other places of worship but in one's heart and mind as the indweller of the material body and master of the senses, the charioteer. He is too remote and incomprehensible to be revered and approached with personal supplications although He is the deepest and the highest vision mankind could ever conceive of or attain.
The weak and the timid stand no chance to approach Him even remotely, except through some circuitous route. For the materialistic and the otherworldly who excel in the art of converting everything and anything into a source of personal gain, He does not offer any attraction, solace or security as a personal God.
That is why we do not see any temples or forms of ritualistic worship existing for Brahman either at present or in the past. We only hear of fire sacrifice, later to be called Nachiketa fire, to attain Him, which was taught to the young Nachiketa by Lord of Death, but lost in the course of time to us. Perhaps the sacrifice was more a meditative or spiritual practice involving the sacrifice of soul consciousness than a ritual worship.
Whatever it is, the fact is that Brahman of the Upanishads is more appealing to the seekers of Truth and Knowledge than seekers of material gains. Even during the Islamic rule when the principles of monotheism challenged the very foundations of Hinduism , Brahman was never brought into the glare of public debate to challenge the invading and overwhelming ideas of the monotheistic foreign theology.
And even during the period of the Bhakti movement , when the path of devotion assumed unparalleled importance in the medieval Hindu society, Brahman was somehow not made the center of direct worship in the form of Brahman as such. He became the personal God with a name and form, but as Brahman remained out side the preview of the Bhakti movement.
Perhaps the exclusion was so evident and seemingly so intentional that even Lord Brahma, the first among the Trinity and the first among the created, was also simultaneously excluded from the ritualistic worship, probably for the similarity in names. Very few temples exist for this god even today in India, probably as He is seen more as a source of intelligence and creativity than of material wealth.
Some Upanishads do describe Brahman as the Lord of Love. It is a description born out of pure personal experience of a seeker of truth, not from a devotee's imaginative and self-induced emotional energy. The description and approach, therefore, is more philosophical and impressionably revelatory in its approach than feverishly emotional or reverently devotional. The reason was not difficult to understand.
Brahman was too remote, indifferent, disinterested, too vast a principle to be reduced into meaningful and intellectually satisfying forms and shapes and worshipped as such. Existing beyond all the surface activities of illusory life, he was like the remote star, heard but rarely seen, seen but vaguely remembered, remembered but rarely explicable, unlike the daily sun that traversed across the sky spreading its splendor in all directions and appealing to the common man with its intensity, visible luminosity and comforting him with its assuring and predictable routine.
Hidden, however, in the practice of Bhakti was the inherent and inviolable belief that the aim of all devotion was the attainment of the Supreme Self, though the path chosen for the purpose was circuitous and symbolic, rarely suggestive of any direct involvement of the eternal Brahman Himself in His original formless condition. Since the mind could only comprehend and derive inspiration in a language that it can understand and interpret, the Saguna Brahman, Iswara in the form of various manifestations became the object of devotion and personal worship.
But the same was not true of the formless Nirguna Brahman, beyond duality and activity. Ignoring the citadels of human civilization, He, the Absolute, continued to remain in the hearts of His spiritual aspirants, away from the din of materialistic life. He remained confined even as of today, to a few illumined minds, guiding them in His mysterious and invisible ways through the minds of self-realized souls, who have been too spiritualistic and disinterested in worldly life to consider any thing other than self as a matter of spiritual interest.
The ancient seers described Brahman as the One eternal principle, the unity behind all, the connecting principle, the light shining through all. But at the same time they also referred to him variously as almost every thing. He was thus One and the many, the finite and the infinite, the center as well as the circumference, the enjoyer as well the enjoyer, the hidden as well as the manifest, in a nut shell, every thing and any thing that we can conceive of or imagine or perhaps much more than that. Incomprehensible even to the gods, as Kena Upanishad narrates, He stands above all, tall and mysterious, almost incommunicable except through personal experience and inner voyage.
As a formless Being He was the Nirguna Brahman, the unqualified principle totally beyond the reach of all levels of intelligence. Assuming myriad forms He becomes Saguna Brahman, the one with attributes and qualifications. In this capacity as the formless and the One with form, He becomes all the multiplicity in this vast universe. He becomes everything and also nothing. Thus He is the day and night, light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance, the river and the ocean, the sky and the earth, the sound and the silence, the smallest as well as biggest of all and also the abyss of the mysterious nothingness.
The attributes are many and repetitively suggestive of His universality and His unquestionable supremacy. This existence of the duality and the myriad contradictions inherent in the creation of life are the riddles which the minds of the disciples were expected to understand and assimilate till all the confusion and contradiction becomes reduced to one harmonious and meaningful mass of Truth.
In the Katha Upanishad we come across this explanation of Brahman being compared to the Aswaththa tree in reverse ,whose roots are above and the branches spread down below. "Its pure root is Brahman from whom the world draws nourishment and whom none can surpass." Actually this is an analogy drawn from the Sun whose base is above and whose rays spread downwards in thousand directions.
Myriad are the ways in which Brahman is described in the Upanishads. The verses strenuously struggle to explain the novice students of spiritual practice the immensity of the object of their meditation. Theirs is a feeling of respect and reverence mixed with fear and awe. Even the gods seems to be not very comfortable with this concept of an unknown, mysterious and unfathomable God. The Lord of death explains to the young Nachiketa, "In fear of Him the fire burns, the sun shines, the clouds rain and the winds blow. In fear of Him death stalks about to kill."
He is the creator, the life giver and also the reliever of the devoted and determined from Bondage. The manifest universe is his creation. He created it through Self-projection, out of Ananda, pure Delight. The process of creation is not very explicitly mentioned but one can draw some inferences from verses such as this, "The deathless Self meditated upon Himself and projected the universe as an evolutionary energy. From this energy developed life, the mind, the elements, and the world of karma."
This is not the God who can be supplicated with rituals and sacrifices. The Upanishadic seers did not show much respect to the outer aspects of religious practice. The rituals according to them constituted the lower knowledge. "Such rituals," declares Mundaka Upanishad, " are unsafe rafts for crossing the sea of worldly life, of birth and death. Doomed to shipwreck are they who try to cross the sea of worldly life on these poor rafts." The argument does not end here. It goes on," Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their estimate, these deluded men proud of their learning go round and round like the blind, led by the blind. Living in darkness, immature unaware of any higher good or goal, they fall again and again into the sea."
To read the concluding part of the essay on Brahman click on the first link provided below.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Brahman the highest God of Hinduism, Part 2
- Manifestations of Brahman, Iswara, Hiranya Garbha, Viraj
- The Principles of Manifest Creation in the Svetavatara Upanishad
- Hinduism and the Belief in one God
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- God and Self and Their Relationship in Hinduism
- Hinduism and polytheism
- Brahman according to Advaita and Dvaita schools of thought
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God in Vaishnava Tradition
- Beware the Gods are Here
- The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Practice of Atma Yoga Or The Yoga Of Self
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- The Practice of Tantra and Tantric Ritual in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Tradition Of Gurus and Gurukulas in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Hinduism, Way of Life, Beliefs and Practices
- A Summary of the Bhagavadgita
- Avatar, the Reincarnation of God Upon Earth
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Bhagavadgita On The Mind And Its Control
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
- Hinduism and the Belief in one God
Introduction to Hinduism
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Chandogya Upanishad