Hinduism and the Concept of Absolute Reality

Isvara, the Supreme Self

by Jayaram V

This essay explains the meaning and significance of Absolute, Supreme Reality in Hinduism, Hindu scriptures, and philosophy

Absolute means complete, perfect, unmixed, constant, highest, pure, etc. Reality means what stands by itself, the state of as-is, the truth of things, the totality of something, not imaginary or hypothetical, etc. In Hinduism, the absolute reality of the whole existence (Sat) refers to that divine state or condition (yoga) which is eternal, constant, indestructible, complete, perfect, self-existing and self-supporting, whole, pure, the highest, universal, indivisible, infinite, uncreated, etc. Hindu scriptures recognize it as Brahman and invoke him in sacrificial rituals and contemplative practices as the highest, Supreme Self. His essential nature is considered absolute, pure, unchanging, indivisible, indestructible, infinite consciousness.

Although he is considered the highest God or Supreme God in Hinduism, he is not worshipped as a deity in temples or households. However, he is greatly esteemed as the highest, absolute, supreme Reality or infinite pure consciousness. He has no gender, form, body, or being, although, for convenience, we identify him as Purusha, the universal Male. To avoid confusion, the Upanishads call him Tat, meaning That. The Absolute Reality of Brahman does not manifest or incarnate or assume any form or state. It may remain hidden in things and beings or manifestations or pervade all but is always formless, unchanging, indivisible, beyond the mind and body, without duality or modes.

This may confuse some since the Upanishads contain descriptions of Brahman as the manifested (sambhuta) and unmanifested (asambhuta), Being (sakara) and non-Being (nirakara), with modes (saguna) and without modes (Nirguna). The Upanishads describe his highest manifestations in creation as the Supreme Lord (Isvara), Cosmic Germ (Hiranyagarbha), Time (Kala), and the world or universe (Jagat). The triple gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, are considered his functional manifestations and equated with him in their purest and absolute aspect. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna states that those who exclusively worship him, the universal Supreme Lord (Isvara), with firm faith and selfless devotion, attain liberation by his grace. Those who worship him or meditate on him as the formless, invisible, imperceptible, eternal Supreme Brahman with exclusive devotion also attain liberation. However, worshipping the latter is difficult and produces pain and suffering.

While these descriptions create the impression that Brahman manifests or mutates in creation, the truth is that he is eternally constant, unchanging, permanent, and indivisible. Therefore, it is incorrect to describe him in dualistic terms as Manifested (sambhuta) and Unmanifested (asambhuta), Being (Purusha) and Non-Being (ajiva), With form (murtam) and Without Form (amurtam), and so on. Brahman never manifests, incarnates, transforms, or takes birth in any form or shape. He is eternally unborn, uncreated, unchanging, undisturbed, formless, imperceptible, and invisible.

What changes, transforms, or evolves in the creation or manifests as worlds, objects, states, and beings is not Brahman but Prakriti, his dynamic Nature, which embodies him and represents his will, energy, materiality, and liveliness (chetana). Prakriti is not Brahman but his dependent and supporting reality. It is what Brahman is not. Hence, it is often described as the Not-Self. In the Absolute state of Brahman, Prakriti also remains unmanifested (asambhuta), unchanging, indivisible, and constant. In that unmanifested state, she is known as the Universal Female, Primal Nature (Mula Prakriti), Primal Force (Adi Shakti), Transcendental Force (Para Shakti), and Mother Goddess (Jaganmata).

In association with Brahman and embodying him in her womb or materiality, Prakriti manifests Purusha or the Universal Lord in the creation, becoming herself sambhuta (manifested). Purusha or Isvara is Brahman with form, materiality, energy, force, consciousness, and will. Brahman remains unchanged and unmanifested in him also, while Prakriti, embodying his pure consciousness, becomes energized with infinite force, power, and potency. Hence, he is known as the Lord with dynamic consciousness (chaitanya murthi), although in truth, the dynamism arises from Prakriti rather than Brahman or his pure consciousness. Prakriti represents his universal body, force, and intelligence. In that embodied state, with awakened energies of Prakriti, Purusha appears in the field of creation as creator (karta), controller, and the source of all the worlds, forms, functions, duties, sacrifices, time, movement, etc. In him, Prakriti performs five distinct functions as creator, preserver, concealer, revealer, and destroyer.

As the Supreme Controller and Lord of the Universe, Isvara or Purusha appears responsible for what happens, does not happen, or is yet to happen. His inviolable will seems to determine the progression of things and the consequences of our actions and decisions. In reality, they are carried by Prakriti only, energizing the divine will hidden in Brahman's pure consciousness or intelligence. Due to delusion and ignorance, we mistake the divine will (chaitanya atma), energized by the force of Prakriti, for our free will and incur karma. The duality between divine will and our free will is a delusion. Because of that, we assume ownership and doership of our decisions, thoughts, and actions. When devotees overcome their delusion, surrender their will to the Lord, take refuge in him, and perform their actions and duties without desires and attachments, they earn his grace and achieve liberation.

This is the essence of the Bhagavadgita and several Upanishads. The Isa Upanishad declares that all that is found in the material universe is for the habitation of the Supreme Lord (Isa) and belongs to him. Therefore, one should not covet material wealth and wish to live here for a hundred years, selflessly performing one’s duties. It does not mean Brahman participates in creation or performs any functions. They are performed by his higher and lower nature, well-defined and distinguished in the seventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita.

From this discussion, we may conclude that in his absolute, purest state, Brahman is nondual (Advaita) and free from dualities and divisions. In association with Prakriti, he appears to become dual (Dvaita) in creation. Due to the force of Prakriti’s deluding power (Maya), a subtle distinction or duality temporarily appears in the  manifested worlds between Brahman's absolute state and his embodied state. That distinction is limited to the reality (creation) projected by the manifested Prakriti (sambhuta) and does not affect the original state of Brahman. He is eternally immutable, nondual, and unmanifested (asambhuta). The distinction, which appears thus, is often described as qualified nondualism (Vishistadvaita) and different but not different (bhedabheda), etc.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page