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Meaning of Brahman, Ishvara and Atman

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Meaning of Brahman, Ishvara and Atman

Shri Phani asked: In our latest spiritual discussion, we were discussing about the meanings of words like Brahman, Īśvara and Ātman, in spiritual knowledge. Can you please enlighten us on this topic?

Swami replied: O Learned and Devoted Servants of God! Every word has different meanings. Based on the context, you have to select the proper meaning. The word president can mean the president of an entire country as well as the president of a tiny village in the country. Both are addressed as president by the public. When you are discussing the article in the constitution that puts the president above the jurisdiction of the courts of law, the word president can only mean the president of the whole country. It cannot mean the president of the tiny village. You cannot say that the president of the village is above the jurisdiction of courts of law just because all the people in the village are addressing him as president. The mere meaning of a word is not important since it is the context that really decides the specific meaning of the word.

The word Brahman literally means ‘the greatest’ (Bṛhi-vṛddhau). It can refer to the greatest item within any specific category of items in the world. Among Hindu scriptures, the Veda is the greatest and hence is called Brahman. So, in this context, Brahman means a book called the Veda. Awareness is the most precious form of inert energy and it is the greatest among all the created items (parā prakṛti). Therefore, in this context, Brahman means awareness. But the unimaginable God is greater than the greatest awareness and hence, is the absolute greatest. Awareness is the greatest among all items of the imaginable world. The unimaginable God is beyond this imaginable world and hence, the word Brahman is prefixed with the word para, which means ‘beyond’. Thus, if you want to specifically refer to the unimaginable God, it is better to use the word Parabrahman, instead of simply using the word Brahman.

However, the word Brahman is also used to mean the unimaginable God because He is the greatest, in the real sense. Hence, the word Brahman has several meanings as it indicates several greatest items in different categories, apart from the absolute unimaginable God. When the word Brahman is used, you have to decide its actual meaning, based on the context. For example, in the Gita, it is said that Brahman was generated from the Akṣara (the Eternal). Here, Brahman is not eternal because it is said to be generated. Anything having a birth, must also perish. In this context, Brahman means the non-eternal holy book called the Veda and Akṣara means the eternal unimaginable God. Note how the context helps us decide that Brahman means a holy book and not the unimaginable God.

Similarly, in the Gita, Krishna said “I am the base of Brahman (Brahmaṇ’opi pratiṣṭhāham...)”. Here, Brahman cannot be taken to be the unimaginable God, who is the basis of everything. The unimaginable God cannot be said to have any further basis. Here, the word ‘I’ (aham) stands for the unimaginable God. Krishna is referring to Himself as the unimaginable God who has merged with the first energetic form, to become first Energetic Incarnation. This first Energetic Incarnation is called Īśvara (or Datta). Īśvara, is also called Nārāyaṇa and He had further merged with the human being called Vāsudeva or Krishna. Īśvara is already the mediated unimaginable God. Thus, Krishna was both Īśvara and the unimaginable God. In the above line, Brahman, means the first Energetic Incarnation (Īśvara). The word ‘I’ (Aham), referring to Krishna, means the unimaginable God or Parabrahman. This means that the unimaginable God (Aham) is the basis of Īśvara (Brahman).

In the Brahma Sūtras, the first sūtra says that an enquiry about Brahman is to be done. In this context, the word Brahman means the unimaginable God because in the second sūtra, no direct characteristic (svarūpa lakṣaṇam) of Brahman is stated. Only the indirect characteristic (taṭastha lakṣaṇam) is stated. The sūtra says that Brahman is the creator, ruler and destroyer of this world. No direct characteristic can be given for an unimaginable item. Hence, the word Brahman referred to, in the first sūtra, is the unimaginable God alone.

In the Gita, it is said that Īśvara is the central controller of the entire world (Īśvaraḥ sarvabhūtānāṃ...) and here, the word Īśvara means the unimaginable God alone. Īśvara has become the unimaginable God due to perfect merging of the unimaginable God with the first energetic being. But in literature, the word īśvara is used in a different sense to mean an ordinary human ruler. An example is the word nareśvara (nara + īśvara) meaning the king or ruler of the people in a kingdom. In that context, the word īśvara does not mean the first Energetic Incarnation of the unimaginable God.

Similarly, the word ātman means the self or the inert energy present as awareness in a living body. Ātman literally means to occupy space (Atati iti ātmā). As the body grows, the awareness also grows and hence, it occupies more space by expansion. This word is also used in the sense of the unimaginable God because, just as the self makes the body alive and existent, the unimaginable God also makes the world alive and existent. In the Veda, the word Ātman is used to mean the unimaginable God, when it is said that space was generated by the Ātman (Ātmana ākāśaḥ...). The same word Ātman is used elsewhere in the Veda to mean the self situated in the limited human body (Ātmānaṃ rathinaṃ viddhi...).

Several words having worldly meanings and indicating worldly items like life (prāṇa), space (ākāśa) etc., are used to indicate the unimaginable God. This is discussed in the Brahma Sūtras (prāṇādhikaraṇa, ākāśādhikaraṇa etc.,). The name of any important worldly item can be used to mean the unimaginable God, in the sense of a figure of speech. Even in the case of worldly topics, the meaning of a word should be understood as per its context.

 

 

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-By Shri Datta Swami
(Visit our website: www.universal-spirituality.org)
Universal Spirituality for World Peace

 

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