Atman and Brahman in the Upanishads

Nov 2016
The Indian idea of a creative cosmic principle goes back to ancient Vedic hymns, in which Brahman was conceived as a fundamental power, which carries everything that exists and also supplies power to the gods. This power was regarded as a potency immanent in the Vedic texts themselves, enabling the priests to influence the divine will by means of ritual practice. Later, the Upanishads, which conclude the Vedic texts, see in the Brahman the exclusively valid principle of cosmogenesis and concentrate their explanations on the development of a monistic theory, whose central pillar is precisely this Brahman. Here the early Indian path of world interpretation culminates, which initially unfolded the phases of animism, polytheism and henotheism, in a mysticism consistently oriented towards the universal and non-temporal One. The substantial diversity of the Vedic hymn world, the magical-mythic world of naive religiosity, being differentiated into countless great and small nature spirits, but also the diversity of the everyday world of senses is thus reduced in upanishadic thinking to the status of an illusory reality, which deceives man's eye and mind and conceals the only real, the absolute level of being, namely the unchangeable divine, on the periphery of which the transient forms of becoming and decay pass, as it were, like shadows.

By carrying out an important conceptual differentiation, the upanishadic theorists succeed in building a bridge between the actual and the fictitious on the level of consciousness. Atman is the core of the human subject, which on the one hand lives in the illusion of living an individual, isolated, mortal life surrounded by a universe of diversity and separation, but on the other hand, on the level of true being, is identical with Brahman, i.e. with the absolute, divine world-self, the ens realissimum, which, even timelessly and without beginning, emanates and reabsorbs all elements of the world of appearances in an eternal cycle. This Brahman is sublime above the division of space and the change of time, yet indiscriminately permeates all transient manifestations. The authors of the Upanishads draw a binding moral consequence from this: the aim of human existence must be to escape the unreal tragicomedy of the world of appearances and to recognize and realize the unity of the core of the subject, the Atman, with the universal self, the Brahman.

In some places the Upanishads also attribute the power of a 'divine Logos' to this absolute self, a form-creative primordial potency, which is actualized in sensually perceptible forms of the universe. In so far as Brahman differentiates himself and unfolds into the world of appearances - into the dimension of the non-existent - Brahman is 'Vac', the power of the Logos, the creator of the world of forms. The Prajapati myth of the pre-upanishadic Vedas had already known the conception of a goddess named Vac, who not only had a sexual relationship with her god/creator Prajapati, but also functioned as the materializing medium of his creative will. The power of the Brahman logos produces a cosmos of forms that is completely permeated by its creator, whose creatures carry it within themselves, are essentially one with it - Atman/Brahman. These logos-initiated forms, non-existent emanations of the formless, the causal, mark the horizon of the desires of the blinded subject, the Atman, who does not know that he or she is actually Brahman. The Brahman, under the aspect of its dialectical identity with Atman, is also called Paramatman, the highest self, in contrast to Jivatman, the subject delivered unconsciously to the forms of the world.

The Upanishads vary the teachings of Atman/Brahman according to the insights and the ability of differentiation of the philosophers. The basic principle, as I said, is monistic. The cosmic primal principle is to be thought of as a micro- and macrodimensionally unlimited, non-personal and absolute subject that transcends the phenomena of the world of perception, but at the same time is immanent to it as its existential basis and as its essence, carrying it as its true substance. The gap between Atman, the core of the subject, and Brahman, the All-Self, is not real, but illusionary. The illusionary in itself is this gap. Those who cast off these illusions have recognized Brahman and, like Shandilya in Chandogya-Upanishad, can say: "This my Atman within the heart is greater than the earth, greater than the airspace, greater than the sky, greater than the worlds." Uddalaka Aruni teaches in the same Upanishad that multiplicity is only the process of transformation of the one divine substance, this only real substance as the source also of the human mind, of which the knowing person knows: "... the living soul does not die. This finest substance pervades the universe, that is what is true, that is the Self, that is you ...". (Tat tvam asi). Yajnavalkaya, who was the first to postulate the unity of Atman and Brahman, defines in the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad the highest principle as 'knowledge' and as everything else: "The Brahman is this Atman; he is knowledge, Manas [mind], voice, breath, eye, ear, ether, wind, embers, water, earth, anger, non anger, joy, non joy, right, wrong, he is everything".

Brahman, by early Brahmins often experienced in psychotechnical experiments (Soma) as the primordial cause and identity of the many, can by definition only be thought of as absolute - accordingly, this One of the Upanishads has no other, relative to which it stands, and is thus neither transcended nor immanently limited. To set a temporal first cause for the world, an act of creation initiating the beginning of temporality and things (as in Western religious thinking and in the Big-Bang-theory), would be an artificial and completely arbitrary incision into this non-limitation, can thus for a monistically oriented philosophy only be regarded as a mythological relic. Not only the Brahman, also the world in its unreality has no beginning, for it is the product of Brahman, and in this there is no break; no before and no after; no beginning and no end; no gap between anything; nothing that was not before and will not be after.
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