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Sample essay on Atman & Brahman in Upanishads

By Nancy McNally

Atman & Brahman in UpanishadsIn Mundaka, Brahman is immanent in all things as well as in oneself, and it is by contemplating him in creatures that one realizes him as the immortal within oneself. This is a long step beyond pantheism: there is no longer any identification of the soul with the All. The soul participates in Brahman, but it is not identical with it, and Brahman is in all creatures, but it is not identical with them. It is unknown and the ‘other’ – ‘other than the known and other than the unknown’, to be discerned but never wholly understood; it transcends both the objective world (the All) and the atman. If one discerns it as the immortal substrate of all creatures, then one realizes one’s own immortality. This does not necessarily mean that one ‘becomes Brahman,’ for Brahman is unknowable, it means simply that one realizes the immortality of that of Brahman’ which is oneself. In Mundaka, the atman is “he on whom the earth, the sky, and the atmosphere are woven, and the mind together with all senses” (p. 214).

In the Mundaka descriptions of Brahman and atman do not vary greatly; and it is quite legitimate to see in them all the supreme principle, for the descriptions of them resemble each other closely. The atman, on the other hand, though all-pervading is nonetheless only the arrow aimed at the target Brahman. Yet even in the Mundaka this sublime union of all souls in Brahman, if such it is, is not regarded as union with God. The ‘one who knows’ and is released from ‘name and form’ and has in very deed become Brahman, does not thereby become God, he is merely in a position to draw near to God. The gods which men serve are not images of what has been, but forces which lead into what will be. Their function is always to go before men’s faces, to lead them into or to reveal that by which they come to see what they previously have not seen. The Mundaka reports that “He who knows the Supreme Brahman becomes Brahman himself” (p. 218).

The Kena, on the other hand, seems to feel that the earlier equations and identifications are over-simplifications, and that ultimately you can say nothing intelligible about the Supreme Principle at all. All you can say about him can only be an approximation to the reality, for, in the last resort, he is unknowable. From your experience of what you yourself are, and from speculation about the outside world, you may obtain some idea about him, but this will only be a partial and approximate affair. “If you think, “I know well,” — well, you may know a very little, — a form of Brahman, [only] that [much] of it that you yourself are, or that [much] of it which is in the gods” (p. 240). Brahman as such is just not accessible to the mind, it can only be apprehended by a spiritual awakening. “It is conceived of [only] by one who has no conceptual thought about it” (p. 241). Those who think about it do not know it. It is not known to those who busy themselves with knowledge, but it is known to those who are not concerned with knowledge. It is known and conceived of when there is an awakening, for immortality is experienced. By the soul one attains virtue, by knowing immortality. Brahman, then, is absolutely unknowable to the mind. It can only be apprehended by an ‘awakening’, an intuition, that is, from an agency other than yourself, since to wake up is not an act of one’s own volition. For the Ken, Brahman is both the external universe, the ‘mortal’, and the soul, the ‘immortal’. It is the ground in which two different modes of existence, Nature and the soul; yet though it is in them, it is other than they. It is both immanent and transcendent. This is, perhaps, the first clear statement in the Upaniṣads of the transcendence of the Supreme Principle. God manifests himself both in the temporal and in the eternal is other than both. ‘Into blind darkness enter they who worship non-becoming; into darkness greater than that enter they who rejoice in becoming” (p. 243).

In the Upanisads themselves this realization of the total undifferentiated unity of the soul forms the theme of the late Mandukya. In this text, a fourth state of human consciousness is identified as the soul, the self, the atman. According to the Mandukya, the ‘Lord of all’, that is God, is merely an emanation from the undifferentiated One which is at the same time the human soul. The Supreme Being is thus both Lord, and the One, and the atman, but atman here used apparently in the sense of the ‘soul of the All’, not of the released individual soul, with which it does not seem to be identical. Similarly in the human being the ‘formed’ is all that is other than breath and the space within the atman, presumably meaning ‘body’ here; its essence is the right eye. “Om. Shining Ones! [brahman] May we hear through our ears what is auspicious. Ye, fit to be worshipped! May we see with our eyes what is auspicious. May” (p. 270). The first state of atman is Vaisvanara; the Jagaritasthana is the first foot or prana. God or rather the atman, the Universal Soul is not only all things but that it is also the Lord of all things including human souls; yet these themselves appear to be identified with the ground of all the objective world in the whole of this section. A point of departure, however, towards a theistic interpretation of existence has been made, and we shall perhaps not be guilty of reading into this passage what is not there if we say that human souls are considered as being identical with God in so far as they are, like him, eternal, but as logically posterior to him in that they proceed from him as their first cause. The human soul is coeternal with God in that it has its being outside time, but logically it is posterior to him. Moreover, in deep dreamless sleep there remains only what the Mandukya calls a unified state. “The fourth is soundless: unutterable, a quieting down of all relative manifestations, blissful, peaceful, non-dual. Thus, OM is the Atman, verily. He who knows thus, merges his self in the Self; – yea, he who knows thus” (p. 278).

In sum, the form of microcosm-macrocosm speculation is typical of Upanisadic thought; d it contributed undoubtedly to the atman-brahman synthesis that is rightly considered to be the dominant teaching of these astonishing treatises. By the atman-brahman synthesis is meant, of course, the identification of the innermost essence of man with the unchanging ground of the universe…

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