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BRAHMAN . In the Vedic hymns the neuter noun bráhman denotes the cosmic principle or power contained in the priestly or inspired utterance. As such, it came to be viewed as embodied in the Veda when the latter was fixed in a body of texts. The masculine form of the word, brahmán, denotes the priest who knows and speaks such utterances; in the later standardized Vedic ritual he is one of the four main priests who, mostly silently, oversees and rectifies errors in the sacrificial proceedings. The derivative term brāhmaa has two denotations. One indicates the Vedic prose texts that expound the śrauta ("solemn") ritual; these texts are also known in English as the Brāhmaa. The other indicates a person of the first of the four vara s, or "castes"; in English this becomes brahman or brahmin. Finally, Brahman or Brahmā is a name for the creator god in Hinduism.


Notwithstanding many and various attempts to establish the linguistic derivation of brahman, the question remains unsettled. The old equation with Latin flamen has been vigorously and repeatedly championed by Georges Dumézil. Louis Renou suggests derivation from the root barh (or brah ), which would mean to speak in riddles. Jan Gonda wants to derive brahman from the root bh ("to be strong"), a view that he finds supported by the ancient Indian exegetes and that has the advantage of bringing together the two largely interchangeable Vedic divinities Bhaspati and Brahmaaspati. Paul Thieme, rejecting Gonda's reliance on traditional Indian exegesis, starts from a basic meaning of "form(ing), formulation" and pleads for connecting it with Greek morphē. These, as well as other proposed etymologies, run into formal or semantic difficulties. Much depends on the view one takes of the basic meaning. Consensus tends to look for the basic meaning in the sphere of (sacred) word or formulation, as is in accordance with abundant textual evidence. The main problem, however, is the multi-interpretability of the element brah, which keeps frustrating attempts to arrive at a satisfactory solution.


In the Brāhmaas and especially in the Upaniads, brahman comes to designate the impersonal eternal principle and first cause of the universe. It plays, however, no distinct role in Vedic cosmogony. Its connectionunder the form of the god Brahmāwith the cosmogonic myth of the golden germ or egg (hiranyagarbha ) is post-Vedic. In the Laws of Manu (1.5ff.) the golden egg is said to have arisen from Brahmā's seed, which he deposited in the primordial waters. After remaining in this embryonic state, Brahmā is born from the golden egg as the cosmic man, Purua-Nārāyaa. The essential point of this and similar passages is that Brahmā as the single principle and cause of the universe is "self-existent" (svayabhū ) and therefore can only put the cosmogonic process into motion by reproducing himself. In the same line of self-reproduction we find the motif of Brahmā's incest with his daughter, Vāc ("speech")a motif transferred from the Vedic creator god Prajāpati, lord of creatures. Though fused with the cosmic man, Purua, and with Prajāpati, he has not given rise to a cosmogonic myth specific to him. In Hindu cosmology he is either a presiding but inactive deitynot unlike the brahman priest in the sacrificial ritualor a demiurge who comes into his own only in the second stage of the cosmogony, when the phenomenal world starts its deployment. He is then seated on the lotus that grows out of Viu's navel, or, again, he is born from the cosmic egg (brahmāa ).

In the Hindu pantheon, Brahmā is united, as the static center, with the dynamic supreme deities Viu and Śiva in the trimūrti, the triple form of the divine. Iconographically, he is represented with four bearded heads and four arms. His attributes are the four Vedas, the water vessel, the offering ladle, the rosary (emblems of the brahman), the lotus, and the scepter (or bow), while his mount is the hasa or goose. The otherwise abundant Hindu mythology does not, however, give much attention to Brahmā, nor is there clear evidence of a cult. In essence, brahman remained an abstract concept that was elaborated in the Upanisads and the monistic Vedānta philosophy.

Semantic Development

Hermann Oldenberg summarized the general meaning of brahman (neuter) as the sacred formula and the magic power inherent in it ("die heilige Formel und das sie erfüllende Fluidum der Zauberkraft"; 1917, vol. 2, p. 65). Although this is consistent overall with Vedic usage, it still leaves a large distance between sacred formula and the later meaning of principium omnium. Moreover, the Vedic brahman, far from being eternal and immutable, is said to be made or "carpented." Gonda's view of brahman as "power," derived from the verbal root bh ("to be strong"), is useful but too general to answer the problem in more precise terms. Thieme's analysis leading to "form(ing), formulation" (Formung, Gestaltung, Formulierung ) as the original meaning, especially in the sense of (improvised) poetic formulation and later (stereotyped) truth formulation, goes a long way toward filling the gap. Renou, apart from the doubtful etymology proposed by him, draws attention to a particular dimension of the formulation. In his view, brahman is distinguished by its enigmatic or paradoxical nature. The brahman, then, is the formulation of the cosmic riddle, a riddle that cannot be solved by a direct answer but only formulated in paradoxical terms that leave the answerthe (hidden) connection (bandhu, nidāna ) between the terms of the paradoxunexpressed. In Renou's felicitous phrase, the brahman is the "énergie connective comprimée en énigmes" (1949, p. 43).

Yet another element must be taken into account in fixing the semantic range of brahman, namely, the verbal contest. This element is preserved, albeit in fixed and ritualized form, in the Brahmodya of the Vedic ritual, especially in the horse sacrifice, or Aśvamedha. It consists of a series of rounds of verbal challenges and responses. In each round two contestants put riddle questions to each other. The point of the riddle contest is to show that one has "seen" or understood the hidden "connection" by responding with a similar, if possible even more artfully contrived, riddle. The one who holds out longest and finally reduces his opponent to silence is the winner, the true brahman, holder of the hidden connection. Hence the importance of silence stressed by Renou. In the elaborate Brahmodya of the horse sacrifice the last round is concluded by the brahman priest who asserts himself, apparently as the winner, with the words: "This brahman is the highest heaven of speech" (brahmāya vāca parama vyoma ). In the last resort, then, man as a contestant must place himself in the open gap of the unresolved cosmic riddle and vindicate himself as the live "connection" that holds together the cosmos.

The original Brahmodya, therefore, is not an innocuous riddle game but a matter of life and death. This still transpires in the Brahmodya-like debates of the Upaniads, where the losing contestant who fails to submit to his superior opponent and goes on challenging him has to pay for his boldness with his life or, more precisely, with his head. As a contest, the Brahmodya takes its place among other contests, such as chariot races, surviving in fixed, ritualized form. In fact, the Vedic sacrifice itself appears originally to have been a perilous and violent contest for the goods of life. However, the Vedic sacrificial ritual, as the prose texts describe it, is a perfectly peaceful and all but obsessively ordered procedure that has no place for adversaries and real contests. It is the exclusive affair of an individual sacrificer.

This fundamental change is expressed in interesting fashion in a ritualistic myth relating the decisive sacrificial contest between Prajapati and Mrtyu, or Death (Jaiminīya Brāhmaa 2.692.70). Prajāpati wins his final victory by his "vision" of equivalence that enables him to assimilate his adversary's sacrificial panoply and thereby to eliminate him once and for all. "Since then," the text concludes, "there is no sacrificial contest anymore." But this also meant that the formulation of the cosmic life-death riddle with its hidden connection was replaced with flat and artless statements of equivalence, establishing the identification of the elements of macro- and microcosmos with those of the standardized ritual. Thus the so-called "four hot " (caturhot ) formulas are still said to be "the highest hidden brahman of the gods" and their original context appears indeed to have been the verbal contest. However, in the way these formulas are given in the texts, they are no more than a string of simple identifications"Thinking is the ladle, thought is the ghee, speech is the altar "without mystery or enigma, to be learned and recited by rote. The dynamic tension of the hidden connection has collapsed into flat and static identification. The uncertain outcome of the contest has been replaced by the ritualistic knowledge of him "who knows thus" (ya evam veda ), namely the identifications that concentrated the whole of the universe in the ritual proceedings and, ultimately, in the single sacrifice.

In the context of the ritual's development and fixation the brahman evolves from the visionary formulation of the cosmic riddle to comprise the immutably fixed corpus of Vedic texts. From the subjective truth of the visionary poet it has become the objective truth of the suprahuman, transcendent law of the universe, realized in the ritual and underpinned by identification. This also meant that the function of the brahman (masc.), that is, the speaker or knower of brahman (neuter), was narrowed down to that of the mostly silent brahman priest in the ritual, while the brāhmaa became (ideally) the human carrier of the Veda (hence the scriptural stress on its oral preservation and transmission by the brahman).

At the same time, the brahman kept up its intimate connection with speech, which gave rise to the later speculations on the primordial utterance as the cosmic principle (śabda-brahman ) and to philosophy of language, as well as to grammatical description.

On the other hand, identification made it possible to concentrate the whole of the spoken and acted proceedings of the ritual in the person of the single sacrificer, who in this way internalizes the whole of the ritual, that is, the transcendent cosmic order, and so becomes identical with brahman. This was already prefigured in the brahman who, as we saw, identifies himself with "the highest heaven of speech." Here the development leads over to the Upanisadic doctrine of the unity of ātman, the principle of individuation or the individual "soul," and brahman, which gave rise to the monistic philosophy of the Vedānta.

See Also

Brahmā; Priesthood, article on Hindu Priesthood; Upaniads; Vara and Jāti; Vedānta.


The most original view of brahman is presented by Louis Renou (with the collaboration of Liliane Silburn) in "Sur la notion de brahman," Journal asiatique 237 (1949): 746, reprinted in his L'Inde fondamentale (Paris, 1978). Jan Gonda's Notes on Brahman (Utrecht, 1950) brings in anthropological materials concerning power concepts. He is criticized by Paul Thieme, who presents a balanced view of the semantic development, in "Brahman," Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 102 (1952): 91129, reprinted in Thieme's Kleine Schriften, vol. 1 (Wiesbaden, 1971). For a discussion of Gonda's and Thieme's views, see also Hanns-Peter Schmidt's Bhaspati und Indra (Wiesbaden, 1968), pp. 1622, 239ff. The element of verbal contest is stressed in my essay "On the Origin of the Nāstika," Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Sud- und Ost-asiens 1213 (19681969): 171185, which has been revised and reprinted in my The Inner Conflict of Tradition (Chicago, 1985). For the equation of flamen and brahman, see Georges Dumézil's Flamen-Brahman (Paris, 1935); see also the Revue de l'histoire des religions 38 and 39 for Dumézil's responses to criticism. For Oldenberg's views, see his Die Religion des Veda (Stuttgart, 1917) and his Kleine Schriften (Wiesbaden, 1967), pp. 11271156. A critical survey of the various etymologies is to be found in Manfred Mayrhofer's Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen, vol. 2 (Heidelberg, 1963), pp. 453456.

The philosophical developments and the concept of sabda-brahman are discussed in Madeleine Biardeau's Théorie de la connaissance et philosophie de la parole dans le brahmanisme classique (Paris, 1964).

New Sources

Myers, Michael W. Brahman: A Comparative Theology. Richmond, 2001.

Jan C. Heesterman (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 11 2018


The origin and meaning of the term brahman are shrouded in mystery. Using the verbal root bh, Western Indological scholars derive such meanings as "sacred magical power" (Hermann Oldenberg), "form, formulation" (Paul Thieme), "priestly utterance," "energy that is expressed in paradoxical terms" (Louis Renou), and "the live connection that holds the cosmos together" (Jan Hesterman) The meanings of brahman in the ancient "heard texts" (śrutis ) and later Indian philosophical systems are not unrelated to these meanings. For example, the Vedic understanding of the brahman survives in Bhartrhari's concept of the "śabda brahman." Likewise, the ideas of power, energy, and cosmic unity among opposites are taken up in the Vedāntic notion of the brahman as absolute reality. The notion of the brahman as the sacred power within a priest may have contributed to an identification of the brahman with the inner spirit (ātman ). This transformation of a much older notion into a discursively idealized philosophical concept resembles the way the concept of logos was transformed into "logic" "Vernunft," and "language."

Etymologically, the word brahman has two constituent components: the verbal root bh and the suffix matup. The verbal root bh means "to grow" and "the great," and together with the suffix provides two allied meanings: "the greatest" and "the root of all things." In the Vedic hymns the term brahman not only refers to the power contained in the words recited but also to the mysterious power present in the utterances of the Vedic hymns. Though the idea of brahman as the ground of all things is not entirely absent in the Vedas, the primary goal was to search for the power connecting the microcosm with the macrocosm.

Brahman in the Upaniads

This sense of power continues in the Upaniads (e.g., Kaha Upaniad), which say that the various devas (gods; literally, "the shining ones") each carry out their respective jobs for fear of the brahman (6.3); Kena Upaniad states that the various devas have no power outside the power of brahman residing in them. The brahman of the Upaniads is much more than a power; it is the cause of the origination, sustenance, and destruction of the world (Taittiīya Upaniad, 3.1.1). In the Bhadārayaka Upaniad, when Yājñavalkya is questioned about the number of gods, he initially responds by saying that 3,306 gods were simply manifestations of thirty-three gods, and then successively reduces the number to six, three, two, one and a half, and then one. This god is none other than the brahman, and all other gods of the Vedas, the senses, and the mind are said to be the various powers of brahman (Bhadārayaka Upaniad, 3.9.110). The central question in the Upaniads is framed as follows: "What is that by knowing which all else becomes known?" (Muaka Upaniad, 1.13) The answer given is "brahman." If brahman is the source of everything, then brahman is also the core of each individual being, and this core is called ātman. In many places in the Upaniads the two terms brahman and ātman are used synonymously. The Chāndogya Upaniad asks: "What is ātman ? What is brahman ?" (5.11.1, ko nu ātmā, ki brahmeti ?) When the inquiry pertains to the source of the universe, the word ātman is used, and in other cases when the inquiry is regarding the true self of a human being the word brahman is used. To the Upaniadic seers the brahman and the ātman signified the same reality, one within, and the other without.

The Upaniads describe brahman both negatively and positively. It is described as neither gross, nor subtle, nor short, nor long, nor red, nor adhesive, without shadow, darkness, air, space, attachment, taste, smell, eyes, ears, speech, mind, light, breath, mouth, and measure, and without inside and outside (Bhadārayaka Upaniad, 3.8.8), and that who consists of mind, whose body is life, whose form is light, whose conception is truth, whose soul is space, containing all works, desires, odors, and tastes, and encompassing the whole world, the speechless and the calm (Chāndogya Upaniad, 3.14.2).

Brahman in VedĀnta

The exegetical effort to construe these different groups of sentences to resolve any apparent contradiction shaped the understanding of brahman in the Upaniadic schools. Two hermeneutic principles were applied: accord priority and finality to the positive texts, or since negation implies a prior affirmation that is then negated, the final import of the Upaniads may be taken to be expressed in the negative texts, the positive ones simply preparing the ground for it. The latter hermeneutical principle is adopted by Śakara, the most well-known exponent and defender of the school known as Advaita Vedānta (nondualistic Vedānta); and the former by Rāmānuja, the founder of Viśiādvaita (qualified nondualism), and Madhva in his Dvaita Vedānta.

Advaita VedĀnta

From the perspective of Śakara's nondualistic Vedānta, brahman is one without a second; the world is false (māyā, in a rather technical sense of "presented appearance") and the finite individual and the brahman are nondifferent. The brahman can neither be comprehended by rational minds, nor be expressed or literally referred to in the language, nor be an object of knowledge. It does not have qualities (because all determination is negation), and so it cannot be described or defined. While using language to refer to brahman is natural, it does not achieve its goal. Language refers to an object either by its direct power of meaning (abhidhā ), or as its suggested meaning (lakaā ). Normally, the suggested meaning is sustained and supported by its relationship to the literal meanings, but in the case of language referring to the brahman, the meaning may be said to be "only the meaning function, but not an actual meaning" (Bhattacharyya 1930). There is a pointing, as one points to something with one's finger, toward a small, almost invisible star, accompanied by a series of descriptions each one of which is then canceled, leading the listener to identify, even in the absence of an identifying description of, what is being pointed at. Brahman is described as saccidānanda, that is, as sat (existence), cit (consciousness), and ānanda (bliss), with reference to its essence (svaūpa lakaā ), whereas brahman as the cause, sustainer of the universe, and so on with reference to its accidental attributes (taastha lakaā).

It is important to keep in mind that from a strictly Advaita point of view no positive description can be intrinsic when the thing being described lacks any positively determining qualities. Nevertheless, Advaita Vedānta describes the brahman as existence, pure consciousness, and bliss. These three are not qualities or qualifying attributes of the brahman. Advaita Vedānta holds that these familiar terms must be understood in their negative implications, not as referring to what brahman is, but rather as pointing to what the brahman is not. Sat points to the fact that the brahman is not asat (nonexistent); cit suggests that the brahman is not acit, that is, jaa (insentient matter); and ānanda points to that, in the experience of the brahman, there is no dukha, no unsatisfied desire. The negative statements in this regard more closely approach the intrinsic nature of the brahman. In this light one can say that in Advaita Vedānta, Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza's principle "all determination is negation" holds good of the infinite: no determination of it is possible. Underlying this account are a theory of meaning and a theory of language that are of particular importance, and, that possibly, found their first systematic exposition in the Buddhist theory of apoha (the negative theory of meaning).

The thesis of Advaita Vedānta is logically substantiated (1) by a critique of difference (bheda nirodha ) and (2) hermeneutically by an exegesis of the śrutis. To these one may add (3) a phenomenological and experiential dimension that would consist in showing that in its search for freedom from all suffering, human subjectivity passes through levels of ordinary experience: the waking-bodily, the dreaming-psychic, and the dreamless sleep (the seemingly total inaction and quietude). Finally, there is the experience of the brahman, which goes beyond the distinction of the subject and the object and which is articulated in such famous mahāvākyas (great sentences) of the Upaniads as "I am he" and "thou art that." Knowing the brahman, according to the tradition of Advaita Vedānta, is to become the brahman. It is not knowing an object, however large and great in its dignity, that stands over against one as an other; rather, it is an experience in which all otherness is canceled, and one discovers that within oneself nothing else remains to be achieved. When there is no duality between the subject and the object, there is no dukha or fear. A modern account of the phenomenological stages of a path to freedom is found in Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya's The Subject as Freedom (1930).

ViŚiĀdvaita VedĀnta

In his Viśiādvaita, that is, "one reality (brahman ) with qualifications," Rāmānuja holds that all knowledge necessarily involves distinctions and differentiations. It is impossible to know an object in its undifferentiated form; therefore, both pure identity and pure difference are false. The brahman as God possesses cit (matter) and acit (self); all three are real (brahman, cit, and acit). Though real, the last two are dependent on the brahman. Consciousness presupposes the self of which it is an essential attribute (dharmabhuta jñāna ). Perhaps the most original aspect of Rāmānuja's philosophy is the rejection of the principle that to be real means to be independent. Although soul and matter are substances in themselves, in relation to the brahman they are attributes. They are God's body and he is their soul. The self is substance and quality, an organ and organism of the brahman. Rāmānuja's theory of apthaksiddhi viśeaa, that is, the adjectival theory of inseparability, explains this relation. Just as qualities are real and cannot exist apart from the substances in which they subsist, similarly matter and soul are parts of the brahman and cannot exist without the brahman.

Rāmānuja used the same Upaniadic texts that Śakara used, but arrived at a different conception of the brahman. Rāmānuja holds that the Upaniadic texts such as neha nānā asti kicena (there is no multiplicity here) do not really deny the multiplicity of objects, names, and forms, but asserts that these objects do not have any existence apart from the brahman. Thus, all negative texts of the Upaniads, which assert that none of this is the brahman, are construed to mean that none of it in its presumed independence is the brahman. However, the positive sentences, for example, "all this is the brahman," mean that everything belongs to the brahman as the ultimate totality. Whereas for Śakara the brahman is pure consciousness devoid of any distinctions, a pure identity without any difference (nirgua ), Rāmānuja's brahman is identity-in-difference. The brahman creates the world out of acit by an act of will, so creation is a real act of will. Ignorance (māyā or avidyā ) in this system is no longer creative of illusory world, and the finite individuals are not illusory. It is indeed true, Rāmānuja concedes, that some Upaniadic texts articulate the brahman as wielder of a magical power (māyā ). However, māyā for Rāmānuja properly understood is the unique power of God by which God creates the wonderful world of objects. He vehemently criticizes Śakara's theory of the world as false appearance. The created world, for Rāmānuja, is as wonderful as the brahman himself.

If someone were to ask how the one contains the many, Rāmānuja would respond with the grammatical principle of sāmānādhikaya (coordination). According to this rule, the words in a sentence with different meanings can denote one and the same thing. Rāmānuja's interpretation of the classical text "this is that Devadatta" explains this rule clearly. For Rāmānuja, Devadatta of the past and the Devadatta of the present cannot be entirely identical, because the person seen at the present and the person seen in the past are different, have different meanings, and yet both refer to the same person. Similarly, unity and diversity, the one and the many, can coexist; they are not contradictions and they can be reconciled in a synthetic unity. Thus, he does not deny the many: the many, on the contrary, characterizes the one. Moka comes about with the knowledge of the brahman together with devotion (bhakti ).

Dvaita VedĀnta

Madhva carries much further the protest against the nondualism of Śakara than Rāmānuja. Whereas for Śakara the texts teaching difference have a practical value in that they steer one in the right direction and lead one to the real teaching of the Upaniads, that is, the teaching of nondifference, for Madhva the texts teaching difference convey the true import of the Upaniads. Substance is one of the ten categories that Madhva accepts. Out of the twenty substances that Madhva enumerates, he accepts, like Rāmānuja, three as the most important: brahman or God, matter, and selves.

Bheda (difference) is the central category in Madhva's philosophy. This is another way of saying that each object is unique; each object possesses its own nature, which accounts for one object's difference from another object. The brahman or God is the only independent reality. God has a divine body and is transcendent. However, since God is the inner controller of all souls, he is also immanent. God creates the world by his will and brings into existence the world of objects and selves. Objects and selves, though real, eternal, and irreducible to each other, are dependent on the first. At the time of the dissolution of the world, God transforms material objects into undifferentiated matter and selves into disembodied intelligences. It is important to note in this context that even in the state of dissolution God, matter, and selves remain distinct. Unlike Rāmānuja, for Madhva no two souls are alike. Thus, whereas Rāmānuja advocates qualitative monism and quantitative pluralism of souls, Madhva advocates both qualitative and quantitative pluralism of souls. Since the immediate cause of bondage is ignorance of the real nature of the brahman or God, the soul must acquire the knowledge of the real nature of God to attain moka. It is important to remember in this context that knowledge by itself does not and cannot remove ignorance; knowledge is only a qualification for release, which in the final analysis depends on God's will. No matter how hard an aspirant may try, he or she cannot gain such an immediate knowledge, unless God chooses to reveal himself to him or her.


Finally, apart from the previously discussed classical understandings of the brahman, there is another nondualistic school known as Śaiva Siddhānta. Of its many representative schools and thinkers, Kāshmir Śaivism of Abhinavagupta is the most well known. In his nondualism Abhinavagupta argues that brahman alone is. He painstakingly attempts to bridge the gulf between the one and its many phenomenal differences by positing many levels of consciousness, descending from the one to the many. Māyā or avidyā is now construed as a śakti or the power of the brahman -consciousness; consciousness is not a mere prakāśa (illumination) but also śakti (force). Indeed, the two in their difference are also one. While, on the one hand, Abhinavagupta wishes to preserve both the one and the many in the being of brahman, he makes it a graded dynamic process instead of using a static set of categories like the part and the whole. The one brahman -consciousness or pure cit objectifies itself into "I," and this power of self-objectification is called vimara śakti (the reflective power), from which arises the power of referring to intentional objects that lie concealed within it. This process yields a domain of seemingly independent objects. Kāshmir Śaivism has been a major influence in the shaping of the concept of the "integral brahman " of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy.

Other systems of Indian philosophy do not advance a concept of the brahman. Although Sākhya-Yoga seems to have had a theistic form in addition to the better-known atheistic form, it does not develop a concept of the brahman, nor do the Nyāya-Vaiśeika schools. The latter systems come perhaps closest to such a project when they substantiate their concept of God as an infinite self, all knowing, omnipresent, which is called Iśavara in the school. Despite the fact that the authors may cite many texts of the Upaniads in support of their theism, one misses in these schools any attempt to take into account the śruti texts in their totality.

To sum up: The brahman is the absolute reality in the school of Vedānta. The relationships of the one with the many preoccupied its thinkers, leading them to postulate a fundamental category to explain the connection. These categories range from pure identity (tādātmya having that as its self), apthakasiddhi (the relation of no separate existence), pure difference, and a progressive self-differentiation through self-objectification and intentionality. In the nondualistic Vedānta, the brahman, in the words of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, is (Spinozistic) "the substance becoming spirit," bringing together two different concepts of monism into one, resulting in the position that the only reality is the spirit. The following crucial issues remained: How does the one spirit become many? How to understand self-differentiation? Where to locate the power of creativity? Does it belong to the cit or consciousness as an inalienable aspect, or is it an "other" to consciousness? In the latter case, the basic otherness is not a product of ignorance. However, can one escape this problem by saying as nondualist Vedānta says, that ignorance is not a real other and not a nonreal other? Is not this nonreality itself a creation of ignorance? Thus, dialectic of one and many seems to have had an interminable hold on Indian metaphysical theories.

See also Causation in Indian Philosophy; God in Indian Philosophy; Mind and Mental States in Indian Philosophy; Self in Indian Philosophy.


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Bina Gupta (2005)


views updated May 29 2018



The Brahmans are a sacerdotal elite found everywhere in Hindu Asia, even as far east as Bali and Lombok in Indonesia. While in any one area they may be identified as the highest caste, there are in fact some hundreds of endogamous Brahman castes throughout South Asia; and so the Brahmans should more correctly be seen as a caste block, or in Sanskrit terms a varna. They have always been the highestranking of the four varnas or categories that make up Hindu society. Brahmans have traditionally been priests, either in temples or to particular families (purohita ). Nevertheless, many Brahmans still follow other traditional occupations such as teacher, scribe or government clerk, and landowner.

The essential attributed character that all Brahmans share depends on: (a) their supreme level of purity, which is usually expressed in a vegetarian diet (though there are fish-eating Brahmans in Bengal) ; and (b) their literacy in Sanskrit and other languages, combined with their knowledge of Hindu liturgy. The various Brahman castes are distinguished from each other first in terms of mother tongue (e.g., Tamil Brahmans, Konkani Brahmans). Then they are distinguished in terms of philosophical sect (e.g., Smarta Brahmans, Madhava Brahmans, Sri Vaishnava Brahmans). Thirdly, they may be distinguished in terms of the precise locality that was their homeland (e.g. Kongudesa Brahmans, those who came from the old Kongu territory, which is now Coimbatore District, in Tamil Nadu).

See also Anavil Brahman; Castes, Hindu; Chitpavan Brahman; Kshatriya; Nambudiri Brahman; Pandit of Kashmir; others listed in the Appendix.


Enthoven, Reginald E. (1920). "Brahman." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by R. E. Enthoven. Vol. 1, 213-254. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Nanjundayya, H. V., and L. K. Ananthakrishna Iyer (1928). "Brahman." In The Mysore Tribes and Castes, edited by H. V. Nanjundayya and L. K. Ananthakrishna Iyer. Vol. 2, 297-549. Mysore: Mysore University.

Rangachari, Kadamki (1931). The Sri Vaishnava Brahmans. Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum, New Series, General Section, 2, no. 2. Madras: Government Press.

Raychaudhuri, Tarak C, and Bikash Raychaudhuri (1981). The Brahmans of Bengal: A Textual Study in Social History. Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India.

Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Brahman." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India. Vol. 2, 351-400. Nagpur: Government Printing Press. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.

Thurston, Edgar, and Kadamki Rangachari (1909). "Brahman." In Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Vol. 1, 267-393. Madras: Government Press.



views updated Jun 27 2018

Brahman or Brahma (Skt., literally, ‘growth’ or ‘expansion’). The one supreme, all pervading Spirit; the impersonal Absolute, beyond attributes, which is the origin and support of the visible universe. This neuter noun, Brahman (or Brahma) should be distinguished from the masculine form, Brahmā, the personal Creator-god in the Hindu triad of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva.

The etymology of Brahman is obscure, but is traditionally derived from the verb root bṛh or bṛṃh, ‘to grow great’, ‘to increase’. In the earliest use of the word in the Vedas, and especially in Atharva Veda, the meaning of Brahman is the mysterious force behind a magical formula. It then means the sacred utterance through which the devas become great, and thus also ritual power and those in charge of it (i.e. brahmans). In the Śatapata Brāhmaṇa, and then in the Upaniṣads, the word Brahman comes to mean the source of power, and thus the impersonal, supreme, eternal principle behind the origin of the universe and the gods. It is this later meaning that is developed in the systematic philosophy of Vedānta which teaches that Brahman, the impersonal Absolute, is the essence, the Self (ātman), of all beings. Ātman and Brahman are one, and the knowledge of Brahman (brahmavidyā; see APARAVIDYA) is the supreme goal of human life as it confers liberation (mokṣa) from the ongoing cycle of suffering and rebirth (see e.g. ŚAṄKARA).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Brah·man / ˈbrämən/ (also Brahmin / -min/ ) • n. (pl. -mans or -mins) 1. a member of the highest Hindu caste, that of the priesthood. 2. (in Hinduism) the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena. 3. an ox (Bos indicus) of a humped breed originally domesticated in India that is tolerant of heat and drought. It is often included under the name B. taurus with other domestic cattle.Also called zebu.DERIVATIVES: Brah·man·ic / bräˈmanik/ adj.Brah·man·i·cal / bräˈmanikəl/ adj.


views updated May 17 2018


Originally meaning "sacred utterance," Brahman came to signify the "sacred power" believed to reside in the ancient Vedic sacrifice in Hinduism, and then by a natural transition of thought the sacred power that sustains the universe. In the Upanishads and in all later Hindu thought, the word is used to signify the Supreme Being or the Absolute. The Brahman is conceived as pervading the universe in such a way that it can be said, "All this [world] is Brahman." Again, it is said, "As a spider comes out with its thread or as small sparks come forth from a fire," so all this world comes forth from the Brahman. At the same time, lest this be taken in a material sense, it is said, "Brahman is not this, not this" (neti, neti ); it is beyond all material forms. It is described as "consisting of nothing but knowledge," and again, as "knowledge and bliss." Hence, in later philosophy it came to be defined as "being-knowledge-bliss" (saccidānanda ). Conceived as knowledge and bliss, Brahman is not the object of thought, but the subject; it is "that by which all things are known"; it is the "Knower," the "Ruler within," the "immortal Person" (purua ). Thus, Hindu philosophy was led to its great affirmation: "The Brahman is the Atman," or Self. That is, the ultimate ground of the soul or self is identical with the ultimate ground of the universe. This, in one form or other, is the basic doctrine of Hindu philosophy.

See Also: indian philosophy; hinduism.

[b. griffiths]


views updated Jun 11 2018

Brahman (often Anglicized as brahmin; Skt., brāhmaṇa). A member of the highest of the four varna, or categories, of Vedic society, hence Brahmanism.

The brahmans were traditionally the custodians, interpreters, and teachers of religious knowledge, and, as priests, acted as intermediaries between humans, the world, and God. They alone knew and could perform the rituals of correct worship, making them acceptable to God.


views updated May 23 2018

Brahman (Atman) In Hinduism, the supreme soul of the universe. The omnipresent Brahman sustains the Earth. According to the Upanishads, the individual soul is identified with Brahman. Brahman is not God, but rather is neti neti (not this, not that) or indescribable.


views updated May 21 2018

Brahman a member of the highest Hindu caste, that of the priesthood.