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Hinduism - Brahman/Atman

Hinduism - Brahman/Atman

Author: Ted Fairchild

Understand the Hindu concept of Brahman and Atman.

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Hello. Welcome back. So you might be asking is Brahman the name of God in Hinduism? And what about Atman? Well if you're a little bit familiar with the eastern religions, you might know that many of them have different conceptions of God. And these conceptions really inform the technical categorization of these religions, which really occurred in the 17th century, primarily in Europe.

Today we'll look at Hinduism and some of its conceptions of the divine and transcendent world. And we'll also look at some of the variations within Hinduism, the monotheistic tendencies, and some of the polytheistic tendencies. One important concept when approaching the eastern religions is theism. It concerns a belief that there is a supreme creator god responsible for the unfolding realms of existence, form and causality, creation and destruction, et cetera.

Theistic religions adhere to and generally worship the divine creator being, very often the term God is used. Religions that don't recognize a single creator god in this way, are categorized as non theistic. Zen Buddhism is a clear example of a non theistic religion and spiritual orientation. Hinduism on the other hand, partly because it is so diverse and has such a rich and far reaching history, has elements of both monotheism and polytheism, aspects of theism and non theism.

And a big part of this also, are the notions of dualism and non dualism. So notions of God vary within different Hindu traditions. Most of them however, recognize and refer to the same sacred text, the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, which are approached in a variety of different ways, and include references to many gods.

At the same time, the Vedas and the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, They also contain elements of theism, like the personal god Krishna, for example, with whom the characters engage. Because of this, Hinduism is often thought of in monotheistic terms. The Western term Monism has often been applied to these particular sects of Hinduism.

Monism refers to the unity of substance and essence, and the idea that many different things or substances can be explained according to one principle, one principle substance or reality, usually understood as a higher order of being. The Vedanta refers to the philosophy contained in the Upanishads, one of the central, ancient, sacred texts in Hinduism.

The term Vedanta itself means the end goal or purpose of the Upanishads. And for Hindu, final liberation from the end of cycle of suffering in reincarnation, is often considered to be the principal aim. Historically, there have been different spiritual perspectives on this, as well as which philosophical tools to refer to and use for guidance and support.

During the eighth century of the common era, a man known as Shankara Bhagavadpada, or Adi Shankara, organized the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras, the entire philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, into a unified doctrine, which was based largely on the principle of non duality between Brahman and Atman.

Brahman is this supreme pure consciousness and ultimate essence that is within and beyond the world. Brahman permeates all existence. The source and the end all being. Atman is the Sanskrit word for self. One's true self, beyond appearances and attachments, and also pure consciousness. Proper self knowledge leads to realization of the essential unity of self, Atman, with the transcendent, Brahman.

Advaita Vedanta originally developed alongside other Hindu traditions. And if we look at another, more recent, branch of Vedanta, Dvaita Vedanta for example, we'll see how it's dualism contrasts with the non dualism of Advaita Vedanta. Dvaita Vedanta was founded in the 13th century of the common era by Shri Madhvacharya.

It's a reorientation of traditional Vedanta according to a philosophy of dualism. Dualism distilled from its unique interpretation of the Vedas and Upanishads. It recognizes Brahman or Vishnu as the Supreme deity, not necessarily distinct, but part of an independent reality, independent from the realm of humans and human souls.

And what sets Dvaita Vedanta apart from Advaita Vedanta is the strict separation of essences. And although the Supreme deity is eternal and controls the universe, he does assume a personal role in human affairs and with the world. In this sense there is a dualism in terms of dependence and independence, which is a characteristic of monotheism.

Brahman, according to Advaita on the other hand, as you saw earlier, is more of a metaphysical principle than a personal god. And it reveals a relatively strict monism in that Atman, the self beyond the ego, and Brahman, cosmic, unchanging principle of reality beyond definition, are ultimately fused, identical, inseparable, indistinguishable.

So once knowledge of the end, the Vedanta, is seen and understood, along with true self knowledge, they are understood to be part of a unified essence. The dependent, independent dualism of Dvaita Vedanta is implicitly overcome in Advaita Vedanta. So the two main distinctions of these two Vedanta schools are first of all how the human and divine realms are characterized, either as dependent and independent of each other, or as essentially unified but clouded in illusion, behind the veil of Maya.

And the second main distinction is how the exchange between these realms is understood. From the perspective of a relationship through difference and separation, which is Dvaita Vedanta, or a relationship of essential, primordial unity beyond all illusions of distinction, Advaita Vedanta.

Terms to Know

The primitive or fundamental experience of phenomena; the Sanskrit word for "self."


In Hinduism, the unitary spirit that binds together the universe.