The Nature of Reality
By Swami Nikhilananda
Sri Ramakrishna Centre, New York, USA.
As early as the Vedic times, the Rishis investigated the nature of reality from two levels of experience, one of which may be called the absolute, acosmic or transcendental level and the other relative, cosmic or phenomenal level. At the phenomenal level one perceives the universe of diversity and is aware of one's own individual ego, whereas at the transcendental level, the differences merge into an inexplicable non dual consciousness. Both of these levels of experience are real from their respective standpoints, though what is perceived at one level may be negated at the other.
Reality experienced at the transcendental level is called Brahman. This term denotes the non-dual Pure consciousness which pervades the universe yet remains outside it.(Just as the sun pervades all life on earth yet remains outside it). Brahman is described as the first principle; from it all things are derived, by it all are supported, and into it all finally disappear. In Brahman alone the apparent differences of the phenomenal world are unified. Brahman is identical with the self of man, known as atman.
The word Atman signifies the consciousness in man which experiences gross objects during the waking state, subtle objects during the dream state, and the bliss arising from absence of the duality of subject and object in dreamless sleep.
The Upanishads speak of the transcendental Brahman as devoid of qualifying attributes or indicative marks, and of the phenomenal Brahman as endowed with them. The attributeless Brahman is called the supreme or unconditioned Brahman, and the other the inferior or conditioned Brahman.
When the sense perceived world is regarded as real, Brahman is spoken of as its omnipotent and omniscient Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. But when the world is not perceived to exist, as for instance in a deep meditation, then one experiences Brahman as the unconditioned Absolute; the idea of a Creator, omnipotent and omniscient, becomes irrelevant. The transcendental Brahman appears as the cause of the universe in association with maya, and becomes known as the conditioned Brahman or Brahman with attributes, or by such other epithets as the Lord and the personal God.
The unconditioned Brahman is free from the limiting adjuncts of space, time and causation.
In describing Brahman as infinitely great and infinitely small, the Upanishads only point out that it is absolutely spaceless. It is 'one and infinite: infinite in the east, infinite in the south......The SupremeBrahman is not to be fixed; it is unlimited, unborn, not to be reasoned about, not to be conceived.'
The Rishis often describe the unconditioned Brahman as existence-Knowledge-Bliss pure and absolute. Existence, Knowledge and Bliss are not attributes of Reality, they are its very stuff. Brahman is Knowledge or intelligence. The identity of Brahman and Atman or the Self , has been expressed in the well known Vedic dictum That thou art'. The very conception of Atman(Self) in the Upanishads implies that it is the knowing subject within us. It is the inner Consciousness and the real agent of perception, the senses being instruments. The Upanishads repeatedly say the realisation of the unconditioned Brahman is the supreme purpose of life, because it bestows immortality.
From the relative standpoint, however, the Vedas concede the reality of the phenomenal universe with all its limitations, and of finite living beings, who need an object of prayer and worship. A phenomenal creature needs a liberator, a saviour to whom he can pray, a personal God, benign and compassionate, to whom he can stretch out his hand for succour in the hour of stress and trial. By means of its inscrutable power called Maya, the unconditioned Brahman becomes the conditioned Brahman endowed with attributes (eg. has four hands holding mace and discus, conch shell and lotus etc.)- the personal God, always ready to bestow His grace upon all who pray to Him in distress.
It is the conditioned Brahman called Ishwar, by whom the universe has been created, and by whom, after being created, it is sustained and into whom in the end, it is absorbed. Creation, preservation and destruction are the activities of the conditioned Brahman or the personal God which can never affect His transcendental nature; they are mere waves on the surface of the ocean which cannot touch the serenity of its immeasurable depths.
According to the non-dualistic Vedanta, this conditioning of Brahman is not real, but only apparent. The conditioned Brahman is a part of the phenomenal world and appears to be real as long as the universe is regarded as real. In the infinite ocean of pure consciousness, He is the biggest wave. But the unconditioned Brahman and the conditioned Brahman are not two realities. The wave is not essentially different from the ocean; the sea is the same sea, whether it is peaceful or agitated.
The conditioned Brahman is called Ishwar (the Lord), because He is the all powerful Lord of all, the ruler of the universe. He, the Lord, is the bestower of blessings, the adorable God.
Vedanta philosophy often uses the word Maya to describe the creation. Maya, which is not essentially different from Brahman, is the material cause, and Brahman, as pure intelligence, is the efficient cause of the universe. After projecting all material forms, Brahman enters into them as life and consciousness and animates them. Thus Brahman, which is transcendental, becomes immanent in the universe.
A unique manifestation of the conditioned Brahman is the Avatar or incarnation of God, to fulfil a cosmic need whenever such a need arises.
The nature of Reality was investigated from two levels of experience
|Level 1||Level 2|
|Differences merge into an inexplicable non-dual consciousness.||One perceives the universe of diversity. Is aware of one's own individual Ego. |
|In the Vedas, reality experienced at transcendental level is called Brahman. This term denotes a non-dual pure consciousness which pervades the universe and remains outside of it.||The conditioned Brahman is called Ishwar (the Lord). By means of its own inscrutable power called Maya, the unconditioned Brahman becomes the Conditioned Brahman endowed with attributes. Creation, preservation and destruction are the activities of the conditioned Brahman|
|At level one:||At level two:|
|The word Brahman denotes an entity whose greatness, powers of expansion no one can measure. The word Atman signifies the consciousness in man. Brahman is identical with the Self of man, known as Atman the embodied soul) ||The word Atman signifies the consciousness in man which experiences gross objects during the waking state, subtle objects during the dream state, and the bliss arising from the absence of duality of subject and object in dreamless sleep.|
|The transcendental Brahman is devoid of qualifying attributes, devoid of indicative marks, and is called Supreme or Unconditioned Brahman or Pure Being.||Phenomenal Brahman is endowed with attributes of indicative marks, is called inferior or conditioned Brahman.|
|At level one:||At level two:|
|Described as 'Not this, not this' (neti-neti) when the world is not perceived to exist, as for instance in contemplation, then one experiences Brahman as the unconditioned Absolute. The idea of a creator, omnipotent and omnicient becomes irrelevant||Described by such positive statements as whose body is spirit, whose form is light, whose thoughts are true, whose nature is like akasha (space), from whom all works, all desires, all odours proceed. When the sense-perceived world is regarded as real, Brahman is spoken of as its omnipotent and omnicient creator, and destroyer.|
|One loses one's individuality in the experience of the unconditioned Brahman. (It can be experienced)||One worships the conditioned Brahman in the ordinary state of consciousness. |
(It can be experienced)
|At level one:||At level two:|
|Unconditioned Brahman is indicated by the Vedas as that 'from which all speech, together with the mind, turns away, unable to reach it. It is unperceived (by any sense organ), unrelated to (anything), incomprehensible (to the mind), uninferable, unthinkable, indescribable.||From the relative experience Brahman is described as the cause of the universe. The transcendental Brahman appears as cause of the universe in association with Maya, and becomes known as the conditioned Brahman, or Brahman with attributes, or such other epithets as the Lord the personal God, saguna (with form) personified.|
|The unconditioned Brahman is free|
from the limiting adjuncts of space,
time and causation. Brahman is not
born, It does not die.
|Brahman is unknown and unknowable.|
To be known, a thing must be made an object. Brahman as pure consciousness, is the eternal subject, and therefore cannot be made an object of knowledge.
Unconditioned Brahman is described as Satchidananda (Sat-Chit-Ananda) existence-knowledge-bliss pure and absolute.
Existence,knowledge and bliss are not attributes of Reality; they are its very stuff. Pure existence is the same as pure knowledge and pure bliss.
Just as a mirage could not be seen without the desert, which is its unrelated substratum, so also
the universe could not be seen if Brahman did not exist as its substratum.
Published with the kind permission of www.hinduism.co.za.
Their ‘Understanding Hinduism’ website is an award winning site featuring a whole host of various articles promoting Hinduism. It truly is a wonderful, thoughtful and thought provoking work and a true beacon for the promotion of Hinduism and Vedic culture in the world today.
Please visit their enlightening website at www.hinduism.co.za.