Atman and Brahman

Even while ancient India was making breakthroughs in the natural sciences and mathematics, the sages of the Upanishads were turning inward to analyze the data that nature presents to the mind. Penetrating below the senses, they found not a world of solid , separate objects but a ceaseless process of change – matter coming together, dissolving, and coming together again in a different form. Below this flux of things with “name and form”, however, they found something changeless: an infinite, indivisible reality in which the transient data of the world cohere. They call this reality Brahman: the Godhead, the divine ground of existence.

This analysis of the phenomenal world tallies well enough with contemporary physics. A physics would remind us that the things we see “out there” are not ultimately separate from each other and from us; we perceive them as separate because of the limitations of our senses. If our eyes were sensitive to a much finer spectrum, we might see the world as a continous field of matter and energy. Nothing in this picture resembles a solid object in our usual sense of the world. “The external world of physics,” wrote Sir Arthur Eddington, “has thus become a world of shadows. In removing our illusions will remove the substance, for indeed we have seen that substance is one of the greatest of our illusions.” Like the physicists, these ancient sages were seeking an invariant. They found it in Brahman.

In examining our knowledge of ourselves, the sages made a similar discovery. Instead of a single coherent personality, they found layer on layer of components – senses, emotions, will, intellect, ego – each in flux. At different times and in different company, the same person seems to have different personalities. Moods shift and flicker, even in those who are emotionally stable; desires and opinions change with time. Change is the nature of the mind. The sages observed this flow of thoughts and sensations and asked, “Then where am I?” The parts do not add up to a whole; they just flow by. Like physical phenomena, the mind is a field of forces, no more the seat of intelligence than radiation or gravity is. Just as the world dissolves into a sea of energy, the mind dissolves into a river of impressions and thoughts, a flow of fragmentary data that do not hold together.

Western philosophers have reasoned their way to a similar conclusion, but with them it was an intellectual exercise. David Hume confesses that whenever he was forced to conclude that his empirical ego was insubstantial, he went out for a walk, had a good dinner, and forgot all about it. For these ancient sages, however, these were not logical conclusions but personal discoveries. They were actually exploring the mind, testing each level of awareness by withdrawing consciousness to the level below. In profound meditation, they found, when consciousness is so acutely focused that it is utterly withdrawn from the body and mind, it enters a kind of singularity in which the sense of a separate ego disappears. In this state, the supreme climax of meditation, the seers discovered a core of consciousness beyond time and change. They called it simply Atman, the Self.

I have described the discovery of Atman and Brahman – God immanent and God transcendent – as separate, but there is no real distinction. In the climax of meditation, the sages discovered unity: the same indivisible reality without and within. It wasadvaita,“not two.” The Chandogya Upanishad says epigrammatically, Tat tvam asi: “Thou art That.” Atman is Brahman: the Self in each person is not different from the Godhead.

Nor is it different from person to person. The Self is one, the same in every creature. This is not some peculiar tenet of the Hindu scriptures; it is the testimony of everyone who has undergone these experiments in the depths of consciousness and followed them through to the end. Here is Ruysbroeck, a great mystic of medieval Europe; every word is most carefully chosen:

The image of God is found essentially and personally in all mankind. Each possesses it whole, entire and undivided, and all together not more than one alone. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and the source in us of all our life.

Extract from “The Bhagavad Gita”
by Eknath Easwaran

Three Aspects of the Absolute

India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur
1823 (Samvat 1880)
Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper
Mehrangarh Museum Trust RJS 2399

Three Aspects of the Absolute

Creation begins with the limitless and eternal Absolute, according to the Naths, a sectarian order associated with hatha yoga. A mesmerizing painting represents the origins of existence as a shimmering field of gold (left). Its successive emanations (center and right) into consciousness and form are perfected Nath yogis, covered in ash and clad in saffron. Through yogic practice, Naths transform their physical bodies into subtle matter and merge with the luminous Absolute. Many yoga traditions define enlightenment as the recognition that the Self and the Absolute are one and the same. The Nath Charit was written and illustrated at the court of Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur (reigned 1803–43), a devotee of the Naths. The manuscript is monumental in size.
Although the concept of the Absolute is central to many Hindu traditions, it is rarely represented. The radically abstract gold field seen here was an innovation of the Jodhpur atelier.