Brahman, is a crucial idea in HINDUISM, especially in the UPANISHADS and VEDANTA philosophy. Brahman refers to the reality that underlies and supports the world as it appears to the senses.
Originally, brahman referred to the ritual formulas spoken during the SACRIFICES described in the sacred books known as the VEDA. In this sense, brahman is related to two other words: BRAHMIN or “priest,” the name of the RITUAL class in Hinduism whose members performed the sacriﬁ ce, and Brahmanas, the commentaries on the ritual texts of the Veda. The Brahmanas identiﬁ ed rich webs of connections between the world at large and the Vedic sacriﬁ ces. They refer to brahman as the energy that made the sacriﬁ ces work.
The Upanishads have a wider view of brahman. In them brahman is no longer limited to the sacriﬁ ce. Instead, it is considered to be the unseen, unseeable support for everything that is seen. The Upanishads teach many things about this brahman, and what they teach is not always consistent. For example, some verses of the Upanishads claim that everything is brahman. Others deny that brahman can be identiﬁ ed with anything. Many passages, however, assert that the brahman is identical with the reality that underlies the human person, which is often known as ATMAN.
It is difﬁ cult to grasp what is unseen and unseeable. The Upanishads try to understand brahman in many ways. One particularly important method that they use is known as regressive reasoning. A person takes up an object for consideration, say, the body. She or he asks what supports that object, then what supports the support, and so on. The hope is that the procedure will eventually work back to what supports or sustains all things. A famous example occurs in the text known as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. That Upanishad records a series of questions that Gargi Vacaknavi asks her husband, Yajnavalkya. Gargi ﬁ rst asks what sustains water. Then she goes through a series that includes such items as wind and the worlds of sun, moon, and stars. Her questioning eventually leads her to ask what supports the world of brahman. At that point Yajnavalkya warns Gargi that it is dangerous to ask too many questions: “Gargi, do not question too much, lest your head fall off” (3.6).
In the ﬁ rst centuries C.E. thinkers attempted to systematize the teachings of the Upanishads in short formulas of two or three words. These “aphorisms” are so short that they are almost meaningless without a commentary. The most important collection of these teachings was the Vedanta-Sutra of Badarayana, also known as the Brahma-Sutra. Later, from roughly 500 to 1500, thinkers wrote commentaries on these aphorisms and on the Upanishads themselves. In doing so, they founded several schools of philosophy known as Vedanta.
According to SANKARA, the best known of the thinkers, brahman has three characteristics: being, consciousness, and bliss. Sankara actually identiﬁ es two levels of brahman. In and of itself, brahman is impersonal. But on a lower level, brahman appears to human beings in the form of a person, that is, as a god. Sankara’s Vedanta is known as Advaita, which means “non-dual.” That is because Sankara teaches that the reality of the world— brahman—and the reality of the human being— atman—are “not two” different realities.
Other Vedanta teachers, such as Ramanuja and Madhva, reject Sankara’s impersonal brahman. For them, brahman is simply the personal God, known by various names as VISHNU, SIVA, and Devi. For Ramanuja, the universe is the body of this God. For Madhva, however, brahman or God is completely different from the atman.
In the 20th century Vedanta was the most prominent school of traditional philosophy in India. Many of the most widely recognized philosophers, but not all, favored Sankara’s views. So did many accounts of brahman written by European and North American scholars.