What is Brahman in Advaita Vedanta? What is the Absolute? This short essay will attempt to answer this question in plain English, to the extent that is even possible given the inherent limitations of language when talking about this subject matter.
I owe an infinite debt to the wisdom and erudition of Swami Sarvapriyananda for his masterful explanations of Advaita Vedanta in his many wonderful lectures on the Vedanta Society of NY’s YouTube Channel. Everything I know about Vedanta I owe to him, but any failure in understanding is due to my own ignorance.
What is Brahman? What is the Absolute?
This is a dangerous question, for it is easy to get bewitched by language, as Wittgenstein famously warned us.
When we ask, “What is the Absolute?” we think that just because we have a term for it, “The Absolute,” we have therefore a shot of defining it, pinning it down, explaining it, demarcating it, pointing it out, etc.
The structure of language tricks us into thinking that asking “What is Brahman?” is conceptually similar to asking about the nature of entities e.g. “What is gold?” or “What is a tiger?”
The answer to the question, “What is gold?” can be answered because gold falls into the objective realm of entities. We can, say, define gold in terms of the periodic table and the atomic number 79, and feel reasonably satisfied we have answered our question as to the nature of that shiny, yellow substance wrapped around our finger or dangling from our necks.
But crucially, asking “What is Brahman? What is the Absolute?” is not like asking about objective entities like gold or tigers or water.
Why is this?
One thought might be that asking about Brahman is different because perhaps Brahman is mental and things like thoughts and feelings are different than “physical” things like gold and water.
But according to Advaita Vedanta, if we examine our experience of thoughts and feelings closer, we find that things in the “mental” realm are just another kind of entity similar to physical entities. “Thoughts,” for example, are just what Indian philosophers call a “subtle” or “fine” entity compared to the “gross” entities of the physical realm like gold and water.
The argument for this is that if we examine our experience of thoughts and feelings and other “mental things” we find that the phenomenological structure is identical to our experience of physical things. This phenomenological structure is like this:
We as a subject are aware of X as an object.
“X” can be filled in with any “thing” we can imagine. Thoughts, feelings, trees, rocks, galaxies, numbers, concepts, etc., etc.
Basically, anything we can point to and say “this” or “that” counts as an “object” or “entity” in this sense. This number. That thought. This tree. That galaxy. This feeling. That atom. Etc.
Brahman is not an entity
Here is the crucial point: Brahman is not another kind of entity.
From this basic fact can be derived the entire ontological structure of Advaita Vedanta.
And because Brahman is not another kind of entity, either physical or mental, asking the question “What is Brahman?” will always lead us unsatisfied.
But if Brahman is not another kind of entity, not another kind of object, what is it? How can we be sure it is not just pure nonsense masquerading as something deep and spiritual?
Brahman is far more than nonsense. It is in fact the most real thing we can possibly experience for it is existence itself.
We say that the gold atom exists. But what is the nature of this “exists”? That is, what is the nature of being itself?
Existence itself is that which makes it possible for all the entities of the world to exist.
As Swami Sarvapriyananda puts it, it is as if all the entities in the world are but waves in a cosmic ocean of being.
All the entities of the world are ripples in the pond of existence.
But we cannot say existence itself is another kind of entity. If there was an omniscient scientist in charge of cataloging all the existing things in the universe she would not get to the end of the list of existing things and then tack on at the end “existence itself” as another object.
No! For existence itself is not another kind of entity. Existence itself is that in which and through which it is possible for things or entities to exist at all.
Advaita Vedanta calls this Pure Existence to distinguish it from existing entities. It is “pure” insofar as it is not itself just another existing entity in the catalog of things in the cosmos.
Brahman and the Limitations of Language
All the great mystical literature of all the great spiritual traditions of the world has tried to capture this notion of Pure Being but all true mystics acknowledge straightforwardly that this notion of Pure Existence cannot be captured in what analytic philosophers call “propositional language.”
Propositional language is when you apply predicates to objects. The apple is red. The grass is green. Water is H2O.
It is a trick of language that we are able to form seemingly propositional questions like “What is Brahman?” which tricks us into thinking we can expect an answer similar to questions like, “What is an apple? What is grass? What is water?”
But this is us being bewitched by language.
In fact, all the great mystics of the world have acknowledged that Brahman or the Absolute transcends the limitations of concepts and language.
So when we say things like “Brahman is like a great ocean of being in which all entities of the world are but waves,” we psychologically trick ourselves into thinking these metaphors and analogies are final explanations of what Brahman is.
But they are not explanations in the same way “water is H2O” is an explanation of water.
At best, metaphors and analogies about Brahman are akin to poetry, which is meant to evoke a nonlinguistic, intuitive, direct, contemplative, spiritual, or transcendent “grokking” of the Absolute that takes us beyond language into the direct reality of Pure Existence itself.
But this understanding of Brahman can never be fully understood at the linguistic or conceptual level but must instead be realized or directly experienced.
When we say “Brahman is like an ocean and we are but waves” it is crucial to understand that this is but a mere poetic metaphor meant to point us in the direction of self-realization via direct experience. For as soon we imagine in our minds an ocean we conceive of it as localized in spacetime and confined to four dimensions aka as existing within the realm of entities and objects, which we’ve already established is not what Brahman “is.”
For Brahman “is” not anything at all. If it “is” anything at all, it is “is-ness” itself. Pure Existence.
Brahman and Pure Consciousness
Crucially, this reality of Pure Existence that we experience in our day-to-day lives is not a dead, unconscious reality. It is plainly evident to us that we are all conscious. Besides perhaps radical eliminative materialists (a flatly unintuitive philosophical theory), everyone will admit that they are aware or conscious. Western analytic philosophers discuss this in terms of what is called the “hard problem of consciousness.”
When we see the redness of the apple, there is a certain subjectivity to that perception of redness. There is a sense in which our experience of redness is “lit up” with the light of consciousness, which bestows upon our experience the necessary phenomenological structure of subject-object. In other words, in our everyday experience of the world there is a way things seem, a point-of-view, a perspective, a subjectivity.
Try to think of any possible object of your awareness, whether that of a feeling or a sensation, or a perception of a tree or a rock, or a table. Is it not true that it is you as a subject of experience that is aware of the object? Is it not true that for every possible object of experience, there is a subject, yourself, who is aware of the object?
We call this the “I” or the “Self” or the “Subject.” This Self experiences the world of objects in a way such that all of its experiences are lit up with the Light of consciousness.
Just as with the Pure Existence of Brahman, language fails us here and we must resort to metaphors about things being “lit up” which implies that this Conscious Self or Subject is another kind of object or entity.
But here is the crucial point: The Conscious Subject is by definition not an object or entity.
The Conscious Subject or Self is not an object or entity, it is that which is aware of objects. The analogy Swami Sarvapriyananda uses is that of a flashlight shining its beam around in a dark room. No matter how quickly it spins around, it can never illuminate itself, for itself is the source of light.
It is like the eyeball trying to see itself. Or the teeth trying to bite themselves.
Consciousness Is Not an Object
The central claim of Advaita Vedanta is that just like with Pure Existence, The Conscious Self cannot itself be objectified.
If the omniscient scientist was tallying up her catalog of existing objects, she would not get to the end of the list and tack on “consciousness” as simply another kind of object. For were she to do that, who is it that would be aware of this “consciousness-as-an-object-of-knowledge” if not another subject? And so on.
And hopefully, you can now see the perfect convergence of these two lines of thought. Our analysis of existence itself brought us to the conclusion that there must be a reality that is pure existence itself, which is not itself another “entity.”
Similarly, our analysis of our conscious awareness of objects brings us to the conclusion that there must be a reality that is pure consciousness itself, which is not itself just another “entitity.”
Who am I? I am Brahman. Who are You? You are Brahman
The radical conclusion of Advaita Vedanta can now be stated succinctly:
Brahman, the Absolute Reality, is Pure Existence-Consciousness and Your True Self is identical to Brahman.
Swami Sarvapriyananda tells of a story of Swami Vikekananda. One of his followers wrote him in an attempt to summarize his teachings on Advaita Vedanta by saying, “Everything is God.”
Swami Vivekananda retorted, “I have never said such a crazy statement! What I meant to say is, “Everything is not. God is.”
So it is not as if “we” as individual persons are identical to the Absolute. It is rather that the Absolute is the only reality, which is Pure Oneness, perfect, complete, whole, and eternal.
Brahman is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss
And insofar as Pure Existence-Consciousness is absolutely absolute in its transcendental vastness, because it is absolutely infinite and absolutely unconstrained by any limitation, completely undifferentiated, perfectly One, unbounded by space or time or language or thought, it is utterly complete in and of itself.
And as such, Brahman lacks nothing. How could it lack anything when all things are manifestations of its power? How could it lack any “thing” when all things are but waves in its vast cosmic ocean of Existence-Consciousness? Thus, because Brahman is complete and whole and unlimited, we can say that this Pure Existence-Consciousness is also Pure Bliss.
Not bliss in the sense of a particular psychological “feeling” of bliss or happiness, which would make it just another kind of entity. Rather, Brahman is Pure Bliss in the sense of lacking absolutely nothing, for it is the ontological foundation or ground for all “things” and nothing exists apart from it.
Thus, we finally arrive at the classical Advaitic definition of Brahman: Pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
And even more radically, thou art that.
I am Brahman. You are Brahman. All is Brahman, which is Pure Oneness itself. And when we realize this and deeply internalize this knowledge, we are freed from the shackles of ignorance and bondage and will suffer no more from the limitations of finitude as we realize that all along we are identical with the Infinite and Eternal Reality underlying everything.