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The Relationship Between Atman and Brahman

One among the three fundamental texts of Vedanta is the Brahmasutra, the other two being the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. Collectively they are called the Prasthana Trayi. Badrayana is the author of the Brahmasutras. It consists of 555 aphorisms or sutras in a total of 4 chapters and is written in a systematic and logical format. The structure of the text is such that on any topic there is a ‘Purva paksha’ who are generally the followers of Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya, Vaisheshikas (schools of philosophy) etc.  The arguments or doubts raised by them are countered by the ‘Siddhanthis’ who are the followers of Vedanta. A logical conclusion is arrived at in the end.

The nature of Brahman or the Supreme self, origins of the Universe, resolving the contradictions arising from other schools of philosophy, relation between atman and brahman, the means to enlightenment, the benefits of this knowledge etc. are some of the broad topics covered in this text. A few other topics based on the Advaita interpretation was covered as part of my course work in Sanskrit and the section on the relation between atman and brahman seemed most interesting and is covered in this article. Now is this relation like that of a master and a servant or like the one between fire and its sparks? Is there a difference (bheda) or oneness (abheda) between atman and brahman?

The Chandogya Upanishad speaks of the oneness (‘तत्त्वमसि’) (abheda) between atman and brahman. The same Upanishad speaks of the individual being a part of the parabrahman (‘पादोSस्य सर्वा भूतानि’3.12.6). The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that ‘He resides in all beings and controls them from within’ (यः सर्वेषु भूतेषु तिष्ठन् सर्वेभ्यो भूतेभ्योन्तरः…3.7.15). Both these statements establish that atman and brahman are different (bheda). The section in the Brahmasutras which resolves this is called the Amshadhikaranam (अंशाधिकरणम्). There are 11 sutras or aphorisms on this topic.

The first sutra is as follows:

अंशो नानाव्यपदेशादन्यथा चापि दाशकितवादित्वमधीयत एके (2.3.43)

The argument put forward by the purvapakshi is that the atman is a part of brahman and he is the controller as is mentioned above in the shruti’s (Upanishads).

The siddhanti counters this by quoting from the Svetasvataropanishad that brahman is one without parts (निष्कलं निष्क्रियं शान्तं…6.18). This relation is only apparent as the atman when it identifies with the body gets a name and form (औपाधिक). The oneness of all finds a mention in the Atharva Vedic hymn, where the dasas are Brahman; dasas being slaves or kaivartas (fishermen). Even the gamblers (kitavas) are brahman. Hence the atman, or sense of ‘I’, even though it is falsely identified with a particular organism, its thoughts and memories (औपाधिकभेद), is still brahman – but how is this proven?

The next sutra states:

मन्त्रवर्णाच्च (2.3.44)

Our ignorance makes us think that we are a part of brahman (‘पादोSस्य सर्वा भूतानि’ Chandogya Upanishad, 3.12.6).

The Bhagavadgita is a smriti text and the same is reiterated here as is seen in the next sutra:

“अपि च स्मर्यते” (2.3.45)

This shloka from the Bhagavadgita ‘ममैवांशो जीवलोके जीवभूतः सनातनः’ (5.7) also reinforces what is said by the shruti’s.

Now the purvapaksha states that the jiva experiences happiness, sorrow,  physical and mental pain. This is seen from the statements like ‘I am happy’, ‘I am sad’ etc. Hence if the jiva is part of brahman, then the latter should also be experiencing the same emotions. This argument is countered by the next sutra:

“प्रकाशादिवन्नैवं परः” (2.3.46)

Unlike the individual, the brahman has no limitations or identity with a body, hence no physical or emotional sufferings. But any physical injury to the body of an individual causes him to feel pain. Because of his emotional attachments, he feels the pain when something happens to his relations or friends. For example, for a father, if his children are in some difficulty, he feels their pain because he identifies with them as their father. But brahman has no attachment to any particulars, hence no suffering. The example given here is of the Sun which spreads its rays everywhere, yet it appears bent when it shines on some obstacle which is the conditioning factor here. Again, this point is reiterated in the next sutra:

“स्मरन्ति च” (2.3.47)

The smritis mention that Vyasa and other sages say that the Supreme Self is not affected by the suffering of an individual. Vyasa in the Mahabharata states that brahman is eternal, without any attributes, and remains unaffected just as how a lotus leaf is unaffected by water. (‘तत्र यः परमात्मा हि स नित्यो निर्गुणः स्मृतः। न लिप्यते फलैश्चापि पद्मपत्रमिवाम्भसा’). The mantra in Svetasvataropanishad also states the same point, that of the two birds on the tree, one just observes, while the other enjoys the fruits of the tree. (‘तयोरन्यः पिप्पलं स्वाद्वत्त्यनश्न्नन्योSभिचाकशीति’)

Now again the question arises if the atman and brahman are one then why the injunctions and prohibitions in the world? For example, ‘One shall be kind to other beings’ is an injunction. ‘One should not harm others’ is a prohibition. The next sutra states:

“अनुज्ञापरिहारौ देहसंबन्धाज्ज्योतिरादिवत्” (2.3.48)

When the self is the same in all then this kind of injunction and prohibition arises only due to the physical association with the body. When one identifies with the body, then one gets different notions like ‘I am beautiful,’ ‘I am happy’ etc. The example of fire is given here to understand this injunction and prohibition. Fire is the same everywhere, but the fire in the cremation ground is avoided, while the fire at the altar is accepted.

Now the question arises if the self is one, then who experiences the results of one’s actions? The next sutra resolves this confusion:

“असंततेश्चाव्यतिकरः” (2.3.49)

The individual has no universal connection with all the bodies. The individual is dependant only on its limiting adjunct which is its body, and this body is not universal. Hence there is no confusion regarding mixing up of work and its results.

The next sutra makes it even more clear.

“आभास एव च” (2.3.50)

The individual is only a reflection of that parabrahman The example given is that of the reflection of the sun in water. Even if one of the reflections of the sun moves, the others do not. Just like how when the reflections of the sun get destroyed there is only one sun, in the same way due to our ignorance the soul identifies itself with a body and says ‘I am Devdutta’, ‘I am Yajnadutta’ etc. Once the ignorance is removed then there is only one Supreme Self which is brahman.

This intermixing of actions and its results is seen in the Samkhya and Vaisesika school of philosophy which believe in the concept of many souls and their omnipresence. The last three sutras counter their views. The self is but One, but because of our ignorance we see it as many. Self-realization is the key to remove this veil of ignorance.

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