Self and Brahman are Free from Attributes

by the Warden of Shanti Sadan

‘Words cannot describe this Consciousness Absolute; the mind is lost in Its majesty. How can I describe to thee, this Eternal One? I can only say that this immortality-giving knowledge, space-like am I.’

These sentences from the Avadhut Gita remind us of the limits of language as regards the knowledge of ultimate truth. Words can describe objects, their qualities and their relationship with other objects. But the supreme reality does not fall within this range. The mind can be lost in its majesty, but there is no finite experience on which to comment.

And yet our only approach to this realisation is through the help of words. The Upanishads are collections of words, and there are two words in particular that denote the supreme reality. One of them is Brahman, indicating reality as associated with the whole cosmos. The other is Atman, pointing to the innermost Self of human beings.

In the Upanishads, the enquirers constantly ask questions about both these principles. ‘Does the Atman survive death?’ asks Nachiketas in the Katha Upanishad. ‘By whose power does the mind register the experience of objects?’ is the basis of the enquiry in the Kena Upanishad. ‘What is the nature of that Brahman, which fills all?’, is a question raised in different ways in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Answers are given, in the form of metaphysical statements, and these statements can create the impression that the reality, Brahman, is not, after all, transcendent, but is in a definite and fundamental relationship with the universe and the human mind. We are told that Brahman is the Immutable Power that rules from within everything in nature, and rules it perfectly. In the Kena Upanishad, the Atman is identified as the power behind the mind. In the Brihadaranyaka, it is said that ‘this great and birthless Self’ is present as the pure essence—the pure space—within the heart.

All these teachings seem to suggest a connection of the ultimate reality with the world of limitations. Such teachings are necessary and helpful, because they form a bridge from the relative to the Absolute. They permit us, for purposes of our inner development, to envisage Brahman as associated with great powers and attributes—saguna (literally, with qualities). This in turn enables us to turn to Brahman in a spirit of worship. And this attitude helps us to reconcile our experience of multiplicity with the presence of a supreme power.

But is this interpretation of the Absolute with powers and qualities, and of ourselves as devoted seekers, the final Truth? If so, there would seem to be a radical difference between what we are and what Brahman is, a difference which contradicts the claim of non-duality.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a learned pundit, whom the Upanishad calls Proud Bālaki, comes to the court of Ajāta Shatru, King of Benares, and tells the King that he will teach him about Brahman. The King welcomes him with a generous gift and allows him to teach. Bālaki then instructs the King all about the divine in nature, in the sun, in the moon, in the different elements, in the human heart. But the King already knows this teaching, and is aware of its provisional character. To each statement made by Bālaki, he replies: ‘Please do not speak about Brahman in this way,’ and makes it clear to Bālaki that his own meditations have gone deeper. In the end Bālaki realises that his own knowledge is inadequate; and with his ideas exhausted, he humbly asks the King to accept him as a student.

The meaning of this interchange is that Bālaki had knowledge of the conditioned Brahman—saguna Brahman—but believed himself to be in possession of the final Truth. The King told him: ‘By knowing this much one cannot know Brahman’. The whole purpose of the Upanishadic teaching is to lead us to the realisation that ultimate reality is free from all attributes—nirguna (without qualities)—and has no real connection with the world of duality.

As with Brahman, so with the true Self. Something at the core of our own being is also free from all attributes, and has no real connection with the seeming coverings of body and mind. It is at this level, where there is no form or attribute that characterises Brahman, and also no quality or limitation that really belongs to our innermost Self, that the secret knowledge at the heart of the Upanishads is actualised. ‘This Self is Brahman’—Ayam Atma Brahman—can only be true when both our Self and Brahman are known as free from attributes. Then there is no longer ‘both’, but ‘ekam-eva-advitiyam’—one-without-a-second. It is an eternal identity at the deepest and purest level of experience, where all qualities, divine or human, are forgotten in the non-duality and completeness of realisation.

Out of this recognition of the supreme Fact come teachings like those found in the Avadhut Gita. One of its verses reminds us of the importance of appreciating the Reality as essentially without attributes, for this eases the way for our apprehension of our true identity as that Reality:

‘All the Shrutis speak of Atman as without attributes, ever pure, imperishable, without a body, the eternal Truth. Know That to be thyself.’

This article is from the Winter 2022 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.