restricted access CHAPTER TWELVE: Ātman and Brahman: Self and All
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166 CH APTER T W ELV E Ātman and Brahman Self and All Verily, this body is mortal. It has been appropriated by Death. But it is the standing ground of the deathless, bodiless Self. —Chāndogya Upanisad VIII, XII, 1 A great number of important topics are dealt with in the Upaniṣads but their central concern is undoubtedly the knowledge of, and path to, ātman and brahman. The great amount and the diversity of the statements relating to ātman-brahman in even the principal Upaniṣads makes it impossible to offer a synthesis. All we can do is to mark major trends of thought. One of these is the attempt, made repeatedly in the Upaniṣads, to arrange the seemingly infinite plurality of things in a limited number of categories, coordinating macrocosm and microcosm, and to understand manifold reality as a combination of relatively few primordial elements. By means of a progressive reduction a person can finally arrive at the One, which is further reduced to an immaterial essence pervading everything without being identical with any one object: the Real is the ultimate support of all phenomena. To grasp this Real, there are, in the main, two distinct paths. One begins with the outside world and the manifold objects, and reduces them to five elements, to three, and finally to one. The other begins with a person’s subjective consciousness and discovers in its depths the Real, which proves to be the source of everything. Finally the realization dawns that the immanent ātman is identical with the transcendent brahman: ātman is brahman. We possess the record of a lively discussion between the great philosopher Yājñavalkya and his wife Gārgī Vacaknavī in which the first of those two ways is demonstrated. ĀTM A N A ND BR AH M A N 167 “Yājñavalkya,” said Gārgī, “since all this world is woven, warp and woof, on water, on what is the water woven, warp and woof?” “On wind, O Gārgī!” “On what is the wind woven?” “On the sky, O Gārgī.” The questioning goes on, and Yājñavalkya explains the “warp and woof” of each world within the cosmology of the time, which we saw before: the sky is “woven” on the world of the Gandharvas, this on the sphere of the sun, this on the sphere of the moon, this on the world of the planets, this on the world of the devas, this on the realm of Indra, this again on the Prajāpati-loka, the world of the creator of all beings. “On what then is the world of the Lord of Creation woven?” “On the world of brahman, says Yājñavalkya. Gārgī tries to press on, wanting to know about the source of brahman, but Yājñavalkya rejects the question: “Gārgī, do not question too much lest your head fall off. Really, you are asking too much about the divine being, about which we are not to question too much. Gārgī, do not question too much!” Thereupon Gārgī Vacaknavī kept silent.1 Before proceeding with texts, it may be of some help to give a brief etymological explanation of ātman and brahman, though an understanding of both terms emerges, better perhaps, from the texts themselves, which let us appreciate the deep ambiguity of these notions and the impossibility of really defining them. Ātman is the grammatical form of the reflexive pronoun in Sanskrit; according to the context, it can mean the body, anything that one considers as mine or myself, a meaning that leads on to the probing question of what this “myself,” the subject of all feelings, thought and wishes, really consists of. Brahman has many meanings. It is commonly derived from the verbal root bṛh-, to grow, to become great. In the Vedas, brahman means sacred utterance: that through which the devas become great. Later it came to be used as a term denoting ritual and also those who were in charge of it, the Brāhmaṇas. The Upaniṣads, finally, use it as a designation for the ultimate reality, to be understood as the life breath of the universe and everything in it.2 But it is also used more loosely, in an analogous way; the word, the eye, the ear, the heart, the sun, space are all called brahman. Elsewhere every identification with any concrete object is denied and brahman became a synonym for the...