New version available here: vedabase.io

DWT 6: Defining the Absolute Truth

vadanti tat tattva-vidas
tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam
brahmeti paramātmeti
bhagavān iti śabdyate

Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān.

—Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.11

The Absolute Truth is both subject and object, and there is no qualitative difference there. Therefore, Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān are qualitatively one and the same. The same substance is realized as impersonal Brahman by the students of the Upaniṣads, as localized Paramātmā by the Hiraṇyagarbhas, or yogis, and as Bhagavān by the devotees. In other words, Bhagavān, or the Personality of Godhead, is the last word in the Absolute Truth, Paramātmā is the partial representation of the Personality of Godhead, and the impersonal Brahman is the glowing effulgence of the Personality of Godhead, as the sun rays are to the sun-god. Less intelligent students of either of the latter two schools sometimes argue in favor of their own respective realization, but those who are perfect seers of the Absolute Truth know well that the above three features of the one Absolute Truth are different views seen from different angles of vision.

As explained in the first verse of the First Chapter of the Bhāgavatam, the Supreme Truth is self-sufficient, cognizant, and free from the illusion of relativity. In the relative world the knower is different from the known, but in the Absolute Truth the knower and the known are one and the same thing. In the relative world the knower is the living spirit, or superior energy, whereas the known is inert matter, or inferior energy. Therefore, there is a duality of inferior and superior energy, whereas in the absolute realm the knower and the known are of the same superior energy. There are three kinds of energies of the supreme energetic. There is no difference between the energy and energetic, but there is a difference of quality of energies. The absolute realm and the living entities are of the same superior energy, but the material world is inferior energy. The living being in contact with the inferior energy is illusioned, thinking he belongs to the inferior energy. Therefore there is the sense of relativity in the material world. In the Absolute there is no such sense of difference between the knower and the known, and therefore everything there is absolute.

As mentioned above, the analogy of the sun and the sunshine is helpful for understanding Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān, the three aspects of the Absolute Truth. In one sense there is no difference between these three terms, just as there is in one sense no difference between the sunshine, the sun globe, and the sun-god, Vivasvān. All of them are light. The inhabitants of the sun globe, led by Vivasvān, possess bodies made of fire, and therefore everything on the sun is glowing. From a great distance we see the sun as a glowing globe, and the sunshine is the glow.

So, Brahman is like the sunshine, Paramātmā like the localized sun globe, and Bhagavān like the sun-god. They are one in the sense that they are all the pure light of the Absolute Truth, but still there is a difference: If you stand in the sunshine, that does not mean you have reached the sun globe or seen the predominating deity of the sun, Vivasvān. Similarly, the different means for understanding the Absolute Truth produce different realizations. One who tries to understand the Absolute simply by mental speculation may ultimately realize the impersonal Brahman, and one who tries to understand the Absolute through meditative yoga practice may be able to realize Paramātmā, but one who practices bhakti-yoga can achieve complete understanding of the Absolute Truth and realize the spiritual form of Bhagavān, the Personality of Godhead, who is the original source of everything.

There are many philosophers who are trying to find the original source of everything. The scientists are also trying to find that original source. They have concluded that everything originates from matter—this is the modern theory of chemical evolution. But although the theory of the so-called scientists is that everything, including life, comes from matter, they have not been able to produce life from chemicals.

The Vedānta-sūtra instructs that we should search out the original source of everything, the Absolute Truth. But the conclusion of all Vedic knowledge is that that source is a living being, not matter. As the Kaṭha Upaniṣad states, nityo nityānāṁ cetanaś cetanānām eko bahūnāṁ yo vidadhāti kāmān: "Among all the conscious living beings, their is one supreme living being, who is supplying all the others with their necessities." In the Bhagavad-gītā (10.8) Kṛṣṇa reveals that He is that supreme living being: ahaṁ sarvasya prabhavo mattaḥ sarvaṁ pravartate. "I am the source of everything." That aham—"I"—is Kṛṣṇa, the supreme living being, not dead matter. Similarly, earlier in the Bhagavad-gītā (7.7) Kṛṣṇa says,

mattaḥ parataraṁ nānyat kiñcid asti dhanañjaya
mayi sarvam idaṁ protaṁ sūtre maṇi-gaṇā iva

"O conqueror of wealth, there is no truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread."

So, we should understand that Kṛṣṇa, Bhagavān, is the last word in the Absolute Truth. In the Bhagavad-gītā (14.27) Kṛṣṇa states that the impersonal Brahman rests upon Him (brahmaṇo hi pratiṣṭhāham). Just as the sunshine comes from the sun, the light of Brahman that spreads throughout the universe comes from Kṛṣṇa. That is explained in the Brahma-saṁhitā (5.40):

yasya prabhā prabhavato jagad-aṇḍa-koṭi-
koṭiṣv aśeṣa-vasudhādi vibhūti-bhinnam
tad brahma niṣkalam anantam aśeṣa-bhūtaṁ
govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi

The Brahman effulgence is Kṛṣṇa's bodily glow, known as the brahma-jyotir, and this material world is generated out of that effulgence. In the Bhagavad-gītā (9.4) Kṛṣṇa says, mayā tatam idaṁ sarvaṁ jagad avyakta-mūrtinā: "My impersonal feature, the Brahman effulgence, is expanded everywhere." Mat-sthāni sarva-bhūtāni: "Everything is resting on that Brahman effulgence." Na cāhaṁ teṣv avasthitaḥ: "But I personally am not there." This is tattva-jñāna, knowledge of the Absolute Truth.

If we try to understand the Absolute Truth by dint of our speculative strength, then we can at most approach only up to the impersonal feature, just as if we try to understand the sun by our personal strength we can at most see the sunshine. But if we want to study the sun globe or understand the predominating deity of the sun, that is a different thing. For that, simply coming into the sunshine will not help you: you'll need some process by which you can go to the sun globe and meet the sun-god. Similarly, you can understand the impersonal Brahman by dint of your speculative knowledge, but you cannot understand the Paramātmā, the expansion of the Lord situated in everyone's heart, or Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the origin of Brahman and Paramātmā.

The fact is that knowledge of Kṛṣṇa, Bhagavān, includes everything. Therefore the Vedas say, kasmin tu bhagavo vijñāte sarvam idaṁ vijñātaṁ bhavati. If you simply understand Kṛṣṇa, you will automatically understand the Brahman feature and the Paramātmā feature. You don't need to try to understand Brahman and Paramātmā separately: simply by understanding Kṛṣṇa, you will understand both.

Here is another example: Suppose you see a mountain from a great distance. You will simply see some cloudy, vague shape. But if you approach the mountain, you will see the same mountain much more distinctly, with its greenish color and massive form. And if you actually climb the mountain, you will find so many animals, men, houses, trees, and so on. The object is the same, but it appears different from different angles of vision.

So understanding Kṛṣṇa means understanding Brahman and Paramātmā as well, but we must understand Kṛṣṇa in truth. As He says in the Bhagavad-gītā (4.9),

janma karma ca me divyam evaṁ yo vetti tattvataḥ
tyaktvā dehaṁ punar janma naiti mām eti so 'rjuna

"One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna." Here the word tattvataḥ, "in truth," is used." Because we do not make the effort to understand Kṛṣṇa in truth, we consider Him an ordinary human being. This is the way of the fools and rascals (avajānanti māṁ mūḍhāḥ [Bg. 9.11]). But Kṛṣṇa is not of this material world. Whoever actually understands Kṛṣṇa as the Absolute Truth has completed his mission in life, and at the end of this life he doesn't take birth again in this world but returns home, back to Godhead.

How to achieve that understanding is explained in the next verse.