para-brahman

By David Reigle on August 31, 2020 at 3:49 am

This is part of an ongoing glossary of terms relating to the Book of Dzyan.

            The term parabrahman is used in The Secret Doctrine to refer to one of the two aspects under which the “omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle” is symbolized, the other aspect then being referred to as mūlaprakṛti. These two terms were adopted from the writings of T. Subba Row as the Advaita Vedānta terms for the two aspects that H. P. Blavatsky had called “absolute abstract motion” or “pre-cosmic ideation,” and “absolute abstract space” or “pre-cosmic substance,” respectively. However, the one reality (the “omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle” of The Secret Doctrine) is referred to in Advaita Vedānta as brahman or parabrahman only. The term mūlaprakṛti is rarely used in Advaita Vedānta; and when it is, it is equated with māyā, the illusion of an ever-changing universe that is superimposed on the one changeless brahman. Blavatsky used these two terms because, following Subba Row’s earlier writings (not his later lectures on the Bhagavad-gītā), she thought that this was the Advaita Vedānta teaching: “. . . viewed in the same dual light as the Vedantin views his Parabrahm and Mulaprakriti, the one under two aspects” (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 46). This is not the Advaita Vedānta teaching.

            The term brahman is the normal and usual word for the absolute in the Hindu Upaniṣads, and therefore in Vedānta of whatever school. In the Advaita school of Vedānta, brahman is non-dual (advaita), the one only, without a second (“ekam evādvitīyam,” Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.2.1-2), and without qualities (nirguṇa). When some passages of the Upaniṣads seem to speak of brahman as having qualities (saguṇa), there may arise a need to distinguish brahman as it really is according to Advaita Vedānta, without qualities, from brahman as seeming to have qualities. Therefore we occasionally find the term param brahman, or parabrahman, used in contrast to aparam brahman, or aparabrahman (e.g., Praśna Upaniṣad 5.2). This is not common, since the term brahman is the normal and usual word for the absolute, requiring no qualifier such as param, “higher, highest, supreme,” in contrast to aparam, “lower.”

            As explained by Śaṅkarācārya in his Brahma-sūtra commentary on 4.3.14, brahman is only referred to as higher (param) and lower (aparam) brahman when we attribute to it upadhi-s, “limiting adjuncts,” of name and form, due to wrong knowing (avidyā). The Upaniṣads themselves may and do attribute such names and forms to brahman for the sake of imparting kinds of meditation on brahman. Because of this, the Hindu writings sometimes distinguish brahman as parabrahman, the “higher” brahman, from aparabrahman, the “lower” brahman, to which names and forms are figuratively attributed. The lower brahman is then regarded as īśvara, “God,” or sometimes as Brahmā, the creator god, but not as mūlaprakṛti.

            In Theosophical writings we sometimes see parabrahman defined as “beyond Brahmā,” where Brahmā is the masculine creator deity (H. P. Blavatsky, Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, p. 4). This meaning of parabrahman is not grammatically possible. When the word param is taken as “beyond,” it is preceded by some word declined in the ablative case, meaning “than” that something; literally “higher than,” or less literally “beyond,” that something. We do not have that here. Nor is the word parabrahman understood as “beyond Brahmā” in the Hindu texts. It means simply the “higher brahman,” even though the lower brahman, aparabrahman, can be understood as the masculine Brahmā.

            The Sanskrit word that we write as brahman is the undeclined form. It may be declined in the neuter gender or in the masculine gender. When declined in the neuter nominative singular it is brahma, the absolute. When declined in the masculine nominative singular it is brahmā, the masculine creator god. Without the diacritic mark on the final “a” these words cannot be distinguished. Since English does not use diacritics, there arose the convention of writing the undeclined form brahman to mean the neuter form, the absolute, leaving brahma (without diacritics) to mean the masculine form, the creator god, often capitalized as Brahma. In publications that use diacritics, it would be written as Brahmā. In English language books written before this convention became established, the neuter declined form brahma was often used for the absolute, like it is in the Sanskrit texts themselves. This potentially confusing situation must always be taken into account.

            In Theosophical writings we sometimes even see parabrahman defined as “beyond brahman,” the neuter absolute (G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 521), saying that this is “what the Oriental means when he says Parabrahman.” This meaning, too, is not grammatically possible, and there is no warrant for it in the Hindu texts. It is not what the Oriental means when he says parabrahman. Indeed, where the phrase param brahma occurs at the end of the Praśna Upaniṣad, it is followed by: na ataḥ param asti, translated by S. Radhakrishnan as “There is naught higher than that,” or as translated by Charles Johnston, “there is naught beyond.”

            In the Hindu Advaita Vedānta texts, brahman (or parabrahman) is described as “pure consciousness” (cin-mātra). More fully, brahman is described at the beginning of Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary on the Brahma-sūtras as “by nature eternally pure, intelligent, and free, omniscient and endowed with all powers” (nitya-śuddha-buddha-mukta-svabhāvaṃ sarva-jñaṃ sarva-śakti-samanvitam). This is taught in direct contrast to the unconscious pradhāna, “primary substance,” or mūla-prakṛti, “root-substance,” taught in the Hindu Sāṃkhya worldview, this being rejected by Śaṅkarācārya for the very reason that the absolute cannot be unconscious (acetana). In the Theosophical model, following an esoteric Buddhist or Arhat model, the one reality is described as unconscious(ness). These two opposing views are usually taught in Theosophy as merely being two ways of looking at the same thing. In the one place where Blavatsky clearly makes this distinction, she writes:

“We have already pointed out that, in our opinion, the whole difference between Buddhistic and Vedantic philosophies was that the former was a kind of rationalistic Vedantism, while the latter might be regarded as transcendental Buddhism. . . . Buddhist rationalism was ever too alive to the insuperable difficulty of admitting one absolute consciousness, as in the words of Flint—‘wherever there is consciousness there is relation, and wherever there is relation there is dualism.’ The ONE LIFE is either ‘MUKTA’ (absolute and unconditioned) and can have no relation to anything nor to any one; or it is ‘BADDHA’ (bound and conditioned), and then it cannot be called the ABSOLUTE; the limitation, moreover, necessitating another deity as powerful as the first to account for all the evil in this world. Hence, the Arahat secret doctrine on cosmogony admits but of one absolute, indestructible, eternal, and uncreated UNCONSCIOUSNESS (so to translate), of an element (the word being used for want of a better term) absolutely independent of everything else in the universe; a something ever present or ubiquitous, a Presence which ever was, is, and will be, whether there is a God, gods or none; whether there is a universe or no universe; existing during the eternal cycles of Maha Yugas, during the Pralayas as during the periods of Manvantara: and this is SPACE, the field for the operation of the eternal Forces and natural Law, the basis (as our correspondent rightly calls it) upon which take place the eternal intercorrelations of Akâśa-Prakriti, guided by the unconscious regular pulsations of Śakti—the breath or power of a conscious deity, the theists would say—the eternal energy of an eternal, unconscious Law, say the Buddhists.”

(“Editorial Appendix” by H. P. Blavatsky to “The Aryan-Arhat Esoteric Tenets on the Sevenfold Principle in Man,” by T. Subba Row, from The Theosophist, vol. 3, no. 4, January, 1882, pp. 93-99, reprinted in Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 3, this quote on pp. 422-423.)

            It is useful to be aware of this distinction when studying these things, since the Sāṃkhya teaching of the unconscious pradhāna, “primary substance,” or mūla-prakṛti, “root-substance,” is taken as the primary target for refutation by Śaṅkarācārya in his Brahma-sūtra commentary, the single most authoritative work on Advaita Vedānta. When Blavatsky used the term parabrahman to describe the “omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle,” or one aspect under which it is symbolized, she would have been regarding pure consciousness and unconsciousness as merely being two ways of looking at the same thing. For, when speaking of something that is beyond the range and reach of thought, one description may be as adequate (or inadequate) as the other. Nonetheless, how brahman or parabrahman is understood in Advaita Vedānta does not quite match how the one reality is understood in Theosophy. The term parabrahman is a synonym of the Theosophical “omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle” only insofar as both refer to the absolute in their respective systems of thought.

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