Description of Brahman in our scriptures and according to great spiritual figures

The word god does not quite represent the Hindu concept of the Divine. It is better to think in terms of the Ultimate Reality which is called Brahman. What do Hindu scriptures say about Brahman? What do great spiritual figures say about Brahman? Here is a compendium of quotes on Brahman.
Unknowability of Brahman
Reason is strongly stressed in Hindu dharma. Hindu dharma admits, however, that Brahman is beyond reason. For example, the Upanishads say poetically,
1. “The eye does not go thither, nor speech, nor the mind. We do not know It; we do not understand how anyone can teach It. It is different from the known; It is above the unknown. Thus we have heard from the preceptors of old who taught It to us.”
(Kena Upanishad I.3-4)
2. “That which cannot be comprehended by the mind but by which the mind is cognized know that alone to be Brahman, and not this that people worship here.
(Kena Upanishad I.6)
3. “That from which all speech with the mind turns away, not having reached it, knowing the bliss of that Brahman, man fears nothing.
(Taittirya Upanishad II.9)
4. “He is never seen, but is the Seer; He is never heard, but is the Hearer; He is never thought of, but is the Thinker; He is never known, but is the knower. There is no other seer than He, there is no other hearer than He, there is no other thinker than He, there is no other knower than He. He is the Inner Controller – your own Self and immortal. All else but He is perishable.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad III.7.23)
Brahman described!
After saying that Brahman is not knowable, beyond the reach of our minds, the Upanishads describe Brahman,
5. “This Self has entered into these bodies up to the very tips of the nails, as a razor lies hidden in its case, or as fire which sustains the world lies hidden in its source….
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.IV.7)
6. “It has hands and feet everywhere, and eyes, heads and faces everywhere, and It is possessed of ears everywhere. It exists among all the creatures, pervading all. “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.16)
7. “He is without hands and feet, (and yet) moves and grasps; He sees, (though) without eyes; He hears (though) without ears. He knows whatever is to be known, and of Him there is no knower. They speak of Him as the first, the Supreme Person (Purusham mahantam). “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.19)
8. “You are the woman, You are the man, You are the boy, (and) You are the girl too. You are the old man tottering with a stick. Taking birth, You have Your faces everywhere. “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.3)
9. “You, indeed, are the blue bee; You indeed are the green parrot having red eyes; You indeed are possessed of lightning in Your womb. You indeed are the seasons and the seas. You indeed are without beginning; You exist as the Omnipresent, from whom have sprung all the worlds. “
(Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.4)
10. “As from a fire kindled with wet fuel various [kinds of] smoke issue forth, even so, my dear, the Rig Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama Veda, the Atharvangirasa, itihasa, purana, vidya (arts), Upanishads, slokas, sutras, anuvyakhyanas (elucidations), vyakhyanas (explanations), sacrifices, oblations in the fire, food, drink, this world, and all beings are all like the breath of the Infinite Reality. From this Supreme Self are all these, indeed, breathed forth.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.V.11)
Brahman known through meditation
Verses 1 to 4 suggest that Brahman is unknowable to the ordinary human mind. Then how is it possible for Upanishads to describe Brahman (verses 5 to 10)? The answer is given in the following verses,
His form does not stand within the range of the senses. No one perceives Him with the eye. Those who know Him through the faculty of intuition as thus seated in their heart, become immortal.
(Svetasvatara Upanishad Iv.20)
The wise man relinquishes both joy and sorrow having realized, by means of meditation on the inner Self, that ancient effulgent One, hard to be seen, subtle, immanent, seated in the heart and residing within the body.”
(Katha Upanishad I.2.12)
Human analogy and Brahman
It is clear that reason cannot explain Brahman nor take us there. Then can the models of Brahman as advocated by systems like Advaita Vedanta explain Brahman? Some people say that Brahman is like a principle. If Brahman is a principle then it is hard to see how Brahman projects Itself in the human mental plane to show up as forms (Saguna Brahman). Can a mere principle project? Sometimes Brahman is also thought of as an ocean of Consciousness. This idea is baffling too. Our everyday experiences are of conscious beings. So what does an ocean of Consciousness mean? Thinking of Brahman as a principle or ocean of Consciousness is simply using analogy to our normal experience. Actually nothing whatsoever can be said about Brahman except that It exists. Let me quote Sri Ramakrishna on the nature of Brahman,
What Brahman is cannot be described. All things in the world – the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras, the six systems of philosophy – have been defiled, like food that has been touched by the tongue. Only one thing has not been defiled in this way, and that is Brahman. No one has ever been able to say what Brahman is. Brahman is beyond word and thought. It is said in the Vedas that Brahman is of the nature of Bliss. It is Satchidananda. In Samadhi one attains the knowledge of Brahman – one realizes Brahman. In that state reasoning stops altogether, and man becomes mute. He has no power to describe the nature of Brahman.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Sri Ramakrishna also says,
” Brahman is without comparison. It is impossible to explain Brahman by analogy. It is between light and darkness. It is light, but not the light we perceive, not material light.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Then again Brahman has also been compared to a chameleon by Sri Ramakrishna:
Listen to a story. Once a man entered a wood and saw a small animal on a tree. He came back and told another man that he had seen a creature of a beautiful red color on a certain tree. The second man replied: ‘When I went into the wood, I also saw that animal. But why do you call it red? It is green.’ Another man who was present contradicted them both and insisted that it was yellow. Presently others arrived and contended that it was grey, violet, blue and so forth and so on. At last they started quarrelling among themselves. To settle the dispute they all went to the tree. They saw a man sitting under it. On being asked, he replied, ‘Yes, I live under this tree and I know the animal very well. All your descriptions are true. Sometimes it appears red, sometimes yellow, and at other times blue, violet, grey, and so forth. It is a chameleon. And sometimes it has no color at all. Now it has a color and now it has none.’In like manner, one who constantly thinks of God can know His real nature; he alone knows that God reveals Himself to seekers in various forms and aspects. God has attributes; then again He has none. Only the man who lives under the tree knows that the chameleon can appear in various colors, and he knows, further, that the animal at times has no colors at all. It is the others who suffer from the agony of futile arguments……..
God reveals Himself in the form which His devotee loves most.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Here are some additional quotations discussing the nature of Brahman.
16. The Upanishad also declares Brahman to be Consciousness alone.
“The Upanishad also says that Brahman is pure consciousness, devoid of other aspects contrary to this, and without any distinguishing features, as in, “As a lump of salt is without interior or exterior, entire, and purely saline in taste, even so is the Self without interior or exterior, entire, and pure Intelligence alone” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad IV.v.13), which means that the Self has no internal or external aspect apart from pure consciousness, Its nature being mere impartite consciousness without any interstices. Just as a lump of salt has the saline taste alone both inside and outside, and no other taste, so also is this Self.”
Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya III.ii.16
17. Moreover, the Vedas reveal this; likewise this is mentioned in the Smritis also.
“Moreover, the Vedas reveal through a negation of other aspects that Brahman has no distinguishing feature, as for instance in, “Now therefore the description (of Brahman): ‘Not this, not this’” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad II.iii.6), “That (Brahman) is surely different from the known; and, again, It is above the unknown” (Kena Upanishad I.4), “That Bliss of Brahman, failing to reach which, words turn back along with the mind” (Taittiriya Upanishad II.ix.1), and so on. And it is also known from the Vedic texts that Badhva being asked by Baskali, replied merely by not uttering a word, as stated in, “He (Baskali) said, ‘Teach me Brahman, sir.’ He (Badhva) became silent. When the question was repeated a second and a third time he said, ‘I have already spoken, but you cannot comprehend. That Self is Quiescence’ “. Similarly in the Smritis, the instruction is given through a negation of other things, as in, “I shall tell you of that which is to be known and by knowing which one attains immortality. The supreme Brahman is without any beginning. It can neither be called gross (visible) nor fine (invisible)” (Gita XIII.12), and so on. Similarly the Smriti mentions how Narayana in His cosmic form said to Narada, “O Narada, that you see me as possessed of all the (five divine) qualities of all elements, is only because of My Maya, called up by Myself. For else you should not understand Me thus.”
Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya III.ii.17
All the descriptions of Brahman given in the Upanishads (verses 5 to 10) are given to help us in our search for Brahman. In reality Brahman is not accessible either to human reason or to human mind. Even those who experience Brahman cannot describe their experience.

Special Forms

Brahman also maintains special forms for helping human seekers. The various deities like Siva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesha etc are different names and forms of Brahman. In spite of these Devatas Hinduism is not polytheistic as is clear from the following passages:

By Him this (universe) was urged forth, by Him it was begotten, and upon Hin this (universe) was founded. Time, truly, having become the brahma, supports Parameshthin ( the highest Lord).
Atharva Veda XIX.53.9
“Know that this entire universe is under the control of one divine Being. The Veda that is in the soul…….regards the unity of various creatures. When a living creature realizes this unity in consequence of true knowledge, he is then said to attain to Brahman”.
Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CCLXXX

“The Supreme Spirit hath three condition, In the form of Brahma, he is the Creator, and in the form of Vishnu he is the Preserver, and in his form as Rudra, he is the Destroyer of the Universe”.

Mahabharata Vana Parva Section CCLXX
Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra/Shiva are simply three names and forms of Brahman.
Rishi Sanat-sujata says:

“There is but one Brahman which is Truth’s self. It is from ignorance of that One, that god-heads have been conceived to be diverse.”

Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva, Section 43
Sri Hari himself said that no one should see any difference between Him and Shiva.

“Well-adored by the Rishis, by Brahma, and by all the deities, that great God, the Lord of the universe, otherwise called by the name of Hari, then addressed the illustrious Isana and said these words:-He that knows thee, knows me. He that follows thee, follows me. There is no difference between thee and me. Do thou never think otherwise.”

Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CCCXLIII
Another example is given below:

Then Partha, with a cheerful soul, and joined hands and eyes expanded (in wonder), gazed at the god having the bull for his mark [Shiva] and who was the receptacle of every energy. And he beheld the offerings he made every night to Vasudeva lying by the side of the Three-eyed deity.

Mahabharata, Drona Parva, Section LXXXI
I am adding a passage that clearly states that only ignorant person sees any difference between Brahman, Brahma, Rudra and Hari.

Sri Bhagavan said: ‘I, who am known as the supreme cause of the worlds, its soul, its ruler, the witness of everything, the self-effulgent being and attributeless Absolute – in truth I am both Brahma and Rudra. O Learned one! Verily I assume different names like Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara, appropriate for the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe, which I perform by assuming My Yoga-maya, which has its three constituent Gunas of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. In Me, the all-comprehending and all-pervading Self, known as Brahman, the ignorant man sees Brahma, Rudra and other entities as different. Just as a man will not consider the members of his body like the head and the limbs as different from himself but only parts of himself, so does one who has taken refuge in Me sees all beings as parts of Me. He attains eternal peace who does not perceive any difference between the three – Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara – who are one in nature and pervade in all beings.’

Srimad Bhagavata Purana translated by Swami Tapasyananda IV.7.50-54.

This one divine being is called Ishvara and the multiple Deities are His forms. Brahman is called Ishvara when thought of as relative to the universe.
Let me finish by quoting Sri Ramakrishna.

“No one can say with finality that God is only ‘this’ and nothing else. He is formless and again He has forms. For the bhakta He assumes forms. But He is formless for the jnani, that is, for him who looks on the world as a mere dream. The bhakta feels that he is one entity and the world as another. Therefore God reveals Himself to him as a Person. But the jnani – the Vedantist, for instance – always reasons, applying the process of ‘Not this, not this’. Through this discrimination he realizes, by his inner perception, that the ego and the universe are both illusory, like a dream. Then the jnani realizes Brahman in his own consciousness. He can not describe what Brahman is.

 Do you know what I mean? Think of Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, as a shoreless ocean. Through the cooling influence as it were, of the bhakta’s love, the water has frozen at places into blocks of ice. In other words, God now and then assumes various forms for His lovers and reveals Himself to them as a Person. But with the rising of the sun of knowledge, the blocks of ice melt. Then one doesn’t feel any more that God is a Person, nor does one see God’s forms. What He is can not be described. Who will describe Him? He who would do so disappears. He cannot find his ‘I’ anymore.”

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna October 28, 1882
  Do you know what I mean? Think of Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, as a shoreless ocean. Through the cooling influence as it were, of the bhakta’s love, the water has frozen at places into blocks of ice. In other words, God now and then assumes various forms for His lovers and reveals Himself to them as a Person. But with the rising of the sun of knowledge, the blocks of ice melt. Then one doesn’t feel any more that God is a Person, nor does one see God’s forms. What He is can not be described. Who will describe Him? He who would do so disappears. He cannot find his ‘I’ anymore. 

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna October 28, 1882

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