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)
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), sacrfices, 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 can not 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."
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."
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."
Brahman is silence, according to Sankara (c. 788-820 AD):
"'Sir,' said a student to his master, 'teach me the nature of Brahman.' The master did not reply. When he was asked a second and a third time, he replied: "I teach you, but you do not listen. His name is silence.'"
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.
Science and Brahman
So can science investigate Brahman? To be able to answer this question, let us take a look at the human brain. We know that when we see an object, light rays from that object activate electric currents in the optic nerve attached to our eyes. These nerves are attached to specific areas of the brain. Science can now follow the whole process quite easily. What it can not do is to explain how electric currents in the brain are converted to thought. What would be needed to explain the conversion of electric currents to thought? I am assuming that all of you know that Maxwell's equations explain all electromagnetic phenomena. It is obvious that Maxwell's equations have no space for thought even though we all know from the example of human brain that there must be some connection between electric currents in the brain and human thought. It is reasonable to assume that this connection between electric current and thought is due in some manner to Brahman. So for science to explain Brahman would need some kind of equations that can derive thoughts from electric currents. No one, however, knows how to do that!
More posts by this author:
- Model or Reality?
- Description of Brahman in our scriptures and according to great spiritual figures
- The problem of evil in the presence of a loving God
- The problem of evil in Hindu thought
- How does the prana-prathistha ritual convert a lifeless idol into a living murthi?
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.