Vedānta: The Absolute and Predicates

The Absolute is that from which our speech turns back along with the mind, being unable to comprehend its fullness (T.Up 2:4).

We can only describe the Absolute in negative terms. ‘We can say what It is not, We cannot say what It is.’

The Absolute is beyond the sphere of predication. It is the śūnyata (emptiness) of the Buddhists.

Yajñavālkya said: “THAT, O Gargi, the knowers of Brahman call the Imperishable. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, neither coloured nor associated with anything; It is light without shadow free from darkness, neither air nor space; It is unattached; It is without taste or smell, without eyes or ears, without tongue or mind; It is non-effulgent, without vital breath or mouth, without measure and without exterior or interior. It does not consume anything, nor is It consumed by anyone. (Brh.Up.2:8:8)

Any attempt at description makes It into something. It is not a thing. It is non-dual, advaita.This does not mean, however, that the Absolute is non-being. It means only that the Absolute Brahman is all-inclusive and nothing exists outside it.

While it is non-empirical, it is also inclusive of the whole empirical world. The Absolute is described through a set of negative and positive paradoxes to emphasize its transcendence —

Full both of light and not-light, of desire and not-desire, of anger and not-anger, of law and not-law, having verily filled all, both the near and the far off, the this and the that’.(B.Up. 4:4:5; Isa 4:5, Kaṭha 1:2:20-21)

We cannot positively define the nature of Brahman but that does not mean that it has no essential nature of its own. Since no philosophical inquiry into its nature can be instituted without some form of description, its svarūpa or essential nature is said to be sat – being, cit – consciousness and ānanda or bliss. These are not so much qualities of Brahman as the very nature of Brahman.

Thus we have —

(1) The Absolute Brahman,

(2) God, as Creative Power – Īśvara

(3) God immanent in this world.

Self-being, self-consciousness and self-delight are all phases of the ONE.

It is Absolute Being (sat) in which there is no nothingness.

It is absolute consciousness (cit) in which there is no non-consciousness.

It is absolute bliss (ananda) in which there is no suffering.

Kaṭhopanisad states —

“Self is concealed in all things, and does not therefore appear to be there. It can be perceived only by the eye of wisdom with the help of a sharp penetrating intellect” (3.12).

Realisation of the Self (ātma-vidya / ātma-jñāna / ātma-bodha) is regarded as the highest form of all knowledge (Para-vidya).

Self-realisation is achieved through arduous path of study, withdrawal of the senses, reasoning, mind-training and regular meditation.

Brahman as Ānanda

The Upaniṣads conceive of Brahman not only as the “Ground-of-all-Existence”[1] but also as the ultimate source of all joy.

Worldly pleasures are only the distorted fragments of that joy, just as worldly objects are limited manifestations of that Reality.

One who reflects upon the Self, not only realizes identity with Brahman but also attains Supreme Beatitude. The Self, being the source of all joy is the dearest thing to a person.

Explaining to his wife Maitreyi, Yajñavālkya says that one loves another person or thing because he identifies himself with that person or thing and regards him or it as his own self. In his opinion, nothing is dear for its own sake. The husband, wife, son and the wealth are not dear for their own sake, but all are dear because the person identifies the Self in them.

The Pursuit of Bliss

But why is the Self or life so dear? The Upaniṣads answer that life is so dear because there is joy in living. The joy that we have in daily life, however contaminated by pain and however meagre it might be, sustains our desire to continue to live. All sentient beings seek to be happy no matter how much suffering they experience.

Craving for gratification is what binds us to the painful circle of birth, death and rebirth (samsāra). Relinquishing craving and attachment and the realization of our essential identity as immortal ātman is the way to attain immutable bliss.

According to Kaṭha Up. (6.14), a mortal attains immortality and unity with Brahman even here in this very life, when there is freedom from all hankering.

One may ask why God in Vedānta is not said to be associated with love as in Christianity. The answer is that love is an extremely loaded term and has many variations – parental, romantic, friendship, patriotic, ideological etc. Since everything is seen from a human perspective it is best to avoid loaded terms. Bliss or ānanda includes within it all forms and variations of love.

[1] Nārāyana = nara – all matter and spirit; ayana – ground of being


Author: Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counsellor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)

May 1st 2020