Examining the Hindu Concept of Brahman
What is Brahman? Even in the context of Hindu polytheism, it would not be entirely correct to refer to Brahman as a god. Brahman is much better conceived of as the ground of being or the ultimate reality. Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, the creator god in the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.
In early Vedic Hinduism, Brahman was in fact a minor god who presided over sacrifices and gave power to sacred utterances. Over time Brahman grew in importance and transcendence, turning into the power underlying all of reality. Now Brahman is equated with reality itself. To capture such a vast and challenging concept, Brahman can be divided into two major distinctions. One is Nirguna Brahman, and the other is Saguna Brahman.
The shared core of both of these words is “guna,” and it simply means “nature” or “form.” Nirguna means that Brahman has no nature. Not only does Nirguna Brahman have no nature, but it is before nature. Nirguna Brahman is a state of unmanifest reality, and therefore has no characteristics and cannot be spoken of in any way. It is impossible to conceive of, understand, or conceptualize Nirguna Brahman. Nirguna Brahman is always “neti, neti,” which translates as “not this, not this.” This means that whatever you point at, whether it is a chair, a tree, or a rock, is not Brahman.
Saguna Brahman, on the other hand, is the manifested divine presence. As saguna, Brahman has a nature that is manifest in reality. This is Brahman that has characteristics, characteristics which are usually tied to goodness and divinity. Saguna Brahman is temporally active and may even receive worship and sacrifice. All of the many different deities of Hinduism can be seen as the many forms and manifestations of Saguna Brahman.
Though it may seem like a paradox, Nirguna and Saguna Brahman are ultimately the same thing. As the very core and ground of reality, Brahman must be at once manifest and unmanifest, transcendent and immanent.
A discussion of Brahman cannot be complete without noting the importance of Brahman in relation to the individual. A significant idea in much Hindu philosophical thought is that because Brahman is the all-pervading ground of reality, it is connected to the very core of all beings in existence. Therefore, the atman (soul) is often identified as Brahman itself. Many Hindu philosophies teach that the ultimate goal of the Self is to realize that atman is Brahman and Brahman is atman. It is only upon this realization that the Self can achieve liberation and escape the endless cycle of birth and death.
In order to understand Hinduism one must have a good understanding of the concept of Brahman. On the surface, Hinduism, in its many variations, boasts a plethora of gods. However, a different picture emerges when it is understood that all of these gods are a manifestation of an ultimate, underlying ground of reality. In fact, everything in existence is a manifestation of this reality. We mistakenly believe that we are saguna, that we have a nature, a form, and characteristics. This is only illusion. In actuality we, along with everything around us, are unmanifest and quality-less Nirguna Brahman.
By Eva Kurilova