Is Brahman a Person or a Self? Competing Theories in the Early Upaniṣads
In this article, I study the concept of brahman—the exhaustive formulation of truth about the world—in the early Upaniṣads. Based on close reading of two stories appearing in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, the Kauṣītaki and the Chāndogya Upaniṣads, I reconstruct two competing theories about brahman, namely the “theory of puruṣa (person)” and the “theory of ātman (self).” While the theory of puruṣa refers to the creation of human and divine beings as a result of duplication of the anthropomorphic form of the universe, the theory of ātman traces the phenomenal reality in its various forms to the inner, formless self “made of consciousness” capable of creating and projecting forms out of itself. These two theories are discussed in the dialogue between Gārgya Bālāki and Ajātaśatru, the king of Kāśi appearing in two versions in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣads. Bālāki’s theory of puruṣa is further revised and modified in the light of Ajātaśatru’s criticism in the story from the Chāndogya Upaniṣads, in which the god Prajāpati teaches Indra and Virocana about the self.
KeywordsUpaniṣads brahman puruṣa ātman Bālāki and Ajātaśatru Indra and Virocana
Chāndogya Upaniṣad Bhāṣya
Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya
Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.
I am very grateful to John Taber and Sthaneshwar Timalsina for reading the manuscript and for their valuable suggestions.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.
- BSBh - Śaṅkara, Badarayana: Brahmasutra, with Samkara’s Sarirakamimamsabhasya, GRETIL - Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages and related Indological materials from Central and Southeast Asia, 11.15.2001 - 11.11.2016, http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/ 1_sanskr/6_sastra/3_phil/vedanta/brssbh1u.htm
- BUBh - (Editor unkown), Complete Works of Śankarācarya, V. 8: Upaniṣad Bhāṣya: Bhṛdāraṇyaka 1-2, Sri Vani Vilas Press, Srirangam, 1910Google Scholar
- ChUBh -Chandogya-Upanisad (Chandogyopanisad) with the commentary ascribed to Samkara, GRETIL - Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages and related Indological materials from Central and Southeast Asia, 11.15.2001 - 11.11.2016,Google Scholar
- Jha, Ganganatha (tr.), The Chāndogyopaniṣad (A Treatise on Vedānta Philosophy Translated into English with the Commentary of S’ankara), Poona, Oriental Books Agency, 1942Google Scholar
- Keith, Arthur B. (tr.), Śāṅkhāyana Āraṇyaka, The Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1908Google Scholar
- Mādhavānanda, Swami (tr.), The Bhṛdāraṇyaka Upaniṣad with the Commentary of Śankarācarya, Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, Almora, 1950Google Scholar
- Olivelle, Patrick (tr.), Upaniṣads, Oxford University Press, 2008Google Scholar
- RV - Rgveda, Mandalas 6 and 10, GRETIL - Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages and related Indological materials from Central and Southeast Asia, 11.15.2001 - 11.11.2016, http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gret_utf.htm#RV_HvNE
- Upaniṣads - Radhakrishnan, S. (ed. and tr.), The Principal Upaniṣads, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1978Google Scholar
- Black, B. (2007). Character of the self in ancient India: Priests, kings, and women in the ancient Upaniṣads. New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
- Brown, N. W. (1978). The sources and nature of Puruṣa in the Puruṣasūkta (Ṛg Veda 10.90). India and Indology, pp. 5–10Google Scholar
- Cohen, S. (2008) Text and authority in the older Upaniṣads. LeidenGoogle Scholar
- Desai, P., & Collins, A. (1986). Selfhood in context: Some Indian solutions. In M. I. White & S. Pollak (Eds.), The cultural transition: Human experience and social transformation in the third world and Japan. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
- Gardner. (1998). The developing terminology for the self in Vedic India. PhD Dissertation, the University of Iowa.Google Scholar
- Gonda, J. (1986) Mind and moon. In Deyadharma (pp. 147–160).Google Scholar
- Kaukua, J., & Kukkonen, T. (2007). Sense-perception and self-awareness: Before and after Avicenna. In S. Heinamaa, V. Lahteenmaki, & P. Remes (Eds.), Consciousness: From perception to reflection in the history of philosophy (pp. 95–119). SpringerGoogle Scholar
- Smith, B. K. (1989). Reflections on resemblance, ritual, and religion. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Tull, H. W. (1989). The Vedic origins of karma: Cosmos as man in ancient Indian myth and ritual. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar