Journal of Indian Philosophy

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 507–526 | Cite as

Is Brahman a Person or a Self? Competing Theories in the Early Upaniṣads

  • Dimitry ShevchenkoEmail author


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.


Upaniṣads brahman puruṣa ātman Bālāki and Ajātaśatru Indra and Virocana 



Chāndogya Upaniṣad


Chāndogya Upaniṣad Bhāṣya


Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya


Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad


Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya


Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad




Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa


Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad


Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā


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I am very grateful to John Taber and Sthaneshwar Timalsina for reading the manuscript and for their valuable suggestions.

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Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Asian StudiesThe Hebrew University of JerusalemHaifaIsrael

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