What is ParaBrahman?

Meaning

The word ‘Brahman’ means the greatest. The Pādma Purāṇa defines the Brahman as that which is great and endows greatness. Svāmī Rāmānuja explains the Brahman as that which is endowed with the quality of excellence in everything.

The word Brahman might be used in other contexts where greatness is to be implied. However, the primary use of the word is in communicating the One in whom greatness or excellence is unsurpassed both in essence and by traits.

It is to clarify this point that this site is title ParaBrahman. The prefix Para means Supreme.

Motivation

The ParaBrahman is the logical end of metaphysics. Western philosophy is frustrated with metaphysics due to the inability of the human mind to reach a determinate conclusion. Hence, metaphysics is not considered to be a worthy expense of the intellect today.  One cannot help but feel amused by this situation for it resembles the story of the fox deciding that the grapes must be sour when it could not reach them.

The questions of metaphysics cannot be willed away merely because we find our devices inadequate to the task.  The religion of Vedānta starts where metaphysics stops baffled. Instead of giving up on the ultimate being in metaphysics, the Vedānta pushes the boundaries further and attempts to approach the being beyond measure. The Vedānta realizes that there are limits to reason and intellectual grasping. Where intellectual grasping ends, life starts. Concepts and symbols can only take us so far. Beyond that, the human life has to be lived. The end of metaphysics can be approached only by direct encounter with reality and not by the constructs of the mind.

The Indian Sage of the last century, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore became intimate with the Brahman in the field of love. Where the rational mind gives up, poetry enters. Poetry lets us understand by living feeling what cannot be expressed in conceptual and rational language.

I touch by the edge of the far-spreading wing of my song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach. – Gītāñjali

r-20tagore

In trying to explain the poem, one inevitably destroys its meaning. In full awareness of the distortions that creep into an explanation, let us indulge in a few important perspectives in the above verse.

Tagore talks about how the final end of metaphysics that imbues our lives with meaning is utterly beyond our grasp. The Vedic sage said, yato vāco nivartante aprapya manasā saha (Taittirīya Upaniṣat – 2.9.1).  “From whom speech and mind return failing to grasp.”

Unlike the Western philosopher, this difficulty does not let the sage to give up. The philosopher is too proud of his rational abilities and he despises that in which his abilities fail. The same failure is capable of transforming a person into a sage. The mind that seeks to control and dominate ends in frustration. This is not the scientific mind that is full of curiosity and exploration; this is the mind that wants the universe to comply with its mental structure.

The mind of the sage is more open and receptive. When the Vedic metaphysician is defeated, she is not disappointed. How can one be disappointed with truth unless one were seeking something else? Instead, she exults in defeat because it is defeat that emancipates the mind from its own constructs.

Defeat is deeply spiritual. When one looks into the vastness of space or contemplates on the beauty and magnitude of the universe as explained by astronomers, one stands defeated. All concepts, judgments and theories are insufficient to explain our experience of the spectacular beauty, grandeur and enormity of the universe. It is a moment when one drops to one’s knees with tears in the eyes and a sense of joy pervading the heart in belonging to something so great and wonderful.

In Vedānta, success (siddhi) is not measured by how accurately one has worded one’s theories but by how soon one is defeated in this exercise. How long does it take to relate with all of one’s life to one that is beyond us? In the Jitante Stotram, the Vedic sage starts off with the exclamation jitante! which means Victory is Yours!

Taking refuge in the power of poetry, the Vedic sage (like Tagore) sings. In song, she seeks not to grasp but only touch. The profound of humility that stems from this intensely spiritual experience demands an outlet.  To fulfill that demand, the Brahman becomes a person, the Supreme Person in order to speak to the soul in human condition.

Again in the Jitante Stotram, the sage notes this point for he sings, You possess no form, no shape, no instruments, no abode. You shine in the form of super-human person only for the sake  of those taken in love.

The form of this Person is such that mixes two aspects: the human aspect that speaks to humans and the transcendent aspect that communicates that divinity transcends humanity. The idea of ParamaPuruṣa (Supreme Person) or Īśvara (God) is not anthropomorphic. It is not a simple projection of human ideals. It is the acknowledgement of the value of human life and feeling. It is that dimension of the Brahman which is recognized to relate to the human mind. It is a form of grace that exists for our sake. The purpose of God is not to deify human intentions and urges, but to make the transcendent Brahman relevant to man.

Every time, the Vedānta speaks of God, it hastens to add neti neti – not this much, not this much (or not so, not so)To speak of the Brahman is an act of immense courage. Every attempt of such courage is toned down with an overwhelming sense of humility. One can help but feel that the spoken word has diminished Brahman instead of revealing His glories.

The sage gives purpose to the longing of the human mind by relating to the Supreme Brahman as the Supreme Person. The sense of humility arising from defeat lets one carefully touch by song, and that too only His feet.

In the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta, this Supreme Person is Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Good, the Supreme Beauty, the Supreme Harmony, who is enchanting and wonderful. His vision inspires love. The saint Tirumazisai Āzvār calls Him patthi uzavan or Love-Farmer. He resides in the hearts of all and is relatable as Rāma or Kṛṣṇa. In this sense, Viṣṇu is recognized as complete as He communicates greatness, transcendence, love, accessibility, tranquility, strength, immanence and bliss. Hence, most Vaiṣṇavas take the view that another notion of God is unnecessary.  Viṣṇu is sufficient and inexhaustible. If this view is not properly understood, it appears as a base form of sectarianism (my God vs your God) or as exclusivism. It is Vaiṣṇavas themselves who have to come to terms with this view correctly before they expect others to understand.

Vaiṣṇava Vedānta is complete as a religion in that it is purposeful to humans. Its purpose is to raise the human soul to envision and experience reality that transcends words. Its purpose is to use that experience to transform and redeem humanity from narrowness of thought, from selfishness and pettiness. It is not the way of passive tight-lipped recluse; it is the way of the joy and feeling. This approach does not deprive the mind of its sentiment and feeling. Instead, it uplifts their dynamics from mundane to spiritual, imbuing them with a higher purpose. The purpose is to fill the human soul with the fullness of life.

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