Explain the terms Atman and brahman. Why do the Upanishads assert that, while the self is
everywhere and within ourselves, it cannot be known as an object?
I believe that this question can be best answered from the Advaita Vedanta perspective of
Shankaracharya. First, what is Advaita Vedanta? Indian systems of Philosophy are divided into two
categories — the orthodox (astika) and the unorthodox (nastika). There are six systems under the
first head (orthodox), namely, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Samkhya and Yoga. The
Vedanta system can be further classified into two, of which Advaita Vedanta is one. The term
'Vedanta' [Veda (the scriptures) + anta (end) = Vedanta (the last part of the Vedas)] refers to the
Upanishads(The Upanishadsform the last part of the Vedas). The Vedanta, therefore, has the best
of the Upanishads. The term 'Advaita' [a (negation) + dvaita (dual) = advaita (non-dual)] means
'singular' or 'unified' or 'non-dual'. So, Advaita Vedanta is a monistic system, which confers absolute
unchallenged existenceon the Brahman [The word 'Brahman' comes from the root 'briha' to which the
suffix 'mana' has been added. 'Briha' means 'pervasive' and 'mana' means 'most'. So, 'Brahman'
means 'that which is all-pervasive']. The Brahman is, therefore, the Ultimate Reality.
What about the world that we live in? What about the variety, the multiplicity that we perceive around
us? As is expected, the Advaitins believe that the world is unreal [asat = a (negation) + sat (real)]. But
to say that the world is unreal is not to say that it is non-existent. For whatever appears to us in our
experience must have some kind of existence. The distinction between a non-existent entity (aleeka)
and an unreal entity (asat) can be understood with the help of the following example. To talk about
'the horns of a rabbit' is to talk about a non-existent entity. The world and its objects are not
non-existent in that sense. That's because the world and its objects appear to us in our experiences
in some form of the other.
To explain this further, the Advaitins distinguish between three levels of existence. The Brahman
obviously belongs to the highest of these levels and is called the 'Paramarthika sat'. The world
belongs to the second of these three levels — to the phenomenal level — and is called the
'Vyavaharika sat'. The characteristic feature of things belonging to the phenomenal realm (viz., of
things that exist in this world) is that they are obliterated with the dawn of the knowledge of the
Ultimate Reality. This can be better understood with reference to things belonging to the lowest level
of existence, namely, illusory things (called 'Pratibhasika sat'). A common example of illusion found in
Indian systems of Philosophy is the rope-snake illusion. While walking down a half-lit corridor, you
see a long, twisted something lying in front of you and for one dark moment you think it's a snake!
When you flash your pocket light on it, you find it's only a rope. What's real here is the rope, not the
snake, because the existence of the snake is obliterated as soon as the existence of the rope is
known. Similarly, the existence of the world is obliterated with knowledge of the Highest Reality. That
is why, some writers on Advaita Vedanta refer to the world as a 'cosmic illusion'.
What do Advaitins mean by 'knowledge of the Ultimate Reality or Brahman'? It is the knowledge that
the individual self (atma) is the same as the Brahman. It is the knowledge of the identity between the
atma and the Brahman. Life, i.e., the cycle of birth and death, is bondage. Liberation is to know that I
am not the physical body or the senses or the mind; it is to know that I am the pure self, the
conscious principle, the Brahman. It is to understand that my self, the atma, is one with the Absolute
Self, the Brahman. This is the principle lesson of the Upanishads — Tat tvam asi, You are that —
where, 'tvam' or 'you' refers to the individual self (atma) and 'tat' or 'that' refers to the Ultimate Reality
So what is the Brahman? The Brahman is pure existence (sat svaroopa), pure consciousness (chit
svaroopa) and pure bliss (ananda svaroopa). There is no existence above that of the Brahman;
there's nothing more conscious than the Brahman and nothing that gives more happiness than the
Brahman. The Brahman is the epitome of existence, consciousness and bliss — these three are not
properties of the Brahman. The Brahman is of the very nature of existence, consciousness and bliss.
So is the individual self, the atma. But we do not realise this unity of the atma and the Brahman.
When we do, we are released from the bondage of life and death.
It is because the self and the Brahman are essentially the same, the Advaitins say that the Ultimate
Reality cannot be known objectively, as something that is external to us. In a monistic system, there
is only one thing that exists and the only way that thing can be known is in itself, by itself. So, the only
possible kind of knowledge in Advaita Vedanta is self-knowledge. This is the reason why there is so
much emphasis on self-realisation in most systems of Indian Philosophy. Knowledge of the Ultimate
Reality or Brahman is the knowledge by the self of its own nature. So "the Upanishads assert that,
while the self is everywhere and within us, it cannot be known as an object."