Defining Reality—Upanishads Way

— Swami Vireshananda —

The question of what is reality has become a buzzword in the scientific arena today. The discoveries of quantum physics are challenging the reality of physical phenomena on the ground that the subjective element can alter the perception of such an objective reality. What is termed as reality is falsity or at the most, the fantasy of the human mind, which itself is an illusion. Hence, reality in physical terms is not only impossible to determine, but also logically not feasible. Some of these conclusions of quantum physics find resonance with the age-old philosophy of the Upanishads. The difference between quantum physics and the Upanishads is that the former is still toiling to envision what is reality, while the mystic sages of ancient India had succeeded in that attempt. The Upanishads present the rational definition of reality and also record the subjective experience of reality by the sages, which is in complete harmony with the former. It means that the idea of reality that is rationally and scientifically arrived at by the Upanishads is completely in agreement with the personal experience of the transcendental reality of the sages; and this has been well-documented upon those very texts. It is our endeavour here to dwell into these two categories of definitions of reality treasured in the Upanishads: 1. Rational or objective definition, and 2. Transcendental or subjective definition.

Satyam Jñānam Anantam Brahma

Brahman is the generic term used in the Upanishads to denote the ultimate Reality. Reality is not an exclusive one—it is that which is the essence of the whole empirical existence. It is this essence that is apparently experienced in the physical world. Reality is in the essence, not in its apparent modifications of names (nāma) and forms (rūpa). Then, what are the inherent characteristics of reality that have caused it to be the essence of all that exists? It is the beginning of the wonderful spiritual investigation carried out by the sages. The enquiry to this effect is the heart of the question raised by the disciple at the very beginning of the Mundaka Upanishad: ‘Kasmin nu bhagavo vijñāte sarvam idaṁ vijñātaṁ bhavati iti: O adorable sir, (which is that thing) which having been known, all this becomes known?’1

The idea that by knowing the essence of things, one can know all that is made of that—is the sum and substance of the teaching of the sage Aruni to his son Svetaketu, found in the Chandogya Upanishad. The father says to his son: ‘O good looking one, as by knowing a lump of earth, all things made of earth become known; all transformation has speech as its basis, and it is name only. Earth as such is the reality.’2 The essence is the only reality because all of its transformations are but names or just ideas with no reality. This essence is termed ‘sat’ or pure existence in Chandogya Upanishad. Further, it teaches that it is this pure existence which continues to persist in and through the whole empirical phenomena. Hence, sat is the reality, while its modifications are but appearances.

The idea of ‘sat’, pure existence, instructed in the Chandogya Upanishad, an ancient Upanishad, is further elaborated on the same lines in Taittiriya Upanishad, relatively a later Upanishad. The argument it presents is that what is pure existence, invariably is, pure knowledge and infinite. These three are not qualifications of Brahman, but inherent features of the whole existence in which Brahman is ingrained as its essence. This all-inclusive thought is enshrined in a small phrase of the Taittiriya Upanishad: ‘Satyaṁ jñānamanantaṁ Brahma; Brahman is truth, knowledge, and infinite.’3 Now we shall try to comprehend the significance of this definition in the light of the insightful commentary on Taittiriya Upanishad by Sri Shankaracharya.

This section in the Taittiriya Upanishad commences with a statement: ‘Brahmavid āpnoti param; the knower of Brahman attains the highest.’4Param, the highest state, is that in which one identifies one’s individual Self with Brahman, the supreme Reality, which is the Self of all and transcends all worldly attributes. The definition of such Brahman is satyaṁ jñānamanantaṁ Brahma. The three words ‘satyaṁ’, ‘jñānaṁ’, and ‘anantaṁ’ are distinct from one another, each indicating Brahman alone. It is tantamount to saying that Brahman is satyaṁ, Brahman is jñānaṁ, and Brahman is anantaṁ. It is this definition that excludes Brahman from all other empirical entities.

Satyaṁ: Satyaṁ means Truth. Truth is that which does not change its established nature. The unreal thing is that which changes its pre-determined nature. In the case of mud and the pots, it is mud that remains unchanging even after the production of the pots. Likewise, Brahman is the only unchanging entity in the transient world.

Jñāna: Here jñānaṁ means Consciousness unrelated to any object. Generally, knowledge conveys the act of knowing, which necessitates the triad of knower, known, and the act of knowing. If we conceive Brahman to be the knower, it cannot be eternal and unchanging. Hence, here knowledge is to be understood as that pure Consciousness which is in the milieu of all kinds of empirical knowledge. It is this Consciousness that takes the form of empirical knowledge limited by avidyā or ignorance.

Anantaṁ: The word ‘knowledge’ may lead to the misunderstanding that Brahman is something limited, analogous to empirical knowledge. Hence, the word ‘infinite’ is included in the definition to remove such a possibility. The word ‘infinite’ negates any kind of finiteness—in terms of time and space—in Brahman. It shows that the Reality is beyond the confines of time, space, and causation.

Pratibodha Viditam Matam

The second chapter of the Kena Upanishad deliberates on the question of whether Brahman can be a knowable entity or not. When the teacher challenges an enlightened disciple in this regard, he boldly declares: ‘Manye viditaṁ; I think (Brahman) is known.’ Also, he defends his statement by proclaiming: ‘Not that I do not know; I know and I do not know as well.’ Sri Shankaracharya explains that this declaration is in tune with the traditional teaching that ‘Brahman is different from the known and is also above the unknown’. According to Sri Shankaracharya, this declaration shows the disciple’s concurrence with the idea of the teacher and in doing so, he associates his own inference and realisation with it. The idea is that Brahman cannot be the object of any empirical knowledge. Then the question arises of how Brahman can be known adequately. The Upanishad says: ‘Pratibodha viditaṁ mataṁ, amṛtatvaṁ hi vindate; Brahman is known when It is realised in every state of mind; for by such knowledge one attains immortality.’5

Sri Shankaracharya elucidates the words pratibodha viditaṁ as follows: ‘The word bodha in the text means mental experience. That by which all states of the mind are illumined and also perceived like objects is Atman. Though Itself pure intelligence and the witness, Atman shines through each and every experience of the mind. He who knows Atman as the illuminer and the witness of mental states knows It well indeed. Atman is free from birth and death, unconditioned and non-dual, though dwelling in all beings.’6

The Kena Upanishad continues to say that immortality is the very nature of Atman; and by Atman, one obtains strength; and by knowledge of Atman, immortality is attained. The strength gained by wealth, health, and other means cannot overcome death, because such strength is derived from causes which are themselves impermanent. However, in the case of Atman, the knowledge of Atman itself is the strength that leads one to immortality. This is one of the earliest illustrations in our sacred literature in which the word bodha is highlighted in all its grandeur.

So far, we have analysed two rational definitions of the Reality. They are the products of extensive analytical reasoning found in the Upanishads. Such a method of arriving at truth through logic is called upapatti in traditional Vedanta. It shows that the Upanishads are not just instruction manuals of philosophy, but also illumine the ways and means to the discovery of Truth by fully utilising the human intellectual prowess.

Aham Brahmāsmi

This definition of Brahman is a purely subjective one, borne out of one’s experience of identity with Brahman. The significance of this is that, unlike the rational definitions, the illumined state in which this statement is made by the sage transcends the sphere of human mind and intellect; and hence, cannot be examined through a rational approach. It is the state of realisation in which the differences between subject and object vanish and the ultimate Reality shines in its own glory, transcending all limitations of mundane existence.

This definition is one of the mahāvākyas, great sayings, found in the Upanishads. The four sentences from Upanishads that contain the kernel of Vedantic teachings, that is, the identity of the individual Self with the supreme Self are called mahāvākyas. They are also said to be ‘Akhaṇdārtha bodhaka; the sentences which convey the unitary idea of Brahman and jīva, free from all distinctions.’ Sri Vidyaranya Muni says in this regard in his Panchadashi: ‘An indirect knowledge of Brahman by the intellect can be gained from other passages also, but direct knowledge is achieved by meditation on mahāvākyas of the Śruti.’7Ahaṁ Brahmāsmi’ is such a mahāvākya from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The context of this statement as explained by Sri Shankaracharya in his commentary on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10) is this: The scriptures aim to teach the Self, on which the differences of agent, action, and result have been superimposed by primordial ignorance. The scriptural passages describing the projection of the universe, the entrance of the Self into it, its continuance, and its dissolution do not refer to any actual projection. They merely serve as aids to the realisation of the Self, which is the supreme goal of human life.

The body and the organs are nearer to oneself and more inward than a son or wealth, which are external things. But the Self is nearer even than these and so is extremely dear to one. Therefore, one should make the utmost effort to realise the Self, abandoning the non-self imposed on it.

The Upanishad itself puts the context as follows: Seekers of Brahman are disgusted with the transitory world and think, ‘since men think that by the knowledge of Brahman, they become all, what was it, that Brahman knew by which It became all? If indeed Brahman became all by knowing something, what was it?’8

The Upanishad gives this answer:

ब्रह्म वा इदमग्र आसीत्, तदात्मानमेवावेत्,
अहम् ब्रह्मास्मीति । तस्मात्तत्सर्वमभवत्;

This Self was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew itself only as ‘I am Brahman’. Therefore, it became all.9

The word ‘Brahman’ refers to the ultimate Reality which projected the universe and entered into it. What is perceived as the indwelling Self in this body was indeed Brahman even before realisation. But, owing to ignorance, it superimposes on itself the notion that it is not Brahman. Hence, Brahman thinks it is just jīva, an individual soul, engaged in actions and undergoing transmigration. However, on being instructed by an illumined teacher, one comes to know one’s real nature as Brahman.

This sort of knowledge involves no contradiction as the Self is indeed Brahman, even before the dawn of knowledge. Also, this knowledge does not depend upon any other knowledge. Through this realisation, one knows oneself as that Brahman, which is direct and immediate and the Self that is within all.

Knowing that ‘I am Brahman’, one becomes all. It is due to the complete cessation of the wrong notion that ‘I am not Brahman’, the notion of ‘not being all’ also is gone. Then the knower of Brahman, being Brahman Itself, becomes all. The Upanishad further declares that whoever knows Brahman by discarding the false notion that ‘I am not Brahman’ becomes all this.

Yat Sākśād Aparokśād Brahma, Ya Ātmā Sarvāntaraḥ

This definition presents Brahman as the purely subjective experience of the Reality without any mediation of sense organs and the mind. It is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.4.1), as a part of successive questions posed to Yajnavalkya, a great sage, by the scholars in King Janaka’s court.

अथ हैनमूषस्तश्चाक्रायणः पप्रच्छ; याज्ञवल्क्येति होवाच, यत्साक्शादपरोक्शाद्ब्रह्म, य आत्मा सर्वान्तरः, तं मे व्याचक्श्व इति;

Then Uṣasta, the son of Cakra, asked him. ‘Yājñavalkya’, said he, ‘explain to me the Brahman that is immediate and direct—the Self that is within all’.10

It seems that the idea of Brahman to be that which is immediate, direct, and the Self within all was common among the scholars of that day. The challenge before Yajnavalkya is to make it home for the questioner without any kind of ambiguity.

Sri Shankaracharya explains the three terms sākśāt, aparokśāt, and Ātmā sarvāntaraḥ with his distinctive dexterity and lucidity.

Sākśāt: It means immediate, not obstructed from the seer. All empirical experiences are mediated experiences. They cannot be had without the intermediaries like sense organs, mind, and intellect. The seer here is the experiencer and one cannot have the experience of the empirical world without intermediaries. The Brahman is of the nature of purely subjective experience, which does not need such an intervention. It is because, what one experiences is pure Consciousness, which is one’s own Self.

Aparokśāt: It means direct, not used in a figurative sense. There are several upāsanās (meditations) prescribed in the Upanishads in which an aspirant is encouraged to meditate on sense organs like the ear, mind, prāṇa (vital air), ākāśa (space), air, fire, and the like. In all these cases, Brahman is indicated in a secondary or figurative sense for the sake of contemplation. However, here, the term Brahman is used in its primary sense—as pure Consciousness—without any limiting adjuncts.

Ātmā sarvāntaraḥ: Here Ātmā means indwelling Spirit, which is the source of Consciousness to the whole of the body-mind conglomeration. Sarvāntaraḥ means that which is within all.

The text intends to show that the indwelling Self which is within all is identical to Brahman, the ultimate Reality.


The Upanishads are the most ancient sources of religion and philosophy. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel says:

The object of religion, like that of Philosophy, is the eternal truth, God and nothing but God and the explication of God. Philosophy is only explicating itself when it explicates religion, and when it explicates itself it is explicating religion. For the thinking spirit is what penetrates this object, the truth; it is thinking that enjoys the truth and purifies the subjective consciousness. Thus, religion and philosophy coincide in one. In fact, philosophy is itself the service of God.11

The Upanishads are a wonderful illustration of the above ideal, in which the noblest of reli­gion meets the finest of philosophy to guide humankind on the path to ultimate Reality, which, in the words of the Chandogya Upanishad, is the pure Existence and One without a second. Hence, Upanishads have remained the beacon of spiritual light from time immemorial, keeping alive among humans the persistent aspiration to go beyond mortal existence and attain immortality, which is possible, according to them, only by knowing Brahman, the Supreme Reality.


1 Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.3.

2 Chandogya Upanishad, 4.1.4.

3 Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.1.1.

4 Ibid.

5 Kena Upanishad, 2.4.

6 The Upanishads (4 vols), trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 1.239.

7 Panchadashi, 7.69.

8 See Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.9.

9 See ibid., 1.4.10.

10 Ibid., 3.4.1.

11 G W F Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 78–79.