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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

The Sanskrit word brahman (neuter) emerged in late Vedic literature and Upaniṣads (900–300 bc) as the name (never pluralized) of the divine reality pervading the universe, knowledge or experience of which is a person’s supreme good. The word’s earliest usage (often pluralized) is to refer to the verses of the oldest work in Sanskrit (and in any Indo-European language), the Ṛg Veda (c.1200 bc), which is a compilation of poems and hymns to Indo-European gods. The individual verses of the poems are mantras (brahmāṇi), whose proper enunciation in the course of ritual and sacrifice was thought to secure various aims. Thematically, the Ṛg Veda and other early Indian literature presents a sense of pervasive divinity. Apparently through an assimilation of the idea of the magic of mantras to the divine immanence theme the word brahman assumed its later meaning. In any case, Brahman – the Absolute, the supremely real – became the focus of Indian spirituality and the centre of much metaphysics for almost three thousand years, down to the present day. In the Upaniṣads, which are mystic treatises containing speculation about Brahman’s nature and relation to ourselves and the world, the central positions of Vedānta schools emerge, all of which are philosophies of Brahman. But not even in the narrow set of the earliest and most universally accepted Upaniṣads (numbering twelve or thirteen) is there expressed a consistent worldview. Important themes about Brahman may be identified, but there is no overall unity of conception, despite what later exegetes claim. The unity of the early Upaniṣads concerns the premier importance of mystical knowledge or awareness of Brahman (brahma-vidyā), not precisely what it is that is to be mystically known. The classical Indian philosophical schools of Vedānta systematized the thought of early Upaniṣads.

Citing this article:
Phillips, Stephen H.. Brahman, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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