Brahman and Ishvara

Many times, Brahman and Ishvara are used interchangeably. But, are they the same?  Yes, the underlying nature of Brahman and Ishvara is the same, but how they function and operate is different. Awareness, the underlying reality of everything in the universe is the common nature between Brahman and Ishvara. The difference between Brahman and Ishvara is summed up by Vedanta as follows:

Nirguna Brahman: Nirguna Brahman means Brahman without qualities or attributes.

Saguna Brahman = Ishvara: Saguna Brahman or Ishvara means Brahman with qualities and attributes.

In this article, we will show the connection between Brahman and Ishvara. We will try and understand what is meant by Awareness and how this is the core nature of Brahman and Ishvara. We will also see how Brahman with no attributes becomes Ishvara with attributes and qualities. We will also try and understand what are the qualities and attributes of Ishvara.

1. Brahman – The Non-Dual Self Awareness

The first question to start the discussion is – what is Awareness? What is Self-Awareness? Awareness is the innermost core of any living being. It is like an Awareness bulb shining within our inner core. If any object, it could be an image, sound, touch or feeling, comes in the presence of this bulb of Awareness, you will be aware of that experience. Here are some examples of awareness that we experience daily.

How do we know the tree is green? Because we are aware of it. 

How do we know sugar is sweet? Because we are aware of it. 

How do we know we have two legs and two hands? Because we are aware of it. 

How do we know the weight of the chair is 20 lbs.? Because we are aware of it. 

How do we know the smooth touch of silk? Because we are aware of it. 

How do we know we are listening to music? Because we are aware of it. 

The common thread to all these questions is Awareness. It would seem Awareness is a prerequisite to observe any kind of object. Without awareness, we would not know any objects which are perceived by the 5 senses organs – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. These objects from the sensory organs must encounter Awareness, and then only we can observe the object. For an analogy, let us think of the sun. If there is no light emanating from the sun, the entire world will be dark; anything and everything become visible only when there is light. In the same way, when any form encounters the light of Awareness, we become aware of the object. If there is no light of Awareness, you will perceive nothing, not even the sun. 

Awareness is the most powerful force in the universe. It has the power to connect with a form present in the mind and fill up the object with Awareness. If you analyze Awareness, you will conclude that Awareness is made up of a Subject, Intelligence, and an Object with the following functions

  1. There must be a Subject, who is Aware of the experience. This subject is the ‘knower’ of the Awareness
  2. There must be an Object, which must be experienced. This object is the ‘known’ part of the Awareness
  3. There must be Intelligence by which the subject gets to know the object. This is the ‘knowing’ part of the Awareness

Knower, Known and Knowing/Intelligence are the 3 powers of Awareness. It must be clear that

  • Awareness = Subject + Object + Intelligence
  • Power of Awareness = Power of Knower + Power of Knowing + Power of Known

Awareness is made of Subject, Intelligence, and Object and it has three different powers – Knower, Knowing and Known. It must be understood that the Subject, Intelligence, and Object and the three powers are not something outside in the world, but they are within Awareness and they only make up Awareness. If any one of them is missing, awareness will not work and will be incomplete.

  • If there is an object to be observed but there is no subject, there will be no awareness, as there is no one to see the object.
  • If there is a subject but no object to see, there will no awareness as the subject has no object to observe
  • If there is an object but the subject has no way of knowing what this object is, no awareness will take place. This ‘knowing’ must have intelligence.

Wherever there is awareness, the Subject, Intelligence and Object must be present with all the three powers.

What is Self-Awareness? Our inner core is full, complete and it is stand alone. For Awareness to be full and complete, it must be Self-Aware. Self-Awareness means that the ‘Awareness is aware of Awareness’. Another way to put this is that ‘Self is aware of the Self’. It is like saying ‘I am aware of the tree’. Here ‘I am’ can be referred as the subject and the tree is the object. In Self-Awareness, the subject is Awareness and the object is Awareness. Awareness plays the role of subject and object. In other words, both the subject and object are the same. There is one entity only which is non-dual. This complete, self-standing Self Awareness is our inner core. There is no separation between the subject and object – it is one and homogenous. It is Self-Shining. This Self-shining Awareness is the Bulb of Awareness and it is our inner core. It is not dependent upon anything else and it generates its own light of Awareness. And it is the Bulb of Awareness.  

Self-Awareness is non-dual, homogenous and it has many inherent characteristics.

  • It is Formless
  • It is Unchanging
  • It has Infinite Energy source
  • It is Unborn
  • It has the 3 powers of Awareness – the power of knower, knowing and known

Brahman is the name given to this inner core of Self-Awareness. This inner core is present in every living being. So, it is present within you, me and within everyone. This Self-Awareness just shines like of bulb of Awareness, and it does not do anything, except radiating Awareness. Nothing affects Self-Awareness, it is always at peace. Peace is its inherent nature. Because Self-Awareness does not anything, all the qualities and attributes mentioned are lying dormant within Self-Awareness.

2. Ishvara – The Reflected Awareness

If our nature and inner core is Self-Awareness, why don’t we know it, why don’t we feel it? The simple answer is that we are ignorant of our inner core. Ignorance has the power to cover Self-Awareness. When we forget, who we really are, ignorance pops up and covers our inner core. Ignorance is like a veil covering Awareness.

By this time, it has become evident that Self-Awareness does not do anything, it just keeps shining. When this Self-Awareness is covered by ignorance, this Self-Awareness gets reflected in the ignorance. Ignorance is like a mirror in which reflection takes place. What you get then is the Reflected Awareness. When the sun is reflected in a mirror, you still have the sun and you also have a reflected sun. This is exactly what happens here.  You have Brahman, the non-dual Self-Awareness and the Reflected Awareness. This Reflected Awareness is called Ishvara.

  • It is quite strange to know that our ignorance is the cause of Ishvara, which is Reflected Awareness. If there was no ignorance, there would be no reflected Awareness, and then there would be no Ishvara also. If there was no ignorance, the only thing present would be Brahman, the self-shining Self-Awareness. So,our ignorance is the cause of Ishvara.
  • Even if there is Reflected Awareness, nothing happens to the non-dual Self Awareness or Brahman. It will continue to shine, irrespective if there is ignorance or there is no ignorance. This is like the sun which will shine even if it is cloudy, or it is the night. Nothing can stop the sun from shining. Similarly, Self-Awareness will continue to shine if there is ignorance or ignorance.
  • It must be understood that in the presence of ignorance, there is no effect on Reflected Awareness. Reflected Awareness remains pure and unaffected. This does seem counterintuitive.  It would be reasonable to assume that ignorance will rub off some of its ignorance on the reflected Awareness or Ishvara. Then again, we know Ishvara is pure, limitless and just cannot have any ignorance.  How to understand this? The classic example given is if you pour water in a red bottle. The water will appear to be red. It seems the redness of the bottle has affected the water. Our ignorance can lead to this conclusion. If you have proper knowledge you will know that the water in the bottle is always colorless and the red color of the bottle has no effect on the water. It is with this logic, we can understand that Ignorance has no effect on the Reflected Awareness. Reflected Awareness or Ishvara is pure and limitless.
  • Ignorance has two sides, an input and output side. The Reflected Awareness appears on the input side of ignorance. We will discuss the output side of ignorance in some other article.  

We have seen that Self-Awareness is nondual, in which ‘Self’ is both the subject and object. Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, we have forgotten that our inner core is nondual, and we are both the subject and the object. Since we no longer know that we are both the subject and the object, it simply means that there is a separation of the subject being ‘in here’ and the object being ‘out there’. Ignorance converts the non-duality into the duality of the subject in here and the object out there. Ignorance has that power.

In the non-dual Self Awareness, the power behind the subject is the Power of the Knower and the power behind of object is the Power of the Known. In non-duality, the subject and object are the same. Therefore, logically the power of the knower is the same as the power of known. There are homogenous with no separation. This is what happens in non-dual Self Awareness or Brahman. We have just seen that because of ignorance, the subject and object separate creating duality. With this separation, even the power of the knower and the power of known get separated. They are no longer one entity, but the power of the knower and the power of the known appear as two separate entities in Reflected Awareness. Even the 3rd power of Knowing is available in the Reflected Awareness. Each of these 3 powers of Awareness is very much active in Ishvara.

Vedanta teaches us that Maya Shakti is the power or force behind creation and intelligence of the universe. As has already become evident in the last few parts of the discussion, that power of known, the power of knowing and the power of known are now available in the Reflected Awareness. These 3 powers are nothing, but the Maya Shakti as mentioned in Vedanta.

Maya Shakti = Power of Knower + Power of Knowing + Power of Known

This Maya Shakti is within the Reflected Awareness and Ishvara wields this Maya Shakti to operate and control this universe. Maya Shakti is the quality and attribute of Ishvara.

Ishvara = Reflected Awareness + Maya Shakti.

Let us discuss each of the 3 powers of Ishvara to understand their nature and function.

1. Power of Knowing or Intelligence

The knowing or intelligence component of Awareness is extremely powerful, in fact language and words may not be enough to describe its awesome power. Here are some examples that indicate its strength and power.

Example 1: I am seeing a tree. A more Vedantic way to put it will be ‘I am the seer seeing a tree’

This is a simple experience we have every moment, but it shows the extraordinary power of Awareness. Let us breakup this experience into the different components of Awareness

Ego = I am

Subject = Seer

Object = Tree

Intelligence = Seeing is the power of Awareness, which makes it possible for ‘I’ to know the tree. Without the power of Seeing, none of us will see any object. Someone may argue that the eye provides this power. The eye does nothing other than converting the image into an optical signal, and bringing the signal to the mind. What is the ability that decodes this optical signal into the understanding that this object is a tree? It is power of the Seeing which is within Awareness which allows us to know that there is a tree. This intelligence in Awareness knows that the optical signal is a tree.

Awareness = Seer + Seeing + Seen

Example 2: You are reading a book or ‘You are the reader reading a book’

This power of intelligence is within Awareness and is available to everyone. Let us decode the experience of reading.

Ego = You

Subject = Reader

Object = Book

Intelligence = Reading is a power within Awareness which allows the Subject or Reader to connect with the contents of the book. It is within Awareness because you are aware that you are reading – first, to know the words and sentences, and then to know what is being read. We are so used to reading that we do not think of this ability as anything special. If there was no power of reading within Awareness, there would be no way you could read anything. With this power of “reading” we are aware that we are reading, and this awareness completes the reading experience.

Awareness = Reader + Reading + Read

Example 3: You are visiting a friend or ‘You are the visitor visiting a friend’

Subject = Visitor

Object = Friend

Intelligence = you are aware that you are visiting a friend. This power of knowing that you are visiting is part of the Intelligence within Awareness, and it is also about knowing that this person is a friend. If you did not have this power within you, you will never know this person is your friend, and you have specifically made an effort to visit him.  

Awareness = Visitor + Visiting + Visited

We can continue to give any number of examples to highlight the power of Awareness.  We can take any verb in the English language and add the ‘ing’ to this verb. This word when connected with a Subject and Object will have the power of creating a awareful experience within the mind. Some more examples:

Awareness = Eater + Eating + Eaten
Awareness = Sleeper + Sleeping + Slept
Awareness = Fighter + Fighting + Fought (an Object)
Awareness = Player + Playing + Played (an Object)
Awareness = Learner + Learning + Learned

The intelligence within Awareness has an unlimited range of power, it is impossible to comprehend. We can comprehend only what experiences our mind can handle.

Awareness is not limited by the capacity of our mind. It is much more, and this Awareness has an infinite amount of intelligence, it has the infinite amount of knowledge about everything that is possible. What is amazing, this unlimited intelligence, this pure intelligence, this Awareness is available within everyone’s mind.

2. Power of the Knower or the Subject

In the earlier section, we saw the power of knowing, the intelligence of knowing.  There must be a Knower to see an object and perceive what it looks like.  This is done by the Subject within Awareness. The Subject is the Knower of the experience. This Subject is not only the Knower of seeing, but is also the knower of hearing, the knower of reading, knower of sleeping, etc.

  • When it is the knower of seeing, the Subject is a Seer
  • When it is the knower of hearing, the Subject is a Hearer
  • When it is the knower of reading, the Subject is a Reader
  • When it is the knower of running, the Subject is a Runner

There is only one Subject, and it is the Knower of so many things. In fact, it is the Knower of everything. All this fall within the category of Awareness.

Our minds are limited and therefore the power and range of the Knower is limited. Awareness is beyond the mind and this Subject within Awareness is Knower of everything that is possible. There is nothing that Awareness does not know.

Where ever there is Awareness, there must be a Subject. This Subject is the Knower and this Knower has the power of knowing everything that is possible. We should never confuse this Subject with Ego. This Subject is part of Awareness and this Subject does NOT have an ego. If I say ‘I am the Knower’ or ‘I am the Subject’, the ‘I am’ is the Ego. The Knower and the Subject is not part of the Ego, buts it is part of Awareness. In Awareness there is no attachment and no ego, it is simply aware. 

3.Power of Known or Objects

The Object component of Awareness is also extremely powerful, and it can take any form that we experience in the mind.

If you see a round circle, then awareness cannot take shape of a square. If it does not, you will never experience the round circle. Awareness must also be a round circle with the same exact dimensions. If you see a tree, then awareness must also take the shape of the tree. This tree must be filled up with the Awareness. If the tree is half-filled with awareness or the awareness does not have the same shape as the tree, you will not be aware of the tree.

If you want to observe any object with form,

  1. The form must be filled in with Awareness and nothing but Awareness. If the form does not have Awareness, then the observer or subject will not be able to experience the object with that form.
  2. The Awareness must take the exact shape of the form.  

Awareness by itself is formless, but it has the potential to take any form. If you look into a powerful microscope, awareness can take the shape of a molecule or if you look at the universe through a telescope, awareness can take shape of the stars and galaxies. Big or small, awareness can take the shape of anything. Awareness has the potential to take any form.

Awareness is this powerful force in our mind, which can take up any shape or form. Another way to put it:  all possible ‘potential forms’ are available within Awareness. They are inherently present in Awareness, and they take a required form when you experience that form in your mind. How many different ‘potential forms’ are present in Awareness?  Countless, infinite!!  

Ishvara or the Reflected Awareness has the power of knower, the power of knowing and the power of known. It wields these powers to operate and controls the universe out there.

Conclusion

Brahman is the self-shinning non dual Self-Awareness. Because of our ignorance, Brahman gets reflected in ignorance as Reflected Awareness. This Reflected Awareness is Ishvara. Maya Shakti is lying dormant in Brahman and because of our ignorance, this Maya Shakti is activated and this shakti is wielded by Ishvara to create, manage and control the universe.

One thought on “Brahman and Ishvara”

  1. Enjoyed this article very much. In your experience, how might we practice or embody these ideas? Would awareness potentially become the object of our meditation? What methods have helped you to encounter that shining, non-dualistic, self-effulgent light within which you refer to as Brahman?

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