Brahma and Brahman

Brahma and Brahman

One thing that long puzzled me in Sanskrit terminology is the similarity between the words Brahma and Brahman. Some use the words almost interchangeably yet their definitions are quite distinct.

Brahma is the creator in the Hindu masculine trinity of creation, maintenance and destruction. (there is also a feminine trinity) The other two, Vishnu and Shiva are seen as “higher” gods with Vishnavite and Shaivite followers. Shiva has 3 forms – embodied, as a kind of Holy Ghost Mahadeva being, and as unmanifest being. Shiva would seem much “closer” to Brahman but it’s not called Shivam.

Brahma is also associated with the older term Prajapati and is “married” to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. She is also known by Savitri and Gayatri. (the outlook has evolved over thousands of years)

Brahman, on the other hand, is the absolute, unchanging reality that underlies and interpenetrates all things. People often equate it with presence but we might say that is the “surface” of Brahman. Brahman is wholeness or totality.

So we have the unexpressed and the expresser sharing a similar name.

Further, the Vedanta text that describes the process from Unity into Brahman stages is called the Brahma Sutra, not the Brahman Sutra.

And the Mahavakyas that describe the core realization(s) of Unity use the word Brahma in Sanskrit. For example, “prajnanam brahma” is translated as “Brahman is knowledge

Now, some of this comes from the rules of Sanskrit grammar. Sanskrit is a reflection of the sound of nature becoming. Thus, rather than having spaces between words as in English, the words mostly run together, mirroring the flow of life. Consonants get dropped or merged at word junctions. But the Mahavakya example above illustrates that only covers some examples.

In what way are these 2 words inter-changeable?

The key is in perspective. On the level of beings, they’re quite distinct meanings. At the high end of Unity, when consciousness is recognized to be both universally aware and aware of itself at every point, we have consciousness in 2 modes: universal and focused.

And therein lies the understanding. Universal awareness is rooted in Brahman. Focused awareness is the point(s) from which all creation arises, ergo Brahma, a subset of Brahman. A subset that is never apart from the whole.

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