Parabrahm, Brahman, and Brahma – Why The Confusion?

"Aham Brahmasmi" - one of the Mahavakyas (Great Sayings) of the Upanishads. It is a statement of truth which all can utter, with the right understanding, for the highermost part of every being and every thing IS Brahman or Parabrahm.

“Aham Brahmasmi” – “I am Brahman” – one of the Mahavakyas (Great Sayings) of the Upanishads. It is a statement of truth which all can utter, with the right understanding, for the highermost part of every being and every thing IS Brahman or Parabrahm.

A relatively small number of students of Theosophy make erroneous distinctions and thus draw mistaken conclusions in regard to what the Theosophical teachings speak of as Parabrahm (or Parabrahman), Brahman, Brahma, and “Brahma neuter,” all of which are Sanskrit terms originally belonging to the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism.

It is primarily in “The Secret Doctrine” by H.P. Blavatsky that these terms and references may be encountered.

G. de Purucker, former Leader of “The Theosophical Society – Point Loma” and revered by both the Point Loma and Pasadena Theosophical Societies as the “Occult Successor” of H.P. Blavatsky and William Q. Judge – taught that Parabrahm or Parabrahman means “Beyond Brahman” and thus that Parabrahman and Brahman are not synonymous terms but refer to two different universal or cosmic Principles. Purucker should have known better and would never have taught such a notion if he’d truly had respectful confidence in the words and statements of HPB and Mr Judge.

Other students confidently yet mistakenly assert that the above terms mean different things, primarily as a result of not having acquainted themselves with Hindu philosophy or with the Upanishads and Vedantic writings, despite HPB and Mr Judge’s encouragement for all Theosophists to do so.

As this issue – which is really a non-issue, or at least should be – still occasionally arises as a source of disagreement and debate amongst students, it is time to set the record straight, simply by showing how the original Theosophical literature itself uses these terms.

HPB’s own definition of Parabrahm in “The Theosophical Glossary” p. 248 says:

Parabrahm (Sk.). “Beyond Brahmā”, literally. The Supreme Infinite Brahma, “Absolute” – the attributeless, the secondless reality. The impersonal and nameless universal Principle.”

Not too long ago we were informed by a fairly prominent Point Loma member and admirer of G. de Purucker that this was a typographical error made by HPB and that she actually meant to write “Beyond Brahman.”

We replied to say that if this is a typographical mistake, then the frequency of such “mistakes” in regard to the subject of Parabrahm/Parabrahman and its meaning is such that one is forced to conclude that it’s no mistake at all.

The idea that “Parabrahm/Parabrahman = Beyond Brahman” is not the view of either Theosophy or Hinduism. For one thing, “Para” does not always translate as meaning literally “beyond” and for another thing, “Parabrahm” and “Parabrahman” have always been exactly synonymous with “Brahman” in Eastern philosophical terminology, “Brahman” often appearing in the original Theosophical literature as “Brahma” (without an accent on the last letter) or “Brahma neuter.” “Brahma” and “Brahma neuter” are a somewhat old fashioned way of writing “Brahman” and are now virtually obsolete, “Brahman” being the customary spelling. This refers to the Absolute Infinite Divine Principle, whilst Brahmā (i.e. with an accent) is the Logos. Brahmā (pronounced “Bramaa”) comes forth from Brahman in order to bring the Universe into being.

HPB never says that Parabrahm means “Beyond Brahman.” She views the “Para” in “Parabrahm” as meaning “Supreme” and “Infinite.” This is the way the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism views the term Parabrahm. If one reads the Upanishads and the writings of Vedantin philosophers and yogis, one finds Brahman and Parabrahman used perfectly synonymously and interchangeably.

When HPB uses any Hindu terms in a different sense from how they are generally used and understood in Hindu philosophy, she usually says so and explains it. She doesn’t do so with Parabrahm and we believe the reason is because she uses it the same way as the Hindus do.

The “Theosophical Glossary” entry for Brahman on p. 62 defines Brahman in the same way as it defined Parabrahm:

Brahma (Sk.). The student must distinguish between Brahma the neuter, and Brahmā, the male creator of the Indian Pantheon. The former, Brahma or Brahman, is the impersonal, supreme and uncognizable Principle of the Universe from the essence of which all emanates, and into which all returns, which is incorporeal, immaterial, unborn, eternal, beginningless and endless. It is all-pervading, animating the highest god as well as the smallest mineral atom.”

Here HPB clearly equates the terms “Brahma,” “Brahman,” and “Brahma the neuter,” whilst also defining It in exactly the same manner as she defined “Parabrahm.”

In the Index volume to “The Secret Doctrine” published in 1997 by Theosophical University Press, the compilers have recognised the terms “Parabrahm,” “Parabrahman,” “Brahman,” “Brahma” (without the accent) and “Brahma (neuter)” to be all identical and have listed the references to each of these terms under the one heading.

In the entry for Kalahansa in “The Theosophical Glossary” (p. 169) HPB specifically equates Brahma (i.e. the neuter, Brahman) with Parabrahm, writing of the former as “Brahma (or Parabrahman).”

HPB wrote in various places about how Western Orientalists of her era often confused and mixed up Brahman and Brahmā in their translations of Hindu scriptures and texts. Being aware of their mistakes, she must obviously have known better than to make the same mistakes herself.

In Chapter 10 of his rendition of the Bhagavad Gita, William Judge provides a definition in a footnote of what “Parabrahm” means, after Arjuna says “Thou art Parabrahm!” to Krishna. His footnote says that the definition of “Parabrahm” is “Beyond Brahmā.”

On p. 11 of “An Epitome of Theosophy” he says that Brahman means “the impersonal Parabrahman.”

In a Glossary published by himself, we find this entry: “BRAHMA: the Absolute, Parabrahman.” And this: “PARA-BRAHMA (also PARA-BRAHMAN): the Absolute, above all, yet in all and containing all; Brahma, the Unknowable, above and beyond Brahmā and all creators.”

The last quote we will bring forward is from p. 2 of “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge”:

“The IT is, in the Hindu philosophy, Parabrahm, that which is beyond Brahmā, or, as it is now called in Europe, the “unknowable.””

With the exception of a few apparent mistranslations by Europeans and other Westerners, Brahman and Parabrahman are identical terms in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This is a well known fact to anyone who has read the Upanishads and/or acquainted themselves with the teachings of Adi Shankaracharya, for example, the founder and codifier of the Advaita Vedanta, and about whom HPB speaks so highly. (See The Life & Times of Adi Shankaracharya)

If for whatever reason she had wanted to use “Brahman” and “Parabrahman” as having different meanings from one another, surely she would have specifically said so and explained it for the benefit of all her readers and students? Otherwise those readers and students, if they had previously acquainted themselves with the philosophies, scriptures, and books where those terms originate, would automatically assume that she was using them as synonyms.

In the mind of any educated Advaitin, it would be a serious and very strange thing for someone to maintain that Brahman and Parabrahman are two different terms with different meanings. The Masters, Their Messengers, and Their Message of Original Theosophy do not do so and we have shown it as much as anyone can show anything. It is only later students who have made this mistake.

The second main object or objective for which the Theosophical Movement was founded was “To promote the study of Indian and other Eastern literatures, religions and sciences.”

Members of the Movement – whether affiliated with the United Lodge of Theosophists, The Theosophical Society – Pasadena, The Theosophical Society – Point Loma, The Theosophical Society – Adyar, or unaffiliated with any organisation or group – have the responsibility to engage in such study…not primarily for their own sake but in order to be the better able to help and teach others, that the light of true spiritual knowledge may shine more brightly and clearly in every mind and heart.

~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~

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Comments

  1. As I understand it, THAT – the Boundless All in its infinitude is Parabrahman.

    If Brahman is used to describe the hierarch or summit of a universe – any universe including our own and is therefore “the Absolute”, it is simultaneously unconditioned and conditioned, changeless and changing, dependent and independent, infinite and finite which requires a non-Aristotlean logic.

    Imagine a rectangular Venn diagram with a line through the middle. One side of the dividing line is Brahman and the other side is Parabrahman i.e. beyond Brahman, so what is the dividing line in the middle of the rectangle? When the line disappears It is both Brahman and Parabrahman.

    • Thank you for your comment Tony. However, “Brahman” is not “used to describe the hierarch or summit of a universe.” The term is not used this way in either Hinduism or Theosophy, with the exception of the version of “Theosophy” espoused by G. de Purucker of “The Theosophical Society – Point Loma.”

      For further clarifications regarding Purucker’s alterations to the original Theosophical teachings of H.P. Blavatsky and the Masters, please see such articles as “The Divine Plan” by Geoffrey Barborka – A Review” (https://blavatskytheosophy.com/the-divine-plan-by-geoffrey-barborka-a-review/ – Barborka’s popular book is shown in this article to be an exposition of Purucker’s teachings, not HPB’s and hence not those of “The Secret Doctrine”), “Purucker Says The Absolute Was Once A Man” (https://blavatskytheosophy.com/purucker-says-the-absolute-was-once-a-man/) and “The Question of G. de Purucker – A Reply to A Reply” (https://blavatskytheosophy.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/the-question-of-g-de-purucker-a-reply-to-a-reply.pdf).

      “Parabrahman” does not have to mean “Beyond Brahman” and the “Para” in “Parabrahman” is not used in the original Theosophical teachings in this sense. Brahman and Parabrahman are synonyms, in both Theosophy and the Vedanta philosophy.

      We do not say this with the aim of changing your own viewpoint and understanding but simply to explain how and why we differ and disagree with your own explanation and perspective, to which you are of course perfectly welcome and entitled.

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