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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hindu philosophy: Brahman and atman

I was browsing in a bookstore today, and I picked up a copy of Eastern Religions. Like many in the West, I've never given much thought to Hinduism. It always seemed so foreign, so incomprensible, unapproachable. But, once I started reading this simple introduction, I began to see that the Hindu conception of religion is closely tied to philosophy in a way that Christianity is not. While philosophy and religion in the Hindu tradition seem to walk hand in hand, the relationship of philosophy and religion in the Christian tradition is a tulmultuous one at best. The Hindu philosophy/religion has a sophisticated philosophical vocabulary that rivals anything English has to offer.

I just want to discuss two words that come from the Hindu religion/philosophy: Brahman and atman. "Brahman" is "the Absolute". The word can also be translated as "God" or "the infinite", but these do not do it justice. Brahman is both transcendent and immanent. Like Aristotle's unmoved mover, it causes the reality of our experience, but also transcends it. If it is God, it is clearly not a personal God, but the God of Spinoza.

Brahman is always contrasted with "atman", "the soul." One can have differing opinions, but the Hindus ultimately believe that Brahman and atman are one and the same. Translated into the terminology of Western metaphysics, Spinoza takes the orthodox view. Leibniz takes a different view: the soul is individuated, and that is a fundamental aspect of reality. For Leibniz, Brahman and atman are not the same. Similar debates took place in the Hindu tradition and in the Western tradtion, although different terminology was used. It is a case of obvious paralellism that I find to be fascinating.