“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.4)
मया ततम् इदं सर्वं
न चाहं तेष्व् अवस्थितः
mayā tatam idaṁ sarvaṁ
na cāhaṁ teṣv avasthitaḥ
“Are they the same? Do the two words refer to the same person? Or is it more of a concept, a component of a broader realm of understanding? The ‘para’ word gets thrown around a lot, as does Brahman. Someone might confuse that with Lord Brahma, the creator. Is there a relation to the brahmana caste? Sorry, I meant to say ‘varna.’ I know that the division of work is based on material qualities, guna, and not the circumstances of birth, janma.”
1. The localized superior spiritual spark and the source of the entire universe
A good way to understand the two concepts often invoked in discussions involving the Vedic science is to remove the prefix. Take away the para word and you are left with atma and Brahman. Atma typically refers to the soul. It is the animating spark whose presence indicates life. The absence of the atma is what brings the condition known as death, or more simply, lifelessness.
Brahman is the entire spiritual energy. Put every atma into a collective for the purpose of understanding and you get Brahman. Sometimes the material energy is also considered Brahman, as it is just as eternal as the individual atmas. Usually the material energy goes by the name of mahat-tattva.
Both concepts are important to understand. Without proper instruction I will likely not understand the concept of soul. Through mental speculation I might reach the stage of understanding that there is an animating spark within that cannot be seen by blunt instruments. For instance, we can see the heart, the liver, the kidneys and other internal organs. No one can show the soul, and yet we know that it is there.
Reaching the stage of understanding the soul, I still might be far away from knowing its nature. I might think that animals and humans have different kinds of souls, when in truth spirit is spirit. There is no gradation or qualification. As explained in the Bhagavad-gita, a wise person sees the spiritual equality shared by all beings, who may manifest in a variety of external forms.
ब्राह्मणे गवि हस्तिनि
शुनि चैव श्व-पाके च
brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śva-pāke ca
“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
The “para” prefix added to the terms indicates a separate and superior entity. There are no gradations of atma, but there is one source. It is a distinct entity that is similar in qualitative makeup but different in certain quantitative features. Paramatma is actually the soul of an existence. Without this superior spark of spirit, nothing could occur.
For instance, we mentioned previously that the absence of the atma transforms the state from living to dead. Yet there is never a case when Paramatma is absent. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as an existence. A tree that falls in a desolate forest indeed makes a sound, because Paramatma is there to perceive.
In the same style of comparison, Parabrahman is superior to Brahman. The individual sparks of spirit, the collective atma, are Brahman, but there is always a source. Parabrahman is everything. Without this feature of the Divine, nothing would exist.
2. The atom and the universal energy
Paramatma is also within the atom. This is the basic functioning unit of life, both in terms of a living being and a material object. A rock, for instance, is considered dull and lifeless. No atma within. Yet the rock consists of atoms. This means that Paramatma is present.
Parabrahman is the universal energy. Without Parabrahman, there could not be Brahman, in the same way that without Paramatma there could not be atma. I may merge into Brahman through proper realization, but I can never become Parabrahman. In truth, I am always Brahman, but suffering from a spell of ignorance due to material contact, I have the vulnerability to forgetfulness.
3. Points on the scale of understanding the Supreme Lord
Take the situation of a famous actor walking the streets of a city. Two friends spot the actor. The first friend references a movie they saw.
“Look, there is [character name reference]. Oh, he was great. I can’t believe I’m seeing them in real life. I wonder if they will act out some of the scenes in front of me.”
The other friend replies:
“I don’t know what you are talking about. That is [different character name reference], from the movie such and such. You take them to be this heroic character, but to me they are the funniest. Hopefully, they will play out some of the comedic scenes for me if we meet them.”
In reality, the actor is the same person. He is seen differently depending on the role and the film. People have their association through that specific interaction, but the external connection has no bearing on the individual.
In the same way, someone seeing the Divine as Paramatma or Parabrahman makes no difference. These are just different ways to understand Him, who is beyond the comprehension of the limited material element known as mind.
The question may be asked that can the individual ever become Paramatma or Parabrahman. As mentioned previously, the two features are responsible for an existence. They exist independent of the creation. If no one is around, Paramatma is still there. If there is no universe, Parabrahman still exists.
As Shri Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita, all beings are in Bhagavan, but He is not in anything. The meaning is that He is never a component to another entity’s definition. They make up what defines Him, but He is always autonomous. Understanding this a wise person chooses to remain connected to Him, as His favor is the greatest benediction to receive in life.
Different terms thrown around,
Like with para prefix in sound.
For atma and Brahman said,
How to proper understanding led?
World’s soul and also its source,
Existing independent of future’s course.
Different ways for Bhagavan to see,
To connect, but never identical to be.
Categories: the three