“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)
अक्षरं ब्रह्म परमं
स्वभावो ऽध्यात्मम् उच्यते
akṣaraṁ brahma paramaṁ
svabhāvo ‘dhyātmam ucyate
1. Matter and spirit
For instance, if a doctor suspects that a person is suffering from some sort of mental issue, they might employ a test where they show a series of flash cards. Printed on each card is a specific image, and the patient tries to quickly identify based on what they see. There is a similar approach when teaching young children new words and principles from mathematics.
If transitioning to the principles of spiritual life presented in the Vedas, there is no picture equivalent. There is no way to put Brahman on a flash card. The understanding has to come in a theoretical manner, but even that is not difficult.
This is because there is a corresponding concept: maya. This is the illusory energy. This is what the individual otherwise identifies as, when not familiar with Brahman. You could put practically any image on the flashcard and the maya category applies. The flashcard itself would be maya.
देहिनो ऽस्मिन् यथा देहे
कौमारं यौवनं जरा
धीरस् तत्र न मुह्यति
dehino ‘smin yathā dehe
kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
dhīras tatra na muhyati
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
To detect the difference, study the different stages of life for a human being. I am the same individual throughout. Though I may not remember the day-to-day details from childhood, I certainly experienced that phase of life. I am an old person now, but that is simply the change of body. The maya around me shifts, but the Brahman identity remains.
2. Death and birth
These are two opposite conditions. At the time of death, the individual departs. It is a magical transition that takes place beyond the range of perception. Everyone understands that the person is no more, but they cannot actually see the travel of the individual spark of Brahman.
In the same way, the spark enters the world, which everyone witnesses as the event of birth. Coming and going, this has been taking place since before anyone can remember. The people I see around me today will one day depart; the end is guaranteed.
3. Enlightened and illusioned
We see one person wasting their days away. They are addicted to intoxicants. They sleep for an extended period of time. If someone tries to correct their ways, they get quite upset in return. They are ungrateful, miserly, and irrational. They wouldn’t understand the most basic concept of spiritual life if someone were to try to explain it to them.
We see another person who is fully enlightened. They extend kindness and a helping hand to others, understanding the struggle through a material existence. They are compassionate, forgiving, charitable, and a wealth of information. They may have been struggling before, and so they remember the benedictions that others offered to them. In other words, they know that they didn’t become enlightened through personal effort alone.
While the living entity is Brahman, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is Parabrahman. A key distinction is that Parabrahman never falls under the aforementioned dichotomies. As an individual, He is never under illusion. He does not suffer birth or death. He is the Absolute Truth, so there is no falsity or duplicity within Him.
Yet the terms are similar, indicating a relationship. Brahman should stay with Parabrahman. If Brahman falls into illusion, due to temporary forgetfulness, the resultant condition is not ideal. There is happiness and ecstasy, which are always followed by misery and despair.
Whereas the person connected to Paramatma is always joyful, enthusiastic, and ready to serve. In whichever condition they find, created by the maya around them, they can always see Parabrahman and His influence. They always remember Him, and they worship in many ways, such as through chanting the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Life in opposites pair,
Where ignorant or fully aware.
Today the world departing,
Tomorrow a new birth starting.
Supreme Lord above them all,
So as Parabrahman to call.
If to in devotion connected,
Then from illusion protected.
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