The famous 17th century Hindu thinker, Śaṃkara, proposed four essential concepts, sat, cit, ātman, and brahman.
They may be tentatively translated into English by the words being, thought, self, and absolute.
But it is worth digging a little beneath the surface.
For Śaṃkara, sat is « what is here and now ». Sat seems closer to being than to existence, or essence. Sat is, so to speak, the true form of being. But then what can be said of what is not here or now, of what was or will be, or even of what could or should be? One can say sat, too, to designate these sort of beings, but we oblige ourselves to an effort of abstraction, by thinking of these other modalities of being as “beings”.
Cit means thought, but also and above all consciousness. The objective idea is grasped by thought, the subjective feeling requires consciousness. Cit brings the two meanings together, but it is consciousness that leads the game.
As for ātman, this word is originally linked to life, life force, energy, wind, air, breath. It is only later that it comes to designate the person. In the Upaniṣad, the meaning of the word varies: body, person, self, or Self. This ambiguity complicates interpretation. Is the Self without a body? Is the Self a person? Difficulties related to language.
Finally, brahman may be translated as ‘absolute‘, but it has many other possible meanings. It is referred to in the Upaniṣad as breath, speech, mind, reality, immortality, eternity and also as the aim, “that which is to be pierced »i. It may mean ‘sacred word’, but it evolves to mean ‘absolute silence’. « Leave the words: here is the bridge of immortality.”ii
In the end, brahman comes to designate the absolute, the absolute of speech, or the absolute without speech, the absolute silence.
This analogy has been proposed: ātman represents the essence of the person, brahman identifies with the essence of the entire universe.
The word brahman has had some success in the Indo-European sphere of influence. Its root is ḅrhat, « greatness ». The Latin word flamen derives from it, as does brazman (« priest » in old Persian).
But the meaning of brahman as “priest” does not at all capture the mystery of its main meaning.
The mystery of the poet and the mystery of the sacred word are both called brahman. The mystery of absolute silence is also brahman. Finally, the mystery of the absolute, the mystery of the absolute is brahman.
The brahman is that from which all beings are born, all gods, and the first of them is Brahmā himself. Brahman is what everything is born of, « from Brahmā to the clump of grass »iii.
The absolute, the brahman of Śaṃkara, is at the same time greatness, speech, silence, sacred, enigma, mystery, divinity.
It must be underlined. The Veda does not offer a unique, exclusive, absolute truth. There is no truth, because an absolute truth could not account for the absolute mystery. In the Veda, the absolute remains an absolute mystery.
This lesson is compatible with other ideas of the hidden God, that of ancient Egypt, that of the God of Israel, or that of the God of Christian kenosis.
This may be a hint of an anthropological persistence, throughout the ages.
The persistent presence of an absolute mystery.
iiiTubh III, 1,1