The 12 Manifestations of Brahman


The 12 Manifestations of Brahman

by Jayaram V

In Hinduism, Brahman is the highest Supreme Self or the God or gods. There is none comparable to him. The non-dualistic schools of Hinduism consider him to be the only reality and everything else a mere appearance. The Upanishads extol Him as the highest, eternal, self-existent, indestructible, indefinable, indivisible, infinite, all pervading, omniscient, omnipotent, supreme, pure, Self, who has hands, feet, faces, eyes, ears, noses everywhere, and who shines with the brilliance of thousands of suns. He is also the source of all and the ultimate enjoyer of all. The word Brahman is derived from the root word "brah" meaning to expand. It is a reference to his infinite power, infinite dimensions, and endless manifestations. The following ones are his twelve most basic aspects (amsas) or manifestations (vibhutis) that are described in the Vedas and ascribed to him.

1. Unknown, asat

Our knowledge of Brahman is indeterminate because he is without a beginning and without an end, and contains within himself all dualities and contradictions. Therefore, nothing can be said with certainty about him. The Upanishads say that if you think you know Him you may not know him at all. We have this problem because Brahman has an unknown aspect, which even the highest gods do not know. Perhaps Brahman himself does not know about it, just as you do not know who you are when you are in deep sleep or when you are totally self-absorbed. The unknown Brahman cannot be reached by any means because he is without duality. Since Brahman is both existence and nonexistence, the atheists focus upon his nonexistence and deny him, while the agnostics cannot choose between the two and remain undecided. In other words, both atheists and agnostics also acknowledge Brahman but negatively. The scriptures describe the unknown Brahman as non-being, nonexistence (asat), unknown, hidden (gudham), undifferentiated, indistinct, or unmanifested (asambhuti). The Bhagavadgita states that the entire creation and all manifest universe are upheld by a tiny aspect (amsa) of Brahman. The rest remains hidden, mysterious, and unknown.

Brahman, the Unknown, Asat

2. Known, sat

The known aspect of Brahman is his awakened and dynamic aspect. His dynamism comes from his association with Nature. He is Brahman's reflection in Nature. The scriptures describe him as existence (sat), the manifested one (sambhuti), and the Being, who is complete in all respects, with truth, knowledge and bliss, eternal, and one without a second. In this state also Brahman has known and unknown aspects, and contains duality. Therefore, he is with form (murtham) and without form (amurtham), with modifications and without modifications, with qualities (saguna) and without qualities (nirguna), with materiality and without materiality, and movable and immovable. In this aspect he is the controller and creator, and in his inactive state he remains a passive enjoyer or witness. These opposite states exist because of his association and disassociation with Nature (Prakriti) and her modes (gunas) and realities (tattvas). Nature is considered the field (kshetra) of Brahman, and Brahman himself its possessor (ksehtrajna).

The Manifested Saguna Brahman

3. Universal Lord, Isvara

Isvara is the lord of the universe. He is the highest, personalized manifestation of the awakened Brahman in the quality of sattva, who appears like "water in a mirage, silver in the pearl of an oyster, or a person in a stump of wood." He is the creator and the source of all, with five basic potencies namely, creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, and revelation. The Upanishads describe him as the witness consciousness (saksi chaitanyam), who controls maya (the power of illusion), wakes up the latent causes that are asleep in Nature, casts the net of illusion upon the mortal world, and subjects them to duality and delusion. The Upanishads state that due to the desire ridden actions of beings, he spreads out like a clothe, and when such actions are exhausted he becomes withdrawn. Isvara is thus the weaver of the fabric of time and space and its bearer.


4. Cosmic Self, Hiranyagarbha

Hiranyagrabha, meaning the golden egg, emerges out of Isvara as a projection or expansion into the quality of rajas. He is the cosmic Self, who represents Isvara's creative potency and soul consciousness. Having emerged from him as the first born, he presides over the realities of Nature and becomes both distinct and indistinct. Hiranyagarbha is more popularly known in the Vedas as Brahma, the creator god. All the worlds and beings are either his children or projections. He is also their world teacher and imparts to them the transcendental knowledge of Brahman through the revelatory scriptures, especially the Vedas.


5. Cosmic Body, Viraj

Viraj is the sum of all manifestation that emerges out of Hiranyagarbha in the grossness of tamas. He is described as the ego sense or the body-sense of Hiranyagarbha or Isvara, and the ruler of all material manifestations (praadhana purusha). The Upanishads state that In the beginning of each creation, Hiranyagarbha mixes the five great elements, namely space, air, fire, water, and earth in the same order to project Viraj, the universal body. The elements first appear in their subtle forms and later in their gross form. Then he mixes them in different proportions to create the diversity, consisting of millions of macrocosms, fourteen worlds specific to (each of the macrocosms) and globular gross bodies fit for each world. All that is called Viraj, the beingness or the Universal Body of the Lord. Viraj is the materialized form of Isvara Braman who contains Hiranyagarbha as his Cosmic Soul.

Viraj, the Cosmic Body

6. Cosmic Being, Purusha

Purusha, meaning the Person, or the Cosmic Being, is the alternative name of Isvara. Purusha is the Universal Being, the awakened Brahman, the one with qualities (saguna), whose soul is Hiranyagarbha and body is Viraj. Together this trinity of Brahman's supreme manifestations represents the existence (sat) that we know. According to the Vedas, Pursha is Brahman personified. Creation emerges out of him as an act of self-sacrifice, because he uses parts of his own body (materiality) as an offering to create beings and worlds. Thus, in the tripple aspects of awakened Brahman, namely Isvara, Hiranyagarbha, and Viraj, you have the equivalents of the three main entities of Christianity, namely the Father the Holy Ghost and the Son.

Purusha the Cosmic Being

7. Time, Kala

Kala means time. Of all the dualities, time and timelessness are the most basic and fundamental dualities of existence. They are compared to the opening and closing of the eyelids of Isvara. The soul of Isvara is timeless, whereas his body (viraj) is bound to Time (kala). The duality of time exists in you also. For example, you have the sense of time only when you are awake. In deep sleep you have no sense of it. You will also find the duality in all living beings. Their souls are eternal, but their bodies are perishable. Death is another name of Time because everything perishes in its due time. Time is like an infinite serpent that keeps endlessly devouring its own tail and in that Time or Death is just a transformative process that facilitates rebirth and renewal with no loss or gain in the end. Death is described in the Vedas as the lord of the mortal world. All the objects and beings in the mortal world are his food, which he devours. Aging, sickness, hunger, desire, suffering and destruction are manifestations of Death only. In the Bhagavadgita also Lord Krishna shows to Arjuna His Universal Form as Kala or Death only.

Brahman as Time or Kala

8. The Trinity, Trimurthis

Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the highest manifestations of awakened (saguna) Brahman in creation. Functionally, they represent the triple functions of Isvara, Hiranyagarbha and Viraj respectively. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Brahma is the reflection of awakened Brahman in rajas, Vishnu in sattva and Shiva in tamas. However, according to our scriptures, these gods are not subordinate gods to Isvara. In their highest aspect, each of them is the same as Brahman himself and perform all the five function of Isvara namely, creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, and revelation. They may appear differently in creation, but in essence they are the same.

The Three Gods of Hinduism

9. Space, Akasa

In the ritual portions of the Vedas, you will find frequent references to Brahman as the carrier of sounds through space and as the secret power hidden in the syllables of the Vedic chants. Brahman is the secret power of the Vedas. He elevates the sacrifices to their transcendental level by carrying the sacred sounds to the gods in heaven and beckons them to the place of sacrifice to receive the offerings. As space, Brahman acts as the mediator between humans and gods and lets the sounds of the sacred chants pass through him from humnas to gods. He carries our speech and prayers from place to place, from one direction to another, from earth to the mid-region, from mid-region to Indra's heaven, and from there to the higher heavens and beyond. Thereby, he ensures the order and regularity of the worlds. As space that expands endlessly, he also facilitates existence, consciousness, dynamism, cycle of births and deaths, movement of time, speech, and breath, exchange of offerings, and the journey of departing souls from here to the world of ancestors or to the immortal world.

Brahman as Space

10. Aum, Pranava

Brahman is considered synonymous with the Vedas. Knowing the Vedas is considered the same as knowing Brahman. The Vedas represent Brahman in sound form, and contain valid knowledge about him. They are primarily books of sacred sounds having the five powers or potencies of Isvara, namely creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, and revelation. With the help of Vedic chants you can unleash all the five powers for both good and evil purposes. Hence, they were not meant to be taught to everyone. The Vedas have these powers because their source is Brahman. While Brahman generally represents all the sacred hymns of the Vedas, more particularly he represents the sound of Aum, known as pranava nada. Aum is regarded in Hinduism as Brahman in word-form (akshara brahma) as well as in sound-form (sabda brahma).

Brahman as Pranava

11. Food, Annam

Just as Brahman is the source of all, he is also the source of nourishment. Hence, he is described in the Upanishads as food itself. He manifests all the plants and animals upon earth for the nourishment of gods and humans and through them for his own nourishment. For the purpose of creation, he sacrifices parts of his own being to manifest himself as the food of all. However, although he created food for the nourishment of all, human beings are not expected to enjoy it selfishly without offering it to him first because whatever we eat is verily the body of Brahman. As the Bhagavadgita states, those who eat food without offering it to God verily eat sin because Brahman purifies all the food that is offered to him. Since Brahman is also Death and Time, the Vedas declare that all that exists here is the food of Brahman and meant for his enjoyment only. Although he created different kinds of food in different worlds, he is their true and ultimate enjoyer. As the lord of the mortal world, he devours everything that he creates to facilitate the forward movment of kala (time), karma (fruit of actions), niyati (order), rita (regularity), dharma (duty), and the cycle of births and deaths.

Brahman as Food

12. The individual Self, Atman

According to some schools of Hinduism, Brahman manifests in each living being, as its very soul, Atman. In the body, he remains bound (baddha), and upon liberation becomes a free soul (mukta). The embodied souls continue their existence upon earth in various stages of bondage because of desires and attachments, and thereby become bound to the cycle of births and deaths. Each individual soul is Brahman in the microcosm of each being. Like Brahman, it is also eternal, indestructible, inviolable, pure, infinite, and all knowing. However, in the bound state it becomes veiled by ignorance, egoism, attachments, and delusion, and suffers from births and deaths. Through spiritual practice and by cultivating purity and divinity, one can overcome them and become free from births and deaths. It is called liberation (moksha). Since Atman is a replica of Brahman in the microcosm, it is the only hope of salvation for the humans. Only by knowing Him one can attain immortality and reach the world of Brahman.

Brahman as Self, Atman


The Upanishads contain many references to Brahman. Although he does not appear prominently in the ritual practices of Hinduism, he is considered the ultimate recipient of all offerings, and the secret deity hidden in all other deities. He is also the highest goal (Parandhama). He has numerous other manifestations, besides what we have discussed. All the gods that we worship in Hinduism are his personifications only. Those who study the Bhagavadgita deeply know that the scripture is not about Krishna or Vishnu but Brahman only. Brahman is the transcendental, eternal reality, who projects himself into the immanent realities. Hence, the Upanishads equate him with various organs of the body and aspects of creation. He is without gender. Hence, he is also know as That. Brahman is also hidden in you as your very personality and soul. Hence, the Vedas emphatically declare that you are Brahman only. is the first on the Internet to provide comprehensive information about Brahman. I  have also written a book exclusively about Brahman and his numerous aspects, which can be purchased from here.

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