Prajnanam brahma - Brahman is Intelligence

Prajnanam Brahma

by Jayaram V

Mahavakya: prajnanam brahma

Translation: Prajnanam= intelligence, Brahma= Brahman

Meaning: Brahman is intelligence


This is a Mahavakya. Mahavakyas are used in Hindu spiritual tradition for meditation and contemplation. They are usually taken from the Upanishads.

This particular one is found in the third chapter of Aitareya Upanishad. To understand it, we need to look at the context in which it was used in the Upanishad.

We have to understand the meaning of 'prajna' in the context of the time during which the Upanishad was composed and the particular phase in the development of the Upanishadic philosophy to which it belongs.

It can be interpreted in the modern context and we can add several layers of imaginative thought process to it, which many present day commentators do. But I would prefer to look at it to understand what the seer who composed the verse had in mind when he uttered this significant saying.

I therefore reproduce below from the Upanishad the entire verse of which it is the part and also two verses prior to it. These translations form part of my book, the Selected Upanishads, which contains translation of 14 Upanishads from Sanskrit to English.

1. Aum, who is he whom we all worship as the Self? Which one is the Self? Is it that by which one verily sees, one verily hears, one verily smells the odors, one verily is able to speak, and one verily is able to distinguish the tasty ones from the tasteless?

2. (It is) that which is the heart and the mind. That is consciousness, perception, discrimination, intelligence, mental brilliance, vision, resolve, cognition, mental discipline, impulse, memory, intention, goal, life, desire, and control. All these are the names of intelligence only.

3. He is Brahma, he is Indra, he is Prajapati. He is all these gods. He is the five elements, namely the earth, air, ether, water and light, a combination of which forms into seeds of different kinds, those born out of eggs, those born out of wombs, those born from sweat, those born from sprouts, horses, cows, people, and elephants, all creatures that breath here, moving, flying or stationary. All this is moved by intelligence, is established in intelligence. The world is moved by intelligence. The support is intelligence. Brahman is intelligence.

From the above it is clear that the mahavakya (great saying) refers to the knowing and understanding aspect of the Self in the macrocosm as well as microcosm. The Self is responsible for perceptions, but the senses cannot grasp Him. It is because of Him the senses are able to grasp and what they grasp is meant for his enjoyment. Brahman and Self are used in these verses interchangeably, which is a common practice in many Upanishads, especially the older Upanishads.

The Self is thus the knower and the enjoyer. The same Self is everything. He is the indweller and controller of the heart and the mind which form part of our subtle bodies. Various forms of intelligence manifest in our consciousness because of him only.

The third verse further clarifies that Brahman or the Self is also the gods, the elements, and different types of beings, those born from seeds, eggs, wombs etc. All these manifest because of the supreme intelligence of Brahman. All that He creates is established in His intelligence. The whole creation is pervaded by intelligence and this intelligence is none other than Brahman only. This is the meaning.

It is common to compare Brahman or the individual Self to various aspects of creation and various parts of the gross and subtle bodies. It is sometimes done to distinguish Brahman from His creation and sometimes to denote that He is either responsible for them or pervades them as their essence.

In this instance, Brahman is equated with intelligence. However, as we can see in the subsequent discussion, it is also used to denote that Brahman is the source of intelligence in the macrocosm as well as microcosm. Since creation is characterized by diversity, Brahman, as intelligence, manifests in numerous forms.

Types of intelligence

The second verse lists the various forms of intelligence. They exist in our consciousness also. They constitute our hearts and minds. They are

  • samjnanam - consciousness
  • ajnanam - perceptions
  • vijnanam - discernment
  • prajnanam - intelligence
  • medha - mental brilliance
  • dristir - vision or foresight
  • dhritir - resolve or determination
  • matir - cognition or thinking ability
  • manisa - mental discipline
  • jutih - impulse
  • smritih - memory
  • samkalpah - will or intention
  • kratur - goal
  • asuh - life
  • kamo - desire
  • vasa - control

Prajna (pra + jna) means

Etymologically speaking, the word prajna can be parsed into two syllables Pra + jna. As can be seen in the above verses, prajna is used in these verses as a noun to mean intelligence and the syllable 'pra' is used as a prefix to 'jna.'

As a prefix to 'jna', 'pra' has many meanings, such as beginning, power, source, origin, completion, perfectness, excellence and purity. 'Jna' means wisdom, knowledge, learning, thinkkng and so on.

Thus the true meaning of prajna is the source of knowing, sensing, learning, or understanding. In the body or the microcosm, the source of awareness, consciousness and understanding is the inner Self. In the macrocosm it is the Supreme Self.

From the above it is clear that in this mahavakya, Self or Brahman is not only described as knowledge and intelligence but also as the source of knowing and intelligence.

Brahman is both cause and effect. As the cause, Brahman manifests Himself in creation as a reflection in the triple gunas, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. Similarly, His supreme intelligence also becomes reflected in the gunas and in the process acquires a color of its own.

Therefore, our intelligence, which is also a reflection of His intelligence only, is not exactly the same as His intelligence, but a reflection of it colored by our own gunas, desires and other impurities. In the macrocosm this colored intelligence manifests as Mahat and in the microcosm of our bodies as buddhi.

Suggestions for Further Reading



Translate the Page