Explanation of Om! Purna-madah purna-midam
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Translation and explanation by: revised 5 Jun 22
Ramananda Prasad, Ph.D., International Gita Society, USA
ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदम् पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते.
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते.
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः
A simple translation:
Brahman is infinite, all creatures are also infinite;
From infinite Brahman, all creatures come out.
Having come out all creatures, from the Infinite Brahman ;
Brahman still remains infinite, unlimited, unchanged!
ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदम् , पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते.
The dictionary meanings of the most important word "Purnam" in this verse are: full, whole, complete, boundless, accomplished, powerful, infinite, limitless etc. The word limitless (Anantam) has been used to describe Brahman in the Vedas and the Upanishads. We have chosen the word limitless or infinite for the word “Purnam” here.
Mathematically, the word "infinite or limitless" fits better than any other word to describe the indescribable Brahman in our opinion. Taittiriya Upanishad (verse 2.1.1) defines Brahman as: Satyam (Reality), Jnaanam (Knowledge), Anantam (Infinite, Purnam). This Upanishad also states Brahman is that from which everything comes, and is sustained by, and into which everything enters in the end (verse 3.1.1).
Reading any literal translation, a new student or any first time reader of Vedanta can get confused. But, as we will see, this verse is very profound. It is so profound that someone said: Let all the Upanishads and Vedic literatures disappear from the face of the earth, I don’t mind so long as this one verse survives and remains engraved in the mind of even a single individual. This is not an ordinary verse. It contains the Vedic vision, the universal Truth of oneself. It answers the fundamental question: Who am I and how can I live a peaceful and happy life in this world full of difficulties?
The first part of this great mantra says that everything— unknown Spirit (Adah, That, Atma, Jagadish) and known objects of the world (or Idam, all this, Jiva and Jagat)— is nothing but the limitless (Brahman, Purnam). The Bhagavad-Gita also says in verses 7.07, 7.19: Everything is Brahman (vaasu-devah sarvam-iti). There is nothing that is not Brahman. There is Brahman only and nothing else in the universe and that Brahman is limitless, infinite, one of a kind, and the source and sink of the entire cosmos.
Our experience indicates that all the objects that we see seem to be limited in space, time, and in many other ways. Then how can everything in the universe and the world be unlimited? Atma or spirit is considered limitless, but how can visible objects, such as the world and our bodies, be called infinite? Can we call everything as infinite? The ocean can be called limitless, but not the waves. Some waves are quite large, some are small, but all are limited in time and space. The waves appear limited as long as we look at the waves and the ocean as separate or "dual" entities. If we consider the wave as part and parcel of the ocean, or consider both the ocean and the wave as water only, then the wave is limitless like the ocean.
From a non-dualistic viewpoint if ocean is limitless, so is the wave, because both the ocean and the wave are a single, non-dual entity. Thus from a dualistic view point, the wave "appears" incomplete, and limited, but it’s really infinite as the ocean itself. Thus, if there is only a single entity, then the question of one being infinite or complete and the other limited or finite does not arise at all. If we consider we are not the body, but the infinite spirit residing in the bodies, then, we are limitless and infinite.
Duality is apparent, not real
The negation of duality means negation of the reality of duality, but not the negation of appearance or experience of duality. The experience of duality that we see in real life is apparent or relative, called unreal in Vedanta. From a dualistic viewpoint, a small wave is afraid of being swallowed by the large wave and prays to the ocean for protection from large waves. This is what prayers and worships are. From a non-dualistic point of view, there is no such fear. Everything in the world is an interaction, a play, a cosmic drama only. Vedanta acknowledges duality as apparent, not real, experience of difference between various objects. The Unity appears diversified. The experience of non-duality brings joy and bliss. Even a temporary escape from duality and the experience of non-duality during Samadhi (or super-conscious state of mind) brings bliss and peace. The elimination of duality in Samadhi is temporary and beyond the reach of everyone. A complete and full negation of the reality of duality has a permanent, wonderful, blissful, effect on our entire psyche. It comes after the true Knowledge of the Self.
The experience of duality does not create a problem as long as we fully understand that duality is apparent, not real. And I am not different or separate from the world, and the world is not different from me. Everything is Brahman only. The limitless, infinite or non-dual Brahman also means that no entity other than Brahman exists in the cosmos and Brahman is both the creator and the creature. In other words, Brahman is both the material and efficient or instrumental cause of the creation, the cosmos. There is no other cause or existence, except Brahman. Jiva, Jagata, and Jagadisha are One!
Vedanta cites two beautiful examples of how one and the same entity can be both the material and instrumental cause of creation. One example is that of the female spider who creates its web from the material within herself. The female spider is both: The creator of the web and creation, the web. The entire creation, both visible and invisible, comes out during the creative cycle and gets dissolved or drawn into Brahman during great dissolution (see BG 9.07). Brahman brings the material from within, weaves the beautiful and wonderful tapestry called the cosmos, and takes it all within again and again, just as the spider does.
Another example is the dream world where the dreamer’s mind is both the material and instrumental cause of the dream world. The cosmos is created as the cosmic mind’s dream creation. When we dream, both the subject (or the seer of the dream-world) and the objects of the dream-world happen to be the dreamer himself. The dreamer’s mind is both the material and creative cause of the dream-world. When we fight a dream-war in a dream-battlefield, the warriors on both sides—the bombs, bullets, rocky terrain, the land mines, nurses, ambulance, medical supplies as well as the seer of the dream-world—are all none other than the dreamer’s mind.
Thus, the first half of this great Upanishadic verse beautifully tells in a nutshell that the limitless Brahman is both the material and efficient cause of creation. The creation comes from the creator, and both the creation and the creator are infinite, and the same. There is no entity in the cosmos other than the creator. That which is One has become All these (RV 8.58.02). The One is all these, and He is in all. The Creator undergoes no change to become the creation! He is also the creation (see Gita verse 11.37). The Absolute (ParaBrahma) subsumes both—Kshara beings and Akshara Brahma—aspects as described in Gita verses 15.16-18.
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय, पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते.
away the infinite creation from the infinite Brahman during the creative cycle
or adding infinite universes to the infinite Brahman during the great
dissolution, the infinite Brahman remains in His infinite trascendental form. This can be mathematically expressed as:
Infinity plus or minus infinity, equals infinity. This infinite Universal form
The limitless Brahman remains unchanged even after countless universes come out of it. What kind of change does the limitless transcendental form have to undergo to produce limitless visible and invisible worlds? Actually, there is no real change during the process of this transformation because nothing is created or destroyed in the universe. It just changes form, and a name-change goes with the new form. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy can never be created or destroyed, but only can be transformed from one form to another; from the invisible form to the visible form and vice-versa. Much later, Einstein came up with the same conclusion when he proposed his famous equation: E= mc2. Thus, Brahman does not undergo any intrinsic change when infinite, visible cosmos come out of it. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita that the visible infinite world is just a tiny fraction of His energy (BG 10.41-42).
Several examples can be given of such a change. The dreamer does not undergo any change when the objects of the dream-world come out of him. Cotton appears as cloth without undergoing a real change. The cloth is nothing but cotton in a different form. The gold chain is made from gold without any real change in gold itself. Similarly, clay becomes a pot. Clay remains clay before the creation of the pot, during the creation of the pot, and after the pot is destroyed. There was no pot ever; it was clay all the time. Clay appeared as pot. Water appears as the vapor, the cloud, the rain, the ice, as well as the bubble, the lake, the river, the wave, and the ocean; gold becames a chain; dreamer became dream objects without undergoing any real change. Similarly, the rope appears as a snake in the darkness of night, and the non-dual Brahman appears as a dual world due to our mental conditioning created by the darkness of ignorance. The visible world and all its objects are nothing but the invisible—but not formless—Brahman only.
Unreal duality is temporarily superimposed on Reality like a wave is superimposed on the ocean, snake on the rope, and body on the Spirit!! Temporary superimposition is called Mithyaa in Sanskrit. This verse leads us to discover that I am not this body, but the limitless Spirit which I longed to be. This discovery is called Moksha in Upanishads.
Thus, the creation, an effect, is not different from its material and instrumental cause, the imperishable Brahman (see BG Chapters 13 and 15). The objects of the world do not have to be eliminated, given up, or even completely negated, as dream-objects, to see Brahman everywhere and in everything (BG 6.30). The chain need not be melted to see the gold in it. Similarly, one need not leave the world to find God. In a piece of cloth, the weaver is not hidden inside the cotton or the yarn. However, in the creation, the creator is not only the material and the efficient cause, but He is present in every atom of the creation, in every cell of our body (Ishaa-vaasyam idam sarvam). This is the difference between human engineering and the cosmic engineer. The cosmic mind manifests Himself in different forms. This is the Knowledge of transcendental science, so simple and beautiful.
The entire creation is His body, a divine manifestation that one must learn to love, respect and revere. There is no sin or sinner, just different masks of the supreme. The sinner is the one who is like an unripe mango, very sour and bitter; while a true saint is the juicy, sweet and flavorful, like a ripe mango. This understanding of spirituality will bring a fresh outlook, a refreshing breeze of fresh air of understanding persons of other faiths, cultures, and countries. It will enrich our individual lives, it cannot change the world overnight. It can be concluded that an understanding of non-duality is spirituality; and duality is the partial knowledge and understanding of the creator in any religion. This partial knowledge of the so called religions has created conflicts and religious wars that can only be eliminated with the Vedic science of non-dual, transcendental, metaphysical Knowledge—so beautifully explained in the Vedic scriptures such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. This single Upanishadic verse is the essence of spirituality and the true religion. It can bring peace, understanding, and harmony in the world and in our personal lives. One does not have to change one’s religion to become spiritual.
From infinite Brahman, infinite universes come out and get dissolved, but infinite Brahman remains infinite. Just like infinite number of waves come up and go down in the ocean, but ocean ever remains the same. Because, ocean and the wave are, indeed, always One and the same—it’s neither ocean nor the waves, but water. We are all Atma, not our physical bodies. Having understood this, one attains liberation.
Om Tat Sat
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