Many of us have become accustomed to impersonal interpretations of Vedanta, where Brahman is identified as a transcendental state of Oneness, and the soul is the Brahman, in that transcendental state. However, a closer look at Vedanta Sutra reveals that Brahman actually doesn’t refer to the impersonal state. Rather, Brahman refers to the Supreme Lord, and the sutras cannot be understood or interpreted without that understanding. In this post, I will cite some such sutras which make the personal understanding irrefutable.
The first such indication arises when three categories are recognized early in the Vedanta Sutra—Brahman, three modes of guna, and ātmā. One might be inclined to think that the ātmā must be the conditional state of the soul, which is when Brahman is “covered” by the three modes. However, this view of the ātmā as being a product of Brahman and three modes is contradicted in the Vedanta Sutra by stating that the three modes do not apply to the ātmā. Immediately after that, it is said that the liberation (moksha) is obtained by those devoted to Brahman.
गौणश्चेत्, न, आत्मशब्दात्
gauṇaścet na ātmaśabdāt
gauṇaḥ—the three gunas; cet—although; na—not; ātmaśabdāt—from the words used to describe the ātmā, i.e., the soul.
Although the three gunas (exist), they are not the words for the soul.
tat—to that; niṣṭhasya—of the devoted; mokṣopadeśāt—from the teaching of salvation.
From the teaching of salvation of the devoted to that (Brahman).
Then, further evidence is offered in relation to Brahman, by stating that It expands from itself, and merges into itself. This claim of self-expanding and self-collapsing reality can also refer to Brahman becoming the various ātmā, and then collapsing back into Brahman. However, that would mean that all the souls must collapse back into Brahman at once, such that liberation doesn’t require devotion. Therefore, the contradiction with the previous sutras (that follows from the impersonal view) should not be used in this case.
svāpyayāt—from merging in one’s self.
(The Brahman is known) from that which merges in itself.
gati—movement; sāmānyāt—from the universal undifferentiated.
From the movement of the universal undifferentiated (diversity is caused).
Then, another radical triad of statements is made. In the first, it is said that Brahman is glorified by the Vedic mantras. Now, one could (if they were really hell-bent) interpret this to say that these are applicable to the soul. But the very next sutra clarifies that this is not the case, as it doesn’t apply to the “other”. From the context, there are only two categories—Brahman and ātmā—to which these can be applied. Therefore, if we say that the first sutra refers to the ātmā, then the conclusion would be that the Vedic mantras don’t apply to Brahman—which would be the very opposite of the impersonal conclusion! If one still has a doubt, then, the third statement says that these two are different.
मान्त्रवर्णिकमेव च गीयते
māntravarṇikameva ca gīyate
māntravarṇikam—the letters of mantras; eva—certainly; ca—also; gīyate—in singing or glorifying.
Certainly, the letters of mantras are also in the glory (of Brahman).
na—not; itaraḥ—the other, i.e., the jīvā; anupapatteḥ—because of the unreasonableness (or an invalid, illogical conclusion).
(The Brahman and) not the other (i.e., the individual souls are indicated here) on account of the unreasonableness (of the latter assumption).
bheda—difference; vyapadeśāt—because of the declaration; ca—and.
And on account of the declaration of the difference (between ātmā and Brahman).
All these statements are present in the Vedanta Sutra in the first chapter and first section, not spread over the text. Very quickly, the distinction between Prakriti, Brahman, and ātmā is established; everything is said to expand from Brahman, and merge into Brahman, and ātmā is stated to be beyond the guna, and liberation is said to be obtained by the devotion to Brahman. In this way, even if someone was not very deep into the study of Vedanta Sutra, they can obtain the Vedanta conclusion quickly, and that conclusion would not be the identity of Brahman and ātmā, or the ātmā being the Brahman covered by the guna, etc.
The term Brahman, therefore, doesn’t refer to the impersonal oneness in the Vedanta Sutra. It rather refers to the Supreme Lord. This seems strange in the present time where an impersonal unity is spoken of, but given that this is the case here, we must conclude that even when the Upaniśads speak about Brahman, they should be taken to be talking about the Supreme Lord, rather than something impersonal.
The difference between Upanishads and Puranas is therefore that the Upanishads and the Vedanta Sutra use the term “Brahman” to refer to the Lord, while Puranas use many names like Vishnu, Govinda, Hari, etc. They are factually not talking about different things, although different names are used.