In Hinduism and Indian philosophy, what is the difference between Brahma, Brahman, Brahmin, and Atman?
In his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, the Sri-Bhasya, Ramanuja says:
The word Brahman is derived from the root 'brh' which denotes greatness, and is therefore applicable to all objects which have the quality of greatness, but more aptly to that object which by nature and qualities possesses this greatness to an infinite degree...
Brahman is not a name, but rather a way to refer to the Absolute, the Supreme Reality of the Vedanta philosophy.
The word Brahma can refer to two things depending upon where it is being used. First, Brahma is the first being created with every new cycle. All beings in a particular cycle are created by Brahma. A different soul becomes Brahma in every new cycle. Brahma is a god, but the gods are office holders so to speak and new souls take the stations in every new cycle. Second, Brahma is one of the three gods making up the Hindu trinity, called the Trimurti, which can be thought of as Brahman (Isvara). Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva make up the trinity and stand for the creative, sustainer, and destroyer aspects of the Godhead.
Brahmin refers to a person who belongs to the priest caste, the highest caste in Hindu society.
Atman is the soul of man. According to the Advaita Vedanta philosophy the soul of man is one with and the same as Brahman. When Brahman within an individual is referred to, it is referred to as the Atman. Thus Atman = Brahman. There are differences between what is meant by 'soul' in Hindu philosophy and Christian philosophy. Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, V6, p 85):
One of the chief distinctions between the Vedic and Christian religion is that the Christian religion teaches that each human soul has its beginning at its birth into this world; whereas the Vedic religion asserts that the spirit of man is an emanation of the Eternal Being and had no more a beginning than God Himself.
A person has an individual 'soul' (in Hinduism - the jiva) that survives death and is the 'soul' that passes from one birth to another. The innermost part of the soul is the atman. For a more detailed description see my answer here - https://hinduism.stackexchange.com/questions/6758/where-does-a-soul-attached-to-the-body
For a good description of the the Atman see the following link. There are 2 lectures under the topic Jnana Yoga, titled The Atman and The Atman:Its Bondage and Freedom - http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_2/vol_2_frame.htm
Brahma is one of the main Hindu deities.
Brahman is an abstract concept with a wide meaning. One of its meaning is a hypothetical principle of the universe.
A Brahmin is a member of the first of the four classes.
Atman again has a wide meaning. One meaning is similar to soul. The main statement of the Indian upanishads is the equation "atman = brahman". That's difficult to understand. But a good metaphor for it is Indra's net, even when the latter is from Buddhism. See Gail Atkins figure and the five bullet points below at http://awakeningtoreality.blogspot.de/2009/04/net-of-indra.html
The Hindu caste system has four Varna :
- Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers
- Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators
- Vaishyas: agriculturalists and merchants
- Shudras: laborers and service providers
The Brahmin caste are thus the caste that produced the clergy in traditional Hindu society.
Hinduism has three primary Gods, known as the Trimurti. These Gods are references to the three primary forces in nature that hold the universe together :
- Brahma (order), the source of creation, can be understood as an anthropomorphic representation of emergence
- Shiva (chaos), the source of destruction, can be understood as an anthropomorphic representation of entropy
- Vishnu (balance), the source of balance, can be understood as an anthropomorphic representation of the laws of thermodynamics
Brahma is thus the Hindu representation of the creative force in the universe.
Atman & Brahman
The Atman and Brahman are concepts from the Vedanta branch of Hinduism that represent respectively your individual consciousness and universal consciousness. The Brahman is thus a pantheistic perspective on the divine.
Advaita Vedanta, a school of thought within the Vedanta branch, stresses the notion that the Atman and Brahman are just different manifestations of the same divine essence, which is basically just simplified Animism.
See also my article The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists where I explain how Atheism, Pantheism, Hinduism, Animism and Shamanism are really just different perspectives on the same core concepts.
This answer was too long for a comment.
At hinduism.stackexchange.com you will get emic answers to this question. Here the answers are more likely to be etic. As a side note, as a linguaphile I discourage concurrently learning words that either sound similar or have totally opposite meanings. In my experience, I forget or am apprehensive about which is which. Whatever your study and memorization methodology is, I'd recommend learning other things in between or risk losing certainty about the meaning of these words.
These answers will be short enough to memorize and further research, but are in no way comprehensive. Volumes have been written on these topics.
Brahman: the totality of the cosmos; the (non-anthropomorphic) monad; Ultimate Reality, i.e., that which lies behind the veil of maya (useful illusion).
Brahma: the deva of creation (and thus anthropomorphic); often spoken of in context of the trimurti—creation, preservation, destruction; the generative aspects of reality.
Brahmin: a social caste whose members have the dharma (sacred life-duty) of theology.
Atman: similar to the Western concept of the individual soul; often discussed along with Brahman: dualistic schools believe it is different/separate from Brahman (like traditional Western religions) while non-dualistic schools believe that any seeming differentiation/separation is maya (like Western esoteric/mysticism schools).
Satcitananda. Roughly: truth, consciousness, bliss.
That's it. Not surprisingly however, Satcitananda has a Wikipedia! And I would particularly draw your attention to the Discussion section of the Wikipedia article.
I was trying to get across that it is something realized rather than learned through definitions (as we tend to do in the west). Brahman "is" indescribable, unitary, ultimate (wiki, under the Vedanta section).
I realize that what I have written here does not answer the original question as asked, and again I would point to the discussion section I mentioned above.