About Brahma and Brahmavihāra

It might be new to some, but the term brahmavihāra actually hardly appears in the suttas. We find it only once in each of the four nikayas: DN 17, MN 83, AN 5.192, SN 54.11.

Thus it joins other terms that gained excessive popularity in post-canonical times (e.g. ‘four noble truths’ or ‘vipassanā’)

Brahmavihāra in SN 54.11 (repeated verbatim in SN 54.12) doesn’t even refer to mettā etc. but to the Buddha practicing anapanassati and the resulting “ariyavihāra, brahmavihāra, tathāgatavihāra
(the other two terms appearing only here in SN 54.11/12)

Further AN 3.95 has the two components, but not as a compound: “Brahmaṃ, bhikkhave, vihāraṃ tasmiṃ samaye bhikkhū viharanti” (“On that occasion the bhikkhus dwell in a divine abode”)

The boundless nature of mettā

So if brahmavihāra is an inadequate label (see also below) there is a need for a more adequate ebt-label. Sometimes appamāṇa is proposed, i.e. boundless, measureless. In the suttas this is a common qualification of mettā etc., and it additionally connects it with a meditation practice leading to the state.

Thus above, below, across, and everywhere, and to all as to myself, I dwell pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, vast, exalted, measureless (appamāṇa), without enmity, without ill will.
DN 13, DN 17, DN 26, DN 33, MN 7, MN 21, MN 40, MN 43, MN 50, MN 52, MN 55, MN 83, MN 97, MN 99, MN 127, AN 3.63, AN 3.65, AN 3.66, AN 4.125, AN 4.126, AN 4.190, AN 5.192, AN 9.18, AN 10.219, AN 11.16, SN 41.7, SN 42.8, SN 42.13

In fact, ‘measureless’ and ‘mettā etc.’ appear so often together that the occurrence of ‘measureless’ - though sometimes in other contexts - is dominated by mettā… and would allow that label.

Another appropriate name we can derive from these same suttas would be cātuddisa, four-quarter, because of a sentence exclusively used with mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā:

Then I dwell pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, likewise the second quarter, the third quarter, and the fourth quarter.

The ‘four-quarters’, as much as ‘measureless’ establish these states as boundless and unlimited in nature. Another expression that demonstrates the high level of the appamāṇā is ‘liberation of the mind by mettā’, (mettā cetovimutti) - with vimutti that is reserved only for the highest doctrinal aspects. (DN 33, MN 52, MN 99, AN 1.17, AN 1.398, AN 3.68, AN 6.13, AN 8.1, AN 8.63, AN 11.15, AN 11.16, AN 11.982, SN 20.3, SN 20.4, SN 20.5, SN 42.8, SN 46.54)

Even though the appamāṇā appear in other contexts too, like “acts of loving kindness towards fellow monks” I suggest to separate between mundane acts of friendliness and the inherently boundless mettā meditation. The implication is that we can’t practice a little bit of mettā here and there (“I felt pressure in my back, so I sent some mettā there”), even less than to practice a little samādhi here and there. The realization and establishment of a appamāṇā state ranks doctrinally, as I try to show below, higher than the establishment of the jhānas and hence should be treated as a rare exalted state, not a casual practice.

Brahma realm beyond ‘divine abodes’

The brahma realm is often translated as ‘divine abode’, an unfortunate translation since ‘divine’ is rooted in divinus, divus, deus --> Skt deva, who in the suttas rather inhabit a realm accessed by jhāna practice and is treated differently than the brahma realm. Whenever we have in the same context jhana- appamāṇā- and arupa-meditation, we find them in a specific order - hierarchical in nature - that shows us how the suttas rank them in subtlety.

In MN 1 (similarly in MN 49) we have 1. devas - 2.brahmas (in ascending order) - 3.arupa-beings (in ascending order).

AN 4.190 has jhānas resulting in a deva attainment (devappatto). Then appamāṇā practice resulting in brahma attainment. Then arupa practice resulting in ānejja attainment. And finally the understanding of dukkha etc. resulting in ariya attainment. Since ariya is obviously the highest attainment, we have to conclude that the closest is arupa-practice, then appamāṇā-practice, then jhāna-practice.

AN 5.192 defines brahmins of descending purity, starting from 1. brahma-brahmins and appamāṇā-practice, followed by 2. deva-brahmins and jhanā practice, followed by 3. traditional non-meditative brahmins, 4. caste-mixing brahmins and 5. brahmins who intermix and do lesser works.

AN 11.16 (and MN 52) again in ascending order has jhāna-practice, appamāṇā-practice and arupa-practice

The only place I could find where the realms are intertwined is SN 46.54. Here the liberation of mind by the appamāṇā are still beyond the jhāna-realms but culminate in the arupas:

  • mettā­ ceto­vimutti has the beautiful (subha) as its culmination.
  • karuṇā­ ceto­vimutti has the base of the infinity of space as its culmination
  • muditā­ ceto­vimutti has the base of the infinity of consciousness as its culmination
  • upekkhā­ ceto­vimutti has the base of nothingness as its culmination

However this is a single unusual claim in a single sutta, so I wouldn’t take this connection too seriously, but still note that it connects vimutti with appamāṇā and arupas, but not the jhānas.

I don’t want at all to denounce the jhānas. It has been sufficiently shown that they function as a stepping stone on the path, leading to the knowledges, liberation etc. But when it comes to subtleties of mind - be they necessary for fruition or not - I think it can be shown that there are states beyond the jhānas, specifically appamāṇā and the arupas.

Brahma - god or adjective?

Usually I’m fine with special terms left untranslated. In this case I want to argue in favor of translating ‘brahma’ as the substantivized adjective it I believe originally was.

As an example, in old Hebrew we have the adjective ‘kadosh’ which means holy, sacred. With an article it turns to ‘ha kadosh’ - ‘the Holy One’. In case of the bible it would be an editorial mistake I believe, to leave it untranslated. It would unnecessarily create an exotic vibe while actually having a specific meaning.

In later times, no doubt, Brahma was an established god in the Hindu pantheon, but at the redaction of the Buddhist canon this was still in transition. So unfortunately it’s been an established practice to leave brahma, brahman etc. untranslated in cases when it has the original adjective meaning.

Brahma / Brāhma / Brāhman can be rendered as “holy, sacred, ineffable”. So when Brahma Sahampati appears in front of the Buddha, rather than appearing like a Jinn I would render it ‘The Holy Sahampati’. After all Brahmas are the highest perceivable beings in the complex Buddhist cosmology and it’s appropriate to acknowledge it by a literal translation.

As for another example, in several suttas the Buddha sets in motion the Brahma wheel, brahmacakka (MN 12, AN 4.8, AN 4.23, AN 5.11, AN 6.64, AN 10.21, AN 10.22, SN 12.21, SN 12.22) An unusual expression (we never find ‘ariyacakka’ btw) with an obvious adjective meaning. The commentaries translate ‘brahma’ here as “best, supreme, pure”. Again, I would opt for the literal meaning of ‘holy’, resisting the anachronistic temptation to de-religionize Buddhism.

In several other contexts it’s clear that ‘brahma’ takes a unique spot, e.g. AN 7.69: “… the cry spreads as far as the brahma world. This is the spiritual majesty of a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed.” Because of the culturally unrelateable ‘brahma’ it might as well be “as far as the blabla world”, it simply makes not much of a difference to us, whereas a translation changes the tone: “… the cry spreads as far as the holy world. This is the spiritual majesty of a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed.”

As a tentative conclusion I suggest to carefully check and more often to translate brahma rather than not. I plan a separate essay on ‘Brahma as god or adjective’ since it’s a difficult topic to disentangle, but I hope so far it’s some food for thought.

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Knocking 'em out of the park Gabriel!

Do you mean that in some contexts it would mean “not rationed out in measures” and in the more exalted context boundless/“unable to be measured”?

Regarding one sense of measure/limit, I encountered a difficult phrase in MN99 “pamāṇakataṃ kammaṃ” and have a topic here discussing it.

In another context the word pamāṇa (Skt. pramāṇa) is used as epistemology; the various means of knowing including: pratyakśa (direct experience), anumāṇa (inference/logic), āgama (reliable testimony), etc…

Yea, I think most find it kind of shocking that Brahmā is never mentioned in the vedas. Of course, Brahman is one of the most important concepts in the Upaniṣads but there it means something like the supreme reality.

The root of all the Brahmā, Brahma, Brahman, etc. words is ‘bṛh’ which means “swell, expand, grow, enlarge”. That definition seems very obviously linked to the ‘boundless’, ‘measureless’, ‘grown great’ qualities of the well-developed mettā (and friends) meditations.

I’m still not entirely familiar with all the various usages of these bṛh-derived words in the cosmology. Sometimes Sakka is the highest god and is apparently related to the Vedic Indra. Sometimes the highest god is Brahmā/Mahābrahmā (same as Sahampati?). There also seems to be a class of deities called brahmas.

According to the sanskrit dictionary these are the grammatical cases:
brahma - neuter singular
brahmā - masculine singular
brahman - masculine vocative singular (vocating or calling out)

SN56.11 has another cosmological hierarchy (ascending order):

  • earth-dwelling devas
  • devas of the realm of the Four Great Kings
  • Tavatiṃsa devas
  • Yama devas
  • Tusita devas
  • Nimmanarati devas
  • Paranimmitavasavatti devas
  • devas of Brahma’s company

lol

Mettā et alli meditations, as you mentioned are very much to do with space and directionality in the suttas (4 directions/quarters, above, below, across, everywhere). That is a quality of the practice that really stands out to me, no other meditations have a relationship to directionality in that way. Sure, the arūpa attainments are boundless but they start at that level, this cetovimutti builds up to that.

So something that has really surprised me in my research on mettā is that nobody as far as I can find teaches in this directional/spatial way.

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I mean that of course mettā sometimes refers to the literal ‘friendliness’ that it just means, so it does not have an exclusively boundless meaning. But when it comes to meditation it becomes specifically boundless.[quote=“SCMatt, post:2, topic:3989”]

the arūpa attainments are boundless but they start at that level
[/quote]

exactly, or their infinite character is well prepared by the fourth jhana. The appamāṇā grow, expand (as you rightly mention the original meaning of ‘brahma’), first one direction/quarter, then the second etc.

Most of us are aware of their treatment in the visuddhimagga, the successive increase from oneself, beloved ones, neutral ones, opposed ones. I think this is a good and practical application of the more abstract notions of quarters/directions. Still, it shouldn’t mislead us to think that ‘a little bit of metta-meditation’ is possible. The original metta meditation lies in it’s boundless fulfillment, just as much as there’s no ‘little bit of jhana’ or ‘little bit of arupa’.

I plan to research more the cosmological hierarchy you mentioned, but so far my impression also is that we have classes of devas in different realms, that we have groups of brahmas with different aspects, groups of devas with different aspects.

As a last idea: the classic depiction of god Brahma in post-buddhist times is him having four faces in all directions - does it ring a bell? I suspect an influence of the buddhist ‘brahma-meditation’ on the form of god Brahma in the later Hindu pantheon…

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My impression is that brahmavihara meditation can only become a boundless liberation of mind when it has been pursued and developed to a certain level. In order to get to that level, one has to necessarily cultivate the brahmaviharas without having experienced that boundless liberation of mind. This is done via formal meditation as well as mundane acts.

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I think @Brahmali teaches it in this way, from what I can tell from some mediation videos on the dhammaloka youtube channel.

I have always been a bit confused about whether the brahmaviharas are seperate states, or just a rebranding of the jhanas. For example, in AN 8.63:

“Then you should train yourself thus: ‘Good-will, as my awareness-release, will be developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken.’

That’s how you should train yourself. When you have developed this concentration in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & a modicum of evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & no evaluation […]

Here, it seems that good-will as an awareness-release comes first, i.e. you practice metta real well, and then you get into the jhanas, starting with the first jhana (“with directed though & evaluation” referring to the first jhana).

Personally, I think “awareness-release” is just another way to talk about jhanas, or maybe even including before jhanas but when the five senses are gone.

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Sure, but that cultivation is what ‘sati’ or ‘sanna’ or ‘vitakka’ is, i.e. the normal process of reminding oneself, repeating intentions, directing thoughts etc. What I tried to show is that in the current meditation environment we dumped the cosmos into the living-room with lowering the bar for metta-meditation to any well-meaning thought-intention.

Some people try to do that with jhana-samadhi as well, but not that successfully. “My meditation felt jhanic today” “I had a glimpse of samadhi” etc. Here it doesn’t work well, the bar for jhanas and samadhi is high. But with metta we see no problem to call what should be properly dubbed a ‘metta-development-session’ a ‘successful metta-meditation’.

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Where are perfectly developed meditation masters when we need them?! Personally I find it hard to imagine that these states have phenomenologically nothing to do with each other. But what do I know, my imagination is limited by my experiences, and my experience cannot compare fully developed jhanas with fully developed metta and fully developed arupas.

Yes, while there are very few suttas where the three are somehow combined, in the overwhelming majority they are dealt with separately, and I’m afraid we have to take it that way (until we experience for ourselves otherwise).

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It’s a matter of semantics. I don’t see a problem with calling it metta meditation because it fits the definition of the word. I do agree that metta development or metta cultivation (metta bhavana) would be a better choice because it indicates that it is something to be developed and cultivated and indeed it is.

Thanks for this contribution. I agree, the roots of the word are in a fundamental concept. As SCMatt says:

Ultimately I think this root goes all the way back to one of the most fundamental concepts in human culture, that of magic, sometimes known in anthropology as mana (an Austronesian word, not the Pali māna.)

Mana is one example of a widespread idea of some kind of immanent force, which is distinctly “supernatural”, or perhaps more accurately, “subnatural” in that it underlies and empowers the forces seen in nature. While the operations of such forces, or “the Force” perhaps, varies from culture to culture the general idea is quite widespread. The closest familiar concept in the west is “Holy Spirit”.

I believe that bṛh was originally this magical vitality, the life force of the universe, manifesting in growing plants, in the thunder of the skies, the shining of the sun—and in the magic of consciousness that can know all these things. The gods are distillations and embodiments of this Force, while wizards/shamans/munis/rishis/Jedis were those who could access the Force and manipulate for their own ends. The Force—for such, it seems, is what we must call it—is not an ethical quality, and in this we should carefully distinguish its original meaning from much later, ethicized religious qualities like holy and sacred (although in their earlier meanings these also dealt with a similar semantic range). It is much closer to tabu, a mighty and dangerous power, which must be carefully isolated. When insulated and protected it can be used for good, but only with extreme care, contained by layers of ritual and language and culture, as well as physical barriers.

The Upanishads witnessed the ethicization of this force, notably in the Parable of Thunder, at Brihadaranyaka 5.2:

The threefold descendants of Pragâpati, gods, men, and Asuras (evil spirits), dwelt as Brahmacârins (students) with their father Pragâpati. Having finished their studentship the gods said: ‘Tell us (something), Sir.’ He told them the syllable Da. Then he said: ‘Did you understand?’ They said: ‘We did understand. You told us “Dâmyata,” Be subdued.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you have understood.’

Then the men said to him: ‘Tell us something, Sir.’ He told them the same syllable Da. Then he said: ‘Did you understand?’ They said: ‘We did understand. You told us, “Datta,” Give.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you have understood.’

Then the Asuras said to him: ‘Tell us something, Sir.’ He told them the same syllable Da. Then he said: ‘Did you understand?’ They said: ‘We did understand. You told us, “Dayadham,” Be merciful.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you have understood.’

The divine voice (daivī vāg) of thunder repeats the same, Da Da Da, that is, Be subdued, Give, Be merciful. Therefore let that triad be taught (trayaṃ śikṣed): Subduing, Giving, and Mercy.

In this brilliant parable, the thunder—that wild, majestic force of nature—becomes a Sunday school teacher, doling out moral fables for unruly children. The co-option of religious majesty in moral instruction is a universal in all higher religions; it wouldn’t do to leave our gods untamed. But this parable shows it with clarity and humor, and in doing so serves as a template for a whole genre of Buddhist suttas, many of them featuring the same characters. Here Pajāpati, the “Lord of Creation” plays a similar role to Brahmā, a common feature which I believe also reveals something of the underlying roots of the name.

Incidentally, notice that this passage refers to the “threefold training”, a very important concept in the suttas.


I should stop here. But the main point I wanted to make in response to Gabriel’s original essay was this. Rather than thinking of bṛh as originally either personal or cosmic, or originally either substantive or adjective, or anything else, try thinking of it as preceding and underlying all of these things. The forms in which we see the term in the Buddhist context, or the Upanishads, are already the outcome of a long evolution, during which the vague, all-embracing concept of spirit or force of nature became specialized and applied in different contexts.

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-brahmaviharas are a Brahmanical practice that predates the Buddha. Although the Buddha may have taught them he didn’t fully embrace them as he says in one Sutta (Sorry can’t find the reference) that they are not conducive to dispassion, etc. Note they are not part of the 37 wings.

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@alaber,

It is worth flagging however that while they are not explicitly part of the specific lists that make up the 37 awakening conducive factors (bodhipakkhiyā dhammā), the things these practices point to are indeed found throughout the 37 factors:

  • friendliness/loving kindness (metta) and non-cruelty / compassion (avihimsa / karuna) are 2/3rds of the right aspiration/factor (samma sankappa) of the path to the end of suffering
  • equanimity (upekkha) is one of the 7 factors for awakening (sambojjhanga)
  • the brahmaviharas are clearly depicted in the suttas as very powerful ways to get to stillness/concentration (samadhi), which is found repeated accross the sub-lists which make up the 37 awakening conducive factors (bodhipakkhiyā dhammā): it is one of 5 powers (bala), it is one of the 5 moral faculties (indriya) and one of the 7 factors for awakening (sambojjhanga)
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And the samadhi they lead to can be used as the basis for liberating insight or non-returning (MN 52, AN 4.125, AN 4.126, AN 4.178).

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I would like to see a good source for that. Is it because it has the name ‘brahma’ in it? What about the dozens of suttas where the Buddha does embrace them - they don’t count?

If brahmins have practiced it before, we should find it in the Vedas or the Brhadaranyaka-Upanisad, but we don’t. Also it’s not mentioned in the source based “Crangle - The Origin and Development of Early Indian Contemplative Practices” as pre-buddhist…

I never understood why the ‘37 wings’ should be the gold standard for Buddhist doctrines. They are highly redundant and rather abhidhammic as a point of reference. Again I would like to see based on a sutta-overview that ‘the wings’ are the underlying matrix of the dhamma, as it circulates in many places.

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It is in the DN16:

And what are those Teachings that have, with deep knowledge, been taught by me, which after grasping them well, you should practise, develop, and make a lot of them, so that the Spiritual Life may last long, and may endure for a long time, that will be for the benefit of many people, for the happiness of many people, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of Divinities and men?

They are as follows:

The Four Ways of Attending to Mindfulness,
the Four Right Strivings,
the Four Paths to Power,
the Five Faculties,
the Five Strengths,
the Seven Factors of Awakening,
the Noble Eight-Fold Path.

These, monks, are those Teachings that have, with deep knowledge, been taught by me, after grasping them well, you should practise, develop, and make a lot of them, so that the Spiritual Life may last long, and may endure for a long time, and that will be for the benefit of many people, for the happiness of many people, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of Divinities and men.”

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Of course I know the concept of it, Bh. Bodhi has them as ‘aids to enlightenment’, and they appear a few times in the suttas. What I don’t understand is why this should be the definitive authoritative list of buddhist doctrine

I don’t take it as authoritative but I reckon it is encompassing and broad enough to serve as a very good reference to the practical points I should attend to as I endeavor in the four noble truths and its ennobling tasks.

And in the specific case of brahma vihara it is quite clear to me one should ackowledge they are clearly implied in the so many repeated element of stillness/concentration (samadhi) and explicitly listed items of upekkha (one of the sambojjhangas) and metta (a crucial element of the second factor/step of the eightfold path (see SN45.8)!

I also risk saying that gladness / sympathetic joy (mudita) should be understood to be very closely linked to the crucial element of joy/ delight/ contentment (pamojja), which in turn is a key causal link of the natural flourishing of insight and liberation (aka ‘transcendent dependent origination’) seen in suttas like the AN10.2 and SN12.23 - it is succeeded by the very important element of rapture/bliss (piti) which in turn is what introduces most of us into the beauty and power of doing all in our reach to allow tranquility, and stillness-conducive inner happiness to occur.

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Bhante, is there a source for the ‘jedi’-interpretation of the original nature of brahma? I’m reviewing “Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative: Gods, Kings and other Heroes” by Naomi Appleton (the Brahma chapter is largely based on “Greg Bailey - The Mythology of Brahma” that I have no access to). There is no pan-force to be found, also traces in the Rgveda are rare at most - shouldn’t we find such an ancient force there?

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Well, take it as advisory!

I haven’t looked at it in detail for some time, and of course I may be on entirely the wrong track.

But as far as the Rig Veda is concerned, I see it is a more evolved form of religiosity as compared to what I was talking about. In fact, the formation of the Vedas can be seen as an attempt to create a higher religious consciousness, as compared to the common-or-garden variety animism and magical practices that characterize village and tribal cultures.

So what I would be looking for there would be things analogous to the Thunder Parable, where the raw energy of the thunder, for example, was tamed and directed in a more “civil” way, as befits a culture who was no longer nakedly exposed to the weather on a trail, but was safely shut in well-built houses.

I haven’t read the book you’re referring to, but in general I would say that unless you’re looking for such things—and it happens to be a peculiar bent of mine, don’t judge me!—it’s easy to overlook them. And of course, such ancient texts have many layers, and may be seen from multiple perspectives.

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Perhaps it’s a Sujāto myth; valuable, and beyond true or false?

What’s the harm in believing in Buddhist Jediism?

I remember when I took a class on “magic, witchcraft, and religion” a long time ago… alas, we didn’t learn any spells. :tophat: We covered this concept of mana and I remember it being associated in class with another concept barakah, a later religious evolution of an earlier more animist concept, not unlike what Bhante is getting at.

I took it on to memorize the mettā pericope. On reciting it, I’ve noticed what feels like a very obvious “break” or verse (as in music). “Mettā sahagatena cetasā” it starts then proceeds in all the various aspects of directionality and space. After working through the directions and space, there’s a refrain where the line “mettā sahagatena cetasā” is repeated, and all the qualities mentioned that proceed from there are related to boundlessness, grown great, etcetera. So yea, I would agree the first part seems related to development and the second to attainment.

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Yes, this makes sense, after all the vedic brahmins are interested in the aspects of the divine that can be bound and manipulated by mantras. An all-pervading force is more interesting to the truth-seeking speculations of the upanishadics.

Two things come to mind. The medieval kaballists, who again were looking for the absolute ‘hidden’ truth, developed the god-aspect of ‘en-soph’, literally ‘no-end’ or ‘not-ending’, the highest god-aspect, unattainable, unmoving, purely itself, without contact to any manifestation - and two more god-levels were necessary in order to initiate creation. Again, it was not found in the old texts but needed development / extraction by the mystics.

And Nisargadatta, who at some point said “You think God knows you? Even the world He does not know.”

My impression from the Rgveda is indeed that it is developed already, but I don’t think that they skipped developments. Small scale communities needed practical working magic (or so it seems in some parts of the world). I think that only saturated city-communities with most needs taken care of could develop the luxury of looking for highest principles that were in the end pretty ‘useless’.