The Absolute is the concept of an absolute, unconditional reality which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence. It is often used as an alternate term for "God" or "The Holy one", especially, but by no means exclusively, by those who feel that the term "God" lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic presumptions. The concept of The Absolute may or may not (depending on one's specific doctrine) possess discrete will, intelligence, awareness or even a personal nature. It contrasts with finite things, considered individually, and known collectively as the relative.
The human vital essence - soul, spirit, spark of awareness, is said to have originally derived in each case from The Absolute, and to be indestructible after the nature of The Absolute, and to be capable of returning to its source. This returning could be said to be the goal of most Eastern religion.
The general commonalities between the various versions of The Absolute are: infinity, indescribability, formlessness, transcendence and immanence. An additional commonality is that one must renounce and/or transcend physical existence and its distractions, in some cases even to the point of extinguishing identity and individual awareness, in order to understand or co-exist with The Absolute. Uniformly, human passions and vices are regarded as barriers to spiritual advancement, and such virtues as humility, charity and righteousness or pacifism are felt to help pave the way to enlightenment.
Parallels may be drawn between such traditions and Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic (i.e., Abrahamic) thought. The concept is of a universal subconsciousness, undivided and incapable of being depicted through gods or icons, parent to the individual souls of men, and to which men strive to return. This sought-after return is impaired by evil thought and deed, and facilitated by altruism. In addition, the traditions share a general value system that discourages worldliness and encourages seeking higher, more intangible principles, such as righteousness, justice, and good deeds done for their own sake.
Where the basic division begins to appear between Eastern and Western spiritual tradition with regard to The Absolute, is in the separation of God from creation, nature, and the souls of men themselves. In Eastern thought this is not done, but in Western spirituality it often is.
Roughly, the Absolute may be distinguished from the following concepts, although there is debate of the synonymity between them:
However, rather than distinguishing from the relative, the thing in itself is used to distinguish an actual object from phenomenon (the appearance of things-in-themselves to the senses).
Heraclitus concerned himself with the knowable portion of the Absolute with his Logos. Plotinus, a Neo-Platonic philosopher, saw all forms of existence as emanating from 'The One'. The concept of the Absolute was re-introduced into philosophy by Hegel, Schelling, and their followers; it is associated with various forms of philosophical idealism. The Absolute, either under that name, or as the "Ground of Being", or some similar concept, also figures in several of the attempted proofs of the existence of God, particularly the ontological argument and the cosmological argument.
The concept was adopted into neo-Hegelian British idealism (though without Hegel's complex logical and dialectical apparatus), where it received an almost mystical exposition at the hands of F.H. Bradley. Bradley (followed by others including Timothy L.S. Sprigge) conceived the Absolute as a single all-encompassing experience, rather along the lines of Shankara and Advaita Vedanta. Likewise, Josiah Royce in the United States conceived the Absolute as a unitary Knower Whose experience constitutes what we know as the "external" world.
However, the concept need not be taken to imply a universal unitary consciousness. American philosopher Brand Blanshard, for example, conceived the Absolute as a single overarching intelligible system but declined to characterize it in terms of consciousness or experience.