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                                      17: ESSENCE OF THE UPANISHADS

                                  (See also 28.3)

Of the 120 or so Upanishads which are extant, about twelve are considered to be major Upanishads. Almost every religious teacher has commented on most of these major Upanishads. They are all discourses and dialogues on spiritual experiences and pursuits. Long or short, in prose or poetry, they are expositions and theses on fundamental questions transcending the phenomenal realities of day-to-day life. However, the one under-current of everything in the Upanishads would seem to be the concept of one Godhead, amidst the plethora of names and forms that confront us in nature as well as in the mental universe in each one of us. The word ‘brahman’ is used by the Upanishads to refer to this absolute Reality. It pervades everything animate and inanimate. It is the One and only One intangible power behind all tangible forces. It is the vast boundless ocean of which everything that is experienced is only a wave. Everything that is perceptible to the senses, including the feeling of I-ness of each human being is only a fragment of that wave. We are implored by the Upanishads in all earnestness to delve beneath the names and forms of the outside world and seek the peaceful Infinite within. Agitation and perturbation are only on the surface of this Ocean of Bliss.

It is certainly elementary to say that God is everywhere. To children we narrate the story of Prahlada from the Bhagavatam on the manifestation of the Almighty God as nara-simha (= man-lion-combination) in a pillar. We think that this convinces the child (and us!) that God is everywhere. But to a spiritual seeker the Upanishads declare that more is true. God is not only everywhere, but in addition, there is nothing but God everywhere. This implication of the Upanishadic teaching is missed by all but the true Seer. To say that there is nothing but God, means we must be able to see God, Godliness and Godhead in everything that we see. When a wooden replica of, say, a horse, is seen the child sees only the horse, but the experienced adult should be able to see the wood ‘behind’ the horse, inspite of the horse that stares us in the face. The Seer, says the Upanishads, sees only the Self (=Atman, which is the immanent Reality in everything). For him, the plurality of the universe is only an outward appearance, like the waves in the ocean. This sama-dRSTi (= equanimous vision) is the goal of all teaching in the Upanishads. To bring home this point the rishis of the Upanishads get into elaborate dialectical arguments, competitive discourses, provocative dialogues, revealing reminiscences of spiritual experiences, descriptions of tentative conclusions after initial experimentations, numerous questions and varied answers to each of them, meditative searches after truth, joyous declarations of the Ultimate Wisdom and last of all, very involved comparisons and analogies some of them very complicated and involved as to defy our understanding and some of them as elementary as may verge on the naïve. All this constitutes the ICEBERG we referred to  Iin another context.

. However much we may write about it we shall still be floating only on the TIP! It is the experience that is the Iceberg!

The Seers of the Upanishads employ several techniques to give us the message. In the 7th chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad the divine sage Narada goes to Sanatkumara, one of the four most enlightened sons of Brahma the Creator, born out of His will, and asks for spiritual enlightenment. Sanatkumara bids Narada to tell him what he knows already. The latter gives a long list of the names of all the arts and sciences that he has learnt. Starting from the four vedas, then the vedAngas, the various SAstras, Narada in one breath lists all of them and concludes by saying that inspite of all this knowledge he has not learnt about the Ultimate Truth. All this is only a name, says Sanatkumara. ‘Meditate on the name; he who meditates on Name as brahman becomes independent. ‘Is there anything greater than Name?’ asks Narada. Yes, there is Speech and Sanatkumara elaborates on Speech as the Ultimate. Is there anything greater than Speech? Yes, there is Mind. Then there is Will, then Thought, then Contemplation, then Understanding, Strength, Food, Water, Heat, Space, Memory, Hope, Prana the Life-principle. Thus Narada is led on step by step to subtler and subtler principles. Narada does not ask whether there is anything greater than prANa the life-principle. But Sanatkumara leads him on to further to satya(Truth), then vijnAna (Knowledge with Experience), SraddhA (Faith), Steadfastness, Activity, Happiness and then to the Infinite. Says Sanatkumara: What is Infinite is happy. There is no happiness in the Finite. And then comes a most profound declaration from Sanatkumara: Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, is aware of nothing else, that is the Infinite. Where one sees something else, hears something else, is aware of something else, that is the Finite. The Infinite is immortal while the Finite is mortal. (Chandogya Upanishad 7.24.1). In other words, the Ultimate is non-dual. Any presence or awareness of duality makes the awareness finite. The Infinite (bhUmA) is the fullest expression and manifestation of the Absolute Reality. That is everywhere. That is above, that is below, that is in front of you, behind you. That is Atman, the immanent Reality. That is brahman, the Transcendent Reality. What you see before you physically, is not brahman, but what makes you see is brahman. (Kenopanaishad 1 – 4) It cannot be heard by your ears, because it is what makes you hear. It cannot be thought of as an object of thought by your mind, but it is what makes your mind think. Such profound descriptions abound everywhere in the Upanishads.

The Upanishad known as bRhad-AraNyaka is in fact the largest Upanishad. Its third chapter describes a seminar-like discussion in the assembly of the great Janaka, wherein Yajnavalkya comes out the victor. Arrayed against him are stalwarts like Uddalaka, Aswala, Arthabaga, Ushastha and many more. The occasion itself constitutes an interesting anecdote. King Janaka had invited all these brahma-vAdins (speakers and researchers about the Absolute) for a yajna, provokes them into a discussion by announcing that he has earmarked one thousand cows, each with a bag of ten gold coins and all these constitute the prize for the one among them who is ‘anUcAnatamaH’ (meaning, the most erudite in vedas and vedAngas. The entire assembly is stunned at this announcement, stupefied by the challenge of the occasion and the seriousness it demanded and kept silent. But after a little period of silence, Yajnavalkya rises up and with his assistant makes preparations to take possession of the cows. Then it is that the assembled scholars begin to challenge him one by one. Each one asks him a few questions about the subtleties of the Knowledge about the Absolute. Yajnavalkya shoots forth his answers without any hesitation or confusion and with such clarity that they withdraw their challenge and sit down. Finally one lady, Vacaknavi Gargi, announces that she is going to ask just two questions of Yajnavalkya and if he answers them well, there should be no more doubt about who carries the day.

‘That of which they say it is above the heaven and below the earth, which is between heaven and earth as well, and which was, is and shall be – tell me, Yajnavalkya, in what it is woven, warp and woof?’

In space (=AkASa), replies Yajnavalkya. ‘And in what, is this AkaSa woven, warp and woof?’ shoots back Vacaknavi Gargi. The answer (bRhad-AraNyaka-Upanishad 3.8.8)of Yajnavalkya to this profound question is one of the most famous passages in all of Upanishadic literature and should be engraved in letters of gold at all spiritual centres of the world:

The Seers, O Gargi, call Him akshara, the Imperishable Reality. He is neither gross nor fine, neither short nor long, neither hot nor cold, neither light nor dark, neither of the nature of air, nor of space. He is without relations, without taste or smell, without eyes, ears, speech, mind, vigour, breath, mouth; he is without measure, without inside or outside. He experiences nothing and nothing experiences him.

In another context in the same Upanishad, the same Yajnavalkya explains all this to his Maitreyi more elaborately. The conversation (bRhad-AraNyaka-Upanishad 1.2.4) is on the non-duality of the Atman :

It is – as from a lighted fire, kindled with damp fuel, various clouds of smoke arise, even so, my dear, from this Great Being have issued forth what we have as Rg Veda, yajur-veda, sAma-veda, AtharvAngirasa, history, legends, arts, Upanishads, verses, aphorisms, glosses and commentaries. From Him indeed are all these breathed forth.

It is – as of all waters the ocean is the centre , as of all kinds of touch the skin is the centre, as of all smells the nose is the centre, as of all tastes the tongue is the centre, as of all sounds the ear is the centre, as of all intentions the mind is the centre, as of all arts the heart is the centre, as of all actions the hands are the centre, as of all movements the feet are the centre, as of all the vedas the speech is the centre.

It is – as a lump of salt thrown into water becomes dissolved into water and could not be seized again, but wherever one takes the water one tastes salt, even so, my dear, this great Being, infinite and boundless, is only a mass of consciousness. It emerges from these elements and vanishes again with them. When it is gone, there is no more (individual) consciousness. This is what I say, my dear. Thus spoke Yajnavalkya.

Then Maitreyi said: ‘Here you have bewildered me, Sir, by saying that when he is gone there is no more consciousness’.

Yajnavalkya replied, ‘Surely, I am not saying anything bewildering. It is wisdom enough, my dear. For when there is duality, as it were, then one smells another, one sees another, one hears another, one speaks to another, one thinks of another, one understands another. But when everything has become the Self, then by what and whom should one hear, by what and to whom should one speak, by what and of whom should one think, and by what and whom should one understand? By what should one know that by which all this is known? By what, my dear, should one know the knower?’


How then, does one realise that? Yes, the comprehension is certainly difficult. But by internal self-discipline one can reach that state of self-realisation in this very life itself, assures Lord Yama, the God of Death, in the Katha-upanishad, in his very lucid presentation to young Naciketas. The latter as a boy is watching his father give away all his wealth and possessions and out of sheer curiosity asks: To whom, dear father, are you going to give me? Irritated by repetitions of the same question from the boy, the father, in a bad mood, replies, ‘To Yama, the God of Death’! The boy accordingly goes to the world of Yama, waits for three days before he gets to see the Lord and in return for his waiting patiently is given three boons of his choice. By the first the boy asks for the appeasement of his father’s anger on his return to Earth; by the second he seeks to know about the ritual sacrifices that Yama performed to attain the status of the God of Death. Both are easily granted. By his third request the young boy clean bowls the Lord of Death, for he seeks to know about the secret of after-life, i.e. the secret of life after death. Yama is embarassed and tries to dissuade the boy, by offering him, instead, all the riches and sensual pleasures of the Earth. But the boy refuses and steadfastly asks only for the Ultimate Wisdom. It is then that Yama elaborates the science of brahma-vidyA (the knowledge about brahman). The ensuing chapters of Kathopanishad constitute the most poetical, at the same time most lucid presentation of the knowledge of brahman-cum-Atman, the summum bonum of all the Upanishads.


What does all this mean to the layman of the modern world?


It is this. Every religion says that man should behave in a noble way with compassion, love and sympathy and should spread happiness everywhere. The Upanishads add a punch line to this and say: Man should behave in a divine way because his essential nature is divine. The animal instincts that he usually exhibits are the ones acquired by him through his thoughts and deeds in his several lives. But if he is himself, he can conquer these lower tendencies in him and bring out his natural divine instinct in him which will prompt him to love to be happy and to revel in that Inner Glory of the inherent Divinity in Him. Therefore, say the Upanishads: Don’t seek happiness from outside. Be yourself, turn to the Atman, see the same Atman in every other self. And that way see the same positives and not the negatives of every other self. If only we set our mind to do this the Lord will help us; because, the Lord resides in us. He is not an absentee landlord; He is working with us all the time. This is the fundamental guideline of the Upanishads for practical living.

It is necessary here to record the flexibility and frankness exhibited by the Upanishadic seers. The knowledge of brahman-Atman elucidated in these ancient texts is of course a declaration of the great sages who ‘saw it all’. But they never say it as a dogma. Nor are we supposed to receive them as dogmatic assertions. The beauty of their teaching is that they ask you to enquire within yourself and arrive at your own conclusions, step by step, checking with the Upanishadic revelations at each step. To help you in this search after truth they give you their intermediate conclusions also. The final conclusion, according to them, is a realisable truth, which forms therefore an axiom – a single axiom from which the entire science of vedanta and metaphysics is built up by accepted forms of logic. This single axiom is enunciated in four different ways in the vedas.


These are the four Grand Pronouncements ( = mahA-vAkyas):

praJAnaM Brahma – Rgveda, aitareyopanishad, 5.3

aham Brahma asmi – yajurveda, bRhadAraNyaka Upanishad, 1.4.10

tat tvam asi – sAmaveda, cAndogya Upanishad, 6.9.4

ayam AtmA Brahma – atharva veda, mANDukya Upanishad,

meaning, respectively

Absolute Consciousness is brahman;

I am brahman;

Thou art That;

This Atman is brahman.


Each of these pronouncements is subjected to an intensive analysis by the commentators belonging to each school of philosophy. However the differences in the interpretations by the different AcAryas should not matter in one’s daily life. It is as if there exists a multidimensional Reality of which each individual perception has only an one-dimensional projection of the Reality before it, and, perhaps, each in a dimensional axis. You are free to choose that one which is appropriate to your taste, evolution, training and tradition.

Before we bring this discussion on the Upanishads to a close we should talk about the mystic syllable oM which is most important for the religious and spiritual pursuit by a Hindu. Without an explanation and study of this word no understanding of Hinduism can be complete. The word consists of a triad of three sounds ( mAtrAs) , namely the syllable ‘a’ (as the ‘u’ in ‘but’), the syllable ‘u’ (as the ‘u’ in ‘put’) and the syllable ‘ma’. This is why many texts using this word use the spelling ‘aum’ thus emphasizing the three mAtrAs which make up the word oM. The term mAtrA is used for the upper limb of the nAgari characters and a syllabic instant in prosody. The esoteric significance of these three mAtrAs and the myriads of connotations that they stand for are the subject matter of many a passage in the Upanishads, the Gita and other scriptures. In fact, a whole Upanishad (though a very small one), namely, mANDUkyopanishad, devotes itself entirely to the explanation of the word oM. The Upanishad, for this very reason, has been termed the quintessance of vedanta. If a person cannot study all the hundred and odd Upanishads, it will be enough, it is so declared in the muktikopanishad, if he reads the one Upanishad of mANDUkya. The first extant commentary on this Upanishad was written by Gaudapada, before the time of Sankara and this commentary called mANDUkya-kArikA is still the earliest known systematic exposition of the advaita point of view of vedanta. Its importance can be gauged by the fact that when Sankara wrote his commentary on the mANDUkyopanishad, as he did for ten other Upanishads, he merged the kArikA of Gaudapada with the Upanishad and wrote a commentary on the kArikA also.

The word oM is spoken of as the primeval word which stands for the entire universe permeated by brahman and therefore brahman itself. The three sounds that go tomake up oM constitute, symbolically, the entire universe of words. For ‘a’ is the syllable with which one opens the mouth to speak any word and ‘u’ is the syllable which allows the tongue all positions from the palate to the lips and ‘m’ is the vocal movement one makes to close the lips. Every sound which man can produce is between the extremes of ‘a’ and ‘m’ and so, together with the intermediate stage of ‘u’ it represents everything words may represent.

Esoterically, the ‘a’ stands for the first stage of wakefulness, where we experience in our gross body the totality of external experiences through our mind and sense organs. The ‘u’ stands for the dream state of sleep in which mental experiences are available, though erratically, by the mind which is the only thing awake, without the help of the external sense organs or the presence of the rationalizing intellect. The two kinds of experience, namely those of the waking state and of the dreaming state , contradict each other, in the sense that a man may experience hunger in a dream though he might have eaten in the waking state a few minutes earlier. In the state of deep sleep, represented by the sound ‘m’ there is no consciousness of any experience; even the mind has gone to sleep. But still there is an awareness after the deep sleep is over that one has been sleeping and that one was conscious of nothing. (Go to 3.2 Three Fundamental Urges of Man for a further explanation) The mANDUkyopanishad says that in the state of deep sleep the Atman which is always present, was witness to the sleep of the body and since Atman is nothing but Consciousness, one was conscious of the state of Ignorance arising from deep sleep. It is this cognizance of Ignorance that makes us say, after the sleep is over, that ‘I was sleeping, totally oblivious of anything’. It is the Atman which is present in the three states of consciousness, and also in the state beyond the three states, namely the turIya (= fourth) state, i.e., the state corresponding to the silence that ensues after one has steadily pronounced oM. It is the state of no mAtrA, that is, amAtrA. In that state of silence consciousness alone is present and there is nothing else and therefore nothing to be cognized or conscious of. So when we recite the mystic syllable oM, we are advised to meditate on this common substratum of all the three states of experience, and during the silence that follows, merge in the Consciousness that alone persists as a substratum. That Consciousness is the Atman or brahman.

This is the symbolism behind the repeated insistence of the Upanishads that the word oM is the supreme prop (Alambana) to reach brahman, it is the one thing which is talked about by all the vedas and it is for this alone that the sages do penance and undergo austerities. It represents both the brahman with attributes and the brahmanwithout attributes. It is a reminder of our true state of Being. Hence it is that the word oM is recited at the beginning and conclusion of every religious reading or prayer. It indicates that we emanate from brahman and finally dissolve into brahman. The soul which leaves the body in the midst of conscious oM recitation is said to merge into brahman itself, that is, attain mokSa. Meditation on the word is recommended for the yogi as a direct path to realisation. As the generality of human beings cannot realise the ultimate reality which is beyond all categories of time, space and causation, the mAnDUkyopanishad and its commentator, Gaudapada recommend the contemplation of the three sound symbols as the three states of man’s totality of experiences, and thus, analysing one’s experience, the student endowed with the mental and moral qualifications requiring for the understanding of vedanta, is helped to rech ultimate reality. Specifically, if one identifies the amAtra state of silence with the fourth state of experience and meditates on it without intermission, one realises one’s Self and ‘there is no return for him to the sphere of empirical life’.

                                                                       GO TO 17.1 MIND AND THE SELF

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