All About Hinduism

Upanishads – Part 2

                                   The Supreme Science.

The Upanishads are not a philosophy. They do not explain or develop a line of argument.They are darshana, ‘something seen’ or ‘experienced’.

In this context it is clear that the questions the Upanishads record – “What happens at death? What makes my hand move, my eyes see, my mind think? Does life have a purpose or is it governed by chance?” – were not asked out of mere curiosity. They show a burning desire to know the underlying principles of life.

A fervent desire to know is what motivates all science. And,  “All science,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “is the reduction of multiplicities to unities.” Nothing is more characteristic of Indian thought.

The Vedic hymns are steeped in the conviction of rita, an order that pervades creation and is reflected in each part – a oneness to which all diversity can be referred. From this conviction follows a highly sophisticated notion: a law of nature must apply uniformly and universally. In renaissance Europe this realisation led to the birth of classical physics. In ancient India it had equally profound consequences.

While the rest of Vedic India was trying to know and understand the natural world and making great strides in medicine, mathematics and astronomy, the sages of the Upanishads  focussed on knowing the medium of knowing: the mind.

The sages wanted more than explanations of the outside world. They sought principles that would explain the whole of human experience, including the world within the mind.

The sages of the Upanishads show a unique preoccupation with states of consciousness. They observed dreams and the state of dreamless sleep and asked what is’ known’ in each and what faculty could be said to be the ‘knower’ .  

The study of the consciousness was called brahma-vidya, which means both “the supreme science’ and ‘the science of the Supreme’.  Brahmavidya is in a sense a lab science: the mind is both object and laboratory. Attention is trained inwards, on itself, through a discipline the Upanishads call Nididhyasana: meditation.

In the Brihandaranyaka Upanishad there are long and haunting expositions of the states of  mind the sages explored. They called them waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep and somehow made the brilliant observation that these were also layers of awareness. Different strata of consciousness.

In dreaming, the Upanishad observes, we leave one world and enter another. Which to the body and mind seems as real as the waking world. So when we wake up from a dream we do not pass from unreality to reality, we pass from a lower level of reality to a higher one.

If the waking experience is impermanent should there  not be something more abiding to support it? Might it not be possible to wake up into a higher state, a level of reality above this world of constantly changing sensory impressions?  The sages found a clue: in dreamless sleep the observing self detaches itself not just from the body but also the mind.

This still world they found is always present in the depths of the mind. What if we woke up in the very depths of the unconscious when thought itself has ceased? Here the Upanishads are like pages from ancient log books recording journeys into the uncharted waters of the world within.

And, the discoveries they make are just as amazing….( to be continued)

( Extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. Edited, and slightly modified for the purpose of the blog)

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