All About Hinduism

Archive for the tag “Upanishads”

Upanishads Part 4

  The Nature of Self.    


(In this concluding part of the series on the teachings of the Upanishads we look at the Self that is Reality.  Exracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran.)

Astrophysicists, when speaking of creation, tell us that in the beginning all matter in the universe would have been present in that  ‘primeval atom,’ super condensed to an unbelievable degree. In such a state, matter would no longer be possible as matter. It would be stripped down to pure undifferentiated raw energy. Variations like gravity and light would not emerged and Time and Space would not yet be real.

The sages would find this a prefect metaphor for the unitive state. In samadhi, reality is condensed into pure potential, without dimensions or differentiation. Physicists do not say there was nothing before the Big Bang; they say everything came from that, and nothing more can be said. Similarly, samadhi is not emptiness but complete fullness.

That fullness the Upanishads call sat: absolute reality, in which all creation is implicit as on organism is implicit in its DNA or a tree in its seed.

The joy of being in this state cannot be described. It is infinite. This is the second message of the Upanishads. The infinite, unbounded, full of joy – is our native state. This is Sat-Chit- Ananda. Pure unconditioned awareness which is Absolute Bliss.

How can one attempt to explain such a state, the true nature of one’s Self? “Words turn back frightened,” the Upanishads say. Yet, the sages must have longed so ardently to communicate that they had to try even if the picture was doomed to be incomplete.

Here are glimpses of what they realised…

Whatever we are, whatever we may have done, there is in each of us an inalienable Self that is divine;

As the sun, who is the eye of the world,
Cannot be tainted by the defects in our eyes
Nor by the objects it looks on,
So the one Self, dwelling in all, cannot
Be tainted by the evils of the world.
For this Self transcends all !

                                                (Katha II .2.II)

They remind us that the same Self dwells in all:

As the same fire assumes different shapes
When it consumes objects of differing in shape,
So does the one Self take the shape,
Of every creature in whom he is present.

                                                  ( Katha II.2.9)

They call us to discover that Self “which knows no aging when the body ages: this knows no dying when the body dies.” (Chan.VIII.I.I,5)

They place us in a compassionate universe where nothing is “other” that ourselves- and they urge us to treat the universe with reverence, for there is nothing in the world but That

The Self is the sun shining in the sky,
The wind blowing in space: he is the fire
At the altar and in the home the guest;
He dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth,
And in the vast firmament;he is the fish
Born in water, the plants growing on the earth,
The river flowing down from the mountain.
For this Self is supreme!

(Katha II.2.2)

Most significantly the Upanishads tell us that our. native state is a realm where death cannot reach. They knew first-hand that when the Self withdraws consciousness from the body, the continuity of personality is not broken. Death would not be different.

As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass,
draws itself together and reaches out for the next,
so does the Self, having come to end of one life and shed all ignorance,
gathers in its faculties and reaches out from the old body to new.

( Brihad.III.4.3)

Finally, if both body and mind are made of prana which dissolves on death and if personality returns life after life than surely heaven too must be a state of consciousness, part of the created world. It might be more blissful than the physical world but it too had to be transitory.

The goal then is Self- realisation of one’s true nature: not matter embodied or disembodied, but the uncreated Self.

Thus Self -realisation is immortality in an entirely new sense: not ‘everlasting life’ but beyond death and life alike.

It must be understood here that Upanishads present no system. When much later India’s mystics and philosophers built structures based on these foundations they found they had produced points of logical disagreement. But they all understood that in practice all systems come to same thing. From one point of view the world is God, from another there will always be a veil of difference between the embodied person and the Godhead. Both are true, and neither is the whole truth. Reality is beyond all limitations.

In the end then, the Upanishads belong not just to Hinduism. They are India’s most precious legacy to humanity.


Upanishads -Part 3

ImageLat year when I was visiting Bombay, I saw someone wearing a t-shirt which proclaimed, I was an atheist till I realised I was God.  It made me chuckle. It was a clever spin on the now well known Vedanta philosophy of non-dualism which states – That which is without is within. The same One pervades everything. The Self is God.

But is it really that simple and how did we come to this understanding? What does it really mean?

This brings us to the most fundamental discovery made by sages of the Upanishads.

You Are That –Tat Twam Asi

As the rishis delved into the depths of human consciousness peeling layer after layer of awareness they found that the mind is not consciousness, it is only an instrument of consciousness.

When the concentration is so profound that the mind-processes have come to a stand still and awareness has been consolidated even beyond the mind, little remains except for the awareness of “I”.   Space and Time vanish and you rest in meditation in what the Taittiriya Upanishad calls the “body of joy”, a silent, ethereal inner realm at the threshold of pure being.

In this silence, Shanti, you become aware of something vast, intimately your own but not the finite limited self you had been calling “I”.

No amount of will can erase this “I”, the thin veil of personal identification that seperates us from infinite consciousness. Yet, in deep meditation it suddenly vanishes.

This state the Upanishads call turiya – literally “the fourth” for it lies beyond waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. Turiya, the Upanishads say, is waking up in dreamless sleep.

In later Hindu thought this awakening came to be know as samadhi, complete absorption or moksha, liberation, for it brings freedom from all conditioning and the limitations of mind and space.

The Upanishads tell us that when the  ‘I’ has dissolved and the observer and the observed become one, just chit remains. Pure undifferentiated consciousness. This is our real Self. And, it is identical with the undifferentiated unity which the sages called the Brahman.This is not a reasoned conclusion but something that is experienced at the very centre of one’s being.

The Self is Brahman – is the central discovery of the Upanishads which gave birth to Its most famous mahavkya, formulation : “Tat twam asi” – You are That.

“That” is the characteristic way in which the Upanishads point to a Reality that cannot be described; and “you’ is not the petty, finite personality but the pure consciousness that ‘makes the eye see and the mind think’ – the Self.

And thus we come to the basis of the non- dualistic Vedanta philosophy – The Atman is Brahman, the Self is God.

To understand Self then is to understand God.

So what is the nature of this Self? The Upanishads go to great lengths to show it to us and we will look at some of the explanations in the next post.

(extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran.)


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)

Upanishads- Part 1


( Extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. There are many commentaries on the Upanishads but I will for the purpose of the next few posts stick to this book for the sake of coherence.)

What is an Upanishad?

An Upanishad is an utterance of mystical truth that has come down to us as an attachment to the Vedas, the ancient and scared hymn collections.

Etymologically the word ‘Upanishad’ suggests “sitting down near”: that is, at the feet of an illumined teacher or guru in an intimate session of spiritual instruction. In the Upanishads the Guru takes many forms and the settings are dramatic: a wife asks her husband about immortality, a king seeks instruction from a sage; one teenage boy is taught by Death himself, another by fire, beasts and birds. Sometimes the sages are women.

The Upanishads record such sessions but their purpose is not so much instruction as inspiration. They are mean to be expounded by the teacher from the basis of personal experience.

Although we speak of them together as a body, the Upanishads are not part of a whole like chapters in a book. Each is complete in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent Reality.

When the texts were composed and by whom we don’t know. The sages who gave them to us did not care to leave their names: the truths they set down were eternal, and the identity of those who arranged the words was irrelevant.

Fascinatingly, although the Upanishads are attached to the Vedas, they seem to come from an altogether different world. While the Vedas look outward in reverence and awe of the phenomenal world, the Upanishads look inward, finding the powers of nature only an expression of the awe-inspiring powers of human consciousness.

They tell us that there is a Reality underlying life which rituals cannot reach. They teach that this Reality is the essence of every created thing, and the same Reality is our real Self, so that each of us is one with the power that created and sustains the universe.

And, finally, they testify that this reality can be realised directly, without the mediation of priests or rituals or any of the structures of organised religion, not after death but in this life. And, that is the purpose for which each of us been born and the goal to toward which evolution moves.

How did the sages realise this Truth they testify to? By adopting what we know today as the Scientific Method of questioning and investigating phenomena. We’ll look at Upanishads as the Supreme Science in the next part of the series.

Vedas- An Introduction by Eknath Easwaran.

As I was drafting my post on the Upanishads based on my favourite translation of all times, The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran, I read again his introduction to the Vedas. And, although my last post gives a brief summary, I think Easwaran’s introduction gives the essence and makes a wonderful starting point in the quest to understanding the Upanishads.

So here it is in an abridged form….

The religion of the ancient dwellers of the Indus Valley was based on ritual sacrifice and lyrical, life-affirming hymns meant for incantation in an ancient form of Sanskrit.

These hymns dating back from perhaps 1500 B.C reveal an intimate, almost mystical bond between worshipper and environment, a simultaneous sense of awe and kinship with the spirit that dwells in all things. Even in translation they have compelling beauty. They worship natural forces and the elemental powers of life: sun and wind, storm and rain, dawn and night, earth and heaven, fire and offering.

These powers are the devas, gods and goddesses. In hymns they seem very near, present before us in the forms and forces of the natural world. Fire or Agni is worshipped as the actual fire on the hearth or altar and as the divine priest who carries the sacrificial offerings to the gods. The storm is Indra, leader of the gods, lord of war and thunder who rides on his swift chariot to fight the demons of the Sky. The wind is Vayu. Night is Rati and dawn is Usha, the loveliest and most luminous of all goddesses.The sun is Surya who rides his chariot across the sky, or Savitri the giver of life. And death is Yama, the first being to die and thereby first in the underworld.

Throughout the hymns of this early age there is little or no trace of fear.The forces of life are approached with loving reverence and awe, as allies of humanity in a world that is essentially friendly so long as its secrets are understood. And despite the pantheon of deities, it seems clear even in the earliest hymns that one Supreme Being is worshipped in different aspects. ‘Truth is one,’ one hymn proclaims, ‘though the wise call it by many names.’

These poetic outpourings, were chanted while offerings were poured into the fire. Such fire ceremonies were performed for the Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers of clans by the Brahmins whose function in society was to preserve rites already too ancient to be understood.

As time passed, Brahmins produced commentaries to explain the meaning of these ancient rites. Hymns and commentaries together became a sacred heritage passed from generation to generation. These are the Vedas, India’s scriptures.

Veda comes from the root vid, ‘to know’. TheVedas, Hindus believe are revealed knowledge or Shruti, given to humanity at the dawn of time. They exist in four collections: Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, with Rig Veda being the oldest.

The first part of each collection, called karma-kanda, preserves the hymns and philosophical interpretations of rituals used in Hindu worship to this day.

The second part, called jnana-kanda, concerns not ritual but wisdom: what is life about; what death means; what the human being is; what is the nature of the Godhead that sustains us; in short the burning questions that men and women have asked in every age.

The ritual section of the Vedas define the religion of a particular culture; but the second part, the Upanishads, is Universal and as relevant to the world today as it was to Hindus five thousand years ago.

So what is an Upanishad?

We will look at it in some detail in next series of posts.

(Meanwhile, to read one of the oldest and most beautiful hymns on Creation from the Rig Veda, click here)

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: