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Maitreyi Upanishad

There is a beautiful story about my parama guru [teacher’s teacher] Ramana Maharshi. Once a European journalist met him. During his interview, the journalist asked Maharshi: “Do you believe in God?”

“No. I don’t,” said Maharshi.

The journalist was taken aback. He was sitting in front of the greatest sage of India, revered by millions, and he was saying he did not believe in God. Perhaps he had heard it wrong. He wanted to confirm. He asked, “Did you say you do not believe in God?”

Ramana Maharshi said, “Yes, I did. I do not believe in God.” Then the sage of Arunachala saw the confusion in the eyes of the journalist and added after a pause, “I do not believe in god, I know God.”

The Maharshi could have said “I am God,” but he must have realized how much more confused the journalist would have become when he heard that.

Nisargadatta Maharaj did say that, though. In fact, he said more than that. He said, “The world is my garden and God is my gardener.”

Each teacher teaches the path by which he has awakened into the truth. Neither Ramana Maharshi nor Nisargadatta Maharaj followed the path of rituals to reach the truth and for that reason, in their teachings they express no need for external rituals. These teachers go direct to the truth rejecting everything else. In this, they are in a class with the teacher of Maitreyi Upanishad, who, I love to believe, is the Maitreyi of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, who asked her husband Sage Yajnavalkya, when he said he would divide his wealth between her and his other wife Kalyani, ‘kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam?” – “What shall I do with that by which I shall not become immortal?” Maitreyi chose, instead, his discipleship and wisdom.

The Maitreyi Upanishad is a rare beauty even among the Upanishads which are all, without exception, incredibly beautiful. It is counted among the minor Upanishads, but there is nothing minor about this Upanishad.

Here is a mantra from the Upanishad.

“chittam eva hi samsarah, tat prayetnena shodhayet.”

What we call samsara, the world of changes in which we live, the world of joys and sorrows, is nothing but our chitta, our mind. Purify the mind, and that is all we have to do to end sansara and awaken into the truth behind it.

There is a beautiful story about a Chinese painter who reached the court of the Sultan of Turkey. He introduced himself to the Sultan and challenged the best painter in Turkey for a painting competition. The Sultan was a lover of paintings and he was delighted – it would be really wonderful to have a competition between this travelling painter who has come from so far and his own best painter. The time set for the completion of the paintings was forty-five days. The Sultan asked for the painters’ requirements. The Turkish painter gave a long list but the Chinese painter said he did not need anything – no brushes, no paints, no canvas, nothing. The only thing he required was that nobody should peep into his work, he needed complete privacy. Of course, it was granted, but everyone was confused about it all.

Then the painting began. The painters were given two sides of the same hall. The Turkish painter worked on one wall and people could see a magnificent painting coming into being slowly there. The Chinese painter’s side of the hall was closed in, with nobody getting even the slightest glimpse. But people knew he was working there – occasional sounds could be heard.

Time passed soon. The fortieth day came, then the forty-first, the forty-second, and people could see what a splendid work the Turkish painter was producing. They were sure there was no way the foreigner was going to beat their painter – it is not possible that anyone could paint more beautifully.

The final day came. The sultan was the judge, of course. He came to visit the finished paintings. He first went to the Turkish painter and saw his work. He almost declared him the winner on the spot, even without taking a look at the Chinese painter’s work. He was sure, as other people who had seen the painting were, that nothing could surpass this. But then to be fair to the Chinese painter, he decided to take a look at his work too.

The partitions that covered the Chinese painter’s part of the hall were removed, and the sultan and his ministers entered. And then they stood thunderstruck. There on the wall before them was precisely the same painting as the local painter’s, only it was still more beautiful than his work. It had a certain quality that the Turkish painter’s work did not have, a certain depth, a certain something mysterious.

“How did you do that?” asked the Sutan, amazement making his voice thick. And the Chinese painter said, “My apologies, Your Highness. I am no painter. I do not know how to paint. I am a Taoist monk. All I did was to make this wall a perfect mirror. And what you see here is my rival’s work, reflected in that perfect mirror.”

Our mind is capable of reflecting the world perfectly, showing us the world exactly as it is. All that it needs for this is that the mind be a perfect mirror. A perfect mirror means a mirror without deflections, without dust on it, or other impurities.

And this is precisely what the Maitreyi Upanishad is speaking about. Tat prayatnena shodhayet – purify the mind through your prayatna, hard work, and you see reality reflected in it exactly as it is, without distortions. At the moment our mind is full of impurities and we do not see the world as it is. All we need is to purify it, and nothing else is required. Vrittikshaya, the Upanishad tells us, is the only requirement – vrittikshaya means the silencing of the disturbances in the mind.

Vrittis are like waves and ripples in water. When the surface of the water in a lake is disturbed by waves and ripples, it cannot reflect the sky perfectly. Quieten the ripples and waves, quieten the vrittis, and the reflection will be perfect.

Patanjali defines yoga as chittavritti nirodha – as the process through which the cessation of the vrittis of the mind is achieved, the path of achieving stillness of the mind. When the mind is still, what we experience is reality without distortions.

Maitreyi Upanishad goes straight to the truth, as Ramana Maharshi does, as Nisargadatta Maharaj does, as Patanjali does.

After saying that all that you need is to stop the vrittis in the mind and achieveng purification of the mind, the Upanishad takes time to point out what it calls an eternal secret – guhyam sanatanam. And this secret is: yacchittah tanmayo bhavati – you become what your mind is. A truth on which volumes have already been written and volumes more will be written. We are what our mind is. The difference between the saint and the sinner is the difference in their minds, the difference between the happy man and the unhappy man is in their minds, the difference between the conqueror and the conquered is in their minds, the difference between the winner and the loser is in their minds.

One of the books I am reading at the moment is Herbert Benson’s Timeless Healing. The book is subtitled The Power and Biology of Belief. The book says it is our mind that decides whether we are sick or not, and healing is as much a mental process as a medical one, if not many times more. And Maitreyi Upanishad says: yacchittah tanmayo bhavati – you become what your mind is. If your mind is sick, you are sick. And when your mind is healed, you are healed.

Having pointed out that eternal truth, having pointed out the direct path to the eternal truth by saying “chittam eva hi samsarah, tat prayetnena shodhayet,” the Upanishad moves on to reject the common paths that are circuitous, which too lead to the truth, but which are like going round and round the mountain to reach the top, and not climbing straight to the top, and some of which are ways of avoiding to journey to the truth rather than travelling towards it.

Speaking of temple worship, the Upanishad says the real temple is not the temple out there, but your own body and the real deity is not the deity in the garbhagriha – the sanctum sanctorum – of the temple, but the deity residing within your own body.

“deho devalayah proktah, sa jeevah kevalah shivah.
tyajed ajnananirmalyam, sohambhavena poojayet.”

This body is spoken of as the temple, and the inhabitant of the body is none other than Shiva himself, says the mantra. Cast away yesterday’s garlands [nirmalya] of ignorance and worship him with the bhava [attitude] that I am He.

puja punar-janana-bhogakari mumukshoh;
tasmad yatih svahridayarcanam eva kuryad
bahyarcanam parihared apunarbhavaya

This is the glorious mantra of atmapuja – of worship of oneself, and if that term is shocking, then worship of the Self. The mantra reminds us strongly of the beautiful Atmapuja Upanishad, which says: sohambhavo namaskarah – true prostration before the deity is the attitude that I am He. And of the Avadhuta Gita which apologises to the Lord for going to the temple and thereby declaring He is out there in the shrine and not in one’s own heart; for going on pilgrimages, thereby declaring that God is elsewhere and not right here; and for chanting His names in devotion, thereby declaring that he is other than oneself.

The Maitreyi Upanishad mantra says: “If you are a seeker after liberation, remember: worshipping God in idols of stone, metal, jewels or clay only brings repeated births [as a limited ego]; and for that reason, worship only [the deity in] your own heart and no other. Do you want apurnarbhava – the cessation of births as a bound self? Then abandon external worship.”

Continuing, in the shortest possible way, the Upanishad defines knowledge and meditation. Knowledge [jnanam] is seeing non-difference [abhedadarshanam] and meditation [dhyanam] is when the mind is without thoughts [nirvishayam manah]. You cannot be more precise than this.

To Maitreyi Upanishad, real shaucha [cleansing through washing] is the control of the senses [indriyanigrahah] and bathing is throwing away the impurities of the mind [snanam manomalatyagah].

What is food that is allowed, and what is food that is prohibited? Food we should eat, says the Upanishad, is the constant remembrance of non-duality [advaitabhavana bhaikshyam] and what is prohibited is the thought of duality [abhakshyam dvaitabhavanam ].

What is the family a monk should give up? Your son, your brother, your home, and your wife, says the Upanishad. And then the Upanishad explains what it means by each of these. The son you must give up is your ego [ahankara-sutam], the brother you should give up is your mind [chitta-bhrataram], the home you must give up is delusions [moha-mandiram] and the wife you must given up is your ambitions and hopes [asha-patnim].

The teacher, Maitreyi perhaps as I said, does not believe in things like the evening rituals every twice-born is expected to do every day, for it is not rituals that take you to the truth, but emptying the mind of all content and seeing non-duality with that mind. Speaking about sandhyas, morning and evening ritual prayers, Maitreyi says: How can I perform the sandhyas? For my mother is dead and dead is my son too, because of which I am in sootaka [the ritual period of impurity following a birth or death in the family, when vedic rituals are not performed] twice over. And she explains: Delusion, her mother [mohamyi mata] is dead; and a son called knowledge [bodhamayah sutah] is born to her. How can she then perform sandhya – katham sandhyam upasmahe?

There is one more reason for not performing the sandhyas, says Maitreyi Upanishad. The morning sandhya is performed at sunrise, and the evening sandhya, at sunset. But in her case, she sees neither sunrises nor sunsets. In the sky of her heart [hrdakashe] the sun of consciousness [chidadityah] neither rises [nodeti] nor sets [nastam gacchati]. How can she then perform the sandhyas? Katham sandhyam upasmahe?

It was a special pleasure for me to come across in the Upanishad these two mantras about not performing the sandhyas. I was familiar with them from an old legend I had heard as a child, growing up in Kerala – the legend of Kakkasseri Bhattatiri,the genius who could as a child recognize which crows had come the previous day and which crows were new as he fed them grains. When he was accused of not following rituals and not performing sandhyas, these two verses were his response. Of course, I did not know at that time that Kakkasseri was quoting Maitreyi Upanishad – I took them to be his own words.

Maitreyi Upanishad arranges sadhanas in a hierarchical order. The best, says the Upanishad, is reflection on the truth [uttama tattvachintaiva], the mediocre is the analysis of the scriptures [madhyamam shastrachintanam], and the lowest is occupying your mind with mantras [adhama mantrachinta cha – repetition of the mantras, mantrajapa]. But no, there is one thing that is worse than the lowest – endlessly roaming from one pilgrimage centre to another [teerthabhranti adhamadhama].

I want to add a few words here, before the Upanishad is misunderstood. The Upanishad does not reject any of these paths. These are slow paths, and frequently those who use them, use them for avoiding the need to face themselves, avoid the need to face the truth, than for anything else. This Upanishad is not for all kinds of seekers – it is only for the bravest among the brave, who have the courage to look the truth in the eye. This is the path for heroes – heroes in the truest sense of the word. For people with nerves of steel, people like Maitreyi herself, who can say kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam – say and mean it. People who are willing to fearlessly face their final death – not the death that is like discarding old clothes, but death that is really the end; for people who are willing to become like water in a pot immersed in the ocean where it becomes one with the ocean and ceases to exist as separate [poornakumbha ivarnave], like the river merging with the ocean becoming inseparably one with it.

The Upanishad stresses this final experience so much, it laughs aloud, with no inhibitions, at people who only delight in intellectual knowledge without experiencing the truth it is speaking about. Their joy, says the Upanishad, is the joy of relishing the taste of fruits on a branch reflected in water – pratibimbita-shakhagra-phalaswadana-modavat.

The mantras I have discussed so far are from the first and the second chapter of the Upanishad. The third, final, chapter of the Upanishad is what Ramana Maharshi did not tell the journalist interviewing him: it is a song in praise of the Self – one of the most beautiful songs in praise of the self in Vedantic literature. It begins with: “I am me; and I am the supreme. I am Brahman, and I am the origin of all. I am the guru of the whole world and I am all over the universe. Such am I.”

“ahamasmi paraschasmi brahmasmi prabhavo’smyaham; sarvalokaguruschasmi sarvaloke’smi so’smyaham.”

Maitreyi Upanishad’s teachings are precious, but they are also dangerous. It is only for those who can travel to their goal straight like an arrow. For others, the Upanishad can become just another excuse for continuing to sleep, their eyes shut tightly, refusing to get up from their bed. It depends on whether you are sattvic or tamasic – if you are sattvic, this is the straightest path that leads you to the goal, and if you are tamasic, you can remain exactly where you are!



  1. If our mind decides we are sick, we are sick? If it decides we are well, we are well? What use is this "information" (leaving aside how realistic this is, plus the question of the difference between "mind" and "we")? It would follow that if the mind decides anything, we become that. "Decides"? Is this meaning "comes to some conclusion"? Based on what beliefs, and what is the source of those beliefs? Better not to talk about the mind.


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