Sunday, September 27, 2009

Upanishads: A Personal Encounter 2

Continued from 1

Ishavasya Upanishad

The Ishavasya Upanishad is one of the most beautiful Upanishads. This Upanishad forms chapter forty of the Vajasaneyi Samhita of Shukla Yajur Veda, for which reason it is also called Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad.

One of the most fascinating features of the Upanishads is that the sages who ‘authored’ them had an exquisite sense of aesthetics and as works of literature, they are unsurpassed and rival even contemporary literature in their beauty. Which is to say nothing of the depth of their perception. It is difficult not fall in love with the Ishavasya Upanishad, so beautiful is it. It is short, with just eighteen mantras. It was the first Upanishad that I learnt from my guru in his ashram where I was an antevasin, and for this reason too it is special for me.

The Upanishad begins with the mantra ishavasyam idam sarvam, a statement of the omnipresence of God: All this is permeated by God. And then it quickly moves on to state, in the same mantra, a philosophy of life that has been central to India for the last several thousand years: tena tyaktena bhunjeethah: “for that reason, renounce and enjoy.” This is the philosophy of non-attached attachment, non-involved involvement, which the Bhagavad Gita subsequently speaks of in great details. It is also at the core of the philosophy of sannyasa, particularly as taught by Krishna in the Gita and lived by him as we in the Mahabharata.

While every mantra in the Upanishad is exquisite and profound, one of the most thrilling, personally for me, is the fifteenth mantra that says: hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham; tat tvam pooshann apavrnu satyadharmaya drshtaye. I love the mantra for the passion in the words of the seeker who cries out those words. The seeker is at the threshold of discovering the truth and all that separates him from it is a disk – a golden disk, a disk of transcendental light – and he cries out, ecstasy and agony mingled in his words: “The face of the Truth is covered by a golden disk, O Lord of Light! Remove it for me, O God, so as I, traveller on the path of Truth and Dharma, may perceive it!” From ages across, I can still feel both the thrill of the seeker and his angst as he stands there, with just one final step before he discovers the Truth and becomes one with it.

He continues his cry in the next mantra: “O Nourisher of the Universe, Solitary Seer, Controller of All, Lord of Light, Offspring of Prajapati, withdraw your rays into yourself, gather up your radiating brilliance! That form of thine, most graceful, let me behold it! He, the Purusha who abides in you, I am He!”

Commenting on that last statement, that the seeker is the same as the Purusha who abides in the Sun God whom he worships, Shankara has something beautiful to say. “Kim cha aham na tu bhrtyavad yache,” says the acharya: “I am not begging of you [abjectly] like a servant.”

The cry of the seeker is not an abject begging, but a demand by someone who is no less than the true being of the Sun God himself. Remember the words of Nehru quoted earlier: “There is no humility about all this quest, the humility before an all-powerful deity, so often associated with religion.” That is what the acharya is speaking about. The seeker here is not begging the Sun God to remove what stands between him and the truth – but is telling him to. It is not the yachana of a bhrtya, but the command of an equal.

The Tibetans have a beautiful symbol for humility: the Himalayan tiger. Be humble like the Himalayan tiger, they say, be humble like the snow leopard. It is the humility of the powerful we are speaking about, the humility of the seeker who knows he is the power behind the universe, who knows that it is because of him that the sun rises in the east every morning, that the wind moves...

“bheeshasmad vatah pavate, bheeshodeti sooryah, bheeshasmad agnischedrascha, mrtyur dhavati panchama iti.’

“Out of fear of this [purusha who is in me] the wind blows unceasingly, the sun comes up in the morning in the east, the fire and the Lord of the Gods themselves do whatever they do, and Death stalks the earth frantically. [Katha Upanishad]

That is the spirit of the Upanishads. It is not arrogance. It is knowing what you are and stating that with all the majesty that that statement deserves. Exactly like the Himalayan tiger walks in the jungle in the pride of his being, the snow leopard moves about among the mountain in his own dignity.

Katha Upanishad

Another of my favourite Upanishad from among the so called major Upanishads, is the Katha Upanishad, which we just quoted above. It is again an exquisitely beautiful Upanishad and those who are familiar with the Bhagavad Gita would find several mantras of the Upanishad already familiar to them the first time they come across the Upanishad. This is because the Bhagavad Gita is in a way a retelling of the Katha Upanishad. The Very image of Krishna and Arjuna in the chariot is straight from the Upanishad, which says: “atmanam rathinam viddhi, shareeram rathameva tu, buddhim to sarathim vidyad manah pragraham eva cha...” “Understand the self as the rathi, the master of the chariot, and this body as the chariot; understand the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as the reins...”

When Upanishads are quoted, it is likely that you will come across more quotations from the Katha Upanishad than from any other. And the story of Nachiketa at the beginning of the Upanishad is a thrill to read and inspiration for ever.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is, as its name suggests, brihad – huge. Upanishads are as a rule small – and by that rule, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is really huge. It is one of the oldest and for that reason, one of the most precious, Upanishads. The dialogue between Sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi in the Upanishad never fails to thrill me, though I have been reading it for decades. And above all, the question that Maitreyi asks Yajnavalkya as he says he would divide his property between her and his other wife, Kalyani, and go away. Maitreyi asks him then: “kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam?” “What shall I do with that by which I shall not become immortal?”

Maitreyi’s words are an eternal inspiration to humanity. Especially so because it is a woman who says those words – women have been denied spiritual opportunities throughout the world, throughout history, the Vedic-Upanishadic culture being practically the only exception, apart from the few women-centred religions all of which have now disappeared from the world. In India itself in subsequent periods women would be denied all opportuinies. I was reading Tryambakayajvan’s Sanskrit classic Streedharma Paddhati recently and Yajvan is quite categorical: the only thing women have to do is serve their husband, that is the only purpose of their life. They neither need nor have the right to do anything else, including even such things as visiting holy places, observing vratas and so on.

It is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that gives us the other equally unforgettable scholar rishi Gargi, another woman sage. She stands up in the middle of scholar rishis who have assembled in Mithila from all over the world and tells the assembly after Yajanavalkya has defeated in debate numerous scholars: “Let me ask this sage two questions, and if he is able to answer my questions, we can all admit that he is the greatest knower of Brahman in the world.” That is confidence – and it is a woman speaking! If the sage is able to defeat her in debate, then all have been defeated! Amazing! And how sad to think an India that began as this kind of land eventually reached a stage where women became the property of man, to be treated anyway he liked, to be abandoned in a jungle in the middle of her pregnancy when he liked, to be pawned in a dice game when he liked!

Here is a quotation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. And believe me, it is from the ancient Upanishad, every word of it, and not from a twenty-first century self-help book: “atha khalu ahuh kamamaya evayam purusha iti; sa yathakamo bhavati tatkratur bhavati, yatkraturbhavati tat karma kurute, yat karma kurute, tadabhisampadyate. “For that reason, it is said: man is nothing but his desire. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your attainment.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.5

Maitreyi Upanishad

Speaking about the self-actualized man, Abraham Maslow says that one of his characteristics is resistance to enculturation – he has the ability to see beyond the confines of his culture and the era he lives in. This is made possible by his love for freedom, independence, originality and authenticity. He sees things with his own eyes, rather than through borrowed views and ideas.

Like Maslow’s self-actualized men, all Upanishad seers, who are without exception self-actualized men and more, are unconventional, both socially and spiritually. But it is difficult to imagine a seer more original and rebellious than the teacher of Maitreyi Upanishad, and is counted among the minor Upanishads.

The Maitreyi Upanishad is part of the Sama Veda. I love to believe that the seer of the Upanishad is Rishika Maitreyi – yes, the same Maitreyi of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. If the woman who said kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam – what shall I do with that by which I shall not become immortal – if that woman authored an Upanishad, this is exactly how that Upanishad would be. I believe that as a rule women go to the extremes more than men do. The Maitreyi Upanishad is an extreme Upanishad, by an extremist seer. There is no middle path for this Upanishad or its teacher.

I wish I could just quote the Upanishad in the original Sanskrit here – but that of course wouldn’t serve much purpose and so the free rendering of the mantras, which will be no more than a pale shadow of the original. The original is pure power – and it hits you with the speed and power of lightning.

“This body is the true temple – and not the temple out there. And the one who lives in this body – he is none other than Shiva. Caste away the worn out garlands of ignorance and worship Him with the bhava of ‘soham’ – I am He. Remember, the true bath is discarding the dirt in the mind, and purificatory rites are mastery over the senses. What is bhakshya, what you are allowed to eat, and what is abhakshya, what you are forbidden to eat? Well, bhakshya is the advaita attitude that I am He and abhakshya is the dvaita attitude that I am different from Him. You want liberation? Then give up your son called ahamkara [the ego], your brother called chitta [your past], give up your wife called asha [hopes], and you are a liberated man.”

A religious man in India, as in many other cultures, is asked to offer ritual prayer – and since these are performed at sunrise and sunset, they are called sandhyas, rituals performed at the meeting points of the day and the night. The teacher of Maitreyi Upanishad, speaking in the voice of Shiva, says: “My mother is dead, my mother called Moha [delusion], and a son is born to me, a son called Bodha [knowledge]; since I am observing sootaka [the ritual period of impurity due to a birth or death in the family] on two counts, how can offer my sandhyas? Besides, says she, there is one other reason why I cannot observe the sandhyas: “The sun of consciousness keeps shining forever in the sky of heart – it neither rises nor sets; how can I then offer my sandhyas?”

I cannot resist the temptation to quote these two mantras in Sanskrit here:

“mrta mohamayee mata jato bodhamayah sutah; sootakadvaya-samprapte katham sandhyam upasmahe.
hrdakashe chidadityah sada bhasati bhasati;
nastameti na chodeti katham sandhyam upasmahe.”

All these quotations are taken from the second chapter of the Upanishad, which has three chapters. The third chapter of the Upanishad is the prayer of the advaitin who has experienced the High. Because he cannot really pray since there is no one for him to pray to, it is a song in praise of oneself, and one of the most wonderful songs in the Sanskrit language. And there can be no more beautiful prayer for the advaitin than this. Here is how the fairly long prayer begins:

“aham asmi paraschasmi brahmasmi prabhavo’smyaham; sarvalokaguruschasmi sarvaloke’smi sosmyaham.”

“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.”


This then is what the Upanishads are. To know them is to find life’s fulfilment and to miss them is to miss a life’s opportunity. India in her several millennia of existence has produced boundless wealth in numerous forms, but there is no wealth she has produced that is more precious than the Upanishads.

Here is final quotation from one of the Upanishads: iha ched avedeet atha satyam asti; na ched iha avedeet, mahatee vinashti. “If you know it here, then the truth is yours; and if you do not know it here, then great indeed is your loss.”


1 comment:

  1. I was hunting for the verse on desire from brihadaranyaka upanishad and finally found it on your site. I think it is both inspirational and threatening in its own beautiful way. Great read for the day.