Sunday, September 27, 2009

Upanishads: A Personal Encounter

Speaking about Indian thought, EWF Tomlin says in his book Great Philosophies of the East: “Indian thought arrives at subtleties of distinction so varied and acute that the uninitiated and unprepared reader may well receive the impression that Indian philosophers enjoy the use of half a dozen intellects instead of one. We are accustomed to the idea of scientists constructing artificial brains to effect calculations which neither a single individual nor a team of individuals devoting a lifetime to the task, could hope to achieve. The elaborate system of certain Indian philosophers sometimes appear to be the product of such socially-constructed intellects.”

Of all Indian thought, the most highly respected is the philosophy of the Upanishads. Strictly speaking though, the teachings of the Upanishads cannot be called either thought or philosophy. For, they originate at a dimension beyond thought. The wisdom of the Upanishads is born when all thought has been transcended, when the mind itself has been transcended. Speaking of a dimension beyond the mind and thought, the Upanishads themselves say: yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha – “that from which words return, having not reached, along with the mind.” It is in this dimension that the wisdom of the Upanishads is born. And when anyone, at any time, reaches that dimension, the wisdom of the Upanishads is again revealed to him.

A modern master uses the metaphor of an awakened man and a sleeping man to point out the difference between the wisdom of the Upanishads and philosophy. Philosophy is like the thoughts of a man who has never seen the morning lying in his bed, the widows of the room closed, speculating on what the morning is like. He has never seen a sunrise, he has never heard the sounds of the birds and animals that wake up with the dawn, never seen plants and trees bathed in the glory of the morning light. And he lies there, refusing to open his eyes, speculating about that the morning is like. And he forms theories of what the morning is like, he contradicts the theories of other men like him who have formed other theories of the morning but have like him never seen a morning. Since none of them have seen the morning, you can have as many theories about what the morning is like, and one man can have many theories about what the morning is all about. The Upanishads, in contrast, are the wisdom of the man who has woken up, opened the windows of his room and looked out. He has seen the rising sun, he has heard the birds and the animals, he has seen the plants and trees bathed in morning glory, he has smelt the freshness of the morning and felt its wonderful touch on his skin.

The Upanishads preserve for us from across time the teachings of the ancient masters who had seen the morning, who had the direct experience of the highest truth.

All the Upanishads speak of the same truth – for truth cannot be different. And yet their experiences will be different – different to the extent that ten people looking out of their windows will experience the same morning in ten different ways.

The Upanishads are not logical thought systems. They do not have the consistency of philosophical systems. For, they are ecstatic outpourings of masters inspired by their experiences. Nor are the seers of the Upanishads interested in constructing meaningful thought systems. For, their aim is something entirely different from that of the philosophers. The seers of the Upanishads are interested in only one thing. In making us wake up, in making us open the windows and look out through them. Uttishthata, jagrata – that is their call: Get up, wake up. They are interested in intellectually convincing us only to the extent that it will inspire us to wake up, open the windows and look out. So they use logic, they use words, they use shock treatments, they use all other means available to them, not with the intention of constructing systems, but to motivate us to wake up, get up, open the windows and look out.

The Upanishads begin in experience and their end is experience. The Upanishads originate in the experience of the seers and their end will be achieved when we experience the truth that they have experienced.

The word seer is interesting. It literally means that – one who has seen. In Sanskrit, rish [rsh, actually] means to see, and rishi means one who sees or has seen, a seer. The teachers of the Upanishads are the seers who have seen That and who constantly see That One [tad ekam] even when they look at the many.


Some of the most beautiful things about the Upanishads were told by a man who was professedly a nonbeliever in religion. In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, with an ecstatic thrill in his words, says: “Again and again the restless mind peeps out, ever seeking, ever questioning: “At whose behest doth mind light on its perch? At whose command doth life, the first proceed? At whose behest the men send forth this speech? What god, indeed, directed eye and ear?” Again, “Why cannot the wind remain still? Why has the human mind no rest? Why, and in search of what, does the water run out and cannot stop its flow even for a moment?” It is the adventure of man that is continually calling and there is no resting on the way and no end of the journey.

“There is no humility about all this quest, the humility before an all-powerful deity, so often associated with religion. It is the triumph of mind over the environment. “My body will be reduced to ashes and my breath will join the restless and deathless air, but not I and my deeds. O mind, remember this always, remember this.” In the morning prayer, the sun is addressed thus, “O sun of refulgent glory, I am the same person as makes thee what you art!” What superb confidence!””

I still recall vividly the thrill that passed through me as I read these words of Nehru as a young boy. I remember taking the book straight to my mother and reading Nehru’s words out to her and sharing my ecstasy with her. Reading these lines was an important event in my life. I believe I was born with strong spiritual urges, I believe I was born carrying with me forgotten memories from across lifetimes of searches for the truth the Upanishads speak about. Many of us are. All that we require to ignite the fire within is a spark. I was transformed by my contact with these lines from Nehru.

Coming back to the Upanishads, here is what the great scholar C. Rajagopalachari had to say about them: “The spacious imagination, the majestic sweep of thought, and the almost reckless spirit of exploration with which, urged by the compelling thirst for truth, the Upanishad teachers and pupils dig into the ‘open secret’ of the universe, make this most ancient of the world’s holy books still the most modern and the most satisfying.”

Numerous western scholars too have found in the Upanishads the highest wisdom of humanity. The philosopher Schopenhauer praised them endlessly and read a few pages from the Upanishads every night before he went to sleep. He said about his reading of the Upanishads: “In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads; it has been the consolation of my life and will be that of my death.” Schopenhauer felt that “the Upanishads are the production of the highest human wisdom and I consider them almost superhuman in conception,” and held that “From every sentence of the Upanishads deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit.”

“On the tree of wisdom there is no fairer flower than Upanishads and no finer fruit than the Vedanta philosophy,” said Paul Deussen. Other famous westerners who came under the spell of the Upanishads include Wagner, Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman, my favourite American poet whose Songs to Myself closely echo the wisdom of the Upanishads.


Most of the Upanishads are in the form of questions and answers, and one of them is indeed named the Upanishad of Questions – Prashna Upanishad. In their attempt to communicate the incommunicable, the seers use all tools available to them: similes, metaphors, illustrations, symbolism, stories, self-contradictions, all. The truth of the Upanishads is not validated by any of these though – these are merely the tools the teachers use. To use an ancient example, it is like pointing out the moon with the moon with your finger and saying it is the bright thing that you see among the branches of the three – neither your finger nor the branches of the tree has any connection with the moon.

The truth of the upanishads is validated only by one thing – the experience of it, initially by the teacher and subsequently by the student. The Upanishads themselves reject the intellectual understanding of their content and call it worthless. “Yadi manyase suvedeti, dabhram evapi noonam tvam vettha brahmano roopam,” says the Kena Upanishad: “If you think you know it well, indeed you know very little of the nature of Brahman.” And then the Upanishad explains why it holds so; For: “This Truth is that by which the mind understands, and not that which the mind can understand. This cannot be seen by the eyes, it is that by which the eyes see; this cannot be heard by the ears, it is that by which the ears hear.”

The Upanishads are a journey into the nature of ourselves and the world in which we live. Speaking of the nature of the world [jagat], the Upanishads tell us that the world is not real the way we experience it. A man under hallucination does not experience the world as it is, but the world is to him whatever his mind shows it to be. So too is it with all of us. We do not perceive the world as it is.

You do not really need the example of a man under hallucination to understand what the seers tell us. A straight rod as it leaves one medium and enters another is deflected. Our eyes see a mirage in the desert where there is no water. So too, the sages tell us, the world is not seen by us in its real form. Our mind distorts reality as a defective, or a concave or a convex mirror does. To see the world as it is, say the seers, we need a mind that has been purified of all the things that distort it, a mind that has been emptied of thoughts and made still.

The Upanishads use a word to speak of the illusory nature of the world – maya. Under the influence of maya, the impossible becomes possible, the unreal appears as real and the real as unreal. One other metaphor used by the Upanishads to explain the nature of the world as it really is and as it appears to us is that of the alata [alaata] – the circle of glowing fire that appears when a child waves a burning stick. While the fire at the tip is real, the fire circle is not. It is mere appearance. And so is the world, say the Upanishads. While there is a reality behind the world, the world is not real as it appears to us.

Incidentally, Adi Shankara’s paramaguru [guru’s guru] Gaudapada wrote a scholarly treatise on the Mandukya Upanishad, a short Upanishad that discusses the four states of consciousness, and one of the chapters in the treatise is called alata-shanti-prakarana, the chapter on putting out the alata.

In their enquiry into the nature of the self [jiva], the Upanishads discover and declare that the source from which we spring and the source from which the universe comes into existence are one and the same. They also declare that we have never been separated from our source, our roots are still there. The tree might hold its head up in the skies, but its roots are still deep in the earth. In the same way, even now our roots are in that Truth and we are that Truth, even as an ornament made of gold forever remains gold.

Aham brahmasmi: I am Brahman, the Boundless, the source of all creation, say the seers of the Upanishads, declaring this truth.

Four mahavakyas, great statements, selected from different Upanishads beautifully summarise the teachings of the rishis on this topic. The four mahavakyas are: ayam atma brahma – This self is Brahman; prajnanam brahma – Brahman is consciousness; tat tvam asi – You are that; and aham brahmasmi – I am Brahman. While the first three are the teachings of the rishis based on their personal experience, the final statement is of the student based on his eventual experience of the self.

According the seers, all suffering is because we consider ourselves different from what we really are and all human life is nothing but a search for oneself, a pilgrimage into oneself, and all our struggles are our attempts to reclaim our true self which we have apparently lost. Suffering will not end, grief and misery will not end, whatever we do, whatever we attain, so long as we do not realize our real nature. One of the metaphors used by the ancient teachers to explain this is that of the musk deer, which frantically, madly, searches for musk all over the mountains and forests, without knowing that the source of it is itself.

Unlike most other religions and even subsequent Hinduism, the Upanishads are not too preoccupied with Go [ishwara], though it does speak of God, and of the reality that functions as God.

The God of the Upanishads is precisely the God of the Vedas, whose vision of God is unique in the history of world’s theistic thought. As Dr Abinash Chandra Bose puts it, “Vedic theism is neither monotheism nor polytheism, but the worship of the One Divinity in many names and forms. This is precisely what the Vedas mean when they say ‘ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti’. Divinity is the One as many and many as the One. And while that one is contemplated upon in the neuter, the many could be masculine or feminine, of any age and of any relation to man. In form the deities are many, but in essence they are one. When the one is conceived as many, each one of them carries all the ‘vibhutis’ of the one: all of them are splendorous [jyoti], have glory [bhargas], greatness [mahas], loveliness [shri], and so on. Each of them is all powerful, all knowing and all pervading. At the same time, each of them has all qualities, is beyond time and place, beyond all limitations, like the One Divinity which is at once saguna and nirguna – It has no attributes and yet all attributes are Its.”

It is this God that the Upanishads too speak of. Ishavasyam idam sarvam, says the first mantra of the Ishavasya Upanishad, which sees all existence as pervaded by the One God, permeated by the One God. Here is a mantra from the highly poetic Shvetashvatara Upanishad, which says precisely the same thing in different words: “You are woman, you are man, you are the young boy and the young girl and you are the old man walking with the help of a stick. You, becoming manifest, become all this. You are the blue moth, you are the green bird with red eyes, you are the lightning-bearer [the cloud], carrying lightning in your womb, you are the seasons, the oceans. All things are born of you though you yourself are without a beginning, and you are pervaded in everything.” Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.3-4

Apart from pointing out the true nature of ourselves and the world and the higher reality called Brahman, the Upanishads also teach us how to realize – to reach, to discover, to experience – the truth of their teachings.


How many Upanishads are there? The traditional answer is one hundred and eight, which in fact, is the wrong answer. The Motilal Banarsidas collection of Upanishads alone, for instance, has one hundred and eighty eight Upanishads. The correct answer is we do not know exactly how many Upanishads are there – many have been lost, and many are still being discovered from obscure sources. At one time the Upanishads formed a huge collection of literature. The reason why we say Upanishads are one hundred and eight is that one of the Upanishads give us a list of Upanishads and this consists of one hundred and eight Upanishads – but there is no reason why this list should be considered as all inclusive.

One of the highly misleading classifications of the Upanishads is into major and minor Upanishads. I do not know who originally classified them so [there is no such classification in Sanskrit], but whoever did it did a great disservice to the Upanishads, to Indian wisdom and spirituality itself. The classification gives us the impression that some Upanishads are more important than the others, of speaker of deeper truths, both of which are very wrong. Some Upanishads are called major only because several great acharyas have commented upon them, including Adi Shankara. These are the Ishavasya [Isha] Upanishad, Kena Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Prashna Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad, Aitareya Upanishad, Chhandogya Upanishad and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. [Isha-Kena-Katha-Prashna-Mundaka-Mandukya-Tittiri, Aitareyam cha Chhandogyam Brihadaranyakam tatha, says the sloka that is traditionally used as mnemonic device to remember their names. The names are conventionally listed in this order.]

The reason why the great acharyas chose to comment upon specifically on these Upanishads could be that together they cover most of what the Upanishadic lore teaches us. Or it could be that Acharya Shankara chose to comment only on these for his own reasons [Time, for instance; he lived a very short life, constantly travelling and constantly engaged in debates, constantly teaching.] and the subsequent acharyas chose to focus their attention mainly on these.

Let’s now take a look at some of the Upanishads.

Continued ... 2.

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