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Table of Contents
Introduction Katha Upanishad Praśna Upanishad Mundaka Upanishad Mandukya Upanishad Taittiriyia Upanishad Aitareya Upanishad Chandogya Upanishad Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad Svetasvatara Upanishad Kaivalya Upanishad 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
In the history of great spiritual literature of India, the Vedas came first: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Scholars date the Rigveda about 1500 BCE, although others suggest a much earlier origin. The Vedas are essentially the literature of the Hindu religion, and consist largely of hymns, recitations, and stories. This literature largely defines the Hindu culture. All the world’s great religions also have their respective mystical school. For example: the mystical school of Islam is the Sufi Order; for Christians, the Order of the Hesychast; for the Jews, Hasidism and the Tzadiks; in Buddhism, the order of monks. This is also true of the Hindu religion. The mystical school of Vedic Hinduism is Vedanta (literally, the culmination of wisdom). The Upanishads are the foundational literature of mystical Vedanta. The earliest of the ten Major Upanishads date from about 400 BCE, with the most recent from the 17th century. The term Upanishad means sitting near the teacher; as these great teachings are handed down the generations directly from master to student. There are 108 Upanishads generally recognized in the classical set. However, the following ten are the ones most studied as they encompass the essence of Vedanta. This essence, the fundamental teaching of the Upanishads is this: Individual consciousness and Universal Consciousness is not different. Respectively, in Sanskrit the term for the individual is Atman; the Universal is the nameless formless Brahman. So the Upanishads tell us that Atman and Brahman are the same—that is; non-dual, or advaita (not two). In the text of the Upanishads we see the four great sayings, or mahavakyas: • • • • Prajnanam Brahma - “Consciousness is Brahman” (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3 of the Rig Veda) Ayam Atma Brahma - “This Self (Atman) is Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 of the Atharva Veda) Tat Tvam Asi - “Thou art That” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda) Aham Brahmasmi - “I am Brahman” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda)
We also notice that each of these Upanishads is associated with a different Veda. This illustrates that the deepest spiritual roots are related to Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Practically speaking, what all this means to us in our own experience of life is that we, as the local address of consciousness, are not separate or different from Universal Consciousness. We surmise from this that just as we are all the same as the Universal, you and I are also not separate or different in our innermost being. We have this experience in the depth of meditation immersed in the unity of just being. See for yourself. In the following text, these short one page summaries merely illustrate the fundamental idea of its respective Upanishad. This is intended only to be the briefest introduction to further studies of a primary reference. © Dennis Hill 2009
Everything that is, is either created, or not created. In the case of the physical universe, atomic building blocks of matter condensed from hot sub-particle plasma that accretes into atomic particles. Quantum Theory holds that empty space is a rippling energetic field wherein energy quanta are constantly emerging and resorbing. These particles, in turn, aggregate into earth elements from which all other things are formed. These conditions apply to physical objects arising in appearance, observed by the subject, or witness consciousness. In the case of consciousness; it exists, therefore it is real. But it is not created. Consciousness is the subject; it cannot be objectified and is thus not an object of creation. Thoughts also exist, and are objects of creation. Just as neutrons are accretion of hot quark-gluon plasma, thoughts are accretion or contraction of pure consciousness. Consciousness is both the light of illumination by which everything is known, and the creative power of consciousness to form thought constructs. Thought occurs as a process of objectification that mediates consciousness to its known object; be it sensory, drawn from stored memory or synthesized in imagination. The physical, objective, local universe is generally bound to four space-time dimensions. Consciousness is the non-local boundaryless observer state that is not constrained by dimensions, but is the subject, observing space-time objects (given a host by which to see). Practically speaking these human creatures are a two-in-one apparatus. We have the physical; created from stardust, and the non-physical; uncreated, infinite, intelligent knower of the objective creation. It is the conscious indweller that enlivens the physical host. Without the conscious indweller, the host quickly decays. The ancient Katha Upanishad tells us: As one draws the pith from a reed, so must the aspirant after truth, with great perseverance, separate the Self from the body. Know the Self to be pure and immortal. At some point in time this two-in-one apparatus will separate. So, which will go where? It is evident that the stardust physical form will decay and may someday become part of another indweller form. It is also evident that the uncreated and undying consciousness of the indweller will not decay but will merge with Universal Consciousness. That which is truly you will continue in awareness. But what happens to mind, memory and identity: the illusory ego conjured by consciousness and applied to the body? Does it retain its identity in the astral realm? Nothing that is created follows the uncreated. Just as matter is a creation in the physical universe, thought, memory and identity are created in the mental universe. Thus the mind falls away with the body at the end of this turbulent association with Spirit. It is incumbent upon us to learn the teaching of the Katha Upanishad and, while still in the body, discriminate the separateness of the Self from the body. We do this through the practice of meditation in which the Self becomes aware of itself; where we experience the joyous serenity of our true nature. Then we are free.
Portal to Transcendence In the fifth question of Praśna, the student Satya-kāma asks the master Pippālada what is the benefit of a lifetime of meditation on the syllable OM. The master explains that OM represents both the higher and lower, Brahman and Ishvara, subjective and objective, respectively. We commonly see OM represented by a single Devanagari character. However if we go to the original Sanskrit, we see it written out in three characters, A, U, and M. These three letter-forms represent the three manifestation of consciousness: waking state, sleep state and transcendent absolute (turiya).
Pippalāda teaches Satya-kāma that meditation upon OM as a worldly object (mandala) only results in rebirth. Meditation upon OM as thought-object in the mind (mantra) also brings rebirth. Meditation upon OM as the transcendent subject brings liberation from the wheel of karma and rebirth. These are the three refinements in understanding that lead to the highest attainment. Practically speaking, the lesson for us is that in our daily meditation, as we reach the thought-free state, we are to know this pure awareness of being as the goal of our discipline. As we return to this inner sweetness of equanimity, again and again, we become established in the steady state, free of doubt, fear or anxiety, and filled with the joy of our true nature. Meditation is an uncommon skill and state in our culture. Everyone seeks personal happiness and inner peace but most are only partly successful. Perseverance in the practice of meditation insures success of the most desirable quest of our life. The difference in approach is simple: seeking outwardly for fleeting gratification brings pleasure and pain. Seeking inwardly for the unchanging Self brings enduring happiness.
To Angiras came upon a time Sounaka, the famous householder, and asked respectfuly: “Holy sir, what is that by which all else is known?” “Those who know Brahman,” replied Angiras, “say that there are two kinds of knowledge, the higher and the lower. “The lower is knowledge of the Vedas, and also of phonetics, ceremonials, grammar, etymology, meter, and astronomy. “The higher is knowledge of that by which one knows the changeless reality. But this is fully revealed to the wise that which transcends the senses, which is uncaused, which is indefinable, which has neither eyes nor ears, neither hands nor feet, which is allpervading, subtler than the subtlest—the everlasting, the source of all.” The Mundaka tells us that only those who know Brahman and have a pure heart are allowed access to this Upanishad. Traditionally, an acolyte monk wishing to study Mundaka must first be tested by the Ekarshi Fire Ceremony in which he carries fire upon his head to show his attainment of meditative focus and steadiness. We will not do this in class. However, we must be grateful for the free access to to this extraordinary literature that guides us unerringly on our quest in meditation. The knowledge of Brahman referred to is the direct experience of awareness uncluttered by thoughts in the mind. Our daily discipline in meditation takes us into that presence; gradually. This practice, in turn, leads us to the pure heart that understands fully this Upanishad: “But the wise, self-controlled, and tranquil souls—who are contented in spirit, and who practice austerity and meditation in solitude and silence—are freed from all impurity, and attain by the path of liberation to the immortal, the truly existing, the changeless Self.”
The transcendent Fourth state is the light of awareness by which all else is known The Mandukya tells us that OM is the Self in four aspects. The first aspect is the physical nature: the experience of sensory pleasure and pain. The second aspect is the mental nature: the experience of impressions of the mind. The third aspect is deep sleep: the experience of bliss. The fourth aspect is beyond senses, beyond understanding; it is pure consciousness knowing itself as ineffable peace of just being. But what is the use of knowing about the four aspects of OM as the Self? How is this study relevant to sitting quietly in meditation? We must ultimately come to know who it is that is meditating. Who is the meditator that is Self-reflecting? Is it the body that is meditating? The body is in repose perhaps, but the body is not the meditator. Is it the mind that is meditating? The mind may be absorbed in the mantra, but the mind is not the meditator. It is consciousness itself, the indweller, that is reflecting upon its own purity of just being. In this way we are able to discriminate Self from non-Self. In this way we draw the pith from the reed. Once we know that we are neither the physical nature nor the mental nature; this leaves only the observer of sensory and mental aspects, the transcendent Fourth state, called turiya. We will see this word again in other Upanishads. Once awakened to this inner revelation through our own experience in meditation, we can meet the world with inner peace. The emotional rollercoaster slips quietly away into a distant memory. Happiness and contentment becomes our constant companion. The Fourth, the Self, is OM, the indivisible syllable. This syllable is unutteraable, and beyond mind. In it the manifold universe disappears. It is the supreme good—One without a second. Whosoever knows OM, the Self, becomes the Self. The ancient sages, authors of the Upanishads, have something wonderful to teach us. It is a privilege to sit at their feet.
What is better than being rich? The translators of this Upanishad, Swami Prabhavananda and Fredrick Manchester, introduce the work with an astute and succinct summary: Man, in his ignorance, identifies himself with the material sheaths that encompass his true Self. Transcending these, he becomes one with Brahman, who is pure bliss. We should bring into discreet awareness the material sheaths: the physical sheath (food body), the vital sheath (prana), mental sheath (memory), intellectual sheath (reason), and ego, so we know what the transcendent formless Self is not. But how do we characterize Brahman, pure bliss? Taittiriya says: Words cannot express the bliss of Brahman, mind cannot reach it. Until we experience in meditation the fullness of this bliss we can expect that it is Truth, Wisdom and Divine Sweetness. Truth is seen when the appearance is uncluttered by thought constructs in the mind; we see reality as is, with no commentary or imaginings of what was or what might be. We notice the absence of dread or expectation, and simply rest in the equanimity of the Self. Wisdom is a direct knowing of what is needed right at the moment. Divine Sweetness is just the bliss of being; contented joy arising spontaneously in the stillness. You’ll know it when you see it. Taittiriya explains the magnitude of this transcendent state by saying that the joy of the seer to whom the Self has been revealed is ten billion times that of one who has the wealth of the world at his command. (Do the math from the text and see if you come to the same number.) Okay, so how do we get to be ten billion times happier than being rich? Bhrigu asks his father, Varuna, this same question. Varuna replies: “Seek to know Brahman by meditation. Meditation is Brahman.” Fortunately this does not have to be an either/or proposition. Varuna goes on to reassure us: He who attains this wisdom wins glory, grows rich, enjoys health and fame. This is a pretty cool deal; so I encourage you to meditate every day, without fail.
The power of consciousness is to know the Self Aitareya asks, Who is this Self...? Of what nature is this Self? This is a natural question that we might ask in the study and practice of meditation. The answer is given; This Self, who is pure consciousness, is Brahman. This answer is one of the four Vedic Mahavakyas: great teachings. We will visit the remaining mahavakyas in subsequent Upanishads. It is commonly accepted in Vedanta that the Self, Brahman, is pure consciousness. But let us look a little deeper into this assertion. The eminent Vedic scholar, Professor S. Radhakrishnan, translates this passage of Aitareya as, Brahman is intelligence. Why does he use this word, intelligence, rather than consciousness? Perhaps going directly to the Sanskrit will help us with this mahavakya. The original declares: prajnanam brahman. Prajna, in the Sanskrit Dictionary, is defined as: Wisdom; pure bliss; pure consciousness. In the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism the nature of the Self is described as Prakasha and Vimarsha: light of illumination by which everything is known, and the power of consciousness to know itself. The inner Self is an exceedingly subtle presence; some would see it as emptiness. However, emptiness refers to the contents of the mind (hence, no-mind); the conscious observer of the emptiness is ever-present and all-knowing. Becoming the conscious intelligent observer is the fullness of the emptiness, the bliss of Nirvana. We know that the word is not the thing itself, nevertheless, these words point the way to confirming our experience to the mind. It helps our concept of Self to think about the cluster of descriptors: intelligence, consciousness, bliss, wisdom, light of illumination, etc. It is especially interesting to note that the Sanskrit word prajnapti, meaning experience, is rooted in prajna. As we sit quietly, looking in at the seer, we feel the serenity of stillness. We are aware that awareness itself is the creator of life’s little dramas. How often do we want the world to be different than it is? Angst arises because of the desire to change something that is beyond our domain of power. In these circumstances we have the choice either to return to the bliss of the Self, or to smolder in our discontent. The more familiar the meditative state becomes through daily practice, the more often we will choose the bliss of the Self; thus an unshakable happiness enters our life. Please welcome it.
I am Consciousness Chandogya is the source of another of the maha-vakyas (great teachings) that we also encountered in the Mandukya and Aitareya Upanishads. So let’s just list the maha-vakyas, translation and their sources, since they are the bedrock teachings of this profound and revered literature. Each is a variation on the single premise of the essential identity between the individual and the Transcendent Eternal. Vedanta holds that meditation upon a maha-vakya brings direct awareness of its verity. Try it! • Ayam Atma Brahma - “This Self (Atman) is Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad) • Prajnanam Brahma - “Consciousness is Brahman” (Aitareya Upanishad) • Tat Tvam Asi - “Thou art That” (Chandogya Upanishad) • Aham Brahmasmi - “I am Brahman” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad) The first maha-vakya establishes that the individual soul (Atman) is not different than the Absolute (Brahman). Next, the Universal Absolute is characterized as being none other than consciousness itself. These two together suggest that the individual inner self is also conscious awareness that can know itself. This we can experience for ourselves in meditation. When the mind is still, we are witness to our own light of consciousness that illumines the appearance. Here in the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka teaches his son, Svetaketu: “All that is has its self in him alone. He is the truth. He is the subtle essence of all. He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, thou are that.” As we see above, the Sanskrit phrase this line is translated from is tat tvam asi. The term Tat is the impersonal pronoun for Transcendent Eternal (bliss of consciousness). Uddalaka is telling his son that he (Svetaketu) is, in truth, the divine presence of Tat. In this story, the student is told over and over again, the same thing so that after awhile, he gets it. Similarly, we must be told this repeatedly until we get used to the idea. In the process, we confirm these teachings in our own experience. This experience brings a certainty and contentment that is not possible through opinion, deduction or inference. Translating the maha-vakyas into personal experience begins with the insight that what is written can be experienced. Next we capture that meditative stillpoint at the end of the breath and draw it into fullness. When we can rest contentedly in the conscious intelligent seer, this equipoise becomes infused in our persona. We live fully in wisdom and inner peace. We are so fortunate.
Truth of the Truth—is the Self Early in Brihad-aranyaka we find a dialog between the pretentious Gargya and the king of Benares. In this story, Gargya hopes to explain Brahman to the king with his brag of how he worships Brahman in empirical forms. King Ajatasatru replies with an appreciation of Brahman in the transcendent. Finally Gargya sees the superficiality of his vision and asks to be taught by the king. Ajatasatru educates Gargya by revealing that it is the Self that is the source of all things empirical. Then he says a very mysterious thing: His secret name is ‘Truth of the Truth’ (satyasya satyam). What could this possibly mean? We will see this phrase satyasya satyam again in the Maitri Upanishad, so let’s examine it now, remembering that the Sanskrit word satya means Truth. Ajatasatru wants Gargya to know that the empirical objective appearance is true, however the underlying truth of it is the Self. You can experience this for yourself. During your eyes-open meditation what you see out there is the “dynamic becoming” appearing on the screen of the mind. This appearance would be impossible without the presence of consciousness. Thus, consciousness is the creator of what we see. Think about this. Gargya was seeing the Divine in the objects of existence; King Ajatasatru saw the Divine inner Truth in the Self (consciousness) that gives life to existence. This is the Truth of the Truth. It is important that you verify this in your own experience to understand the concepts and stories of this great literature. This practice deepens one’s meditation. Lest we forget too quickly, the author of this Upanishad, in the subsequent dialog between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi, says:
Through the knowledge of the Self, Pure Intelligence, all things and beings are known. There is no existence apart from the Self.
Here again we are pointed to the Truth of the Truth. Remembering the Aitareya Upanishad, we see the Self referred to again as pure intelligence. Practically speaking, how do we sustain our focus on the inner Self? Yajnavalkya speaks to this, saying:
He alone is the true knower of Brahman who directs his mind towards the Self, and shuns all other thoughts as distractions... he is free from craving, and is forever established in the knowledge of Brahman.
Here he shows us the goal of happiness and contentment we wish to attain. The way this great state arises in us is through constancy in meditation. Progress is gradual, but the goal is attainable. Besides joy and peace in life, why else would we want this attainment? If we would like to finish in this lifetime, Yajnavalkya tells us what to expect if we have been virtuous.
When all desires which once entered into his heart have been driven out by divine knowledge, the mortal, attaining to Brahman, becomes immortal. Brahman may be realized while yet one dwells in the ephemeral body. When he thus departs, life departs: The Self remains conscious. The path of liberation is subtle, and hard, and long. By the purified mind alone is Brahman perceived. To know him is to become a seer.
These lines effectively summarize the lifelong benefits of meditation and discovery of the nature of our true Self.
Purifying the ego The Svetasvatara is commonly known as the “White Mule” Upanishad. Literal translation from the Sanskrit is “One who owns a white mule;” so why is this? Sveta, while meaning white, also means “pure.” Asva, besides mule, can also mean “senses,” referring to samskaras (stubborn, get it?). In ancient times there was a renown teacher of this Upanishad whose name, Swetasvatara, inferred one whose conditioned tendencies had been purified, and the Upanishad was thus named after him. Later scholars however, considered it humorous to use the alternate translation to refer to this great teaching. This Upanishad begins with the question: “What is the cause of this universe?” How can we ever know the answer to this sweeping query? We weren’t there to see it happen. Or were we? Empirically we know that consciousness exists. If it exists, it was either created from something else, or it has always existed. As there is nothing that creates consciousness, it remains the uncreated supracausal. There is only one essence, and no effect can exist separate from the cause. The cause is inherent in every effect. For example, electricity is the cause of the light of the bulb, but separate from it. Similarly, consciousness enlivens the body but is not the body. If the filament breaks, the light goes out, but electricity remains. Likewise, when the body dies, consciousness, the essence of the universe, remains. Consciousness, the subject, can never be an object. The physical universe is the ephemeral object, and is the result of the original cause. What we see is the effect of the cause. The seer, therefore, is the cause of the seen; this is true locally as well as universally.
“[...] by continuous meditation merge both mind and intellect in the eternal Brahman. Unite the light within you with the light of Brahman. Thus will the source of ignorance be destroyed, and you will rise above karma.”
A pervasive theme in Svetasvatara is that of merging. What is this about? When we take birth in this incarnation every effort is made in our family and culture to bring our attention out of the inner bliss and focus on the outer world with its attachments, pleasure and pain, past and future, loss and gain. When enough of this we have had, and we discover the path back to the inner bliss, we begin by thinking we are separate from our true nature.
“Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire - meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance.”
At first this does not seem natural, as our mind prefers its own entertainments to the exclusion of the inner bliss. What to do?
“As a charioteer holds back his restive horses, so does a perservering aspirant hold back his mind. “As you become absorbed in meditation, you will realize that the Self is separate from the body and for this reason will not be affected by disease, old age, or death.”
Recentering from the outward seeking ego to the inner bliss is merging into the eternal. Meditation every day is the quickener.
One without a second The Sanskrit term kaivalya means absolute oneness, perfect detachment, freedom, liberation. It is the goal and fulfillment of Yoga, the state of complete detachment from transmigration, perfectly transcendent, the ultimate realization. Any commentary on the luminous clarity of the text would be surperfluous, thus following are excerpts from the translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Fredrick Manchester. The Upanishads: Light of the Eternal, Vedanta Press, 2002. “Not by work, nor by progeny, nor by wealth, but by devotion to him and by indifference to the world, does a man reach immortality. “Retire into solitude. Seat yourself on a clean spot and in erect posture, with the head and neck in a straight line. Be indifferent to the world. Control all the sense organs. Bow down in devotion to your Guru. Then enter the lotus of the heart and there meditate on the presence of Brahman—the pure, the infinite, the blissful. “Unmanifest to the senses, beyond all thought, infinite in form, is God. “The seers meditate on him and reach the source of all beings, the witness of all. “He who knows him conquers death. There is no other way to liberation. “The mind may be compared to a firestick, the syllable OM to another. Rub the two sticks together by repeating the sacred word and meditating on Brahman, and the flame of knowledge will be kindled in your heart and all impurities will be burnt away, “He, as the Self, resides in all forms, but is veiled by ignorance. When he is in the state of dream that men call waking, he becomes the individual self... he is happy or miserable because of the creations of his mind. “In the three states of consciousness, whatever appears as the enjoyer or the object of enjoyment, I am the witness thereof, separate from all. I am pure consciousness. I am the eternal Shiva. “I am the knower.... I was not born; I have neither body, nor senses, nor mind, I, the Supreme Self, dwell in the lotus of the heart. I am pure. I am One without a second.” Om Tat Sat
/ ¢ tata¥ sata¥ /
Swami Prabhavananda & Manchester, Frederick (2002). The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. Holywood CA: Vedanta Press. Swami Nikhilananda (1994). The Upanishads. New York NY. Harper & Row. Radhakrishnan, S (1997). The Principal Upanishads. New Delhi, India. Indus. Swami Madhavananda (1992). Minor Upanishads. Himalayas, India. Advaita Ashram.