Saturday, May 16, 2020

Thoughts and content of Upanishads

At the outset, one must confess it is almost impossible to write about all that is in the Upanishads and synthesize it to a single post. First of all, I have only very basic Sanskrit knowledge and second of all I have not read all the Upanishads. Equally important, is that fact that there are so many immensely deep ideas in Upanishads that it is beyond my intelligence level to synthesize them to any degree of honesty and comprehensiveness.

For people interested in understanding Upanishads in detail, I can only refer them to Sankara bashyam - where Sankaracharya wrote commentaries on the Upanishads. We don't really know if he got hold of the Upanishads the way they were originally written since he wrote the commentaries around ~730-750 AD where as the earliest Upanishads were written around 600 BC.

Some of the noteworthy content themes for me are being noted below.

Two paths for life : Samsara and samnyasa

Upanishads are the first port of call across the Vedas where a system of renunciation is developed in much depth. Most of Vedas, pre Aranyak deals with material life. What is it that humans should do so that they can amass good karmas which will help them go to heaven and be reborn in an exalted form (e.g. wise humans) rather than as say, insect or dog. This is samsara, the cycle of life. Most of the the vedic people thus far were bothered only with this life, in this material world.

With Upanishads, new path is introduced - one of moksha through samnyasa. This is moving away from the cycle of life and death and instead attain moksha , renunciation.

While the former explains what should be done to amass good Karma (at its most simplistic definition, it pertains to all human actions), the latter disassociates itself from all forms of Karma. Any form of Karma, whether good or bad, ties one up with cycle of life. Hence to escape the cycle of rebirths the best is to avoid all forms of karma, the core of renunciation philosophy that was developed during this times.

The second brahmana of brihadaranyaka upanishad, deals directly with these two paths

On the path of samnyasa it says,

'Those who thus know this (even Grihasthas), and those who in the forest worship faith and the True (Brahman Hiranyagarbha), go to light (arkis), from light to day, from day to the increasing half, from the increasing half to the six months when the sun goes to the north, from those six months to the world of the Devas (Devaloka), from the world of the Devas to the sun, from the sun to the place of lightning. When they have thus reached the place of lightning a spirit comes near them, and leads them to the worlds of the (conditioned) Brahman. In these worlds of Brahman they dwell exalted for ages. There is no returning for them"

On the existing path of samsara driven largely by householder sacrifices and rituals, it says

"But they who conquer the worlds (future states) by means of sacrifice, charity, and austerity, go to smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the decreasing half of the moon, from the decreasing half of the moon to the six months when the sun goes to the south, from these months to the world of the fathers, from the world of the fathers to the moon. Having reached the moon, they become food, and then the Devas feed on them there, as sacrificers feed on Soma, as it increases and decrease. But when this (the result of their good works on earth) ceases, they return again to that ether, from ether to the air, from the air to rain, from rain to the earth. And when they have reached the earth, they become food, they are offered again in the altar-fire, which is man, and thence are born in the fire of woman. Thus they rise up towards the worlds, and go the same round as before"
It is unclear whether there was a hierarchy between the paths but clearly renunciation was increasingly becoming a preferred form of following dharma / religion. In fact, the later Upanishads, especially the Sanyasa Upanishads, even goes on to prefer the renunciation path over the vedic householder path.

It is worth noting here that later treatises (especially dharmasastras), integrate the two paths and maps them to stages of life - life divided into brahmacharya (pre-wedding, student life), gruhasthashram (householder life), vanaprastha (forest dweller) and sanyasi (renouncer). First two, you act in accordance with path of samsara (how to lead a good householder life - learn, acquire wisdom, have sex, make children, build house, acquire wealth, do charity / rituals etc) while the focus of last stage is moksha. And third stage is preparing for the final stage while residing and contemplating in the forest. It is in some ways a hedge - do the best you can in first two stages (sat-karma) so that if you take rebirth you are at least reborn in favorable circumstances. And in the last renunciant stage do what you can to avoid rebirth altogether and achieve moksha, escaping from the cycle of birth and death.

Developing Advaita philosophy

Advaita means non-dualism. At its core it believes in oneness of all creation - all creations are one and are parts of the universal spirit (brahman). The only reality is Him and everything else is mithya / maya (non-existent, illusory).

The world has no separate existence apart from Brahman. The experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such.

It establishes that Brahman is nirguna (formless, without attributes) while each individual might perceive an ishvara (lord) - which is saguna (with attributes including form)

The key difference Advaita with regard to dvaita philosophy is the belief that jiva is same as brahman and saguna ishvara's perceived existence to normal humans is due to avidya (ignorance). For Dvaita, jivatma (soul within humans) and param atma (supreme soul) each has an independent existence. However, God (brahman in Upanishads) is personal in nature, saguna and controls the world and all creatures.

Let us now look at select shlokas from a variety of the principal Upanishads to get a gist of Vedantic thought 


Isha Upanishad, IU, one of the shortest Principal Upanishads, but well know), writes thus

iśāvāsyamidaṃ sarvaṃ yatkiñca jagatyāṃ jagat |
tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā gṛdhaḥ kasyasviddhanam ||

All that there is (in this world) is abode of the Lord (is enveloped/pervaded by the Him)
Renouncing possessions, enjoy (in this knowledge), do not desire any other wealth

Essentially pointing to the fact that everything there is, is Brahman - why would you hence want to possess anything ? You can enjoy this life without being desirous of any other wealth once you have this knowledge - when you are Brahman and everything else is also Brahman, why would you lack anything that you would be desirous of possessing anything outside of you.

Tatvam Asi

Chandogya Upanishad (CU), one of the oldest of the principal Upanishads says thus (Chapter.6.8)

Tat Tvam Asi Svataketo (तत्त्वमसि श्वेतकेतो) 

That thou (O! Svataketu) art

The pupil Svataketu returns after 12 years of rigorous study, quite pleased with himself. His father asks him if he know the truth of reality. When Svataketu expresses his lack of knowledge of It, his father explains the same to him, ending in the famous advise "That which is the subtlest, the Self within all, That is the truth.That thou (O! Svataketu) art ".

Each human is the unchanging reality. Names, attributes, positions changes but who we really are, that essence is the unchanging truth - your true identity. Svataketu's father is asking him to remove from his mind self attributes - I'm tall, I'm learned, I'm rich, I'm this or that - and come back to his true identify - that which Is. The true unchanging identity, the subtle essence present in all beings.

Aham brahmasmi

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (BU), along with CU above, it is one of the oldest Upanishads and probably one of the most studied. Chapter 1, 4.10

Aham Brahmasmi

On a passage that explains how only Self existed in the beginning and everything else verily sprung from it, BU says that "I'm Brahman, the ultimate reality".

"Verily in the beginning this was Brahman, that Brahman knew (its) Self only, saying, 'I am Brahman.' From it all this sprang" (This here refers to all that exists). It further goes one step ahead and says "Thus, whatever Deva was awakened (so as to know Brahman), he indeed became that (Brahman); and the same with Rishis and men".

Even gods are enlightened when they understand that they are brahman. Same goes for all learned rishis and ordinary men. Essentially, real awakening or enlightenment happens only when one understand that every man himself is the brahman, the ultimate reality. This chapter in BU extols the Advaita philosophy (which will only later be developed into a systemic structure) "Now if a man worships another deity, thinking the deity is one and he another, he does not know".

Once you know your Self is one with Ultimate reality (brahman), then you are never incomplete. You don't have to desire for "other" to complete yourself - whether it be a wife, wealth, possessions. 

BU Chapter 1, 4 Brahman ends with the following

"In the beginning this was Self alone, one only. He desired, 'Let there be a wife for me that I may have offspring, and let there be wealth for me that I may offer sacrifices.' Verily this is the whole desire, and, even if wishing for more, he would not find it. Therefore now also a lonely person desires, 'Let there be a wife for me that I may have offspring, and let there be wealth for me that I may offer sacrifices.' And so long as he does not obtain either of these things, he thinks he is incomplete. Now his completeness (is made up as follows): mind is his self (husband); speech the wife; breath the child; the eye all worldly wealth, for he finds it with the eye, the ear his divine wealth, for he hears it with the ear. The body is his work, for with the body he works. This is the fivefold sacrifice, for fivefold is the animal, fivefold man, fivefold all this whatsoever. He who knows this, obtains all this". 

Poorna mantra

IU and BU both commonly has the mantra as follows

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते ।

पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥

ओँ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Which can be translated literally as "That is full. This is full. Fullness emerges from fullness. If fullness is removed from fullness, fullness is retained / shall remain. Let there be peace, peace, peace".

It can be interpreted in many ways but the most common understanding is one of merging one's self with infinity / Brahman. Our self is nothing but a part of the infinite brahman. 

Dvaita interpretation : Both jiva atman (individual soul within each human) and param atman (supreme soul) are complete in itself. Not only that, they are also identical - both being infinite. The jiva atman is made from param atman. Even after that param atman remains infinite. 

Advaita interpretation : That (brahman) is infinite, this (atman) is infinite. This came from that. But even after this emerged from that, that remains infinite.

Atleast, both interpretations agree on the final line - Let there be peace, peace, peace :-)

Pavamana mantra ; prayer for purification

Brihadarnyaka has another famous mantra that is commonly recited in school morning prayers in India and also for many other occasions. (Chapter 1, 3rd Brahmana)

Asato ma sad gamaya; tamaso ma jyotir gamaya; mrtyor ma amrutam gamaya

The straight forward interpretation of this is as follows

Take me from unreal to real (verily the truth)
Take me from from darkness to light
Take me from death to immortality

BU on this chapter though is focused on bringing immortality and verily says all the three lines are around helping sacrificer attain immortality. Context is very complex starting with a fight between devas and asuras - simplistically good and evil. Breath helps Devas win over asuras and thus establishes the primacy of breath over other senses. The brahmana goes on to call breath, Angirasa ayasa. Ayasa = of the mouth ; angirasa (rasa of the anga = sap of the limbs, that which gives life to limbs). Further one breath is called brihaspati (lord of speech). It then gives the sacrificer mantras for purification including this one for immortality. 


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