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“When by means of the true nature of self, as with a lamp, a man practising yoga sees here the true nature of brahman, he is freed from all fetters, for he has known God, unborn, steadfast, unsullied by all objects.
Svetasvatara Upanishad 2.15

The Upanishads

BY THE END of the vedic period, that is, around 700-600 BCE, the centre of Aryan culture had sifted eastwards from Punjab to the Ganges-Yamuna basin. The kingdoms of this region, notably the powerful Kuru-Panchala alliance, patronised and protected the vedic priesthood. The status of priests and kings was given religious sanction in the system of four varnas or social orders: brahmanas or priests, ksatriyas or warriors, vaisyas or tradesmen, and sudras or labourers. Members of the first three orders were wallowed to hear the Veda; sudras and non-Aryans were not. Mentioned first in a symbolic hymn in the tenth book of the Rg Veda, the varna-system soon became hereditary and inflexible, and eventually degenerated into the present system of caste.

The brahmana portion of the Veda, consisting primarily of prose commentaries on the hymns, codified the ritual religion. A related sort of text, the aranyakas or 'forest books', were concerned especially with the hymns' esoteric or allegorical meaning. Some of them also contained mystical and philosophical speculations; such portions were often named upanisads. Eventually a large number of upnaisads were composed. Some of them are intergral parts of the Veda, others apparently had an independent origin, though they were later assigned to one veda or another. All of them are concerned not with the vedic ritual in itself, but with the secret knowledge that is said to underlie it.

The word upanisad is made up of the word-elements upa, ni, and sad, which are generally explained as meaning 'sitting down near'. The picture this evokes is a group of students at the feet of their instructor in a secret teaching 'session.' In the upanisads themselves, the term denotes 'secret knowledge' or 'secret teaching'. This esoteric instruction was reserved for qualified students, who had proved to their teachers that they were ready to receive it. Since the upanisads are found at the end of the vedic corpus, they are known collectively as vedanta, 'the end of the Veda'. This term is also explained as meaning 'the culmination of the Veda', since the upanisads are said to contain the Veda's culmination wisdom. Like the samhitas and brahmanas, the upanisads are sruti or revealed scripture. To those who accept the truth of the Veda, they require no proof; rather they are cited to prove or disprove other assertions. The orthodox justify the unchallengeable authority assigned to the upanisads and other forms of struti by saying that they were seen by the ancient sages. Some modern admirers of the upanisads say rather than that they embody the results of their authors' spiritual experiences.

The upanisads deal with a large number of topics in a rather unsystematic manner. For centuries, students have concentrated on a selection of these topics and tried to systematise them. These attempts do not do justice to the entire upanishadic corpus, but they do highlight, in a useful way, the characteristic ideas of these texts. For the last two thousand years there has been general agreement that the central concept of the upanisads is brahman, the absolute ground of all that is. Badarayana, the author of the Vedanta Sutra (c. 500-200 BCE), declared that all the verses of the upanisads are worthy of credence, but gave most of his attention to selected passages dealing with brahman. All schools of Vedanta philosophy, from Sankara's to Sri Aurobindo's, regard the upanisads as privileged sources of spiritual truth, whose central term is brahman. Modern scholars like Paul Deussen, Robert E. Hume, and S. Radhakrishnan agree that the idea of brahman is the core of what they call the 'philosophy of the upanisads'.

Brahman denotes the spaceless and timeless Spirit; but the term itself has a history in time. In the earlier portions of the Veda, it meant 'prayer' or 'sacred word' and the power that this word contained. Later it came to signify the origin of the universe, and still later the mysterious fundamental principle that underlies the world and everything in it. According to the Chandogya upanisad (6.2.1), brahman is 'One without a second'. This Unity is not knowable by ordinary means. In the paradoxical expression of the Kena Upanisad, it is 'other than the known' and at the same time 'above the unknown' (see selection 1.3). Only those who have received the secret knowledge passed down from olden times, can know the brahman by becoming one with it. For the Self or atman is identical with brahman.

Atman is the second most important term of the upanisads. Derived from a root that also is the source of the verb 'to breathe', atman is the self or soul of the human individual. It is also, as Uddalaka Aruni tells his son Svetaketu in the Chandogya, the 'finest essence' of every object. 'The whole universe has this [essence] as its Self,' Uddalaka continues. 'That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are, Svetaketu!' (selection 11). The term atman and brahman are often treated as synonyms, though they generally occur in specific contexts- brahman in passages dealing with cosmology, atman in presentations of what we would now call psychology. Nevertheless, it is clear from various texts that the two are identical: 'this atman is brahman' (selection 19).

Because it is the Absolute, atman-brahman does not have attributes. As a result it is often described by negatives: “This is the teaching: 'Not this, not this', for there is nothing higher than this [negative teaching]" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.3.6). Elsewhere, however, there are passages describing the nature of brahman in positive terms. It is ancient, self-existent and limitless. It is absolute truth and consciousness. Perhaps most remarkably, it is identified as pure joy or delight (ananda). A celebrated passage in the Taittiriya Upanisad (reproduced as section 12) describes the joy of the Spirit as 10011 times greater than the greatest joy an ordinary human can attain. One who knows this self-existent joy 'fears nothing'.

Since atman-brahman is all that is, it follows that the diversity of the universe is only an appearance. How this world of manifestation came into being is a mystery that a number of upanisads attempt to explicate. Several passages propose a theory of a dual brahman: one formless and the other formed. 'That which is formed', explains the Maitri Upanisad (6.3), 'is unreal', while 'that which is formless is real'. Other texts suggest that the manifested world is the creation of a power of illusion, known as maya. This notion was fleshed out by the eight-century philosopher Shankara, and eventually became the keynote of the predominant interpretation of Vedanta. Other passages of the upanisads, for instance the opening of the Isa (selection 15), grant derivative reality to the manifested world as a creation of brahman as the Lord.

Although centrally interested in the reality behind cosmic and individual phenomena, the upanisads also have much to say about the nature and destiny of the human being. Two important concepts that emerged in later vedic literature are the basis of the upanisads' theories of eschatology and ethics. These concepts are karma and rebirth. The word karma, from the verbal root kr, 'to do', means 'action'. In the ritual portions of the Veda it refers to the right performance of the sacrifice. In some of the upanisads the sense is extended to cover every action of life. What one does, determines one's future condition in this life or in another. A portion of the individual survives the death of the body, and, after a time, is reborn in another body, whose quality is a reflection of the quality of his former deeds: 'Those who conduct here has been good will quickly attain a good womb;... but those whose conduct has been evil here will attain an evil womb' (Chandogya upanisad 5.10.7). This process is repeated, each birth paving the way for the next in a cycle called samsara. The only means of escape from this endless round is the attainment of the knowledge of brahman. When this happens, the last seeds of karma are consumed, and the individual achieves moksa or liberation. These ideas have played an enormously important role in all subsequent religious thought in India, not only in the traditions that descend from the Veda, but also in heterodox systems like Jainism and Buddhism.

Since atman-brahman is at once the object of spiritual knowledge, the source of spiritual delight, and the key to the release from karma, it clearly is of the utmost importance for humans to put themselves into contact with it. The upanisads give a number of methods for doing this. To begin with, the aspirant must hear the secret teachings of the upanisads from the lips of a qualified teacher. Then he must meditate on them in order to grasp their inner meaning, for the secrets of the upanisads lie beyond the range of senses, thoughts and words (see selection 13). The Formless One, says the Svetasvatara Upanisad, is not to be seen with the eye; but 'those who know him through heart and mind as abiding in the heart become immortal' (4.20). The same upanisad provides a number of disciplines for helping the 'mind and heart' achieve this intuitive knowledge. These are similar to the methods promoted by the schools of Samkhya and Yoga. Several of the later, theistic upanisads introduces another idea: that the knowledge of brahman can best be obtained by the grace of God.”

Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience
Peter Heehs, NYU Press (September 1, 2002), pp. 57-60




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