Sunday, August 28, 2011





Man in real life is caught up in the unreal, feels dull and clouded, threatened by death and torn with anxiety and sorrow. Deep concern by the learned sages about the human life in this world and life after death is reflected in the following famous Vedic mantra: "Asatoe maa sad gamaya; tamsoe maa jyoetir gamaya; mrityoer maa amritam gamaya"—Lead me from Unreal to the Real; from darkness to light; from death to immortality.


The goal of all spiritual endeavor as well as the worldly activities of man is deathlessness (amaratva) or continuity of existence. Religions which believe in after-life and immortality of soul have sprung from this deep yearning. Upanishads, concerned with human welfare naturally focused all their attention on the human beings only though they had vast knowledge of animal and plant kingdom as revealed in Ayurveda, a branch of Vedas.


Senses and mind provide us with an awareness of the outside world, and our life seems to be main plank on which they operate. Therefore, the Rishis of Upanishads pondered over human constitution, instruments of knowledge, nature of bondage and factors of freedom. Some Upanishads even dwell on physiological details and psychological explanations, while majority of them focus on fundamental nature of man's self (soul or spirit). They even welcomed the then existing knowledge of Life Science into the fold of Vedas and called it Ayurveda. (Ayu=Longevity).


Upanishads give us a general impression that they have made an axiomatic assumption as to the existence of Self within all of us without a question. Taittareeya Upanishad says in 2-6-1: "asti ched veda, santam enam tato viduh"—Know that it (Self) exists, and then you can know its nature.


All the Upanishads seem to be in agreement with Yajnavalkya's proposition: "Verily, the Self, it is that must be seen, heard, reflected upon and pondered over; when Self is understood, everything is understood".


Sankara in his Brahmsootra Bhashya has recorded a dialogue from one of the Upanishads

as follows: King Vaashkalin goes to sage Baadhva and asks him to explain the real nature of Self. Baadhva remains silent. The king asks a second time, but Baadhva does not break his silence. When the king repeats his question for the third time Baadhva replies—"I have been all the while telling you, but you do not understand". The real nature of the Self according to Upanishads is thus un-speakable; its only description is silence, quiet. This Self unknown and unknowable is the basis of our being; and, our entire constitution with physical frame, psychological functions, sense activities, mind and understanding is this Self writ large. Therefore Upanishads accept Self without a question almost axiomatically. However, Upanishads have raised this question now and then, but have come to the same conclusion.


Kena Upanishad poses the question: "prompted by whom, does the mind go about its function? Yoked first by whom, the vital current (Praana) move? Impelled by whom do we speak at all? What spirit makes the eye see and the ear hear? In answer to this, the Upanishad says, it must be a principle that must be behind which makes the senses to perceive. It is described as the eye of the eye, ear of the ear, mind of the mind, speech of the speech and life of the life. It can't be defined.


Upanishads recognize the structure of individual organism is essentially similar to the structure of the Universe. This refers to five elements (pancha bhootas) that enter into composition: Earth (density and solidity); Water ((cohesion, liquidity); Air (expansion, movement); Fire (light, heat); and, Aakaasa (space, extension). The human body is as material and physical as the world around it. Its growth, maturation, decays and disappearance follows the same natural laws. The primary elements combine and modify to produce and maintain inorganic as well as organic world, and their modifications assume a particular pattern. It reaches perfection in human beings which is also endowed with superior intelligence, unlike the programmed one in animals and plants. But yet human body is perishable. Its disintegration to basic elements is inevitable. Upanishads' main concern had been immortality of human beings. They, therefore, concentrated on human evolution physically as well as spiritually. They were almost silent on other living beings of animals and plants, though their knowledge on them was deep as evidenced in Ayurveda.


Senses and mind provide us with an awareness of the outside world. But what prompts the senses and mind? There is an interesting story in the Upanishads about the quarrel among the senses. Once, the senses began disputing who among them was the leader? Brahma acted as judge. It was decided that sense which while leaving the body will render it useless would be the leader. The body survived when senses one after another left the body. When it was the turn of the vital current (breath-Praana) to leave, the body became useless. The vital force was adjudged as the leader and controller for without it the other senses cannot function and the body is dead. We live on without one or more of the sense modifications of the life principle, but we live only as long as the life principle itself lasts in the body. The Sun might set, fire might go out, and water dry up, but air moves without rest or stop. Comparable to the air among the elements of nature is the life principle (Praana) among the sense modifications.


Elsewhere there is the following account: The senses started disputing amongst themselves in the matter of superiority. All of them left the body. The body lay not breathing but dry like a log of wood. The speech, the eyes, the ears, and the mind entered the body one after another. These senses became only active, but the body did not get up. It is only when breath entered that the body arose (Kaushilaki 2-14).


Maheedaasa Aitreya, an upanishadic sage regards the body as an organization, as a system with life-principle as its potentiality. According to him the life-principle is five-fold in its functions: Up-breathing (praana), corresponding to the respiratory system; down-breathing (apaana), corresponding to alimentary system; back-breathing (samaana) corresponding to metabolic system; up-breathing (Udaana) corresponding to special senses and finally Vyaana corresponding to the circulatory system. Early thoughts of Upanishads of life-principles ranged from three to ten but later Upanishads fixed that to five-fold life-principles (panchapraanas), probably influenced by Ayurveda. Pooja rituals while offering naivedya (food) to the iconic representations of Brahman also refer to these five fold life-principle. In reality Maheedaasa speaks of the expansion of the Self into five fold principles.


According toVedic thinking, we do not have a dichotomous division of human nature into body and spirit. The two are not two distinct principles at all but two aspects of the same principle. It is the spirit itself that manifests as body. Human nature is really an organization of emanations and appearances, at various levels of the one Self, which is itself formless. The concrete particulars and the abstract ground are like one substance: like the waves and the ocean; like the hill and the ground below.


Chandogya Upanishad says the great fig tree arises from and subsists in, the unseen finest essence within the tiny seed. Similarly the whole world comes out of and rests in the finest essence, the Self.


The transformation of the Being to Becoming is explained by Aghamarshana. The warmth (Tejas) signifies the urge for manifestation of the Self (transcendental divinity), which is the Being. While the Being sustains Becoming as distinct from itself, transaction with the world is possible. When once the structure of the Becoming (creation) is withdrawn into the Being, the individuation collapses and transaction ceases (dissolution).


Upanishads' next concern has been with the problem of individuation—how the abstract and formless Self becomes the multi-dimensional psychological and physical constitution. To explain this, Taittareeya Upanishad comes with its Kosa Theory. Kosha means sheath in Samskrit, a covering or casing, meant to conceal and contain. Kosa Theory mentions of five coverings for the Self representing five successive orders of reality. They are: Annamaya (the food); Praanamaya (The life); Manoemaya (the mind); Vijnaanamaya (the Consciousness) and Aanndamaya (The Bliss).


The food represents the physical aspect of reality, matter, the material principle. In human being, it is the physical body with the psychological functions. This is the outermost sheath called 'Anna' the grossest and the most concrete, depending on nutrition (food) for its sustenance. Concealed by this, but activating this is the 'Praana' (life principle) which enlivens matter and keeps it going. The five-fold breath mentioned above as well as the senses are comprehended here. Subtler than this and covered by it is the 'Manas' (mind) sheath. It is composed of psychological processes including thinking and feeling, having their foundation in the data procured by the sense organs. Subtler than this is the sheath of 'Vijnaana' (individual consciousness, awareness or understanding) which is in fact is the foundation for all psychological processes. This individual consciousness is not to be confused with the object-consciousness or ego-consciousness which necessitates our mental activities, but it is the subliminal, incipient or bare consciousness. This is more fundamental than mind and nearest in evolution to the original inherent nature of the Being. This is also called "Buddhi' or 'Dhi' or 'Prajnaana". The subtlest covering in the whole group is called 'Aananda' (Bliss), in the mystic language of the ancients. This should not be mistaken for the hedonistic pleasure. This Bliss is located in the space within the Upanishads' heart (antar-hridaya). We talked about the free space within the Self, the innermost core of the Being. The Bliss is not an experimental category, for it is even basic to Consciousness; Consciousness in fact conceals or covers it. This Bliss is substantially identical with the warmth or 'urge to manifest', the 'Kaama' mentioned in Naasadeeya Sookta and the 'Tapas' of the Aghamarshana Sookta.


Aghamarshana Sookta elaborates: "It desired: may I become manifold! It became warm with heat and then created all this, whatever there is. And, having created it, entered into it. And so, whatever there is, there is the Being only". Thus from the Being the progressive grades of manifestation are; 'the urge to manifest', the incipient consciousness, mind, the vital functions and the physical forms and activities. This is true not only in the cosmic plane but equally in the individual context. This is the process of individuation; this is the course of development, of growth, of concretization. This drama is enacted in every instance of birth, in the emergence of every thought and every feeling. In Upnishads' language this is called 'Sareera-aatman', an embodied Spirit, that is 'the Being' that becomes 'the Becoming', that is assumes a concrete form.


What remains a surprise is that despite the Becoming, the Being remains incorporeal (anaatmya), unsupported (anilayana) invisible (adrisya), and undefined (anirukta) in any manner by all the processes and products of the Being. Yajnavalkya says: "the eternal greatness of the Being neither increase by these effects nor decreases".


Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad gives an account of the Being as follows: In the beginning there was only Self (the Being) and nothing else beside the Self. He saw all around and found only himself. He realized "I am". He got frightened. He was alone and therefore there was nothing to fear. So, the fear departed. However the Self was lonely and had no fun. He was in need of a company. He then desired and the desire was great; He immediately became large, as if a man and woman locked in embrace. Being great, he split into two pieces--one was male and the other female. The female hid herself. But the male insisted. In this drama of female withdrawal and male aggressiveness the whole world was created. So, according to Taittareeya, the Being when it transforms itself into the Becoming is both actual and an emanation, defined and undefined, both supported and unsupported, both real and unreal. In other words the Being is the same before and after the event in all aspects.


This Upanishad's text also says, besides "Kaama" an organism inclination, stated above, there is a male and female aspect, an introvert and extrovert tendency in each individual. When the Self becomes individuated not only by his body and mind which have forms, but by a variety of psychic processes such as the ego, dread, desire, masculinity and feminist tenancy, there will emerge worlds within oneself. The Self is said to make for himself mind (manas), speech (vak), and the breath (praana). These three are the worlds (lokas) of experience.


The Self is regarded as the hub in which all worlds are like the threads that come out of the spider or the sparks that come out of the blazing fire. Upanishads speak only two major manifestation of the Self, namely the living principle or Breath (Praana) and Consciousness (Praajna).


Praana includes the physical body, nutritive functions sense perceptions and mind. When one goes to deep sleep his speech, eyes, ears, and mind just go to Breath. They are all snatched up by Breath and retained temporarily by Breath. On waking up, these functions are resumed by specific faculties. Breath therefore is fundamentally the stuff out of which the cognitive and active senses are made; it is the beam on which the eye, ear, mind etc. rest. Therefore this Breath is indeed sometimes equated with the Self. Mind is said to be its messenger, eye its watchman, ear the announcer and speech hand-maid. Breath is like the wind amongst elements that never stops or rests while one is alive.


The other manifestation of the Self is individual Consciousness (Praajna) which is referred to as "Conscious individuality" (Praajnaatman). This Consciousness is coeval (antiquity) and thus regarded in a way as identical with the Breath, the special function of the Consciousness being the cognition and deliberation. One Upanishad identifies them (Praana and Praajna), and speaks of them two together residing in the body and the two together departing from it (at death). Breath is described as the reason for our survival (immortality in this world in the Upanishads' language). While Consciousness makes for all "true conceptions" or what we should call meaningful experiences, the Breath is involved in physiological functions including sensation.


The role of Consciousness becomes clear in the Upanishads' discussion on waking up and deep sleep states. When we are awake, the senses are active, and they are specific in their activities; each has its own individual domain and its own characteristic modalities. When individual goes to deep sleep the senses are no longer active, despite the potentiality. They are no longer correlated outwardly, and the external simulations fail to be perceived. This is because the aspect of Consciousness which makes a sense alert, while awake is withdrawn in deep sleep. Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad says: "when a person falls into deep sleep the individual Consciousness takes away consciousness from Breath modifications and rests in the space inside the heart".


Chandogya Upanishad says in 8-6-3: "Jeeva during deep sleep withdraws all his sense organs and in a state of tranquility does not see any dream and then enters into these nerves. It is then not touched by any evil. It is then united with Brahman". At the time of deep sleep though its past karma continues it will not have the ability to yield the result. It will be residing in Brahman, without being the Ordainer of the body and senses, at the time. The attainment of Self as the Absolute Value is called liberation (Mukti or Moksha). The texts of Upanishads contain numerous descriptions of liberation, but essentially it is getting united with the Self or more properly from Transactional to Transcendental—from the 'Becoming' to the 'Being'.



Chandogya Upanishad in 8-6-5 says: "When Self departs from the body, it moves upwards through these very rays of the Aditya Mandala. It either goes upward by meditating on OM if it is the knower of the Brahman, or goes downward if it is not such one. It reaches the Sun within the time that mind takes for traveling. This Aditya is surely the gate way for reaching the world of Brahman for enlightened souls. But it is closed for those who do not realize Brahman and they are reborn. Aditya Mandala is the gateway for reaching the world of Brahman


This lecture has been prepared for the Vedanta Class at Sri Ganesha Temple by suitably extracting, abridging, and editing texts from:


  1. Prof. Ramachandra Rao, S.K., Darsanodaya, Early Indian Thought, Kalpatharu Research Academy Publication, Sharada Peetham, Sunkar Mutt, Bangalore, India.
  2. Dr N.S. Anantharangacharya, Principal Upanishads, Bangalore.

Swami Harshananda, the Ten Cardinal Upanishads, Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, India.