The Essence of the Aitareya and Taittiriya Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 2: The Atman

This final substance is constituted of the essence of everything, and it is our very Self. It is called the Atman. It is the Atman because it is the root substance of all things which are in the position of an effect. The Atman is the substance of everyone and everything. It is the Total Substance of all created beings, and so it is called Brahman. The Total Substance is Brahman, and the same thing conceived as the essence of particular beings is known as the Atman. Even as there cannot be a cause behind the final cause, there cannot be an Atman behind the Atman, for the very basic substance is what is called the Atman. The substance should be ultimate, and the Atman is such. The ultimate in us is the Atman. The ultimate in the cosmos is Brahman. There cannot be anything other than this Universal Reality.

The Aitareya Upanishad proclaims that the Atman, in the beginning, was the all; and it has become all this universe. The concept of the universe is also a difficult thing to entertain in the mind unless we analyse the universe into its very components. The universe is manifested out of this Total Substance, Brahman, which is the Atman, or the Self, of the universe. So the total effect came out of the Total Cause. From Brahman came the universe.

Now, something coming from something else is also a difficult thing to understand. What is the procedure of the world coming out of the Ultimate Cause? What is the relationship between the effect and the cause here? There cannot, in fact, be a vital distinction between the effect and the cause. Our aspirations would be meaningless, the search for reality would be baseless, and there would be no function of thought as self-transcendence if we were not vitally connected with the cause. Every activity in the world is the effect moving towards the cause by various degrees of self-transcendence. The very presence of the moral urge to overstep ourselves to a higher cause or purpose is a proof of the fact that there is a living contact of the cause with its effect.

While the effect has come from the cause, it is not disconnected from the cause. This is one principle laid down at the very beginning itself. The universe seems to have descended in such a way that it has not isolated itself from the Absolute vitally. There is no vital disconnection between the effect and the cause. There is some sort of a relation always. There is an inscrutable relationship, ‘anirvachaniya sambandha’, between the effect and the cause. There is not an absolute identity, because there is a manifestation. It is not an absolute manifestation, because we can see our relationship with the cause. This relationship between God and man, the Creator and the universe, the Absolute and the relative, is unintelligible. This relationship is the beginning of all cosmological questions, the theories of creation and doctrines of every kind. Once creation is admitted as a fact of empirical experience, everything that devolves from it is also accepted. We are only to accept the fact of the creation of the universe, and we are made at once to accept everything else also, automatically. There is a gradual evolution by an increase in the density of manifestation at lower levels. The Absolute never loses hold of the universe.

The Atman alone was. “Atma va idam eka evagra asit, nanyat kin cana misat,” says the Aitareya Upanishad at the very commencement. The Atman existed as the unparalleled Being, and it became the cause of the manifested elements. We have the great division of the elements as ether, air, fire, water and earth, in all their densities or levels of expression. There is a causal condition, a subtle condition and a gross condition. This was manifested. But the Absolute is never disconnected from them at any time; it always maintains a lien over everything that it has created. It enters the great objects of a cosmical nature, and this is what we call the immanence of God.

The Creator does not stand as an extra-cosmic substance unrelated to its creation. The Upanishad rules out totally any coming of a fresh effect from the cause. The immanence of the cause in the effect is admitted. It is the immanence of the cause in the effect that creates an aspiration in us for higher values. When we ask for God, it is God speaking from within. The cause is speaking to itself from the bottom of the effect when there is an aspiration on the part of the effect to move towards the cause. This circumstance of the cause being hiddenly present in every effect is called the immanence of the cause in the effect. Then we say that God is present in the world.

The Creator is not outside the cosmos. He is not fashioning the world as a potter makes a pot or a carpenter makes a table. It is not like that. He is one with the substance of things in immanence, as clay is present in the pot out of which the pot is manufactured, or as wood is present in the table out of which it is made. So we cannot be isolated from the substance of the cause.

Thus, there was an entry of the cosmic substance into this cosmic effect. This is the first act of God—the entry of the Absolute into the relative in its universal fashion. He became the cosmic man, to speak in ordinary terms—the Maha Purusha or Purushottama. The Absolute, unrelated to the created universe, became the cosmic determining factor of the universe. This is the Great Being spoken of in the Purusha Sukta and the Satarudriya of the Veda, and the various scriptures which speak of the all-pervading or omnipresent character of God. We always speak of the omnipresent nature of God, by which we mean the cause is hidden in the effect—immanently present, and not isolated from the effect.

Now, this is a very grand concept the Upanishads are placing before us in connection with the process of the creation of the universe, and we are very happy to hear all these truths. But, we are also unhappy today; this, also, we cannot forget. Why has this sudden unhappiness come out of this great happiness of God’s creation? When we hear all these great statements of cosmic manifestation, we feel elated; but we have little sorrows in our homes, and when we get out of the hall, we have to scratch our heads with our own problems. What has happened to us? How has this grief come into our hearts out of this great cosmic manifestation of God’s entering into this universal effect? This also will be told to us by the Upanishad itself.

There was a very dramatic action of God, as it were—a real drama He enacted before Himself, because there was no audience before Him. He was the director, He was the dramatis personae, and He was the audience. It is very strange! He immediately visualised Himself as the all: “Aham idam sarvam asmi”—I am this all. This universe of manifested effects is myself—naturally, because the whole effect is constituted of the substance of this ultimate cause. “I am this all.” It is as if the clay is telling, “I am all the pots”; the wood is telling, “I am all the tables, I am all the chairs, I am all the furniture.” Quite true, and it is very interesting indeed! Every effect that has come out of a single cause is that cause only. So the cause is affirming itself in every effect: “I am this all.”

But we are to enter the vale of tears after some time due to a catastrophic effect that seems to have followed from this dramatic manifestation of God. Nobody can say what has happened. We are completely screened away from this mystery. There is an iron curtain between ourselves and this mystery that has taken place. We are told not to speak about those things. The mind is repelled from the very thought of investigation into the mystery behind this event or happening. We are simply exiled for no fault of our own, as it were. We cannot even ask, “Why?” We cannot know whether it is because of the will of God that we have been exiled in this manner, or due to a fault of ours.

In certain forms of administration the subjects cannot question as to how a thing has happened, because they are subjected to the law of that administration. So, there is a peculiar universal government of God operating in a despotic manner, as it were, which insists upon its own language being spoken by everyone, and insists also on its law being obeyed in the manner it is expected. There is a sudden dropping of the curtain in this great scene of cosmic drama that is being played before us, and we do not see what is behind the screen. Now the screen has fallen. The many, which the One has become, are there, no doubt; the pots which have come out of clay are there; the effects are there. But one thing is not there, and that is the beginning of our sorrows.

When we say that the Atman alone is, we assert the One alone, to the exclusion of the many; and when we speak of the One becoming the many, we are conscious of the One and the many at the same time. Then comes the level of thinking where we are aware only of the many, and not the One. That is the dividing wall between the One and the many. The original drama was an envisagement of the many by the One. That is the grand creation. But when the curtain falls, the One is cut off from the many; or rather, the concept or the consciousness of the One is isolated from the consciousness of the many. Then there is what we call the manifestation of diversity in a literal sense. Then comes the necessity for one individual to cognise or to perceive the presence of another individual.

But, before this took place, the original Cause has taken care to see that it does not lose control over this manifestation completely. This is another aspect of the beauty of the drama. It has maintained its multiplicity with the background of the unity of its own Atmanhood or Selfhood, so that there was a peculiar intermediary condition where the multiplicity of the manifestation was the content of the total awareness of a single being, the Universal Atman that it was. And the Aitareya Upanishad tells us that the mouth burst open, speech came out, and out of it Agni, the deity, came. The eyes came out, sight manifested itself out of it, and Aditya or the sun came—and so on in respect of the various functions.

The beauty of this manifestation is a fact which we should never forget when we go further: the function comes first, and the deity comes afterwards. There is the mind first, thought afterwards, and the moon subsequently. The eye is first, seeing comes afterwards, and the sun still afterwards. The guardians or the deities of the various functions in their cosmical setup are subsidiary to the Ultimate Cause, which is the one Atman. They are not the controlling elements, as is the case with ourselves.

The universe was an effect of the Atman. It does not stand in the position of a cause, outside us, stimulating our senses to activity, as it happens to us today. The presence of an object stimulates our senses and the mind, and then we become conscious of the object. Then we establish a relationship with the world outside. The world is first, and we come afterwards here in this individual, empirical state. But there, it was not like that. The world was subsequent; and here, we become the consequents.

Now, this is a very crucial point where we have to very carefully draw a distinction between the cosmic level and the individual level, because the extent of our understanding of this mystery of the distinction between the cosmic and the individual will also be the extent to which we will be able to understand what life is, what duty is, and what the aim of mankind is.