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Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Upanishads

When we look at the world, we have what may be called a first view of things, and dissatisfaction with the first view of things is supposed to be the mother of all philosophical thinking. If we are satisfied with things, there is nothing more for us to search for in this world. Any kind of search, quest, enterprise, or desire to seek implies that we are not satisfied with the existing condition of things. And, we are quite aware that nobody in this world can be said to be totally satisfied with the prevailing conditions of things—neither in one's own self, nor in one's family, nor in the society outside, nor in anything, for the matter of that. There is always a tendency in the human mind to discover a lacuna in things: “It should not be like this. It should have been in some other way.” This is a distinction that we draw between the ‘is' and the ‘ought'. We may say “something is like this”; but instead, what we express is “something ought to have been like this” or “something ought to be like this”. The ‘ought' is something that we are expecting in this world; the ‘is' is what we are actually facing in this world. There is always this distinction, drawn in ourselves, between the ‘is' and the ‘ought'. We will not find any circumstance in life where we will not be searching for an ‘ought' and be dissatisfied with what ‘is'. This tendency in the mind—this peculiar predilection of the human psyche to search for what is not visible, perceptible, tangible or recognisable—is the seed sown for philosophical thinking.

Philosophy is the search for the higher values of life— not the values of the world as they are available to us. This world of perception is also filled with several values. We have social values, economic values, educational values, artistic and aesthetic values, and what not. None of these values can satisfy us for a long time. For a short period, everything seems to be fine; for a protracted period, nothing is fine. Everything looks stale, insipid, worn out and good for nothing after some time. We get fatigued and tired of things. We search for something else.

This ‘else' that we bring into the picture of our consciousness is the urge of the philosophical impetus. There is a necessity felt within each person to search for and recognise something which is not clear to the mind as yet; still, it is something which summons with a force that is irresistible. The irresistibility of this call seems to be so very compulsive and compelling that it keeps us restless always. We will find that every one of us, all people anywhere, have a little restlessness in the mind. Neither we eat with satisfaction, nor we sleep with satisfaction, nor are we secure when we speak to people. There is always a difficulty in our adjustment with the conditions prevailing in society and with people, and even with nature itself.

This kind of adventure of the Spirit, we may say, was at the back of the ancients in India who are supposed to be the promulgators of the great Scriptures called the Vedas, especially what are known as the Veda Samhitas. The mantras, the poems or the large poetry of the Veda Samhitas are an exuberant outpouring of the spirit of man in respect of something which is not adequately recognisable to sense perception or even to mental cognition, but which summons the spirit of man somehow or the other.

We begin to feel there must be something above this world. This was what the great poets and the sages of the Vedas felt. Everything seems to be transitory, moving, and in a state of flux. There is change in nature, change in human history, change in our own mental and biological constitution, change in even the solar system, the astronomical setup of things. Everything is changing. The perception of change is something very important for us to consider. How do we know that things are changing, that things are moving or are transitory? There is a logical peculiarity, a significance and a subtlety at the back of this ability on our part to perceive change and transition in things. A thing that changes cannot perceive change by itself. Change cannot know change. Only that which does not change can know that there is change.

This is a very important point at the rock bottom of our thinking that we have to recognise. If everything is changing, who is it that is telling us that everything is changing? Are we also changing with the things that change? If that is the case, how do we come to know that all things are changing? Logical analysis of this peculiar analytical circumstance tells us that there is something in us which does not change; otherwise, we would not know that things are changing.

Now, if oneself—this person or that person—seems to be obliged to recognise something in one's own self that does not seem to be changing because one perceives change in general, we also have to be charitable enough to accept that everyone in the world has this something which does not change. I have something in me which does not change, and you also have something in you that does not change. If this is the case, it seems to be everywhere. It does not mean that this unchanging so-called thing is only in one person, as all persons have an equal prerogative to conclude that something unchanging seems to be there, speaking in a language which is not subject to connection with changeable objects.

The Veda Samhitas to which I have made reference—which are the outpourings of spiritual seekers, sages and masters of advanced religious thought and spiritual perfection—felt the presence everywhere of something that does not change. All things seem to be embedded with something that cannot change. This is due to a logical conclusion to which we are led—namely, that the perception of change would not be possible if everything, including oneself, including even the perceiver of change, also changes. Therefore, transitoriness implies a non-transitory background of things.

The whole universe of perception, the entire creation, may be said to be involved basically, at the root, in something which cannot be said to change. This is an adorable and most praiseworthy conclusion, and anything that is adorable is a worshipful something. These masters of the Vedas Samhitas, therefore, recognised a divinity in all things. There is a god behind every phenomenon, which is another way of saying there is an imperishable background behind every perishable phenomenon. The sun rises in the east, the sun sets in the west; clouds gather, pour rain and then go; seasons change; something comes, something goes; we are born, we become old and we also go. Everything is changing, everywhere, even in the vast universe of astronomical calculation.

But all this is only an indication, a pointer to an unrecognised fact of there being something which is an adorable background of the cosmos itself. And wonderfully, majestically and touchingly, we may say, these sages of the Veda Samhitas began to see a god everywhere. There is no ‘ungod' in this world, because every phenomenon must be conditioned, or determined, by something which is not a phenomenon itself. Even the sun cannot rise and move, as it were, and the earth cannot rotate or revolve unless there is a motive force behind it. That motive force, the impetus for the rotation or revolution of the earth or the stellar system, cannot itself be revolving or rotating. So, there is a god behind the sunrise, behind the moonrise, behind the visibility of the stars, behind the seasons, behind even birth, death, aging and all transitions in human life.

The reality of things is what we are after; unrealities do not attract us. That which perpetually changes and escapes the grasp of our comprehension cannot be considered as real because of the fact of its passing constantly into something else. When we say that things are changing, we actually mean that one condition is passing into something else; one situation gives way to another situation. Why should this be at all? Where is the necessity for things to change and transform themselves? There is also a dissatisfaction with everything in its own self. We would like to transform ourselves into something else. It is not that things are changing only outwardly; we are changing inwardly. There is psychological change, together with physical and natural change. So, the transitoriness of things—the changeful character of everything in the world, including our own selves as perceivers of change—suggests the fact that we seem to be moving towards something which is not available at the present moment.

Movement is always in some direction, and there is no movement without a purpose. So there must be a purpose in the movement of nature, in even the historical transformations that take place in human society and in the world as a whole. There must be a destination behind this movement. If we move, we are moving in some direction, towards some destination. There must be some destination towards which the whole cosmos is moving in the process of evolution.

We are all well acquainted with the doctrine known as the evolutionary process, which is highlighted these days in the modern world. We have heard that there is a gradual rise of the organisms of life from the material state of inanimate existence to the plant or the vegetable state, to the animal condition of instinct and to the human level. If evolution has stopped with man, there would be no asking by man for anything further. We would be totally satisfied as human beings.

Man is not the perfection of things. Though many a time it is said that we have reached the apex of evolution, we have not reached that state. As there was dissatisfaction with the lower stages—such as the animal, etc., which gave rise to the upper level of human psyche, human understanding—there also seems to be a higher state than the human level, but for which nobody would be dissatisfied in this world. Everything is fine in this world. As I began by saying, there is a dissatisfaction with everything at the human level. That means we are also growing towards a higher state.

Where is it that we are going to? Man has to become superman. Animal man has become Homo sapiens; humanity is rising up. Animals mind their own business; they do not care for the world. They need only their grub, and the survival instinct is predominant in them. But the human being has reached a state today where he has animal instincts of survival—intense selfishness—but he also has a cognition of a new value emergent in life, which is consideration for the world outside also. Animals do not care for the world outside, but man has risen to a level where he feels it is necessary to care for the welfare of people outside, of the world as a whole. Even then it is not satisfying, because one day humanity itself will be shaken from its very roots if nature is against the continuance of human existence. There can be an epidemic, there can be a cataclysm, there can be an earthquake, there can be a war, there can be anything; it will break down everything. The earth can even be struck by a meteor. What will happen to our humanitarian outlook? No guarantee is given to us by the planets that they will maintain their position. That is to say, there is something which is pulling the entire cosmos towards itself. Animal becomes man, man becomes superman, superman becomes Godman, and even Godman is not the final stage because, after all, there is manhood, humanity, individuality and isolation persistent even in what we may call a Godman.

The recognition of a spiritual background behind the transitory phenomena of life is actually the object of worship. This is known as the divinities, or gods, who are adumbrated in the Veda Samhitas. Everywhere there are gods. We can worship a tree, we can worship a stone, we can worship a river, we can worship a mountain, we can worship the sun, the moon, the stars. Anything is okay as an object of worship because behind this emblem of an outward form of things in this world, there is a divinity masquerading as these forms.

This is the highlighting principle of the Veda Samhitas. If we read the Vedas, we will find that every mantra, every verse, is a prayer to some divinity above, designated by various names: Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, etc. We may give them any other name, according to our own language, style or cultural background. The point is not what name we give, but that there is something behind visible phenomena. Our heart throbs in a state of satisfaction of the fact that there is something above us. Religion, spirituality or philosophy, in the true sense of the term, is the recognition of something above oneself and a simultaneous recognition of the finitude of one's personality.

We are finite individuals in every way. Financially we are finite, geographically we are located in one place only and, therefore, we are finite; socially we are finite, historically we are finite, politically we are finite; even in the eyes of nature we are finite. Thus, the same argument can apply here: as change could not be perceived without the presence of something that is not changing in ourselves, the finitude of our existence also could not be known unless there is something in us which is not finite.

The non-finite is what we call the Infinite. The Infinite is masquerading in us, which is another way of saying that the Unchanging is present in us. The Infinite is summoning every finite individual. The Unchanging is calling us moment to moment: “Don't sleep, get up!” One of the passages of the Katha Upanishad is uttisthata jagrata prapya varan nibodhata (Katha 1.3.14): “Wake up. Sleeping mankind, stand up!” Are we slumbering? Are we seeing only what we are able to cognise through the sense organs or are we also aware of something that is deeply rooted in our own self? Prapya varan: “Go to the Masters.” Go to the wise ones in this world —masters and teachers and guiding lights of mankind—and nibodhata: “know the secret”. The Bhagavadgita also has this great teaching for us: tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya (Gita 4.34): “Go to the Masters.” How do we gain knowledge? Pranipatena: “Go and prostrate yourself before the great Masters.” Pariprasnena: “and question them.” “Great Master, this is the problem before me. I am not able to understand the solution for this. Please condescend to come down to my level and satisfy my inquisitiveness.” Serve that great Master; prostrate yourself; question the Master. These three things are mentioned in the Gita. So says the Upanishad: uttisthata jagrata prapya varan nibodhata.

There is an Infinite at the back of all the sensations of finitude of our personality which is calling us, and an unchanging timeless and spaceless Eternity is summoning us. We may put a question to our own selves: “Why are we unhappy in this world?” What is it that is dissatisfying? It is that which is in space, that which is in time, that which is causally connected as a couple of terms of relation between cause and effect, and the insecurity that we feel in the presence of things outside.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us in one little passage: dvitiyad vai bhayam bhavati (Brihad. 1.4.2). We can never be happy if there is another person near us. Always we have to adjust ourselves with that person and we do not know what to expect from that person. We cannot keep even a mouse in front of us; we will be very disturbed because the mouse is sitting in front. The mouse cannot do any harm to us, but we do not like the presence of even a little ant. “Oh, another thing has come.” This “another thing” is what is troubling us. The difficulty arising out of the cognition of another is because of the fact that the basic Reality, that unchanging Eternity, has no “another” outside It. Because of the absence of another in the basic reality of our own Self —the Truth of this cosmos—we feel a discomfiture at the perception of anything outside, human or otherwise. Whatever it is, we would like to be alone. Finally, we would like to be alone because that Aloneness, which is spaceless and timeless, is telling us: “You are really alone.”

The Manu Smriti tells us: namutra hi sahayartham pita mata ca tisthatah. na putradarah na jnatih dharmas tisthati kevalah. “When you depart from this world, your father will not come with you, your mother will not come with you, your brother will not come, your sister will not come, your husband will not come, your wife will not come, your children will not come, your money will not come, and even your body will not come.” What will come? What you have thought and felt and done, that will come. Be cautious, therefore. Every day check your personality and your behaviour. “What have I thought, what have I felt, what have I spoken, what have I done?” Ask these questions when you go to bed in the evening. And if satisfactory answers come to these questions, this will be a little credit to that which will come with you when you depart from this world. Otherwise, nobody will come. You will be dragged by the forces of nature to the justice of the cosmos and you will have difficulty in answering the question: “What have you done?”

This world is not in a position to satisfy the desires of even one person, finally. If the whole world is given to you with all its gold and silver, rice and paddy, wheat and whatever it is, you will not find it satisfying. “The whole world is with me.” All right. Are you perfectly satisfied? You will be unhappy even then, for two reasons. One of them is: “After all, there is something above this world. Why not have that also?” A person who has a village wants another village also. If you have all the villages, you would like the entire state. If the state is under you, you want the entire country. If the country is under you, you would like the whole earth. But why not have something above the earth? So there is a dissatisfaction. “What is above? No, this is no good; there is something above me which I cannot control, which I cannot understand.” The presence of something above the world, outside the world, will make you unhappy again. The second point is: “How long will I be in possession of this whole world, sir? Is there any guarantee?” Nobody knows. The next moment you may not be here. “Oh, I see. So, what is the good of possessing the whole world, if tomorrow I am going to be dispossessed of it?” Thus, the recognition of a supreme value in life, and the need to adore it as the objective and the goal of one's endeavour in life, became the devata or the Divinity of the Vedas.

There are four Vedas—known as the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda is the primary one and it is the foundation of all Indian thought, philosophy and religious consciousness. It is in poetic form; there are about 10,000 mantras. The Yajur Veda is partly in poetry and partly in prose. The Sama Veda is comprised of musically set verses, mostly from the Rig Veda, and they are sung in a melodious tune. The Atharva Veda is filled with a variety of subjects such as technology, art, and other scientific thoughts with which we are familiar in this world. Religiously, spiritually and philosophically, only three Vedas are important—Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda—and, therefore, they are called the Trayi in Sanskrit. Trayi means the threefold knowledge: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda.

These four Vedas are also classified into four sections or four books, we may say. Each Veda has four section-wise categorisations. The first part is called the Samhita, which means the mantra portion, in which there is eulogising, an offering of prayer to the gods, to which I made reference earlier: the gods of the heavens, the realities behind the cosmos. The worship of these divinities through prayer is the subject of the Samhita section of the Vedas. While this is sufficient for us and we can work wonders by mere prayer itself, by the concentration of our thought in the act of meditation, all people are not intended for this purpose. Everybody cannot pray from the heart. They can utter or mutter some words, but the heart may not always be in it; the heart may be elsewhere. They require some suggestions from outside in order that the heart may also work together with the act of prayer. People who could not directly concentrate their minds abruptly on the divinities felt the necessity for some external gestures, such as rituals, which they could do with their hands by gesticulation, suggesting the coming out of a thought or a feeling in respect of the divinity that is going to be worshipped. When we go to a temple, we bow with folded palms. We need not do that; we may just stand erect and feel the presence of God. There is nothing wrong with it, but the heart will not do that; it requires a gesture. We fall down on the ground, prostrate and then offer our prayer to the divinity in a temple. If we see anything holy—a holy man, a holy person, a holy place, whatever it is that is sacred—we bow with folded palms. We would like to offer a flower; we would like to wave a lamp; we would like to light a scented stick. Why do we do all this? It is a gesture, a ritual that we are performing to bring out our deep feelings of acceptance of the divinity of that object which is before us.

The second section of the Vedas is called the Brahmanas. Here Brahmanas does not mean the Brahmin caste; it is a section of the Vedas that deals with an elaborate system of ritualistic performance, including sacrifices into the holy fire, all which is very elaborate indeed.

The third section is called the Aranyaka. Advanced seekers began to feel that it is not always necessary to have gestures and rituals in order to contemplate on the gods. We need not even offer prayers through words of mouth; the Veda mantras also may not be necessary if the thought is concentrated. A time, a state, a stage arises where we need not utter a mantra or a word of prayer to the god, or show a gesture by way of ritual to satisfy the god; our hearts can well up by contemplation only. I can deeply feel affection for you without any kind of outward demonstration of it and that is enough. That is called dhyana, or meditation. A contemplation in sequestered places, in forest areas, in isolated spots— aranya, as it is called—where meditations are conducted is the subject dealt with in the scriptures called the Aranyakas.

The Upanishads come last. These are the most difficult part of the Vedas. We can have some idea of what the Veda Samhitas are, what the Brahmanas are, what the Aranyakas are, but it requires deep thinking and a chastening of our psyche before we can enter into the subject of the Upanishads. What do the Upanishads tell us? They tell us the mode, the modus operandi of directly contacting the Spirit of the universe through the Spirit that is inside us—not by word of mouth, not by speaking any word, not by performance of any ritual. There is no need of any temple, church or scripture; we want nothing except our own Self. When we reach the Spirit of the universe, nothing will come with us, as it was mentioned. We will go there alone. We are the most important thing in this world, and not what we possess. The possessions will leave us, but we will carry ourselves. What is it that we will carry as ourselves? You will not be able to understand the meaning of this statement. What exactly is meant by saying “I carry myself”? How will you carry yourself? You are not an object or luggage to be lifted. If you cannot know what it is to carry yourself, you will also not know what the Upanishads will tell you.

The Upanishads are the doctrine of the lifting of your own self to the Self of the universe, the Spirit which you are. It is not merely the Spirit inside you—you yourself are the Spirit. Why do you say “inside”—because when the outer cloth of this body and even the mind is shed at the time of departure, do you remain, or do you exist only in part there? Can you say, “A part of me has gone; I am only partly there”? No, you are wholly there. Independent of the body and also of the mind, you are whole.

This is a fact you will recognise by an analysis of deep sleep. The body and mind are excluded from awareness or cognition in the state of deep sleep. Do you exist only partially in deep sleep, or do you exist entirely? If your body and mind are really a part of you, when they are isolated from your consciousness in deep sleep, you would be only fifty percent or twenty-five percent; and when you wake up from sleep, you would get up as a twenty-five percent individual, and not as a whole person. But you wake up as a whole person. Therefore, the wholeness of your true essence need not include the body and the mind. This is what is meant by the word ‘Spirit'. Because of the difficulties in understanding what it is, mostly you think that the Spirit is inside, the Atman is inside, God is inside; everything is inside. But inside what? When you utter the word ‘inside', you do not know what exactly you mean. Does it mean that the Spirit is inside the body? If that is the case, are you inside yourself? Are you inside your body? Just think over this absurdity in defining your own Self as something inside yourself. “I am inside myself.” Can you say that?

These are some of the difficulties that are faced in understanding the Upanishadic doctrine, which is why the Upanishads are not intended to be taught to the public. We should not shout the Upanishads in a marketplace. Great teachers used to communicate this knowledge only to great students. The students also must be equally great. Electricity can pass only through a high-tension copper wire; it cannot pass through a rope which is made of coir. So, every person cannot become a fit student for the Upanishads. Years and years of tapasya were prescribed to the students. Unless you are hungry, food cannot be digested. Similarly, if you have not got the appetite to receive this knowledge, nothing will go inside you.

When you search for the Spirit of the world as a whole, the Spirit of your own Self, when you search for your Self, you conclude there is no need in searching for anything else. Here is the condition that you have to fulfil before studying the Upanishads. Do you want only your Self as the true Spirit, commensurate with the Spirit of the universe, or do you want many other things also? Those who want many other things are not fit students of the Upanishadic or even the Bhagavadgita philosophy, because the Upanishads and the Gita take you to the very essence of things, which is the Reality of all things. When you get That, attain That, reach That, identify yourself with That, you will not have to ask for anything else. It is like the sea of Reality, and nothing is outside it. But if desire still persists—a little bit of pinching and a discovery of a frustration, and emotional tension: “Oh, I would like to have this”—and it is harassing you, then you had better finish with all your desires. You should fulfil all your requirements and not come to the Upanishadic teacher with the disease of a frustrated, unfulfilled desire.

Teachers used to prescribe many years tapas—in the form of self-control—to students. That is why in ancient days the students were required to stay with the teacher for so many years. What do you do for so many years? Pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya (Gita 4.34): “Every day prostrating yourself before that person—questioning, studying and serving.” This is what you do with the Master. This process should continue for years until you are perfectly chastened and purified of all the dross of worldliness—earthly longings, all rubbish of things. These must be washed out completely and like a clean mirror, you approach the teacher; then, whatever knowledge is imparted to you will reflect in your personality as sunlight is reflected in a mirror. Thus, you receive something in depth in the Upanishads.

The last portion, Vedanta, is also the name given to the Upanishads. Anta means the inner secret, the final word of the Veda or the last portion of the Veda—whatever is one's way of defining it. The quintessence, the final word, the last teaching of the Veda is the Upanishad, and beyond that there is nothing to say. When one knows That, one has known everything. Thus, these are the four sections of each of the four Vedas—Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda—known as Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishad.