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Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Problem in Understanding the Upanishads

We were touching upon the subject of the Upanishads. I made reference to the Veda Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and the Upanishads being the section-wise classification of the Vedic lore. There are supposed to be more than 1,000 editions or versions of the Vedas, with slight differences of words or letters in varying cases. If there are more than 1,000 such versions—we are told in this context that each version has its own Upanishad, so theoretically at least, traditionally, the information that has come to us is that there are more than 1,000 Upanishads—we do not find them; they are not extistent. What is available to us is only a group of about 108 Upanishads, or two or three more.

108 Upanishads are prominent and very well known. One of the Upanishads, which is known as the Muktikopanishad, gives a section-wise list of these 108 Upanishads; but ten of them are the most important. The philosophically important Upanishads are ten out of the 108 and all the remaining ones, apart from these ten, stand almost in the position of expositions, elucidations—a sort of commentary of certain aspects briefly touched upon in the ten Upanishads.

The great philosophers and commentators on the Upanishads have considered only ten as prominent. The traditional commentators on the Upanishads are the Acharyas; their names are perhaps well known to many of you. The most pre-eminent of them are Acharya Sankara, Acharya Ramanuja, Acharya Madhva, Nimbarka and Vallabha. These are the well-known Acharyas who have commented on the Upanishads and also on two other important philosophical texts: the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita. All the three—namely, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita—constitute what is usually known as Prastana Trayi, the tripod of Indian thought. The whole of Indian philosophy in its highest reaches is to be found in these three great fundamental texts: the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita.

Ten Upanishads are the foundation. These ten are: the Isavasya Upanishad, the Kena Upanishad, the Katha Upanishad, the Prasna Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad, the Mandukya Upanishad, the Taittiriya Upanishad, the Aitareya Upanishad, the Chhandogya Upanishad and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. This is the usual sequence in which these ten important Upanishads are traditionally recounted, but modern scholars have a different sequence. They consider the oldest as the best and the later ones as less important. Western scholars, especially, have introduced this new system of placing the Upanishads in a novel order, or sequence, considering the prose Upanishads as older and the versified ones as later. The thoughts of these so-called older ones are supposed to be more foundational and determinative than the later ones. Whatever it be, this aspect of the matter is not important for us. What is of consequence is that all the ten Upanishads are very important for some reason or other. We can forget about the sequence.

The Isavasya Upanishad is the only one which occurs in the Samhita portion of the Veda. All the others come as appendices or follow-ups of the Brahmanas or the Aranyakas, which I mentioned in the previous session. Therefore, there is a special intonation required in the recitation of the Isavasya Upanishad, as is the case with the Samhitas of the Vedas. We cannot read the verses casually, as we read a book. There is a special modulation and intonation of voice—swara, as it is called. This swara aspect of recitation is not emphasised as much in the other Upanishads as is the case with the Isavasya Upanishad.

Now, to repeat what I told you towards the end of our last session, the Upanishads are most important and equally difficult to understand. The difficulty arises because of the subjects they treat. They are not telling us a story of something that happened sometime, like the epics and the Puranas, for instance. Also, the Upanishads are not prayers offered to some god which we can just chant every day as a routine of practice. They do not tell us how to perform rituals or gestures of worship as we do in temples or altars of adoration. They tell us something quite different from all these things. What is this differentia which marks the Upanishads? They deal with our Self.

The most unpleasant thing in the world is to say anything about one's own self. We can go on saying anything about people, but when it is a matter concerning us, we would like that not much is said. Om Shanti. This is because we are the most secret aspect of creation and we are very touchy; we would not like to be touched, even unconsciously, by anybody. “Don't say anything about me; say anything about other people.” Now, what is the matter? There is some peculiarity about this so-called 'me', 'I', or the self. This is the peculiarity of the Upanishadic teaching, and also its difficulty. The knowledge of the gods in the heavens, the knowledge of historical personages—kings, saints and sages—and the way of worshipping them and adoring them is something we can comprehend. “Yes, we understand what it means.” This is exactly what we commonly understand by the word 'religion'. “He is a religious person.” Sometimes we even say, “He is spiritual.” Generally speaking, when we say that a person is religious or spiritual, we have an idea that this person is concerned with something higher than himself or herself—some god, some ideal, some future expectation which we may call divine, not concerned with the present, necessarily. The present is unsatisfying; therefore, we are in search of a future. I said something about it in our last session.

The Upanishads are not telling us about any God. Then, what is it that the Upanishads are telling us if it is not speaking about God? It is speaking about God, but not about the God that we usually think in our mind according to our upbringing, culture, language or tradition. It refers to God and it refers to nothing else, whereas the other religious forms of the concept of God—the God of the various 'isms' in the world—have other things in addition to and simultaneous with God's existence, such as: Something must be done, something must not be done. These 'do's' and 'don'ts' fill the texture of every religion in the world. Something has to be done and something should not be done. The question of this dichotomy does not arise in the Upanishads.

The concept of God, or the Ultimate Reality, that we encounter in the Upanishads is markedly different from our transcendent conception of God. We always look up to the skies, fold our palms and humbly offer a prayer to a divinity that is invisible to the eyes but considered as transcendent, above us—perhaps very far from us. None of us can escape this idea of God being a little far from us. Certainly, there is some distance between us and God. That distance frightens us. Sometimes the distance seems to be incalculable, especially when we are told that millions of births have to be taken in order to reach God. This has been told to us, and is being told to us, again and again. It is not a question of an effort in one birth only. Several incarnations may have to be undergone by way of purification and selfdiscipline in order that one may reach that Supreme Almighty. This brings us into the well-known idea of the distance between us and God.

Simultaneous with this concept of distance between us and God, there is also the concept of futurity of the attainment of God. It is not something that can be attained just now; it is a matter for tomorrow. “I will attain God one day.” This “one day” implies some time in the future. So, somehow the concept of time also comes in when we conceive God in the traditional pattern. Because of the space concept in our mind, we feel that God is far away from us; there is a distance. The concept of distance is the concept of space. It has entered our brains to such an extent that we cannot think anything except in terms of measurement—length, breadth, height, distance. So, God is away from us, measurably, by a distance. He is also a futurity in time, and He can be attained by hard effort. There is also a causative factor involved in the concept of the attainment of God. Space, time and cause—these are the conditioning factors of human thinking. Without these concepts, we can think nothing.

Hence, we are trying to cast God Himself into the mould, the crucible of this threefold determination of our thought—namely, space, time and cause. However, because the concept of space, time and cause involves objectivity, we cannot cast God into this mould. God is not external, not an object. You may ask me: “Why not? As God is the creator of the universe, the created beings like us may consider Him as the supreme object of adoration.” In fact, every religion considers God as the great supreme object of worship and possible attainment. But there is a lacuna even in this supreme concept of well-known religions. As God is, as you all know very well, the Final Reality, the Ultimate Existence beyond which there can be nothing, there cannot be even space, time and causation involved in Him in any manner whatsoever. So our ideas of distance between us and God, the futurity of God's attainment and some kind of personal effort that is required in the form of aspiration for God may also require emendation. They have to be completely transformed and a transvaluation may have to be effected.

If God is not spatially distant and temporally a futurity and He is not caused by some human effort, what sort of relation is there between us and God? Here is a point which will be before us like a hard nut to crack. What is our relationship with God? If we say we are a part of God, we again bring the concept of space and time. If we say we are created by God, then also we bring space, time and causation. If we say we are a reflection of God, then also we bring something external to God's universality. Whatever we may say about ourselves in relation to God, in that statement of ours we are delimiting God and denying the universality and the ultimacy of Reality that is His essential characteristic.

The Upanishads take up this subject, and they want to break this hard nut; but, it is not as easy to break this nut as one may imagine. If we read the Upanishads, we will find ancient seekers undergoing tremendous hardships even in approaching these great masters of yore, and undergoing disciplines which are unthinkably painful for weak wills and minds and bodies like ours. It is not merely that we are weak psycho-physically; we have other difficulties which are more important and crucial—namely, obstacles which will stand in the way of our contacting God.

Regarding the obstacles, I would like you to listen to one instance of the problem that is highlighted in the Upanishads before  I  actually  try  to  touch  upon  the  basic  doctrine  and the philosophy of the Upanishads. This problem, which will harass any person and probably no one in all this creation can escape, is in the introduction to the Katha Upanishad. It is a classical introduction, in a most poetic language. It touchingly expresses not only the processes of the inner disciplines that are required on our part in order to contact the Ultimate Reality, but it also gives a picturesque description of what problems one has to face even in attempting to contact God. Many of you may be well acquainted with this story. I am repeating it because it is very interesting and it is worthwhile remembering as a guiding light for each one of us. It is a warning, and not merely an instruction.

There was an ardent seeker, a very brilliant young boy called Nachiketas. For some reason which is not important for us now, he came face to face with the Lord of Death —Yama, as he is called in the Sanskrit language. The story mentions to us that when he approached the abode of Yama, the Lord was away. He was not there. The boy, in an aspiring mood for receiving the greatest knowledge that one can think of, stood there for three days and nights, waiting for the arrival of the great master. He did not eat and he did not sleep because he was eager to come in contact with the holiest of holies, the master Yama Raja.

After three days and nights, the Lord appeared and said: “I am very sorry, my dear boy, that I made you stand here starving for three days and nights. I could not be present. As a recompense for the sufferings I inadvertently inflicted upon you by not being present here when you came, I request you to ask for three boons. I shall grant them just now.”

Nachiketas replied, “Well, my Lord, I am very grateful for the grant of these three boons and I shall tell you what these three boons could be in my case, which I love very much and are dear to me. Now I am before you, in the abode of death. When I return to the world, may I be received as a friend of the world, as something commensurate with the law of the world, as harmonious with everything that operates in the world as rules and regulations. May I be affectionately treated and taken care of and considered with great love by everybody, including my father whom I have left and come to see you.”

There is a philosophical meaning behind this request of Nachiketas, to which we shall refer after some time. Now I am telling only the story behind it.

The great master said, “Granted, this boon! When you go back to the world you shall be treated with friendliness, affectionately and endearingly, by everyone. Ask for the second boon.”

The second boon is something more difficult to understand, and many of you will not be able to make much sense of what it is.

“I have heard, great Master,” said the little boy, “there is something called Vaishvanara Agni, the all-pervading fire of the cosmos, by knowing which one knows all things. May I be initiated into this wisdom.”

“Yes. Granted!” replied Lord Yama.

All the requisite rituals were performed instantaneously and the boy Nachiketas was initiated into the secret of cosmic knowledge, omniscience, which follows automatically from meditation according to this technique of what is known as contemplation on the Vaishvanara Agni. This subject also we shall not touch deeply now.

“Ask for the third boon,” said the Lord of Death.

Here the boy threw something like a bombshell on the great master, which the master perhaps did not expect.

“Some say after departure, the soul 'is', and some say after departure the soul 'is not'. I want to know what this mystery is,” said Nachiketas.

“No, this question you should not ask! I did not know that you would raise questions of this kind. Ask for something else, something better than this,” replied Lord Yama.

“Better than this? I don't consider anything as better than this,” said the boy.

“No. I shall make you a king of the whole world, for as long a time as the world lasts. Are you happy? All the wealth of the world will be yours, the joys of heaven—not merely of this earth only—I grant just now. All the music and the dance, the gold and the silver, authority and kingship and rulership, here it is. Take it, but don't put this question,” said Lord Yama.

“What is the matter?” asked Nachiketas. “You are prepared to give me the whole earth and heaven and all its joys for as long a time as the world lasts, but you will not answer this question.”

“No,” replied Lord Yama. “I made a mistake in allowing you to unconditionally ask for three boons. I did not know that you would harass me like this with the third boon.”

“No, Master; I have only one question. This must be answered,” said the boy.

“Not even the gods can answer this question; even they are in doubt. How will you understand?” said the Lord of Death.

“Even the gods cannot understand? That means you understand!” replied Nachiketas. “I am face to face with a great master like you who knows the secret. Will I return foolhardy by obtaining the boon of the joys of the earth and the heaven, which are perishable? Today they are, tomorrow they are not. They wear out the senses. How can anyone enjoy the joys of earth or heaven unless the sense organs are strong? How long will the sense organs work? They become old and decrepit, and die. Who will enjoy the joys of earth and heaven; and, how long will they last? Even the longest life—you told me I can live long, as long as the world lasts —but the world will last how long? One day it will end. When that ends, the longest life becomes short. Api sarvam jivitam alpam eva (Katha 1.1.26). Take all your joys back, Master. All the earth and the heaven and the dance, music, gold, silver, you take back. Answer my question.”

Then the Upanishad goes into the great initiation which the master imparted to the boy Nachiketas, which is a subject by itself.

Now, is any one of us prepared to face this kind of encounter? If the whole earth becomes yours, you will jump just now. You will leave the hall and run. All of you will run from this hall because the whole earth is coming to you. That temptation becomes inevitable in the case of most of us because we do not understand the significance of the answer to this question. We think there are so many questions and this is also one question; and there so many answers and this is also one answer. What do we gain by knowing the answer to this question of whether the soul is there or not? Let it be; let it not be. We are so foolishly complacent and idiotically ignorant of the meaning of the answer to the question that we do not see the truth behind it. Otherwise, why should there not be an answer? Why did Lord Yama deviate from the point and say, “Take something else; I will give you diamond and gold, but not the answer to this question”? What did he mean? What would he lose? There is something very problematical about it. That problem is the problem of the Upanishads. It cannot be handled like that, so easily. Why do we consider the answer to this question to be so simple that Yama could have immediately answered it? It is because of the fact that our mind is not yet prepared to comprehend the significance and the in-depth reality of this matter.

When we speak of the soul, we do not know what it is that we are speaking about, finally. It is a nebulous, flimsy, slippery object. What are we talking about when we say “self”? Everybody uses the word 'self'. “I myself I have done this work.” “He himself is responsible for that mistake.” Do we not use the word 'self' in this manner? We are very well acquainted with the use of the word 'self': myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself—everywhere this 'self' comes in. It is so common in our daily life that we do not see any special significance in that usage at all. We do not see the significance because we do not know the meaning of the word 'self', and no dictionary gives us the correct meaning of this word. Even if the dictionary says it is you, one's own Self, the basic Reality, the Atman, these are only words which will mean as little as the word 'self' itself. This is because here is a question of the handling of one's self by one's Self. You may ask me: “Why should I handle my self when there are more important things in the world? The world is so rich and beautiful and grand and vast; instead of that I handle my self? What is the great thing that I am going to gain out of it?” Terrible is the problem. If you have answers and questions of this kind and you have doubts as to why this Self is to be considered as so important, you will not be immediately fit for the knowledge of the Upanishads. People had to stay with the Guru for many years.

I will tell you another story. One day Prajapati, the Creator, announced: “He who knows the Self knows all things.”

Both the gods and the demons heard this and said, “Oh! Is it so? If one knows the Self, all things are known? Then it is worth knowing. Let us go.”

“Great Master, we have come to learn the Self from you which—as you proclaimed—is the source of all knowledge.” The gods sent Indra as their representative to obtain this wisdom. The demons sent Virochana as their leader. Both of them went to Prajapati and said, “We have come for Knowledge.”

“Stay here and observe discipline for many years,” replied Prajapati.

 They stayed with Prajapati and served him for years and years—thirty-two years. After the lapse of so many years of discipline and hardship under the tutelage of Prajapati, these two persons approached him and said: “Now, please initiate us into the nature of the Self.”

“Come on,” Prajapati replied. “Go and look at yourself in a pan of water, a vessel filled with water. You will see something there. That is the Self.”

“Oh, good; very good. It is a very simple matter,” they said.

They looked. What did they see? They saw their own face—their own body.

Virochana said, “Now I know what is the Self. This body is the Self.”

Virochana returned home and proclaimed to all the demons: “Now we know what the Self is, by knowing which all things are known and all things can be obtained. This very body is the Self. Eat, drink, be merry and enjoy.”

Thus it is that the philosophy of enjoyment, hedonism and materialism started with Virochana, because he concluded that the Ultimate Reality is this body, which was very clear from the instructions he received from Prajapati. And what does this body need? It needs eating, drinking, enjoying, sleeping and all the appurtenances of physicality.

Indra also got this knowledge. He left, thinking that he had this wisdom. On the way, he had a difficulty.

“Is this the Self? This thing? No, it cannot be. The Self is supposed to be a permanent entity, but this body is not permanent. So if the body gets old, the Self will also become old; if the body become sick, the Self will also become sick; if the body dies, the Self will also die. No, no, there is something wrong in this,” he thought.

Indra went to Prajapati again. Virochana did not come back; he was happy. But Indra came back.

“How is it that you have come back?” asked Prajapati.

“Sir, there is some problem. I see no good in this instruction.”

“What is the matter?”

“If this body falls sick, the Self will also fall sick. If the body dies, the Self will also die. Is this the Self?” asked Indra.

“Stay here another thirty-two years,” Prajapati said.

“Okay, I will stay,” replied Indra.

After thirty-two years, Indra went to Prajapati a second time and requested, “Please instruct me.”

“What you see in dream is the Self,” said Prajapati.

“Oh, I see; okay, good,” said Indra.

Indra left, but on the way he again had a problem: “Dream? What do I see in dream? I see in dream whatever I see in waking—the same thing. There is hunger and thirst. There is old age and decrepitude. There is even death in dream. All the difficulties and pains of life are capable of being experienced in dream also. The dream self also dies. No, this is no good.”

Indra again came back.

“Why have you come again?” asked Prajapati.

“There is some problem, sir,” replied Indra. “The dream self is fickle. It seems to be dying, just like the waking self about which you told me. I see no good in this instruction. Please give the correct instruction.”

“Stay another thirty-two years,” said Prajapati.

Indra stayed another thirty-two years, and then Prajapati told him, “What you see in the state of deep sleep, that is the Self.”

“Good” Indra said, and went away.

On the way, again a doubt arose. “What do I see in deep sleep? Nothing. It is like a negation of all things—darkness; it is veritable death. Is this the Self? No, this is no good,” thought Indra. Again he went back.

“Oh, how are you here again?” asked Prajapati.

 “Sir, this instruction is of no use. What do I see in deep sleep? I see complete darkness, negation, annihilation. So, is the Self an annihilation? No, I don't see good in this instruction; please give me proper instruction.”

“Oh, I see. Stay again and undergo discipline here,” said Prajapati. This time it was for five years. Prajapati was a little considerate.

When Indra came back after five years, Prajapati said: “Now listen, Indra, my dear one. This Self is not what you can see with your eyes, because it is the Seer of things. How can you see it? This body is the seen; it is an object like any other object in this world. If the Ultimate Self, which is the Supreme Reality, is not an object that is perishable, it cannot be the body either. Otherwise, the Self will die along with the death of the body. What good is this knowledge of the Self? The Self is not what is seen in dream because in dream there is such fluctuation, fickleness of thought and veritable transition, transitoriness, and all the sorrows that are incumbent in the waking life. The waking perception also is not the Self. The dream, the waking are both not the Self. The sleeping experience also is not the Self. What you experience in the state of deep sleep is not the Self; it is a negation of it.”

Now, what is the Self? Here a little bit of in-depth thinking may be good. Every one of you has a good sleep in the night. Do you know that you slept last night? Were you endowed with any kind of consciousness, awareness in the state of deep sleep? If you had no knowledge of any kind in the state of deep sleep, how are you now telling me that you slept last night? Who is telling this? You may say that you have a memory. How can there be a memory of an experience which is bereft of all consciousness? Can a stone remember anything? Were you a stone? Memory is a recollection of a past experience, and no experience can be called experience unless it is attended with a kind of awareness. So you cannot explain the fact of memory of sleep unless you concede somehow or the other, by the force of logic, that there was a kind of consciousness in sleep. Why you could not experience it is a different matter. By inference, logically, you conclude that there must have been some sort of an awareness. Did you exist in the state of deep sleep? Were you dead? No, you were not dead; you were existing. In the state of deep sleep, did you exist as this body? No. Did you exist as the mind? No, because the mind was not thinking. In sleep, you did not exist as the body and you did not exist as the mind. What else have you got with you?

Today, for instance, when you think of yourself, you think of the body-mind complex. “This body is me” or “this mind is me” or “the intellect is me” or “the psyche is me”, and so on. Other than that, what else is there in you? But, did you exist in the state of deep sleep as something other than the body and the mind? You are forced to conclude: “Yes, I did exist.” In what condition did you exist? “Not as body, not as mind.” What else, sir? “I must have been there as only existence.” Existence of what? “It is not existence of what, it is not existence of anything because anything was not there; it is existence of my Self.” You were conscious of the existence of your Self, though that consciousness was covered and you were not aware of it directly, for some reason—without which fact, memory of the sleep would have not been possible. You were consciousness. What kind of consciousness? Consciousness of something? Because when you say “I am conscious”, you always mean conscious of this world, this tree, these people, this mountain, etc. It was not a consciousness of something; it was consciousness of Being only—just Awareness of the fact of your existing. In Sanskrit we call this Consciousness chit, and the consciousness of Being is chit-sat or sat-chit. Were you happy? You were very, very happy. Otherwise, you would complain that you had slept yesterday and it was a painful thing. All the pains of life get abolished and they vanish. Even a great pain or agony or sickness or any other pain is negated in the state of deep sleep; you get rejuvenated. You feel happy when you wake up.

So you were existing, you were conscious, you were happy. Existence-Consciousness-Bliss was your real nature. What kind of existence? What kind of consciousness? What kind of bliss? Were you existing in some place only, or in some other place? You will say, “I was existing in one place only—on the bed.” Now, if you have been conscious of one point only, you would not be conscious of another point; you would exclude that which appears to be away from the point which is supposed to be your existence. “I was existing there—only on the cot, not elsewhere.” So, if you were not elsewhere, then the “elsewhere” must be there as outside the purview of your consciousness. If that is the case, you were conscious of the fact that there was also something outside you. When you say “I was only in one place”, you are making a reference to the existence of other things or other places or other spots, of which you had no knowledge. If you had no knowledge of that which is not in your location, how could you say that there were things of which you had no knowledge? You make a contradiction in your statement. As there is a difficulty in finding out what condition you were in the state of deep sleep, there is another difficulty here in knowing what kind of consciousness it was that was prevailing in the state of deep sleep.

Prajapati goes deep into this question and gives a tremendously illuminating answer. “This Consciousness was not of some particular thing like this self or that self or this thing or that thing, because there was no question of this thing and that thing there. It was Pure Being as such, which is the Being of all things. Universal Consciousness was prevailing there; that is the reason why you are so happy. If it had been finite consciousness, you would have woken up miserably from sleep.”

Hence, the great teaching of Prajapati to Indra was that the Self is Universal Existence and Universal Consciousness. The difficulty, the problem before us, is how to conceive this Universality which is supposed to be inseparable from us—in other words, how to conceive our own Universality while we are sunk in this body consciousness, social consciousness, political consciousness and a hundred types of irrelevant consciousnesses.

I have placed before you this little introduction in order to present the teaching of the Upanishads, which is the knowledge of the Self.