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Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: The Aitareya Upanishad

We had occasion to probe into the implications of the involvement of consciousness in human individuality in terms of the five layers, or koshas, as they are called, in connection with the process of creation as described in the Taittiriya Upanishad. To recap, the Taittiriya Upanishad touches upon the structure of the human individuality, which is constituted of the five layers known as the koshas annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnamaya, anandamaya, or the physical, vital, mental, intellectual and causal.

This suggestiveness of the involvement of consciousness in these koshas is also the subject of the Mandukya Upanishad. It lands us on the conclusion that this very consciousness which appears to be involved in the layers of creation—objectively as well as subjectively, macrocosmically as well as microcosmically—is basically universal in its nature.

The Aitareya is another Upanishad which, from another angle of vision, tells us how we as human beings, individuals, find ourselves in the predicament in which we are—one part of knowledge being available to us through the faculties of our understanding, and another part totally unknown to us. We live in this world in a particular condition, psychologically or socially. But why are we in this condition? Who placed us in this particular psychological, social context, especially as it does not seem to be a pleasant state of affairs? The world in which we live and in which we are involved does not appear to be a pleasant state of affairs. We have only complaints from morning to evening about things happening outside and about our own selves also.

The creation theory becomes almost complete in the Aitareya Upanishad. The projection of an externality to the Universal Consciousness is the principle of creation; an ‘other' to the Universal appears to be there, revealed before itself—and as the Taittiriya Upanishad mentions, this projection takes place not suddenly or abruptly, but by stages. One such description of the stages of the involvement of the Universal Consciousness in the process of creation is available to us in the Taittiriya Upanishad. Now another aspect of it is mentioned in the Aitareya Upanishad, which is often considered as a complete description of what has happened.

The Upanishad begins by telling us, “The Universal Atman alone was.” We should not say that the Atman was or will be, and so on; such a way of putting things would not be in harmony with what the Atman actually is. “The Atman was” is not the proper way of putting it because It also is, and shall also be in the future. But the word ‘was', in the past tense, has been used often in the Upanishads from the point of view of our understanding of the process of creation, because we seem to feel that this world is a present condition, and the condition prior to the condition of the world prevailing now should be considered as something past. We see this world that has been created, manifested or revealed; and this world, which is now before our sense organs, is presently an object of our consciousness. The world is a present; it is not something that was. It is, but it was put in this fashion to imagine that the world of perception is something that is present. Thus, the condition prior to the creation of the world would be a ‘past'. “God created the world”; this is what we generally say. We use the past tense, as if it took place many, many years back. Actually, God is not living in time. The Supreme Being is a timeless Existence and, therefore, to use the words ‘is', ‘was', ‘will be', etc.—which have a meaning only in the world of time—is inappropriate in the case of a timeless and non-spatial Existence. Yet we, thinking in terms of time only, and absolutely unable to think in any other way, say “the Atman was” or “God created the world”.

Inasmuch as time also is something that has been created, the creation itself could not have taken place in time itself. Space and time, which are also the evolutes of consciousness and which manifested from the Atman, could not be regarded as a condition of creation itself. The idea of time is involved in any statement like: “God created the world in ancient times. Many, many years back, centuries back, millions of years back, as it were, this world was created by God.” When we say this, we imply that God created the world sometime. The word ‘sometime' means time, but God is not in time. He is timeless, so we cannot think how creation actually took place.

However, we are eager to know how this world came to be. So, as a mother tells a story to a little child, the great metaphysical philosophers of the Upanishads, taking into consideration the weakness of human thought and its involvement in space and time absolutely, used the term —tentatively, for the time being, and not finally, of course— “the Atman alone was”. Atma va idam eka evagra asit, nanyat kin cana misat (Ait. 1.1.1) is the first sentence of the Aitareya Upanishad. There was nothing alive anywhere at that time, when the Atman alone was. Outside the Atman, outside Brahman, outside the Absolute nothing can be, because it is a non-relative existence. The emanation of this universe is made possible by the appearance of space and time. It is humanly impossible to imagine how time can emanate from a timeless eternity. It is not possible for anyone to understand how that could be possible; yet, somehow, that has become possible. But when it has become possible, the process that actually follows this unthinkable, unintelligible, transcendental possibility is involved in certain stages, which are the very degrees mentioned in the Taittiriya Upanishad: inwardly, psychologically, the five koshas; outwardly, cosmically, the elements themselves—space-time, air, fire, water, earth. These are the names that we give to certain stages of the manifestation of matter—prakriti, concrete substance, object, or call it externality.

The Atman, the Universal Being, which is Brahman universally, willed this cosmos. Usually religions tell us, “God created the world”, “He created the heaven, the earth”, and so on. As the Upanishad tells us, this Supreme Being, in willing this cosmos, firstly projected a negation of Universality. I touched upon this aspect of the matter sometime earlier; I am briefly repeating it for your memory. The external, which is the universe, can become meaningful only on a tentative submerging of the Universal Principle; nothing that is external can be in harmony with the Universal. The word ‘Universal' implies that which is inclusive of all things, outside which nothing can be. So if you imagine that the world, which is created, is to some extent external to the Creator—the word ‘externality' comes in here—you have to explain what happened to the Universal Being when the external manifested itself. It had covered Itself, as it were— made Itself completely oblivious to all external perception.

When God created the world, it appears as if He has ceased to be, and that is why we see only the world in front of us. We do not see God in front of us, because seeing the Universal is an impossibility. We can perceive, see, only that which is outside, external. The total inclusiveness cannot become an object of perception because that Universal inclusiveness naturally includes the perceiving individual also. Therefore, no one can perceive or know that which is Universal; hence, God cannot become an object of sense perception. The world, which is an object of sense perception, is somehow a kind of alienation of consciousness into a negation of Universality in the form of an emptiness that we see —space, a large dimension, an extension before us, which equally appears to be infinite for our comprehension. We cannot imagine the end of space; it is a negative infinity that is presented before us in contradistinction with the positive infinity of the Absolute. The concept of space goes together with the concept of time; we cannot separate one from the other. So, modern people generally say space-time rather than space and time.

Creation starts with the five elements, to which reference was made in our previous sessions. And when creation starts in this manner, division takes place. Creation is not merely a manifestation of externality, it is also a manifestation of division or partition of the otherwise inclusiveness, or its extension. We do not merely see things outside but, at the same time, we see many things. So, creation involves two aspects of perception: externality and multiplicity. The externality aspect is caused by space-time manifestation. The very meaning of space-time is externality; extension and duration are the characteristics of space and time. As far as the multiplicity aspect of creation is concerned, it becomes very important for us, inasmuch as we ourselves seem to be involved in it, because we are all multiple beings—one person not having any connection with another person, as it were. Each one is for his own self. Every object, everything, every atom in the world may be said to be just for itself; one thing cannot become another thing. Here is the reason behind why we find ourselves in this condition in which we appear to be in this world.

When externality in the form of space-time, which is the basic principle of creation, also becomes a factor of multiplicity and division of things, the variety of species, as we say, appear to manifest themselves gradually: from the crude, earthly material existence of the elements to the living bodies of plants, vegetation, and animals, leading up to human beings. The Aitereya Upanishad takes us up to the level of the human being as evolved from the lower species, which are the mineral, vegetable and animal.

The Upanishad says, “The moment the individual was created, it was cast in the sea of sorrow.” In Sanskrit, the sea of sorrow is called samsara; the Sanskrit word ‘samsara' actually means an aberration—an isolation, an externalisation, an alienation, a becoming other than what one is. You can imagine what will happen to you if you have become something other than what you are. Can there be a greater tragedy conceivable than for one to become other than what one is? Would you not like to be what you are? Don't you value self-identity as being of pre-eminent importance? “I am, and I am this.” You assert yourself so vehemently and would not even like to be called by another name than what your assumed name is, let alone be clubbed with qualities which you do not appear to have. Would you like to be associated with characteristics with which you cannot associate yourself, personally? You regard it as an insult. “You call me by this name and think that I am like this, which I am not!”

Hence, this self-identity, the affirmation of the egoistic principle in the individuality, becomes so prominent that its consequence follows immediately. The more intense the affirmation of individuality, the more intense also is the negation of universality taking place at the same time. The more vehement is your affirmation of your personality, your isolated individuality, the worse it is for you. The more intensely you are, correspondingly, God is not, because the affirmation of an egoistic principle is the negation of Universality, which is God's nature. The sorrow that follows from the affirmation of the individuality of a person is the samsara that is spoken of in Sanskrit. And how we fell into the sea of sorrow, headlong, is also something that is to be noted very carefully. We did not fall vertically from heaven; we fell headlong, with head down and legs up, as it were. There is basically a topsy-turvy event taking place at the time of the manifestation of human individuality in which we are presently concerned. Many things happened simultaneously; we cannot have time even to think as to what has happened to us. In a minute, a tragedy has fallen upon us.

Firstly, the Universal has been negated by the projection of the outer extension of space and time. That is bad enough, but then something worse took place. Multiplicity became the consequence of the further division of creation. That is worse, but even worse is to see things upside down. You are visualising the world of creation, as it were, by standing on your head with legs up. How would you see the world in that fashion? There was this predicament befalling the human individual, on account of the unavoidable involvement of individual consciousness in the externality, which is basic to all kinds of perception. Even your awareness that you are existing as an individual is spatio-temporally conditioned. Do not imagine that you are outside space and outside time. All that is in space and time is external; it is an object. It cannot be a subject. As space and time themselves are objects, all things conditioned by space and time are also objects; and to the extent you are involved in space and time, you are also an object only. The subjectivity in you becomes merely a veneer—an outer whitewash, a kind of coating over your pure subjectivity. You always consider yourself as one among many people, don't you? Where is the subjectivity in you? If you are a pure subject, which you sometimes, of course, assume yourself to be, why do you consider yourself as one among many people? This is because the manyness is nothing but the objectivity considered as a part of creation.

To the extent you are only one among many, you are an object among many other objects. You are a physical body, a psycho-physical complex; you have no pure subjectivity in you; and your affirmation of your worth, of your individuality, becomes a fake affirmation. Therefore, the world seems to be very heavy upon you; society is too much for you and you cannot understand the things that happen in this world, and why they happen at all. Human history, which is a process of events over which you do not seem to have any kind of control, has converted you into an object, as a unit over which the whole history sweeps. You must listen to all these things very carefully. It is a little difficult to understand because if you understand what it means, you will also know why you are in the condition in which you are.

The topsy-turvy, headlong falling of individuality into the sea of sorrow is actually an involvement of consciousness in externality and multiplicity. It is very important to know that you are involved in externality and multiplicity at the same time. Because of the externality in which you are involved, you appear to be a person like any other person in the world; and because of the multiplicity and the headlong aspect of the falling, you see the inside as the outside and the outside as the inside. God, who is Universal, appears to be an external object. Don't you think that God is somewhere, far away in heaven? While the Universal Being cannot be far away, the concept of God being transcendent and being extracosmic as the Creator of the cosmos, above space and time, is some fallacy that has been injected into your mind by the projection of space and time into your consciousness. And that has such an effect upon your own individuality that you think that you are somewhere cast in the world of space and time and there is a lot of distance between one thing and another. The idea of distance is the quality of space, and the idea of procession—coming and going, even birth and death —arises on account of the involvement of time. If space and time are only negations of the Ultimate Reality which is universal, in a way we may say the whole of creation is a negation of Truth.

“We live in a world of untruth,” says the Upanishad very, very poignantly. We are involved in the untruth of our physicality, our individuality, our sociality, our isolation of ourselves from other things and the compulsion that we feel to see things only as present outside us. We are very much concerned with things outside and concerned very little with our own selves. When we open our eyes, we see only that which we are not. The Aitareya Upanishad briefly mentions to us, “A sorrow struck the individuals, as if a thunderbolt fell on them, and they cried and wept.” When you lose yourself, you begin to cry. If you lose anything else, it does not matter, but if it is a question of losing yourself, you can imagine what it could be for you. Your sorrow becomes unimaginable when it is a question of the negation of your existence itself, but you would tolerate any other negation. “If all property goes, it does not matter, but why do I also go?” Here is a big question mark before you—and, you have really gone. Therefore, you are perpetually in a state of anguish and agony in this world, and not a moment of peace can you have here. The reason is that the Universal, which is your real nature, has been obliterated from your experience and you see a false presentation of externality, division, and an inverted form of perception.

Allegorically, mythologically, in the fashion of an epic or a Purana, the Aitareya Upanishad tells us that the individuals cried for food because they appeared to be dying of hunger. Here ‘hunger' means the absence of the Universal Principle in the particular. To the extent to which the Universal is absent in our particular individuality, to that extent we are full of appetites—hunger, thirst and what not. When we are hungry and thirsty, we are actually hungry and thirsty for the Universal which we have lost. But the fallen individual cannot expect to gain the Garden of Eden once again; as the Bible tells us, “A flaming sword is kept at the gate of heaven” so that we may not go back. What is given to us is only labour—hard work, sweat and suffering, by which we appear to be somehow or other getting over the sorrow of this headlong fall.

So, food was given to us, and through the pranas we consume a diet of this food. Through the eyes we assume that we are eating something in the form of colours and visions. We will be very unhappy if we cannot see things. “Oh, he is blind! He cannot see.” What does it matter if he does not see? It matters because a part of the diet of our sense organs has gone. Vision is a food, the sound that we hear is a food, taste is also a food, touch is a food, smell is a food. But this food cannot satisfy us for long. Every day we are hungry. If the food that is given to us today is actually satisfying, tomorrow we should not be hungry again. Why is it that we are harassed like this every day? Why is it that two or three times a day, hunger and thirst come upon us like demons? We seem to be living only to appease this thirst and hunger that appear to be catching hold of us as the very principle of death itself.

Thus, God gave food to the human individual in the form of an external something, of which we are having plenty in this world. But, are we happy? A curse has fallen upon us. God extradites the human nature from the heaven of angels, and mortality befalls us. Immortality vanishes from us. The immortal is our essential nature—communion with God. We were with God; basically, we still are with God but we have lost the awareness of it. As in dream we completely forget what has happened to us in waking—we project a new world altogether—here, in this so-called long dream of waking experience, we have projected a world which is basically dream-like.

The Aitareya Upanishad tells us the Atman, the Universal Being which alone was, became the cause of the manifestation of this universe in this fashion: through the manifestation of the external space-time first, then through multiplicity and the inverted compulsion of perception in respect of individuals. We cannot conceive of a greater tragedy. Even a concentration camp is better than this. The worst has befallen us. But we think we are still in heaven. Everything seems to be nice: the world is beautiful, society is good, friends are plenty, wealth is there. What is wrong with the world? The misconception has gone so deep into the very veins of our existence that we have started imagining that we are actually lords, like angels, though actually we are sunk in the hell of the negation of universal perception.

The yoga system is the science, the technique of the reversal of this process into which we have fallen through the process of creation. From the lowermost condition in which we find ourselves, we attempt to lift ourselves up systematically to the preceding condition. This is actually the inner meaning of the systematic enumeration of the stages of yoga that Patanjali Maharishi tells us, as yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These—rising from yama, etc., up to the point of samadhi— are the stages in our return journey from the condition of the fall back up to the Absolute, which is the precondition of creation.

This is something about the Aitareya Upanishad. In the beginning of this series, I told you something about the doctrine of the Isavasya Upanishad: the pervasion of God in all things and the duty which is incumbent upon human individuals, the necessity to combine knowledge and action in our daily life, the need to see a harmony between God and the world, etc. In the Kena Upanishad, we were told that ultimately God does everything, and even the imaginary actions of ours are ultimately motivated by the Ultimate Being. We went up to the creation theory of the Taittiriya Upanishad which brought us into contact with the knowledge of the five sheaths. Then we went to the Mandukya Upanishad where we studied the involvement of consciousness in the five sheaths, objectively as well as subjectively, and today I have told you something about the Aitareya Upanishad.

Over and above what it has already told us about creation and the way in which we find ourselves in this world, the Upanishad goes into further detail of the reason why we are in this condition. Birth and death become a necessary result that follows from involvement in externality. What we call evolution in modern scientific language is the effort of the external to become the Universal. Every atom, everything living and non-living, is attempting to regain its universality. The whole world of externality is attempting to regain its universality. The world is craving for God, and every little atom of creation is crying for that which it has lost. The restlessness that we feel in this world, the kinds of agony of various types in which we are involved—all these are explicable only as a manifestation of a basic sorrow, which is what has followed as a consequence of the loss of our own selves.

Atmanasha, Self-loss, has taken place. As you have studied already, the Self is universal in Its nature. Self-loss is actually the loss of the Universal Principle—and if you lose the Universal, you have lost everything. There is nothing to hold on to afterwards. What can you grab, when the Universal has been lost sight of and escaped your notice? When you have lost the Universal, there is nothing with you afterwards. Everything has gone in one second. You are in the worst of conditions.

Birth and death follow. The rebirth of human individuality is nothing but the process of evolution accentuated in the human personality. What is called evolution is the cessation of one condition of things and the birth of the subsequent condition. If matter has to become plant, matter has to die first in order that it may become plant; if plant has to become animal, the plant condition has to die in order that the animal condition may come. So is the case if animal has to become man. All the preceding conditions must subside in order that the succeeding condition may arise. Thus, if a new condition, a new state of experience, has to be evolved in our own personality, the previous condition should be shed. The shedding of this previous condition is what is called death of the personality, and rebirth is nothing but the involvement of the very same consciousness in a succeeding condition.

As we move onward and forward, upward through the ascent of consciousness from the lower to the higher, we not only enlarge the dimension of our individuality on the one hand, but also the distinction that appears to be there between the outer and the inner gets diminished. The subject and the object, which are ‘divided', come nearer and nearer until a merger of the Universal Subject with the Universal Object takes place. And all that took place vanishes, as a dream passes. The tragedy of birth and death is part and parcel of the consequence of the negation of Universality and the affirmation of individuality. Yoga is the way, and the knowledge of the various yogas has been introduced to you.