One of the most well-known maxims supposedly from the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece is ‘Know Thyself’.
Many other philosophers and thinkers have pondered this question too, and until recently at least in the West which swears by scientific reasoning, the prevailing idea has been that of French philosopher Descartes, who postulated that mind and body were two separate entities, captured by the term ‘mind-body dualism’, and expressed in his famous ‘Je pense, donc je suis’: ‘I think, therefore I am’.
But who is that ‘I’ who says so? Clearly it cannot be the body or the mind. When you say I have a house, the house is an object which is separate from you as the subject. Similarly when you say I have a mind and a body, each of them is an object which is also separate from you, that is from ‘I’ who is the subject. This is what thinkers have called the ‘Self’, with a capital ‘S’. When I say ‘myself’ I am therefore referring to my ‘Self’ or me as the ‘I’ – associated with, or ‘within’ or ‘indwelling’ – but separate from the body/mind.
Most commonly as people go about their daily affairs they hardly take the trouble to think about their ‘Self’ – in any case for them ‘I’ means the body/mind and that’s about it. They learn from religion that there is something called soul, equated to the ‘I’, defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as ‘the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being, often regarded as immortal’.
But is it important that a person knows about the ‘I’? And does that knowledge have anything to do with what happens to him as he goes about his daily life and ultimately with his life in general? Who am I? – the body, the mind, the soul? Separately or together? One or many?
That is what, thousands of years before the Oracle at Delphi, in India our rishis or sages explored in great depth because they considered that it was of capital importance that the individual knew himself – his Self – so that he could engage and transact with the world intelligently. As our modern sages have put it: ‘Unless I understand WHO I AM how will I handle myself and the world? The way in which I interact with or respond to the world is determined by how I perceive myself, how I perceive the world. Depending upon whether I perceive someone as brother, friend or enemy or stranger I will respond accordingly. Similarly with how I perceive myself, as good or bad, etc. What determines my responses and interactions and indeed my life is my perception of myself and of everything in the world.
The perception is usually taken for granted, I hardly ever stop to question whether what I take for granted about myself and about the world will stand up to enquiry (italics added) or not. Just as science is based on certain assumptions, so too in our life we make certain assumptions, of the type – ‘I am so-and-so, you are so-and-so, the world is such and such, God is such and such, and so on”.
All of us have preconceived notions about “who I am, what the nature of the world is, whether God is there or not, who God is and how he is”. Our perceptions are based on our preconceived notions, which also determine how we respond to people and to objects, to the world’.
This where the Upanishad Ganga comes in. Upanishad means ‘an instruction received while sitting at the feet of the master’ – a reference to the mode of learning in ancient India, when students used to sit on the ground with the guru or master sitting on a slightly higher platform, dispensing the knowledge and wisdom about the Truth or Reality of the Self. This is the Upanishadic wisdom which this TV serial from the Chinmaya Mission, a total of 52 episodes, will impart to viewers. In fact, it has already started on Sunday 10 April on MBC 2, from 9.30-10.00 am, and the episodes will be repeated on the same channel on Thursdays at 7.30 pm for those who may have missed the previous Sunday episode. This is indeed a laudable initiative by Chinmaya Mission with the collaboration of the MBC.
Why Upanishad Ganga? Because ‘Like the perennial Ganges born in the Himalayas gushes to nourish the plains, so too this immortal wisdom of the Rishis has continued to nourish Indian Culture and served the world by bearing aloft the Lamp of Wisdom for all. It flows through the lineage of teachers and students who have been ever eager to share it with us. To this lineage of teachers our gratitude is ever due. To live this knowledge and share it with others is the true offering of gratitude that we can offer to this perennial Ganges of the Upanishadic Wisdom’.
This unique serial of its kind is a mammoth effort covering the entire gamut on Indian Culture, Heritage, Philosophy and Wisdom spanning more than 5000 years which has been artistically produced so as to reach and enlighten the common man. It is extremely well researched and pulls in stories from all over India and across time. It presents all the core truths, thoughts and concepts of Sanatana Dharma – the Eternal Truth. It is produced in Hindi with subtitles available in English so that everybody can benefit from this rich tradition.
The inspiration behind this effort was Swami Tejomayananda, the Global Head of Chinmaya Mission who has come to Mauritius several times, delivering public talks to large audiences with his characteristic clarity and forthrightness, about this Upanishadic Wisdom to the present-day man for whom it is of direct relevance. It has a timeless appeal since it deals with the basic aspirations of the human being – the desire to exist, the desire to know, and the desire to be happy. Upanishads deal with the nature of the Subject, and go to the basic question: Who am I?
This Upanishadic Wisdom is for all. It transcends all narrow man-made divisions. The only criterion for gaining this knowledge is the earnest wish to know and the sincere will to transform oneself for the better. In this modern world where ‘knowledge is power’ and countless new age self-styled ‘gurus’ straddle the world to preach about ‘transformational change’ – at hefty prices!! – who can deny himself the privilege of gaining such transformational knowledge delivered free into his living room?
For this knowledge is of an all-inclusive nature, and given in an all-welcoming spirit as a means to beautify individual life, uplift and integrate within society for the benefit of one and all. The four fundamental goals, purusharthas, that every person hankers after: namely righteousness, wealth, pleasure and spiritual fulfilment – are all set out. Explanations are given about how to pursue them in the four stages of human life which are studenthood, family life followed by the life of semi-retirement and finally the life dedicated entirely to spiritual pursuit.
Studenthood is characterised by simple living and dedication to acquiring knowledge. Family is held to be the foundation of society. To love one’s family, to extend the ambit of one’s family beyond the walls of one’s home, to serve the society, to care for others – all these form the very challenge as well as the beauty of this stage of life. Next is the life of semi-retirement, when one has developed an inner maturity wherein one gives way for the next generation to take up the reins of life in their hands, to facilitate the life of the younger generation by gently advising them whenever required – without unduly imposing oneself, to turn within, and start living a life dedicated to spiritual pursuits that calm one’s mind and that opens into the fourth or final stage dedicated totally to spiritual pursuit. This stage is characterised by the total giving up of self-centred life, and dedicating oneself to the welfare of the society.
Also dealt with is the ancient varna system of Brahmana, Ksatyriya, Vaishya and Sudra, its misinterpretation, consequent wrong application to Indian society in recent times. It is stressed that the varna system is not based on birth but rather on guna and karma, the innate mental propensity and the work-tendency of an individual. There follows the presentation of the Karma Theory and punarjanma or rebirth, usually (and mistakenly) referred to as reincarnation. The following questions that arise here are: Why is one born? What are the causes of rebirth? How to put an end to the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. What is fate? What is the role of free-will in life? They are clarified and all doubts removed.
And as we know that it is only human-beings who can break the shackles of body and mind and soar high, we are guided as to how to make the best of this rare human life, to achieve the success in any field that we all desire and what are the capacities and qualifications required. We are also led into understanding that material success must perforce be accompanied by success in knowing the Self or ‘I’, that the two go side by side. The prerequisites of such Self-Knowledge are elaborated upon, such as knowledge of the difference between the Reality and falsehood, the ability to give up the false, mental adjustments like mind control, sense management, etc., and a burning desire to know the Truth.
Then we come to such crucial existential queries as: Is there God? If yes, why don’t we see Him? Where is He? What does He do? What is our relationship with Him? There is a methodology, a sadhana or spiritual discipline that we have to follow in order to get the answers, and this too is made explicit. All in all, a wide door is opened and a great opportunity given to understand ourselves, the world, how to live in it and how to leave it to go to the beyond.
That’s Upanishad Ganga on MBC channel 2, every Sunday 9.30 – 10 a.m. and Thursday 7.30 – 8 p.m. Don’t miss! Those who miss viewing will be the losers.
* Published in print edition on 22 April 2016