The Tree of Knowledge
Upanishads and Vedanta
The Vedas, which are the fountainhead of all Indian philosophical tradition and spiritual practice, are divided into two parts: Mantra and Brahmana, The Mantra section is primary and the Brahmana section has been appended as the interpretation and elaboration of the mantras. The Brahmana section has three subdivisions: (1) the Brahmanas; (2) the Aranyakas; and (3) the Upanishads. The Brahmana subdivision gives in detail the methods and objects of the performance of various functions such as sacrifices (yajna). The Aranyaka subdivision describes different forms of the worship of God, or spiritual exercises. The Upanishads subdivision asserts that what is at the root of the universe and of ourselves is one identical principle. To merge one’s consciousness with that ultimate principle is the highest goal, the crowning victory of life.
According to the Amarakosha dictionary, the term Upanishad is used in the sense of religion with a deeper import and mystery. According to Shankara and other Eastern commentators, the term Upanishad has three senses: that which destroys the ignorance of the individual soul; that which guides the seeker toward the highest; and that which loosens our attachment to the material world and to our perishable physical self. According to Mukti-Upanishad, the number of Upanishads available is above one hundred. Although the authenticity of all the Upanishads is universally recognized, scholars most often quote eleven Upanishads, which are also the most widely read, studied, and preached. Shankaracharya and other masters have given commentaries, each good from its own viewpoint, on these Upanishads. One annotation called the Brahmasutras, with further commentary by the first Shankaracharya, is considered especially fine.
The Upanishads are also known as Vedanta, or the culmination of the Vedas. The Upanishads, the Brahmasutras, with a further development in the form of the Gita constitute the Prasthanatrayi, the basic texts of Vedanta philosophy. The term Vedanta also means the end of all knowledge, for we might say that nothing remains to be known after acquiring the knowledge spoken of in the Upanishads. The knowledge of the sacred is called Brahmavidya, and is referred to by various other names such as the Upanishads, Adhyatmavidya, Amraya Mastak, etc. This knowledge extinguishes all illusory experience and procures for one the highest truth. Through Brahmavidya, one is able to realize Brahman, which is changeless and inaccessible to speech, senses, mind, intellect, and ego; this is wisdom, the experience of an ocean of pure blissful consciousness.
This sacred knowledge of Brahmavidya is the life-breath of Indian philosophy and religion. If we should exclude Upanishadic philosophy from Indian tradition, its philosophical and religious books would become lifeless. Indian culture, civilization and literature are unique, being based on the realization of truth granted to the pure awareness of the rishis. Upanishadic philosophy is a succinct expression of the highest truth of all, the supra-conscious knowledge of the Vedas. It is a lamp of knowledge that has been dispersing light for centuries. There is such light in this supreme knowledge that it has rendered India foremost among nations in spiritual philosophy. And the truth-realization of the rishis is existent, in some form or other, in the life of every Indian.
Scholars of other countries and religions have also recognized the wisdom of the Upanishads. The first to come to India was the Arab scholar, Alberuni, who translated the Gita into Arabic. Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Moghal Emperor Shahjahan, had the Gita translated into Persian. This prince had also organized a Vedanta Sammelan and invited the great scholars of Benares to participate. Many of the great fakirs and saints have also revered the principles of the Upanishads. Not only this, but Sufis like Mansoor, Sharmat, Faizi, Bullashah, etc., refused to renounce these principles even at the cost of their lives. Among the Western philosophers, Max Muller, Schopenhauer, Gold, Dawson, McDonald, Victor Cousins, Fredrick Gale, etc., have said that Western philosophy must bow to Eastern wisdom. Schopenhauer went so far as to say in his famous 19th century book that it is destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people of the world.
The rishis have declared that this world, at root or in essence, is one. There is only one power that appears before us in various forms and names. All existence is dependent on the One. That imperishable and changeless essence or power throws its own light through the various forms and names of the world. All are born out of the same power and in the end return to the same power again. There is no independent existence except the one supreme essence. This is the first truth of the Upanishads. In our thinking there is a distinction between the animate and the inanimate, the sentient and the insentient, but the inanimate and the insentient have no existence of their own, independent of the One. Thus their underlying real nature is no different from the animate and sentient, as they all spring from the same One. This is the second truth of the Upanishads. All objects are finite and perishable. The infinite never appears before the senses. The senses are subordinate to the mind. Observing the world to be full of incongruities, the mind and the senses are capable of acquiring only incomplete and limited knowledge.
The philosophy of the Vedanta and Upanishads by discriminating between the everlasting and the transient, gives us a vision of the jiva (individual soul), the world and the Lord of the universe. This wisdom removes the distinctions of living and dead, soul and body, knower and known, and establishes a kind of non-dualistic pantheism, in which one universal Self, or God, is seen manifesting in all things as well as transcending all manifestations. The seekers of truth and aspirants for salvation must carry their consciousness above the levels of senses, mind and intellect. The sayings of Vedanta cannot be grasped and understood merely on the basis of the literal meaning of the mantras and hair-splitting arguments, or by reason alone. The meaning of the word Brahman is brihattama, or “the greatest.” Yet it is this Brahman that is the highest ideal of man’s intellectual consciousness and the object of investigation of all philosophical knowledge. The Upanishads declare that the Brahman exists both in visible as well as invisible forms, but the ultimate truth of life and of the world is Brahman alone.
The Upanishads speak of two ways of life: Preyas, the way of seeking pleasures, and Shreyas, the way of seeking the ultimate goal, the summum bonum of life. The two ways of life lead to different results. The way of seeking pleasures does lead to assorted transient pleasures, but pleasures are not the greatest good or the highest aim in life. One who chooses the way of pleasure misses the highest aim of life. It is the highest aim, the ultimate good that is the object of search in the Upanishads and Vedanta.
Source: ‘Book of Wisdom: Ishopanishad’ by Swami Rama
Next week: Introduction to Ishopanishad
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