by Swami Krishnananda
In all principles which guide human life, there are two aspects known as the 'exoteric' and the 'esoteric'. The formal routine of daily life is mostly guided by what we call the exoteric principles which have a working value and a validity within the realm of human action. In this sense, we may say that the values which are called exoteric are relative, inasmuch as every activity in human life is relative to circumstances. Hence, they do not have eternal value, and they will not be valid persistently under every condition in the vicissitudes of time. This principle which is exoteric, by which what we mean is the outward relative principle of life, becomes, tentatively, the guiding line of action, notwithstanding the fact that even this relative principle of exoteric life changes itself according to the subsidiary changes with which human life has to adjust itself. For instance, human history in its totality can be regarded as a process of exoteric value; but within this exoteric relativity of human history, there are internal changes and subsidiary modifications, calling for further adjustments, internally, as can be observed through the march of history. We adjust ourselves from day to day in different ways. Every day we may have to call for a new mode of adjustment in our practical life, suited to the changing conditions of different days, though all days are guided by the exoteric principles throughout the history of the cosmos. So, when we speak of the exoteric principles of life we actually mean two things at the same time the law that operates universally upon every human being, right from creation till the dissolution of the universe, as well as the minor adjustments which are called for in the daily life of the individual from minute to minute, from second to second. So, this is a very significant word the exoteric principle. It has meanings and meanings within it, but all these are comprehended within a single meaning, namely, the principle of the outward mode of behaviour, conduct and action.
This principle is seen applied even in the religions of the world, so that we have several exoteric religions. The religions, as they are known to us, the 'isms', as we call them, are exoteric religions, because they are modes of religious conduct, action and behaviour. The temple-worships, the church-goings and the performance of rites and the Mass, the reading of the scriptures, and the ritual celebrations, and whatnot all these come under the exoteric aspects of religion, so that whatever we do religiously from a practical point of view, comes under exotericism, because it is a mode of external behaviour.
But this exoteric mode of living, religious or secular, is based on another principle which is known as the esoteric value of life, because there must be some rationality behind our conduct in life, whatever be that conduct, religious or otherwise. Why do we go to the temple? Why do we have to go to the church? Why do we worship any god? Why should there be any kind of attitude at all? This is because there is a fundamental rock-bottom of deciding factor, though it always happens to be inside and never comes outside to the vision of the human eye. The principle of ultimate law is always invisible, though its activity can be seen in outward life. When law acts, we can see how it acts; but law, by itself, cannot be seen with the eyes. It is a general impersonal principle. This impersonal general principle of living which is not subject to the changes of time and which is permanently of a set value is known as the esoteric principle of life. And we have, thus, the aspects of exotericism and esotericism, both in religious and secular life, which means to say, there is an internal, secret, guiding principle, as well as an outward manifestation of it in every aspect of life.
Now, primarily at present, we are concerned with a very important subject the principle of life which can guide every individual, whether of the East or the West, North or South, of today or tomorrow, under every condition. Is there such a principle? We have in the Dharma-Śāstras, or the law codes and ethical mandates, mention made of Dharma, known as Sāmānya-Dharma and the Viśeṣha-Dharma. Dharma means a principle of behaviour and action, a law, a regulation, a rule. And it is Sāmānya or Viśeṣha, i.e., general as well as particular. The general Dharma or the generally applicable principle of life upon every individual is called Sāmānya-Dharma, but that which varies from individual to individual, from one class to another class etc. is the Viśeṣha-Dharma, which we need not dilate upon here, as it is not concerned with our present theme.
The laws of life are esoteric and exoteric, even as they are general and particular. All these divisions of law and principle are manifestation of an inviolable principle, that is, the ultimate principle of life which is impossible to grasp easily, inasmuch as our intellects, our minds, our total personalities are all involved in certain conditions of living. We cannot extricate our personalities from the circumstances in which we are involved. We cannot judge things, understand things or behave in a manner which is not conditioned by our atmosphere. Hence, it is impossible for ordinary human beings to appreciate what the ultimate principle of life is, because to understand this ultimate principle, one has to stand above conditions and circumstances, which is practically impossible for people. How can we stand above conditions and circumstances? We have the summer condition; we have the winter condition; we have the hunger condition; we have the thirsty condition; we have the sick condition; we have the healthy condition; we have the male condition; we have the female condition; we have the white condition; we have the black condition; we have the happy condition; we have the unhappy condition; and so on. So we are involved in millions and millions of conditions, and to stand above them is almost an impossibility. It is a superhuman task; and thus, the ultimate principle of existence cannot be known; and any judgment that we pass, any understanding that we project from our intellects has naturally to be conditioned. The conditions reflect the character of the unconditioned, which is a saving factor, though it is true that we are all conditioned and the unconditioned cannot easily be known. One solacing principle that is available to us is that the invisible and the impersonal principle of life, though it is impossible of grasp by conditioned intellects, casts certain reflections upon every condition in life and it is seen to be working in me, in you and in everyone under every circumstance. So, it is possible for us to reach the impersonal and the ultimate principle of life through the conditions, the circumstances and the vicissitudes. The esoteric can be known through the exoteric. The Superindividual can be reached through the individual, and conditions can be broken and the unconditioned can be reached.
This was the great theme of discussion in ancient times, recorded in the Vedas and Upaniṣhads, and masters and sages sat together in congregation, and discussed the problems of life, of here and hereafter. What is life? What is this world, and what is our duty? What are we expected to do and in what way are we to behave, and so on. Is there a life beyond, or is this life everything? Is this earth the evaluating principle of all, or is there something beyond? These questions were discussed in great detail through centuries, right from the time of the Vedas.
We have, in India particularly, a series of records available of such discussions of ancient masters, which are given to us today in the form of what we call the Veda-Rāśi, or the lore of sacred wisdom, normally known as the Vedas. It is a book of wisdom or we may call it a group of books of wisdom records of such discussions, findings, realisations and experiences of various experts who tried to dive into the depths of 'being' and brought out the pearl from the ocean of existence, and proclaimed to humanity the value of it, and the meaning of it to everyone.
The Veda-Śāstra is classified into the exoteric and the esoteric, as in the case of every religious lore. We have this distinction in Christianity, in Islam, and everywhere: the outward religion and the mystical approach to Truth. The Vedas are a general term for this entire group of scriptures which discuss by a long range of development of thought, every approach to Reality possible, from the lowest to the highest. These layers of approach, recorded in the Vedas, are available to us in the groupings, today known as the Samhitas, the Brāhmaṇas, the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣhads. These are terms known to many of us, and we know very well that the Samhita portion of the Veda is constituted of hymns and prayers to deities, transcendent powers, spiritual forces, which guide the configurations in the form of bodies and created beings. They are the summonings of the soul in terms of the higher spirits which were felt to be present in the depths of contemplation, and visions of various kinds. These hymns, known as the Samhitas in the Veda, could be applied for two purposes for meditation, as well as for ritual. When they become instruments of meditation or contemplation, they are the contents of what are known as the Āraṇyakas; and when they become the guidelines for action, ritual and sacrifice and worship, they are called the Brāhmaṇas. So there are two further developments in the religious path of the Veda, known as the Brāhmaṇas and the Āraṇyakas, developed from the Samhitas, branching forth in two different directions, as it were contemplation and action. But there was a time when the peak of experience spiritual, culminated in a blend of both these approaches, in what are known as the Upaniṣhads; and the Upaniṣhads represent the quintessence of thought, the essence that is drawn out from the Veda knowledge, and the honey that is sucked, as it were, from the body of wisdom Samhita, Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka – not representing conditioned life merely, but reaching up to the utmost of effort to discover the nature of unconditioned existence.
The seers of the Upaniṣhads were bent upon entering into the kernel of Reality by casting off all vestures which limit human life, and attaining a kind of attunement with it, if necessity arose, and the unconditioned was plumbed and experienced. So, in a way, we may say that the Upaniṣhad texts are records of experiences and explanations of Masters who set themselves in tune with ultimate Truth. Such are the Upaniṣhads. It is a very strange word, 'Upaniṣhad', which is supposed to mean a secret knowledge, not to be imparted to the uninitiated or to the common public who are wedded to the exoteric approach only, who are totally conditioned in their life, and who cannot rise above the bias of sense life and social regulations. Hence the Upaniṣhad wisdom was kept very secret. It was never imparted to anyone except the near disciples who went to the Masters for training and underwent discipline for a protracted number of years, and made themselves fit to receive this knowledge which is unconditional. That was the greatness of it, and that was also the danger of it, because it is unconditioned.
The Upaniṣhads, therefore, are mystical revelations, secret wisdom; and, as the word itself denotes, they are supposed to be listened to, heard about, or learnt from a Master by one's being seated in front of him, beside him, near him U pa,ni,ṣhad. When the word splits, it is split into its components, and it is supposed to be the meaning of a knowledge that is secretly obtained from a Master by being seated near him in holy reverence and obedience. 'Sit near' – that is the literal meaning of the term, Upaniṣhad. Sit near the Guru, the Master, and receive the wisdom by attunement, at-one-ment of being. This is the peculiarity of Upaniṣhad knowledge. It is not like science or art or any other exoteric learning that we can have in a College or a University. It is not a lecture that is delivered, but a wisdom that is communicated to the soul by the soul. That is the speciality of the Upaniṣhad wisdom. It is a conversation between soul and soul, and not merely a discourse given by a professor to the students in a College. That is the speciality of the Upaniṣhad wisdom. It is a light that is to mingle with another light. Hence, the Upaniṣhads were kept as greatly guarded secrets.