by Swami Krishnananda
The knowledge proclaimed in the Upaniṣhad is a science which deals with the removal of sorrow. Thus, it is a knowledge which is different in kind from the learning that we usually acquire or the knowledge that we gain in respect of the things of the world. It is not a science in the ordinary sense of the term. While there are sciences and arts of various kinds, all of which are important enough, and wonderful in their own way, they cannot remove sorrow from the human heart, root and branch. They contribute to the satisfaction of a particular individual, placed in a particular constitution, in a particular type of incarnation, but they do not go to the soul of the person concerned. In the sense of the science of the soul, the Upaniṣhad is also called Ātma-Vidyā or Adhyātma-Vidyā. It is different from other Vidyās or learnings like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc., because all these latter pertain to objects of sense, the perceived world. Adhyātma-Vidyā, or the science of the Self, pertains not so much to the object-world which is the field of the operation of the senses, as the Subject which is the ultimate conditioning principle of every perception of every kind. The objects that are perceived by the senses are conditioned by the processes of perception, and the very process of perception is determined by the nature of the perceiver, and so it is important that the nature of the perceiver is known directly; because when the perceiver is known, everything connected with the perceiver also is known. If, fortunately for us, the objects that are perceived are in some way determined wholly by the character of the perceiver, the knowledge of the Self would be the knowledge of the whole cosmos. Towards this end, the Upaniṣhad takes us by hand, gradually.
The grief of the mind, the sorrow of the individual is not brought about by outer circumstances. This is a very important lesson we learn from the Upaniṣhad. We do not suffer by incidents that take place outside. We suffer on account of a maladjustment of our personality with the conditions of life, and the knowledge of this fact is supernatural and super-sensual. What has happened to us cannot be known by us, because it has happened to 'us' and not to somebody else. We cannot know what has happened to others because we cannot know what has happened to us, for who is to know our own selves? This is the crux of the whole matter, towards which the Upaniṣhad is to take us.
The Upaniṣhad, to reiterate, is the science of the Self, studied not for the sake of a diversion of the intellect or a satisfaction of the understanding, but for freedom of the spirit and removal of sorrow, utterly. The Adhyātma-Vidyā about which we hear so much in fields of spiritual living is not 'a kind' of Vidyā, just one of the branches of learning, but the Mother of all the branches of learning, including every other learning that can be conceived of in this world of sense, understanding and social living.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad, particularly, attempts to explain the various processes of bondage and liberation. It tells us how we are bound and how we are to get free; and it goes to the very cause ultimate, of the bondage of the soul. Our bondage is not merely physical or social. It is a more deep-rooted condition which has been annoying us through centuries and through our repeated births and deaths. Anything that we do in the outer world does not seem to be an adequate remedy for this sorrow of ours, because the sorrow has not come from outside. We can have a bungalow to prevent us from suffering from rain and sun and wind; we can have daily food to eat; we can have very happy and friendly social relationships; but we can also die one day, even with all these facilities. Nobody can free us from this fear. This is the greatest sorrow of the human being, that he has apparently everything but there is some secret sorrow of his which can swallow up every other satisfaction – that death can catch hold of a person, and no one can save him then.
What is this dependence of the individual on a circumstance over which no one has control; and why does death come, why is that sorrow? Why is there any kind of inadequacy felt in life at all. This is the subject of analysis and study in the Upaniṣhad, for the purpose of bringing to our own self a knowledge which is not a learning or information about things, but an enlightenment about our own self. It is again to be repeated that this enlightenment is not about any other person or object, but about our own self. It is an understanding of oneself, an enlightenment of oneself, an illumination of oneself; and when this illumination takes place, it is expected that everything connected with the self also gets illumined automatically.
The bondage of the self is intrinsically involved in the structure of the individual. We bring sorrow with us even when our birth takes place; and it is often said that we bring our death also together with our birth. The meaning is that all experiences – joys, sorrows, including our last moment of life all these are a fructification of circumstances with which we are born from the mother's womb. We are born under certain conditions, and they are the seeds of what will follow later, so that the entire life of ours may be said to be an unfoldment of that which is present in a seed-form at the time of our birth. We do not pass through newer and newer experiences unexpectedly, as it were, but they are all expected things only. Every experience in life is expected, as a corollary is expected from a theorem in mathematics. It follows; it has to naturally follow, logically, from the principle enunciated. Likewise, the experiences of life are natural phenomena that follow logically from the circumstances under which we are born. And these circumstances which seem to be powerful enough to condition our future are again the consequence of certain antecedents, and so on. There is, thus, a vicious circle, as it were, in which we are caught up, so that we cannot know which is the cause and which is the effect of any event or experience.
This vicious circle of suffering is Samsāra, the sorrow of the soul, and it cannot free itself from this sorrow by merely undergoing experiences through births and deaths, because the experiences in life, the sorrows and the joys, whatever they be, are powers which come out automatically from the nature of individual existence, and unless this character of existence as the individual is studied, its sorrow cannot be diagnosed, or eradicated.
The knowledge that is of the Upaniṣhad is thus inseparable from the 'being' of the self. This is the characteristic difference of the Upaniṣhadic wisdom, the Adhyātma-Vidyā. It is not a knowledge that one acquires 'about' a thing, but it is knowledge which is inseparable from the very 'being' of him who owns this knowledge. It is knowledge of Reality, Satta-Sāmānya, as it is sometimes called General Existence. Knowledge of Existence itself is the knowledge announced in the Upaniṣhad.á It is not knowledge of any person, an object or the structural pattern of anything. It is a knowledge of 'being'. It is a Consciousness of Existence which is going to be the freedom of the spirit. It is in this sense, perhaps, that we call the ultimate Reality as Satchidanānda-Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. It is a Consciousness of ultimate Existence which is at once Freedom and Bliss. It is not a definition of any person or individual form. The nature of Satchidanānda about which we have heard so much, is not a definition of any particular condition of life. It is not also a description of the happiness of the human mind. It is not a future condition that we are going to enter. It is a description of Eternity itself where 'being' and 'knowledge of being' become one and the same, where there are no sufferings, obviously. We cannot separate our own consciousness from the consciousness of our 'being', for instance. We are, and we are also aware that we are. Our awareness that we are cannot be isolated from the fact of our 'being'. Our 'being' and the knowledge of our 'being' are inseparable, so that 'knowledge' is 'being'. This is the type of knowledge that the Upaniṣhad promises to give us. It is, thus, something unique. Towards this end the Upaniṣhad, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka girds up its loins.
In the beginning, there is an attempt to describe the Aśvamedha Sacrifice by identifying the consecrated horse with the universe as a whole. The creation of the universe may be compared to a sacrifice which is symbolically performed by a ceremony through rituals; and when it is contemplated it becomes an attunement of consciousness with the ultimate nature of creation. This, in outline, is the description of the process of creation. The forms, names and phenomena which we see and pass through, are a reversal of the nature of Reality, a reflection, as it were, of the Original through some medium, so that we see everything topsy-turvy and never as it really is. This is a fact which escapes our notice often, that we can see a thing and yet it can be upside down in all the features presented to the perceiving senses. Though we may be seeing the object, we may not visualise it properly. Thus, any achievement in this world of sense-perceptions may not be regarded as an ultimate acquisition, even as a collection of many reflections in a basket is not equal to the acquirement of anything substantially.
The description of the creative process, afforded in the Upaniṣhad, in its First Chapter, is very grand and comprehensive. The exposition has some resemblance to the Puruṣha-Sūkta of the Veda, where the Cosmic Sacrifice, which is creation, is said to evolve gradually, stage by stage, and touch every aspect of the universe, animate as well as inanimate. Not only the animate and inanimate existences, but also social organisations and human activities – all these are comprehended in this process of manifestation we call creation.
We have, then, a very pertinent point expounded of a similar nature where the character of sense-perception is described, in the analysis of which we are interestingly told that there is a complete reversal of the order of Reality in all types of sense-perception. The cart is put before the horse whenever we see anything with our eyes, so that we are in a world of confusion, misunderstanding, and, therefore, necessarily, sorrow. Where the understanding is insufficient, sorrow has to come automatically. The senses do not perceive the world correctly. This is what is made out subsequent to the description of the creation of the universe, and this description is symbolic in its nature, like a story which goes, but its essence is simple enough to understand; that, as we see our face in a mirror, where the right is seen as left and the left as right, the thing is not contacted in its reality. There is a right and left reversal, as it were, in the perception of things, and the object which we cognise or perceive is really not in its proper context or position in the scheme of things. We are wrongly apprehending it as an object 'outside', while what has really happened in perception is something different. The object of sense-perception is the Ultimate Subject really, and we erroneously regard it as an 'object'. How it is the Subject, and how it is not the object, we shall see when we study this section as we come to it. The objects of perception are really subjects, says the Upaniṣhad, and this is the mistake that we make – the non-recognition of subjectivity even in what is regarded as an object.
Then we have, as the Upaniṣhad proceeds, the subsequent outcome of this principal exposition in the First Chapter, namely, the Second Chapter, where we are not told anything new. It is only an elaboration of the principle which is precisely stated in the earlier one. As a matter of fact, the main content of the Upaniṣhad is in the First, the Third and the Fourth Chapters. The Second is a secondary elaboration, and the Fifth and the Sixth are like an appendix and are not of much importance from the point of view of philosophical study, though they are very significant in one's practice of higher meditations. The central portion of the Upaniṣhad is in the First, Third and the Fourth Chapters, which contain the peak of human thought, and offer an exposition of the highest philosophy the human mind has ever conceived. The discussions that take place in the court of King Janaka, under the leadership of Sage Yāj˝avalkya, touch upon almost every subject relevant in spiritual life, all following a graduated technique of development of thought from the lower to the higher until the highest Universal is reached. The outward is described first, the inward afterwards, and the Universal finally. This is the system followed in this Upaniṣhad, especially in the central portion, the Third and the Fourth Chapters. This is precisely the way in which we have to approach things. The outward, the inward and the ultimate follow logically in the course of study. Though from the point of view of the evolutionary process or the chronological order of the descent of the individual from the Universal, we may say that the outward is the last and the inward is the intermediary link, the Universal being the first, yet, in our studies we would profitably go from the lower to the higher. We should not jump from the higher to the lower, because the higher is not known to us when the lower is not transcended. The lower can be seen and apprehended in a certain way, to the extent it has become the content of one's direct consciousness. So it is better to follow the inductive method of logic, in some sense, so that we proceed from more acquainted things towards less acquainted things, from particulars to generals, from the visible to the invisible, from the sense-world to the rational realm and then to the spiritual field. This is the methodology of the Upaniṣhad, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka particularly, in the central portion; and it concludes with the grandest proclamation ever made, in the conversation between Yāj˝avalkya and his consort Maitreyī, known as the Maitreyī-Vidyā, popularly, where a staggering description of the Reality is given to us. Perhaps, the discourses of Yāj˝avalkya are incomparable in literary beauty combined with profundity of thought.