The Upanishadic Epiphany
The Upanishads are the first and the earliest self-expression of the Vedic spirit in its progressive evolution. The Vedas are the creation of the spiritual mind expressing directly through the sensational mentality of the physical being of man. For in the Vedic age, the intellectual-rational mind was not well-developed. When the intellectual mind started developing the spirituals consciousness, it expressed itself though this newly developed faculty. The Upanishad is the expression of the Vedic spirit through the intellectual and thinking mind in the form a compact, luminous and intuitive thought. In this process, the thinking mind of the community opened itself to the influence of the spiritual consciousness and this influence remained as one of the firmly implanted features of the Indian civilisation and culture. Most of the western and Indian scholars viewed the Upanishad as some sort of a radical and revolutionary departure from the Vedic spirit. But in fact there is no such revolt or radical shift in the spirit but only a shift in the faculty and form of expression. These scholars, unable to penetrate behind the mystic symbolism of the Vedic sages, mistook the luminous intellectual clarity of expression in the Upanishad as a sign of spiritual superiority. They tend to forget the fact that Upanishadic sages held the Vedic revelation in highest respect and frequently quoted the Vedas as the highest authority for supporting their own intuitions.
So there is no radical discontinuity between the spirit of the Vedas and the spirit of the Upanishads. In fact there is a smooth and gradual evolutionary continuity, some of the earliest Upanishads like Brihadaranyaka using the same Vedic symbols. The essential experiences, the central spiritual intuitions and the seed-ideas of the Vedas are nowhere denied in the Upanishads but only re-experienced, rediscovered, clarified developed and reexpressed in a different form and through a different mentality.(3)
So between the Upanishadic and Vedic age there is no radical change in the spirit but only a change in the forms of self-expression and in the psychology or mentality through which it is expressed. However we have to admit that there is a definite and gradual change in the psychology and temperament of the Upanishadic religion in the course of time, moving away from the synthetic and life-affirming spirituality of the Vedas and towards an exclusive and ascetic spirituality culminating in the trenchant life-denying formula Brahman Sathyam, Jagat Mithya. “Brahman is Truth, world is an Illusion.” How and why this happened is a subject of historical interest which we will not be discussing here. We are interested mainly in the psychological significance of the Upanishadic movement and what light it can throw on the future evolution of the Vedic spirit.
The Upanishadic age begins with the manifestation of a new faculty, reflective and analytical thought, which is dormant in the Vedic age, comes into conscious activity in this age. The spiritual minds of the age, in making use of this faculty to express their intuitions and experiences, open the possibility for this part of human consciousness to receive and express the light of the Spirit. So the Upanishadic spirituality represents the taking up of the intellectual mind and will by the Spirit and creating in it the capacity to receive and express the spiritual truth. This gave birth to a new type of spiritual man; the seer-poet of the vedas is replaced by the sage-philosopher. In this process a predominantly contemplative spirituality with a central emphasis on self-knowledge and on the impersonal aspect of the Reality replaced the more devotional, active, synthetic, theistic, gods-centered spirituality of the Vedas. Much of the positive and prominent features of the Vedic spirituality are pushed to the background For example, the dynamic note with a constant emphasis on sacrifical action, —-harmonious balance struck between heaven and earth or in other words this worldly interests and other-worldly aims—and a wise, compassionate and uplifting hand extended for the spiritual evolution of the secular life of the common man—all these unique features of the Vedic spirituality are to a certain extent veiled, pushed back or even lost in the Upanishadic spirituality, especially in the later Upanishads.
But the contribution of Upanishads to the religious, spiritual, philosophic and psychological thought of the world is something profound and immeasurable. No other scripture in the world has revealed the true nature of the Divinity and its relation to Man with such a striking boldness, clarity and creative force as the Upanishadic epiphany. Its message explodes into the human consciousness as a bombshell of light. The central intuitions of the Upanishadic thought surpass in their originality and creative force all other creative ideas of the human mind.
First major achievement of the Upanishadic movement lies in the luminous clarity and originality of expression in communicating a concrete, living and vivid perception, intuition, experience and realisation of an infinite, eternal and universal Reality, a spaceless and timeless Existence, becoming, pervading and expanding into Space and Time and all that is in space and Time, an essential indivisible spiritual unity upholding the phenomenal diversity of creation and becoming the immortal soul in man. This idea of the Infinite is presented not as a food for speculative thought or as an utopian ideal with no bearing on life but as something to be lived and made real to the consciousness. And the result of such a realisation is Moksha, a total inner spiritual freedom from ego and desire and conscious immortality. For the experience of the infinite unity of the self leads to total release from all bondage formed by ego and desire. Thus the idea of infinity and eternity and the concept of Moksha are psychologically related ideas, the later is the psychological result on the human consciousness of the experience or realisation of the former.
The second intuition of the Upanishad is the identity of the individual self with the universal Self or in other words, individual I and the universal I are one, What we call God or the Divine is our own essential, highest, deepest and inmost Self, beyond Mind, at once universal and transcendent beyond the universe; this highest self of you and me and all beings and the universe is one, a rather One, the ultimate Unity beyond or outside which and without which nothing exists. This self or Atman is the very ground of our being or the BEness or ISness of all that exists or in other words, it is that gives existence to all that is.
The third great intuition of the Upanishad is that the essential nature of this supreme and eternal Existence or Self is an eternal Consciousness with an eternal Force, Devathman Shakthi, inherent in it and the nature of this eternal conscious-force is eternal Delight Ananda. Thus an infinite and eternal Being or BEness whose nature is an infinite and eternal Consciousness Force-Delight is the Upanishadic intuition of the nature of the supreme Reality.
Here comes the most optimistic and hopeful note of the Upanishadic thought which has a living relevance for the future of psychological thought and practice. For, according to Upanishad, highest and the ultimate nature of life is not a sorrowful flame of illusion driven by desire which is finally extinguished in a void, but an eternal delight; delight is the summom bonum of existence; delight is the essence, source, sustenance and goal of human life and experience; world is the rhythmic outflowing of this delight. From delight we come, in delight we live, to delight we return and none can live or breath even for a second without this delight, says Taithria Upanishad. Meditate on the self as “that delight,” says the sage of the Kena Upanishad. If we accept this Upanishadic intuition, that the essence of all the experiences of life, whether it is pleasurable, painful or neutral is delight, and base our thought and practice on this intuition, then our whole life acquires a positive, optimistic and hopeful motivation.
The fourth great intuition of the Upanishad is the psychological and spiritual evolution of man. In fact, the modern theories on evolution, the scientific theory of biological evolution of Darwin and the idea of spiritual evolution of Sri Aurobindo and Teil hard de chardin are foreshadowed in the Upanishads. The parable of Aithareya Upanishad hints at a theory of form evolution of Darwin. This parable says that when the consciousness of the divine Self in Man, Purusha, differentiated itself into various faculties like speech, hearing, vision, mind etc. and was trying to find a suitable material form to inhabit, first he was offered some animal forms like cow, horse etc. but the gods — representing the various faculties of consciousness — refuse to enter into them because they are not suitable. And finally when the form of Man is shown the gods are pleased and enter into it. This Upanishadic parable also hints at one of the central ideas of spiritual evolution that it is the evolution of consciousness which determines the evolution of outer material form and not vice versa.
This idea of spiritual evolution of Man, which was developed into a comprehensive luminous vision by Sri Aurobindo, was also hinted in the Upanishad. In the Taithria Upanishad, Bhrigu, the sage, guides the disciple, who is his own son, step by step towards the highest truth. First he asks his son to do tapas which means to concentrate or energies the consciousness on the idea, Annam or Food or Matter is Brahman. From matter everything is born, by which everything we live and into which everything returns. After the discipline has realised this idea in his consciousness he was again asked to do Tapas on a higher principle, life-fore or Prana as Brahman and then again successively on the ideas of Mind, Manas as Brahman, Supermind or Vignana as Brahma and finally Bliss or Ananda as Brahman. The last two principles Vignana and Ananda belongs to the world of the Spirit.
And the individual Man is a microcosm of the Macrocosm. The five cosmic principles — Matter, life, Mind, supermind, and Bliss — forming the five planes, worlds or lokas of the cosmic consciousness of the transcendent self, expresses themselves in the microcosmic individual human being as five distinct sheaths, koshas, each presided over by a unique poise of the divine self in man. They are Annamaya kosha, the physical sheath presided over by a physical being, Annamaya Purusha; Pranamaya kosha, vital sheath presided over by a Pranamaya Purusha vital being; Manomaya kosha, mental sheath presided over by a manomaya Purusha, mental being; and finally the spiritual dimension in man made of the Vignanamaya and Anandamaya koshas presided over by corresponding purushas.
This comprehensive intuition of the Taithria Upanishad has made some lasting and important contributions to Indian psychology and Yoga. First it gives a clear picture of the psycho-spiritual structure of man as a four-fold being with a physical, vital, mental and spiritual dimension; second, it gives a clear clue to the nature and process of the psychological and spiritual evolution of man in the individual and the collectivity. It is a movement from the physical to the vital, vital to the mental and from the mental to the spiritual, an inward subjective movement towards deeper and higher levels of consciousness, with a corresponding change in the vision and values of life; third it indicates the primary means by which this inner psycho-spiritual evolution can be effected, Tapas or concentration or energisation of consciousness.
These are the central intuitions of the Upanishad. Not all these ideas are entirely original. For as we have already said, most of these ideas are already there in the seed-form in the Vedas concealed behind images and symbols. For example the idea of chit or supreme consciousness is imaged in the vedas in the figure of the Light or the Sun. And the concept of Devathman Shakthi of the Upanishads, which became later the chit-shakthi of the Tanthras is already there in the Vedas in the living image of the great Goddess Adithi, the infinite and indivisible Mother of the Gods and in the other Vedic terms like rta-chit or rtm jyothi. And the highest spiritual worlds beyond the heaven of the Mind are described by the Vedic sages as the worlds of “Vast Bliss” Mayas.
This shows that the essential spiritual experiences of the Vedic and Upanishadic sages are not very different. The originality of the Upanishads is not in the newness of its ideas but in the nature and form of its creative expression which tears down the symbolic veil covering the Vedic truth and makes the truth intelligible to the higher intelligence.
But the most important and original contribution of the Upanishad from the point of view of Yogic psychology is that it lays down clearly all the basic principles of the practical psychological discipline by which all these spiritual truths revealed by it can be “realised” by the mind or to be more specific, by the intelligent will, Buddhi. The Upanishadic yoga is predominantly a yoga of knowledge which makes use of the highest faculty of knowledge in man, the Buddhi, the discriminative and intelligent will, to raise beyond the ordinary to the spiritual mind. The yogic philosophy of the Upanishad enunciates three principles: Tapas, Introversion and Renunciation, which became the foundation of later Indian Yoga. These principles are or will be discussed in greater detail in other section of the blog. In short we may say the Upanishadic movement makes the Vedic truth accessible to and realisable by the higher intelligence, the Buddhi.
But for an integral spiritual transformation it is not enough for Buddhi to be spiritualised. The dynamic vital will and emotions in man should also be able to receive and express the Truth. This should be the logical next step in the evolution of the Vedic spirit. And this next step is taken in the great spiritual syntheses of the Gita.