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.

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