The Upanishads – Like This, As That

As bees suck nectar from many a flower
And make their honey one, so that no drop
Can say, “I am from this flower or that,”
All creatures, though one, know not they are that one.

Chandogya Upanishad

Virtually every spiritual system on earth espouses the existence of an original source.  A source from which all existence emerges and all knowledge flows.  This observation in itself is hardly profound or requires great deductive acumen.  After all, if it’s here it must have come from somewhere.  Both physicists and theologists are in rare accord when claiming everything and everyone must trace back to a singular starting point.  Defining the nature and motivations of this original source has led to a variety of different and conflicting opinions which form the basis of the worlds formalized spiritual systems.   However, closer examination of the description of the essence of the original source brings surprising unanimity.  It reveals an ultimate, singular intelligence of which all are a part; a power whose essence forms and informs all within existence.  Many of the descriptions of this source found in the spiritual texts of our world are exceedingly complex, others breathtakingly simple.  Of all of these perhaps none is as simultaneously poignant, relevant and amusing as the Upanishads.

The Upanishads constitute the core teachings of Vedanta, a school of early Hindu thought.  It’s estimated the first Upanishads were written in the mid first century BCE, the last in about 1600 AD.    Each Upanishad is attached to one of the sacred Hindu texts known as the Vedas.  While the first part of any Vedic reading discusses elements of specific spiritual rituals, the ensuing Upanishad offers revealing commentaries and insights on those ascribed practices.  Through this process they address the major ontological issues confronting all human beings; the nature of life and death, the meaning of existence, etc.  In actuality there are over one hundred Upanishads.  However, only eleven of these appendices received commentary from the Hindu philosopher Shankara in about 800 AD.  In a conspicuous nod to authority these eleven writings are thus considered the principle Upanishads and receive the most attention.

The Upanishads articulate more than just the philosophical underpinnings of certain Hindu schools of thought.  Though laden in hoary and archaic expression, within their verse is found an essential and unambiguous premise of all existence; there exists an Ultimate Reality next to which all forms are but empty appearance.  This sole reality is the essence of everything and everyone.  All are one with this power that creates and sustains existence.  By one I don’t mean we’re all joined forces or aligned together.  No, like so many leaves on a tree, all we are and all we perceive are in actuality different forms or extensions of the one ultimate entity.  Existence may appear to be comprised of separate individual forms but this is pure illusion.  All are just different, interlinked manifestations of the one.  Objects may be destroyed, bodies die, but the singular universal essence that comprised and formed these entities will ever endure to manifest again within a timeless process.

The Upanishads are not the only spiritual texts articulating this particular perspective of ultimate reality and non-duality.  Many of the world’s wisdom traditions, (don’t you just love that phrase?) promote similar ideals with minor variations.  Taoism, Buddhism, and Sufism are just some of the better known movements essentially extolling these same principles.  What separate the Upanishads from the texts of other mystical systems are their accessibility, succinctness, consistency and above all their effective use of metaphor to demonstrate this one universal truth.  Let’s face it; all spiritual texts are big on metaphor and symbolism.  How else are we poor confounded humans, seemingly bound to the extent of our corporeal being suppose to understand the ultimate and otherwise unfathomable concepts driving our existence and transcending our own experience?  Someone has to break it down into rational, relatable examples.  This is where the Upanishads excel.  Though there are over 100 different commentaries written by different authors over a span of a thousand years all display a consistent use of metaphor which is descriptive, insightful, unambiguous and above all colorful and engaging.  If you’re looking for something to animate and enliven the serious and sometimes dreary business of Ultimate Truth the Upanishads are the best ticket in town.

Regardless of which Upanishad you select one need not read far before encountering the two great metaphorical lead ins of the English language; “like” and “as.”  No lesson within the text goes long before a comparison is offered.  Bet on it.  The core Vedic idea that none are separate but all are intrinsically one with the Ultimate Reality is continually reinforced by such language as is found in the Chandogya Upanishad:

As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were ever separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being.

Though no official tally exists, water seems the preferred metaphoric substance within the Upanishads.  This really isn’t a great surprise.  Most Hindu creation myths start with original existence being defined as a “large, dark ocean” or in some cases a great “cosmic egg.”  Of the two, water certainly seems to hold the greater metaphorical possibility.  Something about its overall pervasiveness, perpetual dynamism, lack of definition, elusive nature, ability to convert itself into different forms of being and limited amount of intrinsic qualia make it a much better ideal representation of transcendent existence than an egg.  Instances of it are everywhere.  Following the same theme on the same issue but this time acknowledging our perceived sense of separateness we find the following within the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again,
Though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so,
The separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal.

That the original Vedic sages knew nothing of modern desalinization processes does nothing to diminish the effectiveness of description.   Just in case one is tempted to deviate too far from the water metaphor, the Prashna Upanishad drops the following nugget:

As rivers lose their private name and form when they reach the sea,
So that people speak of the sea alone,
So all forms disappear when the Self is realized.
Then there is no more name and form for us and we attain immortality.

That the above three passages come from three different Upanishads demonstrates an important point.  Regardless to which Veda they attach, the essential message within each Upanishad remains the same.   All are reiterations within a different context of the fundamental truth of reality.  One may agree or disagree with the existential assertions contained within the above passages.  However, all must confess the implication is quite clear and evident.  We are all like so many wayward drops of water skirting around the cliffs and valleys of earth until such time as we eventually wend our way back into the larger substance of which we are a part.   Unlike such spiritual texts as the Bible, the Torah or the Koran there is little room for debating the intent, parsing the meaning or teasing layers of subtlety from the language.  Nor, unlike most philosophical works, is voluminous expatiation offered to counter differing lines of reason.  The assertion that our sensory perceptions of duality are a transient illusion and all are part of a greater, singular whole is simply and eloquently stated in a manner understandable to all.

Next to water the most common metaphorical vehicle one finds in the Upanishads relates to the natural world.  It would appear the Vedic sages felt through nature the fundamental processes and patterns of life reveal themselves.  It’s the grand template for understanding the essential forces creating and guiding existence.   Humans may learn a great deal by observing the processes of the natural world of which they themselves are an intrinsic and unified part.  Within any natural phenomenon are lodged all the truths and processes of existence.  Discussing the eternal nature of our essence and our imminent return to our unified state are the following passages from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

As an eagle, weary after soaring in the sky,
Folds its wings and flies down to rest in its nest,
So does the shining self enter the state of dreamless sleep,
Where one is freed from all desires.

Here we have a basic principle transferred into a routine though ennobling event.  Now I don’t know about you but being constituted of a shining self which temporarily manifests itself in the form of an eagle creates a fairly lofty and agreeable picture of existence in my mind.  Ahh, but lest we forget, the Upanishads are quick to remind; form is just meaningless illusion.  All aspects of existence are just different manifestations of the same Ultimate singularity.  To drive this very point home the Brihadaranyaka moves to the other end of the zoological extreme:

As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass,
Draws itself together and reaches out for the next,
So the Self, having come to the end of one life and dispelled all ignorance,
Gathers in his faculties and reaches out from the old body to the new.

The point is becoming quite clear; despite appearances or psychological associations no entity is qualitatively different or separate from the Ultimate Reality.  However, just to be sure, in a bit of prescient anticipation of all the Freudian and Jungian symbolism to come, the Vedic sages just had to hit this theme one last time with a deep seated, Id oriented,  archetypal hammer:

As the skin of a snake is sloughed onto an anthill,
So does the mortal body fall;
But the Self; freed from the body, merges in Brahman, infinite light, eternal life.

Though the imagery of having your skin removed from your body by a hill of ants lacks the comparable Shakespearean eloquence of “shuffling off our mortal coil,” the point could not be more evident.  Whether one be an eagle, insect or snake, the apparent cessation of life is merely a transition from one form of being to another.  The possible complexity of the physics necessary for accomplishing such a transformation matters not.  What remains undeniable and apparent is the simplicity of the assertion and its clarity of statement.

In all fairness one should note Hindu theology is just as capable as any other of deconstructing the simplest turn of phrase into any number of convoluted and conflicted meanings.  Underlying each one of the Upanishads lays a mythological story evolved in enough specifics and cloaked in enough symbolism to confound the accuracy of any intended message.  But therein lays the great elegance of the Upanishads.  Using only as much back story as is necessary to carry the narrative they swiftly dismiss the superfluous and probe right to the heart of the issue at hand.  The points are made purely and economically thus heading off much possible confusion and misinterpretation.

Though the nature of existence detailed in the Upanishads is very simple the process of understanding this phenomenon is often quite protracted.  The texts assert the ultimate goal of all corporeal existence is to realize the essential truth of non-duality.  If this difficult chore can be accomplished, upon ones physical demise they will be spared any additional reincarnation and reside forever within the singular state of pure being.   Unfortunately, not all gain this awareness of ultimate truth during the course of any particular incarnation.  Such lost, unknowing souls must return to the realm of material existence to relearn the one principle truth; whether in the state of pure awareness or in earthbound forms, the essence of being remains the same.

Mere humans shouldn’t feel too badly about missing the point and having to repeat a cycle of life.  Within the Upanishads even gods turn out to be slow learners.  Just look at poor Indra.  Being the divinity of wars, storms and rainfall did nothing to up his learning curve.   He needed over one hundred years of remedial sessions at the foot of his teacher Prajapati to fully appreciate the point demonstrated by the following lessons contained within the Chandogya Upanishad:

As the same fire assumes different shapes
When it consumes objects differing in shape,
So does the one Self take the shape
Of every creature in whom he is present.

Of course fire has a certain dynamism lacking within most static material objects.  To make sure these types of psychological associations don’t cloud our understanding further expatiation is necessary:

As by knowing one lump of clay, dear one,
We come to know all things made out of Clay.
That they differ only in name and form,
While the stuff of which all are made is Clay.

Clay, now that’s pretty basic stuff.  However, lest the idea arise there exists any qualitative or hierarchical difference in the forms Ultimate Being takes the sages immediately disavow such notions by using another one of their typical literary forms; repetition.  Owing to a heightened degree of importance demanding additional emphasis or the assumption unenlightened students are educationally challenged, it’s quite common to have the same sentiments repeated with only minor substitutions.  After all, if something’s worth saying, it’s worth saying again

As by knowing one gold nugget, dear one,
We come to know all things made out of gold.
That they differ only in name and form,
While the stuff of which all are made is Gold.

That should do it.  The critical point is realizing all forms, regardless of what specific material they appear to be, fire, clay or gold are really just different, superficial manifestations of the true One or Brahmin.  Actual material matters not at all.  But they are more than just manifestations.  In truth they are actual extensions of the One.  Endowed by the Creator they remain a direct part of the Creator.  Each form is constituted and springs from the ultimate source.  As the following passages from the Mundaka Upanishad make clear:

As the web issues out of the spider
And is withdrawn, as plants sprout from the earth,
As hair grows from the body, even so,
The sages say, this universe springs from
The deathless Self, the source of life.

One occasionally has to step back and marvel at all the different appellations the Upanishads assign to the singular source of existence.  You have to admit names like The One, Ultimate Reality, Form with no Form, Original Source, Timeless One, Self and Brahmin all have a certain grandeur and preeminence about them.  However, by any name, even a sinister one like “the deathless Self,” which sounds like some warped supernatural malignancy, the point remains clear; all reality is but an extension of the Original force.  What may appear separate is in actuality connected and possessed of the same qualitative essence as the source.  For those needing the same point with a warmer, more accommodating reference the Mundaka later reiterates:

Imperishable is the Lord of Love.
As from a blazing fire thousands of sparks
Leap forth, so millions of beings arise
From the Lord of Love and return to him.

Now that’s a little better.  It takes little imagination to conclude most individuals would rather link their eternal essence to a “Lord of Love” rather than a “deathless Self.”

Despite their formidable metaphoric skill, the authors of the Upanishads recognized the immensity of their work and their limited prospects of success.  To convey a basic intellectual picture of the Ultimate Reality of existence is one thing, to cultivate a deep and complete understanding and appreciation of this same entity is quite another.  Trying to ground within human consciousness an idea of such utter simplicity about an entity of unfathomable complexity is akin to describing the indescribable or knowing the unknowable.  Within the Upanishads the phrase neti neti is frequently bandied about.  It translates simply into “neither this nor that.”  It’s an expression that tries to conceptualize the nature of Ultimate reality by defining what it is not.  To ascribe any quality to the Ultimate or Brahmin would be of no use; the Ultimate is all qualities.  To try and define it as one thing excludes it from being another.  It’s a bit of perverse though persuasive reasoning; by being more than anything we can conceive or attribute, the Ultimate becomes nothing we can conceive or attribute.  No words or concepts are adequate to the task.  In such light the use of the phrase neti neti becomes the ultimate qualifier.  However, despite the enormity of the chore the Upanishads gamely resort to metaphor to try and relay and accommodate the difficulties lying in front of all human beings on their road to understanding the nature of their essence.

The Upanishads and other texts offering direct answers to ultimate questions serve as important reminders to those who study the transpersonal.   While individual episodes of supernatural or transcendent activity may be interesting and demanding of greater explanation they must always be viewed as symptoms of a deeper condition.   Revealing and explaining metaphysical events is important only in so far as it leads us closer to our quest for ultimate answers.  As such, it is always important to remain well versed in the entrenched ideals of Ultimate truth and purpose.  Whether or not one ascribes to the Vedantic principles articulated in the Upanishads is immaterial.  Though thousands of years old they continue to clearly represent and articulate many of the prevailing and instinctual existential ideals and structures common to all cultures relative to ultimate causes and purpose.   The Upanishads are more than a specific doctrine of a specific faith.  They represent an ideal state of being beyond the scope of our mere humanity; an ideal we all strive to know regardless of ability to achieve or comprehend.   The ideal towards which all our pursuits are ultimately aimed.  The ideal from which all existence is wrought and towards which all instinctively strive to return.   They remind us of the purpose of our study and the immensity of the task.  To investigate the transpersonal is to search for the One, whatever it may be.   Let’s never forget this as we investigate the many.

All quotations are from the translations of Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, 2007

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  1. CommentsPaul Dolan   |  Saturday, 07 August 2010 at 8:11 am

    Thanks. Enjoyed reading this very much and appreciate your good humor in your comparisons.

    Looking forward to delving deeper into your site.
    Congratulations! Well done!!

  2. CommentsBob Weisenberg   |  Monday, 17 March 2014 at 11:06 pm

    This is a wonderful essay on one of my favorites. I was just reminded of the Upanishads big-time just last night as I watched the new Cosmos on CBS. If there is anything that shows how closely modern science is coming to confirming the intuitive instincts of the ancient yoga sages of the Upanishads, this is it:

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philsophy

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