Studies in the Upanishads
The Path, May & July, 1886; March, 1891
Many American theosophists are asking, “What are the Upanishads?” They are a portion of the ancient Aryan literature which this journal has set itself to help lay before theosophists of America, to the end that whatever in them is good and true may be brought out. As Max Müller says, hitherto the Upanishads have not received at the hands of Sanskrit and oriental scholars, that treatment which in the eyes of philosophers and theologians they seem so fully to deserve. He also calls them “ancient theosophic treatises” and declares that his real love for Sanskrit literature was first kindled by them.1 They have received no treatment at all in the United States, because they are almost absolutely unknown in the original tongue in this country, and in translations, have been but little studied here. Europe and America differ in this, that while in England and Germany nearly all such study is confined to the book-worm or the theologian, here there is such a general diffusion of pretty fair education in the people, that the study of these books, as translated, may be made popular, a thing which in Europe is perhaps impossible.
Müller returned to the study of the Upanishads after a period of thirty years, during which he had devoted himself to the hymns and Brahmanas of the Vedas, and found his interest in them undiminished. As for the period of these treatises, he says that has been fixed provisionally, at about 800 B.C.
The word means “secret charm,” “philosophical doctrine”; and more strictly, “to sit down near.” Hindu theologians say the Upanishads belong to revealed religion in opposition to that which is traditional. In the opinion of our friend Müller, to whom all western students must ever remain grateful no matter how much they may disagree with his views as to the Vedas being the lispings of baby man, “the earliest of these philosophical treatises will always maintain a place in the literature of the world, among the most astounding productions of the human mind in any age and in any country.”2
Professor Weber placed the number of Upanishads at 235 3; in 1865 Müller put them at 149, and others added to that number, so that even today the actual figures are not known. Indeed it is held by several Orientalists, that before they assumed their present form, a large mass of traditional Upanishads must have existed.
The meaning of the word which ought to be borne most in mind is, “secret knowledge, or true knowledge,” although there may be a Upanishad or secret knowledge, which is false.
In the Chandogya Upanishad (I, I), after describing the deeper meaning of OM, it is said that the sacrifice which a man performs with knowledge, with faith, and with the Upanishad, i.e., with an understanding of the secret charm, or underlying principles and effects, is more powerful than when with faith, the only knowledge possessed is of the rites themselves, their origin and regularity. The sacrifice referred to is, not alone the one offered on the altar in the temple, but that daily sacrifice which every breath and every thought, brings about in ourselves.
THE MUNDAKA UPANISHAD
This is in the Atharva Veda. Although it has the form of a mantra, it is not to be used in the sacrifices, as its sole object is to teach the highest knowledge, the knowledge of Brahman, which cannot be obtained by either worship or sacrifices.
Offerings to the Gods, in no matter what mode or church, restraining of the breath, penances, or cultivation of the psychic senses, will not lead to the true knowledge. Yet some works have to be performed, and many persons require works, sacrifices and penances as stepping stones to a higher life. In the progress of these works and sacrificial performances, errors are gradually discovered by the individual himself. He can then remove them. So the Hindu commentators have explained the title of this Upanishad as the “shaving” one. That is, it cuts off the errors of the mind like a razor. It is said by European scholars that the title has not yet been explained. This may be quite correct for them, but it is very certain the Hindu explanation appears to the Hindu mind to be a very good one. Let us proceed.
This means, first shaving, or beginning of the process for removing error. It may be considered as a division equivalent to “first title,” after which follow the lesser divisions, as: First Khanda.
“I. Brahma was the first of the Devas, the maker of the universe, the preserver of the world. He told the knowledge of Brahman, the foundation of all knowledge, to his eldest son Atharvan.”
Here at once should be noted, that although in Hindu theology we find Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, as the creator, preserver and destroyer, forming the Trinity, the Upanishad now before us–for cutting away error–has not such a division. It says Brahma is first, also the maker and the preserver. Even knowledge that is true for certain stages of development becomes error when we rise up into the higher planes and desire to know the true. Similarly we find Buddha in his congregation teaching his disciples by means of the “three vehicles,” but when he had raised them to the higher plane, he informed them that these vehicles might be discarded and sat or truth be approached through one vehicle.
The knowledge here spoken of is Brahman knowledge which is the supreme vehicle.
“2. Whatever Brahma told Atharvan, that knowledge Atharvan told to Angir, he told it to Satyavaha Bharadvaga, and he in succession told it to Angiras.
“3. Saunaka, the great householder, approached Angiras respectfully and asked: ‘Sir, what is that through which if it is known, everything else becomes known?’
“4. He said to him: ‘Two kinds of knowledge must be known, this is what all who know Brahman tell us, the higher and the lower knowledge.’
“5. ‘The lower knowledge is the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda, Atharva-Veda, Phonetics, Ceremonial, Grammar, Etymology, Metre and Astronomy; but the higher knowledge is that by which the Indestructible (Brahman) is apprehended.’
“6. ”That which cannot be seen nor seized, which has no origin and is without qualities, no eyes nor ears, no hands nor feet, the eternal, the all pervading, infinitesimal, that which is imperishable, that is what is regarded by the wise as the source of all beings.’
“7. ‘As the spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as plants grow on the earth, as from every man hairs spring forth on the head and the body, thus does everything arise here from the Indestructible.’
8. ‘The Brahman swells by means of meditation; hence is produced matter; from matter mind, breath and intellect, the seven worlds, and from the works performed by men in the worlds, the eternal effects, rewards and punishment of works.’
9. ‘From Him who perceives all and who knows all, whose meditation consists of knowledge, from that highest Brahman is born that other Hiranyagarbha–name, form, and matter.’
This Khanda unfolds broadly the whole philosophy. The following ones go into particulars. It is very easy here to see that the imperishable doctrine could not be communicated directly by the Great Brahma to man, but it has to be filtered down through various channels. The communicator of it to mortals, however, would be regarded by his finite auditors as a god. The same method is observable in the Bagavad Gita (Ch. IV) where Krishna says to Arjuna that “this never failing doctrine I formerly taught unto Vivaswat and he to Manu, who told it to Ikswaku, succeeding whom came the Rajarshis who studied it.” Manu is regarded as of a wholly Divine nature although not the Great Brahm.
Now, when Angiras, as detailed in the Upanishad, had received this higher knowledge, he was approached by a great householder, by name Saunaka. This has reference to an ancient mode of life in India when Saunaka would be called a grihastha, or one who was performing all his duties to his family, his tribe, and his nation while still in the world. All the while, however, he studied the knowledge of Brahman, so that when the proper time came for him to give up those duties of life, he could either die or retire to solitude. It was not considered then to be a virtue for one to violently sever all ties and assume the garb and life of a mendicant devoted to religious contemplation, but the better way was thought to be that one which resulted in our, so to speak, consuming all the Karma of our family in ourselves. Otherwise it would inevitably result that if he retired with many duties unfulfilled, they waited, figuratively speaking, for him, sure to attach to him in a succeeding incarnation and to work him either injury or obstruction. So it was thought better to work out all such results in the present life as far as possible.
We find here also a foreshadowing of some ideas held by the Greek philosophers. In the third verse, the question is asked: “What is that through which when it is known, the knower thereof knows everything else?” Some of the Greeks said that we must first ascend to the general, from which descent to the particular is easy. Such, however, is directly opposite to the modern method, which delights in going from particulars to generals, from effects to causes. The true knowledge proceeds as shown in the Upanishad. By endeavoring to attain to the Universal Soul of all, the knowledge of the particular parts may be gained. This is not easy, but it is easy to try. At the same time do not forsake modern methods altogether, which correspond to the lower knowledge spoken of in Verse 5. Therefore Angiras says: Two kinds of knowledge, the lower and the higher, must be known.
Here and there are persons who seem not to need the lower knowledge, who pay no attention to it, and who apprehend the higher flights impossible for others. This is what is known as the result of past births. In previous incarnations these persons studied upon all the lower planes so that their spiritual perceptions do not now need that help and training which the lower knowledge gives to others. They are approaching that state which is beautifully described by Longfellow in his “Rain in Summer,” in these words:—
Thus the seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
From birth to death, from death to birth;
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime,
Of things unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.
Longfellow, in the lines last quoted, symbolized the Universe by an immeasurable wheel forever turning in the stream of time. Allowing for the western habit of studying effects and not causes, this is a fair simile. Yet it is faulty in that it presupposes two co-existing eternities; the wheel of the Universe, and the stream in which it turns. There can be but one eternity.
Saunaka asks in this Upanishad a natural question, propounded by nearly every thinking man, especially by students of occultism who are continually seeking a royal road to the accomplishment of their objects. He wishes to be told what may be the great solvent of all knowledge. The reply of Angiras points out two great roads, which include all the others. The lower road is the one of hard work for countless births, during which we acquire knowledge slowly in all directions, and, of course, when that is possessed, one rises to the higher road.
This is the true initiation, nature, so to speak, acting as the initiator. In replying to Saunaka, Angiras did not mean to be understood, that a man could in one birth pass over the lower road, but that the progress of a human monad toward perfection proceeded in a certain fixed manner which included all experiences. Of course if we say that we appear on the earth once only, and then disappear from it, to the place called by the spiritualists of America, “the summer land,” and by the christian, “heaven,” there is no need for one to acquire the lower knowledge, for that might be obtained in the life after death. But we regard it as true that the spirit, in order to acquire complete knowledge, must inhabit a human form, and one term of tenancy in such a form will not be enough for the testing of the countless varieties of life, of temptation, of triumph, failure and success.
The sage Angiras in this Upanishad looks at man from the standpoint of one who can see the great stream of life which flows through the eternal plain, and therefore he could not have meant to apply his words to one incarnation, but to the whole series through which man has to pass until he reaches “immortal, blest nirvana.”
In the journey along this road we will encounter great differences in the powers of our fellow travellers. Some go haltingly and others quickly; some with eyes bent on the ground, a few with gaze fixed on the great goal. Those who halt or look down will not reach the end, because they refuse to take the assistance to be found in the constant aspiration to the light. But we are not to blame them: they have not yet been often enough initiated to understand their error. Nature is kind and will wait for them much longer than their human fellows would if they were permitted to be their judges. This ought to give us a lesson in charity, in universal brotherhood. Very often we meet those who show an utter inability to appreciate some spiritual ideas which we quite understand. It is because they have not, so far; been able to transmute into a part of themselves, that which we have been so fortunate as to become possessed of, and so they seem devoted to things that to us appear to be of small value.
The Bhagavad Gita says that there is no detriment or loss to one’s efforts in any direction, be it good or bad; that is, in going through these countless incarnations, all inquiry, every sort of investigation, no matter even if it seems at the close of anyone life that the life was wasted, is so much energy and experience stored up. For although, in the course of one existence, physical energy is expended, there is, all the while, a storing up of spiritual energy which is again a power in the next succeeding life.
In consequence of the modern, western system of education, we are apt constantly to forget the existence of the great force and value belonging to our super-sensuous consciousness. That consciousness is the great register where we record the real results of our various earthly experiences; in it we store up the spiritual energy, and once stored there, it becomes immortal, our own eternal possession. The question then will be asked: “How is one to store up such spiritual energy: do we do it unconsciously, and how are we to know that any has been stored up?” It is to be done by trying to know and to act truth; by “living in the eternal,” as Light on the Path directs. To live thus in the eternal, does not mean that we shall abandon the cares and struggles of life, for so surely as we do we must suffer, but that we should try to make the real self direct its aspirations ever to the eternal truth.
This series of births is absolutely necessary, so that the “lower knowledge” can be acquired; and just so long as we do not acquire that, we must be reborn. Here and there will occur exceptions to this rule, in those great souls who, with “an astonishing violence,” leap beyond and over all barriers, and by getting the higher knowledge, become at the same time, possessors of the lower knowledge also.
In the Chaldean Oracles such souls are thus described: “More robust souls perceive truth through themselves, and are of a more inventive nature,” and by Proklus in I Alkibiad: “such a soul being saved, according to the oracle, through its own strength.” But even this rapid progress must be regarded as comparative, for even these “robust souls,” had to go through certain incarnations in which they were accumulating to themselves that very strength and ability to outstrip their fellows which, later on, placed them in the front rank.
In consequence of our ignorance of what we really are, not knowing at the time we begin the struggle in this present life whether the real man inside has passed through incarnations full of this necessary experience or not, we must not, because of the fancied importance we give ourselves, neglect the lower knowledge. There are many pitfalls besetting the road. Perchance we feel a certain degree of illumination, or we are able to see or hear in the astral world, and at once the temptation presents itself to claim to ourselves a spiritual greatness not our own. The possession of such astral acuteness is not high spirituality per se, for one might be able, as Buddha declares in the Saddharma-Pundarika, to smell the extraordinary odors arising in ten points of space which are not perceived by ordinary people, or to hear the innumerable and strange voices, sounds, bells, discords and harmonies produced by the whole host of unknown and unseen spirits of the earth, air, water and fire, and still be altogether devoid of spirituality. If we let ourselves then, be carried away by this, it is only a form of pride that precedes a severe fall. Being carried away with it, is at once a proof that we are not master, but are mastered by what is merely a novel experience.
But if we wisely and carefully test all experience, being willing to descend low enough to learn and study so that the instrument may be tuned and perfected, we may avoid the pitfalls, or be able to cross them should they be inevitable, whereas if we are deluded by supposed self-illumination, and run after that to the exclusion of all study, we will perhaps, enjoy a period of excitement and of self-satisfaction, but it will end, and the end will be bitter. As Buddha says: “He who ignores the rotation of mundane existences, has no perception of blessed rest.”
The very fact that a man is in the world and has a continual fight with his passions and inclinations, proves that he is not yet in any condition to leave it. And of even the very far advanced, it was said by those who were near the time of the Upanishads:
“The disciple who by his discrimination has escaped from the triple world, thinks he has reached pure, blessed nirvana; but it is only by knowing all the laws of the lower world, and the universal laws as well, that the immortal, pure, blest nirvana is reached. There is no real nirvana without all-knowingness; try to reach this.”
These notes are not technical studies of forms of speech, but simply attempts to discover the true meaning underlying the words of the Upanishads. These ancient works are full of food for reflection; they should be studied with a view of finding the inner meaning, and without being influenced by the fact that they are cast in a form which is strange to us. This caution is especially needful in the case of Hindu books, because the Indian is fond of expressing himself in a form totally different from that of his Western brother.
In 1886 I made a few references in these pages to the Mundaka Upanishad, which is often known as the one which shaves off error so that the truth may shine or be apparent, and shall now proceed a little further in the same direction. This Upanishad is divided into chapters or sections which are called “mundakas” and “khandas,” the last being the smaller divisions included in the former: a “khanda” would therefore be something like our “section.”
Thus we have:
FIRST MUNDAKA, SECOND KHANDA
1. This is the truth: the sacrificial works which they saw in the hymns of the Veda have been performed in many ways in the Tretâ age. Practise them diligently, ye lovers of truth; this is your path that leads to the world of good works.
From the first verse to the end of the sixth there are statements and descriptions relating to the flames from the sacrifice and about the effects of good works, ending with these words:
“This is thy holy Brahma world—swarga—gained by thy good works.”
All of these mean to inculcate that swarga or heaven will be gained by good works, which are here also called sacrifices or the attentive following of the Brahmanical law. Both in the fifth and sixth verses heaven or devachan is referred to, in the one as the place “where the one lord of the devas dwells,” and in the other as “swarga.” Indra is “the one lord of the devas,” and his place, known as “Indra loka,” is devachan or the land of the gods.
Indra’s heaven is not eternal. The only loka admitted by the Hindu sacred books to be nondestructible is “Goloka” or the place of Krishna. Those who go to devachan have to emerge from that state when the energies that took them there are exhausted. In the Bhagavad Gita this is thus put:
“When the reward is exhausted after having dwelt in the heaven of Indra for years of infinite number, they return to the world of mortals.”
But even if one should become Indra himself, who is the regent of this sphere, the reward would not be eternal, for the reason that Indra as a power comes to an end at the close of the manvantara. The Khanda under consideration touches upon the transitory nature of the reward for good works without knowledge in the seventh and other verses:
7. But frail indeed are these boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen, in which this lower ceremonial has been told. Fools who praise this as the highest good are subject again and again to old age and death.
8. Fools dwell in darkness, wise in their own conceit and puffed up with a vain knowledge, go round and round, staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.
9. Children when they have long lived in ignorance consider themselves happy. Because those who depend on their good works are improvident, owing to their passions, they fall and become miserable when their life in the world which they have gained by their good works is finished.
The fall spoken of in these and also in the tenth is the death in devachan and rebirth into this life. Both life here and life in devachan are illusionary, and hence there is a continual rise and fall, fall and rise, from the one to the other until the time arrives when the man, by adding knowledge to good works, is able to mount above the illusion and prevent himself from being drawn into the gulf of death in either this world or the world of the devas. It must follow from this that such a perfected man may, while living among men, have the experiences of devachan, if that be his wish; in Buddha’s life it is said that he entered nirvana and carried on his mission upon earth afterwards.
Verse II, referring to those hermits called Sannyasis who have left all concerns of this world behind, has this significant sentence:
“(those) depart free from passion, through the sun, to where that immortal person dwells whose nature is imperishable.”
I am very much inclined to read this as meaning that even in their case what might be called absolute immortality is not gained.
The Hindu philosophy is full of fine distinctions, and, indeed, so is occultism. To say that “they go to that place where the highest person dwells” is not the same as saying they become that person himself. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says that only a certain sort of devotion causes the devotee to become the highest person, or, to put it in other words, to be absorbed in the highest. In the present case the Sannyasi goes to the place but does not become that highest person. And in saying “absolute immortality” I have in view the immense periods of time covered by the cycles of the Hindus, which are so long that they seem the same as eternity to us, and are often construed to have that meaning, giving to the term a shorter or lesser significance than we give it. This can be noticed in the sentence quoted from the Bhagavad Gita in the use of the word “infinite,” as there it does not mean never-ending, but only an enormous period of time, so immense that the human mind is not able to conceive it and therefore has to call it eternal. The “departure through the sun” is a reference to that part of the hidden-teachings of the Hindu initiates which deals with the practical part of yoga, the ways and means for developing the higher powers and faculties, all of which are governed and affected by certain forces and centres of force in the system of which this globe is a part. Even this has its counterpart in the Bhagavad Gita in that chapter where it is said that the devotee who dies when the sun is in its northern course goes away never to return, and that the one who dies when the moon is waxing goes but to return again, ending with the statement that these two ways of white and black are eternally decreed in this world. This has been commented on by Europeans as being nonsense, but when we know that reference is meant to be made to the eternal unity of the great tides in human affairs and the adjustment of all things to universal laws, it does not seem so foolish. Of course if it be taken to apply to all men indiscriminately, then it would be the talk of children; but it is well known to all those who have had a glimmer of the inner meaning of these holy books that the persons who come under the influence of this law in the manner above given are only those devotees who follow the practices enjoined and thus bring into operation upon themselves different forces from those that bear upon the ordinary man.
In the next verse directions are given for finding the truth as:
12. Let a Brahmana4 after he has examined all these worlds which are gained by works acquire freedom from all desires. Nothing that is eternal (or not made) can be gained by that which is not eternal (or made). Let him in order to understand this take fuel in his hands and approach a guru who is learned and dwells entirely in Brahman, … and that teacher tells the truth to him.
Verse 13 ends this khanda leading to the second Mundaka wherein the truth about these matters is to be found.
1. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. I. lxv.
2. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. I, lxvii.
3. Hist. of Sans. Lit., p. 155, note.
4. “A Brahmana” here does not exclude non-brahmans, but means the man who is on Brahma’s path, who is studying the wisdom of or about Brahma or spirit.