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Copyright © 2015 by Vernon Katz and Thomas Egenes
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Upanishads / a new translation by Vernon Katz and Thomas Egenes.
p. cm.—(Tarcher cornerstone editions)
Includes bibliographical references.
I. Katz, Vernon, translator. II. Egenes, Thomas, translator. III. Title.
BL1124.54.E5 2015 2015002867
About the Translators
I first met the Upanishads in an upstairs room in All Souls College, Oxford. There were about eight of us seated around Dr. Radhakrishnan, who was then Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University. Here was this great man speaking to just a few people in his sitting room. His audience was equally divided between a few students and a few elderly ladies, mostly from North Oxford. This was the late nineteen forties, and widespread interest in Eastern religions and philosophy had to wait till the sixties. Dr. Radhakrishnan had founded the Group for the Study of Religions. I was its secretary, and we invited speakers from different religions. We were always on the point of folding.
We were lucky to be so few because we had more of Dr. Radhakrishnan’s attention. We started with Robert Ernest Hume’s translation of the short Upanishad. The Upanishad is the usual starting point for the study of the Upanishads—rather unfortunately, because to my mind it is one of the most difficult. However, though I could not fully understand it, I was hooked. As we read through more Upanishads, the conviction grew that here was the truth. It was self-evident. No proof was needed, even across the span of centuries. I had stumbled on it, and I have never wavered from this conviction. These fellows knew what they were talking about. They had seen through the veil.
It was quite clear: This was not about belief, it was about experience. The sages were speaking about states of consciousness in this life that could be experienced by anyone. The fundamental insight was that the deepest layer of one’s own experience, one’s Self, was identical with the basis of the world outside. There was a unity of all things.
Dr. Radhakrishnan saw it as his mission to bring the knowledge of Indian philosophy to the outside world and to protect it from misinterpretation. His particular bête noire was Albert Schweitzer, who accused Indian thought of world and life negation. Dr. Radhakrishnan made it his business to refute him with numerous quotations about engaged action.
Dr. Radhakrishnan did not set out to be a guru. He was a philosopher who, with a wonderful command of the English language, pointed the way to the truth that his students had then to find in their own lives. Later, I was fortunate to find a teacher in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who could lead me to the actual experience that Dr. Radhakrishnan spoke about. Even in the early days, the Upanishads were not completely theoretical for me. I found the sages’ matter-of-fact utterances moving, much more so than devotional texts. They gave me a glow, but that is not the same as actually experiencing the state or states of consciousness of which the Upanishads speak. Maharishi opened the way through his simple teaching which, just because of its simplicity, posed no obstacles to inner experience. I was very fortunate to come into contact with these great teachers who opened up the wisdom of the Upanishads to me.
The word upanishad means “sit down near”: upa (near), ni (down) and shad (sit). Traditionally, the student sat down near the teacher to receive secret instruction, and in this way knowledge was passed down from teacher to student, linking each new generation back to the ancient tradition of the Upanishads. Many of the Upanishads consist of a dialogue between teacher and student in the deep quietude of a forest hermitage () or in the home of the teacher (where the students lived as part of a system called guru-kula).
The great teacher Shankara explained the word upanishad as “the knowledge of Brahman by which ignorance is destroyed.”1 In other accounts, “sit down near” (upanishad) refers to the hidden connection between everything, whether it is the connection between the teacher and student, or more broadly, the infinite correlation among all things, the oneness of reality. In this way the word upanishad might be thought of as a state of consciousness in which everything is connected to one’s own Self.
According to India’s ancient tradition of knowledge, the Upanishads were cognized by , or seers. The profound truths dawned spontaneously in the silent depths of their consciousness and were recorded by them and passed down through generations, first orally and later in written form.
According to the Upanishad2 there are 108 Upanishads, although scholars later recorded more than two hundred. The first ten are considered to be the principal Upanishads: , Kena, Katha, Prashna, , , , Aitareya, and . Sometimes the is also added, bringing the list to eleven. Shankara commented on these eleven. Because he also referred to four other Upanishads (, , and Paingala) in his commentary on the Brahma , these Upanishads are sometimes also included as principal Upanishads, bringing the list to fifteen (or fourteen, if the Upanishad is not included). Each of the Upanishads is associated with one of the four Vedas: ,3 , Yajus4 and Atharva. For the nine Upanishads in this volume, the Aitareya belongs to the Veda; the Kena belongs to the Veda; the Katha, and belong to the Yajur Veda (the Yajur Veda has two branches); the belongs to the Shukla Yajur Veda; and the Prashna, and belong to the Atharva Veda. Upanishads of the same Veda often have the same introductory and concluding verse ().
Some of the Upanishads are in verse, others are in prose and a few are a mixture of both.5 While several Upanishads are short, such as the (twelve verses) and the (eighteen verses), other Upanishads are considerably longer, such as the and Upanishads.6 Slight variations in wording are found, as they have been passed down in an oral tradition for thousands of years.7
The Upanishads are the last part or culmination of the Veda and so are called . They are known as the , the section of the Veda that deals with knowledge—knowledge of the ultimate reality. Since the Upanishads are part of the Veda, they are regarded as shruti, or “that which is heard.” Traditionally, they are considered to be apaurusheya, which means they are not the creation of individuals, not made up like poetry; rather they were revealed to enlightened seers who saw and heard these truths in the depths of their awakened consciousness. The Upanishads are also thought to be nitya—true for all time, all places and all people.
INFLUENCE OF THE UPANISHADS
The Upanishads have enjoyed a growing global influence over the centuries. The first known translation of the Upanishads, from the original Sanskrit into Persian, was commissioned in 1656 by Muhammad Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal. In 1802, the French scholar Abraham Anquetil-Duperron translated the Persian volume into French and Latin. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read Anquetil-Duperron’s Latin translation and famously said of the Upanishads:
The Upanishads are the production of the highest human wisdom and I consider them almost superhuman in conception. The study of the Upanishads has been a source of great inspiration and means of comfort to my soul. From every sentence of the Upanishads deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit. In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. The Upanishads have been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.8
Influenced by Schopenhauer, the German scholar Paul Deussen translated the Upanishads and said, “On the tree of wisdom there is no fairer flower than the Upanishads and no finer fruit than the philosophy.”9
In America, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman were among the first to read the literature of India. Thoreau described the universal nature of the Vedas and eloquently gave an account of reading them:
What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum,—free from particulars, simple, universal. It rises on me like the full moon after the stars have come out, wading through some far summer stratum of the sky. . . . One wise sentence is worth the state of Massachusetts many times over.10
Emerson noted, also eloquently, how the ancient literature of India resolves many of the questions of existence that the modern mind is engaged in solving:
It was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence, which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us.11
Walt Whitman read the Upanishads and described the universal spirit of this knowledge:
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.12
The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger discussed the universal nature of knowledge and the universal nature of consciousness found in the Upanishads:
There is no kind of framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction. . . . The only solution to this conflict insofar as any is available to us at all lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishad.13
Schrödinger’s contemporary, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, said, “I go into the Upanishads to ask questions.”14
Referring to the Upanishads as “some of the most sacred words that have ever issued from the human mind,” Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “The messages contained in these, like some eternal source of light, still illumine and vitalize the religious mind of India. . . . Seekers of life’s fulfillment may make living use of the texts, but can never exhaust them of their freshness of meaning.”15
One of the most influential persons to introduce the Upanishads to a wider Western audience was the Oxford scholar and second president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. In 1953, while vice president of India, he published his translation of the Upanishads. Here he identifies their central theme:
Anyone who reads the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit will be caught up and carried away by the elevation, the poetry, the compelling fascination of the many utterances through which they lay bare the secret and sacred relations of the human soul and the ultimate reality.16
PRINCIPAL THEMES IN THE UPANISHADS
The Upanishads are a celebration of the awakening of the Self (),17 a state of unbounded pure being, pure bliss. They reveal the great truth of life: The Self of the individual is identical to the Self of the universe (Brahman). They sing out, “I am totality” ( ).18 The wholeness of life, Brahman, expresses itself as every particle of creation and as every human being. This is the profound message of the Upanishads.
The Self, Unbounded Awareness
As we have seen, the Upanishads define as the Self, the inner essence that transcends the personality. The Self is awareness itself, devoid of any content such as thoughts, feelings and perceptions. It is pure wakefulness, the awareness that enables one to be conscious. Like the silent depth of the ocean, the Self is described as the abstract core of the mental and physical levels of reality. It is not limited by any kind of physicality; it is pure spirituality, with no distinctions, no boundaries, no thoughts, no emotions, no sensations—just pure, unbounded awareness aware of itself.
While the Upanishads describe the Self as nonlocalized, they refer to the space within the heart as “the seat of consciousness,” the place where consciousness is most vibrant, often referred to as a secret cave. For example, the Katha Upanishad says, “The inner Self is ever seated deep in the hearts of men,”19 and the Upanishad describes the Self as set in the heart:
Vast, divine, of inconceivable form,
subtler than the subtle, that shines forth,
farther than the farthest, and yet here, near at hand.
It is here within those who see, set in the secret place of the heart.
Not by the eye is it grasped, nor even by speech,
nor by the other senses, nor by austerity or action.
When one’s nature is purified by the clarity of knowledge,
only then, as he meditates, does he perceive him, the indivisible.20
In these verses, after first locating the Self in the region of the heart, the Upanishad discusses how the Self is known. The Self is not known through sight, because it has no form. Neither is the Self known through hearing, because it has no sound. The Self is known when the mind has completely settled and there are no perceptions of anything limited or temporal in nature. What remains is awareness itself in its unbounded state. One is still aware, but there is no localized object of awareness. Awareness is aware of itself alone, as described in the Upanishad:
There he does not see. Though seeing,
he does not see. The seer does not cease seeing,
because he is indestructible. But there is no second,
nothing other than himself that
he could see.
There he does not speak. Though speaking,
he does not speak. The speaker does not cease speaking,
because he is indestructible.
But there is no second,
nothing other than himself to whom he could speak.
There he does not hear. Though hearing,
he does not hear. The hearer does not cease hearing,
because he is indestructible. But there is no second,
nothing other than himself that he could hear.
There he does not think. Though thinking,
he does not think. The thinker does not cease thinking,
because he is indestructible. But there is no second,
nothing other than himself about which he could think.
There he does not know. Though knowing,
he does not know. The knower does not cease knowing,
because he is indestructible. But there is no second,
nothing other than himself that he could know.21
Each of these verses describes awareness, but not awareness of anything in particular. There are no thoughts, no sounds, nothing to see, and yet one is awake. All objective experience has disappeared and only pure subjectivity remains. This is the experience of the Self, often described as “pure being.” The Kena Upanishad refers to the Self as the “the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech of speech, the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye.”22 Pure consciousness is the knower, and all other values are the means through which it knows the subtle and gross aspects of manifest life.
is not only a theoretical concept, but a universal reality that the Upanishads advise the seeker to realize. In the Upanishad, the famous teacher , before departing to the forest, says in his last words to his wife , “That 23 alone is worthy of seeing, hearing, contemplating and realizing.”24 This message from is the heart of the Upanishads. The Brahma , which are a clarification of the Upanishads, refer to this passage (vishaya ) in the first section (), indicating that the experience of the Self, unbounded pure consciousness, is the central teaching of the Upanishads.
Brahman, the Totality
If is like a wave in the ocean, the whole ocean is Brahman. The Upanishad describes the universal nature of Brahman:
Brahman, truly, is this immortal.
Brahman is in front, Brahman is behind,
it is to the right and to the left, it extends below and above.
This whole world is nothing but Brahman, the supreme.25
From the standpoint of the highest state of consciousness, everything is Brahman, which is why it is translated as “totality” or “wholeness.” For example, the Upanishad says, “All this is totality” ( brahma),26 meaning that Brahman exists within all things: Brahman is the ultimate content out of which everything and everyone in the cosmos is made. The Upanishad says, “Truly, all this is Brahman” ( hyetad brahma).27 A passage in the Upanishad describes Brahman:
It is one, unmoving, swifter than the mind.
The senses cannot reach it. It darts ahead.
Standing still, it outruns those who run.
Within it the breath of life supports all that stirs.
It moves and it moves not.
It is far away and it is close by.
It is within all this.
It is outside all this.28
Brahman is within all things and also transcends all things. Brahman is in this world and beyond this world.29 Brahman is unmanifest and manifest, unity and diversity, silence and dynamism. It is the eternally self-aware wholeness that is more than the sum of its own innumerable aspects.