Upanishads: Part I | Part II

A synopsis of Upanishads - What do they say?

A book is published at Bangalore in India entitled Upanishads - What do they say? This is a commendable effort by one of the retired Government of India Officers, Mr. V.M. Lakshminarayanan and is based on "Advaita Vedanta Sara" by late Mr. P.S. Narasimhan of ILO, Geneva. The book contains 190 mantras arranged in 10 topics from various Upanishads along with an abridged commentary of Adi Sankaracharya and a note on Vedas. These are based on books published by Advaita Vedanta Ashrama, Calcutta and by Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.

With the permission of the editor and publisher of the book, I have given a synopsis below of the contents of the book. The book can be obtained from the publisher at the following address:

Mr. V.M.Lakshminarayanan,
36/2 (New No. 91), Promenade Road, Frazer Town, Bangalore 560 005, India.
(Price in India: Rs 50. Overseas: US$ 4-postage extra).


A synopsis of Upanishads - What do they say?
(An English transalation of a Sanskrit book Advaiata
Vedantha Sara
by P.S. Narasimhan (Late) of Geneva)

Permission obtained from the publisher:
Mr. V.M. Lakshminarayanan,
36/2 (New No. 91), Promenade Road, Frazer Town, Bangalore 560 005, India.
(Price in India: Rs 50. Overseas: US$ 4-postage extra).

Chapter 1 : Knowledge, Ignorance and Superimposition

Deals with the three basic concepts of Vedanta as propounded by Sankara the twin concepts of knowledge and ignorance (vidya and avidya) and superimposition (adhyasa) which is the cause of ignorance. All beings from Brahma, the Devas, Humans and animals down to a clump of grass derive their reality from the spark of the self-luminous consciousness of Brahman or Prajna lodged in their intellect or buddhi. This is their true self (Atma), not their ego, not their gross bodies. Realisation of this, the absolute unity and oneness of all living things (Sarvatmabhava), is knowledge or vidya. Ignorance or avidya is the opposite of this and causes one to identify oneself with ones own body and insist on duality. This is caused by superimposition or adhyasa. As one might mistake in darkness or twilight a rope for a serpent, or a pillar for a thief, one mistakenly identifies oneself with what one, in truth, is not. There are four kinds of such superimposition.

First, one identifies oneself with external things such as wife, children and property and feels hurt when these are damaged. Second, one identifies oneself with ones own body and feels I am an Indian, I am a Brahmin, etc. Third, one identifies oneself with ones organs and feels I am blind, I am lame, etc. Fourth, one identifies oneself with ones ego acting through ones mind and intellect and feels I am happy, I am sad, etc.

The aim of the Vedanta according to Sankara is to promote knowledge and self-realisation through the removal of avidya or ignorance. When one realises ones absolute unity with all beings and with Brahman one attains immortality (amaratvam).

Chapter 2: Samsara is like a fig tree but with its roots above in the heavens.

The continuous and practically endless chain of birth, craving (kama) for sensual pleasures in this world and in the other worlds, activities (karma) to achieve these pleasures and objects of pleasure, the merit (punya) and the demerits (papa) resulting from such activities and rebirth is due to avidya or ignorance and is referred to as the fig tree of samsara. Because all life emanates from the all pervading Brahman, this huge tree has its roots above in the heavens. Just as the fig tree grows from a small seed, the tree of samsara grows from a craving for outside objects of pleasure however small and this bondage of samsara can be rooted out by knowledge or vidya just as the huge fig tree can be cut and destroyed.

Chapter 3: The unchangeable and immanent (aksara) Brahman Projects the whole phenomenal world of duality, names and forms.

The supreme Reality (Brahman) is timeless, beyond words and thought because It has no attributes. It can, therefore, be defined only by negation (neti, neti). At the beginning of each cycle of creation, It takes on the attributes (upadhi) of ability to illuminate or give perception (prajna) and as Isvara, It begins to give practical effect to the unfulfilled craving and the unworked results of karma of the countless individual souls (jivas) who have not been able to shed their ego (ahamkara). Then, He takes on the additional attributes of mind and intellect (buddhi) and thus becomes the internal organs (antahkarana) of all living beings. Then He takes on the additional attributes of subtle bodies and becomes the countless Devas such as Indra, Agni and Varuna.

Lastly, He takes on the additional attributes of gross matter and becomes the physical bodies of all beings which are born, live and die. He then enters into all of these as rajna-the illuminating consciousness-which guides them in their activities.

Chapter 4: Having created these bodies, Brahman entered into them How?

Should it be said that He entered into something? Again, if He is all-knowing (sarvajnah) why should He make Himself into the individual soul and decide to experience the miseries of samsara. Samkara discusses these questions and answers that Brahman is all-pervasive and the word enter is used only figuratively (upacaritam).

Chapter 5: The concept of antaryami

The spark of the self-luminous consciousness of Brahman which is reflected in the buddhi of all beings, successively activates the ego, the mind, the organs of perception all the other parts of the body, Brahman is, therefore, the internal Controller: He is the seer in the eye, the hearer in the ear, the thinker in the mind and the perceiver in the buddhi of all beings.

Chapter 6: Life (prana) and Consciousness (prajna)

The transmigrating self (jiva) needs both prana and prajna; is born out of the Selfs own will (sankalpa). It maintains the body, its organs and limbs for the enjoyment of the jiva and follows him like a shadow. The ego is dormant and the mind and intellect do not function, prana maintains the body for the return of the jiva. When the jiva casts off the body and takes on another, prana follows him and helps it. Prajna is the reflected consciousness of the Brahman which illumines the ego through its mind and intellect. The various modes of the intellect such as craving, decision-making, hoping, fearing, understanding, and experiencing are prajna or prajnanam, prajnanam is Brahman.

Chapter 7 : The Jiva-the apparent reality and the basic reality

All the texts in this chapter are taken from chapter 2 of the Brahad-aranyaka Upanishad Bhasya. There the jiva is referred to as the vijnanamaya.

Like the innumerable sparks emanating from a blazing fire, the countless embodied from Brahma down to a flea emanate from the Atman or Brahman. Just as the sparks are no different from the fire, so also the jiva is no different from the Atman. The Phenomenal world of life (prana) names and forms is only an apparent reality (satyam). Brahman and Brahman alone is the basic reality (satyasya satyam). There is no other (advaita).

However, because of primordial ignorance known also as maya, the jiva mistakenly identifies himself with the ego and his body. He clings to a separate identity, imagines various needs (kama) and pursues activities to secure sensual pleasure in this world and next. This ego develops during its journey from one birth to the next, a bundle of tendencies, likes and dislikes, patterns of working, aspirations and a certain amount of accumulated knowledge (vasanas). This ego which transmigrates is referred to as the lingatma. When through austerity, self introspection and study, it realizes, I am Brahman (aham brahmasmi) the ego is extinguished, all cravings end and the jiva becomes one with Brahman. This Brahman cannot be defined by words nor can It be reached by the mind.

Chapter 8 : Walking, dreaming and deep sleep-the course of transmigration and the final release.

All beings go everyday through the states of walking, dreaming and deep sleep and when their life ends, transmigrate from their present bodies to the next.

During the waking state the pure consciousness of Brahman within their bodies successively illumines the intellect, the mind, the perceptive organs and the limbs. The jiva, therefore, is able to perceive and to act according to its preferences and experience the corresponding pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows. Without the basic illuminating consciousness of the Brahman within it, which may be termed the witness consciousness, all this would not be possible. During the dream state, the body and its organs are inert because of physical fatigue but the ego (I-consciousness) is still active and the mind recreates and re-enacts the acts and experiences of the waking state. These latter are again illumined for the ego by the witness consciousness (kutastha).

During the state of deep sleep, the mind and the intellect cease to function but the ego, still retaining its latent likes and dislikes and craving for outside pleasures, merges with the witness consciousness of Brahman and enjoys the bliss of non-duality until he wakes up again to resume his activities.

At the time of death the jiva, still illumined by the self-luminous consciousness of Brahman, gives up the body and passes on to the next, carrying along with him its accumulated patterns of (I) likes, tendencies and aspirations (vasanas), (ii) his accumulated knowledge and (iii) the fruits of his karma. Prana also goes along with him to build the next body.

This cycle continues so long as he has desires and cravings for outside enjoyments. The moment his desires cease, he obtains moksa or liberation from this bondage, merges with the Supreme Brahman and becomes the Self of All (sarvatma bhava). Because he has become one with Brahman he has nothing to fear as duality has ceased.

Chapter 9 : Extracts from the Mandukya Upanishad and the Karikas of Gaudapada.

The letter and symbol Aum is everything. It is the Supreme Brahman, external, all-pervading and all knowing. It is also the secondary Brahman lodged in the heart of every being as the illuminating consciousness lighting up its waking, dream and deep sleep states. By meditating on this, one attains unity with Brahman and the bliss of non-duality. Gaudapada in his Karikas further elucidates this: All that one sees and hankers for is the creation of the mind. When the mind is extinguished there is nothing to grab, nothing to covet and nothing to fear. Therefore, curb the restlessness of the mind by asparsa yoga i.e. avoiding all contacts with sensory pleasures, this may be difficult like trying to empty the ocean with a blade of grass. But do not give up. Also do not allow the mind to sink into torpor and go to sleep. Be awake and alert all the time. Thus one attains a state of total Awareness, non-duality and bliss.

Chapter 10 : The path to immortality.

This chapter contains extracts from the Kano, Katha, Taittiriya and Chandogya Upanishads respectively, together with the commentaries of Samkara. They elucidate how one can attain immortality and a state of total fearlessness and bliss by breaking the veils of avidya.

Ordinary people through ignorance allow full play for the senses and get enslaved in "Samsara". Those with discrimination, however, rise above mundane attachments by eschewing desires and everything connected with non-self.

The body - a tabernacle of divinity is spoken of as a Chariot. The self is the master, intellect the charioteer, mind the rein. A discriminating mind is analogous to good horses controlling the chariot.

Senses, it is said, are great, mind is greater and intellect greatest. The indwelling soul is higher than the intellect and the unmanifested higher than the soul. The highest of all ( at the very Zenith) is the "Purusha" beyond or above whom nothing exists. He fills up everything and is a mass of pure consciousness; the Purusha is the acme, the culmination of subtleness, greatness and inwardness as self.

The "Purusha" ( also the indwelling self of the size of a thumb) and the path of attaining Him is difficult. But one bereft of all longings and with "Knots of ignorance" in him annihilated, can perceive Him with the eye of Wisdom.

Om Shanti ! Om Shanti ! Om Shanti ! Om Shanti ! Om Shanti ! Om Shanti !

Continue on to Life After Death - An Upanishad Story