The Nature of Brahman as Depicted in the Upanishads

“The reading of the Upanishads has been the consolation of my life, and will, too, be the consolation of my death.”- Arthur Schopenhauer

In order to properly understand the concept and nature of Brahman as depicted in the Upanishads, we must begin with a brief introduction as to the storytelling tradition of the Upanishads, and its importance in making spirituality accessible to the sages of India of that age. Once we have a background as to the storytelling tradition of the Upanishads, then we will examine two particular stories in detail, and their illustration of the concept and nature of Brahman. Through a cogent analysis of the Upanishads it can be seen that (i) Brahman is the source of all life, and the separation of matter is an illusion and (ii) the highest goal is the unification of the Atman (soul) with Brahman.

This merging of the individual self into the infinite flow of consciousness is the ultimate liberation, “Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings loses all fear.” The nature of self is central to the study of Brahman, for, ultimately, there is no difference. The Sanskrit word Upanishad can be translated as “a sitting, an instruction, sitting at the feet of a master” or “sitting near devotedly.” This translation is in accordance with the spirit of the Upanishads, which embodies the spiritual insight transferred from guru to disciple.  The interpretation of the meaning of Upanishad given by the great Indian sage and commentator Shankara (7th C.E.) is “the knowledge of Brahman, the knowledge that destroys the bonds of ignorance and leads to the supreme goal of freedom.”

As commented by Shankara, Brahman is indeed the primary theme throughout the course of all of the Upanishads. The Upanishads also provide the most detailed accounts of the nature of Brahman to be found anywhere in the Hindu religion, and it is for this reason that we are using the Upanishads in order to unveil the mystery of the supreme. “The spirit of the Upanishads is the spirit of the Universe.  Brahman, God himself is their underlying spirit.”

It is not known for certain how many Upanishads once existed; to this day there are between 108 and 112 Upanishads in existence.  Together, these Upanishads, “constitute, and will probably always constitute, the primary object of attention for all who would know the Hindu religion.” These Upanishads range in length from several hundred to many thousands of words and were composed in different styles over different time periods, some of them are composed in verse, and others in prose. Some of them are conveyed as stories, others as direct discourses; even within the same Upanishad the styles can vary.

There is no certainty as to who the authors of the Upanishads were, nor any certainty as to exactly when they were written; however, the oldest Upanishads are believed to have been “composed between 800 and 400 BC” The Upanishads represent the pinnacle of wisdom of the rishis of India, whose individual lives and identities we know nothing about. Being the works of seers, the Upanishads are primarily concerned with transmitting insights which came to the authors directly through their own study and meditations.  Therefore the authors of the Upanishads, “were not builders of systems but recorders of experience.”

The earliest Upanishads were composed at a time of far reaching change in the religious landscape of Indian thought. At the time, the Vedas were the primary religious texts used by the Brahmin caste; these texts were only available to select Brahmin priests, and were highly ritualistic in nature. Thus the Upanishads emerged at a time when spiritual change was needed, and their yogi-authors paved the way for the tumult of new religious institutions to be nascent in India.

“The Upanishads were composed at a time of great social, economic, and religious change; they document the transition from the archaic ritualism of the Veda into new religious ideas and institutions.  It is in them that we notice for the first time the emergence of central religious concepts of both Hinduism and of the new religious movements, such as Buddhism and Jainism, that emerged not long after the composition of the early Upanishads.”

            The two stories will be recounted in my own best efforts of composition, after having read the three mentioned translations of the Upanishads.  While there may be minor grammatical differences in the three translations, the stories and their messages are in concordance with one another, thus I have decided to recount a unique version that extracts the major strengths of all three translations.

The first story that we will discuss comes from the Kena Upanishad.

            Once, through the grace of Brahman, the gods attained a victory over the forces of evil, but in their vanity and pride the gods thought to themselves, “we are great, it is we alone who have attained victory. Glory be unto us!”

Brahman, the spirit supreme, saw the vanity of the gods, and appeared before them, but they recognized him not. The gods then spoke to Agni, the god of fire, and told him, “Agni, go discover who this mysterious spirit is.” Agni hurriedly approached Brahman, and then Brahman asked, “Who are you?”

            Agni was puzzled, and replied, “I am the god of fire.  I am well known in these parts, and am very powerful.”

“I see then, what is this power of which you are so proud?” Brahman asked.

“I can burn all of the things of the earth,” Agni replied.

“Very well then, burn this.” said Brahman, and placed a straw (in one version it is a blade of grass) before Agni. Agni applied his entire might, but was unable to burn the straw. Disconcerted, Agni returned to the gods and told them, “I was unable to discern the identity of this powerful stranger.” The gods then further perplexed, asked Vayu, the god of wind, “Go inquire as to the identity of this mysterious being.” Vayu then approached Brahman, and Brahman asked him, “Who are you?”

Vayu replied, “I am Vayu, the god of the wind, I am very powerful, more powerful than even Agni, the god of fire.”

“What is this power of which you speak?” Brahman asked.

“I can blow away anything on earth,” Vayu boasted.

Then Brahman placed the straw before him, and said, “Blow this away.”  Vayu tried with all his might, but could not move the straw. He returned to the other gods, and reported his failure. The gods then turned to Indra, the leader of the gods himself, and asked him to inquire into the nature of this mysterious spirit. Indra approached Brahman, but Brahman had disappeared. Then nearby Indra saw Uma, the Divine Mother, and asked her “Who was that mysterious spirit, that has now vanished from whence He came?”

“That was Brahman the spirit supreme,” Uma answered. “Rejoice in Him, it is through His grace that you attained victory.” Thus Agni, Vayu, and Indra came to understand the nature of Brahman, and it is for this reason that they have since excelled above the other gods. It was Indra, above all others, who came nearest to the ideal of Brahman, and who understood first the truth of Brahman, therefore, it is Indra that has long since been considered the king of the gods.

There are several emergent themes, from the precedent story, that are worthy of discussion; of these, the foremost lesson is in humility. It was but through the grace of Brahman, that the gods achieved victory, and not through any merits of their own, as they themselves believed. Similarly, it is through the grace of Brahman that we, as humans, achieve our destinies; we must allow ourselves to be humble, in order to open up to truth.  Pride is due to the delusion of the fleeting senses, in their vanity the gods had forgotten the grace of Brahman, and lost humility.

Another emergent theme is the unity of all existence; the individuality of the gods was an illusion. In fact, with regards to this story we can begin to see that any sense of individuality whatsoever is but the illusion of maya, and that all things are one, as the mystics say. We now begin to further develop the relationship between Atman and Brahman.  In essence, the individual soul, then only exists in separation with Brahman, for existence with Brahman would negate any such consciousness of duality, only unified consciousness remains when the supreme target has been pierced by the arrow of insight.

            The following legend aids in the further development of our understanding of Brahman, and it comes to us courtesy of the Taittiriya Upanishad:

Once there was a young man named Bhrigu, he approached his father Varuna and asked him, “Father, please teach me about Brahman.”

His father spoke of the food of the earth, the breath of life, the one who sees, the one who hears, the one who speaks, and of the mind that knows.  He then said, “Seek to know Him from whom all beings are born, from whom they live, and unto whom they return.  He is Brahman.”

In order to further study the nature of Brahman, Bhrigu went and practiced austerities.  Afterwards, he became convinced that the food of the earth is Brahman. For, from food all things come, are preserved and sustained, and then unto the earth they return. Bhrigu then went to his father again to further inquire about the nature of Brahman. Varuna replied, “Seek to know Brahman by meditation.”

Bhrigu then went and practiced meditation; he concluded that the life breath is Brahman. From the life breath, Atman is born, from breath it is sustained, and unto the life breath doth it return upon death. Bhrigu, however, was still not satisfied, he returned to his father, and once again requested, “Father, please teach me about Brahman.” Varuna replied, “Seek to know Brahman by meditation. Meditation is Brahman.”

Bhrigu went and practiced meditation. He then came to the realization that the intellect (perception in one text) is Brahman. From the intellect the world of fleeting senses is born, from the intellect it is sustained, and unto the intellect does the world of fleeting senses return. Yet, this insight did not satisfy Bhrigu he went once more to his father and requested, “Father, please teach me about Brahman.” Varuna replied, “Seek to know Brahman by meditation.  Meditation is Brahman.”

Bhrigu went and practiced meditation. This time he saw that Brahman is joy. From joy all beings have been illuminated, by joy the illumination is sustained, and unto joy does illumination return.

This story reveals much about the nature of Brahman, we can note the relationship in this story between Brahman and the role of the Hindu trinity of gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. In the Hindu trinity, Brahma is the creator of life, Vishnu is the sustainer of life, and Siva is the destroyer of life; here, Brahman encompasses all three of these roles.  When Varuna tells his son Bhrigu, “Seek to know Him from whom all beings are born, from whom they all live, and unto whom they all return. He is Brahman,” Varuna is saying, seek to know the unification of the roles of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, seek to know the creator, sustainer, and destroyer, as the one supreme being.

Furthermore, we can see that each time that Bhrigu thought he knew what Brahman was, he was in fact not wrong at all, he just had yet to reach the ultimate truth. Brahman is food, life breath, mind, and intellect, yet, above and beyond all of these things, the nature of Brahman is joy. When Bhrigu saw through his meditation that Brahman was joy, he tasted supreme bliss. We can, also, see the path that Bhrigu took to reach Brahman was one of austerity, and this has long been, to Hindu sages and saints, the path to enlightenment. Through meditation, Bhrigu experienced the ultimate joy, the bliss of Brahman.

For the vast majority of spiritual entities, such an experience can only be grasped as an intellectual concept, not as direct reality; thus, grasping the authentic nature of such an experience can be a daunting task. However, to deny the experiences of those who have reached the highest bliss would be a form of ignorance due to an unwillingness to accept the unknown. What then do these sages tell us about the means for experiencing the bliss of Brahman? The key is simply to realize that there is no Atman, there is no individual soul that exists; for, as long as one conceives an individual soul that must meet Brahman, then this is still only the delusion of the ego. Only when one has realized that there is, in fact, no individual soul to begin with, can one climb the ladder of the highest experience, and reach consciousness of their own self as Brahman.

Experience of Brahman is reserved for the elect, “Not through much learning is the Atman reached, not through the intellect and sacred teaching. It is reached by the chosen of him- because they choose him. To his chosen the Atman reveals his glory.” The elect are clearly those who are prepared for an arduous journey, those sincere seekers who embark upon the voyage towards the unknown; it is they for whom none other than Brahman can quench their thirst. These sincere seekers must subsequently walk a narrow path of self-discipline, “wise, self-controlled, and tranquil souls who are contented in spirit, and who practice austerity and meditation in solitude and silence, are freed from all impurity, and attain the path of liberation to the immortal, the truly existing, the changeless Self.”

The concept of austerity as the highest path to Brahman is a theme that is repeated throughout the Upanishads, and is also illustrated by the story of the young man Bhrigu. What, then, are the means and methods prescribed to us by the yogi-authors of the Upanishads?  The most recurrent theme throughout the Upanishads is that of the syllable “om” being used to approach Brahman. “Om is Brahman. Om is all. He who meditates on om attains to Brahman.”

There are also more poetic references to the sacred mantra, “The bow is the sacred om, and the arrow is our own soul. Brahman is the mark of the arrow, the aim of the soul.  Even as an arrow becomes one with its mark, let the watchful soul be one in him.”

Thus, we are now in a position to draw several conclusions as to the nature of Brahman through our analysis of the precedent excerpts from the Upanishads. We know that the ultimate goal of Hindu asceticism, the unification of Atman with Brahman, is, in fact, a paradox, and is better understood as the dissolution of the Atman into Brahman; the moment the Atman has become nothing, the moment it ceases to exist, is the moment it never even existed in the beginning, it is the moment of clarity when one sees the supreme as limitless, unbounded, and as the source of all life.  Everything, both inwardly and outwardly seen, is Brahman. It was only when the gods rid themselves of pride did they experience Brahman, similarly, it is only through the dissolution of the ego that Brahman may be attained. Therefore, the entire cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction is fully encompassed within Brahman; it is Brahman, the supreme, which is the voice of seeing.

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