The secrets of the Upanishads
Vanitha Vaidialingam explains the nature and purpose of the Upanishads, which are eternally relevant for those who have the thirst to plunge into them
Are there any secrets in the Upanishads? Well, the answer is both yes and no. The state of mind of the person approaching the Upanishads determines the depth to which they can understand the teachings. So, while every teaching in the Upanishads is an open teaching, the spiritual maturity of the person is the key that unlocks the relevant layer of meaning.
Structure of the Upanishads
Structurally, every Upanishad is a series of dialogues. The dialogue may be between a student and a teacher or between two masters debating a point or a group of people questioning a single individual.
There are instances in the Upanishads where a teacher refuses to answer a question raised by a student because the student does not, as yet, have the maturity to understand the answer or the student is asking all the wrong questions.
Content of the Upanishads
As stated earlier, the maturity level of the reader will enable them to relate to the content of the Upanishads. Each Upanishad attempts to engage the audience in a spiritual discourse that will raise the awareness of the reader and assist in reaching the goal of Self-actualisation. As the reader rises through the different levels of understanding, the Upanishads will provide newer meanings and renewed understandings on the subject of Brahman.
The Upanishads underscore the point that “it is okay to be who you are, so long as you have the spiritual drive to get where you want to be.” It recognises that human beings are at various stages of spiritual development; every stage is a step in the right direction and, therefore, must be encouraged, supported, and stimulated.
However, the Upanishads do not compromise on the need for dharma (duty), karma (right action) and moksha (Self-actualisation). Each one—whether one is a king or a recluse—must perform their duties and take their responsibilities seriously. They must not hurt or harm any living or non-living creature wantonly. They must learn to act without attachment to the fruits of action. They must make all efforts to acquire the knowledge of the scriptures and internalise the learnings so as to realise the ultimate truth of this universe. Learning that does not stimulate curiosity about the truth is useless. They must build within themselves the ability to identify the learned teacher who can lead them on to the path of salvation. Once they have identified such a person, they must show respect to and faith in such a person and serve such a master.
The purpose of the Upanishads
Since the Upanishads attempt to repurpose and repackage the teachings of the Vedas (and are embedded in the four Vedas) in meaningful ways for the understanding of spiritual aspirants, they are also called ‘Vedanta’ (the end point of the teachings of the Vedas). It follows that all questions asked and answers given centre around the following five existential questions:
1. Who am I? or Who is God?
2. Why am I here?
3. What is my goal?
4. How do I reach my goal?
5. What do I do when I reach my goal?
When a teacher reveals a specific methodology for attaining the ultimate truth (according to a student’s maturity level), it is called a ‘vidya’ or knowledge. There may be one or more vidyas revealed in an Upanishad. For instance, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad consists of five such vidyas and the Chandokya Upanishad contains 16 such vidyas.
The actors in the Upanishads and their qualifications
The maturity level of the student is revealed by the way the question is asked, and the realisation level of the teacher is exposed in the way the questions are answered.
Types of students
A detailed reading of the Upanishads reveals that there are at least three types of students:
• Students who are still established in duality
• Students who have learned to distinguish between the permanent and the impermanent.
• Students who are ready for the ultimate knowledge.
However, these students, irrespective of their maturity level, must have the following credentials before they can approach a teacher:
• A deep longing for enlightenment on the subject.
• A strong belief that the teacher selected has the necessary qualifications for enlightening them on the subject.
• A deep desire to humbly serve the master and absorb the knowledge with utmost devotion.
• Enough preliminary understanding of the subject to ask the right questions.
• Enough fortitude to listen (shravana); contemplate upon(manana), and realise the truth of the teaching (nididhyasana).
Once they have approached the teacher, it is the duty of the teacher to evaluate the maturity level of the student and answer their questions accordingly.
The first type
The first type of students, those who are established in duality, approach the teacher with questions that relate to the mind-body complex. They are aware that they have a body and a mind and that the mind is impacted by sensory inputs from the body. They are conscious of the shape, size, colour, and motion of the body through space and time. They are conscious of perceptual experiences, emotional experiences, beliefs, and desires, and are immersed in the subject of the Self as distinct from the world around them. Teachers must describe the ‘here-to-there’ journey in corporeal terms.
The students are urged to draw upon their sensory experiences and create a scenario that appeals to their mind. For instance, students are asked to view their body as a chariot drawn by five horses (the five senses) and the path the chariot must travel as the five sensory perceptions. They must visualise their consciousness as the charioteer and their mind as the traveller, and so on. The reward for this intense practice is Vaikunta, which is described as a corporeal place in which apsaras will strive to serve you and you will have the wonderful opportunity of physically serving the Lord.
The second type
The second type, those who have learned to distinguish between the impermanent and the permanent, are given a slightly different teaching (vidya). Efforts are made to reinforce the experience. They are urged to fix their attention upon the nature and omniscience of the witness consciousness. For instance, they are asked to observe the inertness of the body in sleep, the absence of the mind in deep slumber, and the awareness that continues through the different states of waking and sleep. Several concentrated visualisations are offered as a means of controlling the senses and making the students abide in the witness consciousness.
The third type
The third type, those who have attained the ability to divorce themselves from the body-mind and reside in the unchanging reality, approach the teacher driven by the need to realise Brahman. The teacher introduces such students to the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent nature of Brahman, and the vidyas given to them are distinct. They are introduced to the nature of Brahman in non-finite terminology. The knower, the knowledge, and the act of knowing are dispensed with. Subjective experience is no longer valid. For instance, Para Vidya insists that the Self is not known through learning, the experience of the world, or devotion. The Para, or the ultimate truth, is known only through intense longing for the revelation of the Self.
It is clear from a reading of the Upanishads that there can be only one kind of teacher—a person who meets all the Upanishadic criteria of a qualified teacher. A famous passage in the Mundaka Upanishad defines two basic requirements for the teacher: the guru must be a shrotiya (one who knows the scriptures) and a Brahma-nishta (one firmly established in the truth). In other words, the guru must have studied (shravana—heard) the scriptures; internalised (manana) the teachings, and meditated (nididhyasana) upon them till they have revealed the roadmap of Self-realization to him. Thereafter, he should have traversed the path to Brahman with devotion, unwavering focus, and a commitment till he is established in the reality, unshackled by the cycle of birth and death.
There are several episodes described in the Upanishads wherein a group of Self-realised teachers gather together to test the qualifications of a Brahmajyani and his fitness to be a teacher to spiritual aspirants. A famous instance in point is the testing of Yagnyavalkya by a quorum of Brahmajyanis, rishis, and students in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
So, what is the secret of the Upanishads? The secret is that there are no secrets. Your understanding of the Upanishads is governed by your spiritual maturity. The more spiritually advanced you are, the better will be your understanding of the teachings of the Upanishads. You will be able to progress from Apara Vidyas (lower teachings) to Para Vidyas (higher teachings). There are innumerable signposts and guides posted on the path to direct you from one level to another till you reach your destination. Start your journey now and enjoy the process!
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