The God of the Upanishads
Vanitha Vaidialingam explains the Upanishadic concept of Brahman: the unmanifest reality that is the Source
While theocratic religions of the world may tell you that God created man in his image, I personally think man created God in his image. God was objectified onto familiar forms, so that man could interact with the divine in ways that he interacts with people around him. Democratic Hinduism, consequently, is willing to accept any form as God into its pantheon, including the formless version. Interestingly, the Vedas and Upanishads are not focussed upon ‘Who is God?’ They are rather absorbed in understanding ‘What is God?’
What is God?
Let us first see what the Vedas have to say about God. Here are a few sample statements. God is
• a singular being who is diversely spoken of (Ekam Sat-Viprah Bahudha Vadanti; Rig Veda, Book 1).
• a personal and impersonal being who can be manifest and unmanifest; who exists or can be non-existent and who is interminable. (Rig Veda, Book 10).
• a being who manifests as the universe and all the eyes and ears of all beings and whose cosmic body transcends into infinity (Purusha Sukta).
• all visible and invisible matter (Narayana Sukta).
• the Creator, the created, and the collective totality (Hiranyagarbha Sukta).
• all that is animate or inanimate (Satarudriya or Rudra Adhyaya of the Yajur Veda).
Note that none of these statements say anything about ‘who’ God is! They are intent on telling you ‘what’ God is and is not. The Upanishads elaborate upon this concept of God and declare that all that is, is nothing but a manifestation of God—Brahman. Since Brahman manifests as everything and is the underlying principle of everything, it is impossible to objectify Brahman for worship. So, Brahman is not the God that is worshipped. The different facets of this Brahman or his characteristics may be objectified for worship, maybe, as Indra, Rudra, Aditya, Agni, Shiva, Vishnu, and so on. But Brahman, as a whole, cannot be objectified and encapsulated into a form that can be worshipped.
The Kena Upanishad elaborates on this argument about Brahman. Brahman cannot be described in words because it is the energy that creates the words. Brahman cannot be imagined or thought of because it is the energy that makes you imagine or think. Brahman cannot be seen with the eyes because it is the energy that makes the eyes see. Brahman cannot be heard because it is the energy that makes you hear. Brahman is not breath because it is the energy that makes you breathe. Therefore, that which cannot be described by the tongue, thought of by the mind, seen with the eye, or heard with the ear cannot be worshipped. In other words, you cannot make Brahman an object of worship. So how does one experience Brahman? Brahman is a subjective experience.
What is this subjective experience?
I know, and you will agree, that subjective experiences are hard to communicate, share, or transfer to another. So, the Upanishads are asking you to experience it for yourself. Several methodologies (vidyas) are offered to aspirants for attaining that experience—getting a glimpse of Brahman. Each vidya requires gradual withdrawal of the senses or a refocussing of the senses so that you can experience the limitless that pervades the limited.
Here’s a very interesting story from the Chandogya Upanishad that is often shared for the benefit of aspirants.
The Story of Svetaketu
Svetaketu was the son of Udalaka Rishi. Udalaka was a Brahmarishi and wanted his son to experience Brahman the way he himself had experienced it. Svetaketu was sent to a gurukul (school) for twelve years to grasp the fundamentals of learning, at the end of which he returned to his father, having mastered the four Vedas. However, Udalaka found the ego that had grown within his son obnoxious and limiting. Father and son got into an argument. Udalaka demanded: “Did you ask your teacher for that knowledge, knowing which the Unheard becomes heard, the Unseen becomes seen, and the Unknown becomes known?”
Svetaketu had never heard of this knowledge. He was also not sure such knowledge existed. He pointed out that no one can hope to acquire every kind of knowledge because when one learns something, one realises that there is much more to be learnt in that area. Hence, limitations of time and vastness of knowledge prevent one from learning everything there is. Moreover, knowledge can only be pratyaksha (perception) or anumana (inference); it cannot be Unheard, Unseen, and Unknown. So, how can there be a knowledge which makes the Unheard heard, the Unseen seen, and the Unknown known? Finally, Svetaketu was forced to ask the question “Is there such a knowledge?” and received a surprisingly affirmative answer.
Udalaka tried to explain the nature of this knowledge with three examples:
A clay pot is made of clay. It exists because the clay exists. Take away the clay and the pot will cease to exist. The form ‘pot’ gives shape to the clay, but the clay is the underlying reality. It remains unaffected by the shape. If the shape of the pot is destroyed, the clay can be shaped into other forms without being changed by the different shapes it takes. So, the form that is changeable—the pot—is mithya (illusion or untruth), and the clay, which is unchangeable, is Sathya (truth).
Similarly, an ornament is made of gold. If you take away the gold, the form—the ornament—will cease to exist. The gold, unaffected by the destroyed form, can be shaped into different forms. So, the underlying reality of the ornament is gold. The ornament is mithya, and the gold is Sathya.
The final example is that of a nail cutter. The nail cutter is made of iron. By knowing all about the nail cutter, you can know nothing about the iron that gave form to the nail cutter. But knowing everything about the iron, you can know everything about the nail cutter. The nail cutter is mithya, and the iron is Sathya.
However, Svetaketu’s ‘learned’ mind could only grasp intellectually the meaning of the teaching. He could not experience the Sathya. Udalaka, therefore, sent his son forthwith to another teacher to acquire the experience. The new guru sent Svetaketu into the forest with a few cows with an order not to return till the number of cows reached one thousand. Svetaketu had no one to share his learning with and was forced to remain in silence, like the cows he tended. Years passed and Svetaketu remained in the forest. Gradually, his mind ceased its chatter, and in the silence, he could discern the essence behind all shapes and forms. When Svetaketu returned with the thousand cows to the ashram of his guru, his guru was satisfied that Svetaketu had experienced Brahman.
Nice story. But what does it convey?
Learn to see the animator rather than the animated
We are so engaged with the physical objects around us that we do not see beyond the dictates of our senses. We see the limits but not the limitless that exists beyond the limitations. To see the limitless reality, one must cease to objectify Brahman and attempt to experience Brahman. Words, thoughts, images, bookish knowledge—all of these help you objectify Brahman. They point you to Brahman but do not show you Brahman. Only in silencing the mind and the intellect can one truly experience the essence that is beyond all these.
The attributes of Brahman
The 108 extant Upanishads speak of this Brahman, its qualities and attributes.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad asserts that one cannot experience this Brahman unless the layers covering it are peeled away by a process of ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this). You must cease to regard yourself as a body, a mind, or an intellect. You should discard your ego and transcend your concepts of self to experience this Brahman.
The Katha Upanishad declares Brahman as that eternal which cannot perish. All objects of the senses are perishable. Since Brahman is not an object of the senses, it exists beyond the sensory world and therefore is not subject to destruction. Wise men (Brahmagyanis) who have experienced Brahman know this and perceive it as existing within themselves. The Isha Upanishad echoes this and says that Brahman is the unchanging element in a changing world.
The Taittiriya Upanishad ponders over the energy that created the universe and asserts that it was the anandam or joy of Brahman which has manifested as creation. Joy is the nature of Brahman and everything in this universe will ultimately merge into that joy. It is the only reality of existence. The Chandogya Upanishad endorses this understanding and aspirants are urged to know that there is only Brahman. Brahman is the whole and we are parts of Brahman. The whole and the parts exist together. Brahman is the reality of the universe and all that is, is a projection of this Brahman. So, by knowing oneself (a form of Brahman), one can know everything there is to know. It all boils down to the Mahavakya (great statement)—Tat tvam asi (You are that).
But abstractions are very hard to grasp
The truth is that abstractions can only be described in abstract terms and only the experience of these abstractions will make you understand or appreciate their truth. Otherwise, it all remains an intellectual exercise. No amount of reading or learning can help you transition from the limited to the limitless.
The teachers, or Brahmagyanis, in the Upanishads were faced with the same problem. The students who came to them were at various experiential stages. It was their bounden duty to reach down to the level of each student and equip them with the tools necessary for their progress. So, the Upanishads are replete with stories, events, meditative practices, and knowledge nuggets that students can use to pull themselves up from the depths of ignorance and reach out to the light that illuminates everything.
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