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Introduction to Vedanta, Part I
The Isha Upanishad

Lord Vishnu as Vishvarupa, illustrating the three realms: heaven (head to belly), earth (groin), and underworld (legs). Painting c. 1800-50, Jaipur.

2,774 words

In this series of self-contained essays, I will offer an introduction to Vedanta, the philosophy of the Upanishads, through brief commentaries on individual Upanishads. These essays are geared toward individuals drawn to the path of Traditionalism – and especially the Left-Hand Path of Evolian Traditionalism.They place Vedanta in the context of Tradition. Further, they make clear the relevance of this path for those of us who are not just in revolt against the modern world, but who wish to live the ideal of “self-overcoming” –  an ideal for all ages.

I will begin with some brief historical remarks for the uninitiated.

The literature of Hinduism is divided into two categories: shruti, that which is “heard,” and smriti, that which is “remembered.” Texts which are shruti are believed to be divinely inspired – “heard,” in others words, as a revelation of the divine. The earliest shruti texts are the Vedas (from vid-, knowledge), some portions of which have been dated to 6,000 B.C. Much of the content of the Vedas is what we would call “mythology,” and it is quite close in some respects to the lore of other Indo-European peoples. The religious spirit of the Vedas is, to borrow the language of Nietzsche, “life affirming.” In a sense, it is not yet truly Indian. The chief gods of the Vedas include Varuna, Indra, Agni, Rudra, and Vishnu.

The Vedas are ceremonial texts containing chants that were to be performed by priests (Brahmins) in conjunction with sacrifices. In a real sense, the Brahmins “fed” the gods with their sacrifices. In theory, if the rituals were performed properly, the priests could get whatever they wished. After a while, the obvious was realized: that the Brahmins were, in fact, manipulating the gods. And a daring conclusion was drawn: the Brahmins are more powerful than the gods. As a consequence, the significance of the Brahmins and their sacrifices became greatly magnified. The result was the Brahmanas, a collection of mostly rather tedious treatises on ritual.

Incorporated into the end of the Brahmanas, however, are a series of esoteric texts called the Aranyakas or “forest treatises.” It is with these texts that what we think of as “Indian philosophy” really begins. These are speculative treatises about the relation of man to the cosmos. One of the central ideas developed here is the perennial macrocosm-microcosm correspondence. Both are governed by Dharma (the eternal form, pattern, or order of the cosmos), and man is an image of the cosmos.

The Aranyakas are followed by the Upanishads (the earliest ca. 900 BC), from shad, “sit,” and upani, “close in.”[1] One who is initiated into this teaching sits close to a teacher, because what is being revealed is esoteric; it is not for the many. This esoteric doctrine is, further, a “close-in” understanding of the Vedas. In effect, the Upanishads constitute an esoteric commentary on the true or inner meaning of the Vedas. Hence, the philosophy of the Upanishads is referred to as Vedanta: literally, “the end (the point) of the Vedas.” The Upanishads are also regarded as shruti, as divinely inspired. One should not assume, however, that the Upanishads constitute a “later” reflection on the meaning of the Vedas. It is possible, instead, that the wisdom they convey is much older than the texts themselves, possibly even contemporaneous with that of the Vedas (or older). What is offered to us in the Upanishads may be, in part, the written record of a very ancient, primordial teaching that was at one time communicated in oral form alone.

The Isha Upanishad

This text is a good place to begin, one reason being that it is quite short. Isha means “Lord,” and immediately we must ask who, or what, is the “Lord”? The first verse begins “The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.”[2] And then: “The Lord is the supreme reality.” Either of these statements seems like it could be found in a Christian text, and Western readers will be continually tempted to understand some passages here, and in other Upanishads, as carrying a familiar theological meaning. As we will soon see, however, this will lead us astray.

The two statements just quoted are deceptively simple. On closer inspection, there is a significant tension between them, which spurs us to think “close in.” To say that the Lord is “enshrined in the hearts of all” seems to suggest that the divine is immanent: that he/it resides within us. Yet we are told the Lord is “the supreme reality.” And we are accustomed to thinking that whatever qualifies as the “supreme reality” must certainly transcend me, or whatever is within me.

Acknowledging this tension, a few lines later we are told “He is within all, and he transcends all.” This is a classic Vedantic formulation, and it is also a perennial mystical idea: the ultimate reality is beyond traditional oppositions. In this case, the ultimate reality is both transcendent and immanent. Of course, this also means that one can say that it is neither immanent nor transcendent. If we claim the ultimate reality is transcendent we will be told “no, not this”; and if we conclude it is immanent we will hear “not that either.” To assert that it is both requires us, essentially, to think beyond traditional categories, and even beyond traditional logic, for we normally regard transcendence and immanence as irreconcilable opposites. Mysticism always requires this sort of “dialectic,” which transcends oppositions. We find such an approach in both East and West. In the West, notably in figures like Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa.

However, instead of going on to explore the “theory” of the supreme reality as both transcendent and immanent, the text immediately presents us with a way or a practice: “Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord. Thus working may you live a hundred years. Thus alone will you work in real freedom.” Human beings tend to covet possessions and pleasures. Here we are being told that we may have none of these, not truly – nothing may belong to us, for all belongs to the Lord. So what is the use of coveting?

Human beings, however, covet much more than pleasures and possessions. They covet their thoughts and preoccupations as well – things that may even torment us, but which we cannot give up. Many men even covet suffering. None of this, however, truly belongs to us. The text is enjoining us to become detached from the finite – whatever that may be. Of course, we resist this: it certainly seems that much does belong to me – not just my possessions, but my past, my transgressions, my achievements, and much more. And the self that holds onto these seems quite incorrigible: it will not give them up. In truth, the Upanishads – here and elsewhere – ask that we move beyond this self, to quite another one. The way consists not in training the self to be free of covetousness, but in detaching oneself from one’s self.

Indeed, having just asked us to covet nothing, the text now introduces the idea of a self beyond the familiar one. This is Atman. In Sanskrit, this word carries the meaning of “essence,” “soul,” and also “breath.” It derives from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “breath,” from which also derives (among many other examples) Modern German atmen, “to breathe.” “Atman” is one of a number of Indo-European terms denoting soul or spirit which also mean “breath” or are derived from roots having to do with “breath.” These include Latin spiritus and anima, and Greek pneuma and psyche. There is much worth exploring here, but such matters are beyond the scope of this essay.

“Atman” is often left untranslated, but I prefer the approach of Eknath Easwaran and others, who translate it as “the Self,” with capital the s. Here, we are very obviously distinguishing between one “self,” which I normally think of as “me,” and which does such things as covet, and a “higher” Self which is quite distinct from me. Still, the language of “Self” irresistibly suggests that it is still somehow “me” that is being spoken of. This ambiguity and the confusion it generates are essential elements in our path to the wisdom of Vedanta.

We might feel wary about the introduction of this “Self,” and skeptical that it even exists. So immediately upon introducing the term, the text warns us “Those who deny the Self are born again, blind to the Self, enveloped in darkness, utterly devoid of love for the Lord.” In other words, those who deny the self will not escape the wheel of rebirth, of reincarnation. They will achieve neither liberation nor enlightenment. But what is the relation of “the Self” and “the Lord”?

We are subsequently told:

“The Self is one.”

“Without the Self, never could life exist.”

“The Self seems to move, but is ever still. He seems far away but it ever near.”

And then, the line quoted earlier: “He [the Self] is within all, and he transcends all.”

But if the Self is within all, and this “all” belongs to the Lord, we begin to form the suspicion that it is not two things that are being talked about here, but one. Is the Self the same thing as the Lord? This supposition is vindicated by the very next verse: “Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear. Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the multiplicity of life delude the one who sees its unity?”

This suggests clearly that all things are one: there is no difference, fundamentally between myself and all else. I am all, and all is me; the Self is all, and all is the Self. And “The Self is one,” we are told. Of course, questions abound. In what way am I one with all things (or vice versa)? Because this does not seem in any way obviously true. And didn’t we establish that “the Self” is not “me,” the self I am familiar with? We will see that Vedanta offers answers to these questions, as the teaching unfolds. For now, let us just understand that when the text speaks of men seeing “all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures,” the “self” that is referred to is our true self, the Self. It is all right if, for the moment, this remains somewhat vague.

Most men, of course, never come to see all in themselves, and themselves in all. Instead, the Isha Upanishad speaks of most men as following two wrongheaded paths. The text states, “In dark night live those for whom the world without alone is real; in night darker still, for whom the world within alone is real.” The first leads to a “life of action,” which is unsurprising since we associate the man who believes only in a world “out there,” with the “man of action.” But the text tells us that the second path leads to “a life of meditation.” This is surprising, because we expect “meditation” to be presented as something positive. Here, however, it seems to mean something like navel-gazing detachment from the world. The world-deniers meditate in solipsistic detachment.

So, what is the right path? It consists in combining action and meditation: “Those who combine action with meditation cross the sea of death through action and enter into immortality through the practice of meditation. So have we heard from the wise.” But what does this mean? Essentially, it means that life itself must become a meditation. Instead of withdrawing from life, we turn our daily acts, no matter how small and insignificant, into meditations. In other words, we turn our daily acts into opportunities for “mindfulness,” to use a word currently popular, and which can help us, in spite of its limitations. Through this practice, every profane action can become sacred.

To quote some relevant words of Karlfried, Graf von Dürckheim:

Let us suppose, for instance, that a letter has to be posted in a pillar-box [i.e., a mailbox] a hundred yards away. If the mouth of the pillar-box is all we see in the mind’s eye, then the hundred strides we take towards it are wasted. But if a man is on the Way as a human being and filled with the sense of all that this implies, then even this short walk, providing he maintains the right attitude and posture, can serve to put him to rights and renew himself from the well of inner essence.[iii]

Essentially, the Isha Upanishad is proposing something very much like the “fourth way” of the Gurdjieff teaching. The other three “ways” are those of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi, all of whom have adopted a “practice” that separates them from the world. What the Isha Upanishad proposes instead is engagement with the world, as in the Gurdjieffian “fourth way.” This approach is also a key element in what Evola and others term “the Left-Hand Path.”

The twin errors of the “life of action” and the “life of meditation” are offered in the text as parallel to a metaphysical error:

In dark night live those for whom the Lord is transcendent only; in night darker still, for whom he is immanent only. But those for whom he is transcendent and immanent cross the sea of death with the immanent and enter into immortality with the transcendent. So have we heard from the wise.

The error of considering the Lord as transcendent only is of a piece with the way of the man who lives the “life of action”: it is thoroughly “extraverted.” In so far as the Lord is believed in, He is a “thing out there.” But an even worse error, so the text makes clear, is to think that the Lord is a “thing in here,” as the man who leads “the life of meditation” might fall into thinking. And if this latter error is taken to a dangerous extreme, might it amount to thinking I am the Lord?

Now, we will see that in a certain sense “I am the Lord” is precisely the message of Vedanta. But the proper understanding of this message is difficult to come by – it is a spiritual achievement that winds up being something more than a purely theoretical understanding. Truly I am the Lord, but not the “I” with which I normally deal, and which I normally think of as “me.” The Lord, again, is the Self – but this Self is something very different from that mundane “I” or “self.” As we have already said, the understanding of the Self is only faintly approached in this Upanishad. We are left hungering for greater understanding of this teaching. Rest assured, it may come. (Then again, it may not.)

For now, let us consider a final point about the parallelism between the life of action/life of meditation, and the metaphysics of the Lord as transcendent/metaphysics of the Lord as immanent. How exactly do we reach the intellectual achievement of thinking the Lord as both transcendent and immanent? As we have said, this “paradoxical thinking” is part and parcel of perennial mysticism – and it seems quite beyond the capacity of human thought. There is a simple answer here, however – one that is also incredibly difficult for most to accept.

The way to understand the Self/Lord as both transcendent and immanent lies in walking the path that combines action with meditation. If we overcome, in ourselves, the “out there” and the “in here” (the transcendent and immanent) we realize the true nature of the Self. Not in the sense of understanding an “idea” of the Self, but in the sense of actualizing in ourselves (i.e., becoming) the Self that is both transcendent and immanent. In other words, the way to understanding the Self is a way, not a thought or a theory. The way of understanding the Self lies in not understanding.

Notes

[1] It should be noted that the foregoing historical account greatly simplifies some matters. In the eyes of many scholars, it is difficult to make a sharp distinction between Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.

[2] The translation I am using is by Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads (Tomales, Cal.: Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 2007). This translation takes some liberties, but it is extremely readable. Because we are dealing with short texts, with easily-found lines and verses, I have not footnoted every quotation.

[3] Karlfried, Graf von Dürckheim, The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Transformation, trans. Ruth Lewinnek and P.L. Travers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971), 16.

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6 Comments

  1. Arthur Frayn
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    To achieve the synthesis of lord within and without sounds a lot like the philosopher king in Platonism. There is an interesting parallel here with Christianity, also, if you interpret the Genesis story as a dialectic. To eat from the tree of knowledge is to think about life without living it, as the priests do, while to eat from the tree of life is to live life without thinking about it, as the laity do. It’s the same trade off, or dialectical relationship between opposites. They aren’t separate things, they are twin and contradictory aspects of one thing and the challenge is to see them as the whole. To become self aware, as Adam and Eve do after eating from the tree of knowledge, is the moment we step outside of ourselves and reduce what are to its representation in the form of abstraction, the account, “word,” or “logos,” depending on how you define it. At that point we can retreat into naval gazing, or chasing the lord within without recognizing the transcendent lord without. We’re cast out of the Garden, the original sin of the thinking animal being that he can conceive of himself.

    To recognize identity, or being, is to step outside of it. That’s the whole problem with being a thinking animal. Unlike every other animal, you’re aware of yourself and your mortality. You cease to simply be something that has been created and take on the power of creativity, or agency, meaning we take on responsibility that comes with choice or the exercise of will. What makes God what he is is his role as creator, and what makes us most like him, or what it means to have been created in his image, is that we alone are capable of creativity, or choice. It’s only then that morality becomes possible. Rather than simply being, you have to *decide* which way to be, you are creator not just created. Natural law or God’s law which creates us gives way to man’s law, which is just our flawed imitation or interpretation of it. God creates the natural world, and man in his image, but it’s up to man to create his own social and political world, hopefully in the image of nature, to whatever degree we can understand it. That’s what it means to be self aware, to have eaten from the tree of knowledge and became aware of ourselves. The fall from grace, or the thing which cuts us off from God, is our having become like him. In the beginning, meaning the beginning of man’s world when he became capable of thinking in higher order abstraction, was the “word,” “logos,” or representation.

    Interesting that Atman means breath because that actually provides a nice metaphor. It really is like breathing, a thing you do without having to think about it. Only once you recognize you’re doing it and can think about it does the possibility of holding your breath appear. Also it’s somewhat interesting that it’s the breath we focus on in Zen Buddhist meditation and in focusing on it and quieting the mind, we are thought to discover our “original face,” not the self we imagine, but the actual self that imagines itself. We shut off the abstracting and representative faculty of mind to arrive once against at being, the point before we ate the apple. Maybe the self that exists in meditation once we’ve shut off the imagined self, or an entire world of imagined selves, is the Self referred to in the Upanishad.

    It’s one way we can describe the ironic turn in western post modernity. To think about the self is to step outside of the self and cease to be what we are. We become interpreters of ourselves, not ourselves. Post modernity becomes the society, politics, and culture of a people that is no longer itself because it’s stepped outside of identity. We just interpret ourselves across a gulf of ironic distance and occasionally try to larp or become the cargo cult version of ourselves. Or maybe it’s that we decide there is no self, no being or truth for us to interpret. If that’s the case, then it is truly “darker still.”

  2. Pietas
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I’m far from educated in this area, but it seems to me that many of the concepts of Buddhism are implicit in these texts. I think I have personally transcended and see the unity in things. Much through my own efforts and without the aid of the Brahmans.

  3. John
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Collin,

    I have been following your work with extreme interest.

    In your book “What is a Rune”, on page 175 you say: “I could imagine someone objecting to what I have argued by invoking a subject dear to my heart, the Left-Hand Path….There are only certain people whom the opposable self may be exactly who (or what) they are.”

    I am highly drawn to your Heideggerian take-down of the “Opposable Self”. It only serves to re-enforce the rationalists who wish to stand outside of the world, to lose their rootedness.

    However; I am also deeply drawn to the Upanishadic understanding of Atman.

    Is there any way at all to reconcile the two?

    Perhaps the answer is that the Aryan is unique in that he actually possesses this potential for divinity; as he is descended from Hyperborean stock. This makes the ‘Blood’ sacred, and through the memory of the blood, one can attain the highest expression of Atman.

    I am not prepared to lose my imminence to obtain transcendence, nor shall I forfeit transcendence for imminence. They are linked.

    I would enjoy any thoughts you have on the matter.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted May 8, 2018 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      John,
      The reconciliation is actually in the passage you quote from my essay. Here is the passage in full:

      “Further, I could imagine someone objecting to what I have argued by invoking a subject dear to my heart: the Left Hand Path. Isn’t that all about rebelling against limits and boundaries, biological and social? Isn’t it about “self-overcoming”? My answer to this is really implicit in what has already been said: yes, the Left Hand Path is all of these things. But it is not for everyone. Who will choose the Left Hand Path? Only those who can. And this is, again, a matter of character. Again, freedom means becoming who you are. In fact, there are certain people for whom the opposable self may be exactly who (or what) they are. Their true being may be what I have called elsewhere the Self.”

      It is not “the Aryan” who possesses this Self (or is aware of it). The vast majority of Aryans are totally oblivious to it. Possibly, the Aryan may, however, have greater potential for realizing the Self.
      Thank you for reading the article. I hope this answer is at least somewhat helpful.
      Sincerely,
      Collin

  4. Charlie Farnsbarns
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    It would seem that William’s Pierce’s ‘Cosmotheism’ is possibly similar to Vedanta, or at least what is said in this particular Upanishad, especially in Pierce’s ‘The Path’.

    Pierce states that ‘Man, the world, and the Creator are not separate things, but man is a part of the world, which is a part of the Whole, which is the Creator.’ Pierce here believes that the Creator is what is reality subsequent to the Big Bang and everything in the Cosmos, the Whole, is part of that initial burst, just combined in different ways, so everything, including humans, are part of the Creator.

    The difference, perhaps, would be that Cosmotheism doesn’t recognise a ‘transcendent’ realm. It states that “there is but one reality, that reality is the Whole.” All of the Cosmos is reality, which suggests there’s no room for an additional transcendent realm separate from the seeming panentheism of Cosmotheism.

    The notion of ‘Atman’, and it cultivation, also seems close to Cosmotheism. Pierce states that humans, as well as all living beings, possess the innate ‘immanent consciousness’ of the Creator: “it is the blind way; it is the way of the deeply in-dwelling consciousness, the immanent consciousness; it is the way of instinct.”

    But it is Man who has the capacity to raise this innate consciousness: “The second way is the way of higher man; it is the sighted way; it is the way of the awakened consciousness and of true reason; which is to say, it is the way of the perfect union of the immanent consciousness with man’s reason, which perfect union we call Divine Consciousness.”

    That we possess this immanent conscious seems similar to Atman, as both have a divine origin, Brahman and the Creator, and both are part of one’s being as well as being part of the Whole.
    Pierce sees this immanent consciousness as the natural urge to evolutionary and progressive change present in all beings, what he calls ‘the Divine Spark’: “this Divine Spark is the immanent consciousness of the Whole. It is the presence of the Creator’s Urge in him.”

    Although this Divine Spark is of the Creator, as the Atman is of Brahman, the difference would seem to be that Atman is already ‘perfect’, as it is part of Brahman, and we just have to work towards recognising its existence whilst Cosmotheism states that Man’s immanent consciousness is not yet perfected. We must work towards building our consciousness, and when we do, then it becomes Divine Consciousness.

    This Divine Consciousness, according to Cosmotheism, ultimately leads to the Creator’s Self-Realization and thus as Man, and the white race specifically, is the vehicle by which this is to achieved, Man’s Godhood. This would seem congruent with the path towards aligning oneself towards one’s ‘Self’, realizing that “I am the Lord.”

    There are many differences, of course, between Vedanta and Cosmotheism, and I’m not sure if Dr. Pierce was familiar with Vedanta but if he wasn’t, maybe he was channelling some deep Indo-European consciousness within him when he was formulating Cosmotheism?

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted May 7, 2018 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      See John Carver’s essay “Cosmotheism,” on this website (use search function). It’s from 2012 and is quite good.

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