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Introduction to Vedanta, Part IV
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

An illustration of the Mandala-brahmana Upanishad, in which the god Narayana, a form of Vishnu, teaches yoga to Yajnavalkya.

3,744 words

Part I here, Part II here, Part III here

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is quite long, and we can only scratch the surface here. In truth, even the shortest of the Upanishads could justify a long commentary. The texts of Vedanta are a whole, each of the parts of which reflects the whole in miniature. In other words, within each text one may find the whole teaching. This does not mean, of course, that the whole teaching is explicitly stated. Rather, one will find that to truly understand the full significance of any one statement in the Upanishads, we must situate it within the context of the entire teaching.

“Brihadaranyaka” means “of the great forest.” Aranyaka means “of the forest” or “of the wilderness.” The Aranyakas are understood to be a type of ancient Hindu literature, along with the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads. In fact, the distinction between these categories is often murky at best, and some Arayankas are included within the Upanishads (e.g., the text that is our present subject), and vice versa. Such distinctions need not distract us, but it is worthwhile to ask why this text, and others like it, are “of the forest.” One theory, which is simple and plausible (and has the added advantage of being rather Romantic) is that the texts were meant to be read and discussed in the forest – in other words, outside of the social milieu of towns and cities, and in secret. The meaning of “Upanishad” (discussed in the first part of this series) is “sit close in.” So, we visualize a small group of students venturing out into the forest, to sit close in around their guru and hear the teaching meant only for the few.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest texts of Hindu mysticism – probably composed between 900 and 600 BC. Tradition has it that the author was Yajnavalkya, who was probably an actual historical figure, living from the eighth to the seventh century. Yajnavalkya is the principal speaker in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which begins as a dialogue between himself and his wife Maitreyi. What the text does not tell us is that Maitreyi is regarded in the Indian tradition as a philosopher in her own right. Aside from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, she is mentioned in several other sources (including the Mahabharata, where, however, she is said never to have married).

Like the Katha Upanishad’s dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa, the dialogue of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad begins with the problem of escaping death, and with the recognition that material attachments are worthless. The occasion for the conversation is Yajnavalkya’s farewell to his wife. In traditional India, it was often the custom that once men had established themselves in the world with a wife, family, and property, they would abandon all of this in middle age to seek wisdom. Sometimes this took the form of leaving civilization entirely, and retreating into the wilderness (which may be one of the reasons for the title “Of the Great Forest”).

The Upanishad, therefore, begins with the final conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi, and he wants to impart to her some important words of wisdom. These concern the concept of “the Self” (Atman), which we have already discussed extensively in the earlier installments of this series. The Self is our true, inner essence. It is our real identity, as opposed to the false identity we construct over time and refer to as “I” and “me.” And because this Self is impersonal, it is actually the same in all of us: Each individual person is a kind of inflection or specification of the underlying Self, which is One and eternal.

In a famous passage, Yajnavalkya states:

As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification dissolves, there can be no more separate self. This is what I want to tell you, beloved.

Our sense of separateness arises from ignorance (avidya) and lack of practice in discrimination (viveka). The path to realization of the Self involves discriminating the Self from what it is not. Indeed, in terms of the intellectual understanding of the nature of the Self, the path is almost entirely negative: never identifying what the Self is (for it is beyond words), only what it is not. The chief error men make, as the passage indicates, is in thinking that their true Self is their body, or that it is located somewhere within that body. Yajnavalkya reminds us that that body is made up of “the elements” – and to those elements it will return, when the body dies. Along with it, the false, finite, and separate self dies as well: all that we commonly think of as “me.”

Maiteryi is perplexed by this teaching. But in fact, Yajnavalkya has not only taught her the essence of Vedanta, he has also taught her the means to overcome the grief she feels at his departure. The Self is one, without distinction. Thus, “my Self” is not something distinct from “your Self.” In knowing what I truly am, I know what you truly are. In loving my Self, in yearning to realize identity with it, I love you as well – I love what you truly are; your real being. As I noted in the last installment of this series, the traditional teaching about love is that all love is, in fact, love of the infinite. In life we yearn for one object or another, and whether we attain those objects or not, we are always disappointed. We always yearn for more. Our longing is infinite, and so it can only be satisfied by an infinite object: the Self.

The love that Maitreyi feels for Yajnavalkya is, in reality, a desire for the Self. But when Yajnavalkya leaves, he does not take the Self with him. The Self is here, there, and everywhere. And most important, it is within Maitreyi, as it is in all of us. Therefore, Yajnavalkya’s ultimate message to Maitreyi seems to be that truly loving him would be loving the Self that is already within her, and through which the two of them are one. True devotion to me, he seems to be saying, is love of the Self – so seek the Self within you, as we all must. And if you seek that Self, then in reality we will never be parted. Through the Self, we will always be together.

Once Yajnavalkya leaves Maitreyi, his travels take him to Janaka, the King of Videha, with whom he also has a dialogue. Janaka asks him, “Who is that Self?” Yajnavalkya responds:

The Self, pure awareness, shines as the light within the heart, surrounded by the senses. Only seeming to think, seeming to move, the Self neither sleeps nor wakes nor dreams.

Here, once again, we are told that the Self lies within us, at our core (in the heart). It is “pure awareness,” but what does it mean to say that it is “surrounded by the senses”? And why speak of the Self as “seeming” to think or move? The inescapable conclusion is that Yajnavalkya understands the Self to take on or manifest a finite form. This form – the individual human being – undergoes an array of sensory experiences of a particular character, which always have finite objects. “The individual,” who is the garment assumed by the Self, takes these experiences as its own. Meanwhile, the Self exists at the center of this outcropping of individuality, a pure awareness untouched by the sensory experience we naïvely assume to be the only awareness possible.

Having expressed itself as an individual human being, the Self “seems” to think and to move. In reality, only the finite expression of the Self, almost always completely ignorant of its true nature, does this thinking and moving. That finite individual experiences itself as sleeping, waking, and dreaming. Yajnavalkya speaks further of the Self “taking on a body,” and thus seeming to assume the body’s frailties. But the Self is unaffected, and undergoes no alteration in its state of being. It is, again, pure awareness: always aware behind or beneath what we call waking, sleeping – and even aware in what we call dreamless sleep.

Obviously, this type of awareness is something radically different from the awareness to which we are accustomed, even when we believe that we are awake, alert, and focused. It is easy to see why this must be the case, since we define awareness in contrast to obliviousness, waking in contrast to sleeping. But in a being for whom obliviousness and sleep are impossible, what can awareness or wakefulness truly mean? This is a state we may never understand intellectually – but we may approach it through practice, the importance of which I discussed in the last installment of this series. I have also argued elsewhere that when we attempt to understand the “waking” exhibited by the Self, we find that this waking shades off into being. (See my essay “On Waking and Being” in TYR, Vol. 5, forthcoming.)

Yajnavalkya goes on to tell us that the human being has just two states: the state of being in “this world,” and the state of being “in the other world.” This is clearly a way of emphasizing the fundamental duality in human nature. Ordinarily, I experience the state of being in this world – in this body, surrounded by physical objects of which I am aware with my senses, experiencing the thoughts and feelings of my finite individuality. Simultaneously, however, I exist in another world that transcends the finitude and suffering of this world. I exist in this other world in virtue of the fact that I am the Self. Indeed, since we know that the Self is what I truly am, we may conclude that that “other world” is the truer one; the one I actually belong in.

In life, we may be afforded “glimpses” of the other world: moments in which we identify with the Self. As occurs repeatedly in the Upanishads, the text now employs the contrast between waking and dreaming as a way to help us understand the state of being at one with the Self. Yajnavalkya tells us, in fact, that dreaming is an “intermediate state” between being in this world and being in the other. The dream state gives a clue as to our true nature, by affording a vantage point from which we can see, in a certain way, both this world and the other world. In the dream,

there are no chariots, no horses drawing them or roads on which to travel, but he [the dreamer] makes up his own chariots, horses, and roads. In that state there are no joys or pleasures, but he makes up his own joys and pleasures. In that state there are no lotus ponds, no lakes, no rivers, but he makes up his own lotus ponds, lakes, and rivers. It is he who makes up all these from the impressions of his past or waking life.

What we dream of does not exist; we “make these things up.” Accordingly, when we dream we are like a god. But our dreams exhibit one great limitation: They are not entirely our creation; they are simply a re-creation or re-organization of material we have picked up through the senses during our waking life. Thus, I may dream that I meet a person I knew at one time, who is long dead. Or I may dream of a ten-foot tall onion. Certainly, I have never seen such a thing – but I have seen onions, and I have seen things that actually are ten feet tall. The imagination always creates out of pre-existing material.

Of course, it is not entirely accurate to say that “I” make up the dream, or that “my” imagination does anything. For when I experience the dream (except in very, very rare instances of so-called “lucid dreaming”) I take it to be real, and I am wholly unaware that “I” have created it. In truth, I have not – at least not the “I” with which I am familiar. Some deeper element in me is actually the creator of the dream. Western psychology calls this “the unconscious,” which is not a particularly helpful term (it might as well be glossed as “something unknown of which we’re not aware”). For Vedanta, our realization of the existence of this “dream maker,” existing deep within us, is an important clue to the realization of the Self.

When we dream, two things occur. First, I witness the dream and take it for real; becoming caught up in the dream narrative. Often, I will be completely surprised when I wake up and realize I was only dreaming. But there is a second, simultaneous process that unfolds. That “consciousness” that is deeper than my mundane “I,” that made the dream and presented it to me, watches me while I experience the dream. This is the Self. The “me” that experiences the dream, the me that is normally entirely caught up in the vicissitudes of waking life, is, as we have seen, a finite form assumed by the Self. Thus, in the dream, the Self watches itself – its embodiment as a finite human being – sensing, feeling, and reacting to a world that is its own creation.

And now a shocking thought occurs to us, like a thunderbolt rending the sky: Could it be that life is just the same as the dream? Could waking life be the creation of the Self as well? I imagine that I am experiencing an other, but the other is in fact my own creation, where the true “my” belongs to the Self. And throughout all the experiences that we take as “other” and involve ourselves in, whether in waking or dreaming, the Self remains unmoved:

He is not affected by anything because he is detached and free; and after wandering here and there in the state of dreaming, enjoying pleasures and seeing good and evil, he returns to the state from which he began.

And then, in a passage that was important for Schopenhauer:

As a man in the arms of his beloved is not aware of what is without and what is within, so a person in union with the Self is not aware of what is without and what is within, for in that unitive state all desires find their perfect fulfillment. There is no other desire that needs to be fulfilled, and one goes beyond sorrow.

This passage makes it sound as if when in union with the Self one loses consciousness in a kind of ecstatic rapture. In a way, this is true – but in another way it is decidedly not true. If we understand consciousness to be defined by duality, with the chief duality being subject and object, then union with the Self transcends consciousness. Yet there is another, “higher” conception of consciousness, which is state of awareness (or, perhaps, state of being) which has, in fact, transcended duality. One can achieve glimpses of this in mystical experiences, and certain kinds of drug experiences. But it is not a state of nullity, or unconsciousness. Rather, it is a state of heightened consciousness, in which one experiences the unity of the all (as opposed to merely thinking it).

The text makes perfectly clear that duality is transcended in union with the Self:

In that unitive state there is neither father nor mother, neither worlds nor gods nor even scriptures. In that state there is neither thief nor slayer, neither low caste nor high, neither monk nor ascetic. The Self is beyond good and evil, beyond all the suffering of the human heart.

This is, of course, an extremely daring passage, for it openly states that in the “unitive state,” the social distinctions so extraordinarily important to us in ordinary life are cancelled. And the distinction between “good and evil” is treated here (as it usually is in Eastern mysticism) as a social construct, which is left behind upon awakening. This passage is quite dangerous, for it has the potential to be very badly misunderstood. Westerners will invariably conclude that it means we should, upon achieving this realization, behave as if there is no difference between thief and slayer, no difference between caste, and no difference between “good” and “evil.”

But what Indian mysticism teaches is something far more subtle than this. The man who achieves realization is still a man. In so far as he acts in the world, he must recognize the reality of all sorts of distinctions, social and natural. To take an obvious example, if a man has achieved the “unitive state,” does that mean that he can now lie down with cobras and expect not to be harmed? Of course not. If he did, he would certainly die. For however a man himself may have changed, the world outside him has not.

Contrary to how it is often portrayed, Vedanta does not teach that that outside world doesn’t exist. And no matter what higher state we may have reached, so long as we are embodied we still live in that very real world, which demands that we respect distinctions of all sorts. All that has changed is that, inside ourselves, we are able to see how all of these distinctions are expressions of an underlying unity – the One, the All, the Self – and that ultimately there is no distinction between ourselves and that unity. The “differentiated” type of man (to use an expression of Evola’s) lives in two worlds, while he remains alive. As the text states, “The human being has two states of consciousness: one in this world, and the other in the next.” While he lives and acts in the worldly world, he must abide by its rules.

Having explained to us how the unitive state transcends duality, Yajnavalkya now treats the issue of the sort of “consciousness” that has been achieved in that state. Recall that earlier I said that some passages seem to imply that in identity with the Self, we pass into a rapture of unconsciousness. I argued that it would be closer to the mark to see the unitive state as a higher or heightened form of consciousness. I also alluded to the fact that the account of consciousness or “waking” given in Vedanta shades off into “being” – in other words, in the end there is no distinction between “knowing” and “being,” when in the unitive state. (And, once more, I will direct the reader to my article on this subject, in the forthcoming TYR, Vol. 5, which bases its arguments on traditions quite independent of Vedanta.) We now come to a very mysterious passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in which Yajnavalkya seems to deal precisely with this issue:

In that unitive state one sees without seeing, for there is nothing separate from him; smells without smelling, for there is nothing separate from him; tastes without tasting, for there is nothing separate from him; speaks without speaking, for there is nothing separate from him; hears without hearing, for there is nothing separate from him; touches without touching, for there is nothing separate from him; thinks without thinking, for there is nothing separate from him; knows without knowing, for there is nothing separate from him.

This passage is a classic example of the sort of “logic of contradiction” that mysticism so often displays. To understand the passage, keep squarely in mind that in the “unitive state” there is no difference between you and the Self; you are the Self. So, the passage doesn’t merely describe what you will experience in the unitive state; it describes the state of the Self. Bear in mind, also, that the Self is All: the Self is the being of all things, and indistinguishable from Brahman, the eternal source of all that is.

Now, note that the passage continually emphasizes the “consciousness” of the Self, while seeming to undermine that consciousness at the same time: so, the Self “smells without smelling,” “knows without knowing,” and so on. The “consciousness” of the Self, as I have argued, transcends the ordinary understanding of consciousness as characterized by duality. Normally, if I smell there is an object, separate from me, that I smell; if I see, there is a separate object that I see, and so on. Thus, the text states:

Where there is separateness, one sees another, smells another, tastes another, speaks to another, hears another, touches another, thinks of another, knows another.

But the Self has no objects separate from itself; it is All. So, logically, how can it smell or see? Instead of claiming that it cannot, and that it is “unconscious,” the text emphatically insists again and again that the Self is conscious: that it does smell, see, hear, think, and so on. But how does it? What kind of consciousness is this? The answer is that in the Self, the distinction between knowing and being has been overcome, so that the Self’s knowing the all just is its being the all. Yajnavalkya states:

But where there is unity, one without a second, that is the world of Brahman. This is the supreme goal of life, the supreme treasure, the supreme joy. Those who do not seek this supreme goal live on but a fraction of this joy.

The unity of the Self or the all (identical with Brahman) is not a static unity. It is an active state in which what is continually comes forth to manifestation. This activity, the continual blossoming of being, is pure joy. It is the life and experience of the Self. Our joy comes in realizing identity with this all and experiencing the continual manifestation of being in all its forms as the creative expression of myself (the Self). In this identity, one knows all – because one experiences one’s identity with all. It is possible to approach this idea theoretically (in my forthcoming TYR article I approach it, partly, through Aristotle’s dictum “actual knowledge is always identical with its object”). Ultimately, however, only an experience acquired through diligent practice can lead to understanding these very strange and edifying ideas.

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One Comment

  1. Right_On
    Posted July 16, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    This an illuminating series of essays.

    Re “The man who achieves realization is still a man. In so far as he acts in the world, he must recognize the reality of all sorts of distinctions, social and natural” :
    That, of course, is also the correct interpretation of Saint Paul’s : “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    Paul wasn’t gender-blind; after all he advised women (and not men) to keep their hair long! But try explaining that to an egalitarian.

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