Upanishads And Yoga

This article covers the relationship between Upanishads and Yoga, written by By Sanderson Beck.

The wise soul is not born nor does it die.
This one has not come from anywhere
nor has it become anyone.
Unborn, eternal, constant, primal,
this one is not killed when the body is killed.
If the killer thinks to kill,
if the killed thinks oneself killed,
both of these do not understand.
This does not kill nor is it killed.
Katha Upanishad 2

Know the soul as lord of a chariot,
the body as the chariot.
Know the intuition as the chariot driver,
and the mind as the reins.
The senses, they say, are the horses;
the objects of sense the paths.
Beyond the senses are the objects of sense.
Beyond the objects of sense is the mind.
Beyond the mind is the intuition.
Beyond the intuition is the great soul.
Beyond the great is the unmanifest.
Beyond the unmanifest is Spirit.
Beyond the Spirit there is nothing at all.
That is the end; that is the final goal.
Katha Upanishad 3

Truth alone conquers, not falsehood.
By truth is laid out the path leading to the gods
by which the sages whose desires are satisfied
ascend to where the supreme home of truth is.
Vast, divine, its form unthinkable, subtler than the subtle,
it shines out, farther than the far, yet close-by.
resting in the secret place,
even here it is seen by those with vision.
Mundaka Upanishad 3

Disease, laziness, indecision, apathy, lethargy,
craving sense-pleasure, erroneous perception,
lack of concentration, unstable attention,
these are the obstacles that distract consciousness.
Sorrow, worry, restlessness, and irregular breathing
accompany the distractions.
To overcome them practice that oneness.
Cultivating the feelings of
friendship, compassion, joy, and equanimity
toward those who are happy, suffering,
worthy, and unworthy,
purifies consciousness,
as does the expelling and retaining of the breath.
Also subtle vision produces
the best modification of the higher consciousness
bringing the mind into stability,
as does the transcendent inner Light,
and the consciousness that controls all passions,
and the analytical knowledge of dreams and sleep,
and concentration according to choice;
from the atom to the infinite is this mastery.
Yoga Sutras (Union Threads) by Patanjali 1

For the discriminating perceiver
the soul is completely detached from emotion and mind.
For then with serene discrimination
consciousness moves toward freedom.
Yoga Sutras (Union Threads) by Patanjali 4

India has a long tradition of mystics renouncing the world to find internal peace and liberation. In a transcendental sense it is believed that if one person finds eternal peace and spiritual liberation, the entire world is spiritually benefited. The Upanishads were written down between the seventh and the fourth centuries BC. They are mystical writings of the seers (rishis) of ancient lndia who practiced yoga to attain conscious union with God. They taught that the soul (atman) is the same essence as God (Brahma), eternal and immortal. The soul incarnates in the world of appearance or illusion and is responsible for the consequences of its actions (karma). The soul continues to reincarnate until the consciousness awakens to its inherent divinity and is liberated from the wheel of rebirth. The knowledge that the true self (atman) is a part of God is a psychological liberation, and the awareness of one’s own immortality frees one from the fear of death, bringing a feeling of eternal peace. Hindus often conclude their prayers with the Sanskrit word for peace: (shanti).

Body, Mind and Spirit

Body, Mind and Spirit

Early Upanishads

The term Upanishad means literally “those who sit near” and implies listening closely to the secret doctrines of a spiritual teacher. Although there are over two hundred Upanishads, only fifteen are mentioned by the philosophic commentator Shankara (788-820 CE). These fifteen and the Maitri are considered Vedic and the principal Upanishads; the rest were written later and are related to the Puranic worship of Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu. The oldest and longest of the Upanishads are the Brihad-Aranyaka and the Chandogya from about the seventh century BC.

The Brihad-Aranyaka has three Aranyaka chapters followed by six Upanishad chapters. The first chapter of the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad describes the world as represented by the horse-sacrifice. The primordial battle between the gods and the devils accounts for the evil found in the senses, mind, and speech, but by striking off the evil the divinities were carried beyond death. The priest chants for profound aspiration, one of the most famous verses from the Upanishads:

From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!1

The primary message of the Upanishads is that this can be done by meditating with the awareness that one’s soul (atman) is one with all things. Thus whoever knows that one is Brahman (God) becomes this all; even the gods cannot prevent this, since that one becomes their soul (atman). Therefore whoever worships another divinity thinking it is other than oneself does not know.

Out of God (Brahman) came the Brahmin caste of priests and teachers, the Kshatriyas to rule, and development through the Vaisyas and the Sudras. However, a principle was created as justice (dharma), than which nothing is higher, so that a weak person may control one stronger, as if by a king. They say that those who speak the truth speak justice and vice versa, because they are the same. By meditating on the soul (atman) alone, one does not perish and can create whatever one wants. Whatever suffering occurs remains with the creatures; only the good goes to the soul, because evil does not go to the gods.

The soul is identified with the real, the immortal, and the life-breath (prana), which is veiled by name and form (individuality). By restraining the senses and the mind, one may rest in the space within the heart and become a great Brahmin and like a king may move around within one’s body as one pleases. The world of name and form is real, but the soul is the truth or reality of the real. Immortality cannot be obtained through wealth, and all persons and things in the world are dear not for love of them (husband, wife, sons, wealth, gods, etc.); but all these are dear for the love of the soul. The soul is the overlord of all things, as the spokes of the wheel are held together by the hub.

The principle of action (karma) is explained as “one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action.”2 How can one get beyond the duality of seeing, smelling, hearing, speaking to, thinking of, and understanding another? Can one see the seer, smell the smeller, hear the hearer, think the thinker, and understand the understander? It is the soul which is in all things; everything else is wretched. By passing beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death, by overcoming desire for sons, wealth, and worlds, let a Brahmin become disgusted with learning and live as a child; disgusted with that let one become an ascetic until one transcends both the non-ascetic and the ascetic states. Thus is indicated a spiritual path of learning and discipline that ultimately transcends even learning and discipline in the soul, the inner controller, the immortal, the one dwelling in the mind whom the mind does not know, who controls the mind from within.

The one departing this world without knowing the imperishable is pitiable, but the one knowing it is a Brahmin. The following refrain is repeated often:

That soul is not this, not that.
It is incomprehensible, for it is not comprehended.
It is indestructible, for it is never destroyed.
It is unattached, for it does not attach itself.
It is unfettered; it does not suffer; it is not injured.3

The soul is considered intelligent, dear, true, endless, blissful, and stable. As a king prepares a chariot or ship when going on a journey, one should prepare one’s soul with the mystic doctrines of the Upanishads. The knowledge that is the light in the heart enables one to transcend this world and death while appearing asleep. The evils that are obtained with a body at birth are left behind upon departing at death. One dreams by projecting from oneself, not by sensing actual objects. In sleep the immortal may leave one’s nest and go wherever one pleases. In addition to being free from desire the ethical admonition of being without crookedness or sin is also indicated. At death the soul goes out first, then the life, and finally the breaths go out.

The soul is made of everything; as one acts, one becomes. The doer of good becomes good; the doer of evil becomes evil. As is one’s desire, such is one’s resolve; as is the resolve, such is the action, which one attains for oneself. When one’s mind is attached, the inner self goes into the action. Obtaining the consequences of one’s actions, whatever one does in this world comes again from the other world to this world of action (karma).

By releasing the desires in one’s heart, one may be liberated in immortality, reaching Brahman (God). One is the creator of all, one with the world. Whoever knows this becomes immortal, but others go only to sorrow. The knowing is sought through the spiritual practices of repeating the Vedas, sacrifices, offerings, penance, and fasting. Eventually one sees everything, as the soul overcomes both the thoughts of having done wrong and having done right. The evil does not burn one; rather one burns the evil. In the soul’s being the world-all is known. The student should practice self-restraint, giving, and compassion.
The Chandogya Upanishad belongs to the Sama Veda and is the last eight chapters of the ten-chapter Chandogya Brahmana. The first two chapters of the Brahmana discuss sacrifices and other forms of worship. As part of the Sama Veda, which is the chants, the Chandogya Upanishad emphasizes the importance of chanting the sacred Aum. The chanting of Aum is associated with the life breath (prana), which is so powerful that when the devils struck it they fell to pieces.

The religious life recommended in the Chandogya Upanishad has three parts. The first is sacrifice, study of the Vedas, and giving alms; the second is austerity; and the third is studying the sacred knowledge while living in the house of a teacher. One liberal giver, who had many rest-houses built and provided with food, said, “Everywhere people will be eating of my food.”4

The soul in the heart is identified with Brahman (God), and it is the same as the light which shines higher than in heaven. Knowing and reverencing the sacrificial fire is believed to repel evil-doing from oneself. To the one who knows the soul evil action does not adhere, just as water does not adhere to the leaf of the lotus flower. To know the soul as divine is called the “Loveliness-uniter” because all lovely things come to such.

The doctrine of reincarnation is clearly implied in the Chandogya Upanishad as it declares that those whose conduct is pleasant here will enter a pleasant womb of a Brahmin, Kshatriya, or Vaisya; but those of stinking conduct will enter a stinking womb of a dog, swine, or outcast. Thus reincarnation is explained as an ethical consequence of one’s actions (karma).

At death the voice goes into the mind, the mind into the breath, the breath into heat, and heat into the highest divinity, the finest essence of truth and soul. Speaking to Svetaketu, the teacher explains that a tree may be struck at the root, the middle, or the top, but it will continue to live if pervaded by the living soul. Yet if the life leaves one branch of it, it dries up; and if it leaves the whole of it, the whole dries up. Then the teacher explains how the soul is the essence of life and does not die, concluding with the repeated refrain that his student thus ought to identify with the soul.

Truly, indeed, when the living soul leaves it,
this body dies; the living soul does not die.
That which is the subtle essence
this whole world has for its soul.
That is reality (truth). That is the soul.
That you are, Svetaketu.5

Then the teacher placed salt in water and asked his student to taste different parts of the water. Just so is Being hidden in all of reality, but it is not always perceived. Just as the thief burns his hand on the hot ax when tested, the one who did not steal and is true does not burn his hand, so the whole world has that truth in its soul.

Speech is to be valued because it makes known right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Mind is revered, because it enables one to do sacred works. Will is valued, because heaven and earth and all things were formed by being willed. Thought is important, because it is better not to be thoughtless. Meditation is revered, because one attains greatness by meditating. Understanding is valued, because by it we can understand everything. Strength maintains everything. Food, water, heat, and space each have their values. Finally also memory, hope, and life (prana) are to be revered.

Those who take delight in the soul have intercourse with it, and find pleasure and bliss in it and freedom; but those who do not, have perishable worlds and no freedom. The seer does not find death nor sickness nor any distress but sees the all and obtains the all entirely. The soul is free of evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, and thirstless. For those who go from here having found the soul here there is freedom in all worlds. No evil can go into the Brahma-world.

The chaste life of the student of sacred knowledge is the essence of austerity, fasting, and the hermit life, for in that way one finds the reality of the soul. The soul must be searched out and understood. The Chandogya Upanishad concludes with the advice that one should learn the Veda from the family of a teacher while working for the teacher, then study in one’s own home producing sons and pupils, concentrate one’s senses upon the soul, be harmless toward all living things except in the sacrifices (The religion had not yet purified itself of animal sacrifices.), so that one may attain the Brahma-world and not return here again. The implication is that one may become free of the cycle of reincarnation.

The Taittiriya and Aitareya Upanishads were associated with Aranyakas of the same name. In the Taittiriya Upanishad once again Aum is emphasized, as is peace of soul. Prayers often end with Aum and the chanting of peace (shanti) three times. This may be preceded by the noble sentiment, “May we never hate.”6 One teacher says truth is first, another austerity, and a third claims that study and teaching of the Veda are first, because they include austerity and discipline.

The highest goal is to know Brahman, for that is truth, knowledge, and the infinite. It is found hidden in the heart of being and in the highest heaven, where one may abide with the eternal and intelligent Spirit (Brahman). Words turn away from it, and the mind is baffled by the delight of the eternal; the one who knows this shall not fear anything now or hereafter. Creation becomes a thing of bliss, for who could labor to draw in breath or have the strength to breathe it out if there were not this bliss in the heaven of one’s heart?

The Aitareya Upanishad begins with the one Spirit creating the universe out of its being. As guardians for the worlds, Spirit made the Purusha (person). Out of the cosmic egg came speech, breath, eyes and sight, ears and hearing, skin, hair, and herbs; from the navel and out-breath came death, and from the organ of pleasure seed and waters were born.

In the concluding chapter of this short Upanishad the author asked who is this Spirit by whom one sees and hears and smells and speaks and knows? The answer is the following:

That which is heart, this mind—that is,
consciousness, perception, discernment, intelligence,
wisdom, insight, persistence, thought, thoughtfulness,
impulse, memory, conception, purpose, life, desire, will
are all names of intelligence.7

All things are guided by and based on this intelligence of Spirit (Brahman). Ascending from this world with the intelligent soul one obtains all desires in the heavenly world even immortality.

The Kaushitaki Upanishad begins by asking if there is an end to the cycle of reincarnation. The teacher answers that one is born again according to one’s actions (karma). Ultimately the one who knows Spirit (Brahman) transcends even good and evil deeds and all pairs of opposites as a chariot-driver looks down upon two chariot wheels.

A ceremony is described whereby a dying father bequeaths all he has to his son. If he recovers, it is recommended that he live under the lordship of his son or wander as a religious mendicant. This practice of spiritual seeking as a beggar became one of the distinctive characteristics of Indian culture.

A story is told of Pratardana, who by fighting and virility arrives at the beloved home of Indra, who grants him a gift. Pratardana asks Indra to choose for him what would be most beneficial to humanity, but Indra replies that a superior does not choose for an inferior. Pratardana responds that then it is not a gift. After bragging of many violent deeds and saying that anyone who understands him is not injured even after committing the worst crimes such as murdering a parent, Indra identifies himself with the breathing spirit (prana) of the intelligent soul (prajnatman). This breathing spirit is the essence of life and thus immortal. It is by intelligence (prajna) that one is able to master all of the senses and faculties of the soul. All these faculties are fixed in the intelligence, which is fixed in the breathing spirit, which is in truth the blissful, ageless, immortal soul.

One does not become greater by good action nor less by bad action. One’s own self (atman) causes one to be led up from these worlds by good action or is led downward by bad action. The soul itself (atman) is the world-protector and the sovereign of the world. Thus ultimately the soul is responsible for everything it experiences.

It is mentioned in the Kaushitaki Upanishad that it is contrary to nature for a Kshatriya to receive a Brahmin as a student. However, the Upanishads represent a time when the Kshatriya caste began to compete with Brahmins in spiritual endeavors. Though the Brahmins had control of the formal religion in the villages where the Kshatriyas controlled the government, by tutoring their sons and others in the forest the Kshatriyas developed a less ritualistic and traditional spirituality that is recorded in the mystical Upanishads.

Kena, Katha, Isha, and Mundaka Upanishads

The Kena Upanishad consists of an older prose section and some more recent verse with which it begins. The word Kena means “by whom” and is the first word in a series of questions asking by whom is the mind projected, by whom does breathing go forth, by whom is speech impelled? What god is behind the eye and ear? The answer to these questions points to a mystical self that is beyond the mind and senses but is that God by which the mind and senses operate.

Those who think they know it well know it only slightly. What relates to oneself and the gods needs to be investigated. Beyond thought it is not known by those who think they know it. Beyond understanding it is not known by those who think they understand it, but it is understood by those who realize they do not understand it. It is correctly known by an awakening, for the one who knows it finds immortality. It can only be known by the soul. If one does not know it, it is a great loss. The wise see it in all beings and upon leaving this world become immortal.

In the prose section this mystical Spirit (Brahman) is shown to transcend the Vedic gods of fire (Agni), wind (Vayu), and even powerful Indra, who being above the other gods at least came nearest to it, realizing that it was Brahman. In summary, the Kena Upanishad concludes that austerity, restraint, and work are the foundation of the mystical doctrine; the Vedas are its limbs, and truth is its home. The one who knows it strikes off evil and becomes established in the most excellent, infinite, heavenly world.

The Katha Upanishad utilizes an ancient story from the Rig Veda about a father who gives his son Nachiketas to death (Yama) but brings in some of the highest teachings of mystical spirituality, helping us to realize why the Upanishads are referred to as the “end of the Vedas” in the double sense of completing the Vedic scripture and in explaining the ultimate goals.

When Vajashrava was sacrificing all his possessions, faith entered into Nachiketas, his son, who asked his father three times to whom would he give him. Losing patience with these pestering questions, the father finally said, “I give you to Death (Yama).” Nachiketas knew that he was not the first to go to death nor would he be the last, and like grain one is born again anyway.

When he arrived at the house of Death, Yama was not there and only returned after three days. Because Nachiketas had not received the traditional hospitality for three days, Yama granted him three gifts. His first request was that his father would greet him cheerfully when he returned. The second was that he be taught about the sacrificial fire. These were easily granted.

The third request of Nachiketas was that the mystery of what death is be explained to him, for even the gods have had doubts about this. Death tries to make him ask for something else, such as wealth or long life with many pleasures, but Nachiketas firmly insists on his original request, knowing that these other gifts will soon pass away.

So Death begins by explaining that the good is much better than the pleasant, which Nachiketas has just proved that he understands. He wisely wants knowledge not ignorance, and Death describes how those, who think themselves learned but who are ignorant, run around deluded and are like the blind leading the blind. Those who think this world is the only one continually come under the control of Death. Death explains that this knowledge cannot be known by reasoning or thought, but it must be declared by another. I interpret this to mean that it must be learned by direct experience or from one who has had the experience.

Death tells how the truth is hard to see, but one must enter into the hidden, secret place in the depth of the heart. By considering this as God one through yoga (union) wisely leaves joy and sorrow behind. One must transcend what is right and not right, what has been done and will be done. The sacred word Aum is declared to be the imperishable Spirit (Brahman). The wise realize that they are not born nor die but are unborn, constant, eternal, primeval; this is not slain when the body is slain.

Smaller than the small, greater than the great, the soul is in the heart of every creature here. The one who is not impulsive sees it and is free of sorrow. Through the grace of the creator one sees the greatness of the soul. While sitting one may travel far; while lying down one may go everywhere. Who else but oneself can know the god of joy and sorrow, who is bodiless among bodies and stable among the unstable?

This soul is not obtained by instruction nor by intellect nor by much learning, but it is obtained by the one chosen by this; to such the soul reveals itself. However, it is not revealed to those who have not ceased from bad conduct nor to those who are not peaceful. Those who drink of justice enter the secret place in the highest heaven. Thus correct ethics is a requirement, and one must also become peaceful.

Psychology is explained in the Katha Upanishad by using the analogy of a chariot. The soul is the lord of the chariot, which is the body. The intuition (buddhi) is the chariot-driver, the mind the reins, the senses the horses, and the objects of the senses the paths. Those who do not understand and whose minds are undisciplined with senses out of control are like the wild horses of a chariot that never reaches its goals; these go on to reincarnate. The wise reach their goal with Vishnu and are not born again. The hierarchy starting from the bottom consists of the objects of sense, the senses, the mind, the intuition, the soul, the unmanifest, and the person (Purusha).

Though hidden, the soul may be seen by subtle seers with superior intellect. The intelligent restrain speech with the mind, the mind with the knowing soul, the knowing soul with the intuitive soul, and the intuitive soul with the peaceful soul. Yet the spiritual path is as difficult as crossing on the sharpened edge of a razor. By discerning what has no sound nor touch nor form nor decay nor taste nor beginning nor end, one is liberated from the mouth of death.

A wise person seeking immortality looked within and saw the soul. The childish go after outward pleasures and walk into the net of widespread death. The wise do not seek stability among the unstable things here. Knowing the experiencer, the living soul is the lord of what has been and what will be. This is the ancient one born from discipline standing in the secret place. This is the truth that all things are one, but those who see a difference here go from death to death like water runs to waste among the hills. The soul goes into embodiment according to its actions and according to its knowledge.

The inner soul is in all things yet outside also; it is the one controller which when perceived gives eternal happiness and peace. Its light is greater than the sun, moon, stars, lightning, and fire which do not shine in the world illuminated by this presence. The metaphor of an upside down tree is used to show that heaven is the true root of all life.

The senses may be controlled by the mind and the mind by the greater self. Through yoga the senses are held back so that one becomes undistracted even by the stirring of the intuition. Thus is found the origin and the end. When all the desires of the heart are cut like knots, then a mortal becomes immortal. There is a channel from the heart to the crown of the head by which one goes up into immortality, but the other channels go in various directions. One should draw out from one’s body the inner soul like an arrow from a reed to know the pure, the immortal. The Katha Upanishad concludes that with this knowledge learned from Death with the entire rule of yoga, Nachiketas attained Brahman and became free from passion and death, and so may any other who knows this concerning the soul.

Greatly respected, the short Isha Upanishad is often put at the beginning of the Upanishads. Isha means “Lord” and marks the trend toward monotheism in the Upanishads. The Lord encloses all that moves in the world. The author recommends that enjoyment be found by renouncing the world and not coveting the possessions of others. The One pervades and transcends everything in the world.

Whoever sees all beings in the soul
and the soul in all beings
does not shrink away from this.
In whom all beings have become one with the knowing soul
what delusion or sorrow is there for the one who sees unity?
It has filled all.

It is radiant, incorporeal, invulnerable,
without tendons, pure, untouched by evil.
Wise, intelligent, encompassing, self-existent,
it organizes objects throughout eternity.8

The One transcends ignorance and knowledge, non-becoming and becoming. Those who know these pairs of opposites pass over death and win immortality. The Isha Upanishad concludes with a prayer to the sun and to Agni.

The Mundaka Upanishad declares Brahman the first of the gods, the creator of all and the protector of the world. Connected to the Atharva Veda the Mundaka Upanishad has Brahman teaching his eldest son Atharvan. Yet the lower knowledge of the four Vedas and the six Vedangas (phonetics, ritual, grammar, definition, metrics, and astrology) is differentiated from the higher knowledge of the imperishable source of all things. The ceremonial sacrifices are to be observed; but they are now considered “unsafe boats,” and fools who approve them as better go again to old age and death.

Like the Katha, the Mundaka Upanishad warns against the ignorance of thinking oneself learned and going around deluded like the blind leading the blind. Those who work (karma) without understanding because of attachment, when their rewards are exhausted, sink down wretched. “Thinking sacrifices and works of merit are most important, the deluded know nothing better.”9 After enjoying the results of their good works they enter this world again or even a lower one. The Mundaka Upanishad recommends a more mystical path:

Those who practice discipline and faith in the forest,
the peaceful knowers who live on charity,
depart without attachment through the door of the sun,
to where lives the immortal Spirit, the imperishable soul.
Having tested the worlds won by works,
let the seeker of God arrive at detachment.
What is not made is not attained by what is done.10

To gain this knowledge the seeker is to go with fuel in hand to a teacher who is learned in the scriptures and established in God. Approaching properly, calming the mind and attaining peace, the knowledge of God may be taught in the truth of reality by which one knows the imperishable Spirit.

The formless that is higher than the imperishable and is the source and goal of all beings may be found in the secret of the heart. The reality of immortal life may be known by using the weapons of the Upanishads as a bow, placing an arrow on it sharpened by meditation, stretching it with thought directed to that, and knowing the imperishable as the target. Aum is the bow; the soul is the arrow; and God is the target. Thus meditating on the soul and finding peace in the heart the wise perceive the light of blissful immortality. The knot of the heart is loosened, all doubts vanish, and one’s works (karma) cease when it is seen. Radiant is the light of lights that illuminates the whole world. God truly is this immortal, in front, behind, to the right and left, below and above; God is all this great universe.

By seeing the brilliant creator, the God-source, being a knower the seer shakes off good and evil reaching the supreme identity of life that shines in all beings. Enjoying the soul, doing holy works, such is the best knower of God. The soul can be attained by truth, discipline, correct knowledge, and by studying God. Truth conquers and opens the path to the gods by which sages whose desires are satisfied ascend to the supreme home. Vast, divine, subtler than the subtle, it shines out far and close by, resting in the secret place seen by those with vision. It is not grasped by sight nor speech nor angels nor austerity nor work but by the grace of wisdom and the mental purity of meditation which sees the indivisible.

Whatever world a person of pure heart holds clearly in mind is obtained. Yet whoever entertains desires, dwelling on them, is born here and there on account of those desires; but for the one whose desire is satisfied, whose soul is perfected, all desires here on earth vanish away. This soul is not attained by instruction nor intellect nor much learning but by the one whom it chooses who enters into the all itself. Ascetics with natures purified by renunciation enter the God-worlds and transcend death. As rivers flow into the ocean, the liberated knower reaches the divine Spirit. Whoever knows that supreme God becomes God.

Later Upanishads

Adi Shankara, expounder of Advaita Vedanta and commentator (bhashya) on the Upanishads

Adi Shankara, expounder of Advaita Vedanta and commentator (bhashya) on the Upanishads

These Upanishads are being discussed in this chapter in their estimated chronological order. The previous group is from about the sixth century BC, and thus some of them are probably contemporary with the life of the Buddha (563-483 BC). This next group is almost certainly after the time of the Buddha, but it is difficult to tell how old they are.

The Prashna Upanishad is also associated with the Atharva Veda and discusses six questions; Prashna means question. Six men approached the teacher Pippalada with sacrificial fuel in hands and questions in their minds. Pippalada agreed to answer their questions if they would live with him another year in austerity, chastity, and faith.

The first question is, “From where are all these creatures born?”11 The answer is that the Creator (Prajapati) wanted them, but two paths are indicated that lead to reincarnation and immortality. The second question is how many angels support and illumine a creature and which is supreme? The answer is space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, sight, and hearing, but the life-breath (prana) is supreme. The third question seeks to know the relationship between this life-breath and the soul. The short answer is, “This life is born from the soul (atman).12

The fourth question concerns sleep, waking, and dreams. During sleep the mind re-experiences what it has seen and heard, felt and thought and known. When one is overcome by light, the god dreams no longer; then all the elements return to the soul in happiness. The fifth question asks about the result of meditating on the word Aum. When someone meditates on all three letters, then the supreme may be attained. The sixth question asks about the Spirit with sixteen parts. The sixteen parts of the Spirit are life, faith, space, air, light, water, earth, senses, mind, food, virility, discipline, affirmations (mantra), action, world, and naming (individuality). All the parts are like spokes of a wheel, the hub of which is the Spirit.

In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad monotheism takes the form of worshipping Rudra (Shiva). The later quality of this Upanishad is also indicated by its use of terms from the Samkhya school of philosophy. The person (Purusha) is distinguished from nature (Prakriti) which is conceived of as illusion (maya). The method of devotion (bhakti) is presented, and the refrain “By knowing God one is released from all fetters” is often repeated. Nevertheless the Upanishadic methods of discipline and meditation are recommended to realize the soul by controlling the mind and thoughts. Breathing techniques are also mentioned as is yoga. The qualities (gunas) that come with action (karma) and its consequences are to be transcended. Liberation is still found in the unity of God (Brahman) by discrimination (samkhya) and union (yoga). By the highest devotion (bhakti) for God and the spiritual teacher (guru) all this may be manifested to the great soul (mahatma).

The short Mandukya Upanishad is associated with the Atharva Veda and delineates four levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a fourth mystical state of being one with the soul. These are associated with the three elements of the sacred chant Aum (a, u, and m) and the silence at its cessation. Thus this sacred chant may be used to experience the soul itself.

The thirteenth and last of what are considered the principal Upanishads is the Maitri Upanishad. It begins by recommending meditation upon the soul and life (prana). It tells of a king, Brihadratha, who established his son as king and realizing that his body is not eternal, became detached from the world and went into the forest to practice austerity. After a thousand days Shakayanya, a knower of the soul, appeared to teach him. The king sought liberation from reincarnating existence. The teacher assures him that he will become a knower of the soul. The serene one who rising up out of the body reaches the highest light in one’s own form is the soul, immortal and fearless.

The body is like a cart without intelligence but it is driven by a super-sensuous, intelligent being, who is pure, clean, void, tranquil, breathless, selfless, endless, undecaying, steadfast, eternal, unborn, and independent. The reins are the five organs of perception, the steeds are the organs of action, and the charioteer is the mind. The soul is unmanifest, subtle, imperceptible, incomprehensible, selfless, pure, steadfast, stainless, unagitated, desireless, fixed like a spectator, and self-abiding.

How then does the soul, overcome by the bright and dark fruits of action (karma), enter good or evil wombs? The elemental self is overcome by these actions and pairs of opposites, the qualities (gunas) of nature (prakriti) and does not see the blessed one, who causes action standing within oneself. Bewildered, full of desire, distracted, this self-conceit binds oneself by thinking “This is I,” and “That is mine.” So as a bird is caught in a snare it enters into a good or evil womb.

Yet the cause of these actions is the inner person. The elemental self is overcome by its attachment to qualities. The characteristics of the dark quality (tamas) are delusion, fear, despondency, sleepiness, weariness, neglect, old age, sorrow, hunger, thirst, wretchedness, anger, atheism, ignorance, jealousy, cruelty, stupidity, shamelessness, meanness, and rashness. The characteristics of the passionate quality (rajas) are desire, affection, emotion, coveting, malice, lust, hatred, secretiveness, envy, greed, fickleness, distraction, ambition, favoritism, pride, aversion, attachment, and gluttony.

How then may this elemental self on leaving this body come into complete union with the soul? Like the waves of great rivers or the ocean tide it is hard to keep back the consequences of one’s actions or the approach of death. Like the lame bound with the fetters made of the fruit of good and evil, like the prisoner lacking independence, like the dead beset by fear, the intoxicated by delusions, like one rushing around are those possessed by an evil spirit; like one bitten by a snake are those bitten by objects of sense; like the gross darkness of passion, the juggling of illusion, like a falsely apparent dream, like an actor in temporary dress or a painted scene falsely delighting the mind, all these attachments prevent the self from remembering the highest place.

The antidote is to study the Veda, to pursue one’s duty in each stage of the religious life, and to practice the proper discipline which results in the pure qualities (sattva) that lead to understanding and the soul. By knowledge, discipline, and meditation God is apprehended, and one attains undecaying and immeasurable happiness in complete union with the soul. The soul is identical with the various gods and powers.

Having bid peace to all creatures and gone to the forest,
then having put aside objects of sense,
from out of one’s own body one should perceive this,
who has all forms, the golden one, all-knowing,
the final goal, the only light.”13

The means of attaining the unity of the One is the sixfold yoga of breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), attention (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and meditation (samadhi).

When one sees the brilliant maker,
lord, person, the God-source,
then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil,
the sage makes everything one in the supreme imperishable.14

When the mind is suppressed, one sees the brilliant soul, which is more subtle than the subtle, and having seen the soul oneself one becomes selfless and is regarded as immeasurable and without origin-the mark of liberation (moksha). By serenity of thought one destroys good and evil action (karma). In selflessness one attains absolute unity.

The sound Aum may be used. Meditation is directed to the highest principle within and also outer objects, qualifying the unqualified understanding; but when the mind has been dissolved, there is the bliss witnessed by the soul that is the pure and immortal Spirit. But if one is borne along by the stream of the qualities, unsteady, wavering, bewildered, full of desire, and distracted one goes into self-conceit. Standing free from dependence, conception, and self-conceit is the mark of liberation.

The influence of Buddhism can be seen in the description of liberation from one’s own thoughts. As fire destitute of fuel goes out, so thought losing activity becomes extinct in its source. What is one’s thought, that one becomes; this is the eternal mystery. By the serenity of thought one destroys good and bad karma; focused on the soul one enjoys eternal delight. The mind is the means of bondage and release. Though the sacrificial fire is still important, meditation has become the primary means of liberation.

Samkhya and Yoga

Kapila, the legendary founder of the Samkhya school, is said to have been an incarnation of Vishnu or Agni; he probably lived during the seventh century BC at the time of the early Upanishads. Kapila was endowed with virtue, knowledge, renunciation, and supernatural power, and taking pity on humanity, he taught the Samkhya doctrine to the Brahmin Asuri, who is mentioned in the Satapatha Brahmana as an expert in sacrificial rituals. The Samkhya knowledge of discerning the spirit from nature is explained in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. The word samkhya means discriminating knowledge and came to mean number as an exact form of knowledge.

In Asvaghosha’s Life of the Buddha (Buddhacarita), Siddartha is taught Samkhya ideas during his ascetic phase. Aradha described nature (prakriti) as consisting of the five subtle elements, the ego, intellect, the unmanifest, the external objects of the five senses, the five senses, the hands, feet, voice, anus, generative organ, and the mind. All of these make up the field which is to be known by the soul. Worldly existence is caused by ignorance, the merits and demerits of former actions, and desire. He then explained the problems of mistakes, egoism, confusion, fluctuation (thinking that mind and actions are the same as the “I”), indiscrimination (between the illumined and the unwise), false means (rituals and sacrifices), inordinate attachment, and gravitation (possessiveness). The wise must learn to distinguish the manifested from the unmanifested. When the prince asked how this is to be accomplished, Aradha explained the practice of yoga. Though an orthodox Hindu school, Samkhya did criticize the killing of animals in the sacrifices.

Samkhya ideas also appeared in the Mahabharata in the portions known as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Mokshadharma from book 12. In the latter the intellect (buddhi) controlled by the spirit (purusha) evolves the mind (manas), the senses, and then the gross elements. The three qualities found in all beings are goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas). Goodness brings pleasure, passion pain, and darkness apathy. The knower of the field is emphasized as the spirit (purusha) or soul (atman), and Samkhya and yoga are considered two aspects (knowledge and practice) of the same philosophy. The standard 25 Samkhya principles are enumerated as the eight material principles and the sixteen modifications completed by the all-important spirit (purusha) or unmanifest knower of the field.

Ethically the Mokshadharma explains the Samkhya follower as:

Unselfish, without egotism, free from the pairs,
having cut off doubts, he is not angry and does not hate,
nor does he speak false words.
When reviled and beaten,
because of his kindness he has no bad thought;
he turns away from reprisal in word,
action, and thought, all three.
Alike to all beings, he draws near to Brahma (God).
He neither desires, nor is he without desire;
he limits himself to merely sustaining life.
Not covetous, unshaken, self-controlled;
not active, yet not neglecting religious duty;
his sense-organs are not drawn to many objects,
his desires are not widely scattered;
he is not harmful to any creature;
such a Samkhya-follower is released.15

Mokṣha is a key concept in Yoga, where it is a state of “awakening”, liberation and freedom in this life.


In meditation the soul may be seen by the yoga of concentration and the Samkhya yoga of discriminating reason as well as the yoga of works. By knowing all the courses of the world, one may turn away from the senses so that after leaving the body that one will be saved, according to the Samkhya view. Disciplined purity and compassion to all creatures are important; the weak may perish, but the strong get free. The field-knower governs all the strands of the material world. Making thought come to rest by meditation, perfected in knowledge and calm, one goes to the immortal place.

The elaborated Samkhya doctrine is attributed to Pancashikha, but the earliest Samkhya text is the Samkhya Karika from the second or third century CE by Ishvara Krishna. According to this text the three qualities of goodness (sattva), activity (rajas), and ignorance (tamas), whose natures are pleasure, pain, and delusion, serve the purpose of illumination, action, and restraint. The great principle of intellect (buddhi), which evolves the world, in its good (sattvic) form has virtue, wisdom, non-attachment, and lordly powers; but the reverse are its dark (tamasic) forms.

Yet it is the will that accomplishes the spirit’s experiences and discriminates the subtle difference between nature (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). Uniting with the all-embracing power of nature, causes and effects lead to virtue and ascent to the higher planes or vice and descent to lower. Goodness comes from wisdom; bondage comes from the opposite. Attachment and activity lead to transmigration. Attainments come from correct reasoning, oral instruction by a teacher, study, the suppression of misery, intercourse with friends, and purity. Sattva predominates in the worlds above, tamas in those below, and rajas in the middle with the pain of decay and death.

Evolution from the will down to specific elements modifies nature and emancipates each spirit. Just as one undertakes action in the world to release the desire for satisfaction, so does the unevolved function for the liberation of the spirit. Thus spirit is never really bound or liberated nor does it transmigrate; only nature in its manifold forms is bound, migrates, or is liberated. The pure spirit, resting like a spectator, perceives nature which has ceased to be productive and by discriminating knowledge turns back from the dispositions. When virtue and other karma cease to function, the spirit of the individual remains invested with the body by past impressions; but when separation from the body comes, its purpose is fulfilled as it attains eternal and absolute independence.

The practice of yoga in India is very ancient, probably even pre-Aryan. Yoga is mentioned in several Upanishads, and its philosophy is described in the great epics, particularly in the Bhagavad-Gita portion of the Mahabharata. The classic text for what is called the royal (raja) yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, probably written in the second century BC, although scholarly estimates range from the fourth century BC to the fourth century CE. The word yoga has the same origin as the English word “yoke” and means union. In the Katha Upanishad the senses are to be controlled as spirited horses are by a yoke.

The raja yoga tersely described by Patanjali as having eight limbs is considered the psychological yoga. The Yoga Sutras begin with the idea that yoga (union) is the control of the modifications of consciousness; this enables the seer to stand in one’s own form instead of identifying with the modifications. The five modifications are knowledge (perception, inference, and testimony), error (ideas not formed from reality), imagination (ideas without objects), sleep, and memory (experienced objects). These are controlled by practice and detachment. Practice requires constant attention for a long time, and detachment comes from getting free of the desire for experiences. Mastery of this comes from the spirit overcoming the qualities.

Meditation can be reasoning, discriminating, and joyful awareness of the unity of the universe and self or cessation by renunciation and constantly dissolving impressions, resulting in undifferentiated existence, bodilessness, absorption in the supreme, or faith, enthusiasm, memory, and wisdom. Intense practice brings the best results, or it may be achieved by surrendering to the Lord. The perfect spirit of the Lord is untouched by afflictions, actions, and their results; it is the infinite seed of omniscience beyond time, and its symbol is the sacred word. Constant practice of that brings cosmic consciousness and the absence of obstacles.

The obstacles that distract consciousness are disease, laziness, indecision, apathy, lethargy, craving sense-pleasure, erroneous perception, lack of concentration, and unstable attention. These distractions are accompanied by sorrow, worry, restlessness, and irregular breathing. Cultivating the feelings of friendship, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward those who are happy, suffering, worthy, and unworthy purifies consciousness, as does breathing in and out. Subtle vision modifies the higher consciousness by bringing the mind stability, as does the transcendent inner light, the awareness that controls passions, the analytical knowledge of dreams and sleep, and concentration according to choice.

The lessened modifications become transparent and transformed, and the memory is purified and empty so that objects shine without thought. The subtle elements become indefinable nature in the meditation with seed. Beyond discrimination the oversoul is blessed with direct truth, which is different from verbal inferences. This impression prevents all other impressions, and control of even this controls everything in seedless meditation.

The practice of yoga and meditation is enhanced by discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord in order to remove obstacles such as ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. Obstacles result in action patterns that cause suffering in this life and the next, as virtue and vice bear the fruits of pleasure and pain; but concentration overcomes their effects. Future suffering can be avoided if the perceiver does not identify with the perceived. Discriminating undisturbed intelligence removes ignorance and suffering by the absence of identity and the freedom of the perceiver.

The practice of union proceeds through the eight steps of restraint, observances, posture, breath control, sublimation, attention, concentration, and meditation. The restraints are not injuring, not lying, not stealing, not lusting, nor possessing and are called the universal great vows we have often seen before. The second step of observances involves cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord. Patanjali suggested that destructive instincts may be overcome by cultivating the opposites of greed, anger, or delusion. In confirming nonviolence the presence of hostility is relinquished. Not lying brings work and its fruits; not stealing brings riches; not lusting brings vigor; and from not possessing comes knowledge of past and future lives.

Cleanliness brings protection of one’s body; goodness purified becomes serenity; and single-mindedness conquers the senses. Being content gains happiness. Discipline perfects the senses and destroys impurities. By self-study one may commune with the divine ideal, and meditation is successfully identifying with the Lord.

Stable and pleasant postures (asanas) release tension and transform thought. Regulating the inhalation and exhalation of the breath (pranayama) prepares the mind for attention. By withdrawing consciousness from its own objects, the senses are sublimated (pratyahara) and under control.

The last three steps of attention (dharana), concentration (dhyana), and meditation (samadhi) are the same as the last three steps of the Buddha’s eightfold path. Attention is defined by Patanjali as the original focus of consciousness, concentration as continuing awareness there, and meditation as when that shines light alone in its own empty form. These three work as one in inner control leading to wisdom and are the psychological steps. As the control of destructive instincts and impressions evolves, the flow of consciousness becomes calm by habit, and oneness arises in meditation. As this oneness evolves, past and present become similar in the conscious awareness.

Patanjali then described various psychic abilities that can be attained from the practice of yoga. Supernatural powers may come from birth, drugs, chanting, discipline, or meditation. Yet he warned that worldly powers are obstacles to meditation. Only the knowledge of discriminating between goodness and spirit brings omnipotence and omniscience, and only from detachment to that is the seed of bondage destroyed in freedom. The soul of the discriminating perceiver is completely detached from emotion and mind so that with serene discrimination the consciousness can move toward freedom. Finally the evolution of transforming qualities fulfills its purpose and stops, cognized as a distinct transformation. Patanjali concluded,

Empty for the sake of spirit
the qualities return to nature.
Freedom is established in its own form,
or it is aware energy.16

By Sanderson Beck

This article is borrowed from Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes


  1. BrihadAranyaka Upanishad tr. Robert E. Hume, 1:3:28.
    2. Ibid. 3:2:13.
    3. BrihadAranyaka Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 3:9:26.
    4. Chandogya Upanishad tr. Robert E. Hume, 4:1:1.
    5. Chandogya Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 6:11:3.
    6. Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:1.
    7. Aitareya Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 3:1:2.
    8. Isha Upanishad English version by Sanderson Beck 6-8 in Wisdom Bible, p. 83.
    9. Mundaka Upanishad English version by Sanderson Beck 1:2:10 in Wisdom Bible, p. 86.
    10. Ibid. 1:2:11-12.
    11. Prashna Upanishad English version by Sanderson Beck 1:3 in Wisdom Bible, p. 93.
    12. Ibid. 3:3.
    13. Maitri Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 6:8.
    14. Ibid. 6:18.
    15. Mokshadharma in Mahabharata 12:295:33-36 quoted in Larson, G.
    J., Classical Samkhya, p. 128.
    16. Patanjali, Yoga Sutras (author’s version), 4:34 in Wisdom Bible, p. 187.

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book.

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