Hinduism - Lesson 10

Mahavakyas of the Upanishads (Part 2)

Sankara says that Brahman is unknowable and we can't perceive any of his qualities. The rope-snake metaphor is often used by Hindus to discuss the difference between perception and reality.

Lesson 10
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Mahavakyas of the Upanishads (Part 2)

7. Tat Twam Asi

a. Key thought: Identity of self with Cosmic self, atman is Brahman

b. Key theological development: Best summary of Vedantic insight

8. Mirror Stained by Dust

a. Key thought: Ignorance keeps us from seeing the true nature of the self

b. Key theological development: Various margas or paths will “clean” mirror

9. The Transmission

a. Key thought: Cosmical homology between self and Brahman

b. Key theological development: Brahmin caste solidifies role in moksa

10. The Inner Controller

a. Key thought: Antaryamin is Brahman in the atman

b. Key theological development: divine presence affirmed as essence of self

11. Nirguna/Saguna

a. Key thought: Paradox between god with and without qualities

b. Key theological development: Two levels of Brahman widely accepted in Hindu philosophy

12. Two Birds

a. Key thought: Binding effect of karma

b. Key theological development: Doctrine of karma / doctrine of two levels of Brahman

13. Sat Cit Ananda

a. Key thought: Three indicators in Description of Brahman

b. Key theological development: The closest the Upanishads comes to defining Brahman

VI. Key Metaphors in Hindu Thought

A. Rope-Snake - perceptual vs. objective reality

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Class Resources
  • Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and one of the oldest. It is about 12% of the world population and about 95% are in India. Hinduism is difficult to define. There is evidence of civilization in the Indus valley as early as 2800 BC. The sacred literature that is the basis for Hinduism was created and developed over hundreds of years. It was originally transmitted orally and was eventually written down.

  • Introduction to fundamental ideas and literature that are basic to the Hindu religion. The first lecture given for this class is not available at this time. This lecture begins on the class outline at II, C.

  • Discussion of the influence that the Vedic tradition has on Hinduism. 

  • Mahavakyas is made up of two words meaning, “great utterances.” The creation stories are a collection of different stories with various themes. The world is created by a divine figure dismembering themself and their body becomes the world. The caste system has a racial element to it based on some of the creation narratives in the RgVeda.

  • The Upanishads are one strand of the Vedas. Brahman refers to the all-pervading reality in the Upanishads, not the Brahmin caste. The question throughout the Upanishads is, “Who or what is Brahman?”

  • Brahman is the ultimate reality of the universe. Our atman is encrusted with karma and stuck on the wheel of Samsara. A Hindu's goal, in the process of being reincarnated through thousands of lifetimes, is to rid themselves of karma so they can achieve moksa, oneness with Brahman.

  • Maya is the ability of the gods to create the world and give it the appearance they choose, thereby concealing the true nature of Brahman. Karma is the principle that what you sow, you alone reap.

  • A Hindu must work off their karma to be released from the wheel of Samsara and achieve moksa when their atman becomes one with Brahman. Yoga was developed as a way to achieve the goals of the Samkhya philosophy. Hindus see God as a material cause of the universe, not an efficient cause.

  • The Mahavakyas are “great sayings” that give you insights into core teachings of Hinduism. The Brehed Aranyaka Upanishad shows that Hindus believe that diversity can come through oneness and not be an “other.”

  • Sankara says that Brahman is unknowable and we can't perceive any of his qualities. The rope-snake metaphor is often used by Hindus to discuss the difference between perception and reality.

  • Hindu writers often use metaphors to illustrate and teach the essentials of the Hindu philosophy. In their writings, they refer to these metaphors in a way that assumes that you know and understand them.

  • The purpose of this lecture is to see the structure of Hinduism at a glance. Hinduism operates and a philosophical level and a popular level. Hinduism attempts to resolve the relationship between knowledge, works and devotion. The four stages of life and the caste system determine much of cultural structure of Hinduism. Hindus worship many Gods.

  • The three major dissent movements that area a challenge Hinduism are Buddhism, Janism and materialism. Hinduism is adept at absorbing other movements. Buddhism claims that there is a teaching that makes it possible for you to reach the state of Nirvana which is liberation from all suffering. The founder of Buddhism is Siddhartha Gautama. The content of his teaching is the four noble truths and the eight-fold path.

  • The key insight of the Upanishads is the identification of atman with Brahman. Buddhists deny both atman and Brahman.

  • The Bhakti marga is branch of Hinduism that emphasizes a spiritual journey undertaken by a devotee that will culminate in a state of union with God or mutual indwelling of the deity and the bhakta.

  • The Hindu gods have identifying characteristics that make them easy to recognize when you see them in temples or other settings. The Trimrti are the three major gods of India which are Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Brahma is not often visually represented, so Vishnu and Shiva are seen the most. Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer. Vishnu has 10 incarnations or avatars. These are partial incarnations and don’t represent the fullness of Vishnu.

  • The Siva icon always has the presence of the Trishal, which is a sacred weapon of destruction. There is also the nag (cobra), damaru (drum), third eye, Ganges river flowing out of his head. The dancing Siva has a damaru in one hand and a flame of fire in the other that represents creation and destruction of the world. He also has dreadlocks and the trunk of an elephant.  The third eye of siva is what Hindu women have on their forehead. The Siva Lingum is the most dominant icon in north India.

  • The Brahminical branch teaches that works and devotion lead to true knowledge (Upanishadic vision, tat twam asi). Bhaktis say that knowledge and works should lead to devotion.

  • The Ramayana is an epic account of India. It is the story or epic of Rama and Sita, and is the origin of the tradition of Suti. Mahabharata is the epic of India. It’s the longest collection of poems in the world. The Bhagavad-Gita  is the most important part of the Mahabharata. It talks about both the dharma of caste and the dharma of denial and renunciation.

  • Gurus integrate different parts of the marga system. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna declared the unity of all religions. He claimed to have visions of Hindu gods and Jesus Christ and Mohammed and that all religions lead to the same ultimate reality, sat chit ananda. Swami Vivekananda was the most well-known follower of Ramadrishna and brought his message to the western world. He accepts tat twam asi, the great insight of the Upanishads, but thinks that everyone, not just Brahmans can perceive that unity. (The last point of the lecture was cut short due to a technical limitation.)

    You may download the text of Vivekananda's speech by clicking on the Handouts link in the upper left corner.

  • These are nine of the major holidays celebrated in India. Sankara has been called India’s greatest philosopher. Sankara emphasized universals and Ramanuja emphasized the particulars, similar to Plato and Aristotle in Western thought. Sankara has greater status as a philosopher, but Ramanuja has had a great influence on how the masses practice Hinduism.

    The chart Dr. Tennent refers to near the end of the lecture is the “Three Vehicle Structure of Hinduism,” which is labeled Lecture 6 in the complete class outline pdf document on the class page.

  • Brahmabandhav Upadhyay was an upper jati Brahman teacher who converted to Catholicism. He attempts to explain Christianity by using Advadic motifs. Brahmabandhav is an example of how a Brahman can address the Brahminical community using a Brahminical line of reasoning.

  • There are opportunities for preaching the gospel and planting churches, but there are significant challenges. There is a difference between being unreached and being unevangelized. Homogenus unit principle is one factor that makes it difficult for the gospel to spread in India. It’s important to send people to unreached groups and use a strategy that is effective for those groups.

In-depth survey of philosophical and popular Hinduism’s historical and theological themes. Exposure to current strategies being used to bring the gospel to Hindus and how Christian theology is being formulated in the Indian context.

Dr. Tennent occasionally uses pictures of Hindu gods or other visual resources in his lectures. You can download a document with these pictures by clicking on the Hindu Deity Pictures link. 



Dr. Timothy Tennent
Mahavakyas of the Upanishads (Part 2)
Lesson Transcript


One of the great effective teaching tools of Hindus for understanding their religion, their religious thought and their philosophy is by using metaphors. Metaphors are very important. And in Hindu thought, and even the most esoteric writings of Hindu philosophers will make allusions to certain key metaphors. In fact, they not only beaming illusions to them, they expect the reader to know them. And so it's very, very typical, for example, for them not even to spell it out, but just to mention in passing. And so just the allusion to it should be enough. So I'm going to go through ten of these. There are many, many others, but just ten as examples, some leading ones you'll find when you read a Hindu philosophical writings. And also it's found in in their teaching manuals. There's a very famous manual in India called the Punjab Doshi. This is a 15 treatises. That's what the word Punjab dusty means. It means 1515 treatises on Hindu thought. And it's divided between five four sot, five, four, five, four on in the paper. Ananda it's five of the under each of the three designations of Brahman as as being conscious and blessed. And these 15 teachings are, is what you go to school and learn kind of your basic understanding of a Hindu philosophy. You also have writings of a here is chakra is considered to be the greatest of all Hindu philosophers. And he writes his commentary. The word Vishnu here means commentary on the Brahma Sutra. This is a very famous historic commentary on the Punjab odds. And he's ran a commentary on the commentary. And this becomes a very, very important text. And so he'll be writing along in just in parentheses or just in passing. He'll say, as in in reverse, when he's metaphors, assuming that one knows the metaphors.


So the metaphors become crucial, much more so than in Christianity in terms of how they're used in serious teaching in India. It's a pretty important role. So I'm going to go through ten of these examples to give you an idea for them. And they're ones that you should be aware of. The first one is called Pointing to a Star. Took a reference to a star called a Ruined city or entity is a star in the Great Bear constellation. It's like what we would call under the Big Dipper. And the way it works in philosophy is to say the picture is you're trying that you're a son of your father and you want to show your son, you know, a star in the sky, in a constellation, in the star is very, very dim that the child cannot see it. So the whole metaphor plays on the idea that in order for you to show your help, your sign to locate that very dim star, you will show him three stars in the surrounding area that are much brighter. And by showing him the brightest stars as they look, the star I'm showing you is in the middle. It's called pointing to the star. And so this idea is used metaphorically in Hinduism to say that whenever someone is talking about a doctrine in Hinduism, you think they are talking about the doctrine that actually about a nearby star, a brighter star to point to a mystery that transcends it. So it's very, very important to realize in Hinduism, a lot of times we strikes us as pretty straightforward. Teaching is actually teaching something is a little bit off of the main point. We're off on this side because they're trying to point to a mystery in the middle.


Hinduism is very much committed to mystery and that you cannot speak propositional. You must only speak prophetically, as I say, by negation. It's a huge theme in Hindu philosophy. The segment actually is the probably the most dominant metaphor in Hindu thought is known simply as the rope snake. In fact, it was referred to back in India in Shankara in his commentary. He'll just say sometimes a little of his riding, you know, as in rope, snake is a way of just kind of alluding to it without saying more. But this is the story. Everyone knows that one night a man is coming into his tent at night and it's it's it's green dusk, you know, it can't see very well. And he looks down on the floor of his tent and they're curled up at the floor of his tent. Right by his feet is a deadly snake and he is frightened to death. And so he has all this emotion of fright and fear. And then he realizes, as looks more closely, it's not a snake is simply a curled up piece of rope. Now, the reason that such an important story is because it really does bring home. There is main ones perception of reality versus the objective reality. This is a huge point in Hinduism. If it comes up in many ways in in half these metaphors, they really like to use metaphors that bring out the difference between what you perceive to be real and what is actual reality. So part of the Hindu worldview is to reinforce that the world as we see it, is illusory. They use the word Maya, and that's again, one of the. What does that mean? Is the word Miami in the world? Is it delusional or is it an illusion? You know, what is it is part of the mystery of the whole thing.


But they don't believe the world is as is presented itself to us. So there's not the kind of the the reliance upon the senses. And since data is producing scientific data, which is reliable, all that whole category is wiped away with this rope snake analogy. The third analogy is that of the the clay pot. Clay pots, of course, are because in India, in a clay pot, of course you put things in a clay pot. But they want to point out the fact that inside that clay pot is air. Outside the clay pot is air. There is no difference between the air inside the pot and they are outside the pot. The whole point is to say we do things to create a false sense of separateness. It is very, very important in Hindu thinking. So they would say, for example, you know, your body is capturing the essence of something like and they call this your inner soul is called the ottoman. And so you think that you have individual existence, but in fact your ottoman is one with the ottoman of the universe, that the grand ottoman, the Grand Brahman, actually of the whole universe. So they love to create the idea that we create false sense of separateness and things in the clay pot is one. There are analogies. Another one has to do with the monkey and kitten. And this, of course, will delight any anybody in our audience here that loves discussing kind of the Calvinist versus our minion theology and the reference between how we understand the role of works and faith. This it gets transported directly into India as well. Now, India Hinduism has multiple branches and the two biggest branches are the ship rides and the Vishnu bites.


The vision invites worship the God Vishnu. But within that, like we have denominations, they have their own sub denominations, and two of theirs are called called the VADA guys and the ten guys. Now the only difference is this prefix bada and ten. And these groups are two subgroups, both worshiping the same God, but they disagree about whether or not when you get say by in this case Lord Vishnu, where the Lord Vishnu saves you by His grace alone without anything from your side, or whether you have to participate and do something for your salvation. They are known as the the monkeys and the kittens rather than the, you know, the Westlands and the Calvinist or whatever. And the way they what we call monkeys and again, as a metaphor, they love metaphors. So if you notice in India, of course, there's monkeys and kittens and cats are everywhere in India. But there's a big difference between how mothers treat their respective babies. So if you were to see a baby kitten anywhere in the world, including our part of the world, of course, and a baby kitten has been born, if a mother wants to move that kitten, the mother will go over and will take the kitten in her mouth by the scruff of its neck and will literally transport the kitten who is completely helpless, drooping down, just controlling nothing to the whole event. And the mother moves the cat, the kitten to a safe location or wherever the cat the mother wants to move the cat. And. Whereas a monkey is completely different, a baby monkey clings to the mother and has to hold on the mother. The mother cannot jump around and it's a treasonable if the baby monkey is not holding on to her.


So this baby is clinging with its life to the mother, and the mother still is transporting it, but it doesn't with the assistance of the monkey. So naturally, you can imagine this has been used as analogy for faith and works. So in the case of the, you know, the battered galleys, they believe in work participation because of the galleys. Glasses believe that you have to participate in your salvation with Lord Vishnu, whereas the the ten guys believe that you actually simply must trust in the mercy of Lord Vishnu and be saved. That any reference at all to your to your life and works. So that division, which we know very well, is also within Hinduism. And what's interesting is that the way they present themselves in the if you're a vision of light, you have come a long, as you say, Mark, you put on your head, this is a this is like a auspicious symbol on your head. But what they do is. The bad guys, the monkey, people who believe in and works, and kind of a more of a synergistic view of salvation. They will actually have, in addition to that, a little line that comes down just a little bit on their nose bridge like that. So they both have this, but one adds that little inch of paint. And so one of the jokes in India, which will now be able to laugh out of you here it is, is what is the difference between faith and works in in Hinduism? And the answer is a half an inch of paint. Because their analogy in this one group, the only difference is a little bit of paint at the end of the of the U-shape. The fifth metaphor is about the grieving man concerning his son.


This is also plays on the perception reality thing. There's a man, they say, who once lived in a faraway country and his I I'm sorry. His son went live in a faraway country, just like our parable, the prodigal son. However, at some point the father didn't realize it, but his son had died. His son Dad will decide, like, you know, in March or whenever. And the father had no idea died because he was living in a faraway place. And he was father was back in his homeland. And so he had no experience of emotion or whatever, because even though his own son had died. But eventually word got back and he was told that his son had died. And he goes into all of this grief because his son had had died. But the fact the grief was disconnected from the event because it happened months earlier. Well, then later on, the son appears back to his father and says, that was a rumor. I didn't die. It was fine. And the father, of course, elated with joy. Again, the whole point being the emotion of the father is disconnected from the reality of what happened or didn't happen. They tell this story many ways, and the story is about ten men that crossed the Ganges River during monsoon. The rain, the river is raging with the water is that they were said to be very careful to cross carefully. And believe me, being swept away by a river is a huge challenge in an India during monsoon towns and everyone has lost friends and loved ones. So the guy goes across and he counts the people. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Oh, now we've lost somebody counting you count and he counts one, two, three, four, nine, nine.


And they're all we're weeping because they only nine men. So said, Wait a minute, you didn't count yourself. Oh yeah. Count myself. We have ten. We're okay. But they've gone from a great morning to great joy. And it was disconnected from reality because they were experiencing the loss, even though there had not actually been a lost. This kind of thing is common in the Hindu stories. A61 has to do with a painted canvas, especially its pictures, a canvas that we often think of a pictures as being kind of, you know, on a wall in a frame or whatever. But in in the Hindu world, a lot of these canvases, once they paint something beautifully, it's carefully rolled up and put in scrolls and stuff put into tubes. So they're actually drawn up on this image, a real eye where someone paints a picture of the world and then they roll it up and put away in the same way they see the world is like like Brahma Rama's painting. It's a great, beautiful painting, but someday it'll be rolled up. And that rolling up of the of the creation is a metaphor for it. Going into this on Manifest a state. They believe that creation cyclical is manifested and then manifested. It emerges and then it collapses. And so in that same way they use this painted canvas, the. Then something is what we call the dirty mirror theme. Now, mirrors are really, really important metaphors in an India in the word the thought. The mirror is basically viewed as whenever you want to see something perfectly beautiful, they want to look at it as a as a really clear mirror. So in this case, the mirror is kind of like the picture into your soul or your ottoman.


And so they're trying to understand why people don't have a clear understanding that the ottoman is Brahman. This is the great inside of the Punjab. They say that the big kind of takeaway that Punjab's is, that is the identification of your soul with the soul of the universe. You know, your ottoman is Brahman. So that's a big theme. Is there the times of what he will see themselves as having separate existence? Why do we see ourselves disconnected from the universe? And they use the dirty mirror. And essentially the mirror represents the clarity of view. But when you put dirt on it, of course, you begin to obscure the mirror. And if you cover a mirror full of dirt, you can't see yourself at all. So in the Hindu worldview, that dirt represents karma. So if you have poor deeds that don't obey the laws of the laws of Manu that govern karma in India, you will get these in crustaceans on the on your ability to see clearly. And that represents essentially the dirty mirror. And this is very, very used for those these philosophers like yoga or this is very important for them. If you follow these certain kind of breathing techniques, then you can clear up the dirt, as it were, off the mirror. The eighth one has to do with a hidden treasure. This is the same thing that we use it for in the Bible, the idea of a treasure hidden in the field. This metaphor is also used in Hinduism that some of the great things that are found are found hidden. There are hidden treasures, and so do they. They tend to extend in ways that we don't. Basically saying that, you know, as you meditate, as you go into deep philosophical thing, you'll discover new treasures or uncover treasures.


A hidden treasure is a very important theme in the eastern world. There is the idea of a an egg and even even seeds of seeds and eggs both used a lot. So they'll say that inside the egg you have, for example, a baby eagle or whatever. And yet that eagle is just in seed form inside the egg. And yet when it breaks open, it becomes manifested and becomes the glorious thing that is in the same way, you know, your ottoman, your soul is trapped in the body and someday is going to break open and be, you know, unfurled is the true glorious connection of Brahman and Moksha released to salvation that in Origin was intended to be. So the south salt, the seed egg is really important. You know, inside of acorn is the whole oak tree that the whole thing is very, very important in their thinking. They often use those kind of analogies. We're talking about what we're learning versus the reality when you come to fruition. Finally, the idea of salt in water. The story behind this is that you have a Hindu is based on a disciple pupil, you know, disciple of pupil, master, pupil kind of set up. So Hindu is passed down from master to disciple. They use a lot of teaching that involves how you pass down. It happened to actually two ways. One is through teaching from a disciple to a learner, a master to a disciple or a learner, but also to father to son. But in the course of this story, the the masters there in the temple one night and the and the young disciple disciple is learning and he comes up to the master and the master says to him, Bring me a bottle of water.


So he dutifully comes and brings on board the water. He says, Bring me some salt. And salt is, of course, ubiquitous in India. They bring him salt and using salt for spicing India for for many, many millennia. So he takes the salt and he whacks. He tells the disciple, put the salt in the water. So the little boy puts a patch, you suppose like beans put their pants. He puts 33 pinches of salt in the water. You look if I put this by the altar. So the next day comes and the master turns this disciple to remember the salt I told you to put in the water yesterday. He goes, Yeah. He said, Would you please bring me that salt? To which there is, of course, stunned silence from the disciple. And he finally says to the master, I can't bring you. The salt is dissolved in the water. And of course, that is the answer the master wants him to say, because the point being is that they're trying to reinforce metaphors, too, about how we get absorbed into the greater realities of the world. So they're basically saying that when you die, you go through Moksha. Now, in India, the salvation of moksha does not mean as it might mean for for you, that we are personally present with the Lord and our consciousness and your memory engrams are protected in the Eschaton. So you actually have your life before God in renewed, of course, in the new creation, but you are redeemed and He Christ died for you. But in the Hindu worldview, moksha is the dissolution of yourself into the grand vast expanse of Brahman. So they argue, is kind of like putting a pinch of iodine in the ocean. Once the iodine goes the ocean, it's lost because the ocean is so vast.


In the same way, your abdomen is like a pinch of salt in the water and the water absorbs that salt and you can't get it back again. It is lost in there. Obviously a metaphor with huge implications for Christian Witness and how we talk to Hindus. But those are just ten of we do quite a few others, but those are ten of the key metaphors that are found in a lot of the teaching manuals connected to Hindu philosophy and teaching and ten that we are well known by Indians throughout the subcontinent. And I hope that's been helpful in terms of grasping how even complex doctrines are communicated through very simple stories and metaphors.