Key Themes in the Upanishadic Vision (Part 1)
Course: Introduction to Hinduism
OK, at this point, we are actually seeking to construct the basic worldview of the Upanishadic vision. What are the key themes that emerge out of the Upanishads? We begin this process by kind of exploring the ten themes and then you'll be given a handout at the end of the day today which actually has photocopied off certain key passages which we'll look at more carefully from the Upanishads. And with that as a basis you should be able to read the Upanishads more effectively. So it's like constructing the space station. You know, you got to do it one block at a time.
We have talked about Brahman, the two aspects of Brahman: nirguna, saguna. We talked about Atman. And I don't believe we really mentioned the antaryamin, did we? OK. So we're at that point in the discussion. All right.
The Atman, essentially, you should view as the ground of being, the universal self. The antaryamin comes into some later discussions. I want to kind of just have this on the table. In terms of another development of this, there is a movement in Hinduism that does not like the idea of an impersonal Brahman. Or, I should say, they're OK with an impersonal Brahman, but they want to create the possibility that Brahman can act in a way that is received, at least, as personal in the lives of some people. There are certain places in the Upanishads where the expression, in fact, actually quite frequently in the Upanishads this comes up, but it's not necessarily developed theologically. But the term antaryamin – one who dwells within; sometimes translated the internal controller.
Now this has raised a lot of discussion in the Upanishads and in later Hindu discussion. Who is this one who dwells within us? So there is a tendency in some strands of the Upanishads to personify the ultimate being, the ultimate reality of the universe – so that Brahman can act or cause you to act in some way. Well, if you have an acting Brahman, then that creates some possibility of interaction, some possibility of an internal controller. And there are some philosophers, particularly the Ramanuja – we'll look at later in the course – who make a lot of this. And try to develop a pretty substantial theology that creates a much more personal conception of god. And so the antaryamin is often used, almost interchanged with Atman to be not just a self or an essence, but actually the launching pad or the point of contact through which Brahman can actually contact you, direct you, work through you, speak through you, worship through you, be devotional experiences through you, whatever.
So the idea is that if someone is there worshipping an idol, some philosophers would say: Even though this idol is nothing, Brahman himself is acting through this person and through the antaryamin he's controlling this person and that devotion has been actually ultimately received by Brahman. It's almost like a Karl Rahner's inclusivism, – Indian style. If you don't know who Karl Rahner is, forget that comment. But anyway, it's that kind of thing. That's just a term that we may come back to later on in the course. I want to have it on the table, but it doesn't substantially change at this point what we said about either Brahman or Atman – the two eternal realities that form the essence of things.
The third component is this term tat twam asi – which can be translated as "thou art that" and is quite important particularly in the Chandogya Upanishad. I have that quote there. You also see a quotation from the Brihad-Aranyaka. Thou art thou. What does this mean? Well, essentially, in the Upanishads you have several examples where a guru is meeting with his disciple. And he's trying to get the disciple to understand the meaning of the universe. And so through several different metaphors and conversations he does this. One of the most important is where he's talking to this disciple and they go and look at various things. They look trees. They look at people. They look at whatever. And the guru always ends by saying: "Tat twam asi – thou art that". So the idea is he's trying to help the disciple to see that beyond all of the phenomenological differences, all the observed differences that you observe – that I look different from you, I have a different shape than you, I have different whatever than you – that those aren't very merely phenomenal. And at the root of everything there is the same essence. And so tat twam asi is ultimately used to demonstrate that there is no fundamental difference between Atman and Brahman.
This is the great insight of the Upanishads. By all accounts, there is not really a lot of dissent on this point. The Upanishads teaches many things. The Upanishads has been used for a trillion different kind of teachings. But most everyone agrees that the great insight, if you want to call it that, of the Upanishads is the identification of Atman with Brahman. So, if you recognise that your essence is the same as the essence of the universe, this is a form of identification. This is the ultimate and most important cosmical homology – cause if you recognise that my essence is identical to the essence of the entire universe, then you're finally realising what all this cosmical homologies are all about because it ultimately comes down to this one. This is the paradigm which everything else is a reflection or a rippling out from – because this is the ultimate one. Once you realise that your essence is identical to the essence of the whole universe, then there's no distinction between the universe and you. Everything ultimately is identified and is one.
And this, of course, is why the key philosophy that teaches this doctrine, a key school – we'll explore this later in more detail, but there are six schools of Indian philosophy. The most important school is a school called Vedanta. Vedanta means the end of the Vedas. What is at the end of the Vedas? The Upanishads. So this is a group that specialises in what they say is the proper interpretation of the Upanishads. This is the word of end of the Veda. There are several schools of Vedanta, but the most important one is a school called Advaita. Advaita is – this is the privative "a": like we use the word theism, atheism. And they're the same thing in Sanskrit. And this is the word for dua is the word for two. You can even see it because Sanskrit is Indo-European, so you can see the dua is obviously two in many European languages. So, not two, that is, it is monism or non-dualism. They usually say it in the negative in the Indian context. This is an affirmation statement. This is a negative statement. The Indians prefer to say things through negation. So they'll say: We're non-dualist.
So ultimately tat twam asi is about non-dualism and this is a extremely influential school of Hindu philosophy. This whole school massively influential. The others are very minor. And of all the schools, this is the most dominant one. We'll look at some different ways that groups try to tweak this basic insight, but that insight is there. In fact, all the schools of Vedanta basically agree with that insight. So, tat twam asi, thou art that.
The transmission makes even more evident in Brihad-Aranyaka. The transmission refers to what a father says to his son prior to the departure in his life. The whole thing is based on father-son. There is no reference to daughters here, but there's no ... it's just the way the culture was done. So the idea was that when the father died, he would pass on a transmission of his insight to the son. So he would say to the son: "Twam Brahman" – you are Brahman. And the son responds: "Aham Brahman" – I am Brahman. Twam Brahman. Aham Brahman. OK. So this becomes the kind of the statement that symbolises the key insight of the Upanishads is for a young person to recognise that he is Brahman.
In fact, in the Brihad-Aranyaka, I'm going to quote this. Now this is an intimate moment with a father or with a guru with his disciple before he dies. Now therefore, the transmission. When a man thinks that he's about to depart, he says to his son: "You are Brahman. You are the sacrifice. You are the world." The son answers: "I am Brahman. I am the sacrifice. I am the world." And then the guru usually says: "Twam Brahman, aham Brahman. You are Brahman, I am Brahman." They repeat that. So this becomes the key insight of the Upanishads, that you are the sacrifice. You are the world. You are Brahman. You are identifying your essence with the essence of the entire universe.
I'm quoting from Chandogya Upanishad, where he says: That which is the subtle essence of all, this world, this whole world, has for itself. That is the true. That is the south. Tat twam asi ??? indicate??? that person's name. Thou art that ??? He goes to him and he says: One day the pupil comes to the master and he says, he says to the pupil, he says: "Bring me a bowl of water." He brings a bowl of water. He says: "Bring me some salt." He brings him some salt. He says: "Put the salt in the water." He puts the salt in the water. OK. And then the next day he comes back, he says: "O by the way, bring me the bowl with the things in the bowl." He says: "I want the salt back." And the pupil says: "You can't. You can't. The salt's already gone. It's dissolved. You can't get it back." And so the man says: "Well, taste it and see if it's salty." He tastes it. "It's salty." "How about on the other side?" "Yeah, it's salty." "Have a taste it in the middle – is it salty?" "Yeah, it's salty everywhere." And so, his point is by looking at the water, you can't perceive the subtle essence within it. You taste it's salty, but you can't see the salt. It's completely dissolved. In the same way, the Atman is completely diffused in the whole universe. You can't separate the Atman out, but it's there. It's there. It is the essence that lies behind everything. He tells him: Tat twam asi. Thou art that. You are that salt in the water.
Another passage says: Just as bees prepare honey by collecting the essence of different trees and flowers, and yet, even though they go to different trees and different flowers, they reduce them to the one essence: honey. And as these possess no discrimination – once you have honey, there's no little parts of the honey that say: "I am part of a tree". Others: "I'm part of this flower." "I'm part of this flowering bush." No, no. He says: Once they're made into honey, it's all honey. None says: "I am the essence of the tree; I'm the essence of that flower." So that which is the subtle essence, this whole world has for itself, this is the true. This is the south. Tat twam asi. Thou are that, said tocatoo???.
This is the constant refrain, over and over again. We'll be looking at these passages, some of these, in the ... I can give you the handout. So, essentially, the third insight brings the first two together. It's recognising that no ultimate distinction between Brahman and Atman, but identification of the two. OK, questions? Yes.
Question: So whenever the son would say: "Aham Brahman. I am Brahman." then is that saguna Brahman, or are they speaking of the nirguna Brahman?
Well, there are ... Actually there is a lot of debate about the precise meaning of the phrase tat twam asi – and what it means for someone to say: "Aham Brahman." And essentially this whole discussion is about nirguna Brahman. All right. So, there's no real problem with saying this is an illusion, but when you say: "I am Brahman", obviously that creates a ... I mean, philosophically create a thing saying: "I equals Brahman". And so if you say "Aham Brahman", are you identifying your "I" with Brahman? If so, in what way does your "I" have a separate existence, which is impossible in Brahman. So this creates a huge, huge mountain of discussion which I'm sure you can't wait to read. So, there is a lot of discussion about what is meant by the expression "I" in this whole discussion between ... in the Hindu philosophy. But essentially nobody is ... really ... so, in a sense, that's why I mention that, because they often will say: When he says I he's speaking at the phenomenological level. So he's speaking at the level of saguna. But no one really denies the fact that this Brahman ??? is the true essence of the universe which obviously is nirguna.
Other thoughts. Yes.
Question: If everything essentially is the same ...
In its essence, not its ???
Question: ... why then are temporal distinctions such as varna necessary?
That's a good question even in the east. That basically is answered through number 4 on this list – the next one. We'll answer that question ... I think I'll answer that question for you. If it doesn't, then we can come back to it.
But that little undercurrent is there. That is part of the potential doorway for a dissent movement. So, for example, Ramanuja, who is the second greatest philosopher in Indian history, he goes through the whole process of the gurus. He is giving more and more sacred mantras. He is of course a Brahman. He is going to the point where he is recognising the truth of Atman is Brahman.
OK, so finally, after years of study, he is finally admitted into the presence of the supreme guru in this part of India who, after years of study, is finally prepared to whisper into his ear a sacred mantra that really nobody else knows except this particular guru. And so it's a big moment for any disciple because, you know, you're whole life to that point – preparation, study, meditation, da da da da da da da da – so the guru whispers this mantra into his ear. And that, of course, represents all kinds of power and insight and everything as you already know.
So Ramanuja goes out on the balcony after he receives it and he shouts the mantra down to all the crowds below. OK, causing a huge stir because this was a very sacred mantra and it was not to be just like frivolously given away. But he was making a statement about why can't this be accessible to everybody. You know, why do we make these distinctions? Why would only a Brahman receive it? And he creates a big reaction because of this. And later on you'll see how his philosophy tries to incorporate some of your questions into his philosophy. But as a rule, that's not going to be permissible in India. They do very much accept that all these distinctions at a certain level – and only Brahman males have this insight.
Other comments about that. That will become more, I think, clear the next key theme. Yeah, that's a ... that's according to the tradition of India. Yes, that's a true story that happened.
Question: What happened ???
Well, he got into all kinds of trouble, but eventually he created a huge following of people that ... and he became the father of a whole new branch of philosophy that's now known as Vishishtadvaita. All right. This is the other great branch of Vedanta. This means – see, it still has advaita in it – so it's non-dualism. But this is modified non-dualism. So he creates a whole other movement and I actually believe in some ways this movement has been more influential in India than this movement, even though this is like your textbook Hinduism. If you go buy a book in Hinduism, this is kind of what they're going to give you – the kind of company line. This is like standard Hindus. But actually on the ground in India, this is very, very powerful because it is more of a popular version of Hinduism. But all that we'll explore later on in the course. Yes.
Question: Wouldn't there have to be some point where they can ??? saguna Brahman intersect?
When you say intersect, do you mean intersect in reality or in experience? In reality, there's no way they intersect because Brahman nirguna is real. Saguna Brahman is unreal. It's illusory.
Question: If it's all the same, then there'd have to be some point where it touches – I would think.
Right. Well, there's no question that, yeah, in some understandings of nirguna that nirguna who you cannot speak of is eventually manifested in saguna to, for example, to create the world as Isvara. So that definitely is there. So you can argue that. And this philosopher, for example, the one mentioned earlier, he is going to deny that this distinction is there. He says saguna/nirguna, it's all the same. You can't separate the two. They are ultimately identified in his mind. So, that's a whole branch of thinking that does try to make a connection.
One of the problems here is I'm trying to kind of give you the Upanishadic view, the main view, and then we'll look at some of the ways this is like teased out and challenged by different people. But essentially, if you ask the question on a ultimate level – is there an intersection nirguna and saguna – no. The intersection only happens in the experience of a worshipper or someone who observes the creation. They have a intersection because they're ... The only way you can experience nirguna is through some kind of phenomenological experience as I'm in a creation, I'm in a human body. But the Brahman males are going say ultimately that even that insight has to be proven to be false – at an ultimate level. So you have to kind of always keep that, the reality of your experience and the reality, ultimate reality, in your mind. Was there another question?
Question: Well, as long as the ??? all about the ??? can you tell us what the ??? is? ... Or do we need to wait till the end of class?
Why are you going to chant it? Do you think it might help you get through the class? No, I'm kidding. No, I don't know what the mantra was. I don't know that the story tells what the mantra was.
OK, so Brahman, Atman, tat twan asi, and now finally, fourthly, Samsara. The word Samsara literally means flow. You get a picture of a river that is flowing by. Or another, there's two really main images in Hindu writings about Samsara. One is the image of a river flowing by which naturally is important – the Ganges River, the Indus River. You don't sit in the centre of it twice. That whole idea's very important to Hindus. The other is the idea of a wheel that turns around and round and round.
If you know the Indian flag, you'll know that the centre symbol of the Indian flag is a wheel. That wheel is the wheel of Samsara. It's not just a chariot wheel. It's the wheel of Samsara. It's actually, interestingly, it's a – the one that's on their flag – is actually kind of a Buddhist version of it. But that's another thing that we won't go into in this class. Essentially the wheel is a very important symbol in Hinduism for Samsara.
Now, the idea behind it, obviously it's a wheel, it goes around and around and around. This again is another cosmical homology – because your life is constantly recycled. Your life is going through a migration and so is the entire universe. So, Samsara, from a macro perspective – let's just start with a macro. I think that will ??? make more sense. On the macro level, you should picture ... the kind of most basic picture of Samsara would look like this. All right. And this is the wheel. That is the wheel of Samsara.
Now, this wheel is turning and we'll just say, at this point in time, your Atman is embedded into this wheel of Samsara. This is essentially a wheel of illusion, a wheel of suffering. All right. Because of karma, which we have not yet explored, but because of karma, you are trapped onto this wheel of Samsara. You cannot escape this wheel of Samsara. This is the wheel of life. This is the wheel of individual existence. This is the cycle of life and birth and rebirth. So this is the life that we all have. This is the life that we're experiencing right now. So at some point you were born and you live and you go through various stages in your life and eventually you die.
And when you die, your Atman will migrate to another place based on your karma. We haven't discussed karma yet, but based on your karma, your Atman will migrate to a new place. This is often called transmigration. The full term for this is transmigration of souls. Now when they say souls here, they're referring to the Jivatman. Your individual Atman that is encrusted with various kinds of karmic in debt, basically. This is a little bit like, I mean, this is not like in some ways it's totally unlike, in some ways is very much like, the concept of sin in the sense that this functions in that way in the Hindu worldview. You are entrapped, you're enslaved in some way. This is what you're trying to get out of or away from. In that sense, it theologically serves a similar purpose.
So, transmigration is probably the most – it is the most important doctrine that flows out of the theology of Samsara. We often hear it called reincarnation. I think on the back I have here on term number 8, transmigration, reincarnation, metempsychosis – these are terms for … The last one's a Western philosophical term. Reincarnation's a popular kind of expression. The other is the more precise way it's actually referred to in the Indian discussions – transmigration.
So as long as we remain trapped on the wheel of Samsara, we are continuing to affirm our individual existence. We will continue to migrate to new forms of existence. Upon your death, your Atman will migrate to a new life and be reborn in rebirth. This is Samsara – is this constant state of birth and rebirth, now on a macro level.
Now I'm going to try to look at, OK, your own individual life is going through cycles of birth and rebirth. But on the huge macro level the entire universe as we know it is going through various stages of existence. And these stages are divided into four different categories. The four parts are all called yugas. So there are four yugas to the universe's existence. The first is called the krta stage. The krta stage. And this is kind of the golden age and it lasts 1.7 million years.
Question: Is that the same as the Sarkyunda?
No, it's probably, I'm not sure what that ???. It's probably a sub-category of one of these four.
But we're not in the krta stage. Probably a sub-category of the Kali age. The second is the Treta Yuga. The Treta Yuga is 1.2 million years. The third is the Dvapara – d-v-a-p-a-r-a – that's 864,000 years. And then finally there is the Kali Age – the word Kali in Sanskrit means black, the black age or dark age. 432,000 years – exactly half the length of the other. So, essentially, if you add all this together it comes up to 4,320,000 years. So it takes 4,320,000 years for the wheel of Samsara to turn one time.
Now, what they believe is that this is the Golden Age. This is where Dharma is kept by everybody. And everybody is working in their proper order and all that. And the karma gradually builds up and the whole universe gets under more and more karmic pressure because of bad karma, bad deeds, evil on and on and on. So finally you get to the Kali Age. This is the stage that we're in now, according to their belief. We're in the dark age, the Kali Age. And this period, there is a massive lack of Dharma. And it's during this period that you have the Mahabharata composed which is the … or the Bhagavad-Gitas. So this is a desperation attempt to bring people back and save them out this Kali Age. It's known for the loss of Dharma. Until finally Kalki returns. At the end of this cycle there's a rebirth. At this point, once you've turned one time around, OK, so we're now, we're going like this, we're now somewhere in this stage of the turn. Once you get into this thing, then the whole thing will dissolve, the whole phenomenal world will dissolve and you'll go into a period of rest where all of this is reabsorbed back into Brahma for another 4,320,000 years. So this is a day and a night of Brahma.
Now that is a what's called a minor dissolution where it is basically absorbed into Brahma, but all of the karma stays latent in Brahma. This is why when the world is recreated the poor people that had bad karma from the previous, you know, 4.3 million years ago, that bad karma and crustenless Atman is re-again admitted into the next creation. This is why even at creation, even at the dawn of creation, you have Sudras. Because see that karmic debt is continued. That happens 1000 times – and it amounts to 8.6 million years – happens 1000 times before there's a real dissolution and things really get completely absorbed and you really get started all over again. The problem with that is, the people that get reabsorbed into Brahman, and half the inside of Atman is Brahman, then they actually get readmitted again. And they have to start the process all over again. So, even if someone is "saved" it is not absolutely – I mean, if you want to get technical – eternal salvation, because we're talking about the possibility of trillions of years later – granted it's a thousand of these 8 million year things, it will happen all over again.
If you take all of these periods together, all of these day and night of Brahma, that together is known as a ... the term for this, the 4 million which is the day, the 4 million rest minor dissolution night – that whole thing is one day in the life of – day and night in the life of Brahma – that's called a kalpa. And these philosophers refer to, you know, how many kalpas, they'll say: "O, after 1000 kalpas, then there's a true dissolution." Well 1000, that's a 1000 times 8 million years. So, according to my calculator, and I could be wrong, but I think this comes out to 315 quadrillion human years. Now, I know that is basically like, almost like eternity, but in fact it does happen all over again.
This is actually pictured as in popular literature, I mean, this is all like philosophical discussion about how many kalpas and yugas and all that, but in popular Hinduism, it's very, very well-known and they do it by a picture of a cow. And they'll say a cow has four legs. So, as you go through the different yugas, then you lose one leg of the cow. So, you know, the cow's like tottering, tottering. So now the poor cow's on one leg – cause see, we're in the Kali Age – so that the cow's fixing to fall. So, we're in that kind of desperate stage now with the yugas.
You don't need to know about all of this. I do have the development there. If you understand that there's four ages or yugas in Samsara, that's fine. But I want to give you a feel for just the amount of time it takes for the wheel of Samsara to turn around one time at the macro level. It's quite amazing. So a person's been reborn and this is a microscopic period of time when you're talking about a lifetime of 100 years or 70 years or whatever is pretty small in the larger scheme of things. So, you're kind of inching your way along the wheel of Samsara through birth and rebirth and of course your goal is to escape this. To escape the wheel of Samsara is the fundamental goal of Hinduism which is called moksa, which is the term that comes up number 7. But we're not quite there yet. We'll get there at some point. How are we on Samsara or transmigration of souls? Do we feel OK with it?
Question: ??? does anybody know what year we're actually in?
Nobody knows, of course, since this is ... We're not in any of these years, right, from our point of view. But there are people who speculate whether we're close to the end or whatever but I've never seen like someone put a number to it like that. But there are people who argue that because the Mahabharata is given fairly early on in this period, you know, we may be only not even half way through this period. Yes.
Question: Is there a point where someone stops being reincarnated?
Only if you achieve moksa.
That's the ...
Only by escaping the wheel of Samsara. There's no way the Atman ever exist in a disembodied state. So once the Atman, once you die, it automatically migrates to some state. The Laws of Manu, which I almost asked you to read, but I thought better of it. The Laws of Manu, you would find interesting because this is the main book that tells you what happens when you die in terms of transmigration.
So say, for example, if you eat meat, then you will migrate back as a meat-eater. So, if you were to break down and eat meat, then you'll come back as a tiger, for example. That's the Laws of Manu.
If a Brahman has intercourse with a Sudra, they both will come back as Dalits. You know, whatever. So they have very, very strict governing rules, even things like what you'll do.
I think there's certain things that ... actually if you steal from a Brahman, you'll come back as a spider. That's a pretty bad thing. I mean, the Brahmans don't want to be stolen from. So they say: OK, make the penalty stiff. You'll come back as a spider. And that's a long way down embedded in the wheel of Samsara. If you're deep down in the wheel of Samsara, I mean, at least a human existence, a human migration, you have the possibility of improving your karma. If you come back as a lion or tiger or something, that's a long process before you're karmic debt is worked off and you can finally re-emerge as a human. So, you know, that's a big penalty to come back as a spider. So, the laws of Manu are pretty funny and very interesting. You'll enjoy reading them if you have time. Yes.
Question: ??? if the Atman can never leaves this body are we going to talk about how it gets out of it?
Yes, we'll definitely talk about how you get out of it. Yes. ??? you to follow-up.
Question: OK, so the whole world is going through this wheel ...
The whole universe, yeah.
The universe. But individually, we're going through this wheel?
Well, individually, you're not going through individual yugas, but you're going through individual what's called stages of life. A person goes through four stages of life in your own personal journey. We haven't actually got to this yet, but since you asked, I'll briefly mention it. When you're born, you grow up and your first stage that you enter into is called the student stage. And so you become a student – you're a learner. Then, second stage is called the householder stage. This is where you have family and children and all that. Third stage is the forest-dweller stage, where you dwell in a forest – it's like a retirement period. You get to meditate. It's ??? from the world. The fourth stage is called a sannyasin. This is one who renounces the world. So, in essence, you are going through a cycle of stages in your own life as well as the whole universe. That cosmical homology is there. But it's not referred to as four yugas in this kind of way.
Question: OK, so that's your like so when you die and come back, where are you on this wheel?
We'll say, we'll just say for argument's sake that the universe is at this point. All right? So the whole human race – doesn't matter if you are Brahman, Sudras, whatever – they're being born and reborn at this point only. You can't – there's no jumping around. Everybody, the whole universe, is at this point. And we get to this point, the universe is dissolved. So your usual life is going through these four stages, but that didn't effect. This is all over with past history. We can't do anything about it. We're now in the Kali Age, Kali yuga. Yes.
Question: Since there is increased population growth, does that ??? everyone's becoming better?
No, not necessarily, because that assumes that Atman, Jivatman, goes into one individual. And that's simply not true. So, your Atman can be manifested in multiple individuals. In popular Hinduism, you often have gods that come down as like six or eight people or ten people. So, you don't have that one on one correspondence which would create that like a mathematical crisis.
Question: How does it prove that that actually happens ??? the dissolution of the universe?
Right, there is absolutely no independent evidence that any of this is a fact. And obviously as Christians we reject it and we don't believe it's part of the true cosmology universe. But this is the Hindu cosmology. So people affirm it because they're taught it. But no, there is no independent evidence that we are in the Kali Age or that the world has 4.3 million years before it goes through a dissolution – minor dissolution. All that is just speculation. Hindus are great speculators. And they're brilliant minds and they have developed a massive complex philosophical scheme and we're looking at one little part of that.