The mysticism of Upanishads & the adoration hymn to Hiranyagarbha
"In the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha,
Born as the only lord of all existence.
This earth he settled firm and heaven established:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Who gives us breath, who gives us strength, whose bidding
All creatures must obey, the bright gods even;
Whose shade is death, whose shadow life immortal:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Who by his might alone became the monarch
Of all that breathes, of all that wakes or slumbers,
Of all, both man and beast, the lord eternal:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Whose might and majesty these snowy mountains,
The ocean and the distant stream exhibit;
Whose arms extended are these spreading regions:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Who made the heavens bright, the earth enduring,
Who fixed the firmament, the heaven of heavens;
Who measured out the air's extended spaces:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?"
The hymn belongs to the last epoch of the composition of the Vedic hymns. Most of the Vedic hymns exhibit a conspicuous tendency toward the polytheistic personification of nature. From most of them the monotheistic tendency is well-nigh absent. So, also, the literature of the sacrificial manuals, the Brahmanas, emphasizes the doctrine of the sacrifice. The adoration hymns of the different gods have lost their independent value and are esteemed only on account of the fact that these verses, sometimes mutilated and torn out of their context, are uttered or chanted in connection with various sacrificial rituals. This literature also contains some passages of a monotheistic or pantheistic character; but the emphasis is almost entirely on the performance of the sacrifices. In the Aranyaka literature, which contains the substitution-meditations, the value and power of thought is realized for the first time. But it is only in the Upanishads that one finds the earliest instances of a sincere and earnest quest after Brahman, the highest and the greatest.
The most important characteristic which distinguishes the science of Brahman from the science of the sacrifices consists in the fact that the former springs entirely from inner, spiritual longings, while the latter is based almost wholly on mundane desires. The science of sacrifice aimed at the acquirement of merit, which could confer all the blessings of life in consequence of due obedience to the Vedic and ritualistic injunctions and prohibitions. The science of Brahman, however, did not seek any ordinary blessings of life. It proceeded from the spiritual needs of our soul which could be satisfied only by attaining the highest aim. All that is mortal, all that is transient and evanescent, all that gives men the ordinary joys of life, such as wealth or fame confer, are but brute pleasures and brute satisfactions, which please only so long as men allow themselves to be swayed by the demands of their senses. In the hurry and bustle of our modern life, of rapid movements over land, sea and air, in this age of prolific scientific inventions and appliances which add to our material comforts and luxury, in this age of national jealousies and hatreds, which in the name of patriotism and freedom often try to enslave others or monopolize the necessities and luxuries of life for the use of the people of a particular country, it is easy to forget that we have any needs other than the purely material ones. With all the boasted culture of our modern age, with all our advancement of science and progress, do we ever stop to think just what we mean by progress? We have no doubt discovered many new facts of nature, and brought many natural forces under our control. But like vultures soaring high in the air, with greedy eyes fixed on the bonesand flesh of the carrion in the field below, are we not, in all our scientific soarings, often turning our greedy eyes to sense gratifications and trying to bind science to the attainment of new comforts and luxuries? The new comforts and luxuries soon become absolute necessities, and we eagerly press forward to the invention of some other new modes of sense gratification and luxury. Science debased to the end of spreading death and of enslaving humanity, or to the end of procuring newer and newer sensations, a life spent in the whirlpool of fleeting pleasures, varied, subtle, and new, and in the worship of the almighty dollar is what most of us tend to call progress. We live more for the body than for the soul. Our body is our soul; our body is our highest Brahman. The story is told in the Chandogya Upanishads that Virochana and Indra went to Prajapati to receive instructions regarding the nature of the self, or of Brahman the highest. Prajapati gave a course of false instructions, apparently to test the powers of discrimination of his two pupils Virochana and Indra. He asked them to get themselves well-dressed and appear at their best, and then to look into a mirror. When they did so and saw the image of their own bodies in the mirror, Prajapati told them that it was their well-dressed bodies reflected in the mirror that was the true self and the highest Brahman; and they went away satisfied with the answer. Indra, indeed, later returned to Prajapati dissatisfied with the answer; but Virochana (probably an old ancestor of ours) was satisfied with the answer that there is nothinghigher than what appears to our senses, our earthly body, and our earthly joys.
But what a different answer do we get from Maitreyi, the wife of Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II. 4. Yajnavalkya, wishing to become a hermit, explained to his two wives Maitreyi and Katyayani that he wished to divide his wealth between them so that they might live independently while he was away seeking his higher spiritual destiny. But Maitreyi replied: "Well, sir, if you could give me all the wealth of the world, could I become immortal by that?" "No," said Yajnavalkya, "you will only live in pleasure as the rich men do, but I can promise you no hope of immortality through wealth." Maitreyi replied, "Well, sir, what shall I do with that with which I cannot be immortal? Tell me if you know anything by which I may be immortal."
It is this spiritual craving for immortality that distinguishes the mental outlook of the sages of the Upanishads from our own. Yet this desire for immortality is no mere desire for personal survival continuing the enjoyment of pleasures under newer and happier conditions of life, whether in this world or in heaven. This quest for immortality, as it is found in the Upanishads, is in no sense a yearning for personal immortality, the decayless, diseaseless, deathless existence of the individual with his body in full vigor of youth. Neither is it the desire for a bodiless existence of a self fond of sensual joys and sense gratifications and fettered by all the needs and necessities of mundane relations and mundane gratifications. This questfor immortality is identical with the quest of the highest self, the highest truth and reality, the highest Brahman. It is the perception and realization of the inner spring of our life and the inmost spirituality of man as he is within himself, beyond the range of sense and of discursive thought. If it were a sense-feeling--color, taste, touch, or sound--it might easily be pointed out as this or that sense-datum. It is an ineffable, non-conceptual, inner experience, lying in its own unfathomable depth. When a lump of salt is thrown into the sea, it is entirely dissolved in it; by no means can any part of the lump be recovered in its original form, but every part of the water tastes saline. Similarly, when this stage of supra-consciousness (prajnana) is reached, all ordinary experiences are submerged and dissolved in this. great, infinite, limitless, homogeneous experience. Like the calm and changeless consciousness of deep, dreamless sleep, is this stage where all duality has vanished: there is no person who knows, nor anything that he is aware of. Ordinary knowledge presupposes a difference between ourselves, our knowledge, and that of which we are aware. When I see a color, there is the "I" which sees, there is the knowledge of the color and also the color itself. When I smell, there is the "I" that smells and the smell; when I think, there is the "I" that thinks and that which is thought; when I speak there is the "I" that speaks and that which is spoken. No one would for a moment think of identifying these. But at this stage of the non-conceptual intuition of the self--an unspeakable, ineffable experience--there is no trace of any duality, and we have one whole of blissful experience wherein is distinguished no one that knows and nothing that he is aware of. All ordinary states of knowledge imply a duality of knower and that which is known; but this is an experience where all duality has vanished.
Nevertheless this experience is not something which is wholly beyond, or wholly out of all relation with, our conscious states of dual experience. For it is the basis, or background, as it were, of all our ordinary knowledge involving the knower and the known. In music, the different notes and tones cannot be grasped separately from and independently of the music itself, and when we are busy in apprehending separately the different notes we miss the music or the harmony which is in itself a whole of experience that cannot be taken in parts, in the multiplicity of the varied notes. So it is with this ineffable experience, which in reality underlies all our ordinary experiences and states of knowledge as the basis or ground of them all; when we are lost in the discursive multiplicity of our ordinary experience, we miss this underlying reality. But when once again we are in touch with it, our so-called personality is as it were dissolved in it, and there ensues that infinitude of blissful experience in which all distinctions are lost. Whatever is dear to me, as e.g., father, mother, wife, money, fame, etc., is so because I love my own self so dearly. It is because I can find the needs of my self best realized through these that I love these. None of these can be ends in themselves; it is only the self that can be an end unto itself, irrespective of any other ulterior end or motive. None of the many-sided interests, desires, and activities of the self represent the self in its entirety or in its essence. It is only this supra-conscious experience, which actually underlies them all, that can be called the real self and that for which everything else exists. Everything else is dear to me because my self is dear to me; but this supra-conscious experience underlies the so-called personality, or self, as its very essence, truth and final reality.
It is indeed difficult for us, with the traditions and associations of our modern world, to believe in the reality of this intuitional experience, unless we attempt to realize it ourselves--unless, by turning our minds entirely away from sense-objects and sense-enjoyments, we deliberately, with faith and firmness, plunge into the depths of this new kind of experience. It cannot be expressed in words or understood by conceptual thought; it reveals itself only to supra-conscious experience. The language of the sages of the Upanishads seems strange to us; but we cannot hope to understand a thing of which we have had no experience. Talk to a child of ten about the romantic raptures of love felt by a pair of lovers, or of the maddening intoxication of sense cravings; what would he understand of it? Talk to a Greenlander about the abominable heat of an African desert; will he be able to imagine it? When an experience is to be realized, the powers of mere logical thinking or of abstraction or of constructive imagination are not sufficient for the purpose. Only another realization of the same experience can testify to its truth. We are here concerned with an experience which is non-conceptual, intuitive, and ultimate. But, what is more, subtle, fine and formless as it is, it is said to be the source, basis, and ground of everything else. According to a story told in the Chandogya Upanishad VI, when Shvetaketu returned after a stay of twelve years at the house of his preceptor, where he studied all the Vedas, he became arrogant, considered himself to be a wise man, and hardly ever talked with others. His father said to him: "Well, Shvetaketu, what have you learned that you seem to think yourself so wise? Do you know that which when once known everything else becomes known? When you once know what iron is, you know all that can be made out of iron, for these are in essence nothing but iron; we can distinguish the iron vessels from iron only by their specific forms and names. But whatever may be their names and forms, the true essence in them all, whether they be needles, pans or handles, is nothing but iron. It is only that you find therein so many forms and names. What are these names and forms worth without the essence? It is the essence, the iron, that manifests itself in so many forms and names; when this iron is known, all that is made of iron is also known. It is the ineffable reality, the ultimate being which is the essence of everything else. As rivers which flow into the sea lose all their individuality in it and cannot be distinguished, so all divergent things lose their individuality and distinctness when they are merged in this highest being, the ultimate reality from which they have all sprung forth. Fine and subtle though this experience be, yet it is in reality the entire universe of our knowledge. A small seed of an oak tree when split open reveals nothing that we can call worth noting, yet it is this fine kernel of the seed that holds within it the big oak tree."
The chief features of this Upanishad mysticism are the earnest and sincere quest for this spiritual illumination, the rapturous delight and force that characterize the utterances of the sages when they speak of the realization of this ineffable experience, the ultimate and the absolute truth and reality, and the immortality of all mortal things. Yet this quest is not the quest of the God of the theists. This highest reality is no individual person separate from us, or one whom we try to please, or whose laws and commands we obey, or to whose will we submit with reverence and devotion. It is, rather, a totality of partless, simple and undifferentiated experience which is the root of all our ordinary knowledge and experience and which is at once the ultimate essence of our self and the highest principle of the universe, the Brahman or the Atman. There is, indeed, another current of thought, evident in several passages of different Upanishads, in which Brahman is conceived and described as the theistic God. This will be dealt with separately later on. The special characteristic of the line of thought that has now been described is a belief in a superior principle which enlivens our life, thoughts, actions, desires and feelings, which is the inmost heart of the self of man, the immortal and undying reality unaffected by disease and death, and which is also the ultimate and absolute reality of the universe.