You’ve Never Read the Upanishads? is a six-week exploration of the enigmatic and awe-inspiring realm of the Upanishads, a place where we gather to sit in the presence of our own consciousness, liberated and untethered. This sacred space beckons us into the depths of the Upanishads, unveiling the secret foundations of yoga. We embark on this endeavor by delving into five fundamental concerns and immersing ourselves even further into the roots and sources of these ancient texts, fostering a collective study.
When translators venture into the poetic, visionary, and ecstatic mission that is inherent to the Upanishads, they face a significant challenge. They must capture not only the textual meaning but also the sense of inspired and awakened poetry. Some translations tend to emphasize the inspired and fantastical visions, which are undoubtedly part of the ecstatic process. However, they occasionally sacrifice accuracy and intricacy of the original source. I will strive to bring the text to a level of inspired awareness, as the Upanishads are fundamentally experiential sources. This forms the first major theme of our Upanishadic study— to make our experience a realization of complete reality, to allow our experience to embrace and establish essential connections that yoga, the deep engagement with the entirety of reality, offers. The Upanishads guide us to the source and cause of all existence, to the origin that resides in the matrix of astonishing homology. They explore the intricate web of interconnectedness, revealing an ever-evolving and expanding pattern of relationships within the vastness of being. By delving into the far reaches of existence, the Upanishads aim to establish the primary principle that our experienced reality is woven into a tapestry of intricate and virtually infinite connectivity.
The second profound theme of the Upanishads emerges from the first. It emphasizes the importance of creating an experiential connection through the sacred. This universe presents us with boundaries and possibilities, and it is through our efforts to explore the relationship between these boundaries and possibilities that the sacredness of the world becomes apparent and fully revealed. The Upanishads seek to establish a foundational understanding: the universe is a manifestation of the divine experiencing itself as a sacred process. What makes this process sacred, what transforms it into a yajna (sacrifice), is our ability to perceive reality as a realm that establishes meaningful boundaries and essential avenues for infinite expansion. Without boundaries, the infinite cannot exist, as there would be no framework for understanding our experiences and establishing relationships.
Hence, the Upanishads are imbued with a beautiful and fundamental paradox of the sacred. The sacred teaches us to differentiate between here and there (space), now and then (time), and identity (this and that). It then establishes essential and fundamental relationships, boundaries that must not be violated. The structure of this sacred reality presents itself as the embodiment of Dharma, narrating the story of Dharma and offering an inner understanding of our own experiential relationships. This forms the essence of Upanishadic yoga: to seek that yajna, that sacred space, time, and identity, and to establish profound connections within them, recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. It is in this nature of all-encompassing connectivity, known as sarva-atmatikam-sarvata in Sanskrit, that we discover the essence of everything. All things possess this nature of everythingness. Therefore, the act of sacrificial offering, the process of embracing the sacred as an experience of connectivity, becomes the essential practice of yoga. The yajna now transforms into yoga, marking the great transition from the ancient Vedic sacrificial rituals. Yoga is no longer about mere offerings, ablations, transactions, and relationships with nature’s forces as separate entities. Instead, it is a profound journey into the core of our identity and interconnectedness. The connectivity that acknowledges our differences also invites us to recognize our shared essence. The yajna resides within us, and the act of sacrifice unfolds within the integrated, interconnected, and conscious entirety of our being. It is within this sacred sense of yajna that yoga thrives.
The third significant theme of the Upanishads centers around the understanding that this universe, governed by the principle of Dharma, is the outcome of the experiential reality. It presents its possibilities in an orderly, structured, and architectured manner. Within this framework, there exists a truth that can be summoned and comprehended—a truth about the nature of reality, its source, essential properties, and how these properties manifest and relate to our cognitive experiences as sentient beings capable of perceiving truth. This deeper truth lies within the fundamental sense of connectivity, reliability, and predictability. By delving into the profound structural relationships that shape our world, we can create a meaningful orientation that guides our actions. This orientation allows us to rely on connections that align with the truth of the world. This experiential truth is within the realm of human understanding and apprehension.
This deeper sense of truth is understood to be concealed, existing not only within the connections that are immediately apparent but also in the depths of ever-increasing connectivity. The word “Upanishad” itself carries the meaning of “secret” or “hiddenness.” It signifies that our initial levels of experience hold essential truths that are supported by hidden realities. It is as if there exists a profound code, a matrix, an architecture of understanding and truth that underlies our experiences, even beyond the superficial levels of sensory perception and cognitive awareness. The Upanishads begin with a claim reminiscent of contemporary physics—that our initial level of experience, our more intuitive and superficial connection to the world, is often misleading. There is a deeper truth, a concealed truth that must be explored and unveiled. Reality has bestowed upon us a convenient and graceful presence in the immediacy of life, but it is essential that we delve into the depths to discover the hidden truth.
Our fourth theme in the Upanishads delves into the profound sense of identity. It establishes the equation that the Upanishads ultimately reach in their most mature form. From the earliest revelations, we understood that the universe is a complete and expansive reality that emanates and evolves from a fundamental source. The nature of that source, known as Brahman, encompasses the fullness, ubiquity, and entirety of existence. It manifests itself in the abundance and diversity of our experiences within this manifold universe. Brahman signifies not only the material essence of reality but also the intelligence and presence that orchestrate the expression of possibilities, laws, decorum, order, and consciousness within the universe. In Brahman, the Upanishads discover a fundamental sense of identity with Atma, the self. This understanding goes beyond mere participation in the core of being or the essence of things. As conscious human beings, we have a profound experience of alive consciousness, of Atma, of self. Brahman is equal to Atman.
In the later Upanishads, this understanding turns inward and outward simultaneously. It explores the illumination and the divine presence as a radiant awareness that enlightens consciousness, enabling it to comprehend its source, essence, and potential. This concept is expressed through Deva, the light, which represents a reality greater than ourselves. Thus, the vastness of impersonal Brahman is, in fact, the great person—the experience of an empowered self (Atma). This self is none other than Deva, the light of the gods, signifying the reflective and refractive power of divine energies. The Upanishads reintroduce the ancient Vedic gods and expand upon the idea of divine empowerment, which surpasses our individual existence yet fully resides within us. They establish the experience of Deva, the experience of God within us, as an inherent part of our nature, distinct but not separate from our self-consciousness. Brahman equals Atman equals Deva—the light of the divine. This represents the fourth essential theme of mature Upanishadic contemplation.
The fifth and arguably most significant contribution of the Upanishads is the introduction of contemplation and the profound practice of meditation. It draws us into the experience of inner sacrifice, where experience becomes reality and reality becomes experience. We will focus on this subject of meditation in the Upanishads, particularly on the ancient concept of pranava—the OM—and delve deeply into the experience of prana. There is no power, energy, or concept more crucial for understanding the development of Upanishadic meditation and later yogic theories than a profound contemplation of prana in the Upanishads. Prana encompasses life, breath, and nourishment. It represents the energizing and empowering presence at the core of being. By connecting with prana, we tap into the fundamental current of grace itself, animating and expressing through all things. All things possess prana, and how we engage with and are influenced by the power of prana lies at the heart of the Upanishadic practice of turning inward, of making contemplation our sacrifice. This marks the fifth great contribution of the Upanishads, inviting us into the teachings of meditation and contemplation, particularly exploring the relationship between eternality embodied in the sonic metaphor of the ever-resonant presence of pranava (OM) and experiencing it within the flow of life, breath, and the pranas.
Let us now review and revisit each of these themes.
- Our first theme explores the concept of yoga within the context of sacrifices in the yajna. It emphasizes that yoga is the essence of these sacrifices.
- The second theme centers around the empowering prospect of making our experience align with the entirety of reality, delving into the hidden nature of reality through the practice of yoga.
- Our third theme focuses on Dharma, the inherent structure of the universe, which leads us to the pursuit of truth. Within this universe, truth becomes a goal, providing boundaries and essence to our experiences.
- The fourth theme tackles the fundamental equation that brings us to the core of our existence and questions our identity. It explores the nature of Brahman, its relationship with the self, and how self-expression and understanding can be illuminated through the light of Deva, the divine. Brahman, Atman, and Deva are interconnected, forming the foundation of Upanishadic thought.
- Lastly, the fifth theme centers around meditation, particularly on the powers and energies of the universe. It highlights the eternal and resonant experience known as pranava or OM, and how prana, the life force, manifests within consciousness.
The Upanishads guide us through a process that reveals the hidden connections between the body, mind, and reality. It encourages us to recognize that everything participates in the divine, and each experience reflects and refracts the divine reality. By making these connections explicit and known, we integrate them into the essential knowledge of yoga. The Upanishads employ allegories and homologies, drawing parallels between gods and our own identity, forming a deep sense of interconnectedness. This wisdom allows us to gain insights into everyday life, leading us to a deeper understanding of the self. The Upanishads highlight the pathways and passages, structures and orientations that connect us to the source of being. Though sometimes circuitous and indirect, these connections lead us from the present moment to the essence of reality.
The Upanishads acknowledge that the ancient concept of Rta, the cosmic order, has revealed itself and transformed into Dharma. While the Upanishads diverge from the Vedic understanding of Rta, they envision a practical and direct path toward understanding and insight. By exploring the homologies and allegories, we can uncover the source of reality. This understanding allows us to traverse the doorways of connectivity, where the macrocosm of the universe intersects with the microcosm of our being. This transformative process leads us to yoga, providing a profound sense of belonging, support, nurture, and containment in a world that is both powerful and entropic.
The Upanishads map a path from samsara, the limited and conditioned existence, to liberation and experiential freedom. Freedom, according to the Upanishads, lies in the experience of moving from limited understanding to the deepest source of being, reclaiming our original understanding. The Upanishads challenge the notion that freedom exists outside the world. Instead, they invite us to perceive the world itself as the source of liberation. There is no separate heaven or escape to another realm. The Upanishads emphasize that this universe, with all its complexities and conflicting relationships, fundamentally invites us to connectivity, which surpasses conflict. This affirmation shapes the foundation of the Upanishads and extends into the yoga tradition.
It is important to note that liberation does not remove us from conflict, but rather connects us to a deeper sense of belonging within a conflicted world. While the Vedas presented a conflicted world, the Upanishads propose a profound connectivity that reshapes our experience, replacing conflict with connection. As we delve further into our understanding of yoga and explore its history, we will encounter different alternatives and perspectives. However, in our exploration of the Upanishads, it is crucial to establish a clear understanding that engagement, yoga, and the deep sense of connection lead us to the realization that conflict is superficial, and connection reigns supreme.