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Self in the Upanishads

Turning back in

Quite plainly and simply, the Sanskrit word ‘atman’ is equivalent to the English word ‘self ’. This is so both in classical Sanskrit and in the modern Indian languages that derive from Sanskrit. And further, it is so not only in the ordinary, unquestioning usage of everyday life, but also in the reflective usage of philosophical enquiry, where reason turns back to question the very assumptions from which it proceeds.

One such habitual assumption is that a person’s self consists of a body, a set of senses and a mind, which are part of a larger world outside. But then, if self is just an object in the world, how can the world be known by it? Or, if self is not just an object, then what else can it be? And how can it be known?

The word ‘atman’ is derived from the root ‘an’, meaning ‘to breathe’ or ‘to live’. In the Rig Veda, it has an early form ‘tman’, meaning ‘the vital breath’. In accordance with this derivation and early usage, the word ‘atman’ describes the self as an inner, spiritual principle of life: quite distinct from the outward personality that is seen to act in the external world.

In the Katha Upanishad, 4.1, the true nature of the self is described as ‘pratyag-atman’: which means literally ‘the turned-back self’ or, to elaborate a little, ‘the self, returned to self [to its own true reality]’.

Unbodied light

What is there to be found by turning back within? In the following story from the Chandogya Upanishad, 8.7-12, a progressive enquiry is described, through the three states of waking, dream and sleep. At each stage, persistent questioning shows up the inadequacy of previous understanding; until the nature of the self is shown at last to be pure consciousness: unconditioned by the gross external body that appears in the waking state, or by the subtle body of imagination and feeling that appears in dream, or even by the absence of body that appears in the seeming nothingness of deep sleep.

The rider in a chariot

How can the inner, real self be distinguished from the outward, seeming selves that appear in our conditioned and varying personalities?

In the following translation and retelling from the Katha Upanishad, 3.1,3-4, apparent personality and inner self are distinguished through the metaphor
of a chariot.

Like a chariot, the apparent personality moves about and changes in a moving and changing world. The inner self is like the rider in a chariot; it is the living principle for whose sake the personality changes and moves from place to place. But known within, from its own point of view, self stays the same and is in truth unmoved; as scenes of passing world go by, just like the scenes a chariot passes through.

The enjoyer and the witness

How is experience known by self?
The following passage occurs in both the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (4.6-7) and the Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.1-2). It distinguishes two kinds of experience.

• In the first kind of experience, knowledge is mixed with the actions of conditioned personality. And accordingly, the experience is conditioned by changing enjoyments and sufferings that result from the successes and failures of such personal action.
• In the second kind of experience, knowledge is pure illumination: quite unattached to any actions or consequences in the changing world. Accordingly, the experiencer is not an enjoyer or a sufferer, but a purely detached witness: quite unaffected by anything that happens in the conditioned world.

Where self is falsely identified as a personal ego, consisting of body or senses or mind, it seems to know experience in the first way: as a conditioned enjoyer and sufferer. But where the self is understood to know experience in the second way, as a completely detached witness; there the false identification of ego is dissolved, and the true nature of self is realized. Thus known entirely unmixed with any conditioned action or enjoyment, it turns out to be the final goal of love that motivates all actions, and the underlying source of happiness that shines out in all enjoyments.

As shown below, the same passage has been retold rather differently, in the
differing contexts of the Shvetashvatara and Mundaka Upanishads.

About Sunday morning

Sunday Morning Contemplation is informed by Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. The first, lectio divina has its origins in 6th century Europe. It unfolds in four steps or stages: reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), responding (oratio), and silent abiding (contemplatio). Our Eastern inspiration come from the Indian Upanishads (800-200 BCE), where contemplative practice consists of three steps or stages: listening (śravana), reflecting (manana), and meditating (nididhyāsana or dhyāna). Our contemplative practice on Sundays embraces both approaches, and each contemplation will be based on a reading from either tradition.

The texts and teachers I have chosen played a significant role in my life and I believe have much to offer. I will read presellected texts, slowly, with pauses between verses or quotes. The readings will be accompanied by soothing background music. To lessen distraction, I suggest participants close their eyes and listen. However, the screen will display the text so that people can choose to read along or mute the sound and read on their own. If there is time remaining after the contemplative period, participants can choose to either leave or stay for a short discussion.

As a preface to the reading, I will provide a 10-15 minute introduction to the text. When relevant, I’ll review facts about the author/teacher’s life. I will also present a brief explanation of the terms and language encountered in the reading.

Finally, when the contemplation is over, all texts read will be available online to read and/or download at any time on the website.

What I mean by
The Symbolic Life

This website makes liberal use of classical Indian visual art and refers mostly to traditional Indian texts (for example, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras) in the courses, seminars, and discussions on offer. However, I am not presenting lessons in Hinduism; in fact, teaching mainstream Hinduism is neither my area of interest nor expertise. Rather, my interest in Yoga and Tantra is grounded in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, in the places where we arrive and from which we depart. Beginning in the here and now, we will explore the underlying meaning of the symbols, stories, images, philosophies, and techniques found in Indian philosophical texts and practice, in light of our world and our current circumstance. We will excavate the meaning of the aphorisms and teaching stories; the symbolic figures of gods, people, and nature; and the sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, philosophy of the texts. Thus, in referring to the Symbolic Life of Yoga and Tantra, I mean not just the symbols themselves, but the rich explication of life that the symbols represent.

Our lived, concrete situation is wonderfully captured in the Sanskrit word loka, whose ancient meaning is “the world.”  The root meaning of both the Sanskrit loka and the English locate (and local, locale, and location) is identical. In the ancient Indian mind, the world is where we are located, in our current circumstance. Thus, the meaning of the symbols of Yoga and Tantra can occur only in the now, in the places where we find ourselves, and not in any imagined ancient and/or foreign world.

To emphasize our place of origin and return, I use the terms “archetypal” and “symbolic” quite frequently. Archetypal meaning is associated with the universal and collective aspects of human experience—what we intimately share with all others regardless of culture or era or epoch—while symbolic language forms a bridge between the realms of the universal with the culturally specific and local. Symbols are the scaffolding upon which human beings build a world and imbue it with meaning.

Think for a moment of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hatred and love, and greed and generosity—universal experiences that ancient Indian thinkers called the dvandva-s. This Sanskrit term is a combination of two words, or rather, one word spoken twice: the word dva (meaning the same as the English “two”) duplicated. Dvandva is commonly translated as “the pair of opposites” or literally “the two-twos” (dvadva). The ancients who coined this compact symbol gave voice to an archetypal human experience that can be further unpacked to reveal deep insights into the human condition. Once we gain an understanding of the various symbols of Yoga and Tantra, we can further excavate their meaning and the archetypes they convey, and thus gain access to, in a practical and meaningful way, the vision of life experienced by the sages. These insights are available to us and are still relevant today, as are the resilient and adaptable techniques and forms of practice that can help us lead richer and more fulfilling lives