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Upanisadic Mysticism

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  22 Feb 2015 12:00 AM GMT

By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee

Most of the Vedic hymns show a tendency towards Polytheistic personification of ture. The literature of sacrificial manuals, that is, the Brahmas, emphasize the doctrine of sacrifice. This literature also contains some passages of a monotheistic and pantheistic character. But the emphasis is entirely on the performance of the sacrifices. In the Aranyaka, the value and power of thought is grasped for the first time, and we find the earliest instance of sincere and earnest quest after Brahman—the highest and the greatest reality.

The most important characteristic, which distinguishes the intellectual pursuit of Brahman or the Absolute from the science of sacrifices, is that the former arises entirely from inner spiritual longing, and latter is based almost wholly on mundane desires. The science of sacrifice is aimed at the acquirement of merit, which could confer all the blessings of life, as a result of due obedience of the Vedic and ritualistic injunctions, but the intellectual pursuit of Brahman does not refer to any ordiry blessings of life. It proceeds from the spiritualistic needs of man, which could be satisfied only by attaining the highest aim.

All that is mortal and transient, such as wealth or fame, that is, all that gives man the ordiry joys of life, please only so long as man allows himself to be swayed by his senses. In this modern age of prolific scientific inventions, which add to our material comfort and luxury, in this age of tiol jealousy and hatred, it is easy to forget that we have no other need except the material ones. We boast of culture of modern age and do not stop to think what exactly we mean by progress. No doubt, science has discovered many wonderful things and has brought many tural forces under control. In spite of all these achievements, man tries to use science for the attainment of new comforts and luxuries, which are regarded as absolute necessities and the scientists move forward to invent newer modes of sense gratification, and luxury. Science has been debased to the extent of spreading death and destruction. That is progress for us.

The spiritualistic craving for immortality distinguishes the sages of Upanishads from the ordiry people like us. Yet this doctrine is not a mere desire for persol survival, continuing the enjoyment of pleasure, in this world or in heaven. The quest for immortality as it is found in the Upanishads, is not a yearning for persol immortality—the decay-less, disease-less, deathless existence of the individual, with his body in full vigour of youth. Neither is it a desire for a body-less existence of a self, fond of sensual joys. This quest for immortality is identical with the quest for the highest self, the highest truth and reality, the highest Brahman. It is the perception and the realization of the innermost spirituality of man, as he is within himself—beyond the range of sense and discursive thought. When this stage of supra-consciousness is reached, all ordiry experiences are submerged in a great homogeneous mass, as a lump of salt thrown into the sea is entirely dissolved in it. No part of the lump can be recovered in its origil form—but every drop of water tastes saline. This stage is like the calm and changeless consciousness of deep dreamless sleep, where all duality vanishes. Ordiry knowledge presupposes a difference between ourselves, our knowledge and that of which we are aware. When I see colour, there is “I” who see, there is knowledge of colour and also the colour itself. That is the same in all our activities like smelling, hearing, tasting or thinking. But in the stage of non-conceptual intuition of the self there is no trace of any duality—and we have one whole of blissful consciousness, where there is no one that knows and nothing that we are aware of. All ordiry knowledge implies a duality of the knower and what is known—but in the spiritual experience all duality vanishes.

But this experience is not something beyond our conscious state of dual experience; rather it is the background of all our ordiry knowledge, involving the knower and the known. In music, for instance, the different notes and tones cannot be grasped independently of the whole. In the same way the ineffable experience underlies all our ordiry experience or status of knowledge, as the basis or ground of them all. When we are lost in the discursive multiplicity of our ordiry experience, we miss this underlying unity. But if we come in touch with it, this spiritual experience of our so-called persolity is dissolved in it—and it ensures that infinitude of blissful experience, in which all distinctions are lost. It is this supra-conscious experience, which actually underlies all our knowledge. That can be called the real self and that for which everything exists.

It is indeed difficult for us in this modem age, to believe in the reality of this intuitiol experience, unless we attempt to realize it ourselves—by turning our minds entirely away from sense-objects and sense-enjoyment. It cannot be expressed in words or understood by conceptual thought. It is revealed only in 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 no experience. Only a realization of this experience, which is non-conceptual, intuitive and ultimate, will make us understand that it is also the source, basis and ground of everything else.

The chief feature of this Upanisadic mysticism is the earnest and sincere quest for this spiritual illumition, the rapturous delight and the force that characterize the utterances of the sages, when they speak of the realization of this ineffable experience, the ultimate and absolute truth and reality, and immortality. Yet this quest is not the quest of God of the theists. This highest reality is not an individual person, separate from us, or one whom we try to please or whose laws or commands we obey, or to whose will we submit with reverence and devotion. It is rather a totality of part-less, simple and undifferentiated experience, which is the root of all our ordiry knowledge and experience and which is the ultimate essence of our self and the highest principle of the universe—the Brahman or the atman. There are of course several passages of different Upanishads in which Brahman is conceived or described as the theistic god. The special characteristic of the former line of thought is a belief in a superior principle, which is the essence of the self of man, the immortal and underlying reality, uffected by disease and death—and which is also the ultimate and absolute reality of the universe. The quest of the ultimate destiny of man, of his immortal essence, is itself the best and the highest end that man may pursue.

In the Katha Upanishad the king of death explains to chiketa, who wanted to solve the mystery and riddle of life—that there are two entirely different goals. The hankering after riches binds us to the ties of attachment to sense—pleasures, which are short-lived and transitory. It is only the spiritual longing of man for the realization of his highest, truest and most immortal essence, that is good in itself—though it does not please the greedy people. Desire for money blinds us and we fail to see that there is anything intrinsically superior to the ordiry mundane life of sense-pleasures and sense-enjoyments. The ture of the higher sphere of life and of the higher spiritual experiences cannot be grasped by minds, which are always revolving round riches and sense-enjoyments.

Discourse about the spirituality may appear to be myth of the bygone era by most people. The net result of our modem education, civilization and culture has been the disappearance of the belief that there is anything higher than primitive instincts, which function under some social restraint. But what is this underlying spiritual essence of existence? Can our reasoning discover it? If it can, then spiritual existence can be nothing higher than thought. But in the view by discursive reasoning, only those persons who have realized this truth can point this out to us as an experience, which is at once self-illumiting and blissful, which is entirely different from all that is known to us. Once it is thus exhibited, only those who have the highest moral elevation and disinclition to the worldly enjoyment, can grasp it by an inner intuitive contact with the reality itself. This truth is the culmition of the teaching of the Vedas.

The Upanisadic theory states that no one is ever born and no one ever dies. The birth and death of the physical body may well be explained by reference to physical causes, and there is not much of a mystery. But man cannot be identified with his body, nor can he be identified with life, which he has in common with all other animals, even with plants. Birth and death apply only to our physical bodies, but our essence is never born nor does it ever die. There is a superior principle which vitalizes and quickens the process of life, enlivens the activity of thought, moves the senses to their regular and normal operations, which is intuited as the very essence of our inner illumition—and which is also the highest and ultimate principle, underlying everything.

We are here in direct contact with the real mysticism of all the Upanishads. The highest essence of man, that is, the self or Brahman is difficult to perceive. It is hidden in that deathless being who exists from the beginning of all time and beyond all time. It is the smallest of the small and the greatest of the great. It remains changeless and the same one, while everything else that it has vitalized, ceases to exit. This inner self of ours cannot be known by reason—it can be known only in intuition by persons to whom it reveals its own ture. The path to this superior principle is dangerous and difficult. It is beyond sense knowledge and he who intuits this secret truth of the beginning less, endless, unchangeable and eterl reality, overcomes death. For the person, who realized his soul to be identical with this highest principle, death or fear of death sinks into insignificant illusory nothingness.

But in some of the Upanishads Brahman appears as the supreme Lord, from whom everything has emated and who is the source of all energy. Ke Upanishad advocates the view that God is the Supreme Being, who directs controls everything. In the Katha Upanishad also it is said that all the worlds are maintained by him. He is the great life from which everything has come into being. He is the creator of the universe and the world belongs to him, nobody dares ignore or disobey him. Yet he is the innermost self of all living beings and immortal inner controller of all. But he is absolutely untouched by the faults and defects or the mortal world.

Whether the teachings of the Upanishad are Pantheism or not, will depend on the definition of Pantheism. There are some passages, which describe Brahman as one who spread himself in diverse forms in all the objects, we see around us. This might be taken as an indication of some form of Materialistic Pantheism. But this is merely one aspect of the matter. It is seen to be contradicted by the idea of Brahman as the creator, the ruler and the controller, by whose will everything moves.

But the most important emphasis of the Upanishads seems to be on that ineffable experience, which lies hidden in the back ground of all our experience and at the same time, enlivens them all. Yet the experience itself is lost in the superior experience, where there is neither experience which is experienced. This experience cannot be intellectually grasped. It can only be pointed out as different from all that is known. It is like the feeling of intense bliss, where neither the knower nor the known can be distinctly felt—but where there is only the infinitude of blissful experience. It is a spiritual experience— a simple unity, in which all duality vanishes.

This truth is felt as the highest embodiment of mental perfection. It is complete self-illumition, bodiless, formless, sinless and pure. Its illumition reveals itself only when our minds have turned away from all the exterl lights of the outside world, for when this light is shining; all the other lights of the sun, the moon and the stars cease to give lights. The Upanishads tell us again and again that it cannot be comprehended by any of our senses, or by reasoning, or by logical and discursive thought—or by discussions and intellectual power—or even by reading the scriptures. Only those, who have ceased to do all sinful actions and have controlled their sensual desires—who are uffected by all kinds of passion and are at peace with themselves, can have the realization of this great truth by higher intuitive knowledge. In Mundaka it is said that we can attain this truth by self-control, spiritual fervour and absolute extinction of all sex-desires. Only the sages, who have purged themselves of all moral defects, are capable of perceiving this spiritual light within them. The Upanishads repeatedly assert that the revelation of this truth is possible only through the most perfect moral purity. This truth cannot be perceived by the eye or described in speech—it cannot even be gained as a boon by pleasing the gods by ascetic practices or sacrificial performances. It can only be gained by intuition, which is superior to the Vedic knowledge of sacrifices. By supreme moral elevation and patient search we come in touch with Brahman and can enter in to Him— but for that we must abandon all our mundane desires, by which we are bound to the earthly things. And when through this high moral elevation, control of desires, meditation and the like, one comes face to face with this highest reality or Brahman, he is lost in it like river in the sea. Nothing remains of him—but be becomes one with Brahman. This is known by the seer through his heart, when his senses have ceased to function and when his thoughts have come to a dead halt. No one can describe what that existence is; one can only say that is ‘being’ and nothing more. Here all doubts are dispelled and there is spiritual light of unity that shines in Serene Oneness—and the individual self is merged in Brahman—and peace reigns supreme.

(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)

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