The Open Secret of the Upanishads
‘I am lighting a lamp to dispel the dark illusion that covers the heart of humanity.’
These words, attributed to the ancient seer, Vyasa, apply equally well to the purpose and work of Shri Shankara. The main point of Shankara’s teaching on Self-knowledge is to awaken us to the realization that our innermost self is the sole reality of the universe, and that any other conception of self is based on an illusion at the core of our experience—an illusion that will be dispelled when we light the lamp of spiritual wisdom in our heart.
This philosophy explains that our present experience of the world, feeling ourselves to be separate and vulnerable, identified with a limited organ of experience, the mind, is a kind of error, a mistake. The reality is not this bittersweet experience yielded by the mind and the senses, nor is it the multiplicity of things we see within and around us, like the multiplicity of waves on the surface of the sea. Ultimate truth transcends the world. It is immutable, ever pure, perfect, denoted in the Upanishads as ‘one only without a second’ and one with our own essential Self, just as the reality of the waves is only water.
This is the secret doctrine (rahasya) hidden in the heart of the Upanishads, called Advaita or non-duality. It is also the main message of the Bhagavad Gita, where this great realization is approached in various ways through the purification of the mind. At every step, Shankara shows that this is meant to be a practical philosophy, a practical path of re-educating our intellect, emotions and will. It is not a philosophy in the speculative sense, but a seeing of things as they really are, without the illusions that are created and upheld by our imagination.
Its practical side is called Adhyatma Yoga, the Yoga of Self-knowledge, a range of practices and a way of life that is intended to lead our understanding to ‘direct experience of reality’, or, in the words of an ancient prayer, that we may be led ‘from error to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.’ This prayer is to be taken as a statement of practical purpose, the very purpose of our life in this world as intelligent conscious beings. It is fulfilled by seeing through the mystery of our own consciousness and being, and this is the real field of Shankara’s philosophy, which is transmitted and unfolded in the course of his comments on the ancient revealed texts.
Let us consider the question: ‘What am I?’ In the collection of Shankara’s writings called The Thousand Teachings, we find the answer to this question presented in direct and uncompromising terms. For example:
I am the Lord, ever one and the same in all beings, beyond the destructible and indestructible principles, hence the supreme Spirit. Although I am the supreme Self and one without a second, I am mistakenly supposed to be other than this on account of nescience.*
I am the Self, entirely pure, without a veil, unaffected by nescience or its false suggestions or by actions and their results. Though (apparently) clothed in the powers of sight, hearing, etc., I am one without a second, eternally fixed in my own true nature, motionless like the ether of the sky.
I am the Self, the supreme Absolute, pure consciousness am I, ever without a second, other than name, form and action, ever liberated by nature. (10:8-9 and 11:7)
(* Nescience, or metaphysical ignorance, signifies our unawareness of the ultimate truth of the non-dual, absolute nature of the Self, accompanied by our conviction of the reality of the world of multiplicity.)
Our progress in wisdom is reflected in our evolving conception of the supreme being and our relationship with it. At first this supreme principle is thought of as the great power that rules the universe, separate from our own being, and worshipped as He or That. On deepening acquaintance, so to say, the pronoun changes, and this power is addressed as You, or Thou, as found in the religious literature of all traditions. But the final stage is to recognize that point of light and consciousness in our own being, in other words, our I, when distinguished from all that is changeable in us, as the same divine principle that we formerly worshipped as other.
This doctrine, which is a veiled secret in some traditions, which is generally spoken of in guarded terms by the mystics of Christianity and Islam, is the starting point of Shri Shankara’s philosophy. It is not only presented openly, but shown to be reasonable and an elucidation of our own experience. Through reasoning, Shri Shankara shows how any other view of human nature is invalid because of the contradictions implicit in that view, or because it does not account for the whole of human experience.
At first sight, nothing could sound more unreasonable than to affirm that the true Self of a mere human is identical with the supreme reality. It should be noted that this is not speaking of a special type of person, but of our nature in general. This truth is, so to say, the pearl that is hidden in the oyster shell of our personality. What is the source of our knowledge of this truth? For this we have to go back to the Upanishads. Here we find there are certain short statements, which proclaim this identity, and then we find many other verses in which this identity is stated or implied in more expanded terms.
One of these key utterances is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: ‘I am Brahman’, Aham Brahmasmi in Sanskrit. Brahman here means the Absolute, the ultimate Spirit, the All, God in the highest sense. We are considering a text which goes back centuries before Christ, and almost certainly pre-dates the Buddha and the philosophical flowering in ancient Greece. The passage that contains this utterance is too profound to be readily understood and still retains its aura of sublimity; few statements can be so direct in their utterance of the highest truth.
This (Self) was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew only itself as ‘I am Brahman’. Therefore It became all. And whoever among the gods knew It, also became That. And the same with sages and men…To this day, whoever in like manner knows It as ‘I am Brahman’ becomes all this (universe). Even the gods cannot prevail against him, for he becomes their Self. While he who worships another god, thinking ‘He is one, I am another’, does not know.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:10)
Brahman itself, being the Absolute, is beyond the range of human thought, and can only be apprehended through the awakening of a higher faculty of Self-knowledge which comes to light in a condition of inner stillness, brought about through the dedicated pursuit and practice of the spiritual life. It is That ‘from which the universe came forth, in which it abides, and into which it is finally dissolved’. The universe is held to be an appearance of Brahman, not ultimately real in itself. Though Brahman is undetected by the human senses, if it were not present as the underlying reality, nothing would exist. There is nothing outside Brahman, the Infinite, and it has no internal divisions or parts. The Upanishads speak of it as ‘That’, and all conceptions of God are tentative means to approach the reality of Brahman, yet while these remain conceptions, however sublime or subtle, they can never embrace the ultimate source of being, Brahman. Hence the Upanishads warn the enquirer that Brahman is ‘not this, not this’—neti, neti. Yet, far from being an emptiness or a negation, Brahman is the source of all our experience, empirical and spiritual, and is ‘greater than the great’.
Then we return to the question, ‘What is this ‘I’ in us, this apparent centre of identity which provides our individual selfhood?’ What right have we to equate it with the infinite, nameless, sublime principle indicated, not defined, through the language of the Upanishads? First, we ourselves are encouraged to investigate the nature of the ‘I’, through learning to expand our powers of reflection and introvertive penetration. This we can only do through a training in tranquillity and inward alertness. When we make this investigation, we encounter what might be called the mystery of consciousness.
Normally we think of consciousness as a quality associated with our physical and mental functions. When we are seeing, consciousness is involved in helping us to see, in making the visual experience possible; when we are hearing, or listening, again, consciousness is necessary to uphold these functions. It is the same with speech, and all our other faculties.
Even as we go deeper within ourselves, away from the sense life, into our inner world of thoughts and feelings, consciousness seems to play an essential part in the experience. It is always there, but somehow not noteworthy in itself. It only seems meaningful when manifest through certain recognisable functions.
But there is deeper light to be shed on this aspect of our experience. Another of the great upanishadic utterances is: ‘Consciousness is Brahman’—Prajnanam Brahman. This in turn gives us an insight into the meaning of the statement: ‘I am Brahman’. Because, if we ask, where God is in human nature, the answer is: God is the very consciousness in us. In other words, it is consciousness which in the end will show us that we are not ‘only human’, for our true nature is conscious-ness absolute, and there is no ‘self’ apart from That.
For one who has this realization, this infinite and non-dual nature of the true Self is the only valid experience. It is beyond the range of the mind. However, through enquiry, through carefully examining our own internal experience we can, up to a certain point, determine what the Self is not.
It was noted before that when we are seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, and so on, consciousness is indispensable in making these functions possible. And yet we never actually see consciousness at work, we never hear its presence, and we never think ‘consciousness’ as a thought. What, then, is the nature of our innermost consciousness?
Let us consider a particular aspect of our internal experience. Evidently, as human beings, we are aware of our thoughts. There is a sense in which our thoughts are seen by us, or by a principle of awareness within us. We may not be conscious of this awareness all the time. It may spring on us, for instance, in moments of embarrassment, when we become uncomfortably conscious of our own thoughts; or when we are unable to sleep because we cannot stop worrying about something; or as an awareness of distractions when we are trying to meditate. But whether we remain consciously aware of our thoughts or not, from the point of view of this introvertive enquiry, thoughts are part of what is seen. And since we only deduce that we have a mind from the evidence of thoughts and thinking, we can extend this by saying that the mind and its thoughts are part of the seen. They are not the Seer.
If we pursue this line of enquiry, we will come to realize that the mind and its thoughts are very different in nature from the principle of awareness or conscious-ness that witnesses them. For one thing, the thoughts are always moving and changing. They belong to a realm that is by nature perishable. Our thoughts share the same perishable nature as the material world that is usually their content.
But does this perishability apply to the conscious Seer of the thoughts? We cannot say so, because the Seer never actually appears as a thought. Does the Seer of the thoughts ever change? We cannot say so, because the Seer is never in an observable position where we can say: ‘O yes, it has changed.’ The Seer can never be the seen, and its awareness remains unalterable and unfailing.
The truth is that this ultimate Seer, this principle of awareness in us, is not only constant throughout our lifetime, but remains the same, untainted, unmoved, free, deathless, throughout all time. This dimension of our being transcends mind and matter, time and space, and it is identical with our consciousness.
This reasoning proves that our innermost consciousness is radically different in kind from anything else. For it is a changeless and subjective principle that can never be pointed to as a changing object. It is totally unlike the mind, which is finite in its operations and changes every moment.
There is in us the transcendent consciousness, and there is the rest of our make-up, which includes every-thing we are aware of. When the Upanishads use the expression quoted earlier, ‘Neti neti, not this, not this’, they are speaking of the rest, that is, of all the objective elements in our experience. Whether we regard these as mental or material, all these phenomena, all these appearances, belong to the known, the seen, what can be talked about, what can be categorised, what we can make theories about. But the words ‘Neti, neti’, never refer to the Seer, the Consciousness itself, because Prajnanam Brahman—Consciousness is Brahman.
From this simple fact of our inner experience—the fact that there is an all-seeing consciousness which never changes, and that there is a seen world of mind and matter that is always in a state of flux—Shri Shankara draws the most penetrating conclusion about the whole of our experience in this world. He explains how it cannot be accepted as real, or, if it is accepted as real, it is due to a mistake, an error that appears to work outwards from the very root of experience, but which has no logical validity, nor any validity from the stand-point of the supreme realization. This is because our experience is based on an apparent mingling of this innermost conscious light of awareness, which is constant and unalterable, with the ever-changing phenomena of the mind and its thoughts and faculties. The two principles are as different as light and darkness.
The conscious element in us is light, unalterable light, since it is the revealer of everything else in experience. Whereas the mind, with its continuous alteration, is compared to darkness. It gains its animation and apparent light and life from the presence of that ultimate light of the innermost consciousness, the true I, which both reveals thought and makes it possible. But is this play of consciousness, mind and matter really possible and, if so, how?
The supreme light of consciousness, the light of ‘I’, can have nothing in common with the realm of change, the realm of phenomena. Light cannot mix or fuse with darkness; you cannot make a structure of fire and snow. What is ‘I’, consciousness, cannot go into partnership with anything material to bring about a world experience. What is ‘I’, consciousness, as the ever-fixed subject, our immediate awareness, cannot step down and become part of the seen phenomena, part of the mind. It is a logical impossibility.
The mind is, as it were, a ‘you’, that is, something set apart from the true ‘I’. It is, we could say, a ‘you over there’, compared with the inner light of awareness, that is the true ‘I’ or aham which is always our immediate experience. And yet this impossible mixing of subject and object, of Self and not-Self, of consciousness and the non-conscious, of eternal unchanging reality and the ever-changing appearances, of the true ‘I’ and the ‘you’, the mind; this apparent fusion of incompatibles is the root ‘cause’ of all our experience in the world, all our experience as apparently limited human beings, who say: ‘I am, I think, I feel, I am alive.’
This mingling of consciousness and mind, of subject and object, of Self and not-Self, of the unchangeable and the transient, can only occur as a result of an error, of wrong knowledge, of something not being under-stood, of something essential about our nature not being realized. This error is what is described in the philosophy of Vedanta as false superimposition. It is at the core of our experience, and is what the Upanishads call ‘the knot of the heart’. The error can only be dispelled through Self-knowledge in the deepest sense. That knowledge, indicated in the Upanishad, is summed up in the statement: ‘I am Brahman’, ‘Aham Brahmasmi’.
It was said earlier that, up to a certain point, we can work this out for ourselves. Our reason and discernment can attain a deep understanding of what we are not—of what our true ‘I’ cannot be identified with because it is an object of the I’s awareness. But then we reach a point where our powers of reasoning and discrimination, unaided, will collapse and fail to make the final penetration into the true nature of the ‘I’. We will need help if this mystery is to be solved.
The revealed scriptures of the Upanishads, mediated by the enlightened teacher, have as their ultimate aim the transmission of the highest truth—That which transcends reason and even transcends our highest speculations. The Upanishad awakens us to our true nature by reminding us: ‘Thou art Brahman, That Thou Art. There is no other reality and reality is one without a second.’ This supreme knowledge, this lamp of transcendent wisdom, is the light that dispels the dark illusion that covers the heart of humanity. For the fact is:
Thou art that Brahman, free from all change, the same within and without, bliss absolute.
(Avadhut Gita, 1:14)