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Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Swami Sivananda

IGNORANT people identify themselves with the body, mind, Prana and the senses on account of nescience or Avidya. They mistake these false perishable limiting adjuncts or vehicles for the pure immortal Atman and so they are caught in the round of births and deaths. But some wise people abandon this false identification, separate themselves from these limiting adjuncts through enquiry, discrimination, Anvayavyatireka Yukti and practice of 'Neti-Neti' doctrine (I am not this body, I am not this Prana, I am not this mind, I am not the senses), identify themselves with the all-pervading, immortal, pure Brahman, obtain knowledge of Brahman and attain immortality.

One becomes immortal by renouncing all desires. In this world man always talks of 'my son', 'my wife', 'my house', etc. The wise abandon all such worldly talks and worldly desires and attain immortality by meditation on Brahman who is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, etc. The Sruti says, Not by works, not by offspring, not by wealth, but by renunciation alone is immortality attained. When all desires are abandoned here they attain the Brahman. Having turned his senses inward for desire of immorality, the wise man attains Brahman.

Just as water in a cup borrows it heat from sun or fire, so also the mind, Prana and senses borrow their light and power from Atman. Atman is the source for all these organs. The ear hears through the light of the Atman, the tongue speaks through the power of Atman, the mind thinks through the intelligence of Atman and Prana performs its function through the power of Atman only. Mind and these organs are inert and non-intelligent. They appear to be intelligent thought the light and power of the Atman. Brahman or the Atman gives to the ear the power of hearing, the mind the power of thinking, the tongue the power of speaking, the eye the power of seeing and the power of life to the Prana. It is therefore said that it is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, etc.

There is a director for the ears, eyes, tongue, mind and life-force who is distinct from the ear, mind and Prana. The ears, eyes, mind and Prana exist for his use just as the house exists for the use of the owner. The director is Brahman or Atman.

The eye and the organs cannot go to the Brahman. They cannot approach Him for one cannot go to one's own Self. How can the eyes see the seer of sight? The eye is an object of perception for the mind and Atman. However clever and acrobat may be, he cannot jump on his own shoulders. So is the case with the senses. The eye can only see the external objects of the universe. That is its only function. How can it know or reach its source which is extremely subtle? It is not possible to go to one's own self. Similarly, speech cannot go there. When you utter the word cow, that word enlightens the object 'cow' denotes by it. Then it is said that the word goes to the object. The source or support or abode or resting place for the word and the organ that utters it is Brahman. Therefore the word or the speech or the mouth does not go there, i.e., approach Brahman.

The mind also cannot go there. How can it know the knower? Just as fire that burns and enlightens other objects cannot either burn or enlighten itself, so the mind which knows the external objects through the avenues of the senses, cannot know the Atman or Brahman, because Brahman is the source for the mind also, and the mind is gross, inert and finite. How can the finite know the Infinite? The gross impure mind cannot approach Brahman. But the subtle, pure mind only can go there, for pure mind is Brahman itself.

Speech cannot reveal or illumine Brahman. Brahman is beyond the organs of speech. The tongue speaks through the power or light of Brahman. Speech is infinite. How can the finite speech reveal the infinite Brahman. Brahman only illumines speech and its organ Vak which is presided over by fire (Agni); so Brahman is speech of speech, tongue of tongue. The Vajasaneyaka says, Brahma is within speech and directs speech. This Atman is Brahman or Bhuma (infinite or the unconditioned). Brahman is unsurpassable, big, great, highest of all, all-pervading. So He is called Brahman.

The mind is connected with all organs. It is the commander or the chief. The Srutis say, Desire, volition, deliberation, faith, negligence, courage, timidity, shame, intelligence, fear, etc., are mind.
Mind is the Drik or seer, the objects are the Drishya or visible objects. Atman or Brahman is the Drik, mind is the Drishya. The mind cannot approach Brahman. The mind is enlightened by the intelligence of Brahman shining within. The mind functions through the light and power of Brahman. The mind is pervaded by the Brahman. So say the knowers of Brahman. The interior intelligence of the mind is Brahman. The mind comprehends the world or objects through the power or light or intelligence of Brahman.

The senses carry the sense impressions or images of objects to the mind. The mind presents them to the Self or Atman or Purusha. The Purusha beholds them, gazes and fixes His seal and returns them back to the mind, just as the king puts his seal on papers and returns them back to the prime minister. Then only comprehension of objects becomes perfect.

Brahman directs the eye towards form. Brahman cannot be seen by the eye, as He is not an object of perception. Eye is a finite instrument to carry the impressions of objects viz., colour, shape, form size, etc., to the mind. Eye derives its power of seeing from Brahman only who is its source. The eye is made to move towards its objects by the enlightening intelligence of Brahman. Brahman is the real unseen seer of sight. He is the silent witness of the activity of the eye. by the light of the Brahman, connected with the activities of the mind, man beholds the activity of the eye. The activity of the eye varies according to the activity of the mind. Brahman is the Lord or Proprietor of this mental factory. The eyes, ears, etc., are the ordinary clerks. Mind is the head clerk. Intellect (Buddhi) is the managing director.

Brahman directs the ear towards sound. Ear is a finite instrument. It carries the impressions of sound to the mind. The activity of the ear is connected with the activity of the mind. It derives its power of hearing from Brahman only its source. The ear is made to move towards sound, music, etc., by the enlightening intelligence of Brahman. Brahman is the real unheard hearer. He is the silent witness of the activity of the ear.

Brahman cannot be an object of perception, because He is partless, attributeless, bodiless, extremely subtle. He is beyond the reach of senses, (Atindriys, Adrishya). He can only be intuitively realised through meditation. The senses and the mind can perceive only the external objects of the universe.

You can explain to others about objects that are cognised by the senses by giving a description of their attributes, class, modes of activity, etc. But Brahman is without attributes, class, etc. So it is not possible to teach about Brahman to the disciples. To define Brahman is to deny Brahman. Sat-Chit-Ananda is also a provisional definition. That is the reason why Srutis explain Brahman through 'Neti-Neti' doctrine. The preceptor should exert very much in giving instruction. The disciple should possess a subtle, sharp, pure and one-pointed intellect.

It is not possible to make the pupil believe in the Atman by instruction, by the evidence of the senses and other proofs, but it is quite possible to make him believe and understand by the aid of Srutis or scriptures.

Brahman cannot be known like the objects of the world. It cannot be explained also by mere words just as you explain to others the nature of objects by words.

Brahman is the only reality. He is the basis or source for everything. Brahman is not an object. He is all-pervading, mysterious, incomprehensible, Chaitanya or pure consciousness. He must be known through intuition or self-cognition. It is very difficult to understand the nature of Brahman. It is very difficult to explain the nature of Brahman, because there is no means or language. The Rishis of yore tried their level best to make the disciples understand Brahman by various ways of expression. Those who are endowed with pure and subtle intellect can easily grasp the subtle ideas of the Upanishads. For the passionate and the worldly-minded who are endowed with an impure, outgoing mind, Upanishad is a sealed book. Everything is Greek and Latin for them.

As Brahman is beyond the reach of senses and the mind, the aspirant should at first have a comprehensive understanding of Brahman through the study of Upanishads and the instructions of an illumined preceptor. He should equip himself with the four means and practise constant meditation. Then he will attain knowledge of Brahman and realise Brahman. Then all doubts and delusions will vanish.

That which is distinct from both the known and the unknown is Brahman or Atman. The knowledge of Brahman has been traditionally handed down from preceptor to disciple. Gaudapada taught the Brahman-Vidya to Govindapada; Govindapada to Sankara; Sankara to Padmapada and so on. Brahman can be known only by instruction from an illumined teacher or a realised sage and not by logical discussions nor by intelligence, vast learning, expositions, austerity or sacrificial rites, etc. May the light of supreme knowledge illumine your intellect!


The miseries of Samsara are beyond description. Ignorance is the root-cause for all human sufferings. It is very hard to suffer birth, old age, death and disease. If a man knows Brahman, there is immortality for him. If he does not known Brahman, he is caught in the round of births and deaths.

Therefore, real aspirants who thirst for liberation abandon the erroneous notion of 'I' and 'Mine' and turn away with disgust from this world as everything here is perishable, illusory and transitory. They practise meditation on the Self and behold the one essence of the Atman i.e., the Brahman in all objects of this world, movable and immovable. They realise the oneness of the Self or unity of the Atman in all and become immortal i.e., become Brahman Itself. The Mundaka Upanishad says, He who knows that highest Brahman, becomes Brahman Itself.

He who lives in Brahman and he who has realised the Atman really leads a true life. Mundane life or sense life is untruth. It is illusory. Knower of Brahman attains liberation while living. As soon as ignorance which is the cause of bondage is dispelled, by attainment of knowledge of Brahman, one gets liberation at once.

Those who are endowed with the four means and who are pure and intelligent can understand the teachings of Upanishads. Many misunderstand and mistake the limiting adjuncts viz., body, mind, egoism, etc., for the Atman, even though they study Upanishads and hear the Srutis from sages, as they are not proper Adhikaris or qualified persons. Prajapati instructed Virochana and Indra: This Purusha who is seen in the eye is the immortal and fearless Brahman. Both misunderstand and misinterpreted this teaching and took the body for Brahman as the faults in them were not purged and their minds were impure and gross.

Indra stayed with Prajapati for 101 years, removed his faults and impurities through Tapas, faith and celibacy and comprehended the very Brahman at the fourth time only, even though it was taught to him previously trice.

Even in the world if fifty students receive instructions from the same teacher, some understand rightly, some misinterpret the teaching, some interpret it contrary to the expressed view and some do not understand at all. If this is the case with the secular science, what more need we say of the knowledge of Brahman. Which is subtle and beyond the reach of intellect?

Immortality (Amrita) is the very nature of Brahman, just as heat is the very nature of fire. Brahma Jnana or knowledge of the Self destroys ignorance just as light destroys darkness and thus reveals one's inherent immortal nature.

The aspirant separates himself from the thoughts and mental modifications, identifies himself with the witness of all cognitions, thoughts and all states of consciousness.

Srutis emphatically declare Brahman is eternal, pure, self-luminous, undecaying, existence absolute, knowledge absolute, bliss absolute. This is possible only if Brahman be the witness of all states of consciousness. The knowledge that the Atman is the witness of all states of consciousness gives immortality.

Brahman is not an object of perception. Knowledge of Brahman is intuitive self-awareness. Of everything which may become an object of knowledge, a perfect or definite knowledge is possible; but not so of a thing which cannot become such an object. This is Brahman for he is the knower and the knower may well know other things, but not make himself the object of his knowledge. The subject of knowledge 'I who know' can never become its object; for having become object, it ceases to have the nature of subject, in the same way as fire can burn other things, but not itself. Nor it be said that Brahman may be made the object of the knowledge of another; for beside him, none that knows exists.

If it is further said, the nature of everything is that, by which it is defined; Brahman is especially defined by consciousness, which does neither refer to the external senses, nor to the internal sense, but merely refers to Brahman; therefore, Brahman is consciousness. There is no knower other than that.

In reality Brahman has no forms. The attributes by which Brahman is defined may be said to be its form. Srutis says, Brahman is knowledge and bliss Brahman is dense with knowledge, Prajnana Ghana, Vijnana Ghana, Chid Ghana, Brahman is existence, knowledge, infinity, Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam. The form of Brahman has thus been defined. Those attributes are the prop in the beginning. You will have to fix the mind on these attributes in the beginning of your spiritual practice. These attributes will drop by themselves gradually and you will merge yourself in Brahman eventually. The preceptor can make his disciples understand Brahman through these attributes only. Brahman is defined in these attributes not on account of its own essence but for the sake of the above two purposes. According to its essence it is unknown to those who know and known to those who do not know.

You cannot know Brahman just as you know an object. Brahman is known or realised not as an object but as pure self-consciousness through intuition or direct inner experience or illumination. In this spiritual experience there is no objective consciousness. Subject and object are one in the spiritual experience.

Brahman is not the unknown and unknowable of the agnostics thought it is said, Brahman is incomprehensible. Brahman cannot be known or seen. Brahman is beyond the reach of mind, intellect and senses. It is more than known as it is realised by one's own Self. Brahman is always the silent, witnessing consciousness. He is the subject, knower and seer. Anything perceived by the senses and conceived by the mind cannot be Brahman. An object of the world only can be perceived by the senses and thought of by the mind. The seer can never be seen. The knower can never be known (by the intellect or the mind). Brahman is unknowable in the objective sense. Brahman is unknowable by the mind, intellect and senses. He is certainly knowable through direct intuitive perception in Samadhi as the Self or Atman by the pure mind which is Brahman itself.

Till you attain the highest Nirvikalpa state wherein you will find and feel, All indeed is Brahman, there is nothing but the Self (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahman) you will have to practise again and again, enquiry, reflection and meditation. You must feel His presence in all names and forms. This is a sublime, soul-stirring experience that cannot be either imagined or described in words. You will have to experience it yourself in Samadhi when the mind, intellect and the senses cease functioning.

The knower of Brahman only possesses tremendous spiritual strength. Real strength comes through knowledge of the Self. The knower of Brahman becomes absolutely fearless. He knows that his Self will not be affected in the least by external conditions. He is fully aware that the Self is invincible and invulnerable. The knower of Brahman can move the whole world. It is the well-defined meaning of all writings on Vedanta, that the Self or soul of every one who knows is Brahman. Glory to such exalted personage!

May you ceaselessly meditate on the sublime truths contained in the sacred Upanishad of the seers of yore!

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