Upanishads are invaluable repositories of vedic knowledge. These are supreme scriptures of Vedantic Philosophy containing the ultimate knowledge of the individual self, soul and the Brahm. Upanishads are also regarded as the source of multiple streams of Indian Philosophy.
The spiritual acumen and enlightened vision of the rishis pervades in the shlokas and mantras of the Upanishads.
Their message is perennially inspiring and is as important and relevant to mankind today, as it was when first revealed in the Vedic Age. Upanishads are eternal treatises of the perceivable as well as the sublime domains of knowledge, preeminent guidebooks for the seekers of true light and unalloyed bliss, and are scriptures of inclusive and integrative teachings for the all-round growth of the mundane as well as spiritual aspects of life. Here is how Sri Aurobindo has summed up the vision of Vedant: "The rooted and fundamental conception of Vedanta is that there exists somewhere, could we find it, available to experience or self revelation, if denied to intellectual research, a single truth comprehensive and universal in the light of which the whole of existence would stand revealed and explained both in its nature and its end. This universal existence, for all its multitude of objects and its diversity of forces, is one in substance and origin; and there is an unknown quantity, X or Brahman to which it can be reduced, for from that it started and in and by that it still exists.
This unknown quantity is called Brahman." The significance of the Upanishads has become more pronounced today when spirituality has been caged and constricted in the narrow confines of philosophical conceptualization of a few so-called masters and misinterpretations of the many ignoramuses, and materialism has engulfed human psyche, throwing away all ennobling moral, ethical and spiritual values. While the sensual pleasure-driven consumerism and blind race for power and pelf have brought humanity to the verge of extinction in this age of single-tracked materialistic development, the schools of spirituality have largely chosen to remain smug and silent in their shells of theoretical idealism.
This dual attack of ignorance and escapism has put us in a state of dilemma and intractable complexities and tensions. The rarest opportunity of being born as "humans" is being wantonly wasted by us. The Upanishads dignify human life as the greatest boon of the Almighty. As described here by the elevated sages (the rishis) every soul in the subtle body, even the angels eagerly await being born as humans. No non-human life-form (yoni) can ever attain the ultimate knowledge (Brahmgyana); it is only in the human life that one gets this exceptional chance.
That is why these vedic scriptures repeatedly stress upon us to make the best use of this unique opportunity and give us clear guidelines to attain the supreme goal of life. They show us the path of comprehensive and ever-elevating progress, eminence and joy. Indeed the quest of the jiva (individual self) for consciousness-evolution gets a chance to be fulfilled in human-form alone by sincerely and single-mindedly following the teachings of the Upanishads.
The Upanishads reveal that a human being is potentially endowed with the faculties of discerning intelligence, wisdom, decision-making and creative talents which provide him the freedom of action (karma) and offer him the capability of becoming the architect of his own destiny. Other forms of life are referred in the Upanishads as "bhoga yonis". In these yonis, the creature simply bears the (good or bad) fruits according to the absolute law of karmas (i.e., as per the accumulated rewards and/or penalties associated with the virtuous and/or sinful actions it performed whenever it was born as a human being in some earlier birth).
The Upanishads define the other yonis as "Jayaswa Mriyaswa" (meaning take birth and die as per the destiny). Only the human form is referred here as "bhoga as well as karma yoni", with emphasis on the latter in terms of creating ones destiny by the freedom of action.
The Upanishads remind us of this fact again and again and enjoin "Manurbhav" (Awaken! Be a human!). Being born in the gross form as a human being is easy, rather a natural outcome of our destined life form as per the stock of our karmas in the specific segments of the lifecycle of our individual self. But, living up to its dignity by inculcating humanity and transacting righteous actions is far more difficult and challenging. It requires continuous conscious refinement, zeal and sincere endeavors towards overcoming our own mental vices and debasing desires and facing the illusions, attractions and threats of external circumstances adhering to the righteous constraints of a duty-bound life as a social being. The teachings of Upanishads are there to guide, protect and safely take us along the illumined path of consciousness-evolution.
The Upanishads describe the human body as "devapuri" and "brahmpuri" (Abode of God) implying that divinity indwells this life-form. A human being needs to recognize this fact and endeavor to attain the ultimate fulfillment of the soul by conscious union with the Supreme Self. In order to explain the importance of self-awakening and self-control in the above regard, the Upnishads rhetorically compare the human body (gross appearance of identity of a human being) with a chariot of which the soul is the true owner. The senses are its horses, mind is the bridle (chain for rein) and intellect is the charioteer.
The two wheels of this chariot are the physical and spiritual spheres of life; their movements indicate progress on both fronts. If we are aware and alert about the real owner (our soul) and thereby awaken our inner-self, then only the charioteer (intellect) will be able to control by disciplining the mind and the senses the path of the chariot and drive it in the righteous direction. If we let the light of the soul shrouded in the mist of ignorance and let our inner-self remain dormant, then we will reach nowhere and will remain entrapped in the selfish impulses of the intellect, agile attractions of the mind and unrestrained desires of the senses. Because of their extrovert tendencies the passions of the mind and the senses continue to grow exponentially thereby clouding the intellect. As a result, unless we are awake and listen to the voice of the soul, the chariot of our life remains sunk in the mire of ambitions, cravings, vices and sufferings. It should be noted that Indian Philosophy does not teach shunning the simple pleasures and joys of life. Joy of the senses and mind are natural and integral part of the gross form of human life. However, these should not be allowed to overshadow the freedom of our true self; we should not let our freedom of karma get enslaved by sense indulgence.
Today when the culture of upbhoga (crass consumerism and sense gratification) seems to have engulfed the globe the following message of the Upanishads stands as the sole savior. It says "Tena Tyaktena Bhunjitha"; meaning: righteously enjoy life through the exclusion of desire. The immediate point we should take note of here is that a human being should use the senses and mind as their master and not as a slave. Unlike other creatures in the animal kingdom, man is driven by the mind (and intellect). Without the bridle of mind the charioteer (intellect) cannot govern the horses (senses) pulling the chariot of life. Thus the mind plays a pivotal role in shaping the quality of a human life.
The rishis of Upanishads had an in-depth knowledge of the human mind and of the multiple dimensions of personality in the gross as well as sublime domains of life. Their main emphasis was that ones efforts for progress in life should be with full mental concentration, sincerity and unflinching zeal, like that of a focused arrow; the Upanishads therefore tell us "Sharavat Tanmayo Bhavet"; meaning: attempt with full engrossment and penetrate (achieve) the aim like a perfect arrow. Doing things half-heartedly or in a haphazard manner brings nothing except failure, disgust, anger and irritation in return, which blunt our talents and frustrate all efforts towards progress of our life.
The rishis had devised several methods for checking and restraining the boundless restlessness of mind. Regular chanting of "Om" at a consistent pace with as much engrossment of mind as possible for a fixed and uninterrupted period of time is described to be the most effective. The sublime sound of "Om" eternally reverberating in the cosmos is referred in the Vedic scriptures as the representation of "Brahm"; therefore "Om" appears as the seed or the first syllable in all vedic mantras. The Tattiriya Upanishad mentions that every good work should be initiated with the Oamkara (chanting of Om) to ensure success. Swadhyaya and Satsang are described in the Upanishad as essential components of the process of enlightening the mind and intellect and elevation of the quality of life. Swadhyaya implies self-study and self-training through the teachings of elevated souls. Satsang means the company of spiritually awakened sadhaks and saints and great personalities; attending discourses of and discussions with such great personalities.
Tapa (penance and ascetic practices for self-refinement) is another major endeavor required for noble success in human life. Be it the clarity and sharpness of intellect, development of talents, enterprising achievements, or actualization of spiritual potentials, everything needs tapa of some kind. Upanishads provide guidance in this regard as well. Adoption of truth (satya) is regarded as the highest kind of tapa; "Satyena Jayate Nanratama"; meaning: (ultimately) Truth alone prevails and not untruth. Recourse to falsehood, though it might bring some short-term gain, eventually leads to self-destruction. Truth shields us against the devastating fire of the hell of evils and guides us towards the heavenly realm of peace, knowledge and unalloyed joy.
Truth liberates the mind from all sufferings and illusions and opens the door to self-realization. The teachings of Upanishads strike an unbiased balance between the mundane and spiritual needs of life. Progress on the materialistic, intellectual and spiritual fronts of life goes hand-in-hand here in a mutually supportive manner. The rishis of the Upanishads and their eminent followers had set ideal examples of this perfection in their own lives. Janak was a king, a duty-bound able administrator, yet he was a true sanyasi (ascetic) in his attitude, actions and conduct. Maharshi Yagyavalkya, for example, was a great spiritual master of Brahmgnana. He was also the pioneering expert of the science of yagya.
He owned cows and other worldly resources for the maintenance of his Ashram and for social-welfare. Similar was the case with other Vedic Rishis. Yet, in every respect, the Upanishadic teaching "Ma Gradhah" (Covet not others possessions; don't possess more of any worldly resources than are just necessary for sustenance of life and performance of personal duties) was earnestly followed by them. Even all the treasure and might of the entire world cannot offer lasting joy to anybody. A balance between the mundane and spiritual needs has to be struck. Single-track approach or excess in either direction is harmful. A comprehensive and sane approach is the best.
The Upanishads do not guide us to renounce the worldly life or escape from our familial and social responsibilities. Rather, they inspire and direct us towards a healthy, happy and dutiful long life. Their teachings enjoin us to perform the karmas with a feeling of "Idam Na Mam" (it is not mine); all self-effort need to be aimed at the welfare of the self as well as others, and should be inspired by altruistic motives rather than by desires for comfort and possession, or for gratifications, egotistic passions and impulses. These types of karmas naturally liberate us from the thralldom of cravings, tensions, fears and sufferings. Thus, eventually we begin to enjoy immense inner peace and bliss even while leading otherwise ordinary looking lives. But how to train ourselves for this yoga of karmas?
The Upanishads provide practical tips and also elucidate deeper aspects. Control over the senses and passions is the essential discipline here; broadening of attitude, inculcation of benevolence, sympathy, compassion and selfless love help us in the progress of Karma yoga sadhana. Observance of simplicity in life style and forgiveness and generosity also provide the necessary impetus. One may proceed gradually to inculcate and expand these virtues. The tradition of alms, sharing food with all those present around at the time of meals, observance of fasting on specific days, etc, are initial steps suggested by the vedic scriptures as part of this training. Recognizing the key role of the tongue in communication and hence in ones behavior and interaction with others, the Upanishads teach "Jivha Madhumattama"; meaning: the tongue (i.e., voice, the spoken word) should be sweet like honey; such a voice can turn foes into friends. In their message of "Jivema Sharadah Shatam" the rishis make us aware of the importance of healthy body and constructive use of its faculties. Further, the rishis teach us to concurrently aspire for cultivation of divine virtues and spiritual knowledge along with mundane progress.
Every night before sleep, we should have an honest review of our activities of the day and analyze whether or not we have made an ideal use of the day as a spiritual being going through human experience. Every day, every moment, we should remember the Almighty God and pray. Our ardent prayer should be:
Astomasadgamaya Tamaso Ma jyotirgamay Mratyormaamatam Gamay
Brahdaranyaka Upnishad (1/3/28)
Oh Lord! Lead us: From falsehood to Truth From darkness to Light From death to Immortality
||Om shanti shanti shanti||