The Path – March 1891

STUDIES IN THE UPANISHADS — F. T. S.

These notes are not technical studies of forms of speech, but simply attempts to discover the true meaning underlying the words of the Upanishads. These ancient works are full of food for reflection; they should be studied with a view of finding the inner meaning, and without being influenced by the fact that they are cast in a form which is strange to us. This caution is especially needful in the case of Hindu books, because the Indian is fond of expressing himself in a form totally different from that of his Western brother.

In 1886 I made a few references in these pages to the Mundaka Upanishad, which is often known as the one which shaves off error so that the truth may shine or be apparent, and shall now proceed a little further in the same direction. This Upanishad is divided into chapters or sections which are called "mundakas" and "khandas," the last being the smaller divisions included in the former: a "khanda" would therefore be something like our "section".

Thus we have:

FIRST MUNDAKA, SECOND KHANDA.

1. This is the truth: the sacrificial works which they saw in the hymns of the Veda have been performed in many ways in the Treta age. Practise them diligently, ye lovers of truth; this is your path that leads to the world of good works."

From the first verse to the end of the sixth there are statements and descriptions relating to the flames from the sacrifice and about the effects of good works, ending with these words:

"This is thy holy Brahma world — swarga — gained by thy good works."

All of these mean to inculcate that swarga or heaven will be gained by good works, which are here also called sacrifices or the attentive following of the Brahmanical law. Both in the fifth and sixth verses heaven or devachan is referred to, in the one as the place "where the one lord of the devas dwells", and in the other as "swarga". Indra is "the one lord of the devas", and his place, known as "Indra loka", is devachan or the land of the gods.

Indra's heaven is not eternal. The only loka admitted by the Hindu sacred books to be nondestructible is "Goloka" or the place of Krishna. Those who go to devachan have to emerge from that state when the energies that took them there are exhausted. In the Bhagavad Gita this is thus put; "When the reward is exhausted after having dwelt in the heaven of Indra for years of infinite number, they return to the world of mortals". But even if one should become Indra himself, who is the regent of this sphere, the reward would not be eternal, for the reason that Indra as a power comes to an end at the close of the manvantara. The Khanda under consideration touches upon the transitory nature of the reward for good works without knowledge in the seventh and other verses:

7. But frail indeed are these boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen in which this lower ceremonial has been told. Fools who praise this as the highest good are subject again and again to old age and death.

8. Fools dwell in darkness, wise in their own conceit and puffed up with a vain knowledge, go round and round, staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.

9. Children when they have long lived in ignorance consider themselves happy. Because those who depend on their good works are improvident, owing to their passions, they fall and become miserable when their life in the world which they have gained by their good works is finished.

The fall spoken of in these and also in the tenth is the death in devachan and rebirth into this life. Both life here and life in devachan are illusionary, and hence there is a continual rise and fail, fall and rise, from the one to the other until the time arrives when the man, by adding knowledge to good works is able to mount above the illusion and prevent himself from being drawn into the gulf of death in either this world or the world of the devas. It must follow from this that such a perfected man may, while living among men, have the experiences of devachan, if that be his wish; in Buddha's life it is said that he entered nirvana and carried on his mission upon earth afterwards.

Verse 11, referring to those hermits called Sannyasis who have left all concerns of this world behind, has this significant sentence:

"(those) depart free from passion, through the sun, to where that immortal person dwells whose nature is imperishable".

I am very much inclined to read this as meaning that even in their case what might be called absolute immortality is not gained.

The Hindu philosophy is full of fine distinctions, and, indeed, so is occultism. To say that "they go to that place where the highest person dwells" is not the same as saying they become that person himself. In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna says that only a certain sort of devotion causes the devotee to become the highest person, or, to put it in other words, to be absorbed in the highest. In the present case the Sannyasi goes to the place but does not become that highest person. And in saying "absolute immortality" I have in view the immense periods of time covered by the cycles of the Hindus, which are so long that they seem the same as eternity to us, and are often construed to have that meaning, giving to the term a shorter or lesser significance than we give it. This can be noticed in the sentence quoted from the Bhagavad Gita in the use of the word "infinite", as there it does not mean never-ending, but only an enormous period of time, so immense that the human mind is not able to conceive it and therefore has to call it eternal. The "departure through the sun" is a reference to that part of the hidden-teachings of the Hindu initiates which deals with the practical part of yoga, the ways and means for developing the higher powers and faculties, all of which are governed and affected by certain forces and centres of force in the system of which this globe is a part. Even this has its counterpart in the Bhagavad Gita in that chapter where it is said that the devotee who dies when the sun is in its northern course goes away never to return, and that the one who dies when the moon is waxing goes but to return again, ending with the statement that these two ways of white and black are eternally decreed in this world. This has been commented on by Europeans as being nonsense, but when we know that reference is meant to be made to the eternal unity of the great tides in human affairs and the adjustment of all things to universal laws, it does not seem so foolish. Of course if it be taken to apply to all men indiscriminately, then it would be the talk of children; but it is well known to all those who have had a glimmer of the inner meaning of these holy books that the persons who come under the influence of this law in the manner above given are only those devotees who follow the practices enjoined and thus bring into operation upon themselves different forces from those that bear upon the ordinary man.

In the next verse directions are given for finding the truth as:

12. Let a Brahmana (1) after he has examined all these worlds which are gained by works acquire freedom from all desires. Nothing that is eternal (or not made) can be gained by that which is not eternal (or made). Let him in order to understand this take fuel in his hands and approach a guru who is learned and dwells entirely in Brahman, and that teacher tells the truth to him.

Verse 13 ends this khanda leading to the second Mundaka wherein the truth about these matters is to be found.

FOOTNOTE:

1. "A Brahmana" here does not exclude non-brahmins, but means the man who is on Brahma's path, who is studying the wisdom of or about Brahma or spirit. (return to text)


The Path

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE