[by a student]
Many American theosophists are asking, "What are the Upanishads?" They are a portion of the ancient Aryan literature which this journal has set itself to help lay before theosophists of America, to the end that whatever in them is good and true may be brought out. As Max Muller says, hitherto the Upanishads have not received at the hands of Sanskrit and oriental scholars, that treatment which in the eyes of philosophers and theologians they seem so fully to deserve. He also calls them "ancient theosophic treatises" and declares that his real love for Sanskrit literature was first kindled by them. (1) They have received no treatment at all in the United States, because they are almost absolutely unknown in the original tongue in this country, and in translations, have been but little studied here. Europe and America differ in this, that while in England and Germany nearly all such study is confined to the book-worm or the theologian, here there is such a general diffusion of pretty fair education in the people, that the study of these books, as translated, may be made popular, a thing which in Europe is perhaps impossible.
Muller returned to the study of the Upanishads after a period of thirty years, during which he had devoted himself to the hymns and Brahmanas of the Vedas, and found his interest in them undiminished. As for the period of these treatises, he says that has been fixed provisionally, at about 800 B. C.
The word means "secret charm," "philosophical doctrine;" and more strictly, "to sit down near." Hindu theologians say the Upanishads belong to revealed religion in opposition to that which is traditional. In the opinion of our friend Muller, to whom all western students must ever remain grateful no matter how much they may disagree with his views as to the Vedas being the lispings of baby man, "the earliest of these philosophical treatises will always maintain a place in the literature of the world, among the most astounding productions of the human mind in any age and in any country." (2)
Professor Weber placed the number of Upanishads at 235; (3) in 1865 Muller put them at 149, and others added to that number, so that even today the actual figures are not known. Indeed it is held by several Orientalists, that before they assumed their present form, a large mass of traditional Upanishads must have existed.
The meaning of the word which ought to be borne most in mind is, "secret knowledge, or true knowledge" although there may be a Upanishad or secret knowledge, which is false.
In the Chandogya Upanishad (I, i,) after describing the deeper meaning of OM, it is said that the sacrifice which a man performs with knowledge, with faith, and with the Upanishad, i.e., with an understanding of the secret charm, or underlying principles and effects, is more powerful than when with faith, the only knowledge possessed is of the rites themselves, their origin and regularity. The sacrifice referred to is, not alone the one offered on the altar in the temple, but that daily sacrifice which every breath and every thought, brings about in ourselves.
THE MUNDAKA UPANISHAD
This is in the Atharva Veda. Although it has the form of a mantra, it is not to be used in the sacrifices, as its sole object is to teach the highest knowledge, the knowledge of Brahman, which cannot be obtained by either worship or sacrifices. Offerings to the Gods, in no matter what mode or church, restraining of the breath, penances, or cultivation of the pychic senses, will not lead to the true knowledge. Yet some works have to be performed, and many persons require works, sacrifices and penances as stepping stones to a higher life. In the progress of these works and sacrificial performances, errors are gradually discovered by the individual himself. He can then remove them. So the Hindu commentators have explained the title of this Upanishad as the "shaving" one. That is, it cuts off the errors of the mind like a razor. It is said by European scholars that the title has not yet been explained. This may be quite correct for them, but it is very certain the Hindu explanation appears to the Hindu mind to be a very good one. Let us proceed.
This means first shaving, or beginning of the process for removing error. It may be considered as a division equivalent to "first title," after which follow the lesser divisions, as: First Khanda.
"1. Brahma was the first of the Devas, the maker of the universe, the preserver of the world. He told the knowledge of Brahman, the foundation of all knowledge, to his eldest son Atharva."
Here at once should be noted, that although in Hindu theology we find Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, as the creator, preserver and destroyer, forming the Trinity, the Upanishad now before us — for cutting away error — has not such a division. It says Brahma is first, also the maker and the preserver. Even knowledge that is true for certain stages of development becomes error when we rise up into the higher plane and desire to know the true. Similarly we find Buddha in his congregation teaching his disciples by means of the "three vehicles," but when he had raised them to the higher plane, he informed them that these vehicles might be discarded and sat or truth be approached through one vehicle.
The knowledge here spoken of is Brahman knowledge which is the supreme vehicle.
"2. Whatever Brahma told Atharvan that knowledge Atharvan told to Angir, he told it to Satyavaha Bharadvaga, and he in succession told it to Angiras. "3. Sannaka, the great householder, approached Angiras respectfully and asked 'Sir, what is that through which if it is known, everything else becomes known?' "4. He said to him: 'Two kinds of knowledge must be known, this is what all who know Brahman tell us, the higher and the lower knowledge.' "5. 'The lower knowledge is the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda, Atharva-Veda, Phonetics, Ceremonial, Grammar, Etymology, Metre and Astronomy; but the higher knowledge is that by which the Indestructible (Brahma) is apprehended. "6. 'That which cannot be seen nor seized, which has no origin and is without qualities, no eyes nor ears, no hands nor feet, the eternal, the all pervading, infinitesimal, that which is imperishable, that is what is regarded by the wise as the source of all beings. "7. 'As the spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as plants grow on the earth, as from every man hairs spring forth on the head and the body, thus does everything arise here from the Indestructible. "8. 'The Brahman swells by means of meditation; hence is produced matter; from matter mind, breath and intellect, the seven worlds, and from the works performed by men in the worlds, the eternal effects, rewards and punishment of works. "9. 'From Him who perceives all and who knows all, whose meditation consists of knowledge, from that highest Brahman is born that other Hiranyagarbha — name, form, and matter.'"
This Khanda unfolds broadly the whole philosophy. The following ones go into particulars. It is very easy here to see that the imperishable doctrine could not be communicated directly by the Great Brahma to man, but it has to be filtered down through various channels. The communicator of it to mortals, however, would be regarded by his finite auditors as a god. The same method is observable in the Bhagavad-Gita (ch. iv) where Krishna says to Arjuna that "this never failing doctrine I formerly taught unto Vivaswat and he to Manu, who told it to Ikswaku, succeeding whom came the Rajarshis who studied it." Manu is regarded as of a wholly Divine nature although not the Great Brahm.
Now, when Angiras, as detailed in the Upanishad, had received this higher knowledge, he was approached by a great householder, by name Saunaka. This has reference to an ancient mode of life in India when Saunaka would be called a grihastha, or one who was performing all his duties to his family, his tribe, and his nation while still in the world. All the while, however, he studied the knowledge of Brahman, so that when the proper time came for him to give up those duties of life, he could either die or retire to solitude. It was not considered then to be a virtue for one to violently sever all ties and assume the garb and life of a mendicant devoted to religious contemplation, but the better way was thought to be that one which resulted in our, so to speak, consuming all the Karma of our family in ourselves. Otherwise it would inevitably result that if he retired with many duties unfulfilled, they waited, figuratively speaking, for him, sure to attach to him in a succeeding incarnation and to work him either injury or obstruction. So it was thought better to work out all such results in the present life as far as possible.
We find here also a foreshadowing of some ideas held by the Greek philosophers. In the third verse, the question is asked: "What is that through which when it is known, the knower thereof knows everything else." Some of the Greeks said that we must first ascend to the general, from which descent to the particular is easy. Such, however, is directly opposite to the modern method, which delights in going from particulars to generals, from effects to causes. The true knowledge proceeds as shown in the Upanishad. By endeavoring to attain to the Universal Soul of all, the knowledge of the particular parts may be gained. This is not easy, but it is easy to try. At the same time do not forsake modern methods altogether, which correspond to the lower knowledge spoken of in Verse 5. Therefore Angiras says: Two kinds of knowledge, the lower and the higher, must be known.
Here and there are persons who seem not to need the lower knowledge, who pay no attention to it, and who apprehend the higher flights impossible for others. This is what is known as the result of past births. In previous incarnations these persons studied upon all the lower planes so that their spiritual perceptions do not now need that help and training which the lower knowledge gives to others. They are approaching that state which is beautifully described by Longfellow in his "Rain in Summer," in these words: —
"Thus the seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
From birth to death, from death to birth;
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth:
'Till glimpses more sublime,
Of things unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
In the rapid and rushing river of Time."
(To be continued)
1. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. I. lxv. (return to text)
2. Sacred Books, &c., Vol. I, lxvii. (return to text)
3. Hist. of Sans. Lit., p. 155, note. (return to text)