Isha Upanishad - Super school - Auroville - Session 2: Three Characteristics; The Methods of Vedantic Knowledge

(17 September 2002)

Three Characteristics of the Upanishads

I spoke about three characteristics yesterday. I said the Vedic knowledge was buried under the heavy veil, the veil of language, veil of symbolism and therefore, it was difficult to know what the Vedic knowledge was. This has happened also to Egyptian knowledge, to the ancient Greek knowledge and many other traditions of ancient knowledge. The knowledge was buried under the veil of language and symbolism. But nowhere in world history, as far as we know, an effort was made to remove that veil, this is all that I said yesterday.

But when we come to the period of the Upanishads, which was a period much after the Veda, a special effort was made. Such an effort is therefore unparalleled. It did not happen in Egypt, it did not happen in Greece, did not happen in Chaldea, this kind of an effort and it is this effort which was made in this period in India which makes Indian history unique. It draws out a new line of development in India and that is the importance of the Upanishadic period. Without the Upanishadic period, Indian history would have been similar to the history that has occurred everywhere else. But in India there is a new pattern of development, for the history of India cannot be understood properly without understanding what happened at this time, what was the effort that was made?

When the Vedic knowledge was buried, forgotten, not understood because of the veil of language and symbolism. I spoke of three characteristics of this effort, what was the nature of this effort? This is the background and I'm not giving you the clue, what is the context in which I spoke of the three characteristics, these three characteristics appertain to the nature of the effort. What was the effort made, what is the quality of the effort, what is the thrust of that effort? There I spoke of three aspects; now not tell me what are the three aspects? It does not matter if you don't remember; don't feel shy, because these things are difficult that is why I'm repeating.

This effort was not limited to any one particular group of society, is the third aspect. All sections of society, people, coming from all sectors of society, made an effort to recover this knowledge. There is a second characteristic of which I spoke—the intensity of the effort was tremendous. What was the nature of the intensity? There can be many kinds of intensities. That is first of all to say that knowledge is so important that you can sacrifice everything for it—that intensity. Knowledge was regarded as so important, overarchingly important, that is the nature of that effort, so that knowledge was the supreme object and as a result you sacrifice everything. So, supremacy of knowledge and that supremacy made a demand on the being to sacrifice everything else, I just want knowledge, no wealth, no position, no happiness, only the knowledge,—this was the cry of that period. This is the second characteristic but what is the third characteristic?

The effort was to break the veil, to go beyond symbolism, to go beyond language, to go behind language. How do you go behind the language, how do you go behind the symbolism? When words are presented to you and you say I don't want the words, I want the reality behind the words, how do you do this? They found the method by which you can break the veil. There is a very great chapter in The Life Divine, just note down the title of that chapter; it is called The Methods of Vedantic knowledge. The word Vedanta means Upanishads that means methods of Upanishadic knowledge. When you find time later on, in No School to read The Life Divine, then you read chapter number eight. It is one of the greatest chapters in world history. Why is it called Vedanta, that which is at the end of the Veda,‘anta’ means end. So, that which is at the end of the Veda is called Vedanta, Upanishads are regarded as Vedanta because they came after the Veda as the end of the Veda. Therefore, it is called Vedanta, it's a Vedantic effort, Upanishadic effort is Vedantic effort, Upanishadic system of knowledge is Vedantic system of knowledge. This is the third characteristic of this effort, a kind of a method of knowledge which was discovered, practised, employed so that you go behind the veil of words and language.

Thinking with Words, Ideas or Experiences—Story of Narada and Sanat Kumar

There is a beautiful story in Chandogya Upanishad, there are many Upanishads, we shall come to that. One of the Upanishads is called Chandogya Upanishad, ‘chanda’ is metre in the English language, there are many ‘chandas’ metres, in Sanskrit and in the Veda. This Chandogya Upanishad consists of many good stories but one of them is the following; there was a great learned man, very learned perhaps one of the best of his time. Every discipline of knowledge he had mastered, whatever was known at that time at the highest level. It is something that we should do in Super School, everything that was known at that time, you might say he was a master of Super School; he had learnt everything that was known. His name was Narada, he had attained the highest possible learning that was available at the time. You speak of any subject and he would say I'd know it and I know it very well and know it thoroughly well and know it at the supreme level. Something like Aristotle, I spoke to you yesterday about Aristotle. You take any subject and you know that he has written a book on it, so, something like Aristotle.

Narada went to a teacher; his name was Sanat Kumar. Sanat Kumar was a great Rishi, he had employed all the methods of Vedantic knowledge, he had recovered the method by which words can be transcended, the veil of the words can be overcome, you can go behind the words; you can get at the bottom of the words. So, Sanat Kumar first of all asked Narada: ‘what do you know and why have you come to me?’ So, he gave a list of all the subjects that he knew. One day I'll give you the list of all the subjects that he knew, I don't want to burden your mind. He gives a list of all the sciences, arts of his times and said I know all this but I've come to you because I'm gripped by sorrow. I still have sorrow in spite of all the knowledge and I am suffering, there is sorrow in my mind, in my heart. I am sorrowful and I want to be delivered from the sorrow, what is the secret by which sorrow can be overcome? And I know so much yet sorrow doesn't go out of my consciousness and I am still sorrowful.

The first answer that Sanat Kumar gives is, your knowledge is the knowledge of words that was his answer. He said all that you know is words and so long as you know through words you cannot be delivered from sorrow. It is a very great sentence, it summarises why there is sorrow because all that we know is only words. Mother once told me, when I was speaking to her one day on many subjects that I taught, Mother said all that I taught was language, whether I taught mathematics, physics, chemistry, history or geography whatever it be, you are only learning language. You're trying to find out the words and trying to understand the meaning of the words, it's all language. Exactly, what Sanat Kumar told Narada.

Mother told me that all the subjects, all this is language and the Mother told me exactly what the Upanishadic seers had done. ‘Today, you are thinking with words’, she told me, ‘but today, I ask you to think with ideas’. There is a difference between words and ideas. This is the first method by which you can go behind the words, you penetrate through the words and go behind; you will get ideas and then she said a little later: ‘I shall ask you to think through experiences that are the heart of the matter. Today you're thinking with words, I'm asking you to think with ideas’. That was my immediate program at work, she said, ‘now you think with ideas, don't think with words and then little later, I do know what is, a little later. But anyway later she said, ‘I will ask you to think through experiences’. These are the three words, which are very important. Thinking with words, is the veil of words, veil of language, symbolism. If you want to go behind the words then you break through the words and catch the ideas, which are there behind the words and then go beyond and then you try to get experiences.

If you read the chapter number eight, what is the title,—The methods of Vedantic knowledge. If you open the chapter, there are three parts of the chapter. The first part deals with the knowledge that you gain through senses, which culminates at the highest point of the senses,—is the knowledge that you get through the real sense, since the discovery of the methods of Vedantic knowledge, the Upanishadic seers discovered how to penetrate. As long as we get knowledge from the senses, words are very important but when you go beyond the senses and come to this real sense they discovered that the five senses, which we have eyes ears etc. behind these five senses there is one more sense, the sixth sense, which is the real sense. It is called in Sanskrit, manas, it is the sixth sense. You may have the eyes open but if your mind is not attached to the eyes, even while seeing, you will not see. Isn't that so? You may have your ears open, if your mind is not attached to the ears even while hearing you will not hear. When you're about to sleep, one mosquito bite may sting you but if you get deep sleep you will not experience it,—the mind is withdrawing from the senses. Manas is the mind that senses–mind which is attached to the senses, which can detach itself from the senses that is the sense-mind. Vedic Rishis discovered that behind the five senses there is a sense which has tremendous capacities, it can see without seeing, it can hear without hearing and even while hearing, you may not hear that even while seeing, you may not see both ways.

You know the experience of a dream, you can see in the dream. Your eyes are closed but you can see that you are swimming in the pool of water, in your dream you can see that you're talking to somebody or you are moving about. How do you do that, senses are all closed and yet you hear during your sleep in your dream, you talk to somebody, you can meet somebody. So many sceneries you can see, good, bad, all kinds of sceneries. By what do you see? It is the sense–mind, this was the discovery of the Vedic Rishis, of the Upanishadic seers; this was also known to the Vedic seers but it was recovered.

The methods of Vedantic knowledge were all known to the Vedic Rishis but that knowledge was buried. To recover the knowledge, the Upanishadic seers also recovered the same processes, which the Vedic Rishis had discovered but even that was not enough,− this is the first part of Sri Aurobindo's chapter on the methods of Vedic knowledge. The knowledge of the senses and the knowledge gained through the sixth sense and then Sri Aurobindo speaks of the knowledge obtained by reason that is beyond the senses–mind there is the faculty in us,—the faculty of reason. This reason works only with ideas not with words; this is a speciality of reason.

Reason can function only through ideas, it may make use of words but merely words will not give you any result in the reason, unless you get at the ideas, your reasoning will not function properly, this is the second level. As Mother told me, you are thinking with words today, you should start thinking with ideas. That is the real proper exercise of reason; reason arrives only when you begin to think with ideas,—this is the second part of the chapter. Then Sri Aurobindo says there is a third, the word that is used by Sri Aurobindo to describe the third is called intuition. What is the speciality of intuition, what is known by the sixth sense and what is grasped by ideas is all grasped by an experience this is called intuition. There is no intuition without experience, but not merely experience, an experience which you can have when you widen yourself to the utmost, this is the condition. Intuition, which you attain when you widen yourself to the utmost, heighten yourself to the utmost, you widen–widen yourself, heighten–heighten yourself, and when you reach that level and then experience would be obtained, the real experience,—that is intuition. It is by intuition that is the real method of Vedantic knowledge.

You cross the borders of senses, you cross the borders of reason then you enter into the field of intuition and widen yourself, heighten yourself, as much as possible, this was the practice that the Upanishadic seers employed and they recovered the knowledge, which was in the Veda, they broke through the veil of words and symbolism.

These three efforts were made, what are the three efforts?

This effort was not limited to one section of people, but an effort which was spread over all sections of people; it was a multi sided effort, the effort which was spread over a large number of people; to break the veil and to discover the intuitive knowledge behind the words and symbolism. The intensity of effort in which knowledge was regarded as Supreme, for which one would be required to sacrifice everything else,—this was the intensity of the effort.

I'm repeating because the whole of Indian history is nothing but these three, if you want to understand Indian history. What is Indian history, the entire character of Indian history is the threefold effort, because the Upanishads determined the very character of the soul of India. And these three things have remained throughout the ups and downs of Indian history and whenever there is a downward movement, it starts again with this threefold effort. And by this threefold effort again and again the veils are broken, words are broken, the symbolism is broken; intensity of knowledge is again expressed. The history of India, some of the best people have said all this is inferior,—we want knowledge, this is the special characteristic of India, pursuit of knowledge is of the greatest importance for which everything else can be sacrificed, this is a constant theme of Indian history.

And thirdly, do not limit the pursuit of knowledge to one section of people. Even when it is being done the revolutionaries have come and said , ‘break the idols’ and asserted that everybody be free to access knowledge, everybody, even when boundaries are laid down, the boundaries are fixed strongly, even then there has been revolt against it and all sections of people should have this knowledge. What was reserved at one time only for a few, the next period comes it is broken and that knowledge is given to the rest. There is a constant effort of participation of all, no exclusion, all are to be integrated, all are to be properly harmonised. Therefore, I am repeating these three words because the entire history of India is covered in these three terms of a constant effort at breaking the veil of words and symbolism and effort to go beyond language.

An effort in which the intensity is so great that everything else is sacrificed, such a one pointed effort for the sake of knowledge; this is the second characteristic of Indian history at every turn of Indian history, if you read the pages of Indian history, you'll find this fundamental theme everywhere. And whenever there was a fixation, a bondage, barriers, saying: Oh! Shudras should not learn, (Shudras means those who are menial workers) they should not be given the knowledge. There was a time in India, when it was said that Shudras should not be given the knowledge and great reformers came and said break, break these barriers. Let everybody receive the knowledge, like Buddha challenged this restriction and opened the gates of knowledge to all.

There was a time, when it was said that knowledge should not be given to women, constantly this idea was broken in India and today you can see in the world and in India particularly, a tremendous emphasis on the liberation of women. Everyone should have the same rights, same knowledge,—tremendous force today. For the last 200 years the greatest leaders of India have fought against binding women to the kitchen, this has been a great effort of India for the last 200 years. These three aspects constitute the speciality of Indian history. You do not find the same kind of movement in other countries. I was just explaining all this to point out the importance of the Upanishads.

So now I sum up, the importance of the Upanishads lies in the fact that the kind of effort, which was made by the leaders of the Upanishads is not paralleled anywhere in the world. Nowhere there was a group of people, sections of people outspread, who came forward where the secret knowledge was attempted to be unveiled and recovered. This is the only history in the world where this happened.

The second important point is that as a result the Vedic knowledge was not lost, it was recovered. And from where there flowed hundreds of Ganges as it were, from that store of knowledge, which was captured by the Upanishads. Going beyond words and symbolism from there flow hundreds and thousands of currents of philosophy, thoughts, codes, sciences, thousands of them developed in India.

And thirdly in this cultural movement of India, knowledge was laid down as of supreme importance. If you ask, what is the speciality of Indian history, speciality of Indian soul, it is to lay down that knowledge is of supreme importance. And for that sake, in pursuit of knowledge all other things should be sacrificed, if need be, you may not, but if need be you should be able to sacrifice everything else for the sake of knowledge. This is the soul of India.

Now having said and summarised basically the importance of the Upanishads, I shall invite you to enter into the threshold and then into the hall of the Upanishads. Imagine that there is an exhibition in which we are going to witness, and I am a door–keeper of this exhibition and before entering, I'm only telling you, look at the importance of what is going to be seen inside. So, I wanted to prepare you to enter into the hall of the exhibition. I'll get you some text, so that you have something with you for this kind of an exhibition. This is the text of the exhibition you should always have, something with you, it is always useful to have some text.

As you enter this exhibition hall, you will find at least ten important books. There is comfort in this matter, usually books are very big. Like Veda for example, is a very big book, 10,000 verses in Rig Veda alone. If you take all the Vedic hymns in total, there are 20,000 hymns or mantras of the Vedas. It's a huge literature but Upanishads are very short. The longest would be about 20–30 pages, the shortest are those which have only 8 to 9 verses, it's like a small poem. The one that I'm going to deal with is short; it is called the Isha Upanishad, which is the first book, which will come in your exhibition.

I won't deal with all the books because that is a very big task. I will mainly deal with only four of five Upanishads and that is enough for your introduction. All the other Upanishads you can study for the whole life, it is a lesson for the whole life. It'll be a continuous effort of yours to learn the Upanishads again and again, as I've been doing it all my life and still I have not read all the Upanishads myself but it doesn't matter. If you know a few of them and a few of them very well that itself is enough and that is the greatness of the Upanishads. I'm not going to give you the words, although all of them are words. All Upanishads are written in words but if you follow the method of the Upanishads, the words are taken only in the beginning and then you break the veil of the words, enter into the ideas and then you enter into the experience. So, you don't need to study everything, words have to be transcended. Let us first of all come to this Upanishad called Isha Upanishad.

Verse 1

Now this is one of the greatest but one of the smallest of the Upanishads. You can see, it is only two pages and it's not a great burden and yet it contains a tremendous amount of knowledge. And the first thing that you will find for yourself is words and it is very difficult to penetrate for you. You do not know how to read Sanskrit, I don't know how many of you can read Sanskrit. After my two years of company with you, I will now request you to take a little effort at least to learn the alphabet, so that you can read at least. Although the knowledge that you get is beyond the words, at least you know what the words are, and then you break the veil of the words and then you enter into the ideas and then experience.

I know learning the alphabet is a very difficult task, one of the most difficult tasks in the world is to learn the alphabet. You learn a little, you forget about it, again you learn and practice again; you forget about it and learn a few letters and then you don't learn the others and then there is a mix–up and so on. I know it's very difficult. I am trying to learn the alphabet of Tamil, for example, I find it very difficult. It is a difficult language and a difficult alphabet even though this alphabet is very similar to the Sanskrit alphabet in many ways and yet I find it difficult. So, when I tell you to learn this alphabet, I know how difficult it is. I don't want to pressurise you. When you find time, keep it in mind that by the end of this year, you will be able to read at least these words, which are here. The sound of these words is very, very nice, very beautiful. If you know the Sanskrit language, the enjoyment of chanting these words is so wonderful. There's another reason, why you should learn how to recite, how to enjoy the words and the power of the words. What I’ll do with you is atleast to give you some experience of the words, of the sound, even though you may not follow them, it doesn't matter. You should be accustomed at least to the sound even if you don't follow, don't worry. I shall read out to you the very first verse, which is written there, which you can't read because you don't know the alphabet.

ईशा वास्यमिदं सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत्‌।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम्‌ ॥

īśāvāsyam idam sarvam yat kiñca jagatyām jagat |
Tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā grdhah kasya svid dhanam ||1||

You can see that there are four rhythms, īśāvāsyam idam sarvam, yat kiñca jagatyām jagat, second part, Tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā, mā grdhah kasya svid dhanam.

So four parts of this verse, when you repeat it, again and again, you will find great music in this, it's a wonderful thing to hear it, again and again.

īśāvāsyam idam sarvam yat kiñca jagatyām jagat |
Tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā grdhah kasya svid dhanam ||1||

You can see the fall and the rise of the words and the combination of words and music of the words when they are combined together, like kasya svid dhanam, it is a very beautiful expression.

Or you hear, īśāvāsyam idam sarvam, repeat this and you'll find such a beautiful music in it, yat kiñca jagatyām jagat, you see the rise and fall of the words the combination, Tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā grdhah kasya svid dhanam.

Sri Aurobindo has translated so beautifully, it almost captures the very sound and the music of these words and since you know how to read English, at least, you can participate in the beauty and these rhythms.

“All this is for the habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual world of movement in the universal motion, by that renounced thy shouldst enjoy, by that renounced you enjoy lust not after any man's possession.”

So there are four parts of the whole expression, it translates Sanskrit into English in a very beautiful manner. To translate the Upanishads is not an easy task at all, the poetry of it should be present in the translation, even though it is prose but it is poetic in its expression. The very sense of it is brought out, if you know both Sanskrit and English, you can appreciate both, how beautiful the translation is. Sri Aurobindo is the supreme translator, among many other supreme qualities that he possesses, he's a supreme translator. Now, let us enter into the words and their meanings and go beyond the words and then try to understand the ideas which are there.

All this is for the habitation by the Lord, it doesn't say, I'll just give you another word, which may seem similar but that is not what is meant, all this is the habitation by the Lord, it doesn't say all this is the habitation by the Lord, he doesn't say all this is for habitation by the Lord. īśāvāsyam, vāsyam means that which is meant for, it's not the habitation.

All this that you see is a habitation in which you and I live already but this Upanishad says it is actually meant for the habitation by the Lord, not by you. All this is for what, all this is here is for habitation by the Lord and you've occupied it, saying this is my house, this is his house. But this Upanishad starts by saying, look it for habitation by the Lord, you invite the Lord, let him live there,—this is a great injunction. The kind of life that we are living in which we think that we can occupy this house or that house and what is this habitation, whatsoever is individual universe in universal motion, whatsoever, anything in the world that is moving and you know that everything is moving in the world.

Modern physics has pointed out that even this table even now it is moving although you can see it is stable because if you break it and go up to the atoms, what are the atoms, they are constantly in motion, uncontrollably in motion you can't keep them at rest at all, constantly in motion automatically. So, whether you take a small little thing in the world, a particle of sand, even if it is in individual motion, individual movement, you take the whole universe, the whole sky and all the galaxies, beyond galaxies,—the whole universe, everything is in motion. These Rishis knew the extent of the universe, which the modern people are only now able to find out. At one time Europeans believed that there is a stable, it is only in the 20th century that there is something which is stable, which does not move, it can be moved but it itself is not moving but then the modern physics discovered that what you see to be stable, what you consider stable is consisting of atoms and no atom is empty. It is not stable, it is in constant motion, very regular motion that is, the nucleus is the centre of it, there is proton and there are electrons and there is a special kind of movement of the electrons and protons around the nucleus. So, there are nucleus, protons, and electrons and now they have found out that there are a number of such elements, not only two or three, there are mesons for example in that little thing, but all of them are in motion, that is the important point. This was known in those ages. You can see how much they must have penetrated beyond the language, beyond the words, beyond the senses and how much experience they must have gained to be able to write this long ago that all this universe is in motion. There is nothing, which is stable and that is what is written in the Isha Upanishad.

What is the age of this Upanishad, how long back was it written, there are no dates given here. So, we do not know when it was written. In India we say that long, long ago it was said, but the modern people always feel, don't say long ago, please tell us when exactly, very difficult question to answer because these people did not write the dates on which they wrote. But it is said that the Vedas themselves were composed at least 4500 BC, this is a very modest, very conservative, very Catholic estimate. Now 4500 BC from now is what, today we are in 2000; so 6500 years before the present date Vedas were composed. Then decades past, centuries past, millennia past until this Vedic knowledge was buried, not known, until then the knowledge was buried, it was very difficult to find out, then the Upanishadic seers came on the scene and they made an effort. So let us say at least 2000 years must have passed when the Vedic knowledge was buried, so if that is so then this must have been 2500 BC. I am only giving you conservative figures, only by speculation, by thinking, by guessing, not by any historical evidence but at least this much if not more. So 4000 years before atomic physics was discovered in our own times this Rishi who wrote must be a very, very great sage as Sri Aurobindo says in one of his writings. He is a very great sage, so ripe, so wise, such a great master of life. He had mastered both this world and the other world and the supreme such a wise man, he wrote and in one sentence he writes, not that he writes books and books on it but only in one sentence. Whatever the individual motion there is individual means the atomic movement whatever is the individual motion in the vast motion of the whole universe, jagatyām jagat, that is Sanskrit all that is moving in the vast universe this is the nature of this universe so vast, but remember it is for habitation even the starlet is very far is also for habitation even the seas that you see are also for habitation the lands are also for habitation everything is for habitation. But habitation by whom, that is the master stroke it is for habitation by the Lord makes a great knowledge being given there is a Lord first of all it's the knowledge given to you there is a Lord as distinguished from you because you think that you are living here. You are actually occupying somebody else's house. It is not for you, it is meant for the Lord, you are only permitted the space you want but it is not your house. It is for habitation by the Lord, the Lord himself, the supreme Lord. What is Lord we will see later on but at present we just keep the word so that it gives you some imagination. Master, Supreme—all these words can give you some ideas and some feelings as to what must be the Lord.

We shall take the second sentence

Tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā grdhah kasya svid dhanam.

We shall see tomorrow.