The Cosmic Mystery

That Self, which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst, which desires nothing but what it ought to desire, and imagines nothing but what it ought to imagine, it is that which we should search out; that which we must try to understand. He who reaches that Self and understands it gains all the world of desires. ~ Chandogya Upanishad

Lead the thoughts from the head into the heart and keep them there.

With this saying of the Greek fathers, Bede Griffiths describes the opening of the Heart to the Cosmic Mystery. The Upanishads likewise need to be read that way. Although there are 108 Upanishads in theory, the twelve principle Upanishads are what matter.

From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Griffiths identifies three words that signify the Godhead: Brahman, Atman, Purusha.

  • Brahman. Brahman is the source of all creation or the ground of all being.
  • Atman. Atman, the Self, is the ground of all consciousness.
  • Purusha. God as Person.

There is a progressive realization that Brahman, Atman, and Purusha are all One. This chapter is concerned with the first two. The understanding of the word “Brahman” illustrates Griffiths’ powerful methodology.

The root of Brahman is “Brh” which means “to grow or to swell”, which is the physical meaning. The psychological and spiritual meaning then identifies this “swelling” as the rising up of the awareness of God. Hence, he explains:

The word Brahman came to mean a prayer, something which rises up in the heart, swells within, breaks out and opens up to the divine, to a mystery beyond. Man is in search of this hidden mystery, and it is a mystery which cannot be named.


Griffiths reminds us that “sacrifice was the centre of all ancient religion.” Since everything comes down from above, it must be returned. Thus, the sacrifice is the return to God, and sin is the opposite, the appropriation of something to one’s self. This rhythm of the world — coming forth from, and then returning to, God — is rita, or cosmic order. When you live in that rhythm, you are said to be turning the wheel of the law, the dharma chakra. When you sin, you are going against the law of the universe.

Brahman is the power which sustains the sacrifice and sustains the whole creation. There are two aspects.

  1. Brahman is the source of everything.
  2. Brahman pervades the universe.

Griffiths rejects the misunderstanding that this represents a form of pantheistic monism. Griffiths then discusses several stories from the Vedas, which we can’t summarize here, other than to point out that some truths can only be expressed by stories, parables, myths, and the like.

Positive and Negative Approaches

Since Brahman can never be fully encompassed in words, two methods developed to aid understanding. The positive and negative approaches are not unlike cataphatic and apophatic Christian theology. In the first approach, imagery is used to describe the ineffable. The richness of such symbols is adequately described in several of Rene Guenon’s works.

In the negative approach, Brahman is “neti, neti”, or “not this, not that”. That is, no image or concept will ever be adequate. Once again, the “head” will fail us, but the “heart” will see. Griffiths reminds Christians of the same thing.

The Hidden Source

Few people try to find the hidden source of the things in the phenomenal world. Once again, Griffiths illustrates this with a story about a Brahman youth who learned Sanskrit, memorized the Vedas, and so on. After his studies, the youth returned to his Father, who asked him:

Svetaketu, as you are so conceited, considering yourself so well-read and so learned, my dear, have you ever learned of that instruction by which we hear that which cannot be heard, by which we perceive that which cannot be perceived, and by which we know that which we know that which cannot be known?

The son did not know, so the father showed him a fruit from a banyan tree and opened it up. When asked, the son said he saw several seeds. When the father broke a seed and asked again, the son said he saw nothing. The father explained that the banyan tree arose from the subtle essence that cannot be seen.

An analogous idea in Eastern Christianity is that all things participate in God’s creative energy through an inner principles, or logoi. This is explained at The Uncreated Energy (logoi) of God in Nature. (H/T Ekzy’l)

Thou Art That

The deepest mystery of the Upanishads is “Tat tvam asi”, “Thou are That”. This does not mean “I am God”, as some Western wannabe Vedantists have told me. That is how it must sound to the thinking rationalizing mind, but its mystical meaning is:

I, in the deepest centre, the ground of my being, am one with that Brahman, the source of all creation.

Although Griffiths does not express it in these terms, this shows us the two ways to the mystery of God. In the macrocosmic way, we look at the world and recognize God as the hidden source behind the world of phenomena. In the microcosmic way, we look within ourselves to find the source of our own being.

The Four States

In following the path to the source of our own being, there are four states of consciousness. We identify the Self with one of those states, depending on what we understand to be real.

Waking State

In this state we take our ordinary waking state to be the most real. We are a body, we have experiences, we pursue money, sex and power, and so on. But all this passes away, so this cannot be the real Self.

Dream State

A man or woman may then try to find something more real, more immortal. So they look within. They learn to recognize their thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, likes, dislikes, and so on. At this point, people will be led to consider their Personality to be the real Self. Nevertheless, the personality will perish along with the body.

Sleep State

Those who go further will learn to detach from the personality, recognizing the real Self is neither the body nor the personality. At this point they may discover something deeper. They will see that much of their life is “just happening”. The body adopts certain postures and movements on its own. Thoughts and feelings arise from some deeper part of oneself, beyond conscious control. Hence the real Self is beyond any conscious awareness of it. This is the state of deep, or dreamless, sleep.


The fourth state is beyond all the waking, dreaming, and sleep states, yet integrates them all. This is the true Self. We are so accustomed to believe that mind and reason are the supreme principles. But that is illusion (maya) and ignorance (avidya). Yet turiya is beyond thought.

Ego Death

Griffiths relates the story of Nachiketas, who does down to the underworld and meets Yama, the god of Death. He explains:

This is a fundamental principle of all religious teaching. If you want to reach your true Self, if you want to find God, you have to die. In the Christian tradition baptism is death. To be baptized is to participate in the death of Christ. The ego has to undergo this death, the ego, which is the person the mask which we seek to preserve.

Nachiketas is offered three boons by Yama.

  1. Nachiketas asked to be reconciled with his father. The seeker has left home in search of Truth. He eventually needs to return to be reconciled with his pat, with the tradition of his family and people.
  2. Nachiketas asks to understand the fir sacrifice, which is the offering of everything in the Cosmic fire of life.
  3. Nachiketas asks to know what lies beyond death. At first, Yama declines to answer, but finally explains about the Self, Atman, and so on.

Unfortunately, few are those today who would accept those boons. Words like “God”, “soul” and so one have lost all significance as they don’t correspond to experience. Even the religious, who may know doctrines, do not know God in their hearts.

The Abyss

Real doctrine cannot be obtained by argument. Instead, Faith is necessary, when understood as an “illumination of the mind”. It comes by hearing. Beyond death by baptism, the illumination of faith, there is something else, as the Upanishads put it:

The wise, who, by means of meditation on his Self, recognizes the Ancient who is difficult to be seen, who has entered into the dark, who is hidden in the cave, who dwells in the abyss as God; he indeed leaves joy and sorrow far behind.

This is the experience of God in the darkness, and the Ancient One is the primeval source of your being.

12 thoughts on “The Cosmic Mystery

  1. David, I appreciate the recommendations. I am familiar with those authors and works that you suggested. The book by the anonymous Trappist monk was a particularly interesting take on how one might look at the Incarnation from a Vedantin point of view. Nevertheless, it seems to me that is still very difficult to reconcile orthodox Christianity with Advaita Vedanta, that is, an unqualified nondualism. Perennialsts, such as Jean Borella, and Perennialist sympathizers such as Stratford Caldecott and Robert Bolton, have written on this subject. As I said in my previous comment, the Christian mystical streams never appears to stray from a fundamentally bhaktic, that is theistic, framework. But why?

    ” Christianity is surely the religion of creation ex nihilo and of the human person loved forever by a God who is different from himself.” Moreover, “Advaitins or perennialist non-dualists will find it hard to comprehend how the attainment of supreme realization might be made to depend on the incarnation of God at one particular point in history.” – S. Caldecott

    That being said, I don’t think that a qualified nondualism poses the same problem. For example, Visistadvaita affirms that Reality is Brahman; however, individual souls are real and the universe is also real, being parts of Brahman or modes of His manifestation. This view, I think, “saves the appearances”- can safeguard both the “one and the many” and upholds our personhood as individuals.

  2. Cassiodorius : Have you read Vladimir Lossky on the subject, or ”Christianity and the doctrine of non-duality” by an anonymous cistercian monk ? After reading those, you will find that it is not totally alien to Christianity, simply said differently and under different terms. Is it the most prevalent view ? Of course not, but it is not in India either. Is it heterodox ? No, as explained in the cistercian monk book. And this work is much interesting because he said specifically that he doesn’t want to delve into mysticism (such as Eckhart) because using this would make it more open to ”heterodoxy” criticism, and so he goes to major thinker such as St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Albert, etc. You should also read Dyonisus the Aeropagite.

  3. Cologero,

    As always, I appreciate your graciousness and patience in putting up with my repetitiveness. But, I’m troubled by the possibility that I’m not missing something. It seems to me that orthodox Christianity (contra the Perennialist School), aligns much more with Madhva’s “dualistic” school of Vedanta as opposed to Shankara’s Advaita.

    I understand that esoterism transcends all discursivity (a contradiction perhaps). Nevertheless, the Christian mystical tradition distinguishes itself from the jnanic schools in that it speaks of participation, not identity. This is the case because of Christianty’s strict adherence to the creature-Creator distinction. It seems to me that Palamite theology bears this out in stark relief. Even though the doctrine of divinization is affirmed (putting aside that this ,again, refers to union, not identity), the Eastern Church still has to distinguish between God’s Essence and His Energies. The creature can join with His Energies, but NOT with His Essence, not with what He is in Himself.

    From my pov, the Supreme Identity, or “realization” in a Shankaran sense, is simply not on the map for a classical theist. Perhaps, a case can be made for a qualified nondualism of a sort argued for by the likes of a Ramanuja. But I think that even this kind of panentheism might be too “strong” to reconcile with Christian doctrine.

    Kind Regards

  4. Cassiodorus, Guenon claims that “traditional Christianity” is a valid tradition in his sense. I suspect you are misunderstanding something. Specifically, it is not just a matter of verbal formulations but rather of a realization. You are over-thinking it.

  5. Christians, of course, affirm the reality of the soul. However, traditional Christianity also holds fast to the creature-Creator distinction and explicitly rejects the “supreme identity”. Is this merely a confessional bias or does this reflect a fundamental metaphysical first principle? Every time I think I have made peace with classical theism’s relationship to the Perennial Philosophy, these concerns of mine come bubbling up to the surface yet again.

  6. “O for that night! where I in him
    Might live invisible and dim.”

  7. “Dear night! this worlds defeat;
    The stop to busie fools; cares check and curb;
    The day of Spirits; my souls calm retreat
    Which none disturb!
    Christs progress, and his prayer time;
    The hours to which high Heaven doth chime”

  8. There is nothing worth attaining other than this.

  9. “There is in God, some say, a deep and dazzling darkness” Henry Vaughn

  10. Those kind of text are most interesting when linked with other text such as ”Christianity and the doctrine of non-duality”. I highly suggest it. Great stuff again, thank you.

  11. Excellent information once more that when i read it , gives me a form of evolving confirmation of my inner and outer search to understand and overstand the meaning of my existence and maybe help with understanding others around me , its like a type of nutrition that i need to keep my spirits up (:

  12. Yet again, fascinating stuff.

    “Brahman, Atman, and Purusha”

    Remarkable how this number ‘3’ appears over and over again across theologies, isn’t it? ‘This Rough Beast’ pointed it out just recently.

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