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.
- Brahman is the source of everything.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Nachiketas asks to understand the fir sacrifice, which is the offering of everything in the Cosmic fire of life.
- 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.
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.