Saturday, 9 August 2008
Here we go with another extract for the planned book... Here is something about the Hindu Scriptures known as the Upanishads (literally 'the Sitting-At-The-Feet-Of"). These are ancient Hindu texts that predate Christianity etc. For me, they are the simplest and most beautiful expression of Man's relationship to the Universe I know.
The idea is to lay the foundations for an understanding of Western spirituality. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all Indo-European in nature culturally, so share a common experience... Thus the Upanishads shed light on how we are perhaps supposed to read Western Scripture...
The oldest and perhaps the simplest and most direct of religious visions of the Divine are the Vedas and Upanishads. Ancient, anonymous texts written by early Indian priests and various unknown mystic respectively, these works predate all later efforts to understand Man's position in the Universe. They deal with Creation, the workings of the Soul and Mind, the nature of reality and the relationship between God and Man.
In the Upanishads, God is known by the name Brahman, meaning 'the Supreme'. It is interesting that no-one has ever looked into the etymological link between Brahman of India and Abraham of the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham, whose original name, Abram, became Abraham after his relationship with God was established has a special status as one of the first great Patriarchs of God in the West. Just as Krishna may be linked to the name Christ, perhaps Abraham's knowledge of God is reflected in his name as an echo of Brahman.
Brahman for Hinduism is a universal deity who is found everywhere and in everything:
"Exalted in songs has been Brahman. In him are God and the world and the soul, and he is the imperishable supporter of all. When the seers of Brahman see him in all creation, they find peace in Brahman and are free from all sorrow.
God upholds the oneness of this universe: the seen and the unseen, the transient and the eternal. The soul of man is bound by pleasure and pain; but when he sees God she is free from all fetters."
Significantly for Hinduism, Brahman is never personified. Instead Brahman is experienced in all created things, but also beyond all created things. Knowledge of this awareness of the Divine within and without everything gives transcendence adn bliss. As the famous Isa Upanishad says:
"Behold the universe in the glory of God: and all that lives and moves on earth. Leaving the transient, find joy in the Eternal: set not your heart on another's possession.... He moves and he moves not. He is far, and he is near. He is within all, and he outside all. Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses fear. When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all things, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?"
Brahman is even above all the Gods. In fact all the Gods are emanations of Brahman, a fact easily forgotten by those studying Hindu culture (and indeed by many Hindus themselves). Brahmanic Hinduism sees all the Gods from Siva, Vishnu and Krishna to Parvati, Shakti and Kali as avatars, or Divine Incarnations of Brahman. Thus the sometimes bewildering array of Hindu deities all unite into one, leading the mind back to Brahman. As an expression of the universal idea of the Many and the One, the One and the Many, it is very simple but infinitely easy to forget. Just as with the ancient Egyptian Gods, who were also regarded as emanations or offspring of the Creator God Atum-Ra, it is easy to become lost in the forest of deities between us and the One. Judging by Akehnaten's unpopular attempt to clear away the confusion and focus on the One God, nor does everyone want to do anything other than get lost in that forest.
Nonetheless, in the Upanishads the focus is exclusively on this Divine Entity known as Brahman. A closer look at the quotes above reveal that Brahman is even above God ("In him are God and the world and the soul, and he is the imperishable supporter of all'). Just as the Buddha spoke of a Greater Consciousness above even the Gods, so do the Upanishads describe Brahman as an energy which is beyond everything.:
"There is a Spirit who is amongst the things of this world and yet he is above the things of this world. He is clear and pure, in the peace of a void of vastness. He is beyond the life of the body and the mind, never-born, never-dying, everlasting, ever ONE in his own greatness. He is the Spirit whose power gives consciousness to the body: he is the driver of the chariot."
As we shall see, there are concepts here - the Chariot, the Spirit that gives Consciousness - which will reverberate through our own studies of the Western Tradition. Suffice it to say here that Brahman of the Upanishads is both within and without everything, including us, and thus, just as we are the smallest part of Creation, nonetheless we are intimately part of Brahman and find his Consciousness in our own:
"WHo is the God to whom we shall offer adoration? The God of gods, in whose glory the worlds are, whoe rules this world of man and all living beings. He is the God of forms infinite in whose glory all things are, smaller than the smallest atoms, and yet the Creator of all, ever living in the mystery of his creation. In the vision of this God of love there is everlasting peace. He is the Lord of all who, hidden in the heart of things, watches over the world of time. The gods and seers of Brahman are one with him; and when a man knows him he cuts the bonds of death. When one knows God who is hidden in the heart of all things, even as cream is hidden from milk, and in whose glory all things are, he is free from all bondage. This is the God whose work is all the worlds, the supreme Soul who dwells forever in the hearts of men. Those who know him through their hearts and their minds become immortal."
What is crucially significant here is the image of a Divinity 'forever in the hearts of men.' Far from the vision of a humanity sunk in sin or separated by a gulf from God we have come to understand from the Western religions, the Upanishads find God everywhere. Humanity, far from being the corrupt result of disobedience or filled with 'utter depravity', is part of Brahman, contains Brahman within itself, most importantly, as we shall see, 'in the heart'. Just as the ancients of the West located the Heart as the seat of the Soul, so the writers of the Upanishads found God in the Heart and not in the head. The Heart, the chakra which unites the three earthly with the three celestial chakras in one, is where God resides. With this knowledge in mind, the images of the Sacred Heart of both Christ and the Virgin take on a new meaning.
Equally important in these extracts is the distinction and unity between 'God, the world and the Soul', all of which are enfolded, like the Christian Trinity, in the Oneness of Brahman:
"There is the soul of man with wisdom and unwisdom, power and powerlessness; there is nature, Prakriti, which is creation for the sake of the soul; and there is God, infinite, omnipresent, who watches the work of creation. When a man knows the three he knows Brahman."
This passage repays closer study, particularly for when we come to discussion of the Trinity. This Upanishad clearly describes the three elements of Brahman - the Soul, Creation (Prakriti) and God who watches over the other two. In Hinduism, the Soul of Man is known as the Atman, or the Universal Soul. Another name for it is Purusha, the Cosmic or Universal Man. This is a Soul of which all humanity, whether male or female is part of. It is the Human Spirit, the energy which is our eternal Self, which gives us Consciousness and Spirituality ad is the root of that sense, which, at moments of great insight, gives us the sensation of being part of a humanity which is far greater than our individual selves. In the passage this Soul of Man is described as being possessed of 'wisdom and unwisdom, power and powerlessness'. In other words, it is dualistic, double-natured. In its Cosmic Form, it is transcendent, above all, and understands everything. In its earthly form, it feels helpless, is blind and confused. It is ourselves, in fact, possessed of the ability to reach great heights of spiritual understanding but also capable of complete confusion, despair and blindness. If there is a message of the Upanishads, it is that by understanding the presence of Brahman within us, the 'unwisdom' and 'powerlessness' humanity feels is transcended.
The second element of this Upanishadic Trinity is Prakriti, All Created Things. If Atman/Purusha is masculine, Prakriti is feminine. Here referred to, she is 'Creation for the sake of the Soul'. In other words, she is the feminine principle of Creation, the Great Mother, who brings the material world into being for our delight. In Hindu thinking, Purusha is Spirit, Prakriti Matter, the marriage of which is the source of all things.
Above these two principles - the male and the female - is God. Crucially, this is not Brahman, but the energetic principle which unites Spirit and Matter, watching over both. Brahman is the Union of all three of these principles. It is something within and above them all. Thus focus on one at the exclusion of the others leads to an imbalance. The Upanishads lead to a holistic goal. Apparent division must give way to a union. Brahman cannot be understood without understanding the relationship of these three energies.
So the Upanishads present a symphonic vision of the Cosmos, one in which Man and God and Creation are all one in Brahman. A striking feature of much of the Upanishads is the apparent effortlessness of this vision. There is little discussion of Sin or the corrupt nature of humanity, only of the need for this perception of Brahman within all. Suffering comes from a faulty relationship with the three energies which point to Brahman. Too much focus on the material leads to pain and injustice. As with the Buddhist conception of things, it is through this mistake that the Wheel of Karma continues to turn and man, rather than discovering his immortal nature, confines himself in pain and confusion. But the Upanishads do not see this in terms of punishment or sin. It is just a simple fact of life. Brahman is available to us everywhere:
"Beyond the senses are their object, and beyond the objects is the mind. Beyond the mind is pure reason, and beyond reason is the Spirit of man. Beyond the Spirit in man is the Spirit of the universe, and beyond is Purusha, the Spirit Supreme. Nothing is beyond Purisha: he is the End of the path. The light of the Atman, the Spirit is invisible, concealed in all beings. It is seen by the seer of the subtle, when the vision is keen and is clear. The wise should surrender speech in mind, mind in the knowing self, the knowing self in the Spirit of the universe, and the Spirit of the universe in the Spirit of peace."
Fascinatingly here, the way to Brahman starts with the senses and ends with a full understanding of Purusha/Atman, the World Soul. Thus Prakriti and Purusha play their part. The World Soul, the Cosmic Man, is the end point, the Cosmic Man being one with God and Brahman. Thus the Upanishads set out their vision of humanity, all humanity, and the Divine. Turning inwards is the key, as is being guided by 'all beings' in which the Atman is 'concealed'. What is extraordinary is that there seems to be no stress or pain in this process. There is no self-laceration, only a turning inwards which is simultaneously a turning outwards, leading to a Unity with all Humanity which is at the same time a Unity with God and what is beyond God...