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The Upanishads, India's enduring legacy of Self-knowing

Self-knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge. If we don't first know ourselves, how can we claim to truly know anything at all?

Updated: Sep 26, 2018, 17:11 PM IST

The Upanishads are unique among the scriptures of the world in that they are not based upon any declarations of faith, glorification of a deity, or any type of creed or dogma. 

The Upanishads are primarily books of questions consisting of dialogues between teachers and students, conducted with respect in an open and impartial manner. The Upanishads do not ask us to convert others but to understand ourselves through critically examining the very foundation of our own being and consciousness.

The Upanishads address the most important questions of our lives such as: Who I am? Why was I born? What is the reality behind this transient world of appearances? Through what do our minds, senses or pranas function? What abides behind our daily experience of waking, dream and deep sleep?

The Upanishads do not aim to provide answers to these questions at mere factual, theoretical or faith based levels. They ask us to inquire in an experiential manner through introspection, contemplation and meditation - so that we can directly realize the truth within ourselves. They affirm that the ultimate reality is beyond speech and mind but can be known internally when the mind is silent, detached from all thoughts and conclusions.

The Upanishads encourage doubt, debate and the development of a discernment as sharp as the edge of a razor. This extends to questioning what we can actually know, and if there is a better means of knowledge than our limited senses and minds that often prove unreliable. The Upanishads take us into a higher dimension of knowledge than the intellect - not what the mind knows but that by which the mind is known, the immutable Seer beyond anything that can be seen.

A universal vision
The Upanishads have a theistic side recognizing a Cosmic Lord or Ishvara as the world creator but that is not the summit of their views. The dominant term in the Upanishads is Atman as our true Self or immortal nature for which our bodies and minds are mere instruments. This insight into our true nature is perhaps unparalleled in world thought though it has been three thousand years ago or more since the Upanishads were gathered. The existence of a universal consciousness within all is something that the most advanced physics today is still striving to recognize. Our most advanced medicine and psychology have yet to properly conceive it, much less develop a path to realize it.

The Upanishads are the first teachings that clearly explain the concepts of karma and rebirth at a rational level, which have characterized the dharmic traditions of the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh, aiming at liberation from Samsara, the cycle of birth and death. They do not stop short with one life, sin and salvation, heaven or hell, belief or non-belief, but show that the entire universe dwells within us.

The Upanishadic Self, Atman or Purusha is no mere ego, human personality, or any type of separate mind. It is the essence of all beings, the unity of all existence, independent of any particular creature, object or world. It is outside of all things but also inside of all things. It is the most subtle and minute but also the most extensive and vast. It moves ahead of time and encompasses all space. It is not simply eternal or infinite but is timeless and beyond all dimensions.

The Upanishads today
How should we relate to the Upanishads today? We can do so at an advanced level of scientific and philosophical inquiry, but we can also do so at a practical level of our own life experience.

Self-knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge. If we don't first know ourselves, how can we claim to truly know anything at all? If we cannot recognize our true nature beyond the limitations of speech and mind, how can our opinions about the world have any validity beyond mere words and speculations?

Certainly there is much that we need to accomplish in the outer world and the intellectual realm to advance as a species, but the Upanishads remind us that our ultimate goal must be to enter into the cosmic mind and the supreme Brahman that both underlies and transcends everything as the Self of all.

While the Gita offers us the personality of Lord Krishna to aid in this transformation, the Upanishads provide numerous sages and ways of knowledge, diverse teachings that remain worthy of profound exploration by each one of us.

The Upanishads remain perhaps the oldest and most profound spiritual philosophy in the world. Anyone who speaks of karma, rebirth, Self-knowledge, Self-inquiry, Self-realization and realization of the Absolute is reflecting the Upanishadic legacy that is inscribed not only in books but in the core consciousness within all human beings.

Certainly we should question everything, including our teachers, our systems and instruments of knowledge, not to mention our politicians, our media and its spokespersons, but above all we should question ourselves and our own approach to knowledge. This is where the Upanishads continue to guide us. If we only question others but do not question our own minds, then we have failed to understand who we truly are, what is behind our birth, and what alone can take us beyond death and sorrow.

(Dr David Frawley, or Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, is a Western-born Vedacharya, who teaches an integral approach to Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda and Vedic studies. He is the author of 50 books published in 20 languages, and is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India. He is the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)