Six Questions in the Prasna Upanishad

The Bhagavad Gita and the Prasna Upanishad are the closest examples in the “Eastern Canon” to a dialectical dialogue, such as a Platonic dialogue.

In the Prasna Upanishad, we encounter six students full of devotion to Brahman, “the Supreme Spirit.” In their quest for the highest Brahman they approach the holy Pippalada to explain the sacred teaching. However, he tells them to wait one year, and then he will answer each question.

First Question
Kabandhi Katyayana asks “whence came all created beings?”

The sage responds with a myth. He says, in the beginning the creator longed for the “joy” of creation through Rayi (matter) and Prana (life). This differentiation became day and night, and the sage also states that those who follow and obey the law of the Lord of Creation become creators, like the pale side of the moon, however those who live without deceit or purity live like the radiant sun. He quotes the Rigveda.

Second Question
Bhargava Vaidarbhi asks: what are the powers that keep the union of being, how many keep burning the lamps of life, and which is supreme? -an ontological question.

The sage says the powers are space, air, earth, water, and fire; and voice, mind, eye, and ear. Together these keep the foundation of being, however, life, like the queen bee, is the supreme ruler. The second half is a prayer of praise dedicated to life.

Third Question
Kausalya Asvalayana asks whence does life arise? How does it come to this body? How does it abide and leave? How does it sustain the universe within and without?

The sage states that life comes from the spirit, like a long shadow. The Atman is the inner self that lives in the heart. One attains life everlasting by knowing the meaning of life. This is the only student praised for his pursuit of Brahman by the sage.

Fourth Question
Sauryayani Gargya asks how many powers remain awake in man? Who is the spirit that beholds dreams? Who has no dreams? Who is the spirit on whom all others find rest?

Like a setting sun, the spirit sleeps, but not the body (notice the early distinction between mind/body). In dreams the mind “beholds its own immensity.”Peace comes to those who draw inward to their highest Atman.

Fifth Question
Saibya Satyakama asks: what happens to the man who rests his life on om after death?

He who who rests on the three sacred sounds travels beyond and finds peace without death. He finds these harmonies in the Rigveda, Yajurveda, and Samaveda.

Sixth Question
Sukesa Bharadvaja asks about a prince who once asked if he knew the Spirit sixteen forms. Upon response, the student says he does not know him and he speaks not untruth.

The Spirit rests in the body. It disappears beyond oceans and rivers. The students praise the sage and seers, as the sage tells them that he knows the Supreme Spirit and that there is nothing beyond.

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.

Notes on Creation and Death in the Rig Veda

The Creation Hymn (Nasadiya) is an account of the origins of the cosmos, though curiously, unlike in Genesis, it is not the opening text found in the Rig Veda. Instead, the first hymn of the Rig Veda is dedicated to Agni, god of fire, and Agni is the first word of the Rig Veda signaling the theological matter of its subject.

The first two sentences begin with “there was” indicating that the events occurred temporally, rather than at a beginning. There was neither death nor immortality, nor signs of night or day, nor existence or non-existence. What stirred and where? The hymn provides an answer to the question of origins that is devoid of a deity. A life force arises through the “power of heat” and this is the first seed of mind. A cord appears to delineate the higher from the lower things, giving spacial recognition. The gods then appear afterwards, though the hymn acknowledges that ultimately no one can know definitively. It ends on a questionable note, as is common for the mystical texts. It provides very little in the form of answers, however the scripture does ease the mind as it discourages the mind from thinking.

However, in a separate hymn a term Hiranyagarbha, meaning “golden embryo” or “golden egg”, is the first to arise and hold the earth and the sky in place. Following this, the chants and incantations were born, along with the four Vedas.

In the Vedas, the authors sing hymns to the god of death, Yama. The liquified form of the Soma plant is offered to the gods, much in the way Ambrosia is the drink of the Greek gods.

Curiously, the Rig Veda also contains incantations of spells intended to control the spirit of a human being. Much like the hymns found within the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the more aptly titled Papyrus of Ani, the ancient Vedic peoples also believe in the firm power of recitations and rituals to control the perceived invisible powers of nature. One is always inclined to ask, as William James once did, why the religious conscience is always found coupled with music and rhythm. Why the need for music when engaging with the supernatural?

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics edition translated by Wendy Doniger.

Notes on the Isha Upanishad

In the Isha Upanishad (perhaps meaning hidden or enveloped in the lord or ruler), there is an acknowledgement of the distinction between the ‘transient’ and the ‘eternal.’ In the opening line, the eternal is identified as superior to the transient. One who dwells exceedingly on the latter will descend into darkness, but one who acts according to the former, and sees himself in light of all things in the cosmos, loses fear. Christianity embraces a like-minded dualism, though the self is not annihilated or subjugated to the greater universe.

Similar to the project embarked upon by Lucretius in his later Epicurean work entitled De Rerum Natura, the Isha Upanishad attempts to address man’s primal fear. This fear is best described as the terror of death in light of eternity, or the gripping fear that comes from an awareness of the cold, purposeless, and chaotic cosmos. The author advises us to see ourselves in everything, and thus to lose fear. Death is not unique, as it would be infinitely to the solipsist, but rather a part of the greater unfolding of all things. Another way of formulating the proposition is to say that fear grows from a demonstrative belief in the self alone, divorced from the rest of the cosmos. By shedding this fear, a “sage” can also necessarily depart from his delusions and sorrows.

The Isha Upanishad, although one of the shortest Upanishads, also advises against both “action” and “knowledge,” for both lead down a path to deeper darkness. Man is positioned at a great abyss -transience leads man into darkness, and knowledge and action lead man into an even greater darkness. However, curiously by knowing both, a sage can overcome death and reach immortality.

The Upanishad closes with a prayer to the spirit or god to “reveal” the hidden truth, and to the sun containing the sacred word “OM”, and a plea to shed the body so that it may become ashes in favor of remembrance of “past strivings.” As the scripture concludes, the author longs to follow the path of the good.

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.

Introduction to the Upanishads

The word “Upanishad” comes to us from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to sit at the foot of’ -presumably referring to a student or a disciple sitting at the foot of a master, eager to consider his esoteric wisdom. Other translations interpret the Sanskrit to mean “to sit below” or “to sit near.”

The Upanishads are the highest texts of the Vedic scripture, and also they are the most ancient texts of India, and modern scholars seem to search in vain for the origins and authors of these scriptures. As with the Homeric question or the question concerning Biblical authorship, in searching for one single mind from which the Upanishads sprang is a fabled mission, destined to end with modern scholars tilting at windmills.

Classical Hindu schools acknowledge the first 10-12 Upanishads as the Mukhya Upanishads, and they are considered central to the teaching. Each Upanishad is localized to one Brahmana, which then is matched to one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are considered the ‘end’ of each Veda, both as the conclusion and also the teleological purpose. Although impossible to pinpoint, the oldest Upanishads date back to somewhere between the 800-400 B.C. era.

Two concepts are elemental to the ancient Hindu mind: Brahman and Atman. Brahman comes from the Sanskrit word for “all” and appropriately it is the spirit from which all things emanate, the ultimate reality. In Aristotelian terms, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all things in the cosmos. It is, in vulgar terms, the “highest reality.” Atman is commonly called the soul or self. We might say Brahman is outward truth, and Atman is inward truth. Perhaps as an early root of Greek thought, the Upanishads encourages self knowledge above all else. In addition, it has been said that the Upanishads presents a dualistic cosmos, between Brahman and Atman, however the text is vague on this point as elsewhere it is said that both spirits emanate from the same “oneness”.

The rediscovery of the Upanishads and the Vedas comes to the Western world through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, and the American Transcendentalist movement. This fascination with vague, contradictory eastern mysticism pervades Western thought up to the present day.

There exist approximately 112 Upanishads. If collected in whole, they would fill a book about the size of the Bible. However, they have always been scattered and never entirely compiled as a cohesive whole. The notion of one distinct and cohesive book that is complete is a fundamentally Western design. However, the Upanishads are part of the four Vedas: the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Upanishads constitute the Vedanta, or the concluding portions of the Vedas.