The adoration hymn to Hiranyagarbha (Cosmic Mind) who is therein described as the lord of the universe:
“In the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha,
Born as the only lord of all existence.
This earth he settled firm and heaven established:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Who gives us breath, who gives us strength, whose bidding
All creatures must obey, the bright gods even;
Whose shade is death, whose shadow life immortal:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Who by his might alone became the monarch
Of all that breathes, of all that wakes or slumbers,
Of all, both man and beast, the lord eternal:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Whose might and majesty these snowy mountains,
The ocean and the distant stream exhibit;
Whose arms extended are these spreading regions:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?
Who made the heavens bright, the earth enduring,
Who fixed the firmament, the heaven of heavens;
Who measured out the air’s extended spaces:
What god shall we adore with our oblations?” 1
Or one may point to such hymns as the following:
“Who is our father, our creator, maker,
Who every place doth know and every creature,
By whom alone to gods their names were given,
To him all other creatures go to ask him.” 2
But such hymns are not numerous and probably belong to the last epoch of the composition of the Vedic hymns. Most of the Vedic hymns exhibit a conspicuous tendency toward the polytheistic personification of nature. From most of them the monotheistic tendency is well-nigh absent.
So, also, the literature of the sacrificial manuals, the Brahmanas, emphasizes the doctrine of the sacrifice. The adoration hymns of the different gods have lost their independent value and are esteemed only on account of the fact that these verses, sometimes mutilated and torn out of their context, are uttered or chanted in connection with various sacrificial rituals. This literature also contains some passages of a monotheistic or pantheistic character; but the emphasis is almost entirely on the performance of the sacrifices. In the Aranyaka literature, which contains the substitution-meditations, the value and power of thought is realized for the first time. But it is only in the Upanishads that one finds the earliest instances of a sincere and earnest quest after Brahman, the highest and the greatest.
The most important characteristic which distinguishes the science of Brahman from the science of the sacrifices consists in the fact that the former springs entirely from inner, spiritual longings, while the latter is based almost wholly on mundane desires. The science of sacrifice aimed at the acquirement of merit, which could confer all the blessings of life in consequence of due obedience to the Vedic and ritualistic injunctions and prohibitions. The science of Brahman, however, did not seek any ordinary blessings of life. It proceeded from the spiritual needs of our soul which could be satisfied only by attaining the highest aim. All that is mortal, all that is transient and evanescent, all that gives men the ordinary joys of life, such as wealth or fame confer, are but brute pleasures and brute satisfactions, which please only so long as men allow themselves to be swayed by the demands of their senses. In the hurry and bustle of our modern life, of rapid movements over land, sea and air, in this age of prolific scientific inventions and appliances which add to our material comforts and luxury, in this age of national jealousies and hatreds, which in the name of patriotism and freedom often try to enslave others or monopolize the necessities and luxuries of life for the use of the people of a particular country, it is easy to forget that we have any needs other than the purely material ones. With all the boasted culture of our modern age, with all our advancement of science and progress, do we ever stop to think just what we mean by progress? We have no doubt discovered many new facts of nature, and brought many natural forces under our control. But like vultures soaring high in the air, with greedy eyes fixed on the bones and flesh of the carrion in the field below, are we not, in all our scientific soarings, often turning our greedy eyes to sense gratifications and trying to bind science to the attainment of new comforts and luxuries? The new comforts and luxuries soon become absolute necessities, and we eagerly press forward to the invention of some other new modes of sense gratification and luxury. Science debased to the end of spreading death and of enslaving humanity, or to the end of procuring newer and newer sensations, a life spent in the whirlpool of fleeting pleasures, varied, subtle, and new, and in the worship of the almighty dollar is what most of us tend to call progress. We live more for the body than for the soul. Our body is our soul; our body is our highest Brahman. The story is told in the Chandogya Upanishads that Virochana and Indra went to Prajapati to receive instructions regarding the nature of the self, or of Brahman the highest. Prajapati gave a course of false instructions, apparently to test the powers of discrimination of his two pupils Virochana and Indra. He asked them to get themselves well-dressed and appear at their best, and then to look into a mirror. When they did so and saw the image of their own bodies in the mirror, Prajapati told them that it was their well-dressed bodies reflected in the mirror that was the true self and the highest Brahman; and they went away satisfied with the answer. Indra, indeed, later returned to Prajapati dissatisfied with the answer; but Virochana (probably an old ancestor of ours) was satisfied with the answer that there is nothing higher than what appears to our senses, our earthly body, and our earthly joys.
But what a different answer do we get from Maitreyi, the wife of Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II. 4. Yajnavalkya, wishing to become a hermit, explained to his two wives Maitreyi and Katyayani that he wished to divide his wealth between them so that they might live independently while he was away seeking his higher spiritual destiny. But Maitreyi replied: “Well, sir, if you could give me all the wealth of the world, could I become immortal by that?” “No,” said Yajnavalkya, “you will only live in pleasure as the rich men do, but I can promise you no hope of immortality through wealth.” Maitreyi replied, “Well, sir, what shall I do with that with which I cannot be immortal? Tell me if you know anything by which I may be immortal.”
It is this spiritual craving for immortality that distinguishes the mental outlook of the sages of the Upanishads from our own. Yet this desire for immortality is no mere desire for personal survival continuing the enjoyment of pleasures under newer and happier conditions of life, whether in this world or in heaven. This quest for immortality, as it is found in the Upanishads, is in no sense a yearning for personal immortality, the decayless, diseaseless, deathless existence of the individual with his body in full vigor of youth. Neither is it the desire for a bodiless existence of a self fond of sensual joys and sense gratifications and fettered by all the needs and necessities of mundane relations and mundane gratifications. This quest for immortality is identical with the quest of the highest self, the highest truth and reality, the highest Brahman. It is the perception and realization of the inner spring of our life and the inmost spirituality of man as he is within himself, beyond the range of sense and of discursive thought. If it were a sense-feeling–color, taste, touch, or sound–it might easily be pointed out as this or that sense-datum. It is an ineffable, non-conceptual, inner experience, lying in its own unfathomable depth. When a lump of salt is thrown into the sea, it is entirely dissolved in it; by no means can any part of the lump be recovered in its original form, but every part of the water tastes saline. Similarly, when this stage of supra-consciousness (prajnana) is reached, all ordinary experiences are submerged and dissolved in this. great, infinite, limitless, homogeneous experience. Like the calm and changeless consciousness of deep, dreamless sleep, is this stage where all duality has vanished: there is no person who knows, nor anything that he is aware of. Ordinary knowledge presupposes a difference between ourselves, our knowledge, and that of which we are aware. When I see a color, there is the “I” which sees, there is the knowledge of the color and also the color itself. When I smell, there is the “I” that smells and the smell; when I think, there is the “I” that thinks and that which is thought; when I speak there is the “I” that speaks and that which is spoken. No one would for a moment think of identifying these. But at this stage of the non-conceptual intuition of the self–an unspeakable, ineffable experience–there is no trace of any duality, and we have one whole of blissful experience wherein is distinguished no one that knows and nothing that he is aware of. All ordinary states of knowledge imply a duality of knower and that which is known; but this is an experience where all duality has vanished.
Nevertheless this experience is not something which is wholly beyond, or wholly out of all relation with, our conscious states of dual experience. For it is the basis, or background, as it were, of all our ordinary knowledge involving the knower and the known. In music, the different notes and tones cannot be grasped separately from and independently of the music itself, and when we are busy in apprehending separately the different notes we miss the music or the harmony which is in itself a whole of experience that cannot be taken in parts, in the multiplicity of the varied notes. So it is with this ineffable experience, which in reality underlies all our ordinary experiences and states of knowledge as the basis or ground of them all; when we are lost in the discursive multiplicity of our ordinary experience, we miss this underlying reality. But when once again we are in touch with it, our so-called personality is as it were dissolved in it, and there ensues that infinitude of blissful experience in which all distinctions are lost. Whatever is dear to me, as e.g., father, mother, wife, money, fame, etc., is so because I love my own self so dearly. It is because I can find the needs of my self best realized through these that I love these. None of these can be ends in themselves; it is only the self that can be an end unto itself, irrespective of any other ulterior end or motive. None of the many-sided interests, desires, and activities of the self represent the self in its entirety or in its essence. It is only this supra-conscious experience, which actually underlies them all, that can be called the real self and that for which everything else exists. Everything else is dear to me because my self is dear to me; but this supra-conscious experience underlies the so-called personality, or self, as its very essence, truth and final reality.
It is indeed difficult for us, with the traditions and associations of our modern world, to believe in the reality of this intuitional experience, unless we attempt to realize it ourselves–unless, by turning our minds entirely away from sense-objects and sense-enjoyments, we deliberately, with faith and firmness, plunge into the depths of this new kind of experience. It cannot be expressed in words or understood by conceptual thought; it reveals itself only to supra-conscious experience. The language of the sages of the Upanishads seems strange to us; but we cannot hope to understand a thing of which we have had no experience. Talk to a child of ten about the romantic raptures of love felt by a pair of lovers, or of the maddening intoxication of sense cravings; what would he understand of it? Talk to a Greenlander about the abominable heat of an African desert; will he be able to imagine it? When an experience is to be realized, the powers of mere logical thinking or of abstraction or of constructive imagination are not sufficient for the purpose. Only another realization of the same experience can testify to its truth. We are here concerned with an experience which is non-conceptual, intuitive, and ultimate. But, what is more, subtle, fine and formless as it is, it is said to be the source, basis, and ground of everything else. According to a story told in the Chandogya Upanishad VI, when Shvetaketu returned after a stay of twelve years at the house of his preceptor, where he studied all the Vedas, he became arrogant, considered himself to be a wise man, and hardly ever talked with others. His father said to him: “Well, Shvetaketu, what have you learned that you seem to think yourself so wise? Do you know that which when once known everything else becomes known? When you once know what iron is, you know all that can be made out of iron, for these are in essence nothing but iron; we can distinguish the iron vessels from iron only by their specific forms and names. But whatever may be their names and forms, the true essence in them all, whether they be needles, pans or handles, is nothing but iron. It is only that you find therein so many forms and names. What are these names and forms worth without the essence? It is the essence, the iron, that manifests itself in so many forms and names; when this iron is known, all that is made of iron is also known. It is the ineffable reality, the ultimate being which is the essence of everything else. As rivers which flow into the sea lose all their individuality in it and cannot be distinguished, so all divergent things lose their individuality and distinctness when they are merged in this highest being, the ultimate reality from which they have all sprung forth. Fine and subtle though this experience be, yet it is in reality the entire universe of our knowledge. A small seed of an oak tree when split open reveals nothing that we can call worth noting, yet it is this fine kernel of the seed that holds within it the big oak tree.”
The chief features of this Upanishad mysticism are the earnest and sincere quest for this spiritual illumination, the rapturous delight and force that characterize the utterances of the sages when they speak of the realization of this ineffable experience, the ultimate and the absolute truth and reality, and the immortality of all mortal things. Yet this quest is not the quest of the God of the theists. This highest reality is no individual person separate from us, or one whom we try to please, or whose laws and commands we obey, or to whose will we submit with reverence and devotion. It is, rather, a totality of partless, simple and undifferentiated experience which is the root of all our ordinary knowledge and experience and which is at once the ultimate essence of our self and the highest principle of the universe, the Brahman or the Atman. There is, indeed, another current of thought, evident in several passages of different Upanishads, in which Brahman is conceived and described as the theistic God. This will be dealt with separately later on. The special characteristic of the line of thought that has now been described is a belief in a superior principle which enlivens our life, thoughts, actions, desires and feelings, which is the inmost heart of the self of man, the immortal and undying reality unaffected by disease and death, and which is also the ultimate and absolute reality of the universe.
A story is told in the Katha Upanishad according to which King Vajashravasa made a sacrifice involving a gift of all the valuables that he possessed. When everything of the sort had been given away, he made a supplementary gift of his cows which were all old and useless. His son Naciketas, finding that these gifts would be more embarassing than useful to the recipient, disapproved of his father’s action. He thought that his father had not finished giving his “all” until he, his son, was also given away. So he asked his father, “To whom are you going to give me?” He was dear to his father; so his father did not like this question and remained silent. But when the question was again and again repeated, the father lost his temper and said, “I give you over to death.” Then Naciketas went to the place of Yama, the king of death, where he remained fasting for three days and nights. Yama, willing to appease him, requested him to take any boons that pleased him. Naciketas replied that men do not know what happens to people when they have passed from earthly life, whether they still continue to exist or whether they cease to exist; and he requested Yama to answer this question on which there were so many divergent opinions. Yama in answer said that this was a very difficult question and that even the gods did not know what becomes of man after he passes away from his earthly life; that, therefore, he would rather give Naciketas long life, big estates, gold in abundance, horses, elephants, and whatever else in the way of earthly enjoyment might seem to him desirable. But the philosophical quest was dearer to Naciketas than all the earthly goods that the king of death could bestow upon him. Money, he thought, can not satisfy man; money is of use only so long as a man lives, and he can live only so long as death does not take him away. This quest of the ultimate destiny of man, of his immortal essence, is itself the best and the highest end that our hearts may pursue. So Naciketas preferred to solve this mystery and riddle of life rather than to obtain all the riches of the world and all the comforts that they could purchase.
The king of death appreciated the wisdom of Naciketas’ choice. He explained that there are two paths, the path of the good and the path of the pleasant, and that they are different paths, leading to two entirely different goals. The mad hankering after riches can only justify itself by binding us with ties of attachment to sense-pleasures which are short-lived and transitory. It is only the spiritual longing of man after the realization of his highest, inmost, truest, and most immortal essence that is good in itself, though it does not appeal to greedy people who are always hankering after money. Desire for money blinds our eyes, and we fail to see that there is anything higher than the desire for riches, or that there is anything intrinsically superior to our ordinary mundane life of sense-pleasures and sense-enjoyments. The nature of the higher sphere of life and of the higher spiritual experiences cannot be grasped by minds which are always revolving in the whirlpool of mad desires for riches and sense-enjoyments. As the sage, in his serene enjoyment of spiritual experiences, may well think sense-pleasures dull, insipid, and valueless, so the multitude who live a worldly life of ordinary pleasures and enjoyments, fail to perceive the existence of this superior plane of life and the demands of the spirit for the realization of its immortal essence. They think that nothing exists higher and greater than this mundane life of ordinary logical thought and sense-enjoyments. Most men live on this ordinary level of life; they see, hear, taste, touch and smell. They think and they argue. They have a mind which thinks, feels, and wills, and they have senses which seek their own gratification. They employ the former in the service of the latter and every day discover newer and subtler ways of sense-gratification; they also employ the latter to serve the former by furnishing sense data to guide and check the course of logical thought and the development of science. The more men, upon comparing opinions, find themselves agreeing that they possess nothing of a more lofty character, the more they cease to believe in the validity and truth of the existence of anything undying in man. They fail to notice that the life they are living has had the effect of chilling and freezing the clear flowing stream of spiritual experiences and of stifling the spiritual instincts and longings of the soul. Generations of lives spent without once turning the eyes to the spiritual light within have served to build up traditions, beliefs, and tendencies of such an order that faith in the existence of the higher spirituality of man is lost. Discourse about the spirituality of man in its highest sense appears to most men to be no more than a myth of by-gone days or the result of the undue nervous excitation or heated imagination of a religious intoxication. The net result of our modern education, civilization, and culture has been the disappearance of the belief that there is anything higher than the gratification of man’s primitive instincts under such checks as society requires, the pursuit of the physical sciences, and the successful employment of the art of reasoning for the satisfaction of all the diverse interests of human beings. So Yama, the king of death, says to Naciketas that the majority of the people do not believe that there is anything higher than the ordinary mundane life, being content with the common concerns and interests of life; that it is only the few who feel this higher call and are happy to respond to it and to pursue a course of life far above the reach of the common man.
But what is this undying spiritual essence, or existence? Cannot our powers of reasoning, as they are employed in philosophical discussion or logical arguments, discover it? If they can, then at its best it can be nothing loftier than thought and can not be considered as the highest principle by which even thought itself and all conscious processes, as well as the functioning of all sense-operations, are enlivened and vitalized. So Yama tells Naciketas that this highest spiritual essence in us cannot be known by discursive reason. Only persons who have realized this truth can point this out to us as an experience which is at once self-illuminating and blissful and which is entirely different from all else that is known to us. Once it is thus exhibited, those who have the highest moral elevation and disinclination to worldly enjoyments can grasp it by an inner intuitive contact with the reality itself (adhyatmayoga). This truth is indeed the culmination of all the teaching of the Vedas.
To Naciketas’ question as to what becomes of men when they leave this earthly life, Yama’s answer is that no one is ever born and no one ever dies. Birth and death pertain only to our physical bodies, but our essence is never born and never dies. The birth and death of the physical body may well be explained by reference to physical causes, and there is not much of a mystery therein. But man cannot be identified with his body, nor can he be identified simply with the life which he has in common with all other animals, and even with plants. Life, in a large measure, seems to be nothing but a harmonious functioning of the inner organs of the body; but no one would say that these movements of the organs can be called “man.” There is a superior principle which vitalises and quickens the process of life, enlivens the activity of thought, moves the senses to their normal and regular operations, which is realized, or intuited, as the very essence of our inner illumination, and which is also the highest and ultimate principle underlying all things.
We are here face to face with the real mysticism of the Upanishads. This highest essence of man, the self, the Brahman, is difficult of perception; it is hidden, as in a deep cavern, in that deathless being who exists from the beginning of all time and beyond all time. It is the subtlest, the smallest of the small and yet the greatest of the great. It exists changeless and just the same one when everything else that it has vitalized has ceased to exist. This, our inmost self, cannot be known by much learning or scholarship, nor by sharp intelligence, nor by strong memory. It can only be known, or intuited, by the person to whom it reveals its own nature. In one place we are told that it can be intuited only by an inner, direct, and immediate touch. In another place it is said that it can only be perceived by those who have practised the perceiving of fine truths by a superfine intelligence of the highest order (Katha I. 3.12). The path to this superior intuition is like the edge of a sharp razor, dangerous and difficult. It is beyond all sense-knowledge; and he who intuits this secret truth of the beginningless, endless, unchangeable and eternal overcomes all death. For, once one realizes oneself to be identical with this highest principle, death and the fear of it sink into insignificant, illusory nothingness.
There is, however, another line of thought running through the different Upanishads in which Brahman appears as the supreme Lord from whom everything has proceeded and who is the source of all energy. Thus in the Kena Upanishad we find the query: “By whose will and directed by whom does the mind work, and directed by whom did life first begin? By whose will does the organ of speech work, and led by whom do the eye and the ear perform their respective functions?” Then comes the answer: “It is from Him that the organ of speech, the ear, the eye, the mind and life have all derived their powers; He is the thought of thought, the mind of mind, and the life of life. So neither mind nor eye, neither ear nor speech, can tell us anything about Him, because neither the eye nor the ear nor the mind can reach Him, but He alone is the agent operative through all these organs and making the eye perceiver, the ear hearer, the mind a thinker and the life a living force. But He, in his own nature, cannot be grasped by any one of these.”
A story is told to illustrate the greatness of Brahman as the supreme and all-powerful Lord. All the gods were at one time congratulating themselves on their own greatness, though all the while it was Brahman alone who was great. Brahman saw the false conceit of the gods and appeared before them as the all-powerful Lord. The gods sent the god of fire to him to enquire who this great Lord was. Agni, the god of fire, approached him and this great Lord asked Agni who he was and what he could do? Agni replied that he was the god of fire and could burn the whole world. Brahman then put before him a straw and asked him if he could burn it. Agni tried with all his might to burn it, but failed. Thereupon Agni returned to the gods saying that he could not learn who this great lord was. Vayu, the wind-god, approached Brahman and said that he was the wind-god and could blow away the whole world. Again Brahman placed a straw before him, asking him to blow it away if he could. Vayu also failed and came back to the other gods. Then Indra came forward to inquire who this great Lord was, but Brahman had already disappeared from the scene. Thereupon a bright glorious goddess appeared in the sky and told him that this supreme Lord was Brahman, that He alone was great, and that all the powers of the gods of fire, wind, etc., were derived from him.
It is said in the Katha VI. 1-3 that all the worlds are maintained in him. He is like a big tree which has its roots far below and its branches above, forming the visible universe around us. He is the great Life from which everything else has come into being. Nothing dare ignore, disobey, or outstrip Him. He is like a great thunder of fear over us all. It is by His fear that the fire and the sun give heat, that the wind blows, and that Death runs about. He is elsewhere described (Brrh. IV. IV. 22) as the controller, Lord and master of all. He is the Lord of all that has been and all that will be. He is the creator of the universe and the world belongs to Him and He to the world (Brrh. IV. IV. 13). Yet He is the inmost self of all living beings (sarvabhutantaratma) and the immortal inner controller of them all (antaryamin). But, though He is the controller and creator of all, yet it is He who has become this visible universe of diverse names and forms. Just as the wind and the fire appear in different forms, so He also appears in all the varied forms that present themselves to us in this world. Being one in Himself, He has become the visible many of the universe. But yet He is absolutely untouched by faults and defects of this mortal world. As the Sun which by its light illumines all colors and forms for the eye and is yet unaffected by the defects of our eyes, so the Brahman, who by his light has brought all things into existence and continues as their inmost essence, is yet wholly unaffected by their defects, their mortal and transitory forms.
Whether the teaching of the Upanishads is to be called pantheism or not will depend on the definition of pantheism. Certainly there are some passages such as those just considered which describe Brahman as having spread Himself in diverse forms in all the objects that we see around us. This might readily be taken as indication of some form of materialistic pantheism. But this is merely one phase or aspect of the matter. It seems to be contradicted by the idea of Brahman as the creator, ruler, and controller, by whose will everything moves and the order of events is kept in its right place undisturbed. Neither life nor death nor any of the powers of nature can transgress his orders; He is a thundering fear over us all, and yet He is also the bridge by which all the diverse things of the world are connected with one another and with man, their spiritual master. This latter conception, which is present in many passages of the Upanishads, is apparently dualistic and implies a personal God. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad abounds in passages of an avowedly dualistic character. There it is said that He alone is the Lord of all bipeds and quadrupeds, the protector and master of the universe, and yet is hidden in all beings. The duality between the individual soul and God is also definitely expressed in at least two of the earlier Upanishads, Mundaka 3. 1. 1 and Shvetashvatara 4. 6,
where, with reference to Brahman and the individual, it is said that two birds which are alike in nature and friendly to each other reside in the same tree, but that one of them (the individual) eats sweet fruits (i.e. of his own deeds) while the other is happy in itself without eating any fruit whatsoever. In the same Shvetashvatara Upanishad, the sage is described as saying: “I know this great person who resides beyond all darkness (of sin and ignorance), as bright as the sun. He who knows Him escapes death and there is no other way of escape. There is nothing superior to Him, and there is nothing which is greater than Him, and there is nothing smaller than Him. He stands alone by Himself in the Heavens unmoved like a tree, and yet the world is filled by this person.” But this also is a passing phase. In a passage immediately preceding that in the Mundaka Upanishad just referred to, it is said that Brahman is right before us in the front; Brahman is behind us in the back; Brahman is on the right and on the left. Again it is said in the Katha Upanishad: “He who perceives diversity in this world suffers the death of all deaths.” “He is the controller and the self of all beings; He makes the one form many, being one He satisfies the desires of the many.”
The most important emphasis of the Upanishads seems to be on that ineffable experience which lies hidden in the background of all our experiences and at the same time enlivens them all. Yet the experiencer himself is lost, and dissolved as it were, in this superior experience, where there is neither experiencer nor that which is experienced. This experience, or state, cannot be intellectually grasped; it can only be pointed out as different from all that is known, or from all that can be described as “this” or “that.” One can only assert that “It is not this,” “It is not this.” It is like the state of a deep dreamless sleep, like the feeling of intense bliss where neither the knower nor the known can be distinctly felt but where there is only the infinitude of blissful experience.
The various commentators upon the Upanishads belonging to different schools of thought and yet each interested to secure for himself the support of the Upanishads, have been fighting with one another for the last twelve hundred years or more to prove that the Upanishads are exclusively in favor of one party as against the others. Thus some contend that the Upanishads teach that Brahman alone exists and all the rest that appears is false and illusory. Others hold that the Upanishads favor the doctrine of modified duality of man in God and of God in man. Still others maintain that the Upanishads give us exclusively a doctrine of uncompromising duality. And so forth. Passages have often been twisted and perverted, and many new connections and contexts have been introduced or imposed upon the texts, to suit the fancy or the creed of the individual commentator. I think all these interpretations are biassed and onesided, and therefore inexact. The Upanishads reveal to us different phases of thought and experience, not a consistent dogmatic philosophy. The apparent inconsistency of the different phases of thought is removed if we take a psychological point of view and consider them as different stages of development in the experience of minds seeking to grasp a sublime, ultimate but inexpressible truth. This truth has a logic of its own, different from the logic of discursive thought wherein distinctions are firm and rigid, where concepts are like pieces of brick mortared together by the logical movement of thought. Its logic is that of experience in which the apparently contradictory ideas or thoughts lose their contradictoriness and become parts of one solid whole. The different phases of experience are lived through and enjoyed as inalienable parts of one great experience. When attempts are made to describe any particular phase of this experience it will naturally seem to conflict with the other phases in the eyes of those who have not the capacity of realising the concrete whole experience and who can only look at the phases from an external and a purely intellectual point of view where distinctions cannot be obliterated. When a lover embraces his beloved in his first kiss, he may feel her as the holiest angel, as his own dear life or as the embodiment of all his happiness, as, Shelley says, his “Spouse, Sister Angel, Pilot of the Fate,”
“Of unentangled intermixture, made
By love, of light and motion; one intense
Diffusion, one serene Omnipresence.”
But these epithets when applied to a woman can hardly be justified, according to intellectual standards, as properly applied, though the lover may have felt an indescribable sweetness of love in which all these diverse sentiments melted together to form its taste and flavor. The different phases of experience and belief which we find in the Upanishads need not therefore be taken out and pitted against one another. They may all be regarded as stages of experience between which the minds of the sages oscillated in attempting the realisation of a truth which was beyond speech, beyond thought and beyond all sense-perception. It was sometimes felt as the great over-lord, the controller, creator, ordainer, and master of all, sometimes as the blissful spiritual experience, and sometimes as the simple unity in which all duality has vanished.
This truth, person, or absolute–whatever it may be called–was felt as the highest embodiment of moral perfection. It is complete self-illumination, bodiless, faultless, sinless and pure. It is, as it were, covered by a cup of gold in such wise that we, looking at the shiny cup, miss the real treasure that lies concealed beneath. Its illumination reveals itself only when our minds have turned away from all the external lights of the outside world; for where this light is shining, all the other lights of the sun, the moon, and the stars have ceased to give light.
The Upanishads tell us again and again that it cannot be perceived by any of our senses and that it cannot be comprehended by reasoning, or by logical and discursive thought, or by discussions, scholarship and much learning, or even by the reading of the scriptures. Only those who have ceased from all sinful actions and have controlled all their sense desires, who are unruffled by passions of all kinds and are at peace with themselves, can have the realization of this great truth by the higher intuitive knowledge (prajnana, as distinguished from jnana, or cognition). In Mundaka III. 1, it is said that we can attain this self by truth, control, spiritual fervor and absolute extinction of all sex desires. Only the sages who have purged themselves of all moral defects and faults are capable of perceiving this holy spiritual light within themselves. The Upanishads never tire of repeating that the revelation of this truth is possible only through the most perfect moral purity which results in a natural illumination of intuitive perception when one seeks to attain this partless essence through meditation. Not only can this truth not be perceived by the eye or described in speech; but it cannot even be gained as a boon, or gift, by pleasing the gods or by ascetic practices or by sacrificial performances. It can only be attained by an intuition (para) which is superior in kind to the Vedic knowledge of sacrifices, called the lower knowledge (apara). By supreme moral elevation and untiring and patient search one can come in touch with Brahman and can enter into Him, but one must abandon all his mundane desires by which he is bound to earthly things. And when through this high moral elevation, control of desires, meditation and the like, one comes face to face with this highest reality, or Brahman, he is lost in it like rivers in the sea; nothing remains of him which he can feel as a separate individual, but he becomes one with Brahman. This is known by the seer through his heart when his senses have ceased to move and when his thought and intellect have come to a dead halt. No one can describe what that existence is; one can only say that it is “being,” nothing more. Here all the knots of the heart are untied, all doubts are dispelled, and there is one spiritual light of unity that shines forth in its serene oneness (Excerpts from “Hindu Mysticism”).