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Upanishads for Dummies




Not all Hindus know that the root of their religion, as it is practiced today, lies solidly in the Upanishadic thought. For them, as well as for others, here is a primer.


First, the basics.

A traditional synopsis (lifted from the net), would describe Upanishads in following words:

“The Upanishads, the earliest of which were composed in Sanskrit between 800 and 400 BC by sages and poets, form the basis of the Hindu religion. Each Upanishad, or lesson, takes up a theme ranging from the attainment of spiritual bliss to karma and rebirth, and collectively they are meditations on life, death and immortality. The essence of their teachings is that truth can be reached by faith rather than by thought, and that the spirit of God is within each of us – we need not fear death as we carry within us the promise of eternal life.”

Now this definition is misleading due to its extreme simplicity. What preceded Upanishads and what are the implications of its philosophy, is a subject important not only for the Hindus, because it is influencing the world in a number of subtle ways.

What came before.

The Vedas were the first writings (actually passed down through oral tradition, that is, by memory, and later written) of the Aryans in the Indian subcontinent. Nature worship and seeking blessings from Gods though prayers and sacrifices (through Agni, or fire God), was the core of the Vedas. Intellectual inquiry into nature and religion started in the Vedic Hymns.

Why Upanishads.

The process of evolution of Hinduism and interaction with other religions like Buddhism led to refinement of thought. Modern saints say that the discoveries made by the sages in the spiritual world led to their sharing of experiences, leading to a collection, later called Upanishads.

Major departure from the past.

Concepts of Bramha, Atma, Karma, Moksha, Advait and Om. Now you see how Upanishads are linked to modern thought? We will come to that later, in greater detail, but first some key concepts.

Key concepts.

1. Bramha/Brahma/Brahman: The universe has one unique, constant feature/element – the Bramha. This force pervades all beings and non-beings, even vacuum.Satyam jnanam anantam brahma – Truth, Knowledge, Timeless Brahma”.

2. Atma or Self: Whereas Brahma is the ultimate, unifying essence of the universe, Atman is the inmost essence and unifying principle in man. Here ‘self’ is clarified to be something beyond the current body and consciousness. It is undying and untouched by the substances of the world, uninfluenced by experiences and hidden from average person’s consciousness. Realization of this Self is what we have to aim for.

3. Realization of Bramha: One has to merge with the Brahma. How? Now comes the basic departure from earlier thought – consciousness or realization of Self and Bramha is linked. It happens simultaneously. There is a non-duality (Advait). We will come to that later.

4. Bhakti: The process of attaining the consciousness of Self and Bramha is what religion strives at, and it is also the basic goal of man.

So how is it to be done? Mundaka Upanishad says,

Not through discourse, not through the intellect, not even through study of the scriptures can the Self be realized. The Self reveals Himself to the one who longs for the Self. Those who long for the Self with all their heart are chosen by the Self as his own… Those who know the Self become the Self. Freed from the fetters of separateness, they attain to immortality.

Bhakti, or love, is one of the ways of attainment of consciousness of self, and, says Upanishads, the best way. (There are others like Gyana Yoga, or Intellectual Path).

Bhakti is also at the root of Hinduism’s acceptance of Idolatry. Let us see the linkage.

It is through love for the supreme that one meditates and seeks. (The logic is – only by seeking shall one find something.) It is not easy to set aside our worldly wisdom, our involvement with what we are doing, dabble in the paradoxes of the higher consciousness and focus our attention inwards. Hence an intense love for the supreme being (via understandable forms or avatars), is the way out.

Longing has to come first:

“From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!”  -Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Then comes the question, how best to go about it:

“Seek not the Truth by abandoning this world
Or by renouncing all your bounden duties.
This is indeed not the path of salvation.
Rather, desire ye to live a full life of a hundred years,
Actively engaged in the selfless performance
of your duties and enjoined actions at all times.
This is the only way for man’s salvation,
And not the opposite.”                                  – 
Ishavasya Upanishad

Thus Bhakti has three elements – longing for attaining, the process of intense loving and meditating and doing so within the framework of normal life.

(This last element is important, as it seeks to place religion within the legitimate goals of life. Also, it is said, an unsatisfied mind will not focus on the eternal, and so enjoy the world as well – have your cake and eat it too!)

5. Karma and Moksha: These serve as clarifications in the above process. Since Atma is unending, it carries the residue of experiences over various forms that it takes. The residue is our karma or our deeds. Good past karma helps, bad karma is a drag. Simple! Moksha is the destination – eternal bliss, merger with the parent force, realization of the Self and Bramha, freedom from the cycle of living blindly.

6. Advait: In the commentaries to Upanishads by Shankaracharya (788-820AD), Ramanuja (1027-1137AD) and Madhava (1199-1278AD), the theological question of separateness or oneness of Atman and Brahma is dealt-with extensively. Philosophically it is an important question, and needs some attention.

Consider this. In “Zen and the art of Motorcycle MaintenanceRobert S. Pirsig points out how frustrated we are when a screw of a motorcycle gets jammed. We curse it. If, however, we realize that that poor screw is a part of us, our extension, and is not doing anything deliberately to annoy us, and is only acting under the rules of physics, we would be calm and happy.

Here Persig shows the impact of Advait concept.

Advait means non-duality – there is no Us and Him, there is no Man and Nature, there is no Living and Non-living. Everything is pervaded by the force and consciousness of the Brahma – we are just not tuned to ‘realising’ the continuity of ourselves with everything else in the universe.

7. Om: The divine sound. It is the cosmic energy that mystics perceive, in form of the sound, which roughly spells out as Om or Aum. This revelation is supposed to be a big step forward, and is something like a shortcut to attaining ‘consciousness’. Just meditate on this sound, it is said, and hitch your consciousness upwards. It is not as easy as it sounds, actually, but still, its a way forward.

Key phrases.

Aham Brahmasmi–  “I am Brahman”: Vedic The Truth is within us, in our own heart. This states the identity of the inner most consciousness of the individual with the supreme Divine.
Ayam Atma Brahma– “The Self is Brahman”: This states that not only individual soul is Divine but all beings are identified with the Absolute Truth.
Tat Tvam Asi– “That art thou”: Whatever we see or think about, we are That. We are the ultimate Thou and I in all.
Prajnanam Brahma– “Knowledge is Brahman”: Supreme intelligence is present inherently within us and is capable of returning us to the Divine. Our understanding of the truth is the Truth itself.
Sarvam Kalvidam Brahma– “The whole universe is Brahman”: Not only the consciousness in you and I but also the `principle of being’ are all Divine. The entire universe is Divine, which includes our Self.
So `ham– “Here am I”: This identifies the Divinity in our Self in something that happens naturally like breathing. “So” is inhalation and “Ham” is the natural sound of exhalation.


That ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ formula is awesome – it is the ultimate empowerment tool for man, transporting us directly into the realm of the Supreme God. At a practical level, it gives the Hindus confidence in times of crisis, and also gives hope and leads to a renewal of faith.

What happened next.

These concepts became central to Hindu religion and led to the Bhakti cults of the later middle ages. The stories of Rama and Krishna and even that of Buddha were reinterpreted in the light of the Upanishadic ideals of love and self-realization. Thus Rama and Krishna, Shiva and the Mother Goddess became the God-heads on whom to concentrate your love.

Under the influence of Sufi practices (the mystical version of Islam that came to India from the 12th century onwards), mysticism without idols or God-heads also started in form of love for the nirguna or featureless God. Says Kabir, one of the greatest Bhakti saints-

“I am not a Hindu, nor a Muslim am I!
I am this body, a play of five elements; a drama
Of the spirit dancing, with joy and sorrow.”


The unintended consequences.

Some of the unfortunate developments caused by this philosophy stemmed form mis-understandings and partial-implementation-

1. Instead of raising self-belief and making Hindus karma-oriented, it led to a feudal-subservient culture, where the poor and the under-privileged were told that they deserved the punishments they were getting due to their own bad-karma of past lives.

2. It undermined learning, as if guileless bhakti was an equivalent of dumbness.

3. It led to escapism and theory of pre-determination. Nothing done by man in current life was too significant. Love for the deity was the only way out of trouble. Religion was, once again, divorced from life.

4. Priestly class made a comeback through temples. They found an institution where they could act as mediators between man and God.

5. New age Gurus, phony mysticism and marijuana are the shortcuts that can have dangerous repercussions for the society.

Influence on the world.

Upanishads influenced Buddhist philosophy, and it has a close resemblance with Zen thought.

Beyond the jargon that the world has picked up (Karma, Yoga etc), and the Gurus, western philosophy has seriously engaged itself with this thought. Here is what Wiki says on the subject:

Arthur Schopenhauer developed a philosophy that was essentially a synthesis of Hinduism with Western thought. He anticipated that the Upanishads would have a much greater influence in the West than they have had.

Recent attempts to incorporate Western philosophy into Eastern thought include the Kyoto School of philosophers, who combined the phenomenology of Husserl with the insights of Zen Buddhism. Watsuji Tetsurô, a 20th century Japanese philosopher attempted to combine the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger with Eastern philosophies.

The late-19th-century spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda was an elegant writer in English on broadly philosophic and psychological topics. He founded the Ramakrishna Mission, gave it a modern version of Vedanta and took it to the western world.

The 20th century Hindu guru Sri Aurobindo was influenced by German Idealism and his Integral yoga is regarded as a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought.”

Phew. So there…it wasn’t as difficult as it seemed at first, right? The internet is full of material on all these concepts. Even full texts of the various Upanishads are there to enjoy and understand.

(PS: This simplified version too can lead to unintended mis-understandings, so take care.)


Looking back at our times

Many Ozymandias came and went
Having built their castles on sand.
They lived and dreamed of defying time
But little records remain, of those times.
Teeming humanity lived like ants
In packed cities, lifting huge loads,
Following leaders, building shiny roads
That moved in circles, but reached nowhere.
The barbed wires that stretch for miles,
Piles of junk, the shiny metals in the vaults
Are the only artifacts that are now left
For the newer civilizations to decipher.
The glittering yachts, the shiny jets,
The props in the mating dance, now rusting,
Are kept in the museums, for the amusement
Of the kids, for the students of anthropology.
Only the brutality, the mass graves
The army barracks, the trenches –
And the ego trips that destroyed it all –
Are recorded in the books of history.

What is the next big idea that will move the world: A yet another top-ten list!

Tintin's illustration


The thesis of Clash of Civilizations and such other paradigms (there cannot be a ‘fraud-intellectual’ paper without the word paradigm) having failed to predict the next-big-idea that shall move the world, it is now up to me to give it a try. I shall not shy away from this duty. But to do so, I must, as a student of history, first make a top-ten list of the ideas that moved the world so far.

“Why a top-ten list,” you ask? “Why not,” is my answer. I love top ten lists.

Anyway, enough arguments. We must get to the brass-tacks now. Here is the list, in chronological order:

  1. Survival: For long this big idea ruled the world. It still does, but not as a ‘top-of-the-mind’ motive that drives the world. It was in the stable city states that came up after the creation of an agricultural surplus that gave man the luxury of indulging in the next big idea, which was…
  2. Religion: Or, to be more exact, an organized idea of religion with a priestly class. Religion, as distinct from God, is a creation of man (a well-fed idle man), who wishes to explain the world and predict the future (like me). The gathering riches in the temples and churches of early city states, and the war between the city-states led, slowly and inevitably, to creation of armies, which led to…
  3. Royalty: This simple but awesome idea was also supported by those motivated by survival and religion. It seemed to answer the question, ‘how to discipline the society’. From attributing Divine essence in the kings to justifying it through social contract theory, the idea and legitimacy of royalty had to be intellectually protected at various times. The bards sold themselves for a handful of silver, the priests sullenly agreed to cede top space in face of the armies, and the common people (who often got fed up with the royals) were sometimes suppressed and sometimes pampered. But the space at the top was too narrow. Poor man-management by the royals, sibling rivalries and the instigation of the priests led to the idea of…
  4. Feudalism: This gave more space at the top, though it fragmented the state from the size of a powerful empire to small states (sometimes under a benign umbrella of a weak empire). The feudals merrily fought each other (playing ‘battles’ was their hobby), exploited the serfs and kept the priests in good humor. An unforeseen result of this was the creation of too many aristocrats who had nothing to do between battles, and it was they who advocated the next big idea, which was…
  5. Enlightenment: Humanism, Scientific enquiry, resurgence of interest in arts and learning and books…the world went crazy for the intellectuals. Leonardo and Galileo, Erasmus and Voltaire…they were the pop stars of the late middle ages. They worked in Sanskritised languages like Latin or in the local dialects, leading, unwittingly, to…
  6. Nationalism: The idea of a country, so popular now, was not something that kept people awake even a few hundred years ago. Nowhere in the world was this idea popular, or seemed likely to attract much traction. And yet…It was the question of reorganizing the society in terms of identities that would help the royals once again free himself from the clutches of the other royals and the priests, that made nation states popular. Modern world starts with this mess. So powerful did the idea become, unchallenged as it was at the nascent stage, that it led to wars and something more powerful, that is….
  7. Greed: Or, to give its respectable name, the economic idea. Wealth of nations, colonialism, centralized banks, money economy…all the trappings of the modern world were quickly put into place by the advisers of the royalty, who, poor sods, believed that they would be getting more and more powerful with the gold that was being hoarded in the central treasuries. However, education was playing its insidious role of provoking an ever increasing numbers of the middle classes. They struck back into many forms, and as a generic title we can call the movement…
  8. Socialism: From strong move towards democratic ideals to ‘power back to the society’, the idea of society organizing itself without a royal at the head, took many shapes. Marxism to mild democratic socialism was the death-knell of the royals, but not of nationalism (Though Marxist-Lennists did try that hand). The fight for supremacy between nationalism, greed and social compact raged throughout the twentieth century in form of the Cold War, but with diminishing returns. Higher education, and mass media sought to bring back the ideals of the age of Humanism and Enlightenment, but the hotchpotch actually led to the age of the…
  9. Hippy: Rebelling against everything was the rage. Peaking during the second half of the twentieth century, the pop stars, the novelists, the intellectuals, the college students…in fact all those who did not have to worry about their next meal, indulged in rebelling against establishment, and in favour of…well anything. The youth, goaded on by the professors, rushed in to save the women, the environment and everything else that came in sight. They lived a life of ‘poverty-ridden hedonism’ a very original concept, since it suited the poor-rich generation. But soon they were bored and slowly turned to…
  10. Individualism: The individual as the centre of universe is not a new idea, but technology, security and adequate surpluses in the system gives us an opportunity to live out this idea too. Loyalty towards none but the self is the motto and the religion. It is an unabashed declaration of independence of individual from any institution. Live in relationships, individual greed, cross-national lifestyles – in short loyalty towards none.

Now that we have reached the present, we come to our basic question, what next?

An easy answer would be that since all the above tendencies simultaneously exist in the society today, and are vying for supremacy, one or the other would make a comeback of sorts. Now you understand why I said Clash of Civilizations idea was a flop? It was another rehash of old battles, and was not the next-big-thing. But that answer would hardly be intellectually satisfying.

I must admit that, as of now, I do not know. I assure you I will keep my eyes open, and, as soon as something interesting comes up, I would let you know. In the meanwhile, we may, if you wish, add to this awesome top-ten list, by filling in the gaping holes. Or give me an idea for yet another top-ten list.


Steve Jobs: A Tribute

Can a man influence the march of history? I have had a doubt about the matter. Left historiography believes that the material forces of human history give direction, and individuals inevitably come to tap the existing potentials. By and large no one can argue against this construct. But people like Steve Jobs sometimes make one wonder.

The developments in electronics would inevitably have led to PCs and Laptops and iPads etc. But the integration of various fields of calligraphy, music, visual arts and the sharp focus on the needs of the customer probably accelerated the process of marking computing as something for the common-man. I feel he advanced the march of technology by about two decades by involving an ever increasing number of people in the revolution.

The three legacies of Jobs that strike me as relevant for the world are – ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’, ‘don’t dream the dreams of others’ and ‘see the broader picture’. The second theme has been extensively discussed in India in the last few years in various forms – Chetan Bhagat’s book ‘Five Point Someone’ and Amir Khan’s movie ‘3 idiots’ based on it were inspired by this very thought.

But ‘see the broader picture’ is an aspect on which we Indians are missing out. No doubt the devil lies in the detail, but there must be sufficient thought given to the larger framework in which we live and operate. I feel we are living too much on day-to-day, crisis-to-crisis basis, both in our personal lives and in our public affairs. Our long term goals are not defined. Our principals are not clear. Our ability to rise above petty issues is decreasing by the day. The society I live in is failing to inspire me to look beyond the self. Inspiration and leadership of the kind given by Jobs is something we sorely miss.

Creativity and originality of thought, which comes with the ability to take risks, is the only way forward. In his life, Jobs lived that ideal. In his death he has left us a challenge – to adopt his legacy and make the world a better place. It needs lots of courage, as also the support of the society, for an individual to take to this path.

And that brings me to the most demanding of his concepts – ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’. It is a path of strife and struggle, full of failures and little tangible gains for the individual. But it does lead to greatness – and only great individuals can create great cultures. The lessons are all there to be learnt. Whether we wish to learn them, or just pay lip service to them, is up to us.


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