In the beginning there was the word. In prehistoric times before writing was invented a spoken language emerged and an oral tradition was established. The word was passed down from father/mother to son/daughter/disciple and the knowledge of the ancients passed down to us through the ages. In the forests above the Indus and the Ganges plain; the people who called themselves the arya or noble, sought the wisdom of creation and the understanding of why existence existed. They came across the people of the Indus Valley; who had been civilized for over a thousand years, and from their mingling rose the Indian civilization, that exists on till today. At first the Rig Veda talked about the arrival and the victory over the settled people of the Indus valley civilization and there is no fear but a rejoicing in it. Then the Sama, Yayur and Atharva Veda explored the mystery of creation and the relationship of the race, with its natural surroundings. The rishis and the thinkers took the word and made hymns out of them; and passed them down in an easy to memorize format, in Sanskrit to their progeny. The Vedas worship or sing to the elemental powers of life like war and thunder (Indra), sun (Surya or Savitiri the giver of life), wind (Vayu), death (Yama), fire (Agni), dawn (Usha) and offering homage to them. The Gyatri or Savitri mantra is even today a mainstay of any Indian prayer.
As the ritual of the fire sacrifice and the purification of the soul and the universe; through the offering of forest products and clarified butter, from their cows took place; it was a means of teaching the word to those, who would follow them. As the Vedas themselves are the root (vid, meaning to know the revealed knowledge given to humanity at the beginning); some seers took to the forests in search of greater knowledge, and delved deeply on consciousness itself. They wondered what reality was and questioned what was not real. Never before or since has such a deep examination of the ego, intellect, mind, senses and their role in human existence been studied to such detail. From these Gurukuls or schools came the Upanishads or the tradition of ‘sitting down near’ where one who had experienced the truth, explained it to the chosen disciples. This was just not rote learning like the early Vedic tradition and based not only on the intellect and blind belief, but on actual knowledge of experience. Each Upanishad is complete in itself and represents the seer’s view of the one truth that is called by many names. In its quest for human salvation (moksha) the realization that Atman or the eternal soul is one with Brahman the source of the manifested and unmanifested universal spirit; is one of the greatest contributions to human thought.
Shankara an eighth century mystic identified 10 Mukhya (major) Upanishads out of 108 and while there were many other historic works; these remain, as the recognized works that broke away from the rituals of the Vedas and expounded the single underlying power of Brahman, as the supreme reality and Godhead. The ancient ascetics in the forests delved deeply into the human mind; and studied various forms of reality from the dreamer, to the dreamless state, to the known reality, and asked themselves “Who is the knower?” when you pass into a dreamless state of absolute concentration where there are no sense organs or ego. They coined the name brahmavidya for this supreme science or the science of the supreme; as they found the meaning in internal consciousness; that answered the many questions, external and internal, posed by their quests. In their states of deep meditation they came to understand consciousness itself; and realized that the Self is not separate from the Brahman and that they coexist, and always have and always will. Aham Brahmasmi was espoused as I am Brahaman in the Brihadranayak Upanishad and not in the meaning that I am God; but in the realization that the Self is not separate, from the Supreme reality. There is no joy in the finite and there is only joy in the infinite and ‘sat-chit-ananda’ or that absolute reality, pure awareness and unconditional joy are the only state of the Atman. When their keen students questioned the myriad realities and paths that they discovered; the answer always pointed to more deep meditation on the internal state, till the realization of the supreme reality and “tat-tvam-asi,” or that thou art became realized in the Chandogya Upanishad. It was hard disciplined tutelage; needing decades of work and at the end of which, one either realized an enlightened state, or moved back to the duties of a householder with a deeper understanding of reality.
The Upanishads are not long philosophical discussions like Plato’s dialogs but concise essence of the realization of the sages, representing Vedanta or the end of the Vedas. As Mahatma Gandhi once said about the Isha Upanishad “If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live forever.” When I studied this book I found that only 18 short verses made up the whole tome; and they still had a fullness that remains fulfilling even today,even after all the millennium that have passed, since the words were first uttered. The first verse of this Sruti (revealed truth) reads:
The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all,
The Lord is the supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through renunciation.
Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord.
The secret to a happy life, as Gandhi explained with a twinkle in his eye and his usual humor, to the western journalist who asked for it in just three words; is “Renounce and enjoy!” (tena tyaktema bhunjitiah from the third line). While Gandhi Ji was an ardent devotee of the Bhagwad Geeta he went back to the Upanishads for the sruti or eternal truth. So this is only the first book that I have rediscovered from among the many gems lying forgotten in our age; and then I went on to read the Katha Upanishad, where Nachiketa a thirteen year old questions; Yama the lord of death himself, on the secrets of existence, death and life everlasting. It is so appropriate to our times, where a burgeoning young India seems to teach its young ones everything; except, the knowledge lying in our scriptures. Death we have forgotten is the great teacher; and eternal life is the hardest boon, that we can obtain. So I will continue my study of these ancient words, that have been passed down to us, as a legacy of our ancient knowers; who did not even put their names down, as the authors. They spoke only from their own experience, and left a path for us to follow, that leads to the supreme reality. There are no messiahs here and no heaven awaiting us at the end of our lives. Moksha is to be attained here in this life itself through righteous living, deep internal concentration and a supreme effort that leads to the silence of thought itself. Each of the Upanishads ends with the solemn words “Om shanti, shanti, shanti” and in this modern troubled world; what can be more precious than the peace of our Atman, which itself is only found in the eternal peace of Brahman.