The Self, verify, was [all] this, one only, in the beginning. Nothing else whatsoever winked. He thought, Let me now create the worlds. He created these worlds. (1.1.1)
Several times in the Upanishads we are told that when nothing else existed, Brahman “was” and from Brahman proceeded all the worlds. But in these opening verses of the Aitareya Upanishad the word Atman (Self) is used instead of Brahman. This is fitting for two reasons: First, because Brahman is the ultimate Self of all. Second, because what occurred on the cosmic level in relation to Brahman has occurred on the microcosmic level with each one of us, with each individual Self that has entered into the field of relative existence. Just as the various worlds or lokas have emanated from Brahman, so the several bodies or koshas have emanated from the individual Self.
He thought, Here then are the worlds. Let me now create the guardians of the worlds. From the waters themselves, he drew forth the person [purusha] and gave him a shape. (1.1.3)
This verse really has two subjects.
First there is the manifestation of the world-guardians. The word translated here as “world-guardian” is lokapala. A lokapala is the ruler or custodian of a world (loka). At the beginning of creation, each world is assigned an overseer or guardian. These are beings who have evolved to the status of gods and sometimes are mistaken for the Absolute by those within those worlds whose understanding is imperfect. Nevertheless, to approach them is beneficial, for they will themselves reveal their limited nature and point questing souls to Brahman the Infinite. The lokapalas are like gardeners, they work with living things for their development as well as their safety.
The Upanishad is speaking of the beginning of things. So immediately after the manifestation of the worlds, the lokapalas were awakened and made aware of their assignments, for their work is part of their personal evolutionary process. Now the same thing happens with us. We are the custodians of our private worlds or bodies. And our experiences through those bodies and the development we gain is our work, just as it is for the lokapalas.
The second subject is the manifestation of the Virat, the Cosmic Person which embraces all that exists in the material worlds. Regarding him the Upanishad continues:
He brooded over him. Of him who has thus been brooded over, the mouth was separated out, like an egg. From the mouth speech, from speech fire. The nostrils were separated out from the nostrils’ breath, from breath air. The eyes were separated out from the eyes’ sight, from sight the sun. The ears were separated out from the ears’ hearing and from hearing the quarters of space. The skin was separated out, from the skin the hairs, from the hairs, plants and trees. The heart was separated out from the heart, the mind and from the mind, the moon. The navel was separated out from the navel, the outbreath, from the outbreath death. The generative organ was separated out; from it semen, from semen water. (1.1.4)
Keep in mind that this is not a human being spoken of here, but an account of the manifestation of the archetypal and all-pervading Cosmic Pattern that finally becomes manifest in each human being. So its history is our history in the womb as the body is formed from its original “lump” form. Therefore what is said of the Virat is also said of the individual person.
Many years ago, Dr. Judith Tyberg, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and director of the East-West Cultural Center in Los Angeles, told me that she had attended a lecture at Benares Hindu University in which a map of the universe and charts from Gray’s Anatomy were compared and seen to be strikingly alike. Our bodies are little models of the universe.
Some months before she told this to me I had experienced this for myself. While meditating one day all ordinary physical sensation vanished. Spatial relation ceased to exist and I found myself keenly aware of being beyond dimension, neither large nor small, but infinite (for infinity is beyond size). Although the terminology is inappropriate to such a state, to make it somewhat understandable I have to say that I perceived an infinity of worlds within me. Suns, some solo and others surrounded by planets, glimmered inside my spaceless space. Not that I saw the light, but I felt or intuited it in what Saint Teresa of Avila called “intellectual vision.” I did not see anything… and yet I did. It is not expressible in terms of ordinary sense experience, yet I have no other terms. I experienced myself as everything that existed within the relative material universe. Or so it seemed, for the human body is a miniature universe, a microcosmic model of the macrocosm. The physical human body is a reflection of the universal womb that conceived it. I had experienced the subtle level of the physical body that is its ideational (i.e., causal) blueprint. On that level it can be experienced as a map of the material creation.
In this matter, it was crucial that I not mistake the copy for the Original and think I was an infinite being or had attained Cosmic (Macrocosmic) Consciousness. It was microcosmic consciousness: not an insignificant experience, but certainly not the final step in evolution. I have told my experience so those who have similar experiences will not assume they are the Infinite.
The sequence of manifestation listed here in the Upanishad is quite literal, and we see in its delineation a sophistication unparalleled in any other religion, as is true of virtually every other aspect of Sanatana Dharma. For Sanatana Dharma is the all-embracing Universal Dharma, Manava Dharma, the Dharma of Humanity.
These divinities thus created fell into this great ocean. [The Self] subjected that [person] to hunger and thirst. They said to him [the creator], Find out for us an abode, wherein established we may eat food. For them, he brought a cow. They said, Indeed this is not enough for us. For them he brought a horse. They said, Indeed this is not enough for us. For them he brought a person [human being]. They said, Well done indeed. A person verily is [what is] well done. He said to them, Enter into your respective abodes. (1.2.1-3)
The “divinities” are the various powers that were differentiated on the cosmic level and are now established in the human being. The cow is considered the embodiment of purity and purification, and the horse is considered the embodiment of power and the life principle in living organisms. These faculties could only manifest in the human form, for in the material plane the human is the highest and best mode of life, truly “well done” from the standpoint of potential for evolution of consciousness, and especially the capacity for self-evolution. Thus the yogi is the crown of all creation.
Fire, becoming speech, entered the mouth. Air becoming breath, entered the nostrils. The sun, becoming sight, entered the eyes. The quarters of space, becoming hearing, entered the ears. Plants and trees, becoming hairs, entered the skin. The moon, becoming the mind, entered the heart. Death, becoming the outbreath, entered the navel. Water becoming semen entered the generative organ. (1.2.4)
This is a listing of the various powers in the body and the primal elements of which they are the embodiment.
To him (the creator), hunger and thirst said, For us (also) find out an abode. He said to them, I assign you a place in these divinities and make you sharers with them. Therefore to whatever divinity an offering is made, hunger and thirst become partakers in it. (1.2.5)
Ashanayapipashe–hunger and thirst–mentioned here are not just the desire to eat or drink. They are the deep-seated impulse to encompass and assimilate. Therefore even our material desires are actually metaphysical in their fundamental nature. They may even be considered spiritual impulses. Consequently those who think they are merely mental, emotional or physical impulses and attempt to satisfy and quiet them by mental, emotional or physical objects or means will remain unfulfilled, hungry, thirsty and frustrated. When the Upanishads, Gita and other scriptures warn us against desires and the attempt to fulfill them, this is the reason. The only way to become satisfied, content and at peace is to fulfill the metaphysical-spiritual hunger and thirst by Self-realization.
Next follows an interesting sequence that deals with the Virat, the manifested Cosmic Guiding Intelligence.
He thought, Here are the worlds and the guardians of the worlds. Let me create food for them.
He brooded over the waters and from the waters so brooded over issued a form. That whichever was produced as that form is, verily, food.
This, so created wished to flee away. [The person] sought to seize it with speech. He was not able to take hold of it by speech. If, indeed, he had taken hold of it by speech, even with speech, one would have had the satisfaction of food.
[The person] sought to seize it with breath. He was not able to take hold of it by breath. If, indeed, he had taken hold of it by breath, even with breath one would have had the satisfaction of food.
[The person] sought to seize it with sight. He was not able to take hold of it by sight. If, indeed, he had taken hold of it by sight, even with the sight (of food) one would have had the satisfaction of food.
[The person] sought to seize it with hearing. He was not able to take hold of it by hearing. If indeed, he had taken hold of it by hearing, even with the hearing (of food), one would have had the satisfaction of food.
[The person] sought to seize it by the skin. He was not able to take hold of it by the skin. If, indeed, he had taken hold of it by the skin, even with the skin (i. e. by touching food) one would have had the satisfaction of food.
[The person] sought to seize it by the mind. He was not able to take hold of it by the mind. If, indeed, he had taken hold of it by the mind, even with the mind (i.e.. by thinking of food), one would have had the satisfaction of food.
[The person] sought to see it by the generative organ. He was not able to take hold of it by the generative organ. If, indeed, he had taken hold of it by the generative organ, even by emission one would have had the satisfaction of food.
Then [the person] sought to seize it by the out-breath. He got it. The grasper of food is what air is. This one living on food, is, verily, what air is. (1.3.1-10)
Obviously, God can do anything, but he has laws in his manifestation, and by those laws certain things cannot be done: not because he is not omnipotent, but because he is himself Ritam, Cosmic Order, and he never goes against his own laws.
This is especially true in the matter of karma, even though religion continually claims that God can be conned into letting us off the karmic hook, and false, deluded gurus claim to be able to manipulate and annihilate their disciples’ karma. A true yogi will never make such a claim. Even if he was able to interfere in karma he would not do so, since the purpose of karma is not punishment, but is an instrument of learning and awakening. If karma was not for good and good alone, it would not exist.
In this passage of the Upanishad, it is showing how the individual spirit, the source of its personal universe in the form of its various bodies, cannot use its abilities to grasp and control food/matter. Only one power in the individual’s makeup can do that, and that is the prana. The prana is the fundamental life force, and though it all things are done in the inner and outer worlds. This is why pranayama in its subtle forms is a major aspect of yoga. (Ordinary externalized breathing exercises are not really pranayama, but merely breath control.)
He thought, How can this food exist without me? He thought, through what [way] shall I enter it? He thought [again], If speaking is through speech, if breathing is through breath, if seeing is through the eyes, hearing is through the ears, if touching is through the skin, if meditation is through the mind, if breathing out is through the outbreath, if emission is through the generative organ, then who am I?
After opening that very end [of the head], by that way he entered. This is the opening known as vidriti. This is the pleasing. For that, there are three abodes, three kinds of dreams as this is the abode, this is the abode, this is the abode. (1.3.11-12)
This narrative is more instructive than literally accurate. First of all, there is nothing that is not a manifestation of Brahman. It is not possible for Brahman to enter into anything, for It is always everywhere. But the upanishad is teaching us as we teach children: piecemeal and partially. The idea here is that Brahman is enlivening and enabling all beings, from the lokapalas down to the least evolved of sentient beings.
These two verses are more individual than cosmic, however, and refer mostly to us. Our lokapalas are the various faculties of the mind that administer the different levels of our being as humans. Brahman is, as I said, always present, but this verse speaks of the entry of the individual consciousness into the human complex when it incarnates as a human being. The Self enters through the psychic center or energy whorl at the crown of the head called the Brahmarandhra, the Aperture of Brahman, and from there administers its private cosmos, a god within its finite universe. According to yogis, when we leave our body we go out through the gate [chakra] that corresponds to our dominant state of consciousness. Those who are liberated depart through the Brahmarandhra. Others leave through the lower centers.
For that [Atman], there are three abodes, three kinds of sleep. If the Self is not known, then even our waking is only a sleeping and dreaming. There is a lot of going around and around about the question of the reality of the world. But the upanishad gives us a quite simple answer: To those that sleep, not knowing the Self, the world is unreal; to those that are awake in the knowledge of the Self, the world is real, for the world is the Self. This is the frame of reference Buddha had when, meeting a Brahmin after his liberation, when the Brahman asked: “Who are you?” he simply replied: “I am awake.”
As this is the abode, this is the abode, this is the abode. The subtle life force moves in different parts (abodes) of the Sahasrara, the Thousand-petalled Lotus of the astral and causal brain, during the three states of waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep.
He, being born, perceived the created beings, what else here would one desire to speak? He perceived this very person: Brahman all-pervading. I have seen this, he said. Therefore his name is Idandra. Indeed, Idandra is the name. Of him who is Idandra, they speak indirectly as Indra. (1.3.13-14)
No matter what we speak about, we are always speaking of Brahman and our Self, for they are all that is. Having seen/known himself and Brahman, both are Idandra, “the Perceiver.” Brahman and the Self both are the knower and the known.
In a person, indeed, this one first becomes an embryo [garbha]. That which is semen is the vigor [tejas] come together from all the limbs. In the Self, indeed, one bears a Self. When he sheds this in a woman, he then gives it birth. That is its first birth. (2.1.1)
The moment we are conceived, the embryonic form begins. The human embryo is a combination of the egg from the mother and the semen from the father. The Upanishad tells us that semen is really the embodied subtle power that is drawn from the entire body of the father. This is the reason that the wise, monastic and non-monastic, conserve the seminal fluid. To waste it is to waste life itself, and will manifest in low vitality and susceptibility to disease and degeneration in future lives, and very often in this present life. The impetus to birth comes from the father, but the vehicle of that birth comes from the mother.
The first teaching of Paramhansa Yogananda I read explained that in the womb the growth of the embryo is guided by the incarnating spirit (jiva). Thus to say that our mother or father “made” us, is ridiculous. They certainly supplied the building materials, but God and the Self are the only creators of sentient beings. Nevertheless, our mother and father are the gateway to life for the incarnating soul, providers of our body (mother) and blood (father) and therefore benefactors of life worthy of respect and care, whatever else may follow after birth.
Conception is our first “birth.”
It becomes one with the woman, just as a limb of her own. Therefore it does not hurt her. She nourishes this Self of his that has come into her. (2.1.2)
This is no news that the embryo becomes part of the mother’s body. Since the blood develops from the elements of the father, in a sense the mother incubates and gives birth to him, as well as to herself. Therefore the relationship between father, mother and child is extremely complex and, if unmarred by negativity, is extremely profound and wonderful. I recently read the autobiography of my sannyasa guru in which his writing about his parents was truly moving and inspiring. Yogananda’s words about his mother and father in his autobiography are likewise admirable.
She, being the nourisher, should be nourished. The woman bears him as an embryo. He nourishes the child before birth and after the birth. While he nourishes the child before birth and after the birth, he thus nourishes his own Self, for the continuation of these worlds, for thus are these worlds continued. This is one’s second birth. (2.1.3)
In India, in an dharmic household, the expectant mother is cared for every moment and watched over to see that she is well and strong. After the birth she is still an object of great care. And in a joint family, even if poor, the mother never knows the misery and drudgery that can attend birth and child care in the West.
The father’s role is outlined here, before and after the birth. The psychology involved is hardly seen outside a household that observes Sanatana Dharma.
The actual physical birth is our second “birth.”
He (the son) who is one Self of his (father) is made his substitute for (performing) pious deeds. Then the other Self of his (father’s) having accomplished his work, having reached his age, departs. So departing hence, he is, indeed, born again. That is his third birth. That has been stated by the seer. (2.1.4)
The idea is that the son in time takes over the duties and functions of the father. There is no place here for the son setting up his own home and eventually putting his parents away in a nursing facility. The son brings his bride to live with his family, and as the years go on, assumes the responsibilities of the father. In this way the household becomes both a physical and spiritual organism.
A joint family is a wonderful thing. Some them are huge, occupying an entire neighborhood or living in the equivalent of a large apartment complex. The family of one of my friends, all of them disciples of Swami Keshabananda or one of his disciples, had a common kitchen-dining room in which upward of a hundred people were accommodated at each meal. One family I know of in Calcutta built a twelve-story building for them all to live in. The family itself should be a true spiritual community.
I have drifted away from the Upanishad a bit in this, but not in essence. For this verse can only be followed in a joint family. In such a situation the father eventually leaves his entire family to the care of his son(s) and departs this world to be born again. So what is thought of as death is really the third birth. That is why in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches the day of a saint’s death is called his birthday.
While I was in the womb, I knew all the births of the gods. A hundred strongholds made of steel guarded me. I burst out of it, with the swiftness of a hawk. Vama-deva spoke this verse even when he was lying in the womb. He, knowing thus and springing upward, when the body is dissolved, enjoyed all desires in that world of heaven and became immortal, yea, became [immortal]. (2.1.5-6)
Many great masters have spoke of their continuing spiritual awareness in the womb. The sage Vamadeva entered the womb and dwelt there in full consciousness. Even there he was advancing in spiritual wisdom and moving toward liberation until at the complete of his earthly incarnation he “enjoyed all desires in that world of heaven and became immortal, yea, became immortal.”
Who is this one? We worship him as the Self. Which one is the Self? He by whom one sees, or by whom one hears, or by whom one smells odors, or by whom one articulates speech or by whom one discriminates the sweet and the unsweet.
That which is heart, this mind, that is consciousness, perception, discrimination, intelligence, wisdom, insight, steadiness, thought, thoughtfulness, impulse, memory, conception, purpose, life, desire, control, all these, indeed, are names of intelligence.
This is extremely important for us, since it is only natural that we would mistake these various faculties for the Self, for they are functions of consciousness, though not Consciousness itself.
He is Brahma, he is Indra, he is Prajapati, he is all these gods, and these five great elements, namely, earth, air, ether water, light, these things and these which are mingled of the fire, as it were, the seeds of one sort and another, those born from an egg, and those born from a womb, and those born from sweat, and those born from a sprout, horses, cows, persons and elephants, whatever breathing thing there is here, whether moving or flying or what is stationary. All this is guided by intelligence, is established in intelligence. The world is guided by intelligence. The support is intelligence. Brahma is intelligence.
This takes us a very necessary step further: Even those things that are not Brahman Itself in the purest sense, in another sense are Brahman and to be regarded as such. This is a bit like telling us to go two ways at the same time, something impossible for the ordinary mind, but quite easy and even natural for the yogi’s mind.
Swami Gambhirananda’s rendering of the last part of this verse is very revealing: “All these have Consciousness [Prajna] as the giver of their reality; all these are impelled by Consciousness; the universe has Consciousness as its eye, and Consciousness is its end. Consciousness is Brahman.” What sublime statements. Surely the Upanishads are unparalleled in their beauty and profound teaching.
He, with this intelligent Self, soared upward from this world and having enjoyed all desires in that world of heaven became immortal, yea became (immortal). (3.1.1-4)
And so shall we. It is passages like this that render the Upanishads supreme and unique in the world of religion.
Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for Awakening: The Taittiriya Upanishad