Before creation, all that existed was the Self, the Self alone. Nothing else was. Then the Self thought. “Let me send forth the worlds.” He sent forth these worlds: Ambhas, the highest world, above the sky and upheld by it; Marichi, the sky; Mara, the mortal world, the earth; and Apa, the world beneath the earth. (Aitareya Upanishad 1:1:1, 2).
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.
The upanishad lists four worlds that are also levels of existence. Ambhas is the highest world. It lies beyond the material realm. Marichi is space itself in which many suns and planets are to be found. For this reason, the upanishad uses the plural term Marichis, but it is correct to use the singular word since it means the entire cosmos. Mara is not just planet earth, but any planet on which sentient beings live. Mara means death, and it is applied to the planets because all beings that live there are mortal. Apa is the name of the submaterial regions from which atomic matter rises.
These worlds have a more metaphysical meaning as well. Ambhas is the causal world, Marichi is the astral world, Mara is the physical world, and Apa is the region where those of low evolution go for a time after death–usually in a kind of sleep. In later Indian cosmology the non-material worlds are divided into those that are beneath the earth plane and those that are above the earth plane. The realms beneath are the regions where animals and low-evolved humans go between incarnations. These worlds include the negative regions we call hells. Apa embraces all these. The realms above are where normal human beings go between lives, and include the world humans graduate into when they no longer need evolution on the material place. These are the astral and causal worlds, Marichi and Ambhas.
The worlds have a psychological meaning, as well. Ambhas is the superconscious mind, Marichi is the higher intelligence, or buddhi, Mara is the sensory, earth-centered mind or consciousness, and Apa is the subconscious mind. These classifications particularly apply to the individual Self of each one of us.
“He thought: ‘Behold the worlds. Let me now send forth their guardians.’ Then he sent forth their guardians.…He thought: ‘Behold these worlds and the guardians of these worlds. Let me send forth food for the guardians.’ Then he sent forth food for them” (Aitareya Upanishad 1:1:3, 1:3:1).
The word used here for guardians 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, for they work with living things and their development as well as their safety. Actually, the picture of Adam in the Bible is very similar–he was to supervise and foster all forms of life, plant and animal. (Many ancient scriptures contain partial or garbled accounts that were once expositions of wisdom. But the centuries have altered and even eroded them).
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. It is this work that is their “food.”
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 are our food–just as it is for the lokapalas.
Entering the worlds
“He thought: ‘How shall there be guardians and I have no part in them? If, without me, speech is uttered, breath is drawn, eye sees, ear hears, skin feels, mind thinks, sex organs procreate, then what am I?’ He thought: ‘Let me enter the guardians.’ Whereupon, opening the center of their skulls, he entered. The door by which he entered is called the door of bliss” (Aitareya Upanishad 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 to us mostly. 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.
Within the three states of consciousness
“The Self being unknown, all three states of the soul are but dreaming–waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. In each of these dwells the Self: the eye is his dwelling place while we wake, the mind is his dwelling place while we dream, the lotus of the heart is his dwelling place while we sleep the dreamless sleep” (Aitareya Upanishad 1:3:12).
This is quite simple: 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 replied: “I am awake.”
Therefore: “Having entered into the guardians, he identified himself with them. He became many individual beings. Now, therefore, if an individual awake from his threefold dream of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep, he sees no other than the Self. He sees the Self dwelling in the lotus of his heart as Brahman, omnipresent, and he declares: ‘I know Brahman!’” (Aitareya Upanishad 1:3:13).
This is both the beginning and the end.
More on the Self
The four closing verses of the upanishad need little comment. They begin:
“Who is this Self whom we desire to worship? Of what nature is this Self? Is he the self by which we see form, hear sound, smell odor, speak words, and taste the sweet or the bitter? Is he the heart and the mind by which we perceive, command, discriminate, know, think, remember, will, feel, desire, breathe, love, and perform other like acts? Nay, these are but adjuncts of the Self, who is pure consciousness” (Aitareya Upanishad 3:1:1, 2).
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.
“And this Self, who is pure consciousness, is Brahman. He is God, all gods; the five elements–earth, air, fire, water, ether; all beings, great or small, born of eggs, born from the womb, born from heat, born from soil; horses, cows, men, elephants, birds; everything that breathes, the beings that walk and the beings that walk not. The reality behind all these is Brahman, who is pure consciousness” (Aitareya Upanishad 3:1:3).
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 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.
“All these, while they live, and after they have ceased to live, exist in him. The sage Vamadeva, having realized Brahman as pure consciousness, departed this life, ascended into heaven, obtained all his desires, and achieved immortality” (Aitareya Upanishad 3:1:4).
And so shall we.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Glory of Om