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Correcting Our Ideas About Brahman

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Section 84 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Now we come to the oldest upanishadic dialogue between teacher and student. Gargya, the student, will speak the truth, but without exact perception. That is, his statements will be either partial, skewed, or not of dead-center accuracy. So I will not comment much about what he says, but concentrate on what the teacher Ajatasatru will say in correcting his statements–which are not false, but imperfect and lacking. All through this discourse Ajatasatru’s disagreements with Gargya are only that Gargya aims much too low in his views of reality, whereas Ajatasatru keeps insisting that he concentrate on Brahman, not Its manifestations or appearances.

It must also be kept in mind that when Ajatasatru speaks of children or progeny he is speaking symbolically of the progeny of the illumined mind. Just as the scriptures speak of “the mind-born sons of Brahma” so each of us has mind-born offspring, symbolically speaking. Thoughts, words, and deeds, are all our “children.”

The pride of ignorance

“Gargya, son of Valaka, was a good talker, but exceedingly vain. Coming one day into the presence of Ajatasatru, king of Varanasi, he accosted him with boastful speech. Gargya said: ‘I will teach you of Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Indeed? Well, just for that kind proposal you should be rewarded with a thousand cows. People nowadays flock to King Janaka to speak and hear of Brahman; I am pleased that you have come to me instead.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:1).

The Sanskrit text actually says: “There was a man of the Garga family called Proud Balaki, who was eloquent.” Shankara comments that he was “Proud because of his very ignorance about the real Brahman.” We see this a lot in every area of life, not just religion. As someone once said: “The problem with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along.” It has been my observation that the more confidence some people possess, the more ignorant they are. When they speak with bullying assurance they should never be believed. This has saved me from a lot of potentially disastrous situations.

As has been the practice in nearly all ancient cultures, at that time cows were prized so highly as to even be a medium of exchange, often preferred to money. (The oldest money found in England are huge blocks of metal embossed with the figure of a cow to indicate that each one possesses the value of one cow.).

Janaka was, as A Brief Sanskrit Glossary says: “The royal sage (raja rishi) who was the king of Mithila and a liberated yogi, a highly sought-after teacher of philosophy in ancient India.” So it was very pleasing to Ajatasatru that someone would approach him for philosophical discourse. However, Gargya came to teach and instead was taught–fortunate man! The fact that he was amenable to being taught indicates that his pride was really harmless, like the pride of a child. This is a trait of a sattwic mind.

Transcendent and transcending knowledge

“Gargya said: ‘He who is the being in the sun and at the same time the being in the eye; he who, having entered the body through the eye, resides in the heart and is the doer and the experiencer–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as transcendental, luminous, supreme. He who meditates upon Brahman as such goes beyond all created beings and becomes the glorious ruler of all.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:2).

It is certainly true that Brahman is all-pervading and therefore immanent in all creation, but It is much more, and those further attributes are the ones so necessary for the aspiring yogi to learn. That which Gargya said can be held by any devoted religious person in ignorance. But Ajatasatru’s assertions are the last word in the matter, both as to the true nature of Brahman and that which he will himself become who comes to know this of Brahman by the direct experience possible only to adept yogis. Brahman is not confined to this present world-experience, and neither are we in our true nature. This must be realized if we would be free (mukta).

Beyond the mind

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the moon and at the same time in the mind–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as infinite, clad in purity, blissful, resplendent. He who meditates upon Brahman as such lacks nothing and is forever happy.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:3).

Brahman is certainly in the mind [manas], but cannot be grasped by the mind, for it is an instrument of illusory perception. The intellect [buddhi] can be so purified that it becomes a mirror-reflection of Spirit-Being–which is why the Gita emphasizes Buddhi Yoga. The buddhi can perceive Brahman “as infinite, clad in purity, blissful, resplendent.” Such is the gateway to the fulfillment of all right desires and unbroken bliss.

Omnipotence

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the lightning and at the same time in the heart–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as power. He who meditates upon Brahman as such becomes powerful, and his children after him.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:4).

We see astounding phenomena in creation, but they are only appearances, however wondrous. Brahman is their source, but It is the Power that produces those phenomena, It is their foundation without which they could not occur. Brahman is unlimited Potential. And so are those who come to know Brahman.

Omnipresence

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the sky and at the same time in the heart–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as all-pervading, changeless. He who meditates upon Brahman as such is blessed with children and with cattle. The thread of his progeny shall never be cut.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:5).

Brahman is not just in a lot of places, Brahman is everywhere and within all things, for It IS all things. And this all-pervasiveness is eternal–has been so forever.

Invincible

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the wind and who at the same time is the breath within–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as the Lord, invincible and unconquerable. He who meditates upon Brahman as such becomes himself invincible and unconquerable.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:6).

Wind and breath wax, wane, and cease–Brahman never does. It cannot be even affected by anything, much less controlled.

Forbearing

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the fire and at the same time in the heart–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as forgiving [forbearing]. He who meditates upon Brahman as such becomes himself forgiving, and his children after him.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:7).

The idea here is that, being within all things, Brahman experiences all that happens to them. That is why Bishop James I. Wedgwood, an adherent of Advaita Vedanta, wrote the prayer he called An Act of Union: “Unto Thee, O Perfect One, the Lord and Lover of men, do we commend our life and hope. For Thou art the Heavenly Bread, the Life of the whole world; Thou art in all places and endurest all things, the Treasury of endless good and the Well of infinite compassion.” Brahman is not just in many things, It is the Consciousness inside of all things as the Infinite Witness.

Harmony

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the water and at the same time in the heart–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as harmony. He who meditates upon Brahman as such knows only what is harmonious. Of him are born tranquil children.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:8).

Water takes the form of any vessel into which it is poured. It is the softest of substances, and has no innate resistance. (Water pressure comes from restraining forms, not from water itself.) Thus it is a perfect symbol of harmony–or “agreeableness” as Madhavananda translates it. Ajatasatru points out that we should not exalt finite objects that exemplify worthy characteristics, but Brahman Which IS those traits, the substances and objects only being tiny reflections of Brahman. We must not mistake the mirror image for the actual object.

Self-effulgent

“Gargya said: ‘The being who is in the mirror–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as effulgent. He who meditates upon Brahman as such becomes himself effulgent, and his children after. He shines brighter than all who approach him.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:9).

We see our reflection in a mirror because light waves strike the surface of our bodies and clothing, and as they are deflected into the mirror we see an image there. But Brahman is swayamprakash, Its own illumination. That is why Christian mysticism speaks of Divinity as the “Light of light.” Brahman is the source, the cause, not the effect. “He shining, everything shines” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:15).

Life itself

“Gargya said: ‘The sound that follows a man as he walks–that I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as the vital force. He who meditates upon Brahman as such reaches his full age in this world: breath does not leave him before his time.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:10).

Brahman is Life Itself, Existence Itself. All phenomena are simply echoes of Brahman. As just quoted: “He shining, everything shines” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:15).

“My own Self”

“Gargya said: ‘The being who pervades space–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as a second self, who can never be separated from me. He who meditates upon Brahman as such is never lonely, and his followers never forsake him.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:11).

Brahman is not outside us as any object. Rather, Brahman is our own Self. What is most important about this verse is that it indicates the important truth that Brahman is our second Self–not our Atman in the simplistic sense. For that would mean that we do not even exist–that as false Advaita says, when we attain realization we will cease to exist and only Brahman will remain. This is not the teaching of the upanishads or the Gita. Brahman is the Self of our Self. First we must come to know our own individual Self, and then proceed to know the Supreme Self, Brahman. Brahman is at the core of our Self, inseparable from It. How this can be is beyond human intelligence, but not beyond our experience, our direct knowing. Buddhi Yoga is the key.

Divine will

“Gargya said: ‘The being who dwells in the heart as intelligence–him I meditate upon as Brahman.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘Nay, nay! Do not speak thus of Brahman. That being I worship as the lord of will. He who meditates upon Brahman as such achieves self-control, and his children after him.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:13).

Intelligence or buddhi is centered in the subtle body known as the jnanamaya kosha, which corresponds to the air (vayu) element. But the subtlest body is the anandamaya kosha, which corresponds to the ether (akasha) element. That is the seat of will, the highest power of the individual. The only thing higher is the Self, and since it borders on the Self, the Self (whose Self is Brahman) is “the lord of will.” We can see this in our daily life. We choose what we will or will not think about. Sometimes we even shove thoughts out of our mind, refusing to think on certain subjects or postponing thought till a later time. So the Self is the direct controller of the will. The will determines everything, and even unsophisticated philosophy considers free will the prime trait of a human being.

A practical demonstration

“Gargya ceased speaking. Ajatasatru, continuing, questioned him. Ajatasatru said: ‘Is that all that you know of Brahman?’ Gargya said: ‘That is all that I know.’ Ajatasatru said: ‘By knowing only so much, one cannot profess to know Brahman.’ Gargya said: ‘Please, sir, accept me as a disciple, and teach me of Brahman.’

“Ajatasatru said: ‘I will teach you.’ So saying, Ajatasatru took Gargya by the hand and rose. Then, as the two walked side by side, they came to a sleeping man. Ajatasatru said to the sleeper: ‘O thou great one, clad in white raiment, O Soma, O king!’ At first the man did not stir. Then, as Ajatasatru touched him, he awoke” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:14, 15).

Occasionally in the upanishads we find humor used to make a point, and this is one of them. Coming across a sleeping man, Ajatasatru addressed him as the divine Self: “O thou great one, clad in white raiment, O Soma, O king!” But it did no good, for the man was unconscious. It was pointless to address him at all. In the same way, all the positive affirming and philosophizing are worthless if the speaker and the hearers are spiritually asleep! Sleepers do not need high-sounding words about the Self: they need to awaken. So Ajatasatru shook him until he woke up. We need to be shaken up, to awaken and see with our real eyes and hear with our real ears. Otherwise nothing will really go on. The truth being spoken to us means nothing if we are not awake to hear it. Yoga is the great awakener. Other factors can disturb our sleep, get us to open our eyes a bit and then go back to sleep, and just mumble and turn over and sleep on. Yoga alone fully awakens us . All the religion and piety mean absolutely nothing if we are not awake and clear in the mind. Ajatasatru now analyzes sleep, dream, and dreamless sleep.

The sleeper

“Ajatasatru said to Gargya: ‘This man, who is a conscious, intelligent being–where was he when he was thus asleep, and how did he thus wake up?’ Gargya was silent.

“When this man, who is a conscious, intelligent being, is thus in deep sleep, he enters into the ether within the lotus of the heart, having withdrawn into himself both his senses and his mind. When his senses and his mind are thus withdrawn, he is said to be absorbed in the [lower] self.

“In this state he knows nothing; he enters into the seventy-two thousand nerves [nadis] which go out from the lotus of the heart. Even as a young man, or an emperor, or the best of Brahmins, when he has experienced the ecstasy of love, straightway takes sweet repose, so does a man deep in sleep find rest.

“But when he sleeps, but also dreams, he lives in a world of his own. He may dream that he is a king, or that he is the best of Brahmins; he may dream that he is an angel, or that he is a beast. As an emperor, having obtained the objects of enjoyment, moves about at will in his dominions, so the sleeper, gathering up the impressions of sense, compounds them into dreams according to his desires” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:16-19).

In sleep we withdraw from the physical senses. In dream we are using the astral senses to create whatever our mind decides. In dreamless sleep we are centered in the causal body. We can even think in such a state without waking, though it is not common to do so. Yet, as Ajatasatru points out, we are always conscious, witnessing the dream and dreamless states just as we witness the waking state. Even more, when we awaken we often remember the dreams and at other times even say: “I did not dream,” showing that we remember dreamlessness as vividly as we do dreaming and waking. That witnessing conscious is our Self, pure Being itself.

The source

The bottom line is that the Self is the source of our waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. It is the source of our entire life, determining every aspect. So Ajatasatru concludes with these words:

“As threads come out of the spider, as little sparks come out of the fire, so all the senses, all the worlds, all the gods, yea, all beings, issue forth from the Self. His secret name is Truth of the Truth” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:1:20).

The Self, and ultimately Brahman, is/are the origin and existence of all things. When we know that Self we know, possess, and control all. That and that alone is what it means to be a master. The Self is Truth and Brahman is the Truth of that Truth.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Dearness of the Self

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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