The Sanskrit of this upanishad is some of the oldest known, consequently it is not easy to translate accurately. Also, it contains a multitude of extremely complex and arcane symbolic passages. For this reason a great deal was omitted by Swami Prabhavananda on whose translation these essays are based.
“The world existed first as seed, which as it grew and developed took on names and forms. As a razor in its case or as fire in wood, so dwells the Self, the Lord of the universe, in all forms, even to the tips of the fingers. Yet the ignorant do not know him, for behind the names and forms he remains hidden. When one breathes, one knows him as breath; when one speaks, one knows him as speech; when one sees, one knows him as the eye; when one hears, one knows him as the ear; when one thinks, one knows him as the mind. All these are but names related to his acts; and he who worships the Self as one or another of them does not know him, for of them he is neither one nor another. Wherefore let a man worship him as the Self, and as the Self alone. The perfection which is the Self is the goal of all beings. For by knowing the Self one knows all. He who knows the Self is honored of all men and attains to blessedness” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:7).
Name and form
The world existed first as seed, which as it grew and developed took on names and forms. At first only undifferentiated Unity existed, but inherent in It was all relative existence. Consequently It expanded into the cosmos–causal, astral, and physical–which is nothing but endless variations of name (nama) and form (rupa). This is better pointed out in the translation of Swami Madhavananda: “This (universe) was then undifferentiated. It differentiated only into name and form–it was called such and such, and was of such and such form. So to this day it is differentiated only into name and form–it is called such and such, and is of such and such form.” This could only be true if the universe were fundamentally ideational (conceptual) in nature, and only an idea or dream in the consciousness of God and all sentient beings. Everything we see or experience is a thought in the minds of God and ourselves. That is why liberation can only be a matter of awakening, of the transformation of consciousness. Even good deeds are really just good thoughts. Thought and act are the same thing, however differently they may seem to us who are asleep in the dream. Enlightenment is living awake in the dream. (See the tape of Paramhansa Yogananda entitled Awake in the Cosmic Dream.) This is why all true yoga takes place solely in the mind, even if we experience physical phenomena during its practice. And the results we are after are purely psychological. This is a major fact for yogis to know.
The indwelling Self
As a razor in its case or as fire in wood, so dwells the Self, the Lord of the universe, in all forms, even to the tips of the fingers. Yet the ignorant do not know him, for behind the names and forms he remains hidden. Within all things to an absolute degree is Brahman, the sole Reality. It is the Self of all that exists. The similes of razor and fire are used to indicate that It can only be seen and known through the process of evocation that is yoga.
Behind all the idea-dreams of the world is the Thinker, the Dreamer: Brahman. It is hidden from us because we only see Its fragments rather than Its Unitary Being. Only when we unify ourselves will we be capable of seeing that Unity.
Experiencing the Self in oneself
When one breathes, one knows him as breath; when one speaks, one knows him as speech; when one sees, one knows him as the eye; when one hears, one knows him as the ear; when one thinks, one knows him as the mind. Everything we experience is Brahman alone. We attribute name and form to It, but everything is really the One. That is why by living long enough in the world we begin to intuit the reality of Brahman behind it all. In this way merely experiencing the world slowly evolves us. Otherwise our situation would be hopeless.
Knowing the Self
All these are but names related to his acts; and he who worships the Self as one or another of them does not know him, for of them he is neither one nor another. Wherefore let a man worship him as the Self, and as the Self alone. Madhavananda: “These are merely Its names according to functions. He who meditates upon each of this totality of aspects does not know, for It is incomplete, (being divided) from this totality by possessing a single characteristic. The Self alone is to be meditated upon, for all these are unified in It.”
Although we are immersed in countless names and forms we must constantly be aware that they are really only the One, the Self of all. By inwardly training out minds through meditation to be aware of the One we will transcend name and form and become established in Consciousness Itself.
The perfection which is the Self is the goal of all beings. For by knowing the Self one knows all. He who knows the Self is honored of all men and attains to blessedness. Although the meaning has fallen out of common usage, our English word “perfect” not only means without defect or fault, but also whole and complete. The Self alone is complete (purna); from it all things have come and to It all things are returning–however slowly. Therefore to know the Self is to know all, become the highest of human beings and share in the blessedness of Brahman.
The nearer and the dearer
“This Self, which is nearer to us than anything else, is indeed dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than all beside. Let a man worship the Self alone as dear, for if he worship the Self alone as dear, the object of his love will never perish” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:8).
This is somewhat condensed. Here is the Madhavananda version: “This Self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than everything else, and is innermost. Should a person (holding the Self as dear) say to one calling anything else dearer than the Self, ‘(what you hold) dear will die’–he is certainly competent (to say so)–it will indeed come true. One should meditate upon the Self alone as dear. Of him who meditates upon the Self alone as dear, the dear ones are not mortal.”
The Self is ever nearer to us than anything else. Therefore we need not reach outward for It, but turn inward to find (perceive) It. It is dearest of all to us because It IS us, and is all that we can ever have–everything else in all the worlds are illusions which will perish. So it certainly is truth that those who turn from the Self to outer things will find that they all die and are lost to them. For this reason it is not just noble to cherish the Self alone, it is only good sense. In fact, any other attitude is a form of insanity. By living intent on the immortal we can rise above mortality.
“This universe, before it was created, existed as Brahman. ‘I am Brahman;’ thus did Brahman know himself. Knowing himself, he became the Self of all beings. Among the gods, he who awakened to the knowledge of the Self became Brahman; and the same was true among the seers. The seer Vamadeva, realizing Brahman, knew that he himself was the Self of mankind as well as of the sun. Therefore, now also, whoever realizes Brahman knows that he himself is the Self in all creatures. Even the gods cannot harm such a man, since he becomes their innermost Self. Now if a man worship Brahman, thinking Brahman is one and he another, he has not the true knowledge” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:10).
This universe, before it was created, existed as Brahman. The cosmos does not really go in and out of existence. Rather, it goes in and out of manifestation, in and out of emanation from nameless and formless Being–from Brahman, since it is Brahman. So creation has always existed, sometimes in potential form and sometimes in actualized form, moving back and forth in an eternal cycle. There has been no beginning, and there will be no end. This is incomprehensible to us since we know nothing but beginning and ending. Beginningless and endless are traits of Brahman and our own Self; but being out of touch with both, it is, as I say, incomprehensible, and we should not fault those who do not believe it.
‘I am Brahman;’ thus did Brahman know himself. Brahman does not need an object to be conscious. Instead, Brahman is totally aware of Its own infinite Being. And, since all exists in It, even when creation is manifest Brahman still knows only Itself.
Knowing himself, he became the Self of all beings. That is, knowing that all is really nothing but Brahman, Brahman is–and knows It is–“the Self of all beings.” The word “became” is necessary in human discussion of the subject, but obviously Brahman never becomes anything in Its great Dream. But It experiences all things, being their inner Self.
Among the gods, he who awakened to the knowledge of the Self became Brahman; and the same was true among the seers. Since we are really parts of Brahman (humanly speaking, for Brahman is One [Unitary] and has no parts), Self-knowledge is itself the knowing: “I am THAT” or “I am Brahman [Aham Brahmasmi],” but in a correct perspective.
Golden ornaments are all gold, not one of them is all the gold that exists. The upanishads use the simile of the ocean and a cup of ocean water. The cup of water is absolutely “ocean,” but it is in no way the ocean in its totality. That is why we say that there is no difference between us and Brahman, but there is a distinction between us and Brahman. This is a crucial point for the questing yogi. Those who think they are the Infinite are as insane as those lunatics that claim to be great figures of history. And some even claim to be God. There is an old joke about a visitor to a mental institution that was accosted by an inmate who announced: “I am Napoleon!” “Oh, really, smiled the visitor, “How do you know you are Napoleon?” “Because God told me,” came the quick reply. A man nearby spoke up and said: “You liar! I never told you any such thing!” Some “enlightened” “masters” and “avatars” need a strait jacket, not an ashram and adoring disciples.
The seer Vamadeva, realizing Brahman, knew that he himself was the Self of mankind as well as of the sun. Therefore, now also, whoever realizes Brahman knows that he himself is the Self in all creatures. Even the gods cannot harm such a man, since he becomes their innermost Self. Human beings, too, can know their Brahman nature, and realize that they are formed of that very Life which manifests in all animate and inanimate nature. Nothing can harm such a one, nor can he harm anyone.
Now if a man worship Brahman, thinking Brahman is one and he another, he has not the true knowledge. That is self-explanatory.
Swami Prabhavananda omitted something in the foregoing verse that I think is of value for us. Starting with what he did include, this is Madhavananda’s rendition: “And to this day whoever in like manner knows It as, ‘I am Brahman’, becomes all this (universe). Even the gods cannot prevail against him, for he becomes their self. While he who worships another god thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, does not know. He is like an animal to the gods. As many animals serve a man, so does each man serve the gods. Even if one animal is taken away, it causes anguish, what should one say of many animals? Therefore it is not liked by them that men should know this.”
I expect that Prabhavananda did not want to open the subject of gods (devas) versus humans–a situation that is not uncommon in undeveloped religions. But we should be aware of it. A Brief Sanskrit Glossary give us this definition of deva: “‘A shining one,’ a god–greater or lesser in the evolutionary hierarchy; a semi-divine or celestial being with great powers, and therefore a ‘god.’ Sometimes called a demi-god. Devas are the demigods presiding over various powers of material and psychic nature. In many instances ‘devas’ refer to the powers of the senses or the sense organs themselves.”
Certainly in this verse the devas are actual external astral beings that trade favors with humans. Many people mistake them for Ishwara, the Lord of All, and of course some religions do worship many such beings as gods. Devas of lower evolution–but with highly developed egos–like being worshipped. They look upon their human devotees as their own property, as cattle, like the upanishad says. They do not want them to know the truth of the divine Self, so they do whatever they can to prevent them from even hearing of that truth. Religion can be an open door to higher understanding and consciousness, or it can be a closed door keeping people from advancing in knowledge and evolution. Many religions are like the devas, counting their members as so many cattle, and truly keeping them in animal consciousness, even teaching them that it is their nature to be be limited and “only human.” They insist on their adherents being totally dependent on them as the only means of their salvation, which consists of going to the astral worlds of the gods and being just as limited and bound as they. They hate the supreme truth: “Thou Art THAT,” and do anything to keep people from realizing it. They, like the “gods,” are really possessive and controlling enemies of humanity.
Humans and dharma
“This universe, before it was created, existed as Brahman. Brahman created out of himself priests, warriors, tradesmen, and servants, among both gods and men” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:11-13).
The idea of caste is so fully treated in the Bhagavad Gita that I ask you to look at it there, rather than taking the great deal of time it would require to expound it here. Let it suffice to say that brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra are terms used to indicate the mentality and karma of humans. Everyone falls into one of these categories. Although we have traits of all four castes, we will have the traits of one in predominance. It is interesting to see that the caste system applies to devas as well as human beings.
The paramount idea here is that just as the universe is Brahman, so are we. It is the realization of this truth that all are working toward. But how do we effectively work toward it? There has to be a definite way, so the upanishad continues: “Then he created the most excellent Law [Dharma]. There is nothing higher than the Law. The Law is the truth. Therefore it is said that if a man speak the truth he declares the Law, and if he declare the Law he speaks the truth. The Law and the truth are one” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:14). Dharma is the way to knowledge of the Self–it has no other purpose, even though it also brings peace and harmony in a society which observes dharma, a peace and harmony whose only purpose is to make it easier to pursue Self-knowledge. Dharma is not “God’s will” as that term is usually understood. Rather, it is the way to conform to and realize The True: Brahman/Self. It has nothing to do with the likes and dislikes of an anthropomorphic deity. Basically, dharma is supreme realism. Dharma and Self-realization are inseparable.
Know the Self!
“Now if a man depart this life without knowing the kingdom of the Self, he, because of that ignorance, does not enjoy the bliss of liberation. He dies without reaching his goal. Nay, even if a man ignorant of the kingdom of the Self should do virtuous deeds on earth, he would not arrive through them at everlasting life; for the effects of his deeds would finally be exhausted. Wherefore let him know the kingdom of the Self, and that alone. The virtue of him who meditates on the kingdom of the Self is never exhausted: for the Self is the source from which all virtue springs. The Self, out of which the sun rises, and into which it sets–that alone do the wise make their goal” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:15).
Now if a man depart this life without knowing the kingdom of the Self, he, because of that ignorance, does not enjoy the bliss of liberation. Actually, the Sanskrit text speaks of knowing the loka, the realm or world, of the Self. That is not an actual world, but the state of being, the consciousness, that is the Self. Atmajnana, Self-knowledge, is the one thing necessary for liberation (moksha). Its opposite, ignorance of the Self, is the sole obstacle to liberation. That is why the Bhagavad Gita over and over speaks of Buddhi Yoga, the Yoga of Realization, whose prime characteristic is jnana (knowledge).
He dies without reaching his goal. Moksha is the only goal of sentient beings, and without Self-knowing it is not attained, the ignorant slipping back into rebirth in this or subtler worlds with their iron shackles of limitation and ignorance and karma.
Nay, even if a man ignorant of the kingdom of the Self should do virtuous deeds on earth, he would not arrive through them at everlasting life; for the effects of his deeds would finally be exhausted. Virtue is no protection for the ignorant who know not the Self. Good karma is worthless in this matter, for just as it was created, so it will be exhausted. Such karma can only bring us into the relative worlds that also began and will have an end. To attain the Eternal, temporal karma means nothing. We can only attain the Eternal through the Eternal, through regaining our eternal status as the Immortal Self. This is only done through Self-knowledge that is experience of the Self. And that is gained only through the intense practice of yoga meditation.
Wherefore let him know the kingdom of the Self, and that alone. Yes: That Alone. Self-knowledge is not a spice or condiment to enhance our enjoyment of the deadly delusion we call “life” and “living.” It is meant to utterly replace all else, to absorb us into itself. As Jesus said: “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). “Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Luke 18:28-30).
The virtue of him who meditates on the kingdom of the Self is never exhausted: for the Self is the source from which all virtue springs. The Self, out of which the sun rises, and into which it sets–that alone do the wise make their goal. Are we wise or foolish? We alone determine that by our life.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Correcting Our Ideas About Brahman
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary