The Shvetashvatara Upanishad opens with the clause: “Disciples inquire within themselves.” This is supremely profound.
First of all, the Sanskrit word Brahmavadin is not “disciple” as Swami Prabhavananda translates it, but literally “one who walks the path of Brahman.” Of course, every sentient being is on the path of Brahman, but the upanishad is referring to those who not only know that fact, but are consciously walking the path, taking charge of their life–and therefore their evolution. In other words, they are yogis. Next, they inquire within themselves. Certainly they read spiritual texts and respect spiritual teachers, and they use their intelligent reason. But their real inquiry, their real search, is within themselves.
“Disciples inquire within themselves: ‘What is the cause of this universe?–is it Brahman? Whence do we come? Why do we live? Where shall we at last find rest? Under whose command are we bound by the law of happiness and its opposite?’” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:1). There is no need to analyze this verse, but the upanishad is showing us what real seekers of Brahman want to know. They realize that unless they know how the whole scheme works they will not be able to work their way out of it. Simplistic people think all they need do is learn some yoga practices, but they are mistaken. We have to know the lay of the land, both inner and outer, and order our entire life accordingly. Otherwise yoga is a pathetic joke, as useless as a wet match in a rainstorm.
Not the cause…
“Time, space, law, chance, matter, primal energy, intelligence–none of these, nor a combination of these, can be the final cause of the universe, for they are effects, and exist to serve the soul. Nor can the individual self be the cause, for, being subject to the law of happiness and misery, it is not free” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:2).
Through ignorance we blame all these things for what happens to us, considering that they are being imposed on us regardless of our will or desire. We also consider that they are the forces pushing us to act or think as we do, and that they produce in us various reactions. In sum, we ignore the sole truth that all our deeds and thoughts proceed from within, that our responses are manifestations of our inner disposition (bhava). Both the ignorant and the wise live from inside out–all is a spontaneous flow from within. Outer circumstances are only a mirroring of that inner landscape I just mentioned. They are, as the upanishad says, only reflections, not even being effects caused by us. Moreover, they are not really hindrances or distractions unless we make them so, for they “exist to serve the soul” in furthering its awakening and evolution.
Finding the Cause
“The seers, absorbed in contemplation, saw within themselves the ultimate reality, the self-luminous being, the one God, who dwells as the self-conscious power in all creatures. He is One without a second. Deep within all beings he dwells, hidden from sight by the coverings of the gunas–sattwa, rajas, and tamas. He presides over time, space, and all apparent causes” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:3).
Actually, this is a very interpretive, though quite accurate, rendering of this verse, as is the following one of Swami Tyagisananda: “Practising the method of meditation, they realized that Being who is the God of religion, the Self of philosophy and the Energy of science; who exists as the self-luminous power in everyone; who is the source of the intellect, emotions and will; who is one without a second; who presides over all the causes enumerated above, beginning with time and ending with the individual soul; and who had been incomprehensible because of the limitations of their own intellect.”
Swami Gambhirananda gives the exact translation: “By practicing the yoga of meditation [dhyana yoga] they realized the power of the Deity [devatma shaktim] Himself, hidden by its own effect–the Lord who, alone, rules all those sources associated with [i.e., including] Time and the individual soul.”
The other two renderings are worth a study, for they are correct expansions of the Sanskrit words, since the text uses certain keywords, technical terms, that carry the connotations of all that the two Swamis have included in their translations.
So what is the cause of all? Divine power–devatma shaktim, the power of the divine Self. There is no other power or force in the universe. And although that power is manifested outside us (mostly), we cannot discover it except by turning within and plumbing the depths of our inner consciousness that is untouched by all phenomena.
“This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death, and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. It is the wheel of Brahman. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death, and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realizes its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer. It achieves immortality” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:4-6). That is perfectly clear. We need only get busy and realize it!
“He who is realized by transcending the world of cause and effect, in deep contemplation, is expressly declared by the scriptures to be the Supreme Brahman. He is the substance, all else the shadow. He is the imperishable. The knowers of Brahman know him as the one reality behind all that seems. For this reason they are devoted to him. Absorbed in him, they attain freedom from the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:7). Union with Brahman is the only freedom, and that is accomplished only “in deep contemplation.” In this way cause and effect are transcended.
“The Lord supports this universe, which is made up of the perishable and the imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest. The individual soul, forgetful of the Lord, attaches itself to pleasure and thus is bound. When it comes to the Lord, it is freed from all its fetters” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:8). Forgetting is bondage, remembering is freedom.
“The Self is all”
“Mind and matter, master and servant–both have existed from beginningless time. The Maya which unites them has also existed from beginningless time. When all three–mind, matter, and Maya–are known as one with Brahman, then is it realized that the Self is infinite and has no part in action. Then is it revealed that the Self is all” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:9). To say that mind, matter, and Maya are only illusion and non-existent accomplishes nothing. We must come to know that they are the dreams of God, plays of the Consciousness that IS God.
The end of ignorance
“Matter is perishable. The Lord, the destroyer of ignorance, is imperishable, immortal. He is the one God, the Lord of the perishable and of all souls. By meditating on him, by uniting oneself with him, by identifying oneself with him, one ceases to be ignorant.
“Know God, and all fetters will be loosed. Ignorance will vanish. Birth, death, and rebirth will be no more. Meditate upon him and transcend physical consciousness. Thus will you reach union with the lord of the universe. Thus will you become identified with him who is One without a second. In him all your desires will find fulfillment” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:10,11).
Meditation alone is the key.
“The truth is that you are always united with the Lord. But you must know this. Nothing further is there to know. Meditate, and you will realize that mind, matter, and Maya (the power which unites mind and matter) are but three aspects of Brahman, the one reality” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:12).
Many people assume that since they are always the Self, are always really one with Brahman, there is nothing to be done. It is true that nothing can make us anything that we are not already. But yoga can open our eyes to see what we are, and always have been. Those asleep and dreaming do need to awaken. And yoga is the process of awakening, as the next two verses indicate.
The way to truth
“Fire, though present in the firesticks, is not perceived until one stick is rubbed against another. The Self is like that fire: it is realized in the body by meditation on the sacred syllable Om” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:13). In ancient India they considered that fire was already present in a potential form, but that it needed to be released by friction, by the generation of heat–by tapasya. So the theme of the preceding verse is being continued, but now in a practical manner. The Self is freed even while in the body by meditation on Om.
“Let your body be the stick that is rubbed, the sacred syllable Om the stick that is rubbed against it. Thus shall you realize God, who is hidden within the body as fire is hidden within the wood” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:14). It is important that we understand that the body must be part of the process of liberation.
Truthfulness and tapasya
“Like oil in sesame seeds, butter in cream, water in the river bed, fire in tinder, the Self dwells within the soul. Realize him through truthfulness [satya] and meditation [tapasya].
“Like butter in cream is the Self in everything. Knowledge of the Self is gained through meditation [tapasya]. The Self is Brahman. By Brahman is all ignorance destroyed” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1:15, 16).
No more need be said.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Realizing God