This is the first, in a sequence of three articles about the historical and cultural background of yoga. In this part, we start from the early period and trace the sacred texts of the Vedas and the transition from the Vedas to the Upanishads.
The Sanskrit Culture
The first translation of the Bhagavad Gita to English was completed in 1785; this translation precipitated an interest in Sanskrit in Europe. It led to philologic research where a great similarity was found between Sanskrit and European languages such as Greek, Latin, and the Slavic languages. The researchers concluded that there is one source for all these languages and that is the ancient unwritten language called Aryan, named after the Aryan tribes that invaded India at the end of the second millennium BCE. The word Aryan means ‘noble’ (a term that the Nazis, as is well known, had adopted and distorted, but that is a different story). These tribes brought with them texts called Veda – collections of knowledge.
Sanskrit culture had developed in India uninterruptedly for over 3000 years. During this time an enormous literary corpus was written, starting with the Vedic hymns, through the Upanishads, the great epic compositions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, philosophy schools such as Samkhya, Yoga, Vedanta, Laws of Manu, Panini’s grammar, lyrical compositions, scientific literature, and many works of literary drama. This is mainly poetic and romantic literature of contemplation and wisdom.
The Vedas include the widely known prayer Gāyatrī which had been uttered by millions of Hindus every morning for more than 3000 years, and still is in our days.
We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may She enlighten our mindsTranslation by Swami Vivekananda
Hellenistic Greece and India present two complementary perspectives of the world; in the Greek temple, we find geometric harmony, an aesthetic of proportions and straight lines – the beauty of the external world. An Indian temple on the other hand looks like a maze of rooms, passageways, and alcoves whose structure is much more complex and whose aesthetic has an inner meaning – the beauty of the inner world.
The central ideal of Indian philosophy is the idea of liberation. While in the west our tendency is to improve our lives by changing reality and improving our conditions of life, in India, the inclination is much more introverted and passive. The belief in India is that one cannot change reality and liberation is achieved by internal change where one experiences the same reality but in a different manner. Or, as Shantideva put it: “it’s easier to put on your shoes than to cover the entire earth with leather”.
What are the Vedas?
The Vedas are four collections of ancient hymns in Sanskrit, comprising the sacred Hindi texts. Tradition views the Vedas as an eternal creation whose source is divine. Researchers are of the opinion that the work has been consolidated in the 2nd millennium BCE, in other words, at least 3000 years ago. The Vedas were not authored by one person and not in a single generation. They were created before there was written language and were verbally transmitted through generations.
It is one of the most ancient documents of human culture in general. The spiritual heroes of the Vedas are not of the priestly sect (even though they were of noble rank in society). They were the saints and seers (Rishis) who saw the spiritual truth through the smokescreen of reality.
They were enlightened saints whose wisdom was expressed in poetry in the most symbolic language, the Vedic hymns. The seers bring the vision of sheer reality to the everyday person in a lyrical language. The Rig Veda, the most important and ancient of the Vedas, comprises 1028 hymns consisting of 10,600 verses.
The author of the Vedas observes nature with joy, adoration, admiration, and gratitude. He feels that the forces of nature; fire, the rivers, air, are life forces and he offers them the sacrificial fire. Man is dependent upon nature and feels a part of it, he loves nature and feels nature loves him in return. (For example, the hymn to Varuna in the Rig Veda, see p. 11-12 in: Bhagavad-Gita, by J. Mascaro)
Since the Vedas were created by seers of colossal spiritual stature, they should be seen as ancient evidence of the spiritual potential of man. Sri Aurobindo, who himself was a seer-poet in modern India, wrote that the Vedas contain the high spiritual essence of the Upanishads sans the intellectual-philosophic language and terminology of the Upanishads. The language of the Vedas is a language of poets for whom experience is palpable, vital, and tangible and not the language of intellectuals for whom the realities of the mind and soul have become an abstraction.
The Vedas include hymns dedicated to various gods. They consist of detailed accounts of gods who are characterized in accordance with a specific role – fire, water, air, earth, war, weather, etc. The Vedic hymns are not an independent element but were part of a complex and very intricate process central to which was a sacrificial ritual performed by the priests’ sect, the Brahmins. The ritual is complex and is highly detailed but essentially the concept is that the gods cannot freely choose whether to reject or accept the sacrifice. This approach is different from the concept of sacrifice in the Judeo-Christian tradition (i.e., see the story of Cain and Abel). According to the Vedas if an offering is made properly and according to all the ceremonial rules, then the god must respond to the request for which the sacrifice was made.
It is an optimistic perception of nature and the universe where man, to a certain extent, is controlling the gods. The word Rita refers to a general law found in the Vedas. Everything and everyone are subject to this universal law, including the gods.
In fact, the role of the gods in the Vedas is different from the role we are familiar with. The belief is in the Vedas, the holy scripture that existed from the moment of time’s existence and will continue to endure as long as time is a reality. They were not given by a certain entity and therefore their validity is intrinsic and not extrinsic. For instance, according to the Mīmāṃsā tradition that devoutly follows the Vedas, the gods have no special status; in effect, it is a godless religion, an atheistic religion.
The late Vedas and the Upanishads
The transition to the late Vedas presents a change in means, not in aim. The late Vedas present a divinity that is impersonal but singular, and yet the offering to this god is made in order to control the world. The offering becomes more abstract but the goal remains practical. The late Vedas show a nascent spiritual outlook and a philosophical recognition that human advancement requires doubt and belief simultaneously. In the Upanishads, these sprouting thoughts develop and reach full bloom.
The Upanishads present a more radical change – a change of goal. The concept of Moksha or liberation appears there. Liberation is perceived not as controlling the world or changing it but as an internal change allowing a different perception of reality. Meaning, that there is a shift from a desire to control the world of phenomena into an attempt to break free of them through changing the perception of reality.
The literal meaning of the word Upanishad is “a sitting down beside”. The Upanishads are ‘secret forest scrolls’. These scrolls seal the Vedas and therefore they are called Ved-anta (the end of Veda) or Vedanta. As with the Vedas, the formulation of the Upanishads was also a lengthy process. In the beginning, they were verbally transmitted and it is generally thought that they were created in the first half of the first millennium BCE. There are 112 Upanishads, 18 of which are important. Tradition recognizes 13 of those as ancient and especially sacred. The two longest and central in their importance are the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Chandogya Upanishad, each about 100 pages in length. In spite of its importance, the Isha Upanishad is short and consists of only 18 verses.
The Upanishads encompass a variety of styles, some in poetry but many in prose. Their subject matters vary greatly and are occasionally contained within a meta-story. There is a famous story about a father who sent his son to study the Vedas: The son returned proudly after 12 years of study but when inquired by his father it turned out the studies did not provide him with actual knowledge nor answers to the core problems. This story demonstrates that the views of the Vedas are not valued much by the author.
The development observed in the Upanishads is a movement from extrinsic nature and into the nature of man and from the many to the singular. Man’s big questions are answered by two words: Atman and Brahman. These are two names for truth; the truth of the universe is Brahman and the intrinsic truth is Atman. The Upanishads assert that Atman and Brahman are the same and that AUM is the name for both of them.
What is Brahman?
It is indescribable, it is beyond thought and imagination. It is not something the human mind can perceive or comprehend. The closest idea of Brahman we can grasp is a timeless state of consciousness (with no past, present, or future which are human concepts), a state of Sat Cit Ananda, that is to say, a state where existence (or the truth – Sat), universal consciousness (Cit) and divine bliss (Ananda) are one. One could say that Brahman is the state of being that is at the core of all of reality. The definitions of Brahman found in the Upanishads are negative in nature, that is they cannot be defined positively. Brahman is Neti Neti, meaning ‘neither this nor that. There are also paradoxical definitions, for example, that the Brahman is the smallest as well as the largest thing, that it is everywhere and nowhere, etc. Another type of definition is presented in the story about a teacher who just keeps silent when asked “What is Brahman?”
According to Georg Feuerstein, the essence of the Upanishads revolves around four conceptually connected axes:
- The absolute reality of the universe is completely identical to the innermost nature of man, that is, Atman is Brahman, or, the self is identical to the core experience of the All. This is expressed in the Upanishads with the mantra Tat Tvam Asi – You Are That.
- The concept of liberation: Only the realization of Brahman/Atman liberates humans from the suffering of the cycle of death and rebirth.
- Karma: The thoughts and actions of humans determine their fate, that is the law of Karma. You become what you identify with.
- Samsara: A person who is not liberated by the realization of their true nature as a result of divine knowledge (Jnana) is destined to be reborn in either the kingdom of gods, humans, or demons according to their karma.
These are new concepts that do not explicitly appear in the Vedas and from this point onwards characterize the entire Hindu culture (as well as the Buddhist and Jainist cultures that emerged from it). The Mandukya is the shortest Upanishad and it deals with the paradox of the Brahman. It describes four states of consciousness: Waking, Dreaming, Deep Dreamless Sleep and the fourth state is Atman in its purest form. Later in the text, there is an analogy between Atman and the sacred sound AUM. The three sounds of AUM: A, U, M correspond to the three states of consciousness and the word AUM itself as a single sound is the fourth state.
The problem of moral behavior is solved by the Upanishads by perceiving the essence of the Atman, our pure self, as perfect bliss – Ananda. The blessing derives directly from maintaining virtue. Spinoza says:
As mentioned, the essence of the Upanishads is summarized in the words: Tat Tvam Asi, You Are That, or You Are the Essence. The joy of our true essence is always with us but we do not recognize it. We are like the beggar who begged his entire life over a treasure of gold, not knowing the gold is buried right underneath him.
True self-knowledge is the salvation and the antidote for suffering, but it is neither intellectual nor poetic knowledge. It must be knowledge acquired by direct experience. The change that occurred with the Brahmins is the transition from the Vedic world, where the village, the Dharma (order, natural law), family, and offerings are at its center, to an ideal that exceeds this world, the ideal of the Moksha (liberation). This other world, both physically and metaphorically, is the world of the forest. This is where new insights were formulated, the primary of which is the knowledge of the Atma or Atman (pure Self). This is an experience or a personal psychological reality born of introspection. The Atman exists even though it has no concrete expression. The Upanishads recount the famous allegory that likens the Atman to salt diffused in water. It is not apparent but its presence is prominent. This knowing or experience presents a different worldview, that of liberation (Moksha), and it is described as the fourth purpose of life (the others are Kama – lust, the drive for erotic pleasure and reproduction, Artha – the pursuit of material gain and Dharma – the social order).
In the Vedas the offering was material and the brahmins sect systematized the sacrifice rituals to such an extent that the spiritual essence was nearly completely lost. However, there is a human tendency to move from the material to the spiritual. The Vedic idea of sacrifice has gone through refinement and an internalization process. The ascetics (sannyasins) who relinquished material life and the social order had brought up other ideals that are expressed in the Bhagavad Gita.
The three paths to the divine are: transcending thinking through deep thought (Prajña), action and service (Karma), and devotion and love (Bhakti). In the Bhagavad Gita the path of Karma (action), is interwoven with the idea of Bhakti (Love). Love is the mean which illuminates our life and unites the finite with the infinite. This important opus will be the topic of the next article in this sequence.
Don't miss Eyal's online courses...
- Bhagavad-Gita, by J. Mascaro
- The Upanishads