The Illumined Poetic Method of Upanishadic Expression

Communication through language, whether oral or written, presents challenges as to not just the content of the communication, but the manner of the expression and the medium to be used.  The sociologist Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message”.  When it comes to expressing luminous intuitive spiritual experience, the linear, intellectual, organized linguistic approach clearly cannot carry the significance of the experience and the content of the insight effectively.  This is one reason that philosophy in many instances seems so dry and abstract.  The Upanishadic Rishis, living in a time that was naturally less inclined to fixate on linear expression, used an intuitive and inspired utterance, frequently couched in poetic metre, to communicate their experience.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “These supreme and all-embracing truths, these visions of oneness and self and a universal divine being are cast into brief and monumental phrases which bring them at once before the soul’s eye and make them real and imperative to its aspiration and experience or are couched in poetic sentences full of revealing power and suggestive thought-colour that discover a whole infinite through a finite image.  The One is there revealed, but also disclosed the many aspects, and each is given its whole significance by the amplitude of the expression and finds as if in a spontaneous self-discovery its place and its connection by the illumining justness of each word and all the phrase.  The largest metaphysical truths and the subtlest subtleties of psychological experience are taken up into the inspired movement and made at once precise to the seeing mind and loaded with unending suggestion to the discovering spirit. …  All  here is a packed and pregnant and yet perfectly lucid and luminous brevity and an immeasurable completeness.  A thought of this kind cannot follow the tardy, careful and diffuse development of the logical intelligence.  The passage, the sentence, the couplet, the line, even the half line follows the one that precedes it with a certain interval full of an unexpressed thought, an echoing silence between them, a thought which is carried in the total suggestion and implied in the step itself, but which the mind is left to work out for its own profit, and these intervals of pregnant silence are large, the steps of this thought are like the paces of a Titan striding from rock to distant rock across infinite waters.  There is a perfect totality, a comprehensive connection of harmonious parts in the structure of each Upanishad; but it is done in the way of a mind that sees masses of truth at a time and stops to bring only the needed word out of a filled silence.  The rhythm in verse or cadenced prose corresponds to the sculpture of the thought and the phrase.  The metrical forms of the Upanishads are made up of four half lines each clearly cut, the lines mostly complete in themselves and integral in sense, the half lines presenting two thoughts or distinct parts of a thought that are wedded to and complete each other, and the sound movement follows a corresponding principle, each step brief and marked off by the distinctness of its pause, full of echoing cadences that remain long vibrating in the inner hearing: each is as if a wave of the infinite that carries in it the whole voice and rumour of the ocean.  It is a kind of poetry — word of vision, rhythm of the spirit, — that has not been written before or after.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 4-6


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