Knowledge of God Is the Essential Requirement for Liberation of All Beings from Suffering

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 20:  “When the sons of men shall fold up ether like a skin and wrap the heavens round them like a garment, then alone without knowledge of the Lord our God shall the misery of the World have an ending.”

The Rishi declares the uselessness of attempting to solve the suffering of the world without attaining knowledge of God.  The two choices presented here represent the fruitlessness of action without realisation, for when shall men “fold up ether like a skin and wrap the heavens round them like a garment”?  If this is not possible, then attaining release from suffering for all humanity clearly cannot be attained through this direction.

The implication here is that it is only through “knowledge of the Lord our God”, we can see the end of suffering.  Clearly humans cannot carry out the alternative tasks listed here to achieve the end of suffering, in the absence of such knowledge.

The Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva stresses that before anyone can truly help another being, he must himself achieve liberation, not for his own personal salvation, but as a means of communicating that realisation to the rest of the sentient beings in existence.  So long as one sentient being remains in bondage, and thereby in suffering, the Bodhisattva pledges not to depart into the realm of bliss or nirvana.  Other spiritual teachings have somewhat similar conceptions that moderating the intensity of the suffering, while remaining bound in the cycle of birth and death, does not actually solve the issue.   Therefore, the seeker must attain liberation, and then, from a sense of oneness and compassion, turn his focus back to the world and provide knowledge of the path of attainment and the liberation from the bondage of karma.

Knowledge by identity with the Supreme, devotion to the Lord of creation, and compassion in action are the elements of the evolutionary growth curve of humanity, and it is through these means that progress to go beyond suffering can occur.  The First Nations people have a saying that the suffering of one is the suffering of all.  We are in fact all one, and therefore, as the Bodhisattva has recognised, if any being is mired in suffering, we are not yet free of that suffering ourselves.    The liberation of one can be the first step in the liberation of all, as long as it is not done with egoistic intent of fleeing the world, but is part of the larger picture of providing a path and direction for all, eventually, in their own time and in their own way, to walk along and achieve the knowledge, and the freedom, in their own way.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384

When the Fire Has Consumed All Its Fuel

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 19:  “Who hath neither parts nor works, for He is utterly tranquil, faultless, stainless, therefore He is the one great bridge that carrieth us over to Immortality, even as when a fire hath burnt up all its fuel.”

When we reflect on the fire that has burnt up all its fuel, we recognize that the active manifestation of fire ends, while the principle of fire remains in a potential form.  Should new fuel, new opportunity for action arise, the fire can be reignited.  Similarly, when the seeker systematically quiets the mind, withdraws the senses from their objects, and focuses on the unmoving, unlimited, timeless Eternal, he can attain a shift of awareness from the ever-active focus on the external world and the action of the three Gunas, to that of the Timeless Eternal.  This shift of awareness is exactly what is described in the texts on Raja Yoga as the seeker achieves various stages of the state of consciousness called Samadhi.

A number of Upanishads describe the path to Immortality as the shift of consciousness from the focus on the outer events, actions and objects in the world of forms, all of which are transient in nature, to the transcendent, unlimited Eternal, achieved through knowledge by identity.  The Transcendent is not definable using any terms conceivable by the mind.  Any attempt to limit falls short of the reality.  The sages say “not this, not that” in order to make it clear that trying to identify the Eternal through individual forms is an approach that cannot possibly be successful.  It is by systematically withdrawing the mind’s attention to each of the objects presented to the senses, and from each of the directions for outer action proposed by the mind’s activity, that the “mind stuff” (chitta) can be brought to a state of absolute stillness, where the only awareness at that point is the existential awareness of Sat-Chit-Ananda, unconditioned by form, process, action, event or time.  This timeless state is one of immortal existence.

The Eternal is not limited even by its absence of forms or movement.  Therefore, just as the fire becomes quiescent when it has consumed all its fuel, the potential for fire remains.  So also, the Eternal possesses always the potential for action.  The ancient scriptures speak of the “waking” and the “sleep” of Brahma.  In one status, the manifested universe is active, in motion, the three Gunas are continually acting upon one another and trying to achieve a state of equilibrium.  In the other status, everything is withdrawn and there is simply the unmoving stillness of the vast conscious awareness that is the Absolute, the Eternal, the Transcendent.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384

The Eternal and the Process of Creation: the Action of the Supramental Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 18:  “To Him who ordained Brahma the Creator from of old and sent forth unto him the Veda, I will hasten unto God who standeth self-revealed in the Spirit and in the Understanding.  I will take refuge in the Lord for my salvation. (Or, To him who ordaineth Brahma of old and casteth out unto Him the Veda, God in whom the understanding of the Self findeth illumination, I desiring liberation make haste for refuge;)”

While some religious traditions treat the creation as an instant “miracle” whereby an external God simply creates beings and forms “ready made” and plants them onto the world that was fashioned by him in a similar manner prior to the creatures being placed there, the Rishi of the Upanishad looks at the creation as a process that develops over time through setting Nature in motion and having Nature work out the details according to certain laws of Nature.

The basic progression is the determination by the Eternal to manifest Himself in forms and through a process of Time and extension in Space.  At no time is the Eternal separate from the creation, as it consists of, is contained by and is set in motion through the will of the Eternal.  A need develops to transform the unlimited into the limited, the timeless into segments of time, and the infinite into the finite.  Sri Aurobindo describes this as occurrence through the mediation of the supramental consciousness, which maintains its awareness of and link to the ultimate Existence-Consciousness-Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda) while simultaneously creating individual forms, beings, and sequences of action that transmit the conscious intention of the Eternal into the world of manifestation which we then experience as the outer world.

Brahma, the Creator represents then the aspect of the Divine that takes up this process of manifestation of individuation.  The Vedas represent the creative force, the manifesting “word” or vibration that are distilled out into the individual forms.

The Spirit, not being separate from the creation, exists in all things and it is this Spirit which, when we shift our standpoint to that rather than to the external, fragmented consciousness that pertains to our existence and action in the world, that liberates us from the sense of bondage and mortality.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384

The Omnipresent Immortal Presence and the Lord and Witness of Creation

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 17:  “Lo, He is Immortal because He is utter existence; but He houseth Himself in the Lord and is the Knower, the Omnipresent that standeth on guard over this His universe, (Or, He is purely Himself, for He is the Immortal manifested in the Mighty One and becometh the Knower who reacheth everywhere and guardeth His cosmos,) yea, He ruleth all this moving world for ever and for ever, and there is no other source of greatness and lordship.

The Rishi here distinguishes various aspects of the One Eternal which later became more defined in Indian philosophy.  The Eternal is without limits, immortal, unencumbered with attributes, free and unbound by any specific form.  This does not imply that the Eternal is limited by this “freedom”.  The Eternal also can take on the attributes of existence, including the status of Lord and Witness of the creation, both manifesting and controlling it, and observing it in action in all of its forms, beings, and interactions and events.

The Bhagavad Gita explains that there is the Kshara Purusha, the Immanent Witness in the individual beings and forms being manifested; there is also the Akshara Purusha that is not involved in the actions or the beings, but acts as a silent consenting witness to the action of Nature, Prakriti, and then there is the Purushottama, the Supreme Purusha which incorporates both the involved and the uninvolved statuses in a transcendent standpoint, not bound by either, but not separate either.

Once again, the mind does not easily reconcile what appears to it to be contradictions.  This is the Upanishad’s attempt to explain “One without a Second” and “All This is the Brahman” in terms of the various standpoints and statuses that are operative.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384

The Eternal and the Transient Represent One Reality

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 16:  “He hath made all and knoweth all; for He is the womb out of which Self ariseth, and being possessed of the Nature Moods, He becometh Time’s Maker and discerneth all things.  And Matter is subject to Him and the Spirit in man that cogniseth his field of matter and the modes of Nature are his servants.  He therefore is the cause of this coming into phenomena and of the release from phenomena — and because of Him is their endurance and because of Him is their bondage. (Or, There is eternal Matter and there is the Spirit within that knoweth his field in matter; He is lord of both, He ruleth over Nature and her workings (or, the modes of Nature).  The world and deliverance out of the world and the endurance of things and the bonds of their endurance, of all these He is the one Cause and reason.)”

The Eternal is both “beyond time” and manifests through Time.  The Eternal transcends the manifestation of Nature and embodies Himself through the manifestation of Nature.  Everything that exists in the manifested world of Nature is under the operation of the three Gunas, or modes, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas and their constant changing balance and interaction.  Yet the Eternal remains beyond while simultaneously creating these modes and their action to manifest the natural world.

As long as we remain fixed in our limitations of the operation of the Gunas, we experience a sense of bondage.  The Spirit is present within this operation of Nature and when we recognise that, then we are liberated from this sense of bondage.

The logical intellect always struggles with the idea of the “contradictions” that arise when one tries to understand “eternal” and “temporal” having the same source and cause, or “infinite” and “finite”.  Transcendence while simultaneously causing and experiencing the forms, systems and modes of manifestation is another difficult concept.

The mind is generally designed to look at things as “either/or” while the higher understanding that comes with the spiritual development, can integrate into a “both/and” viewpoint.  From the spiritual standpoint there is no contradiction between all of these limited mental viewpoints.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384

Vedic Symbolism of the Swan, the Waters and the Fire in the Shwetashwatara Upanishad

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 15:  “One Swan of Being in the heart of all this Universe and He is Fire that lieth deep in the heart of water.  By Knowledge of Him, the soul passeth beyond the pursuit of Death and there is no other road for the great passage.”

The Upanishads, which themselves indicate that they are the “secret of the Veda” frequently use symbolic imagery from the Veda to describe the experience of the Rishis.  This verse has three such references, the “Swan of Being” and the “Fire” “in the heart of water.”

The Swan, the Fire and the Waters are all inextricably linked together in the Rig Veda.  Sri Aurobindo comments on the symbolic nature of the Swan in The Secret of the Veda: “In the upward movement the horses that draw the chariot of the Ashwins change into birds, into swans, hamsasaha.  The Bird in the Veda is the symbol, very frequently, of the soul liberated and upsoaring, at other times of energies so liberated and upsoaring, winging upwards towards the heights of our being, winging widely with a free flight, no longer involved in the ordinary limited movement or labouring gallop of the Life energy, the Horse, Ashwa. Such are the energies that draw the free car of the Lords of Delight, when there dawns on us the Sun of the Truth.”  (pg. 320)

Traditional commentators have some difficulty making sense of this imagery when they try to fit it into a physical reality.  How, for instance, do they make sense of the fire in the water?  Modern science will tell you that water is a conductor of electricity, but that is not quite what the imagery conveys.  It is only when the esoteric approach of spiritual development and experience is followed, that the Veda, and the Upanishads that rely on their imagery and symbolism, make complete sense and maintain a psychological inner consistency.

The water in the Rig Veda is the vast ocean of knowledge and the rivers are various forms of inspiration, whether inspired vision, inspired speech, inspired hearing, etc.  The spiritual knowledge, based in the Oneness of all existence, and the controlling and all-inclusive nature of the Supreme, with omniscience, omnipotence, infinity, eternity and all-bliss as its characteristics, gives birth to the flame of aspiration and the powers of knowledge in the material plane, which is presided over by Agni Jatavedas, the “knower of all things born”, the Immortal in mortals, the flame that is born of the waters of this ocean of knowledge.

In The Secret of the Veda (pg. 108),  Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Obviously these are the waters of the Truth and the Bliss that flow from the supreme ocean.  These rivers flow not upon earth, but in heaven.  … They are, in other words, the waters of the vast Truth….  and (pg. 112)  The waters in which the gods discovered the visible Agni cannot be terrestrial and material streams; this Agni who increases by knowledge and makes his home and rest in the source of the Truth, … who is increased by the divine waters in the unobstructed Vast, his own seat, and dwelling in that shoreless infinity yields to the illumined gods the supreme Immortality, cannot be the god of physical Fire..”

And on page 113:  “Agni is the Deva, the All-Seer, manifested as conscious-force or, as it would be called in modern language, Divine or Cosmic Will, first hidden and building up the eternal worlds, then manifest, ‘born’, building up in man the Truth and the Immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384

The Light of the Supreme: The Source of All Light in the World

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 14:  “There the sun cannot shine and the moon hath no splendour; the stars are blind; there our lightnings flash not neither any earthly fire; all that is bright is but the shadow of His brightness and by His shining all this shineth.”

The Rishi reviews the various forms of light in our world and finds that they are all caused by the light of the Supreme, and are essentially pale reflections of the intensity of the Supreme.  Just as we know the moon to glow as a pale reflection of the sun’s light, similarly, even the sun is a pale reflection of the radiance of the Supreme.

Light has both a physical and a metaphysical significance.  Light signifies knowledge and through the comparison of all the lights of the physical world with the light of the Supreme, the Rishi is also indicating that the Supreme is the source of all knowledge.  Whatever light we follow in this world, it is a reflection of the pure, unadulterated and intense knowledge that resides in the Supreme.

Sri Aurobindo developed a Gayatri mantra which captures this sense:  “Let us meditate on the most auspicious form of Savitri, on the light of the Supreme which shall illumine us with Truth.” (OM, tat savitur varum rupam jyotihi parasya dhimahi yannaha satyena dipayet.)

There is also an esoteric sense that relates to the spiritual experience of inner light as the higher force enters the mind.  Yogis report seeing various types of internal light as their meditation deepens, it can seem like sparks, or lightning flashes, stars, moon or sun.  The Isha Upanishad relates that the face of truth is covered by a brilliant golden lid.  The Rishis of the Veda and the Upanishads constantly invoke the higher light to bring forth the truth of existence.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, pp.369-384