Consciousness is the Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Aitareya Upanishad, Chapter 3: “Who is this Spirit that we may adore Him?  and which of all these is the Spirit?  By whom one seeth or by whom one heareth or by whom one smelleth all kinds of perfume or by whom one uttereth clearness of speech or by whom one knoweth the sweet and bitter.  This which is the heart, is mind also.  Concept and will and analysis and wisdom and intellect and vision and continuity of purpose and feeling and understanding, pain and memory and volition and operation (Or, application) of thought and vitality and desire and passion, all these, yea all, are but names of the Eternal Wisdom.  This creating Brahma; this ruling Indra, this Prajapati, Father of his peoples; all these Gods and these five elemental substances, even earth, air, ether, water and the shining principles; and these great creatures and those small; and seeds of either sort; and things egg-born and things sweat-born and things born of the womb and plants that sprout; and horses and cattle and men and elephants; yea, whatsoever thing here breatheth and all that moveth and everything that hath wings and whatso moveth not; by Wisdom all these are guided and have their firm abiding in Wisdom.  For Wisdom is the eye of the world.  Wisdom is the sure foundation, Wisdom is Brahman Eternal.  By the strength of the wise and seeing Self, the sage having soared up from this world, mounted (Or, ascended) into this other world of Paradise; and there having possessed desire, put death behind him, yea, he put death behind him.”

The focus of chapter 3 is to remind the reader of the conscious awareness, behind the operations of mind and senses, behind the operations of the universal forces, and behind the operations of the evolutionary process of the manifestation, and to equate this conscious awareness with Brahman Eternal.  This represents an expansive description of the concise formulation “All This is the Brahman,” which, taken together with “One without a Second” represents the Upanishadic view of existence.

The term “Wisdom” in this text is a translation of the term prajnana.  The sense of this word is what we would call “consciousness”.  It comes from the root term jnana, which means knowledge and is related to the term vijnana, which is the term used for an all-embracing and detailed knowledge which acts as the intermediary between the undifferentiated Oneness and the world of Multiplicity in all of its complexity and inter-relationships.

The Upanishad describes the experience of the sage who discovers the Self within and thereby overcomes the force of desire and puts the concept of death behind him.  This is a common theme in the Upanishads describing the shift in standpoint from the individual egoistic view to the divine status of Oneness with the Transcendent and the Universal aspects of Brahman.  Such a sage gains the all-encompassing conscious awareness of the Brahman and shares, thereby, in the immortality of the Brahman.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294

The Three Births of the Spirit

Sri Aurobindo translates Aitareya Upanishad, Chapter 2:  “In the male first the unborn child becometh.  This which is seed is the force and heat of him that from all parts of the creature draweth together for becoming; therefore he beareth himself in himself, and when he casteth it into the woman, ’tis himself he begetteth.  And this is the first birth of the Spirit.  It becometh one self with the woman, therefore it doeth her no hurt and she cherisheth this self of her husband that hath got into her womb.  She the cherisher must be cherished.  So the woman beareth the unborn child and the man cherisheth the boy even from the beginning ere it is born.  And whereas he cherisheth the boy ere it is born, ’tis verily himself that he cherisheth for the continuance of these worlds and their peoples; for ’tis even thus the thread of these worlds spinneth on unbroken.  And this is the second birth of the Spirit.  Lo, this is the spirit and self of him and he maketh it his vicegerent for the works of righteousness.  Now this his other self when it hath done the works it came to do and hath reached its age, lo! it goeth hence, and even as it departeth, it is born again.  And this is the third birth of the Spirit.  Therefore it was said by the sage Vamadeva, ‘I, Vamadeva, being yet in the womb, knew all the births of these gods and their causes.  In a hundred cities of iron they held me down and kept me; I broke through them all with might (Or, speed) and violence, like a hawk I soared up into my heavens. While yet he lay int he womb, thus said Vamadeva.  And because he knew this, therefore when the strings of the body were snapped asunder, lo, he soared forth into yonder world of Paradise and there having possessed all desires, put death behind him, yea, he put death behind him.”

This chapter focuses on the continuity of the manifested universe through the processes of birth and death.  Hunger and the force of desire were previously identified as a mechanism for development.  There needed still to be a mechanism for consciousness to systematically grow and this then led to the question of rebirth.

It must be noted that the sages clearly understood the concept behind the modern science of genetics.  They identified the first birth as the gathering of the essential elements of the father and the creation of the seed that transmitted this into the mother’s womb.  The mother incorporated this seed into her own being, representing the mother’s contribution to the child’s birth.  This was the second birth.  Along the way, the sages recognised the importance of pre-natal care, the “cherishing” of the mother during the course of the pregnancy.  Reference is then made to the death and rebirth of the individual, which is the third birth of the Spirit.  This provides for the continuity and development of the world.

The question of liberation of the soul from birth and death and the bonds of desire is next taken up in the final two verses which describe the sage Vamadeva.  It is implied that a realised soul can actually take up residence in the foetus and be born with full knowledge and awareness.  This is a further implication of rebirth.  While not every soul may take up residence at this stage, a realised soul may choose to do so.  Recognising the mechanism of birth and death, the action of desire and the bonds of attachment to the senses and their objects, the sage overcame desire and achieved liberation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294

The Inhabitant of Nature, the Perceiver of the Spirit

Sri Aurobindo translates Aitareya Upanishad, Chapter 1, Section 3 (part 2):  “The Spirit thought, ‘Without Me how should all this be?  and He thought, ‘By what way shall I enter in?  He thought also, ‘If utterance is by Speech, if breathing is by the Breath, if sight is by the Eye, if hearing is by the Ear, if thought is by the Mind, if the lower workings are by apana, if emission is by the organ, who then am I?  It was this bound that He cleft, it was by this door that He entered in. ‘Tis this that is called the gate of the cleaving; this is the door of His coming and here is the place of His delight.  He hath three mansions in His city, three dreams wherein He dwelleth, and of each in turn He saith, ‘Lo, this is my habitation’ and ‘This is my habitation’ and ‘This is my habitation.’  Now when He was born, He thought and spoke only of Nature and her creations; in this world of matter of what else should He speak or reason?  Thereafter He beheld that Being who is the Brahman and the last Essence.  He said, ‘Yea, this is He; verily, I have beheld Him.’  There is He Idandra; for Idandra is the true name of Him.  But though He is Idandra, they call Him Indra because of the veil of the Unrevelation; for the gods love the veil of the Unrevelation, yea, verily, the gods love the Unrevelation.”

The Spirit has built a house, with all its machinery functional and ready to be put into operation.  But who is to experience and enjoy the operation of that machinery in that dwelling?  The three mansions referenced here have multiple different potential explanations, but within the context of the Upanishad itself, it is likely to refer to Matter, Life and Mind.  The three dreams appear to be the 3 states of awareness, waking, dream and dreamless sleep, which in one sense are all “dreams”.  Sometimes we experience the dream state as if it were our reality, and the waking state as if it is a dream.  In an ultimate sense, these are all states of “dream”.   What is missing in all of this is the witness, the experiencer of all experience.

The Spirit is not separate from this creation, so the Spirit, which is all-consciousness, must also have a seat in the house.  The Spirit inhabits this house and uses all the machinery of body, life and mind for its experience.  The conscious-awareness in the being is call the Jivatman, and it enters and departs the structure through the Brahmarandhra, the soft-spot in the top of the head.  As the Taittiriya Upanishad states “where the hair at its end whirleth round like an eddy, there it divideth the skull and pusheth through it.”

The human individual is immersed in the experience of Nature and therefore focuses his attention there.  It is possible however to turn the attention inward, to seek the being that “enjoys” Nature, and thereby to behold the Brahman, beyond and outside all the dream states.  The Upanishad names the perceiver of the Brahman as Idandra.  Idandra means “he who perceives”.  We see here a connection made to Indra, the universal power of the divine mind.  It should be noted that in the Kena Upanishad Indra is the one god who perceives the Brahman.  The universal powers, as noted in the Kena Upanishad, all take upon themselves the power and generally fail to recognise that it is the Brahman, not themselves, who is the source of their powers.  Thus, the statement that they “love the Unrevelation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294

Food, Hunger and Desire as the Operation of Universal Forces of the Creative Universe

Sri Aurobindo translates Aitareya Upanishad, Chapter 1, Section 3 (part 1): “The Spirit thought, ‘These verily are my worlds and their guardians; and now will I make me food for these.  The Spirit brooded in might upon the waters and from the waters brooded mightily over, Form was born.  Lo, all this that was born as form, is no other than Food.  Food being created fled back from His grasp.  By speech He would have seized it, but He could not seize it by speech.  Had He seized it by speech, then would a man be satisfied by merely speaking food.  By the breath He would have seized it, but He could not seize it by the breath.  Had He seized it by the breath, then would a man be satisfied by merely breathing food. …”

There follows a series of other analogous statements as various elements of the being try to seize food.  The Upanishad then continues:  “By the apana He would have seized it, and it was seized.  Lo, this is the seizer of food which is also Breath of the Life, and therefore all that is Breath hath its life in food.”

We tend to take the question of eating food for granted, as also the operation of the force of desire.  The Rishis of the Upanishads, however, explored these issues as part of the larger question of the nature and significance of the manifestation and the operation of the universal forces that first involved the Infinite and Unmoving into the material worlds, and then began the process of evolving successively through various sheaths or layers of consciousness.

In a static and unchanging environment, neither food nor desire would be at all necessary.  If however, change is to occur, then there must be some kind of mechanism or process involved in bringing about change.  If it is meant to be organic change, not simply “miraculous creation”, then this process must involve the creation, maintenance and dissolution of the forms and forces that carry out that change.

Matter in the form of food undergoes changes through the process of being devoured and incorporated into new forms.  The life-force in the form of apana, one of the 5 Pranas, acts as the immediate cause of these changes in the material world.  Desire is the energetic motivating force that moves the pranas in the world, with the entire play of attraction and repulsion, gravitational force, and in living beings the subtler energies of emotional attraction or repulsion, liking and disliking, being the actual expressions of this force in various forms.  Hunger is considered to be the most outward form of the working of desire, but in fact, it is operative at each successive level of matter, life, and mind.  That is why the Upanishad apportions Hunger and Thirst to have their place in the actions of all the universal forces that operate in the world.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294

The Linkage Between the Universal Forces of Creation and Their Action in the Human Being

Sri Aurobindo translates Aitareya Upanishad, Chapter 1, Section 2:  “These were the Gods that He created; they fell into this great Ocean, and Hunger and Thirst leaped upon them.  They they said to Him, ‘Command unto us an habitation that we may dwell secure and eat of food.’  He brought unto them the cow, but they said, ‘Verily, it is not sufficient for us.’  He brought unto them the horse, but they said, ‘Verily, it is not enough for us.’  He brought unto them Man, and they said, ‘O well fashioned truly!  Man indeed is well and beautifully made.’  Then the Spirit said unto them, ‘Enter ye in each according to his habitation.’  Fire became Speech and entered into the mouth; Air became Breath and entered into the nostrils; the Sun became Sight and entered into the eyes; the Quarters became Hearing and entered into the ears; Herbs of healing and the plants and trees became Hairs and entered into the skin; the Moon became Mind and entered into the heart; Death became apana, the lower breathing, and entered into the navel; the Waters became Seed and entered into the organ.  Then Hunger and Thirst said unto the Spirit, ‘Unto us too command an habitation.’  But He said unto them, ‘Even among these gods do I apportion you; lo!  I have made you sharers in their godhead.’  Therefore to whatever god the oblation is offered, Hunger and Thirst surely have their share in the offering.”

The Gods in the Vedic sense represent the conscious powers of the Brahman put forth for the universal manifestation.  The Upanishad now provides the linkage between the universal forces and their action in the human being.  The various senses, both of perception and of action, are each related to the action of one of the universal forces and has its own organ through which it operates.  These are detailed here.

The world-action is driven along in its course through the operation of the force of desire, seen here as Hunger and Thirst.  Once the experience of separation takes place, the separated parts feel something lacking or missing and work to reintegrate that missing element.  The involution of consciousness into matter through the process of fragmentation into individual forms represents the ultimate sense of separation.  As consciousness evolves out of matter through life, mind and beyond, it successively gains the power of recognising and experiencing the Oneness.  The first promptings are those we call desire.  This drive works at each level, whether we call it the swallowing of one galaxy by another, or the devouring of one form of material life to enhance another form’s existence.  At higher stages, the union takes place through harmonising of energetic action, through emotional and mental joining, with the perceived “lack” appearing as the search for union and the seeking of knowledge, and eventually, through the spiritual development, to the ultimate union of yoga, where the seeker experiences oneness with Brahman and experiences the creation from that standpoint, at which point the role of desire in its various formations has ended..

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294

The Systematic Creation of the Universal Manifestation by the One Spirit

Sri Aurobindo translates Aitareya Upanishad, Chapter 1, Section 1:  “Hari OM.  In the beginning the Spirit was One and all this (universe) was the Spirit; there was nought else that saw (Or, moving).  The Spirit thought, ‘Lo, I will make me worlds from out my being.’  These were the worlds he made:  ambhah, of the ethereal waters, maricih, of light, mara, of death and mortal things, apah, of the lower waters.  Beyond the shining firmament are the ethereal waters and the firmament is their base and resting-place; Space is the world of light; the earth is the world mortal; and below the earth are the lower waters.  The Spirit thought, ‘Lo, these are the worlds; and now will I make me guardians for my worlds.’  Therefore he gathered the Purusha out of the waters and gave Him shape and substance.  Yea, the Spirit brooded over Him and of Him thus brooded over the mouth broke forth, as when an egg is hatched and breaketh; from the mouth brake Speech and of Speech fire was born.  The nostrils brake forth and from the nostrils Breath and of Breath air was born.  The eyes brake forth and from the eyes Sight and of Sight the Sun was born.  The ears brake forth and from the ears Hearing and of Hearing the regions were born.  The Skin brake forth and from the Skin hairs and from the hairs herbs of healing and all trees and plants were born.  The heart brake forth and from the heart Mind and of Mind the moon was born.  The navel brake forth and from the navel apana and of apana Death was born.  The organ of pleasure brake forth and from the organ seed and of seed the waters were born.”

The Upanishad declares that there is One Spirit which constitutes the manifested universe out of its own being.  There is no separate creator God who fashions worlds that are separate from himself.  In the Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo translates a famous passage from the Rig Veda on the same theme, which helps illuminate the subject:  “Then existence was not nor non-existence, the mid-world was not nor the Ether nor what is beyond.  What covered all?  where was it?  in whose refuge?  what was that ocean dense and deep?  Death was not nor immortality nor the knowledge of day and night.  That One lived without breath by his self-law, there was nothing else nor aught beyond it.  In the beginning Darkness was hidden by darkness, all this was an ocean of inconscience.  When universal being was concealed by fragmentation, then by the greatness of its energy That One was born.  That moved at first as desire within, which was the primal seed of mind.”  (Rig Veda X.129, cited in The Life Divine, pg. 240)

It is difficult to grasp the concepts of a timeless, infinite Existent creating a universe of limited functionality of time and space.  The transient universe is not different from the timeless Being; rather it creates the sense of fragmentation and separation, and the systematic rolling out of its qualities and nature through a process we perceive as Time.  In trying to describe this process, the Upanishadic seer has to use human language with all its limitations.  One thing to be noted here is that the sense-organs were developed prior to the objects of these senses.  This is an attempt to reverse our normal way of seeing and understanding with the mind which would place the object’s existence first, and then create the organs to perceive them.  Any attempt to apply mental logic to something beyond the mind’s ability to grasp is clearly subject to failure.  Meditation and contemplation on the sense behind the words is the only way to unravel these mysteries at all.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294

Introduction to the Aitareya Upanishad

The Aitareya Upanishad is an older Upanishad and covers several subject areas.  It has 3 chapters.  The first deals with the process of creation of the universal manifestation.  The second deals with the 3 births of the Atman.  The third deals with the nature of Spirit, the processes that revolve around the creation of food (matter) and the action of desire in the processes that move the manifestation forward.

It is difficult to try and understand this Upanishad using systematic mental logic based on our scientific understanding of the world.  It must be remembered that the Upanishads in general look upon the world of Matter as the end process of an involution of consciousness from its transcendent and universal status to one of being condensed down into a material form; and that therefore, they follow more the image of the tree with its roots above, as found in other Upanishads, rather than the more Western view that starts from Matter and tries to develop conscious existence as something that is created from Matter without any prior consciousness involved.

We can then turn to the Western religious viewpoint and see that both the Old Testament and the New Testament discuss Creation.  In Genesis, the Creator God is external to the creation.  Yet we see that he first creates the form, then breathes life into it, and later it acquires conscious awareness.  The New Testament adds that “In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  This is a more metaphysical view of creation that tries to address the issues raised by the creation story told in the Old Testament.

The Aitareya Upanishad addresses the issue of Creation from the standpoint that it is not a “separate” creation, but is created by itself, within itself, out of its own substance, and that substance is Brahman, the all-encompassing Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.  As the Taittiriya Upanishad states, there is One Spirit and there is no other.

The Aitareya Upanishad is not attempting to be some kind of scientific treatise on the mechanisms of creation.  It is rather focused on the big picture of “how creation comes about” and how the seeker can achieve liberation through Oneness with the Spirit by overcoming the force of desire that moves the action in the world.

Some of the language and turns of phrase are foreign to us and archaic in nature, thus making this ancient scriptural text somewhat difficult for us to appreciate in its fullness.  We shall attempt to focus on the “big picture” issues as we proceed through the Aitareya Upanishad rather than bog down in an attempt to interpret each nuance that arises from the attempt to translate ancient conceptions and insights into modern language through multiple languages.

As with all the Upanishads, these were not intended to be comprehensive, systematic expositions but as part of an interaction between the teacher and the student that also involved clarifications, and “homework” by the student in the sense of meditation and contemplation on the issues, with follow up discussions or directions.  They are intended to provide a direction, therefore, for concentration, rather than a set of finished, factual answers to be memorized by rote.  If we expect a scientific exposition in the Western sense, we will never enter into the meaning intended by the sages of the Upanishads.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Aitareya Upanishad, pp.285-294