Knowing the Supreme Being

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Sixth Question, Verses 5-8:  “Therefore as all these flowing rivers move towards the sea, but when they reach the sea they are lost in it and name and form break away from them and all is called only the sea, so all the sixteen members of the silent witnessing Spirit move towards the Being, and when they have attained the Being they are lost in Him and name and form break away from them and all is called only the Being: then is He without members and immortal.  Whereof this is the Scripture:  He in whom the members are set as the spokes of a wheel are set in its nave, Him know for the Being who is the goal of knowledge, so shall death pass away from you and his anguish. And Pippalada said to them: ‘Thus far do I know the Most High God: than He there is none Higher.’  And they worshipping him: ‘For thou art our father who hast carried us over to the other side of the Ignorance.’  Salutation to the mighty sages, salutation!”

The image of the rivers losing their separate identities, their names and forms, as they merge with the sea, is one which immediately resonates with all.  The recognition that name and form are transient phenomena that are not, in the end, separate from the Divine Existent who creates, constitutes and embodies all, is an important realisation that helps to put the sense of ego into its proper place.  The ego is formed for carrying out the individual elements of interaction in the universal manifestation, and it is not separate or distinct from the all-knowing, all-pervading, all-constituting Oneness.

Just as the air inside a jar is the same as the air outside the jar, the water in the river is the same water that is in the sea.  The sea water evaporates into the air through the action of the sun.  It then forms clouds which drop the water onto the earth in the form of rain, snow, or other forms of liquid precipitation.  This then is gathered into rivers which return the water to the sea from whence it arose, to repeat the cycle.  At each step of the way, we create a name to define a form, but they are all part of an inseparable unity and are simply phases of the One in manifestation as seen at a moment in Time by our limited mental framework.

When the seeker is able to transcend the limited, fragmented, step-by-step view of the mind and see the creation as One in its entirety and in the various parts that the mind identifies, then he is able to move beyond the mind into the knowledge by identity that carries him beyond Ignorance and Death.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Spirit and the Manifestation of the Universal Creation

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Sixth Question, Verses 3-4: “He bethought Him: ‘What shall that be in whose issuing forth I shall issue forth from the body and in his abiding I shall abide?’ Then he put forth the Life, and from the Life faith, next ether and then air, and then light, and then water, and then earth, the senses and mind and food, and from food virility and from virility askesis, and from askesis the mighty verses, and from these action, and the worlds from action and name in the worlds: in this wise were all things born from the Spirit.”

The Purusha, the conscious Existent, put forth Prana, the Life-Energy to enliven the body.  When it is present, the consciousness is present in the body and when it departs, then the consciousness departs with it.  Prana is not limited to the breath, but constitutes the energetic force of the universal creation, and thus, the entire creation develops from Prana, or, we may say in the later terminology, Prakriti, the force of Nature.

Faith is indicated as the first creation of Prana.  Shraddha is not easily translated and not contained fully within the word “faith”.  Sri Aurobindo defines Shraddha as “the soul’s belief in the Divine’s existence, wisdom, power, love and grace.”  It may be seen as the power that directs the rolling out of the creation and brings forth the rest in sequence, the power that brings forth a tree from the seed.  Thus we see following this the creation of the great elements that combine to make up the galaxies, worlds and creatures.

Food is representative of the power that provides strength or virility, which brings forth concentration of conscious force, which in turn creates the great mantras and from these mantras flow energy in the form of action, which in turn creates the worlds.  Name and form are thus developed initially from the thought of the Spirit.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Self Embodied

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Sixth Question, Verses 1-2: “Then Sukesha the Bharadwaja asked him: ‘Lord, Hiranyanabha of Koshala, the king’s son, came to me and put me this question, ‘O Bharadwaja, knowest thou the Being and the sixteen parts of Him?’ and I answered the boy, ‘I know Him not: for if I knew Him, surely I should tell thee of Him: but I cannot tell thee a lie: for from the roots he shall wither who speaketh falsehood.’ But he mounted his chariot in silence and departed from me.  Of Him I ask thee, who is the Being?’  To him answered the Rishi Pippalada: ‘O fair son, even here is that Being, in the inner body of every creature, for in Him are the sixteen members born.’ ”

The first thing we notice in the introduction to the sixth question is the humility and adherence to truth exemplified by Sukesha when he was asked a question of considerable depth.  He did not try to explain, pontificate or describe, but politely noted that he was not in a position to provide an answer as he did not know how to answer.  This shows a willingness to learn and grow on the part of the student, as he recognizes that he does not have the complete knowledge.

The question related to the Being of 16 parts.  The term translated here as “Being” is Purusha.  Sri Aurobindo elsewhere describes the Purusha as the aspect of conscious existence in the creation, in the aspect called the Kshara Purusha.  There is also the unmanifest aspect which is called Akshara Purusha, and as the Bhagavad Gita notes, there is a supreme Purusha, the Purushottama, which encompasses and exceeds both the Kshara and Akshara aspects.  In this case, the question revolves around the Purusha with 16 parts, which implies it is the aspect manifest in the creation.  The response by the Rishi to the disciple’s question indicates that this Purusha is housed within the body of every creature.  This does not imply that it is contained within the body exclusively; rather, it creates a link between the consciousness out of which, and by which, the creation manifests, at the transcendent and universal levels, and the individual forms and beings so created.

The question raised here is really about the consciousness that constitutes the awakened beings in the world.  Whence does it arise and what is the relation between the activity of that consciousness in the individual and the life and existence of that individual.  What is, therefore, the essence that provides life to creatures, and which, upon departing, takes the life away.

The 16 parts are the five great elements, ether, air, fire, water and earth, along with the five senses of perception, the five senses of action and the mind.  They are the creation of Prakriti, the active element of Nature put into action by the Purusha.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

Meditation on the Imperishable Syllable, OM, Part 2

Sri Aurobindo translates Prasha Upnaishad, Fifth Question, Verses 5-7: “But he who by all the three letters meditateth by this syllable, even by OM on the Most High Being, he in the Solar World of light and energy is secured in his attainings: as a snake casteth off its slough: so he casteth off sin, and the hymns of the Sama-veda escort him to the heaven of the Spirit.  He from that Lower who is the density of existence beholdeth the Higher than the Highest of whom every form is one city.  Whereof these are the verses:  ‘Children of death are the letters when they are used as three, the embracing and the inseparable letters: but the wise man is not shaken: for there are three kinds of works, outward deed and inward action and another which is blended of the two, and all these he doeth rightly without fear and without trembling.  To the earth the Rig-veda leadeth, to the skies the Yajur, but the Sama to That of which the sages know.  Thither the wise man by resting on OM the syllable attaineth, even to that Supreme Quietude where age is not and fear is cast out by immortality.’ ”

These verses continue the examination of OM and its symbolism.  The seeker who focuses on the integration of the symbolism of all three sounds A, U, M attains a complete realisation and the results in the material universe.  The Upanishad indicates that these 3 are “children of death” because they are part of the transient, mutable creation that undergoes birth and death.  The focus on one or another aspect of the reality, treated as separate from the others, is an incomplete realisation.  This is the process of birth, growth and death that the soul participates in as it works to understand each aspect and then bring about the integration that is based in the reality of Oneness.

Beyond the understanding of the symbolism and significance of OM, there is also the occult impact of the vibration of the proper recitation of OM.  The energetic influence of this recitation can calm the “mind stuff” (chitta), so that the seeker can reflect the higher truth without the distortion of a jumble of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, nervous impulses and desires that stir up the mind-stuff generally.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

Meditation on the Imperishable Word: OM, Part 1

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fifth Question, Verses 1-4:  “Then the Shaibya Satyakama asked him: ‘Lord, he among men that meditate unto death on OM the syllable, which of the worlds doth he conquer by its puissance?’  To him answered the Rishi Pippalada: ‘This imperishable Word that is OM, O Satyakama, is the Higher Brahman and also the Lower.  Therefore the wise man by making his home in the Word, winneth to one of these.  If he meditate on the one letter of OM the syllable, by that enlightened he attaineth swiftly in the material universe, and the hymns of the Rig-veda escort him to the world of men: there endowed with askesis and faith and holiness he experienceth majesty.  Now if by the two letters of the syllable he in the mind attaineth, to the skies he is exalted and the hymns of the Yajur escort him to the Lunar World.  In the heavens of the Moon he feeleth his soul’s majesty: then once more he returneth.”

The Prashna Upanishad is one of several Upanishads that address the syllable OM and its significance.  The focus here is on the relationship of OM to the various planes of existence and to the Supreme.  Recitation of the syllable itself is considered highly effective to bring about a state of calm peaceful contemplation.  The vibratory pattern aligns with the sound of the universe and removes conflicting vibrations that distort the concentration.  The syllable is traditionally said to be made up of the combined sounds of A, U, M.  There is considerable symbolism and meaning attached to each of these letters, and the combination of them as one complete syllable.

The Upanishad is not, however, implying that, for instance, concentrating on “A” leads to “the world of men” and concentrating on “U” or “AU” leads to the “lunar world”.  It is important to distinguish between the symbol and the concentration on the reality behind it.  The Upanishad is defining the process of focused concentration on one particular aspect of the universal creation related to each of the symbolic letters.  If a man focuses on the material creation, he attains the results in that field and progresses on the plane of Matter.  If a man focuses on the vital world, he achieves results in that sphere and when that energy is exhausted, returns to the human birth to continue his growth and progress.

The symbolism of the Upanishads describe, sometimes using varying terminology, the successive planes of matter, life, mind and supermind, and beyond all of them, the Eternal, the Supreme.  Matter is the plane signified by “A”.  Life is the plane signified by “U”.  In the Taittiriya Upanishad, these are designated as “bhur” and “bhuvar”.  Each plane has its own conditions, its own energies and its own type of results.  A concentration on any one plane is insufficient for a complete knowledge of Brahman, which encompasses both the Unmanifest and the Manifest.  This is referred to here as the “Higher” and the “Lower” Brahman.  It is only through an integral process that brings together the entire manifestation and what is beyond the manifestation, that the complete realisation of the meaning of OM can be achieved.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Mind in the Dream State

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fourth Question, Verses 5-6: “Now the Mind in dream revelleth in the glory of his imaginings.  All that it has seen it seemeth to see over again, and of all that it hath heard it repeateth the hearing: yea, all that it hath felt and thought and known in many lands and in various regions, these it liveth over again in its dreaming.  What it hath seen and what it hath not seen, what it hath heard and what it hath not heard, what it hath known and what it hath not known, what is and what is not, all, all it seeth: for the Mind is the Universe.  But when he is overwhelmed with light, then Mind, the God, dreameth no longer: then in this body he hath felicity.”

There are different types of dreams.  Some of them represent sensory and life experiences from the waking consciousness that are being regurgitated and processed by the subconscious mind once the focus and control of the waking consciousness have been suppressed through sleep.  These may be snippets of experience thrown together in a somewhat chaotic fashion, or they may present themselves in what appears to be an organised manner.   Other dreams go beyond the actual experience of the dreamer in the waking world, to let the mind range free beyond its normal boundaries of ego: as the Upanishad notes “the Mind is the Universe.”

Western dream researchers, such as Freud and Jung, described multiple types of dreams as well.  C. G. Jung, in particular, considered dreams to open the door to the “collective unconscious”, providing access to virtually everything in the universe.  This would agree well with the Upanishadic statement.

The nature of consciousness is One and Universal.  When the mind is freed from the shackles of the ego-consciousness, it has access to the universal consciousness and can range everywhere.  This experience is one that can take place in the dream state and this brings forth knowledge about people, places, things, and events about which the waking consciousness has no specific knowledge.  Problem-solving can take place in this state as well.  This is also the basis of various forms of prophetic dreams.

Beyond the dream state there is a state of concentrated light and power.  The term used here tejas, has been translated elsewhere as “light and power” by Sri Aurobindo.  This experience of a mass of light can overwhelm the mind and it no longer is triggered to jump but is drawn in, concentrated and illuminated.  This is a state of bliss where the mind no longer seeks anything, but basks in the radiance of the One.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Status of Deep Sleep and Oneness with the Eternal

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fourth Question, Verses 7-11:  “”O fair son, as birds wing towards their resting tree, so do all these depart into the Supreme Spirit:  Earth and the inner things of earth: water and the inner things of water: light and the inner things of light: air and the inner things of air: ether and the inner things of ether: the eye and its seeings: the ear and its hearings: smell and the objects of smell: taste and the objects of taste: the skin and the objects of touch: speech and the things to be spoken: the two hands and their takings: the organ of pleasure and its enjoyings: the anus and its excretions: the feet and their goings: the mind and its feelings: the intelligence and what it understandeth: the sense of Ego and that which is felt to be Ego: the conscious heart and that of which it is conscious: light and what it lightens: Life and the things it maintaineth. For this that seeth and toucheth, heareth, smelleth, tasteth, feeleth, understandeth, acteth, is the reasoning self, the Male within.  This too departeth into the Higher Self which is Imperishable.  He that knoweth the shadowless, colourless, bodiless, luminous and imperishable Spirit, attaineth to the Imperishable, even to the Most High.  O fair son, he knoweth the All and becometh the All.  Whereof this is the Scripture: He, O fair son, that knoweth the Imperishable into whom the understanding self departeth, and all the Gods, and the life-breaths and the elements, he knoweth the Universe!’ ”

The Rishi describes the state of deep sleep as one in which all of the senses, objects of senses and powers of awareness are withdrawn from the outer world and focused on the Supreme.  The “Male” within is a translation of the term Purusha, elsewhere described by Sri Aurobindo as the witness consciousness or as the Knower within, with an understanding that the “Female” is the power of Nature in action.  The status of deep sleep is then transitioned into a discussion of the status of attaining knowledge of the Eternal.  This knowledge is a knowledge by identity, which means “he knoweth the All and becometh the All.”  This status implies that he knows the Eternal, Immutable Self beyond the manifestation, as well as the entire manifested universe.  The state of deep sleep is thus used as a means of describing the withdrawal of the conscious awareness from the Many in order to merge with the One, and as a metaphor for the merging of the consciousness into the One in the fourth state of consciousness, called turiya.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Question of Consciousness in the States of Sleep and Dream

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fourth Question, Verses 1-2:  “Then Gargya of the Solar race asked him: ‘Lord, what are they that slumber in this Existing and what that keep vigil?  Who is this god who seeth dreams or whose is this felicity?  Into whom do all they vanish?’  To him answered the Rishi Pippalada: ‘O Gargya, as are the rays of the sun in its setting, for they retire and all become one in yonder circle of splendour, but when he riseth again once more they walk abroad, so all the man becometh one in the highest god, even the mind.  Then indeed this being seeth not, neither heareth, nor doth he smell, nor taste, nor touch, nor speaketh he aught, nor taketh in or giveth out, nor cometh nor goeth: he feeleth not any felicity.  Then they say of him, ‘He sleepeth.’ ‘ ”

The fourth question raises the question of the various states of consciousness, waking, dream, and sleep and the superconscient state of consciousness which resides in the Brahman.  When an individual is awake he experiences the material universe through the operation of the senses and the mind.  When he sleeps, he does not respond generally to the sense impressions, although it is quite certain that at least the senses of hearing and touch remain somewhat active.  This explains why a sleeper can be awakened with an alarm clock or by physical touch or shaking of the body, or by internal pressure for a need for evacuation.  Where does the conscious awareness go and what does the sleeper actually experience? 

During the dream state, who is awake and experiencing the dreams?  We tend to experience dreams as quite real and participate in them and interact with the events in the dreams.  We do not, however, tend to remember all dreams, and those that are remembered primarily occur just before waking.   Some have developed the skill of “lucid dreaming” where they can be both conscious and dreaming concurrently.   With respect to stimuli from the outside world, there does not appear to be a direct link between sensory impressions received by a sleeper and the ability to convert this into a remembered event.

There are different stages of sleep which differ in the depth of withdrawal from response to sensory impressions.  REM sleep is a status in which dreaming takes place.  Light sleep is closest to the waking conscious state and the sleeper is most responsive to sounds.  Deep sleep has the least responsiveness and it is thereby quite clear that the consciousness that identifies with the waking personality is elsewhere.

We may additionally look at states of coma, trance, near death experience, out of body experience, as well as the various states of Samadhi,  to help understand what is “conscious” and where that conscious entity goes at times when it withdraws from active interaction with the external world.

The experience of these different states of awareness has been a subject of interest for humanity for many thousands of years.  The nature of consciousness, the true inhabitant of the being, and the relation of the mind and the sense organs to the true Existent all come into focus with this review.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Subtle Energetic Body and the Flow of Prana in Life and Death

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Third Question, Verses 6-7:  “The Spirit in the heart abideth, and in the heart there are one hundred and one nerves, and each nerve hath a hundred branch-nerves and each branch-nerve hath seventy-two thousand sub-branch-nerves: through these the breath pervasor moveth.  Of these many there is one by which the upper breath departeth that by virtue taketh to the heaven of virtue, by sin to the hell of sin, and by mingled sin and righteousness back to the world of men restoreth.”

These verses make it clear that the term “breath” is used in an entirely different sense than the normal usage in the English language.  Prana, while it is translated generally as “breath” is the life-force of the universe and when it acts in the human body, it is not solely as the operation of breathing, but as all the energetic activities of the body, that it functions.  The breath pervasor (vyana), circulates the subtle energy of life throughout the body, not just as blood but as energetic force.  The Rishis understood a subtle energetic body which had various centers through which energy was received and channeled, which are called chakras, as well as the channels through which these energies are distributed, called nadis.  Western anatomy and physiology have not recognised these channels, but serious practitioners of yoga and meditation are able to not only recognise, but open, and utilise these energies in their spiritual development.

The Rishis also held that the Atman was “seated in the heart”.  This, again, is not the physical heart, but the subtle heart center where all the nerves/channels come together.  The Atman, the Spirit embodied, is the controller of the life and its actions.

The channel that controls the departure of the life from the body is called the sushumna, and this channel extends from the base of the spine through the top of the head.  The movement of the energy at the time of death is governed by the focus of the individual and expressed through the prana known as udana.  For those focused on virtuous life and actions, the departure from the body takes them to a heaven of virtue.  Those who focus on dissipation and ‘sin’ go to a ‘hell’ of suffering.  And those who have a mixed focus wind up reborn in the human world.  It must be noted here that “sin” and “virtue” as concepts do not mean the same thing as we might assume when using the English terms.  We can generally understand that life-focus that is primarily clear, untroubled and open-hearted will lead to the heavens of virtue; that which is dark and troubled, unsettled and disturbed, greedy, lustful and seeking sensual enjoyment, will lead to a place of suffering.  Most human beings, having a mixture of these varying energetic directions, wind up reborn to work through the unresolved issues.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

Relating the 5 Pranas in the Individual to the Universal Pranic Energies and the Processes of Rebirth

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Third Question, Verses 8-12:  “The Sun is the main breath outside this body, for it cherisheth the eye in its rising.  The divinity in the earth, she attracteth the lower breath of man, and the ether between is the medial breath: air is the breath pervasor.  Light, the primal energy, is the upper breath: therefore when the light and heat in a man hath dwindled, his senses retire into the mind and with these he departeth into another birth.  Whatsoever be the mind of a man, with that mind he seeketh refuge with the breath when he dieth, and the breath and the upper breath lead him with the Spirit within him to the world of his imaginings.  The wise man that knoweth thus of the breath, his progeny wasteth not and he becometh immortal.  Whereof this is the Scripture:  By knowing the origin of the Breath, his coming and his staying and his lordship in the five provinces, likewise his relation to the Spirit, one stall taste immortality.”

The Upanishad here makes the correspondences between the universal and the individual, with respect to the operation of the Prana, the active energy of the universe.  This links up the earlier discussion about the universal life-force and its detailed operations within the individual being, and now goes back to translate the fivefold primary functional subdivisions of Prana as operative in the body to their corresponding action in the universe.  The “doctrine of signatures” identifies correspondences in Nature with functions in the human being.  Thus the sun is seen as corresponding to the primary energy of Prana, through its initial activating force and its relation to the eye.  Similarly, the Apana, the lower breath, corresponds to the earth-energy.  Ether represents the functioning of the Samana.  Air represents the energy we identify as the Vyana.  Udana, which is the energy which moves the life-force from one existence through rebirth into another is identified with the force that takes up the Prana as it readies itself to depart the body.

The process involved then revolves around the focus, intensity and direction of the energy of the being which guides the life-force in its departure and subsequent taking up of a new form in a new life.  The Atman has gathered various experiences and built an energetic unit that has momentum, what we generally call “karma” that shows the direction in which the Atman will next organize a body and line of action.  The options of a world of virtue, a world of suffering, or a mixed world of human life combining both joy and suffering were covered in a prior segment of this Upanishad.

The soul who recognises these truths and identifies with the Atman, transcends the experience of an individual body or life, and thus, “tastes immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315