The Upanishads: Summary and Conclusions

The Upanishads state they are “the secret of the Veda”.  This implies that there IS a secret hidden within the Veda, that it is not all on the surface to be seen, and that there is an esoteric meaning to be understood by those who have the ears to hear, the eyes to see, the mind to grasp, and the heart to understand.  The Veda has always been something of a mystery to the modern mind, due to the symbolic language utilized and the imagery conveyed which spoke to a different age of humanity.  With his substantial insight into the symbolism employed, Sri Aurobindo was able to unlock and reveal the “secret of the Veda”.  It turns out that it is a scripture of spiritual growth, development, aspiration and experience of reality from a different standpoint than what we ordinarily experience in our focus on the outer life of work, family, and society.

Another implication of the Upanishadic statement is that they actually are able to reveal the secret of the Veda.  If that is the case, we should be able to understand the meaning of the Upanishads and thereby grasp the meaning locked within the Veda.  The Upanishads have been revered as scriptural authority for some thousands of years, and in some cases, with their connection to and use of symbolism from the Veda, they have become obscure to us as well.  However, it is important to recognize that the obscure references are a small part of the much larger picture provided by the Upanishads.

Certain recurrent themes become obvious and these can guide the seeker to the vast spiritual truths that the Rishis saw and experienced.  “One without a second” is one such truth.  The One includes, encompasses, creates, and directs, while concurrently exceeding any limitations of the outer world.  “All this is the Brahman” makes it clear that the world itself, and all the beings that inhabit it, and the entire universal creation, and the entire action of birth, life, decay and death is indeed the Brahman.  “Neti, Neti”, “Not this, Not that” makes it clear that the Brahman cannot be limited by any specific form, definition or line of action, as the Brahman transcends all.

The Upanishads also provide a guidebook for spiritual development, as well as a description of the experiences of realised souls.  The practices of raja yoga are delineated.  Various states of consciousness, waking, dream, sleep and transcendent are described and shown to be both part of the external world, and descriptions of inner states of spiritual experience.

Sri Aurobindo focused on certain major Upanishads out of the much larger body of works collected under that name.  He was not predominantly interested in philosophy but rather, in finding keys to the nature of, growth and development of consciousness.  He integrated what he found in the Upanishads by incorporating numerous quotations in his own magnum opus, The Life Divine, in particular in chapter headings to tie in the ancient knowledge to the systematic approach and development he was setting forth therein.

In the end, the Upanishads are not about creating a line of thought or philosophical understanding, but about preparing the inner being for the “knowledge by identity” that transcends the limits of the mind and the speech, and opens the seeker to the vast, indeed infinite, and eternal consciousness of the Brahman.  The student of the Upanishads need not be an adherent of a particular religious persuasion, as the Upanishads are not about religion.   The Upanishads are concerned with the truth of our existence, and the ability of the individual to experience that truth directly, and thus, the Upanishads are open to anyone from any tradition, background or religious direction, who truly wants to know.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Summary and Conclusions


The Destructive Power Removes Obstacles in the Way of the Higher Illumination

Sri Aurobindo translates Nilarudra Upanishad, First Part, Verses 6-9: “With fair speech, O mountain-dweller, we sue to thee in the assembly of the folk, that the whole world may be for us a friendly and sinless place.  That thy arrow which is the kindliest of all and thy bow which is well-omened and that thy quiver which beareth blessing, by that thou livest for us, O lord of slaughter.  That thy body, O terrible One, which is fair and full of kindness and destroyeth sin, not thy shape of terrors, in that thy body full of peace, O mountaineer, thou art wont to be seen among our folk.  This Aruna of the dawn that is tawny and copper-red and scarlet-hued, and these thy Violent Ones round about that dwell in the regions in their thousands, verily, it is these whom we desire.”

The overwhelming experience of seeing the Lord in his destructive aspect shakes the peace of mind of the seer, and elicits the spontaneous prayers for the peaceful and nurturing forms of the Divine.  At the same time, the seer recognises that powers of destruction are a necessary element in the development of society, and thus, the implements of destruction, the bow, the arrow, the quiver, are bringers of blessings.

Dawn in the Veda is the harbinger of the rise of the sun of illumination.  This is an inner uprising of knowledge that comes about when the resistance of the being is crushed under the onslaught of the powerful forces which destroy all that resists and opposes this illumination.

The inner sense of the Upanishads, as of the Veda, focuses on the development of the deeper knowledge that recognises the Oneness of the creation and brings about the status of “knowledge by identity”.  The aspect of destruction is required to sweep away those things within the being which prevent or obstruct this recognition.  We can see that in the phrase “destroyeth sin”.  The focus here is not on physical destruction, but on an inner change.  Sin in the Vedic context represents those things which distort or deflect the conscious awareness from the calm, tranquil, serene and receptive state that is a basis for the higher realisation.  The aspiration goes forth from there to achieve the illumination with the coming of the dawn.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Nilarudra Upanishad, pp.393-396

Salutation to Rudra: a Prayer to Bestow the Blessings of Grace, Not Destruction, on the People

Sri Aurobindo translates Nilarudra Upanishad, First Part, Verses 4-5:  “Salutation to thee who bringeth the world into being, salutation to thee, the passionate with mighty wrath.  Salutation be to thy arms of might, salutation be to they angry shaft.  The arrow thou bearest in thy hand for the hurling, O thou that liest on the mountains, make an arrow of blessing, O keeper of the hills, let it not slay my armed men.”

Sri Aurobindo provides his own commentary on these verses:  “In the fourth verse he salutes the God.  Rudra is the Supreme Ishwara, Creator of the World, He is the dreadful, wrathful and destroying Lord, swift to slay and punish.  … Bhamamanyave … means, one who is full of the passion of violent anger.  Rudra is being saluted as a God of might and wrath, it is therefore to the arms as the seat of strength and the arrow as the weapon of destruction that salutation is made.”

“Rudra is coming in a new form of wrath and destruction in which the Aryans are not accustomed to see him.  Apprehensive of the meaning of this vision, the King summons the people and in assembly prayer is offered to Rudra to avert possible calamity.  The shaft is lifted to be hurled from the bow; it is prayed that it may be turned into a shaft of blessing, not of wrath.  In this verse the Prince prays the God not to slay his men, meaning evidently, the armed warriors of the clan.”

We find here the reaction of the human individual to an overwhelming intensity of vision where the destructive powers of existence are unveiled in their unrestrained might.  Arjuna had a similar experience in the vision he was vouchsafed by Sri Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, and, witnessing the predetermined destruction of the Kuru race in the forthcoming battle, and the power that was making this come to pass, he prayed for Grace and to see the beneficent form once again, as the vision of the  destructive aspect of the creation is overwhelming to the human being who has been granted this vision.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Nilarudra Upanishad, pp.393-396

Nilarudra Upanishad: Rudra the God of Might and Wrath

Sri Aurobindo translates Nilarudra Upanishad, First Part, Verses 1-3:  “OM.  Thee I beheld in thy descending down from the heavens to the earth, I saw Rudra, the Terrible, the azure-throated, the peacock-feathered, as he hurled.  Fierce he came down from the sky, he stood facing me on the earth as its lord, — the people behold a mass of strength, azure-throated, scarlet-hued.  This that cometh is he that destroyeth evil, Rudra the Terrible, born of the tree that dwelleth in the waters; let the globe of the storm winds come too, that destroyeth for thee all things of evil omen.”

The seer of the Upanishad has had a vision of the divine power of destruction which is part of the cycle of birth, life and death that functions to provide opportunity for growth, change and development.  This force, when it manifests, is terrifying and overwhelming to the human being.   We witness the reaction of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita when he is confronted with the vision of the Time-Spirit, the universal destroyer that is wiping away all of the obstacles to the next phase of evolution.

Sri Aurobindo has provided insight to these verses:  “The speaker … records a vision of Rudra descending from the heavens to the earth.  … the image  in which he beheld the Divine Manifestation is described, Rudra, the God of might and wrath, the neck and throat blue, a peacock’s feather as a crest, in the act of hurling a shaft.  … He descended fiercely, that is, with wrath in his face, gesture and motion and stood facing the seer … on the earth and over it, … in a way expressive of command or control. … The people see Rudra as a mass of brilliance, scarlet-ringed and crested with blue, the scarlet in Yoga denoting violent passion of anger or desire, the blue sraddha, bhakti, piety or religion. …  Rudra, whom we know as the slayer of evil, comes.  The Rajarshi describes him as born of the tree that is in the waters.  … The asvattha is the Yogic emblem of the manifested world, as in the Gita, the tree of the two birds in the Shwetashwatara Upanishad, the single tree in the blue expanse of the Song of Liberation.  The jala is the apah or waters from which the world rises.  The Rishi then prays that the  … mass of winds of which Rudra is lord and which in the tempest of their course blow away all calamity, such as pestilence, etc., may come with him.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Nilarudra Upanishad, pp.393-396

Kaivalya Upanishad — the Significance of the First Verse

Sri Aurobindo has translated the first verse of the Kaivalya Upanishad, as well as provided a commentary:  “OM.  Ashwalayana to the Lord Parameshthi came and said, ‘Teach me, Lord, the highest knowledge of Brahman, the secret knowledge ever followed by the saints, how the wise man swiftly putting from him all evil goeth to the Purusha who is higher than the highest.’ ”

This verse is tightly packed with important guidance for the spiritual seeker, as Sri Aurobindo explains in his commentary.  There is specificity as to the type of knowledge sought:  “It is … the best or highest, because it goes beyond the triple Brahman to the Purushottama or Most High God; it is secret, because even in the ordinary teaching of Vedanta, Purana and Tantra it is not expressed, it is always followed by the saints, the initiates.  The santah or saints are those who are pure of desire and full of knowledge, and it is to these that the secret knowledge has been given sada, from the beginning.  He makes his meaning yet clearer by stating the substance of the knowledge — yatha, how, by what means won by knowledge, vidvan, one can swiftly put sin from him and reach Purushottama.”

“There are three necessary elements of the path to Kaivalya, — first, the starting point, vidya, right knowledge, implying the escape from ignorance, non-knowledge and false knowledge; next, the process or means, escape form sarvapapam, all evil, i.e. sin, pain and grief; last, the goal, Purushottama, the Being who is beyond the highest, that is, beyond Turiya being the Highest.  By the escape from sin, pain and grief one attains absolute ananda, and by ananda, the last term of existence, we reach that in which ananda exists.  What is that?  … that which is beyond … good and evil, … calm and chaos, … duality and unity.  Sat, Chit and Ananda are in this Highest, but He is neither Sat, Chit nor Ananda nor any combination of these.  He is all and yet He is neti, neti (not this, not that).  He is One and yet He is many.  He is Parabrahman and He is Parameshwara.  He is Male and He is Female.  He is Tat and He is Sa.  This is the Higher than the Highest.  He is the Purusha, the Being in whose image the world and all the Jivas are made, who pervades all and underlies all the workings of Prakriti as its reality and self.  It is this Purusha that Ashwalayana seeks.”

Several points should be noted.  The term “sin” does not have the same sense as we use it in modern day language.  Sin is anything that disrupts, disturbs the being, distracts or distorts the reality, so that the seeker is unable to focus the attention with a calm, serene and tranquil mind and heart.

The Bhagavad Gita describes the Purushottama as being beyond the Kshara Purusha (the conscious awareness in the manifested world) and the Akshara Purusha (the conscious awareness in the Unmanifest).  The Purushottama contains and exceeds, witnesses and sanctions both what is or has been manifested, and that which remains unmanifest, latent and potential, and yet is not bound by either or both of these aspects as He is beyond them.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kaivalya Upanishad, pp.387-390

Suitability for the Teachings

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verses 22-23: “This is the great secret of the Vedanta which was declared in a former time, not on hearts untranquilled to be squandered nor men sonless nor on one who hath no disciples. (Or, Thou shalt not bestow it on a soul untranquillized, nor on the sonless man nor on one who hath no disciple.)  But whosoever hath supreme love and adoration for the Lord and as for the Lord, so likewise for the Master, to that Mighty Soul these great matters when they are told become clear of themselves, yea, to the Great Soul of him they are manifest.”

The teachings are to be given to those who are prepared inwardly to benefit from them.  Planting a seed in rocky ground is not going to be fruitful.  The realized soul who understands, recognizes that without this inner preparation the effort is useless, and it is best not to disturb the balance and focus of those who are still attached to the outer life and its fruits.  At the same time, the spiritual teachings can lead to imbalance if they are taken up by those who do not have the experience and understanding of the outer life of the world, those “sonless” or “without disciple”.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is credited is stating that one should not “throw pearls before swine”, which was his colorful way of describing that the teachings he was propagating should not be placed before “hearts untranqillized”, that is, people who simply were not ready to hear and respond to the teachings.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna makes it clear that it is better for a man to follow an imperfect faith that is suited to his stage of evolutionary growth than to try to follow the faith of another that is not suited to him.  He admonishes not to disturb the faith of an individual unless that individual is ready, able and receptive to taking up a new growth or direction.

The spiritual truths of Oneness, of harmony, of peace, and the experience of infinity, eternity and the sense of timeless presence are covered over by the disturbed energies of desire, attachment and acquisition.  The quiet mind and heart can open with a sense of receptivity to a different order of truth and experience that brings forth the possibility of knowledge by identity.

The Upanishads recognize the need for a rise in Sattwa to counter either the darkness and sloth of Tamas or the hectic, disturbed rush of Rajas, in order to achieve the proper standpoint for spiritual experience.  Sattwa brings with it a calm mind and a heart that is open with love and devotion.

Swami Vivekananda in his lectures on Raja Yoga, describes the process of attainment as needing the quieting of the mind-stuff, the chitta, so that the radiance of the Truth may reflect in the still depths of the being.  This is the foundation of the experience of Samadhi.

Spirituality is not a belief.  It is not philosophy, nor religion.  It is the direct experience of the Truth of existence.  The preparation of the being provides the basis for the Grace to act.

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

Concentrated Devotion and the Grace of God Leads to Knowledge of the Eternal

Sri Aurobindo translates Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter Six, Verse 21:  “By the might of his devotion and the grace of God in his being, (Or, By the grace of the Lord, by the energy of his askesis,) Shwetashwatara hereafter knew the Eternal and he came to the renouncers of the worldly life and truly declared unto them the Most High and Pure God, to whom the companies of seers resort forever.”

As we see in a number of Upanishads, the power of tapasya is considered essential.  Concentration of will in the thought, one-pointed devotion to the seeking, is necessary preparation for the seeker to loosen the hold that external perceptions and events have on him, so that he can be ready and receptive for the response from the Divine, the Grace of God, to provide the illumination.  This triple process Sri Aurobindo describes in The Mother as one of aspiration, rejection and surrender.  The resultant receptivity in the being is the opening needed for the Grace to respond.

The seeker cannot command the Grace.  The seeker can only create the conditions within which the Grace can act if it so chooses.  When the seeker obtains the realisation, he becomes capable of communicating the process and the necessary pre-conditions to others who have similarly prepared themselves by renouncing attachment to the outer life of the world.

The question of renunciation of the worldly life is one that is subject to interpretation.  Ascetic paths ask the seeker to entirely abandon all actions in the world, other than those specifically necessary for basic survival and the inner focus needed for the realisation.  Others, including the Bhagavad Gita, define this renunciation as overcoming attachment to the objects of desire in the world.  The Taittiriya Upanishad refers to those “whose soul the blight of desire touches not.”  For those who achieve the knowledge by identity with the Eternal, there is a liberation from the bondage but a continuation of the participation in the manifestation.

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

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