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The Upanishadic Knowledge-system

Author: Gunhild Jellinek

Last Updated: June 13, 2008

THE Upanishadic Knowledge system and its relevance for today


How far the past can help us to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow? Perhaps in this way as it is reflecting a covered up memory, a forgotten link which may contribute to reconnect us to our wholeness, we are striving for. This can be relevant then especially for realising the vision of an integral education which includes the whole of man. The need of integration and widening of standpoint and being begins to fill also a major space in the ongoing discussion of value-education of East and West. Surely there is a meaning behind it,- an underlying urge perhaps to fulfil the demands made today on humanity which cannot be solved by any one-sided standpoint or mechanical vision, but asks for a mind, heart and soul wide enough, and enlightened by the wisdom of the past and present to solve its manysided challenges: Having been involved for some time with the Upanishads, inspired through Sri Aurobindo, I propose in this article to take a small flight to the Upanishadic time and their system of knowledge and education.

What were the Upanishads?

The Upanishads presented a time of high inspiration, in which the search for knowledge broke all barriers of caste and outer formalities, in which the wideness of spirit could unify in itself greatest values and greatest aesthetic and spiritual outbursts of Vision..., epic hymns of self knowledge and world knowledge and God-knowledge`, expressions of a mind in which philosophy and religion and poetry are made one, because this religion does not end with a cult`[1]. In this way they were integral and integrating in their very fibre as in their expression.. Composed over a longer space of time, the core of them prebuddhistic, they are the end texts, Vedanta, (Veda-anta) of the Vedic Canon of holy ?ruti-texts, which mark India`s cultural and spiritual beginning.[2]In being the (perhaps) earliest records of mankind in their deep enquiry into world, man and Spirit, Western scholars have stated them to be the beginning of philosophic enquiry worldwide.[3] More than 200 in number, the core of them is 11 or sometimes 13 are taken as the core Upanishads.

The Word Upanishad

The word Upanishad (upaniad)[4], from upa-ni-sat, to sit near` (the teacher or/and the knowledge he embodies) is self speaking to suggest the close working together of teacher or Guru and his students in their pursuit for Knowledge. Equally it suggests the nearness to Knowledge itself[5]:

om sahanvavatu| saha nau bhunaktu| saha vryam karavvahai| tejasvinvadhtamastu m vidvivahai|| aum nti nti nti ||

Om. Together may He protect us: together may He possess us: together may we work with vigour May what we have studied be full to us of light and power! May we never hate! Om. Peace! Peace!

goes the famous Upanishadic peace prayer, to ensure a joint (saha nv), harmonious (m vidvivahai) study, full of energy and enthusiasm, (tejasvinv sahavryam), with the protection of Self and God, ( sahanvavatu, sahanaubhunaktu), of the Rishi-teachers and their students. The institution of the Ashram (rama) [6] or of the gurukulam[7] [8], the ancient Indian resident schools, where teacher and students lived together, provided suitable surrounding in a familylike setting.[9] The fostering natural environment inmidst forests, helped in addition to create a protective atmosphere where the soul could breathe and the minds of the aspirants develop. It gave the possibility for the students to learn quietly in their own pace, whatever the teachers had to give, without the tension of timepressure and marks. Thus this atmosphere provided the best outer conditions for deep learning. The teaching could also take place at the court of kings, when they wished so, as we hear of the knowledge-debates of King Janaka and Rishi Yjavalkya.So the Upanishads are not only sources of highest knowledge-inspiration, but also the records of the interaction of the Rishis with their students, providing us with one of the earliest testimony of an educational system or organism.It meant an open minded atmosphere in more senses than one: Anyone could be a student and approach the teacher for studentship, independent of his social status or monetary condition.[10] Fathers were the gurus of their sons, the kings gave their pranam to the knowledgeable teacher of any caste, Brahmins learnt from Kshatriyas.[11] The criteria for admittance were rather certain inner qualities and strength of character.

Conditions of Admission for the students

The condition of acceptance of a student by a teacher or Guru were purely value-orientated: A striking example provides the story about the student Satyakma (lit. One who is desirous of Truth), in the Chndogya Upaniad (ChUp IV.4), who becomes lateron also an acknowledged teacher.- On being asked about his family background by Rishi Gautama,the Guru of his choice, he innocently speaks about his heritage from his mother who was working as a maidservant, serving in different houses, and his ignorance about who was his father. Rishi Gautama thereupon welcomes him with open arms on account of his honesty and straightforwardness with the words: None but a Brahmin could speak these words of truth` (ChUp IV.4.5) .Nachiketas, the hero of the Kaha Upaniad, gets abhorred at his father`s hypocritical sacrificial gift, and provokingly speaks to his father: To whom wilt thou give me?`, The angry reply of his father:To Death I give Thee` (Katha Up.I..1.4) proved fateful: Nachiketas` qualities of courage, his thirst for knowledge and justice, and his capacity of endurance to have the audience with Teacher Yama (the god of Death) brings him face to face with this eternal teacher to receive the secret of secrets.The episode related in the Chandogya Upanishad (Ch.Up. VII.1), where the learned Nrada, the Divine Singer approaches Sanatkumra, the eternal youth and son of virtue, who has no formal education, is meant to show the insufficiency of a mere brain-mugging. Narada though proficient in the 64 sciences is modestly recognising the relativity of such knowledge:

I am only like one knowing the words and not a knower of Self. I has come to my ears from those like you, that he who knows the Self crosses over sorrow. I am such a sorrowing one am I, O Respected One. Help me to cross over sorrow

`and is thus admitted to enter the realm of true inner knowledge and realisation through the divine teaching of Sanatkumara.

Values as condition for receiving the Spiritual Knowledge

Similarly they were inner values, attitudes and states of being which served as condition to receive the spiritual knowledge.The Muaka Upaniad (MuUp) I.2.13, tells us, that to that person, who has taken refuge with a teacher, with a heart tranquillised and a spirit at peace, the knowledge of the Brahman should be given. (similarly MuUp 1.2.11)Interesting is the beginning passage of the Prashna Upanishad, where the disciples , though already brahmaniha, established (somehow) in the Brahman, but actually still more on the way, searching the knowledge, brahmnveama were screened by the teacher, as not yet ready for the gift of knowledge, and were told to return after one year, living in self-discipline and faith (PrUp I.1,2)[12]The Muaka Upaniad (III.1.8) states clearly the preconditions of spiritual Knowledge, which are jnaprasdena and viuddhasattva, the clarity of mind which comes by knowledge and purity of being, by which the purified can see. The sudden eruption of knowledge after Satykama`s dedicated service to his Guru by looking after his cows, as related in the Chndogya Upaniad (IV.5) also shows how knowledge directly was related to values in the Upanishads. (s. below)

Value education and aesthetic and spiritual elevation

Interesting to note, that dos and donts, the admonition and advices for a certain social and moral conduct were spread along explorations in knowledge and ecstatic poetic expressions of the seers, -- thus reflecting their lofty consciousness, which did not make a difference in importance of voicing human social and moral rules and on the other hand exploring the heights of spirit in their poetry. The prayers and advices of the teachers were a basis to the deep teachings and never remained on a mere admonitory level:In the Taittirya Upaniad, in its 1st Chapter (I.6) for instance, the teacher, after expounding the various codes of conduct to the student, says, etad upsyam`, thus it should be worshipped`,- and ea vedopaniat`, this is the secret teaching of the veda`, which shows the emphasis of value as basis and integrated into the knowledge-teaching. And always we find these passages submerged or surrounded by outbursts of poetry and knowledge, as in TaittUp I.9 and 11, where the exposition on tam, satyam and dharma, the right, the truth and the right way of living, the respect for the elders, the guru and guest and the student`s responsibilities to society and gods is directly preceded by the ecstatic and mystic words of self knowledge:

I am He that moveth the Tree of the Universe and my glory is like the shoulders of a high mountain` (TaiUp I.10)[13]

Thus again and again we find elevated in finding words of knowledge couched in streams of poetic expression. Beautiful is for instance the passage in the Bhadrayaka Upaniad:

This earth is honey for all creatures and all creatures are honey for this earth. This shining immortal person who is in the earth and with reference to oneself, this immortal shining person which is in the body, is just this self` (BrhUp. II.5.1)

Rishi Uddalaka in the Chandogya Upanishad does not get tired to instruct his son ?vetaketu with always new examples taken from life in beautiful language about the nature of the self.

Just as my dear, by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is knownjust one nugget of gold all that is made of gold becomes knownjust as by one pair of nail scissors all that is made of iron becomes knownthus, my dear, is that teaching.`

(ChUp VI.1.4-6)

Similarly the deep teaching about immortality and non-attachment to outer forms of Yjavalkya to Maitreyi (BrhUpII..4) is exalted in its tone while proceeding with this deep subject matter.

Helpful Learning Atmosphere through sounding the Word

The Shantimantras (?ntimantras) prefixed to the Upanishads remind in a very special sense of the power of the Word[14], as they facilitate a space of learning and an elevated atmosphere of peace and oneness: Word is power,creating the whole universe, say the Upanishads : om iti etad akara idam sarvam` (Mkya Upaniad 1).--.The ?antimantras thus are meant to create in a conscious way a favourable atmosphere for the chanter and the listeners, the sacred space, the suitable set up in which knowledge can thrive. The most well-known ?ntimantra of the ? Upaniad is being chanted till today on many occasions creating that immediate atmosphere of oneness and connectedness between Man-Cosmos and Supreme:

Om pramada pramida prt pramudacyate|prasya pramdya pramevvaiyate| om nti nti nti

Om, complete in itself is that yonder and complete in itself is that which is here; the complete ariseth from the complete: but when thou takest the complete from its fullness, that which remaineth is also complete, Om Peace Peace Peace.` The ?ntimantra prefixed to the first part of the Taittirya Upaniad asserts:

satyam vadisyami rtam vadisyami tanmamavatu tadvaktaramavatu`

I will speak (declare) truth, I will speak (declare) right, may this protect me, may this protect the speaker!`,

thus communicating to us that uttering the Truth and Right by itself creates around oneself a protective sphere[15])

The Rishi-Teachers

The being and character of the Rishis (is) certainly added to their educational influence on the students. We see in cases like that of Satyakma, who came himself as student to learn from a Guru after passing different types of inner exams, acquired then the qualities of a good teacher.Knowledge in the Upanishads meant always having gone a certain pathway of acquiring values, which could bloom then into knowledge. (s. above)

They (the Rishis) were towering figures, as the great Yjavalkya, who was not tired to combat with so many teachers of lesser format. And he had too a sense of humour: Heart stirring the incident, where in a combat in the court of King Janaka, the prize of 1000 cows was promised for the best knower of Brahman, and Yjavalkya immediately directs his students to lead away the cows before the combat had begun, thus indicating non-verbally, that he possessed those skills and was the best of Brahman-knowers. (BrhUp III.1.2) His inspired words and conciliary note to his dear wife, Maitreyi (BrhUp II.4), show equally his wide scale in beingness.Of course Gargi as a Woman-Rishi also finds our admiration,- her intrinsic questioning, loftiness of argument and calm assertion of her standpoint in a realm of predominously men (BrhUp III.6.1 ff, III 8.1ff)

That, O Yajnavalkya, of which they say, that it is above the heaven,, which is beneath the earth, that which is beneath the two, the heaven and the earth, that which the people call the past, the present and the future, across is what is that woven like warp and woof?`(BrhUp.III.8.3)

There was the intuitive great hearted and mystic Gautama of Chndogya Upaniad (ChUp) and his straightforward student Satyakma who became himself again teacher. Or the wise father and teacher Uddalaka, teaching his son and student ?vetaketu (s. above) Intuitively he recognises his son`s state of mind, after 12 years of learning from different teachers from far, which was still unbaked. Beautiful, how he makes him gently to understand and aspire for a still deeper knowledge. Poetic the following long passages of teaching, ending always with the knowledge-formula, Tat tvam asi, that art thou`.

Way of teaching and knowledge transfer

Patience and skill

We can enjoy truly the dialogues of teachers like Yjavalkya, Uddalaka and others with their students or the combats between the champions of knowledge-wisdom, without end.The students or questioners without doubt became the occasion for the teacher, to pour out their best- in prose or poetry. -- so ever new facets of truth got revealed and pondered upon till , leading the student (and us readers) into ever subtler spheres of knowledge. An example are the discourses in the great knowledge-combats initiated by King Janaka.(BrhUp) The teacher therein does not show an inkling of tiredness, but goes along the road of questioning and answering.[16]

Teaching through images and allegories

Sometimes the method of knowledge transfer reminds us of our modern scientific methods, in their way of enquiry and clear analogies in the answers. Thus for instance Uddalaka combines in his teaching of to his son ?vetaketu, the scientific method of enquiry with images taken from life (s. above) with the wisdom of the Teacher: thus the image of the dissolving salt in water or the example taken from the natural surrounding: the seeds of a Nyagrodhatree,- which being broken serves to image the subtleness of the self, the Atman to the student. (ChUp VI.12 and 13)The language used by the teachers to their students is a rich one: Their explanations reaches from analogies to picturous descriptions and mystic utterances opening and inspiring the student`s imagination: In the Bhadrayaka Upaniad (II.4.9) Yjavalkya, speaking about the self, makes the following analogy:

As when a Vina (lute) is being played, one is not able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the vina or the player of the vina the sound is grasped`

Or there is for instance the mystic image about the human being in the ?vetvatara Upanishad:

We meditate on him as a river of five streams, from five sources, fierce and curved, whose waves are the vital breaths, whose source is the fivefold perception, with five whirlpools`

` Wonderful also the world of myths and allegories as presented for instance in the Aitareya Upanishad.The images taken from life are always direct and meant to lead the student after meditating on them, to their essence.

To ponder and absorb the deeper meaning of the words was the students work,--Nididhsasva`, dwell on what I tell you` , advices Yjavalkya his wife Maitreyi, conveying to her the cherished words about the knowledge of Immortality.

If words were not any more sufficient to convey what was meant, the teachers took resort to direct sight and observation as for example in an effort to describe the reality of the Atman, the teacher takes the student aside to exemplify the teaching on a sleeping person (BrhUp II.1.15).

Teaching through Silence

This last example tells of a special way of absorption of the knowledge of the teacher: through silence, as related in the Chndogya Upaniad. In its 4th chapter ( IV.7.) a most interesting story is told, which exemplifies the flowering of knowledge from within, when the being has been made ready through inner preparation and the ripening of the cycle of time.Satyakma, this special student, who was Aspiration for Truth embodied, as his name indicates, satya-kma (desirious of knowledge), (cf. above, p.2) didn`t get instructed by his teacher in the usual way: After many years of faithful service at his Teachers Ashram, looking after his cattles, it was not the Guru, who formally gave him his initiative knowledge, but it were his natural surroundings who revealed it to him: It was the bull, the fire, the swan and the diver-bird, long-year comrades of his, who explained to him the four parts of Brahman, the Highest Reality. His adhar having been prepared, he had become ready to thus receive the knowledge directly. It was only then, on his further request, that the teacher poured his knowledge into him (ChUp. IV.9). Similarly it happened then later to Upakosala, the student of Satyakama. Satyakama used the same method as his Guru did in his case, to enlighten his student. Upakosala, already desperate, as he had waited a long time for the reviving knowledge, received it finally directly through the medium of the household fires, he was caring for, during the stay at his Guru`splace.. - Interesting: the fires teach him: Life is Brahman, Joy is Brahman and Ether is Brahman`, while Ether (kham), is verily the same as joy (kam), -- which could refer to the wonder of emerging knowledge from out the silent space of the heart, helped by the quietness of the surrounding. This created then the glowing joy, which his teacher noted immediately on his face. Here is exemplified the teaching and through silence,- which Upakosala had absorbed and got thus revealed to him.

Education of the Senses

To delve deeper into the content of the Upanishads another essay would be needed. Yet to mention here lastly and importantly the teaching of the Kena Upanishad, which shocks us with its straight questioning to go to the source of things, the mind of mind, life of life, hearing of our hearing and seeing of our seeing,- the investigatory urge: of looking what forces are behind a blade of grass. - What knowledge instruments would we have to develop to ascertain it, have we thought about it? What kind of education would be necessary to awaken this open curiosity,- not to limit ourselves by existing schoolbooks, but allow freely this stream of endless enquiry?This is perhaps one of the major things what we can learn from the Upanishads.

Conclusion - and relevance for our time

Though things have changed a great deal since the Upanishadic time, - there are many timeless jewels which we can identify even today with and draw inspiration from:They may teach us among others-that a true involvement into the passion for inner knowledge itself focuses and inspires.-that values can be best taught, when seen in a broader perspective in the light of a deeper knowledge of oneness (of me and the world, teachers and students), which holds creative expression and values on equal par and uses them as an artist according to the situation.-that knowledge has no end,- it all depends on our quest, and with what courage we proceed into the fields of the unknown, by which route we go, which will lead us to the aspired wisdom or knowledge-about the creative possibilities involved in knowledge expression and communication with the students, which reaches in case of the Upanishadic Rishiteachers from the capacity of teaching through silence and reach the students core with empathy, upto rich and colourful explanations, even with a pinch of humour-the possibility of learning and teaching through silence, creating a magic space full of beauty, in which creativity and the curiosity for knowledge and the education for the sensitivity before that which is beyond speech, have equally their place.-that the world is more than what we see, and trying to look behind the mere outer form of a blade of grass does not mean to get stuck in esoteric assumptions, or being unscientific. Kireet Joshi says it so aptly (Sutra Vol 1, p.28),- spiritual education is by definition an allembracing education `, in interweaving its light in a natural rhythm with the faculties of the other members of our personality,- mind, vital, physical being and their education.The Upanishads, as seen above, provide us with a lot of thought impulses to ponder on this topic. They also inspire usthat spirituality does not mean a narrow religious way of being, but weaves a wider frame,- of an inner development in knowledge and consciousness,- which means to grow, to quest, to be of open mind and spirit, so much needed in todays time of multi-culturalness and multiplicity of beliefs and religious expressions. They provide us with a rich inner life and outer expression, - they combine scientific research with spiritual inspiration. They also remind us to value the pauses and to listen to the moment.

The Rishis by living and teaching a value-orientated life as part of their vision and quest show us a way how to recognise values in a wider fold, as part of the one Being, which we are all part of which expresses itself in the cosmic rhythm, intrinsically ordering the world being ta, satya, and the individual dharma, which equally is a being of delight, of poetic joy and creative expression. The Upanishadic Rishis and their students are engaged in a search for wide knowledge, which embraces world and its working, while it reminds us constantly of the Spiritual Presence behind the surface of things.

Many more things could be said hints which single Upanishads could give to widen our onesided focussed sight of limited education to a wider spiritual realm; the exploration in consciousness, its larger possibilities as they are suggested for instance in the Kena Upanishad in its quest for the mind of mind, the hearing of the hearing, the seeing of the seeing, and speech of speech.The general trend today to fall into the trap of a one-dimensional technic-belief-knowledge could be in the light of this more embracing research balanced out. The Upanishads neutral vision could also harmonise any one sided belief system, as it proposes to go beyond all definitions , yet open to research on all definitions of reality. Moreover renewed research into its ancient scriptures such as the Veda and Upanishads could be a real asset in the long run, something which India can certainly contribute in solving global problems, which is very Indian and yet global.

sarve bhavantu sukhina

sarve santu nirmay

sarve bhadri payantu

m kacid dukhavdbhavet

May all beings be happy

May all be free from disease

May all beings see things positively

May none suffer from sorrow.

(Jaimini-Upanishad Brahmana) ***************************************************************************

[1] The Upanishads, by Sri Aurobindo, 1981,p.4 and p.1
[2] If the Vedas mark a time between about 6000-2000 BC , followed by Brhmanas, ?rayakas and then Upanishads, the Upanishads may be set at 1500-.600 BC.
[3] In reality, the enquiry into the nature of Reality started in the Vedas itself (vgl. Hymn of creation, RV X.129, for example).
[4] The word in brackets is the Sanskrit transcription, showing the actual pronunciation of the word
[5] cf, for example the seer in TaiUp III.10 ends the mystic sharing of his knowledge with iti upaniat, this is Upanishad`.
[6] hermitage, place for joint spiritual practice
[7] gurukulam or gurukul from guru = "teacher", "master" and kula(m) (sskt); kul (hindi) = family; so it means the extended family of the teacher, or the place where the (extended) family of the teacher lives.
[8] the institution of gurukulam is even prevalent today, where young students learn the texts of the Vedas, Upanishads and Gita and live a natural common life.
[9] the same holds for the settings as described in the ?rayakas, the forest scriptures, preceding the Upanishads
[10] the relationship between teacher and student was one of respect and lovetime was no question, the concern was the ripening of the fruit in form of knowledge in the studentcertificates were not in question, payment to the institute also not, except the service of the guru and the gurukulam, and the gurudakshina, a gift, at the fulfilled teaching)
[11] cf. the teaching of the Kshatriya Ajtashatru to the Brahmin Grgya,as told in BrhUp. II.2.15
[12] fn Maitreyi`s readiness for renunciation of worldly gifts served as an entry to receive the knowledge of Immortality from Yjavalkya ` (Brh.Up. II.4)
[13] cf. also Tai Up. III.10: Thou shalt not reject any man in thy habitationthey say unto the stranger: Arise thy food is ready`,.followed by the ecstatic poetic and mystic language: Lo, I am food..I am the Eater, I am He that maketh scripture`
[14] The Upanishads standing in the direct tradition of the holy Vedas, as they again and again emphasise iti uruma dhrm and iti ruti, keep this high regard of the word and its power.
[15] Interesting: The truth of the power of the word is in these days made known worldwide by the Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto with his discoveries of the effect of sound vibrations on water and things containing water.
[16] cf. the questions-answer sessions of the Prana Upaniad, or the long passages in the Bhadrayaka Upaniad