Three Key Spiritual Learnings from Early Upanishads

The Upanishads is one part of the larger Hindu spiritual learnings from the 500BC. In the early period of this COVID lockdown, I took time and read about one-quarter of the text. I didn’t know much about the text before I started reading except for its popularity. When I started, I was expecting that the text will focus on religion and God, but in the first quarter of what I’ve read so far, there is no mention of the word ‘God’ at all. Rather the text focuses on questions such as ‘who are we’, ‘what is existence’, and ‘what is the ultimate reality in the universe’. The scripture says that consciousness is the ultimate reality and is the only unchanging reality in the universe. I don’t want to relate it to the lens of science and measure it on the scale of science. But, we should definitely appreciate a work dating back to 500BC for its objectivity and focus on a matter like consciousness, an area that the modern science has taken up to study seriously (realizing its importance) only in the recent decade.

The Three Key Learnings

Learning #1: Consciousness is the only true reality in the universe. Every form of matter rests on it. All matter, the heart, the mind, all senses, and everything organic and inorganic rests on it. ‘Om’ is the symbol of this highest form of truth, the consciousness – the Brahman. Consciousness, as called Brahman in Upanishads, is defined as that which when known will make you knowledgeable of everything else in the universe. The goal of a person is to know that he is ‘Brahman’, to realize the Brahman (consciousness) that he rests on before the end of his life, else he will take re-birth again. The ultimate realization that – Atman (soul) is Brahman (universal consciousness) – seems to be the general theme of the early Upanishads. The Hindu symbol ‘Om’ actually represents this Brahman, the universal consciousness.

I personally still prefer the definition of consciousness as: Consciousness is the awareness that “I” exist.

Learning #2: The goal is to realize that a person is nothing but Brahman. Once you realize this, then the person becomes joyful because he only sees Brahman in everything (good or bad, harmful or harmless in this world) for he doesn’t exist in this world anymore the way he used to exist earlier. The way to realize one’s Brahman is to concentrate on oneself intensely and observe the layers within oneself intensely and shred each layer until one reaches the realization that one is Brahman alone, everything else is just material layers. Therefore, the starting point is to leave the outermost layer, one’s attachment to one’s sensual desires.

Learning #3: Everything in the universe is a manifestation of the Brahman, the consciousness. The first manifestation of consciousness is the Hiranyagarbha, the golden ball of fire encompassing space and air. This is why Hindu prayers are done by lighting a fire (fueled by butter or ghee, as if we are creating a small Hiranyagarbha). This is equivalent to praying to the doors of consciousness to carry our prayers through the flames into the consciousness and make it into reality. First, there is nothing, and from nothing came space, and from space came air, and from the air came fire, and from fire came water, and from water came life.

Interesting learnings from the age of 500 B.C., isn’t it? I am not someone who would say the ancient Hindus or Egyptians knew everything about the universe. Probably, they knew more or less than us, but not everything. I think they were doing the same questioning and introspection that our scientists and philosophers are doing today. But, I do feel that modern science doesn’t give enough credit to individual people who are trying to observe themselves (meditate) and understand themselves as it is not a measurable,  generalizable, and provable matter. In the ancient world, there were more people doing this. The modern world doesn’t appreciate this anymore. Just observing things on a daily basis and observing oneself on a daily basis itself provide a lot of insights about oneself and the universe. That should be quite a piece of useful and applicable information for the progress of the then society just like how modern science helps us understand everything better today. The ancient Hindus, Egyptians, and the Greeks didn’t have powerful telescopes and microscopes, but they had the power and patience to observe the skies and the human behavior day-in and day-out and come up with observations and conclusions with reasonable accuracy. We love to cherry-pick a few things such as “the earth is flat” and then put a halo around all ancient civilizations saying they are not relevant anymore.

Hope this is useful, thank you.