Review of Aitareya Upanisad

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This short book follows the course of the Aitareya Upaniad with commentaries by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad. The reading requires a moderate degree of concentration and has technical Sanskrit terms that are well-defined (and includes a 6-page glossary). It contains timeless non-dual wisdom that has modern applications of decreasing our sense of separateness from each other and from the Earth, whose ultimate goal is the achievement of the experience of Oneness, non-duality with all things.

The book is part of the Rediscovering Indian Literary Classics series published by D.K. Printworld out of New Delhi, India. This series is reasonably priced and attractive, with some of the larger editions in hardcover. They include the original Sanskrit text, the Romanized version, and the English translation.

I have been looking for a set of complete translations of the Upaniads. Juan Mascaró’s translations for Penguin Classics is still a great place to start and his introduction is like an Upaniad, itself. However, it only includes a selection of Upaniads, and does not include the Aitareya. Mascaró sought to capture the poetry as well as the technical translation of the works, writing that the “composers of the Upanishads were thinkers and poets…and the poet knows well that if poetry takes us away from a lower reality of daily life it is only to lead us to the vision of a higher Reality even in this daily life, where limitations give way for the poet to the joy of liberation,” (Mascaró, The Upanishads, 11).

The Upaniads consistent of 108 texts. Ten are considered “major” or “principle” (Mukhya)   Upaniads, which includes the Aitareya. There is a Wikipedia page (“Muktikā” meaning “deliverance”) that lists all 108 texts. They were written across the centuries, dating back as far as 6th century BCE, and as recent as 15th century CE.

 

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The Aitareya Upaniad is the 9th in the series, a short (80 page) paperback, which for $4.15 is quite a bargain. The translator of this ancient text is Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, who is of the lineage of Nataraja Guru and Narayana Guru.

The foreword is by Sadhu Suhakara Saukumarya and he gives a short description of what the Upaniads are and that Swami Muni Narayana Prasad “employs his knowledge of psychology, philosophy, modern science, and above all common sense,” in his discussion. Saukumarya writes:

“The Upaniads are unexpected mines of contemplative spirituality. It is uttered in the moments of ecstasy in mellifluous poetic diction by Indian seers. A seer or a guru of that order represents in his person the throb of the Absolute,” (v).

Swami Muni Narayana Prasad gives the background of the word Aitareya, meaning “born of Itarā,” as the work can be traced back to Aitareya Mahīdāsa, who born of a low caste mother, “testified the meaninglessness of caste-based social concepts and prejudices,” (2-3). Swami writes that “What all the Upaniṣads try to do is to reveal through the medium of words the Supreme Wisdom that is really ineffable,” (3).

“The present Upaniṣad…portrays in a rather poetically picturesque way how the mysterious phenomenon of the world and life, with their universal and particular aspects of existence, get unfolded from the one primeval causal Reality (ātman), and finally how ātman perceives itself as the one underlying substance of all such phenomena,” (3).

Swami describes an organizing structure or framework that can be used by the seeker in her or his search for Truth. In this way the Upaniads are a kind of science – a method for perceiving and understanding the Universe. Their method, however, is not through the perception of objective reality, but in passing inward, through subjective reality, to reach the mystical oneness of Absolute Reality.

“Searching for Reality is what sciences do, each having their own field of enquiry whose bounds no science is willing to cross. The result is that an indepth knowledge of each science endows us with a different notion of life, none providing us with an over-all vision. Once an integral vision becomes available and attained, all the different fields of enquiry and the notions they provide achieve unity, each becoming a view of Reality from a particular angle, while adding to the holistic vision, each science thus gaining a new dimension, a new value,” (10).

 

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This describes what we have today, a plurality of sciences, each based on the scientific method, but resulting in a fragmentation of self and reality if there is no over-arching integration. Swami describes the Upaniads as providing a “Science of sciences” that brings the fragments of sense perception and objective measurement back together into a meaningful whole.

“The science this Upaniṣad [Aitareya] teaches — brahmavidyā — is the Science of sciences, that holds together all sciences, as belonging to one whole, each thus making life more meaningful. If such a Science of sciences is lacking, different sciences go different ways, one vying with another and each sowing a different seed of peril. The freedom man has to choose, may be the greatest bane in human life, but also the greatest of boons,” (10).

We can see this bane playing out in the human pursuit of technology and development without any restraint. The cost of unrestrained development is degradation of the environment as well as the expendability of the poor at the profit of the wealthy. Unrestrained “development” of the environment and consumption of resources is only possible because we view ourselves as separate, isolated individuals, rather than as interrelated aspects of the larger environment of the Earth and cosmos.

“Man, having no existence of his own apart from the cosmic system is an inseparable part of it. Any attempt to know oneself as an entity existing on its own, therefore, results in no proper understanding of oneself. Man is part of the world; his life is part of eternal flux. The proper knowledge one acquires about oneself should therefore be the knowledge of the everchanging world as well…the world and I are not two. Oneself and the world together, when considered as an object of enquiry, is signified by the word idam in the Upaniṣads, literally meaning ‘this’, but rendered here as ‘here’, (14).

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The mystical has practical applications because it influences the way we perceive ourselves, each other, and the Earth. The mystical goal of the teachings of this Upaniṣad is a sense of unity between the individual and cosmic Reality.

“The one who sees himself as ātma embodied will see others also in exactly the same light. All being thus one in essence, nothing will be seen by him to be spoken of as ‘the other’. He sees ātma alone in all beings. Ātma meaning oneself, he sees himself alone in all beings. Ātma means also the substance that underlies one’s own beingness. The same substance that underlies all beings in all the worlds, is called Brahman, literally that which constantly grows. One who sees oneself as ātma, he sees himself as Brahman in essence also, as he sees Brahman alone in all beings,” (53-54).

Consider what it would be like instead of seeing people as separate and different from you if you saw them as part of yourself! Where would you build a wall if you were trying to separate yourself from yourself? Swami Muni Narayana Prasad describes how this perspective leads, inherently to goodness.

“A visionary who perceives Brahman alone in each and every specific entity, and who exclaims, ‘Now I see it!’ is given the name of Idandra. Literally, it means, one who runs up to whatever can be referred to as ‘this’ (idam)…one becomes free of the good-evil duality, reaching a state of absolute goodness. Idandra in that sense is considered sat (good) here,” (54-55).

Achieving this mystical state of non-duality, one becomes a real seer. This transforms the cravings and desires of the individual. Rather than perceiving oneself as empty and having desires to fill oneself with “objects” in the world, one perceives oneself as already full of everything in existence.

“A real seer, a jñānin, sees only one Reality in everything, everywhere. Who, then, desires what? Desire itself then becomes meaningless. Desireless, the attainer of wisdom feels the satisfaction of having fulfilled all desires in life,” (64).

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