The Upanishads

The Upanishads may seem somewhat more difficult to grasp compared with the Dhammapada. At least they are certainly more difficult for me to understand. Unlike the Dhammapada, which outlines a philosophy and practice, the Upanishads describe experiences and realizations by a number of ancient sages (gurus). The goal of the text may be to help the reader in the path towards spiritual enlightenment by describing many of the experiences along the way.

 The way I have approached these texts is to read the them and obtain understanding of these works at whatever level I can. Some parts make sense, while other aspects do not make sense to me. However, I found that when I reread the texts at a later time, I can appreciate and understand more because of the experiences I have gained in the intervening time.

 I think the way NOT to approach these texts is overanalyzing or trying to obtain logically consistent ideas (because they were written by many people). Similarly I would not take the opposite approach and believe and follow everything in the texts without a basis of personal experience to help back up the teachings. The experience is an essential part of the understanding.

A. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
B. The Kena Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

 Possibly one of the most famous versus from all of the Upanishads is Brihad. IV.4.5:

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As you deed is, so is your destiny.

This verse makes sense. The actions in your life will be driven by what your desires are. If you want to make money and live a comfortable life and buy a home and car etc., then you will work hard at making enough money to pay for that desired house, and you will work long and hard enough to keep that job to pay for all the loans. You may continue to try to make more and more money to buy even nicer things by spending free time trading stocks, and the cycle continues.

 The same thing might be true for those who seek gratification in other ways such as through emotional courtship. These people may enjoy "the chase" of achieving their emotional desires more than actually achieving the desire. Once they achieve this desire, they may get bored and start another chase. Others still eventually may give up the chase and settle down, but may desire the "old days" deep down and not be really happy with their situation for the rest of their lives.

If the best days of our lives have already passed, then clearly, we ourselves are desiring to go back to our past and not living in the present.

 If we are not happy with our lives, then we should try to do something to change it rather than continue with the unhappy course of action. We should carefully examine our desires so that we do not dig ourselves into a pit that is difficult to climb out of. This pit is the nature of karma... Once we go in, it is hard to get out. However, do not despair. We can better ourselves each day, especially through the practice of meditation. With meditation, we can break through our deep-rooted patterns and change.

When all the desires that surge in the heart
Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal.

The idea of renunciation is what drives people mad.
"I don't want to give up my desires. I like them."

 What is the meaning of renunciation?

 Here's one possible way to look at it:

 If I were to ask someone, "What is your life goal?" then I think very few people would answer, "To ride an emotional roller coaster," or "To chase sexual partners."

 However, if we examine our desires, then really, our life goal truly may be to ride the emotional roller coaster or to satisfy our lusts.

 What is it that we are thinking about most? What is it that we are spending most of our time doing? Our desires are where our actions are. Our actions are where our destiny lies. To put it simply, our true life goal (not imagined life goal) is where are desires are leading us.--

 Let's look back at the objections to renunciation:
I like feeling happy/thrilled/gratified-- why would I ever want to give that up?
Answer: First of all renunciation does not truly mean to give it up. Here's what
(I think) it means:

 If you like feeling happy/thrilled/gratified, then the obvious result is that when you are not feeling gratified you are not happy.

 If you are not happy, then the thing on your mind is to return yourself to happiness. That is your deep desire to be happy. This means that you will search for whatever pill/drug/encounter/relationship/etc. that will give you that happiness.--

 If you need things to be happy, then happiness is your drug.

 If you take this logic a step further, then needing emotional gratification is not much different from a guy who would rather smoke dope and hang out to achieve their gratification.

 If that's what you want from your life, then it's your life to live. If that's not what you want from life, then it's your life to change it. I am just trying to clarify the relationship between our true desires and the direction of our life. Hopefully bold analogies can raise this point.--

 I am not trying to make value judgments. I am trying to make points about desires. Some people achieve gratification from feeling bad. If they are miserable, then they feel happy when others around them feel miserable. Therefore, their addiction is to make people feel miserable.

 We all have our addictions and attachments. We don't end our attachments by trying to eliminate our actions. We change our attachments by changing our thinking.--

 For the person who like to make others unhappy, they have no addiction to sexually loving relationships. This relationship would probably be very good for the person. (Although they will have to take care not to generate new addictions...)

 This other couple has occasional, loving sex. However, the husband is addicted to the beautiful, home-cooked, special, dinners that are made on sporadically by the wife. That's what he desires and is unhappy when he doesn't receive this gesture of love. This person does not need to renounce sex. That is not an issue for him. He needs to renounce special home-cooked meals.

 Sex with your loved partner is a wonderful means of sharing and expressing love. Don't renounce sex. Renounce your attachment to sex. Instead of having sex, one time you might cook that wonderful meal for your partner. You might take that romantic moonlight walk. If you never clean the house, then clean it just because. If you don't buy flowers except on Valentine's day, then buy flowers. To grow is to break out of patterns and change. The expression and feeling of love will grow greater by taking effort to show this in new and different ways. If we continue with our same patterns and attachments, then we are not growing but are standing still.--

 However, to grow in a relationship means that the partner also has to make an effort to break out of their patterns and change too. If one half is growing while the other half does not, then big problems can occur, so communication is essential.--

 So what about the verse? If we have no desires, then clearly we will have no attachments. Don't worry about having no desires. Clearly this is ludicrous (the expectations for achieving this are too high) for us. Simply trying to give up our desires will likely only cause us to want our desires even more! Let's worry about our present desires and attachments and changing our relationship to those desires/addictions. Again, meditation can be extremely helpful in this regard. Many changes in our desires and patterns can occur at the subconscious level when we meditate.

In summary, I think it is best to take one small step at a time, rather than trying to be perfect in a day. However, if this true "perfection" is our real desire, then this is a worthy destiny.

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The Kena Upanishad

      The Kena Upanishad addresses some of the deepest questions of spirituality and mankind. What is life? What is thought? What is consciousness? What does any of this have to do with religion, spirituality or philosophy? In this Upanishad, the dialogue occurs between a student and a teacher. The student wonders for example, "Who makes my mind think? Who fills my body with vitality?" The answer to these questions as explained by the teacher is that our Self is that part of us that IS.
The Self cannot be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, or touched. The Self cannot be known by the intellect or understood by the mind. It is a strange paradox that we may want to understand our true Self, but the Self is so difficult to find. "There is only one way to know the Self, and that is to realize him yourself."
     The question that may arise in our mind is, what is this "Self", and why would we want to strive to realize it? The first aspect is that deep driving quest for Truth within all of us. If by achieving and realizing the Self, we achieve awareness of reality, then that in itself is a wonderful quest! The second point is that by understanding ourselves, we go beyond the cycle of birth and death. Birth and death are meaningless when we are in contact with Reality. Thus the Kena Upanishad is not wonderful for the practicality as with the Dhammapada but is wonderful because it inspires the seeker by acknowledging the quest for Truth and pushes us to desire to achieve this Truth.
The second part of the Kena Upanishad describes a story where the gods defeated the demons, but these gods (Agni, god of fire; Vayu, god of air; and Indra, leader of gods) got arrogant and decided that the power of Good was theirs and that power and glory were theirs alone. Thus the true spirit and power (Brahman) taught these gods a lesson. Brahman showed them that the true power comes from the power of the Self, and not from the gods themselves.

It is the power of Brahman that makes
The mind to think, desire, and will.
Use this power to meditate on Brahman.

 He is the inmost Self of everyone;
He alone is worthy of all our love.
Meditate upon him in all. Those who
Meditate upon him are dear to us all.

     This passage raises a very interesting point about Hinduism. Although Hinduism is a pantheistic religion with multiple gods, everything and everyone (including all of us) receives their power from our true Self, that which is Brahman. From this sense, the Brahman, the Self, is the true God, while the other gods are simply manifestations of the Self in lesser forms. "Agni, Vayu, Indra?these three excel Among the gods because they realized Brahman."

 The Upanishad ends:

 Those who realize Brahman shall conquer
All evil and attain the supreme state.
Truly they shall attain the supreme state!

      These statements are extremely interesting because they say that the power of the gods (and all of us) are derived from the Self, the Brahman. The ability of the gods Agni, Vayu, and Indra to be powerful and defeat the demons was because these gods excel in the understanding of our true Self. The corollary to these statements is that if we can find our true Self, then we will be in contact with what gives the power to the gods, and therefore we can "conquer all evil".

 I will state this again, because it is so important:

 If we can find our true Self, then we will be in contact with what gives the power to the gods, and therefore we can "conquer all evil".

     This statement might be interesting to some as an ego trip or as a power boost. However, that is not the idea behind this Upanishad. Agni, Vayu, and Indra were taught a lesson because of their power trip. The idea behind this principle lies in the power of inspiration and renunciation. We are honored when we truly understand our relationship to the Universe and attain power, not as an individual entity, but as part of the greater whole.This realization of Truth is the goal, and through understanding this Truth, we can understand and overcome any obstacles. I personally find this idea inspiring, and appears to have many similarities to Christian ideas and principles. (I am the way)
It is very interesting, because I was initially driven away from Christianity because of the dogma that you must put your faith in God/Jesus before you will be shown the way. However, the Eastern tradition is different. In the Kena Upanishads, it states very clearly that only way to experience the true power, God (Brahman), is to experience the realization firsthand. However, one important difference in the text is that that the way toward this realization is meditation. Thus you will experience the nature of reality and Truth through the practice of meditation. This idea is much more appealing to my scientific train of thought, rather than the dogma that faith must come before the experience. It does not say that I must believe in something to find Truth. It says that you must practice (meditation) in order to find the Truth.
     However, now that I have practiced meditation for many years, I find that I am becoming more devotional and spiritual. The truths espoused in Christianity are appearing to me the same truths that are taught in Hinduism or Buddhism. Thus, I will say to those seekers on the path of meditation, continue with the meditation and see how your view of reality changes with time. Do not deny your rational and skeptical thought (I cannot, after all, I am a scientist :-); however, at the same time, keep an open mind.
     At some point in the past in the soc.religion.eastern newsgroup, I discussed what I think it means in meditation to be devotional. If you can try in your meditation, then try to sit and ask for help and healing for yourself and your friends and family and all of the world. Perhaps you may even just start your meditation with this idea in mind. Think in your mind that you are grateful for what you have and who you are, and ask that you receive more and are shown the Truth in meditation.
     This idea will probably seem very foreign to some people. The point is not necessarily that you will receive help from some supernatural being. The point is in the state of mind that you are trying to achieve as you meditate. If you meditate thinking that I am all powerful and I am pumping up my health and physical well being, then you will develop those traits of power and well being from your meditation. However, in contrast, if you think about help for all of mankind and yourself, then your mind takes a receptive state. You develop graciousness, happiness and compassion for others in your practice of meditation. These ideas of graciousness and compassion will become bred into your natural train of thought and will have wonderful implications in your daily life. This devotional aspect of meditation is common to many practices including Hinduism such as the Hare Krishnas, but is also common in other practices such as Tibetan Buddhism (work with compassion and the breath) and other Buddhist sects, such as those that pray to the Buddhist God of Mercy (Amida in Japanese), and to Christianity too! Even if you do not directly practice these ideas in your meditation, I would encourage you to try to create a compassionate mindset before you meditate and try to keep that mindset throughout the practice. It has had a very positive influence in my practice, and I hope it will in yours.

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I am currently re-reading the Eknath Easwaran translation, but if anyone has other editions that they would recommend or other comments/questions, then please email me at Thanks.

Feel free to copy, print and distribute as you wish as long as you attribute my name and do not use this for any material profit. This material is Copyrighted © 1999 to Toshi Takeuchi.