The Upanishads and The Path to Self Realization
Exploring the Mundaka and Prashna Upanishads
The Upanishads are a collection of ancient wisdom teachings, ten of which are considered to be primary. Poetic and full of imagery, the Upanishads prescribe ways of living in order to realize the “Infinite,” the “Self,” or the “Lord of Love” that exists in everything and everyone. The Self is often compared to salt in water – when we add salt to water, it permeates the water and exists throughout. We can taste the salt in the water though we cannot see it. The Self is similar to salt in water because it exists, unseen, in everything. The Upanishads proclaim that we, and all of creation, are one with this creative energy from which everything came into existence. We can realize the joy of truly knowing this through meditation, control of the senses and passions, and with the help of a Self-realized teacher. The Upanishads are told as stories, all of which include a spiritual seeker (or student) and a teacher. I will discuss the Mundaka and Prashna Upanishads, as translated by Eknath Easwaran.
The Mundaka Upanishad explains that the Self, which created everything and everyone, is everywhere, in everything. Knowing this Self is the highest knowledge, the sage Angiris explains to householder Shaunaka. Knowledge is separated into higher and lower groups – knowledge of the “Vedas, linguistics, rituals, astronomy, and all the arts” is considered lower than knowledge of the Self (pp. 185-186). Angiris goes on to say that practicing meditation and control of the senses and passions, as opposed to performing sacrifices and rituals with hope for profit, is the only true path to cross the “sea of samsara,” or to attain Self-realization:
But those who are pure in heart, who practice
Meditation and conquer their senses
And passions, shall attain the immortal Self,
Source of all light and source of all life. (pp. 187-188)
He also maintains that a seeker must find a teacher “who has realized the Self,” and if the student’s “heart is full of love,” and he “has conquered his senses and passions, The teacher will reveal the Lord of Love” (p. 188). Finding this “Lord of Love,” hidden in “the cavern of the heart,” Angiris says, is the “goal of life” (p. 190). This goal is achievable through meditation and discipline. Angiris explains that the wise serve others, recognizing the Lord of Love in all creatures. As it is the goal of life to know the Self, Angiris repeats why the wise follow this path: “The Self reveals Himself as the Lord of Love to the one Who practices right disciplines” (p. 194).
The Mundaka Upanishad also mentions the concept of truth. Truth is synonymous with the Self, because the Self contains all: “He alone is; in truth, he alone is” (p. 192). This is why realizing the Self is so important: “Truth is victorious, never untruth. Truth is the way; truth is the goal of life” (p. 193). With practice, one can find the Self through truth:
By truth, meditation, and self-control
One can enter into this state of joy
And see the Self shining in a pure heart. (p. 192)
Seeking truth, one can come to peace and find an end to restlessness and questioning: “What the sages sought they have found at last. No more questions have they to ask of life. With self-will extinguished, they are at peace. Seeing the Lord of Love in all around, Serving the Lord of Love in all around, They are united with him forever” (p. 195).
The Prashna Upanishad speaks in depth about prana, which can be roughly translated as consciousness. In his introduction to this Upanishad, Easwaran describes prana as the “energy which fuels evolution, powers the vital processes in all forms of life, and ultimately becomes thoughts and desires in the mind, where it becomes most readily accessible for us to conserve or redirect” (p. 222). In the Prashna Upanishad, six seekers ask spiritual questions of sage Pippalada, which he answers after they’ve spent a year with him “Practicing sense-restraint and complete trust” (p. 225).
The questions evolve from “who created the universe?” (p. 225), to more specific questions regarding how our bodies work, the nature of prana, human sleep and different levels of consciousness, and the meaning of AUM and what happens to someone “established in AUM” (p. 235) at the time of death. In answering the questions, Pippalada demonstrates prana’s superiority and all-encompassing qualities. It is a vehicle through which we can access the Self. As in other Upanishads, the Prashna Upanishad stresses the importance of self-restraint, meditation, and being taught by a sage in order to realize the Self.
Pippalada explains that “the Lord meditated and brought forth prana With rayi” (p. 225) as male and female, so they “would bring forth numerous creatures for him” (p. 226). He goes on to describe prana as the sun and rayi as the moon, and talks about the ways in which they make life possible. He points out various ways in which we can perceive the Lord and says that only the pure, who have meditated, practiced self-control, and lived in truth will enter into “the bright world of Brahman” (p. 228).
In response to the question, “what powers support this body?,” Pippalada explains that prana is above all other powers (space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, vision, and hearing) in holding the body together. The other powers do not at first believe in prana’s superiority until prana leaves the body and the other powers know they need to leave as well – like bees following the queen. Pippalada goes on to extol prana and explain that it contains everything, is the source of all light, and is that which “gives us the breath of life” (p. 229).
Pippalada, like other sages in the Upanishads, stresses the importance of meditation in finding the Self. He explains that when the sound AUM “Goes on reverberating in the mind, One is freed from fear, awake or asleep” (p. 235). He discusses the sixteen forms of the Self (the Self as a whole, prana, desire, space, air, fire, water, the earth, the senses, the mind, food, strength, austerity, scriptures, sacrifice, and all the worlds). He says that when one realizes the Self, all sixteen forms disappear; “Then there is no more name and form for us, And we attain immortality” (p. 237). This is the goal of life – by controlling the senses, meditating, and seeking spiritual guidance from a learned sage, one may attain Self-realization. When we are immersed in the Self, are one with the Self, there is complete peace; there are no more questions.
All Upanishads contain variances of the same theme – uniting with the Self through control of the senses, meditation, and the help of a spiritual teacher. As Easwaran quotes in his Introduction to this translation of the Upanishads, “There is no joy in the finite; there is only joy in the Infinite” (p. 16). Easwaran discovered the Upanishads when he had reached a point in his life when all of the things he enjoyed ceased to satisfy him. He found, to his surprise, that these 4,000-year-old texts were as relevant today as ever. Spiritual seekers of all ages may delve into the Upanishads for guidance and support in attaining Self-realization.