Category Archives: Upanishads

Who was Uddalaka Aruni? – Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Uddalaka Aruni – Teachings

22. 1. It is said; the great Yajnavalkya (Brh.Up.6.3.15) as also the sage Kausitaki (Sat Brh.11.4.12) to whose family the portions of the Kausitaki Brahmana are attributed, Proti Kausurubindi of Kausambi (Sat Brh. 12.2.213), and Sumna-yu (Sahkhayana Aranyaka -15.1) were at onetime the students of Uddalaka Aruni.

But Uddalaka’s fame as a teacher and a philosopher rests mainly on the discourses he imparted to his son Svetaketu (formally: Svetaketu Auddalaki Gautama). It contains the essential teaching of all the Upanishads.

22.2. In the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka is portrayed as a caring father who sent his son, at his age of twelve, to a residential school (ante – vasin). And, on his return home, after twelve years of education, Uddalaka questions Svetaketu, now a bright looking well grown young man, to find whether he had learned anything of importance. He questions his son whether he has learnt ‘that by which one can: hear that which is beyond hearing (Ashrutam); think that which is unthinkable (amatam); and know that which is beyond knowledge (avijnatam)’. Of course, he had not. Uddalaka then proceeds to teach his son, with great diligence,   on what the school could not instruct: ‘knowing which everything becomes known (avijnatam vijnatam iti)’ – the real meaning of life.

Broad outline

Before entering into discussion on the teachings of Uddalaka let me outline, in broad strokes, the main aspects of his teaching.

23.1. In his exposition, in the form of a dialogue with his son Svetaketu, detailed in Part Six of the Chandogya Upanishad , spread over sixteen sections, Uddalaka covers a wide range of subjects touching upon the theories of  the Absolute Being, theory of creation , the living-principle (spirit) , the nature of matter and its multiple forms,  oneness of man with nature , relation between food , body  and mind etc.  

He bases some of his explanations on ideas that were current in his time (such as, the man being composed of sixteen parts; dependence of mind’s working on nutrition; or, the senses merging into mind and mind into Prana).

At the same time, he sets aside certain earlier notions concerning the origin of the universe (such as the universe originated from void or non-being). In addition, he breaks away from the earlier texts and covers some fresh ground.

23.2. He questions, how anything could come out of nothing; and argues that there must have been an original being, in a very subtle but a very powerful form, giving rise to everything in the Universe. Sat the primal Being exists solely and completely by the virtue of its own power of existence. It is not abstract. It is real and alive.

23.3. He demonstrates through skillful  teaching exercises – involving a pattern of activities designed to rouse the young man’s mind –  that the unseen need not be understood as ‘void’; it could well be the most wonderful subtlest essence of existence which is too fine to be perceived by senses, and from which everything springs forth (as a tree growing out of the invisible core of a tiny seed), and it permeates , unseen, everything in the universe (as a lump of salt dissolved in a jug of water)  as energy and vitality in all forms of life (as in a person , animal or in plants).And, finally  It is into That, all existence subsides. It does not mean the universe that once was, is reduced to nothingness; for, ‘something does not become nothing, just as nothing does not become something’- Na-asti satah sambhavah; na sata atmahanam

[  After Svetaketu breaks open the seed, he reports ‘it is broken Sir’ (binna Bhagavah iti). Uddalaka asks the boy ‘what do you see in it (Kim atra pashyati iti). Svetaketu replies ‘nothing Sir’ (kinchana Bhagavah iti).

Uddalaka explains to his son that finest part in the seed which one does not see (yam na nibhalayase) is indeed the essence (animnah). In it is hidden the big banyan tree (esah mahanya-nagrodhah). Have faith, dear one (sraddhatsva somya iti).

“Just as that subtlest unseen essence pervades the tree, Similarly, Sat, subtle and invisible, pervades all existence. That subtle essence Sat is the truth, the Atman (Ch.Up.6.12.6). Everything comes from That and everything merges back into That. It is in all beings. You like the tree and the world, is made of that essence. The evidence of that can be grasped by reasoning and faith. Svetaketu, you are That (tat tvam asi).

That ‘nothingness’ need not be understood as void; that nothingness, however subtle, is never non-existent

The essence of the tree is in that seeming nothingness. The manifest emerges from the un-manifest. The cause, that nothingness, however subtle, is never non-existent. For, nothing can come out of nothing, and nothing can altogether vanish out of existence. Na-asti satah sambhavah; na sata atmahanam. This, in short, is premise of Uddalaka.

This, in essence, is the principle of Satkaryavada.

The Samkhya notions of Prakrti and the emergence of the world from the Being (Sat) and its theory of causation – Satkaryavada have their seeds in Ch Up 6.2.3&4.

Bhagavad-Gita follows this principle saying ‘there is no existence from what does not exist; there is no non-existence from what exists’ (BG; 2.16): Na-sata vidyate bhavo; na-bhavo vidyate Satah

(The later Buddhists put forward the theory of prior-non-existence (pragabhava). It asserts that something can exist now though it was not in existence before (abhutva bhavati, abhutva bhavah). This is the A-satkaryavada) ]

24.1. As regards the process of evolution, Uddalaka tries to establish, methodically, in a series of natural stages how the Reality entered into matter giving rise to multiple forms. According to Uddalaka, all matter in the world, including human beings, is composed of three fundamental elements, each of which is a power. These are: heat-Teja (as also light or energy), water –Apah (all aspects of liquidity and fluency), and food –Anna (solids, plants and earth).These three dominant elements, in sequence, are inspired and animated in varied degrees by the primal being (Sat or Prana). The element of fire principle has its root in Sat; that of water in fire; and that of earth in the water principle . Each one of these elements carries within it some traces of the other two elements. Therefore, there is nothing in this world that is unmixed.

24.2. All these elements are charged with the will to become many (bahau –bhavitam-iccha) and to manifest as objects; each object having a different degree of fineness; each having its own   inner nature (nama) and an outward form (rupa).

25.1. Uddalaka asserts; understanding the material of which any given object is made yields an understanding of everything else made of the same material.

According to Uddalaka, every material object is composed of infinite number of extremely small particles (anu), so tightly packed they appear as a continuous whole leaving no scope for void. Each of these particles, according to him, is qualitatively different from the other; and is infinitely divisible. The minute particles (anu) ceaselessly separate and re-combine giving rise to newer forms. Each minute particle (anu) is in a churning motion within itself, by virtue of which it spontaneously unfolds or evolves; each according to its quality or nature. Each of   these minute particles is charged or animated by one and the same pure and invisible energy (Sat).

25.2. Each living body or an organism is an animated whole, all parts of which being   pervaded by one and the same living principle. That invisible power, the potent energy or vitality is present in the core of all beings. And, when that life-force leaves the body, the body  withers and dies. But the living principle (jiva or atman) never dies.

25.3. He teaches that all objects and all living things are inter-related.  The essence of everything is One, though the forms are many and the individuals are many. The whole world arises and continues to exist by virtue of that invisible essence – Sat. According to Uddalaka, in the ultimate analysis, man is nothing but an evolution of That essence. He tells his son, each time, there is nothing that does not come from that essence, “verily, you are that essence”. “O Svetaketu, do you understand what I am telling you? This great but most subtle essence of all the worlds is the Truth, the Atman, the Supreme Reality within you, and you are That (tat tvam asi)”.

26.1. Uddalaka observes that eventually, at the end, everything in existence is absorbed back into That from which everything emerged. It is the same In the case of an individual too.  At his death, man reverses in successive steps towards that being from which he originated. The speech merges into mind, the mind into prana, the prana into heat and the heat, the last to depart, into the Pure Being. This process occurs in every case, as in nature, no matter whether one is aware of it or not. The process of going back is natural and does not depend on the striving of the individual. But one who is fully conscious and understands the Reality at each stage of the process gains freedom. Such knowing or not-knowing is perhaps the difference between knowledge and ignorance.

27.1. He asks his son to exercise the mind which is endowed with fabulous capacity to observe, to reason and infer, in order to gain insight into the Reality. He advises that when both his intellect and his senses do not help in leading him on the right path, he should seek guidance from a proper teacher (acharya) who knows. An ardent seeker who finds an illumined teacher attains freedom. And, in the end it is truth that protects.

27.2. But , Uddalaka cautions his son , the proof of the existence of One subtle –force (Sat) which gives birth to and sustains all life is beyond the realm of subjective sense -cognition. It is possible to understand That only through reasoning, grasped in faith. Uddalaka urges Svetaketu: ‘śraddhatsva somyeti; have faith, my dear’ (Ch. Up. 6.12.2).

27.3. Uddalaka, in his teaching, does not refer to a God or any other Supernatural Being as creator. According to him, the process of evolution, sustenance and eventual withdrawal into the source follows its own natural laws, at each stage.

lotus design

Universe and its beginning

28.1. The question of the origin of the Universe and the process of evolution comes up for discussion on several occasions in the Samhitas, as also in the Upanishads. Many seers offered their explanations; and, there are, therefore, numerous theories on the subject. For instance, one theory in Rig Veda (RV 10.72) states that originally there was nothing (a-sat) and out of it being (sat) evolved. Similarly Taittiriya Upanishad (Tai.Up.2.7) mentions “Non-being, indeed, was here in the beginning (asad vaa idam agra aasiit) “. Another theory in Rig Veda (RV.10.129) speculates that in the beginning there was neither being nor non- being, but (somehow) the One , a living being, came into existence; and , it expresses a philosophical doubt as to how the universe may have evolved.

28.2. Uddalaka rejects the earlier notions of evolution of the universe. He asks how something could come out of nothing. And, he asserts that there must have been an original being from which everything in the Universe has come forth (Ch.Up.6:2:1, 2).It is not abstract; and, it is alive.  He proposes and tries to establish, methodically, a series of stages of development, explaining how all reality has emanated out of the Being.

[Even at the very early stages of Indian thought, two groups had clearly emerged: the one that asserted the hypotheses of the Being, and the other of non-Being . Both left strong impressions on the later Indian speculations. In a way of speaking, the history subsequent Indian philosophy is mostly about the unfolding and expansion, a wider application, continued modifications of these two ancient postulates, or   departure from either.]

28.3. Uddalaka puts forward a hypothesis: “In the beginning, my dear, this universe was Being (Sat); alone, one and only without a second (Sat tu eva, saumya, idam agra asid). Some say that in the beginning this was non-being (asat); and from that non—being, the Being was born (Kutas tu khalu, saumya, evam syat, iti hovaca, asatah saj jayeteti).” How is it possible for a Being to emerge out of Non-Being? (Katham, asatah saj jayeteti). Has anyone seen such a phenomenon? I agree, something might produce something; but, how can nothing produce something? … Listen to me my dear, In the beginning only being was here, one alone, without a second – ekam eva advaitam (Ch. Up. 6.2.2),by virtue of which everything evolved.

[The term Sat (extended into Satyam) had several meanings depending on the context. Sri Sayanacharya has written a gloss explaining several meanings that could be ascribed to the term. For our limited purpose, Sat signifies a single (without a second) Reality existing in the beginning. A-sat is the opposite of Sat; it was non-existent at the beginning. Sat is the enduring ground; while a-sat, as opposed, is the transient variation. While sat is the substance (as in satva), a-sat relates to appearances as forms and names.

In the context of creation theories, Sat perhaps meant “this which is here and now”, and a-sat meant “that which has not yet come to be”. The Creation is understood as the transformation of the un-manifest into manifest; it is a process of becoming from Being.]

The Reality that pervades all existence

29.1. Sat, according to Uddalaka, is the origin of all things, all beings. There is nothing that does not come from Sat. It is the subtle essence that pervades all existence at all times. Of everything, Sat is its inmost Self. It is infinitely subtle and practically invisible; and one may even mistake it for non-existent.

29.2. Uddalaka demonstrates how the apparent nothingness at the innermost core of a seed holds within its womb the essence and the existence of a huge tree.” O soumya, the gentle one, in that finest part of the seed, in the core of its invisible essence resides, hidden and unperceived, the huge banyan tree (nagrodha). Is that not a wonder? Have faith in what I say” (Ch.Up.6.12.1-4). The whole varied world arises and continues to exist like a banyan tree, born and animated by virtue of That invisible essence.

“Just as that subtlest unseen essence pervades the tree, Similarly, Sat, subtle and invisible, pervades all existence. It is like a lump of salt dissolved in a jug of water, which you wouldn’t see; yet, it is there all the time. That subtle essence Sat is the truth, the Atman (Ch.Up.6.12.6). Everything comes from That and everything merges back into That. It is in all beings. You like the tree and the world, is made of that essence. The evidence of that can be grasped by reasoning and faith. Svetaketu, you are That (tat tvam asi).

[This often repeated great epithet, sad-vidya or maha –vakya, at a much later time was adopted by the Vedanta School to assert oneness of Atman  with Brahman.

However, Uddālaka Āruṇi does not use the term “Brahman”— either in his instruction to his son Śvetaketu, or on any other of his many appearances in the Upanishads.

As regards the question of identity of Atman with Brahman, the concept , it seems , grew in stages over long periods. Although Śāṇḍilya’s teaching of atman and Brahman is often considered the central doctrine of the Upanishads, it is important to remember that this is not the only characterization either of the self or of ultimate reality. While some teachers, such as Yājñavalkya, also equate atman with Brahman (BU 4.4.5), others, such as Uddālaka Āruṇi, do not make this identification.

Moreover, it is often unclear, even in Śāṇḍilya’s teaching, whether linking atman with Brahman refers to the complete identity of the self and ultimate reality, or if atman is considered an aspect or quality of Brahman. Such debates about how to interpret the teachings of the Upanishads have continued throughout the Indian philosophical tradition, and are particularly characteristic of the Vedanta Darshana.

Uddālaka’s famous phrase tat tvam asi was later taken by Sri  Śankara to be a statement of the identity of atman and Brahman]

29.3. In order to explain his views, Uddalaka makes use of number of metaphors from the natural world. For instance, he compares Atman that exists in all beings to the nectar, despite originating from different plants, when gathered together forms a homogeneous whole. In the same way, he talks of the rivers flowing down from all directions merging into the ocean and losing their identities (Ch. Up. 6.9.1, 6.10.1–2).A wave or a bubble arising out of the vast waters of the sea loses its form and identity on merger with the sea .

Uddalaka argues, all living beings merge into existence – “whatever they are in this world a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a boar, a wolf, a worm , a gnat or a mosquito they all become That (Ch.Up.6.9.3; 6.10.2.). The process of returning to the source is a natural process and it does not depend on the striving of the individual to attain a certain ‘state’.

As bees suck nectar from many a flower / And make their honey one, so that no drop / Can say, “I am from this flower or that,” / All creatures, though one, know not they are that One.

As the rivers flowing east and west/Merge in the sea and become one with it / Forgetting they were ever separate streams, / So do all creatures lose their separateness/ When they merge at last into pure Being.

30.1. Then he points to a tree and says it is entirely pervaded with the living self. The tree stands alive, rejoicing moisture and fresh air, drinking in and taking in all that is good: ‘If one were to strike at the bottom of this big tree, it would bleed; but it will continue to live.  If one were to strike at the middle, it would bleed, but live. And,  if one were to strike at the top, it would bleed,  but live. Pervaded by the living self, the tree continues to live happily, drinking in its nourishment. That is to say, if life (jiva) leaves one of its braches then that branch withers, but, the tree continues to live. But in case the life were to leave the whole tree, then, the tree withers and dies’. In exactly the same manner,  “That which loses life dies; but life (jiva) itself does not die  (Ch. Up. 6:11:1-3)”.

Life is more than that which meets the eye. And life as life shall never die. The conditional existence (nama-rupa) of the world might vanish, but not the Sat, its underlying Reality.

30.2. Here, Uddalaka is pointing to the difference between a living organism that can survive injury, take nourishment, recover and flourish; and a dead limb, disconnected from the vitalizing principle (jiva), the source of life of the whole tree. That jiva is later identified by Uddalaka with the Atman.

30.3. Through these exercises Svetaketu learns that the Universe we live in – macro and micro – can be studied and understood. The Universe in all its aspects is infinite, complete and conserved. He learns that Self is not mere ‘me’, but is the knower.

“When a person is absorbed in dreamless sleep (swapiti) he is one with the Self, though he knows it not. We say he sleeps, but he sleeps in the Self. As a tethered bird grows tired of flying about in vain to find a place of rest and settles down at last on its own perch, so the mind, tired of wandering about hither and thither, settles down at last In the Self, dear one, to whom it is bound. All creatures, dear one, have their source in That. That is their home; That is their strength. There is nothing that does not come from That. Of everything That is the inmost Self. That is the truth; the Self supreme. You are That, Svetaketu; you are That.”



31.1. Uddalaka conceived matter as one continuous whole in which all things are mixed up. All matter, according to him, is derived from the three basic elements (dhatu: fire, water and earth principles), which, are qualitatively different from one another; and each of it has something of the other two. These elements are infinitely divisible. According to Uddalaka, there is nothing in the world that is unmixed.

31.2. Uddalaka expands on this idea in his ‘doctrine of mantha’. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Brh.Up.3.7.1) refers to the doctrine of Mantha (a super-fine mix of ingredients) in fair detail. The term mantha denotes: to churn, to blend or to a churning –rod (say, as in the verse: Krishnam vande mantha – pasa dharm, describing the boy Krishna holding a churning – rod). The concept is derived from pounding, fine mixing and blending of various ingredients into a smooth paste (Dravadravye prakshiptâ mathitâh saktavah).

Uddalaka visualizes matter as a super-fine paste, an extremely fine mixture of infinitely small particles or atoms (anu) which are qualitatively dissimilar. The atoms incredibly minute, abundant in number are fantastically durable. The long-lived atoms really go round. They unite, separate and reunite forming incredible numbers of varieties of forms.

All matter is composed of infinite number of infinitely small seeds of things (bijani) or minds (manas), so mixed together and so tightly packed they appear as a continuous whole leaving no scope for void. These particles, according to Uddalaka, are qualitatively different from each other and are divisible. Each of those small particles is in a churning motion within itself. With the aid of the churning motion within, they spontaneously unfold or evolve, each according to its quality or nurture.

31.3. But, all matter composed of such infinite number of   minute particles is animated by one and the same pure and invisible energy (Sat). Therefore, every instance of matter, beings or organisms is an animated throbbing whole, all parts of which being enlivened by one and the same living principle, in varying degrees of vitality.

31.4. Uddalaka is talking about the essential unity of the divisible and the un-divisible; of the particular and the universal; of the Being and the non-being; of the Atman and That primordial subtle essence.


32.1. Uddalaka puts forth his hypothesis of evolution. According to him the Reality, the Sat, the pure Being desired to become many (bahusyam). First, it entered into fire or heat / light principle (tat teja aiksata); then, heat, by the same desire, produced water principle (tat apah asrajata); and water, having the same desire, in turn produced earth principle – matter or food (tat annam asrajanta).

[In the language of these texts, the term Annam has multiple meanings. Here, Annam refers not merely to food but also to the earth, the plants and all matter. Following that, anything that is external to consciousness is Annam, food. Again, that which proceeds from condensation of water is food. An object of thought is also food. Further, the terms fire, water, earth stand for all the subtle elements of that nature. ]

32.2. Resorting to the metaphor of a tree (Ch.Up.6.8, 4-6), Uddalaka explains that Sat is the root (mula), of which tejas (fire) is the sprout (srunga).Tejas in its turn is the root, of which apah (water) is the sprout. And, apah in its turn becomes the root, of which anna (food) is the sprout. Every successive effect was already present in the original cause or deity (Devatha).

[Uddalaka’s use of the term Devatha (deity) is rather ambiguous. He employs the term in metaphysical sense and also to refer to the three dominant elements. His metaphysical Devatha could be construed as pure and unmixed, one and indivisible, universal and un-manifested. His reference to the elements (tejas – fire, apah -water and anna – earth) as Devatha might be because they all are highly concentrated form of matter; charged, inspired and enlivened by the one and the same living-principle (prana).Generally, Devatha appears to denote the physical power of existence that is in motion within itself.   Devatha, here, more often refers to matter than to the spirit (prana).]

The subtlest condition of fire is ether, the material basis of sound. The subtlest condition of water is air, the material basis of vital breath. The subtlest condition of earth is food, the material basis for mind or its functions.

32.3. Then, each of the three elements combined in itself something of the other two elements. Following that everything else in the universe came forth including man, mind, and matter.


33.1. Uddalaka then moves on to creation of organisms born out of heat and moisture of earth. The birth-types are classified according to the origin and mode of development. He says; all physical bodies (animals, plants and humans) come into the world in one of three ways: by an egg (andajam), by the womb (jaraujam), or through a seed (udhbijam). Each of these Jivas becomes three-fold, due to the three elements entering in them. They all are enlivened by consciousness in varying degrees

[Tesam khalv esam bhutanam triny eva bijani bhavanti, andajam, jivajam, udbhijjam iti – Ch.Up.6.3.2.]

[Some versions mention a fourth classification: svedaja, coming out of dirt, dust, sweat, etc.]

Scheme of things

34 .1. In Uddalaka’s scheme of things, evolution follows its own natural laws. There is no role envisaged for a Creator. What is discussed here is mainly the process.

Uddalaka conceives the original being (Sat) as alive and capable of forming a wish (sankalpa). It wished to become many (bahau – bhavitam-iccha); and therefore, Sat entered into each of the three primal elements as its life, its essence and its own living self. The three subtle elements heat, water and anna (food or matter) are also  conceived as  living; and, are indeed referred to as divinities (Devatha) .The three elements too  wished  to produce multiplicity of objects  having  certain inward nature (nama) and outward appearance or form (rupa) , having visible shape with colours. Everything in the world is therefore alive from the beginning.  Thus, the matter of the Universe is  alive having desires to grow. And, it is by the power of this urge that evolution takes place.

34.2. Here, the Sat did not ‘create ‘anything. Sat entered into the elements; extended into matter.

Another important feature of Uddalaka’s hypothesis is that, the Original Being, as it enters into the elements, is not divided in the process of emanation; but it remains the Absolute.

One in many and many into one

35.1. Uddalaka builds a systematic relation between the cause (mula or root) and its effect (shoot or shrunga). He believes the effect resides in its cause; in other words, things are contained in one another. Uddalaka provides an illustration:” My dear, when the curds are churned, its minute essence rises upward to the surface and forms butter. That does not mean, the curd transformed itself to butter. It is merely that the seeds of butter concealed in the curds were extracted by the aid of churning action. And so it is with everything else” (Ch.Up.6.6.1)

[Incidentally, the Buddha, too, following the general principle ‘Being follows from Being’ put forward his concept of continual ‘coming –to-be and passing –away’ as in a series of changes each rooted in its preceding one. This process of ever changing or becoming was neither capricious nor pre-ordained but went on by way of natural causation. He too, just as Uddalaka, did not talk in terms of an agent that causes/ brings about changes, but he brought focus on the order of things itself.

When faced with questions such as ‘who desires’.’ who creates’, ‘who controls’ etc he replied the questions were wrongly framed  and were not ‘sound questions’. The proper form of questions should be, he said, ‘through what conditions do desire or becoming etc occur’ (Samyutta Nikaya-2.13).In other words, there is no person or agent or soul whatever who does things. But there is only the process or the series of events which occur under certain conditions.

The Buddha also rejected the idea of the universe (loka) as an entity which had a definite beginning or an end; or as a changeless eternal substance.  He, on the other hand, held universe as a process (samsara) which had no definite origin (Samyutta Nikaya-2.178). Universe, according to him, is of natural and impersonal forces and processes driven by conditions ; and is not an enduring substance. In other words, universe is a system governed by its own sets of conditions and laws.

“Leave aside the questions of the beginning and the end. I will instruct you in the Dhamma: ‘If that is, this comes to be; on springing of that, these springs up. If that is not, this does not come to be; on cession of that, this ceases’. (Majjhima-nikaya, II. 32)

The Buddha employed Uddalaka’s simile and  extended it further  : “ Just as from milk comes curds , from curds butter , from butter ghee , from ghee junket;  but, when it is milk it is not called curds, or butter , or ghee or junket; and, when it is curds it is not called by any of the other names; and so on”.

Here, He was not only putting forward his concept of the law of causation but was also pointing to the principle of identity at each stage. Each state in the chain of changes is real in its own context and when it is ‘present’; and it is not real when it was past as ‘something that it was’; and also not real when in future ‘it will be something’.]

35.2. Having established that heat (taapa) emanated out of Sat, Uddalaka proceeds from heat to water and from there to matter. Among the later derivatives of the elements are the components of human body (flesh, blood, bone, breath etc) including mind (manas). He explains that food (or earth) is dependent on water; and, food, in turn, is the cause of man or his mind. These two-mind and matter- are indeed two aspects of the same element or power (Devatha).

“ So these three compose the world, first heat which is to say warmth in all its forms; the waters the liquidity,  the fluency in all matter, and  all moistures the elixirs of life in multiple forms , in our frames, plants  and  clouds, And food, that is solids , due sometime for one to eat but in turn be eaten by another for that is the way of all existence.

Although the substances are compounds of the elements; the elements themselves are real. They beget one another; and the Being enters them ‘with this living self’ and dwelling in them makes out their names and forms”.

35.3. Uddalaka asserts, repeatedly, everything in existence is produced by the three-fold (tri – vrit – karana) combination of these original elements (tanmatra) in varying proportions. Therefore, all the objects in the world; the nama – rupa, their name and form; are the result of the various combinations of the three elements (tanmatra). That is to say, all the variety in this world, whatever is their numbers and whatever be their forms, they all are the expressions of these three elements.

35.4. Again, each of the three elements has in itself certain properties of the other two elements. Fire, for instance, Uddalaka says, contains within itself not merely heat but something of the other two, its visibility and its colour (red). Similarly where there is water, there is food.

Generally, he says, the redness one sees in the objects is due to the fire principle in them; the whiteness that dazzles is due to the water principle; and, the darkness is due to the earth principle. These powers (the elements) are   present in an object as its intrinsic or essential property; and they are not separate from that object. If the threefold presence of the elements -fire, water and earth- is withdrawn from the object, then nothing will be left of that object. Uddalaka   says, therefore, whoever knows the three fundamental elements, understand the visible world. He seems to be saying that in order to understand something, it is essential to understand the elements with which it is composed.

36.1. Uddalaka explains that in order to bring forth multiplicity into  existence; to develop names – and –  forms in order to facilitate  distinguishing  one from the other; or , to set them in order, Sat entered into all elements as their living principle (jiva). That living principle is identical in almost every respect with the universal spirit (Sat or Prana). It animates in varying degrees all kinds of matter. Therefore, what is really extant in matter is the living principle.

36.2. The various distinct natures as also their names and forms (nama-rupa) are conceptions of the mind to distinguish one object from the other in this world of conditional existence. But the proof of the existence of subtle –force is beyond sense-cognition which is subjective. It is possible understand That only through reasoning, grasped in faith.

Nama –rupa

37.1. In order to introduce his doctrine of ultimate elements out of which the whole universe is constituted and of the still more ultimate being , Uddalaka points out how things superficially different may essentially be the same . “‘My child, as by knowing one lump of clay, all things made of clay are known; the difference being only in form and  name  arising from speech; and the truth being that all are clay. Similarly, by knowing a nugget of gold, all things made of gold are known; from one copper ornament everything made of copper are known; and, by one pair of nail scissors all that are made of iron are known; they differ only in name and form and as a matter of verbal classification, while in reality it is all iron . The different names used for different objects made from the same substance are mere conventions of speech for easy identification; but ,in fact ,the  nature of all objects made of same substance is one  “(Ch. Up. 6:1:4-6).

37.2. Uddalaka is delineating the relation that exists between a particular material and all the objects made of that material (material causality). He is not suggesting that by knowing one material, the nature of all objects in the world made of other materials would become known. Nor is he suggesting that all objects in the world are made of the same material. Uddalaka’s claim is that, an understanding of the material of which any given object is made, yields an understanding of all other objects made of that material. Therefore, every object can be reduced to its constituents; and there is nothing in the object except its constituents.

37.3. At the same time, Uddalaka recognizes the distinctions we make amongst the different objects, made of the same substance, based on their form, structure and verbal identifications. Such object –form- distinctions are the concepts of the mind; and not intrinsic or not directly related to their cause which is uniform.  He explains, the cause and effect, the root (mula) and the shoot (shrunga) might look dissimilar having different attributes (lakshana), but their essential identity is the same. This perhaps is Uddalaka’s understanding of Nama – Rupa (name and form) – conditioned existence- which becomes relevant when one becomes many; and when there are multiplicities of objects.

38.1. Uddalaka extends his argument and suggests that since all things in the world are made by the combination of the three fundamental elements (dhatus) – fire, water, and matter, the world is nothing but the nama-rupa of these elements. Therefore, we can understand the nature of the world if we understand the nature of these three elements. Uddalaka extends this line of argument further, and says: since the three fundamental elements which make the world are mere emanations of That (Sat), the entire creation is ultimately nothing but the nama – rupa of That One single Reality. Uddalaka asserts; If you take away names and forms from this existence, what remains is That (sat).


39.1. Uddalaka extends the argument from forms to colours; and says that the colours we perceive are again the expressions of the three elements: heat, water and anna or earth. Red (rohita) is the form of heat (tejas); white (shukla) the form of waters (apah); and black (tama) the form of food (anna) or earth principle. And, that which is ‘un-understood ‘is the combination of the three divinities (Devatha). (Ch.Up.6.4.6)

39.2. He then offers illustrations from nature. “Observe how these elemental forms present themselves, each in its own disguise, in these: Fire, sun, moon, and lightening, the powers – the four that shine”.

“First watch the fire advancing in the woods. It kindles as ‘red’; it is heat we see. It then glows as ‘white’; it is the fluidity in fire that allows it to flow and to spread like streams of water. When it is lowering back into ground as char, it is earth the solid that is presented to our eyes. (Ch.Up.6.4.1)

Next , watch the sun. As it rises, it is red- the color of heat. As it moves up the sky it is white and more white, a brilliant pool of brightness that seethes’ to its brim. It is then in the nature of water, spreading out fluently and relentlessly. And, descending down from its height, it sinks into black on to the solid earth.

Therefore, red, white or black are just putting names to forms of one and the same thing that does not change. The truth is; these are appearances of the three elements that constitute the world, which are born of One reality.” (Ch.Up.6.4.2)

“The moon perchance raises red. Then it slowly turns white and shines;   and wanes thereafter. The waters are teeming in, filling it up and passing out again. When these have gone out, we see black. Then it is nature of earth.

Therefore, red, white or black are just putting names to forms of one and the same thing that does not change”. (Ch.Up.6.4.3)

“When lighting breaks all of a sudden it is red, the heat. Next we see the flashes of white that run across the sky as rivers of dazzling light streaming down the mountain rocks in jets of white. It is then the waters. And as it strikes a tree and subsides into its trunk, it turns black.

Here again , the ‘red’ ,’white’ or ‘black’ are mere names we give to the forms we see. But the reality is one which is made of heat, water and earth, the three constituents that make the world; and these three again are enlivened by That Reality.” (Ch.Up.6.4.4)

“Understand then, recognizing by colours and calling by names is similar to assigning names to objects formed, say, of clay, iron or gold etc. The colours too are the visible forms of the three dominant elements, the aspects of That”.

39.3. Thus, Uddalaka suggests that whenever we see an object, we usually see only those aspects which the eyes can see or the senses can grasp; and not its fundamental nature. The colours that we see in objects are really the threefold presence of the elements. No object in the world is independent of the three elements.

39.4. The contrast between the name assigned to a thing and its intrinsic property serves as an introduction to Uddalaka’s teaching on his classification of matter according to degrees of fineness of its essence: coarse, medium and fine.

Food – Body – Mind

40.1. Uddalaka maintains that man consists sixteen parts or fractions (shodasha kala); each equivalent to a day. And, if  a person  fasts for fifteen days , at the end of the fifteenth day he is exhausted ,  his psychic functions almost fade away ; and he is left with only  one part (prana). It is as if a great fire has burnt out; and is like the dying coal leaving behind just the firefly-sized embers.

[Breath arises from water, according to Uddalaka; and therefore remains despite the fast. On taking food again, the mind is nourished, and its faculties flare up once more like the spark that finds fuel.]

40.2. In order to demonstrate dependence of mind’s working on food or nutrition, Uddalaka proposed an experiment which his son carried  out (Ch. Up. 6. 7).  Accordingly, Svetaketu abstained from food for fifteen days, but taking only water. At the end of fifteenth day he was unable to recall and recite the hymns he had learnt earlier. On taking food again, his mind was revitalized and his memory returned. This exercise was meant to show the dependence of mind and its working on food and nutrition; and more particularly to demonstrate the unity of body and mind, with life as their common support. In another context, It strengthened the argument that the mind originates from food (anna); and, that mind and matter are indeed the two aspects of the same element.

Assimilation of food in body-parts

41.1. Uddalaka Aruni explains to his son that human beings too are composed of the elements of heat, water and food (solids); and, each of the elements have three different degrees of fineness: the gross, the medium and the subtle.  He then elucidates how the food intake contributes to the development of various organs of the body and influences their functions: ‘the foods we consume produce our flesh, blood, mind, life energy (prana), and the rest’.  According to him, the highest human functions are composed of the finest degrees of these elements: the organ of thought is composed of the finest degree of food, the life-breath of the finest degree of water; and the speech of the finest degree of heat.

41.2. All that we eat and drink is not absorbed by the body.   When the food (including solid, watery and hot substances) is churned and processed in the stomach, its ingredients are separated according to the degree of their fineness: gross, medium and fine (Ch.Up.6.5.1).

As regards the gross: some part of the solids and liquids (food, water and fire principles) are thrown out as ‘ excrement ‘ and   so too is  ‘ the noisome thing and so set in the bilge for riddance’ ;  while some parts of the gross fiery food (ghee, oils etc) are absorbed into bones.

In regard to that which is medium:    the medium of food (solids) is absorbed into the flesh ‘the tender wrap that clothes the bones’; the medium of water into the blood ‘ the tide of warming crimson that surges the heart within’; and the medium of the fiery substance goes into the bone marrow.

But, the most subtle and vibratory part which is the essence of all that we consume rises up (just as butter emerges when milk is churned); and goes into the mind and its functions. “ So my dear , the passage from coarse to fine , from dense to subtle , just as with the coagulated milk when churned all its essence rises up above the thickened curd , a crown of shining smooth butter fit to pour upon leaping  yajna flames reaching  up to the gods” (Ch.Up.6.6.1-2).

The subtlest portion of the solids goes to the mind; the subtlest portion of the watery substances becomes prana (life force) and virility; and the subtlest portion of the hot substances to the speech (Ch.Up.6.6.2-4).

41.3. The thinking faculty of a person is thus influenced by the most subtle essence of what he consumes, comprising the three elements: The mind is made of the finest degree of food (anna) element; the life-breath (prana) and virility are influenced by the finest degree of water elements (apah); and speech (vac) by the finest degree of fiery elements (teja).

42.1. Thus, the three subtle elements (tanmatra) —fire, water and earth—enter into, sustain and become a part of our system. Our senses, our prana, our mind and our speech, are all influenced by the foods and drinks we consume: “The mind is the essence of food; prana of water; and speech of heat. You are made up of these elements”. (Ch.Up.6.5.4)

42.2. Uddalaka explains, what we call hunger (ashana) is nothing but the dissolution of the physical food by the element of water and the absorption of it into the system. What you call thirst (pipasa) is similarly the absorption of the water element in the system by the fire principle within us. In short, at each stage, the effect is consumed by the cause and is absorbed into its own self (e.g. food into water; and water into heat) . This process continues until all effects are absorbed into the final cause of all things, where they abide absolutely and completely.

The withdrawal

43.1. Uddalaka asserts; everything comes from That; and, eventually everything is absorbed back into That (Sat). At the time of dissolution, everything reverses in time; the three elements collapse back into the original being. That does not mean the universe that once was, is reduced to nothingness; for, ‘something does not become nothing, just as nothing does not become something’.  Uddalaka charts an inward course back to the very sources from which all existence originated. Speech recedes into breath, breath into mind, mind into prana; and prana back to Sat.

43.2. In the case of the individual too this process occurs, no matter whether one is aware of it or not. The process of going back to the source is natural and does not depend on the striving of the individual. But, one who is fully conscious and understands the Reality at each stage of the process gains freedom. It is that such knowing or not-knowing which perhaps makes the difference between knowledge and ignorance

[These ancient texts hold a view, among others, that our universe goes through eternal cycles of expansion followed by withdrawal or collapsing on itself. The process of expansion from the very core of the Universe is analogues to what has come to be called the Big-bang. However, it is preferable not to imagine the initial expansion as a thunderous explosion. It is rather understood as a sudden and a vast expansion on a truly enormous scale; but rather quietly. The theories of creation that are put forth are not merely about the initial outburst, but are more about what happened thereafter.

Here, the expansion or evolution takes place in stages, proceeding from the most subtle to the most gross; and the effect in each stage resides in its cause. And, therefore, it is said,’ it is not possible to get something out of nothing’. Eventually, all matter in existence retrace their steps, each effect collapsing into its cause, and finally into the original cause. That is, until the next cycle of expansion occurs.

The expanding universe is not conceived as a flat surface; but is visualized as curvilinear, bending on itself (Brahmanda – the Great Orb). It is therefore endless (anantha) or infinite. Everything in the universe is curvaceous, one stage leading into another. The sun’s rays too travel in a curved way as snakes do (bhujangana- mita).  Even man’s life too is not a flat journey starting at a point and ending at a point-of-no-return; it is a cycle. The course of human life is spherical; just as the capacious globe on which he lives.]

Death of a person

44.1. Coming back to the individual, Death of a person too is a process of withdrawal of prana; which, in effect, is retracing the steps over which the universe came into existence. It is the eventual way back into the ultimate source (Ch.Up.6.15). Thus at the time of death, man reverses, in inward steps, to that being from which he originated.  The speech merges into mind, the mind into prana, the prana into heat; and heat, the last to depart, into the Pure Being. In other words, each death is a re-enactment of the eventual withdrawal of universe into its original source. The process of withdrawal and expansion are, as explained, cyclical.

44.2. Uddalaka explains; when a person is fatally ill and facing death, his family gathers around and asks ‘do you know me? Do you recognize the one sitting next?’So long as his senses are awake he is aware of his surroundings and tries answering questions. But, when the senses are withdrawn into mind, the faculty of speech too subsides into the mind (Vang-manasi sampadyate). He might be aware; and might be able to think and to see, but he would not be able to speak. Next, is the absorption of mind into Prana (manah prane), wherein the breathing process continues, life exists, but there is neither thinking nor sensation. Then, the breath (Prana) is withdrawn into fire principle (heat in the system)-(pranah tejasi).  When Life (prana) is withdrawn there is neither consciousness nor bodily life.  The body thereafter becomes chill. That is to say, the fire element or heat too departs. But, heat is the last to leave the body. It is withdrawn into the Supreme Being – tejah parasyam devatayam – (Ch.Up.6.15.1).

lotus design

Teaching methods

45.1. Uddalaka’s teaching method is skilful. Throughout his instructions, Uddalaka points to observable phenomena in life and in the surrounding nature. He sets up experiments, one after another, with a view to leading Svetaketu to proper understanding of the subject. He involves Svetaketu in a pattern of activity designed to raise questions in the young man’s mind.

For instance, he does not merely talk about the banyan seed; he gets Svetaketu to look at the fruit, to open it up, to extract the seed and then to break it open.  Svetaketu after breaking  open the seed reports ‘it is broken Sir’ (binna Bhagavah iti).At that point, when his son’s attention is on the broken seed  Uddalaka asks the boy ‘what do you see in it (Kim atra pashyati iti). Svetaketu replies ‘nothing Sir’ (kinchana Bhagavah iti).

Uddalaka explains to his son that finest part in the seed , the subtle essence within the seed which one does not see (yam na nibhalayase) is indeed the true essence (animnah). In it is hidden the big banyan tree (esah mahanya-nagrodhah). Have faith, dear one (sraddhatsva somya iti).

Uddalaka then names and identifies that subtle essence, presenting it as that from which the whole banyan tree grows. He then identifies that subtle unseen essence with Atman, with the Real, and, as that which Svetaketu himself truly is.

“Just as that subtlest unseen essence pervades the tree, Similarly, Sat, subtle and invisible, pervades all existence. That subtle essence Sat is the truth, the Atman (Ch.Up.6.12.6). Everything comes from That and everything merges back into That. It is in all beings. You like the tree and the world, is made of that essence. The evidence of that can be grasped by reasoning and faith. Svetaketu, you are That (tat tvam asi).

That ‘nothingness’ need not be understood as void; that nothingness, however subtle, is never non-existent

The essence of the tree is in that seeming nothingness. The manifest emerges from the un-manifest. The cause, that nothingness, however subtle, is never non-existent. For, nothing can come out of nothing, and nothing can altogether vanish out of existence. Na-asti satah sambhavah; na sata atmahanam.

[Bhagavad-Gita follows this principle saying ‘there is no existence from what does not exist; there is no non-existence from what exists’ (BG; 2.16): Na-sata vidyate bhavo; na-bhavo vidyate Satah]

Uddalaka succeeds in imparting the teaching not through argument but by the force of the experience of Svetaketu as he peers at the ‘nothingness’ at the core of the split banyan seed , and understands it as an image of the nothing, which is the true-Self-of-all.

Similarly, In order to show Atman pervades everything but cannot be seen, he asks Svetaketu to add a chunk of salt into a jug of water. A day later, Svetaketu cannot locate the chunk of salt in the jug of water. However, he learns that even though he cannot see the salt he can taste it in every part of water in the jug. Through this experiment Svetaketu understands that like salt in water, Atman permeates his entire body though it is not directly observable by the senses.

In other examples, Uddalaka instructs his son about Atman by means of comparison with natural processes such as bees making honey, rivers running into ocean; and, sap flowing out of a tree.

45.2. Similarly, Uddalaka teaches his son Svetaketu the dependence of mental faculties on nutrition, by getting him to abstain from all food for fifteen days, save pure water. [Ch. Up. 6. 7]. At the end of fifteen days of fasting, Svetaketu is unable to recall any of the verses he had learnt earlier. Then Uddalaka compares Svetaketu’s temporary loss of memory to the sacrificial fire that has run out of fuel. Uddalaka then asks ‘eat, then you will remember’ (Ch. Up. 6.7.3). Uddalaka explains the connection between nourishment and mental faculties. Svetaketu understands the teaching well because he just had the experience of it.

45.3. All these may be simple teaching methods; yet,  they do convey the lessons effectively well. Uddalaka is a good teacher. He comes down to the level of the student and provides illustrative examples, allegories, and images taken from life and nature that are easy to comprehend. The language used too is rich adorned with picturesque descriptions.

46.1. Thus, in the philosophical texts, Uddalaka Aruni was perhaps the first to apply a form of experimental verification .His method of investigation was based in observation of facts (drstanta) and drawing inference by way of induction. Which, in other words, was reasoning and generalization based on observation (than on speculation). The process of his inference moves from the particular to the general, from species to the genus or from appearances to reality.

It is said; a prominent landmark in the philosophy of his period was reached in the teachings of Uddalaka Aruni. According to Dr. Benimadhab Barua “ Indian philosophy took a systematic turn in the teachings of Uddalaka; for , it is here that we find different lines of thought branched off   to give rise in later times to the fundamental conceptions of Vedanta, Bauddha, Sankhya, Yoga , Nyaya and Vaisesika systems.”

[Uddalaka is credited with initiating a systematic way of investigating into nature. And, he is recognized as a rational thinker who attempted advancing logical proof for the reality of the Being. Yet, it would be incorrect to regard him as a rationalist through and through. Because, he also implicitly pre-supposed the Being as bringing forth primal elements and entering into them, in order to multiply. His approach could perhaps be called ‘rational mysticism’, if such a term exists.

His teachings would become more clear if they are read with passages on similar issues in other Upanishads, particularly the Katha, Mundaka and Svetasvatara Upanishads. ]

47.1. As regards the cognition, Uddalaka neither trusts nor distrusts the sense-perceptions. According to him, the senses provide information from which the knowing mind infers the nature as also the inter- relation of things among themselves. Uddalaka raises the question what can we perceive of objects from the senses? His answer to that is: nothing but sensations and impressions. According to him, power of human cognition is limited, as the knowledge gained through senses is subjective. The senses do not give us the knowledge of the absolute; one has to grasp that in reason and faith. Uddalaka urges Svetaketu: ‘śraddhatsva somyeti; have faith, my dear’ (Ch. Up. 6.12.2).

48.1. Uddalaka asks his son to exercise the mind which is endowed with fabulous capacity to observe, to reason and infer, in order to gain insight into the Reality. The sum of his assertion is that Self of the world, of him who knows, and of each being around us is one and the same; and it alone is real.

48.2. He advises that when both his intellect and his senses do not help in leading him on the right path, he should then seek guidance from a proper teacher (acharya) who knows. An ardent seeker who finds an illumined teacher attains freedom. And, in the end it is truth that protects.

Sources and References

Life in the Upanishads by Dr. Shubhra Sharma; Abhinav Publications, 1985

The History of Pre-Bhuddhistic Indian Philosophy by Dr .Benimadhab Barua; Motilal Banarsidass, 1921

The Upanishads by Ekanath Easwaran and Michael N Nagler; Nilgiri Press, 2007.

A Course in Indian Philosophy by AK Warder, Motilal Banarsidass, 2009

Indian Philosophy before the Greeks by David J Melling

Atman in pre-upanisadic Vedic literature By H G. Narahari; published by Adyar Library 1944.

What the Upanishads teach

The Chandogya Upanishad by Swami Krishnananada

Vedanta Philosophy in the Light of Modern Science by S.K. Dey


The Secret Lore of India and the One Perfect Life for All, By W. M. Teape, B.D. (Cambridge: 1932



Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Upanishads


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Who was Uddalaka Aruni – Part Two

Continued from Part One

Uddalaka Aruni – Life and his search

Philosopher- creation of Shri S Rajam

(Philosopher- creation of Shri S Rajam)

15.1. As mentioned earlier, Uddalaka Aruni was a classic student, teacher and a philosopher of the Upanishad times. He is recognized among all the Upanishad sages and teachers as the true representative of the Upanishad age and its spirit of rational enquiry. He   is reckoned    among great of thinkers and real philosophers. Uddalaka Aruni was systematic and cogent in his approach; and, he put forward rational explanations on the nature of Man and the nature of Universe without employing the terms Brahman or God. He retained till the end, an open mind and a keen desire to learn. He remained a student all his life; yet, he was the best of the teachers.

15.2. In the philosophical texts, Uddalaka Aruni was perhaps the first to apply a form of experimental verification . His method of investigation was based in observation of facts (drstanta) and drawing inference by way of induction. Which, in other words, was reasoning and generalization based on observation. The process of his inference moves from the particular to the general, from species to the genus or from appearances to reality.


16.1. According to Uddalaka, there is nothing that is unmixed in the material world. All matter is derived from three primordial elements (dhatus: fire, water and earth) combined in various proportions. Again, each of these elements has in it some traces of the other two.  And, every material substance is composed of infinite number of extremely small particles (anu), so tightly packed they appear as a continuous whole leaving no scope for void. Each of these particles, according to him, is qualitatively different from the other; and is infinitely divisible. Each minute particle (anu) is in a churning motion within itself, by virtue of which it spontaneously unfolds or evolves; each according to its quality or nature.

The particles ceaselessly separate and recombine into newer forms.

16. 2. But, all matter composed of infinite number of   minute particles is animated by one and the same pure and invisible energy (Sat). It pervades all parts of  all living bodies as their living principle (jiva).Therefore, each living body or an organism is an animated whole, all parts of which being   pervaded by one and the same living principle. That invisible power, the potent energy or vitality is present in the core of all beings, as in the womb of a tiny seed from which a huge banyan tree springs forth into existence. When that life-force leaves any part of the tree; say, a branch of the tree, then that branch withers away and ceases to an integral part of the living whole. And, when that life-force leaves the whole tree, then the tree withers and dies. But the living principle (jiva or atman) never dies.

16.3. Uddalaka conceives Sat, the origin of all things and all beings, not as an abstract concept but as real being; alive and capable of forming a wish. It appears to be a physical conception of the power of existence. It is absolute, pure and unmixed, indivisible, universal and un-manifested. When Sat entered into the three dominant elements in order to enliven them, it was not divided in the process; it remained the Absolute. There is nothing that does not come from Sat. Eventually, at the end; everything is absorbed back into That from which everything emerged. The process of going back is natural and automatic. It does not need the striving of the individual; and it occurs in every case no matter whether one is aware of it or not

16.4. Jiva or Atman is the living principle in individual beings, plants and matter; and it is identical in almost every respect with the universal spirit (Sat). It animates, in varying degrees, all kinds of matter. The various distinct  objects, their varied natures as also their names and forms (nama-rupa) that one comes across in this world of conditional existence are conceptions of the mind and verbal identifications to enable one to distinguish one object from the other. But the proof of the existence of One subtle –force (Sat) which gives birth to and sustains all life is beyond the realm of subjective sense-cognition. It is possible understand That only through reasoning, grasped in faith.

[Here , Sat and the elements (dhatus) are, roughly, analogues to Purusha and Prakrti of the Samkhya. But, in Uddalaka’s hypothesis they work together and are entwined, unlike in Samkhya where they are ever separate.]

16.5. Following his observations and reasoning, Uddalaka tried to demonstrate the essential oneness of man and nature; that everything in the universe is made from the primeval matter, which in turn is enlivened by one and the same life-force. According to him, in the ultimate analysis, man is nothing but an evolution of  That essence. His view was crisply captured in the epithet “That thou art, Svetaketu (Tat tvam asi)”.

16.6. Uddalaka did not involve a supernatural agency in the making of man or his world. He did not refer to God or any other Supernatural Being. According to him, the process of evolution, sustenance and eventual withdrawal into the source follows, at each stage, its own natural laws. Death according to him is a natural phenomenon where the body disintegrates into matter, water and heat. And, its living-principle (jiva) eventually resolves back into ‘Sat’ the primal source.

Early years

17.1. Uddalaka’s power of exposition shines forth in part six of the Chandogya Upanishad. He also figures in Kausitaki Upanishad (Kau.Up.1.1-2) and in Satapatha Brahmana (11. 4.1-9) where he is portrayed as a person of considerable wisdom and humility that is ever willing to learn from whosoever possessed knowledge he wished to acquire. Mahabharata briefly refers to an incident from his early student days, picturing him as an earnest pupil of Rishi Ayodah-Dhaumya (Mbh.1.3.638). This incident brings out Uddalaka’s dedication to work and absolute faith in his teacher’s commands.

17.2. Uddalaka son of Aruna Aupavesi of Gautama gotra, resident of Kuru-Panchala Desha, came from a long line of sage-scholars. His country, Panchala Desha, is identified as a region in Madhya Desha; the region south of the Himalayan foothills and the North of the Ganga in the present-day Uttar Pradesh. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.5.2-3) in its linage of teachers (vamsha-brahmana) lists fourteen generations of revered teachers and scholars of great merit. According to that rendering, Uddalaka Aruni was the son of Aruna Aupavesi Gautama who was the son or disciple of Upavesa. It is said; Upavesa followed Kushri the student of   Vajasravas. Uddalaka’s immediate ancestors were scholars of great merit. His father Aruna is an important name even in Satapatha Brahmana, while Upavesha is mentioned in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as a great Rishi.

17.3. Aruni of Panchala, son of Aruna Aupavesi Gautama, had his early education under the famous teacher (upadhyaya) Ayoda-Dhaumya. Two of his class-mates mentioned are: Upamanyu and Veda (Mbh.1.3. Paushya Parva). Mahabharata narrates an interesting event which epitomizes Aruni’s sense of dedication and sincerity to work assigned to him. According to the story, on one rainy night the teacher Ayoda-Dhaumya asked Aruni to supervise water flowing through a certain field. When Aruni went there, he found the dyke had breached and the water was seeping out. Aruni tried to plug the breach and to stop the leak, but was not successful. Aruni then lay down on the breach; stopping the water flow with his body. He lay there the entire night. The next morning, the teacher Dhaumya along with other students came in search of Aruni; and found the boy stretched out along the dyke trying to stop the outflow of water. Dhaumya was deeply impressed with the dedication and sincerity of Aruni. On seeing his teacher, Aruni stood up. And, as he did so, the water began to flow out.

The teacher highly pleased with the pupil Aruni called him Uddalaka: ‘Because in getting up from the dyke you opened the water-course, henceforth you will be called Uddalaka as a mark of my favour. And because you obeyed my bidding so sincerely, you shall prosper and all the Vedas and other scriptures shall shine in you (Shloka 34-35).’ Later, Aruni gained great fame as Uddalaka Aruni.

[This simple story was somehow turned into a symbolic myth where the rice-field represents human body; the leaking and uncontrolled water running away aimlessly as the mind; and Uddalaka who prevents wastage and brings water under control as the uttama-purusha who channelizes his intellect purposefully.]


18.1. Apart from his initial ‘schooling’ at the Ashram of Dhaumya, Uddalaka Aruni studied under various other teachers reputed for their special knowledge on subjects that interested him. It appears, during those days, a student could, if he so desired, learn from another teacher while still being a student of one teacher. This he did with the permission of his teacher, usually at the end a term (samvatsara-vasin – Shata.Br. Uddalaka travelled long distances across the breadth of Aryavarta from Gandhara – Madra region in the west to Videha in the east (Bh.Up.3.7.1; Ch.Up.5.3.6; 10.4). It must have taken considerable courage and determination to trudge such long distances on foot when roads were almost non-existent and the modes of travel were poor, slow and painful.

18.2. A devoted student who travelled across the country in search of suitable teachers and knowledge was termed a naistika-brahmacharin or chaaraka. Sri Shankara explained the term chaaraka as referring to one who was constantly on move, as he had taken a vow to learn wherever the knowledge was available (adhyayanartha vrata – charana –chaarakah). The Taittereya Upanishad also refers to eager students wandering from place to place in search of knowledge “They hasten from all sides to famous teachers, like water down the hill” (Tait. Up. 1.4.3). Uddalaka was a Charana or a Chaaraka in its true spirit.

19.1. Uddalaka basically hailed from Kuru- Panchala region (Sat.Brh.11. 4, 1, 2) – (roughly the present districts of Bareilly, Badaun and Farrukhabad), but sought his education under many teachers, in different parts of the country. For instance ; Uddalaka learnt about the principles and practice of Yajna from Panchala Kapya by travelling to Madra country (Sialkot area) – (Bh.Up.3.7.1).He learnt about  transmigration of souls  and about the path  taken by the soul after departing from body from King Citra Gargyayana (his name is mentioned also as Citra Gargyayani or Gangyayani ) – (Kau.Up.1.1-2). Citra Gargyayana discoursed, in particular, on the question ‘who am I?’ and said “I am a season (ritu), born of the seasons, brought forth from the womb of endless space, and generated from the light, the luminous Brahman; I am tyam”. He described Brahman as the luminous primal energy. I am from – Brahman (Kau.Up.1.1.6).

19.2. Uddalaka Aruni is said to have studied for some time in the Gandhara (north-west Punjab frontier region) which formed a part of Uttarapatha, the northern region. In his later years, he mentioned Gandhara as a seat of learning; and compared a man who attains liberation to “a blind-folded person who reaches at last the country of Gandhara” (Ch.Up.4.14). The Satapatha Brahmana mentions; Uddalaka Aruni used to move about (dhavayam chakara) among the people of Uttarapatha, the northern country (Sat. Br. 11. 4. 1. 1).The Buddhist text Uddalaka-Jataka (No.487) too mentions that Uddalaka journeyed to Takshashila (Taxsila to the north-west of Rawalpindi) and learnt there from a renowned teacher.

19.3. It is said; while moving about in the northern country, Uddalaka was impressed with the learning of the sage Saunaka (three Saunakas are mentioned with their ‘last’ names as:  Kapeya, Svaidayana or Atidhanvan?), and immediately desired to become his pupil in order to study the ritual traditions, practices and interpretations (Ch.Up.1.9.3; 4.3.5-7). But, interestingly, in his own teachings in Chandogya Upanishad (ch.4) Uddalaka rejects those traditions and interpretations, and opts for more careful observations of nature carried further by experiments and reasoning. And, he attempts to find what causes the things to appear as they do, and to offer generalizations of a rational character.

19.4. Earlier, Uddalaka had learnt the Madhu-vidya (honey doctrine) from his father Aruna Aupavesi Gautama at Kuru-Panchala (Ch.3.11.4). Uddalaka is also said to have had contacts with Bhadrasena Ajatasatru Kasya, the king of Kasi and Janaka Videha, the king of Videha.

Later years

20.1. Uddalaka was a life-long student, never too old to learn. Even in his later years he learnt from Prince Pravahana Jaivali of Panchala the theory of karma and transmigration of souls, and about the path taken by the departed souls – devayana and pitriyana (Ch.Up.5.3.10; Brh.Up.6.2). Similarly, he learnt the doctrine of Vaisvanara –vidya from King Asvapathi kaikeya in the far off north-west region (Ch.Up.7.11).

20.2. How these came about is rather interesting. As regards the former, when his son Svetaketu unable to answer the questions posed by Pravahana Jaivali (such as: Do you know to what place men go after departing from here?; “Do you know how they return again?”; and “Do you know where the paths leading to the gods and leading to the Manes separate?” etc) returned home crest fallen and asked his father to teach him the right answers, Uddalaka admitted he too did not know the answer to many of those questions. And, he then said to his son ‘let’s both go to Jaivali and learn from him ’.

Similarly, on another occasion, five householders approached Uddalaka to teach them about Vaisvanara Atma. Uddalaka did not however know the subject very well; and said to himself, ‘these householders have come to question me of which I am not able to tell them completely; let me redirect them’. Uddalaka then suggested to them: “Revered Sirs, King Asvapati the son of Kekaya knows, at present, about the Vaisvanara Atma. Let us all go to him.” He then led those five to Asvapati, promptly (travelling all the way from central UP to north-west Punjab).

20.3. In the tradition of wandering scholars who went around the country engaging in disputes and discussions,   Uddalaka too participated in debates held in the far off Gandhara and other northern regions ( Sat.Brh.11.4.1), as also in court of King Janaka of Videha in the east (along the Indo – Nepal border region)- (Ch.Up.4.14).


21. 1. It is said; the great Yajnavalkya (Brh.Up.6.3.15) as also sage Kausitaki (Sat Brh.11.4.12) to whose family the portions of the Kausitaki Brahmana are attributed, Proti Kausurubindi of Kausambi (Sat Brh. 12.2.213), and Sumna-yu (Sahkhayana Aranyaka -15.1) were at onetime the students of Uddalaka Aruni.

But his fame as a teacher and philosopher rests mainly on the discourses he imparted to his son Svetaketu (formally: Svetaketu Auddalaki Gautama). It contains the essential teaching of all the Upanishads.

21.2. In the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka is portrayed as a caring father who sent his son, at his age of twelve, to a residential school. And, on his return home, after twelve years of education, Uddalaka questions Svetaketu, now a bright looking well grown young man, to find whether he had learned anything of importance. Of course, he had not.  Uddalaka then proceeds to teach his son, with great diligence,   on what the school could not instruct: ‘knowing which everything becomes know’ – the real meaning of life.

21.3 Let’s talk of Uddalaka’s teachings in the next part.


Continued in Part Three

Sources and References

Life in the Upanishads by Dr. Shubhra Sharma; Abhinav Publications, 1985

The History of Pre-Bhuddhistic Indian Philosophy by Dr .Benimadhab Barua; Motilal Banarsidass, 1921

The Upanishads by Ekanath Easwaran and Michael N Nagler; Nilgiri Press, 2007.

A Course in Indian Philosophy by AK Warder, Motilal Banarsidass, 2009

Indian Philosophy before the Greeks by David J Melling

Atman in pre-upanisadic Vedic literature By H G. Narahari; published by Adyar Library 1944.

What the Upanishads teach

The Chandogya Upanishad by Swami Krishnananada


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Upanishads


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Who was Uddalaka Aruni? – Part One

This article is primarily about Uddalaka Aruni, a classic student, teacher and a philosopher of the Upanishad times. To me, he represents the true spirit of rational enquiry of the Upanishads. Before meeting him, let’s talk of a few other things of his times.


The age of the Samhitas and the age of the Upanishads

1.1. The Vedic cannon are generally classified into the scheme of the Samhitas   followed by the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and ending with the Upanishads.  The Upanishads are therefore usually described as the fourth and the last phase of the Vedic texts.

The Brahmanas are compendiums concerned mainly with the conduct of the Yajnas. They were composes over many centuries; but, their origin lies in distant antiquity.

Midway between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads are the transitional texts – Aranyakas.  Its texts are named after the ascetics (Arana) who retired to the seclusion of the forests (Aranya) to lead a life of contemplation. These Forest-treatises (Aranyakas) are more speculative than the Brahmanas, exploring the inner , spiritual significance of the Vedic rituals.

The Upanishads bring up the end (Anta) portions of the Vedic texts; and , are accordingly called Vedanta. They contain the teachings, discussions and debates of the ancient seers on the questions of identity of the Self (Atman) and the ultimate reality (Brahman), as also on the means of liberation (Moksha) through knowledge.

That scheme might be valid for classifying the texts according to the nature of the subjects they discuss. But, it would be rather incorrect to treat such classification as the strict chronological sequence of the texts. Because,   the distinctions between each class are not always clear; there are several throwbacks and overlapping among the Brahmanas and the Upanishads; and, many of the early Upanishads are   closely associated with or incorporated into the Brahmanas. For instance; The Brahadaranyaka Upanishad which contains the discussions and teachings of the Sage Yajnavalkhya form the final section of the Satha-patha-brahmana.

The texts cannot, therefore, be arranged in a chronological order. They are classified more by their nature than the order of their composition

 [ Vedas are generally concerned with the primacy of ritual-action (Karman) the Upanishads that follow as their latter portion (Vedanta) are about philosophical speculations that are deep and intuitive.  While both the Vedas and Upanishads are classified under Sruti –revealed knowledge which is authoritative – the Vedas are regarded as Karma-kanda  (ritual-action segment) and the Upanishads that is the Vedanta are regarded as Jana-kanda (knowledge segment). The transition from the Vedas to Vedanta is not abrupt but is a smooth progression integrating the two with many overlaps.]

These make it difficult to say that the Upanishad period always followed that of the Brahmanas. The chronology in Vedic texts as in Indian History is still a major problem.

1.2.  About ten of the Upanishads are considered very ancient. But, all these do not belong to the same period.  Among the Ten, it can be said , without much doubt, that apart from the five ancient Upanishads (Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Aitareya, Kausitaki and Taittareya) the rest belong to a much later period than the Brahmanas.

Of these five,  the Chandogya and Brahadaranyaka which quote from earlier sources, texts, discussions and events drawn from older stock are  considered ancient and authoritative.

The other early Upanishads, such as the Taittiriya, Aitareya, Isa and kaushitiki are also closely connected with the older Vedic texts.

The Upanishads of the middle period, Kena , Katha, Svetasvatara  and Mundaka  Upanishads , share many common features;  and , anticipate the thoughts that figured in  the later schools of Indian philosophy.

The latest among  the principal Upanishads are the Prasna and Mandukya.

Further, the Rig Veda Samhita and the earliest of these principal Upanishads are separated by several centuries. And quite clearly the two sets of texts differ very substantially in terms of their thought, their concerns and their language as also their style of depiction. The prose of the Upanishads is distinct from the archaic language of the Rig Veda hymns. The charming prose style of the Upanishads is highly elliptical, speaking through symbolic metaphors and allegories.

1.3. It also true, Upanishads are in harmony with the Vedic setting; and, they inherit the inspired poetry, lyrical voice and complex layers of symbolisms of the Vedas. Their philosophical discussions too reflect an unbroken tradition of the Samhitas, especially the Rig Veda. Many of the philosophical Hymns of the Rig Veda are incorporated into some of the Upanishads. It also needs to be said; that such philosophical hymns in the Veda are not many in number; and, their philosophic ideas are scattered or not systematized. The significance of the Upanishads is that they attempt to understand the philosophy of the Rig-Veda, to develop those germ ideas, and to carry them forward.

[Shri MP Pandit, a disciple of Sri Aurobondo writes: the Upanishads frequently invoke the authority of the Vedic seers in confirmation of what they say e.g. tad-etad-rikbhyuktam, (this is said by the Rik) or tad-uktam rsina bhuktyam (that is said by the Rishi) etc. or quote a whole Rik in clinching their pronouncement. Many of the ideas expounded by the Upanishads can be found present in germ form in the Vedas.]

Whatever might be these literary classifications, the ancient philosophers of India looked upon the Upanishads as of an entirely different type from the rest of the Vedic literature. By all accounts; the Upanishads stand on their own authority.

1.4. We also, at times, speak of Upanishads as a consistent body of knowledge as if they were chapters of a well edited book. But, in fact, each Upanishad is complete in itself; and is distinct from other Upanishads in content as also in spirit of enquiry. They are also separated in time and space.

1. 5. The cultures represented in two sets of texts – Samhitas and Upanishads – are far too diversified to be treated summarily as belonging to a single cultural unit. There are too many geographical, socio-economical, political, religious and philosophical variations to be ignored. Even the gods, the religious practices and the questions raised by the Samhitas differ from those of the Upanishads. It would therefore quite in order to treat the Samhitas and the Upanishads as representing distinct eras of Vedic culture.

Let’s briefly look at some of the dissimilar features of the two eras.

A. the world of the Upanishads


2.1. The geography of the Rig Veda is generally the land of seven-waters (saptha sindhavaha) which perhaps stretched from eastern Punjab to the present day Afghan-Pakistan regions. But, the geographical horizon of the Upanishads was much wider, stretching from the Gandharas in the west to the Videhas in the east and to the Vidharbha country to the south.

2.2. Apart from the Kuru – Panchala country which formed the hub of Vedic and Upanishad culture, several other new centres had sprung up during the times of Upanishads, such as: Madra, Kaikeya, Kasi, Kosala and the Videha which in particular had gained fame as a centre for performing the Yajnas as also for sponsoring philosophical debates.

2.3. The expanded geographical area and the increased number of centres of learning led to greater numbers of scholars, teachers and students participating in more debates. And with that, the range and the varieties of the subjects and the ideas discussed were also widened. With the heightened level of discussions, the concepts and concerns tended to get less hazy and a bit more focused. Uncertainty and vagueness were gradually giving place to clearer understanding.


3.1. As compared to the Vedic era, the period of the Upanishads enjoyed a more peaceful and settled pastoral life. The process of urbanization had brought in leisure and relative comfort. The people as also the kings could afford to set apart their time for contemplation and reflections. The kings of the Upanishad-age spent more time in performing Yajnas and in hosting philosophical debates than in waging wars. A king’s court or his Parishad was the meeting ground for the iterant philosophers, teachers and students. The King presided over and guided the debates concerning the nature of life, of time and of the substratum of all existence. The Kings such as Asvapathi Kaikeya, Ajatasatru Kashya, Janaka Videha, and Pravahana Jaivali of Panchala were regarded highly for their learning. Many philosophers and learned Brahmins went to them seeking instructions and explanations on spiritual matters.

[ It appears from the Chandogya-Upanishad (8-14-1; 5-11, 24; 1-8, 9; 1-9-3, 7-1-3, and 5-11); Brhadaranyaka-Upanishad (2-1-20, 2-3 -6); and Kausitiki Brahmana (2-1, 2; 10, 4.) that during the early Upanishad-period the Kshatriyas were adepts in Adhyatma-Vidya. For instance; king Ajatasatru of Kasi , in an assembly of the Kuru-Panchalas , consoles the Brahmin lad Svetaketu, son of Uddalaka Aruui of the Gautama Gotra that he need not be sorry for his inability to explain certain principles of Adhyatma-Vidya , because that has , so far, been the preserve of the Kshatriyas – (Chandogya-Upanishad: 5-3).]

4.1. The kings too seemed to have benefitted from the discussions held in their Parishads as also by their own study and contemplation. The kings such as Ajatashatru Kasya, Pravahana Jaivali, Citra Gangyayani and Asvapathi Kaikeya were remarkably learned; and, each had developed his own theories on the nature of the individual and of the Universe.

4.2. For instance, the king Ajatasatru of Kasi put forward a theory that consciousness as prajnatma pervades the body and makes the senses alert; but during sleep, it absorbs the functions of the organs, and withdraws into the space within the heart:  “As the spider moves along the thread, or as tiny sparks fly in all directions from a fire, just so come forth from this Atman all organs, all worlds, all gods, all beings…” (Br. Up. 2.1;  kaush. Up. 4).

These discussions here display a great interest in the states of consciousness in its various levels. They discuss the state of dreams and the state of dreamless – sleep as different layers of awareness. In the latter state, both body and mind are at rest; but the individual is not aware of that. In either case, there must be someone who is in know of things. Then, they ask: what is “known” in each and who is the knower? In the constantly changing stream of thought, they question: is there an observer who remains the same? Is there a thread of continuity? Another aspect of the discussion is the relative significance of each state. The trend of this argument is: All experience is real. When we wake up from a dream, we do not pass from unreality to reality; but, we pass from a lower level of reality to a higher one. It might, therefore, logically, be possible to move on to a higher level of reality, the one above this world of constantly changing sensory impressions.

4.3. Pratardana son of Divodasa the king of Kasi asserted that Prajnana, the right understanding, is the prime faculty which controls other faculties and senses (speech, breath, sight, limbs, mind etc). He spoke by employing the symbolisms of the Yajna; and explained self-control (samyama) as an inner sacrifice (antaram agnihotram). In that process, a person can withdraw from the senses as also the sensuous, exercise control over passions and emotions; and pour all that into Prana (vital breath) the nave of his being. Pratardana believed this to be a superior form of Yajna, as it did not aim at material or sensuous gains.  This was an idea that Pratardana carried forward from Kausitaki Upanishad, but enlarged it further. He argued; breathing is an essential activity of a living body; but, breathing is a symbol or an outward active manifestation of Life (prana). One can hold breath for some time, and still be alive; but one cannot be alive, even for an instant, without prana. ‘Death occurs when prana departs; and when it resumes life arises’.  The proof of one’s existence and living is, in fact, Prana which is the first principle. It is the first cause as also the final cause of all things (yo vai pranah sa prajna; ya va prajna sa pranah).  Pratardana also made an interesting observation that one cannot breathe and speak at the same time (‘when a man speaks he cannot breathe; and when he breaths he cannot speak’- kau.Up.2.5).

yavadvai purusho bhasate na tavat-pranitum shaknoti pranam …. yavadvai purushah praniti na tavat-bhashitum shaknoti vacam-kau.Up.2.5

Clearly, a man is unable to breathe while he is speaking. So, during that time his breath merges into his speech. A man is, likewise, unable to speak while he is breathing. So, during that time his speech merges into his breath. One offers these two endless and deathless offerings , into self, without interruption, whether one is awake or asleep.

4.4. And, King Asvapathi Kaikeya had developed his own theory of vaisvanara-vidya, of Super-Soul which pervades all existence as Atma – vaisvanara (Ch. Up .5.11.18).Many Brahman scholars learnt this doctrine from Asvapathi.  Vaisvanara is explained as ‘He who is the ruler of all human beings’ (visvesam naranam netara); and as’ He who is the soul of all’ (visvesam ayam narah). The Vaisvanara-vidya that king Asvapathi taught is a highly mystical form of meditation in which one contemplates on the Universe as one’s body. It is a process that is centred on the identity of the individual with the Universal. According to its doctrine, there is nothing in the Cosmos which is outside   the body of individual. As Sri Swami Krishnananda explains  “When you see the vast world before you, you behold a part of your own body. When you look at the sun, you behold your own eye. When you look above into the heavens, you are seeing your own head. When you see all people moving about, you behold the various parts of your own personality. The vast wind is your breath. All your actions are cosmic movements. Anything that moves does so, on account of your movement. Your breath is the Cosmic Vital Force. Your consciousness is the cosmic consciousness. Your existence is Cosmic Existence. Your happiness is Cosmic Bliss”.

4.5. Another king, Pravahana Jaivali of Panchala (who was also well versed in Udgitha, recital of Sama) taught his theory concerning the path taken by the dead; and, how the departed soul fares on its way to rebirth, according to merits of its deeds (S’patha. Brh .; Ait. Brh. 8.36.2; 40.4). This was a departure from the faith of the earlier Brahmanas which did not specifically speculate on life after death, but generally believed that those who performed Yajnas were granted material gains in the present life and proximity to gods in the afterlife. Pravahana effectively negated the old beliefs; and introduced his theories of karma-phala, rebirth etc. He said only those who diligently practiced contemplation and meditation travel by the deva-yana and attain bliss, while the others travel the way of the manes (pitri – Yana) taking rebirth according to ones’ merits. It underlines the importance of moral conduct in life.

4.6. Jaiminiya Brahmana (1.22-25) mentions that Uddalaka Aruni along with four other Brahmins (Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya , Barku Varsna, Priya Anasruteya, and Budila Asvatarsvi Vaiyaghrapadya) approached King Janaka of Videha with a request to teach them about Agnihotra.

4.7. These scholarly kings were respected for their learning. And, often the Brahmans, the scholars and other seekers of knowledge came to them seeking guidance and instructions on their specialized subjects.



As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches out for the next, so the Self, having come to the end of one life and shed all ignorance, gathers in its faculties and reaches out from the old body to a new(Brihadaranyaka III.4.3)



5.1. Vedic literature is full of references to gods, invoked individually and also collectively. In the early Rig Veda, most of the gods correspond  to the phenomenon in nature; such as, the sky and earth (Dyava-Prithvi), the dawn (Ushas), the Sun at its various positions in the sky (Savitar, Surya, Pushan, Ravi and Vivasvan), the rain clouds (Parjanya), the fire ( Agni ) and so on. Some of the major gods – say, Indra, Varuna or Aswin – who acquired individual traits and distinct personalities evolved into other beings, over a period of time. Some other minor gods (Vishnu and Rudra) developed and enlarged into super-gods.

In the Brahmanas, most of the Rig Vedic gods were  continued to be worshipped, but the Yajnas took precedence; and greater importance was accorded to Yajna than to gods.

5.2. As regards the Upanishads, they contain enough references to the religious life of people, their gods and their rituals. But by then; the concept of Devas, the gods, seemed to have changed significantly. While the Vedic hymns look outward in reverence and awe at the phenomena in nature, the Upanishads tend to look inward attempting to interpret the powers of nature as varied expressions human consciousness. The gods of the Upanishads are therefore rather ethereal; and, lack the human-like personalities as in the Rig Veda.  It suggests; gods prefer indirect references or symbolisms (paroksha priyaya vahi devahBhru. Up 4.2.2).Their personal attributes, powers, their likes / dislikes are not talked about in the Upanishads. The Devas of the Upanishads are also not shown performing astonishing feats.

5.3. Just as in the Samhitas, in the Upanishads too the gods did not evoke fear. They were approached with awe and reverence for gaining an understanding of the secrets of the Universe. The Rig Vedic gods that appear in the Upanishads play special roles. They become the sage- like counsellors or repositories of higher knowledge. They act as great teachers imparting instructions on the nature of Man and his Universe. For instance, Yama the god of death, initiated the boy Nachiketas into mysteries of life after death, and about the knowledge of the Soul (Katha Up.); the ancient god Varuna taught sage Bhrigu about the oneness of all life (Taiitt. Up.); and, the king of gods Indra preached Pratardana ‘the only knowledge that is worth knowing’. And, in a similar manner, Agni, Pushan and Uma were all respected as wise teachers; and, were invoked for True knowledge.

5.4. A peculiar trait of the Rig Veda hymns was that whichever god was being praised he was depicted as the highest, because he was seen as a representation or an aspect of the Supreme Being. These notions were to become the seeds of mono theistic tendencies which gradually led to the concept of a God of gods.  Most of the Upanishad thinkers seemed to be involved in long, curved and roundabout processes of enquiry in arriving at the concept of a   Supreme Being who was not merely the chief of the gods like Indra, not merely a creator like Prajapathi but was verily the very essence and the guiding principle behind all existence. He was not the creator from outside, but in the Self. The attention shifted from the objective to the subjective. Eventually, after long centuries of speculation and introspection, Brahman emerged as the highest principle, the Supreme Being. The concept of Brahman is the original contribution of the Upanishads; the term Brahman in that sense did not appear in the hymns of Rig Veda.


6.1. The Upanishads continued to believe in the efficacy of the Yajnas; in many passages you find the glorification of the Yajna. The two streams of ritual and knowledge progressed without coming into conflict. But, evidently there was a shift away from rituals; the emphasis shifted from routine performance to the understanding of its significance with knowledge and faith. The Upanishads sages came to be regarded highly   more for their learning and their authority in debates, discussions and teaching, than for their ritual-skills.

The idea of the Yajna underwent a sea change. Even the need to offer oblations was debated. Many asserted that there is a Reality which the Yajnas cannot reach. The questions such as ‘To which god shall we offer the oblation’ (kasmaey devaya havisha vidhema) were no longer asked. The Yajnas were no longer performed merely to attain a certain human – desire (ishti); nor was Yajna deemed the best of deeds. Yet, the Upanishad thinkers were not totally against either the concept of Yajna or performing Yajnas. A quiet transformation was gradually taking place.

6.2. Instead of the ritual-details, the Upanishads talk in symbolisms. And, Instead of describing the offering of oblations into fire, they speak of speech or breathe offered as oblations into ones inner self. For instance, the objects of smell, taste, sound, colour and touch as also that which is to be thought and that which is to be understood were symbolized as the seven kinds of fuel (offerings). These seven offerings (the perceived information) were poured into seven fires (organs of perception). It was said, the act of restraining ones senses and the mind, and pouring (offering) the objects of those senses and the mind (as libations) into the fire of the Soul within the body, was itself a Yajna.

6.3. Every aspect of life, even sex, was viewed through the symbolism of Yajna (as per sage Kumara Harita: Brh.Up.6.4.4: which suggests that sex-desire, like everything else, is partly physical; it is a powerful personal energy. It needs neither to be suppressed nor repressed, but to reconnect to its power-source. There is another elaborate symbolism at 6.4.3 of Brhu.Up drawing a comparison between sex organ of woman with Yajna – altar).  Similarly, the issues relating to outward worship, rituals, oblations etc all came to be discussed. Philosophical doctrines were projected to explain the symbolisms associated with the Yajna.

6.4. Many times, the gatherings at a Yajna served as a forum for debates or discussions on philosophical issues. The king as the Yajamana, the performing priests, the invited scholars and iterant seekers, all participated in the debates that followed.

The Upanishads record in details the proceedings at such discussions.

Debates and discussions

Jaimuni questions Markandeya, Garwhal c 1785, 17.8x24.7cm

7.1. The bulk of the Upanishad teachings have come down to us in the form of discussions or debates, which took place in verities of contexts. Apart from intimate sessions where an illumined teacher imparts instructions to an aspirant , there are instances of varied kind, say, as when : a wife is curious  to learn from her husband  the secrets of immortality; a teenage boy approaches Death itself to learn the truth of life and death; a king seeks instruction from an recluse sage who speaks from his experience ; Brahmans advanced in age and wisdom sit at the feet of a Kshatriya prince seeking instructions as also inspiration ; and , when sometimes the sages are women who are approached by kings .There are other sorts of dialogues , say, when Jabala is taught by bulls and birds (Ch. Up 4.4-9) , Upakosala by the sacred fires (Ch.Up. 4.10-15), and Baka is by a dog (Ch.Up 1.12).

7.2. Most of the participants are just names, as very little or nothing is known about them. Some of them come alive because of their thoughts or the schools they represent. The more human and tangible persons among them include Janaka Videha, Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya, Uddalaka Aruni with his son Svetaketu, Satyakama Jabala, Ushasthi Chakrayana, Gargi Vachaknavi and a few others.

7.3. Many times , the debates came up spontaneously , say, when an aggressive questioner stormed into a Yajna and pelted questions at all those present there; as when Ushasthi Chakrayana walked into a Yajna being performed for the King of Kuru and demanded answers to his most perplexing questions on the divinities associated with each phase of the Yajna.

7.4. Some other times, certain topics arose in informal discussions as in the case of Prahavana Jaivali, Silaka Salavatya and Caikitayana Dalbhya (Ch.Up.1.8-9; Br.Up.4.1); and also as when   the much travelled scholar Gargya Balaki offered to teach King Ajatashatru of Kasi the knowledge of Brahman, the latter negated all of Gargya’s theories and, instead, put forward his own views glorifying Prana as the highest principle (Brh.Up.2.1.1; Kaush.Up.4.1). The scholarly Yajnavalkya often talked to King Janaka Videha on the nature of Brahman (Brhu. Up).

7.5. Many times, a king would go up to a sage and seek instructions. For instance, the king Janasruti Putrayana approached the famed recluse Raikva Sayugvan for true knowledge; and the latter preached his doctrine of Samvarga-Vidya ‘absorbing’ (Chan. Up. 4.2.5).  It speaks of air (Vayu) in the Universe and the vital breath (prana) in the individual as two fundamental elements. It believes that everything in the Universe emerges from these two and eventually dissolves back into them. Raikva said: “There are two ultimate elements which absorb everything; inwardly, it is prana into which all senses and mind merge; and outwardly it is Vayu the sutratman, the controller which absorbs all. Everything rises from it; and everything goes back into it“.  The two are said to be identical. His doctrine elaborately narrates how fire, the sun, the moon and water each successively subsides into the next; and finally into air. And, similarly, when a person sleeps, the speech, sight, hearing and mind – all these – are absorbed into his vital breath.

[This process perhaps could be understood as interiorization, as Mr. MN Nagler explains: reaching back to the centre of one’s core.]

7.6. There are also instances where a group of earnest scholars went to a well informed person and sought from him, explanations on certain specific issues. For instance, a   group of six Brahmans travelled from Madhya-Desha in the Ganga –Yamuna doab to the far off Kaikeya country in the west to learn about the concept of Atma-Vaisvanara as evolved by King Asvapathi (Ch.Up.5.3-10; Brh.Up.6.2; Katha Up.1.1).

Similarly, on another occasion, another set of six scholars – Sukesa Bharadvaja, Saivya Satyakama, Sauryayani Gargya, Kausalya Asvalayana, Bhargava Vaidarbhi and Kabandhi Katyayana- went to sage Pippalada and stayed with him for over a year in order to learn his doctrine. He then answered their six questions concerning the nature of Reality and a range of other subjects- such as the origin of the world, its sustenance; and similar questions about the human being , how does Prana –life breath enter the body etc .

Pippalada names Prana and Rayi (equivalent to consciousness and matter) as the cause of all life on earth. Prana is the highest principle, that which fuels evolution and powers all forms of life. It gives rise to nama-rupa, to all conditioned reality. At the same time, Prana is understood here both as the vital breath – the life of the Man and also as the life of the Universe. Prana is the abiding element –the core faculty – that which gathers up all other faculties when they become dormant (Prashna Up.1.4.8). Just as senses and mind are withdrawn progressively into prana when a man sleeps, similarly all existence is eventually drawn into the ultimate source. In answer to the sixth question, Pippalada taught the seekers that Prana is the first and the foremost of the sixteen successive phases or sixteen parts  that comprise Man (sodasha kalaa  purusha)-: the sixteen parts are Prana (life) , desire, space, air, fire, water, earth, senses, mind, food, virility, discipline, mantra (scriptures),yajna (karma), world, and nama-rupa (conditioned existence). ‘The Purusha is the hub of the wheel of life; and the sixteen forms are only the spokes. Purusha is the paramount goal of life. Attain this goal and go beyond death ‘- (Prashna.Up.6.6)

[This set of sixteen mentioned by Pippalada varies from the sixteen enumerated in Samkhya: manas (mind); five buddhindriyas (organs of sense); five karmendriyas (organs of action) and five maha-bhutas (gross elements)]

7.7. At other times, formal debates were held in stately halls; as in the court of King Janaka of Videha where the winner was awarded a very substantial prize. In one of those debates, it was Yajnavalkya who impressed the King Janaka with his erudite scholarship and sharp intellect. And, Yajnavalkya, walked away with the prize of thousand cows even before the debate was formally concluded. When those assembled protested furiously, shouting “how presumptuous of you…!” Yajnavalkya, with a wry smile said “I salute to the wisest among you; but, I just want those cows”. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad dwells on these debates in as many as nine chapters covering almost the entire span of Upanishad learning.

7.8. There was also a practice of holding ‘Brahmodya’ – a competition of solving riddles or a sort of quiz contest  – in the intervals during an Asvamedha or the Dasaratra- Brahma-vadya ( a ten-day long Satra) , in which the the eager , the needy as also the learned scholars participated enthusiastically. The winners were hounoured with the titles such as Kavi or Vipra (the learned sage) and such others. The most famous  of such Brahmodya was that which was held at the court of Janaka of Videha, as detailed in the Brhadlranyaka Upanishad

Such  bouts which  carried prize money, as expected, tended to be aggressive. But, an unsavoury feature of such debates was the trading of challenges and threats. Quite often, one would threaten the opponent that his head would fall off or his limbs would be harmed or his bones would be carried away by robbers if he did not answer (rightly) – (Ch.Up.1.8.6-8; 1.10.9-11; 5.12-17; Brh.Up.3.9.26)

Dialogues between students and teachers

8.1. Nothing in the Upanishads is more vital than the relationship between a student and his guide. The Chandogya Upanishad has more dialogues between teachers and pupils than any other Upanishad, including the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The teacher talks, out his experience, about his ideas of the nature of the world, of truth etc or about particular array of phenomena visualized through mental images that stay etched in memory; and the student questions him further, in earnestness. The teacher finally encourages and urges the student to think, to contemplate and to find out for himself the answers to his questions. A student needs humility, persistence, and honesty of purpose to go further.

8.2. An Upanishad-teacher does not teach everything that his student needs to know. But, he ignites in the heart of the boy a spark that sets ablaze his desire to learn and to know the central principles which make sense of the world we live in. The guide inflames the sense of challenge, the urge to reach beyond the boy’s grasp and to know the unknown.The Brihadaranyaka calls upon:

‘You are what your deep, driving desire is; as your desire is, so is your will (sa yathā-kāmo bhavati tat-kratur-bhavati); As your will is; So is your deed (yat-kratur-bhavati tat-karma kurute) ; As your deed is, so is your destiny (yat-karma kurute tad-abhi-sapadyate”- (Brhu. Up. 4.4.5).  

As the Katha Upanishad says, ‘only a few hear the truth; of those who hear, only a few understand; and of those only a handful attain the goal’. In the end, all achievement is fuelled by burning desire.

śravaṇā̍yāpi ba̱hubhi̍r yo na labhyaḥ śṛ̱ṇvanto̍’pi ba̱havo̍ yaṁ na vidyuḥ | āśca̍ryo vaktā ku̱śalo’sya labdhā āśca̍ryo jñātā ku̱śalā̍nu-śiṣṭaḥ || 7 ||

9.1. As mentioned, the core of the Upanishad teachings is recorded in the discussions or dialogues between a learned teacher and his ardent student who approached respectfully. Those were not formal bouts; but were intimate sessions where the teacher guided, in confidence,   the student seated close to him. The Upanishads abound in such student – teacher dialogues.

Let me just mention a couple of the more famous ones that took place between:

:-  Varuna and Bhrigu [Varuna teaches Bhrigu said to be his son about Brahman as being food / matter (anna), life (prana), mind (mana), intelligence (vijnana) and bliss (ananda)- (Taitt.Up.3.1-6)].

: – Sanath kumara and Narada [Sanath kumara teaches Narada about the various theories about Brahman that were prevalent at the time; and then leads Narada to the Understanding of Brahman, through progressive  stages  of name, speech, mind , will etc leading up to infinite and Self (Ch.up.7.1-26)].

:- Ghora Angirasa and Devaki-putra Krishna [ Ghora Angirasa teaches that all of a person’s life is indeed a Yajna; his every act constitutes a ritual and death is the final offering; and, at the time of death one should believe he is indestructible and is the very essence of life  (Ch.Up. 3.17.6)]

: – Yama and Nachiketas [Yama teaches the truth about life and death]. The Katha Upanishad is held up as a lesson in asking the right question to the right person. The boy Nachiketas puts a simple-worded question to none-other -than Death: “When a person dies there arises this doubt: ‘He still exists’ some say; ‘No, he does not’ say some others. I want you to teach me the truth” – (katha Up. 1.1.20). The dialogue also covers the steep choices one has to make in life between what is implicitly good (shreya) and what is merely pleasant (preya). The message of the Katha Upanishad, which echoes throughout the Upanishads, is to dare like a teenager: to reach for the highest you can conceive with everything you have, and never be distracted.

: – And, another is the series of discussions between Uddalaka Aruni and his son/disciple Svetaketu. It covers almost the entire range of Upanishad learning (we shall talk more about this dialogue in the next part).

9.2. The discussion between Maitreyi and her husband Yajnavalkya could also be treated as of similar class. When Maitreyi desired to share her husband’s wisdom, Yajnavalkya imparts her instructions about the true nature of the soul, the world and the Brahman (Brh.Up.2.4; 4.5).He presents the Self as the pure subject, the knower, which cannot be described through any known array of terms or attributes. He explains to her “Know that, whenever we love we are responding to the Self within that person. Therefore if we can discover that Self there would be no parting and no sorrow between us. … As long as there is separateness one sees the other as separate.  But, when Self is realized as the indivisible unity of life, there is no more sorrow”.

The spirit of enquiry

10.1. A remarkable feature of these discussions is the spirit of enquiry. Here, no teacher claims that he has discovered the ultimate truth, nor does he declare that his views are beyond dispute and should be obeyed implicitly, by all. None of the teachers or scholars is fully satisfied with the knowledge he has attained. All, the teachers and students alike, are eager to probe further and uncover more of the unknown. Even the aged wise teachers travel long distances and sit at the feet of the learned, who might be younger to them in age, and seek  instructions on subjects they are not well versed.

Philosophy in Upanishads

11.1. The discussions featured in the Upanishads record the opinions or views on various philosophical issues of that era. The participants came from all walks of life; there were sages, priests, women, teachers, kings, charioteers and common folk. The answers to the questions discussed in the texts varied from teacher to teacher and from region to region. All the doctrines presented in them do not stand out equally prominent. Some are merely flashes of thought, others are only slightly developed and still others are but survivals from the older period. Many ideas are put forward, discussed or even withdrawn according to their strengths and weaknesses.

11.2. As regards the Upanishads’ philosophy, although the Upanishads are often called philosophical treaties, they do not propound a single system of thought or philosophy. They do not explain or develop a line of argument. Instead, entire range or shades and hues of philosophical opinions are scattered across the texts.

For instance, The Upanishads have no permanent point of view in regard to such questions as how the One Principle or Thing was conceived, or what its relations are to the visible Universe. They are tentative and experimental, not fixed and final. They appear to be philosophy in the making. They never assert that they have found the ultimate truth.

Even the doctrine of transmigration, which is said to have found its full form in the Upanishads, leaves several questions unanswered. It was stated that the departed Soul proceeds along a certain path into the other world before it returns to earth for its next life. At the same time, it was also mentioned that at the moment of death the departed Soul instantly takes another body. The Upanishads do not specify the nature of the being that transmigrates. The question of transmigration was left open-ended. Similarly,  on the  subject to the law of Karma  there is not much discussion on the  scope for  free-will which gives man some sort of control  over his actions  or whether God’s grace and such other factors also come in deciding human fate. These problems were are left unanswered; and if some answer were given, they are merely hinted at.

Speaking of the Upanishads, Bloomfield says that they captivate, not because they are finished products, but because they show   the human mind engaged in the most plucky and earnest search after truth. And the, Upanishads represent the earnest efforts of the profound thinkers of early India to solve the problems of the origin, the nature, and the destiny of man and of the universe; the meaning and value of knowing and being.

In other words, the Upanishads provided a platform for displaying various shades of thoughts and opinions that were actively churned in those times.  Thus the widely divergent philosophers and varied Schools of thought coexist in the Upanishads without contradiction. And that is the reason why anyone is now able to quote some Upanishad passage or the other and claim authenticity for his interpretation or for his train of thought.

11.3. For instance, the Upanishads speak of Brahman as the substratum of all existence from which everything emerges and into which everything merges. These speculations gave rise to the Advaita philosophy of the later ages. At the same time the other notions which assert that the individual soul (Atman) and the Brahman are parted but unite into one, gave the Dvaita philosophy its authenticity. Thirdly, there is also a current of theism which looks upon Brahman as the Lord controlling the Universe. All such views find place in the Upanishads without a sense of contradiction.  But, it was the later commentaries, glosses etc that created further discrepancies and contradictions.

The Questions that arose

12.1. The Vedic line of thoughts found its culmination in the Upanishads. The Samhitas and the Brahmanas did raise many doubts and questions; but, these were merely hinted. The ‘doubt’ in this context, it is explained, is not suspicion (smashaya); it is neither a doubt as of a sceptic, nor it is suspended-belief as of an agnostic. The doubt here is indeed with wisdom and faith. For instance, Nasadiya Sukta (the creation hymn) in the tenth Book of the Rig Veda ends with the classic doubt: “Whether this creation has arisen by itself or whether it did not , only He knows ; or perhaps He also does not know.”

Those speculations were further developed in the Upanishads, which attempted to answer all those questions in a rational way.   A great variety of views were expounded in the Upanishads   more systematically, and providing starting points for various schools of philosophies.

12.2. The elaborate discussions spread out in the Upanishads address and debate on various philosophical questions; and, much of that is subtle, sophisticated and intellectually challenging, such as: “What happens at death? What makes my hand move, my eyes see, my mind think? Does life has a purpose, or is it governed by chance?”. Yet, no single opinion or theory was held up as the undisputable truth; and, everything was left in a flux. It is because of its creative thinking and its open-mindedness that Upanishads continue to be an ever-fresh source of inspiration for people of all times and regions delving into it seeking answers to their questions.

12.3. But, the main concern of the Upanishads was the search for the central essence of Man; as also the essence of the Universe. The two independent streams of thought – one driven by the desire to realize the true nature of man and the other, to understand the objective world – became fused. It represented an effort to express the world in terms of the individual; an attempt at rising from the known particular to the knowledge of the unknown universal. The blending of the two apparently dissimilar concerns led to the discovery of their essential unity.

12.4. The basic questions posed by the Upanishads in that regard were: ’Who am I?’ and ‘Who is He?’ Centuries later, the Buddha, commenting on the Upanishads, remarked that the main concern of that period was: ’How shall I unite with Him?’ (Te-Vijja sutta – Dhiga Nikaya 1.13)

Brahman and Atman

13.1 The Rig-Veda is not a philosophical work. Questions which  came up much later , such as – the nature of Atman, the whence, how and whither of the Atman; the Supreme Self and its  relation to  the external world; and the mutual relations of  Atmans and Isvara  – were  not  dealt with in the text of the Rig-Veda. But, there was awareness of a permanent factor in man’s life and its continuity even after the body perishes. There were also speculations about some essential unity among the individuals through some Supreme Being that is not conditioned by the limitations of a body and of worldly existence.

These and similar other questions were carried forward by the Upanishads.

13.2. The Upanishads are truly the continued saga of a prolonged search for understanding Man and his Universe. Its sages keep on pursuing their exploration, looking for a theory that would explain everything. Each of its philosophers identifies and argues about a particular aspect of life and existence as ‘the highest principle’ – as could be seen from the instances cited earlier in this article. Although all these teachers, as well as others, have varied understandings of Atman, they all present knowledge of self as a new way of thinking.

As many as about forty concepts such as prana, vayu, aph, purusha, aditya, agni , atma, akasha, manas, skamba, vac etc are alluded as the ‘highest principle’ and as ‘the primary cause of the Universe which bursts forth spontaneously as nature’ If we collect all the terms employed in the Upanishads to describe ‘the basis and the cause for the universe ‘, it would read like a glossary of philosophical terms.

Eventually, all those terms, principles or powers that the Upanishad scholars believed to be the basis of the world and make the world explicable merged into the meaning of Brahman. And yet, it would be incorrect to assume that apart from Brahman and Atman all other terms in the Upanishads meant to signify the ‘highest principle’ fade into negligence.

13.3. Thus, the notion of Brahman in the Upanishads was arrived neither easily nor at once. It took centuries of thorough introspection, discussions and debates to reach at an acceptable concept. In the process, several notions, ideas and explanations were put forth, each more satisfying the previous one, to account for the relation between the individual and the universe. At some stage in the evolution of its thought, the Upanishads named Brahman as the primal source of the universe; and Atman as the individual’s inmost essence. The two terms- Brahman and Atman- are now   ‘the two pillars on which rest nearly the whole edifice of Indian philosophy’. But, the concept and explanations of Brahman and Atman was not in the context of any religion or sect. The Upanishads, therefore, belong not just to Hinduism but to all mankind. They are India’s most precious gift to humanity.

13.4. The essential oneness of the individual and the universal was hinted at even before the Upanishads. But, the concept of Brahman – understood as that from which everything emerged and into which everything merged or like the web of the spider or a spark of fire (vispu lingaha) – was for the first time stated clearly in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Yajnavalkya came closest by describing it as ‘ the imperishable is the unseen seer, Gargi, though unseen; the hearer though unheard; the thinker, though un-thought; the known though unknown. Other than this there is no seer; other than this there is no hearer; other than this there is no thinker; other than this there is no hearer; other than this there is no thinker; other than this there is no knower. It is on this imperishable (akshara), Gargi, that space (akasha) is woven, as warp and woof (ota – prota)’ (Brhu.Up.3.8.11)

It was expanded upon in the Katha and the Manduka Upanishads. Brahman was referred to as the universal soul; and, Atman as a spark of the bigger fire, framed within the individual (Katha Up. 1.3.1). Here, the terms Brahman and Atman refer to the same principle. The later Upanishads  lent it  an another imagery through an allegory of a pair of birds perched upon the branch of a tree: Two bright-feathered bosom friends; Flit around one and the same tree; One of them tastes the sweet berries,  the other without eating merely gazes down (Sveta.Up.4.6; Mun.Up.3.1.1).  In a way, Brahman was an open concept in the Upanishads.

[In the Brahma Sutra of Sri Badarayana and the commentaries of Sri Shankara, the concept of Brahman crystallized as the only unconditioned reality existing eternally beyond our relative, conventional understanding.]

13.5. Brahman was thus the last in the series of the solutions that the sages were seeking; and it became a symbol for ‘the ultimate essence of being, the final basis of reality’.  The term was meant to assert the truth that the individual and the Universe are verily the manifestation of the same reality. The individual, the nature or God are in essence not distinct. The realization of the identity of Self and Brahman became the objective of the Upanishad seekers. It was valued as the true knowledge that liberates; by knowing which everything becomes known (Para vidya).

13.6. The ideal of the Upanishads is to live in the world in full awareness of life’s unity; giving and enjoying, participating in others’ sorrows and joys, but never unaware even for a moment that the world comes from That and returns to That.

As a tethered bird flies this way and that, And comes to rest at last on its own perch, so the mind, tired of wandering about…settles down in Self. (Chandogya Up.6.8.2)

The Rishi of the Rig-Veda and philosopher of the Upanishads

14.1. There is a marked difference between the Rishi of the Rig-Veda and the philosopher of the Upanishads. In the early Rig Veda, the Rishi is referred to as Kavi.  A Kavi in Rig Veda is an inspired Rishi who can see the unseen. He is the sublime poet who envisioned the mantras (mantra drastaraha); and who conceived the self-evident knowledge (svatah pramana) by intuition. A Kavi is also ‘the hearer of the Truth’ (kavayah satya- srurtah).That is the reason the Vedas are regarded as Srutis, revealed scriptures; and thus Apaurusheya, not authored by any agency.

14.2. By the time of the later Vedic age the Kavis and Rishis had become mythical figures; and, their deeds were narrated along with the deeds of the gods. Those seers include the sapta-rishis enumerated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: Gautama, Bharadwaja, Vashista, Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Kashyapa and Atri. And the Rishis like Vamadeva and Narayana indeed merged with the gods of their mantra; and are now regarded as Gods.

14.3. As regards philosophy, scholars like Dr. Benimadhab Barua opine that the Rig Veda in its early stages did not seem to have a specific term to denote what we now call ‘philosophy’, though its Kavis and Rishis were sublime philosophers. The hymns of the Rig Veda (uktha) and its recitation (udgitha) itself meant philosophizing. That was perhaps because they did not regard ‘knowing’ (vid) as separate from other aspects of’ ‘being’. These terms continued to stand for ’philosophy’ until other epithets such as Darshana or Brahma-vidya etc came into use.

14.4. But, by the time of the Upanishads, ‘philosophy’ was a well recognized branch of study. Most of philosophers and thinkers of the Upanishads were scholars in the traditional mould; and, a majority had to work and earn a living. Many were scholars, teachers of great repute, advisers to kings, and priests under the patronage of a king; but, most were householders with families, tending cows and the lands. Those keen on pursuing the path of knowledge, studied for long years under the guidance of a teacher. Thereafter, each followed his individual pursuit; some followed the way of Brahmacharins devoted to studies and later settled down as householders; some left the comfort of home and wandered about in forests or led a life of contemplation. Some of them became iterant seekers and recluse. Many of them were teachers of great repute.

14.5. It is estimated that the five oldest Upanishads feature about one hundred of such philosophers, spread over five generations. A good many of those philosophers appear in the Brahmanas also .This supports the view that there was overlapping; and the two trends of thought coexisted for a considerable time.

14.6. The earliest of the teachers who appear in the Upanishads were mystics or interpreters of the symbolism of rituals and esoteric meaning of the hymns. For instance, the colourful-hero Yajnavalkya bursts forth into sparkling series of poetic intuitions, picturesque analogies, and mystical imageries bewildering the questioner. His brilliant exposition is expansive, highly impressive and breathtaking; but is neither systematic nor very logical. He carried away the debate by the sheer power and dazzle of his intellect.

14.7. In contrast, Uddalaka son of Aruna of Gautama gotra was systematic and cogent in his approach. He put forward rational explanations on the nature of Man and nature of Universe without employing the terms Brahman or God. And, without bluntly rejecting the earlier mythological beliefs and religious injunctions, Uddalaka Aruni tacitly set aside all those in favour of a rational explanation for the ultimate cause of everything in nature. Uddalaka is therefore regarded the greatest of thinkers and perhaps the first real philosopher. He retained till the end, an open mind and a keen desire to learn. He remained a student all his life; yet, he was the best of the teachers. Uddalaka’s power of exposition shines forth in the Chandogya Upanishad.

For these reasons; Uddalaka Aruni is recognized among all the Upanishad sages and teachers as the true representative of the Upanishad age and its spirit of enquiry.

Let’s talk a bit more of Uddalaka Aruni and his teachings in the next part.

 [ The search  for Ultimate Reality and essence that underlies all existence is the specific quest of the Upanishadic thoughts … Some of the most ancient Upanishads represent earliest attempts of mankind to provide philosophical explanation of the Universe , of the Ultimate Reality , of the nature of Self  and the purpose of the human kind….

The importance of Upanishads in the development of ‘Hinduism’ is enormous; for, it contains most of the developing concepts that we associate with ‘Hinduism’ today, such as: Brahman the Absolute principle, Atman (true self), Moksha (liberation) , Dharma ( what indeed is right), Samsara (re-birth)  etc. These are some of the fundamental concepts that are accepted by all the Indian traditions. Bhagavad-Gita the sacred text of ‘Hinduism’ relies heavily on the teachings of the Upanishads… author of the Bhagavad-Gita included the words of a number of Upanishads very frequently.

Jeaneane D. Fowler (The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students – Introduction) ]



Continued in Part Two

Sources and References

 Life in the Upanishads by Dr. Shubhra Sharma; Abhinav Publications, 1985

The History of Pre-Bhuddhistic Indian Philosophy by Dr .Benimadhab Barua; Motilal Banarsidass, 1921

The Upanishads by Ekanath Easwaran and Michael N Nagler; Nilgiri Press, 2007.

A Course in Indian Philosophy by AK Warder, Motilal Banarsidass, 2009

Indian Philosophy before the Greeks by David J Melling

Atman in pre-upanisadic Vedic literature By H G. Narahari; published by Adyar Library 1944.

What the Upanishads teach

The Chandogya Upanishad by Swami Krishnananada

All images are from Internet


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Upanishads


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Who was Mahidasa Aitareya – Part Two

Continued from Part One

11.1. As mentioned earlier, Aitareya Aranyaka and Aitareya Brahmana are fairly lengthy texts. The concepts and explanations therein do not also proceed in an order. We may not be able to discuss Mahidasa’s works thoroughly. But, we can attempt to glance at his views on certain subjects.

There are no clear-cut divisions or grouping of his doctrines. But, we can attempt to classify his views under some broad heads. Those classifications are our own; but, the concepts are of Mahidasa.

11.2. The main problems that Mahidasa tried to grapple were the origin of life and the development of consciousness.

Before we get to that, let’s briefly see a few other subjects discussed by Mahidasa.

The task of philosophy

12.1. To begin with, Mahidasa pointed out that the task of philosophy is to explain ones experience. By ‘experience’ he perhaps meant a person’s relation and interaction with the rest of the world and with himself. The maxim that Mahidasa laid down for himself was : “I know the universe and myself as far as I know the gods; and I know the gods as far as I know the universe and myself”(Aitareya Aranyaka-2.17.7;  

The term ‘gods’ in his statements is taken to mean the hymns (ukta) or the elements (bhutani).

12.2. How does one explain such experiences ? According to Mahidasa, there are two methods of understanding or two levels of experience: objective and subjective. These could be termed as conventional (vyavaharika) and philosophical (paramarthika).

Mahidasa and the world

13.1. In a philosophical perspective (paramarthika), Man is conceived as the miniature universe. Man is a microcosm just as the visible world is universal man (yadvad brahma vistitam tatvati vagiti; yatra ha kva ca brahma tad vaag, yatra va vak tad va brahmatiAA Every individual is like an egg, very similar to the oval shaped spherical universe (Brahmanda); curvilinear , bending around itself with no distinct boundaries.  . Both are complete in themselves. What is in one is in the other :

“whatever there is belonging to the son belongs to the father; whatever there is belonging to the father belongs to the son” (Aitareya Aranyaka:

What is true in respect of man is also true of the universe. The whole of nature is a purposive-order, a system of ends. The finite thing of experience is not only a part of the whole but is, in essence, the whole itself.

“I as a living nomad am the universe”.

But that does not mean, he says, that the universal completely explains the particular. Obviously, there are differences. But those differences are not of kind but of intensity and degree.

The physical world

14.1. As regards the conventional (vyavaharika) or the physical world, Mahidasa considered it as a combination of the visible world, the organic world and the man. By visible world Mahidasa meant the physical world as whole. The organic world included vegetable kingdom and the animal world, as also the Man.

14.2. Of these, the visible world is a living thing and man is a living being; and connecting the two is the organic world. He believed, ‘If we know one, we know the rest’. For, there is no difference, in principle, between the physical world and the organic world; or between the organic world and the man. The fundamental difference, if any, would be in the intensity or the degree of growth. That is to say; as a naturalist Mahidasa perceived the difference subsisting between things of experience; but as a philosopher he realized the unity underlying all existence (AA

14.3. According to Mahidasa’s classification, all those shining gods – the sun , lightening, the moon, the planets, and the stars; and all the five great elements (maha-bhutani) – the earth, water , fire, air and the sky – belong to the physical world. Mahidasa regarded nature as a living form, an interconnected whole, having a unity in the midst of all changes.

As regards the organic world, it included vegetable and the animal kingdoms. And, man naturally belongs to the animal world; and is classed among the animals (prani– the living).

According to Mahidasa, the distinction between the physical world and the organic could roughly be termed as that between the dead-matter and living-matter. As said earlier, the differences among them are in the intensity or the degree of their growth.

14.4. If one extends Mahidasa’s explanation, a so-called non-living thing is in fact an undeveloped life, in the same way as man could be taken as a developed thing. Because, according to him, what takes place in the world continuously is not creation or manifestation (prakatatvam), but it is the evolution (avistarah avirbhava) of life. He described it as the ceaseless flowering of the hidden potential in all matter.

Evolution – the rope of life

15.1. Mahidasa understood evolution (avistarah avirbhava) as an ongoing process, a continuing relation between a series of causes and effects. He regards evolution of life alone as the real process in the world. He views evolution as the unfolding of life; a transition from the hidden to the manifest; from potential to the actual. Each step in evolution comes from something and becomes something. Each step is the seed (bija) of the next.

15.2. Mahidasa visualized evolution as a series of knots on a rope; each knot representing a stage in evolution (AA . Such a rope or a chain has two extremities –  two ends  – two ultimate knots , either way , between which all other knots fall ; and which therefore determine the length of the rope ( duration of the evolutionary process). Each knot (stage) is the seed of the next. Therefore what we recognize as two separate knots are essentially two aspects of one and the same reality. If we take the first cause as Brahman or God the final cause too is God; and so is whatever that falls in-between.

[In the process of evolution, a living individual is one of the many knots on the rope of life. He is one of the developed stages which matter assumes or is capable of assuming.]

15.3.  In Mahidasa’s terminology, in the Universe the first and the last knots are termed Prajapathi (the efficient cause) and Brahman (the final cause or end). In the case of the individual they are termed prana and Prajna.

Prajapathi causes the world; the world causes water; the water causes life; life begets herbs and living creatures; the manas is the heart of thinking creature; it causes thinking mind; the thinking mind expresses through thoughtful speech ; the thoughtful speech leads to thoughtful action; and the thoughtful action is in reality the man (Purusha), the abode of Brahman”( AA

16.1. Each stage is the seed (bija) of the next. A seed (effect) is developed from a seed (cause) through a process of series of changes or natural transformation. That process of change from one seed to the next is at once both a destroyer and a creator. Let’s take the example of a real plant: when a seed moves into its next stage or when it becomes a whole plant, the essence of the seed is transformed into a wholly different object. The seed and its form would no longer be there.  But a plant would not have come into existence without the presence of the seed.

16.2. In the series of changes that take place, each stage (seed) gives place to the next stage. The seed is never inactive. When the seed (cause) becomes a shoot (effect) it is no longer continuing as a seed; but its nature has altered to that of a shoot. The seed series is transformed into shoot-series, when suitable conditions prevail. But one series is in as much a flux as another. The fully grown plant , in turn, puts out the seeds. That is the cycle of life.

The ultimate product of the seed is again the seed. Regeneration and perpetuation is the theme of life

16.3. Thus, according to Mahidasa, a higher form often presupposes the lower. The process that causes development of a seed from a seed must itself undergo a certain form of change; or itself must enter into motion. In order to attain a higher form, a seed is bound to lose its own form but not necessarily its substance.

That is to say, the root and shoot (cause and effect) are, for practical purposes, distinguishable from each other; but logically they are identical in substance or in essence (AA 

Mahidasa in his picturesque language asserts: ‘no one possess that which he does not eat or the things that do not eat him…the eater and the food are in reality the food. The food is that which feeds and is fed. What we call this moment as eater may later be the food’. That is to say, the food (cause) and eater (effect) are correlated. Each stage in development is the destroyer of its predecessor.

[The same reasoning is applied to show that no extraneous causes are needed for destroying a thing. The germs of destruction are inherent in every object. If a thing does not annihilate itself, nothing else can do it.]

[In these texts, food (anna), the eater (annada); seed (bija); or root (mula) or shoot (tula) were all meant to denote ‘cause’ or ‘effect’ depending on the context.]

16.4. The relationship that binds each successive stage  is, thus, akin to the relation between the food (anna) and the eater (annada); the material and the individual; the potential and the actual; the indeterminate and the determinate. A developed seed (the effect) is more individual (independent), more actual, and more determinate and more of an object of nature than that from which it developed (AA


17.1. Mahidasa did not look upon changes from one stage to the other as unrelated or isolated events. In his view, the evolution has a unity of its own; and that unity implies identity and continuity of a common substratum of change, that is the matter. Thus matter is the ground of all plurality of forms, just as speech is the ground for all plurality of names.

17.2. Matter, according to Mahidasa, is that out of which a thing becomes; and that from which a form (murti) or a purposeful order is brought forth (AA. Form is related to matter as shoot (tula) to its root (mula); as that which manifests it (AA. Matter and form are thus conceived by him as transition from something hidden or potential to something manifest and actual or express. That is to say, there is no transition from nothingness to being; but it is derived from that which is not- yet or the potent.  The more evolved the matter is the more manifest or recognizable or better defined it becomes. (This applies also to evolution of human from primitive forms.)

17.3. Mahidasa provides an illustration “A whispered voice is just breath; but when it is aloud it acquires a distinct form or a body (sarira) . The whispered speech is the latent or the underdeveloped form of clear speech. Going further backward, the whispered speech is loud breath which in turn is an expression of formless breath. When spoken aloud, the formless breath transforms into clear perceptible speech.

Speech in this case is a kind of form . Breath is the root of speech. Similarly, going backward, breath is a form of air. Thus , going backward in successive steps we may arrive at the first or pure matter which may be entirely be devoid of form,  indeterminate or in- cognizable by itself.

On the other hand, going forward from matter to form, root to shoot, we may proceed towards forms that are better defined.

Mind – Speech

18.1. Mind is that faculty in an organized body which thinks, wills and feels (A All desires dwell in mind because it is with the mind that man conceives all desires (AA A thought conceived in the mind is expressed through speech. Thus, logically thought is prior to speech (AA At another place, Mahidasa states that thought and speech are interdependent (van me manasi pratistitha; mano me vaci prathistam AA 2.7)

18.2. Like matter or mind, speech is conceived as a continuous structure. It also is compared to a rope or a chain with many knots. As the rope or chain that runs along, it has a first and a last knot, representing the first and the final forms. The knots or links that lie in between are the names or concepts corresponding to their existent forms (vak tanti namani daamaani -AA 2.6.2).


19.1. Matter according to Mahidasa is neither being nor non-being. And, the principle of motion or the energy that brings about changes in it  is  something other than matter itself.

Mahidasa recognizes that spirit or the agent which continually causes changes as prana, or the living principle of the universe, the pure vital energy and activity. He regards that vital principle (prana) by which virtue of which we keep changing and function as living organisms, as the soul (atman). The organisms are kept alive by the vital air. Therefore, the central or the fundamental function of an organism is breathing or respiration. For, even during sleep when all sensations and mental activities cease, the process of life, its vital air (prana) goes on all the while.

[It is not clear whether or not Mahidasa conceived the vital air (Prana) as a principle separate from the elements. At one place he says that in so far as the living beings are concerned the vital principle has no separate existence from the five elements (AA At another place he considers Prana as a principle by itself, a principle which is not altogether dependent on body or material conditions (AA :  “the immortal dwells in the mortal”]


20.1. Mahidasa says consciousness (prajnana) resides in and is a function of the soul. What is consciousness? He asks and says:

“The faculty by which we see form , that by which we hear sound, that by which we perceive odors, that by which we utter speech, that by which we taste food and all that which comes from the heart and the mind, namely , appreciation , comprehension, understanding, cognition, intellect, insight, retention, judgment, reflection, receptivity, remembrance, conceiving, willing, breathing, loving, desiring – bear in varying degrees the name of consciousness (prajnanasya namadheyyani)” — (AA.2.6.2)

20.2. He recognized   prajna as pure intelligence, the eternally active self-conscious –reason (prajnana).He said ; the whole realm of change is led the self-conscious reason (prajna – netra). He declared; you could call that consciousness as God, the deity which is ‘the best and without flaw’ –Prajnanam Brahma- (AA

20.3. As between soul and consciousness, he asks:

Who is this self on whom we meditate? Is it the self by which we hear, see, smell and taste; and through which we speak in words? Is self the mind by which we perceive, direct, understand, know remember, think, will, desire and love? No, these are but the servants of the self who is pure consciousness. It is Prajna which guides all. The world rests on Prajna; and, Prajna is Brahman.


21.1. Mahidasa seems to have conceived soul as the compliment of a living body. The soul is, in essence, just the vital principle (prana) by virtue of which we exist as living beings.

From a metaphysical position, Mahidasa understood soul as a part of change or the process; as the agent of all changes. It is directly connected with the mode of cognition and indirectly with the object cognized. He did not seem to make a serious distinction between abstract reasoning and sense perception.

21.2. According to Mahidasa, the development in a living being is not merely physical but is psychological as well. He considers sense perception and reasoning – mental functions –as not different in kind but only in the degree or the intensity. They develop gradually, stage – by- stage.  Those mental functions ranging from bare sensations to comprehension have the name of reason (prajna-nasya namdheyyani -AA 4.1.3).

21.3. According to Mahidasa, we should try to understand HOW we know, rather than what we know. Gargyayana, another philosopher of those times, took the alternate view saying what we know is more important than worrying about HOW we came to know.

21.4. An interesting aspect of the soul, as per Mahidasa, is its graduated scales of function. According to Mahidasa, the whole of nature is a system of ends; and that the self develops gradually in living world (prana-bhritsu). ‘As there are infinite gradations of types of existence, so there is a graduated scale of functions of soul.’  Its primary function is nutritive, desire for food and sensations of hunger and thirst. The next function is sense perception and other body -functions. And, the third function is that of ‘heart and mind’, meaning those relating to understanding and reason. All these are merely the stages of its existence; and do not mean different kinds of existence. Similarly, the various functions of the soul do not vary in kind, but only in their degree or intensity. Mahidasa relates these concepts to the growth of life in the world.

[Mahidasa’s ideas of graded existence of the soul perhaps were the nucleus or the seed-ideas from which the later concepts of Annamaya, Pranamaya and vijnanamaya were developed.]

Mahidasa’s biology

22.1. A fascinating feature of Mahidasa’s biology is his view that the intelligence principle (chitta or chidrupa) in the living world (prana-bhritsu) develops or evolves gradually – (AA.3.2.2). He asks:

‘understand the gradual unfolding of individual things’ – (atmanam avistaram veda). Materials (what we call as life-less) do have a sense of touch or feel.  In the herbs and trees, for instance, the sap (Rasa – life) has its own intelligence.

22.2. But, chitta (consciousness or thought) in the widest sense is seen in the higher form of life. Among the latter again, some show vitality and intelligence, while others are devoid of intelligence. Among all the animals, man alone has the capacity for acquiring higher wisdom; yet in him too the soul develops gradually.

22.3. Man differs from lower animals in these respects:  

“He says what he has known. He knows what is to happen tomorrow. He knows heaven and hell. By means of the mortal he desires the immortal – thus he is endowed (A With other animals, on the contrary, hunger and thirst (instincts and impulses) only are a kind of sensation; they possess voice but no speech; mind but not prudence (AA 2.2.1-5). Animals may possess rudimentary reason but not reasoned knowledge”.

Classification of living beings

23.1. His classification of living beings includes earth, water, fire, air, and heaven (space). According to him, the matter too has one fundamental sense that of touch or ‘feel’. In a way, matter is an ‘organic-thing’ as distinguished from plants and herbs which are ‘organic beings’.

[But, Sri Sayana differed from Mahidasa. He considered earth, stone and such others as unconscious objects .They merely exist and, they do not come under the strict definition of organic beings].

23.2. Mahidasa mentions Plants and herbs in general as distinct from things. For, they can be distinguished by the sap (rasa) or moisture (ardratvam) which exhibits its peculiar intelligence (AA It has faculty that takes sunlight, absorbs water and essece from soil and converts that into plant energy. Plants are alive ; and  are endowed with sense of light, sensations of thirst and hunger. According to Mahidasa, that sense itself is developed into reason; and, a plant becomes a man by the gradual process of evolution. But like the’ organic things ’, the plants too are immovable (sthavara) lacking the freedom to move around (AA.

23.3. But, those that are higher in the scale of development can move from place to place at their will – (jangama) and are also capable of experiencing other sensations and reasoning. Physically and mentally humans are the best of all such created things. But, again, the differences among the species are the mere question of degree.

23.4. Mahidasa explains the graded signs of freedom. The sign of freedom is the power of bodily movement, the power which the stones, herbs etc (sthavara as distinguished from jangama) are deprived.The second test of freedom is the power of the thighs (uru) or the power of regeneration by means of separate sexes, that is to say maithuna.The next higher test is by the stomach (udara) , that is to have  choice of food and  the power to assimilate  etc. The last test is that of the head (sirasah) or the power of heart and mind (hridayam manasa) by which human is endowed with knowledge. A human says what he has known; sees what he has known; knows what is to happen tomorrow; knows heaven and hell; and desires the immortal by means of the mortal.

Thus, the highest in the scale of development is man who alone is endowed with the faculty of reason (prajnanam sampannatama).

Whither Man

25.1. The continual advance of life is from mere existence   towards reason (prajna); from bondage to freedom of action. That is the story of evolution. Mahidasa maintained that the intelligence principle develops or evolves gradually. Among the higher animals the two footed man surpasses the four-footed. Therefore the quadrupeds though physically stronger obey man.

25.2. All the forms of life eat and drink. All lower animals propagate the species. Even the plants, when grown up, bear fruits and seeds  (A This alone cannot be the whole duty of human being who is endowed with the extraordinary faculty of reason, by cultivating which he acquires wisdom, builds his moral self and perfects his conduct.

25.3. It is his sense of duty and his performance of duty that distinguishes the human from the rest.  The highest duty of human is to attain perfection. And, his principle means is prajnana. That is, in order to realize the full freedom, a wise person must transcend in his thought all material conditions of existence and limitations . He should aspire to attain the immortal by means of the mortal (martyena amritam ipsa). The ultimate aim of man’s life and of all life is to attain perfection which consists knowledge (Prajna or prajnana), bliss (nandana) and immortality (amritatva).

Mahidasa’s views on Art

26.1. Mahidasa regards all human arts including art of generation as an imitation, in some way, of the works of nature, the living arts.  “The creations of the divine (daiva shilpa) in nature are indeed great works of art. All human arts (manusha shilpa ) such as brass work, garment, works in gold and such toys as elephants, mule and chariot are but a reproduction (anukarana) of nature” (AB .6.5.1) . All the skillful works that appear in this light (sense) are to be regarded as arts. 

Sri Sayana explains that self-development is also an aim of those arts. He says that by practicing art, the Yajamana ( the aspirant) would improve his awareness; he becomes chandomaya – harmonious with nature; he grows  in tune with the whole of nature ;  and ,  becomes  vedamaya,  endowed with intelligence .

(The generation of offspring and bringing up a healthy and well educated young generation is also regarded an art).

26.2. Gargyayana, a sage–king who followed Mahidasa, did not, however, entirely agree with Mahidasa’s view of art. He did acknowledge the existence of the divine order in nature ; but maintained that all art creations are products of human mind. He questioned ; if all art is an imitation or a reproduction of nature, where is the scope for free play of one’s expressions or imagination. According to Gargyayana, art is how the human mind conceives and experiences the nature and the surrounding life; how it expresses that experience in its own way; and how it imposes its own forms and interpretations on nature.

26.3. Centuries later, the Buddha improved upon Gargyayana‘s view of art. The Buddha precluded all ideas of the divine as being external to man. He regarded art as a product of human experience and imagination, a representation of ideas that take birth in human mind- (charanam chittam chitten eva ciutitam- Samyukta Nikaya, 5.8 quoted in the Atthasalini). In addition, the Buddha brought in psychological aspect of art as influenced by the diversity of forms of life and human experiences.

26.4. Buddhagosha the Buddhist commentator explaining the Buddha’s view said “In drawing the finest pictures the thought arises in the mind of the painter: such and such figures are to be drawn in this picture. By this thought the drawing of the outline, colouring, polishing and other details follow in consequence whereupon a wonderful picture emerges on the canvas – (Saratthappakasini, Sri Lankan edition)


References and sources:

1. The History of the Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (1921); Calcutta University by Dr. Benimadhab Barua (Reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1970)

2. A Course in Indian Philosophy; by Prof. AK Warder; Motilal Banarsidass, 1998

3. The Essence of Aitareyopanishad by Swami Sivananda§ion_id=587

4. .Aitareya Aranyaka


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Upanishads


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Who was Mahidasa Aitareya – Part One

The post Vedic period

1.1. The post Vedic period is generally reckoned as the one that fell between the end of Rig Veda and the commencement of Buddhism. And more particularly, it covered the period of the Aitareya and Taittairiya texts, Brahmana Schools and the early Upanishads. In regard to its teachers, it is the period encompassed by Mahidasa Aitareya and Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya. It is an obscure but a highly important period of thought- evolution that preceded the rise of Jainism, Buddhism and other later systems of Indian thought.

1.2. The period closed with Yajnavalkya whose philosophical teachings epitomized   the logical trend of the entire post Vedic thought tending towards the psycho-ethical. Yajnavalkya’s psychological speculations about the waking, the dreaming and the sleeping states of consciousness  ; and his theories of rebirth, death and birth laid the foundations of many of the Jaina, the Buddhist and the Hindu doctrines. The discussions of this period form the basis for development of many psychological theories of the senses, the mind and the soul; and speculations of their functions and inter relations that are characteristic of the Buddhist traditions.

Shift in emphasis

2.1. The locale of the post Vedic period shifted from the Vedic  land of seven- waters (saptha-sindhavah) in the Punjab-Sindh region to Madhyadesha , which at those times meant the country lying to the east of Vinashana ( the region where the Saraswathi disappeared) stretching eastward up to Kalakavana or Black Forest , a tract somewhere near Prayaga.

2.2. The shifting of the knowledge-base from west to east must have taken place gradually. There is a long interval separating the last sage of the Rig-Veda from the first thinkers or the philosophers of the Post Vedic period. During that long period  not only did the manner and the objective of life change but the aspirations of life too changed. It moved from a desire for a long and a cheerful life on earth to a will to secure release from the chain of births. The escape from Dukkha and delusions of the world took precedence over enjoying earthly fruits.  The gods too were steadily and slowly changing from their Vedic characteristics and functions of granting longevity, cattle, children, wives, victory, health and happiness and prosperity on earth to sage- like counsellors bestowing the knowledge that liberates. In the post Vedic texts the gods were approached with reverence for gaining an understanding of the nature of Man and his Universe.

2.3. The chief interest of the Vedic sages was centred upon the physical world as a whole. The thinkers of Aranyakas and Upanishads were, on the other hand, more concerned with the organic world and man, and his inner culture of faith and intellect. While the Vedic hymns look outward in reverence and awe at the phenomena in nature, the post Vedic texts tend to look inward attempting to interpret the powers of nature as varied expressions of human consciousness.  In the post Vedic stage, logic and dialectics formed two wings of the discussions that were carried on; and, yet   the intellectual aspect was as much important as the contemplative. The shift in emphasis was gradual and natural.

2.4. Although the early hymns of Rig Veda are full of inquisitive questions as to the what, the whence, the how and the whither of things, they are not philosophical in approach. Those exclamations and wonderment were turned in to philosophical expositions in the Post Vedic era by Aghamarshana and other thinkers that followed him.

2.5. The highest aspiration of the thinkers of the post Vedic times was to approach and be one with what one looked up to as the Supreme. That soaring aspiration found its expression in hymns, verses, speculative thoughts, and the deeply absorbing discussions of the Aranyaka texts and the Upanishads. The question that mainly came up in the Post Vedic texts was ‘Who am I? ‘, which brought in its trail the other questions such as:’ ’Who is He?’; and ‘How shall I be one with Him?’ The thinkers of those times tried answering those questions in varieties of ways until it led them to the realization that  the questions seemingly separate were in fact two aspects of the same problem. On that, they exclaimed in amazement and joy:  ‘If I know Him, I know myself; If I know myself, I know Him’.  That finally led to the pithy aphorism  ‘So hum’ – I am He.

Mahidasa Aitareya

3.1. All such conceptions charged either by intellect or by intuition was in currency during the post-Vedic times. The earliest of its philosophers was Mahidasa Aitareya.  He is revered as the forerunner who showed the way to thinkers that succeeded him. Mahidasa is therefore recognized as the Father of Indian Philosophy, though many regard Aghamarshana as the first one to clearly state and put forward a definite explanation of his belief that Samvatsara (year) , time-principle which governs life and death was the essence of all things.

3.2. According to Sri Sayana-charya, Mahidasa was the son of a sage (identified by Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji as Sage Visala) who had many wives, among whom was Mahidasa’s mother Itara. She came from a lower caste. Itara   named her son after her chosen deity Goddess Mahi the Mother Earth. Mahidasa the neglected one was gifted with a natural aptitude for study and learning. By dint of his sheer genius Mahidasa, years later, rose to eminence. Mahidasa called himself Aitareya the son of Itara; and, named the texts compiled by him – Aitareya Brahmana and Aranyaka – in fond memory and in honor of his mother Itara.

3.3. Nothing specific is known about Mahidasa’s life. The only definite information about him comes from Chandogya Upanishad and Jaiminiya Upanishad both of which mention that Mahidasa lived a long life of 116 years. It is said; the first 24 years of his life were spent as a student; the next 44 years as householder; the remaining 48 years as hermit or forest dweller free from illness and weaknesses.

3.4. Mahidasa compared the life of a person to a Yajna. According to him, the first 24 years of life are the morning libation connected with the Vasus. The next 44 years of life are the midday libations connected with the Rudras. And, the next 48 years are the third libation connected with the Adityas.


4.1. Aitareya is an important name in the Vedic literature .The Rig-Veda supposedly had an Aitareya recession. Mahidasa was perhaps the founder of a Shakha or a School of the Aitareyins  whose philosophies were incorporated into the Aitareya Brahmana. To Aitareya Brahmana belongs Aitareya Aranyaka which includes Aitareya Upanishad. Even as early as in the sixth century BCE, the Buddha regarded the Aitareya along with Taittareya as being the oldest among the post – Vedic texts.

4.2. The Aitareya Brahmana and the Aitareya Aranyaka , omitting the Upanishad portions, together represent a homogeneous body of doctrines which may be regarded as the system of a particular school of thought , say that of Mahidasa Aitareya or of the Aitareya School. The case of the Upanishad is, however, different, as it contains the views of many individuals and schools other than of Aitareya clan.

4.3. Aitareya Aranyaka (appended to Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda) consists five books each of which is treated as a separate Aranyaka. The Books One to Three are attributed to Mahidasa Aitareya; the Book Four to Asvalayana; and Book Five to Saunaka the teacher of Asvalayana.

The status of householder

5.1. One of the moot questions that perhaps were in serious debate during those times was: whether one can coordinate or harmonize earnest spiritual quest with discharge of responsibilities as of a social being, a householder.

Mahidasa replied that with a very emphatic ‘yes’. There  is no reason, he said, why a righteous person should forego   the legitimate pleasures of the senses, in so far as these are in harmony with the purpose of the whole of nature. That is to say, in so far as these serve the real end for which these are meant and no other.

5.2. He asserted that Marriage is a sacred human institution which must be respected by all human beings. Mahidasa believed, life is altogether imperfect and bitter without marriage and children (AA1.3.4.12-13). According to him, a happy life is one which is lived for a hundred years in health, strength and brightness (indriye, viryye, and tejasi).

5. 3. The householder is the pivot of social system; all stages and segments of life, either in family or in society, revolve around him. Just as all beings depend on air to exist, the other three stages in life (childhood, hermit and recluse) depend on the householder. He feeds, protects and clothes all. The householder generates life, nurture, protects, educates and strengthens life for the wellbeing of the present and the future society. The order, safety and governance in the society all come from the householder.  The values and virtues in life such as love, generosity, commitment, tolerance, prudence, right judgment, purity etc all emanate from the family. The peace of the departed ancestors too depends on the householder. The gods and the Dharma too are maintained by the householder. Thus, the past, present and future all depend on the householder. All stages of life originate from, prosper in, and merge into the householder.

The art of Life

6.1. As regards the life in general, Mahidasa Aitareya advised: Live the life of nature. The art of self-building or the art of conduct should be based upon the art of the Divine, that is to say, to be in complete accord with the laws of nature. Nothing is bad in its right place; and everything is useless when it is out of its place. Even a precious diamond is a mere speck of   dust when it falls into ones eye .Everything gains in value and significance so long as it discharges its proper functions and in proportion to  its contribution  to the general wellbeing of the whole system of which it is an integral , organic part .The eye for instance is good so long as it discharges its functions of seeing for which it is intended and remains an integral part of the organism.”The eye cannot hear; the ear cannot see; the stomach cannot think and the mind cannot digest and so on (AA” Anything out of its  place and out of context is useless.

6.2. Mahidasa said; the greatest virtue of man is truth (satya) the flower and fruit of speech. The tongue that utters what is not truth dries up and perishes like an uprooted tree (AA.

The term truth had a far wider connotation with him than with us. Truth meant a perfect harmony in conduct between ones thought, speech and deed (manasa, vacha, kaya). It is the integrity in life. And, in philosophy it is the harmony between knowledge and reality.

The interconnected Systems

7.1. While Mahidasa accepted that all systems – state, society and family- are independent in their own context, he pointed out that it is only when each system is connected with the others in a meaningful manner that all systems together can perform as a harmonious unity. He also said; the family or the society or the state, though independent in a limited sense, should be so constituted within a super-system that each is harmoniously related and interconnected with the others, just as the organs in a human body. It is only then that all system-parts can together enable the organism to function purposefully and meaningfully.

7.2. Mahidasa extended the analogy of the ‘body-principle’ to explain the relationships that should exist between the State, the Society and Family. He said; each member in the society and each member in the family should have a free scope for a proper discharge of his or her functions or for the proper use of his or her capacities.

7.3. Mahidasa further extended that principle to explain the order prevailing in the universe. Mahidasa meant that all systems are independent, just as a living body is a inter connected whole – an order as the universe itself.

Thus, Mahidasa Aitareya and his school left many inferences relating to the practical life drawn from their study of human organism or of the constitution and nature of working of the physical universe.

The living and the dead

8.1. Mahidasa explained, a living organism is a system that is divisible into a number of component systems. Each member is perfect in its place; but it is useless while out of place (AA, each member has a distinct place, function or purpose of its own. It is so peculiar to it that no other member can take its place. Each member in a living body exercises its own functions independently; and also in harmony and co-operation with other members (AA

8.2. And, yet all their functions are of relevance only when the unity of the whole organization is maintained by the vital principle Prana. The term Prana, air or breath connotes that the working of the systems depend ultimately on the vital breath. He seems to suggest that the functions of the body such as eating, digestion etc all need the presence of air (AA  Mahidasa also says all members of an organization are not absolutely essential for its mere existence so long as there is Prana.

8.3. He pointed out that a living organism must be sharply distinguished from a dead body because a body without life joined to it is but a decaying corpse (sarira), whereas a living body is a self generating mechanism of nature. It is born perpetually replacing the dead particles (anu) all the while  (AA. , according to Mahidasa, in order to participate in what is called ‘life’ the relation between members in a living organism should not only be that of mere physical contact but also that of physiological connection. That is to say, each member of the organization must be animated by the same principle (Prana) and stimulated into activity by the same motive.

Man and Universe

9.1. Mahidasa conceived Man as a microcosm, a miniature universe: “whatever there is belonging to the son belongs to the father; whatever there is belonging to the father belongs to the son” (Aitareya Aranyaka: What is true in respect of man is also true of the universe. The finite thing of experience is not only a part of the whole but is in essence the whole itself. ‘I as a living nomad am the universe’. (More of that in the next part)

9.2. The main concern of Mahidasa was the search for the central essence of Man; as also the essence of the Universe. The two independent streams of thought – one driven by the desire to realize the true nature of man and the other, to understand the objective world – became fused. The blending of the two apparently dissimilar concerns led him to his outlook. He tried to understand and express the world in terms of the individual and his place in it.

9.3. The major problems that Mahidasa tried to grapple were the origin of life and the development of consciousness.  The following explanation on the Aitareya Upanishad is said to be based on his teachings:

‘This which is known as the heart, this mind, mastering knowledge of arts, comprehension, power of retaining import of scriptures, perception, fortitude, reflection, independent power of thinking, distress of mind caused by diseases, etc., memory, volition, application, any pursuit for maintenance of life, desire for the company of women, all these are, indeed, names of Consciousness’.

‘This Brahman; this Indra; this creator; all these gods; these five great elements; all these small creatures; these others; the seeds of creation, these egg-born, the womb-born, sweat-born, sprout-born, horses, cows, men, elephants, whatever else which breathes and moves and flies, or is immovable, all these are guided by Consciousness and are supported by Consciousness. The universe has Consciousness for its guide. Consciousness is the basis or stay of all.

‘Verily, consciousness is Brahman: Prajnanam Brahma’.



10.1. Aitareya Aranyaka and Aitareya Brahmana are fairly large texts. The concepts and explanations do not also proceed in an order. There are no clear-cut divisions or grouping of his doctrines. We may not be able to discuss his works thoroughly. But we can attempt to glance at some of his views on few other subjects.

That we shall attempt in the next part

Continued in Part Two

References and sources:

1. The History of the Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (1921); Calcutta University by Dr. Benimadhab Barua (Reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1970)

2. A Course in Indian Philosophy by Prof. AK Warder; Motilal Banarsidass, 1998

3. The Essence of Aitareyopanishad  by Swami Sivananda§ion_id=587

4. Aitareya Aranyaka


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Upanishads


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