We read in the previous chapter how Brahmanism decayed due to the upper classes’ obsessive attachment to power, wealth and heaven, and compulsive performance of Kamya Karma to gain them. Not only did Brahmanism become irrelevant but also it was identified as the source of much social strife. The age of the Vedas ended and post-Vedic age of uncertainty, insecurity and disillusionment followed. These were the ominous times when the ancient tribes were breaking up; kings were being dethroned, and kingdoms were being swallowed up. The world, made up of various perishable forms of Prakriti and dubious Brahmanic elements, was seen as a miserable place to live (Maitrayani Up: 1:3-4). Rebellion hung in the air like the thick fog in the cool autumn dawn. Thousands of wandering sophists, known as Parivrajaka, crisscrossed the country challenging everyone to debate them or follow them. The first attempt to reform Brahmanism sprang up from within its own ranks. A section of Brahmanic society, mostly Kshatriya intellectuals, became disgusted with the decadence of Brahmanism and developed a whole new set of doctrines, which they propounded in treatises known as the Upanishads. The purpose of this brief article is not to expound the mindboggling and esoteric Upanishadic philosophy, but to expose its hidden intent.
Upanishads Were Mostly Products Of Kshatriya Intellect
Who were these great philosophers, who wanted to bring sanity and ethics to Brahmanism? Most of them were royal sages. Even Bhagavad Gita declares this in 4: 1-2, 9:2. The Upanishads give many examples of Brahmins learning from Kshatriya royals. It is possible that this was a ruse by dissenting Brahmin authors to escape from Brahmanic wrath and retaliation.
Chandogya Up: 5:3:7: Then he (king) said, “As (to what) you have said to me, Gautama (Brahmin), this knowledge (of Brahman) did not go to any Brahmana before you, and therefore this teaching belonged in all the worlds to the Kshatriya class alone.”
Disgust With Kamya Karma
The general disgust with Brahmanism’s obsession with Kamya Karma could be discerned in the passages such as this:
Mundaka Upanishad: 1:2:5-10: If a man performs his sacred works (Yajnas) when these flames are shining, and oblations follow at the right time, then they lead him as sun-rays to where the one Lord of the Devas (Indra) dwells. “Come hither, come hither!” the brilliant oblations say to him, and carry the sacrificer on the rays of the sun, while they utter speech and praise him, saying, “This is Brahma-world (Svarga, heaven), gained by the good works (Yajnas).”
But frail, in truth, are those boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen, in which this lower ceremonial has been told. Fools, who praise this as the highest good, are subject again and again to old age and death. Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge (of the Vedas) (read also Katha Up: 2:1:5; BG 2:42), go round and round staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind. Children, when they have long lived in ignorance, consider themselves happy. Because those who depend on their good works (Yajnas) are, owing to their passions, improvident, they fall and become miserable when their life (in the world which they had gained by sacrifices) is finished. Considering sacrifices and good works as the best, these fools know no higher good, and having enjoyed (their reward) on the height of heaven, gained by good works (Yajnas), they enter again this world or a lower one.
The Upanishads put forward the doctrines of Knowledge of Atman/Brahman and Yoga of Buddhi for the purpose of transcending the doctrines of the Gunas of Prakriti, and Destiny of Karma and to dismantle the entire superstructure of Brahmanism. They theorized as follows:
1. Atman, man’s soul (essence) located in his heart, a piece of all-pervading Universal Soul, Brahman, is trapped within the body by the bewildering power of the Gunas. Atman is the seat of Absolute Bliss by virtue of the fact that it has everything and it wants nothing and needs nothing. If one gets in touch with it, it would fulfill all his desires and he would not need to perform Yajna at all. Man becomes ignorant of Atman within him because he is deluded by the Gunas of Prakriti. By means of their functions -desire, attachment, and possessiveness- man becomes entangled with wealth, power and heaven. This results in man suffering from Shokam (grief) and Dwandwam (stress, loss of wisdom). If man can detach himself from all the worldly things, that is conquer the Gunas, he would get in touch with Atman and enjoy its Bliss. He would then not crave for any sense objects here on earth or yonder.
2. By the power of Dwandwam of gain and loss, Atman suffers the consequences of man’s selfish acts. This results in accumulation of Karmaphalam, which, in turn, leads to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (Samsara) on this miserable earth. If man can give up fruits of action, he would no longer gain Karmaphalam. Thus having subjugated the Gunas, and amortized Karmaphalam over several lifetimes, Atman is finally liberated to join Brahman, of which it was originally a part (E. T. goes home!). One no longer take birth on earth again and again.
3. The solution to liberate Atman from the clutches of the Gunas of Prakriti and Destiny of Karma is Yoga of Mind. This consists of steadying the Mind by yoking it to Buddhi (inner wisdom) and withdrawing the Senses -one’s attachment to wealth, power, heaven, etc. This part of Yoga is known is Sanyasa. Sanyasa gives man immunity against Shokam and Dwandwam, and leads to Knowledge and Bliss of Atman. That is why it is also known as Jnanayoga. The solution to avoid gaining Karmaphalam in action is to perform all action with total indifference to gain or loss (=without Dwandwam). This part of Yoga is known as Tyaga. It is also known as Nishkama Karma or Karmayoga. This is how Yoga of Mind, also known as Buddhiyoga, conquers the three great maladies of man -Shokam, Dwandwa and Karmaphalam- caused by the doctrines of the Gunas and Karma.
4. Since the Vedas mainly concerned themselves performing Yajnas to fulfill one’s desires, both of them are useless in gaining knowledge of Brahman/Atman. Since Brahman is equally distributed in all, the hierarchical Varna Dharma resting on unequal distribution of the Gunas and Karma, and superiority of Brahmins in that system, is utterly meaningless. To a man who has conquered his Gunas and Karma, Varna, Jati, Kula, etc. means nothing.
Secret Doctrine (Rahasya)
Thus by means of the doctrines of Knowledge of Brahman/Atman and Yoga of Buddhi, the Upanishads surreptitiously attempted to dismantle the entire foundation of Brahmanism and its four pillars. It is important to note here that while these royal sages subtly declared the doctrines of the Gunas and Karma as evil, they did not declare them as fraud like the later heretics did. Instead they developed highly sophisticated theories, strategies and tactics to discredit these Brahmanic doctrines and to transcend, circumvent or cross over them. They went about their tasks by very subtle and devious means. They did not go around in public condemning Brahmanism as evil, like the Lokayatas did later on. Frontal attacks against Brahmanism, such as the ones in Swasanved Upanishad and the above-quoted one from Mundaka Upanishad, were exceptions rather than the rule. Instead, the Gurus quietly and in a roundabout way indoctrinated their eldest sons or devoted students with their theories in private conversations, no different than a learned psychiatrist passing on to his devoted resident-trainees his psychological insights in private supervisory sessions (Mundaka Up: 1:12-13; BG: 4:34). Secrecy was maintained to prevent the knowledge of Brahman from being trivialized, misunderstood and misapplied. This was how the knowledge of Brahman/Atman and Yoga came to be known as Secret Doctrine (Rahasyam).
Metaphors, Parables, Symbols And Demonstrations
The Upanishadic sages used metaphors, symbols, parables, words and phrases with multiple meanings, and simple demonstrations to explain their truly mindboggling concepts of Brahman, Atman and Yoga to their students. Even when they exposed hypocrisy of Brahmins, they did so ever so gently and ambiguously. For example, in the well-known parable of Satyakama Jabala (Chandogya Upanishad), the illegitimate son of a housemaid (Dasi of Sudra origin), risks outright rejection by a prospective Upanishadic Guru, by truthfully confessing ignorance about his pedigree. He tells the Guru that his mother conceived him in the course of her service in different households of the upper classes. The Guru readily accepts Satyakama as his student saying laconically that no one but a true Brahmin would thus speak out the truth. All Brahmanic loyalists could take this as a compliment to the truthfulness of Brahmins. However, this knife had another edge, which only those with discriminating eyes could see. The fact was that Satyakama’s mother, a humble Dasi, was so fully taken advantage of by her countless Brahmin masters she served that she could not identify the man who fathered her child. In other words, all the highborn Brahmins indulging in immoral behaviors such as this were, in effect, not true Brahmins at all. Without exception Hindu interpreters of such anecdotes completely miss the deeper implications of parables such as this. They also miss the point that the Guru asked the boy the question, “Of what family are you, my friend?” to demonstrate that one’s character, not his pedigree was what mattered most in the admission process. This Guru was trying to break the pernicious Brahmanic tradition, which is still prevalent in the 21st century India, of not allowing the “lower classes” to become enlightened or get employment no matter how well qualified they were. Later in this episode, the boy discounts the knowledge of Brahman he gained from Vayu, Agni and Surya, and insists on learning the same knowledge from his enlightened Guru. Hindu commentators seem to miss the fact that this was a snub against Vedic gods, the objects of Kamya Karma, who are portrayed as ignorant of true knowledge of Brahman and are thus not qualified to teach it. So, in understanding the true intent of the Upanishads, not only must one pay attention to what was said, but also how it was said, what was left unsaid, and what was implied between the lines in that context. The Upanishads have many, many layers, which only people not blinded by Brahmanic hubris could fathom.
Countering Brahmanic Fraud With Upanishadic Fraud
If one reads the Upanishads carefully, one cannot escape the reality that the original authors had no choice but to tackle the Brahmanic doctrines of the Gunas of Prakriti with the Upanishadic doctrine of Brahman and Atman. They took the two ancient Brahmanic entities, Brahman (the spirit Brahmins invoked during Yajnas dedicated to Vedic gods) and Atman (soul that took birth again and again), and greatly increased their stature and made them into a divinity. Whereas Brahman was the External Reality, Atman was the Internal Reality. The point is, Atman and Brahman are one and the same. Their only Quality (Guna) was that they had no quality (Nirguna). These “invisible, eternal, indestructible, all-pervading” entities were most certainly tongue-in-cheek way of countering the “all-powerful Gunas of Prakriti,” which were allegedly the prime motivators of man, and also the sources of desire, attachment and delusion as well as sense objects. For, they were described in exactly opposite terms from the manifestations of Prakriti: free from birth, desire, attachment, delusion, pain, pleasure, sickness, grief and death. Anyone who asked, “What does Brahman look like?” the answer was, “We don’t know what it looks like! It has no form, shape, size, color, volume, weight or anything by which one could perceive it.” Since one’s Senses were not able to perceive them, they were defined as, “Not this! Not this!” Often, even the Upanishadic sages could not decide what Atman was like as evidenced by their confusing description of it such as, “Having the breadth of a thumb, within the span of the heart in the body, who is smaller than small, he obtains the nature of the Highest; there all desires are fulfilled.” (Maitrayani Up: 6:38). At once Atman was measurable and at once it was not. If someone asked, “How then can we get to know Brahman?” the answer was, “the heat you feel when you touch the skin, and the noise of burning fire you hear when you plug your ears is Brahman.” Or, “First you must subjugate the Gunas and Karma.” “How do I subjugate the Gunas?” “Well, you must first control your Senses (=give up desire for, attachment to and possessiveness of sense objects and live a simple life of a Yogi). If you succeed in doing this, in due course you will get in touch with Atman dwelling in your own heart.” “How do I transcend destiny of Karma?” “Well, you need to give up all desire for fruits in action, or give up all fruits you have gained in action.”
Reading between the lines, discerning readers could recognize that all the Upanishadic seers, at least the original ones, knew the mind game they were playing. They explained their concepts by means of parables using common objects such as rivers, fruit seed and salt. Critics and doubters of Brahman and Atman were told that they must cultivate Shraddha (faith) if they wanted to learn these doctrines.
Yoga As The Weapon To Transcend The Gunas And Karma
The Upanishads did a better job with their other invention: Yoga of Mind. They recommended this tool to enable one to transcend the doctrines of the Gunas and Karma. Yoga was also known as Buddhiyoga because its fundamental goal was to induce man to resort to reasoning, an essential element of Buddhi, rather than falling prey to the Senses (desires). A person whose mind was thus steadied by Buddhi was known as Buddhiyukta. The Upanishads designed Yoga to tackle two primary aspects of decadent Brahmanism: They countered Sanga (attachment) to sense objects such as wealth, power and heaven, adiwith Sanyasa (detachment from sense objects); and they countered Sankalpa for fruits by means of Tyaga (renunciation of fruits of action). Much later in the Bhagavad Gita, Sanyasa became Jnanayoga and Tyaga became Karmayoga.
The Mind According To The Upanishads
The Upanishadic exponents were great psychologists. With remarkable degree of accuracy, they described the hierarchy of mind’s components and their specific functions in great detail in order to explain their theory of Yoga.
Katha Up: 1:3:10; BG: 3:42: The Senses are superior (to body and sense objects); the Mind is superior to the Senses; the Intellect (Buddhi) is superior to the Mind, and Atman is superior to Buddhi. (See picture on the left)
The sense objects are tangible ones such as wealth, house and people; intangibles ones such as honor, title, heaven, etc. The functions of the Senses are desire for, attachment to and possessiveness of sense objects. The functions of the Mind are thinking (likes and dislikes), feeling (pleasure and pain) and action (gaining and losing). These pairs of opposites are known as Dwandwam. This word also stands for unsteady mind and loss of wisdom engendered by Mind’s entanglement with sense objects. Actions are mediated by means of Karmaendriyas (Organs of Action), hands, legs, mouth, anus and genitals. Buddhi (Wisdom) is the seat of reasoning, judgment, insight, knowledge, memory of lessons learned, moral values and noble virtues. Atman is the seat of Absolute Bliss engendered by the total absence of the Gunas (desire, attachment, possessiveness, Dwandwam, Shokam, and Karma and Karmaphalam).
Brahmanism Versus Upanishadism.
- Problem: Brahmanism. Solution: Upanishadism.
- Problem: Prakriti, the all-powerful force of Nature. Solution: Brahman the Supreme, the all-pervading life force of all matter. Prakriti is subservient to Brahman.
- Problem: Worship of the Devas by means of Yajnas. Solution: Worship of Brahman by means of Yoga.
- Problem: The purpose of Yajna was to gain wealth and power here on earth and heaven hereafter. Solution: The purpose of Yoga was to attain the Bliss of Atman here on earth and Nirvana hereafter.
- Problem: The Gunas representing Prakriti in the body. Solution: Atman representing Brahman in the body.
- Problem: The Gunas are the source of desire, attachment, possessiveness, pain, grief, and death. Solution: Atman is completely free from all these.
- Problem: Doctrine of Karma: One earns good or bad Karmaphalam based on the Guna of his action. Solution: Action in the spirit of Buddhiyoga (evenness of mind, indifference to success or failure) by which one earns neither good nor bad Karmaphalam.
- Problem: Samsara (cycle of birth, death and rebirth) due to accumulating Karmaphalam. Solution: Nirvana (liberation of Atman from the clutches of the Gunas and ending the cycle of Samsara) due to amortization of Karmaphalam.
- Problem: Kamya Karma (desire-driven Yajnas). Solution: Nishkama Karma (desire-less Karma or Yajna) or Karmayoga (service without desire for fruits).
- Problem: Attachment (Sanga) to sense objects: wealth, power and heaven. Solution: Sanyasa: Detachment from sense objects.
- Problem: Sankalpa (design or desire for fruits in Yajna). Solution: Tyaga (renunciation of fruits in Yajna).
- Problem: Hierarchical Varna Dharma based on the unequal distribution of the Gunas and Karma. Solution: Egalitarianism, based on the equal distribution of Brahman in everyone. Enlightened people see the same Brahman in outcastes and even animals. Read: Those who treat “outcastes” as inferior to them are totally ignorant.
- Problem: The Vedas are supreme knowledge. Solution: The Vedas are “lower knowledge.” The Upanishads are higher knowledge.
- Problem: Supremacy of Brahmins due to their claim of being possessed of Brahman. Solution: Brahman is in every living being.
By Trying To Solve One Problem, The Upanishads Created An Even Greater Problem
The problem with creating Brahman was the fact that the Upanishads gave birth to the first great god of India. Little did they know then that this negative entity “Nirguna Brahman” would someday in the future become Purushotthama (Superman), and then “Saguna” Ishwara, one with many attributes, and then the terrifying Parameshwara, the God of Gods, who revealed his Universal Form to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita using Krishna as the medium. From this God of Gods emanated hundreds of other gods who allegedly bore their own unique attributes: Ganesha who protects people from evil, Hanuman who is the personification of strength, obedience, duty and loyalty, and the like.
Brahmanism Swallows The Upanishadic Reforms
To the Brahmanic upper classes the very intent of performing various Yajnas was to fulfill their desires, earn Karmaphalam, enjoy prestige, pleasure, power and wealth here on earth, and heaven hereafter. The Upanishadic teachings of detachment from sense objects, selfless Karma, liberation from Samsara, the need to transcend the doctrines of the Gunas and Karma and the like, struck at the very heart of the Brahmanism. To contain this threat, Brahmanic loyalists incongruously interpolated large amount of pro-Brahmanic (Maitrayani Up: 4:3-4) or irrelevant stuff (Brihad. Up: 6:6-10) into the texts, declared them as Shruthi (revealed knowledge like the Vedas), and renamed them Vedanta, the end part of the Vedas or the “culmination of Vedic wisdom!” They did this even though the fundamental principles of Upanishadism were diametrically opposed to those of Brahmanism. Since Shruthis were off limits to people other than Brahmins and Kshatriya royals, in the course of time the Upanishadic knowledge fell into disuse (BG: 4:2) -that was until it was revealed centuries later by some clever and very bold Upanishadic seers into the 64 shloka-long Brahmanic Gita, which was part of Mahabharata, a Smrithi (remembered scripture), to which all classes of people had access. We will discuss more about this in a later chapter.
Why The Upanishadic Reforms Failed
The Upanishadic revolt failed for many reasons:
1. The concept of “all-pervading, invisible Brahman without any quality” and its representative in the body Atman was too dubious or complex for even knowledgeable people of the time (BG: 2:29; 12:1-5). If anyone doubted the existence of Brahman or Atman, the answer was, “Have Faith (Shraddha) in Atman! Practice Yoga and you will find it in your own heart in due course!” Asking people to have Shraddha in something that is beyond the Senses was nothing short of fraud to skeptics who were, in fact, in the majority around this time.
2. Giving up attachment to sense objects (practicing Sanyasa) to avoid Dwandwam and Shokam, and giving up fruits of action (practicing Tyaga) to avoid earning Karmaphalam, were beyond the capacity of people who lived in the everyday material world. This was like asking the greedy CEOs of banks and investment companies to give up their hefty bonuses and lavish lifestyle, and offer their services for free. Only saintly people could become Yogis.
3. Brahmanism loyalists buried their essential message under large amount of pro-Brahmanic stuff.
4. Brahmanism declared the Upanishadic secret doctrine an even greater secret by promoting them as Shruthi, to which only Brahmins and Kshatriyas had access.
5. They ruled that only after thoroughly learning the art of Vedic rituals could one become eligible to learn the secret doctrine of Brahman and Yoga. In other words, one must be a card-carrying member of Brahmanism before he could study the Upanishads.
6. Those who wrote self-serving commentaries on the Upanishads centuries later were all Brahmanic Acharyas, who focused on the apparent contents of the texts -Brahman/Atman and techniques of Yoga- rather than their hidden intent -to reform or even overthrow Brahmanism. In the end, few seemed to know and even fewer seemed to care. Thus the Upanishads became integral part of Brahmanism, and their anti-Brahmanic spirit died -for the time being.
(To be continued)
Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.