Reading the Upanishads today. . .

I used to teach World Wisdom in a few congregations and would base the focus on reading primary “sacred texts.”  It was eye-opening for many, and I always enjoyed the discussions and comments like, “I never thought of that” or “I’ve never even heard of that book before.”

I still have a small collection of the world’s “holy scriptures” including versions of ancient Hindu “holy books” including the Upanishads.  “Upanishad” appears to mean “sitting beneath” as in “sitting beneath a guru, a master, a teacher.”

I opened to a chapter of these very old writings that I used to assign students to read.  It’s called Svetasvatara apparently named for a teacher of that name who had some hermits for students.  A  major theme, as it is in the entire Upanishads (and Vedas, the larger corpus), is Unity of everything, interconnected by the great high god Brahma, or, (this gets confusing), the Brahman Spirit/Self.

Here are a few passages and then my comment:

“God is in truth the whole universe. . .His hands and feet are everywhere, he has heads and mouths everywhere: he sees all, he hears all.  He is in all and he is.”

“Concealed in the heart of all beings lies the Atman, the Spirit, the Self; smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the greatest spaces.”

“Glory be to that God who is in the fire, who is in the waters, who is in plants and in trees, who is in all things in this vast creation.  Unto that Spirit be glory and glory.”

“The whole universe is ever in his power.  He is pure consciousness, the creator of time: all-powerful, all-knowing.  It is under his rule that the work of creation revolves in its evolution, and we have earth, and water, and ether, and fire and air.”

“And the ONE became one with the one, and the two, and the three and the eight, and with time and with the subtle mystery of the human soul.”

“May God who is hidden in nature, even as the silkworm is hidden in the web of silk he made, lead us to union with his own Spirit, with Brahman.”

Beautiful words.  And hard to wrap a brain around.  There is a repeating theme in the Upanishads (and Hinduism in general) of this mysterious unity “hidden” in everything, “as cream is hidden in milk.”  It’s a beautiful thought and the mythology is colorful and compelling, especially for those steeped (or boiled) in the milk of monotheistic religion.  Hinduism is “mono” oriented but only in the sense of hundreds of millions of gods distilled down into one, that is, ONE, oneness, primal Unity that is ultimately (and oddly) concealed, “hidden.”  Why?  Why is “it” or “he” or “she” “hidden”?  Doesn’t it LOOK like everything is EVIDENT (revealed) as, um, well. . .Everything?

In other words, I think our Upanishads passages “reveal” to us the classic conundrum of all religious viewpoints.  Someone says, “Look at that star, that tree, that person. . .THAT is GOD!”  So, we say, “Well, alright, I guess if you see Your understanding of something called GOD in those things. . .have a nice day!”  OR, excuse me for being so redundant (blogs, books, videos, comments, on and on) but. . .”Isn’t it ALL JUST NATURE, the cosmos, the universe?”  And why must we judge Nature as JUST Nature?  Does it HELP to call “it” by a “holy name” and publish huge collections of “revealed” teachings by someone who calls themselves a “guru” or “master teacher” claiming that the dirt is Durga or the bird is Brahma or the seed is Shiva or a vegetable is Vishnu or a cricket is Krishna?  Does that really HELP?  How is that “wise”?

IF, and seriously I mean IF, treating every last particle and drop and galaxy as “divine” and “sacred”  helps a person treat it all with more respect and kindness and peace and thoughtfulness. . .well then, have at it!  (hint:  this is one reason I don’t even try to blast all Religion or Faith out of the water. . .there’s always the POTENTIAL for GOOD!).  However. . .and this is important. . .the Great Irony of Religion, and Hinduism oddly celebrates this (and every other) irony, is that the claim to Unity and Harmony and Universal Relation and Inter-Connection leads straight to One Religion separate from another, which in practice means people and communities, cultures and societies are tore apart and irreparably divided by the great call to unity!  This madness is indeed NOT “hidden”!

So, I urge you, as I did my students (who never sat “beneath” me, by the way—I had simply read a little more than they), to read the Upanishads for yourself and consider the worldview and the consequences of accepting this ancient mythological mysticism in a complex world where dirt is dirt and a tree is a tree and human being is a human being.  Give it some thought and let me know what you think.


About Chris Highland

Writer, teacher, freethinker, humanist celebrant, former minister and interfaith chaplain View all posts by Chris Highland

2 responses to “Reading the Upanishads today. . .

  • remanandhra

    Equating nature with God, makes God a metaphor for nature, a poetic affirmation of existence of nature. Upanishads are very mature in that they recognize ”sameness” of nature but they are enable to abandon a tradition of attributing it to supernatural beings.

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