If we are going to understand the essential truths in Vedic literature, then we must get a glimpse of the content and purpose of its many texts and the expansive nature of the knowledge it contains. The Vedic philosophy encompasses the oldest spiritual texts of any religion in the world, and its subjects are broad and numerous. Its more advanced concepts can be difficult for even the greatest scholars to fathom. The Vedic literature discusses many types of philosophical viewpoints, and studying some of them will let us see that many of the concepts that we accept as new today are nothing more than parts of the ancient Vedic knowledge that had been dealt with and thoroughly understood thousands of years ago. Thus, there are not many ideas that are really new at all. The main purpose of the Vedic literature is to establish knowledge of the Absolute Truth and the process for attaining the highest levels of self-realization. To do that it must, and does, contain the elementary as well as most advanced forms of spiritual knowledge. So let us see exactly what kind of information is found within the many volumes of Vedic literature, and if there is any one understanding or direction in particular which it encourages people to take for complete spiritual success.
IF YOU ARE NEW TO THE STUDY OF VEDIC CULTURE
If you are new to the study of Vedic culture, you may not understand all of these ancient Vedic texts or their purpose, or why it is necessary to mention them in this review. However, this study will provide the knowledge for you to begin to see how vast the Vedic science is and how numerous are these Vedic texts. You will begin to understand that there are few topics that have been left uncovered in the Vedic investigation of reality and the search for Truth, and in its presentation of what is God. You will also understand in the final analysis what direction they most recommend and how to pursue it.
THE FOUR PRIMARY VEDAS
The Vedic literature is composed of many books. The oldest texts are the Rig-veda, Yajur-veda, Sama-veda, and the Atharva-veda. It is said in the Muktikopanishad that these four Vedas had 21, 109, 1000, and 50 branches respectively, with over 100,000 verses. Now, however, we can only find around 20,023 (some say 20,379) verses in total from these four Vedas.
The Rig-veda, the “Veda of Praise,” contains 1,017 hymns, or 10,522 verses, arranged in ten books or mandalas. The first eight mostly contain hymns of praise to the various demigods, such as Indra and Agni. The ninth book deals primarily with the soma ritual, which was the extraction and purification of the juice of the soma herb. The tenth book contains suktas or verses of wisdom and mantras that would cause certain magical effects to take place. The Rig-veda hymns were mainly of praise to the gods that were invoked during the Vedic ceremonies for ensuring immediate material needs. These were chanted by the four priests who conducted the Vedic rituals, namely the hota who calls the gods with the mantras from the Rig-veda; the adhvaryu who performs all the rituals of the ceremony according to the Yajur-veda; the udgata who sings the Sama-veda mantras; and the brahmana who supervises the general ceremony. However, it was usually only the brahmana priests who could be sure of chanting the mantras accurately to produce the desired result. If the mantra was chanted incorrectly by someone who was not qualified, the desired result would not take place and often something undesirable or horrible would happen instead.
The main gods in the Rig-veda were Indra (the god of heaven and rain), Agni (the fire god) and Surya (the sun god). Surya is invoked in the sacred Gayatri mantra. However, Surya is also called Surya-Narayana in the Rig-veda. So the hymns to Surya and his different forms can also be related to Narayana or Vishnu, especially those to Savitur. Vishnu is also known as the Pervader, meaning that all the Vedic gods are absorbed in Him, and thus must also emanate from Him. They would be absorbed in Him during the time of cosmic annihilation, but would also emanate from Him during the time of the creation. There were also verses to three other names and forms of the sun god, namely Savitri, Mitra and Pooshan. Other gods included Dyos (a celestial god), Varuna (god of the seas), Soma, Marut (god of air or wind called Vayu in other places), Rudra (a form of Shiva) and Vishnu. All of these gods are celestial gods, or demigods, except for Rudra and Vishnu. There is also the important Purusha Sukta hymn in the 90th chapter of the Rig-veda’s tenth mandala.
The Rig-veda is also a mystical text that contains knowledge in its abstract imagery of what the seers had realized. It has information on yoga, the spinal current and the chakras, as well as the planets and their orbits. Many aspects of this mystical knowledge are also contained in the other Vedas. The Rig-veda is said to have had 21 branches, out of which only two are still available. Much of the Shakal branch is still available, along with the Brahmana and Aranyaka of the Shankhayan branch. Although there are some stories in the Rig-veda, there are few historical records of the early Vedic kings. This has been a mistake amongst various linguists and researchers who study the Rig-veda to try to get an historical understanding of the early Vedic kingdom and Aryans.
The Yajur-veda is the “Veda of Rituals” and contains 1975 verse-mantras in 40 chapters, many of which are similar to those in the Rig-veda and used in rituals, usually by the adhvaryu priest. These contain different levels of knowledge and wisdom. The Yajur-veda once had 109 branches of knowledge, but now only parts of seven branches are found, of which the Vajasaneyi is prominent. The Yajur-veda, however, has two samhitas, or collections of verses, known as the White Yajur-veda (or Vajasaneyi-samhita) with the hymns and rituals, and the Black Yajur-veda (or Taittiriya-samhita) with their interpretations. These were primarily for the priests to use as a guide in performing sacred rituals, such as the ashvamedha or rajasuya, since they also contain directions or formulas that the priests use along with the verses that are sung during the ceremony.
The Sama-veda, the “Veda of Melodies,” contains 1549 verses meant to be used as songs in various ceremonies, primarily for the udgata priest. Most of them are taken from the Rig-veda and arranged according to their use as utilized in particular rituals. From the original 1000 branches of the Sama-veda, three are still available, of which the Kauthumiya and Jaiminiya are prominent.
The Atharva-veda is the “Veda of Chants” and once had 50 branches of which we have only the Shaunak branch today. It is a book of 5977 verses in 20 chapters containing prayers, spells, and incantations which in some respects resemble magical instructions found in the Tantras and even various magical incantations found in Europe. The Atharva-veda contains a small section of verses of instruction, wisdom, descriptions of the soul and God, but the majority of it consists of rules for worshiping the planets, rules for oblations and sacrifices, prayers for averting evil and disease, incantations for the destruction of foes, for fulfilling personal desires, etc., mostly for the material needs of people.
THIRTY-THREE MILLION GODS?
The four primary Vedas represent the accomplishment of a highly developed religious system and encourage satisfaction of material desires through worship of the demigods. They contain many directions for increasing one’s power and position, or for reaching the heavens in one’s future by properly performing particular sacrifices in worship to the devas (demigods), and so on.
Some people ask why there seems to be so many gods within Hinduism or Vedic culture. Yet, if we properly analyze the situation, we will understand that there is but one Supreme Being who has many agents or demigods who assist in managing the creation and the natural forces within. And, like anyone else, if they are properly approached with prayer or worship, they may help facilitate the person by granting certain wishes that may be within the jurisdiction of that demigod.
In some places in the Vedic literature it is explained that there are 33 Vedic gods, or even as many as thirty-three million. The 33 gods are calculated as being eight Vasus, eleven Rudras (forms of Shiva), twelve Adityas, along with Indra and Prajapati (Brahma). Then there are also other positions that are considered major or minor devas. According to the Vedas, the devas are not imaginary or mythological beings, but are agents of the Supreme Will to administer different aspects of the universal affairs. They also represent and control various powers of nature. Thus, they manifest in the physical, subtle or psychic levels of our existence both from within and without. In this way, a transcendentalist sees that behind every aspect of nature is a personality.
The names of these gods are considered offices or positions, rather than the actual name of the demigod. For example, we may call the president of the country by his personal name, or simply Mr. President. It’s the position itself that allows for him to have certain powers or areas of influence. In the case of the devas, it is only after accumulating much pious credit that a living being can earn the position of being a particular demigod. Then a person may become an Indra, or Vayu, or attain some other position to assume specific powers, or to control various aspects of material energy.
Another example is that when you walk into a big factory, you see so many workers and all that they are doing. You may initially think that these workers are the reason for whatever goes on in the factory. However, more important than the workers are the foremen, the managers, and then the executives. Amongst these you will find people of varying degrees of authority. Someone will be in charge of designing the products. Another may be the Chief Financial Officer or main accountant. Another may be in charge of personnel, while someone else may be in charge of maintenance in the factory itself. Finally, a chief executive officer or president of the company is the most important of all. Without him there may not even be a company. You may not see the president right away, but his influence is everywhere since all the workers are engaging in projects according to his decisions. The managers and foremen act as his authorized agents to keep things moving accordingly. The numerous demigods act in the same way concerning the functions of nature, all of whom represent some aspect or power of the Supreme Will. That’s why it is sometimes said there are 33 million different gods in Hinduism. Actually, there may be many forms, avataras, or aspects of God, but there is only one God, or one Absolute Truth.
This is often a confusing issue to people new to Vedic philosophy. We often hear the question among Westerners that if Hinduism has so many gods, how do you know which ones to worship? The point is that the devas affect all levels of universal activities, including the weather, or who is bestowed with particular opulences such as riches, beautiful wife or husband, large family, good health, etc. For example, one could worship Agni for getting power, Durgadevi for good fortune, Indra for good sex life or plenty of rain, or the Vasus for getting money. Such instruction is in the karma-kanda section of the Vedas which many people considered to be the most important part of Vedic knowledge. This is for helping people acquire the facilities for living a basic material existence.
There are, of course, various actions, or karmas, prompted by our desires to achieve certain results, but this is not the complete understanding of the karma-kanda section of the Vedas. The karma-kanda section is meant to supply the rituals for purifying our mind and actions in the pursuit of our desires, and not merely to live with the intent of acquiring all of one’s material wants and necessities from the demigods. By having faith and steadiness in the performance of the ritual, one establishes purification in one’s habits and thoughts. This provides a gradual process of acquiring one’s needs and working out one’s desires while simultaneously becoming purified and free of them. Such purification can then bring one to a higher level of spiritual activity. This was the higher purpose of the karma-kanda rituals. Without this understanding, one misses the point and remains attached to rituals in the pursuit of material desires, which will drag one further into material existence.
The reciprocation between the demigods and society is explained in Bhagavad-gita (3.10-12). It is stated that in the beginning the Lord of all beings created men and demigods along with the sacrifices to Lord Vishnu that were to be performed. The Lord blessed them saying that these sacrifices will enable men to prosper and attain all desirable things. By these sacrificial duties the demigods will be pleased and the demigods will also please you with all the necessities of life, and prosperity will spread to all. But he who enjoys what is given by the demigods without offering them in return is a thief.
In this way, it was recommended that people could perform sacrificial rituals to obtain their desires. However, by the performance of such acts they should understand their dependent position, not only on the demigods, but ultimately on the Supreme Being. As further explained in Bhagavad-gita (3.14-15), all living beings exist on food grains, which are produced from rain, which is produced by the performance of prescribed sacrifices or duties. These prescribed duties are described in the Vedic literature, which is manifest from the Supreme Being. Therefore, the Supreme is eternally established in acts of sacrifice.
Although the demigods may accept worship from the human beings and bless them with particular benedictions according to the sacrifices that are performed, they are still not on the level of the Supreme Lord Vishnu (who is an incarnation of Lord Krishna). The Rig-veda (1.22.20) explains: “The demigods are always looking to that supreme abode of Vishnu.” Bhagavad-gita (17.23) also points out: “From the beginning of creation, the three syllables om tat sat have been used to indicate the Supreme Absolute Truth (Brahman). They were uttered by brahmanas while chanting the Vedic hymns and during sacrifices, for the satisfaction of the Supreme.” In this way, by uttering om tat sat, which is stressed in Vedic texts, the performers of the rituals for worshiping the demigods were also offering obeisances to Lord Vishnu for its success. The four Vedas mainly deal with material elevation and since Lord Vishnu is the Lord of material liberation, most sacrifices were directed toward the demigods.
In Bhagavad-gita, however, Lord Krishna points out that men of small knowledge, who are given to worldly desires, take delight in the flowery words of the Vedas that prescribe rituals for attaining power, riches, or rebirth in heaven. With their goal of enjoyment they say there is nothing else than this. However, Krishna goes on to explain (in Bhagavad-gita 7.21-23) that when a person desires to worship a particular demigod for the temporary and limited fruits he or she may bestow, Krishna, as the Supersoul in everyone’s heart, makes that person’s faith in that demigod steady. But all the benefits given by any demigod actually are given by Krishna alone, for without whom no one has any power. The worshipers of the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but worshipers of Krishna reach Krishna’s spiritual abode.
Thus, as one progresses in understanding, it is expected that they will gradually give up the pursuit for temporary material pleasures and then begin to endeavor for reaching the supreme goal of Vedic knowledge. For one who is situated in such knowledge and is self-realized, the prescribed duties in the Vedas for worshiping the demigods are unnecessary. As Bhagavad-gita (3.17-18) explains, for one who is fully self-realized, who is fully satiated in the self, delights only in the self, there is no duty or need to perform the prescribed duties found in the Vedas, because he has no purpose or material desires to fulfill.
However, another view of the Vedic gods is that they represent different aspects of understanding ourselves, especially through the path of yoga and meditation. For example, the god of wind is Vayu, and is related to the practice of yoga as the breath and its control in pranayama. Agni is the god of fire and relates to the fire of consciousness or awareness. Soma relates to the bliss in the samadhi of yoga practice. Many of the Vedic gods also represent particular powers of yoga and are related to the different chakras in the subtle body. It is accepted that as a person raises his or her consciousness through the chakras, he or she will attain the level of awareness and the power and assistance that is associated with the particular divine personality related to that chakra.
BRAHMANAS AND ARANYAKAS
Although the four principle Vedas include the concept of spiritual perfection or liberation, it is not so thoroughly developed or presented. Therefore, to help one understand what the goal of Vedic philosophy is, there are also other compositions along with the four Vedas, namely the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. Originally, the Brahmanas consisted of 1180 branches, with the same number of Aranyakas. Unfortunately, only a few of these branches remain today. The Upanishads also had 1180 branches to continue the explanation of these Vedic divisions of knowledge and practice. However, only about 200 are still available.
The Brahmanas are compositions that accompany different portions of the Veda Samhitas with additional directions and details that the brahmana priests would use when performing the sacrificial rituals, along with some of their histories. They include the Aitareya, the Shankhayan or Kausitaki, and the Shatpath and Taittariya Brahmanas that are connected to the Rig-veda. These contain such instructions as what to meditate on and how to chant the mantras while conducting the sacrifice, etc. The Brahmanas also hold cosmological legends and stories that explain the reason for performing the Vedic rituals, along with the esoteric significance of the mantras and sacrificial rituals. They also describe the verses in the main Samhitas. Furthermore, they provide the seeds of the systematic knowledge of the Sutras, and can be used by the village householders.
The Panchvinsha, Shadvinsha, and Tandya Brahmanas belong to the Sama-veda, while the Jaiminiya and Gopatha Brahmanas belong to the Atharva-veda. The Shatapatha Brahmana, a large volume of 100 chapters authored by Yajnavalkya, is said to belong to the Shukla Yajur-veda.
The Aranyakas are sacred writings that are supposed to frame the essence of the Upanishads and are considered to be secret and dangerous to the uninitiated. The Aranyakas reveal more of the esoteric aspects of the rituals and their purposes than the Brahmanas. They are meant only for the brahmana priests and kshatriya warriors who have renounced all materialistic activities, and retired to the solitude of the forests, which is the meaning of “aranyaka.” They include a strict style of worship to particular forms or aspects of God. These instructions could consist of which mantras to use for particular purposes, how to sit, in which time of the morning to practice, the devotions to incorporate into the practice, and so on.
Next we come to the Upanishads, which is the main part of the Aranyakas and constitute one of the most sacred portions of Vedic philosophy. There are three main sections of the Vedic scriptures. The Upanishads and Aranyakas are part of the jnana-kanda section, meaning they contain knowledge meant for introspection and contemplation. The four main Samhitas and Brahmanas which deal primarily with ritual are a part of the karma-kanda classification, meant for appeasing the gods for one’s necessities and desires, and for helping purify the mind. The upasana-kanda section consists of those instructions on devotional service to God, which is found later in the Vedanta-Sutras, the Puranas and other books.
The Upanishads are essentially presented for the continued spiritual progress of the individual. If the Vedas emphasize and primarily consist of worship to the demigods for material needs and only hint at the prospect of spiritual liberation, then the Upanishads start to explain how worldly attachments need to be renounced so we can surrender to God. The word upanishad literally means to sit down (shad) near (upa) and below or at the feet with determination (ni). So it indicates that the student should sit near the feet of one’s spiritual teacher and listen with determination to the teachings. Only through such absorption can one learn how to apply the teachings in practice. Sitting at the feet of the teacher is both a sign of respect and humility, but also exhibits a natural flow, like water, from something high to that which is lower. Thus the student becomes a natural receptacle for such knowledge.
Another meaning of the word shad in upanishad means to destroy. So the spiritual knowledge the student receives from the teacher destroys the ignorance of the true nature of the world and his own Self. As one’s ignorance is destroyed, enlightenment can follow.
The Upanishads are a collection of 108 philosophical dissertations. The Muktikopanishad (verses 30-39) lists all 108. (See Appendix One) However, there are over 100 additional compilations if you also count the lesser Upanishads that are not actually part of the primary group, making a total of well over 200. Out of all the Upanishads, the following eleven are considered to be the topmost: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, and Svetasvatara.
The Upanishads were considered the secret and confidential knowledge of reality. They mainly focus on establishing the Absolute as nonmaterial and describe it as Brahman: the eternal, unmanifest reality, source and ultimate shelter of everything. The Brahman is said to be incomprehensible because it is without material qualities or form. The secret to understanding Brahman according to the Upanishads is that they describe the Absolute as having no material qualities or material personality, but consists of spiritual qualities.
The comparisons used in the Upanishads can be somewhat confusing to the beginner of Vedic study, but they are easy to understand for one who has some understanding in this matter or who is self-realized. For example, when the Upanishads describe the Absolute as being unembodied, without veins, yet runs swifter than the mind, or as being able to walk yet does not walk, or as being within everything and yet outside of everything, how can we know what to think? Does the Absolute have any qualities that we can comprehend?
These kinds of descriptions in the Upanishads are called indirect or contrary descriptions. These are used to indicate the spiritual nature of the Lord’s qualities, meaning that He is not material nor confined to the rules of the material creation. An example of this is found in the Svetashvatara Upanishad, Chapter Three, which explains: The Supreme Lord does not have material hands and feet yet He is able to receive anything and go everywhere. He does not possess material eyes and yet He sees past, present and future. He does not have material ears and yet He hears. He is the knower of everything, omniscient, but Him no one can know. The self-realized and enlightened souls know Him as the Primeval Lord and Supreme Being.
The Svetashvatara Upanishad offers more of these kinds of descriptions, such as “He is having His faces, heads and necks everywhere, yet He dwells in the cavity of the heart of all beings. He is omnipresent. Being the Supreme Godhead, He is present everywhere encompassing all that exists and He is benevolent. (3.11) With hands and feet everywhere, with eyes, heads and mouths everywhere, with ears everywhere, He stands encompassing all.” (3.16)
Another example is the Isha Upanishad (5): “The Supreme Lord walks and does not walk. He is far away, but He is very near as well. He is within everything, and yet He is outside of everything.”
So the point is that the Absolute has spiritual legs to run or walk with and spiritual senses that are not limited like material senses. One verse that clearly explains this is the following: “The Supreme Reality is far beyond this universe. He possesses no ephemeral form but He is sat-cit-ananda, the embodiment of complete eternal and spiritual bliss. He is free from any ill. He is beyond the illusive world. He is full of all-auspicious divine glories. Those who realize Him as such and render unalloyed devotion to Him become immortal, but others (who remain ignorant of Him) have to undergo suffering through transmigration in the realm of maya [illusions].” (Svetashatara Upanishad 3.10)
Therefore, though the Upanishads generally refer to the Absolute in an impersonal way, they also begin to establish that the Supreme Reality has form, or, in other words, is a person, and that there is a Divine Abode, although the details of it are not always clearly provided therein. So as we go through the Vedic texts, we get clearer and clearer views of the nature of the Supreme Being.
The Isa Upanishad in particular indicates that the Supreme Absolute is both impersonal and personal. Other Upanishads describe the Absolute as, “He who created the worlds,” or, “Who is luminous like the sun,” “beyond darkness,” “the eternal among eternals,” etc. In fact, the basic method used in most Upanishads, as explained in the Hayasirsa Pancharatra, is to first present the Absolute Reality in an impersonal way and then present the personal aspects.
Yet, as we study the Upanishads, there are numerous references that go on to describe very clearly, in a direct manner, the spiritual nature and characteristics of the Supreme. The GopalaTapani Upanishad has numerous verses which explain the nature of the Absolute Truth, such as the following verse (1.22): “Sri Krishna is that Supreme Divinity, the Paramount Eternal Reality among all other sentient beings, and the fountain-source of consciousness to all conscious beings. He is the only reality without a second, but as the Supersoul He dwells in the cave of the hearts of all beings and rewards them in accordance with their respective actions in life. Those men of intuitive wisdom who serve Him with loving devotion surely attain the summum bonum, supreme goal of life. Whereas those who do not do so never gain this highest beautitude of their lives.”
Another verse from the GopalaTapani Upanishad (2.23) that further explains the nature of the Supreme is this one: “Sri Krishna has got no birth and no old age, He is always in His adolescence without any change. He is ever most effulgently shining so gloriously more than the sun. He is fond of remaining with the divine cows of Goloka Vrindavana. He is eternally fond of being with the Gopas, cowherd boys, as He feels pleasure tending the cows. He is the very object of the Vedas, He as the Supersoul ever dwells in the heart of every living being, and He is the only Sustainer of all. He is the beloved sweet-heart of you all.”
Not only do the Upanishads provide explanations of the impersonal Brahman and personal Bhagavan realizations, but as we can see they also speak of the Paramatma (Supersoul or Lord in the heart) realization. Especially in the Katha, Mundaka, and the Svetasvatara Upanishads, one can find statements explaining that within the heart of every individual in every species of life reside both the individual soul and the Supersoul, the localized expansion of the Lord. It is described that they are like two birds sitting in the same tree of the body. The individual soul, which is called the atma or jiva, is engrossed in using the body to taste the fruits of various activities that result in pleasure and pain. The Supersoul is simply witnessing the activities of the jiva. If, however, the jiva begins to tire of these constant ups and downs of material life and then looks toward his friend next to him, the Supersoul, and seeks His help, the jiva soul can be relieved of all anxieties and regain his spiritual freedom. This freedom is the spiritual oneness shared by the jiva and Paramatma when the jiva enters into the spiritual atmosphere by submitting to the will of the Paramatma. This is achieved by the practice of yoga and by being guided by a proper spiritual master. It is not said that the individual soul loses his individuality, but both the jiva and Paramatma remain individuals.
In any case, the Upanishads present a much clearer approach to understanding the ultimate reality than the four primary Vedas. We can provide a little more insight into the information found within the Upanishads by reviewing a few.
The Isha Upanishad comes from the 40th chapter of the Shukla (White) Yajur-veda. It has only 18 verses, but directly addresses the Personality of God in the first verse. Through the 18 verses, it gradually establishes that God has a personal form from which comes the great white Brahman effulgence. It explains that all opulence comes from God and that to try to enjoy such pleasures outside of the relationship with God is an illusion filled with suffering. Therefore, one should live life in such a way as to always remember God, and thus fulfill the real purpose of life so at the end one can constantly hold the vision of God within one’s consciousness. When God removes His effulgence or spiritual rays, then the devotee can see the personal form of the Lord.
The Katha Upanishad contains six chapters divided in two sections. Within it is the conversation between Nachiketa and Yamaraj, the lord of death. Within that conversation Yamaraj establishes that due to ignorance and the desire to enjoy the material world, people continue to suffer in the cycle of birth and death, yet think they understand the real purpose of life. It is only in this human body that a person has the facility to realize God and escape the continued rounds of birth and death. Therefore, before the end of one’s life, he or she should realize God in order to fully utilize this human birth.
The Mundaka Upanishad contains six chapters in three sections. This gives the instruction from the sage Angira to Shaunaka about the nature of God and how to become realized. These instructions include how the early Brahmanas understood that the Vedic rituals only provided the means to acquire the luxuries of life, without being able to deliver one to God. Therefore, they gave them up for approaching a God-realized saint, the only way one can learn how to surrender to the eternal Lord who is beyond all illusion of the universe. This is the God who cannot be understood by the Vedic impersonalistic philosophy, or intellectual meditation. The Lord is only realized when He reveals Himself to one whose heart is full of devotion, after that person has been graced with such faithfulness by a saintly devotee. Then one can see the Lord as He is in full.
The Mandukya Upanishad is another short Upanishad with only 12 verses. Herein it explains the impersonal aspect of God without going on to the personal traits. Here we find descriptions that can be confusing to those who are just beginning their investigation into Vedic philosophy, such as relating how the Absolute cannot be conceived by the mind, or contacted in any way. It has nothing that it can be compared to, and thus cannot be understood or spoken of, nor meditated upon because it is inconceivable. So, from this Upanishad, based on the impersonal point of view, it would seem that there is little for us to understand about the Supreme.
The Svetasvatara Upanishad is one of the most important. In its six chapters it elaborates on the more detailed characteristics of the soul, the Supreme Being, and the material nature, as well as the process for becoming spiritually realized. This is where we start to get deeper examples of the Paramatma, the Supersoul aspect of God. It describes that God is the Supreme, pure consciousness, from which all of creation manifests. And that God is realized when one becomes lovingly absorbed in the Supreme, which is the only way a person can cross the ocean of maya. It contains many relevant instructions and is one Upanishad that begins to take us much deeper into the understanding of the different aspects of the nature of God and the secrets of becoming God-realized.
The Taittiriya Upanishad goes into explaining more about the creative process of the material manifestation from the Brahman, and that the Brahman is from Whom all souls emanate, and in Whom they enter at the time of the universal annihilation. That Brahman is eternally personified, by which He is knowable and reachable. Through that personified form He expands bliss and Divine love which we can experience through spiritual practice. This Upanishad is divided into three chapters called Shiksha Valli, Brahmanand Valli, and Bhrigu Valli.
There are many other Upanishads, though they may be less prominent, that can be important to relating inner facts and secrets about the nature of God and how to realize Him. So I’ll mention a few.
There is the Krishna Upanishad that directly reveals that the most divine form of bliss dwells in the supremacy of love of Lord Krishna. It elaborates that when Lord Krishna descended to Earth in Braja Mandala, Vrindavana, the other eternal and divine personalities and powers also came with Him in order to serve Him and taste the sweetness of that divine love.
The GopalaTapani Upanishad goes much further in explaining things in this direction. It has only two chapters with a total of 172 verses. In the first chapter it explains that Lord Krishna is the absolute bliss. He is the Supreme God and the embodiment of eternal life, knowledge and bliss. This is elaborated throughout the chapter. Chapter Two explains how Lord Krishna is the supreme and most beautiful form of God. No other god or portion of this material creation can compare to His beauty. Therefore, it is recommended that we need to remember and adore Him, by which we can experience His divine love, which is like an ocean of nectar.
It is important to point out that the Sanskrit term for the experience of Krishna’s divine love is rasa. It is the Bhagavat Purana that, in the Vedic literature, begins to explain the rasa-lila or bliss pastimes of Lord Krishna with His numerous associates. The word rasa is never used in connection with Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga or any of the other Vedic personalities in any of the Upanishads. That is because, though we may engage in respectful worship to these Divinities, the pleasure pastimes wherein there is such a deep exchange of divine bliss and love is not to be found in anyone but Lord Krishna. Even the expansions of Lord Krishna, such as Lord Vishnu or Lord Rama, may be forms of unlimited bliss, but the deep exchanges of loving bliss with Them do not have the potential that is found within Lord Krishna. Therefore, the conclusion is that Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality in which is found all other forms of Divinity, and from whom comes the Absolute Truth and Absolute loving bliss.
The Radhika Upanishad explains this a little further. Therein it is described that only within Lord Krishna is there the hladini power, which is the pleasure or bliss potency. The other forms of the Lord are but parts or expansions of the Lord, and although They may be the same in power, They are lacking in the level of bliss potency that is found within Lord Krishna. This means that the supreme sweetness in loving exchanges is manifested from Lord Krishna. In this way, you have the sweet, sweeter and sweetest levels of loving bliss established in the different levels of the spiritual reality, until it culminates from the Brahman and Vaikuntha on up to Goloka Vrindavana, the spiritual abode of Lord Krishna. Or from the brahmajyoti to the Vishnu forms up to the supremacy of Sri Krishna. This is what is established by fully understanding the purport of the Upanishads.
Another less prominent Upanishad, but one that is no less important, is the Sri Chaitanya Upanishad (Chaitanyopanishad), which comes from the ancient Atharva-veda. The Chaitanyopanishad is a short text with only nineteen verses. All of them are very significant. In this description there is not only the prediction of the appearance of Lord Chaitanya, but a description of His life and purpose, and the reasons why His process of spiritual enlightenment is so powerful and effective in this age of Kali-yuga.
The Chaitanyopanishad explains how one day Pippalada, a son of Lord Brahma, approached his father and asked about how the sinful living entities in the age of Kali-yuga may be delivered. Lord Brahma told him to listen carefully and he would give him a confidential description of what would happen in Kali-yuga. He explained that in Kali-yuga the Supreme Being, whose form is completely transcendental and who is the all-pervading Supersoul in the hearts of all living entities, will appear again in the Kali age. He will appear in the guise of the greatest devotee, with a golden complexion in His abode on the banks of the Ganges at Navadvipa. He will disseminate pure devotional service to the Supreme. He will be known as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Appearing in this golden form, the all-powerful Supreme Being--who is understood only by the most fortunate and who is the oldest, the original person, the original cause of the universe--will spread spiritual bliss by the chanting of His own holy names. The Supreme Lord will chant a mantra consisting of the names of Hari, Krishna and Rama [the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra]. This mantra is the best of all mantras, and, though difficult to understand, it can be understood by engaging in devotional service to the Supreme. This is the most confidential of secrets, and those who seriously desire to make progress in spiritual life, and to cross the ocean of birth and death, continually chant these names of the Supreme.
Herein we find the assortment of information that can be found in the main Upanishads. For the most part, except for the more specialized and detailed Upanishads that were referred to at the end, they only briefly
Published with the kind permission of Stephen Knapp
Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana) is the President and Treasurer of the Vedic Friends Association (www.vedicfriends.org). He has been researching Vedic spirituality and comparative religious study for over 30 years in a variety of settings. He has directly engaged in those spiritual disciplines that have been recommended for hundreds of years. He continued his study of Vedic knowledge and practice under the guidance of a spiritual master to get the insights and realizations that are normally absent from the ordinary academic atmosphere. Through this process he has been initiated into the genuine and authorized spiritual line of the Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya, or disciplic succession, under the sanction of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. He has also extensively travelled throughout India to most of the major holy sights and more, and is known for his slide shows on his travels to the holy places and spiritual festivals of India (even nicknamed "the slide show acharya"), and for his lectures on the Vedic and Indian philosophy. He has written several books on the science and spiritual practice of Vedic culture and Eastern philosophy.
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