The Upanishads: Wisdom for the Modern World

The Upanishads: Wisdom for the Modern World

Swami Rama

“The day we follow the teachings of the Upanishads, which are meant for the whole universe, there will be complete freedom from all bondage, from all problems. Freedom is the central teaching of the Upanishads.”

—Swami Rama

To understand the Upanishads and appreciate the importance of these profound scriptures, you will need to understand how they came into existence. The Upanishads are the last and finest part of the Vedas, the most ancient scriptures in the world. The word veda comes from the root vid, meaning “to know” or “knowledge.” For thousands of years, these teachings remained unwritten, but the knowledge was contained in the hearts and minds of the great sages and their disciples.

According to occidental scholars, these Vedic records were compiled and came into written form about 800 BC, although most Indian scholars have concluded that they are even more ancient. These teachings are not merely the words spoken or originated by any individual seer or sage. They are considered to be revelations—they were revealed to the great sages. The sages did not formulate or begin these teachings; rather, they received them.

The Upanishads are the last and finest part of the Vedas, the most ancient scriptures in the world.

Who can receive these revelations? Revelation comes through the great ones—those who are pure in heart, mind, and soul. “Pure” means having no emotional problems in your heart, and that your individual soul searches for its summum bonum, just as the river searches for the ocean. These sages and seers who received the knowledge were great because they had prepared themselves to be great. Rishi, the Sanskrit word for sage, comes from the root rish and refers to darshan—that through which we see or experience spiritual wisdom. Both women and men can become an instrument capable of receiving the highest wisdom. In fact, there have been many great women sages, such as Maitri and Gargi. And do you think that modern individuals cannot be rishis? We can purify our minds and hearts exactly as the ancients did. All human beings can transform themselves and attain this greatness, if they prepare themselves.

Vedas and Upanishads

There are four Vedas, and the finest and latter part of the Vedas is known as the Upanishads. The Vedas consist of mantras that were explained by the brahmanas, the wise ones. Each school that taught the Vedas developed particular Upanishads, and in this way there were once more than 1,000 Upanishads. However, in the present time, most of the Vedic records are missing; no one knows what has happened to these teachings. The modern world knows only about 108 Upanishads, of which only 10 or 11 are principal Upanishads.

The word upanishad can be broken into the prefix upa, which means “to annihilate,” and shada, which means “bondage” or “delusion.” Thus, knowledge of the Upanishads helps to loosen our bondage. It is because of this bondage that we are not free. Because we are not free, we suffer; we experience pain and misery. We have forgotten our essential nature, and now we cannot re-establish ourselves in it. Traditionally, it is also said that upanishad means “to sit near the teacher”—and when our teachers asked us to sit, we sat in our asana and never moved or fidgeted. This is how we received the knowledge.

The records that were maintained in book form, called “the secret teachings,” were not given to ordinary students but only to particular ones—a fortunate few. It was once the tradition that the older son would learn those scriptures. By the time Shankaracharya began to write commentaries on the Upanishads, ordinary people had begun to study these texts. When teachers such as Swami Vivekananda and Swami Rama Tirtha went to foreign countries, they spoke on the wisdom of the Upanishads, and then these teachings became public.

Knowledge of the Upanishads helps to loosen our bondage.

Anyone can take a book out of a library, but books cannot teach you the most profound teachings. There are many mysteries expressed in words that have very subtle meanings, and if you misunderstand the meaning of one word, then you will go astray. I am not a very learned man, but I have heard the Upanishads explained by the great sages at least 11 times.

When my master first asked me to visit and learn from other sages, the first thing he said to me was, “You will waste your time and energy if you think that because someone has a flowing white beard and a shining face and large, powerful eyes he is a great sage. If you are influenced by these signs, son, you’ll waste time and never receive anything of value.” So I asked my master, “Then what shall I look for?” He replied, “Never forget the great sayings of the Bhagavad Gita.” The Gita is the essence of the knowledge of the Upanishads. We may say metaphorically that Arjuna is the calf, Krishna is the milkman, and the Upanishads are the cow. Krishna milked the Upanishads and Arjuna drank from their wisdom—and the resulting teaching became the Bhagavad Gita.

Ways of Teaching and Knowing

What new wisdom can modern man teach? He can only change the basket; the eggs of the teachings are the same. In each tradition or path, there is meaning in how the basket is placed or how the flowers are arranged. The manner in which the knowledge is imparted and the form in which it is modified have some significance. A teacher can immediately discover how much his student understands him by observing the way the student behaves. If there is no communication between the student and the teacher, then anything the teacher says becomes a parable the student does not understand. However, if the student is attuned and prepared to understand, then he will simply know.

We have two methods of knowing: through the head and through the heart. When you talk to others, you use your head. Remember to also let your mind become one-pointed. Then you should also hear and learn through your heart. When you are able to learn through your heart, let go of your head. When you communicate with someone, your thoughts should be filtered through buddhi (the faculty of reason and discernment) and the other aspects of antahkarana (all the mental operations of thinking and perception). But when you listen, simply open your heart and receive it, so that whatever you hear, you truly understand.

There are two types of knowledge that you can receive from the ancient scriptures. The first is called shruti, or revelation. When the great teachers, sages, and seers imparted that knowledge to their students through the ordinary channel of speech, then it became smriti, the second type of knowledge. No matter what the philosophy or how great the teacher is who expounds the philosophy, if shruti is missing, then the teaching is not considered to be real knowledge.

The Message of the Upanishads

In the traditional way of teaching the Upanishads, there are four stages through which you must pass. The first step is called brahmacharya—student life. That is the period in which you learn how to direct your energies with your mind, action, and speech, and learn to discipline yourself on all these levels. In the second stage, grahasthya, you become a householder. You earn means and live comfortably with your spouse and family. The third stage is vanaprastha. In this stage you “go to the forest” to practice austerities, meditation, and self-discipline. The fourth stage is called sannyasa, in which you no longer have any worldly responsibilities. This means that you walk in Brahman-consciousness all the time. You become parivrajaka—free from all fears.

The Upanishads emphasize a particular word, uttishtha, which means “Wake up!” You think that you are awake, but actually, from the Upanishadic viewpoint, you are not: you are still sleeping. The Upanishads say, “Remain awake and gain knowledge—that knowledge which gives you freedom from all fears.” There is one important fact that you should learn: when you examine all your failures or any unsuccessful venture in your life, you will observe that fear has always created that danger or obstacle for you.

Thus, the first freedom you need to attain is freedom from fear—that is the message of the Upanishads. The Upanishads tell you to enjoy this world; they do not teach you to run away from the world. However, there is a special way of enjoying the world, and the Upanishads say that you do not presently know how to do that. The sages seek to teach you how to enjoy the things of the world, because all these things should be enjoyed, yet you can never do so without freedom from fear.

When you listen, simply open your heart and receive it, so that whatever you hear, you truly understand.

Modern man has many things at his disposal: whatever he needs or desires he can have. The Bible says, “Ask, and ye shall receive. Knock, and it will be opened unto you.” However, if you ask and knock once but you do not receive an answer, then you give up. The Bible never tells you to only ask once, so go on knocking until the gate is opened to you—that’s the point! When you were a child, if you asked your mother for something and she was busy, she may not have immediately given you what you wanted. But if you repeatedly asked, then she had to stop what she was doing and give you attention.

Such is the case with the knowledge that you receive when you gain access to the keyless gate to the fortress inside yourself. According to the Upanishads, our purpose of life is to attain that which is called Brahman. Brahman is the greatest of all—there is nothing greater than that which is the Absolute Truth.

There are three prerequisites of Absolute Truth: it is not subject to change, death, and decomposition; it was never born, and so never dies; it is self-existent, and never needs the support of any other force. Truth never needs any evidence to prove that it is truth. Once we have known the Absolute Truth, then our purpose of life is fulfilled. According to the Upanishads, we are not mere human beings—we are atman. Atman, the inner dweller, is the same power as that which exists everywhere in the larger world, called Brahman. Our goal is to establish our essential nature; we seek to establish our own atman in its essential nature, Brahman.

Many people ask what maya means. Maya is the power of projection, that which projects this hiranyagarbha—the golden womb of this universe. When you see that the One is many, that’s due to maya. You do not see that this mire of delusion exists between you and the reality, between you and Absolute Truth. No one really sees this power; it is inexplicable. When, with the help of knowledge, you fearlessly cross the mire of delusion created by maya, you fulfill your purpose. But at the same time, remember not to ignore the world.

The Upanishads in Daily Life

Every Upanishad has beautiful teachings and is complete in itself. You should study these scriptures so thoroughly that you never have to study them again. After that, actually practice their teachings in your daily life. To practice, only two things are needed: understanding the nature of a one-pointed mind, and learning the philosophy of non-attachment.

Modern people are often afraid of the word non-attachment. Non-attachment is a powerful concept to understand. If you have really learned the meaning of this word, you are free. Non-attachment means great love—pure love. Presently, you are attached to the things of the world; whatever you love, whether it is a person or an object, brings you pain. Strangers do not create pain for you; it is the objects and recipients of your love that cause you pain. The way you create and develop your attachment to the things of the world creates pain. You should learn how to love and enjoy your loved ones. You can do this by working with yourself systematically.

Although the body is an important instrument, it is less important than the mind. If you really want to know yourself, sit quietly for a few minutes and allow yourself to become aware of what you are thinking. If you do this, you’ll learn something about your personality. Sometimes when you do this, you may feel very sad. People sometimes think, “I thought I was such a good person. What has happened to me?”

Once, I met a great modern sage sitting on the bank of the Ganga. A man who was with me, an agnostic, said to him, “Swami, what is the difference between you and me? You eat, sleep, and do many other things exactly the way I do. What is it that makes you a swami and me an ordinary person?” The swami smiled and said, “Son, the difference is that anything you hear affects you. What I hear does not affect me. If someone says, ‘You are stupid!’ it does not affect me because I know that I am not. However, if I call you stupid, then you’ll feel sad, because you will begin to think that you are stupid.”

The first freedom you need to attain is freedom from fear—that is the message of the Upanishads.

Such suggestions affect your life. From morning until evening every day, you receive suggestions from others, and your whole life is affected by these messages. This means you are only a reactionary in life. Modern people are reactionaries; they don’t have time to really think, understand, or feel. The world expects them to think and feel what others want them to think and feel; they are expected to behave the way others want them to behave. We all lead such lives in the modern world. In this way, we have created a vast whirlpool for ourselves, and we do not know what to do. The great Upanishads say, “O human beings, you can enjoy the things that you enjoy today in a better way. Learn to enjoy everything, but understand that there is a particular way to enjoy these things.”

Thus, the Ishopanishad begins with the invocation:

Om purnam-adah” (all this is full and complete).

Purnam-idam” (this entire universe, whatsoever you find, has come from Brahman, which is perfect and full and complete).

Purnat purnam udacyate” (what comes from that which is perfect and full and complete? Only perfection comes from perfection).

Purnasya purnam-adaya, purnam eva-vashishyate” (all this is full and complete in the beginning, in the intermediate state, and in the end).

However, in our daily life, we may feel that nothing is perfect in the world. Let us examine why this is the case. What is the hiranyagarbha projected by maya? Maya is only an instrument through which Brahman projects itself. That Absolute Brahman becomes many. The Vedantic Upanishads do not use the word creation because no God or power has ever “created” the world; rather, this world came into existence through manifestation.

Life, Death, and Reality

In mathematics the number “one” manifests itself, and eventually it accumulates and becomes a hundred. A hundred is a manifestation of one, because if you count “one” a hundred times, you will have a hundred. But the number “one hundred” will no longer have any existence if you destroy the number “one.” The existence of each of us lies in one Brahman, and if we are not aware of that self-existent reality, then we are reduced to dust.

Why are you so afraid of death and dying? This fear exists because you have not yet fully understood life. You have not understood the truth that life is a line, and the two ends of the line are birth and death. Death is a change; death is a habit of the body, but death should not terrify you, provided you understand this reality.

According to the Upanishads, we are not mere human beings—we are atman.

The teachings of the Upanishads can give you freedom from the fear of death. They explain the nature of the universe, the nature of the individual soul, and the nature of both kinds of Brahman. Saguna Brahman is the Absolute Reality with attributes; Nirguna Brahman is the Absolute Reality without attributes. If you think of the Divine as having qualities, such as when you say, “God is kind, God is nice, or God is beautiful,” then you are speaking of God with attributes—Saguna Brahman. If you think of God as Absolute Truth without any attributes, that is Nirguna Brahman. All these attributes are eventually annihilated by one power—the unmanifest Brahman, or Absolute Truth itself—which is far beyond all such attributes. The moment you understand Absolute Truth, you’ll be free.

Modern people wear beautiful garments, paint their faces, and smile as though someone is forcing them to smile. I seldom see a genuine, fresh smile on anyone’s face. If you want to observe this, go to any large city and you’ll see millions of people doing this. Once in New York I asked someone, “Why do you make such a face when anyone passes by?” The man replied, “It’s our culture. We are taught that whenever you see anyone, you should smile at him.” I said, “But you were not smiling. You show your teeth and call that a smile? That’s not what a smile is.” Your movements should be free, your speech should be free. You should be free from all fear—that is how you are meant to live.

You live for so very few years. The Upanishads say, “O human, may you learn to live for at least a hundred years. May God bless you and give you more than a hundred years.” But would you really want to live for a hundred years with all the pressures that you experience today?

The Upanishads say that there is another way to live. You should enjoy the world and enjoy life, but the first freedom to attain is freedom from fear. You live in constant fear. If a husband is away from home and doesn’t return on time, his wife telephones the police station or hospital because she’s worried that something has happened. You create such fear because you are not aware of the truth. You would like to be aware of the truth, but you do not yet know how, and you are not practicing to learn to become aware of that truth.

Enjoyment and Renunciation

The first mantra of the Ishopanishad says, “Isha vashyam, idam sarvam” (all this, whatever you see, is governed by God). If all this is governed by God, then how can you hate anyone? From where does your hatred come? It comes from a lack of awareness, from ignorance. When you forget your existence, you forget the truth or reality, and then you end up in this dilemma. When you forget Isha, the inner dweller—the governor and controller of life and the universe everywhere, within and without—then you end up in trouble. The first goal is to learn to remember the Lord of Life all the time, wherever you are. Resolve that when you talk to your spouse, you will remember the Lord. By remembering the Lord when you talk to your spouse, see how loving you can become. Wherever you go, learn to remember the Lord all the time, while living in the world.

Fear of death and dying exists because you have not yet fully understood life.

Next, there is another beautiful sentence: “Tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gridhah kasya svid-dhanam” (by remembering the Lord all the time, you learn to enjoy life by renouncing). You can actually learn to enjoy things through renunciation, because when everything belongs to God, then nothing belongs to you. You have things because they are meant for you to have, so you can simply enjoy them. Actually, all the things that you have are not even yours, but are loaned to you as gifts. Learn to enjoy them as gifts of the Lord; then you’ll never be afraid that those gifts will be snatched away from you. This is enjoyment with tyaga, or renunciation.

Renunciation is an important word. When you breathe, you take in a fresh breath and then you “renounce” that which is not needed. All day you think, “This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.” But actually, it is not yours—it belongs to God and is meant for you to use. You can have it, but it does not belong to you. Do not establish your sense of proprietorship or ownership. This applies to your body, mind, senses, children, home, and everything else that you have. When you don’t think that something is yours, that’s enjoyment! Enjoyment and renunciation seem to be opposites, but you have to learn to do both. If you are learning to use your head, please learn to use your heart, too.

Mind and Emotions

Here is a story that will help you understand this. Once there were two men—a man who could not walk and a man who could not see. Both men had to go to a particular place. The lame man said, “Who are you? What’s the problem with you?” The other replied, “I am blind.” And the lame man said, “But you seem to be very healthy and muscular.” The blind man said, “Yes, that’s true; I am strong, but I cannot see.” The lame man said, “Well, I can see, but I cannot walk.” Finally, the blind man suggested, “Why don’t you sit on my shoulders and show me the way, and then we can both reach our destination?” And so they came to this agreement.

When you learn to establish such an understanding between your emotional nature and your thinking self—between yourself, your mind, and your emotions—you can easily pass through this procession of life without problems. Sometimes you become emotional and then your thinking process vanishes; sometimes you become a great thinker and then your emotional power vanishes. Both emotion and thinking have their own powers, and there should be a bridge—an understanding—between the two. When you need to use your emotions, use them; when you have to use your thought processes, use them. You can do that because both mind and emotions are your instruments.

Emotion is an instrument you can use wisely or unwisely. In my childhood, I used my emotional power to threaten the swamis in order to make them give me sweets. Nobody taught me not to do that. I would threaten them by saying, “I am going to die if you don’t give me something sweet.” I was a kid, and I would faint and stop my pulse and heartbeat. So when someone would say, “Okay, then die,” suddenly I would fall on the road and there would be no pulse or heartbeat. I would quietly listen from inside to see what was going on outside. This is a childish way to use your emotional power, but as you grow more mature, you can use your emotional power to attain more important things than candy. You have many powers within you, because all the internal instruments are yours, provided you know how to make use of those powers.

Attachment and fear create misery. A father and son love each other very much and know that one day they will leave each other. Each knows that he will die, and yet despite this, they still cry because of their attachment. A lover knows that one day his beloved has to leave him. These unconscious fears spring up within the human mind and heart because they are never examined. There are many such fears within us: we fear that we will not attain what we want, or that we might lose what we have.

Wherever you go, learn to remember the Lord all the time.

A thief doesn’t really enjoy something he stole because he knows that it does not belong to him; a woman does not enjoy a man because she is thinking of many other things; a man does not enjoy a woman because he is distracted. You do not enjoy the things you have—your own body, your mind, your heart, all your instruments. You do not enjoy life because you have not learned the technique of enjoyment. The Upanishads say that the technique of enjoying life means to become free from fear by realizing that everything within and without is governed by God. The truth is not subject to change, death, or decay.

You cannot enjoy the things of the world under the pressure of fear, yet all fear will go away when you know that God exists everywhere. Then where is your fear? Of whom are you afraid? You are afraid of someone or he is afraid of you only if you think you are different from each other. You lie to someone or he lies to you because you are afraid of each other. But the day you really know that the witnessing force between us is one and the same, then we cannot hate each other. I will see God in you, and you will see God in me. Then who can hate whom? There will be only love; love will rule life and the universe.

Learning to Enjoy Life: The Unifying Principle

We have all done many experiments in life. If you ask a scientist the true definition of science, of what he is seeking, you’ll find that he’s really searching for a unity beneath the seeming diversity. That is what the Vedas and Upanishads say: there is one unifying principle and that is Brahman. Who are you? “Thou art That.” Your atman and Brahman are one and the same. You have to realize that, but you’ve forgotten it, and you suffer because you’ve forgotten that truth. Yet the moment that you become aware of the truth, you are free. This awareness gives you freedom, and to attain this awareness, you have to practice.

Tips for Living a Balanced Life
  • Enjoy whatever you are doing one-pointedly; give it your undivided attention.
  • Remember that the power which governs the whole universe (God, Absolute Truth, or Brahman) is everywhere—within you and without.
  • Keep in mind that all the things of the world are gifts, but they are not yours.
  • Develop a philosophy of life that is based on selfless love, or non-attachment.

The first step is to practice remembering all the time that the Lord of Life is everywhere. When you remember him, then you cannot be cruel to anyone; you cannot hurt anyone. When people learn this, all crime will stop and there will be only love everywhere. Even when we die, we will die in love. The day we follow the teachings of the Upanishads, which are meant for the whole universe, there will be complete freedom from all bondage, from all problems. Freedom is the central teaching of the Upanishads.

You claim that you enjoy your life, but you do not. Examine whatever you think you enjoy and you’ll find that you are not really present. You are reading this article but you are not really here. Instead, your mind is at work, and when you are at work you are thinking of home, because you have not yet learned how to make your mind one-pointed. Learn to do things with a one-pointed mind. You can never enjoy things in life unless you direct all your energy one-pointedly. Whenever there is distraction and dissipation, there cannot be enjoyment.

Once I was flying from India to the US and the pilot announced that one of the engines had failed. The stewardess’s face turned pale. When I travel I always remember my mantra and do my japa. Suddenly, the thought came into my mind: “When everything else fails, what can I do? Why should I worry when I’m doing my japa?” I simply closed my eyes and something strange happened. I smiled and could not stop laughing. The man sitting next to me, who had terror on his face, looked over at me in shock and said, “Are you mocking me? We are going to die and you are just laughing!” And I said, “So what if we all die? What’s the big deal?” Suddenly the pilot said, “Our second engine has also failed.” We had four engines total; the other two engines worked, and instead of landing in the US, we landed safely in Canada. I am not boasting that I am free, but I merely remembered the Lord, saying to myself, “Why worry? Whatever is going to happen will happen.”

I turned to the other passenger, who said to me, “I don’t like you! Why weren’t you upset? What is the matter with you—are you evil?” I replied, “I like you but I pity you. If being free from fear is evil, then let me be unafraid. I always remember God; this is why I was not afraid.” The more you become aware of the Absolute Truth within you and without, the more you’ll find that your fears vanish. Fears come when truth is not there; once truth is present, there is no place for fear.

The second point to remember is that all the things you have are gifts. These beautiful children that you have—do you really think they are yours? In our worldly language we say, “This is my son.” But instead, say, “What God has given me is beautiful.” If you go on thinking that way, you’ll remember God all the time; you’ll enjoy the presence of your spouse and family. That is a way to enjoy life.

The third point is to practice some self-discipline. Your mind becomes crazy and envious when you look at others and think that the other person has something you don’t have. You enter into an unconscious competition. This competition is going on all over the world—one country against another country, one human being against another. In your daily life, you can practice the mental discipline of remembering that you don’t need anything from anybody. Whatever comes is a gift.

Seeking the happiness of others can transform the modern world and take civilization to its next level.

These three teachings are expressed in the first mantra of the Ishopanishad. Learn to enjoy the state of mind in which you are happy when you see that others are enjoying things. A father or mother does that at home; when their children are happy, they feel proud. If you have attained that state in which you think, “Everyone is enjoying life. O Lord, give them a long and happy life, and give them the power to enjoy life,” then you will also be happy.

Human culture needs to be developed and refined. Instead of thinking of yourself, of your own happiness and your own pleasure, as if you were the only person in the world, people should learn to seek the happiness and joy of others. This is an important message from the teachings of the Upanishads. Such teachings can transform the modern world and take civilization to its next level.

Source: Dawn Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1990)

About the Author

Swami Rama

One of the greatest adepts, teachers, writers, and humanitarians of the 20th century, Swami Rama (1925–1996) is the founder of the Himalayan Institute. Born in northern India, he was raised from early childhood by the Himalayan sage, Bengali Baba. Under the guidance of his master, he traveled from monastery to monastery and studied with a variety of Himalayan saints and sages, including his grandmaster, who was living in a remote region of Tibet. In addition to this intense spiritual training, Swami Rama received higher education in both India and Europe. From 1949 to 1952, he held the prestigious position of Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham in South India. Thereafter, he returned to his master to receive further training at his cave monastery, and finally, in 1969, came to the United States, where he founded the Himalayan Institute. His best-known work, Living with the Himalayan Masters, reveals the many facets of this singular adept and demonstrates his embodiment of the living tradition of the East.