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Upasana: A path to Enlightenment

by Dr. Minati Mishra
Thursday 24th February 2011

To know the Self and to discover the ultimate truths behind the world of phenomena, and thereby getting rid of the sufferings of life caused by ignorance is what forms the core of the teachings of the Upanishads. Desires, attachments and cravings for worldly enjoyments are due to wrong identification of the body, mind and the senses. A person, who discovers him to be different from all these associations, can no longer be fettered by samsara. The Upanishads show us the way of self-inquiry intuited and perfected by the ancient seers as the chief method of self-knowledge, which is frequently supplemented by different forms of upasana. Knowledge arising out of inquiry is direct and immediate. Like any other direct knowledge, its truth is objectively determined. Such knowledge, by its emergence, destroys avidya and the reality of the world posited by it. On the other hand, a person having faith in the scriptures meditates and worships constantly on an object without distractions till he comes to realize that object, or his identity with that object. As samvadi bhrama becomes knowledge after the attainment of the desired goal, upasana when ripened, leads to emancipation and therein it is transformed into knowledge. Thus, upasana culminates in self-realization and can be practiced with brahma-vicara or independent of it.

Right from the Vedic times to the present day, the method of upasana has undergone considerable changes. In the period of Rig Veda, upasana primarily consisted of prayers and hymns sung in praise of the gods (forces of nature). In the period of the Brahmanas the liturgical part became prominent as it is seen from the details of different sacrifices. At the time of the Upanishads, the symbolic and the mystic element predominated. However there was no hard and fast division, as every element was present in all these phases with only the shifting of the emphasis on something or the other. After the Vedic period, in the Puranas and the Tantras, upasana assumed a new shape with idols, avataras, diagrams and mantras of a different order, but it was not totally divorced from the mainstream and the undercurrent was the same that continued to flow from the Vedic times whose rationale is found only in the Upanishadic philosophy. Upanishads make it clear that whatever form upasana might have assumed, the basic aim is always to realize one’s hidden divine nature.

The major Upanishads such as the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanishad are replete with symbolism which not only serve as techniques for meditation but also provide clue to the understanding of the Upanishadic philosophy. Badarayana, the writer of the Brahma Sutras, says that the words, such as akasa (space), prana (vital energy) and aditya (the sun) when used as symbols, abandon their primary meaning and signify Brahman only. Sankara, commenting on these aphorisms, says that the use of akasa as a symbol is due to its similarity of infiniteness with Brahman, since infiniteness is the sign of Brahman. Brahman, in the true sense is the only absolutely infinite and akasa, is not absolutely infinite, but akasa is taken as a symbol taking into account its empirical infiniteness. In the Chandogya Upanishad, Brahman is described as the resplendent light that shines beyond the heaven and the other worlds, and as the inner light (the Self) in all beings. Clarifying the doubt, as how the all pervasive and part-less Brahman be described as being limited to places as “beyond the heaven” and as “inside all beings”, Sankara says that though Brahman is all pervasive, there is no contradiction if its association with certain places is accepted for upasana. Likewise, when the sun is meditated as Brahman, the view of Brahman is imposed on it, as a form of adhyasa. Brahman, which is in fact free from all attributes, or nirguna is seen as saguna or endowed with infinite attributes when it becomes an object of upasana through symbols. Thus the “Impersonal” becomes “Personal”, “it” becomes “He”, the Absolute becomes the “God” or an infinite number of gods accordingly as one perceives. The early Vedic gods such as Agni, Vayu, Indra, etc. are not merely the personifications of natural phenomena. They are, on the other hand, the symbolic representation of the forces working immanently in various aspects of nature. They also signify the inner principles such as the senses, mind, life-force, speech, etc, that make living possible. From the context of upasana, Prajapati is said to be the unity of all gods, or Brahman (saguna) endowed with infinite attributes, and the goal of all kinds of upasana is the achievement of identity with him.

Without symbols, bereft of names and forms, Brahman cannot be made the object of upasana because the upanishads repudiate the very possibility of Brahman becoming an object of knowledge. However, from a different point of view, upasana of the attribute-less Brahman is also possible. The upanishad describes the upasana of atman (the Self) as free from other associations by belittling other forms of upasana. – “He who meditates upon one and the other does not know; it is incomplete, (incomplete) as such by worshipping one and the other. Therefore, one should meditate upon it as atman only”. The various forms of upasana, though different, end in atma-vijnana and have one common goal, atma-labha. When pursued with Self-knowledge, upasana is conducive to the other, but independently, it can lead to enlightenment through the cleansing of the mind and the senses, culminating in atma-bodha and moksha via krama-mukti.

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