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Upasana in the Upanisads

by Dr. Minati Mishra
6th March 2011

The sages know that there is no greater attainment than the attainment of the self, says Sureswara, the chief disciple of Sankara, in the Manasollasa, his commentary on the Daksinamurti Stotra- atmalabhat paro labho nastiti munayo viduh. The greatest discovery of man is indeed the discovery of the self. The ancient seers discovered that the mystery of the whole world remains hidden in one’s own self. They not only discovered this great truth for themselves but also led down some methods for the seekers following which anybody can discover this truth. The Upanisads show us the way of self inquiry intuited by the seers as the chief method of self knowledge. Yajnavalkya said to his wife-atma va are drastavyah srotavyo mantavyo nididhyasitavyah, “O Maitreyi, the self should be realized, should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon.” Taking these lines from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, Acharya Sankara standardized sravana, manana and nididhyana as the chief method of self realization.

Apart from this, the Upanisads describe different forms of upasana through different symbols, names and forms. Though these upasanas have their specific results with reference to their forms and context, they also supplement the chief method of inquiry, i.e. sravana, manana and nididhyasana so far as they make the mind fit for atma-jijnasa. They also give rise to krama mukti even though mukti or emancipation can only be achieved through pure Brahma vidya. Krama mukti is a gradual process through which the individual attains higher and higher forms of life till he attains the status of Prajapati or Isvara as distinct from Brahman which is said to be free from all qualities and actions. All the upasanas as described in the Upanisads have krama mukti as their common goal, which reaches the final point with the attainment of identity with Prajapati (the stage of saguna Brahman). Those who attain this, they discover the true identity of the self at this stage, and get the final emancipation. But self inquiry unmixed with any upasana results in pure Brahma vijnana, which directly gives rise to mukti, direct and immediate, without any gradual process like karma mukti. This is the way Sankaracharya explains the importance and the necessity of the upasanas. Thus, upasana is conducive to the consummation of self knowledge and can be pursued even by those who follow self inquiry as the chief method for Brahma-realization. Even a person who is not capable of making self inquiry can be benefited by upasana which makes the mind fit to acquire knowledge in the later stages.

The ultimate reality known as Brahman in the Upanisads is conceived in two different ways. When it is conceived as free from all attributes, relations, names and forms, it is known as nirguna Brahman. It transcends the world and cannot be grasped by the mind. As such it cannot properly be made an object of upasana. But when it is described as having attributes, in association with maya or its products, cast in names and forms, it is known as saguna Brahman, Isvara or Prajapati in the Upanisads. Brahman which is itself Consciousness, Existence and Bliss, becomes omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent through maya. The Svetasvatara Upanisad says- mayam tu prakrtim vidyat mayinam tu mahesvaram. In the latter form, Brahman becomes the object of upasana. Thus the impersonal becomes personal, the Absolute becomes the God or the infinite number of gods accordingly as one perceives.

The word upasana is derived from the verbal root ‘as’ with ‘upa’ (prefix) and ‘yuc’ (ana) (suffix) which literally means ‘to be near’. Thus, upasana is a sort of awareness when the upasaka comes near his upasya. It is roughly translated as worship. But it has a special significance. Reverence, devotion, engrossment, submission etc are generally the characteristics of worship which are basically emotional traits. But the upanisadic upasana is more than this. Though all these traits characterize the upanisadic upasana, it is more a cognitive and intuitive act than an emotional outburst. It is more meditative than ritualistic. When the worshipper comes closer to the object of worship he gradually becomes engrossed in it. So, upasana is a state of complete absorption in the upasya. This is why Sankaracharya says- upasanam nama tatparyam. It is an unbroken flow of consciousness through which the worshipper enters the very being of the object meditated upon. So, upasana as described in the Upanisads is not simply a passive meditative act, it is more a process of active involvement. Here both the cognitive and the emotive faculties of the mind are fused in a state of total absorption.

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