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Upasana, Karma and Jnana

by Dr. Minati Mishra
6th March 2011

The Veda has two kandas or parts namely, karma or action and jnana or knowledge. The first comprises the major portions of the Brahmanas, generally containing the previous chapters, and the second consists of the Upanisads, coming in the later half of the works though they may sometimes occur in the Samhita part of the Veda. Here, karma signifies the rituals such as the sacrifices as prescribed in the Brahmanas. These are performed with a view to attaining various fruits either in this life or after death in the heaven. Knowledge or jnana means Atma-vidya (Self-knowledge), knowing the Self as identical with Brahman. Apart from these two, there is a third kanda, the upasana kanda, which describes various methods of upasana in different forms of meditation. Sometimes it may be found to be mixed with a little bit of ritual. Different forms of upasana are mainly met with in the Aranyakas and the Upanisads. While the karmakanda aims at various worldly or otherworldly attainments, jnanakanda aims at the attainment of the knowledge of the Self, which gets fulfillment in liberation. But upasana enriches both knowledge and action, as the case may be with reference to the context.

After conceiving the nature of karma, jnana and upasana it is required to ascertain their relationship. As conceived by Sankara, knowledge, in the sense of self-realisation, is always antagonistic to karma. Karma is rooted in ignorance through which there is mutual superimposition between the body, senses, etc. and the self. When one performs karma, one has to feel himself identical with the body, mind and senses and the various worldly relationships and limitations owing to this identification. Since Self knowledge destroys this wrong identification with the body and takes away the various relations created out of this wrong identification, self knowledge and Karma cannot co-exist.
But it is to be noted that knowledge is directly opposed to the actions known as kamya karma which are performed with desires but not to actions intended for purification of the mind. Commenting on the line of B.U “The Brahmanas seek to know him (the self) through svadhyaya (study), yajna (sacrifices), dana (offering), and tapas (penance)”, he says that actions can be conducive to the attainment of knowledge as they purify the mind when they are performed without desire.

Coming back to the relevance of upasana, we notice that, in the Upanisads, it is held subservient to atma-vidya. It partakes both karma and jnana so far as it is employed for the enrichment of these two. According to Sankara, upasana is kartr-tantra which means to be dependent on the agent, the doer, like karma, where as knowledge is vastu-tantra which means to be dependent on the object. Knowledge arises out of inquiry which is direct and immediate. Like any other direct knowledge, viz, the knowledge of the pot, the knowledge of Brahman is also objectively determined. It cannot be prevented or be altered whether one likes it or not. But unlike direct knowledge, upasana is fully dependent on the will, likes, dislikes and the mental setup of the person who undertakes it. So, it can never be vastu-tantra like knowledge. However, upasana can be helpful for both knowledge and action as the case may be. In the case of action, such as the Vedic rites, upasana forms the essence without which actions become meaningless. So, upasana is the rationale behind the actions. But in the context of knowledge, upasana becomes conducive by redirecting the mind towards the Self.

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