Mandukya Upanishad

This is an interesting introduction to the Mandukya Upanishad by James Swartz. I haven't gotten to the text of the Upanishad yet, but I was struck by his clear presentation of the most basic ideas behind truth realization. I will post more of the Upanishad if something interesting turns up.

One of many translations available online:


Perception, inference, and language are means of knowledge. The means of knowledge we use is determined by the type of object we want to know. For example, if I want to see a sunset I can’t use my ears. Knowledge of thought depends on intellect. To understand feelings I should have a heart.

The means of knowing relative things is obvious, but the knowledge revealing the limitless I is subtle because it has to remove a deep and hidden obstacle, the ignorance of my limitless nature.

For the means to operate properly, assuming a clear message is coming from the scripture through the teacher, the mind must be trained to listen. Listening with an open mind requires disciplined and consistent setting aside of cherished views of oneself and world. A means of knowledge is not brainwashing, accepting a new belief system; its only purpose is to deliver of a clear vision of truth, the limitless I.

Simply hearing that one is free of limitation is not enough. Doubt comes from incomplete and incorrect thinking and is only removed by careful and patient reflection. Meditation as a thought-free state or religious ritual as devotional practice are valuable tools for purifying the mind, but
will not remove self doubt. So, along with the knowledge that I am limitless Awareness, I should follow the method of thinking enjoined by the scripture, the negation of all incorrect views about the nature of the world and myself.

The most formidable obstacle to the assimilation of the truth is the thought “If only I were different or the world were different, I would be happy.” Looking forward to an ideal inner or outer situation is futile because life and oneself is already and always perfect. When this thought is removed the mind enjoys limitless vision. So spiritual practice, meditation if you will, is the struggle to purify beliefs supporting the notion of oneself as a limited being.

Words can only reveal known objects. For example, the word ‘television’ wouldn’t have been understood a hundred years ago. Words only work to describe substances, properties of substances, actions, species or classes, and relationships, so how can the limitless I, which is apparently not an experienced object and obviously beyond these categories, be revealed through the teachings of Vedanta?

If I say “tree,” a tree thought takes place in the mind because we have experienced trees, but the words “limitless I” don’t mean anything to most of us because we think of our ourselves as limited I’s. And the limitless I is the part of ourselves that can never be objectified, so it seems words won’t work to reveal it. However, if the thought that we’re limited is a delusion and the limitless I present and accounted for, an intimate part of every transaction, words can reveal it.

Vedanta tackles the word problem by first informing me that I’m an unlimited I. That I’m limitless is indicated by the fact that though I have literally hundreds of thousands of unique experiences in my lifetime, I continually experience myself as a simple conscious being, one transcending all experiences. The same I, unaffected by time, witnessed my baby body, youth body, adult body, and feeble old-age body and their myriad transactions.
Second part of the intro. Still interesting.

To say we’re unlimited by nature does not mean that if we knew who we were we could walk on water, fly like birds, or leap tall buildings in a single bound like Superman. Nor does it mean that we are omniscient, endowed with extraordinary psychic powers, capable of zipping around the cosmos in our spirit bodies. With rare exceptions, the body and mind are limited by Nature and behave in conformity with its laws. And one could hardly imagine a more limited phenomenon than a miracle.

A common example of limitlessness is the “peak” experience when the sense of limitation temporarily dissolves and the person feels completely happy, carefree, peaceful, loving, rich, and powerful. In deep sleep we experience limitless and bliss. Though seemingly a momentary feeling, limitlessness is the most fundamental fact of our existence, our own forgotten nature. That it’s our nature is indicated by the fact that whenever I feel this way I never try to rid myself of the experience, unlike limitation, which I always view as a serious disease.

Though it’s my nature I don’t see myself as limitless because I’m identified with my limited selves. Not to put too fine a point on it, when I negate and cease to identify with my relative selves, (which is the purpose of this Upanishad) my non-negatable limitless Self is (hopefully) realized by default. The rediscovery of oneself as a limitless awareful Being is known as liberation6 or enlightenment.

The trick lies in recognizing oneself as limitless awareness without turning oneself into an object. When we turn ourselves into objects we suffer. In a dream a man decided to try to find his waking self and looked high and low with no success. Dejected, he sat down under a tree when he heard a voice from the sky say, “Why don’t you wake up.”
Surrendering his status as a dreamer and leaving the dream world, he discovered the waker by becoming the waker without turning himself into an object. In fact, the dreamer was the waker, temporarily identified with the conditions in the dream world. Similarly, from the point of view of the limitless I, all waking state entities are consciously or unconsciously searching the limitless I in a state that doesn’t contain it as an object. The only way we are going to discover what we’re searching is to awaken from this waking dream.

In the twilight a thirsty traveler approached a village well. Reaching down, she recoiled in fear when she saw a big snake coiled next to the bucket. Unable to move for fear of being bitten, she imagined terrible things, including her own death. At that time an old man coming to the well noticed her predicament.
“What’s the problem?” he asked kindly.
“Snake! Snake! Get a stick before it strikes!” she whispered frantically.
The old man burst out laughing. “Hey!” he said, “Take it easy. That’s no snake. It’s the well rope. It just looks like a snake in the darkness.”

Though never in danger, the misapprehended rope produced intense fear. Our existential fears and desires come from mistaking the limitless I for the limited I. The fear of the snake arose simultaneously with the misapprehension of the rope and, significantly, vanished when the rope was correctly perceived.

In the Mandukya Upanishad, an English rendition of which is given below, the rope represents the limitless I and the snake the limited I broken into three sub-I’s: the waker, dreamer, and sleeper and their respective worlds.8 In the story, the traveler, who represents anyone striving to know who they are, makes a mistake and sees a snake where there is only a rope. This superimposition9 of our limited self or selves on our real or limitless I (which is going on all the time) is the cause of much suffering. The removal of this error is the purpose of the Upanishad.

This mistake, a symbol of normal perception, took place in twilight, which represents the waking entity’s partially-conscious state of mind. In broad daylight (full knowledge) or pitch darkness (total ignorance) no such error could have occurred. Because we’re so obsessed with the objects of perception and the limited I’s reactions to them, in normal perception we vaguely or incompletely see the limitless I even though it’s an intimate part of every transaction. And we are unaware that the snake needs the rope, borrows its reality from the rope. Meaning that my life exists because I exist, not the other way around. Even if we are superficially aware of our Consciousness we don’t understand that deep inquiry into it confers freedom and endless bliss. Our story has a happy ending because the snake disappears into the rope and the traveler’s suffering ceases. In reality, the disappearance of the snake, all our false conceptions and discriminations, except in exceptional cases, comes about after long and patient inner work.

The aim of the Mandukya is to analyze the creation10 and arrive at truth, the limitless I. But the analysis of the creation, as modern science will testify is daunting because every advance in knowledge opens up a new area of ignorance. So the Upanishad takes a shortcut. By equating the limitless I, Consciousness, with the world, as it does in the first mantra...“The whole cosmos is the word AUM”...we come to understand the world by inquiring into the Self.
The world as we know it is not a strange Sanskrit term. Physically we see it as matter, the elements in various permutation combinations, and psychologically we understand it as subtle matter: thought, feeling, perception, knowledge, memory, dreams, fantasies, etc.

In what sense is everything we experience the word AUM?
Words are sound symbols. Of what is AUM the symbol? Modern science tells us that matter is just energy in a state of motion, vibration. The energy that becomes different types of matter by vibrating at different frequencies is symbolized in Vedic science as AUM because, it is said, this sound encompasses all the sounds the voice box is capable of creating. While the idea is logical, the fact that mind and matter are vibrating energy, not the symbol, concerns us here.

What is the nature of this energy? Just as matter is energy in a state of vibration, energy is Consciousness apparently vibrating. While energy is a moving form of Consciousness, Consciousness itself is energyless, all- pervasive, and unmoving. So how does the unmoving Consciousness, AUM, become dualistic, capable of movement? The best explanation I’ve found is that from Consciousness’ point of view there is no dualistic, vibrating, energy-filled universe. But from the point of view of a mind, seen through a vibrating mind, the universe apparently dances.

Nonetheless, because our bodies and minds are insentient matter, they can only be moved by something else. And that something else is Consciousness. The materialist view, which has arisen because the senses are taken as the sole means of knowledge, that mind evolved from matter is patently illogical since evolution implies a conscious agent. Though unmoving by nature, Consciousness is capable of inspiring movement in Its vehicles.

Are the vehicles different from Consciousness? Is the spider different from its web? Though apparently different from the spider, the web, being part and parcel of the spider, is non-separate from it. It is the spider minus the intelligence to create and manipulate its creation. Likewise the universe, AUM, though apparently a vast field of vibrating subtle and gross matter, is nothing but subtle and gross forms of Consciousness. How far, the sages say, is the wave from the ocean?
Seen through the filter of time the limitless I is said to be the cause of which the universe is an effect. Is the cause separate from its effect? The effect is the cause in a different form, just as a pot is not separate from the mud that sustains it. If we are little pots of consciousness how far can we be from the Consciousness that sustains us? How far can we be from the Consciousness that sustains all pots?

In this sense, the whole universe is Consciousness, symbolized by the word “AUM.”
The Mandukya’s definition of AUM, the limitless I, is: “That which exists in all periods of time, past, present and future, before the past and after the future.” And we can add a secondary definition: That which exists in all states of consciousness and beyond is AUM. Anything not conforming to this definition isn’t real. Experienceable, yes, temporarily existent, but only seemingly real. Since all forms of Consciousness, mind and matter, don’t fit the definition, for the purpose of someone striving for Self knowledge they are not the limitless I. To discover myself as the limitless I, I have to see who I am minus the body and mind. When I’m one hundred percent convinced I’m the limitless I alone, I can take back the forms without suffering limitation.

Since only one I fits the definition and It is present and accounted for, its analysis is straightforward. If, for example, I wish to understand the nature of water I needn’t drink from every river, lake, and ocean in the world. I need only analyze one drop. If the creation is the limitless I, I need only inquire into myself to find out the nature of everything.
A lot of Indian philosophy is basically Idealism, a long time before Berkeley.

Gaudapada took over the Buddhist doctrines that ultimate reality is pure consciousness (vijñapti-mātra)

The Yogacara school of Buddhism (Asanga and Vasubandhu, 4th century), which influenced the author of this Upanishad, is arguably the first Idealist philosophy.
Did you find a good survey of Hinduism you can recommend? Or have you been piecing sources together?

Ian Gordon

Did you find a good survey of Hinduism you can recommend? Or have you been piecing sources together?
I got the stuff about Yogacara and idealism by reading Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Very concise (!) - all of Hindu and Buddhist philosophical thought boiled down to under 150 pages :eek: - but well done. Right now I'm reading a primer on Hinduism as such, An Introduction to Hinduism by Gavin Flood, which only has a small chapter on philosophy at the end, but introduces you to all the dimensions of the hindu religious traditions. A bit textbook-ish, but also good. I'm up to my neck in Vishnu, Shiva and Devi!

Ian Gordon

Awesome. You are in for a lifetime of discovery! I really enjoyed Thich Nhat Hahn's book on the life of the Buddha when you get there.

That little fellow can really crank out the books. I hope he is not buying gold plated Rolls Royce automobiles!
About a year ago, I started reading a biography of the Buddha that attempts to create as historically accurate a portrait of his life as possible: Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based On the Most Reliable Texts. By Hajime Nakamura, a Japanese scholar. I got halfway through the first volume. I stopped because I wasn't in the mood for it at the time, but I was enjoying the erudite approach, and I'll surely give it another go soon enough. (part two here)
I really liked this part:

With reference to my son, I’m a father. With reference to my father, a son. With reference to my wife, I’m a husband. To my boss I’m an employee. I’m a devotee with reference to God and a taxpayer with reference to the government. With reference to myself I’m a success, failure, victim, victimizer, sports fan, audiophile or any of the thousands of ready-made identities available today. The many often conflicting roles we play as waking and dream state egos are limited by each other, other selves playing similar or different roles, and our ideas about the meaning of these selves. Caught in this thicket of identities, is it any wonder I suffer? In the end, spiritual life, no matter what the path, always boils down finding out who one is minus all one’s roles and experiences.

Not that there’s anything “wrong” with role playing. Society only functions efficiently when our roles are well-defined and we play them impeccably. But when we identify ourselves completely with our roles we suffer. Spiritually, identification with the role, not the role itself, is the problem. For example, though an actress identifies herself with the character, she seamlessly returns to her original identity when the curtain falls. Even though the audience completely believes her illusion, she remembers her real self throughout.

After patient analysis I can see I’m not any of these personalities. What am I then? The limitless I. And what is the limitless I? The limitless I is called the substrate [27] in Vedanta. A substrate makes the error that I’m limited possible. The rope in our example, is a substrate, something whose nature is so subtle it is possible to mistake it for something else. The fact that I’m formless Consciousness makes the playing of myriad roles possible.

And I feel this is the truth. Why? Because I can experience it. I can play the different roles, and yet know that none of them are "me". And by living with this attitude, life becomes a game. It also becomes easier to change around between roles, as needed. You can choose to wear the appropriate "mask" for a given situation.

To some, this may sounds like I am just being a "phony" person. But I don't mean that I wear a "mask" in any deceitful sense. I wear one in the same way that everyone is doing all the time. The difference is that most don't realize it is a mask and that it can be changed. They are like actors that have gotten lost in their role and forgotten that it's all just a game. When you are aware that it's all just an act, the fear goes away, and you can play your character however you want...
I really liked this part:

And I feel this is the truth. Why? Because I can experience it. I can play the different roles, and yet know that none of them are "me". And by living with this attitude, life becomes a game. It also becomes easier to change around between roles, as needed. You can choose to wear the appropriate "mask" for a given situation.

To some, this may sounds like I am just being a "phony" person. But I don't mean that I wear a "mask" in any deceitful sense. I wear one in the same way that everyone is doing all the time. The difference is that most don't realize it is a mask and that it can be changed. They are like actors that have gotten lost in their role and forgotten that it's all just a game. When you are aware that it's all just an act, the fear goes away, and you can play your character however you want...
Yups. You might really enjoy that "unfindable" Scott Kiloby inquiry that I posted earlier this week. It is a quick and interesting exercise. Especially the last one where he wraps it with the "unfindable" absolute. Because that is where a lot of people get hung up. I know I do. Objectifying the absolute, as if it is something that can be experienced. As if the absolute is some thing out there some where. He goes through the same unfindable inquiry where you examine your ideas and conceptions of the absolute and ask "Is this the absolute?" No. "Well is this the absolute, then?" No. And just like peeling away every conception and memory that you think makes up your "self", you work with the absolute and try and peel away your conceptions about it. Awesome shit, man!