The practical and spiritually elevating philosophy of Akshar-Purushottam revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830 CE) in the early nineteenth century is a unique contribution to the annals of Sanãtana Hindu Dharma. It is rooted in the Vedas and is also contained in the Prasthãntrayi: the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gitã and Brahmasutras...
WHAT ARE SHASTRAS?
‘शास्ति च त्रायते च इति शास्त्रम्।’
‘That which rules and protects is a shastra’. Hindu shastras have continuously taught eternal principles to make man’s feelings become more spiritual, more stable, more profound and more enlightened. They have all along inspired rituals that are relevant to those principles, and prohibited those that seem contradictory to them. They guide us by distinctly describing the means that enable one to follow those rituals.
There is a saying in Sanskrit:
अनेकसंशयोत्व्छेदि परोक्षार्थस्य दर्शकम्।
सर्वस्य लोचनं शास्त्रं यस्य नास्त्यन्घ एव सः॥
‘Shastras destroy all doubts and make principles that seem imperceptible tangible. They are the true eyes of man. Therefore, one who does not read and associate with shastras is certainly blind.’ In India, there are many Hindu shastras. In this article, we will acquaint ourselves with the three foremost shastras collectively known as the Prasthãntrayi, which have been stamped with authority as philosophical treatises.
Prasthãn means a shastra that establishes principles, and trayi indicates the quantity three. The three shastras: The Upanishads, Shrimad Bhagavad Gitã and Brahmasutras are known as the Prasthãntrayi.
It is only through them that a philosophical principle is established firmly (prasthãpan), hence these shastras are called Prasthãn. Therefore, from ancient times, a unique tradition has continuously prevailed whereby Hindu sanãtana sampradayas, using the above three shastras, establish, support and promote their philosophical principles. Hence, Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya, Vallabhacharya, Ramanandacharya and all the other ãcharyas have written their commentaries on these shastras. In the same way, commentaries on these three shastras have also been written in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya as well.
Now we will describe in detail these three prasthãn shastras, which are considered as supreme authority in matters of philosophy.
THE FIRST PRASTHÃN:
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says: “From every sentence deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole shastra is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit…. In the whole world there is no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. And therefore the Upanishads have been the solace of my life, they will be the solace of my death.”
Supporting these words, German scholar Max Muller said: “If these words of Schopenhauer need any confirmation, I willingly give mine.”
Swami Vivekanand says, “We need strength. Who will give us strength? The Upanishads are a treasury of strength. They are capable of giving strength.” There are many such dignitaries who have studied and experienced the Upanishads with astonishment.
Truly, the Upanishads are the world’s greatest literature. The Upanishads liberate people mired in countless miseries and inspire them onto the path of eternal peace and happiness. They truly reveal that ‘तरति शोकमात्मविद् ’ ‘One who attains the knowledge of Paramãtmã overcomes grief’ (Chhãndogya Upanishad: 7/3/1). Moreover, ‘अध्यात्मयोगाघिगमेन देवं मत्वा घीरो हर्षशोकौ जहाति ’ ‘The resolute person who, having attained the brãhmi-sthiti (brãhmic state) of adhyãtma yoga, contemplates upon and offers his devotion to Parabrahman, becomes detached from worldly delight and grief’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/2/12). Such mantras lead man further in the direction of eternal peace and happiness. What is that Paramãtmã like? ‘यो वै भूमा तत्सुखं नाल्पे सुखमस्ति’ ‘Only Paramãtmã, who is the greatest of all, is full of bliss. The whole of creation, which is inferior to him, contains no bliss’ (Chhãndogya Upanishad: 7/23/1). How can we attain Paramãtmã? The Upanishads disclose, ‘ब्रह्मविदाप्नोति परम्।’’ ‘One who becomes akshar-rup (brahmarup) attains Parabrahman’ (Taittiriya Upanishad, Ãnandvalli, Mantra-1). And finally giving such counsel as ‘न पश्यो मृत्युं पश्यति न रोगं नोत दुःखताम्’, ‘Disease, misery, birth and death no longer remain for one who has attained brahmavidyã (the true knowledge of Brahman and Parabrahman)’ (Chhãndogya Upanishad: 7/26/2). Such teachings bestow man with moksha.
They give spiritual proclamations such as ‘आत्मा वा अरे द्रष्टव्यः श्रोतव्यो मन्तव्यो निदिध्यासितव्यः’, ‘One should experience Paramãtmã; therefore one should listen to talks about him, reflect upon him and meditate upon him’ (Bruhadãranyaka Upanishad: 2/4/5). One cannot but be convinced that the Upanishads are truly an ocean of eternal principles and an indisputable source of utmost peace and supreme happiness. Since time immemorial, their pure, divine streams have gifted the world with serene peace.
WHAT DOES ‘UPANISHAD’ MEAN?
‘उपनिषद्यते प्राप्यते ज्ञायते ब्रह्मविद्या अनया इति उपनिषद्।’ ‘That by which brahmavidyã can be known and attained is Upanishad.’ This is the philosophical meaning of the word. On a literal level upa means ‘near’ and nishad means ‘to sit’. It means ‘to sit near’. So ‘Upanishad’ can also mean upãsanã (since, ãsana also means ‘to sit’). The Upanishads are the shastras of upãsanã. Therefore the message of accepting the discipleship of the brahmaswarup guru, attaining brahmavidyã from that guru and offering upãsanã to Parabrahman echoes from the very word ‘Upanishad’.
THE LOCATION OF THE UPANISHADS
The base of the Upanishads are our Vedas. The Upanishads are, in fact, a specific part of the Vedas. The deep philosophical principles of the Vedas have been concisely collected in them. That is why they are also known as Vedãnta.
WHO CREATED THE UPANISHADS?
In Sanãtana Dharma the Vedas are revered as being without beginning, eternal, and of divine origin. The Upanishads are a part of the Vedas. Therefore, questions regarding who wrote the Upanishads and when they were written do not arise. Our sanãtana shastras clearly explain that at the beginning of a kalp Paramãtmã himself sequentially manifests them as they were before (Shrimad Bhãgavat: 3/12/37-38). For this reason the Nirukta, a supporting shastra of the Vedas and, in effect, a Vedic lexicon, states that the rishis have been inspired to reveal the Vedic mantras, but they are not the composers (Nirukta, Naigamkãnd: 2/11). Maharshi Parashar also says, ‘न कश्र्चिद् वेदकर्ता।’, ‘There is no creator of the Vedas.’
Therefore, questions regarding the sequence of the Upanishads – which was created first and which later? – are inappropriate and run counter to sanãtana Vedic principles. Moreover, great, wise rishis, like Maharshi Manu, have called the Upanishads ‘अनादिनिघना दिव्या वाक्’, ‘eternal divine precepts’ (Manusmriti). Though this may not be grasped by scholars brought up in the Western culture, or to some modern Indians who have been influenced by their ideas, Hindu spiritual traditions accept that the Upanishads are without beginning, eternal, and not of human origin. Bhagwan Swaminarayan also mentions in his discourses that the Upanishads are eternal shastras.
THE STYLE OF THE UPANISHADS
The Upanishads are discourses that lead to moksha. These discourses may be between two people, like that between father and son, as in the Chhãndogya Upanishad; or between many people, such as that between the devtãs and Yaksha in the Kena Upanishad. Sometimes we may even find a discourse with oneself like that in mantras such as ‘अहं ब्रह्मास्मि’ (Bruhadãranyaka Upanishad: 1/4/10). In some places we find a philosophical question-answer discussion, like that between six disciples and their guru, Pippalad, as in the Prashna Upanishad; and in some places we find affectionate words of wisdom naturally flowing from the guru’s heart, like those of Sanatsujat. In other texts we come across the spiritual contemplation of great meditating yogis, like in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad; and in other places we come across discussions regarding brahmavidyã between wise learned rishis: like that between Yagnavalkya, Ashwal, Artbhag, Ushast, Kahod and others in the assembly of King Janak in the Bruhadãranyaka Upanishad. In this manner, the Upanishads are sometimes a school, sometimes a contemplation chamber and sometimes an assembly.
The Upanishads are full of a variety of examples and illustrations. Through many short stories they have made deep spiritual knowledge comprehensible. Clear logic and meaningful presentations make them stand out. Moreover, whatever has been taught in the Upanishads has been taught in the lap of nature, on the undefiled banks of a river, under a great banyan tree, in the extremely peaceful caves of great mountains like the Himalayas, or under a clear, open, glittering sky, thus making the discourses more natural and more spiritual. Perhaps, that is why their mantras captivate, focus and calm the mind.
THE NUMBER OF UPANISHADS
Today, more than 108 Upanishads can be found in book form. Nevertheless, we cannot say that there were only this many. Looking at the extent of the Vedas we can affirm that the collection of Upanishads in the Vedic branches must be just as extensive. It is unfortunate that we have lost a lot due to cruel foreign attacks and our own negligence. However, whatever has survived is ample.
Of the Upanishads that are available today, there are some which almost all the great acharyas and scholars of the Hindu sampradayas equally accept as authoritative. There are ten such Upanishads. A well-known shloka contains the names: र्त्व्इश-केन-कठ-प्रश्न-मुण्ड-माण्डूक्य-तित्तिरिः। एतरेयं च छान्दोग्यं बृहदारण्यकं दश॥’, ‘The ten Upanishads are: Ishãvãsya Upanishad, Kena Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Prashna Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Mãndukya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad, Aitareya Upanishad, Chhãndogya Upanishad, Bruhadãranyaka Upanishad.’
Of these ten Upanishads the Aitareya Upanishad is the only one from the Rig Veda. The Ishãvãsya, Katha, Taittiriya and Bruhadãranyaka Upanishads are from the Yajur Veda. The Kena and Chhãndogya Upanishads are both from the Sama Veda. The Prashna, Mundaka and Mãndukya Upanishads are from the Atharva Veda.
The mantras of the Upanishads are known as ‘Shruti’, and for this very reason the Upanishad prasthãn is also known as the shruti-prasthãn.
THE SUBJECT MATTER OF
The Upanishads are the shastra of brahmavidyã. Brahmavidyã is the main subject matter of the Upanishads. What does brahmavidyã mean? Defining it, guru Angira tells his disciple, Shaunak, ‘येनाऽक्षरं पुरुषं वेद सत्यं प्रोवाच तां तत्त्वतो ब्रह्मविद्याम्’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/2/13). This sentence gives the definition of brahmavidyã: ‘That by which Akshar and Purush are known in their actuality is brahmavidyã.’ Here, the word ‘Akshar’ refers to Aksharbrahman, and ‘Purush’ refers to Purushottam, Parabrahman. This implies that the main aim of all the Upanishads is to philosophically explain the divine form, virtues and grandeur of Aksharbrahman and Parabrahman in order to liberate every spiritual aspirant from worldly bondage. By reading the Upanishads one will experience how clearly, simply and naturally this explanation has been given.
Now let us acquaint ourselves with the second prasthãn.
Translatedby: Sadhu Paramvivekdas