In a Lululemon obsessed universe, yoga philosophy often gets lost in translation and takes the back seat. According to the Upanishads, “he who has the right understanding and whose mind is steady is the ruler of his life, like a good (front seat) driver with well-trained horses.” Roughly one percent of the yoga population starts from the inside out by reading ancient texts and understanding the wisdom of yoking before trying asanas (physical yoga). The few that have had the opportunity to go inward before trying hatha yoga (yoga poses) are often called jnana yogis. Jnana yogis, the rare breed in today’s society, seek and find liberation through knowledge. Indian philosopher Srankacharya proclaims “knowledge destroys ignorance.” A couple weeks ago, I had a great fortune, of learning under my teacher, Alan C. Haras, or Bhakta Das, directly, an accomplished jnana yogi of 20 years, and who is currently under 40 years old! Here is what he taught me about the Upanishads and how understanding the ancient teachings are a must for any serious yogi.
The Upanishads were apparently recorded on 108 leafs more than 2000 years ago. The subject matter of knowledge is vast and takes a lifetime to absorb. This summary is just a cliff note tidbit version to warm up your tapas (spiritual discipline/devotion) off the mat. Grab a cup of herbal or tea if you are ready for more yoga wisdom!
The Upanishads were codified as a portion of the Vedas.
The Vedas contain four segments:
- Brahmanas (guidebooks)
- Aranyakas (forest texts), and
- the Upanishads or collection of wisdom also known as Vedanta
Sanskrit mantras are one way to learn yoga outside of the hatha yoga realm as they sublimate anxious, unfocused energy or vrttis (disturbances in consciousness) into a higher vibration when repeated.
The Brahmanas stem from the word Brahman which means to “swell, gush forth, expand, and greater than the greatest, although the mystery is unknowable, it is infinitely knowable.” Brahma, is the name, and creator of primal matter. Brahmanas are guidebooks on the Vedas including commentary on ritual. The Aranyakas contain specific rituals for aspirants on how to maintain a daily ritual (sadhana) in order to reap the benefits of the inner practice. Incorporating Vedic meditation and performing Agni Hotra rituals are one way of practicing Vedic life.
Upanishads simply means to “sit down near” a teacher and to absorb wisdom. Originally an oral tradition, Vedic knowledge was only written down after the ancient yogi noticed the memories of human beings were diminishing.
Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge, consists of four practices
1. Viveka– Discernment/ What is real does not change. Discrimination between the real and the unreal, between the transient and permanent.
2. Vairagya- non-attachment to the material world
3. Shatsampat which contains 6 values:
Shama- or Sama, resolved peace
Dama- control or mastery over external senses
Uparati- Reserving duties or dharma, because something must be done.
Tittiksha- Endurance in the practice. In other words, maintaining a cheerful attitude when faced with unpleasant situations.
Shraddha- faith in teachings. Samadana- focusing mind on one thing
4. Mumukshutva– a burning desire for liberation.
Mundaka (Mandukya), similar to Manduka, the popular yoga mat brand has some yoga philosophy relevance. Next time you’re practicing on your mat, remember Manduka means frog, it is number 6 out of 108, the shortest verse of prose in the Upanishads. Atman, Brahman and the eternal are mentioned often in this section. “The lower wisdom is in the four sacred Vedas, and in the six kinds of knowledge that help to know, to sing, and to use the Vedas: definition and grammar, pronunciation and poetry, ritual and the signs of heaven. But the higher wisdom is that which leads to the Eternal.” (Mascaro, 1965)
The author of the Upanishads, Vyasa, compiled the Vedas. Although some believe Vyasa was one person, Haras says, the Vedas don’t have just one human author. The Vedas is a combination of shruti, which means that which is heard by rishis, or saints, in a teacher-student setting, with the teacher as the rishi. As a result of students hearing similar stories, short stories developed to explain the meaning of the texts. One prime example is that of Satyakama Jabala. Satyakama means truth and kama means desire. Satyakama Jabala sought truth from a guru. However, he did not come from a higher caste order, as many brahmans and sages did at that time. In fact, he didn’t know who his real father was. His mother only gave him his namesake. On his journey to become a student of sacred wisdom, he met a master and the master asked from what caste or family he originated. Satyakama replied that in his youth he was poor, and he only knew his namesake but did not know his father. The master said to him: “Thou art a Brahman since thou hast not gone away from om truth. Come to my son, I will take thee as a student (Mascaro, 1965).” The master then instructs Satyakama to go learn from nature, or the ultimate reality, brahman and to return to him after he has spent time in nature learning from the sun, trees, and animals.
In another story written in the Katha Upanishads, the story of the Yama and Nachiketas. Nachiketas is sent by his father to Lord Yama, the god of death. Nachiktas waits patiently to die, but Yama is late to show up and because he is tardy, he grants him three boons. His first wish was to have a peaceful relationship with his father on the earth plane, even though his father sent him directly to Yama. His second wish was to attain the joy of heaven after this life. Being a true seeker, he stumped Yama with his third wish. He asked Yama to explain the mystery of life and death. He yearned to know how rebirth is determined and what happens after death. Yama offered Nachiketas all kinds of material gifts instead of answering the ultimate question. Pleased with his devotion to the immaterial, Yama finally explained to him that the self is inseparable from Brahman, the supreme spirit in the universe. As a result, Nachiketas was freed from the cycle of samsara or birth, death and rebirth because he was not attached to the material world.
The spirit or atman gives consciousness to the body: he is the driver (Maitri Upanishad).
The poets say this is the Spirit who wanders on this earth from body to body, free from the light and darkness which follow our works. He is hidden behind the veil of the three conditions and constituents of the universe; but in the joy of his law of righteousness he is ever ONE, he is ever one (Mascaro, 1965).
In conclusion of the Upanishads workshop, after sitting near Haras during his Upanishads discourse, he references his subjective allegory and speaks of his beloved teacher, Shyamdas. He shares that Shyamdas once stayed up for days after a long flight, singing ecstatically in kirtan, applying uparati to his life by attending to household duties. A younger Haras noticed he hardly slept. Shyamdas said, please don’t follow my sleeping regimen. I am absorbed in Atman. Atman is always awake. I don’t need to sleep much.” The atman is the unchanging and eternal, identical with the absolute reality. The higher wisdom is that which leads to the eternal. Alan reminds us of “Upadhi.” Upadhi in sanskrit means a covering or a carrier. If there is a pot, we tend to identify with the clay or lump of matter, rather than space inside it. Just as in life, there is more to life than flesh; there is the eternal spirit underneath the mold of our making. If we identify with the eternal space (atman) we are rather than the body, liberation or a higher level of consciousness may be found?
Mascaro, Juan. The Upanishads. 1965
Bodhi Seed Yoga & Wellness. The Wisdom of the Upanishads with Alan Haras. Live.