Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Key Yoga Teachings: The Upanishads

by Hari Prasad Shastri

From Self-Knowledge Spring 1958

We know almost nothing of the history of the Sages of the Upanishads. They were not fond of fame, and have left of themselves little more than their bare names. The ancient Sages, unlike the self-advertising teachers of today, gave their spiritual experiences in a simple, direct way. They did not enter into controversies unless a vital spiritual principle was involved.

Their mode of life is revealed in the case of some. They lived in the simplest way in the forests by the holy river Ganges. They were ascetics and not at all worldly; and though they were sometimes visited by the ruling princes of the time, they gave the learning they possessed freely, and did not desire wealth and riches. They had their disciples who lived with them as brahmacharis and served them. The teachers in return supported them and gave them the learning. Their life was one of communion with the ultimate reality and study of the scriptures. They were fond of nature. They possessed cows which supplied them with the milk which was their staple food. Some of them had families, but as a general rule they were renunciates and celibates.

They charged no fee. The devoted service of their disciples was the only material return which they expected. They were pilgrims to the holy land of the eternal truth within. The experiences they gathered on the holy journey were more or less the same, though the paths they travelled varied. They have given no systematic philosophy, but their teachings are metaphysical; everything else was secondary. They were devotees of truth, and their chief discovery was that truth is in the self of man and that it can be gained by a pure life of communion, or Yoga.

Their ethical standard was very high. They loved truth and dharma (righteousness) and were masters of themselves. Their very presence radiated peace and love: the lion and the lamb in their presence lived in peace. They were men of transcendental experience. Rituals occupied an important place in their teachings. Fire was for them a symbol of purity and divine light, and they worshipped it to instruct their disciples.

The teachings of the Sages of the Upanishads have been systematised by Shri Bhagavadpad Shankara. In order to understand them you have to study the Upanishads with a teacher who has himself received the initiation from a teacher. Sometimes they appear contradictory, and some passages seem meaningless; but if you have patience and follow the moral discipline you can derive light from them with the help of the commentaries of Shri Shankara. The Upanishads are to be studied like science: what you read in the books you have to practise. As in chemistry in order to understand a theory you have learnt you must experiment on it in the laboratory, so the Upanishads have to be realised in the inner life of purity, self mastery and communion, called Yoga. The European scholars study them like the Greek philosophy. They follow no moral discipline and practise no meditation. The result is that they know only the shadow of the teachings and miss the sweet juice of shanti (peace) and illumination. These teachings are not for show; they are called rahasya or secrets of the inner life. One practising brahmacharya (self control) and Yoga can know them, but not the intellectual quibbler. This is made clear in many stories in the Upanishads.

There is no narrowness in the Upanishads. The Sages were democratic in their way of life, and their teachings are free from fanaticism and nationalism. Nobody is condemned as a heretic. Even the materialist Charvaka is met on the plane of logic and not condemned at all.

The Upanishads contain moral teaching of the highest order. The accusation that there is no moral teaching in them is the invention of the Churchmen. "Love truth, follow dharma" is the keynote of the Yogic morality. Sanctity of life is a great moral discipline of the Upanishads. Lying is the blackest of sins. To inflict pain on others is condemned in the strongest terms.

Unless the passions are conquered and compassion, forgiveness and humility are practised in daily life, you cannot meditate on the teachings of the supreme wisdom - the Yoga. A restless mind, burdened with worldly desires, is subject to anger, aversion and infatuation; it is unfit to meditate on truth.

The essence of the Upanishads is summed up in the four great sentences: "That thou art", "This Self is Brahman", "I am Brahman" and "Intelligence is Brahman". The Bhagavad Gita summarises all that is best in the Upanishads.