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Brihadaranyaka Upanishad On The Nature Of The Atman

After moving over the rough ground of day-to-day experiences, tracing the twisted and bumpy tracks of neurology and psychology, and attempting to ascend the high peaks of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics, one might just be tempted to throw in the towel.

Fortunately for us, the words of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are like the sun breaking through the mist of confusion: ‘Explain to me’, says Ushasta to Yajnavalkya, ‘the self that is within all.’ ‘This is yourself that is within all.’ ‘Which is within all, Yajnavalkya?’ ‘That which breathes through the Prana is yourself that is within all …’ Yajnavalkya goes on to describe the Atman as taking care of digestion, metabolism, and other organic functions. Ushasta is not satisfied: ‘You have indicated it as one may say that a cow is such and such, or a horse is such and such. Explain to me the Brahman that is immediate and direct.’

Ushasta’s exhortation is justified, for the self referred to in Yajnavalkya’s statements appears no different from the empirical self, subject to birth, growth, transformation, disease, decay, and death. But Yajnavalkya lays to rest such speculation with an emphatic assertion of the Atman that is unconditioned and absolute: ‘You cannot see that which is the witness of vision; you cannot hear that which is the hearer of hearing; you cannot think that which is the thinker of thought; you cannot know that which is the knower of knowledge. This is yourself that is within all; everything else but this is perishable.’

This is that truth beyond the empirical parameters of science that we need to seek, individually as well as collectively. The Mundaka Upanishad says: ‘There are two types of knowledge, the higher and the lower.’ The lower knowledge comprises the objective sciences and ‘the higher is that by which the imperishable Atman is known’. This reality, the infinite, eternal, pure, and non-dual Atman, can also be the subject of study like any scientific search or experiment; only this study has its own methodology and takes a good deal more time and preparation.

We need to strive to bring the eternal truth of Advaita (non-duality) to bear upon the many challenging issues that we face; we need to strive to translate the Atman’s self-awareness in the brain into concrete action in the world, especially in the field of mental hygiene. Were our relationships and institutions based on the knowledge of the Atman’s permanence and stability, a saner age with saner individuals would be ushered in.

Sourceexcerpts from article titled ‘the Self and the Atman’ by Swami Satyamayananda in Prabuddha Bharata Magazine November 2006 issue.