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The Nature of the Soul/Self in the Upanisads

spirit warrior of the mist man
Published on 31 Mar 2023 / In Spiritual

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What is the nature of reality, according to Indian philosophy? To answer this question, I turned to the Upanisads, which is considered the source of Indian philosophies and religions. According to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the aim of the Upanisads is β€œnot so much to reach philosophical truth as to bring peace and freedom to the anxious human spirit [...] express[ing] the restlessness and striving of the human mind to grasp the true nature of reality.” To investigate the nature of reality, the Upanisads philosophically analyse the nature of the self or Atman in Sanskrit, which means breath or vital essence in the Rg Veda. It could also be understood as the Self, with a capital S – the ultimate and true Self, or Soul.
Scholars such as Radhakrishnan and Paul Deussen has identified the Chandogya Upanisad (CU) as one of the best descriptions of the concept of the Atman. In the final book of the CU, Book 8, Prajapati teaches Indra over a period of 101 years the four stages of the self. As interpreted by Radhakrishnan, these stages are: 1) the bodily self, 2) the empirical self, 3) the transcendental self and finally, 4) the Absolute Self, or the Atman. I will examine this Book which comprises 15 chapters, summarising and paraphrasing its key elements (presented in bold ), sans its poetic flourishes to aid clarity. In the tradition of such commentaries and interpretations, I will add my reflections and those of other commentators below these passages, in a bid to clarify and articulate what is vital to our understanding of the Atman vis-Γ -vis the nature of reality.
The tale in Book 8 has a meditative rhythm. To answer the question, β€˜What is the Atman?’, Prajapati reveals each stage of the self one stage at a time. Each time, Indra leaves thinking he has got the answer only to return dissatisfied. In the spirit of a true enquirer, he seeks further clarification and answers, not discouraged by how he has to invest yet another set of many years. His sacrifices mirror the sacrifices that the β€œchaste student of sacred knowledge” (brahmacarya) needs to make. To find and understand the Atman is a journey. Prajapati was not being duplicitous in revealing the answer one stage at a time, as each answer brings Indra closer to the ultimate truth about the Atman. Similar to how a child must first learn to crawl before he can walk and then later run, and is not able to skip any stages in between, Indra and all brahmacaryas have to pass through all the stages of the self in preparation for the final stage to reach the Absolute Self of the Atman. Finally, Indra attains liberation (moksha) as promised by Prajapati to those who managed to find out and understand the Atman, enabling them to break out of the otherwise endless cycles of death and rebirth (samsara). Is moksha not the aspiration of all Hindus? In that case, the lesson of Book 8 of the CU is an important one to guide our paths to liberation.
OM. Peace. Peace. Peace.

#Hinduism #IndianPhilosophy #Upanisad #Upanishads

1) The Golden Present - Jesse Gallagher
2) Chance, Luck, Errors in Nature, Fate, Destruction As a Finale by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence.

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