The Chandogya Upanishad speaks of the food we eat being divided threefold

Food may well seem to some people a topic too mundane to be harped upon in a spiritual classic, but the fact is that it is mentioned many times in the Upanishads, which are the oldest written works in the yogic tradition. As the old German proverb has it, from one point of view man is what he eats. Sir Thomas Browne pointed out long ago that the substance which makes up our bodies has at one time or another been on our plates, and that we have, in a manner of speaking, eaten ourselves. What is true of the physical body is also true of the mind. In the Chandogya Upanishad it speaks of the food we eat being divided threefold: its coarsest part being rejected and passing through the body to be excreted, its middle part becoming the substance of the body, and its subtlest part being incorporated into the stuff of the mind. There is an even more vivid illustration of the dependence of the mind on food in the story also told in the Chandogya Upanishad in which the Teacher brings home this dependence to his pupil. After telling him that the mind consists of the …

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Our experiences and dreamless sleep (sushupti).

According to the Advaita Vedanta, whose most learned and brilliant exponent was the first Shankaracharya, all our experiences from the cradle to the grave take place in one of the three states of waking (jagrat), dreaming (svapna) and dreamless sleep (sushupti). These states correspond to the facts established by our own introspection and are not likely to be seriously disputed. We are all conscious of ‘ waking up ’ in the morning, and when we fall asleep at night our mind may or may not remain active in projecting dream images to engage our attention; and we know of no fourth state apart from these three. In Western philosophy and psychology much has  been written about the functioning of the mind in the waking and dreaming states, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the state of dreamless sleep. The latter is in every sense fundamental, according to the Vedanta, and a great deal is recorded about it in the Upanishads and the classical writers. This article will attempt to give some idea of the traditional conception of sushupti, using the classical definitions as well as touching on one or two of the related problems which are discussed in …

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Chuang Tzu and Confucius

At the same time as Chuang Tzu started the propagation of his mystical philosophy, Mencius, pupil of the grandson of Confucius, was popularising the thought of his great master. His wonderful eloquence, great controversial ability and dignified behaviour silenced his opponents, and established the efficacy of music and rites. Confucius had said : “ The strongest desires of man are (for) food and sex. The strongest aversion of man is to death and poverty. Desire and aversion are the fundamental elements of man’s mind. If it is to be wished to give a uniform measure to these elements there is no other way besides rites.” ‘‘Music establishes union and harmony ; rites maintain difference and distinction. From union comes mutual affection ; from distinction, mutual respect.” “ Therefore the ancient philosopher-kings instituted rites and music to give measure to everybody.” In the Confucian pragmatism there was no mystic element. Speculations on life after death, the origin of the universe, the nature of the First Cause, and the destiny of the human soul were not only discouraged, but eliminated. A vague conception of virtue and the ideal of the superior man were all that Confucius thought necessary for social welfare and …

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Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman

Most text-books on the history of Indian philosophy tell us that Shankaracharya designated the ultimate Reality by the term nirguna Brahman., or quality-less Brahman. They say he thought this was quality-less, changeless and beyond the realm of cause and effect. If we are to look, therefore, in his system for the cause of the universe of qualities spread out before us, we must turn to his conception of saguna Brahman, Brahman with qualities, that is, Brahman associated with the creative power, Maya. Saguna Brahman is thus supposed to be the principle that mediates between the changeless Reality and the world of changing forms, functioning as the support and controller of the latter. It is also said to be called Ishvara. And, since Reality is actionless and quality-less, both Ishvara and the world He supports are illusory. Sometimes those who expound Shankara in this way and take the term nirguna to mean ‘ without features ’ declare that nirguna Brahman is a bare abstraction, a featureless blank, an empty concept, not merely less than reality, but actually indistinguishable from non-reality. Thus the late Professor Das Gupta observed in this connection : “ It is difficult indeed to distinguish between pure being …

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The poetry of T. S. Eliot and the Bhagavad Gita

Despite the great difference between the literary and social backgrounds of the Bhagavad Gita and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, there is an essential similarity between certain ideas which are found in both. The parallelism between these ideas cannot be said to be exact for in the Bhagavad Gita they are related to other Hindu doctrines while in Eliot’s poetry they are fitted into a framework of Christian dogma. But it is the fundamental attitudes and particularly the views of the human condition expressed in these ideas which are similar. Three main points of similarity may be noted. Firstly, the starting point common to both Eliot and the Gita is dissatisfaction with human life bound by the limitations of the phenomenal world. Secondly, both hold that the nature of the bondage is ignorance of the Reality behind the phenomenal world and that the only release is through spiritual awakening and knowledge. Thirdly, both also hold that the majority of people are unable to follow the path of complete renunciation and meditation which is the direct way to knowledge, and for these both recommend a path of ‘ discipline, prayer and action ’ as a result of which release from bondage is …

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What is knowledge? What is the purpose of knowledge?

A pupil asks the questions: “What is knowledge? What is the purpose of knowledge?” Imagine an afternoon in the Himalayan valley five or six miles above Rishikesha; the sun has declined and is hidden behind the towering peaks, cool shadows and breezes are prevailing on the shady banks of the Ganges and the holy Teacher has come out of his retreat. The throne of Vyasa has been prepared by loving disciples, and the Teacher takes his seat and around him gather the earnest loving disciples who have literally turned their backs on sense pleasures. Verily these things cannot go together: it is trying to sail in two boats simultaneously, both going in opposite directions, to believe that the world is real and to give devotion to God. The Teacher takes his seat, the invocation is given, a short meditation follows, and then imagine that one of the disciples with joined palms gives salutations to the Teacher and asks the questions: “What is knowledge? What is the purpose of knowledge?” He has read in the sacred books that knowledge cuts the bonds of ignorance, it is like light that dissipates the gloom. Knowledge is the purest entity in the world and …

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The Imperishable Asvattha Tree

“ They speak of the Imperishable Asvattha as having its root above and branches below. Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this he knows the Vedas ” (xv. i). HERE is a picture of a tree with its roots in the air and its branches spreading downwards bearing leaves and fruit. The Gita is not the only place where a picture of this inverted tree is given, there is an almost identical description in the Katha Upanishad, and other references to the Asvattha tree, or Tree of Life, occur in other Upanishads. This tree must therefore be important; it is important because it is a symbol or map of the universe, and he who can read and understand this map, he has a guide to help him through this life. A map does not look in the least like the country through which one is travelling, but if one studies the key and reads the map correctly, it gives a very accurate idea of the kind of country through which one has to go, and which is the shortest and easiest route to take. A map is drawn up by one who has traversed the country himself …

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