Upanishad refers to sitting beside the teacher

Secrets of the Upanishads

In spiritual traditions, words like “secret” are everywhere. The word Upanishad can be derived from upa = near, ni = down, and sad = seat (the ‘sh’ gets in by a phonetic rule that when an ‘s’ follows any vowel except ‘a’, it becomes ‘sh’). So the word Upanishad, a sacred scripture of India, refers to sitting beside the teacher, who then whispers it. Socrates refers to a doctrine whispered in secret and Jesus speaks of the secrets told to the close disciples alone.

However, these things were not in fact kept secret. The formal title of the famous Gita, which proclaims itself to be open to all, is: The Upanishads Sung (Gita) By The Lord. At the end of the Gita it is said that to teach it, in a proper spirit and to proper hearers, is the greatest service. Some devotees learn chapters by heart, and repeat them every morning. So where is the secret?

We can understand by comparing other uses of the word. An expert will tell us

“The secret of public speaking is timing”; another will say: “The secret of debate is anticipation”; yet another will say: “The secret of politics is to put into words what people have not been able to formulate”. So what is the secret of a public political debate? If we consider carefully, the three things – timing, anticipation, and the last one – really overlap. One cannot get the timing right unless one anticipates what will suit, and when to say it. Calling them secrets is a way of focusing attention on an aspect of the whole situation. Other elements are for the moment taken for granted. For instance, the ability to speak clearly and with at least apparent conviction.

These things are secrets not as the words themselves, but because they contain a real secret, which is an intuitive art that cannot be directly taught. It has to be brought out by a process of training, shorter or longer. There can be working rules which may give an approximate result: “Pause and count One where there would be a comma, Two for a colon, Three for a full stop”. But this is not the art of timing. Churchill knew just how long to wait, after saying to a fractious House of Commons: “Well, I will not cast any more of my pearls …” and when the uproar had subsided, “before those who do not appreciate them.” He was rewarded with a burst of laughter.

The spiritual secrets referred to in the Upanishads and Gita are intuitions, not the trivial ones of an orator, but concerning the depths of man’s being. The words can be misunderstood and the secret missed. The teachings give many different signposts so to speak, like many co-ordinates on a map. Each co-ordinate starts from a different point, and they gradually converge.

In the same way, spiritual instructions are given for one in a crisis, for one who is looking for happiness, for one who is searching for the reality behind the world-illusion, for one who wants to explore the inner landscape beyond the stream of thought. The instructions overlap to some extent, and their final aim is to awaken a new realisation beyond the mind. This has to be found by the seekers for themselves; no one else can find it for them. But the teaching can equip them with clear, steady and focused minds; then, as the Gita (IV.38) says:

In time, the one purified by the yoga of action and the yoga of samadhi, finds it in himself by himself.”

However the influence of the Hundredth Trick idea, in the various forms in which it may appear in history, has an effect even in spiritual training. There is something in the human mind that hopes for a short-cut, some subtle idea which will solve everything without much trouble.

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