Vedanta

The final section of the Vedic corpus in terms of chronology brings us the Upanisads, also called Vedanta, beginning around the eighth century BCE. These texts usher in a novel approach to ritual practice, emphasizing introspection. In brief, they reformulate the relationships between humans and deities via ritual practice, articulating what has come to be considered some of the earliest practices of meditation. We might even say that the Upanisads discover meditation proper. The texts of the Upanisads have historically been understood as secret teachings. The power of these secret teachings lies in a particular notion, the concept of bandhu, the idea that a person contains within him or herself the totality of the cosmos. If one knows the secret inner expression, then one is able to control external phenomena, the wind, fire, as expressions of that internal presence. So, Yajnavalkya tells his interlocutor Gautama in the Great Forest Secret Text (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad):

that self of yours who is present within but is different from the fire, whom the fire does not know, whose body is the fire, and who controls the fire from within—he is the inner controller, the immortal (Olivelle 1996, Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.7.5, p. 42).

By meditating on the internal presence, the inner controller (antaryamin), one could sidestep the onerous process of external ritual and achieve simultaneously a similar, if not better, efficacious result without external ritual. Here the idea of knowledge becomes paramount; knowledge becomes a shortcut. The secret teachings of the Upanisads propose that the operative principle bringing about the effects of the ritual really derive from an inner knowledge. How does one acquire this knowledge? In a word: meditation. Meditation is the favored technique, if not the sole means.

We might understand this type of meditation on the inner controller as entailing a psychological shift in awareness. Rather than a focus on objects in their externality, the shift in awareness toward an inner subj ectivity that resides within and controls from within points to a pervasive, if elusive, sense of subjectivity as [1]

the basis of knowledge. This foundation as a kind of self-knowledge can really only be approached through an inner introspection, through the self-reflection of meditation. I say elusive because it becomes a trope within these texts and the tradition as a whole that the self, known as the atman, which often translates as self,2 and the inner controller, antaryamin, is the seer that can nevertheless itself not ever be seen. We see for instance Yajnavalkya explaining to his wife Maitreyi the secret of immortality in the self:

This self, you see, is imperishable; it has an indestructible nature. For when there is a duality of some kind, then the one can see the other, the one can smell the other, the one can taste the other, the one can greet the other, the one can hear the other, the one can think of the other, the one can touch the other, and the one can perceive the other. When, however, the Whole has become one’s very self (atman), then who is there for one to see and by what means?. . . Who is there for one to perceive and by what means?

By what means can one perceive him by means of whom one perceives this whole world?

About this self (atman), one can only say “not—, not—” (Olivelle 1996, Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 4.5.14-15, p. 71).

This famous apophasis of Yajnavalkya’s, where he tells Maitreyi that the self is “not—, not—” (neti, neti), becomes one of the signature “great statements” (mahavakya) of Hindu tradition, signaling a presence that can be felt, known— through meditation—but not discursively, objectively pinned down. However one might try to point to the sense of self to contain it within an objective picture, one fails. The self is the driver of the engine of perception, but cannot itself be seen. Here we see especially the idea that meditation offers a window into a psychology of self that cannot be accessed via rational enquiry.

Yajnavalkya also hints at another component of subjectivity that plays a large role in later tradition, namely, a collapse of the subject-object polarity into an essential monism. This insight of Yajnavalkya’s, that the immortal, indestructible self sees nothing that is not its own self, becomes a guiding principle for some schools of nondualism that develop in India, most famously Advaita Vedanta. For our purposes here, it represents another element of the psychology of meditation; it refocuses attention to subvert our pervasive mental perception of duality. And at the same time that we find that the idea of self cannot be boxed into a definitive object, we also see that discovery of self leads one to recognize its omnipresence. In another early Upanisad, the Chandogya Upanisad, we see Svetaketu learning from his father about the nature of the self.

But note that Patrick Olivelle (1996) in his translation provocatively goes against later Hinduism’s assertion of atman as transcendental self by on some occasions translating atman as “body.”

Here, rather than telling his son not to try to point to it, instead Aruni tells him that it pervades throughout. Giving his son an embodied teaching, he says:

“Put this chunk of salt in a container of water and come back tomorrow.” The son did as he was told, and the father said to him: “The hunk of salt you put in the water last evening—bring it here.” He groped for it but could not find it, as it had dissolved completely.

“Now, take a sip from this corner,” said the father. “How does it taste?” “Salty.” “Take a sip from the centre. How does it taste?” “Salty"’ “Take a sip from that corner. How does it taste?” “Salty.” “Throw it out and come back later.” He did as he was told and found that the salt was always there. The father told him: “You, of course, did not see it there, son; yet it was always right there. The finest essence here—that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the truth; that is the self (atman). And that’s how you are, Svetaketu.” (Olivelle 1996, Chandogya Upanisad 6.13.1-3, p. 154-155)

The self is omnipresent, if seemingly invisible. Here the teaching is passed on from a father to his son. For the tradition that follows, the crucial insights transmitted through these secret texts attest to a shift in understanding of the nature of self. Moreover, this shift does not primarily come about through logic and reasoning, but rather is facilitated by a psychology of self-attention—accessed through meditation. Whether this is an insight that can be reached by training the mind, or whether the training of the mind that meditation involves simply frees it to stumble upon this crucial insight into the nature of self, is debated within the tradition. Yet, the expression of a meditative experience, the realization of oneness in particular, becomes one key litmus test for onlookers to ascertain whether or not a meditating sage has accessed the desired goal of enlightenment. In terms of a psychology of self, this particular strand of the Indian meditation traditions promotes a sense of expanded selfhood, both through a via negativa (we can only say what it is not) as a self that cannot be pointed out, as Yajnavalkya tells his wife Maitreyi, and as a self that is a nonobvious substratum of all that we encounter, as Aruni tells his son Svetaketu.3

So, these early thinkers articulated a conception of subjectivity that imputed a pervasive, if non-visible, sense of self divorced from an idea of anthropic deity. Self-reflection and meditation became the tools to gain this shift in perspective. Thus, the chronologically latter part of the Vedic corpus, the secret forest texts of the Upanisads, emphasize a move away from the elaborate rituals for gods enjoined in the Vedas in favor of meditative practices, often re-enacting ritual principles internally for the meditator. This functions on the one hand to relocate the essence and efficacy of external deity to the self within. On the other hand, it steers away from a simple formulation of human as worshipper and god(s) as

See also Claxton’s chapter in this volume, which addresses this idea.

worshipped in a dualistic and fundamentally hierarchic relation. The implication of this for a psychology of meditation is that we discover in these early thinkers a sophisticated use of meditation as a means for reformulating—even, we might say, appropriating—an idea of deity as primarily a subjective experience within a psychology of self.

We might also understand this early venture into meditation as a psychological practice that enables a transcendental self to emerge as foundation in contrast to the multiplicity we see here in the world. This becomes a sine qua non of much classical Indian exploration of meditation and a primary focus of debate, especially with the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, “no-self" seeking to unravel this foundational postulation of self. The notion of self, atman, operates as a psychology of subjectivity writ large through the sustained reflection of self in meditation.

  • [1] From GRETIL, Gottingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages: http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/1_veda/1_sam/1_rv/rv_hn10u.htm. Translation modified from Griffith (1889)-92.
 
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