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IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
5 January 2004

visvam bibharti nihsvam yah
karunyad eva deva-rat
mamasau paramanando
govindas tanutam ratim

I pray that Lord Govinda, the supremely blissful king of the demigods, who mercifully maintains this pathetic material world, may give me pure love for Him.

What the Upanisads Teach
Part Seven

Brahman is the Absolute Truth

The root of the English word absolute comes from the Latin absolutus, meaning "the perfect" or "completed. " The term was introduced into Western philosophy in the fifteenth century by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). The Absolute is the ultimate, underlying and all-inclusive reality that depends upon nothing else for its existence. All other things depend upon it. At the same time, the Absolute is independent of and unrelated to anything else.

Five hundred years ago the Absolute was a new idea to Europeans. But in India, thousands of years earlier, it had been taught in Isopanisad 5:

tad antar asya sarvasya
tad u sarvasyasya bahyatah

He is within everything, and yet He is outside of everything.

This means that Brahman, at one and the same time, is both transcendental and immanent. As the Immanent (antarasya sarvasya--"within all of this"), He is the underlying reality upon which all other things have their foundation. As the Transcendent (sarvasyasya bahyatah--"external to all of this"), He is independent of and unrelated to anything else.

The Mayavadis propose to separate these two interlocking aspects of the Absolute. The Immanent, they argue, is Saguna Brahman, which--as noted in earlier parts of this series--is at the end of the day not really Brahman at all. The Transcendent they would have as the real Absolute Truth: Nirguna Brahman. But by definition--both in the East and the West--the Absolute Truth absent of immanency is not absolute.

indriyebhyah parahy-artha arthebhyasca param manah
manasastu para buddhih buddheh atma mahan parah

mahatah param-avyaktam avyaktat purusah parah
purusan na param kincit sa kastha sa paragatih

The sense objects are higher than the mind (since the senses are disturbed by the presence of sense objects). The mind is higher than the senses (since even when the senses are detached from objects, the mind can conjure up the objects in thought). Higher than the mind is buddhi, intelligence (because without determination, the mind is helpless). Mahan-atma is more important than buddhi. [Sripad Ramanujacarya takes mahan-atma to mean the individual soul; Sripad Madhvacarya takes it to mean Hiranyagarbha--but besides being a name of Garbhodakasayi Visnu, Hiranyagarbha is a name of Brahma, so in that way too it may refer to the jiva. ] Greater than mahan-atma is avyakta, the unmanifest prakrti. Greater than avyakta is the Supreme Purusa, the Personality of Godhead. Higher than Him, there is nothing. [Katha Upanisad I. 3. 10-11]

In these verses the transcendence of the Supreme Purusa is established. Now, these two verses are repeated in only slightly altered form in the second adhyaya of the same upanisad (II. 3. 7-8).

indriyebhyah param mano manasah sattvam uttamam
sattvad adhi mahan atma mahato 'vyaktam uttamam

avyaktat tu parah pursuo vyapako 'linga eva ca
yam jnatva mucyate jantur amrtatvam ca gacchati

Higher than the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the mode of goodness. Higher than the mode of goodness is the mahan-atma, and higher than that is the unmanifest.

Higher than the unmanifest is the Supreme Purusa who is all-pervading and without a gross or subtle body. Knowing Him, one is liberated and attains immortality.

No doubt the same Supreme Purusa is described in each couplet of verses. No doubt He is transcendental to sense objects, senses, mind, intelligence, mode of goodness, individual soul, and the unmanifest. And no doubt the same Supreme Purusa is immanent: the word vyapakah, seen above, is also found in Srimad-Bhagavatam (7. 7. 19) translated by Srila Prabhupada as "spreading throughout the body in the form of consciousness. " As the individual soul's consciousness spreads through his own vyasti body, so the Supreme Soul's consciousness spreads through the total samasti body of the universe.

Here the Mayavadis will jump in to exult, "Yes, this is the correct philosophy! That consciousness spreading through the body of the universe is Saguna Brahman! But because that Brahman accepts a material body, it is not the highest Brahman. " Sadly, that viewpoint is totally contradicted here. This Brahman described in Katha Upanisad is clearly the highest: "Higher than Him, there is nothing. " Yet He is said to be vyapakah, all-pervading. And at the same time--with the next word that follows vyapakah--He is said to be alinga, without a gross or subtle body!

In the third adhyaya of Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, Yajnavalkya Muni discusses Brahman with nine sages. He describes the Immanent thusly:

yah pranena praniti
sa ta atma sarvantarah
yo apanena apaniti
sa ta atma sarvantarah
yo vyanena vyaniti
sa ta atma sarvanatarah
ya undanena udaniti
sa ta atma sarvantarah
esa ta atma sarvantarah

That which causes one to breathe out with the out-breath--He is the Self of yours that is within all. That which causes one to breath in with the in-breath--He is the Self of yours that is within all. That which causes one to breathe across with the inter-breath--He is the Self of yours that is within all. That which causes one to breathe up with the up-breath--he is the Self of yours which is within all. The Self that is within all is the Self of yours.

The sage to whom Yajnavalkya speaks these verses, Usasta Cakrayana, requests further clarification about this Brahman so described. Yajnavalkya answers:

na drster-drastaram pasyeh
na sruter srotaram srunuyah
na mater mantaram manvithah
na vijnater vijaniyah
esa ta atma sarvantarah
ato anyat artam

You can't see the Seer who does the seeing; you can't hear the Hearer who does the hearing; you can't think of the Thinker who does the thinking; and you can't perceive the Perceiver who does the perceiving.

And so these verses establish the Transcendent Who is beyond all mundane power of knowledge. Can there be any doubt that the Immanent and the Transcendent are the same Absolute Truth? Yajnavalkya Muni is telling Usasta Cakrayana that the Absolute is simultaneously one with everything and yet different from it; and that the Truth of this is inconceivable.

The same point is made in Kenopanisad I. 5-9.

yad vaca anabhyuditam yena vag abhyudyate
tadeva brahma tvam viddhi nedam yadidam upasate
yan manasa na manute yena ahuh mano matam
yac-caksuhsa na pasyati yena caksumsi pasyati
yat srotrena na srunoti yena srotram idam srutam
yat pranena praniti yena pranah praniyate
tadeva brahma tvamviddhi nedam yad idam upasate

That which is not expressed by speech but that by which speech is expressed--that, know for sure, is Brahman, and not that which people worship. That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which mind is apprehended; that which cannot be perceived by the eye, but by which the eye perceives; that which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the hearing is made possible; that which is not breathed by life but by which life breathes--that, know for sure, is Brahman and not that which people worship.

Many other proofs could be shown, but by now it is clear that the Upanisads teach the Absolute Truth to be transcendental and immanent, simultaneously and inconceivably one and different: acintya-abhedabheda-tattva.

   Universal Form

Commenting on Sri Isopanisad 5, which I referred to in the beginning of this essay, Srila Prabhupada writes:

In this connection the words saguna (with qualities) and nirguna (without qualities), words occurring often in revealed scriptures, are very important. The word saguna does not imply that the Lord becomes subject to the laws of material nature when He appears, although He has perceivable qualities and appears in material form. For Him there is no difference between the material and spiritual energies because He is the source of all energies. As the controller of all energies, He cannot at any time be under their influence as we are. The material energy works according to His direction; therefore He can use that energy for His purpose without ever being influenced by any of the qualities of that energy. Nor does the Lord become a formless entity at any time, for ultimately He is the eternal form, the primeval Lord. His impersonal aspect, or Brahman effulgence, is but the glow of His personal rays, just as the sun's rays are the glow of the sun-god.

. . . . .

In Brahma-samhita it is said that Govinda, the primeval Lord, enters everything by His plenary portion. He enters the universe as well as all the atoms of the universe. He is outside of everything in His virat form, and He is within everything as antaryami. As antaryami He witnesses everything that is going on, and He awards us the results of our actions as karma-phala. We ourselves may forget what we have done in previous lives, but because the Lord witnesses our actions, the results of our actions are always there, and we have to undergo the reactions nonetheless.

The fact is that there is nothing but God within and without. Everything is manifested by His different energies, just as heat and light emanate from fire, and in this way there is a oneness amongst the diverse energies. Although there is oneness, the Lord in His personal form still enjoys all that is enjoyable to the senses of the minuscule part and parcel living entities.

To be continued, starting with Brahman is Not a Demigod

Sketches of a Devotee's Pre-Krsna Conscious Life in India

Back in the late 1980's I tape-recorded a series of interesting stories told me by an Indian devotee, whom I shall not name to protect his privacy. These stories relate his life as a young man from a South Indian smarta brahmin family, and trace how he gradually turned away from material life to Krsna consciousness. What you will read below took place while he was working in a Kerala branch of the TV Sundaram company.

I now lived across the road from Sundaram Industries, in a spare cottage on a Muslim family's estate. I'd become very ambitious at work, and was moving up the office ranks. Every morning before departing for work I would light a votary candles to a picture of Ayappa in my room. Promptly upon returning in the afternoon I would sit down before the picture and chant Vishnu- sahashra-nama-stotram (the Thousand Names of Vishnu). That was the only Sanskrit prayer I knew; I'd learned it from my father as a youngster. My Muslim landlord was very happy to see my strict daily observances; he considered his home and family blessed by my presence. I became friendly with his son, Ahmad, who was about my age.

At the same time I led the life of 'a man of the world', albeit a tame Hindu version of it. As before, I continued to see movies and mix with the modern boys and girls my age, though now and then I'd muse over someday renouncing these trivial pleasures altogether. But for the moment I strove to find a happy balance between the dual fronts of human experience: the religio-mystical and the mundane.

On the holy day of Shivaratri, the respected sannyasi (monk) His Holiness Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal came to Ernakulam to lead the Hindu community's worship of Shiva. Although he was only fifteen years old, his aged guru had appointed him to be the Shankaracharya or leading swami of the Kamakoti Pitham, an important Durga temple in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. His position among the Aiyars (the smarta brahmins of South India) was so powerful that he could be rightly called their Pope. In order to have his audience, I took an early morning bus, accompanied by Ahmad. We arrived in Ernakulam at about 3:00 AM.

Within an hour after that, we were standing before the dormitory hall where Jayendra Saraswathi and his entourage were staying. This building was located on the grounds of the Shiva temple where the religious functions were to be held. A Nepali guard in a khaki uniform was posted at the entrance of the dorm. "Everyone is sleeping," he told us.

"We won't disturb them," I replied. "We've come a long way to see His Holiness. He'll be up at this hour. " With a jerk of his head, the guard indicated where we'd find the swami. We carefully threaded our way through some two dozen sleeping smarta brahmins sprawled across the floor of the common hall to a curtained-off doorway at the other end. A brahmin was slumped in a chair outside it, his head on his chest, snoring. Through the curtain shone the glow of a bare electric lightbulb. From within the room we heard the soft chanting of Sankskrit. Ahmad and I entered.

A young man in deep orange robes sat on a cloth mat reciting mantras. A bamboo staff was propped against the wall behind him. My friend and I offered obeisances by falling flat on the floor (I'd already rehearsed this with Ahmad so that he'd know what to do). The swami gave us each akshada (a pinch of raw rice grains died yellow with turmeric) as a blessing and bade us to sit.

He asked us where we were coming from. I told him we lived in Kalamaserry, and that I worked for TVS. He nodded appreciately-- TVS carried a lot of weight among the brahmin community. With a boy's smile so simple and open-hearted that it threatened to undermine the gravity of his post, he said, "I'll be conducting the Shivaratri ceremonies here and will lead a procession through town. Would you like to join us?"

I smiled back apologetically. "My job starts at eight. I'll have to be back in Kalamassery by then. That's why I've come so early. " I concluded by citing Nehru's maxim (with a slight, ironic chuckle because I'd always thought it nonsense), "Work is worship. " But Swamiji did not detect the irony and nodded approvingly. "Yes, yes, very good. "

Just then the brahmin who'd been asleep in the chair outside came in. After looking Ahmad and I over curiously, he announced the visit of an elderly brahmin couple. His Holiness consented to see them. The old man and woman entered, fell flat before the swami and received his blessings. In a quavering voice the old man implored, "My daughter's marriage--please help. " Indicating his brahmin aide, Jayendra Saraswathi told the old man, "He'll arrange some gold for your daughter's dowry. " But the old man pressed on. "Besides that, it is not a proper match. Can you advise a better choice of a husband for her?" Swamiji closed his eyes and silently brought his palms together in the pranam mudra. He did not open his eyes until they'd exited with the aide. The instant they'd left, he slapped his forehead. Shaking his head wonderingly, he looked at me.

"I am a sannyasi, but these householders come to me for charity. All right, so the temple has a fund to assist poor brahmins. I can let them have something from that. But then they even want me to pick a groom for the girl. Is it for arranging marriages that I've renounced the world?" Trying to find a pleasanter topic of discussion, he then asked me, "Do you have any questions?"

"Just one, Your Holiness," I replied. "You are awake and chanting your mantras, but all these brahmins with you are sleeping. Why is that?"

His eyes widened. "What, they're still sleeping?"

Ahmad spoke up. "Yes, and they look so funny, their big bellies going up and down. "

By his speech, Ahmad revealed himself to be a Muslim for the first time to Jayendra Saraswathi, who was suddenly at a loss for words--according to the caste rules of the smarta brahmin community, it was unthinkable for a Muslim to enter the Shankaracharya's private quarters.

To assuage the swami's sudden discomfort I said, "My friend has risen very early on this holy day to come and have your darshan while your Brahmins sleep the morning away. Is he not better than they? After all, it is not his fault that he's a Muslim--he had no choice in the matter. Still, he shows respect for Shiva. "

"Anybody who rises before dawn on this day gets the blessings of Shiva," he admitted. Ahmad then asked, "But will Lord Shiva bless a Muslim?" "Shiva is Brahman," His Holiness replied. "For Brahman there is no distinction of Hindu or Muslim. "

"Then why," I asked, "is your procession advertised 'For Hindus'? Why not 'For Human Beings'?" His Holiness smiled and said, "I am trying to make these Hindus into human beings. " The swami's reserve dissolved in boyish mirth as we all laughed heartily at his joke.

He rang a small gong. In a moment the Nepali guard appeared at the door. "Get a bucket of water and throw it over these brahmins," His Holiness ordered. "Just see--even a Muslim has come here for darshan at this time; why they are still asleep?" The guard promptly bowed and marched out.

Nepalis are famous for unquestioningly following orders. Within a minute's time we heard water splashing the floor outside followed by shouts and groans. After a more joking and laughter, my friend and I paid obeisances to the swami and left.

Every month I made a bus journey to the Guruvayur temple to see the murti of Lord Vasudeva, famous all over India for answering the prayers of the sick and distressed with miraculous intercessions. I got to know the brahmin Anjaam Nambudri, a former Communist who had dedicated his life to reciting the Srimad Bhagavatam in the temple. Srimad Bhagavatam is lengthy Sanskrit philosophical and devotional text held in the highest esteem by the Vaishnavas. Anjaam Nambudri would daily recite hundreds of verses at a time from memory before a large audience of temple visitors. Local people considered him a saint.

On one visit to Guruvayur I sat through his whole recital. He began by a sweet melodious recitation of eight Sanskrit stanzas from the Sikshastakam, a scripture I'd never heard of. Then he translated them into Malayalam. The eighth verse particularly struck me: "I know no one but Krishna as my Lord, and he shall remain so even if he handles me roughly by His embrace or makes me brokenhearted by not being present before me. He is completely free to do anything and everything, for He is always my worshipful Lord unconditionally. "

After Anjaam Nambudri had completed his recital of Srimad Bhagavatam and the crowd had dispersed, I introduced myself. He consented to answer a few questions.

I told him I wanted to know more about the Sikshastakam. His eyes brimmed with tears. In a soft, trembling voice he replied, "I am not the person you should put this question to. I am too hard-hearted to answer you properly. My mind is too polluted with sensual desires and my intellect is too crippled by endless speculations to understand the Sikshastakam. "

At first I misunderstood what he was saying. "Sir, with all due respect, how do you know I am so polluted and crippled that I can't understand the Sikshastakam? Why don't you just begin the explanation and see if I can understand or not? After all, I am an educated. . . "

He held up his hand and stopped me. "No, not you. I mean to say, I am too polluted and crippled to understand Sikshastakam. So how can I explain it to you?"

I was very surprised by his words. I'd never before heard a brahmin present himself as unworthy. He continued.

"All I can tell you is that these eight verses were written by Sri Chaitanya about five hundred years ago. "

"Who is Sri Chaitanya?" I persisted.

Now the tears were gliding down his cheeks. "If I answer you, I'll be condemned, for I cannot answer correctly. My understand- ing is too shallow. Sri Chaitanya gave humanity the greatest blessing, but it is being kept out of sight by certain saints in Brindaban. You know Brindaban?"

"I've not been there," I answered, "but everybody has heard of Brindaban, where Krishna was born and danced with the cowherd maidens. "

"Yes, yes. That's where you should go to learn about Sri Chaitanya. "

I changed the subject. "How did you come to recite Srimad Bhagavatam in the temple every day?"

"Years ago I was a convinced Marxist and radical activist. I had no faith in God whatsoever. One day I came here to organize a Communist Party march that was to begin outside the Guruvayur temple. We wanted our marchers to meet here because the temple is the most well-known place in the city.

"Now, at that time I had been suffering from a persistent digestive ailment. I was unable to digest solid food--I would always vomit it up. It so happened that a distant uncle of mine was the head priest of the temple. He called me into the temple. Out of family respect I went in to see him. He gave me a plate of paramanna, rice cooked in sweetened milk. I told him, 'I am very sorry, but I cannot take solid food. It makes me ill. ' But my uncle said, 'Don't worry, you can take this. Nothing will happen. '

"I said again, 'No, I can't. If I do I will vomit. ' And he said, 'It is prasadam. Even if you vomit, you'll be spiritually nourished. ' To please my uncle, whom I hadn't seen in years, I ate the paramanna. Then I went back to work outside. Well, I was very surprised because during the whole march I experienced no sickness.

"After the march ended I went back to the temple to talk to my uncle again. I told him, 'You know, that sweet rice I ate here gave me no problem. I wonder why?' And he said, 'You should know why. ' 'Well, why I should know why?' 'Because you are a communist. Communists know everything, don't they?' And he smiled.

"That was his challenge to me: you have a materialistic explanation for everything else, why not for this? So I said, 'Give me more paramanna. ' I ate three, four platefuls more--and nothing happened. The next day I went to the doctor, who examined me by testing my stool. He was as surprised as I. 'It's amazing,' he said, 'but you are digesting again. I suppose it means you are able to eat this particular type of preparation. So find out how they make that paramanna, and make it yourself. '

"I returned to temple and again took a big plate of paramanna along with with four appams (cookies). And I had no problem at all. My uncle said, 'Don't think this has something to do with proper diet. This is the mercy of Guruvayurappan Vasudeva upon you. " 'Look,' I told him, 'I don't believe in miracles. But I'm grateful to you for having shown me what kind of food I am able to eat. '

"I hired a brahmin cook to prepare the paramanna just as it is done in the temple. The cook told me, 'I can do all the same things as the temple cook, but if the paramanna isn't offered to the Deity, it won't be the same. ' I said, 'I'm paying you to cook, not to preach. ' He said, 'You'll see. '

"I ate a plate of the cook's paramanna. It had exactly the same look, smell and taste as the paramanna my uncle gave me. But I immediately vomited it up. Well, that made me doubt all my materialistic convictions. I went straight to the temple and told my uncle all that had happened. He just said, 'Krishna, Guruvayurappan', and went back to his duties on the altar. After he finished his puja he came out and found me still standing there. He could see that I was very perplexed, so he told me, 'You should take a vrat to serve the Deity for forty days. During that time eat only Krishna prasada. At the end you'll be cured. '

"So I did just that. I took up this recitation of Srimad Bhagavatam. And of course my Communist Party friends were angry with me. I just told them, 'Look, without life, there's no politics. Let me live. ' I gave all that up and have stayed here ever since. And now I can eat anything. But only as long as it is offered to the Deity. "

I was impressed with Anjaam Nambudri's humble spirituality, and his story hit home. Until recently, I too had been a jeering critic of all that is religious. But I was not ready to surrender my freedom for whatever peace of mind Anjaam Nambudri had attained by surrendering his. 'Let me sometimes peek behind the blinds of this world to see what lies on the other side,' I thought to myself. 'But I am not going to step over the threshold. What if I get stuck in the other world and can't come back?'

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