Midweek Mysticism: Space & consciousness
In the dark, dissolute days of 8th-century India, the ancient religion of Hind was riven by faction and weakened through moral disintegration. Many Brahmin priests were openly corrupt. The traditional Vedic lore had degraded into superstition and was now a mere excuse for clerical power.
Buddhism was spreading across the sub-continent as the inheritor of Upanishadic purity and the disdainer of gods. It was time, many thought, for the healing balm of a unifying synthesis.
Shankara (c. 788-820) is perhaps the one Indian metaphysician who can claim comparison with Gautama Buddha in the influence he has had on the philosophy of his countrymen. Ostensibly, he lived for only thirty-two years. If that is so, his achievement is the more remarkable.
Today he is associated with the non-dual religious practices of Advaita Vedanta, which evolved from the Upanishads, which in turn were a later development of the ancient Vedas hymns and scriptures.
Vedanta (meaning the end of the Vedas) is the basis for most modern Hindu thought. It has two separate, yet interlinked, offshoots, one a dualism known as Sankhya; and Advaita, meaning non-dual. Shankara was numbered in the latter camp.
The Upanishads, which by some reckoning also includes the magnificent Bhagavad Gita, are compositions of varying length, the majority of which date from around 800 BC and later. The authors were anonymous rishis, or forest sages, who encapsulated the essence of their wisdom in these often exquisite, eye-opening pieces.
They represent a distinct advance on the Vedas, which can appear primitive in comparison. While the Vedas sometimes refer to blood sacrifice, in the Upanishads it is the sacrifice of the individual ego that takes precedence. The physical plane is transmuted into the spiritual, and inwardness swallows up the material world.
This crucial step from the sacrificial ceremonies of the Dark Ages to psychological self-sacrifice and inwardness represents a maturing process on the path to enlightenment. It is one that militant Islam has failed to make thus far.
The essential truth contained in the Upanishads is perfectly expressed in a sentence from the Chandogya Upanishad:
We should consider that in the inner world Brahman
[God] is consciousness; and we should consider that
in the outer world Brahman is space.
The meditations recommended by the text are in the form of an enquiry into the nature of space and consciousness. But, since both are equated with Brahman, then space and consciousness are the same. Brahman is both the consciousness within us and the space without. Our consciousness is space, and space is consciousness – “the fluid, intelligent quality of space”, is how the modern-day Tibetan Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche expressed it.
Brahman (space) is Atman (consciousness). God and man’s soul are revealed as a unity. The ultimate duality is the non-dual reality. This is the message of the Upanishads.
The 20th-century sage, Ramana Maharshi had a similar Upanishadic viewpoint: “When the waveless ocean of the external, and the steady flame of the internal [state] are realised as identical, the ultimate goal … is said to have been reached.”
To be published: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com