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Upanishads: Philosophy, Not Religion

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    From the book Enlightenment Without God By Swami Rama A commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, which succinctly describes the Om mantra and the four levels of
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 10, 2005
      From the book Enlightenment Without God
      By Swami Rama
      A commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, which succinctly describes
      the Om mantra and the four levels of consciousness
      For more info on Om mantra, see this article:


      The Upanishadic literature is not a religious scripture and is free
      from dogma and doctrines. It is not a part of any religion but is a
      philosophy for all times and for all. This philosophy does not oppose
      any school of thought, religion, or interpretation of the scriptures,
      but its methods for explaining its concepts are unique. The
      Upanishads should not be confused with the religious books of the
      East; there is a vast difference between the philosophy of the
      Upanishads and the preachings of any of the religious scriptures of
      the world. In religion and religious books, there is little
      practicality and much theory. One is not supposed to interpret
      religious sayings, for there is always the possibility of distortion.
      For this reason, their explanation is delegated to a few teachers and
      preachers who are considered to be the custodians and authorities on
      these scriptures. Common people do not have the opportunity to study
      the scriptures in depth, but instead must rely on the interpretations
      of such preachers who may show no signs of enlightenment and yet have
      influence over the conscience of the masses. Whether these clerics
      actually know and practice religious truths or not is never
      questioned, and those who do question are considered to be atheists
      and heretics. Intellectual bankruptcy such as this leads the masses
      to blind faith and causes many wars and divisions in the human race.
      For the younger generation today, however, empty religious preachings
      are not fulfilling, for the modern mind likes to use reason and logic
      before it accepts anything as truth.

      With the development of science and technology, there has arisen a
      provocative mind that questions the existing religions and their role
      in society. The modern mind has started questioning, but the search
      for truth still remains obscured because scientific explorations are
      directed externally and not toward the inner levels of life. Science
      and technology are materially oriented, but a human being is not
      matter or energy alone. Most human resources are currently being
      directed to matter, mind, and energy, but little effort is being made
      toward the expansion and exploration of human consciousness. Modern
      psychologists are scratching the surface of mental life in order to
      eliminate superficial human problems in the external world, but the
      vital questions of life are not yet resolved, for they are beyond the
      grasp of materially-oriented thinking.

      The Upanishads prepare, inspire, and lead the student to know and
      realize the Ultimate Truth. First of all, the philosophy of the
      Upanishads frees one to cast away his intellectual slavery to blind
      faith, superstitions, sectarian beliefs, and dogmas. Then it helps
      one to expand his individual consciousness to Universal
      Consciousness; thus one's personality is transformed, and one becomes
      a universal being. An individual is essentially Brahman, or identical
      to Universal Consciousness, and direct realization of that truth is
      called enlightenment. Current religious preachings, on the other
      hand, are enveloped in a thick layer of dust, and they need a
      complete shakeup. Religion needs modification to suit the needs of
      modern man. There seem to be two options for humanity: either it
      stops listening to the preachings, starts seeking the truth, and
      rejoices in the broader awareness of truthful living; or it continues
      to follow religious dogma, fails to attain the next step of
      civilization, and remains in ignorance and suffering. Upon careful
      analysis of the living and thinking structure of modern human
      society, anyone can see that the process of human evolution is in a
      state of stagnation. All current research is directed to the external
      world; thus the human goal has become materially oriented and
      superficial. Human beings today have nothing better to live for than
      acquiring many comforts. These may be necessities and means, but
      because attaining them lacks a goal or aim, they create a hollow and
      empty philosophy that brings only strain and stress.

      The preachings of religion make a person dependent on priests,
      temples, idols, blind faith, and dogma, and dependence is a habit of
      the lower mind. Such crutches may be useful at a certain stage for
      some people, but they do not lead one to Ultimate Truth. A dependent
      mind is not free, and without freedom, enlightenment is impossible.
      Religious dogmas are full of beliefs and myths that do not satisfy
      the human intellect and that bind believers to a narrow view of life
      and human potential. Such preachings instill more fear than love in
      the hearts of the masses. Religion either promises salvation or
      threatens the tortures of hell, but it does not provide sound
      solutions to the hellish problems and situations that plague human
      beings here and now. Nor does it satisfactorily explain life before
      birth or after death. One of the main themes of Upanishadic
      philosophy, however, is to attain a state of fearlessness,
      cheerfulness, and self-confidence. In addition, the Upanishads lead
      the student to know life in its totality. Knowledge of life before
      birth, knowledge of now, and knowledge of life hereafter can be
      realized through the methods given in the Upanishads. The Upanishads
      provide systematic methods for self-training, self-transformation,
      and self-enlightenment. They lead aspirants "from the unreal to the
      Real, from darkness to Light, and from mortality to Immortality."

      The founders of religion were selfless and sincere—great seers,
      sages, and spiritual leaders. But as religions grew, the teachings of
      the founders were lost, and only the preachings of their selfish
      followers remained. Because of this, the great religion of the East
      was reduced to the narrow faith and beliefs of Hinduism, Brahmanism,
      Buddhism, and Jainism. Practical Christianity also disappeared
      forever, and there remained only churchianity. History shows that
      religionists do not actually encourage one to follow in the footsteps
      of the founder of their religion by practicing his teachings, but,
      rather, they instruct their followers to worship the image or the
      name of the founder of the religion through priests. Many religious
      leaders who claim to know God are more miserable than those they
      attempt to lead; they suffer from trite egoism, jealousy, and
      selfishness. The light of truth cannot shine through such barriers.
      Thus, the blind are leading the blind. The philosophy of the
      Upanishads is not bound by a single founder or religion, however, and
      it is as applicable today as it was thousands of years ago, and it
      will be so for as long as humanity exists.

      Religious dogma sets forth rigid commandments presented in terms of
      good and bad, black and white, with no explanations to support them.
      In the long run, these create serious overreactions and
      overcompensations in the human mind. All the books from the different
      religions repeat set laws of conduct in the same way, yet each of
      these religions claims that it is superior to all the others.
      Religious beliefs may offer solace to lower, primitive, less
      educated, and uncultivated minds, but they have nothing to offer
      those who already know what to do and what not to do, and who are
      seeking logical solutions to life's questions and guidance in
      learning how to be. In today's so-called civilized I society, the
      moral laws preached by the leaders and preachers seem to be
      incomplete. Such teachings and preachings are, therefore, misleading
      and are a mere waste of time and energy. As long as the preachers,
      police, and army have to guard the morality of human beings, this
      cannot be considered to be a civilized society. The moral custodians
      of today's world are actually atomic weapons, not the laws given in
      the religious books of the world. Thus, material forces are guiding
      the destiny of human life. Human beings have lost their center of
      equilibrium and live without any sense of equality, love, and mutual
      understanding. Religions do not teach unity but create divisions in
      human society. The Upanishads do not impose commandments, but,
      rather, offer practical guidelines and methods for self-discipline
      and self-unfoldment. The steps for inner growth contained in the
      Upanishads can be incorporated into one's individual lifestyle and
      can help one examine the accomplishments of one's spiritual practice

      Religions can be divided into two groups. One group follows the
      prophets but does not believe in inner experience. These religions
      are actually cults and are full of rituals, fear, guilt, and
      fanaticism. The other group of religions has a vast spiritual
      literature, but the followers are exploited by priests who involve
      them in rituals without explaining their purpose or establishing
      their validity. Therefore, both types of religion have been
      exploiting humanity and, thus, crippling human efforts to evolve and
      attain the next step of civilization in which people will learn to
      live with others in mutual understanding and love. The vast majority
      of the human population practices religious rituals in some way or
      other, but no ritual exists that can eliminate the ignorance that
      causes pain and misery.

      Religions have two great weapons to conquer the hearts of their
      followers: faith and grace. The way faith is described in religious
      scriptures is not actually faith at all, but is blind belief based on
      ignorance and rigidity of tradition. Tradition and truth are entirely
      different. One is mingled with customs, systems, cultures, habits,
      thoughts, feelings, and desires, and the latter is a search for the
      Ultimate Reality. For attaining truth, everything the aspirant has,
      including thoughts, deeds, and speech, becomes a means for attaining
      truth; while in tradition, all means are used for the sake of
      convenience, pleasure, and gratification. Religionists and their
      faithful followers are afraid to analyze the very nature of their
      faith. Thus, one is lost in a morass of religious fanaticism. Faith
      that does not recognize the faculty of reasoning and that has not
      been filtered by reasoning is based on blind beliefs that remain
      unexamined. They thus unnecessarily create doubts, and when doubts
      are not resolved, such faith disappears. Blind faith, being empty and
      devoid of any real reason or fact, is often found wanting when one
      has a problem and expects to find a strong basis that will support
      and carry him through difficult times. Then one finds, instead,
      nothing to hold on to or anchor oneself to. Because of this weakness
      in religious faith, religious dogma says that faith is a gift from
      God, and that if one questions it, then it might vanish and be lost.
      True faith is supported by pure reason, which is attained through
      thoughtful analysis of life. Following the extended practice of
      sâdhanâ and purification, a few fortunate seekers realize and know
      the nature of the world as it is and also experience the all-
      pervading truth that enlightens the' dark chamber of the aspirant's

      The Upanishads say that to rise above and reach a state beyond and to
      know the real nature of the transitory world, one must cultivate
      logic and pure reason and make sincere efforts with the help of deep
      contemplation. They declare, "Only that which is good and auspicious
      in Upanishadic literature should be revered and brought into
      practice, and the rest should be left behind for further

      In religions, grace is considered to be a gift bestowed on the
      seeker, either as a reward for following the commandments or by mere
      whim. Thus, the bestowing of blessings serves as a bribe to make one
      conform, and it implies that the seeker is helpless to succeed by his
      own effort. There is often little sense of individual mastery but
      rather a reliance on the favors of fate or the judgments of the
      preachers. Fear and insecurity are the logical results.

      Today religion has degenerated so much that it has become totally
      materialistic. No matter how good a heart one has, if one is not on
      the list of followers and supporters of the church, then one's faith
      does not have any value in the eyes of religionists. Religious
      leaders and preachers who claim to be custodians of faith and grace
      sell faith to blind followers for wealth and favors, and, thus,
      religious materialism takes the place of spiritual sincerity.

      Various schools of theology argue over the semantics and meaning of
      the verses and parables of religious scriptures and never reach any
      shared interpretation. In order to confront the question of life, one
      must remain unaffected by religious dogma, doctrines, and
      superstition, and one must make use of one's finest instrument, the
      intellect. The Upanishads do not encourage students to depend on the
      sayings of the scriptures; rather they inspire them to be self-
      reliant and discriminating. Religious dogma encourages people to
      follow the canons of a particular sectarian belief that is limited to
      a specific group. Thus, instead of expanding universal brotherhood,
      it further divides humanity and pollutes human feelings with biases
      and prejudice. Upanishadic philosophy is the expression of supreme
      knowledge directly experienced by great sages and is not confined to
      caste, color, society, or nation.

      Today the world lives under the law of fear, trembling with doubts
      and uncertainty. No prophet of the law of love is to be found, and
      one finds no leaders who give object lessons, sympathy, and good
      will, and who identify with the true happiness of individuals and
      nations and the highest good of mankind. Many religious leaders
      exist, but it is amazing to note how tired and confused they
      are. "Rise, awake, and gain knowledge"—this Upanishad declares that
      one should not act like a gigantic inert person who is dumb and
      desolate, who knows not the meaning of life and the universe. All
      human beings have the essential potentialities to understand and
      direct their life streams toward the ocean of bliss. The message of
      Upanishadic philosophy extends good will to the whole of humanity,
      saying, "Let all of mankind be happy; let all of humanity attain
      physical, mental, and spiritual health; let all receive and enjoy
      auspiciousness; let no one experience pain and misery here and

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