We are constantly feeding and dressing and indulging our bodies, but how often do we nourish our soul? Shwetaashwatara Upanishad, the rare gem amongst the Upanishads, teaches us just how to do that. Indeed, it is the priceless oyster in which the pearl of Vaidika philosophy glows with an ethereal light.
What is the cause of this Universe, that is obviously so beautifully ordered? Who is in control of it... since we definitely are not? From where have we arisen? What are we doing here? What is our goal? These are eternal questions the Upanishad asks. It answers them by scientifically eliminating various possibilities. The final answer, however, is hidden from the rational brain, and requires deep contemplation to ferret out.
We are blessed to have the answers served to us, as if on a platter, by the enlightened Yogi named Shwetaashwatara. While his grounded wisdom flings open the doors and windows of our minds, his devotion overwhelms us with its sheer intensity. The Shwetaashwatara Upanishad is indeed a gem to treasure!.
Uttara Nerurkar is a B.Tech. in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. She worked for 15 years in leading chemical engineering and software companies, her last stint being as a Software Researcher at Infosys Limited, where she served for over eight years. As a researcher, she co-authored a book on software engineering for Tata Mc Graw Hill. Her research papers have been published in international software magazines and journals, such as Dr. Dobb’s Journal and IEEE Software Journal, and presented at international conference.
Since 2001, Uttara has been pursuing the path of Adhyaatma and studying the Vedas, Upanishads, Darshan Shastras and other Indian philosophical treatises, along with Sanskrit. She has studied at the feet of Swami Brahmadevaji, Smt. Amrutvarshini Bhatt, Acharya Anandprakash, Acharya Satyananda Vedageesh, Smt. Pushpa Dixit and many other gurus of different schools of thought. Her intensive studies have been recognized by experts. She presented a paper on Nyayadarshanam, the ancient Indian text on Logic and reasoning at the prestigious 16th World Sanskrit Conference, Bangkok, 2015. Another of her papers on the same text was published in India’s foremost philosophical journal- journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. She has presented her studies on other ancient Indian philosophical texts in many other national and international conferences. She regularly writers in renowned Vaidika magazines like Dayanand Sandesh, Vedavaani, etc. and gives discourses on Vaidika subjects in various community forums. She has been teaching the Upanishads, Manusmrti, Bhagawad- geeta, etc., as also Sanskrit, for the past ten years.
She strongly believes that the knowledge that is contained in our ancient texts is extremely relevant today. She has been trying to spread this message by giving presentations to schools and colleges, speaking at various national and international conferences, and producing video in English, Hindi and Tamil that are freely available on YouTube. Her message is to echo the clarion call of Swami Dayanand Saraswati of the Arya Samaja- ‘Go back to the Vedas’.
This book presumes no prior knowledge whatsoever from the reader of the Vedas, the Upanishads, or, Indian spritiual tenets, in General. In fact, it has irigniated from the class notes recorded for the students of just such
a class taken in 2014 on the little known Shwetaashwatara Upanishad. It has been written for people who are curious about ancient Indian texts such as the Upanishads but are not familiar with Indian philosophy in general, and who are therefore unable to understand some aspects of these texts which are critical, but whose explanations are not lucid enough for the first-time reader.
Thus, the explanation of the verses has been reinforced with full explanations of generic concepts of Indian Philosophy, wherever it has been found necessary. At no point will the reader be left wondering what a particular word or statement means. The subject matter itself being very deep, the language has been kept as simple as possible.
I do hope that it will be of help for those who, like me in my previous avatar of a software professional, have little idea of the intricacies of ancient Indian thought and find it difficult to navigate in this unknown territory. I have tried to keep it brief, yet explanatory, with the busy individual in mind. Please do read the Introduction in order to make your foray into this Upanishad smooth!
I wish the reader an exciting journey of discovery!
Upanishads lie at the very core of ancient Indian spiritual thought. They are highly revered by Indians and the rest of the world alike. They contain answers to the deepest mystical questions that have troubled man since the beginning of time. They delve into the mystery of the nature of this universe, its purpose, the entities that inhabit it, the relationship between them and the ultimate goal of life. Due to this esoteric subject matter, they are considered Upaangas, or a Subordinate part, of the Vedas- the supreme revered books of the Hindus. Some even call them ‘the essence of the Vedas’, though this epithet may not be entirely justified.
Their antiquity can only be guessed as it lies in the hoary past. Of the 200-odd Upanishads that are available today, ten Upanishads are considered the most authoritative. They are called the ten principal Upanishads. These include Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Maadookya, Taittareeya, Aitreya, Chhandogya and Brihadaaranyaka, laid down in this mnemonic verse.
Shwetaashwatara Upanishad is not one of them. However, it is considered the eleventh due to its importance and clear exposition of spiritual matters. It is also an apt Upanishad for beginners as, firstly, it uses direct language and is not as symbolic as the other Upanishads; and secondly, because it has a lot of Vaidika verses borrowed in too. This gives a useful introduction to some of the most beautiful Vaidika verses.
The Upanishad is divided into six chapter, with 113 verses in all (16,17,21,22,14,23, respectively). The metres of the verses are typically Trishtup and, in a few cases, Anushtup. These are very popular metres in Sanskrit works. Other metres occur in only a handful of verses.
Understanding the following basic concepts of Indian spiritual thought, which are themselves in line with Vaidika precepts, will be very helpful for beginners.
1. There are three eternal entities in this Universe-
a. Inanimate matter, Prakrti, which has a base primordial form at the beginning of the Universe that transforms to yield the whole multiplicity of objects we see around us. These transformations are transient, and return to their basic form upon complete destruction.
b. Individual souls, Jeevaatmaas, that reside in each living being and are animate.
c. The one Supreme Soul, Paramaatmaa, or God, who is animate and is the creator, controller and destroyer of the Universe.
2. The Universe comes into existence as Srishti, expands and diversifies over the period of creation, or Kalpa. It ends in Pralaya when everything is reduced to its primordial form. This lasts as long as the Kalpa. The world period of a Kalpa and Pralaya comprises a ‘Day of Brahma’. The cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. Like a rotating wheel, it has no beginning or end to it. This may be termed a ‘cyclical infinity’.
3. The material body is the abode of the soul. When the body encompassing a soul dies, the soul continues to exist. It moves on to another body made of matter in an eternal cycle of birth, death and re-incarnation. God never occupies a body.
4. Living beings are born as different species, in a hierarchy starting from the plant world, moving on to viruses, bacteria, insects, fishes, amphibians, lower animals and mammals, with man at the top of the pyramid. Human birth is considered the pinnacle, as it has the most discerning intellect and the maximum capacity for well- thought- out action vis-à-vis instinctive behavior. It also has the maximum capacity for enjoyment of the material world. The soul, particularly in the human birth, is independent in performing its actions.
5. This structure is not unjust. It is based upon the deeds that a soul performs. Actions lead to equal reactions (as opposed to Newton’s Third Law which states that action and reaction are equal and opposite!). Thus, a benevolent deed results in happiness; a sinful deed leads to sorrow. Some deeds affect the soul’s happiness in this birth; others come to fruition in future births. This is the Law of Action (Karma).
6. While the cycle of life and death continues endlessly, it is possible for a soul to exit the cycle by means of salvation, or Moksha. This is a non-obvious path that cannot be reasoned out by any available data. Therefore, it forms the subject matter of all the Upanishads in particular, and other spiritual text in general. They are based on the experience of enlightened sages, such as Sage Shwetaashwatara himself. The Upanishad under consideration here has been written by his disciples, as is evident from a verse towards the end of the text.
7. In Philosophy, a ‘cause’ does not always refer to a reason. In fact, it usually refers to something that leads to a change, called an ‘effect’. For example, milk transforms into butter. Then, milk is the cause of butter, and butter is the effect of milk. Anything which leads to the transformation of milk to butter is its cause , too.
There are three types of causes identified in Indian Philosophy- the efficient cause (Nimitta Kaarana), the material cause (Upaadaana Kaarana) and the general cause (Saamaanya Kaarana). These can be understood by the time-tested example of a potter making an earthen pot on his wheel. The potter is the efficient cause of the pot, who provides the motivation, the volition and the effort in producing the pot. Without him, the process would not start, nor would it have any direction. The clay provides the material that goes into the pot; hence, it is called the material cause. All the other instruments used by the potter, like the wheel and stick, are general causes. Time and space are the over-arching general causes for all effects.
Explanatory Note on the Vaidika Words
Vaidika words are not fixed in their meaning. They are derived from a root and a combination of prefixes and suffixes. Each of these components has one or more meanings, and influences the meaning of the final word. Thus, the final word itself can have many meanings. Which meaning is applicable at a particular location is determined based on the context, and is left to the experts in the field to decide. We see this on a much smaller scale in our everyday language, like the word ‘well’, that could mean a repository of water, or health, or goodness, or just an interjection.
In the same manner, the word ‘Brahma’, which is used very often in the Upanishads, including the Shwetaashwatara Upanishad, has several meanings depending on the context. Typically, it means the Supreme, i.e., God, but it could have many other meanings as well. Arising from the root ‘Brh’ meaning ‘to be large’ or ‘to expand or ‘ ‘to make a sound’, the word can typically have the following meanings-
b. The Supreme because He is huge- larger than the Universe, in fact!
c. The Universe, also called Brahmaanda, because it is huge.
d. The Vedas because they transmit the knowledge of large things- the Supreme, the Universe and life, in general
e. The Braahmana, i.e., the knower of the Vedas and/or the Supreme.
f. The Jeevaatmaa because it is much greater than inanimate matter.
There are some more words that will be found to have several meaning meanings, sometimes in the same verse, leading to several meanings of the verse itself! I have tried to cover these alternative meanings in my commentary.
In the vedas, God occurs in all three genders- masculine, feminine and neuter. Sometimes multiple genders are found in the same verse! I have tried to translate the Sanskrit verse truthfully with the gender as given. This makes for more some awkward reading in English at times, but I think the readers will appreciate the closeness of the translation to the original. Also, I have tried to make up for it in the ensuing explanation.
Explanatory Notes on this Commentary
1. The first paragraph of the commentary following a verse is a close to a literal translation of the verse as possible and is in italics. Brackets are generally used to indicate the ‘unsaid’ in the verse; rarely, in the interests of readability, have they been done away with.
2. The next paragraph(s), if present, contains a detailed explanation of the verse of fully understand its purport.
3. The word ‘Soul’ always refers to the individual soul, or Jeevatmaa, and never to Paramaatmaa. Also, the word ‘Consciousness’, when used as a noun, denotes the soul.
4. Sanskrit words have been capitalized. Instead of diacritical marks to denote their correct pronunciation, devices such as ‘aa’ to represent a, ‘ee’ for i, etc., have been used to simply the reading expereice.
5. Some English words have also been capitalized in order to emphasise their unique usage. For example, ‘Matter’ is used to denote ‘the physical substance, the thing that objects are made up of’, and the capital M distinguishes it from its other meanings, viz., subject or problem.
6. In general, words in the male gender include the female gender and vice versa.
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