Long before I began studying religion, a friend from India once remarked that anyone wishing to understand Hinduism must, at some point, explore The Upanishads. In my ignorance, I asked if she was referring to a Nepalese mountain range. After a good laugh, she fetched a book from her desk and handed it to me.
“Aha,” I said, reading the title and flipping through the pages, “You mean a journey into the Soul of Man.”
“It’s more like a journey into the Soul of Everything,” she replied.
Many years later, I finally began that journey with these words:
“What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.”
This quote from the Kena Upanishad is a good starting place because it reveals, with deceptive simplicity, the central idea of Hinduism: that the individual soul and the Universal Soul are one and the same.
For me, unlocking the meaning of this passage began with understanding the phrase “That whereby the mind can think.” These words seemed designed to draw me inward, beyond my thoughts, beneath my very ability to think, toward the deepest element of my existence. When I have difficulty defining this “place,” The Upanishads themselves repeatedly assist me, sometimes speaking in poetic and enigmatic terms, while other times spelling their message out unmistakably, as in:
“Concealed in the heart of all beings is the Atman, the Spirit, the Self.” (KATHA)
With this, I understand that the Kena Upanishad is talking about the essence of the soul, or what The Upanishads call the “God who dwells within.”
This idea alone seems a lot to convey in a solitary sentence, and yet the message does not stop there. It continues, stressing unequivocally that this essence of the individual soul is also Brahman – the Universal Soul. Like a kind of magic trick, the Upanishad pulls me away from the vision of my internal, essential self, and turns me around to face a vast, external universe. Astoundingly, the two views are one and the same.
In explaining the Oneness of Atman and Brahman to me, this single sentence from the Kena Upanishad also manages to demonstrate the bilateral path to enlightenment as it is expressed in the Isa Upanishad:
“He who knows both the transcendent and the immanent, with the immanent overcomes death and with the transcendent reaches immortality.”
Amazingly, the edification in this brief piece of writing continues implicitly. There is the inference relating to the final words “and not what people here adore.” I understand this to mean all things material or relative, such as the world, possessions and emotional attachments. Because such things are transient, they are incompatible with Brahman, which is absolute. They are detrimental to the union of Atman and Brahman.
This union of Atman and Brahman connotes a kindred connection between every person on earth, encouraging us to recognize the divine in our fellow humans, and treat them accordingly.
In meditation and contemplation of the Atman’s Oneness with Brahman, we come to understand that we do not die when our bodies die. This liberates us from the fear of death. In Western terms, this striving to become ever closer to Brahman might be called “worship” – to adore the Spirit, free from desires. By practicing this form of worship, a person can overcome suffering and grow ever closer to God. In the words of the Upanishads: “In truth, who knows God becomes God.”