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Academic Studies of Human Consciousness

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Human Consciousness and the Upanishads

In the ancient Sanskrit language of India, the word "Upanishad" consists of three words:

1) "Upa" meaning "near"

2) "ni" meaning "down" and

3) "shad" meaning "be seated".

Thus, an "Upanishad" is a teaching received while seated at the feet of a teacher (guru).

The Upanishads constitute what Brahmin scholars call the "Vedanta" - the end of the Vedas. This is not merely because of their physical position at the end, but because they are considered to contain the ultimate teachings of the Vedas and are of the highest metaphysical importance.

Traditionally, there are more than 200 Upanishads; however, only 12 of them are considered to be major works.  These 12 major Upanishads may be divided into three chronological groups as follows:

1)  Five Early Prose Upanishads (ca. 700-500 B. C.):

Brhadaranyaka

Chandogya

Taittiriya

Aitareya

Kauhsitaki

2)  Five Verse Upanishads (ca. 400-100 B. C.):

Kena

Katha

Isha

Shvetashvatara

Mundaka

3)  Two Late Prose Upanishads (ca. 100 B. C. - 100 A. D.):

Prashna

Mundaka

The early prose Upanishads contain what is perhaps the earliest analysis of human consciousness to be found in the written records of mankind.  Based upon my very limited review of these major Upanishads, it appears that the Brhadaranyaka and Taittiriya Upanishads are the most significant with respect to the study of consciousness.

A summary of my first impressions of the consciousness teachings of the Brhadaranyaka and Taittiriya Upanishads are shown below.  When perusing the following paragraphs, please be aware that the writers of the Upanishads, like the Greek philosopher Aristotle, believed that the seat of the human soul or mind (consciousness) was located in the heart.

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

The name of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad means "the great forest book."  Most modern scholars believe that Brihadaranyaka is the earliest and most important Upanishad.  It consists of three sections or Kandas:  1) the Madhu Kanda which expounds the teachings of the basic identity of the individual and the Universal Self; 2)  the Muni Kanda which provides the philosophical justification of the teaching; and 3)  the Khila Kanda, which deals with certain modes of worship and meditation, e.g., logical reflection (manana) and contemplative meditation (nididhyasana).

Chapter 5, Section 6 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes that part of Brahman which is within all human beings as follows:

This person here is made of mind and consists of light.  Lodged here deep within the heart, he is like a grain of rice or barley; he is lord of all, the ruler of all!  Over this whole world, over all there is, he rules.

In this Upanishad, the doctrine of Neti, Neti (not this, not this) appears, suggesting the indescribability of the Brahman, the Absolute.  It is possible to describe the Brahman by what It is not, but not as to what It is!  The three cardinal virtues of self-restraint (damana), alms giving (dana) and compassion (daya) are also described.

Taittiriya Upanishad

The Taittiriya Upanishad explains certain ideas concerning being (ontology) and realization of self. The mind is said to lie at a point within the human heart.

The universe is created from five subtle elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth.  Their power manifests in five-fold layers of consciousness, i.e., inanimate objects, living plants, living animals, intelligent human beings, and God or Brahman. These layers form the universe's structure as well as our cosmic anatomy. Within consciousness there are no masks which deliberately hide the truth of our real nature from us. The layers (masks) of consciousness actually refer to the individual's lack of awareness (ignorance) of the real nature of self (being).

Our cosmic anatomy stretches us across the vast plane of existence - from the manifest material world to infinite, formless consciousness.  Somewhere along the human journey our goal is to realize the knower of self and to strive to distinguish between the apparent unreal sensory realm and the realm of ultimate reality.

The Taittiriya Upanishad teaches that consciousness is the primal source of life from which intelligence manifests and creates the mind, breath, and body.  Humans possess a cosmic nature that is intricately woven into the fabric linking our selves, our planet, and the whole universe. This cosmic nature demonstrates that the layers of body, mind and spirit are inseparable. Each one of us possesses a cosmic anatomy developed and refined through the above cited five-fold stratum of consciousness that mirrors the structure of the cosmos.

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