The Lotus of the
Heart: A Summary of the Upanishads
By Alex Krawciw Levin
Based on the translation by Eknath Easwaren.
Page numbers are cited for this version of the Upanishads.
Title quote is from the Chandogya Upanishad (191).
The Upanishads are a series of brief writings that originated
from hymns and teachings in early Indian civilization, some
dating to approximately 1500 BC. Typically, these teachings
were an oral tradition illumined teachers passed them
down to students seeking truth and knowledge about themselves,
their world, and the universe. However, the Upanishads are
inspirational to anyone who shares this quest for meaning.
Each Upanishad is, in Easwarans words, "complete
in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent Reality." Some
of them are in story and/or dialog form; some are narratives;
others are chants or hymns with poetic rhythms. These sacred
texts are primarily inspirational. The Upanishads do not
provide easy answers, but rather lead the reader to become
conscious of the questions and the questioner, to experience
spiritual being-ness and connection to the universe.
The teachings assume a philosophical nature as the material
universe is put into the larger, cosmic context. Creation,
evolution, physical and organic cycles, mans actions
and reactions, and cause and effect all become part of the
paradigm that may be understood through coming to know the
While each Upanishad is independent of the others, many themes,
phrases, and images repeat. The major themes and examples
from the Upanishads are cited below (as headings and as bold
text within the narrative).
What is the force that
drives the universe?
This question is at the heart of many of the Upanishads.
Perhaps this is because this force is the essence of all
that can be known and all that cannot be known. The question
is asked many different ways throughout the Upanishads.
The awareness that there seems to be a separate consciousness
in ourselves leads to the question, "Who is questioning?" An
answer to this question and in turn the above question is
given in the Kena Upanishad (Who Moves the World,
The student inquires:
Who makes my mind think?
Who fills my body with vitality?
Who causes my tongue to speak? Who is that
Invisible one who sees through my eyes?
And hears through my ears?
The teacher replies:
The Self is in the ear of the ear,
The eye of the eye, the mind of the mind,
The word of words, and the life of life
We do not know, we cannot understand,
Because he is different from the known
And he is different from the unknown.
It is very difficult to actually put the Self into words. The Mundaka
Upanishad (Two Modes of Knowing) claims "The
Lord of Love is above name and form. He is present in all and
transcends all." This Upanishad continues later to add:
"Bright but hidden, the Self dwells in the
Everything that moves, breathes, opens, and closes
Lives in the Self. He is the source of love
And may be known through love but not through thought
He is the goal of life. Attain this goal!" (112,
The Mandukya Upanishad (The Medium of Awareness)
reveals that "Brahman is all, and the Self
is Brahman" (60). This suggests that Self
and Brahman are the same energy, that the Self is
the aspect of Brahman that is in humans, in each "self."
The Prashna Upanishad (The Breath of Life)
explains the specific manifestation of this energy
in the story of six seekers of Self-realization.
The sage Pippala answers their questions probing
the forces at work in the universe and our world.
Among the questions is "What powers support
and which is the greatest?" Pippala
Naturally, that question is followed-up with "Master, from
what source does this prana come?" And answered:
The powers are space, air, fire,
Water, earth, speech, mind, vision, and hearing.
All these boasted We support this body.
But prana, vital energy, supreme
over them all, said, Dont deceive yourselves.
It is I
Who holds this body together. (160)
Pippala goes on to describe also the five kinds of prana.
Prana is born of the Self. As a man
Casts a shadow, the Self casts prana
Into the body at the time of birth
So that the minds desires may be fulfilled. (162)
- Main prana in the eyes, ears, mouth
- Apana downward force, in the organs
of sex and excretion
- Samana the equalizing force in the
middle digests food and kindles the seven
- Vyana distributor of energy, moves
through vital currents, radiating from the
heart, where the Self lives
- Udana runs upward through the spinal
channel, leads the selfless up the long ladder
of evolution, and the selfish down.
The Aitareya Upanishad (The Microcosm of
Man) inquires into the exact nature of the
Self, and answers:
Is it the Self by which we see, hear, smell, and
Through which we speak in words? Is Self the mind
By which we perceive, direct, understand,
Know, remember, think, will, desire, and love?
These are but servants of the Self, who is
Pure consciousness. This Self is in all. (129-130)
Creation and Evolution
Thus it is established that the Self, Brahman,
is the force behind everything, the force that drives
the universe. The Upanishads also propose ideas for
how the Self created the universe. In the Mundaka
Upanishad we learn that:
The deathless Self meditated upon
Himself and projected the universe
As evolutionary energy.
From this energy developed life, mind,
The elements, and the world of karma,
Which is enchained by cause and effect. (110)
The Aitareya Upanishad offers a colorful and
surreal rendition of creation:
As the Self brooded
Over the form, a mouth opened, as does
An egg, giving forth speech and fire; nostrils
Opened with the power of breathing the air;
Eyes opened, giving rise to sight and sun;
And ears opened to hear the sound in space.
Skin appeared and from it hair; from hair cam
Plants and trees. The heart gushed forth; from the heart
Came the mind, and from the mind came the moon. (126)
An evolutionary catalog is presented in the Taittiriya
Upanishad. This text, From Food to Joy,
celebrates the many elements of our lives on
earth, the many gifts that sustain our bodies,
and the "sheaths" of our Self ¾ food,
vitality, mind, wisdom and joy. Varuna directs
Bhrigu, a seeker in this Upanishad, to meditate
to find Brahman. Bhrigu discovers Him in each
of the sheaths and finds respect for each of
these aspects that are part of the path to enlightenment.
The Taittiriya invites the reader to notice the
links between the sheaths and to go beyond them
to realize the unity of life, providing guidance
for discovering the Self within our human form
and function. Food is praised as the gift of
life and the essence of the cycles of life and
They who look upon food as the Lords gift
Shall never lack lifes physical comforts.
From food are made all bodies. All bodies
Feed on food, and it feeds on all bodies. (142)
All that the Self created exists to serve the Self. "Food
and the body exist to serve the Self." By respecting
food (i.e., not wasting it) and sharing it, we serve
the Lord, "from whom is born every living creature." (148)
Who shares food with the hungry protects me
Who shares not with them is consumed by me
I am this world and I consume this world.
They who understand this understand life. (149)
Duality and Unity
The reconciliation of observing the many with
knowing the One True Self is seen repeatedly throughout
the Upanishads. Recognizing this requisite to finding
the Self, the Mundaka Upanishad asserts that by realizing "that
you are the Self, / Supreme source of light, supreme
source of love, / You transcend the duality of life
/ And enter into the unitive state." (115)
The sage Yajnavalkya, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (The
Forest of Wisdom), describes the Self-realized
as having "entered into the peace that brings
complete self-control and perfect patience. They
see themselves in everyone and everyone in themselves." (49)
Yajnavalkya draws this analogy of this unitive
state for his wife, Maitreyi:
A lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot
be taken out again, though wherever we taste
the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the
separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness,
infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from
identifying the Self with the body, which is
made up of the elements; when this physical identification
dissolves, there can be no more separate self.
One may come to know the Self in four different states
of consciousness. AUM (OM), "is a symbol
for what was, what is, and what shall be." Each
part and the whole of this sound represents a
different state as noted in the Mandukya Upanishad (The
Medium of Awareness):
Another famous image of the parts of our human existence
that work towards realizing the "One" is found
in the Katha Upanishad (Death as Teacher).
(This analogy also appears in the Bhagavad Gita and some
- A Vaishvarana, awareness of the external
- U Taijasa, the dreaming state
- M Prajna, deep sleep, without dreams
but sleeper not conscious
- AUM Turiya , the superconscious, "Beyond
the senses and intellect, / In which there
is none other than the Lord
infinite peace and love." (60-61)
Using discrimination one can master control of the mind
and senses and discover the Self. The Katha Upanishad qualifies
by adding that although the Self, Brahman, is hidden
Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellects as charioteer,
And the mind as reins.
are the horses
He is revealed only
To those who keep their mind one-pointed
On the Lord of Love and thus develop
A superconscious manner of knowing.
Meditation enables them to go
to wisdom in the Self. (89)
Meditation is the key and direct way to discover
the Self. The devotional Shvetashvatara Upanishad (The
Faces of God) offers practical advice on this practice.
Conscious spirit and unconscious matter
Both have existed since the dawn of time,
With maya appearing to connect them,
Misrepresenting joy as outside us. *
When all these three are seen as one, the Self
Reveals his universal form and serves
As an instrument of the divine will.
All is change in the world of the senses,
But changeless is the supreme Lord of Love.
Meditate on him, be absorbed by him,
Wake up from this dream of separateness. (218)
* maya the world as it appears to us, an
illusion of separateness
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Yajnavalkya
assures his wife, Maitreyi, "When you hear about
the Self, meditate upon the Self, and finally realize
the Self, you come to understand everything in life." (37)
The Shvetashvatara Upanishad provides complete
directions for sitting in meditation to "kindle
the fire of kundalini" as well as indications
of progress, with fair warning that it is no easy
The Guru and the
Indeed, the entire path to Self-realization is
arduous, "sharp like a razors edge," and
is traditionally sought through the guidance of a
teacher or guru. (Katha, 89) The sage/student relationship
is a traditional way of obtaining the truth, knowledge
of the Self. In some of the Upanishads, sons turn
to their fathers for instruction. Shvetaketu, Uddalas
son, studied the Vedas with a scholar for twelve
years. He returned home with intellectual knowledge,
but without spiritual wisdom. (Chandogya Upanishad, Sacred
Song) So he learns from his father. A major part
of Uddalas teaching is that through recognizing
duality, but also going beyond it into unity that
one comes to know the unknown.
As bees suck nectar from many a flower
And make their honey one, so that no drop
Can say, I am from this flower or that,
All creatures, though one, know not they are that One
everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu; you are that. (184)
In the Katha Upanishad, Nachiketa asks Yama
(Death) himself, "Does a person live after death
or not?" (83) Before revealing this precious knowledge,
Yama tests Nachiketas sincerity with worldly desires
and delights, wealth and power. Renouncing these temptations,
Nachiketa responds, "Having approached an immortal
like you, / How can I, subject to old age and death,
/ Ever try to rejoice in a long life / For the sake of
the senses fleeting pleasures?" Yama rewards
him with an answer.
Another depiction of death, and implication of reincarnation,
occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
I will give you the Word all the scriptures
Those in whose hearts OM reverberates
Unceasingly are indeed blessed
And deeply loved as one who is the Self.
The all-knowing Self was never born,
Nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect,
This Self is eternal and immutable.
When the body dies, the Self does not die. (86)
Of those unaware of the Self, some are born as
Embodied creatures while others remain
In a lower stage of evolution,
As determined by their own need for growth. (93)
When body and mind grow weak, the Self gathers
in all the powers of life an descends with them
into the heart
By the light of the heart
the Self leaves the body by one of its gates;
and when he leaves, prana follows, and with it
all the vital powers of the body. He who is dying
merges in consciousness, and thus consciousness
accompanies him when he departs, along with the
impressions of all that he has done, experienced,
The Isha Upanishad (The Inner Ruler) notes
that both the immanent and the transcendent are
necessary for enlightenment:
As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one
blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches
out for the next, so the Self, having come to
the end of one life and dispelled all ignorance,
gathers in his faculties and reaches out from
the old body to a new. (47)
The Prashna Upanishad describes the expression
AUM as containing both immanent and transcendent elements
of the universe. Meditating on the partial sounds of
the AUM creates connections to the earth, planets, and
sun; and those who meditate on:
In dark night live those for whom the Lord
Is transcendent only; In night darker still,
For whom he is immanent only.
But those for whom he is transcendent
And immanent cross the sea of death
With the immanent and enter into
Immortality with the transcendent.
So have we learned from the wise. (209)
Choices made in this world determine the path of ones eternal
soul, or Self. "As our desire is, so is our will.
As our will is, so are our acts. As we act, so we become." (Brihadaranyaka,
48) The work of the spiritual path is to distinguish
the selfish from selfless desires. "
we desire but do not have, are found when we enter that
space within the heart; for there abide all desires that
are true, though covered by what is false." (Chandogya,
192) Right choices, then, can be determined by looking
into the heart (through meditation, for example).
the whole mantram AUM
Goes on reverberating in the mind,
One is freed from fear, awake or asleep
in this cosmic vibration,
The sage goes beyond fear, decay, and death
To enter into infinite peace. (165-166)
The Self is hidden in the lotus of the heart.
Those who see themselves in all creatures go
day by day into the world of Brahman hidden in
the heart. Established in peace, they rise above
body-consciousness to the supreme light of the
Self. Immortal, free from fear, this Self is
Brahman, called the True. Beyond the mortal and
the immortal, he binds both worlds together.
Those who know this live day after day in heaven
in this very life. (192-193)
The lyrics of the Upanishads cannot be quickly skimmed.
Reading them again and again reveals rich, profound,
and beautiful truths. As illustrated above, in a variety
of forms they teach that everything needed to realize
the Self and to attain eternal joy is within us.
In the city of Brahman is a secret dwelling, the
lotus of the heart. Within this dwelling is a
space and within that space is the fulfillment
of our desires. What is within that space should
be longed for and realized.
As great as the infinite space beyond is the space
within the lotus of the heart. Both heaven and
earth are contained in that inner space, both
fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and stars.
Whether we know it in this world or know it not,
everything is contained in that inner space.
Return to Articles
- What is the value of reading the Upanishads
for you? For your yoga practice? For you
as a teacher?
- Identify two themes in the Upanishads and
explain how/why each is important to you.
- How would you describe these writings to
someone unfamiliar with them?