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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 Easwaran’s 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, man’s actions and reactions, and cause and effect all become part of the paradigm that may be understood through coming to know the Creator.

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, 68):

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.

The "Self"
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 heart.
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, 113)

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 the body… and which is the greatest?" Pippala answers:

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, ‘Don’t deceive yourselves.
It is I …
Who holds this body together. (160)

Naturally, that question is followed-up with "Master, from what source does this prana come?" And answered:

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 mind’s desires may be fulfilled. (162)

Pippala goes on to describe also the five kinds of prana.
    1. Main prana — in the eyes, ears, mouth and nose
    2. Apana — downward force, in the organs of sex and excretion
    3. Samana — the equalizing force in the middle digests food and kindles the seven fires
    4. Vyana — distributor of energy, moves through vital currents, radiating from the heart, where the Self lives
    5. 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 taste,
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 death:

They who look upon food as the Lord’s gift
Shall never lack life’s 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. (38)

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):

    1. A — Vaishvarana, awareness of the external world
    2. U — Taijasa, the dreaming state
    3. M — Prajna, deep sleep, without dreams but sleeper not conscious
    4. AUM — Turiya , the superconscious, "Beyond the senses and intellect, / In which there is none other than the Lord … He is infinite peace and love." (60-61)
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 other writings).

Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellects as charioteer,
And the mind as reins.
The senses … are the horses … (88)

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 in everyone.

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 … beyond thoughts 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 task. (220)

The Guru and the Seeker
Indeed, the entire path to Self-realization is arduous, "sharp like a razor’s 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, Uddala’s 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 Uddala’s 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… Of 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 Nachiketa’s 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.

I will give you the Word all the scriptures
Glorify… 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)

Another depiction of death, and implication of reincarnation, occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

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, and known.


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 Isha Upanishad (The Inner Ruler) notes that both the immanent and the transcendent are necessary for enlightenment:

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)

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:

the whole mantram AUM
Indivisible, interdependent,
Goes on reverberating in the mind,
One is freed from fear, awake or asleep… Established in this cosmic vibration,
The sage goes beyond fear, decay, and death
To enter into infinite peace. (165-166)

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. "… all things 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 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. (Chandogya, 191)


    1. What is the value of reading the Upanishads for you? For your yoga practice? For you as a teacher?
    2. Identify two themes in the Upanishads and explain how/why each is important to you.
    3. How would you describe these writings to someone unfamiliar with them?
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