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Mandukya Upanishad - Mantra 8


Mantra 8


The same Self treated as the AUM is substance;

state is substance and substance is state, under letters A, U, and M.


         Nitya’s commentary focuses on sound, the quality of akasa, since aum is after all a sound, a primal sound:


From this indwelling cosmic energy system, man, or rather his consciousness, reaches outward through the articulation of sounds and the world seeps into him through his organ of hearing. He can chant Aum. From his heart there arises the energy of sound, and it goes into the wide world, making wave after wave. It affects everyone around him, including himself, because it comes back to him as a sound that can be heard. Thus, sound functions both centrifugally and centripetally.


         Normally at the Portland Gurukula we have a very peaceful and quiet mediation to bracket our class discussion, but the impish kuttichathans must have been wanting to contribute their playful spirit, because this was the noisiest class we have ever held. Jet planes roared overhead all evening. Motorcycles and trucks whined on the distant road. The neighbors were playing recorded music loud enough to filter in. Pretty soon the dogs started barking, at first tentatively, and later with a will. It seemed some other dog or coyote outside was exchanging insults with them, and they weren’t going to let it pass. Deb went to open the blinds and one of them sprung its mechanism with a loud whoosh. Finally, I had even forgotten to unplug the phone, so of course it rang during a rare moment of silence. It seems the whole world wanted to chant its aums along with us. The only thing that didn’t go off was a cell phone; for the life of me I can’t think why. Maybe they interrupt enough venues already so they didn’t feel they had to.

         As host, you always do what you can to still the clamor and create a special atmosphere. But it was hopeless. By the end, all we could do was laugh. The onslaught was a great joke. If anyone wanted stillness, they had to go home and find it there. But after all, we were celebrating sound, especially the sound that helps funnel our consciousness into the depths of our being. So it felt like the universe was sitting in with us, as yet another participant.

         In her opening remarks, Deb affirmed that aum is our connection, the route into Brahman, the Absolute, for us. The inception point of all life. The movement of aum is like a thread leading us back into that deep, vibrant source.

         Deb took us right to the most puzzling aspect of the mantra, the mysterious phrase state is substance and substance is state. This is presumably Nitya’s translation. It helps to know that substance was a special term for him, meaning that which comprises the unitive condition. Here in this mantra, aum, or really the Self treated as aum, is the substance. Since it is called the same Self, it must refer to the turiya of the previous mantra.

         Nitya was fascinated by the philosopher Spinoza’s idea of substance, and I’ll include a lovely story about it from Love and Blessings in Part II. Briefly, Spinoza characterized the absolute ground of reality as substance. Where Descartes held a dualistic view of the world, that mind and body are separate and distinct, Spinoza maintained a unitive view, basically that mind and body are different aspects of the same substance. There is a good discussion on line if you want to pursue this further: . I’m sure there is plenty more on the web.

         My take on this was that state refers to the various states of wakeful, dream and deep sleep, and they are united in the Mandukya as one substance. Where we perceive difference, there is nonetheless also sameness. It occurred to me that if we think of the substance as the ocean of subatomic particles, which is a not-too-outdated modern view, we tend to think of material substances being made up of such particles but not our states of consciousness. The Upanishad is claiming that states of consciousness are also modifications of the one Substance. In a way, it’s akin to the materialist view that consciousness is an evolute of matter (or vice versa). In any case, that they are not two things. After all, matter is just another form of energy.

         The two terms here are pada and matra. Matra is the thing in itself. It means the essential elements, but more importantly, measure: the exact measure of a thing and nothing more, or less. More exactly what a thing is, rather than the measure of it. Pada means a mark; a footstep. The mark on the ground is an indicator that a foot once stepped there. So what this phrase means is roughly “the thing is its measure, and the measure is the thing.” Nitya gives this a broad interpretation with his “state is substance and substance is state.” Hume takes it more literally, rendering it, “The elements (matra) are the fourths; the fourths, the elements.”

         There can be a number of interpretations of what this might mean, in keeping with the non-specificity of Upanishadic thought. One is that all we can know is our interpretation—the reality is beyond our ken. It’s a bit like maya, perhaps. Another is that our interpretation is equally real as anything else. I can think of several more. Can you?

         The subject is related to semiosis, an important aspect of Indian spirituality that surfaces again in the commentary. Semiosis is the substitution of a symbol for the actual thing, something that humans are proficient at, one of our distinguishing traits, in fact. It is also our downfall, to the extent that the symbol does not exactly match the substance it represents. As we know, humans can get very far away from “reality” in our thought processes. The most common form of symbolism is words, and it’s one of those miracles that we effortlessly use long strings of word symbols, and our friends readily understand us, or at least believe they do. The more you look at it, the more extraordinary this is, not to mention prone to error.

         At the end of the class, we took a close look at how easily our minds perform semiosis. Now shut in a far bedroom, the dogs were barking loudly, calling demeaning names at the coyote in the back yard. We had just finished chanting aum and were sitting in what passed for silence. At least we were as focused as we were going to get on a night like this. Each bark we heard was a direct experience. Then, when we thought, “That’s Kai and Lucy barking,” that was the symbolic interpretation of the sound—in this case likely a close match to the original. Then when I further thought, “I’d like to smack those imbeciles,” I was adding a layer of personal conditioning onto the symbol. It’s good to examine this process, and especially helpful to reverse the arrow and in meditation work our way back from the interpretation to the source, the ground of direct experience.

         One of several interesting discussions about semiosis was initiated by Paul, who asserted that the greatest inhibition to communication is the use of words. This is due to the old ruts we employ in our interpretation of reality, and it’s good to break out of that. Nitya’s retrenchment into silence referenced in Part II did just that, with profound results that he vividly describes. I added that this teaches us not to presume our interpretation matches the one held by the person we’re talking to. If we’re open and respectful, and really listen to them, rather than to our own preconceived notions, we will have a much more successful communication.

         Prabu and Deb chimed in that this is the challenge of reading texts from the past—we really don’t know what the ancients were thinking. We can only presume, but with more or less information to back us up. In the modern day there are many scholarly studies that can go a long way to help us imagine the mindset of people who came before us. In the ultimate analysis, however, we are doing it for our own benefit, in our own terms. We don’t have to constrain ourselves to only what was once thought, and no farther. We are also contributors to the enlargement of understanding. Yet respectfully relating to previous thought systems helps keep us from getting too far off the track.

         Deb noted how often when she writes a poem, she doesn’t fully grasp what it is about., and then, after some time, she sees how it’s reflective of something in her psyche that is trying to make itself perceived by her. Possibly most writing does this, which is why all fiction, at least, is said to be autobiographical. I’d add that possibly all thought and action do this as well: we are being instructed from the para, the beyond, yet all too often we are deaf to its message. Only if we stop and really ponder aspects of our experience do we begin to discern the patterns and meanings symbolically being passed on to us.

         Happily, a reasonably decent life does not depend on us immaculately “getting the message.” We seldom do. Yet we are impelled by those inner impulses, whether we know it or not. But it definitely does add a significant benefit to begin to learn the hidden language of the inner world and listen to it with bigger ears.

         Prabu reviewed a section of Nitya’s An Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Hindu Religion, where the five elements are connected with their attributes. This is something that should be well known by now, but for the newcomers, earth symbolizes the physical realm, water the emotional, fire the intellectual, air the spiritual or intuitive, and akasa the space, the stage setting where the performance takes place.

         Nitya opens the present talk with a review of the five elements in a general way, concluding with a counterintuitive assertion: “The subtler an element, the mightier it becomes in its power to manifest.” He might have meant in its power to influence manifestation. If you think only in terms of mass, earth is by far the heaviest and most obvious, while the others become increasingly subtle until they hardly seem to matter at all. But in terms of impact, it is the other way round, ending with akasa, without which none of this would be possible. Deb added that being subtle and intuitive gives you more power to affect your life, whereas being stolidly fixed and unyielding means you stay stuck. She and Prabu are right: this is all about psychology. We’re not rating the five elements in terms of utility as the literal substances they are named for, but as symbols of aspects of the psyche. This is not geology or chemistry; it’s brahmavidya, the science of the Absolute.

         Paul added that one of the recent propositions about our expanding universe is that once it achieves a certain dissoluteness, even the atoms will fly apart, at the speed of light no less. One physicist has surmised that an empty universe might well be the basis for the next Big Bang act of creation, meaning emptiness has more power than all the physical forces we are familiar with put together.

         There is a very valuable paragraph here, where Nitya delineates the pulsation of energy from the point source within to the surface of consciousness and then back to the source. This is well worth reviewing:


The rishis saw, in the scheme of articulation, a four-fold centrifugal expansion, and a three-fold centripetal inversion. The four-fold centrifugal manifestation consists first of para, the unmanifested infinitude, from which manifestation arises; the second is pasyanti, the configuration of ideas in the deep unconscious, from where it can activate the preconscious threshold of the individuated mind, where the mystery of semiosis takes place. Then from the pasyanti the manifesting word enters into the secret manipulation of madhyama. There the meanings of conceptual configurations are clothed with the tonality of sound provided by the measured release of quantums of prana. Finally there is vikhari, which brings sounds bursting into meaning in the auditory awareness of the listener. The centripetal inversion begins with the mouth whose lips are fully parted, such as when we articulate “A.” The second location is seen in the throat, as when we say “U,” for which the lips are rounded, and finally it culminates in the heart, where we say “M” with the mouth fully closed.


         One of the radical triumphs of Vedanta is locating (in a nebulous sense) the para or the beyond, within the core of our being. Considering it to be outside produces an imbalanced state, a dualistic perception where there exists no duality. As the quantum of creative energy pulsates through the system, it activates vasanas, then samskaras, and then begins to incorporate the demands of the present environment into its configuration.

         We are consciously aware only of the final stage, where we interact with our surroundings. For most people this surface layer of appearances is all that matters. We search for meaning all over the surface, wondering why nothing touches us for very long. Sometimes we get intimations, but they don’t last. If we don’t get the joke, we can easily spend a million lifetimes searching the surface of the globe for what lies comfortably out of sight below, in the depths of our psyche.

         Surfaces never reveal the depths where meaning resides, though they sometimes reveal broad indications to the discerning eye. Only if we return to the source do we attune with the inner motivations and structures of our life, which is a very satisfying and empowering experience.

         One of the ways to explore this vast terrain is to chant aum. In the quote from L&D in Part II, “The psychological effect of it is like consciousness being poured into a funnel.” Our wandering consciousness is made to taper down to a fine point of relaxed intensity, where much that is extraneous is naturally exfoliated.

         Para, substance, karu, Brahman. Call it what you like, our core is the infinite source we semiconsciously long to recover and align ourselves with. Nitya sums up the whole Upanishad as a clarion call to reconnect with the source:


Although the forms that belong to the earth are perishable, the idea carved into the niches of sound can remain as eternal Truth. For that reason, like the fourth, with which we became familiar in the previous mantra, the Word, logos, Aum, is also imperishable, aksara. At all the four levels of consciousness, Aum is the link between the individuated person and Brahman, the substratum of the cosmos. This is the grand scheme of the Mandukya Upanishad.


Part II


         In An Integrated Science of the Absolute, Chapter V, on the Bhana Darsana, Nataraja Guru introduces his translation of the Mandukya Upanishad in this intriguing way:


The resemblance between the four-fold structuralism found in the co-ordinates of Descartes, as well as in the equations of Lorentz, which are also present in Bergson’s reduction of relativity into absolutism, is so striking that we now present in full the Mandukya Upanishad, because it is fully pertinent to the same structural problem at hand. The first verse of the Upanishad begins with the mystical syllable AUM, and in a later verse (the eighth) there begins a psychological analysis involving a non-objective inner substance. The structure although proposed in a vague mystical way rather than in mathematical language, none the less stands out quite distinctly. Narayana Guru’s own ideas in this chapter may be said to have directly or indirectly been inspired by this Upanishad.


*         *         *


         Two relevant excerpts from Love and Devotion:


         Aum is a mantra for chanting. The psychological effect of it is like consciousness being poured into a funnel. The spatial dimension of consciousness narrows as it proceeds from ‘a’ to ‘u’, and it comes to a point of non-articulation at ‘m’. Thereafter the person chanting Aum feels within them the effect proceeding to a deeper silence. The silence that is experienced after the termination at ‘m’ is the fourth quarter of consciousness.

         The plus side of the vertical axis represents this point of culmination. If the vertical minus suggests the alpha point from which manifestation mounts, the vertical plus marks the omega point where it attains its highest peak and consequently also the last post beyond which nothing happens.

         In the vegetative world, the vertical plus is where the flower gets its kiss from the descending sunlight. In the animal world it’s a point where a bitch fondly licks the pups that are suckling her breasts. In the human world this is where the fulfillment of one’s life interest fills them with the joy of utmost satisfaction and thankfulness. And in a truly spiritual person, it’s a point of their greatest wonder from where they cool down to the neutral center and become equipoised in relation to all the four quarters of consciousness. (27-8)


         The scheme is not to suggest the preference for any one quarter over another. It is only to help the student have a structural visualization of the complementarity of the four aspects of consciousness. One warning to be kept in mind is to treat the scheme only as one version of looking at the world and our placement in it. In fact, each person will consciously or unconsciously evolve their own scheme of correlation, and that need not be like another person’s scheme.

         The picture presented here is more or less like a still, cut from a cinematographic film, as Bergson puts it. Neither the life-stream nor our consciousness is static at any time. The flux of consciousness alternates and alters. It is like a series of figures of eight moving up and down and touching the four quarters in different measures and different degrees. (28)


*         *         *


         Here is the sweet story from Love and Blessings touching on substance. I’ll include rather more than I read out in class. Nitya had finally freaked out about his relationship with Nataraja Guru and left him, with no assurance he would return. Remember?


The more I tried to explain myself, the more he found reasons to disbelieve me. I thought, “What’s the use of speech if words cannot convey truth, even to your Guru?”


Nitya left Nataraja Guru and went into silence in a hut. Keep in mind that Nataraja Guru had high hopes for Nitya becoming his successor, and had been working with him long and hard. We pick up the story following Nitya’s year and a half in isolation, toward the end of which he was relating to the local villagers and teaching them. To his chagrin they could not help treating him as a holy man:


         Finally I decided to make a big change in my vows. I still wanted to continue my own silence, but some form of communication with my working class neighbors now seemed essential. When they came to know I was willing to write messages on Sundays, they came to get advice about organizing to improve their plight.

         The first move we made was to resolve to no longer address anyone as “My Lord.” When the peasants began addressing their neighbors as “Brother,” it was a kind of death knell to the feudal system. It began to change their self-image. They came to understand that freedom is not something that can be given by another, that one has to recognize one’s own freedom.

         In spite of my efforts to restore my image as a plain human being, I had already become a holy man with a halo around me. I knew it would be impossible to return to social normalcy by remaining silent in an ashram. So one morning I just walked away, planning to head for the Himalayas. After eighteen months of deep silence I was once again on the road.

         Before heading north I wanted to visit the Narayana Gurukula in Varkala, and the first man I wanted to greet was Nataraja Guru. Guru was taking his evening meal when I walked in. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He got up, rushed to the door, took me by the hand and said in a loud voice, “Here is the return of the Prodigal Son. Is there no Michelangelo to paint this scene?”

         I decided not to break my silence. I just looked into his eyes. He made me sit next to him and he set a plate of kanji and green gram before me. After partaking of the food, I went and sat with him in his room. The other people in the Gurukula were very confused not knowing if I was a friend or an enemy. But Guru was truly in the mood of a prodigal son’s father. Of course, he had no fatted calf to be killed and given in a feast for me, but his love was irresistible.

         It was hard to tear myself away from Guru, but I decided to spend the night alone. When Guru went to bed, I walked over to the nearby Shivagiri High School and slept in one of the classrooms, which was in an unfinished cottage. In the morning I took a bath and put my wet clothes in a convenient place to dry. I had only two sets of clothes, a shoulder bag, a notebook and pencil, and the complete works of Narayana Guru in Malayalam.

         When I got back to the Gurukula, Guru was giving the morning class. He asked if anyone there knew the significance of Karu, which comes in the first verse of Atmopadesa Satakam. The question was clearly aimed at me. I wanted to tell him that it was the same as Spinoza’s substance, but I wasn’t going to break my silence. Guru probably saw the struggle in my eyes, so he said, “If Nitya were speaking, he would have equated Karu with Spinoza’s substance.” He spent the class elaborating the nuances of the term. When the class was over, without saying any formal goodbye, I simply touched his feet and walked into the road.

         I took a train to Trivandrum and went to the Medical College, where my sister was doing her residency. Since I wasn’t talking, she was rather sad and didn’t say anything either. As I was leaving she dropped an envelope in my shoulder bag. I walked back to the railway station, feeling very tired. I was sure I was leaving Kerala forever. From the envelope that my sister had given me, I took one rupee and bought a second-class ticket to Kadakkavur, where a friend of mine was seriously ill. That left a balance of twenty-nine rupees. Feeling totally exhausted I got into a compartment and soon was fast asleep. I was still asleep when we reached what I thought was Kadakkavur. The train stopped with a big jolt at the station, waking me up. I looked out. My God! It was Varkala.

         Sitting confused, not knowing what to do, I looked at the boarding passengers. Who should I see but Nataraja Guru? He walked up and stood before me with his cane, bag, overcoat, and a French beret. As I wasn’t speaking, he didn’t say anything, but with his hand made a gesture that could be interpreted as “Are you coming with me?” I was befuddled, embarrassed and crestfallen. I remembered Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven. I thought, “Here is the Hound again. I cannot escape him.” The best thing was to surrender once again, this time absolutely. As the ticket examiner was passing, Guru asked him to give me a ticket to Bangalore and gestured to me, asking if I had money. The cost of the ticket was twenty-nine rupees, exactly the amount I had left. (178-80)


Scott Teitsworth