The Mandukya Upanishad discusses the nature of AUM, which in the first line is equated to supreme reality. Also known as onkara, or pranava, AUM as a supreme principle represents a beautiful synthesis of all systems of philosophy, containing within it the dualistic and non-dualistic nature of existence and the human Self, of Brahman and Atman. Brahman and Atman being “the inmost essence of the universe and of man,” respectively. (Nikhilananda, p. 161) Mandukya is the shortest of all the Upanishads, a mere twelve verses, but is arguably the most ambitious. It boldly and unapologetically takes on the understanding of everything. The Mandukya’s influence is vast, notably starting with the great Guadapada, the philosophical grandfather of Sankaracharya, who wrote a commentary on Mandukya in the Karika, planting the seeds of a new Hindu philosophy of non-dualistic Vedanta, Advaita, which Sankaracharya would later elucidate.
The Mandukya, brilliantly and with simplistic precision, declares the nature of all that is. The first verse stating that AUM transcends the past, present, and future, while containing these states within. The Truth is everything, and the transcendence of everything. Brahman is all, and the Self, the Atman, is Brahman. All is held within the sphere of our human experience. The past, present, and future, and that which lies beyond time, finds expression through human consciousness, as states of consciousness.
The three parts of Self resonate through ages of human contemplation searching to understand human nature and what lies beyond, from pagans, to Christians, to Theosophists and New Age thought. How beautiful that the Mandukya elucidates the three aspects of the soul from a standpoint with which we are most intimately acquainted; human consciousness. Profoundly, we find the means of our inquiry, and the object of our inquiry, are the same. The trifold nature of our human experience that the Mandukya Upanishad extolls as essential to reality is symbolized in the sound AUM, each letter representing the states of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep, respectively. These three states represent one aspect of Brahman and are phenomenal, meaning perceptible by the senses or through immediate experience. As well, there is a transcendental aspect to Brahman represented as the undifferentiated sound which comes at the end of the word AUM, the silence. (Nikhilananda, p. 161) “The healing of the wound [the chasm resulting from duality of prakriti and purusha] comes only through the instrument of this great sound of OM…one must pass to the supreme silence, which…does not signify an absence of all sounds, but a transcendence of them all…” (Mukhopadhyaya, p. 233) This fourth state, transcending the other three states of consciousness, transcending sound, but still perceived with consciousness, is called Turiya, which in translation means simply the fourth.
The Mandukya says the Supreme Self, the individuated Brahman, is present in the three states of consciousness, just as the Jiva, the individual soul, or ego is present. The first of the three states is the waking state (Jagrat Avastha). In the waking state, we experience the material world. Our senses and mind are outwardly focused. The Supreme Self is called Vaishvanara in this state and is represented by the A in AUM. The second state is the dreaming state (Svapna Avastha), and the Self is called Taijasa in this state. The dreaming state arises from the waking state, the senses turning inward and using the experience of the waking as the object in this state. It is represented by the U in AUM. The third state is deep sleep (Sushupti Avastha), and the Self experiencing this state is called Prajna, represented by the M in AUM. In this state, the senses are not active. In this deep sleepless state, the Jiva returns into the Self. The duality necessary for conscious experience ceases. The Self, however, remains and accounts for the recollection of the restful sleep upon awakening.
Prajna arises from Taijasa, and Taijasa arises from Vaishvanara. The waking state leads to the dream state which leads to dreamless sleep from the perspective of the senses and their objects, the objects of the dream state resting on the experience of the waking state. The same is observed in the mantra. The A leading to the U leading to the M. Pointedly, “if one continuously goes on uttering OM, he will realise that A and U enter into M and come out of it. Thus there is a rising and falling of Om…Our consciousness, too, has its ascent and descent in an exactly similar pattern. The Absolute first draws a curtan in over itself and becomes the Prajna who like a seed holds within itself the whole world yet unmanifest…consciousness has been condensed as it were, into a dot or seed…which later bursts into the diversity of the waking world through the intermediate state of the world of idea, that is dream.” (Mukhopadhyaya, p. 235) So, the unmanifest finding form as consciousness moves on the momentum of the seed in Prajna, into the ideal realm of dreaming operating in the unconscious, and then into the actualization of the waking state. There is a will, a vision, and an unfolding into the manifest through the three stages.
In reverse, the unmanifest unfolds from the manifest as consciousness reduces the experience of the waking state, realizing the ideal nature of the manifest world by finding oneness in differentiated creation, including the echo of oneness in the individuated personality, the jiva. The idealization of the waking state then is then taken into the dream state, then resolving the experience of creation when coming to rest in dreamless sleep. So, individual objects and experiences in the manifest waking state lead consciousness to idealized concepts (i.e., concepts of houses, mountains, love, movement, creation, death) and as the oneness of differentiated creation is realized, consciousness comes to rest in dreamless sleep, where the jiva, the individual self, merges with the Self, the Atman. And, the manifesting seed within Prajna begins the journey anew. The endless dance ensues.
Turiya, the fourth state, is the pause between the end which opens to the beginning. It is speechless depth of being, not a void, not lacking, not negative. The opposite of void, but formless. A positive state, affirmation itself, for what else could be the substratum of creation. It rings true here, what masters from many traditions have said, that spirit always nods in the affirmative. The symbol and mantra represent in form and meaning this astounding dance of creation resting on the Absolute, Brahman. How creation moves through, and by consciousness, endlessly, all contained within Brahman. It is creation and the transcendence of creation, all in one breath, and the ensuing pause after the breath. The eternal return. “…the conception of the Sabda or the Word as the first principle of creation is universal and as old as creation itself. We ordinarily fail to comprehend how it can be possible for a mere word to create a concrete world of matter. But a deeper refelction will convince us that a word or sound not only creates but also destroys form…The Sabda Brahman [Logos, the Word] is thus in other words, the first vibration in the calm ether of being, the first reflection of the supreme consciousness.” (Mukhopadhyaya, p. 233)
The impetus that begins this dance so brilliantly encapsulated in AUM is sometimes discussed in relation to the gunas and their balance and imbalance. When one master was asked what initiated the first movement in Purusha that would result in Prakriti, he answered, “God became playful.” Western thinkers, such as Hegel, an idealist, would assert that God, in order to know himself, threw out of himself the world. A similar idea echos with materialists as well, with a labor theory of culture, which would say that humanity realizes itself through its efforts, its labor, its creation in the world. Will, movement, and Self-realization dance together and become one in many traditions of thought, but in none is the dance expressed so comprehensively, and with such elegance, simplicity, and clarity as it is in the Mandukya Upanishad.
M., Srinivasa Chari S. The Philosophy of the Upaniṣads: A Study Based on the Evaluation of the Comments of Śaṁkara, Rāmānuja, and Madhva. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2002. Print. Eknath, Easwaran, and Michael N. Nagler. The Upanishads. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri, 1987. Print. Grinshpon, Yohanan. Crisis and Knowledge: The Upanishadic Experience and Storytelling. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2003. Print. Mukhopadhyaya, Govindagopal. Studies in the Upanisads. Calcutta: Sanskrit College, 1960. Print. Nikhilananda. The Upanishads. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print. Sivananda, Swami. "The Three Avastas." The Divine Life Society. N.p., n.d. Web. Nikhilananda. The Upanishads. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.
When legendary yogi, T.K.V. Desikachar, was preparing to meet his future wife's family his father kindly advised that Desikachar should not mention he was giving up his studies in engineering to work as a yoga teacher. Amusingly, this advice came from the man that is easily argued to have had the most profound influence on the modern practice of yoga. Being one of India's greatest scholars, Krishnamacharya not only gave up many professional paths to be a yoga teacher, but refused on multiple occasions to accept the head post of the Parakāla Math, an office equivalent to the Western Papacy. Though his students would become world famous, establishing yoga globally across culture and tradition, Krishnamacharya refused to be called guru, or even yogi, realizing the acceptance of these titles paradoxically would mean that he was neither. The public and his students called him Professor and he accepted himself as an acharya, a title meaning a wise teacher who has traveled far, living what he teaches. Though renowned as a great healer and scholar, his life, mission, and practice was that of a simple yoga teacher. He was born Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in 1888, in Muchukundapuramin Southern India to an ancient brahmin family of the Vaishnavite sect which worships the many manifestations of Vishnu. His father and first guru died when he was ten years old relocating the family to Mysore where Krishnamacharya's great grandfather was pontiff of the Parakāla Math and where Krishnamacharya resumed his education. He was brilliant and earnest in his studies mastering Sanskrit at a level that would astound audiences until he was over a hundred years old. At eighteen he traveled to India's holiest city, Varanasi, modern day Benares, to study at the university level. His mastery of Sanskrit was furthered here by study with the era's greatest grammarian. He would eventually master all six darshanas of Vedic philosophy and acquire the equivalent of numerous doctorates. He was told by yoga masters in Varanasi that he could learn even more of yoga from Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari and he undertook a pilgrimage to find him. He walked more than two-hundred miles in three weeks through Nepal to the region of the holy lake of Manasarovar in Tibet where he found the saint living in a cave with his wife and children. He remained with his guru for seven years. Ramamohan Brahmachari had mastery of seven thousand asanas, of which he taught Krishnamacharya seven hundred to three-thousand, depending on differing accounts. What he mastered during his time in the cave would marvel the world. Customarily, he did not know what he could give his guru in return for the rare gift of learning until it was time to depart, at which point the saint simply asked that Krishnamacharya find a wife, have children and teach yoga. He would return to India and spend the rest of his days doing just as his teacher asked. Having a family was easily accomplished, but life as a simple yoga teacher was a difficult path relative to the illustrious future for which Krishnamacharya had been prepared and was his birthright as a brahmin. He and his family lived the beginning years in poverty, Krishnamacharya at one point having nothing to wear but a loin cloth made from his wife's sari. He even threw off all vestiges of his caste for awhile to work as a plantation supervisor. He eventually would assert that there were only two castes, men and women. In yoga, he radically would come to regard women as the superior of the two. During these years he attracted a few students and was able to give a few lectures, though it was his ability as a healer that brought him to the attention of the Maharaja of Mysore who required help with a health issue. The Maharaja then employed Krishnamacharya as a yoga teacher and advisor, establishing a yogashala in his royal school and supporting Krishnamacharya's efforts to spread the influence of yoga, which he considered to be part of the mission he vowed to his guru to fulfill. It was during these Mysore years of the thirties and forties that he would impact the world in a myriad of ways merely through his simple devotion to his practice and teaching. His Mysore students would include yoga luminaries Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar, his brother-in-law. Krishnamacharya's yoga classes at the royal palace were an adjunct to the physical fitness courses provided. In late colonial India, physical fitness and body building had become popular and an important part of youth education. This development mirrored what was happening in the West, and it also reflected the cultural development of an India on the verge of independence. In striving for independence, Indians faced the challenge of reclaiming their unique indigenous identity. Simultaneously they were forging a modern self-governing identity after a long period of colonial subservience. Physical strength had become culturally associated with the modern Indian, since during colonial rule the Indian male had often been portrayed as weak and effeminate. Strength training was a move toward empowering the future. Krishnamacharya worked with renowned body-builders and fitness instructors who taught classes at the palace school and the practice taught in his classes was influenced by them. As the physical benefits of Krishnamacharya's classes were recognized, the youth also found that they had the option with yoga to reinforce tradition while working toward physical mastery. This was desirable in the threatening wake of modernization, and also imperative as India struggled to assert it's own patriotic identity. Krishnamacharya found himself at the crossroads of the past and future. Though he and the ancient practice of yoga were steeped in tradition, he opened himself and his practice to the future and to change. Just as he saw every individual student as requiring a specific practice based on age, health, and path sought, he also saw that yoga itself would need to be adapted for the era and the purpose of the moment. He worked with the help the Maharaja to popularize yoga during these years, allowing amazing personal feats to be publicized. His ability to stop his heart was verified by doctors on numerous occasions and brought considerable attention to the practice of yoga. In later years when his son would ask to be taught this ability, Krishnamacharya was adamant in his refusal explaining that such a feat was only used to draw attention and now could serve no purpose for students. To inspire broader interest in yoga, his students traveled performing asanas for curious and amazed audiences. Two of the young students that toured with him during these years were B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Iyengar yoga, and eventually the modern Ashtanga vinyasa of Jois, would become instrumental in the popularization of yoga world wide. The differences between these two styles, as well as the differences to be found with Krishnamacharya's later style during the post Mysore years, can be explained by his emphasis on adaptability. He generally would not teach group yoga insisting that every individual would require a personalized approach. An exception to this was his work with youth during the Mysore years. In that case, group instruction was necessary and reasonably accomplished since he was usually teaching energetic and healthy young men. The aerobic style of Jois's Ashtanga vinyasa is reflective of this. Even the rhythmic breath counts of Ashtanga may be the influence of the routines Jois would have performed for audiences during his school days, the counting helping the students move in unison. Jois left his teacher at the age of eighteen to teach and clearly took the gymnastic flow that Krishnamacharya had innovated for young men, merging the modern physical culture of the time with the ancient tradition of Patanjali. Iyengar and Indra Devi, a private student during the Mysore years, pioneered the assimilation of yoga in the West. She and Iyengar developed styles exhibiting different aspects of their teacher's adapatability. Iyengar began his studies with Krishnamacharya because of a general frailty brought on by early illness. His style would be influenced by the specific practice Krishnamacharya prescribed to help the young Iyengar recover strength and vitality. Krishnamacharya witnessed, during the Mysore years, the beginning popularity of yoga in India and the world. Other teachers were adapting the ancient practice, as well, and he had an interest in working together to present its most beneficial aspects and to resolve some of the differences being taught. During the thirties, he wrote the yogis Yogananda, Kuvalayananda and Yogindra with a proposal to meet and discuss what was being disseminated. The meeting did not take place, but Krishnamacharya's wish to work with other yogis illustrates his conscious desire to popularize the practice and to bring it as truthfully as possible to the world. After India's independence, Krishnamacharya's work with the Maharaja ended and he lived out the rest of his life in Chennai close to the Vaishnavite's ancestral home. During these later years his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, and A.G. Mohan were among his students. They practice a style taught by Krishnamacharya that is quite different from the styles originating during the Mysore years, the therapeutic aspect of the practice being emphasized in the yoga of Desikachar. In addition to a magazine published for a time during the Mysore years, Krishnamacharya published two books, Yoga Makaranda (1935) and Yogasangalu (1941).Yoga Valli, his commentaries on the Yoga Sutras are not yet published. Yoga Rahasya is a work attributed to Krishnamacharya though he asserts that it is the work of his ancestor, the sage Nathamuni, who lived a thousand years earlier and had received the Yoga Rahasya from the divine Vaishnavite Nammazvar. The work was purportedly lost to mankind until Krishnamacharya as a young man received it in a trance from Nathamuni himself. This influential text, though not widely read today, instructed the incorporation of pranayama and asana which is central to the vinyasa krama Krishnamacharya innovated. It also emphasizes healing, yoga practice for pregnancy, and the importance of prescribing practice based on the individual, and it contains the first recorded instruction of the paramount asanas sirsana and sarvangasana. Krishnamacharya lived to one hundred years of age teaching yoga to a few students in Chennai. He was often chided for performing menial tasks not regularly undertaken by a brahmin, such as chopping wood and washing his own clothes. He would teach his children Sanskrit as he worked in the garden which he loved. During his years with the Maharaja, he refused all gifts of land, horses and jewels, accepting only fruit, vegetables and flowers. Through his constant and humble work as a simple yoga teacher he innovated the practice and was greatly responsible for bringing the modern practice of Hatha yoga to the world.