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, boldly and unapologetically taking on the understanding of everything. The Mandukya’s influence is vast, notably starting with he 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.
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