There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.
A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.
The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.
Much like working toward a peak pose in a vinyasa class, we’ve been building up in our study of the Upanishads to the Big Idea: Moksha.
Moksha is the end of suffering. Take that in for a second. The end of suffering.
So that means what, exactly? Attaining moksha means being released from the cycle of death and rebirth that is saṃsāra. It is the end of life as we know it in a human form on this particular plane. It is freedom from ignorance, which is what ties us to our material existence.
Other words that come up in an attempt to define moksha are emancipation, liberation, and release. It is also closely related to the concept of nirvana—the state of cosmic bliss one enters after gaining enlightenment.
While the particulars of Nirvana (a Buddhist concept) and Moksha (a Hindu concept) are different, their essences are the same. Hindus describe moksha as the experience of oneness with Brahman, the Supreme Self. Buddhists explain nirvana as being Self-less. Both are the result of right living and ego eradication. For Hindus, dharma, the concept we explored in our last post on the Upanishads, is a means to moksha.
Atman and Brahman
The Upanishads propose that the true nature of our being is atman, an intangible and undefinable Self. We are not our bodies or our minds but a greater, cosmic force that is at the core of all creatures. We can touch atman through meditation and other practices that take us outside of our purely physical existence.
Brahman is what makes the universe. It is the creator and sustainer of all life and phenomena; it does not change, yet it causes all change. It is supreme and absolute. To try and describe it further is, basically, impossible.
A core tenet of the Upanishads is that atman and Brahman are made of the same substance. This passage paints a picture:
As the same fire assumes different shapes
When it consumes objects differing in shape,
So does the one Self take the shape
Of every creature in whom he is present.
(Katha Upanishad II.2.9)
Moksha, then, is when atman returns to Brahman, the source from which it camel; in being reabsorbed it is liberation from the illusion that we are all separate. This epiphany frees us from ego and the endless cycle of life, death and suffering that is samsara. When one achieves moksha one is embraced and subsumed again into Brahman, the wide-reaching arms of Absolute Existence.
So how do we get there? According to the Upanishads meditation and dharma are key. By meditating on our Ultimate Selves, atman, and stripping away our identifiers (gender, age, race, income level, etc) we can can see through the veils that separate us from the rest of existence. This is when we can “see” Brahman, the ocean that contains all of us as drops of water.
If all of this is too out there to sink into—reincarnation, cosmic divinity, dissolution of self through knowledge of Self—think of atman as your Higher Self, the version of you whose actions, values and beliefs you admire. If moksha is too weird or inconceivable a goal, think of connecting to your higher self as you move through this earthly plane. We are rarely in our highest selves all the time, but when we are, the feeling is right and aligned. Those experiences of connectedness are liberating and freeing in their own powerful way.