Literary form in the Yogic Upanisads and Siva Sutras (2005)

"The mind exists so long as there is sound" - Yogic proverb (Thirty Minor Upanisads, 197)

When the mind finally enters a state of deep concentration where it is imperturbable by illusionary veils, the self finally attains the ultimate level of understanding of the nature of reality. In the Vedic and the Yogic Upanisads as well as in the Siva Sutras, each Hindu tradition describes the process of reaching an elevated state of consciousness. Interestingly, the literary form of these writings clearly reflects their particular approach towards the development of awareness. Since the literary form draws the reader’s attention towards characteristic questions and requires different skills from their readers, the types of spiritual experiences that manifest might be distinct.

Both the Brhadaranyaka the Prashna Upanisads are discourses in which the nature of reality and the role of the self are elucidated. Written mostly in prose, they are divided into brief anecdotes where the guru answers a question or sheds light into the dilemma of the student. This particular arrangement highlights the importance in the tradition of this type of relationship to develop spiritually.

Three characteristics of the literary form of the Vedic Upanisads are worthy of attention. The first one is the use of well-crafted metaphors to reinforce the pantheistic characteristic of Vedanta traditions. For instance, the body parts of the sacrificial horse metaphorically represent phenomena or parts of the universe (Upanisads, 7) and similarly, elements and cosmological bodies are manifestations of Brahman, or universal consciousness (Upanisads, 52). Interestingly, in the section where rituals are explained, no metaphors are used so that the reader can get a full grasp of what actions to perform and thus reinforce their meaning. Secondly, the passages have internal consistency but in general, they lack a smooth integration in the sequence of discourses. This characteristic calls forth the skills of the reader in finding unity among chaos, and thus applying this skill to his life, find the oneness that resides in the true self. Finally, the Vedic Upanisads use repetition and parallel structure, not only to make the text more conversational and because of their oral background, but to reinforce the meaning. For example, consider the dialogue where Yajñavalkya is inquired about the exact number of gods that exist (Upanisads, 46). In this section, parallelism reinforces the meaning that everything is interconnected, from the breaths to the elements, but not limited to the astrological realms.

The Yogic Upanisads highlight the specific methodology that is required to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Through the practice of breath control (pranayama), postures (asanas) and cleansing exercises among others, the yogi is able to eradicate the distractions of the mind and attain insight. Written mostly in the style of a reference guide, the yogic Upanisads reflect the philosophy that doing such practices inevitably allow Truth to manifest by itself. By explaining the esoteric anatomy, and the power of the syllable OM, the text gives the yogi access to the realms of deep concentration and joyful bliss.

The use of language deserves special attention in this text. Although the practices are described explicitly and concisely, what the reader gets from them varies enormously based on the reader’s context. The diction was carefully chosen in order to describe the practices as comprehensively as possible, and in some instances, a previous yogi background aids in their understanding. In addition some physical practices such as filling the stomach with air (Thirty Minor Upanisads, 155), or kecharimudra (Thirty Minor, 205) which involves having the tongue in the middle of the skull, could be interpreted merely as a metaphor. Yet, in other contexts, the metaphors can in fact become a meditative aid, such as the lotus flower in the heart, and the syllable OM described as a bird.

The literary form of these yogic texts does not necessarily bring the reader’s awareness to a particular point. However, the clear and concise descriptions ensure that the spiritual seeker grasps the practices so that later an awareness of the body and the energy flow can be developed. The sorts of physical experiences that can be brought about by such the practices, including burning sensations, are clearly exposed in the Letters on Yoga in a very straightforward manner as well, without an intricate form or language.

In the last text of our interest, The Aphorism of Śiva, insight is provided in regards to the nature of consciousness and the self, as well as on the role of knowledge and illusions in the path towards a higher state of realization. Through the use of highly compacted sentences containing obscure metaphors, the author stresses on the ultimate goal of the spiritual practice, and wishes to redirect those who get distracted from the path of liberation. However, the specific meaning of each of the aphorisms is not evidently clear. For instance, consider the aphorisms "[t]he Fourth should be sprinkled like oil into the three" (Aphorisms, 130) or "Bhairava is upsurge" (Aphorisms, 22) which clearly brings out the need for an interpretation. This cryptic style brings forward the need of a guru, a spiritual teacher that elucidates the meaning of the aphorisms to the student.

Interestingly, the sutra style, which promotes memorization and oral repetition, can motivate a meditative practice. The student might choose to focus on a particular aphorism and dedicate the practice to listening to the insight that lies within him. The patterns of words may reside in the mind even for years until the intrinsic meaning finally becomes clear in an epiphany fostered by spiritual maturity. As Bhaskara suggests, thought can be purified by repeatedly hearing and recalling to mind the teachings (Aphorisms, 65).

Once again, the use of metaphors is well propagated in the text and correlates with its meaning. Without the use of metaphors, the cryptic style would have been much harder to achieve, and thus would not lead to the same kind of meditation. Since "[e]ffort is that which attains the goal" (Aphorisms, 67), the student is challenged to see beyond the metaphors in order to grasp a transcendental truth. This way, one pointedness concentration can occur as a result of each aphorism, reinforcing the idea that concentration annuls thought, which consequently leads to liberation (Aphorisms, 100).

As the mind starts unfolding from the chain of illusion, the meaning of each of the texts becomes clear, not necessarily on an intellectual level, but as a result of a spiritual epiphany. Till then, literary form shall continue to reinforce the meaning that seems to skew so many seekers of truth. While some readers of these sacred texts might not be ready to understand its full meaning and thus get lost in sentences that mimic the previous ones, there are those that are amazed at the perfection of each of the letters, their resonance, but most importantly, their interconnectedness. These readers become submerged in a deep state of awareness that allows them to grasp the meaning of the text and see the purpose of the literary form as a facilitator. Much as one can immerse oneself deep in meditation with the music produced by a wooden guitar, or the resonance of a Mantra, why not amid the verses that resemble the Vedic vibrations, in the sutras that emanate from Siva in a mystical dream, or in the wings of the bird that echoes the syllable AUM?

Aphorisms of Siva, The: The Siva Sutra With Bhaskara''s Commentary, the Varttika. Trans.Mark S.G. Dyczkowski. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Aurobindo, Sri. "The triple transformation." Letters on Yoga. Lotus Press, 1995.
Thirty Minor Upanishads. Trans. K. Narayanasvami Aiyar. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 1997. 154-208.
Upanisads. Trans. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford University Press, 1998.