If you ask a Librarian to show you the section with the Upanishads and Sūtras, the nice lady is likely to point you to the shelves marked ‘Religion’.
But these compilations are documents of Inquiry characterized by Trial and Error, not claim and faith. It is in this very evolution, the error of experiment and application that Shūnyam takes form. They were the obsessions of the Learned. Your normal healthy farm-boy will find it all quite batty.
The First Inquirers were the men and women of Religion [from the Latin-French Re-Ligaire: ‘To bind back’]. We aren’t so smart to have newly awoken to it for the first time.
For the observant and the pious these texts and terms are to be treated with reverence, rightly so. I share their stance, not for the mystical mist that has enshrouded them but for the audacity, the reckless courage and bull-headedness that these pioneers showed as they ploughed through uncharted terrain.
There is nothing holy, religious, sacred, spiritual, esoteric or mystical about Shūnyam. To limit it so would be to abase its Truth. There is nothing earthy, profane or banal about it either. But that is less often the slip.
A displayed humility is greater hubris. And Piety for the wrong reason is a confirming mark of an entrenched Two-ness.
As elaborated in the Posts: ‘Brahman is the ancestor, Tát [literally, ‘That’] the grandfather and Tát-āgathā [‘Entered in Tát’] the father of Shūnyam’.
You will not find this obvious and direct descent documented in the literature which has consistently spun off each term into a high and impenetrable mystique, each domiciled in a distant corner, each fathering a host of new schools, all readied to defend their domain at any cost . Blame the insatiable appetite of the Gurus.
The historical evolution of Shūnyam, its documented maturation, is captured in its entirety in three principal texts: The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. the Chandogya Upaniṣad and the two summary condensations of the MahaPrajñāpāramithā Sūtra.
The Rig Veda is solemn invocation meant for performance at formal sacrifice. The Upanishad is mystical poetry in which teachings can be gleamed. Sūtra is fiercely focused, if cryptic, teaching. And so on. They each yield very differently to interpretation and translation.
The single measure that marks the evolution is the gradual recognition and disentanglement of the Inquirer from the coils of the Self-Loop. The exit is not complete until Shūnyam is in clear focus.
Unlike its ancestors lost in the coils of the Self-Loop and hijacked into mystic opacity, Shūnyam is explicit, irreducible, achievable and verifiable. You can’t fudge it. You either see it or you don’t. Like the Nerds say, it is a ‘0,1’ thing.
The entire evolution and its settling was complete by about 300 to 500 BCE. In the centuries following, Shūnyam gets morphed into a rarefied space of high-abstractions and elevated reifications, all proxying for a missed denouement. The regression once again begins. [The Posts list about 40 examples.]
Chandogya Upaniṣad: The ‘Backward Step’:
Upaniṣad is Vedanta: ‘The end of the Vedas, of Vedic Understanding’, a word-play on the fortuitous convergence of the metaphoric and literal, as they are located at the concluding part of the Vedic contracting cone. Abstraction and metaphysical content rise as the cone shrinks.
The tradition descended from oral-teaching to written word around 1,000 BCE. The dialogues of Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu in the Chandogya Upaniṣad, the first of the two oldest extant Upanishads, lay-out the pioneering of the ‘Inward Turn’, the first seed that finally birthed the formulation of Shūnyam.
The assumed Subject had to be first clearly identified, the Inquirer’s Platform laid bare, prior to any investigation on an Object. Honest Inquiry began inwards, backwards.
It was here and for the first time, the Inquirer as the Subject of Inquiry, the platform from which he views his world, was being recognized as pivotal in any understanding of Brahman. The modern assumption that the Subject can be ignored as long as the Object was clearly in view was, after repeated and painful experimentation, found to be false.
[A laying-out of the Inquirer, making transparent his presumptions and closeted prejudices, is part of the ‘Scientific Stance’, an integral element of what today is termed ‘Scientific Method’. The roots of Formal Meditation Practice begin here. See the later Posts.]
In time there spread a wider appreciation of the issues involved. That this type of Inquiry was of a very special and perilous character, that any inquiry on the nature of the Subject, by an assumed Subject, was fraught with miscues, wrong turns and short stops.
The Inquirers of the Chandogya, didn’t go all the way. They stopped short of Shūnyam, settling instead for a ‘Subtle Inner Essence’. Shūnyam was still an unknown construct and did not become formalized for another several centuries. But it’s root took life here.
[This ‘Subtle Inner Essence’ terminus pervades later Vedanthic exegesis as the ‘Inner’ or ‘True’ Self. A short-stop once sanctified by authority is pretty much immovable.]
Uddalaka’s distinguished disciple Yājñavalkya, in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, lays out a simple algorithmic rule to get to Brahman, to ‘That’.
The exact word used is Ātman, a synonymous appellation and related to the English word ‘Animate’: to come alive, [the Latin Anima Mundi]. Ātman is simply: ‘That which animates Life’.
As is uniformly true of all radically revealing insights it was ridiculously simple to lay-out [and not so simple to effect]. The formula is: ‘It is not this! It is not this!’ [Neti, Neti].
The common interpretation is that this was a sweeping rejection of ‘World as Object’ and a relapse to an ‘Inner Self’ in line with the terminus of the Chandogya Upanishad.
The Rule has two parts: ‘It is not this!’ directed at Objects in an effecting of the Principle of Co-Dependence. Second, the turn-around to the Subject. The act of Self-Scuttle: ‘It is not this!’; It is not: ‘It is not this!’
The complete rule properly interpreted is a self-scuttling circular loop. But if limited to a a linear and lateral unfolding Yājñavalkya’s Rule has no natural convergence and will enter into an insidious spin. And the reel will spin forever if you don’t at some point see that you are part of the movie.
No amount of negating will lead to convergence unless the negating finally turns in on itself. The formula completes, the circle is rounded only when the aim, act and agent of negation are themselves consumed in full self-scuttle.
A meta-statement is an assertion about an assertion. Yājñavalkya’s Rule, properly rounded becomes: ‘It is not this! It is not: ‘It is not this!’
When properly rounded Yājñavalkya’s Rule would be the first formulated Self-Negating Expression. And the earliest definition for the Symbol ‘0’.
Yājñavalkya himself could never have heard of the word Shūnyam or shown any recognition of the Symbol ‘0’ as we know it. They did not take shape for another 500 plus years at the earliest. If the construct was in place he would have chosen the Symbol ‘0’, Shūnyam, as the terminus of his Inquiry.
‘Brahman‘ is a very slippery term and unless you are acutely aware of the Self-Loop resident at it’s center you will likely get lost. And there is no end to the literature following Yājñavalkya that does precisely that. But then these texts are 3,000 years old. Holding one’s tongue is not a misplaced virtue.
A great deal originates with the pioneering Yājñavalkya, including the intuition for the Axioms of Sight, the most compact definition of ‘Not-Two’ [Àdvaitham] and the plain talk about: ‘The Other Shore’.
Two thousand years later variants of the Rule rebirth in world philosophies as the ‘Via Negativa‘, Coincidentia Oppositorum, Docta Ignoranta and so on.
The Vajrachedika Sūtra:
When properly rounded, Yājñavalkya’s Rule would mark the origin of the Via Negativa, the first formulated Self-Negating Expression and the earliest definition for the Symbol ‘0’.
The radical young scholar-monks of the emerging Buddha-Dharma pick up the thread around 500 BCE. They set their results down in a pioneering text, the Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra, a text which in time defines the very basis of the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism.
The literature of this period shows that Gautama’s formal schooling, that of a high-born Kshatriya Prince, was firmly in the classic Dharmic paradigm with a crew of noted scholars. These first Upaniṣads would have been standard fare for every beleaguered student in his day.
What is central to the Sūtra is its use of the Self-Negating Expression. In fact the Sūtra is simply the exclusive and exhaustive application of the Self-Negating Expression to almost every verse.
Secondly, unlike in the mystical Upaniṣadic verses, ‘Self’ in the Buddhist Sūtric articulation is consistently an empirical one. It is not simply to be asserted but directly observed in undeniable inferential link, as an identifiable Subject in counterpoint to an identified Object.
A-natman [‘No-‘Self’] is the key element that differentiates the literature of the Buddha-Dharma from its Vedic roots.
Sūtra, cognate with ‘Suture’, a strung-together lock, was originally meant as a mnemonic arrangement [hence the repetitious reinforcements], the anchoring reference to an oral teaching tradition.
The recensions of the larger text expand in stages and reach as high as 100,000 Slokas [Sloka, a metrical unit of 32 syllables]. By the time the Sūtra reaches these rarefied heights of loquacious amplification, the core insights of the original text are lost or faded into footnotes.
Pious scribes and well-meaning monks had tamed Shūnyam’s fierce bellow into a feeble whimper, a reverent purr.
The oral tradition and its dependence on mnemonic phrasing did not transfer well to the written word in high Sanskrit. A downward spiral progressively compacting the now unwieldy texts. The 300 Sloka version is the Vajrachedika Sūtra, [In English, the ‘Diamond’ or ‘Diamond-Cutter’ Sūtra].
‘Arouse the Mind with no abiding place‘ says its most the celebrated line. [The metaphor of the Raft, the central metaphor of Buddhism, also likely originates here.]
The language of the Diamond Sūtra is manifestly opaque to one unfamiliar with its intent. It is special because it is uniquely cognizant of the centrality of the Self-Loop. The Self-Eating Expression is the principal, the only theme of the Sūtra.
The 25 Sloka compacting of the MahaPrajñāpāramithā is the Hridaya Sūtra [‘Heart Sūtra’]. It is to be read and interpreted only as supplement to the Vajrachedika for its very tight phrasing can seriously miscue the entrant.