“Negation of material existence is only one of the subjects of the Upanishads. The next subject concerns becoming situated in the impersonal realization. And then, after penetrating through the impersonal Brahman, when one comes to the platform of associating with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one reaches the ultimate goal in studying the Upanishads.” (The Nectar Of Devotion, Ch 35)
A person interested in Vedic literature has many options from which to choose. The Vedas are compared to a blossoming tree, with many branches of knowledge. Like different departments of study at a university, there is information about both material and spiritual life.
Choosing the Upanishads is often the scholarly move. That is to say a person not drawn by compelling narratives and descriptions of amazing feats, conducted both by the Divine and people trying to imitate Him, takes the philosophical approach. The higher topics, requiring logic, reasoning, and intelligence to understand, do not scare them.
Yet in fact all paths have the same goal. A person who hears the Puranas or reads the Ramayana, describing aspects of the personal side of the Divine and illustrating principles of spiritual life through real-life events, is on track to reach the same destination as the one who studies Vedanta described in the Upanishads. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita, which is also known as the Gitopanishad, where Shri Krishna reveals that following sankhya, or analytical study, and doing works in devotion, karma-yoga, yield the same benefit.
“Only the ignorant speak of karma-yoga and devotional service as being different from the analytical study of the material world [sankhya]. Those who are actually learned say that he who applies himself well to one of these paths achieves the results of both.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.4)
According to expert opinion, there are three subjects of the Upanishads. The first two are rather obvious, but the third involves the subject sought out directly in the bhakti path.
1. Negation of material existence
This is likely one of the reasons for consulting Vedic literature in the first place. Material life is a struggle. I wanted this thing and that. I chased after it. I worked really hard, only to find out that there was no happiness in the end. In many cases the miseries only increased.
What is this life about? Why am I here? Where will I go after death? Where was I prior to birth? The first teaching of Vedanta is the difference between spirit and matter. I am not this body. There are both gross and subtle elements to it, i.e. those which can be seen and those which can’t. I am neither. I am the finest substance.
“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego-altogether these eight comprise My separated material energies.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.4)
It is not proper to say, “I have a soul,” because the soul is not separate from my existence. I am the soul. The first subject is to negate material existence through this knowledge. Do not become attached to the temporary. Keep the big picture in mind, that everything in the manifest world is destined for destruction.
2. Becoming situated in impersonal realization
Negating is not easy, but if success should come the destination is the impersonal realization. I am one with Brahman, the spiritual energy. I no longer make distinctions between rich and poor, young and old, man and woman, human and animal. I see the spirit inside of everyone.
I have no reason to be upset at the outcome to events since they are just different manifestations of matter based on the influence of all-powerful time. Everyone is equally a spirit soul, but they may not realize it yet.
3. Associating with the Supreme Personality of Godhead
Impersonal realization brings a kind of enjoyment known as Brahma-sukha. It is the happiness of being above the material nature. While this stage is considered liberation, which brings immunity from the cycle of birth and death, there is more happiness to be found.
For proof we have many examples described in Vedic literature. The four Kumaras were Brahman-realized and happy to be above the material nature. Shukadeva Gosvami was born a liberated soul. King Janaka was known throughout the world for his dispassion, his masterful ability to be a yogi and ruler at the same time, not slacking in either role.
They all found a higher level of happiness through association with the Supreme Brahman, who is a person. This was the objective of studying the Upanishads all along. There is no secret to discover. There is no mystery. A fortunate person receives this association because of their sincerity of purpose and their service to a bona fide spiritual master.
Not stories wishing to hear,
Drawn towards philosophy near.
The route of Upanishads taking,
Analytical study of world making.
Negation of the material first,
Even with happiness still a thirst.
That to the same destination the trend,
Association of Supreme Lord in end.
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