All Reality is One

Continuing with the study of the classical Hindu tradition, here I want to talk about a fundamental belief that influenced Indian civilization as well as Buddhism. In my last post I talked about the Upanishads and how the sages speculated about the three areas of life, and defined the three essences.

One Single Reality

Once these three essential realities had been identified, the Upanishad’s sages made an enormous imaginative leap. A leap that was profoundly significant in the history of Indian religion. They said that all three were aspects of the same thing.

When I speak to classes about this, I turn around and rush to the blackboard where I put down Atman and Sat and Brahman on the board, and I draw little equations signs between each one of these things to show that each one is identified with the others.

All of these are words that in the Upanishads name a single reality. One great reality out of which all of the world comes. This view is called Upanishadic monism. The view that all of reality is one.

Upanishadic monism can be expressed in a number of different ways. Ways that are important to know about and give you some of the flavor of this tradition.

The Story of Shvetaketu

One way is simply to assert it positively as the nature of your own self. One of the classic sources of this way of expressing Upanishadic monism is in a story of a father and a son. A Brahman priest and a student.

The father’s named Aruni, the son’s name is Shvetaketu. Aruni says to Shvetaketu,  when he reaches a certain age, that it is time for him to get going, to get to school and study the Vedic tradition: “You need to become a learned Brahman, like the other members of your family”.

Shvetaketu goes off, does its study, and is back at the age of twenty four, as the text says, full of self importance, full of a sense of confidence in his own knowledge. And the father says something like: "Okay kid, tell me what you know. Have you heard anything about the principle of substitution?" You can feel this moment of puzzlement in the text as Shvetaketu says: "Well, they actually didn’t mention that to me in school. That wasn’t part of our curriculum. " And Aruni sits Shvetaketu down and begins to instruct him about the ways he can sort together all the diverse pieces of his knowledge into a sense of unity of the cosmos.

He begins like this: "Ok, Shvetaketu, it is like this. One must perceive everything that is made of clay. The transformation is a verbal handle, a name, where the reality is just this: Everything made of clay is just clay."

That Art Thou

And then he takes this intuitive principle and he applies it to different areas of life. In one particular passage that is widely quoted in discussions of the Upanishads, it becomes a kind of philosophical poetry.

He says: "The bees, my dear son, prepare honey by gathering the nectar of the different trees and by reducing that nectar to a unity, so the nectar from each different tree is not able to differentiate. In exactly the same way, my son, when all creatures merge into reality, they are not aware we are merging into reality. Now matter what they are in this world. Wether they are a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a worm, a moth, a mosquito, they all merge into that reality. That finest essence here is the self of the whole world. That is reality. That is the self. And that art thou, Shvetaketu."

This phrase is considered one of the greatest phrases in the Upanishadic literature and is in someway one of the foundational phrases of Indian civilization.

Whatever that reality is that is out there outside yourself, out of which the whole world comes, whatever reality is, that is you.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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