A Precious Parable From The Upanishads

Dr. Sethu Raju and Pundit Pramod Sharma (Gaur)

Long ago the Hindu sages arduously prayed to gods to know more about their own existence as humans and the uniqueness of the universe. Often, they were also possibly deeply indulged in discussions of religion and philosophy, including some enigmatic problems, such as the origin of universe and the origin of life. Although they did not arrive at any definite conclusions, the highly knowledgeable rishis did, however, leave a legacy of many written parables, in the form of lyrics and dialogues, with metaphors relating to the above problems. These have been treasured in the most ancient religious texts of the Hindus, the Upanishads and the Vedas. The following is one such precious parable described in the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the principal Upanishads. It is a brief dialogue between the father (Udhalaka) and his son (Svetaketu).

After staying for many years with and learning from the great gurus (teachers), Svetaketu returns home to his father, Udhalaka, as a proud and knowledgeable son. One day, while strolling outdoors and discussing the meaning of Sat (the Being), Chit (the Consciousness) and Anand (the eternal Bliss), and the origin and evolution of the world (planet earth), Svetaketu asks his father, how could this ‘world’ with all its multitudinous variety of living and non-living forms be produced in this simple way?

Wonderstruck by his son’s interrogation, Udhalaka asked him –

to fetch a fruit, lying on the ground, of the Nyagrodha (peepal or pipal) tree”.

Here is oneSir”, said Svetaketu.

Break it and let me know what you find thereinson”, said Udhalaka.

I see some tiny seedsSir”, answered Svetaketu.

Crush one of the seedsson”, asked the father.

YesSirI have done it soSir”, answered the son.

What do you see thereinson?”, asked the father.

NothingSir”, said Svetaketu.

“Yet in that subtle substance that is hardly visible to the naked eye, exists the awesome potential that can produce this huge Nyagrodha tree with many large branches bearing leaves, flowers and fruits”, said the aged and experienced father. Do you wonder at it, son? Likewise, all that exists in this universe was potentially in the Sat, dear son, and thou art That. Believe it, said father. Further, he philosophized with a profound saying, “out of nothing, only nothing can come; non-being cannot produce being, much less could consciousness come out of nothing”. Believe me son that “the causeless beginning, as the sage says, was, in fact, the Sat or Being with consciousness”.

Purport and Commentary: The above dialogue between the father and the son appears quite ordinary but it does contain a high degree of religious and evolutionary thought. In fact, it is a dialogue between man and nature! While having complete faith in the basic precept of Cause and Effect in nature, the great rishis, the authors of the Chandogya Upanishad, did raise one of the most important questions – Was there a First Cause in the creation of this ‘universe’ containing myriads of planets with their own contents? Or, looking for the primary cause and also keeping faith firmly in the fundamental principle of cause and effect, one would go backwards on an unending trail, and finally believe that the universe came from nothing. With respect to the second view, the rishis unanimously dismissed it by saying that

nothing could have come from nothingnon-being cannot produce beingmuch less so could consciousness come out of nothing”.

Therefore, the causeless beginning was indeed the Sat, the Primary or First Cause which itself multiplied and expanded to form all the living and non-living forms, thus strictly following and sustaining the universal precept of cause and effect, which is very obviously manifested in nature. This view is not, in fact, completely incompatible with the often cited the Big Bang hypothesis proposed by the present-day scientists to explain the origin of the universe.

It is believed, according to the Hubble’s Big Bang hypothesis of the origin of the universe, that all the presently observed matter and energy in the universe were an infinitely condensed hot mass in the beginning which exploded, as a ‘Big Bang’, making the matter and energy diffuse and expand infinitely in time in all directions. Eventually, galaxies of planets were formed, including our unique and enduring planet Earth. Results of many investigations by scientists are available to explain, with some reservations, the origin and development of these galaxies in the universe. They do not, however, suggest the Primary Cause that produced the super condensed hot mass of matter and energy nor its eventual explosion as the ‘Big Bang’. Furthermore, this hypothesis, with no primary cause given, is in contradistinction to nature’s fundamental precept of cause and effect. From the Vedic perspective, could this primary cause have been the Sat or the causeless beginning? The great living astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking recently writes: “Science may solve the problem of how the universe was formed, it cannot, however, answer, why the universe bother to exist? May be only God can answer that”.

Udhalaka, in his dialogue with his son, referred to two important concepts, one being that “out of nothing can come only nothing”. The other concept was that the life of all living beings is cyclical (birth and death), meaning that the seeds germinate and develop into adult plants, which in turn mature, producing seeds again, and eventually the plants die (Gita –chapter 2, verse 27: All living beings are bound in the cycle of birth and death). This view has also been vividly reflected in the Gita (Chapter 9, verses 8, 10). Krishna says – Using naturewhich is mine ownI create again and again the living beingskeeping them entirely dependent on natureUnder my controlnature brings forth the moving and the unmoving and keeps the world going.

The seeds of Nyagrodha (peepal) tree, as mentioned by Udhalaka, are indeed subtle, appearing as very small ‘particles’ to the naked eye, giving the illusion of nothingness, as reported by Svetaketu. But, each such small particle (seed), according to our present knowledge, is essentially a living unit and totipotent which with minimum externally available factors, such as water, right temperature and soil, can germinate and develop into a huge tree. The tree eventually will die after producing fruits and seeds making the entire tree-life cyclical, which phenomenon is common to all organisms on the Planet Earth. How interesting is it to find this phenomenon was adumbrated long ago in the Upanishads?

The other equally important aspect, besides the probable origin of the universe, implied in the father-son dialogue, is the origin of life or biogenesis that occurred uniquely and diversified on the planet Earth, probably after the Big Bang. Since the middle of the last century, considerable scientific results have accumulated to indicate that the life originated as organic matter, multiplied and evolved in time to produce multitudinous forms on the planet earth. Also, the dead and their remains have been preserved as indicators of the past (or fossils) in the bosom of the planet earth. The living and the preserved, which together show the present and the past respectively, have been appropriately identified and classified into different groups by scientists, for purposes of human convenience and understanding, as plants, animals, apes, humans, etc. They also indicate, according to human interpretation, a biological relationship and evolution in them, promoted by known naturally occurring genetic plans or mechanisms. Such classifications of the living and the dead are, no doubt, artificial and man-made. Nature, however, does seem to recognize all life equally and independently from each other, as no two individuals of any one group are similar in all aspects. Vedanta and Upanishads do not have any qualms in accepting the role of genetic mechanisms that influenced changes in the past to promote variation and evolution resulting in multitudinous living beings. Hinduism does also recognize the man-made classification of plants and animals, which are all products of past evolution in nature. It also considers the fact that the present human is the “ultimate being” (antapurusha) beyond which there is no more evolution but just ‘change’ among the existing beings in the natural world. It is believed that the life originated once on the planet earth and evolved in time by constant change. “The change is the destiny of all living beings, and in nature, never for an instant any being would stand still”, claims Vedanta.

Although all life’s necessary chemical ingredients have been identified thoroughly by scientists, evidence is still lacking to suggest what the primary cause was that produced the first life. Here again, could this primary cause have been the causeless beginning or Sat, as indicated long ago by the Udhalaka-Svetaketu dialogue?