The subject is the most ancient of questions – Who am I? We will investigate this question in
light of the Upanishads.
Vedanta consists of the teachings of the Upanishads. Vedanta nama upanishad pramanam –
this is the definition of Vedanta. It means that Vedanta is the source of spiritual knowledge called the Upanishads. The Upanishads present the highest philosophical teachings of the
Vedas and they are among the most ancient texts known to humanity. There are many Upanishads. In fact, in one of the Upanishads called the Muktika Upanishad, we find a list of
108 Upanishads. Among these, 10 are called major Upanishads because Adi Shankaracharya chose these 10 to write his commentaries or Bhashyam. These Upanishads are the
foundational texts of Vedanta. Adi Shankaracharya gave a non-dualistic interpretation to these Upanishads and so the school of Vedanta associated with him is called Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta. We will follow this interpretation.
Among all the major Upanishads, there is one – the shortest of all these texts – the Mandukya Upanishad, which is perhaps also the most powerful Upanishad. There is a saying that for
those who want spiritual enlightenment, Mandukya Upanishad alone is sufficient. Mumuksunam vimuktaye Mandukyam ekam eva alam….. for those who seek Moksa, the Mandukya alone is sufficient. It consists of only 12 mantras and it is like the little chili
pepper which is small but very hot!
In the Mandukya Upanishad, the seventh mantra is the most important mantra. It answers the
great question, “Who am I?” It is one of the finest mantras found in our Upanishads. And I haven’t found a more sophisticated, more profound answer in any of the literature of the
world religions or philosophies which I have come across.
The Mandukya Upanishad was commented upon by Gaudapadacharya. Gaudapadacharya’s
disciple was Govindapada and Govindapada’s disciple was Adi Shankaracharya. Gaudapada’s commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad is called the Mandukya Karika and is
in the form of verses. So nowadays when you study the Mandukya Upanishad, you study the Mandukya Karika as well. Adi Shankaracharya wrote a commentary explaining not only the
original Upanishadic mantras, but also the karikas. So we usually study the Mandukya Upanishad along with Gaudapada’s karikas and Shankaracharya’s bhashya.
About 10 years ago, I lived for a while in solitude in the high Himalayan region in Gangotri. I stayed in a log cabin, with no electricity or furniture, just a blanket on the floor and some
blankets to cover myself with. I spent my time meditating and studying. Without electricity, it used to be so dark inside the cabin that if I waved my hands before my eyes, I couldn’t see
them. Occasionally I would see sparks of static electricity from my blankets and clothes. It was difficult to even step out of the cabin in the dark.