Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Upaniṣads: Water is the Original Substance

The Upaniṣads contain several hymns which advance the theory that the original substance of the universe is “water.” (A similar theory is attributed to the Ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624—548 BC), who preached that water is the essence of all matter.) Here’s the translation of verse 5.5.1 from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (translations by Valerie Roebuck): 

“In the beginning the waters were all this. The waters created truth; truth, brahman; brahman, Prajapati; and Prajapati the gods. The gods worship truth (satya). It has three syllables: sa-ti-yamSa is one syllable. Ti is one syllable. Yam is one syllable. Truth is in the first and the last syllable, falsehood in the middle: so falsehood is surrounded on both sides by truth, and becomes truth. Falsehood does not harm the one who knows this.” 

In verse 3.6.1 of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the Vedic philosopher Gargi Vachaknavi begins a discussion with Sage Yājñavalkya with these words: 

“Yājñavalkya, since all this is woven on the waters, as warp and weft, on what are the waters woven, as warp and weft.”

The Chandogya Upaniṣad emphasizes the cosmic importance of water in verse 7.10.1: 

“The waters are greater than food. So when there is not a good rainfall, living things suffer, thinking, “Food will be short”. When there is a good rainfall, living things are happy, thinking, “Food will be plentiful”. All these are the waters, shaped: earth, middle-air, sky, mountains, gods and human beings, domestic animals, birds, grass and trees, and wild animals, all the way down to worms, flying things and ants. All these are the waters, shaped. Worship the waters.”

In the Katha Upaniṣad, verse 4.6 suggests that the atman (soul) was originally born from water:

He who was formerly the offspring of heat (tapas)
Who was formerly born of the waters—
He who, having entered and dwelt in the secret phase,
Looks out through beings—
This is that. 

In the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad, the creator god Brahma declares in verse 1.7 that water is his natural world:

“Brahma says to him, “The waters are my world: that world is yours.” He wins as his victory the victory, the attainment, that is Brahma’s—the one who knows this, the one who knows this.”

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