The “Best” Upanishad

Q: There are so many Upanishads. Which one is the best?

A: The Kaivalya Upanishad, although it is but one of many excellent Upanishads, is a good choice if you are looking for a small Upanishad that packs a big punch.

Unlike many of the Upanishads—which are often laden with esoteric upasanas (meditations) and beautiful, but difficult to comprehend poetic expressions—the Kaivalya Upanishad is rather straightforward in its presentation of the Vedantic teachings.

Though still quite poetic, the direct style of the Upanishad makes its mantras less susceptible to conflicting interpretations, which, in turn, makes it easier for the potential student to understand. This, coupled with the fact that the Upanishad gives an overview of all of the major ideas of Vedanta, make it a valuable tool for “acquiring” the self-knowledge (brahma-vidya) that leads to liberation. The name of the Upanishad itself, which means “aloneness,” is both a synonym for moksha and an indication of the non-dual nature of Brahman, which is, by default, “alone,” seeing as it does not admit of the existence of anything other than Itself.

And how is this liberating self-knowledge “obtained”? The first mantra of the Upanishad says: “Find a teacher.”

Kai. U. Verse 1.1: “Then, Ashvalayana approached Lord Paremeshti and said: ‘Teach me Bhagavan, the noblest and most secret knowledge of Brahman, by which the wise destroy all evils and attain that Purusha (person/self/Brahman) which is higher than the highest.’”

Then, the Upanishad states the sadhana (spiritual practice) that supports this quest for the highest knowledge of Brahman:

Kai. U. Verse 1.2: “The Grandsire (Paremesthi) duly replied, ‘May you know that [Brahman] by resorting to faith, devotion and meditation.’”

Subsequently, the Upanishad praises renunciation as an adjunct to the pursuit of brahma-vidya and decries the efficacy of several common human pursuits that do not lead to liberation:

Kai. U. Verse 1.3: “It is through renunciation that a few seekers have attained immortality—not through ritual (karma), not through progeny, not through wealth. Renunciates (those who eschew worldly and religious pursuits as a means to liberation) attain that which shines beyond heaven and that which resides in the heart.”

Kai. U. Verse 1.4: “Through renunciation, the pure-minded have ascertained the object of Vedantic knowledge. Having become one with Brahman [lit. “paramrita”] while living, they resolve completely into Brahman at the time of their death.”

Then, the Upanishad describes how to meditate on Brahman, imagining it to exist within one’s own heart. “Heart” here does not refer to the physical organ. Instead, it is a metaphor that indicates Brahman as the “innermost” essence of the meditator.

Kai. U Verse 1.6: “Having turned one’s attention to the steady, pure, clear and pleasant lotus-like heart, one should meditate on Brahman, which is the source of all, incomprehensible, unmanifest, of many forms, auspicious, tranquil, immortal, beginningless, middleless, endless, non-dual, all-pervasive, consciousness, bliss, formless and wonderful.”

The following verse (1.7) then provides a way to contemplate on Brahman, using the symbolism of Shiva.

But, to avoid the literal interpretation that Brahman is Shiva—or any god in particular, for that matter—the Upanishad makes the following statements, clearly demonstrating the non-sectarian stance of Vedanta, as well as its insistence that knowledge of Brahman is the only legitimate path to liberation:

Kai. U. 1.8–1.11: “He (Brahman) is Brahma (Paremesthi, the Creator). He is Shiva. He is Indra. He is the supreme imperishable, self-effulgent one. He himself is Vishnu. He is prana. He is time. He is fire. He is the moon. He alone is that which was in the past, that which is in the present and that which will be in the future. Having known that eternal one, the seeker transcends mortality. There is no other means for liberation. Clearly seeing one’s self in all beings, and all beings in one’s self, one attains the supreme Brahman; not by any other means.”

Often times, people rightly suggest that the Mandukya Upanishad is potentially the “best” Upanishad, seeing as it propounds a key Vedantic teaching—the analysis of the Three States of Experience (waking; dream; deep sleep). But this teaching also occurs in a more direct, accessible way in the Kaivalya Upanishad, without the cryptic descriptions of the various “limbs” and “mouths” of the waking, dream, and deep sleep state entities presented in Mandukya Upanishad, descriptions that even traditional commentators have difficulty explaining.

The gist of the analysis of the Three States of Experience is this: The three states of experience (waking, dream and sleep) all arise from, and resolve in, Brahman. But Brahman, one’s self, transcends them all.

Kai. U. Verse 14: “That being who sports in the three cities (of waking, dream and sleep)—from Him has sprung up the diversity of the universe. He is the substratum, the bliss, the indivisible consciousness in whom the three cities resolve.”

Kai. U. Verse 15: “From this being springs up prana, mind, the organs (of knowledge and action), space, air, fire, water and earth, which is the supporter of all.”

Kai. U. Verse 16: “You are indeed the supreme Brahman which the self of all; which is the abode of all; which is the most subtle.”

From here, I will simply quote the remaining verses of this profound, powerhouse of an Upanishad, which are rather self-explanatory (no pun intended), as least as far as Upanishads go. They are both first-person statements of one who has “acquired” self-knowledge, as well as a potential meditations for those seeking to become “established” in self-knowledge.

So, enjoy! And if you feel compelled to get a better understanding of this Upanishad, please seek your friendly neighborhood Vedanta teacher for a more comprehensive explanation. (It doesn’t have to be me, but as the Upanishad says, you’ve got to have a teacher).

Kai. U. Verse 17: “I am that Brahman that illumines the worlds of waking, dream and sleep. Having known thus, one is liberated from all bonds.”

Kai. U. Verse 18: “I am distinct from all those (states) of experience, as well as the instruments of experience in those three states. I am the witness that is ever-auspicious, pure consciousness.”

Kai. U. Verse 19: “Everything is born in me alone; everything is based on me alone; everything resolves in me alone. I am that non-dual Brahman.”

Kai. U. Verse 20: “I am more subtle than subtly itself. I am equally vast. I am the manifold universe. I am the ancient one. I am the all-pervasive one. I am the lord. I am the purusha (person). I am the effulgent one. Verily, my nature is auspiciousness.”

Kai. U. Verse 21: “I am without hands and legs; yet, I am endowed with incomprehensible power. I see without eyes. I hear without ears. Endowed with a distinct nature, I know (all beings). But there is no one who is a knower of me. I am pure consciousness.”

Kai. U. Verse 22: “I alone am to be known through the Vedas. I am the initiator of the teachings of Vedanta. I alone am the knower of the Vedas. Merit (punyam) and demerit (papam) do not belong to me. There is no death for me. Birth, body, sense organs, and intellect do not belong to me. The elements (earth; water; fire; air; space) do not belong to me.”

Kai. U. Verse 23: “Thus, having known the nature of the supreme self, which resides in the “heart,” which is partless, non-dual, the witness of all, without cause and effect, and ever-pure, one attains the nature of the supreme self.”

Hari Om!

Moksha Check

Hi Vishnudeva,

I wanted to get some clarity on an experience I had recently.

Upon awakening a few mornings ago the experience was of an awareness of a shift of perception from that of Gary having awareness to that of me containing Gary. The quality of awareness didn’t change. It was the same awareness as always. The experience was awareness moving out of Gary and realizing itself as me—not Gary—and that I’ve always been this same awareness. I just “thought” I was Gary. There was the thought that nothing has really changed, and yet there was this interesting shift. The perspective of the experience was definitely from me, awareness, and yet there was the experience and thoughts defining it. I guess it’s the subtle body that needs to understand the experience and to clarify?

I’m just me, as always.

Much Love,


Hi Gary,

It’s nice to hear from you and I’m glad to find out that you’ve stuck with Vedanta. It seems like your hard work is paying off because it sounds to me like your knowledge is very clear, assuming two absolutely crucial conditions are met. Now, I’m not saying that they aren’t, or that you don’t already know the things I’m going to talk about. But you reached out to me, so I have to put on my teaching hat and perform some due diligence. One thing I will say first is that it is never my duty (or anyone else’s duty for that matter) to determine whether someone else is enlightened or not. Enlightenment is an understanding. Understanding is in the mind, and one person can never fully know the mind of another. So all I can do here is evaluate what you’ve said to me and then give you some guidelines so you can check your own understanding. Because as Ashtavakra says, “If you believe you are free, you are free. If you believe you are bound, you are bound.” You are not free because I say so (or anyone other person for that matter). You are free because freedom if your true nature. It’s up to you to figure out if you really know this to be true, or not.

Here goes:   

1. The first condition for moksha is that the knowledge is doubt-free, meaning completely clear. But, being clear that you are atma is not the whole enchilada, so to speak. You cannot stop at the conclusion that you are consciousness with Gary appearing in you. The apparent relationship between the consciousness and Gary, as well as their ultimate non-difference, must be understood. Otherwise, you are left with the fundamental duality of consciousness and Gary.  And that is not moksha because the pesky problem of objects—either your dependence upon them or fear of them—has not been resolved. Even if you do not fear objects or feel like you depend on them, it still doesn’t solve the problem. Why?  Because you cannot have moksha—freedom—if something other than you exists. If objects are real and something fundamentally different than you, then wherever they are, you are not. Hence, their mere existence limits you. (This is the fundamental flaw of Yoga/Sankhya, but that is a technical point and I digress).  

So, the clear, doubt-free knowledge of moksha is: I am atma—limitless, unchanging consciousness. Taking the apparent appearance of objects into account, I am the knower of all objects. Since I am the knower of the objects, I can never be an object. Therefore I am not subject to the suffering caused by the limited, ever-changing nature of objects. Nor am I dependent on objects to be the limitless consciousness that I am. While objects depend on me to exist—for what object can be said to exist without consciousness—I am ever the same, in their presence or absence.  Therefore, while I previously believed I depended on objects to be what I am, I now know that objects are completely dependent on me and I am free of them.    

But while I am never an object and I never depend on objects, they are not separate from me.  Since I cannot find any objects apart from consciousness, I can only conclude that objects are nothing but myself. Since the objects are me, there is no reason to fear them. And since the objects are me, and I am already myself, there is no reason to chase them.    

And ultimately, any talk of objects is relative. From the point of view of my non-dual nature, there are no objects.  There is only me, limitless consciousness, with Self-ignorant people believing me to be otherwise.  Every person, place, thing, experience, even God itself, is nothing other than me. I am non-dual. 

Summary: Moksha is having your knowledge completely clear, from both the everyday empirical perspective (vyavaharika) as well as from the ‘perspective’ of the non-dual nature of reality (paramarthika).

Vyavaharika perspective: I am the consciousness that knows all objects. I am never an object but they are always me.  While they depend upon me for existence, I exist independently. I am never affected by the objects that appear in me.

Paramarthika perspective:  In truth there are no objects. There is only me, limitless, non-dual consciousness.

There is no contradiction in the two perspectives. No one can deny the experience of objects but neither can one assert their reality. Thus, the vyavaharika perspective is conditionally true, while the paramarthika view is unconditionally true. Since objects do not disappear at the advent of moksha, the vyavaharika view is used to function in the apparent world (because you can’t go to the grocery store in a non-dual reality). But, keeping the paramarthika view in mind, nothing that happens from the vyavaharika perspective is taken too seriously, because it is known to be unreal.  This is a big benefit in everyday life.     

2.  The second thing is that the aforementioned knowledge is completely firm. So, if on another morning you wake up and this knowledge is gone, it’s back to inquiry for you 🙂

At the end of your e-mail, you said: “The perspective of the experience was definitely from me, awareness, and yet there was the experience and thoughts defining it. I guess it’s the subtle body that needs to understand the experience and to clarify?”

You are correct. The knowledge is, “I am the consciousness that knows the subtle body and all its experiences.”  This means that the person you thought you were—the subtle body—is dethroned from its place of prominence. It flops around trying to make sense of the whole issue. And to make matters worse, because it is an object oriented experiencing entity, it causes itself much agitation by attempting the impossible task of experiencing consciousness as an object. 

I think this situation is completely normal. The mind experiences such a radical shift in perspective that it reels at the implications and tries to struggle against them. But eventually, like a good dog trained by its master, the mind lays down at the feet of knowledge. The mind, which was previously conditioned to seek fulfillment in objects, realizes the freedom of being able to rely on the ever-present, unchanging Self for fulfillment, instead of transient objects and situations.     

Well, a tip of my teaching hat to you, my good sir. It sounds like you are doing very well. Remember, as Ashtavakra says, “If you think you are free, you are free. If you think you are bound, you are bound.” So if your firm conviction is, “I am the Self, I am free” then my feedback here is superfluous. And only you can be the judge of your own convictions.

But I will offer advice: Even if your Self-knowledge is clear and doubt-free, it is prudent to continue your inquiry and spiritual practice diligently. Because Self-knowledge does not magically destroy all of the mind’s ignorant, dualistic and deviant inclinations that it developed during it’s long stay in Self-ignorance. So while it may eventually lay down like an obedient dog, for the time being it will continue to run around the neighborhood of the world trying to find trouble. Therefore, I suggest you train it to be good with continued sadhana

Much love to you and your wife,


A “Hard” Question


How can the Atman(consciousness) appear as something hard? My sense of touch seems to disprove the Advaita stance that the physical world is merely an appearance of the non-physical self.

In dreams, things appear real to me. But in my personal experience, I’ve never felt a hard or soft thing inside a dream. Hence, I don’t find the idea that the world is like a dream to be very useful. Please help.


This a complicated subject, that in my experience, I will not be able to adequately explain in a single email. So I will give a summary of the issue. And if you feel so inclined, we can start an ongoing conversation.  

Right now, you are saying that a hard object has an objective existence, meaning that it truly exists, in physical form, outside of your Self i.e. outside of your consciousness. But how can you tell me that this hard object exists? Only because it appears in your mind.  

And how can you tell me that the object feels hard? Only because you experience the sensation of “hardness” in your mind in the form of a thought.

Since that is the case, then you only know the object and its “hardness” as a thought. Even though you may experience thoughts and sensations in waking life differently than you experience thoughts in dream, they are nonetheless both thoughts.  

While waking life and dream life thoughts may feel different, they both only appear as thoughts, in you, the conscious Self. Yet, while no one hesitates to dismiss dream life as fanciful, we take waking life at face value because it “feels real”, not considering the fact that these feelings and sensations are just thoughts in our minds. 

To prove that a physical world actually exists, independently of the conscious Self, you would have to step outside of your consciousness and attempt to verify a physical world without using your mind and senses. 

Why? Because the mind and senses are the only instruments we have available to use for acquiring knowledge, for proving something. Right now you are using the evidence of your mind and senses to say that the physical world is actually “out there”, outside of your consciousness. 

I am not arguing that your mind and senses don’t make a very convincing case for a real, physical world. But observe how many times in your life that your mind and senses have deceived you. For example, everyday your mind tells you that the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. But in reality, this is not true.

So I would ask you to prove to me that this physical world actually exists, because I only experience it as a thought, as an object in my consciousness. This is no special power that I have, because it’s already like that for you too. We are both the conscious self, passively witnessing the universe as a thought appearing in us. Through inquiry, you merely see for yourself that this is true. 

One note: I am not saying that the world exists purely in your mind, meaning in SJ’s mind. SJ is but an individual. An illusory person. He does not create the universe. Nor does the universe only exist when SJ’s individual mind is aware of it, as some schools of Buddhism and philosophical Idealism claim. For instance, I assure you that I exist here in America, writing this email while you are halfway around the world, completely unaware of what I am doing.    

In summary: There is only you, the Self. From you, the Self, arises Isvara, the creator and sustainer of the universe. Isvara is a thought in the infinite awareness of you, the Self. From there, the universe arises as thought in Isvara’s mind. One thought within that thought of the universe is the body-mind called SJ. In turn, the body-mind called SJ experiences the “thought-universe” of Isvara, in the form of thoughts in his own mind. 

There is no physical world. Just the thought of one in Isvara’s mind. And every individual person (jiva or body-mind) experiences that “thought world” of Isvara in their own minds. But Isvara, the universe and the individual people who inhabit it are nothing but thoughts in you, the Self.

I hope that helps. 

All my best,


Relationships & Non-Duality

S: What is the relation of the Self to the body/mind?

V: Relation is only possible between two different things. But the self alone exists. So there is no relationship between the self and the body/mind because there is no actual body/mind. There is only the self appearing to be a body/mind. The appearance of the body/mind is none other than you. All you have to remember is that appearing as a body/mind does not affect your true nature in any way.

S: I am aware of the sensations of the body, and thoughts of the mind appear to me like other perceptions from the world. But I am not aware of pain in another’s body or mind. In that sense, it is different from other objects. What is the special/additional relationship I have with the body?

V: Again, there is no special relationship. You’re looking at this issue from the perspective of the mind, not the self. 

Where does S.’s body/mind appear? In awareness. Where does Vishnu’s body/mind appear? In awareness. Does this mean there is more than one awareness or that awareness has a special relationship to either of our body/mind’s? No. Just as one sun illuminates all objects on earth, there is only one awareness in which all body/minds appear. Awareness is aware of your body/mind in the exact same way it’s aware of mine. 

When you say, “I don’t know your thoughts” what you are saying is, “My mind doesn’t know your thoughts.” And this is correct because the mind is a limited instrument with a limited range of perception.  It will not experience what another mind is experiencing.  But awareness illuminates both your mind and my mind equally.  To the self, there is not even a “my mind” or “your mind.” There are just minds appearing. So while your mind may not be able to read my thoughts, as the self, you “know” (illuminate) my mind the exact same way that you “know” S.’s mind. 

S: Also, terms like ‘act as an embodied spirit’ or ‘play the role of a son/friend, etc.’ also suggests hypocrisy and artificialness. How do I cope?

V: Yes, it can be strange to know that you’re the self while other people don’t. But that’s just how it goes. When you radically change your thinking, it takes time to adjust. And most people will never understand what you know. It can be disorienting at first, but you just get used to it over time. 

So just be S., all the while knowing you aren’t S. There’s nothing artificial about it because it’s true. Act normal. Live your life. Friends and family are good. Enjoy them. Your relationships with people aren’t fake just because you know you’re the self. In fact, they are much more real because you can relate to people in a more open, loving way. Why? Because you know you don’t have to be compelled to act from the selfish standpoint of the ego.

So self-knowledge isn’t intended to interfere with your personal relationships. It simply helps you approach those relationships with more understanding, objectivity and compassion. You can actually care about people on a deeper level when you know they are none other than yourself. Your relationships can become more authentic because your thinking is in alignment with the truth. The only inauthentic way to relate to people is from the false standpoint of the ego. Let me know if that helps. 

All my best – V

Breaking Body Identification

Hello Vishnu, I hope you are doing well. 

V: Hi S.  I am doing well. Thank you. 

S: I can report that I am making slow but sure progress in my understanding of Advaita. I have a doubt about letting go of body identification. I am convinced that as the limited body I will continue to be affected by problems from which there is no escape. Consciousness on the other hand is infinite and unaffected by anything.

V: You are correct. The limited body, because it is part of the unreal world, will continue to be affected by problems: Sickness, fatigue, old age, death etc. This is the case for both the enlightened and the unenlightened. 

S: How do I shed my body identity and start seeing myself as consciousness?

V: Up until this point you have spent your whole life thinking you’re the body. In other words, identifying yourself with the body is a long standing habit. That means it will take a long time to break that habit. And how do you break an old habit? By starting a new one. In this case, you practice thinking of yourself as the Self until it replaces your old habit of thinking of yourself as the body. Here’s one way to do it: 

Constantly monitor what you think and say. Whenever you say or think the word “I”, ask yourself, “What ‘I’ am I talking about?” 

Here’s an example. Say you didn’t sleep very well. You go to work and a friend asks, “How are you today?” You reply, “I’m tired.”  At that moment you ask yourself, “What ‘I’ am I talking about?” What ‘I’ is tired? In this case the ‘I’ is the body. You remind yourself that only the body is tired. Draw your attention to the fact that you are the consciousness that illumines the tired body, and you, consciousness (the self), are never tired. 

Do this anytime you make a statement or think a thought like this. “I am hungry”, “I am sad”, “I am sick”, “I am happy” etc. Remind yourself that the “I” you are talking about in these statements is just the unreal body. Then draw your attention back to the fact that you are the Self that knows the body and mind, the Self that is never hungry, sad, sick, happy etc. 

This is one way that I found to be very helpful in regards to breaking body identification. The bottom line is that when you see identification with the body appear in the mind, you simply draw your attention back to who you really are. If it’s a stubborn identification, go back to the basics and use the logic you already know: “I know the hunger, so I cannot be hungry. The hunger was not previously present. I was. The hunger will go away. I won’t. The hunger is a transient state and therefore unreal. I am the real Self that knows the hunger and I am unaffected by it.”

Alternately, you can spend time affirming who you really are using descriptions of your Self in the scriptures. For instance, you know that you, the Self, are ananda, limitless. So say this to yourself and think about it. “I am the limitless Self.” Ask yourself, “Is there anything that limits me?” Think about the body, the mind. Are they real? Are they always present? Do you change when they change? No. You are ever present and unaffected by them. 
In this way, not only do you affirm the limitlessness of your true nature, but you also walk your mind through the logic that proves this is true. The mind has spent its whole life thinking of itself as a limited being. But over time, doing this practice retrains the mind to think of itself as what it really is: the limitless Self. 

This is nididhyasana, the process of retraining yourself to identify with who you really are, the Self, rather than the body and mind.

You can use what I’ve suggested as a guideline but also feel free to modify the practice in whatever way works best for you. The point is to diligently watch for identification with the body and mind in your thoughts and then gently remind yourself that you are really the Self. 

I say “gently” because this is an ongoing process. Don’t obsess about it or beat yourself up if you continue to see body/mind identification in your mind. Just stick with it lovingly and patiently. Over time, the identification will continue to appear in your mind. After all, it’s completely normal to say things like, “‘I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m sick”, etc. The difference is that, after practice, hen those thoughts or words appear, they no longer cause you as much distress. Or no distress at all. 

And here’s the kicker: The Self neither identifies with the body/mind NOR doesn’t identify with the body/mind. Identification only happens at the level of the MIND. So when the mind identifies with the Self rather than the body/mind, then great. But you, the Self, are not identifying with anything. The identification is known to you and it doesn’t affect you. 

 Likewise, when the mind identifies with the body/mind rather than the Self, it’s no real problem. You, the Self, are not identifying with anything. The identification is known to you and it doesn’t affect you. 

In other words, identification with either the body/mind or the Self are states of the mind that are known to you, the Self. Yes, the mind identifying with the Self as much as possible is a good thing because it leads to peace and happiness. But peace and happiness are simply states of the mind that don’t actually affect you, the Self. Likewise, sorrow caused by identifying with the body/mind are also states of the mind that don’t affect you. So work on identifying with the Self as much as possible. But don’t get upset when you catch your mind identifying with the body/mind. It’s just a passing mental state that doesn’t affect you.

Always remember this while doing this practice because changing your mind is an incidental benefit to the practice of discrimination. But the real point is know that no matter what the mind is thinking, you are always the unaffected Self. You are not the mind, no matter what it thinks. And THAT is true knowledge. Good luck S. Just let me know if you need help. 

All my best – Vishnudeva