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,


Working Out Your Karma

I have been in a very unhappy marriage for the last 10 years. There’s no affection, no sex, no kindness, no warmth, no communication. My wife has given me the silent treatment for the last 2 years. I am slowly going insane.

I realize that she is I and that I am she. There is only Self. So my question is the following: Would you stay in such a marriage if it drives you insane (literally) just to work out past karma? Or, would you leave? I remember the Buddha left his wife and children behind. Very confusing because he must have realized all was Self and that any action like leaving a wife and children behind was thus futile (there is no such thing as divorce; Self always is).

Not sure if you are married but you are a realized person so I wanted to ask your opinion. Sorry for the deep question.

Thank you,

V:  I’m sorry to hear that you’re unhappy but I’m a Vedanta teacher, not a marriage counselor. So I am not qualified to answer your question about marriage.  

But I can address your understanding of self and karma.  Realizing the non-duality of the self does not have anything to do with passively accepting one’s circumstances on the basis that they’re just an illusory appearance of one’s own self.  Sameness only applies at the absolute level of the self.  It does not apply to everyday circumstances.  In other words, not everything in life is equal, just because it’s all the self.  Some things are, relatively speaking, better, healthier and more constructive than others. 
Further, working out karma doesn’t mean accepting suffering and unhappiness.  Sure, everyone will have some degree of suffering and unhappiness in their karma.  But karma is not fate.  The point of the theory of karma is to put you in the driver’s seat. It says your current circumstances are the product of your past choices and actions.  The implication is that your future circumstances can be influenced by your current choices and actions.  

So once again, I am not qualified to give you relationship advice.  Nor am I interested in doing so because my purpose here is to teach Vedanta.  But I hate to hear that you’re unhappy.  So I wanted to say that Vedanta, non-duality and karma all allow for positive change in one’s “personal” well-being.  They are not in conflict with you doing what you feel is best for your happiness.  The point of this teaching is peace of mind.
All my best,

A: Your answer is incredible and I quote only partially: “But I can address your understanding of self and karma.  Realizing the non-duality of the self does not have anything to do with passively accepting one’s circumstances on the basis that they’re just an illusory appearance of one’s own self.”

I was stuck with this question for so many years and you understood it and gave the answer I was looking for so I will re-read it because it is so very very valuable.

Thank you very much,

I Am Not This

I am both the existent and the non-existent;
And yet I am neither. 

I am the ineffable Vishnu
Best described as, “Not this, not this1.” 

I am both the conscious and the non-conscious;
And yet I am neither.

I am the ineffable Vishnu
Best described as, “Not this, not this.”

I am both the limitless and the limited;
And yet I am neither. 

I am the ineffable Vishnu
Best described as, “Not this, not this.”

I am not this

Not this

  1. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6. – “Now therefore the description (of brahman, one’s true nature): ‘Not this, not this.’ Because there is no other more appropriate description than, ‘Not this, not this.’

Emotional Zombie

Hi Vishnu,
In your reply to a recent questioner who was asking about the role of joy and indeed other emotions obtaining in the mind after self knowledge, you said that ‘over time the mind slowly becomes less happy, sad, angry or otherwise emotionally disturbed’.

Now, I don’t believe you are advocating becoming an emotional zombie here. I believe what you meant was what the Buddhists call ‘equanimity’, a preponderance to less and less emotional extremes. This is actually required before self knowledge, but it continues to bed in after self knowledge.

However this doesn’t mean you are never emotional, relatively speaking, but you are less prone to veering from extreme to extreme? Having no emotional responses would be pretty useless, not to say impossible anyway, but that’s not what you’re saying. 

Vishnu:  Correct. 

D: One way I thought about it is if feeling/emotions are a tone, then equanimity is in the mid range, it becomes your home setting, and while it fluctuates up and down from there, the mid range becomes the centre around which it revolves, rather than veering all over the place. Or another way is to think of it as a volume control, set to mid volume: it can, and does, go up and down from there but in a moderate way, rather than as if some madman was spinning the dial wildly one way or another!

Vishnu:  These are great metaphors.   

D: Of course, there will always be times when it does veer to extremes, that’s part of the human condition and will happen forever. But over time should occur with less frequency.

V: Yes, extremes will surely still occur.  They may occur less frequently or they may not; extremes may go away for a long time only to unexpectedly come back.  It all just depends on the person’s mind.  Since 1) The mind is not totally under our control and 2) We are not the mind, this is of no ultimate consequence. 

 D: Vishnu, would you agree that we are *always* feeling something, because emotions are generated by thoughts, (even when we’re feeling numb, that’s actually still an emotion/feeling tone: we’re ‘feeling’ numb), so ‘transcending’ emotion is not about not having emotions, which is actually impossible anyway, but about realising they don’t affect your true nature?

Vishnu:  Exactly.  The relative person has a modicum of control over how their mind feels.  But in the end, the mind is going to do what it’s going to do.  People who continue to try to make their minds a particular way in order to prove to themselves or others that they’re enlightened clearly have missed the point that enlightenment is about knowing that they are not the mind, or to me more accurate, that they are not affected by the mind.  

That means having an agitated mind does not make you any less the self; or relatively speaking, less enlightened.  Having a peaceful mind doesn’t make you any more the self; or relatively speaking, more enlightened.  You are the self either way:  that’s just a fact.  Recognizing that fact, relatively speaking, is “real” enlightenment, not trying to make the relative person think, act or feel a particular way, which is the textbook definition of samsara.      

Don’t get me wrong: Having a peaceful mind is a good thing. And striving to be the best person you can be is a constructive and worthy undertaking. But it’s not enlightenment, which clearly shows you that you are not a person, or more accurately, that you are not affected by the person in any way whatsoever, good or bad.   

D: I’m always reminded of the story of Ramana, who, after watching a travelling stage play about a heroic quest of some saint or other, turned around to his followers in floods of tears! They were all shaking their heads, saying ‘how can Ramana be affected by such aspects of dualism!’ But Ramana simply responded by saying ‘how can one not be moved by such tales of heroism and self sacrifice!’

I always find that funny, as he was just acknowledging the human aspect of his nature, which was perfectly ok, whereas his followers, clearly showing incomplete understanding, just didn’t get it, just like many a neo-advaita teacher today, many of whom seem keen to portray him as some remote, absolutist godlike figure, which is more of a caricature than anything else.

Vishnu:  As you’ve pointed out, this kind of misunderstanding is common in the so-called spiritual world. This is because self-realization is internal and its outward manifestation as certain behavior depends entirely on the previous conditioning of the self-realized person’s mind. For the self-realized person who knows directly that they’re not actually a person, this is not a problem; they let the apparent person be how it is, knowing it doesn’t reflect on their true self in any way. They witness the apparent person naturally responding to its environment, without judgement.

But for those still seeking self-knowledge, this can be confusing. Through no fault of their own, they’re forced to evaluate a self-realized person based on their preconceived notion of enlightenment, which is inevitably linked to their idea of what an enlightened person’s behavior or temperament should be like. And no amount of explanation can dispel this confusion: It can only be resolved by following self-inquiry to its logical end, which is the direct intuition of the fact, “I am the limitless self. I am not defined or affected by the condition of the body and mind.” When that is known the question of performing certain actions or abstaining from particular emotions become moot. In his Dhyanasvaruam, Swami Teyomayananda illustrates this point nicely with the following quote from Jivanmuktananda Lahari:

“One whose ignorance has been destroyed by knowledge given by the guru never gets deluded as he goes around roaming the city, seeing and enjoying the beautiful sights, men and women dressed and decorated, as he knows that he is the witness of all. He is silent with the maunis, wise amongst the wise, scholary amongst the scholarly, sympathetic to the miserable, rejoices with the happy, enjoys when he gets pleasurable objects, acts ignorant among the ignorant people, youthful with the young, displays great oratory skill in the company or orators and is a total renunciate amongst the reununciates. Blessed is the one who has conquered the three worlds.”

All my best – Vishnu