The White Mule, the Wild Goose and Infinite Transhumance

A ‘white mule’ (śvata aśvatara) gave its name to the famous Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad. Apart from the alliteration, why such a name?

Was Śvetāśvatara the putative name of the author, thus defined as a lover of equine beauty, or of horseback riding?

Siddheswar Varma and Gambhīrānanda both prefer to understand this name as a metaphor for ‘One whose organs of sense are very pure’i.

Indeed, purity was probably needed to tackle the issues addressed by this Upaniṣad:

« Is Brahman the causeii? Where did we come from? What do we live by? What do we rely on?» iii

The answer to all these questions may be found by considering the One.

The One, – i.e. the Brahman, manifests itself in the world through its attributes and powers (guṇa), which have been given divine names (Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva). These three names symbolize respectively Consciousness (sattva, purity, truth, intelligence), Passion (rájas, strength, desire, action) and Darkness (támas, darkness, ignorance, inertia, or limitation).

The ‘Great Wheel of Brahmaniv gives life to the Whole, in the endless flow of rebirths (saṃsāra).

The individual soul wanders here and there’ in the great Whole. She is like a ‘wild goose’ (haṃsa)v. In search of deliverance, this drifting fowl goes astray when she flies separate from the Self. But when she attaches herself to it, when she tastes its ‘joy’, she attains immortality.

The Whole is a great mixture, of mortals and immortals, of realities and appearances. The goose that flies free in it, without knowing where she is going, is in reality bound, garroted. She thinks she is a conscious subject, but she is a mere self, deaf and blind, unaware of joy, of the Self of the Brahman.

To get on her path, she must find within herself a Trinitarian image of the One, an inner triad, composed of her soul (jīva), her personal lord (Īśvara) and her nature (prakṛti). This triad is both ‘three’ and ‘one’, which is also a familiar image in Christianity, – appearing in John, more than two thousand years after the Veda.

This triadic soul is not just an image, she is already Brahman, she is in Brahman, she is with Brahman. She is the One.

The One governs the Whole, the perishable, the imperishable and the Self. It is by meditating on the One, and uniting with it, that the Self can deliver itself from the famous māyā, the ‘power of measure’ that rules the world.

Māyā originally and etymologically means ‘divine omnipotence’, – a power of creation, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom.

The meaning of māyā as ‘illusion’ is only derived. It takes on this (paradoxically) antonymous meaning of ‘deception’, of ‘mere appearance’, when the self does not recognize the immanent presence of power. When knowledge, intelligence and wisdom are absent, illusion takes their place and occupies the whole field.

Thus māyā can be (truly) understood as power, measure and wisdom, when one sees it at work, or (falsely) as an illusion, when one is blind to her.

It is not the māyā as such that is ‘illusion’. Illusion about the world only comes when the creative power of the māyā is not recognized as such, but one gets caught by the result of her operation.

By her dual nature, by her power of occultation and manifestation, the māyā hides but also reveals the divine principle, the Brahman who is her master and source.

To know the essence of māyā is to know this principle, – Brahman. In order to reach her, it is necessary to untie oneself from all bonds, to leave the path of birth and death, to unite with the supreme and secret Lord, to fulfill His desire, and to dwell in the Self (Ātman).

The māyā may be compared to a netvi. It wraps everything. You can’t escape it. It is the cosmic power of the Lord, in act in the Whole. It is the All.

To finally escape māyā, you have to see her at work, understand her in her essence, make her a companion.

He presents a double face, therefore, a duality of truth and illusion. It is through māyā that one can get to know māyā, and her creator, the Brahman.

This is why it is said that there are two kinds of māyā, one that leads to the divine (vidhyā-māyā) and the other that leads away from it (avidhyā-māyā).

Everything, even the name of the Brahman, is doubly māyā, both illusion and wisdom.

« It is only through māyā that one can conquer the supreme Wisdom, the bliss. How could we have imagined these things without māyā? From it alone come duality and relativity.”vii

The māyā has also been compared to the countless colors produced by the One who is « colorless », as light diffracts in the rainbow.

« The One, the colourless One, by the way of its power produces multiple colors for a hidden purpose.”viii

Nature bears witness, with blue, green, yellow, the brilliance of lightning, the color of the seasons or the oceans. Red, white and black are the color of fire, water and earthix.

« You are the blue-night bee, the green [bird] with yellow eyes, [the clouds] bearing lightning, the seasons, the seas.”x

To see the māyā it is necessary to consider her under both her two aspects, inseparable at the same time.

One day Nārada said to the Lord of the universe: « Lord, show me Your māyā, which makes the impossible possible ».

The Lord agreed and asked him to fetch water. On his way to the river, he met a beautiful young girl by the shore and forgot all about his quest. He fell in love and lost track of time. And he spent his life in a dream, in ‘illusion’, without realizing that he had before his eyes what he had asked the Lord to ‘see’. He saw the māyā at work, but he was not aware of it, without being conscious of it. Only at the end of his days, perhaps he woke up from his dream.

To call māyā « illusion » is to see only the veil, and not what that veil covers.

A completely different line of understanding of the meaning of māyā emerges when one chooses to return it to its original, etymological meaning of « power (yā) of measurement (mā)« .

Everything is māyā, the world, time, wisdom, dreams, action and sacrifice. The divine is also māyā, in its essence, in its power, in its ‘measure’.

« The hymns, sacrifices, rites, observances, past and future, and what the Veda proclaims – out of him, the master of measure has created this All, and in him, the other is enclosed by this power of measure (māyā).

Let it be known that the primordial nature is power of measure (māyā), that the Great Lord is master of measure (māyin). All this world is thus penetrated by the beings that form His members.»xi

In these two essential verses from Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad (4.9 and 4.10) one may note important Sanskrit words :

माया māyā, « the power of measurement » or « illusion »,

महेश्वरम् maheśvaram, « the Great Lord »,

मायिनं māyin, « the master of measurement » or « of illusion »,

प्रकृति prakṛti, « the material or primordial nature ».

There is a real difference in interpretation between the translators who give māyā the meaning of « power of measurement », such as Alyette Degrâces, and those who give it the meaning of « illusion », as Michel Hulin does:

« Understand the material nature (प्रकृति prakṛti) as illusion (माया māyā) and the Great Lord (महेश्वरम् maheśvaram) as illusionist (मायिनं māyin).”xii

The famous Sanskritist Max Müller has chosen not to translate māyā, proposing only in brackets the word ‘Art’ :

« That from which the maker (māyin) sends forth all this – the sacred verses, the offerings, the sacrifice, the panaceas, the past, the future, and all that the Vedas declare – in that the other is bound up through that māyā.

Know then Prakṛiti (nature) is Māyā (Art), and the great Lord the Māyin (maker); the whole world is filled with what are his members.»xiii

In note, Müller comments :

« It’s impossible to find terms that match māyā and māyin. Māyā means ‘fabrication’ or ‘art’, but since any fabrication or creation is only a phenomenon or illusion, as far as the Supreme Self is concerned, māyā also carries the meaning of illusion. Similarly, māyin is the maker, the artist, but also the magician, the juggler. What seems to be meant by this verse is that everything, everything that exists or seems to exist, proceeds from akṣara [the immortal], which corresponds to Brahman, but that the actual creator, or author of all emanations is Īśa, the Lord, who, as creator, acts through māyā or devātmaśakti. It is possible, moreover, that anya, ‘the other’, is used to mean the individual puruṣa.» xiv

Following Max Müller, Alyette Degrâces refuses to use the words ‘illusion’ and ‘illusionist’. About the word māyin she explains, obviously inspired by the position of the German Sanskritist established in Oxford:

« This term is impossible to translate, and especially not as ‘illusionist’ as it is found in many translations (but not Max Müller or the Indian translators). The māyā, with a root MĀ « measure » means « a power of measurement », where measure means knowledge. If the measurement is bad, then we will speak of illusion, but not before. Brahman is here māyin « master of measurement, of this power of measurement », through which the world manifests itself. When the Brahman takes on a relative aspect and creates the world, maintains it or resorbs it, it is defined by attributes, it is said saguṇa, aparaṃ Brahman or the master of measure (māyin) by which the world is deployed and in relation to which the human being must actualize his power of measure in order not to superimpose or confuse the two levels of Brahman, one of which is the support of everything. » xv

Aparaṃ Brahman is the « inferior » (non supreme) Brahman, endowed with « qualities », « virtues » (saguṇa). He is the creative Brahman of the Universe and is distinguished from the supreme Brahman, who is nameless, without quality, without desire.

By consulting Monier-Williams’ dictionary at māyā, one can see that the oldest meanings of the word have nothing to do with the notion of illusion, but refer to the meanings of « wisdom », « supernatural or extraordinary power ».

It is only in the Ṛg Veda, therefore later on, that the other notions appear, that Monier-Williams enumerates in this way : « Illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic. An unreal or illusory image, phantom, apparition. »

These later meanings are all frankly pejorative, and contrast sharply with the original meanings of the word, « wisdom », « power », based on the etymology of « measure » (MĀ-).

One can consider that there was, before the age of Ṛg Veda, itself already very old (more than a millennium before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), an almost complete reversal of the meaning of the word māyā, going from « wisdom » to « deception, fraud, illusion ».

These considerations may help to answer a recurring question: « Why was this Creation created at all?”

Why did the Brahman ‘paraṃ’, the supreme Brahman, the supreme ’cause’, delegate to the Brahman ‘aparaṃ’ (the non-supreme Brahman) the care of creating a universe so full of evils and “illusions”?

In fact, māyā originally did not mean “illusion” but « Wisdom » and « Power ».

Then undertanding the universe as full of evils and illusions is still an illusion.

Brahman, as the master of Māyā, is really the master of Wisdom, Power, Measure.

And all Creation, – the Whole, has also vocation to appropriate this Wisdom, this Power, this Measure, this Māyā.

A millennium later, the (Hebrew) Scriptures took up the idea again.

Firstly, Wisdom is at the foundation and origin of the Whole.

« But first of all, wisdom was created.”xvi

Before the Sirach, the Upaniṣad had also described this primordial creation, before nothing was :

« From Him is created the ancient wisdom.”xvii

« This God who does not manifest his own intelligence – in Him I, who desire deliverance, take refuge.”xviii

Then, the (Hebrew) Scriptures staged a kind of delegation of power comparable to the one we have just seen between the paraṃ brahman (the supreme brahman) and the aparaṃ brahman (the non supreme brahman).

In the Scriptures, YHVH plays a role analogous to that of the Brahman and delegates to Wisdom (ḥokhmah) the care of founding the earth:

« YHVH, through wisdom, founded the earth.»xix

Finally, it is interesting to note that the prophet (Job) does not disdain to contemplate (divine) Wisdom at work, immanent, in all creatures.

« Who put wisdom in the ibis?”xx

Job had understood the essence of Māyā, distinguishing it even hiddden under the cover of a swamp bird with black and white plumage. It was certainly not a ‘wild goose’, but the ibis could be advantageously compared to it on the banks of the Nile (or the Jordan River).

Citing the Ibis as an image of wisdom, Job was certainly not unaware that this bird was the symbol of the Egyptian God Thoth, God of Wisdom.

The God Thoth is a strange Egyptian prefiguration of the Creator Word, of which a text found in Edfu relates the birth and announces the mission:

« In the heart of the primordial ocean appeared the emerged land. On it, the Eight came into existence. They made a lotus appear from which Ra, assimilated to Shu, came out. Then came a lotus bud from which emerged a dwarf, a necessary woman, whom Ra saw and desired. From their union was born Thoth who created the world through the Word. » xxi

After this short detour through the ḥokhmah of the Scriptures, and through the Ibis and the Thoth God, figures of wisdom in ancient Egypt, let us return to Vedic wisdom, and its curious and paradoxical alliance with the notion of ignorance, in Brahman itself.

In the Veda, it is the Brahman aparaṃ that creates Wisdom. On the other hand, in the Brahman paraṃ, in Supreme Brahman, there is not only Knowledge, there is also Ignorance.

« In the imperishable (akṣara), in the supreme Brahmanxxii, infinite, where both, knowledge and ignorance, stand hidden, ignorance is perishablexxiii, while knowledge is immortalxxiv. And He who rules over both, knowledge and ignorance, is another.”xxv

How is it that within the Supreme Brahman, can ‘ignorance’ be hidden?

Moreover, how could there be something ‘perishable’ in the very bosom of the ‘imperishable’ (akṣara), in the bosom of the ‘immortal’?

If one wishes to respect the letter and spirit of the Veda, one must resolve to imagine that even the Brahman is not and cannot be ‘omniscient’.

And also that there is something ‘perishable’ in the Brahman.

How to explain it?

One may assume that the Brahman does not yet know ‘at present’ the infinity of which It is the ‘potential’ bearer.

Let us imagine that the Brahman is symbolized by an infinity of points, each of them being charged with an another infinity of points, themselves in potency of infinite potentialities, and so on, let us repeat these recurrences infinitely. And let us imagine that this infinity with the infinitely repeated power of infinite potentialities is moreover not simply arithmetic or geometrical, but that it is very much alive, each ‘point’ being in fact a symbol for a ‘soul’, constantly developing a life of her own.

One can then perhaps conceive that the Brahman, although knowing Itself in potency, does not know Itself absolutely ‘in act’. The Brahman is unconscious of the extent of Its potency.

Its power, its Māyā, is so ‘infinitely infinite’ that even its knowledge, certainly already infinite, has not yet been able to encompass all that there is still to be known, because all that is yet to be and to become simply does not yet exist, and still sleeps in non-knowledge, and in ignorance of what is yet to be born, one day, possibly.

The ‘infinitely infinite’ wisdom of the Brahman, therefore, has not yet been able to take the full measure of the height, depth and breadth of wisdom that the Brahman can possibly attain.

There are infinites that go beyond infinity itself.

One could call these kinds of infinitely infinite, « transfinity », to adapt a word invented by Georg Cantor. Conscious of the theological implications of his work in mathematics, Cantor had even compared the « absolute infinite » to God , the infinity of a class like that of all cardinals or ordinals.

Identifying a set of transfinite” Brahman should therefore not be too inconceivable a priori.

But it is the consequence of the metaphysical interpretation of these stacks of transfinite entities that is potentially the most controversial.

It invites us to consider the existence of a kind of ignorance ‘in act’ at the heart of Brahman.

Another verse accumulates clues in this sense.

It speaks of the Brahman, ‘benevolent’, who ‘makes non-existence’.

« Known by the mind, called incorporeal, He the benevolent one who makes existence and non-existence, He the God who makes creation with His parts – those who know Him have left their bodies.”xxvi

How can a supreme and benevolent God ‘make’ the ‘non-existent’?

What this God ‘makes’ is only done because He amputates certain ‘parts’ of Himself.

It is with this sacrifice, this separation of the divine from the divine, that what would have remained in non-existence can come into existence.

It is because God consents to a certain form of non-existence, in Himself, that the existing can come into existence.

It is interesting to compare the version of A. Degraces with Max Müller’s translation, which brings additional clarity to these obscure lines.

« Those who know him who is to be grasped by the mind, who is not to be called the nest (the body), who makes existence and non-existence, the happy one (Śiva), who also creates the elements, they have left the body.» xxvii

A few comments:

The nest (the body)‘. The Sanskrit word comes from the verb: nīdhā, नीधा, « to deposit, to pose, to place; to hide, to entrust to ». Hence the ideas of ‘nest’, ‘hiding place’, ‘treasure’, implicitly associated with that of ‘body’.

However, Müller notes that Śaṅkara prefers to read here the word anilākhyam, ‘that which is called the wind’, which is prāṇasya prāṇa, the ‘breath of the breath’.

The image is beautiful: it is through the breath, which comes and then leaves the body, that life continues.

Who also creates the elements’. Kalāsargakaram, ‘He who creates the elements. Müller mentions several possible interpretations of this expression.

That of Śaṅkara, which includes: ‘He who creates the sixteen kalās mentioned by the Âtharvaṇikas, beginning with the breath (prāṇa) and ending with the name (nāman). The list of these kalās is, according to Śaṅkarānanda: prāṇa,śraddhā, kha, vāyu, jyotih, ap, pṛthivī, indriya, manaḥ, anna, vīrya, tapah, mantra, karman, kalā, nāman.

Vigñānātman suggests two other explanations, ‘He who creates by means of kalā, [his own power]’, or ‘He who creates the Vedas and other sciences’.

The general idea is that in order to ‘know’ the Immortal, the Brahman, the Benevolent, the creator of existence and non-existence, one must leave the ‘nest’.

We must go into exile.

Abraham and Moses also went into exile.

The last part of Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad refers to the ‘Supreme Lord of Lords’, the ‘Supreme Divinity of Deities’, expressions that are, formally at least, analogous to the names YHVH Elohim and YHVH Tsabaoth, – which appeared among Hebrews more than a thousand years after the Veda was composed.

« He, the supreme Lord of lords, He the supreme God of deities, the supreme Master of masters, He who is beyond, let us find Him as the God, the Lord of the world who is to be praised.” xxviii

Once again, let’s compare with the version of Max Müller :

« Let us know that highest great Lord of lords, the highest deity of deities, the master of masters, the highest above, as God, the Lord of the world, the adorable.» xxix

The first verse can be read:

तमीश्वराणां परमं महेश्वरं

Tam īśvarāṇām paramam Maheśvaram.

‘He, of the lords, – the supreme Lord’.

Who are the ‘lords’ (īśvarāṇām)? Śaṅkara, in its commentary, quotes Death, the Son of the Sun and others (Cf. SUb 6.7).

And above all, who is this ‘He’ (tam)?

A series of qualifiers are listed:

He, the supreme God of gods (devatānām paramam Daivatam).

He, the Master (patīnām) of the Masters, the Master of Prajāpatis, – which are ten in number: Marīci, Atri, Aṅgiras, Pulastya, Pulaka, Kratu, Vasiṣṭa, Pracetas, Bhṛgu, Nārata.

He, who is ‘Higher’ (paramam) ‘than the High’ (parastāt)

He, who is ‘Higher’ than Wisdom (the Māyā).

He, who is the Lord of the worlds (bhuvaneśam)

He, who is worthy of worship (īdyam)

And the litany continues:

He is the Cause (saḥ kāraṇam)xxx.

He, the One God (ekaḥ devaḥ), hidden (gūḍhaḥ) in all beings (sarva-bhūteṣu), the All-pervading One (sarva-vyāpī), He is the inner self of all beings (sarva-bhūta-antarātmā), He is the Watcher of all acts (karma-adhyakṣaḥ), He resides in all beings (sarva-bhūta-adhivāsaḥ), He is the Witness or Seer (in Sanskrit sākṣī), the Knower, the one who gives intelligence (cetā), the unique Absolute (kevalaḥ), the one who is beyond qualities (nirguṇaḥ).

« He is the Eternal among the eternal, the Intelligent among the intelligent, the One who fulfills the desires of many”. xxxi

Once again, we must turn to Max Müller, to detect here another level of meaning, which deserves to be deepened.

Müller: « I have formerly translated this verse, according to the reading nityo ‘nityānām cetanaś cetanānām, the eternal thinker of non-eternal thoughts. This would be a true description of the Highest Self, who, though himself eternal and passive, has to think (jivātman) non-eternal thoughts. I took the first cetanah in the sens of cettā, the second in the sense of cetanam xxxii. The commentators, however, take a different, and it may be, from their point, a more correct view. Śaṅkara says : ‘He is the eternal of the eternals, i.e. as he possesses eternity among living souls (jīvas), these living souls also may claim eternity. Or the eternals may be meant for earth, water, &c. And in the same way, he is the thinker among thinkers.’

Śaṅkarānanda says: ‘He is eternal, imperishable, among eternal, imperishable things, such as the ether, &c. He is thinking among thinkers.’

Vigñānātman says : ‘The Highest Lord is the cause of eternity in eternal things on earth, and the cause of thought in the thinkers on earth.’ But he allows another construction, namely, that he is the eternal thinker of those who on earth are endowed with eternity and thought. In the end all these interpretations come to the same, viz. that there is only one eternal, and only one thinker, from whom all that is (or seems to be) eternal and all that is thought on earth is derived.» xxxiii

One reads in the commentary by Śaṅkara of this verses, translated by Gambhirananda :

« Nityaḥ, ‘the eternal’, nityānām, ‘among the eternal, among the individual souls’ – the idea being that the eternality of these is derived from His eternality; so also, cetanaḥ, the consciousness, cetanānām, among the conscious, the knowers. (…) How is the consciousness of the conscious ? » xxxiv

To this last question, – ‘How is the consciousness of the conscious?’ –, Śaṅkara answers with the following stanza from the Upaniṣad:

“There the sun does not shine, neither do the moon and the stars ; nor do these flashes of lightning shine. How can this fire ? He shining, all these shine; through His lustre all these are variously illumined.”xxxv

The meaning is that Brahman is the light that illuminates all other lights. Their brilliance is caused by the inner light of the Brahman’s self-consciousness, according to Śaṅkaraxxxvi.

Brahman illuminates and shines through all kinds of lights that manifest themselves in the world. From them it is inferred that the ‘consciousness of the conscious’, the consciousness of the Brahman is in essence ‘fulguration’, Brahman is the ‘effulgent’ Self.

Max Müller initially decided to translate the verse SU 6.13 by reading it literally: nityo ‘nityānām cetanaś cetanānām, which he understands as follows: “the eternal thinker of non-eternal thoughts”.

It is indeed a paradoxical idea, opening at once a metaphysical reflection on the very nature of thought and on that of eternity…

However, given the almost unanimous agreement of various historical commentators, which he quotes contrary to his own intuition, Müller seems to renounce, not without some regret, this stimulating translation, and he finally translates, taking over the version from Śaṅkarānanda :

« He is the eternal among the eternals, the thinker among thinkers, who, though one, fulfills the desire of many.»xxxvii

However, I think that Müller’s first intuition is more promising. There is a lot to dig into in the idea of an ‘eternal thinker’ who would think ‘non-eternal thoughts’.

The literally staggering implication of this idea is that non-eternal thoughts of the Eternal would be constitutive of the existence of time itself (by nature non-eternal). They would also be, moreover, the condition of the possibility of the existence of (non-eternal) creations.

These ‘non-eternal’ thoughts and creations would be intrinsically growing, metamorphic, evolutionary, always in genesis, in potency.

Perhaps this would also be the beginning of an intuition of a metaphysics of pity and mercy, a recognition of the grace that God could feel for his Creation, considering its weakness, its fall and its eventual redemption?

In other words, the very fact that the God, the Brahman, could have non-eternal thoughts would be the necessary condition so that, by his renunciation of the absoluteness and eternity of his judgments, non-eternal creatures would be allowed to pass from non-eternity to eternity.

For if the Brahman‘s thoughts were to be eternal in nature, then there would be no way to change a closed world, predetermined from all eternity, and consequently totally lacking in meaning, – and mercy.

We may have an indication to support this view when we read :

« He, who first created Brahmā, who in truth presented him with the Veda, that God who manifests Himself by His own intelligencexxxviii – in Him I, who desire deliverance, seek refuge.” xxxix

This God who manifests Himself through His own intelligence.’

Śaṅkara gives several other interpretations of the original text.

Some read here in Sanskrit ātma-buddhi-prasādam, ‘He who makes the knowledge of the Self favorable’. For, when the Supreme Lord sometimes makes grace of it, the intelligence of the creature acquires valid knowledge about Him, then frees itself from its relative existence, and continues to identify itself with the Brahman.

Others read here ātma-buddhi-prakāśam, ‘He who reveals the knowledge of the Self’.

Yet another interpretation: ātmā (the Self) is Himself the buddhi (Wisdom, Knowledge). The one who reveals Himself as knowledge of the Self is ātma-buddhi-prakāśam. xl

“In Him, desiring deliverance (mumukṣuḥ) I seek (prapadye) refuge (śaraṇam)”: is this not the proven Vedic intuition of the Brahman‘s mercy towards his creature?

As we can see, the Veda was penetrated by the explosive power of several directions of research on the nature of Brahman. But history shows that the explicit development of these researches towards the idea of ‘divine mercy’ was to be more specifically part of the subsequent contribution of other religions, which were still to come, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.

However, the Veda was already affirming, as the first witness, its own genius. The Brahman: He is the ‘wild goose’. He is the Self, He is the ‘fire that has entered the ocean’, He is the ‘matrix’ and the ‘all-pervading’.

« He is He, the wild goose, the One in the middle of this universe. He is truly the fire that entered the ocean. And only when we know Him do we surpass death. There is no other way to get there.”xli

At the beginning of Upaniṣad we already encountered the image of the ‘wild goose’ (haṃsa)xlii, which applied to the individual soul, wandering here and there’ in the great Whole. Now this goose is more than the soul, more than the Whole, it is the Brahman himself.

And only when we know Him do we surpass death. There is no other way to get there’.

Śaṅkara breaks down each word of the verse, which then reveals its rhythm 3-3 4-3 4 4-3 :

Viditvā, knowing; tam eva, He alone; atiyety, one goes beyond; mṛtyum, from death; na vidyate, there is no; anyaḥ panthāḥ, another way; ayanā, where to go. xliii

The images of the ‘Matrix’ and ‘All-penetrating’ appear in the next two stanzas (SU 6.16 and 6.17):

« He is the creator of All, the connoisseur of All, He is the Self and the matrix, the connoisseur, the creator of time.”xliv

He is the Self and the Matrix‘, ātma-yoniḥ’.

Śaṅkara offers three interpretations of this curious expression: He is its own cause – He is the Self and the matrix (yoni) – He is the matrix (source), of all things.

The Brahman is Yoni, and He is also the All-pervading One.

« He who becomes that [light]xlv, immortal, established as the Lord, the knower, the all-pervading, the protector of this universe, it is He who governs this world forever. There is no other cause for sovereignty.”xlvi

At the beginning and the end of the Upaniṣad of the ‘white mule’, we find thus repeated this image, white and black, of the goose – of the Self – flying in the sky.

The goose flies in a sky that veils.

What does this sky veil? – The end of suffering.

This is what one of the final verses says:

“When men have rolled up the sky like a skin, only then will the suffering end, in case God would not have been recognized.”xlvii

‘When men have rolled up the sky.

Further to the West, at about the same time, the prophet Isaiah used a metaphor similar to the one chosen by Śvetāśvatara :

« The heavens roll up like a book »xlviii.

וְנָגֹלּוּ כַסֵּפֶר הַשָּׁמָיִם

Vé-nagollou kha-sfèr ha-chamaïm.

There is indeed a common point between these two intuitions, the Vedic and the Jewish.

In a completely unorthodox way, I will use Hebrew to explain Sanskrit, and vice versa.

To say ‘to roll up’ the heavens, the Hebrew uses as a metaphor the verb גָּלָה galah, « to discover oneself, to appear; to emigrate, to be exiled”; and in the niphal form, “to be discovered, to be naked, to manifest, to reveal oneself ».

When the heavens are ‘rolled up’, then God can ‘manifest, reveal Himself’. Or on the contrary, He can ‘exile Himself, go away’.

This ambiguity and double meaning of the word, can also be found in this other verse of Isaiah: « The (golden) time [of my life] is broken and departs from me.”xlix

The Jewish man rolls up the scrolls of Torah when he has finished reading it.

The Vedic man winds the scrolls of the heaven when he has finished his life of flying and wandering. That is to say, he rolls up his life, like a shepherd’s ‘tent’, when they decamp.

But this tent can also be ‘ripped off’ (נִסַּע nessa‘), and thrown away (וְנִגְלָה vé-niglah).l

These metaphors were spun by Isaiah:

“I used to say, ‘In the middle of my days I’m leaving, at the gates of Sheol I’ll be kept for the rest of my years’.

I said: ‘I will not see YHVH in the land of the living, I will no longer have a look for anyone among the inhabitants of the world’.

My time [of life] is plucked up, and cast away from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life.” li

The Vedic sky, like man’s life, may be compared to a kind of tent.

And the wild goose shows the way.

At the end, one has to roll up the sky and your life, and go on an infinite transhumance.


iŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, p. v

iiHere I slightly adapt Alyette Degrâces’ translation of the word karāṇa by adding the article “the”, based on Max Müller’s translation: « Is Brahman the cause? « which, according to Müller, is itself based on the preferences of Śaṅkara. See Max Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.1.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.231, note 1. The Huet dictionary gives for karāṇa: ‘reason, cause, motive; origin; principle’. Gambhirananda translates as ‘source’: ‘What is the nature of Brahman, the source? »

iiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.1 Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p.396

ivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.6. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p.397

vŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.6. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p.397

viŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 3.1. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 403.

viiThe teaching of Râmakrishna. Trad Jean Herbert. Albin Michel. 2005, p.45

viiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.1. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 407.

ixSUb 4.5. See Note 1760, Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 407.

xŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.4. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 407.

xiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9-10. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 408-409.

xiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.10. Michel Hulin. Shankara and non-duality. Ed. Bayard. 2001, p.144

xiiiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Upaniṣad. Oxford 1884. Vol XV, p.251, n.1

xivMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9-10.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.251-252

xvThe Upaniṣad. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 408, note 1171.

xviSir 1.4

xviiThe Upaniṣad. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.18. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 410.

xviiiThe Upaniṣad. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.18. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417.

xixPr 3.19

xxJob 38.36

xxiSource Wikipedia:

xxiiBrahman param is what is beyond (para) Brahmā.

xxiiiPerishable: kṣara. Śaṅkara explains in Sub 5.1 that this ‘perishable’ character is the ’cause of existence in the world’ (saṃsṛtikārana). Immortal: akṣara. Śaṅkara explains that this character of immortality is the ’cause of deliverance’ (mokṣahetu).

xxivPerishable: kṣara. Śaṅkara explains in Sub 5.1 that this ‘perishable’ character is the ’cause of existence in the world’ (saṃsṛtikārana). Immortal: akṣara. Śaṅkara explains that this character of immortality is the ’cause of deliverance’ (mokṣahetu).

xxv Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 5.1. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 411

xxviŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 5.14. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 413

xxviiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9-10.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.258-259

xxviiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.7.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 415

xxixMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.7.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.263

xxxŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.9.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 416

xxxiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 416

xxxiiThese nuances correspond to two declined cases of the noun cetana, respectively, the first to the nominative (thinker) and the second to the genitive plural (of thoughts). The Sanskrit-English Dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams gives for cetana: ‘conscious, intelligent, feeling; an intelligent being; soul, mind; consciousness, understanding, sense, intelligence’. For cetas: ‘splendour; consciousness, intelligence, thinking soul, heart, mind’. In addition, the Sanskrit-French Dictionary of Huet gives for cetana: ‘intelligence, soul; consciousness, sensitivity; understanding, sense, intelligence’. The root is this, ‘to think, reflect, understand; to know, know. The root is this-, ‘thinking, thinking, thinking, understanding; knowing, knowing.’ For cetas: ‘consciousness, mind, heart, wisdom, thinking’.

xxxiiiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.264, note 4

xxxivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.13, p.193

xxxvŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.14, p.193. See almost identical stanzas in MuU 2.2.11, KaU 2.2.15, BhG 15.6

xxxviMuUB 2.2.10

xxxviiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.264

xxxviiiMax Muller traduit :  » I go for refuge to that God who is the light of his own thoughts « . Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.18.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.265

xxxixŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.18.Trad. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417

xlŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.18, p.198

xliŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.16. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417

xliiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.6. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p.397

xliiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.15, p.195

xlivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.16.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417

xlvŚaṅkara includes here the word tanmayaḥ (‘made of it’) as actually meaning jyotirmaya, ‘made of light’, cf. Sub 6:17.

xlviŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.17.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417

xlvii« Only when men shall roll up the sky like a hide, will there be an end of misery, unless God has first been known. ». Max Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.20.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.266

xlviiiIs 34.4

xlixIs 38,12

lIs 38,10-12

liIs 38,10-12