Interpretation of a
verse from the Svetasvatara Upanishad
by Jayaram V
The Svetasvatara Upanishad belongs to the Taittiriya section
of the Yajurveda. In
its approach, the Upanishad leans more towards the non-dualistic
schools of Saivism. It describes the manifest creation as
inhabited by the divine power of God (devatma-shakti), whom it
identifies with Rudra or Lord Siva. Unlike the Prakriti of the
Samkhya school, the Shakti that is described in the Upanishad
is not independent of Brahman but an aspect of Him. Brahman is
recognized in the Upanishad as Mayin, the creator of maya or
illusion which subjects the individual souls to the cycle of
births and deaths and from which they have to become free in
order to attain liberation. For the purpose of our discussion,
we quote here the fourth verse in the first chapter of the
Upanishad, which describes the qualities of the manifested
creation in the following manner:
tam eka-nemim travrtam sodasantam satardharam vimsati
astakaih sabdhih visva-rupaika-pasam tri-marga-bhedam
dvini mittaika moham
"We know Him with one hub, three divisions, sixteen
ends, sixteen supports (spokes), six sets of eight each, whose
one noose has innumerable forms, whose paths are distinguished
as three and whose delusion arises out of two causes."
This verse envisions the whole creation as a a rotating
wheel. We can interpret its meaning at two different levels. At
the macrocosmic level its describes the constituent parts of
the manifest being or Iswara, also referred as Purusha. At the
microcosmic level it represent Jiva or the individual soul
itself. The symbolism contained in the verse is explained as
One hub - eka nemi: This is the One Creative
Principle, who is also known as Iswara, the Manifest Being in
contrast to the Unmanifest Being or Nirguna Brahman. He is the
source and the center of everything. In case of living beings,
it is the Atman or the eternal soul.
Three Divisions - travrtam: The three qualities
namely sattva, rajas and tamas which are present in every
aspect of creation and which are responsible for its
multiplicity and diversity. They also represent the three
functional aspects of Brahman, namely Vishnu, Brahma and Siva.
Sixteen Ends - sodasantam: Sodasa means sixteen.
These are the five gross elements ( mahabhutas), the five sense
organs (jnanedriyas), the five organs of action (karmendriyas)
and the mind (manas). These sixteen are part of the 24
principles or tattvas of Prakriti or Nature. They are often
collectively referred as vikriti. The remaining eight
(prakriti, buddhi, ahamkara and the five elements namely,
earth, water, fire, air and ether) are categorized as mula
Prakriti or the primordial Nature.
Fifty supports - satadharam: These are compared to
the spokes of the wheel, because they support or uphold the
entire creation and make possible the experience of duality
among the beings and the idea of separation between God and His
creation. They are the
- Five viparyayas (ignorance (tamas), infatuation (moha),
love (mahamoha), anger (tamisra) and fear (andhatamisra),
- The 28 weaknesses or asaktis.
- Nine opposites of happiness (tushti) and
- Eight opposites of perfections or supernatural powers (
Twenty counter supports - pratyarabhih: They are the
five sense organs, five organs of action and their objects.
They counter support because they represent the objectivity we
experience in our relation with the external world and
perpetuate the illusion and the sense of duality we experience
in our lives.
Six sets of eight each - astakaih sabbhih: They are: 1.
Prakriti with its eight principles of gross elements, mind,
buddhi and ego-sense, 2. eight types of minerals (dhatus) found
in the body, 3. eight types of wealth or abundance (aisvarya),
4. eight types of feelings or mental states (bhava), 5. the
eight types of gods (devas), and 6. eight qualities of the self
The one noose with innumerable forms: The noose in
this expression is the desire or kama which manifests in us in
many forms and responsible for our bondage and attachment.
The three paths - trimarga bhedam: The three
different paths mentioned here are the three paths to salvation
namely, the path of knowledge (jnanamarg) , the path of
devotion (bhaktimarg) and the path of action (karmamarg).
According to another classification they are the path of
righteousness (dharma), the path of irreligiousness (adharma)
and the path of knowledge (jnana).
The two causes of delusion: Delusion arises from both
good actions and bad actions and also from actions and
inaction. In the ultimate sense all actions are binding, unless
they are performed without desire and as an offering to God,
which is not easy to practice. According to another
interpretation, as found in the Isa Upanishad, delusion may
arise from both knowledge and ignorance. So the two causes
referred here can be any of these.
The subsequent verse speaks of Brahman as a river of five
streams (panca srotombum) flowing from five terrifying and
crooked sources, whose vital breaths are five, who is at the
root of the five perceptions, five whirl pools, five pains that
are divided into five branches of fifty each. The five streams
are perceptions flowing from the five sensory organs, the five
vital breaths are the five types of prana that flows in the
body, the five whirlpools are the five types of mental
afflictions caused due to ignorance, desire etc.
As the material and efficient cause, Brahman brings forth
His entire manifestation through His own Power or Shakti, using
its constituent principles or tattvas as the building blocks.
In this vast wheel of creation, there are wheels within wheels
or worlds within worlds. Each individual existence in the
creation is a wheel or world by itself. The individual souls
continue their deluded existence, bound by the triple bonds
(pasas) of egoism (anava), actions (karma) and delusion (moha),
believing themselves to be different and separate from the rest
of the creation. These principles are elucidated in more detail
by different schools of Saivism. The Svetavatara Upanishad was
composed probably to reflect the growing popularity of Saivism
and its integration into the Vedic tradition. Rudra, the
Rigvedic deity, whom the Rigvedic Indians feared the most, was
revered in the Upanishad as the Highest and Supreme Brahman,
which is suggestive of the extent of the transformation that
was taking place within the Vedic religion.
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