The feeling of being disconnected with the rest world and being subsumed by our own ego, has an antidote in the timeless teachings of the Upanishads.
Ashwini is a published author with the book entitled 'Sapiens and Sthitaprajna', published in 2019 to her credit. She writes often on ancient Indian and Greek philosophy in order to interpret them in the context of challenges faced in modern life.
Anxiety disorders are on the rise. People suffer from generalised anxiety about life and they worry to the point of inaction. At the root of inaction lies fear and insecurity, fear of the unknown, fear of death or suffering, fear of gain or loss, fear of failure. Worrying does not help the cause, instead, it brings down the level of productivity for a person. The anxiety itself is a cause of concern. Would I survive the current pandemic? Will I be able to recover the financial losses, presuming I survive? Questions of this kind start the process of self-doubt and sometimes lead to learned helplessness.
Let us examine the causes for this feeling of anxiety or emotion of fear both from the evolutionary biology and Upanishadic points of view and analyse the passages in the Upanishads to see what light they throw on this problem.
Analysis of Fear from the Evolutionary Biology
From the point of view of evolutionary biology, human beings in the hunter-gatherer community needed to be afraid to survive an attack from wild animals or other fellow hunter-gatherers. It helped to be in an alert state of mind so that they could protect themselves from any dangers. If they relaxed too much or got very happy, that could cause their demise. The world is now in a far more peaceful state than it has ever been before. People sleep peacefully without worrying about a wild boar attack. They carry out their routine as normal unless they are in a war zone or a natural calamity, such as floods caused by climate change or the current pandemic caused by a new virus. Most of us currently live in a very civilised society, yet the instinct of fear has stayed with us. People are afraid of minor things, such as their lifestyle, status, health, wealth, or such, but their survival is not always at stake. It most certainly affects one’s mental state and makes us unstable. People are not living in fear of losing their life daily, and yet their anxieties are so deep that they can paralyse people to inaction. One does not say to oneself anymore, oh what a relief – there is no wild animal charging towards me, it is just my boss coming towards me. One imagines the boss as the same kind of danger as the wild animal and one panics.
Analysis from the Taittiriya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
From the Upanishadic point of view, fear and insecurity are caused by a lack of trust in oneself, which in turn is caused by not understanding oneself or one’s true Self (Atman). When one thinks of oneself as a small particle (like an atom or anu in Sanskrit) in the universe, which has no influence, which is not linked to anyone or anything, which is not a part of the universe, which does not participate in the global creation or continuation, then one does not give much importance to one’s existence, or one’s purpose of life, or one’s Karma. If one does not understand how one is linked with the wider world and happens to be also ignorant about how the world functions due to these connections and how each one of us needs to play one’s part right for the effective functioning of the unit one is in, whether it is one’s family, one’s workplace, school or social network, one ends up isolating oneself. One thinks of oneself as inconsequential, leading to a belief that ‘we do not matter, our thoughts and feelings do not matter, and no one cares for us’.
According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, fear and insecurity are born out of this feeling that we are distinct from the rest of the creation. If we think of ourselves as unique and we define our existence by our desires, likes and dislikes, then we start thinking of how to protect ourselves, our differences from the others. We do not trust in the creation of this world with a purpose. When we believe that this world is a creation of Brahman and that Brahman exists everywhere, in myself and others as Atman, then we tend to trust more and believe in the purpose of one’s life as well as the purpose of this world.
When we nurture the feeling of uniqueness, we focus on ourselves, our desires and how to fulfil them. The desire-fulfilment theory leads to cycles of births and rebirths, which itself becomes a fearful proposition. We do not see ourselves as the agents of Brahman who are fulfilling a purpose for the greater good but as agents who are uniquely designed to do whatever we want to do. Then we see ourselves not as Atman, that resides in everyone, but as me as an individual, who is different from the others.
The similarity among all Selves does not necessarily make us the same as any other person. We carry our individualities with our karma, our destinies, our goals and our paths. There is no denying about differences among human beings, nonetheless what binds us together is the fact that we all have a Self that relates to the Universal Self. In that respect, we are similar.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad gives us a story of how in the beginning, Self was one and when the Self-realised that it is one and there is no other, then it lost all the sense of fear. Later it got bored by itself, so it evolved into men and women from the same substance. Hence, all men and women partake in the Self.
Story from the Gita
Bhagavad-Gita, which is also known as Gitopanishad is the advice given to the most brilliant archer, Prince Arjuna, who is sitting in the battlefield, being confused and facing a dilemma of whether to do his duty as a warrior to kill his enemies and incur sin for the act of killing; or whether to give up fighting, forsake his kingdom and live with a sense of injustice at the hands of his enemies, who are also his relatives. This is a serious issue and thankfully he is accompanied by Lord Krishna, who enlightens him. The Gita’s response to the anxiety of Arjuna was to explain to him the secrets of Karma-yoga. If he just continued to do the duties that are assigned to him and carry them out diligently, he would be considered a hero for having fulfilled a very difficult task and earn his seat of honour in history, and the world would be better off for his actions in carrying out a war against injustice. In the 18th chapter of the Gita, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna that he is the Godhead and he has already arranged for this war to take place and for justice to prevail. He has chosen Arjuna to be the hero of this war, and Arjuna is just a means to carry out God’s will. When Arjuna sees the purpose of his role and sees how the world is going to require him to carry out his duties, he sheds his anxieties and gets ready to do the difficult task.
Story of Adi Shankara, Founder of Vedanta
There is a story attributed to the founder of Vedanta, Adi Shankara Acharya, as a critique of his theory of Maya. The Vedanta theory of Maya says that the whole world is an illusion and Atman (Self) alone is real. So once someone asks Adi Shankara, how would you react if a wild bull comes charging at you? Adi Shankara said, 'I would run for my life.' To which the questioner said, 'but the whole world is Maya, so why are you afraid of the bull, who is also Maya?' Adi Shankara replied that 'the bull is Maya and so is my running Maya; but if I am in this body, I still need to take care of myself from Maya.'
Story from the Chhandogya Upanishad
The next story comes from the Chhandogya Upanishad, which is a parable of the blindfolded man. The robbers have robbed this man, blindfolded him and left him outside the city of Gandhara in a forest. He has no idea how to get back to his house and his family in the city of Gandhara. He is helpless, blindfolded and in a forest. At this point, a wise man, a spiritual guru helps him by giving him instructions and when the blindfolded man follows them, he reaches his home and is happy. The man understands that even if the robbers had robbed him, ill-treated him, the voice that is guiding him is the voice of a wise person, whom he considers his guru. He places his faith in that advice and reaches his destination.
Faith helps one get over barriers when one believes that better outcomes are possible. Sometimes we have faith in someone we respect, such as a guru or a parental figure, or sometimes we have faith in ourselves that we can do better, provided we try hard enough. The barriers of negativity can be broken with trust in positive outcomes, greater possibilities and greener pastures. Here the blindfold represents our misconceptions, ignorance and passions while reaching home represents reaching self-realisation and this journey leads towards happiness.
Story from the Greek Philosopher, Plato
A similar story is found in Plato’s Republic known as the allegory of the cave. It talks about chained people in a cave, who break their mental shackles after being freed by stepping out from the cave when they see sun in the sky. While they are in the cave and in a state of being chained, their thoughts about the situation on the ground are mostly connected with acceptance about only the shadows in front of them. But as they act on their curiosity and try to find where the shadows are coming from, they discover a room next door with a fire and people, who can walk around. When they challenge themselves further, they discover that the cave has an opening and there is a light at the mouth of the cave, which is stronger than the fire in the cave.
When they step out of the cave with great difficulty, they discover the sunlight for the first time and finally when they look up, they discover the bright sun in the sky. When they succeed in doing that, their education and enlightenment is complete. There is nothing brighter than the sun in this world. But they wouldn’t have known about the existence of the sun, while sitting in a dark cave being chained. These chains are metaphorical. Likewise, our constraints and anxieties are such, that they prevent us from being enlightened. It is only when we push ourselves to look for different opportunities, then we open doors for new ventures in life. Philosophers have tried to challenge the notion of how people accept life with no future, out of frustration or not knowing how to find one’s way out. It is very similar to the people in the cave, who have physical chains and do not know how to proceed to the next room, the next level of enlightenment.
The path of trust in one’s Self helps us change our attitude, look at the world somewhat differently. When one trusts that there is a plan for this world, and we are all agents of Brahman, it enables one to take care of oneself and focus on one’s duties to let the world function better. When one understands that we are all a part of the Self, which is the same in every other individual, connection with others and compassion for others becomes natural. This creates more confidence and less anxiety.
Once you overcome negative, anxious thoughts, it allows the brain to produce positive thoughts and see the light at the end of the tunnel. When one can cross these barriers, it takes us to a new realm of possibility, resulting in productivity, a better quality of life and even a sense of enjoying life for what it is worth, leading one towards Happiness and Enlightenment.
 Taittiriya Upanishad, Section 7, https://www.hinduwebsite.com/taittiriya-upanishad.asp
 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.4.2, First Adhyaya, Fourth Brahmana, Points 2 and 3 https://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/upanishads/brihad.asp#adh1
 Bhagavad-Gita, Adhyaya 18, Shlok 67
 Chandogya Upanishad, 6.14, Man’s Journey to Self-Knowledge
 A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy, by R. D. Ranade, 2002, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, pages 331-332
- A Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy, R. D. Ranade, 2002, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan https://archive.org/details/A.Constructive.Survey.of.Upanishadic.Philosophy.by.R.D.Ranade.1926.djvu/page/n1/mode/2up
- Chhandogya Upanishad https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandogya_Upanishad
- Plato’s Republic, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.8.vii.html
- Taittiriya Upanishad, Section 7 ‘The Blissful Nature of Brahman’ https://www.hinduwebsite.com/taittiriya-upanishad.asp
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.4.2, First Adhyaya, Fourth Brahmana, Points 2 and 3