At the center of the Isha Upanishad, which is an ancient Hindu scripture, are 6 verses that describe two aspects of reality—Unity and Multiplicity.
In a commentary on this Upanishad Sri Aurobindo wrote:
Unity is the eternal and fundamental fact. … Multiplicity is the…varied self-expression of the One. … Without [multiplicity] the Unity would be … a void of non-existence. But the consciousness of multiplicity separated from the true knowledge…of their own essential oneness … is a state of error and delusion.
In other words, Unity and multiplicity are dependent on each other. Multiplicity is difference. It’s action. It’s the life and world we move through everyday. Through the reality of multiplicity we’re able to experience existence, a sense of I-ness, and the constant movement of change.
When we get lost in the reality of multiplicity, however, and lose our connection to Unity—to the underlying Oneness of all that is—we can easily fall into the illusion of scarcity. When we focus all our attention on difference and separateness we get pulled into individualism and materialistic views of the world. When our life is completely devoted to the ever changing reality of the multiplicity, we can easily become jealous, anxious, defensive.
So it would seem like the obvious anecdote for this individualism would be to turn away from multiplicity—to turn all our attention toward the underlying Unity. But the teaching of this Upanishad says no. We must learn to embrace both. If we simply turn all our attention toward the Unity—toward the Oneness that connects us all—we can easily ignore the difficult reality that while we are connected, life doesn’t treat us all the same.
If we focus all our attention on lofty ideas of Oneness—especially if we are white and privileged—we run the risk of standing by in the midst of racism and inequity.
The Isha Upanishad teaches that spiritual practice becomes complete when we accept both the Unity and the Multiplicity. As Eknath Easwaran says, we must remain present to both the world within and the world without. Sri Aurobindo wrote that “Multiplicity must become conscious of it oneness, Oneness [must] embrace its multiplicity.”
If we focus only on the multiplicity and ignore our underlying connection, we become greedy.
If we focus only on the Unity and ignore the reality of our difference, we become bystanders.
We must remember our Oneness as we step out into the beautiful and awful mess of our multiplicity. As we think and speak and act in the world of multiplicity we must stay rooted in our underlying Unity and fight against injustice. It’s YES/AND.
YES, at the core, we are all One. AND the truth is that brown and black people are treated differently than white people. Women are treated differently than men. Violence and greed and poverty are real.
So the question, if we are to have a well rounded spiritual practice, becomes how can I use my belief in Oneness to work toward equality and justice in the multiplicity of life?
The Isha Upanishad opens with an invocation that can support us in these efforts. It describes the reality of fullness. Full is a common, household word. We have a sense of what it means to be full and, of course, we’re aware of the opposite—what it means to be empty.
The invocation to the Isha Upanishad calls us to a deeper understanding of the word full… It’s describing the fullness that comes from Unity—a fullness that never empties.
Scarcity is a product of our greed. And this invocation, this mantra of fullness, can help us name and remember that the multiplicity we experience everyday comes from the inexhaustible Reality of Unity. Through the spiritual practice of repetition we can write this mantra into our mind and heart so that when scarcity, greed, jealousy, anxiety, and defensiveness arise within us, we will remember and reconnect with the fullness that never empties.
The invocation reads:
This is full, that is full.
The full comes out of the full.
If you remove everything from the full,
the full itself remains.
We are the product of infinite fullness and knowing this, we can courageously work toward right relationship with difference and right sharing of resources. Through the fullness that is within us, we can approach the multiplicity of life with an open-hearted sense of generosity and abundance.
- How do you experience the Unity of all things?
- How do you experience the multiplicity of all things?
- How do you react to these two sections of the sermon:
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?