Scripture Commentary: Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.15-16

September 4, 2014    BY Isabelle Glover

Scripture

Like oil in sesame seeds, like butter in cream, like water in springs, like fire in firesticks, so dwells the Lord of Love, the Self, in the very depths of consciousness. Realize him through truth and meditation.

The Self is hidden in the hearts of all, as butter lies hidden in cream. Realize the Self in the depths of meditation—the Lord of Love, supreme Reality, who is the goal of all knowledge.

—Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.15–16; translation by Eknath Easwaran

Commentary

The simple analogies in this verse are appealing because they use familiar objects: seeds, milk, earth, and wood, in which are found, after some effort, oil, butter, water, and fire. Particular conditions are necessary to get the desired outcome. When making butter, the milk has to be of a certain quality; the churning has to be constant and continual, until suddenly butter appears in the milk. If you’ve ever watched a dowser searching for water, or seen one stick being twirled rapidly on another to start a fire, you know the instruments have to be of a certain sort, and the effort continued, until suddenly the dowsing sticks bend or sparks arise in the wood. Until the conditions and the time are right, nothing appears to happen.

Truthful action requires our wholehearted attention to the work at hand, and for this our senses need to be focused. The Charaka Samhita, the ayurvedic medical text, tells us that the overuse, underuse, or misuse of our senses are all obstacles that can lead to dis-ease. The senses are a subtle energy, and when they are rightly focused, they lovingly nourish creation. If we don’t use them properly—if we overuse, underuse, or misuse them—we can miss out on what the world is trying to teach us.

I have an Edwardian table that I bought for a bargain over the Internet. It is the first old table I have ever owned—its deep mahogany polish shines as a testament to the loving care it has received through the years. I didn’t realize that I was so attached to this, my first antique gleaming table, until I damaged it. I put a bottle of fragrant lemon and white ginger oil on the table without noticing the bottle leaked. When I picked it up the next morning, a square inch of dried foam glared back at me where the shellac had been. I was mortified as I gently rubbed off the foam with a tissue and water. I didn’t want to look at the damage, so I put a book on top of it.

When I e-mailed a conservator to ask if there was anything I could do, he told me the table needed expert treatment, but a little polish would help preserve the wood for the time being. I looked at the patch, and this time instead of merely seeing “my disaster,” I saw the quality of wood the accident had revealed. Only then did I remember hearing that a walnut is a wonderful wood polish. So each day I crack a fresh walnut and gently rub the patch. Day by day the oil in the walnut nourishes the bare wood, and now instead of an unsightly sore, there is a glowing patch, still lighter than the rest of the table but nonetheless beautiful.

It had been there all along, but it took a change in my mind-set to see it.

Failing to pay attention caused me to place the bottle on the table; I had not seen the bottle was leaking because I was thinking about something else. Once the damage was done, my attachment to the table caused me to look only at “my” damage. When I looked past my mistake and saw the underlying beauty of the table, the solution came to me. It had been there all along, but it took a change in my mind-set to see it. Paying careful attention enabled me, at last, to see the revealed wood, and only then could I connect with the right treatment.

Commentary by Isabelle Glover, Sanskrit scholar and teacher, Christian, and student of contemplative scripture.