By Ashwini Mokashi, Ph.D.
Loneliness is a major problem in the current times. This article tries to address the issue of loneliness and the cure for it from the ancient wisdom of Hindu Philosophy. We will take three principles to address this issue from the Indian philosophical texts of the Upanishads and will also rely on the mainstream teachings of the Upanishads, mainly their insistence of the practice of meditation.
Upanishads are India’s great heritage. The twelve main Upanishads were composed before the common era and were passed on through the oral tradition. The genesis of the Hindu religion and Buddhism is found in the Upanishads. There is neither religious nor social rift implied in these texts, as they preceded any religion.
Many scholars have written about the Upanishads. One such great name was Prof. R.D. Ranade. His book ‘A Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy’ was published in English around 1926 and soon became one of the most respected and well-read pieces of literature on the Upanishads. We will take a page from this book and let it guide us to examine how loneliness can be decreased or cured with the advice from the Upanishads.
The contemporary Indian society is caught between religious divisions, casteism and various other isms; likewise, the contemporary American society is caught between political, racial, religious divides as well as various issues of what constitutes political correctness. One encounters these challenges daily. For example, before making any new friends, we tend to assess whether we have similar thoughts, similar religion, similar political views, similar beliefs on social issues, similar social class, what do people say about them, will the friendship benefit us, what will they think about us – all these thoughts become constraints and conditions and we happily impose them upon ourselves, thereby making it very difficult for us to reach others and make friends.
This creates a sense of loneliness and induces physical and mental illnesses. Loneliness arises when one is either without family or friends close by, or when one feels that one’s family or friends do not understand one’s inner turmoil and at times, one’s irrational thoughts. This thinking-out-loud with friends is also a process of checking the validity of one’s thoughts to arrive at a rational course of action. How does one go beyond these constraints to find a good solution for making friends? Ancient wisdom comes in handy in this process, helping us examine the values and principles of life. These values are perennial and hence they seem fresh even today. They are concerned with absolute universal values and not short-term goals; hence they become applicable across the board, irrespective of differences of class, caste, color, religion, age, race, sex, origin etc.
The first principle I would like to consider is from the Isha Upanishad, Yasmin sarvani bhutani atmaiwabhudvijanatah, which means that one should think of another human being as an end and not as a means to an end. With this attitude, it becomes easier to respect another human being. It enables one to make friends with others, have compassion for others, reduce the divide between us and them, and help them in times of need. All human beings are representatives of the Atman, and we all share the same principle of the Atman in ourselves. Hence, we are all connected to each other. When one understands that, one does not discriminate against another person based on their caste, color, religion, class, etc. Instead one starts wondering, how we would act, if we had to walk in their shoes.
The philosophy in the Upanishads is very compelling, aside from their linguistic beauty and the wonderful stories. For example, what is the principle of ‘Know Thyself’? How does one understand that, how does one get to know oneself and if we don’t know ourselves, then how do we tell people our opinions? How do we remove any misunderstandings about ourselves? When do we form our opinion? Normally it is necessary for us to understand ourselves. Our growth and development are essentially tied up with that knowledge. As we understand ourselves, our inner self, our soul better, then our inner strength, our sense of contentment grows, loneliness decreases, and we are better able to face the ups and downs of life.
That Thou Art
The second principle I would like to consider is found in the Isha and Maitreya Upanishads, which is ‘Soham – sah aham’ or ‘That thou art’. It means that the concept of Brahman – known as sah or that, is within me. One can understand that by either thought process – Jnana Marg, or through meditation – Bhakti Marg and by doing the right deeds – Karma Marg. These pathways enable us to get closer to the Atman. The Upanishads have a lot of passages that talk about how to understand the principle of ‘Know Thyself’ and how to complete one’s journey towards Moksha. When the individual soul (Atman) and the universal soul (Brahman) become one, then a human being achieves Moksha. In practical terms, one understands that it is important to treat another individual as a soul, with respect and dignity.
To understand these and many other philosophical issues, one must understand the principles behind them. The Upanishads have a lot of discussions of philosophical issues. The Ken Upanishad says that humility is extremely important for the knowledge of the Atman, the knowledge of the self. Without humility, one does not understand the Atman. Perhaps the same principle applies to making friends. It we do not treat others with politeness and humility, no one will want to be friends with us. Perhaps the Upanishads want us to learn these principles in small steps.
Infinite Power of Mind
Prof. Ranade gives an example from the Mundaka Upanishad of the two birds that represent Jiva (the individual soul or Atman) and Ishwara (the Universal soul or Brahman), living on the same branch of a tree. The Atman would tend to be unhappy thinking of itself as a helpless creature. But when it unites with the Brahman, it realizes that it is a part of the infinite power and hence it stops feeling sad and becomes extremely happy. The Atman realizes that it is not alone but is an integral part of the universe. This refers to our third principle, quoted from the Mundakopanishad.
Dva suparna sayuja sakhaya samanam vriksham parishasvajate |
tayoranyah pippalam svadvattyanashnannanyo abhicakashiti || 1|| (3.1.1 Mundakopanishad).
Likewise, when one tries to follow the purpose of one’s life, one becomes happy. Then there is no fear, nor any loneliness. Hence with the consult of the Upanishads, it is possible to lead one’s life with patience, courage and morality. This will enable us to understand the principle ‘Know Thyself’ and ease our way in our pursuit of happiness.
The Chhandogya and Maitri Upanishad discuss the importance of the mind. Mind is the genesis of all thoughts and emotions. A person sees and hears through the mind with the help of the sense-organs. Our emotions are governed by our mind; hence one can choose whether to be afraid of or be thrilled about something. When the mind is ruled by the intellect, then one can take a good decision. None of this is easy, of course. As we keep practicing taking good decisions, we see incremental growth in our confidence, self-love (as in love for the Atman, and not as narcissistic egoism) and self-respect (respect for the Atman). It is considered as spiritual progress.
Meditation and clear thinking can help us practice this further. This practice also enables us to gain an understanding of the world at a different plane, such as through intuition. For example, one can understand who likes us or who does not like us, merely by consulting with one’s own mind. One can also understand who is telling us the truth and who is being deceptive. Similarly, we also have a sense that we are not alone in this world, and that we are connected to the Brahman (also known as the universal soul, or the Ultimate Reality) that protects us, and this knowledge helps cure loneliness and fear. This does not mean however that one should not take care of oneself in practical ways. But it means that one understands one’s role and importance in life and life becomes blissful.
It is possible to cure or limit the sense of loneliness by understanding the perennial values, following the path of humility, understanding the power of mind, practicing meditation and believing that we are a part of the infinite power of the Brahman. In practical terms, extending a hand of friendship to others, being respectful towards others, controlling one’s anxieties and appreciating the positive aspects of our situation would help us connect better with other members of the community and ultimately help us improve our sense of connectedness, resulting into a substantial decrease in loneliness. Besides, loneliness can be transformed into bliss, when one understands that the real source of happiness or bliss is within the Self for the one who seeks the Brahman (the Ultimate Reality) and that is when the Upanishadic teaching has matured in one’s life.
 It was translated into Marathi by Prof. K.V. Gajendragadkar under the title ‘Upanishad-rahasya’.
 A Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy, R. D. Ranade, 2002, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, page 25
 A Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy, R. D. Ranade, 2002, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, page 118
 A Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy, R. D. Ranade, 2002, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, page 348