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The Isha Upanishad

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Chapter 5 from The Upanishads for Awakening

We now will look into the Isha Upanishad, so called from its opening word: Ishavasyam.

Just before going to India for the first time in 1962, I had the great good fortune to meet and hear Sri A. B. Purani, the administrator of the renowned Aurobindo Ashram of Pondicherry, India. From his lips I heard the most brilliant expositions of Vedic philosophy, and nothing in my subsequent experience has equaled them. In one talk he told the following story:

In ancient India there lived a most virtuous Brahmin who was considered by all to be the best authority on philosophy. One day the local king ordered him to appear before him. When he did so, the king said: “I have three questions that puzzle–even torment–me: Where is God? Why don’t I see him? And what does he do all day? If you can’t answer these three questions I will have your head cut off.” The Brahmin was appalled and terrified, because the answers to these questions were not just complex, they were impossible to formulate. In other words, he did not know the answers. So his execution date was set.

On the morning of the execution day the Brahmin’s young son appeared and asked the king if he would release his father if he, the son, would answer the questions. The king agreed, and the son asked that a container of milk be brought to him. It was done. Then the boy asked that the milk be churned into butter. That, too, was done.

“The first two of your questions are now answered,” he told the king.

The king objected that he had been given no answers, so the son asked: “Where was the butter before it was churned?”

“In the milk,” replied the king.

“In what part of the milk?” asked the boy.

“In all of it.”

“Just so, agreed the boy, “and in the same way God is within all things and pervades all things.”

“Why don’t I see him, then,” pressed the king.

“Because you do not ‘churn’ your mind and refine your perceptions through meditation. If you do that, you will see God. But not otherwise. Now let my father go.”

“Not at all,” insisted the king. “You have not told me what God does all day.”

“To answer that,” said the boy, “we will have to change places. You come stand here and let me sit on the throne.”

The request was so audacious the king complied, and in a moment he was standing before the enthroned Brahmin boy who told him: “This is the answer. One moment you were here and I was there. Now things are reversed. God perpetually lifts up and casts down every one of us. In one life we are exalted and in another we are brought low: oftentimes in a single life this occurs, and even more than once. Our lives are completely in his hand, and he does with us as he wills.” (“He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” Luke 1:52)

The Brahmin was released and his son was given many honors and gifts by the king.

The Isha Upanishad opens with a description of the consciousness of God’s immanence that should be ours.

(Know that) all this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by God [Isha]. Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation [tyaga], do not covet what belongs to others. (1)

Whatever we experience, whether through the inner or outer senses, it is enveloped by the Lord (Isha). Everything is within the Lord, and the Lord is within everything. The awakened experience the world as the Divine Presence.

Tragically, throughout lives without number we have not had this awareness and have as a consequence believed that what we have experienced, whether objective or subjective, is the sole reality and have dissipated life after life in involvement with it to our pain and destruction. A door itself is never the way out: the way out is revealed when the door is moved aside. Not knowing this either, we have clawed, hammered, and hewn at the door–at least in those lives when we were not adulating and worshipping it or calling it “God’s greatest gift to us”–to no avail. The root problem is our believing in the door’s reality, thinking that it is the beginning, middle, and end. Only when it disappears will we see the truth that lies beyond outer appearances.

We must not just get inside things, we must get to their heart. And how is that done? By getting into our own heart, into the core of our own being. There everything will be found. The key to the door is meditation.

All this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by God. Rather than speaking of piercing to the heart of things, the literal meaning is that the Lord (who is the heart of all things) should be seen covering–that is, enveloping–all things. This has two meanings.

1) What I have just expressed, that we should experience–not just think intellectually–that God is encompassing all things, that we should not see things as independent or separate from God, but as existing within God. And this vision should extend to us: we, too, exist only within him.

2) In our seeing of things, God should always be between us and them. First we should see God, and only secondarily see the things.

The renowned Swami (Papa) Ramdas in his spiritual autobiography In Quest of God writes of his initial spiritual awakening in these words: “It was at this time that it slowly dawned upon his mind that Ram was the only Reality and all else was false.… All thought, all mind, all heart, all soul was concentrated on Ram, Ram covering up and absorbing everything.”

In the Bhagavad Gita, which is a digest and expansion of the Upanishadic message, Krishna tells Arjuna that the wise see God in all things and all things in God. “He who sees me everywhere, and sees all things in me–I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to me” (6:30).

If we accept the foregoing, then we will take the next step and experience that God alone is reality. This can be understood more than one way. We can conclude that God alone is real and everything else is unreal. The problem with that is our tendency to equate “unreal” with non-existent, and wrongly believe that everything is only an illusion, that it has no reality whatsoever.

The great non-dual philosopher Shankara explained the accurate view by likening our experience of things to that of a man who sees a rope in dim light and mistakes it for a snake, his mind even supplying eyes that glitter and a mouth that hisses at him. When light is brought, he sees that there is no snake, only a rope. The snake was not real, but his impression, as illusion, was real and did exist in his mind. The rope was the reality and the snake was an illusion overlaid on it. In the same way God is the reality and everything else is illusory like the snake.

But illusion does exist. Denying it gets us nowhere; we have to deal with it by seeing through it and dispelling it. Then we will see the reality: God. After that we can progress to the understanding that even though our interpretation may be wrong what we perceive does have a real side to it, and that is God himself. Hence, all things are God in their real side. The unreal side is in our mind alone. We can say that God is the reality of the unreal which we need to see past. And that is the whole idea of the opening verse of the Upanishad. He alone is real; he is all things.

Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation. The word translated “renunciation” is tyaga, not sannyasa. Sannyasa means renunciation in formally taking up the monastic life, but tyaga is purely psychological, being renunciation in the sense of dissociation of the mind from worldly objects and the seeds of desire. It is basically the same as vairagya, which is defined in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary as: “Non-attachment; detachment; dispassion; absence of desire; disinterest; or indifference. Indifference towards and disgust for all worldly things and enjoyments.” In the Bhagavad Gita it is the relinquishment of the fruit of action.

When the mind is protected by objective vision and dissociation from the world around us in the realization that what we see is not the reality of things, and the erasing of desire (craving) for them as a consequence, we are at peace and possess the clarity of mind needed to intelligently and effectively elevate our levels of perception and consciousness. We can become genuine yogis.

All of our sorrows and troubles come from our mistaking vain appearances for reality, from our looking at them with our outer eyes instead of beholding God with the inner eye. But we are addicted to those vain appearances; we have to admit that. Yes, we are even addicted to all the pain and anxiety they bring us. That is foolish, but is it any more foolish than it is to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, or to people that harm us? We are insane on certain levels; this world is a madhouse for people of our particular lunacy. The sooner we understand this and resolve to be cured and released, the better it will be for us. For from illusory things we can move on to God-perception.

For this reason the yogis, those who seek God in meditation, should be the most cheerful and optimistic of people. If we look to God we will see only perfection and rejoice in all things. If we look at ourselves, others and the world around us we will see only imperfection and be discontent. Depression comes from looking in the wrong place. It is the bitter fruit of ego-involvement, of ego-obsession. The remedy is not to have high self-esteem but rather to have high God-esteem. And since we live in God, we will see the divine side even of ourselves and be ever hopeful.

The unreal “me” need not be struggled with: it is only a ghost, a shadow. Bringing in the light of God-contact will reveal that to be the truth. Then we will be at peace and in perfect joy, knowing the truth of our Self. What a burden is lifted from those who come to know that God alone is real and true, and that we need only look to him. When we look within we find him at the center of our Self.

We must renounce unreality. As I say, we are addicted to it, so we will have to struggle to break the terrible habit of delusion, just as those addicted to the hallucinations produced by drugs have to break away from them and discard them forever. Then we will be secure in our interior fortress, our spiritual protection: tyaga.

Do not covet what belongs to others. Why? Because it does not exist! Therefore we can never have it, nor can anyone else. It is just a bubble destined to burst leaving nothing in its place. There are no “things” to covet or possess. They are the fever dreams of illusion from which we must awaken. No one really owns anything, because the thing (as we perceive it) does not exist, and the false “owner” does not exist either; and neither do we: as least so far as our perceptions of “them,” “it,” and “me” go.

God and I in space alone

And nobody else in view.
“And where are the people, O Lord!” I said.
“The earth below and the sky o’erhead

And the dead whom once I knew?”

“That was a dream,” God smiled and said,

“A dream that seemed to be true,
There were no people, living or dead,
There was no earth and no sky o’erhead

There was only Myself–and you.”

“Why do I feel no fear,” I asked,

“Meeting you here in this way,
For I have sinned I know full well,
And there is heaven and there is hell,

And is this the judgment day?”

“Nay, those were dreams,” the great God said,

“Dreams that have ceased to be.
There are no such things as fear or sin,
There is no you–you have never been–

There is nothing at all but Me.”

(“Illusion” by Edna Wheeler Wilcox).

Always performing works here one should wish to live a hundred years. If you live thus as a man, there is no way other than this by which karman [or deed] does not adhere to you. (2)

It is generally felt that this verse, along with other passages from scriptures and books on spiritual life, indicates that one hundred years is the normal lifespan for a human being. On the other hand, the figure of one hundred years may also symbolize the complete lifespan of a person, however brief or long, the idea being that not one moment of our life need be a burden nor should we ever wish to shorten our life by a single breath–that life should be lived in fulfillment with peace and happiness all the way through. The saints and masters of all religions and ages have shown that this is possible. We need only know how to do it; and these words give the way.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna draws very clearly for us the picture of a person who lives in anxiety and misery and him who lives in peace and contentment. Both may be living in exactly the same situation, for it is not external conditions that make us happy or miserable, but our reaction to them. Krishna makes it quite plain that the secret of happiness or misery lies in the absence of two things: attachment and desire. Those who live in attachment to externalities, anxious to fulfill desire, must suffer and live in frustration. On the other hand, those who live without egoic desire are perpetually at peace. Krishna not only holds out the ideal for us, he also tells us how to accomplish it in the following verses from the Bhagavad Gita.

“Steadfast in yoga, perform actions abandoning attachment, being indifferent to success or failure. It is said that such evenness of mind is yoga” (2:48).

“He who engages in action, holding me as the highest aim, devoted, abandoning attachment, free from enmity to all beings, comes to me” (11:55).

“Truly, embodied beings are not able to give up actions entirely; but he who relinquishes the fruit of action is called a man of renunciation” (18:11).

“He whose intellect (buddhi) is unattached, whose lower self is subdued, from whom desire has departed, by renunciation attains the supreme state of freedom from action” (18:49).

In other words, keeping the mind on God frees us from egoic attachment to our activities. This is an extremely high ideal and one very hard to attain; yet we must strive for it through the practice of meditation, for only the clarity of vision reached through meditation can enable us to live out such a lofty ideal.

Negative or passive indifference is not detachment, nor is carelessness and shoddiness in our daily work spiritual-mindedness–a view that prevails in much of the Orient and among many in the West. This is really a great portion of the Bhagavad Gita’s message: that we must work with skill to the best of our abilities while leaving the results to God. In that way we truly are “workers together” with God (II Corinthians 6:1) in our life. Sri Ramakrishna said: “If you can weigh salt you can weigh sugar,” meaning that if a person is proficient in spiritual life he will be proficient in his outer life as well. That does not mean that all yogis need to become great successes in business or some profession, but it does mean that they need to work with the full capabilities they possess and do absolutely the best they can, and not worry about the results. In this way they will be at peace both internally and externally.

The real cankerworm in the garden of our life is desire, whether in the form of wanting, wishing, yearning, desiring, hoping, demanding or craving. Whether to a little or a great degree, desire destroys our hearts and our chances for inner peace. Desire is a wasting fever which drives us onward to spiritual loss. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). As Wordsworth wrote: “We have given our hearts away–a sordid boon!” I have spent my entire life watching people gain a little bit of the world and lose their souls. And ultimately they lost the world, too, either in the changes of earthly fortune or through the finality of death.

“And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21).

Desirelessness is not a zombie-like passivity, a kind of pious vegetating. Far from it. Krishna lauds the desireless in these words: “When he leaves behind all the desires of the mind, contented in the Self by the Self, then he is said to be steady in wisdom. He whose mind is not agitated in misfortunes, freed from desire for pleasures, from whom passion, fear and anger have departed, steady in thought–such a man is said to be a sage. He who is without desire in all situations, encountering this or that, pleasant or unpleasant, not rejoicing or disliking–his wisdom stands firm. And when he withdraws completely the senses from the objects of the senses, as the tortoise draws in its limbs, his wisdom is established firmly. Sense-objects turn away from the abstinent, yet the taste for them remains. But the taste also turns away from him who has seen the Supreme” (Bhagavad Gita 2:55-59).

The desireless who have fulfilled themselves in God are the most alive, happy, and satisfied of human beings. For them there is no talk of death being a “blessed release” for they are already freed in spirit.

Demonic, verily, are those worlds enveloped in blinding darkness, and to them go after death, those people who are the slayers of the Self. (3)

The Upanishadic seer opened by speaking of the way of fulfilled and peaceful life: seeing the divine in all things, and living on the earth according to divine law. But this is not the only world in which we can find ourself as we move through a cycle of continuous birth and death: birth into one world after having died out of another, or another birth into the world where we were just previously. When we speak of birth we usually think only of physical embodiment on this earth. But when we die in this world we are born into an astral world where we remain for some time and then die to that world and become born back into this world. Although this world remains virtually the same, despite the fact that every generation thinks it is a great advance over previous eras, we can spend time in a vast array of astral worlds, positive and negative, pleasant and unpleasant. The earth becomes a kind of stable place of return for us. Or is it?

Although the earth accommodates a wide range of spiritual and psychological evolution, the astral worlds are more specialized. There is an astral world for every degree of consciousness. These worlds can be classified just as sentient beings are classified. Nevertheless the masters of wisdom have generally agreed: there are two basic kinds of people–suras and asuras, those who dwell in the light and those who live in the dark. “Divine” and “demonic” are commonly used to translate sura (or deva) and asura. A sura (deva) is in the light, an asura is not. Sometimes a person dwells in the dark by choice, but most often it is a state of ignorance rather than negative volition. Because of this we need to avoid a “deva is good, asura is bad” reaction in all cases, though there are instances when this is accurate, and to deny it would be foolish–and asuric.

The entire sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is directed to this manner of divine (daivic) and demonic (asuric) nature as it manifests in human beings. I know it is pretty lengthy, but it is so insightful and complete that it merits inclusion here. Sri Krishna speaks:

“Fearlessness, purity of being, steadfastness in knowledge and yoga, almsgiving, self-control, sacrifice, self-study (swadhyaya), tapasya, and straightforwardness, non-violence, truthfulness, absence of anger, renunciation, tranquility, without calumny, compassion for beings, uncovetousness, gentleness, modesty, absence of fickleness, vigor, patience, fortitude, purity, absence of hatred, absence of pride–they are the endowment of those born to a divine state.

“Hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance are the endowment of those born to a demonic state.

“The divine state is deemed to lead to liberation, the demonic to bondage. Do not grieve: you are born for a divine state.

“There are two types of beings in this world: the divine and the demonic. The divine has been described at length. Hear from me of the demonic.

“Demonic men know not what to do or refrain from; purity is not found in them, nor is good conduct, nor is truth. ‘The world,’ they say, ‘is without truth, without a basis, without God, produced by mutual union, with lust for its cause–what else?’ Holding this view, these lost souls, small-minded and of cruel deeds, arise as the enemies of the world, bent on its destruction. Attached to insatiable desires, full of hypocrisy, arrogance and intoxication, having accepted false ideas through delusion, they act with foul purposes. Clinging to boundless cares ending only in death, with gratification of desire as their highest aim–convinced that this is all–bound by a hundred snares of hope, given over to desire (lust) and anger, they seek to gain by unjust means accumulation of wealth to gratify their desires.

“‘Today this has been acquired by me. This I shall also obtain. This is mine, and this gain also shall be mine. That enemy has been slain by me, and I shall slay others, too, for I am the Lord, I am the enjoyer, I am successful, powerful and happy. I am wealthy and high-born,’ they say, ‘who else is equal to me? I shall sacrifice, I shall give, I shall rejoice.’ Thus, they are deluded by ignorance. Led astray by many imagined fancies, caught in a net of delusion, addicted to the gratifying of desire, they fall into a foul hell. Self-conceited, stubborn, filled with the intoxication of wealth, they sacrifice in name only, for show, not according to the prescribed forms. Clinging to egotism, power, haughtiness, desire and anger, these malignant people hate me in their own and in others’ bodies. These malicious evildoers, cruel, most degraded of men, I hurl perpetually into only the wombs of demons here. Entering the demonic wombs, and deluded birth after birth, not attaining to me they fall into a progressively lower condition.”

What are the basic traits that render someone an asura? The Upanishad has already given them: 1) spiritual blindness, 2) spiritual darkness, 3) spiritual ignorance, and 4) engaging in deeds that destroy the awareness and the freedom of the eternal, immortal, divine Self. The first three are what dispose us to the fourth, destructive trait. Krishna has already given us quite an exposition of the ways of the asuric personality, but it can all be summed up in their effect: the negation of the consciousness of the individual spirit.

The fact that spiritual ignorance is a matter of unawareness of our own Atman (Self), is particularly important because many asuras think to hide their true status under an externalized cloak of religiosity. But it is absurd to pretend that we know or are aware of the infinite Spirit when we are not aware of the finite spirit, our own Self, which is right within us. This is why Buddha simply refused to speak about God or gods, and insisted that each one must seek for nirvana alone, rejecting all other matters as harmful distractions.

In India it is said that if we learn about ocean water from a single cup of water we then know about the water of all oceans. In the same way, if we come to truly comprehend our nature as spirit we will be able to know God the Infinite Spirit. Thus Self-knowledge–knowledge of our spirit–is essential. Shankara says that until we know the Self we are all asuras in the absolute sense, but if we are seeking to know the Self the distinction is not so drastic.

An asura, then, is one whose life and thought obscure and darken their inner consciousness so their true Self remains unknown and buried, often even unsuspected as to its existence. It has nothing to do with what philosophers and theologians say about it; the matter is thoroughly pragmatic. Do we or do we not, are we or are we not? Verbal claims mean nothing here. State of being alone matters.

Because it is their will, asuras are born over and over in worlds “enveloped in blinding darkness” at the time of their death, earthly or astral. Naturally our thoughts go to the ideas of hell so beloved to all exoteric religionists, East and West, whether it is the simple fire pit of Christianity or the horrifically complex and lurid hell(s) of Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism. But what is this world in which we presently find ourselves: a world ravaged with hatred, violence, disease, cruelty and aggressive ignorance and greed? The fact that there is also kindness, love, mercy and toleration in the world makes it even more crazy: schizophrenic and schizophrenogenic (making us crazy). No wonder The Onion, a satirical magazine, ran an article entitled: “God Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder.” It might seem blasphemous, but it is the preposterous religion prevailing in the West that is blasphemous, and the satire is just pointing it out.

Someone once asked Paramhansa Yogananda if he believed in hell. Paramhansaji smiled and asked: “Where do you think you are?” A very good question, indeed.

We write our own ticket by the way we think and act. No amount of rationalization or assurance from others will change this fact. If we seek darkness we will find darkness; if we seek the light we will find the light. Nothing more; nothing less.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

Just be aware of the consequences.

(The spirit) is unmoving, one, swifter than the mind. The senses do not reach It as It is ever ahead of them. Though Itself standing still It outstrips those who run. In It the all-pervading air supports the activities of beings. (4)

This verse is not easy to grasp because it speaks of a mode of being far different from our usual condition.

“One” has two meanings in Eastern thought: 1) number and 2) quality. This a very important point, since many controversies have arisen philosophically simply because Western thinkers tend to limit “one” to a numerical value only. The incredibly bitter and violent controversy over the so-called “Monophysite heresy” in the early centuries of Christianity in which tens of thousands of Egyptians and Syrians were killed by the armies of the Byzantine empire, took place only because the Italian-Byzantines could not grasp what the “heretics” meant by the simple word monos when applied to spiritual matters. Both meanings, number and quality, have significance for us who seek the knowledge of the Self.

The principle that the Self is one (non-dual) should set us to thinking about our own present self-concept and, perhaps even more important, the way we live out our self-concept. Many people think one thing intellectually (or at least verbally, for public consumption) and think another instinctively. For example, I knew a minister who was once challenged by a self-styled atheist that spent about an hour expounding the truth of atheism and the folly of theism. When he was finished the minister said: “There are two points about all that you have just said. One: it is complete nonsense. Two: you do not believe a word of it yourself.” The man threw his right hand up in the air and declaimed: “I swear to God in heaven that I do!”

Once an Eastern Orthodox seminarian remarked to me that the worse thing that had ever happened to Western Christianity and Western philosophy in general was the invention of the “pie chart”–those round diagrams divided into “slices” that plagued us throughout school in many subjects, from mathematics to sociology. “People have come to think that they are conglomerations of pieces that make up a whole, rather than a single homogenous being,” he explained. How many times do people speak of having several “roles” in life or of wearing many “hats.”

Fragmentation is a terrible plague destroying our capacity to either see or attain unity, the integration of our being. This is a serious mental and spiritual disorder. Being both fragmented and dispersed in our energies and awareness rather than operating from a central point of order, the mirror of our life is shattered into innumerable fragments that cannot convey any coherent image of our true face. The unity that is the true image is defaced, effaced and even erased as far as our consciousness is concerned, even though our true nature can never be altered in any manner. Struggling and submerged in the illusion of multiplicity, the truth of our unity is far from us. For we are not just one numerically, we are absolutely one in nature. This is an eternal truth that must be regained by us. How to do so? By the process that alone truly unifies the consciousness: authentic yoga meditation.
(The spirit) is unmoving, one, swifter than the mind. How can the Self move swifter than thought and yet be unmoving? The Self, the spirit, is completely outside of time and space (which are illusions, anyway), yet it can scan time and space, moving backward and forward simply because of the fact that it is one. Being one in the truest sense, the Self is everywhere since there really is no “where” at all. The Self is truly Whole and therefore all-embracing. It moves swifter than thought, because a thought requires a time, however small, to arise or be expressed. The Self, in contrast, exists only in the Now. The questions “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” “What was I in the past?” and “What shall I be in the future?” are valuable because they set us on the quest to the discovery that we do not come or go, nor do we have a past or future, only a Present. When Sri Ramana Maharshi was at the end of his physical embodiment he commented: “They say I am ‘going,’ but where shall I go?”
The senses do not reach It as It is ever ahead of them. The Self does not move, but it is always before the questing senses, always out of their reach. The Mandukya Upanishad (7), speaking of the consciousness of the Self, of turiya, describes it as “not that which is conscious of the inner (subjective) world, nor that which is conscious of the outer (objective) world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness. It is not simple consciousness nor is It unconsciousness. It is unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, uninferable, unthinkable and indescribable. The essence of the Consciousness manifesting as the Self in the three states, It is the cessation of all phenomena; It is all peace, all bliss and non–dual. This is what is known as the Fourth (Turiya). This is the Atman and this has to be realized.” Who can say any more?
Though Itself standing still It outstrips those who run. The Self is unmoving, as we have been told. Hence, any “movement” is incompatible with it and blots it from our awareness. That which moves cannot possibly perceive it, nor can any process of movement (including the labyrinthine ways of so much that is called yoga) ever result in touching or seeing it. Rather, movement must cease, as Patanjali points out in the very beginning of the Yoga Sutras: Yoga is the cessation of movement in the mind-substance. In other words, when we stop “running” we will rest in our Self.

Radhakrishnan has a very relevant comment on this verse: “The Supreme is one essence but has two natures, an eternal immutability and an unceasing change. It is stillness and movement. Immovable in Itself, all things are moved from It. The unity and manifoldness are both aspects of the life divine. Unity is the truth and multiplicity is its manifestation. The former in the truth, vidya, the latter ignorance, avidya. The latter is not false except when it is viewed in itself, cut off from the eternal unity. Unity constitutes the base of multiplicity and upholds it, but multiplicity does not constitute and uphold the unity.”
In It the all-pervading air [vayu] supports the activities of beings. Prabhavananda’s translation is very terse, but perhaps gives it the impetus it needs by simply rendering it: “Without the Self, there is no life.”

This is perhaps the hardest lesson for human beings to learn: Without the Self, there is no life. We may engage in frantic activity, running here and there and accomplishing tremendous things in the world, indulging the senses to the maximum and immersing ourselves in ambitions, emotions, and relationships, but through it all the truth is simply this: we are dead, mere wraiths feeding desperately on a shadow life that is no life at all, not even a poor imitation. In the Self alone do we find life. How hard this is to learn, and how much harder it is to follow through on, for it inevitably leads to the total renunciation of all that is not the Self: in other words, to the renunciation of everything we hold dear and identify with as being ours and ourself when they are no such thing at all. This is a bitter insight in the beginning, but as our inner eye begins to adjust to the truth of it, we find it the source of greatest joy. The Gita refers to this joy as “that happiness which is like poison at first, but like amrita in the end, born of the light of one’s own Self (Atmabuddhi)” (18:37).

It moves and It moves not; It is far and It is near; It is within all this and It is also outside all this. (5)
It moves and It moves not. Being outside of the illusions of time and space, the Self neither moves nor goes through any type of change whatsoever. Yet it experiences a multiplicity of externalities as the unmoving witness, momentarily caught up in the movie and thinking it is inside it and undergoing the changes in the scenario.

Just as imagining seeing or doing something is not the same as actually seeing or doing it, so observing the motion picture of countless lives with their attendant joys and sorrows is not the same as actually being born, living and dying over and over. But we are deluded into thinking so, and the Upanishadic sage is endeavoring to wake us up, just as we awaken someone who is having a nightmare and calling out in pain or fear. We, however, having become accustomed and even addicted to the nightmare, are a lot more difficult to awaken.
It is far and It is near. Since the Self is existing in eternity, transcending any degree of relativity, it could not be further away from the relative realm of experience (not existence, because the relative does not actually exist at all except as an illusion). On the other hand, since relativity is only a concept, the Self is the nearest possible because it alone is actually present.

At the end of the Syrian Jacobite Liturgy the celebrant gives a blessing beginning: “You who are far and you who are near….” The reference is not to those who are at the back of the church and those who are at the front, but to those who are far and near in their minds and hearts.

For those who are immersed in the illusion of relativity, nothing could be further away than the transcendent Self. Yet, since the Self alone is ever present, it is nearer than any relative experiencing. As the Kena Upanishad says: “It is that which is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech, indeed of the speech, the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye” (Kena Upanishad 1:2).
It is within all this and It is also outside all this. Nothing can exist apart from the Self, not even an illusion. A hallucination is a “thing” even though it is solely mental. The Self is the substratum upon and within which everything subsists, the screen on which the light-and-shadow play of life is projected. It is itself the basis of all that is perceived. From one perspective it can be said that the Self (Consciousness) is inside everything. From another, since it is forever separate from all things, it can be spoken of as outside and alien to all things. Whichever way you say it, the idea is the same: the Self never touches any “thing.”

And he who sees all beings in his own Self and his own Self in all beings, he does not feel any revulsion by reason of such a view. (6)

Here we come to the practical application of what the Upanishad is telling us about the Self. (This is the inestimable value of the Bhagavad Gita. Where the Upanishads express spiritual mathematics in a usually abstract manner, the Gita outlines both the Upanishadic principles and what the result will be when they are followed or realized, defining spiritual realities in practical, observable terms.)

If we never lose sight of the Self we will be able to perceive what is not the Self. And since what is not the Self is not even real, why would we hate it? Conversely, how could we hate or be averse to the real Self? This vision is the foundation of dynamic even-mindedness.

“Where one sees nothing but the One, hears nothing but the One, knows nothing but the One–there is the Infinite. Where one sees another, hears another, knows another–there is the finite. The Infinite is immortal, the finite is mortal” (Chandogya Upanishad 7:24:1. Prabhavananda).

It is also the absolute end of all delusion and negative reaction to it, for the Upanishad concludes:

When, to one who knows, all beings have, verily, become one with his own Self, then what delusion and what sorrow can be to him who has seen the oneness?
He has filled all; He is radiant, bodiless, invulnerable, devoid of sinews, pure, untouched by evil. He, the seer, thinker, all-pervading, Self-existent has duly distributed through endless years the objects according to their natures. (7-8)
To one who knows, all beings have, verily, become one with his own Self. The Self is both all things and not anything, depending on one’s point of reference. One thing is definite: the Self cannot be separated from to any degree and is always present in the fullest measure. This being so, we need not seek the Self, but only realize it. We are always seeing, touching and living in the Self, yet we do not recognize it, just as fish have no perception of water because of its intimate and integral connection with them. The Self is even more immediate to us than is water to the fish.

The most practical application of this truth is simple: We should always be aware of the Self and centered in the Self. And that is done by the faithful practice of meditation.
He is radiant. In the Katha Upanishad it is said of the Self: “The sun shines not there, nor the moon and the stars, these lightnings shine not, where then could this fire be? Everything shines only after that shining light. His shining illumines all this world” (Katha Upanishad 2:2.15). The Self is illumined by no external light, but rather illumines all itself. We could shine the brightest of lights into the eyes of a dead man and he would see nothing. But if the Self is present to enliven him, then he will see. The Self is known (seen) by the Self, and therefore it is called swayamprakash: self-illumined. Hence only those in contact with their Self can be said to possess illumination to any degree. Those who obsess on external practices and deities can only dwell in the light that is really darkness (Matthew 6:23). We must seek illumination in the Self alone, keeping in mind that God is the Self of the Self, that to seek one is to seek the other.

Sukram, the word translated “radiant,” also means pure in the sense of being of such perfect clarity that no light is obscured. For it is from the core of the Self that the pure Light of God shines forth. Therefore, to attain Self-knowledge is to realize both the Atman and the Paramatman. Only when we are centered in our Self can we see God, and only when we are centered in God can we truly know our Self.

In a flawless crystal, what do we see? Nothing. So also in the Self there is nothing seen, for all objects are transcended, and pure Being alone remains in our consciousness. Therefore the Chandogya Upanishad tells us: “Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else, that is the infinite. But where one sees something else, hears something else, understands something else, that is the small (the finite). Verily, the infinite is the same as the immortal, the finite is the same as the mortal” (Chandogya Upanishad 7:24:1).
Bodiless. Obviously the Self is not material, but it is necessary for us to further realize that the Self never touches materiality, that it never has a body in the sense that it is integrated with a body and either affects it or is affected by it. This is extremely important, for religion and some approaches to yoga can get us involved in a multitude of activities, including intellectual study and conceptualizations that take place only in the various bodies (koshas) and therefore have little to do with the Self. It is true that we need to purify and refine the bodies so they will cease to veil or obscure the Self, but we should understand that the entire process takes place outside the Self and never affects the Self to any degree.

It is also necessary to comprehend that the Self is not really “in” the body/bodies at all, for by its very nature it cannot be encompassed or contained by anything. “I am not in them–they are in me,” says Krishna (Bhagavad Gita 7:12). And the same is true of our own Self.

To realize the Self we must disengage our awareness from the bodies, although in the practice of meditation we use the bodies as stepping-stones to approach the Self and eventually transcend them altogether. So we need not reject the bodies, but simply have the correct perspective regarding them.
Invulnerable. Imperfection can occur only in the level of relativity. Being eternally outside of relative existence it is not possible for the Self to ever be “marked” for either good or bad–neither of which even exists for the Self. In Yoga Sutra 1:24, Patanjali describes the Supreme Lord, saying: “Ishwara is a particular Purusha who is untouched [aparamrishta] by the afflictions of life [kleshas], actions [karma] and the results [vipaka] and impressions [ashayai] produced by these actions.” The relevant idea here is that God is beyond all action and therefore incapable of either incurring karma or of being conditioned or affected in any way by action, since he never acts. Exactly the same is true of the Self.
Devoid of sinews. Obviously the Self has no body, so why this statement about the Self being without sinews? The idea being presented is that the Self has no “inner” or “outer.” It has no essence as a substratum or framework (skeleton) which can become the ground or basis of another, external entity that is an extension or mutation of itself. The Self has neither parts nor appendages (upadhis). It is thoroughly homogenous and absolutely one. It cannot be “more” than itself or “less” than itself. There are no gradations or shadings in the Self. It simply IS.
Pure. We have already considered the purity of the Self and need only add one more point: The Self is also pure because there is nothing intervening between the Self and anything else–including God. It is absolute and direct without admixture of any kind.
Untouched by evil. Obviously the Self is untouched by evil, for it is not touched (affected) by anything at all or at any time. Nothing can enter into it and become part of it, altering it. Evil cannot touch the Self, though it can pervade the bodies through which the Self is temporarily manifesting.
The Seer. The unwitnessed witness is the Self. In truth there is no other witness on the individual level because the senses, mind, and intellect are mere energy constructs, instruments that have no consciousness of their own. The eye never really sees, nor does the ear hear. No more does the brain or intellect. Rather, the spirit that is consciousness witnesses their messages; therefore the Upanishadic seer said of the Self: “It is that which is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech, indeed of the speech, the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye, the wise, giving up [wrong notions of their Self-sufficiency] and departing from this world, become immortal” (Kena Upanishad 1:2). And of Brahman it was said: “They who know the life [breath] of life [breath], the eye of the eye, the ear of the ear and the mind of the mind, they have realized the ancient primordial Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:4:18).

Regarding the Self and the Self of the Self, Krishna stated: “Presiding over hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell as well as the mind, this experiences the objects of the senses” (Bhagavad Gita 15:9).
Thinker. Not being the brain, only its witness and not its possessor, the Self is here called “the thinker” only as an attempt to convey the idea that it is the Self that both witnesses and knows what it is witnessing. It is not just a screen on which the motion picture of life is projected, nor is it a consciousness of objects alone without cognition of their nature. An infant or an animal perceives exactly what an adult human being perceives, but has no idea what it is perceiving–or even that it perceives, in many cases. The Self, on the other hand, does indeed know and comprehend what is presented to its view. And because of its proximity the will and intellect respond to the stimuli, mirroring the consciousness that is the Self. Consequently they are often mistaken for the Self or wrongly supposed to have a consciousness and intelligence of their own.

The Self is omniscient concerning those things that relate to its present, incarnate status. On occasion it can draw on the cosmic omniscience of God regarding something. Millions of cilia on the surface of our brain are continually moving back and forth. “Science” does not know why, but the yogis know that they are antennae reading the universe. The early explorers of hypnotism such as Dr. Sidney Weltmer found that in the deepest level of their consciousness human beings are virtually omniscient. This is because the Self is divine and an image of the Cosmic Self. Usually that faculty is buried deep in us, but it can emerge or be tapped when circumstances are favorable.

Nevertheless, each one of us knows what he is doing and why. People self-destruct because they intend to. They pass up truth and the way to freedom because they prefer untruth and bondage. As I say, we are all reading out the universe. So people who follow false teachers know they are false, and avoid true teachers because they do not want their ignorance upset or lost.

For this reason, talk and forms of coercion never help those determined to keep on a collision course. It is better to silently bless them, show by action that they will be loved no matter what they do, and stay aware that the divine plan will unfold, no matter what a mess it may seem to be. Be a still point of peace and caring.

Do your best.

Leave the rest.

Angels do no more.

All-pervading. There is nothing higher than the Self, nothing beyond the Self. What about God? God and the Self being one, even God should not be thought of as beyond or above it. Further, Brahman is not a “thing” in a hierarchal chain of being that It could possibly be said to be “above” or “below” any thing whatsoever.

This statement is extremely practical, for it is impossible to conduct a spiritual life without the correct perspective: the spirit is supreme. Not only is everything lesser than the spirit, in truth everything else is nothing in comparison. Those who do not hold this conviction really have no spiritual life in the truest sense. God First. God Alone. This is the only correct perspective.
Self-existent. The spirit never had a beginning. It always was. Again, this does not mean that the Atman is separate from Brahman, or in any way independent of Brahman. Brahman being self-existent and eternal, so also is the Self. It is necessary for us to realize that nothing conditions or really affects the Self, that it is absolutely independent of all objects, places or conditions. Otherwise we fall into the labyrinth of confusion and false identities.
He has duly distributed through endless years the objects according to their natures. God is in charge of the cosmos and the Self is in charge of the life sphere in which it presently manifests. What is to be done is known to those who engage in cosmic creation. The Self that is presently enveloped in the experiences of samsara also knows what is to be done, but the light of intelligence (buddhi) that would convey it to the lower levels usually does not reach there. So again, each one of us knows that we should seek God alone, that there is no other destiny for us. But our ignorance blocks that knowledge. This is why the path to higher consciousness is the path of purification: the removal of the debris between us and the light of the Self (Atmajyoti) so we can see the path and follow it.

This statement implies that there is at all times a perfect order to everything, even though it remains unseen. A “let’s make the world a better place” person was once asked by Anandamayi Ma: “Why do you think that it is not perfect right now?” And of course it is. It is a mess because we are at that level of evolution in which we can only see a mess. When we come to the point where our mind is in order we will see order. The world is a mirror of our own mind. The situation is exactly like what Sri Yukteswar said regarding astrology: “If ignoramuses misread the heavens, and see there a scrawl instead of a script, that is to be expected in this imperfect world.”

Theravada Buddhists monks of the Forest Tradition daily recite: “I have nothing but my actions; I shall never have anything but my actions.” The day we start taking full and exclusive responsibility for our past, present, and future is the day we will begin moving toward real perfection.

Into blinding darkness enter those who worship [are devoted to] ignorance and those who delight in knowledge enter into still greater darkness, as it were. (9)

Here avidya, ignorance, means samsara, this illusory world which plunges us into increasing illusion/ignorance. By vidya, knowledge, is meant both erroneous knowledge based on worldly existence and the merely intellectual theorizing and dogmatizing of philosophy–even philosophy based on the scriptures of Sanatana Dharma–without any basis in genuine realization of the ultimate realities of the Self and the Supreme Self by the individual. This latter darkness is greater because the person believes that he knows the truth and his ego is satisfied. Therefore he never seeks the truth, but revels in his ignorance, congratulating himself on being wise.

The Bhagavad Gita (2:11) right away begins dispelling our myths of knowledge. Krishna tells Arjuna that though he speaks words of wisdom, he is completely wrong in his conclusions.

Distinct, indeed, they say, is the result of knowledge and distinct, they say, is the result of ignorance. Thus have we heard from those wise who have explained to us these. (10)

Ignorance produces more ignorance, but true knowledge (not that referred to in the previous verse) produces higher and higher knowledge and realization of spiritual realities. Therefore the wise immerse themselves in knowledge and free themselves from ignorance. How do they do it? By following the advice of Krishna: “Therefore be a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).

Two serious errors can be committed by the thoughtful aspirant: 1) the conclusion that since none of it is real nothing really matters and there is no need for spiritual endeavor; and 2) the conclusion that since only the spiritual is real we should ignore the external and the material aspects of life and put all our attention on the inner spiritual side of life. But right there the error is uncovered, for the spiritual is only a side of life, as is the material, and together they make the two-sided whole. Or we can look at it in an even better and truer way: the material is the spiritual and therefore demands and deserves our full attention as well as the obviously spiritual aspects of life. This is the meaning of the Vedic verse beginning purnamadah purnamidam:

That is the Full, this is the Full.

The Full has come out of the Full.

If we take the Full from the Full

It is the Full that yet remains.

The two are really and always the One. To reject or turn from one is to reject and turn from the All. It cannot be without meaning that the Vedas and Upanishads were written by sages who lived fully in the world with families and their attendant responsibilities, including that of making a livelihood. Of course it was the Satya Yuga then, and earthly life was very different from life in our present age. Nevertheless, those who like to excuse themselves from striving for Self-realization by citing their involvement in the world and worldly responsibilities should consider the historical facts. (And anyway, where exactly do they think the monastics are living?)

The Purna, the Full (it also means the Complete) is one, yet it is dual. This makes no sense to us, but considering the limitation of our intellects that should be no surprise. It is our intuition that must come into function when we begin dealing with these higher spheres of reality. We, too, are dual, being image-replicas of the Divine Archetype. Just as God is both relative and absolute, both immanent and transcendent, so are we on a miniature scale. We, too, then, must learn to function fully in both spheres, for since they are essentially one, if we do not so function we will be partial, incomplete, and therefore faulty rather than perfect, which originally meant to be complete rather than without fault. (“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” Matthew 5:48.)

Life is not just some maze to be somehow gotten through, or a Monopoly board with random advances and regressions, and there is certainly no Get Out of Jail Free. Rather, life demands the fullest exercise of the two faculties that mark human beings out from the rest of earthly life-forms: developed reason and intuition. Intelligence of the highest order is necessary. This does not mean that the aspirant needs to be an intellectual, but he must be intelligent. Yogananda actually said that stupid people cannot find God. (This is because stupid people do not seek God.) Nor can the seeker’s intelligence be kept on the shelf for only occasional use and amusement. At all times the yogi must be keenly aware of what is going on in his life sphere and ever seeking to understand and work out the mystery. As already said, he needs highly developed intuition as well. Both of these are only produced by meditation. This is because both intelligence and intuition (direct knowledge) are divine attributes. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna declares himself to be intelligence (7:10; 10:34) and the knowledge of the mystic (9:12). I am not speaking of cunning or cleverness or “savvy;” I am speaking of the intelligence which only arises in those who are of highly evolved consciousness.

It is those who possess right intelligence and right intuition that can live both the inner and outer lives simultaneously–not first one and then the other in alternating cycles–in a spiritually productive (i.e., evolutionary) manner. By doing so they will accomplish two things: they will come to understand the real meaning and purpose of all they experience and do and thereby learn the lessons for which they came into relative existence; and they will come to experience (not just intellectually think) that the two are really one, manifestations of the One. Having seen the One in all, they have attained immortality even in this mortal life.

A final point. Notice that the Upanishadic sage speaks of actively pursuing the outer and inner lives. This means steadiness and regularity in practice as well as adamant adherence to the required disciplines such as yama and niyama. But most important it means wanting, even loving, to lead the outer and inner lives according to the precepts of dharma. There is no place here for grudging admittance of necessity, of stingy eking out of the barest minimum that is required, grumbling and resenting and wishing it need not be so.

Consider the perspective of a Christ. Crucifixion was the most horrible of deaths, yet according to Saint Paul: “Jesus… for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). What a different perspective from the morbid and sentimental carryings-on over the passion of Jesus that some Christians engage in. Loving the world and the body that links them to the world, nothing seems to them more painful or tragic than its torture and death. But Jesus hastened to the mockery, the scourging, and the crucifixion for the joy that was set before him. His secret? He was a yogi.

Knowledge and ignorance: he who knows the two together crosses death through ignorance and attains life eternal through knowledge. (11)

One of the fundamental errors of dualistic religion is its setting of the material against the spiritual and thereby insisting that the material must be rejected and the spiritual alone embraced. This produces deep spiritual conflict, for it is simply impossible to do and also involves a rejection of an eternal part of ourselves (and God). The Upanishads in contrast make it clear that the two are really one and must both be cultivated–according to the principles of dharma–for us to attain the consciousness of perfect unity in ourselves and in God.

Those who devote themselves only to life in the world become sunk in the limitations of materiality and addicted to its vagaries. Egoism and intense selfishness and exploitation of both the world and those living in it with us can be the sole result of such a limited focus. Having only a perspective of mortality, the higher nature of the individual is suppressed to give free rein to the dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself, the-world-is-a-jungle attitude that must arise from preoccupation with external existence. Having no idea of the true nature of either the world, ourselves, or our fellow human beings, only chaos and destruction can come to us.

On the other hand, those who devote themselves only to meditation or abstract philosophizing to the exclusion of material considerations and practical living, come to a worse result: complete psychological disintegration (literally) and alienation from any form of reality. Hypocrisy also results, because to even eat and drink is to admit the necessity of physicality, and that food must come from somewhere, so dependence on those regarded as “the ignorant and astray” becomes necessary. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago in an emigré Russian newspaper just after the United States had supplied the Soviet Union with incredibly huge amounts of grain and saved their economy and the life of millions. Two old ladies were sweeping the street in Red Square. One was saying to the other: “It is good we did not kill all the Capitalists; otherwise we would have starved to death.” How can a person justify living off those whose earthly involvement they despise and condemn? The Bhagavad Gita discusses this matter thoroughly and points out the folly of the “spirituals” who pretend to have transcended worldly concerns.

We must function in matter and in spirit. Both elements must be integrated through the following of dharma to complete the picture and solve the evolutionary puzzle. The material must be spiritualized and the spiritual must be materialized in the sense of making both practical and beneficial to one another.

How do you pursue ignorance? By coming to see its true character and turning away from it by knowledge and vairagya. The world may not be ultimately real, but we need to work through the puzzles presented to us by relative experience. Knowledge is pursued through study of the teachings of the wise, such as the Upanishads and the Gita as well as Self-realized masters such as Shankara.

Yoga is the ideal pursuit of both knowledge and ignorance because it is a combination of both. In what way? Yoga takes into account the fact that we find ourselves bound in the illusions of materiality and uses them as steps to higher awareness through the disciplines of yoga (yama and niyama), which include purification of mind and body through right conduct and especially right (purely vegetarian) diet and abstinence from alcohol, nicotine and mind-altering drugs. The body is illusory, but contains within it subtle mechanisms such as the breath that assist us on the path to enlightenment, and the mind contains the faculty of reasoning and the power of sound/speech (vak) which, when applied in mantric invocation and meditation, leads to enlightenment as both the Brahma Sutras and Yoga Sutras state. So the yogi uses ignorance and knowledge to transcend both and realize Wisdom (vijnana). Death (rebirth) is conquered through purification and evolution of the body/mind complex and immortality is gained through the practice of yoga meditation as outlined in the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras.

The lesson here is the need to value both body and spirit and unite them in our sadhana. For we are not interesting in serving the physical, astral and causal bodies, but in mastering them.

The body is the instrument of evolution, so to despise and neglect it under the guise of spirituality is foolish. Any machine that malfunctions should be repaired, not despised and tossed away, the body included. Also, hidden within the body are many doorways to higher consciousness. Therefore the body must be enabled to become the evolutionary device it is intended to be.

The first step is purification, and that includes two major factors: celibacy (brahmacharya) and pure diet, which excludes all meat, fish, eggs, nicotine, alcohol and all mind-altering substances. There is no getting around it. Just take a look at those who are not purifying themselves in these two ways and you will have proof enough. All the rationalizing and mind-gaming in the world cannot contravene the truth: brahmacharya (continence), ahimsa (non-killing), and shaucha (purification) are absolute essentials for those who seek higher consciousness.

Let us take a look at what the Chandogya Upanishad tells us about food. “Food when eaten becomes threefold, its coarsest portion becomes the faeces; its middle (portion) flesh, and its subtlest (portion) mind. Water when drunk becomes threefold, its coarsest portion becomes the urine; its middle (portion) the blood, its subtlest (portion) the prana. Thus, mind consists of food, breath [prana] consists of water [liquid]” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:5:1-2, 4). “Of the curd, when churned, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes butter. In the same manner, of the food that is eaten, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes mind. Of the water that is drunk, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes breath [prana]. Thus, mind consists of food, breath [prana] consists of water” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:6:1-3, 5).

Body and mind come from the food we eat. Thus our food must be both as pure as possible and also blessed by being offered to God. And the conduct of the body must be as pure as possible and its deeds worthy of being offered to God. Action and thought determine the quality of body and mind. Ethics and good thoughts are also essential, but purity of body and mind is the crown jewel. Through these means both body and spirit are truly divinized and immortality is gained.

Into blinding darkness enter those who worship the unmanifest and into still greater darkness, as it were, those who delight in the manifest. (12)

The basic idea of this and the next two verses has already been covered, but we should notice the use of the word “worship.” We are used to thinking of worship only in relation to God, but it comes from an older form, worthship, which meant to acknowledge the value and significance of something. This and the next two verses really deal with two things: the unmanifested and manifested creation and Saguna Brahman and Nirguna Brahman. First let us look at the creation side of the matter.

There is no doubt that the unmanifested level of existence is higher than the manifested level. But it is a mistake to neglect the manifested in the idea that the unmanifested will be easily attained if the manifested is shunted aside. And those who ignore or deny the unmanifested and occupy themselves wholly with the manifested will spiritually be limiting themselves to a crippling degree. This is especially so since the manifest is materiality and those who put all their attention on it will become materialistic in consciousness and enmeshed in sense experience and intellectual definition (dogmatism, actually). On the other hand, those who fixate on the unmanifest will become nothing more than abstract thinkers and philosophizers, so caught up in theory that they ignore the actual and obvious.

Brahman is beyond all conceptualization, whereas Hiranyagarbha is Ishwara, Brahman within creation as its inner guide. Sometimes these are called the Lesser and Higher Brahman or Saguna Brahman and Nirguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is Brahman with attributes, such as mercy, omnipotence, omniscience, etc., the personal aspect of Brahman. Nirguna Brahman is the impersonal, attributeless Absolute beyond all description or designation. Obviously both Nirguna and Saguna Brahman are one and the same. And ourselves being manifestations of God we, too, have impersonal and personal aspects. Therefore, both aspects must be cultivated through spiritual discipline in order to in time become a complete revelation of the divine nature.

Those who ignore one aspect of Brahman and concentrate on the other will, because of imbalance both intellectually and practically, limit themselves and therefore plunge themselves into darkness. Although the Upanishad is so clear on this, still there are tamasic people who insist that only the Saguna should be accepted or that only the Nirguna should be accepted. I say such persons are tamasic because Krishna tells us in the Gita: “That knowledge which clings to a single effect as if it were the whole–that is declared to be tamasic” (18:22).

Being a digest and expansion of the Upanishads, the Gita has a section on the verses of the Upanishad under consideration. Arjuna asks Krishna who has the better understanding of yoga: those who worship the manifest or those who worship the unmanifest. Krishna replies: “Those who are ever steadfast, who worship me, fixing their minds on me, endowed with supreme faith, I consider them to be the best versed in yoga. But those who worship the Imperishable, the Undefinable, the Unmanifested, the All-pervading, Inconceivable, Unchanging, Unmoving, the Constant–controlling all the senses, even-minded everywhere, happy in the welfare of all beings–they attain to me also. Greater is the effort of those whose minds are set on the Unmanifest, for the Unmanifest as a goal is truly difficult for the embodied ones to reach. But those who, renouncing all actions in me, intent on me as the highest goal worship me, meditating on me with single-minded Yoga–of those whose consciousness has entered into me, I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of mortal samsara. Keep your mind on me alone, causing your intellect to enter into me. Thenceforward, without doubt, you shall dwell in me” (12:2-8).

The final summation is in the next two verses:

Distinct, indeed, they say, is what results from the manifest, and distinct, they say, is what results from the unmanifest. Thus have we heard from those wise who have explained to us these.
He who understands the manifest and the unmanifest both together, crosses death through the unmanifest and attains life eternal through the manifest. (13-14)

The manifested universe is the place of continual change and birth and death. The higher, subtle worlds of prakriti are free from this. Therefore he who masters the manifest conquers death, and he who masters the unmanifest attains immortality unshadowed by either birth or death.

The face of truth is covered with, a golden disc. Unveil it, O Pushan, so that I who love the truth may see it. (15)

The final four verses of the Isha Upanishad are recited at the cremation of bodies in India, and are a prayer for ascension to the higher realms that are beyond the compulsion of rebirth in this world. These deal mainly with the sun. Throughout history and throughout the world the sun has been worshipped or considered a symbol of divinity. The full comprehension of the spiritual nature of the sun was discovered in India untold ages ago and embodied in the Upanishads.

That which we see as the sun (or perhaps more exactly, the way we see it) is not the true face of the spiritual force that is embodied in the sun. Pushan, translated Nourisher, is a title of the Sun–really of Brahman–that means Surveyor of the Universe and Protector of the Universe. Therefore the gold disc of the sun is covering the the actual thing. The sun is the door of the Truth because those who are evolved beyond the need for earthly incarnation rise upward at death and pass through the sun into higher worlds of evolution within which the spirit (jiva) will attain progressively higher degrees of realization, until even those worlds will be transcended and it enters into the unalloyed transcendent being of the Absolute Brahman. For this reason we pray to that Truth which is beyond the sun and is our ultimate Goal.
The “golden disc” has more than one meaning, all of which are significant.

1) The most obvious meaning of the golden orb is the sun itself. All plant, animal, and human life on this planet depend upon the sun. It is the subtle powers of sunlight which stimulate growth and evolution. Sunlight particularly stimulates the activity of the higher centers in the brain, especially that of the pineal gland. Even in the depths of the earth a sensitive person can tell when the sun rises and sets above. The sun appears to illuminate us, but it is a light that covers the Light in order to lead us to the Light. We must use it to go beyond it.

2) All things have an inner and outer life, and that includes the sun. We may say that there is the outer sun of the material universe, and there is also the metaphysical sun of the psychic and spiritual universe. They operate simultaneously, being the same thing. The sun truly awakens us in the deepest sense. As the germinating seed struggles upward toward the sun and out into its life-giving rays, so all higher forms of life reach out for the sun, which acts as a metaphysical magnet, drawing them upward and outward toward ever-expanding consciousness. The Chandogya Upanishad discusses it in this way: “Even as a great extending highway runs between two villages, this one and that yonder, even so the rays of the sun go to both these worlds, this one and that yonder. They start from the yonder sun and enter into the nadis. They start from the nadis and enter into the yonder sun.… When a man departs from this body, then he goes upwards by these very rays…. That, verily, is the gateway of the world, an entering in for the knowers, a shutting out for the non-knowers” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.6.2, 5).

The solar rays do not just flow into this world, they also draw upward through the sun and beyond. In the human body the process of exhalation and inhalation is related to solar energy, and much of the solar power on which we subsist is drawn into the body through our breathing. The solar rays do not just strike the surface of our body, but actually penetrate into the physical nerves (nadis). The nadis are also the channels in the astral body that correspond to the physical nerves. Just as the electrical impulses flow through the physical nerves, the subtle life force, or prana, flows through the subtle nadis and keeps us alive and functioning. The prana, then, is a vehicle for the solar energies that produce evolution.

When the individual comes into manifestation on this earth he passes from the astral world into the material plane by means of the sun, which is a mass of exploding astral energies, not mere flaming gases. And when the individual has completed his course of evolution within this plane, upon the death of his body he rises upward in his subtle body and passes through the sun into the higher worlds, there to evolve even higher or to pass directly into the depths of the transcendent Brahman.

3) The golden disc is also the entire creation, the means by which through experience the individual spirits can evolve to perfect conscious union with God. Without it we would be unable to attain that union. Yet, just as we use a ladder or stair to ascend and then step beyond it, in the same way the creation is meant to be eventually transcended. We must therefore keep both these aspects in mind while living in this world.

4) The golden disc is also our own mind, that which perceives the world around us and the intelligence which comprehends what is going on and directs our lives accordingly. Potential is not enough; there must be actualization. It is our mind alone that can lead us beyond the mind, our intelligence alone that can lead us onward to intuition. At all stages the mind and intelligence are “golden,” but if we allow ourselves to become stagnated at any point they rapidly “tarnish” and turn from beneficial to harmful. Immersed in this creation, we are like the fish that must keep perpetually moving or they will die of suffocation if they come to a standstill. If we do not move forward we shall move backward–and often mistake it for progress.

5) Our own Self (Atman) is also the golden orb. We must come to know our true Self and delight in the Self in wonder at its nature. But that is not enough. We must then pass onward to experience the Self of our Self, the Paramatman. This transcendence must ever be kept in mind, for out of ignorance and even laziness a lot of people like the idea that we need only enter into the experience of our Self and that is the end. The same wrong-headed view abrogates the need for our evolution and assumes that if we smash the evolving machine we will attain the transcendent–or even worse, that there is no transcendent to experience or even an experiencer to see it. However cleverly this view may be worded or how sophisticated it appears, it is nihilism of the deadliest sort, a ruinous pitfall.

6) The golden orb is also the evolutionary impulse within all things which, though life itself to the evolving spirit, yet urges us to continual transcendence of its various stages until we transcend it as well. It is a golden stair that urges us onward to the heights where it cannot come.
The ultimate Golden Orb is the Supreme Self. That is what we are striving toward. Being transcendent, how shall we reach it? By means of Its immanence within the world in the form of the individual and universal Self. Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita: “At the time of death he who remembers me while giving up the body attains my Being–of this there is no doubt. Moreover, whatever he fixes his mind on when he gives up the body at the end, to that he goes. Always he becomes that. Therefore at all times remember me with your mind and intellect fixed on me. Thus without doubt you shall come to me. With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him. He who meditates on the Seer, the Ancient, the Ruler, subtler than the atom, Support of all, whose form is inconceivable and radiant like the sun and beyond darkness, at the time of death with mind unmoving, endowed with devotion and yoga power, he goes to the Divine Supreme Spirit” (8:5-10).

Simply wanting a thing does not make it happen or come to us. In the same way, spiritual daydreaming is fruitless. Therefore, he who petitions for the removal of the golden orb describes himself as “I who love the Truth.” He is one who wishes to pass from the unreal to the Real, to no longer live in the magic of Maya, but to move onward to the Reality behind all appearance. And he does not just seek truth or think about it–he is devoted to truth, a virtual worshipper of the Truth. Only such aspirants “may behold it.”

O Pushan, the sole seer, O Controller, O Sun, offspring of Prajapati, spread forth your rays and gather up your radiant light that I may behold you of loveliest form. I am that Purusha [Spirit-Self]: I am Soham. (16)

These titles can be applied both to the sun and the Truth beyond the sun.

Nourisher [Pushan]. In Indian philosophy God is often thought of as Mother. This verse bears that out, speaking of the divine as the Nourisher of all beings, the Fountain of Life. God the Mother is frequently addressed in Sanskrit hymns as Jagata Janani, Jagata Palani–the Birthgiver and Nourisher of the world (jagat). The sun is source and nourisher of all evolving beings upon the earth just as God is the cosmic source and nourisher. To be nourished is to grow, so God is nourisher in the sense of the divine evolver of all sentient beings.

The sole seer. The sun moves through space and Brahman is the Sole Seer of all things throughout the entire range of relative existence, extending upward and downward through many worlds (lokas).

Controller. Life and its cycles on earth is determined by the sun, and all the incarnations in all the worlds from lowest to higher are determined by God who is the controller of all things seen and unseen, visible and invisible.

Offspring of Prajapati. The sun is the creation of God, the light of evolution.

Spread forth your rays and gather up your radiant light that I may behold you of loveliest form. How is this? Why does he not ask that the light should flood down upon him? Because the light he is speaking of is not the Absolute Light, but the light of relative existence which by its nature veils that Ultimate Light. He asks, then, that God withdraw the light of temporality in order that he might behold and enter into the Light of Eternity.

This has a yogic aspect, as well. We must withdraw all the scattered rays of our energies and awareness and unite them to our inmost consciousness. We must gather up that which is dispersed and fragmented and restore our original state of unity. Meditation is the only way this can be accomplished.

I am that Purusha [Spirit-Self]: I am Soham. The Sanskrit text is: Yo sav asau purushah; so’ham asmi, which literally means: “I am that Purusha [Spirit-Self]: I am Soham.” In Sanskrit Soham means “I Am That,” but at the core of every sentient being Soham exists as the Self–is the Self. Therefore the seer of the upanishad concludes: “I am Soham.” Soham asmi–“I am That I am”–is exactly what God told Moses was his Name (Exodus 3:14). In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1:4:1), we are told: “In the beginning, this universe was the Self [Viraj] alone, in the shape of a person. He reflected and saw nothing else but His Self. He first said: ‘I am He [Soham]’” (1:4:1). Thus, Soham is the “first speaking” of the Absolute Itself: the expression of the knowledge and knowing of the Self. Soham is the Name (Embodiment) of the Primeval Being, the Self of the Universe and the Self of our Selfs. Soham is the Consciousness of Brahman and of the Self of each one of us. We, too, are Soham. (See Soham Yoga: The Yoga of the Self regarding the invocation of Soham as the means to Self-realization.)

May this life enter into the immortal breath [life]; then may this body end in ashes. O Intelligence, remember, remember what has been done. Remember, O Intelligence, what has been done. Remember. (17)

The poet Browning wrote of “the end of life for which the first was made.” That is a lovely expression, but very few really believe it and therefore rarely think of their life’s end. Those of us who seek liberation must from the very beginning be looking toward the end we desire. In the next to the last verse at the close of the Isha Upanishad we are given the perspective we should be living with every moment of our life if we would truly “come to a good end.”

Emily Dickinson wrote: “While others hope to go to heaven at last, I am going all along!” This is the only way for those who would succeed in spiritual life. Nothing should be delayed for the future–it is all now or not at all. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (II Corinthians 6:2).

There are many partially awakened people who know that God is the only real goal, yet they delay their endeavor. “After I get this,” they say, “then I will really dig in and seek God.” But they never do, for as soon as one little short-term goal is reached another arises that seems even more demanding. In this way they create in their minds the habit of postponing spiritual life, a habit that will surely carry over into the next life and perhaps into others.

How often do we think that the vision of God will somehow interfere with our life, when in reality we can have no true life outside that vision. Silly children, we dawdle and dally until the night of death overtakes us. “Now or never” happens to be the simple truth.

“May this life enter into the immortal breath.” Prana means both breath and life. So this is a prayer that our small life may be united to the infinite, immortal Life of which it has always been a part.

Many people want to “embrace life” so they can egocentrically possess it and exploit it to the full. But they have no idea what life is. What they think is life is really death. “The all-pervading life” is the only life, for that is God. And the necessity is not to find or see God as an object (and certainly not to possess God), but to merge with God in complete unity-identity. That is, our consciousness must be completely merged in the infinite Consciousness, and irrevocably so. Just as a cup of water poured into the ocean cannot be drawn back out of the ocean, so we need to attain that state of unity which can never be reversed. Many yogis paddle their feet or go for a quick dip in the ocean of Satchidananda, but the goal is to unite with that ocean, to merge in it and become totally one with it. Consequently at every moment of our life we must be holding in mind and living out the sankalpa: “Let my life now merge in the all-pervading Life.”

Those who are unfit for union with God become all anxious and even fearful when they hear about merging with the Divine. “O! will I go out of existence?” they quaver. “What will happen to me?” They ever get nervous when they hear the prospect of not being reborn on earth. Over and over again they plunge headlong into the sea of rebirth, never raising such questions about relative existence, but rushing on heedlessly. Only when confronted with God do they develop false prudence and caution and begin to question and doubt. Jesus has assured us, though: “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). This is because we are truly negative: absolutely backwards one hundred and eighty degrees. Consequently what we think will annihilate us will immortalize us, whereas what we think will make us live will destroy us. Like Yogananda we must pray: “Let me drown in Thine ocean and live!”

It is not a simple thing to rid ourselves of the conditionings of billions of lives wherein we identified completely with the body. Even when we have evolved enough to identify more with the mind and the spirit, still the body claims the majority of our attention and attachment. It is completely reflexive with us, overriding any emotional or intellectual factors to the contrary. Therefore we must continually affirm in word, attitude and act: “may this body end in ashes.” This will only seem painful or pessimistic if we are still identifying with the body. But if not, it will be as happy a statement as an affirmation that our prison is going to evaporate into dust.

We have died many times (or thought we did), but that did not free us at all. And in many lives we were no doubt cremated. Still, that accomplished nothing. Evidently there is a deeper meaning to the “ashes” that are the body’s end. It is the fire of wisdom that turns our “bodies” into wisdom-ashes. Let us then be busy stoking the fires of yoga and getting on with the burning. Sadhus wear gerua, orange-red color, to remind them of the fire of discrimination and spirit-knowledge that must be perpetually burning in order to reduce all that impels us into embodiment to the ashes of freedom.

“Purified by knowledge-based tapasya, many have attained my state of being” (Bhagavad Gita 4:10).

“As the kindled fire reduces wood to ashes, in the same way the fire of knowledge reduces all karmas to ashes” (Bhagavad Gita 4:37).

When the “bridges” of all bodies, subtle and gross, have been burned in the holy fires, then we will pass on into the kingdom of Infinity that is our eternal birthright.

How to kindle the ignorance-consuming fire? The Upanishadic sage continues: “O Intelligence, remember, remember what has been done.” The thorough practicality and good sense of dharma is one of its most striking features: it works. And it works very well. So it is meaningful that the Upanishad tells us to remember our own past deeds. This is to keep us from falling into the serious error of being so focused on the “spiritual” that we do not pay attention to what is really going on with us on the relative level of evolution. Patanjali (Yoga Sutras 2:32) lists swadhyaya, introspective self-study, as an essential ingredient of yoga practice. Yet this self-study must be done in the greater context of divine consciousness: “In thy light shall we see light” (Psalms 36:9). Only in the divine light can we see things as they really are.

So we should meditate, and outside of meditation we should look at our past, comparing our past deeds and our past states of mind with our present deeds and mental condition. This will reveal to us whether we are truly progressing or not. I knew a woman who sincerely believed that God was appearing to her in meditation and talking to her so sweetly, making her feel so holy and pure. Then she would come out of meditation and be unspeakably cruel to her daughter, both physically and mentally. In meditation she was an angel, but outside of meditation she was a devil. Wrong meditation gives us a wrong image of ourselves, but right meditation shows us the truth about both God and ourselves.

Of course we have to have a correct memory of our past. Many people are so blinded to the truth about themselves that when they learn to meditate they start saying: “My mind used to be calm, but it has gotten so restless,” or: “I used to be a nice person, but now I am just a wreck and falling apart.” The reality is that their mind was always restless, but not being introspective they did not realize it. They were also a complete ruin, mentally and spiritually, but they had no eyes with which to see it. Now they do, and they foolishly blame meditation. On the other hand, people who are practicing a wrong form of meditation (or a right form wrongly) do become increasingly restless and increasingly negative. I know of several kinds of meditation that really do bring about the mental and spiritual disintegration of those who practice them, and often the physical degeneration, as well. But those who meditate according to the teachings of the Upanishads, knowing I Am Soham, will have no problem.

O Agni, lead us us along the auspicious path to prosperity, O God, who knowest all our deeds. Take away from us deceitful sins. We shall offer many prayers unto you. (18)

Because bodies are cremated in India, this final verse of the Isha Upanishad addressed to Agni (Fire) is recited when the crematory fire is lighted. But the Upanishadic rishis had a far more profound intention when they intoned it.

The most prevalently venerated natural force throughout the history of humanity is the sun. The next is fire, which was considered a divine gift. Fire is a mystery. Throughout my schooling, from grade school to university, I asked many teachers: What is fire? Nobody gave me any answer at all, much less an accurate-seeming one.

A friend of mine once pointed out an interesting fact about fire. When people, especially the young, sit around an open fire, the subject of the supernatural in some form or other usually comes up. Ghost stories around the campfire are a staple of campers. My friend said that it was because fire stimulates awareness of the unseen levels of existence. Certainly this was the opinion in India where fire was considered a channel of communication between this world and the subtle worlds. Long before Christians were lighting candles in church to convey their prayers to Christ and the saints, in India people were reciting prayers in the presence of fire and making offerings into the fire, confident that the prayers and offerings would be transferred by the fire to their intended recipients. Consider in our own time how much attention and meaning is attached to the Olympic Flame–really only a shadow of the original Greek Fire.

Everything has multiple layers to its existence, one of which is ideational. Everything that exists is a thought in the Divine Mind. Consequently everything is both meaningful and symbolic. To the yogis of India fire became a most significant symbol, the symbol of the will of the yogi and the transforming power of yoga itself. So much so, that yoga practice came to be called tapasya: the generation of heat. In the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh wrote extensively on this subject, especially in relation to the yogic symbolism of the Vedic hymns.

In Vedic religion the fire rite, the agnihotra or havan, is the supreme ritual act. It is emblematic of the soul’s progression to divinity, and its elements and actions can be studied to reveal many secrets of esoteric life and unfoldment. This is especially true of the Satapatha Brahmana, which is incredibly detailed. The sacred fire is kindled by the friction of two wooden sticks called aranis or drills. This is an important symbol, for it is considered that the fire is latent in the wood until the friction causes it to manifest. In the same way, enlightenment is latent in the yogi, awaiting the right conditions to be provided for its manifestation. Meditation is the friction (tapasya) that produces the fire of God-perception. With this in mind we can unravel the intentions of the rishis when they prayed: “O Agni, lead us us along the auspicious path to prosperity, O God, who knowest all our deeds. Take away from us deceitful sins. We shall offer many prayers unto you.”

Knowledge of spiritual practice and the will to practice must go together. Knowing what to do but having no interest to do it will get us nowhere. At the same time, wanting to succeed and not knowing how is equally useless. But put the knowing and the wanting together for the necessary time, and all benefit will be ours. Agni represents the radiance of our Self and of God as well as that which is produced by sadhana. These three fires will light our way to blessedness. But their combined effect will not just show us the way, it will lead us along the way, illumining our heart and minds with the requisite wisdom for spiritual attainment. It will also draw us along the path, but only in the degree that we are actively walking the path. This is indicated in the Song of Solomon when he prays: “Draw me, we will run after thee” (Song of Solomon 1:4). Both God and man must actively seek each other. It is said in India that when someone chooses God you can know that God has chosen him. The liberating power we call Agni is the result of these two forces meeting and combining with one another.

After one of his classes on the Narada Bhakti Sutras, Swami Prabhavananda was asked how a person could avoid spiritual pride. His answer was remarkable: “You cannot develop spiritual pride if your spiritual practice is correct, for you will see yourself correctly and can neither fall into pride nor despair.” This is certainly true. The light of tapasya reveals all that we need to know about ourselves. Self-knowledge, even if fragmentary or dim at the beginning, is an immediate fruit of right meditation, and will in time develop into the full light of spiritual day. The Eastern Orthodox hymn to Saint Nicholas begins: “The truth of things revealed you….” This is profoundly true. When we begin approaching the Real, the Truth becomes revealed, both the Truth of God and the truth of us.

Understanding the nature and consequences of our deeds, we will learn how to truly live as Krishna outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, especially the second chapter. At the closing of the third chapter, Arjuna asks: “By what is a man impelled to commit evil, against his own will, as if urged by some force?” To which Krishna replies:

“This force is desire and anger born of the rajo-guna, the great consumer and of great evil. Know this to be the enemy. As fire is enveloped by smoke, as mirrors are covered by dust, as wombs cover embryos, in the same way knowledge is covered by this, the constant enemy of the wise, having the form of desire which is like insatiable fire.

“The senses, mind, and intellect are said to be its abode. With these it deludes the embodied one by veiling his innate wisdom. Therefore, controlling the senses at the outset, kill this evil being, which destroys ordinary knowledge and supreme knowledge.

“They say that the senses are superior [to the body], the mind is superior to the senses, the intellect (buddhi) is superior to the mind. And much superior to the intellect is the supreme intelligence (param buddhi). Having learned this, sustaining the lower self by the higher Self, kill this difficult-to-encounter enemy which has the form of desire” (3:36-43)

Meditation and other forms of sadhana are that which protects us from the attraction of folly and ignorance. Wherefore Krishna says: “For the undisciplined there is no wisdom, no meditation. For him who does not meditate there is no peace or happiness” (Bhagavad Gita 2:66).

Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for AwakeningThe Kena Upanishad

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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