The teachings of the upanishads are the supreme expressions of the eternal wisdom, the eternal vision of the Vedic seers. Consequently, though simple in their mode of expression, they can be extremely hard to grasp. The rishis lived in a state of consciousness almost opposite to that of most of us. But it is possible of attainment, and so the wise cultivate it. Yet we need guidance along the way, and need to carefully look into the upanishadic dicta for that guidance. There are many things that we need not know, but the truths embodied in the upanishads and their inspired summary, the Bhagavad Gita, must be known by all who would ascend to higher life. So they merit our intent consideration.
The four levels of understanding
During the last week of his earthly life, Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover season. At one point, while speaking to the crowd, he prayed: “Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him” (John 12:28, 29). And of course a third contingency heard nothing. This is how it is in this world of unreality when Reality impinges on it. According to the level of development, so the encountering individual reacts to the impingement.
In Indian philosophy there are a lot of numerical divisions, but one of the most prevalent is that of four. To list some: there are four ages (yugas) of human history, there are four modes of consciousness (waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and turiya–consciousness itself), there are four stages of dharmic life (student, family, semi-solitary, and monastic), and of course there are four castes (shudra, vaishya, kshatriya and brahmin). All of these relate to the evolutionary development of the individual (as Krishna says: guna and karma) and are fundamentally a matter of internal disposition and capacity.
These four levels (is it an accident there are four Gospels?) are depicted in this event from the Gospel. Some people heard what was spoken and knew it was the voice of God; some heard a voice–not the actual words–and thought it was an angel speaking; some heard an indistinct sound and thought it was thunder; and others (no doubt the majority) heard nothing at all. It is not an event that matters as much as our comprehension of it.
Yes, that is everything: comprehension. And that takes place only according to our state of inner development. Krishna spoke of this in the beginning of his instruction to Arjuna at Kurukshetra, saying: “There are some who have actually looked upon the Atman, and understood It, in all Its wonder. Others can only speak of It as wonderful beyond their understanding. Others know of Its wonder by hearsay. And there are others who are told about It and do not understand a word” (Bhagavad Gita 2:29). Here again are the four levels of comprehension. We pass from one to another in ascending steps only through inner cultivation–in other words, only through meditation, but meditation supported by a entire way of life that facilitates it–in other words: dharma. For if there is neither the practice nor the support for the practice, little will result in the way of developing consciousness. And if consciousness is not developed the teachings of the great sages will be little understood by us, and perhaps greatly misunderstood or just not understood at all. Sri Ramakrishna told about a certain group of yogis who were wont to challenge a person with the words: “What station are you dwelling in?” By “station” they meant the habitual state of the individual’s mind.
“The Self is one”
The next verse of the Isha Upanishad is not easy to grasp because it speaks of a mode of being far different from our usual condition. So it will be a real test as to what “station” of consciousness we are dwelling in, as we try to decode it. Here it is:
“The Self is one. Unmoving, it moves swifter than thought. The senses do not overtake it, for always it goes before. Remaining still, it outstrips all that run. Without the Self, there is no life” (Isha Upanishad 4).
“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 early 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, like the Four Kumaras, are intent on the knowing of the Self.
The principle that the Self is one 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 who 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 once 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-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 only process that really unifies the consciousness: meditation.
“Unmoving, it moves swifter than thought”
How can the Self move swifter than thought and yet be unmoving? This is not some koan-like platitude meant to faze our mind in relation to Self-knowledge; it is simple fact. 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 overtake it, for always it goes before”
The Self does not move, but it is always before the questing senses in the sense that it is always out of their reach. The Mandukya Upanishad (7), speaking of the consciousness of the Self, of turiya, describes it as “not subjective experience, nor objective experience, nor experience intermediate between these two, nor is it a negative condition which is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. It is not the knowledge of the senses, nor is it relative knowledge, nor yet inferential knowledge. Beyond the senses, beyond the understanding, beyond all expression,…it is pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is the supreme good. It is One without a second. It is the Self. Know it alone!” Who can say any more?
“Remaining still, it outstrips all that 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 “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.
“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, 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.
“Who knows the Atman knows that happiness born of pure knowledge: the joy of sattwa. Deep his delight after strict self-schooling: sour toil at first but at last what sweetness, the end of sorrow” (Bhagavad Gita 18:37).
“He knows bliss in the Atman and wants nothing else. Cravings torment the heart: he renounces cravings. I call him illumined. Not shaken by adversity, not hankering after happiness: free from fear, free from anger, free from the things of desire. I call him a seer, and illumined” (Bhagavad Gita 2:55, 56).
“The recollected mind is awake in the knowledge of the Atman which is dark night to the ignorant: the ignorant are awake in their sense-life which they think is daylight: to the seer it is darkness” (Bhagavad Gita 2:69).
“This is the state of enlightenment in Brahman: a man does not fall back from it into delusion. Even at the moment of death he is alive in that enlightenment: Brahman and he are one” (Bhagavad Gita 2:72).
“So, with his heart serene and fearless, firm in the vow of renunciation, holding the mind from its restless roaming, now let him struggle to reach my oneness, ever-absorbed, his eyes on me always, his prize, his purpose” (Bhagavad Gita 6:14).
“When a man has achieved non-attachment, self-mastery and freedom from desire through renunciation, he reaches union with Brahman, who is beyond all action” (Bhagavad Gita 18:49).
A great deal is involved when we sincerely pray: “Lead me from death to immortality.”
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Ever-Present Self
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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