The Katha Upanishad opens with the account of a very stingy man, Vajashravasa, who hoping for heavenly reward performed a sacrifice in which he gave away all his property. But what he gave was useless and worn-out cattle, some hardly able to eat or drink. Since this was a mockery and not a virtuous act, his son, Nachiketas, who was still a boy, was concerned over his father’s evident attempt to hoodwink the gods (and God) with such a farce. He asked Vajashravasa, “Father! To whom will you give me?” Annoyed, his father replied: “I give you to Death!”–that is, to Yama the god of death.
Nachiketas then spoke to his father in an attempt to awaken in him the awareness of the folly he was committing in the light of rebirth and karma.
Here is the way the Upanishad tells it:
Desirous [of the fruit of the Visvajit sacrifice] Vajashravasa, they say, gave away all that he possessed. He had a son by name Nachiketas.
As the gifts were being taken to the priests, faith entered him. Although but a [mere] boy, he thought: Their water drunk, their grass eaten, their milk milked, their strength spent, joyless, verily, are those worlds, to which he, who presents such [cows] goes.
He said to his father, O Sire, to whom will you give me? For a second and a third time [he repeated] [when the father] said to him, Unto Death shall I give you.
Nachiketas [thought], Of many [sons or disciples] I go as the first, of many, I go as the middling. What duty towards Yama that [my father has to accomplish] today, does he accomplish through me?
[He said to his father:] Consider how it was with the forefathers, behold how it is with the later [men], a mortal ripens like grain, and like grain is born again. (1.1.1-6)
There is no use denying it: we all follow in the path of Vajashravasa on occasion, though some do it more exuberantly and overtly. This is especially deadly in the realm of spiritual life.
One day two friends from South India who were living in America asked me wonderingly: “What is an ‘Indian giver’?” When I said it meant someone who promised but did not deliver, or who gave and then took back, they were really bewildered. But when I explained that it was not the Indians who were the “givers” but the deceitful white men, they understood, and to my confusion thought it was very funny. When I told them about “Honest Injun?” and “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” they laughed till they cried, and thereafter frequently asked: “Honest Injun?” when I told them something. But it is not funny when we are Indian givers in spiritual life, just as double-tongued and devious with God and our own spirit as the American politicians were with the Native Americans.
One of the funniest and most typical examples of this is found in the comic motion picture, The End. In one scene Burt Reynolds is swimming in the ocean about to drown. He starts shouting out to God how much of his income he vows to give if he survives. The percentage goes up and up to the total amount. But then he sees that there is a chance he may make it back to shore. So the percentage starts dropping in proportion to how near he gets to the land! Finally he is telling God that he will be giving nothing, and if God does not like it, that is just too bad. We are very much (often exactly) like that ourselves. When we think we are not going to have something, or will have no use for it, we generously offer it to God or renounce it. But the moment we see a need or a use for it, then we announce to ourselves that God would not expect us to hand it over or renounce it.
Many people start out spiritual life with great enthusiasm, ready to dedicate and sacrifice in order to attain liberation. But as time goes by, the sands in the hourglass of will and interest grow less and less, shifting back to the bottom level of ego and the material life until what remains is so feeble and negligible it really is nothing.
The principle that we reap only and exactly what we sow is an absolute in spiritual life. Here are Saint Paul’s words on the subject: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:7-9). Fainting in the sense of losing heart is a very real possibility for all of us, and that is why these words of Nachiketas were written in the Upanishad: “Look back and see how it was with those who came before us and observe how it is with those who are now with us. A mortal ripens like corn [grain] and like corn [grain] he springs up again.”
The law of reaping what has been sown, and conversely not reaping what has not been sown, is to be taken most seriously in all aspects of life, but especially in spiritual matters. Solomon cautions us: “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). The question here is not that of God being angry or sad at our non-payment, but the negative effect our own perfidy will have on us directly. It is not God that rewards and punishes, but our own Self, and its justice is inexorable. So asking God to release us or forgive us means positively nothing: it is our own Self we are dealing with and it cannot be gotten around in any degree whatsoever.
Sad to say, there are many examples of “those who came before” who foolishly reneged on their own selves and suffered the consequences, from simple unhappiness to abject and long-lasting misery and even death. This latter is no exaggeration. I know of many examples myself, but would rather not cite any, for it is simply too bleak. Just do not be one yourself. But I will tell you the principle I have seen demonstrated over and over again: Whatever a person abandons his spiritual life to keep or to gain will be taken away from him–usually abruptly or even violently–and he will never regain or restart his spiritual life in this incarnation. I have never seen an exception. Never. I am, however, not speaking of merely risking or retarding the personal spiritual life–we all do that just from making mistakes or from silly foibles–but of the actual giving up and turning from and even rejecting one’s spiritual life and obligations. This is fatal.
At every step of our spiritual life we must keep in mind the law of cause and effect and “see how it was with those who came before us and observe how it is with those who are now with us.” And lest we think that if we escape the karmic reaction in this life we are home free, Nachiketas added: “A mortal ripens like corn and like corn he springs up again.” So there are future lives in which our neglect can come to fruition in many forms, all of them inimical to our further progress.
Of course, the words of Nachiketas only have meaning to the wise. As Krishna told Arjuna: “One acts according to one’s own prakriti–even the wise man does so. Beings follow their own prakriti; what will restraint accomplish? Those who constantly follow this teaching of mine, full of faith, not opposing it, they are released from the bondage of their actions. But those opposing and not practicing my teaching, confusing all knowledge, know them to be lost and mindless” (Bhagavad Gita 3:33, 31-32).
For some reason there are narrative passages at this point in the text which were lost or never written. When Vajashravasa heard the reproof of his virtuous son, Nachiketas, he uttered the curse: “Unto death shall I give you!” Nachiketas was no ordinary son. He was an accomplished yogi, one who could penetrate into the unseen worlds, and in keeping with his unjust father’s unjust words he went to the realm presided over by Yamaraja, the King of Death. Yama was not there, so Nachiketas remained waiting for him, not eating or drinking anything. (The realms where one goes after earthly death are very like the earth itself. The inhabitants eat and drink, and there is also night and day.) When Yama returned, his servants told him about his guest. Therefore Yama approached Nachiketas and said: “Since you, a venerable guest, have stayed in my house without food for three nights, I salute you. Therefore, in return, choose three gifts.”
Nachiketas asked two questions regarding ritual observance, which Yama answered readily. But then Nachiketas said:
There is this doubt in regard to a man who has departed [is dead], some [holding] that he is and some that he is not. I would be instructed by you in this knowledge. Of the boons, this is the third boon.
[Yama said] Even the gods of old had doubt on this point. It is not, indeed, easy to understand; (so) subtle is this truth. Choose another boon, O Nachiketas. Do not press me. Release me from this.
[Nachiketas said] Even the gods had doubt, indeed, as to this, and you, O Death, say that it is not easy to understand. [Instruct me,] for another teacher of it, like you, is not to be got. No other boon is comparable to this at all.
[Yama said] Choose sons and grandsons that shall live a hundred years, cattle in plenty, elephants, gold and horses. Choose vast expanses of land and life for yourself as many years as you will.
If you deem [any] boon like unto this, choose [that] as also wealth and long life. O Nachiketas, prosper then on this vast earth. I will make you the enjoyer of your desires.
Whatever desires are hard to attain in this world of mortals, ask for all those desires at your will. Here are noble maidens with chariots and musical instruments the like of them cannot be won by men. Be served by these whom I give to you. O Nachiketas, (pray) ask not about death.
[Nachiketas said] Transient (are these) and they wear out, O Yama, the vigor of all the senses of men. All life (a full life), moreover, is brief. Yours be the chariots, yours be the dance and song.
Man is not to be contented with wealth. Shall we enjoy wealth when we have seen you? Shall we live as long as you are in power? That alone is [still] the boon chosen by me.
Having approached the undecaying immortality, what decaying mortal on this earth below who [now] knows [and meditates on] the pleasures of beauty and love, will delight in an over-long life?
Tell us that about which they doubt, O Death, what there is in the great passing-on. This boon which penetrates the mystery, no other than that does Nachiketas choose. (1.1.20-29)
As Yama told Nachiketas, even those powerful beings that control the forces of the cosmos have been puzzled by the mystery of whether those who have gone beyond death can be said to exist or not to exist. Reflective human beings have agonized over the same problem. When inquirers came to Buddha with the question he refused to give any answer, saying that whatever he told them they would misunderstand and distort his words. So he said nothing. Consequently, to say that Buddha taught the non-existence of an immortal Self and individual immortality is perhaps an even worse distortion than that which he sought to avoid through silence.
Yama, however, was not talking to a word-juggling philosopher, but to an eminently qualified inquirer. Yet, testing the strength of Nachiketas’s interest in such a profound matter, he attempted to dissuade him from pressing the question. When that failed, he resorted to that which has effectively deflected seekers throughout the history of humanity. He offered him long-lived and prosperous progeny, vast material wealth and possessions, unlimited pleasure and unlimited power and finally dominion over even the subtle worlds and all that is therein. Throughout countless ages the mere promise or prospect of such acquisitions have turned awakening consciousnesses from the path of immortality and led them further into the morass of mortal life. But Nachiketas could not be moved from his original resolve to learn the truth regarding immortality.
The Katha Upanishad would surely have been known to Jesus when he lived and studied in India, and it can be speculated that it was in the context of the teachings of this Upanishad that he asked his disciples: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
When as a primary grade-schooler I first heard this verse read out in church, I immediately thought: “No. The real question is: What will a man take in exchange for his soul?” Through the years I kept questioning as to whether things were a blessing for life or a bribe to embrace inner death. This, too, we see so often. From those early years and even till now I have seen so many bribes offered and taken, all of them cheap and paltry compared to what the seekers would have gained if they had turned away from the offers. And as I earlier pointed out, in every instance the promise was withdrawn unfulfilled or the supposed gain was ruthlessly wrested from their grasp and they were left broken and empty.
People do not need to die to become lost souls. The suffering may not be eternal, but it is no less terrible for that. I can truthfully say that throughout my life the most desolate souls I have met were those that said to me with sad nostalgia: “I used to be…,” and then mentioned some abandoned spiritual calling or involvement. The wheels of life were grinding them down and tormenting them with the bitter memory of that which they had so carelessly and foolishly tossed aside long ago for supposed “life.”
In Eastern Christian worship the exclamation “Let us attend!” is usually uttered before some special reading or prayer is about to be intoned. We should indeed attend to the words of Nachiketas when he replied to Yama’s offer: “Transient [are these] and they wear out, O Yama, the vigor of all the senses of men. All life [a full life], moreover, is brief. Yours be the chariots, yours the dance and song. Man is not to be contented with wealth. Shall we enjoy wealth when we have seen you? Shall we live as long as you are in power? That alone is [still] the boon chosen by me. Having approached the undecaying immortality, what decaying mortal on this earth below who [now] knows [and meditates on] the pleasures of beauty and love will delight in an over-long life? Tell us that about which they doubt, O Death, what there is in the great passing-on.”
In Christianity and Buddhism a great deal of emphasis is placed on the memory of death as a universal principle and the particular mortality of each one of us. In the modern West this is superficially shrugged off as unhealthy morbidity, but it can be salutary indeed.
It was only sensible that Nachiketas, having come face-to-face with Death, should disregard all that which the human race has been madly seeking throughout its existence. For in the East (including Eastern Christianity) only that which lasts forever without any change is considered real. Everything else is unreal, illusory. Therefore that which can change and pass away is even now essentially nothing. Who, then, would value any such? There is no need for a lengthy philosophical analysis of psychic niceties or suchlike. The fact of their evanescent nature turns all desired objects to mere fantasies in the consciousness of the wise.
In sum: Renunciation is the key to the secret of immortality.
Yama said: Different is the good, and different, indeed, is the pleasant. These two, with different purposes, bind a man. Of these two, it is well for him who takes hold of the good; but he who chooses the pleasant, fails of his aim. (1.2.1)
How simple and direct these words are! When, after years of being soaked (and sometimes drowned) in mere religion I found real dharma, one of the most beautiful and wonderful things about it was its incredible simplicity. The religion I had had before was simplistic, even childishly so, but at the same time it was complex, convoluted and tangled, because that was the state of mind which had produced it and which it produced in those unfortunate enough to accept and follow it. (Many avoided the problem by professing the religion but not really following it.) In contrast, the profound dharma I had discovered was also as simple as the great ocean, gathering all into unity. I had tried reading Western philosophers and theologians and found them impossible to understand–mostly because they were not really saying anything.
The first time I opened a book by Shankara, the greatest philosopher India has ever produced, it was with real anxiety. He was supremely brilliant and profound, I knew. Would I break apart on the rock of his verbiage? Not at all. Every sentence was so exquisitely clear, every concept so unbelievably simple and equally vast and deep. I understood why: Shankara knew by his acquisition of divine consciousness what he was talking about. When Shankara talked to me God was speaking. And God knows how to communicate.
“Different is the good, and different, indeed, is the pleasant.” This does not have to be the situation: the problem is in us. Since the good dissolves the ego and frees us from its seemingly eternal domination and bondage, it is only natural that those who are inured, even addicted, to the ego’s rule will find the good bitter in the extreme. In the closing chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna speaks of: “That happiness which is like poison at first, but like amrita in the end, born of the light of one’s own Self” (Bhagavad Gita 18:37). Who would not choose this? Just about everybody. Why? Because it requires strict self-schooling.
We have to educate and deliver ourselves. Neither God nor any holy being can do it for us. Therefore those who cling to their ego-addiction avidly “take refuge” in and “surrender” to and “place all trust” in God, gods, gurus, saints, teachers, a religion, a scripture and whatever, knowing at least subconsciously that it will not work, for they themselves alone can do the needful. The holy ones have already done all they could do for them. They have given the message and pointed out the way. Now it is their turn to get to work. Otherwise nothing will happen. And in their perversity this satisfies them completely, though they may cover it up with religiosity and “devotion.”
Those who do wish to achieve the good must shake off their self-hypnosis and begin the labor. They will be surprised at how pleasant it really is, and in time will come to realize that they were enjoying pain and avoiding the real happiness and fulfilment that is found only in spiritual life.
Krishna describes “that happiness arising from the contact of the senses with their objects, which in the beginning is like amrita but changes into that which is like poison” (Bhagavad Gita 18:38). It is not just harmful, it is deadly. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, wrote of those who, drinking a sweet drink that contains poison, “sweetly drink in their death” (Epistle to the Trallians). “Aren’t we having fun?” “Come on: live!” “What are you afraid of?” “Why don’t you find out what it is all about?” “What do you know about life?” These are the desperate appeals of those whose consciousness is awakened enough for them to be tormented by the example of those who have more fully awakened and who “touch not the cup: it is death to the soul.”
The wise know that the good and the pleasant utterly differ in their ends. The pleasant leads to ever more addiction, a craving for ever-increasing intoxication, and finally complete collapse and destruction.
“Truly, pleasures born of contact with the senses are wombs of pain, since they have a beginning and an end. The wise man is not satisfied with them” (Bhagavad Gita 5:22). On the other hand: “Released from desire and anger, with thoughts controlled, those ascetics who know the Self find very near to them the bliss of Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:26). “The yogi who is satisfied with knowledge and discrimination, unchanging, with senses conquered, to whom a lump of clay, a stone and gold are the same, steadfast–is said to be in union (yukta).… He knows that endless joy which is apprehended by the buddhi beyond the senses; and established in that he does not deviate from the truth (tattwatah: thatness)” (Bhagavad Gita 6:8, 21).
The good also leads to complete collapse and destruction: the collapse and disintegration of the ego and its attendants, ignorance and desire. Then: “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” (Bhagavad Gita 2:55). “He who possesses faith attains knowledge. Devoted to that pursuit, restraining the senses, having attained knowledge he quickly attains supreme peace” (Bhagavad Gita 4:39). “He whose Self is unattached to external contacts, who finds happiness in the Self, whose Self is united to Brahman by yoga, reaches imperishable happiness” (Bhagavad Gita 5:21). “He who is able to endure here on earth, before liberation from the body, the agitation that arises from desire and anger is steadfast, a happy man” (Bhagavad Gita 5:23).
“Both of these, serving different needs,” impel us to actions, but they do so in completely different ways.
The good points us to the way of benefit in a completely intelligent and non-emotional way. For example, the good never motivates us by selfish means such as promising reward or threatening punishment–this is the way of evil, including much of religion. The good motivates us toward itself simply by revealing its inherent value.
The pleasant is altogether different. It only shows us its external appearance. It does not reason with us, but entices or even compels us to seize it. The pleasant only shows us its immediate or short-term effect, but completely hides from us its long-term effects and blinds us to its inherent defects. The archetypal example of this is found in the Bible. There we are told that “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat” (Genesis 3:6). Here we see all the problems with the pleasant: only the external is considered, emotion and instinct come to dominate and eclipse reason, and the ultimate effect is completely unapparent until it is too late. In sum, the good reveals but the pleasant conceals. It is necessary that we see the good as truly good and the pleasant as harmful and even potentially evil. This is not easy.
One of the problems with prevailing religion of all kinds is its incredible small-sightedness. Like the pleasant-oriented and pleasant-obsessed ego which it supports and feeds, it is concerned with only the moment at hand or with goals that are utterly irrelevant to the real nature of the human being. When we understand who/what we really are, then alone can we comprehend what is the sole purpose of our existence: conscious union with the Absolute. In light of this the Upanishad concludes: “Of these two, it is well for him who takes hold of the good; but he who chooses the pleasant, fails of his aim.” So the discrimination between the good and the pleasant is no light matter.
In the Gospel of Matthew (25:1-13) we find a parable about foolish and wise souls. Most of us do not really care if we are foolish, just as long as no one labels us so. But we should care, and so the Upanishad continues its teaching, saying:
Both the good and the pleasant approach a man. The wise man, pondering over them, discriminates. The wise chooses the good in preference to the pleasant. The simple-minded, for the sake of worldly well-being, prefers the pleasant. (1.2.2)
There is a lot of truth in these few lines that are beneficial for us when understood and followed.
“Both the good and the pleasant approach a man.” Whatever may be the excuses we may make for ourselves, even portraying ourselves as weak or victims, nothing and no one forces anything upon us in life, however much it may seem otherwise. Rather, the good and the pleasant simply present themselves to us. We are totally responsible for our response to them, although, like Adam and Eve in Genesis, we try to put the blame on someone else, on some external factor. “The man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.… And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Genesis 3:12-13).
It is really essential to know as we move through life (hopefully forward) that although our deluded experience seems just the opposite, in reality all things are completely neutral. It is our response to them that really gives them any character such as good, bad, destructive, positive, etc. A little thought will show this. The deadliest poison is harmless if we do not make contact with it. Conversely, the best medicine is worthless if we do not consume it. Or think of it in this way: garbage seems heavenly food to a starving person, but not to someone who is well fed; a child’s toy means nothing to a mature adult. Nothing has an innate ability to draw or force us. All the drawing and forcing is in our mind as it responds to the object. We can blame no one at any time. It is all in us. If there are no grass seeds in the soil no grass will grow. The seeds have to be in us to sprout and grow and bear fruit as thinking, willing and acting.
“The wise man, pondering over them, discriminates” between them. Viveka, the ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal, between the true and the false, between the transient and the permanent, is indispensable for the serious spiritual aspirant. The wise possess and exercise this faculty, the eye of wisdom, by deeply examining whatever is presented to them and discerning whether it is the good or the merely pleasant they are being confronted with. Intelligence comes into the foreground, feeling and emotion being banished from the mental field altogether. Human beings operate either rationally or instinctually/emotionally. The wise are rational at all times. For example, real love is clearsighted, never blind, whereas infatuation masquerading as love is both blinding and blindness.
Between the wise and the foolish the distance and differences are profound, for they are rooted in their mind and intellect. Even as a child I always thought that the statement of Abraham to Lazarus: “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16:26) was spiritually symbolic, that a great gulf did indeed lie between the Godwards and the earthwards. The Upanishad is outlining the nature of this gulf for us by describing its effects on both.
The wise prefer the good; they are not enticed, coerced, or “somehow drawn” to the good. They intelligently (yes, intellectually) prefer it because they know its nature and its effects. This is true of everything in their life, mundane, mental, and spiritual. This is markedly true in the matter of religion. The religious expression of the wise is always peaceful, clear, intelligent, informed and practical. It works.
The foolish, however are not so. As Isaiah and Saint Paul observed, they truly are a “troubled sea” (Isaiah 57:20) “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind” (Ephesians 4:14). “The simple-minded (foolish), for the sake of worldly well-being, prefers the pleasant.” It only follows that they prefer the pleasant to the good, for the earthbound cannot even perceive the good to any appreciable degree; but they create a lot of illusions about it, all negative and self-assuring.
Their religion, of course, caters to their emotions and their demands for the indulgence of their whims and vices. However educated they may be, or how “uplifting” their religious activities, still animality reigns and all manner of subhuman behavior is sanctioned and even elevated and “spiritualized.” Wallowing in the sty of their comforting and indulgent religion, they cast many a contemptuous (and secretly guilty) glance at those who are not so, and create many a bon mot about their “unnatural denial and repressions,” hinting of sinister implications for those who “run away from life” and “refuse to face themselves,” and “expect too much from themselves and others.” Even though they like to say they are only human and that God understands they are, they are really subhuman in character though human in body. Driven by pleasure/pain, their humanity becomes submerged in the animality impressed in their subconscious by millions of incarnations in subhuman forms.
Merely possessing a human body is no guarantee of humanity. The redoubtable Dr. Bronner in a conversation with one of the monks of our monastery referred to some people as “not yet HUMAN!” He was right. A house does not make a home and a human body does not make a human being. Humanity only dawns when intelligence dominates and wisdom is gained. We need not be intellectual in the academic sense, but we must be intelligent. Then if we use our intelligence there is a chance we may become wise and thereby cross the great gulf.
Chances are Nachiketas never got voted “most popular” of anything and was not “a good mixer.” But Yama assessed him quite highly, saying:
[But] you, O Nachiketas, have rejected [after] examining, the desires that are pleasant and seem to be pleasing. You have not taken to the way of wealth, where many mortals sink [to ruin]. (1.2.3)
Now this is a thumbnail portrait of a wise human being, but it is a test of the wise and the foolish. The wise will accept it and the foolish will not. So we should take a square look at it and our reaction will tell us which we are.
First of all, Nachiketas is not naive or “an innocent.” He knows what is going on, even if most things should not be going on. He has deeply looked into the desires of the flesh and the delights of the senses. He knows what the fake life of the foolish is all about, and he has renounced it all: not just a little bit or even most, but the whole mess. Why? Because he does not identify with the flesh and the senses, but with his intelligence and his true Self that is pure consciousness. He knows he is not the perishable body.
“You have not taken to the way of wealth, where many mortals sink,” says Yama. Nachiketas sees that the world of body-sense enslavement is a suffocating bog, not just ugly and repulsive to the wise, but deadly. He knows, with Jesus, that: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). He also knows that in reality once a person has reached the level of human evolution he cannot live like an animal without dire consequences, including terrible suffering. We have at least potentially gone beyond that to which the foolish cling to so obsessively.
This is strikingly illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son found in the fifteenth chapter of Saint Luke. After wasting his inheritance, the man hired himself out to a pig farmer. This is a symbol of someone who has enslaved himself to the lower nature and the senses: pigs that wallow in filth, eat garbage, and demand more. “And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him” (Luke 15:16). Like nearly all of us, the poor soul wants to feed on and be satisfied with the garbage that the pigs revel in, grunting: “This is living!” But it cannot be; we are not pigs; we are not the senses or the body.
No matter how much we desire to regress to animal living, we cannot really do so. And usually only pain will wake us up from such folly. When we do wake up, like the Prodigal we will resolve: “I will arise and go” forward in the path of evolution, leaving the sty and its pigs behind. The rising and the going will not be easy, but there simply is nothing else for a true human being to do. Moreover, the path will not be long, though it may seem so, for time drags when we are having struggle and pain. Jesus indicates this, saying: “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” All the perfected souls that have gone before have assured us that the effort required of us is but a token, nevertheless a token that must be paid. If we can but get a glimpse or conceive a bit of what it will be to have arisen and travelled the way, then the price will be seen to be small. As already cited, Saint Paul tells us that Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Just think: the joy. This should be our perspective, too.
Again, renunciation is the way of immortality.
Widely apart and leading to divergent ends are these, ignorance and what is known as wisdom. I know [you] Nachiketas, to be eager for wisdom for [even] many desires did not distract you. (1.2.4)
It is interesting to note that the concept of two ways of human life is to be found in all religious traditions. Jesus spoke of the Broad Way and the Narrow Way (Matthew 7:13-14), and when they met in Jerusalem and issued a joint spiritual letter (The Didache, usually called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) his apostles began by saying there are two ways in this world. Long before that, the Katha Upanishad spoke to Jesus of the way of ignorance and the way of knowledge.
The way of ignorance is the subject of the three verses we will be considering, but first Yama tells us the key trait of one who aspires to knowledge: he cannot be tempted by the pleasant. This is because he sees its nature and its results. The pursuers of the way of ignorance are not such as Nachiketas, and Yama now tells us about them and the results of their walking in that way.
Abiding in the midst of ignorance, wise in their own esteem, thinking themselves to be learned, fools treading a tortuous path go about like blind men led by one who is himself blind. (1.2.5)
That certainly is plain speaking! Let us go through this verse bit by bit.
Abiding in the midst of ignorance. Such a person is sunk deep into the darkness of ignorance, so deep that he cannot see anything but darkness, so deep that he can hardly be extricated from it, at least in this life. It is not that his condition is utterly hopeless, but that he simply has neither awareness nor interest. If that dawns, he is on his way out of the abyss. But most of the time it does not happen. I once heard in a comedy routine a disease described with the concluding words: “the only cure for which is death.” In many (actually most) cases of dark ignorance this is the truth. The individual requires another birth before he can arise from the depths. Until then he should be left alone.
Wise in their own esteem. Somewhere I once read the words: “The problem with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along.” Since ignorance is a by-product of ego, as ignorance increases so does egotism. Increasing in this alternating cycle, invincible arrogance and invincible ignorance arise, take hold and consume the person. This is really an ugly picture, but an accurate one. Thinking themselves wise, how can the ignorant ever see the truth about themselves–both the higher and the lower selves–and try to rectify themselves? They cannot. Not content to revel in their private kingdom of ignorance, they then set about to aggressively expand it through influencing others. And if they cannot influence they will dominate and bully others until they have extended their sphere of darkness. Again: ugly but accurate. Living in the fantasy-land of ego, they sink deeper, believing that they are rising. Actually the compulsion to control is inherent in ignorance.
Go about. Cycling in confusion, the foolish spiral downward, seeming to go up and down but really only going down and down. In their minds they veer back and forth, up and down, agitating themselves and others, but in actuality they just keep on sinking. Because of this they continually go round and round in the wheel of birth and death, perpetually bound to the torture wheel of samsara, and reveling in every moment. They have discovered the secret of false happiness in this world: unconsciousness.
Blind men led by one who is himself blind. Ignorance as well as misery loves company, in fact needs it desperately and thrives on it. Supporting each other they stumble through this world until death claims them and they get to do it all over and over and over. When they are not being the leader and the led, they are the pusher and the pushed, the dominating and the dominated, the victimizer and the victim. Alternating in these two roles, they reel onward and downward.
What lies beyond shines not to the simple-minded, careless, [who is] deluded by the glamor of wealth. Thinking: This world exists, there is no other, he falls again and again into my power [into death]. (1.2.6)
Rendered heedless of the truth about his condition through involvement with materiality (both his body and objects in the world) and deluded by what he thinks is going on, the ignorant never sees the way beyond the abyss in which he dwells. He simply cannot see it, just as we cannot hear sounds beyond the range of our hearing or see things beyond the range of our sight. He is deaf and blind to spirit in all its aspects. Even if by some chance he should seek the way, if he finds it he will not know it, nor if he comes face to face with the way will he realize it. Just the opposite. He will despise and deny it, even denouncing it as delusive or evil. On the other hand, he will exult in devilish religion, teachers and practices, seeking them out and devoting himself to them. Let me give two examples I know of personally.
Yogananda used to plead with a young American man to learn meditation, assuring him that his progress would be rapid and he would be liberated in this life. But he did not heed the master’s urging. When the master was about to leave his body he told his disciples that if the man ever came to the ashram and expressed an interest, one of them was to instruct him in meditation immediately. A dozen or so years later one of the biggest frauds the yoga world has ever produced came to town charging money for a worthless technique. The man was in poor financial condition, and could not really afford it, but he immediately paid the money and got initiated into nothing.
Two Buddhist friends of mine, practicers of the Pure Land School of Buddhism, regularly visited a prison and instructed the inmates in Buddhist philosophy and spiritual practice. Whenever they tried to get the prisoners to chant the liberating name of Amitabha Buddha they would refuse and insist that they chant “power mantras” instead. They loved bondage and lusted after control. They belonged where they were.
“This world exists, and there is no other” is thought by many of the foolish, and there are many others who do not actually think it but live as though they did. Denial of spiritual realities is done more by deeds than by words. It does not matter how devoutly or spiritually we may think, if we live carelessly and materially, as centered on our ego as any ignoramus we would regard as “unspiritual.”
This is the real test. Thinking the material world alone is real, the ignorant return to it again and again, living in the jaws of death. If we do the same, then we are fools. If we do not, then we are wise.
Seeing is not always seeing and hearing is not always hearing. In some instances it is misperception, and in others it is no perception at all but complete delusion, a fantasy. Yama had this to say to Nachiketas about the matter of understanding the Self:
He who cannot even be heard of by many, whom many, even hearing, do not know, wondrous is he who can teach [about Him] and skillful is he who finds [Him] and wondrous is he who knows [Him] when instructed by the wise (1.2.7)
He who cannot even be heard of by many. Most people have never heard of the Self and never will in this lifetime. Oh, yes, they will hear about an immortal soul/spirit that a tyrannical God will reward or punish according to his whim, but the real nature of that spirit as part of and therefore one with the Supreme Reality, eternal, immortal, and indivisible, will never be even hinted at nor will they come up with the concept on their own. Further, it will not be even suggested to them, either from within or without, that the spirit nature is their true Self and is the only true identity they can ever have.
Being unchanging, this Self cannot be affected or changed by anything–no, not even by God. It is what it is, just as much as God is what he is. It is, therefore, not only the most worthwhile thing for us to get involved with, it is the only thing we can possibly be involved with. Everything else is illusion. This glorious truth of the Self must be the sole perspective in which we view our present situation as consciousnesses experiencing the process of evolution.
Many, even hearing, do not know. This is true of many who, though ostensibly adherents of dharma, really do not get the idea about the Self. These are those that frequent temples, ashrams and saints as a kind of insurance against calamity and trouble. Then there are those that only run to those holy places when problems arise. Obviously they have no degree of comprehension regarding the Self.
Neither do most who profess to understand the Self, as is seen by their words and deeds. If someone believes the building is on fire we can tell it by their attempts to get out. Similarly, if someone believes in the truth about the Self they will order their entire lives accordingly, not just assent to the concept. To know the Self, to enter into the fullness of its consciousness and being, will be the focus of their life and thought.
Sri Ramakrishna often said that if a thief learned of a great treasure kept in the room next to where he was living, he would not be able to sleep for thinking about how to break through the wall and get it. In the same way, those who really understand about the wonder of the Self will not rest until they have (re)claimed the Treasure for themselves. Spiritual purification and spiritual practice are the means for breaking through the wall and claiming the prize.
We have a dilemma here, also: Only those who understand about the Self will be motivated to engage in tapasya to realize it fully. Yet only those who are engaged in tapasya can have any glimmer of the Self and be motivated to practice. The solution lies in the fact that in time the Self begins to urge us to its realization, that we will intuit the presence of the Self and start moving toward the point where, when we hear about it, we will accept and act upon what we hear.
It is interesting to see that Yama does not mention those who reject or deny the truth of the Self. Apparently to him they do not even exist.
We joke sometimes about the exaggerations of the motion picture industry in its early years. “Colossal! Magnificent! The Greatest Ever!” and similar effusions continually poured out in conversation and advertisements. The song, “Hollywood” assured us that out there “you’re ‘terrific’ if you’re good.” Divinity, on the other hand, has a somewhat different viewpoint, so Yama tells Nachiketas: “Wondrous is he who can teach [about the Self].” He is not speaking of a parrot, a spiritual phonograph, but of one who speaks with awakened awareness, even if not from perfect knowledge or realization. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). The implication here is that we should seek out and only listen to those who speak of the Self, from the Self and in the perspective of the Self. Theology is usually only so much distracting noise, and so is most religious and “spiritual” talk. Buddha likened a true teacher or teaching to a finger pointing at the moon–only that which points us to our own reality is itself real and worthwhile. Such a teacher or teaching is wonderful indeed.
Yama assures Nachiketas that the intelligent person is the one who pursues knowledge of the Self. This is done in two ways: listening to or reading the teachings about the Self by those who have themselves known the Self, and (most importantly) by actively seeking to know one’s own Self through careful self-analysis (swadhyaya) and spiritual practices, most especially meditation. This latter point is very necessary for us to grasp. Intellectually intelligent people love learning, and they should. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of studying all the theory and not getting down to any practice to determine the validity of the theory.
Saint Silouan of Athos said that delight in the study of theology was the false mysticism of the ego. When Swami Turiyananda first met Sri Ramakrishna he was intensely studying Vedanta for at least six hours a day. Upon hearing of this, Sri Ramakrishna was astounded. “What else does Vedanta say except that Brahman alone is real, the world is illusory, and the Self and Brahman are one?” he asked. “Why do you need six hours of study for that?” Turiyananda had the good sense to understand, and began to devote himself to japa and meditation in order to know the Self, not just know about the Self. In the West it is a common error to assume that knowing about something is the same thing as knowing it. More than once I have read in a Catholic catechism that knowing God is accomplished by reading the catechism.
To be wonderful and intelligent is good, but to be rare among men is the ideal. So Yama concludes: “Wondrous is he who knows when instructed by the wise.” This is because a good teacher does not just impart theoretical knowledge, but reveals to the student the practical means by which he can open his understanding through meditation to behold and know the Self. Krishna, being the Supreme Teacher, instructs Arjuna in the Gita about meditation, saying: “Having directed his mind to a single object, controlling thought and activity of the senses, sitting on the seat he should practice yoga for the purpose of self-purification” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12). “The yogi who is always content, self-controlled and of firm resolve, whose mind and intellect are fixed on me, who is devoted to me–he is dear to me” (Bhagavad Gita 12:14). “Tranquility of mind, kindliness, silence, self-control and purity of the mental state: these are called tapasya of the mind”(Bhagavad Gita 17:16). “With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him” (Bhagavad Gita 8:8).
Taught by an inferior man He cannot be truly understood, as He is thought of in many ways. Unless taught by one who knows Him as himself, there is no going thither, for it is inconceivable, being subtler than the subtle. (1.2.8)
By “taught” is meant learning the intellectual truth about the Self, its nature, and its possibility of realization. We all know the incredible and impenetrable tangle of theologies that constitute the religions of the world. The reason for this is simple: most (almost all) teachers of religion are fundamentally ignorant–ignorant not in the intellectual sense, but in the intuitive sense. Since we do need an intellectual road map to help us in our search for direct experience of the Self, this is a serious matter. For an attempt to figure out the truth of the Self in a purely theoretical manner will only add to the prevailing confusion. We will just become one more voice in the cacophony of ignorant religion and philosophy.
Few things are worse than an ignoramus who believes he has an inside track. As Jesus observed: “If therefore the light that is in thee be [actually] darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23). Consequently, it is a most detrimental thing to come into the orbit of an ignorant teacher and accept his words, and even worse to act on them.
“It is inconceivable, being subtler than the subtle,” says Yama. Being subtler than the subtlest, the Self cannot possibly be perceived by any senses, including those of the subtle bodies, or conceived of by even the highest and subtle reaches of the intellect. Yet, the Self can be known. This is possible when “taught by one who knows Him as himself [his Self]” through the practice of meditation, in which a qualified teacher will give instruction first and foremost. This really marks out the knowledgable teacher from the ignorant teacher. The ignorant teacher will only expound theory, proving what he teaches by intellectual means. The worthy teacher may say much the same words, but will point the student to the means by which he can attain the vision of the Self. He will establish the student in the practice of meditation, without which nothing that is real can possibly be known.
A bit more. Yama tells us that the teacher should be one who who has become one with the Atman, not a rhetorician or theoretician. Now it is impossible for us to look into the consciousness of a teacher, so how will we know he has real knowledge? We cannot, but there is a trait that at least assures us the teacher is not altogether astray: He will affirm the oneness of the Self and Brahman. No matter how cleverly and convincingly he may speak, however much he may appeal to our emotions and deluded intellects, if he does not insist on the unity of the Self and Brahman, saying with the Chandogya Upanishad, “That You Are,” he is unworthy and to be turned away from.
Unhappily, there are a lot of ignoramuses who appeal to egotistical students by saying: “You are God.” The true teacher says not that we are God, but that God is us. There is an infinite difference. Furthermore, the real teacher does not just tell us this fact, he instructs us in the way to find it out for ourself. These two traits must be present before we even begin to think about accepting anyone as a valid guide.
The ultimate test of a teacher is our own capacity, made accessible to us by his instruction, to leave all speculation behind and enter into the Reality that is both Brahman and the Self, yet One. Then all the gods and sages will say of us what Yama said of Nachiketas:
Not by reasoning is this apprehension attainable, but taught by another, is it well understood. You have obtained it, holding fast to truth. May we find, Nachiketas, an inquirer like you. (1.2.9)
There is a little-known Protestant song entitled “With Eternity’s Values in View.” Musically it is not much, but philosophically it is right on target. We are not temporal, mortal beings, and if we live our life as though we were, then only confusion, conflict and chaos can result. Instead we must see ourselves as eternal beings presently dreaming the dream of evolution, a dream whose culmination is the awakening toward which all of our attention and awareness should be directed. Nachiketas knew this, but Yama underlined it, telling him:
I know that wealth is impermanent. Not through the transient things is that abiding [one] reached; yet by me is laid the Nachiketas fire and by impermanent means have I reached the everlasting. (1.2.10)
What are a billion years compared to eternity? Not even a glimmer. Why, then, do we scramble after short-lived earthly goals, goals that even if attained prove to be worthless since they vanish away so quickly? Why do we continually deny our eternity and affirm the delusion of temporality? Because we identify thoroughly with that which is temporal and finite.
It is true that there is nothing on this earth we cannot ultimately attain, even if it takes many lives, if we put forth the effort. In previous creations human beings performed elaborate rituals to become gods in this subsequent creation, including Brahma the creator. They succeeded, and the result was that they suffer more pain and anxiety than human beings do and are more subject to mental aberrations than humans. Furthermore, they are bound until the end of this creation cycle to fulfill their offices and can in no way shirk or abandon them. So they are bound more than any human being could ever be. Their main anxiety is fear over falling from their exalted status and returning to human form. They have learned nothing from their experience.
“Yet by me is laid the Nachiketas fire and by impermanent means have I reached the everlasting.” Only the spirit is eternal and everlasting. Everything else is temporal and impermanent, and in time will dissolve back into the primal energy of pre-manifestation and we will lose them, never really having had them at all. Consequently, the wise seek only for the eternal spirit, though using the material and the temporal to aid them in their search. For example, physical health is not enlightenment, but it certainly makes the enlightenment process easier. Material sufficiency relieves us from anxiety and helps us pursue spiritual life without distraction.
Discipline is essential for material life, and even more so for spiritual life. Yet, discipline will not take us to the goal. It will greatly facilitate our going, but we must never mistake proficiency in any discipline or practice for spiritual attainment. In the same way, any type of yogic practice that does not deal directly with consciousness will not result in enlightenment. Like discipline, it may help us in our ascent to higher awareness, but it must not be mistaken for that awareness.
Sadhana is spiritual practice that leads to the revelation of the Real (Sat). The temporal does not lead to the eternal, therefore real sadhana must begin and end in spirit-consciousness. No material procedure is sadhana, nor is any externally-oriented practice sadhana. The only true sadhana is the turning inward of the mind and the perception of the inmost spirit. In other words, meditation alone is sadhana, meditation free of all mechanics and gimmicks, simple and direct, leading to the ultimate simplicity that is the Self. We must begin with spirit if we are to end with spirit.
All truth is a two-edged sword. It tells us what is and what is not. The truth about the Self and Brahman also tells us what is not the Self or Brahman. Those of us who are clinging to the unreal will find this painful or at least uncomfortable, but we have to let go of the unreal to lay hold of the Real. The wise listen and act upon Yama’s next words to Nachiketas:
[Having seen] the fulfillment of [all] desire, the support of the world, the endless fruit of rites, the other shore where there is no fear, the greatness of fame, the far-stretching, the foundation, O wise Nachiketas, you have steadfastly let (them) go. (1.2.11)
To enter into Life we turn away from all fulfillments of material and temporal desires, no longer attracted by their false glitter. Nor do we aspire to some heaven or heavenly pleasures offered to us by ego-oriented religion, things that also end as painfully as the joys of earth. Even miracles mean nothing to us, for they occur only in the realm of duality, the realm of death.
Seeing that Nachiketas was yearning to pass from death to immortality, Yama continues:
Realizing through Self-contemplation that primal God, difficult to be seen, deeply hidden, set in the cave [of the heart], dwelling in the deep, the wise man leaves behind both joy and sorrow. (1.2.12)
By knowing ourselves through meditation both the primal God and the primal Self can be known. But it is difficult to see because it is so deeply hidden beneath the layers of our gross and subtle bodies and the countless illusions and delusions, samskaras, vasanas, desires and aversions we have accumulated through equally countless births. But by dwelling in the depths of our heart, having become true knowers of the Self, we leave behind both joy and sorrow.
It is not that Self-knowledge renders us incapable of experiencing pleasure or pain, but of being in bondage to them, being subject to reaction to pleasure and pain. “He who is without desire in all situations, encountering this or that, pleasant or unpleasant, not rejoicing or disliking–his wisdom stands firm” (Bhagavad Gita 2:57). “In tranquility the cessation of all sorrows is produced for him. Truly, for the tranquil-minded the buddhi immediately becomes steady” (Bhagavad Gita 2:65).
All the world seeks happiness. The Declaration of Independence says that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right for every human being. But see how miserable people really are beneath the frantic veneer of the pursuit of happiness in an ever-changing and pain-producing world. The problem? We are looking in the wrong direction. We are seeking outward when we should be seeking inward. We are seeking the non-self instead of the Self. From the Katha Upanishad we learn the right line of action.
Hearing this and comprehending [it], a mortal, extracting the essence and reaching the subtle, rejoices, having attained the source of joy. I know that such an abode is wide open unto Nachiketas. (1.2.13)
The Self is separate from the body, the senses, and the mind. Therefore the body, senses, and mind cannot perceive the Self as an object, and so cannot possibly experience the Self to any degree. The happiness experienced by body, senses and mind is not true happiness at all, but an approximation, a sham that distracts us from the real thing, inevitably leading us to frustration and all-around misery. This must be learned. Then the Self itself must be known as totally separate from that realm of illusion-producing ignorance.
The Self is the very soul of Truth, of Reality. It is not just the basis of reality, it is reality. Apart from it there simply is nothing. It is subtle beyond all conception, but not beyond all experience. It is when we enter fully into the Being that is the Self, that we attain to the Boundless. For the Boundless itself shall be ours.
Yama then tells us an important fact: the Self is the source of all joy. Now this is most intriguing. We are saying that the Self is all there really is, and then we hear that it is the source of all. This is the key to true non-dual comprehension. Sri Ramakrishna explained that at first we follow the path of negation saying “Not this, not that,” the idea being that everything we can see or think of is not the Real. But when we come to the end of that approach which is not just intellection or mind-gaming, but the inner path of meditation, and turn back, we will say, “All this!” We will see that everything is the Real, that the unreal was only our way of seeing and (mis)understanding it. The whole world, said Sri Ramakrishna, will then be seen as “a market of joy.” Unless this is understood at the beginning we will end up being just another dyspeptic world-and-life-denying philosophical grouch, claiming that our dryness and grimness is jnana (wisdom). “There is a state beyond bliss, you know,” grated one of them to a friend of mine who dared to smile. India abounds with these anatmic misfits and we have plenty of them in the West, too. (One is too many.)
All that is dwells in and is rooted in the Self and is therefore an expression of divine ananda. What a wonderful world-view: one that sees not “the world” but Spirit. We do not go from one point to another to pass from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to the Light, from death to Immortality. It is only a matter of changing our base of perception. This is the real alchemy, changing the lead of mundane experience to the gold of supernal joy.
No one is excluded from this glorious truth, it extends to all and is vital to all in an equal degree. No one is nearer or farther from the Self: it embraces all. This is the real Gospel, the Evangelion, the Good News humanity needs so desperately. Therefore Yama says “I know that such an abode is wide open unto Nachiketas.” And for us, too.
Previously Yama has spoken to Nachiketas of the manner to experience the Self that is immanent in all that “is.” Now he completes the picture by an exposition of the Transcendent and the means to realize It. He does this in response to Nachiketa’s question:
[Nachiketas asks] Tell me that which you see beyond right and wrong, beyond what is done or not done, beyond past and future. (1.2.14)
He desires to know about the Transcendental Reality that is beyond all qualities or designations. The Immanent Being has infinite names, forms, conditions, and qualities, but beyond that is something much greater: the Transcendent. That can neither be said to exist or not to exist, to be with form or without form, with qualities or without qualities, for all these propositions are dualities, one presupposing the other. Where there is one there is its opposite: duality is an absolute in the realm of the Immanent Reality.
Nachiketas is certainly pleased with the truth that all can be seen as the Divine Unity, but he wishes to complete his knowledge by learning about what lies beyond even that. For there is a state of consciousness in which even the question of duality/unity, form/formless, and suchlike cannot even arise. That is the state Nachiketas aspires to comprehend and experience.
Everything in manifestation is dual. This is the truth for every aspect of life. There is an interesting divinatory process known as The Alphabet of the Magi. To work it a question is formulated and then written on cards–one letter per card. The cards are then shuffled and dealt out in a special way to form the words that are the answer to the question. It was The Alphabet of the Magi, worked by a Benedictine monk who practiced divination and astrology in Paris after his monastery had been closed by the anti-religious government, that inspired Charlotte Corday to assassinate Marat, and inspired Napoleon, then a mere corporal, to aspire to the rulership of France. So it certainly works.
The idea that the answer is inherent in the question is very important, for it means that the questioner already knows the answer on the subconscious (or superconscious) level, that the question cannot arise until the answer is subliminally known. The purpose of questioning, then, is to bring out onto the conscious level what is known unconsciously. When we seemingly ask another to teach us we are really seeking to stimulate and bring forth our own knowledge. That is why the wise have assured their students that in time they would be able to find the answers within themselves: it is only a matter of developing intuition through clarifying the mind.
It is very common to hear someone demand: “Why did you ask me if you are not going to accept what I tell you?” The reply should be: “So I can figure the answer out for myself.” The very fact that we reject a given answer indicates that we think we do know what is the truth about the matter. Otherwise we would mindlessly accept what we are told. (Many do, alas.) It is all inside us. Questioning reveals the ripening of our innate knowledge. Knowing this, Jesus said: “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). He is not urging us to seek outside ourselves, but to seek within.
Nachiketas seems to be asking Yama about the Transcendent, but his question reveals how much he already knows.
The moment we enter duality, relative existence, we become subject to the situation that some thoughts, words, and acts will impel us onward to higher consciousness and others will impel us to lower consciousness. No matter where we may be at the moment, it cannot be permanent. By the nature of things we will keep moving up and down, back and forth. Whenever we think we have attained some stability it is only a matter of the movement being so slow it is imperceptible to us. We are always in danger of incurring suffering because of this. In truth, suffering is inevitable, for even rising requires effort and unsureness or doubt as to the success of our endeavor. As Krishna describes, the ordinary person is “bound by a hundred snares of hope” (Bhagavad Gita 16:12). We suffer anxiety as to what is the right or wrong and anxiety as to whether we can avoid the wrong and manage to think and do the right. Even more, we are busy getting and losing, anxious to get the good and rid ourselves of the wrong. And of course we are mostly deluded as to what is really right and wrong, usually thinking that the pleasurable is right and the painful is wrong. The danger is obvious.
Nachiketas intuits that this terrible dragging back and forth, this dilemma inherent in relative existence, can come to an end–not in the realm of relative existence, but in its transcendence. Realizing this truth is a tremendous breakthrough for the developing consciousness and indicates that the end of the search is near. Some of our monks visited a great saint in the Himalayan foothills and spoke with him about spiritual life. He told them: “Your questions show that you are not far from the Goal.”
In ignorant religion “sin” and “righteousness” occupy a great deal of attention, not necessarily because of a sincere desire to be virtuous, but because of their effects. Desire and fear motivate the religionist, at least mentally and emotionally, for sin gets punished and righteousness gets rewarded. Punishment hurts and reward feels good. Punishment takes away and reward supplies. The dispenser of reward and punishment is some kind (or many kinds) of deity who, being an extension of the ignorant egos of the adherents of the religion, judges good and bad on the basis of “I like” and “I don’t like,” “I want” and “I don’t want.” Good sense and practicality have nothing to do with it. The deity is either pleased or displeased and acts accordingly.
To complicate matters, the deity can be placated if “sinned against” and, being mollified by groveling and penitence, will reward the sinner as much as if he had been virtuous–maybe even more, so the deity’s “love” and “mercy” can be revealed. We see this behavior in human beings all the time: tears, apology and self-castigation not only stop the anger or displeasure, they evoke a tenderness and openness that should sensibly only be evoked by right conduct. So in evil religion (for ignorance is evil), despite the assurance that virtue is rewarded, we see that sin and repentance are rewarded and the sinner assured of salvation.
Unfortunately we can carry this along with us if we only intellectually adopt a higher, more metaphysical view. For example, we see among people who “turn East” in their search that good karma and bad karma are bugaboos just as much desired and feared as any heaven or hell proffered by Western religion. I knew a man that had a metaphysical bookstore. Shoplifting was a real problem. Now, if he had put a sign on the door so the departing malefactors would have read something like: “Thou shalt not steal,” (Exodus 20:15), or “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4), or “Know thou that God will bring thee into judgment.” (Ecclesiastes 11:9), it would have had no result, perhaps even the opposite. For after all, were not his customers “beyond all that Judeo-Christian negativity”? Indeed they were! So he put a sign on the door for all to see as they departed saying: “Shoplifting Is Bad Karma.” Nearly every day that sign stopped at least one person. Most sheepishly shuffled back to the shelf and sneaked the book back. Some actually came to the owner and gave him the book along with an apology. Why? Had he evoked their higher moral sensibilities? Not a bit. They had traded fear of sin and hell for fear of bad karma and retribution, maybe even a bad rebirth. The ego was still in the driver’s seat, and quite liable to stay there for a long time. Karma may be more positive a concept than sin, punishment, and hell, but the fear engendered is just as egoic, and therefore just as negative and ultimately ignorant.
Nachiketas had a clear vision of things. The problem was not tears or smiles, but the Law of Cause and Effect, the truth that for every action there is an equal responsive reaction. Reactivity, inner and outer, is also inherent in relative (dual) consciousness. But Nachiketas did not just want to get away from the noise and damp of the ocean of samsara, he wanted to get away from the ocean itself. A jail cell may be luxurious, but it is still a prison. Nachiketas aspired to freedom. He wished to attain that which was beyond cause and effect, not just a means of avoiding them. This is one of the reasons why religion is usually so pointless: it attempts to make the fire stop burning rather than showing the way out of the conflagration. It seeks to make bondage palatable, pleasing to both the egocentric deity and the egocentric devotee. A confederacy of dunces, indeed.
My first reading of the Bhagavad Gita revealed to me something I had intuited all my life: the fundamental truth that space and time are basic delusions in the human consciousness. What a relief! So when in three or four days I heard one of the most intelligent of my university professors remark that time and space were the two fundamental realities, you can imagine how much I appreciated the Gita for clearing that nonsense up for me. (I appreciated myself, too, for being so clever as to understand it.)
The time-space continuum is a torment to the awakened consciousness, for it is the basis for the existence of cause and effect and therefore of right and wrong. It is impermanence itself, the root cause of all suffering, fear, anxiety, and instability. Since we have been immersed in relativity for creation cycles beyond number, we find ourselves in a present whose vast roots are thoroughly unknown, and whose effects will create an unknown future that will be a fusion of the past and the present. Uncertainty and confusion are the results of even a small attempt to make sense of the whole thing. And the idea of controlling any aspect is simply beyond our imagination.
We are drowning in a shoreless ocean. But we do not just drown once and have it over with. We drown daily–every moment, actually. Only the stupid or the willfully ignorant do not see this. How can we blame those who take refuge in illusion, whatever the form? They do not need an analysis or judgment of their predicament; they need a way out. Nachiketas is asking for that, not for more philosophy or exposition of the problem.
There is not a place beyond right and wrong, beyond cause and effect, beyond past, present, and future, but there is That which transcends them. Nachiketas sought to become an altogether different order of being, to enter into the state of Brahman Itself. Knowing this to be so, Yama does not hesitate, but literally spells it out.
The knowing Self is never born; nor does he die at any time. He sprang from nothing and nothing sprang from him. He is unborn, eternal, abiding and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. (1.2.18)
Through Self-realization we shall know that we are pure consciousness, we are not born, we do not die, we are neither cause nor effect; we are birthless, eternal, everlasting and ancient. For us there is no beginning and no end. We do not die when the body dies. We are unaffected by any conditions of the body whatsoever. For as Shankara sang:
I am not the mind, intellect, thought, or ego;
Not hearing, not tasting, not smelling, not seeing;
I am not the elements–ether, earth, fire, air:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I am neither Prana, nor the five vital airs;
Nor the seven components of the gross body;
Nor the subtle bodies; nor organs of action:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I have no aversion, clinging, greed, delusion;
No envy or pride, and no duty or purpose;
I have no desire, and I have no freedom:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I have no merit or sin, nor pleasure or pain;
No mantra, pilgrimage, Veda or sacrifice;
Not enjoying, enjoyable, or enjoyer:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I have no death or fear, no distinction of caste;
Neither father, nor mother, nor do I have birth;
No friend or relation, guru or disciple:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I am without attributes; I am without form;
I am all-pervading, I am omnipresent;
By senses untouched, neither free, nor knowable:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
We do not really need to become immortal and eternal, for we are that already. Instead we need to get beyond the illusory consciousness of birth and death, cause and effect, and the entire range of relative existence.
If the slayer thinks that he slays or if the slain thinks that he is slain, both of them do not understand. He neither slays nor is he slain. (1.2.19)
Before considering this Upanishadic passage, here is what the Bhagavad Gita, the great digest of the Upanishads, has to say about this: “These bodies inhabited by the eternal, indestructible, immeasurable, embodied Self are said to come to an end. He who thinks the Self is the slayer and he who thinks the Self is slain: neither of the two understands. The Self slays not, nor is it slain. Neither is the Self slain, nor yet does it die at any time; nor having been will it ever come not to be. Birthless, eternal, perpetual, primeval, it is not slain whenever the body is slain. In what way can he who knows this Self to be indestructible, eternal, birthless and imperishable, slay or cause to be slain?” (2:18-21).
Prabhavananda and Isherwood very poetically rendered this final verse: “Knowing It birthless, knowing It deathless, knowing It endless, for ever unchanging, dream not you do the deed of the killer, dream not the power is yours to command it.” Dreaming: that is the key. God is dreaming the entire drama of the cosmos, but he knows it and controls the dream. We, too, are dreaming the drama of our life, so Krishna tells us (in Prabhavananda’s version): “You dream you are the doer, you dream that action is done, you dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance, it is the world’s delusion that gives you these dreams” (Bhagavad Gita 5:14). The richest people in the world, if they dream they are penniless, suffer the frustration and fear of poverty just as keenly as do those who really are paupers. When they awake, the mental pain disperses, but it was no less real.
This is something we often miss when we subscribe to the theory of Maya. The experiences, such as birth, death, and disease, may be illusion, but the suffering they produce is not. It is real. The grief we feel at the death of a loved one is real, even if the death is not. That is why the Sankhya Karika, the basic text of the Sankhya philosophy upon which the Yoga philosophy is based, opens with a discussion of suffering as our problem. Certainly, illusion should be dispelled, but that will not take care of the deeper problem: our capacity for suffering. It is foolish and callous to bully those who suffer by expounding on the unreality of that to which they are reacting. For there is no thing or situation which can make us suffer. Suffering is our reaction to those things. When we reach the state where we no longer react (for pleasure is as destructive as pain), then we will be free.
Patanjali’s dictum that yoga is the cessation of modifications of the chitta does not refer at all to restless thoughts in the superficial mind. He is speaking of the capacity for any kind of reactivity to outer stimuli. It is when we are unreacting and resting in our true Self that we are in the state of Yoga. To merely fiddle around with the shallow thinking mind, believing that calming it makes us yogis, is deluding ourselves. Our problem is far, far greater and deeper than jittery thoughts. It is the capacity for suffering and for being deluded. To be awake in the fullest sense is to be incapable of sleep and dream. (I am speaking metaphysically.) All the philosophy and analysis in the world will not help us. We need to awaken forever. That is what real yoga is all about.
Slayer and slain are roles in the dream-drama of the evolving consciousness. If we know this, not just suppose or believe it, then nothing can move us from the state of peace that is a quality of our true Self. Fortunately for us all, the cliche about “There is naught but thinking makes it so,” is false, another Western “truth” that mercifully is not true.
In dream the body can be slain and can be a slayer. Being part of the dream, it really acts and is acted upon in the dream context. The dreamer, however, is not part of the dream, even when it projects an image of itself into the dream and slays or is slain. Nothing external can affect or change the internal reality. Again, awakening is the only solution, and we should accept nothing less. Any view other than this which Yama presents to Nachiketas is but the blind leading the blind.
A great flaw in the thinking of most of us is only accepting half of this great truth. We easily affirm our immortality, saying: “I can never die,” and thus reject the idea that we can be slain. Yet we accept the concept that we can be slayers, and make a great to-do about “sin” and “karma.” Because we want to control the behavior of others by promising rewards and threatening punishments, we have literally bought into this delusion and traded on it for life after life, fooling even ourselves.
Though we find the truth in the Upanishads or the Gita, we still keep on worrying about purifying ourselves and clearing out our karma. Half-deluded, we stumble on, distracting ourselves from the real goal, sinking deeper into the morass. Consider the lives of saints. So many of them have been great sinners, even murderers, or incredibly ignorant, and yet we see them either instantly entering into the state of holiness or rocketing to it in a short time. The reason is simple: they had never committed a sin in their eternal lives. Like David, they awoke and found themselves with God. (“When I awake, I am still with thee.” Psalms 139:18.) Krishna told Arjuna: “If even an evildoer worships me single-heartedly, he should be considered righteous, for truly he has rightly resolved. Quickly he becomes a virtuous soul and goes to everlasting peace. Understand: no devotee of me is ever lost” (Bhagavad Gita 9:30-31).
Smaller than the small, greater than the great, the Self is set in the heart [guhayam] of every creature. The unstriving [akratuh] man beholds Him, freed from sorrow. Through tranquillity of the mind and the senses [he sees] the greatness of the Self. (1.2.20)
We tend to think of infinity as boundlessly large, when in actuality that which is infinite transcends space and can therefore not be measured in any manner. It cannot be small or large. Which is why there is no thing too small or too great for God to be involved with. The Self, being a part of God, is likewise beyond measurement. It is neither small nor large, gross nor subtle. In fact, the Self is simply beyond description. We can only talk around it, not really express its mystery.
However, there are some things that can be said about the presence of the Self. Therefore Yama tells Nachiketas that this Self is “set in the heart of every creature.” Within every living being, as well as human beings, there is a divine spirit, jiva or Self. Every living being is on the path of evolution to total, conscious union with Brahman the Absolute. This is the fundamental idea behind all of Sanatana Dharma. Everything should be seen from that perspective.
The Self is eternal. It has no beginning and it can never have an end. Whatever it is, it has been forever. What it is not, it shall never be. This is bedrock truth.
The Self, being beyond time and space, cannot possibly be anywhere. Yet we readily say that it is within. This is as close to the truth about the Self as we can get. At the core of all things, having itself neither periphery or core, is the unchanging Self. It dwells in us in the sense that it abides, yet the Self does not at all exist in the way we understand existence, which is completely relative. The Self is absolute, and relativity can never affect or touch it.
The Self abides in the hearts of all. But what is the heart? Guha means both cave and heart, but it also means “in a secret place.” Within the inmost heart of all things is that which transcends even “inmost.” That is the Self. And there is no thing whatsoever that does not have the Self as its eternal, unchanging indweller. The Self can be within all as their essential being because the Self of the Self, the Supreme Self, Brahman, is all.
This is the Great Revelation. All that we see around us is resting upon the Self as the substratum. All that we perceive objectively is Maya, illusion. That which we cannot see, but which we can “be,” is the Self, the all-pervading subject.
This is wonderful, but what possible meaning can it have if we do not experience this glorious truth for ourselves? Nothing, obviously. So Yama proceeds to tell Nachiketas about the person who can realize the Self.
To be truly free from desire is to be incapable of desire. To not be desiring anything at the moment is not what is spoken of here. We mistakenly think that if we can become indifferent to all things and want nothing we will be free from desire. But we will still be in the condition where desire is possible, even if it be in the future of this or a subsequent life.
To desire something we have to feel inadequate, but even more fundamentally, we have to have objective consciousness, a belief in the reality of the objects perceived, and a belief that in some way we can enter into relation with those objects, that we can affect them and they can affect us. Quite a heap of delusions! Desire is only a symptom of profound ignorance and delusion. In itself it is no more the problem than red blotches on the skin are the disease we call measles. (See? We even name a disease as the symptoms.) However, true desirelessness–and that is what Yama is speaking about–is the state of the liberated, those who know the Self. They have no desires because they have attained that which is the All. Actually, all desires are misdirected desire for the Self. So those who enter into full consciousness of the Self have fulfilled that single true desire.
The Self cannot be intellectually conceived or spoken about, but it can be seen and thereby fully known by the purified consciousness. And it is seen within the core of our being, within the cave of the heart. Caves are important symbols. Though yogis are found everywhere, we naturally think of yogis as dwelling in caves, which they do, metaphorically. In the Gospels we see that Christ (Consciousness) is born in a cave and resurrects in a cave. It all takes place in the heart. Wherefore the wise Solomon said: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The practice of yoga (meditation) is the keeping of the heart which transforms the yogi’s life.
It is said that Shiva sits immersed in samadhi, but occasionally awakens, arises, and dances in ecstasy, exclaiming over and over: “O! Who I am! O! Who I am!” The same wonder at the glory of the Self will be experienced by the persevering yogi.
Tranquillity of the senses and the mind is attained through total fulfillment in the experience of the Self. This fulfillment is accomplished through the purifying and evolving process we call yoga. Therefore I would like to pause here and consider the difference between the Sankhya philosophy, which is the basis of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, and the popular “Vedanta” that presents a very mistaken idea about the individual Self and its destiny.
A few years ago a valuable book was published by the Sri Ramakrishna Math in Madras: a translation of the Sankhya Karika by Swami Virupakshananda. In the Publisher’s Note we find this: “Vedanta takes off to ethereal heights only from the granite platform provided by Sankhya.… Not only Vedanta, but also modern science, cannot be understood in all their nuances without a firm grasp of the Sankhyan tenets.” And the translator writes: “Of all the philosophical systems, the Sankhya philosophy is considered to be the most ancient school of thought. Sankhya philosophy maintains a prominent place in all the shastras…. In the Mahabharata it is said that there is no knowledge comparable to Sankhya and no power like that of Yoga which is based on Sankhya. We should have no doubt as to Sankhya being the highest knowledge.” Later he outlines how the Sankhya philosophy is presented in the Chandogya, Katha, and Shvetashvatara Upanishads particularly. And: “In the Mahabharata and Puranas we find the Sankhya Philosophy fully explained.” The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (part of the Mahabharata) is entitled Sankhya Yoga, and in five verses (2:39; 3:3; 5:5; 18:13, 19) Krishna mentions Sankhya by name as the truth he is expounding.
I mention this because it is so common for students to approach the Gita and Upanishads as exponents of the simplistic monism that is erroneously thought to be Advaita Vedanta. With this distorted frame of reference the teachings that are very obviously opposed to their opinion are ignored. But we cannot afford the luxury of mistaken understanding in so great a matter. Simply insisting that “It is all one” and “We are already there” accomplishes absolutely nothing. And besides, it is not true in the simplistic sense they mean.
God, the Primal Purusha, is eternally associated with Prakriti (Pradhana) on the macrocosmic level, and continually projects and withdraws it as the ever-evolving creation. In the same way each individual purusha is eternally associated with prakriti on the microcosmic level and engages in a series of incarnations, evolving its personal prakriti to the point where it becomes a perfect mirror of the individual purusha and there is a practical separation between the two, just as on the cosmic level. Let us not forget: Patanjali defines yoga (liberation) as a condition of the chitta, of our personal prakriti, not a simple intellectual insight or realization.
The essence is this: Each one of us is evolving our own prakriti, just as God is evolving the universe. The difference is that God is not caught in the drama, and we are. Sankhya states that we must learn to separate our consciousness from its enmeshment in prakriti, but that is only the preparation. Then we must engage in the process of bringing our prakriti to a state of perfection in which it no longer produces waves, but becomes a permanently quiescent reflection of purusha, of our true Self, which Buddhism calls our Original Face.
That process is Yoga, and Yama has this in mind when he speaks of the seeker beholding the Self “through tranquillity of the mind and the senses.” Merely reading a few books and hearing a few lectures on the nature of the Self will not do it. We must, through yoga sadhana, completely repolarize and reconstruct the energy fields that are the mind and senses. “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…. Be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23), wrote Saint Paul. Patanjali (Yoga Sutras 2:1) speaks of the process of kriya yoga, the yoga of purification, consisting of austerity (tapasya), self-study, and devoting the life to God. Yama, Saint Paul, Patanjali, and Krishna all tell us the same thing: “Become a yogi!” (Bhagavad Gita, 6:46).
How could there be sorrow or any slightest form of suffering or discontent for those who have established themselves in the tranquillity that is the Self? It can be said of such a one, as Arjuna said of Krishna: “You know yourself by yourself” (Bhagavad Gita 10:15). And as Krishna said of the perfected yogi: “In tranquility the cessation of all sorrows is produced for him. Truly, for the tranquil-minded the buddhi immediately becomes steady” (Bhagavad Gita 2:65). “Having attained this, he regards no other gain better than that, and established therein he is not moved by heaviest sorrow” (Bhagavad Gita 6:22). And Krishna speaks of: “That happiness… born of the light of one’s own Self” (Bhagavad Gita 18:37).
Sitting, he moves far, lying he goes everywhere. Who, save myself, is fit to know that god who rejoices and rejoices not? (1.2.21)
Yama continues instructing Nachiketas on the nature of the Self. Being a highly developed being, Nachiketas had doubtless intuited most of this already, but for us who were raised in the dry gulch of the West and its religion his words are profoundly stirring–astounding, actually. Who could believe that in this chaotic world there ever were, and still are, sages who by direct experience have seen and spoken these truths? We should analyze them carefully, not for mere philosophical exactitude, but for a good, joyful revel in knowing the facts at last.
Being rooted in Infinity and thereby beyond space, the Self can never “go” anywhere. When we speak of the Atman descending into relative existence or coming into matter, we are only describing the mayic experience that is itself nothing more than a training film. If we see a motion picture about Europe, we do not think we have actually been there, yet we did see Europe. In the same way, under the spell of Maya we have all kinds of experiences, yet they are mere appearance only. Appearance, however is real, even if insubstantial. So we are both here and not here. I experience writing this, and you experience reading it. That is real. But the environment in which we live, including our bodies, is but the picture projected onto the formless screen of consciousness that is our Self.
So, going nowhere, the Self “goes” everywhere. Doing nothing, the Self “does” everything. This is the way of it. Nothing affects the Self, but the Self affects all situations and things. Sankhya philosophy postulates that although Prakriti never touches the Purusha, it is the proximity of the Purusha that causes Prakriti to move and manifest in manifold ways. In the West we find the expressions “uncaused Cause” and “unmoved Mover.” These apply to the individual Self as much as to God.
There is a very practical application of this fact. Being under the spell of Maya we think: “All this is happening to me. All this is being done to me.” But that is erroneous. We are making it all happen, we are “doing” it to ourselves. There are no victims. Everything proceeds from us. Consequently we can study our lives and determine what is going on in our inner mind (which is not the Self, either). Our lives and environment are mirror images revealing our states of mind. Our life is an exercise in consciousness. There are computer games in which the images on the screen are actually manipulated by the player’s mind and will. That is but a feeble glimpse of the truth about our entire chain of births and deaths. That is also what karma is.
“The Lord does not create either means of action or action itself in this world, nor the union of action with its fruit. On the other hand, the swabhava impels one to action” (Bhagavad Gita 5:14). Again, Prabhavananda’s translation is very memorable and informative: “You dream you are the doer, you dream that action is done, you dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance, it is the world’s delusion that gives you these dreams.”
We have a terrible conditioning. We believe that all knowledge must come from outside ourselves, that we are blanks that need to be written on. In contemporary America this is very marked. Everybody thinks they need to have classes or lessons in everything. Some years back a friend of our ashram pointed this out about horse-riding. She commented that everyone she knew took horse-riding lessons, in contrast to her children who just got up on a horse and rode. Then she commented: “Everyone thinks they have to be taught to do anything, rather than learning on their own by just doing it.”
This spills over into our philosophical life, too. We think we are dummies that have to have every nuance, every subtle point, taught to us. And even worse, that they all have to be embodied in technical terms. It is only sensible to inquire about these things from those with more experience and knowledge than ourselves, but childish dependence is no wisdom at all. Dr. Spock began one of his books by telling new mothers that they knew much more about caring for babies than they thought they did, and to trust their inner feelings on the matter. This caused quite a stir. I was only a child at the time, and yet the ripples of consternation even reached me through a magazine review of his “revolutionary” book. We have no confidence, and spiritual laziness often compounds the problem.
Except for yourself, no one but you can know your Self. No one can know the Self for us and pass their experience along to us, even though false gurus claim to be able to do that for their disciples. Some even claim they have already done everything for them or that it is they who really meditate in them when they sit for meditation. This is disempowerment to the maximum degree that is nothing less than demonic! Plus it is false. Just look at their disciples.
But the positive side is that each one of us can and will know the Self–for ourself. “Who, save myself, is fit to know that god [devam–the Self] who rejoices and rejoices not?” This is not just an inspiring thought, it is perfect good sense. Being the Self, who else but I can know my Self? Others may see the divine in me, but I alone can know the divine in me.
In the Chandogya Upanishad we have the thrilling story of Uddalaka instructing Shvetaketu on the nature of the Self, saying to him over and over: “That you are.” But however stirring that account may be, Uddalaka is only telling him about the Self. It is up to Shvetaketu to know the Self. Someone can bring us strawberries, show them to us, and even put them in our mouths, but we alone can know their taste; no one can taste them for us. In the same way, millions may tell us about our Self, but we alone can really know it. It begins and ends with us. Self-knowledge is the most natural thing for us all. We are working very hard to produce and maintain the unnatural state of not knowing the Self. Once we get sensible and literally “wise up” things will change.
The Self is “that who rejoices and rejoices not.” There is no happiness or joy anywhere but in our Self, for we are not happy or joyful by nature, we are happiness and joy. Joy is the permanent, eternal condition of our true Self. The word translated “joy” in this verse is mada, which means delight, intoxication, and exhilaration. To delight in our Self is the ultimate enjoyment.
Previously I mentioned that it is said that Shiva sits immersed in samadhi, but occasionally awakens, arises, and dances in ecstasy, exclaiming over and over: “O! Who I am! O! Who I am!” This is delight in the Self. Sri Ramakrishna said: “Now and then man catches a glimpse of his real Self and becomes speechless with wonder. At such times he swims in an ocean of joy.… Meditating on his Inner Self, Siva dances about. He exclaims, ‘What I am! What I am!’”
Yet Yama says that the Self “rejoices and rejoices not.” He is trying to convey that the delight in the Self is not delight in an object, but is totally subjective and inward-turned. It is not an action; it is a state. As the yogi develops through his sadhana, his prakriti-nature begins to reflect his inner joy more and more, so glimpses of this can be gained right away in meditation.
We must also be sure that we do not think a little rejoicing is the whole thing: the perfect bliss of the Self. Many people get some impressive experiences and figure they have attained Self-realization. This can have serious consequences.
Earlier I briefly mentioned a man who was a confirmed “bliss bunny.” Since he was a disciple of a real master, everyone considered him to be “very high.” He liked to have a group of people join hands and follow him in devotional prayers, songs, etc. He would be “overcome with bliss” and stagger, nearly falling down. Only by holding on to the hands of those on either side of him was he able to keep standing. After years of this “joy, joy, joy, joy” everything went flat for him for some reason and he became a grouchy “jnani” who scorned “bhakti.” (He really had no idea what either of those were.) Then instead of enthusing everyone with devotional joy, he would drone on and on with a scowl on his face, attacking anyone who seemed to be enjoying themselves. So when he met one of his admirers who did not know of the change, the admirer came up to him smiling and holding out his hand. In response he growled: “There is a state beyond bliss you know!” Such is the way with such people.
Sri Ramakrishna had this to say: “Men often think they have understood Brahman fully. Once an ant went to a hill of sugar. One grain filled its stomach. Taking another grain in its mouth it started homeward. On its way it thought, ‘Next time I shall carry home the whole hill.’ That is the way shallow minds think.” At least the ant knew there was an entire hill to bring back. Most think the single grain is the whole!
Innumerable are the yogis who have been deluded in this way and become trapped in the subtlest reaches of Maya. That is why Lord Krishna said: “Truly this maya of mine made of the gunas is difficult to go beyond. Verily only those who attain me shall pass beyond this maya” (Bhagavad Gita 7:14). As Krishna further tells us: “He whose happiness is within, whose delight is within, whose illumination is within: that yogi, identical in being with Brahman, attains Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24).
Once a friend of mine showed me a book in which within a few pages a supposed master described the various stages to enlightenment and that of enlightenment itself. I read through it and told my friend: “I had gone through all those states by the time I was nine years old. And I was not enlightened then, nor am I enlightened now. There is a tremendously long journey still to travel.”
How do we avoid mistaking the hint for the whole truth? By continuing to practice meditation and other spiritual disciplines until the moment the body drops off. Although Jesus could say: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), he continually withdrew into solitude throughout the three years of his ministry and taught his disciples to do the same.
A sure sign of a deluded individual is the belief that he has gone beyond the need for meditation and other spiritual practices. A very famous Indian guru of the twentieth century believed that he had attained sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi, so he announced that he no longer needed to meditate, since there was nothing more it could do for him. While his disciples meditated, he stayed in his room and fiddled around with this and that and read the newspaper and listened to the radio. After some years he was visited by two Americans who thought of themselves as big guns on the American spiritual scene. Not wanting to scandalize them by messing about while everyone else in the ashram meditated, Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi Baba started attending the meditation sessions and meditating also. After a few days he remarked to a group of disciples that he could perceive a very marked improvement in his mind and consciousness since starting to meditate daily, and expressed wonder and puzzlement over how that could be. Unfortunately, no one had either the good sense or the courage to tell him that it was because he was not really enlightened. Anyhow, when the American biggies left, SNSB went back to fooling around in his room during the meditation periods.
Consider the perfect life of Gautama Buddha. To the last moment of his life he lived like a normal monk. He was eighty years of age, yet he went out and begged for his food every day, no one brought specially-prepared goodies for him. He lived outdoors, under a tree, not in a special “retreat” designed by a renowned architect-disciple. He dressed in the simple, minimal clothing of a monk, not in some expensive rigs donated by disciples to express their “devotion.” He walked everywhere he went, he did not ride in some cart or chariot provided by a rich patron out of consideration for his age. And here is the most important point of all: He meditated for hours a day, often withdrawing for weeks and months at a time to engage in even more intense meditation. He never relaxed his disciplines for an hour, much less a day. In this way he showed us how to not fall into delusion: keep on till the end, until the Self is truly known. And then keep on until death says: The End.
Knowing the Self who is the bodiless among bodies, the stable among the unstable, the great, the all-pervading, the wise man does not grieve. (1.2.22)
Yama continues to instruct us regarding the nature of the Self, using the most simple words yet with the most profound meanings.
Ashariram sharireshu, the bodiless within bodies, such is the Self. Though always without a body or adjunct in any form (as far as its true nature is concerned), yet all bodies are inhabited by the Self. There is no form in which the formless Self does not dwell. Who can number the forms in which we have manifested from the beginning of our evolutionary peregrinations in relativity, yet we have slipped away from each embodiment as bodiless as we were from the first. Being one with Brahman, it can be said of the Self as well as of Brahman: “With hands and feet everywhere, eyes, heads and faces everywhere, with ears throughout the universe–THAT stands, enveloping everything. Having the appearance of all the qualities of the senses, yet free of all the senses, unattached yet maintaining all, free from the gunas, yet experiencing the gunas, outside and inside beings–the animate and the inanimate–incomprehensible because of its subtlety, far away and also near, undivided, yet remaining as if divided in beings, this is to be known as the sustainer of beings, their absorber and generator. Also this is said to be the light of lights, beyond all darkness; knowledge, the to-be-known, the goal of knowledge seated in the heart of all” (Bhagavad Gita 13:13-17).
Anavastheshv’ avasthitam, the stable among the unstable, the unchanging among the ever-changing: so is the Self. For aeons we are entertained with the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of Maya’s web. Finally we are no longer entertained by it, but wearied. Yet we find ourselves addicted to it. Only in the beginning do addicts love their addiction. In time they come to loathe it, yet refuse to even hear of ridding themselves of it. And then at last they see themselves as slaves, hating their bondage but incapable of shedding it. Yet we are ever free.
People bound by various addictions, including alcohol and drugs, would come to Sri Ramakrishna and plead for help. Often he would just touch them, and their enslavement would be gone forever. Learning of this, we naturally glorify Sri Ramakrishna for his power of merciful deliverance, but we must not overlook the great truth it demonstrates: It was the nature of those people to be free. Otherwise he could not have freed them. If we would seek freedom, then, we must seek it only in the Self. And the Self being within, we must seek within.
Time and space being mirages, the Self is everywhere. Infinity is not “bigness” so big it cannot be calculated, it is beyond measuring because it transcends the modes of measurable being. It is simply another mode of existence altogether. The truth is, the Atman, like the Paramatman, is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. (This latter quality is easy, since the Self never “does” anything.) So there is no place where the Self is not present. It goes everywhere without moving.
The Self is supreme, but not in the sense of earthly entities. It is all-embracing. Not only is there nothing above it, there is nothing beneath it, for such states are not native–and therefore impossible–to it. But Maya is doing a superb job at convincing us otherwise and fooling us into thinking that the purpose of both material life and sadhana is to expand in the illusory realms of conditioned existence, to become large or small, to enter in or depart, none of which are even possible for the Self. Simply hearing about the Self can make us more ignorant than we were before if we interpret the Self in terms of samsaric delusion.
The wise are those who know the Self as it is. And that they have accomplished by shedding their association with the unreal and turning back to their own reality. They transcend all grief by removing their center of awareness from the realm in which suffering is possible. Suffering being an illusion, they need only awaken from the dream and abide in the Real. This is not a negative state, for it is not just a removal of sorrow but the entering into the bliss that is the nature of the Self. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21).
I once read an essay about Shakespeare’s practice of putting discomfiting truths into the mouths of fools so people in the audience could scorn them and not get upset with him for unmasking their folly. It often happens that what people hope is “just fun” or “nonsense” is really insightful commentary on their foibles. This happens very often in poetry, also. Edward Lear, who wrote “nonsense verse,” sometimes made profound observations on life. Some of his limericks have a lot to say about how life should be lived. One of his wisest works was a poem entitled “The Jumblies,” in which he tells us at the end of every verse:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
These exotic people went to sea in a sieve. Everyone else said they would drown, considering that a sieve is more holes than anything else. Some even told them that though they might manage, it would be a wrong thing to do. But they did it anyway, excellently and to great profit. Upon their return, all the nay-sayers announced that they, too would go to sea in a sieve. But Lear assures us that still: “Far and few, far and few, are the lands where the Jumblies live.” No; everyone will not be going to sea in a sieve. Just the far and few Jumblies.
“Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). This is not a statement of pessimism, but of simple fact. All manage salvation (liberation) eventually, but only a comparatively few at a time.
Yama has been very encouraging in his exposition of the Self, but now having told of its wonder he enters upon the subject of what is required to know the Self. Actually, the price he presents to us is quite simple and direct. If we are interested, then the price is substantial but not impossible. If we are only spiritual window-shoppers, then the price seems unreasonable and beyond payment. Here it is in two verses:
This Self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing. He is to be attained only by the one whom the (Self) chooses. To such a one the Self reveals his own nature. Not he who has not desisted from evil ways, not he who is not tranquil, not he who has not a concentrated mind, not even he whose mind is not composed can reach this (Self) through right knowledge. (1.2.23-24)
Reading the Bhagavad Gita opened to me a world I had never thought could exist. How many wonderful things I found therein! Many were amazing, not the least being the statement: “For the wise Brahmin with true knowledge, a great deal in all the Vedas are of as much value as a well when there is a flood all around” (Bhagavad Gita 2:46). Here was a scripture that told me I should go beyond it and know for myself, and told me the way to do that.
The Self cannot be known through scriptural study, for Krishna tells us that “he who just desires to know about yoga goes beyond the Vedas” (Bhagavad Gita 6:44). Books are nothing more than paper and ink. Obsession with them is detrimental, proving the truth of the statement that: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (II Corinthians 3:6). We must get behind the words of even illumined masters and tap the Source of those words. There was a rabbi who was a leading authority on the Jerusalem Talmud. When he was asked how he understood it so well, he simply replied: “I know its Source,” God.
Sri Ramakrishna said: “It is true that many things are recorded in the scriptures; but all these are useless without the direct realization of God, without devotion to His Lotus Feet, without purity of heart. The almanac forecasts the rainfall of the year. But not a drop of water will you get by squeezing the almanac. No, not even one drop.” Intense study of scriptures without meditation cannot give a drop of higher spiritual knowledge, for no book can reveal That which lies beyond all we think or know. But meditation can and does.
Yama lists mere intellectual study, the heaping up of extraneous knowledge which by its character is external and superficial, as an obstacle, not so much in itself, but by the illusion of knowledge that arises in the self-satisfied mind of the “knower.” Yama’s assertion shows how mistaken it is to translate swadhyaya (self-study) as “study of scriptures” (shastradhyaya) when we encounter it in the Yoga Sutras.
The Kena Upanishad examines this matter, saying: “To whomsoever it is not known, to him it is known: to whomsoever it is known, he does not know. It is not understood by those who understand it; it is understood by those who do not understand it” (Kena Upanishad 2:3). Obviously the word “know” (veda) has two meanings here. One is the mere intellection about Brahman, the other is knowledge derived from the direct experience of Brahman, from conscious union with Brahman. There is a knowing that is unknowing and an unknowing that is knowing. That is why Swami Prabhavananda renders the Kena verse: “He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge; he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge.”
We cannot possibly figure out the nature of anything, much less the Self, by mere intellection. This is not the fault of the mind, any more than it is the fault of a radio that we cannot get television programs through it. There is absolutely no faculty which can perceive or reveal the Self. The Self alone knows itself. As long as we attempt to perceive the Self through any intermediary, just so long shall we be frustrated or worse, deluded. There is no instrument, however subtle, no capacity of the mind, however refined, that can reveal the Self. Certainly the purified intellect (buddhi) can intuit the presence of the Self and even some of its traits, and this is good, but this is not Self-knowledge.
Many intelligent people with highly developed intellects mistake this intuition for direct experience and knowledge. This is a subtle trap we must avoid diligently. How can we know if we have fallen into the trap rather than risen into the Light? That actually is easy to determine. If we can talk about what we perceive, and define it, then it is not the Self. That which lies within the range of speech lies outside the Self. No matter how near we can come to the Self, it is not the same as knowing the Self. For when the Self is revealed, all “knowing” not only ceases, it becomes impossible.
That is why Jesus said to God: “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25). To demonstrate this vividly, “Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-3). Think how direct and uncomplicated a child’s mind usually is. Also, they are capable of intensely magical/mystical thought. How unquestioningly they accept the idea of the miraculous, including the power of the individual to work marvels. How sad that they ever come to “know better.” A friend of mine was watching a television program in which a pianist seemed to be floating in the air and even turning over and over. “How do you suppose they do that?” she mused to herself aloud. Instantly her five-year-old son said: “Easy! There’s a magician hidden in the piano.” And that is so true: there is a magical being hidden in each one of us known as the Self which can do, and does, all things.
Shankara was the greatest sage of post-Vedic India, commentor on the Upanishads, Gita, Yoga Sutras, Brahma Sutras (Vedanta Sutras) and author of books on Advaita philosophy. Vast as his writings were, he summed up everything that was taught by these holy books, saying: “I shall tell you in half a verse what has been written in tens of millions of books: Brahman is real. The world is illusory. The jiva is nothing other than Brahman.” That is it. So, as I have already mentioned, when the future Swami Turiyananda told Sri Ramakrishna that he studied Vedanta for several hours a day, the great master was astonished. Quoting these words of Shankara, he asked: “How can you spend hours studying something so simple? What more is there to say?” Turiyananda got the idea behind the idea and himself became a knower of the Self.
All the learning in the world is futile in relation to the Self and Brahman, for they lie outside the scope of the intellect. The ear cannot hear color, the eye cannot smell fragrance. No thing can know the Self but the Self.
Yama’s words of seeming negation are really quite positive, for he then tells Nachiketas: “He is to be attained only by the one whom the [Self] chooses.” To whom does the Atman reveal itself? To the yogi, none other. As the Psalmist said: “Deep calls unto deep” (Psalms 42:7). Like attracts like; it really does take one to know one.
In India they have the saying: “He who chooses God has first been chosen by him.” Jesus told his disciples: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). The very fact that we are seeking God is guarantee of our finding, for it is an indication that he has called us. He does not call in vain, nor do we seek in vain. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7). “To such a one the Self reveals his own nature.”
Yet there are those who because of their condition cannot know the Self. “Not he who has not desisted from evil ways, not he who is not tranquil, not he who has not a concentrated mind, not even he whose mind is not composed can reach this [Self] through right knowledge.”
“The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal,… Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” (II Timothy 2:19). Evil in all forms must be abandoned if the Self, which is all good, is to be known. This should not be hard to understand, but many deny it anyway, or try to get around it. Of them Jesus said: “They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2), a false security that is really “the sleep of death” (Psalms 13:3). But for us who wish to live it is important to determine what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong.
The Upanishads present a concept of right and wrong different from that of the world religions which teach that something is right or wrong because their God or Prophet has said so in their supposedly infallible scriptures. “It is in the Bible,” “It is in the Zend Avesta,” “It is in the Koran,” etc. Although the Upanishadic sages know that things are good or evil, their basis for the classification is utterly different from that of ordinary religion. They do not look upon a thing as wrong because God or gods have declared it wrong or some lawgiver has prohibited it, or that something is right because they have advocated it. Rather, a thing is good or evil according to its innate character.
The perspective of true religion (dharma) is this: If it takes you toward the Goal it is good; if it takes you away from the Goal it is evil. That which darkens, obscures, or limits our consciousness is bad. That which lights, clears, and expands our consciousness is good. That which helps in the search for God is good; that which hinders or delays it is not.
We all know people who declare that their addictions and illusions either do not harm them or are even good for them. But the intelligent do not engage in such childish rationalization. They impartially examine and conclude accordingly. It is all a matter of the individual’s interest and honesty. In other words, it is all in our hands, as are all the aspects of our life if we face up to it. Those who wish to pursue dharma should judge for themselves on the basis of the foregoing principles. Before we can become gods we must first be truly human, and human beings use their intelligent reason. The Upanishadic teachers, like God, leave everyone free to be wise or foolish. Dharma never condemns or praises. It just waits to be fulfilled.
The senses must be controlled, but we usually mistake the way to do so. We think of the senses as being tremendously powerful, incredible forces to be overcome. But we need not think so drastically. Before we can control the senses we purify them through sadhana. Meditation alone purifies in a lasting manner. At the same time we purify the senses by directing them Godward. We make the eyes look at sacred symbols or depictions, the ears to hear the words of sacred texts and sacred music, the nose to smell the offered incense, the tongue to taste the food blessed by offering and prayer, and the inner sense of touch to feel the exalted atmosphere created by worship and contact with the holy. The good news is that we need not struggle with the senses, but turn them in spiritual directions.
Restlessness of mind is itself great suffering. Yama says that a quiet mind is indispensable to self-knowledge. Here is what Krishna has to say about it:
“Always disciplining himself, the yogi whose mind is subdued goes to the supreme peace of nirvana, and attains to union with me” (Bhagavad Gita 6:15).
“When he is absorbed in the Self alone, with mind controlled, free from longing, from all desires, then he is known to be steadfast. As a lamp in a windless place flickers not: to such is compared the yogi of controlled mind, performing the yoga of the Self. When the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, beholding the Self by the Self, he is content in the Self. He knows that endless joy which is apprehended by the buddhi beyond the senses; and established in that he does not deviate from the truth” (Bhagavad Gita 6:18-21).
“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).
The sine qua non of self-knowledge is meditation. The Self is ever-present but we do not perceive it because our vision is obscured by the illusion known as Maya. After describing meditation, Krishna says: “Having directed his mind to a single object, controlling thought and activity of the senses, sitting on the seat he should practice yoga for the purpose of self-purification” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12). Then the Self will become literally self-evident. In conclusion he remarks: “With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him” (Bhagavad Gita 8:8).
The Self can be known by those who truly desire to know. And that true desire manifests through desisting from evil, controlling of the senses, quieting (restraining) the mind, and practicing meditation. This is the real formula for gaining the knowledge of Reality.
In the East the concept of the Self as identified with the Supreme Self rather than a creation whose tenuous existence is continually threatened by the possibility of divine wrath, has produced a psychology and a society the reverse of that found in the West. The Self is as eternal and immovable as God because it is one with God.
In the nineteenth century the remarkable poet, author, and mystic Emily Bronte had rejected the ignorant religion of her childhood for intuitive affirmation rather than negation. When death was only a matter of weeks away, she wrote this final poem:
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And Faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life, that in me has rest,
As I, undying Life, have power in Thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou–you are Being and Breath,
And what you are may never be destroyed.
Yama’s analysis of the Self has had a very logical progression. Then he tosses out to Nachiketas a single incredible sentence:
He for whom priesthood [Brahmins] and nobility [Kshatiryas] both are as food and death is as a sauce, who really knows where he is? (1.2.25)
All that we consider worthy of respect, either venerable (brahmin) or powerful (kshatriya), is but a snack to the everlasting Self. Even death, which is ever with us and seemingly rules our destiny, is but a flavoring for the Self at its feast of life, adding spice.
Yama’s words are reminiscent of Arjuna’s vision of the Universal Self in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Since the individual Atman and the Paramatman are one they have the same qualities. Just as Arjuna saw that all things emanate from the Supreme and are reabsorbed in the Supreme (are “eaten” by It), so it is with the Self. All that is “us” has come from the Self and shall return to the Self. The Self is the eternal immortal source of that which we think is temporal and perishable. But only the forms are such. Their essence is the Self.
Unborn, the Self moves through many births. Formless, the Self inhabits many forms. Untouched, the Self encounters a myriad objects. Unconditioned, the Self manifests countless qualities. Remaining what it is, the Self appears to be all that it is not. All that it encounters is but its repast, and its births and deaths merely a sauce.
“You lick up and swallow all the worlds on every side with your flaming mouths. Filling the whole world with radiance, your fierce rays are consuming it” (Bhagavad Gita 11:30).
There are two selves that drink the fruit of Karma in the world of good deeds. Both are lodged in the secret place [of the heart], the chief seat of the Supreme. The knowers of Brahman speak of them as shade and light. (1.3.1)
There are two kinds of Selfs, the many individual Selfs and the one Universal Self. The Mundaka Upanishad likens them to two birds of the same appearance who sit in the same tree. “Two birds, companions [who are] always united, cling to the Self-same tree. Of these two, the one eats the sweet fruit and the other looks on without eating” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.1).
First we come to know the individual Self, and that enables us to attain the knowledge of the all-inclusive Supreme Self. How the two exist as one yet two is incomprehensible to the intellect but is readily experienced by the inmost consciousness of the persevering yogi. Yet intellectually we need to have some grasp of the unity/duality, otherwise we can have no correct perspective on anything, inner or outer. Extreme dualism is an error, and monism of any kind is even worse in its simplistic nature. For this reason the enlightened use the expression non-dual (advaita) as the nearest we can come to conveying the truth of our existence.
The verse beginning Purnamadah purnamidam is usually interpreted as a statement that the Relative has come from the Transcendent while retaining essential unity with the Transcendent. But it can also be understood as referring to the individual Self that exists rooted in the Universal Self. It, the Atman, originates in the Supreme Self, the Paramatman, and is never separate from that Self. If examined, the two will be seen to be one. How is it possible? The One alone knows–and those who have united their consciousness with the One through yoga.
In the heart of our consciousness (not the physical heart) the sages say there is the Chidakasha, Conscious Space or Ether also called the Hridayakasha, the Space/Ether of the Heart. There the individual Self and the Supreme Self dwell together. It is also known as the cave of the heart.
It is easy to understand that the individual Self abides in (and as) the heart (hridaya), but when we look at the vast manifestation of cosmic life that is the creation it is natural for our awareness to be drawn outward and thereby forget that the Supreme Self is right there inside in the same space (akasha). The Paramatman is not in the cave of our heart only incidentally, since It is everywhere, but that is Its abode, its native place, Its center. Its manifestation can be found everywhere, but It can be found only in the cave of the heart. How foolish to climb mountains, delve into the earth, wander across the plains, or cross the seas, thinking to find the abode of God which is in the heart alone.
There are those who know Brahman directly and those who possess a secondary knowledge based on intuition resulting from their seeking of Brahman. Though only the first really know Brahman, yet the others’ knowing about Brahman is of such a character that it can lead them on to the direct knowledge of the illumined. Both of these have the same understanding without contradiction. Therefore the finders never disdain the seekers.
What do the finders and seekers know? That the Atman and the Paramatman, though one, are as different as light and shadow. But not in the sense of being opposite or antithetical to one another. Rather, it means that the individual Self exists only because the Supreme Self exists, just as a shadow can only exist because of the light. As the Rig Veda says of the Supreme Self: “His shadow is immortality” (Rig Veda 10:12:2). Also, the idea is that the individual Self (jivatman) is a reflection of the Supreme Self (Paramatman). Later, Yama will say: “Everything shines only after that shining light” (2:2:15). Prabhavananda: “He shining, everything shines.”
Since the foregoing is true, the next verse of the Upanishad says:
That bridge for those who sacrifice, and which is the highest imperishable Brahman for those who wish to cross over to the farther fearless shore, that Nachiketas fire, may we master. (1.3.2)
What is the Nachiketas Sacrifice? It is not a secret fire ritual that produces a magical enlightenment. The Nachiketas Sacrifice is the determined search for knowledge (jnana) which stops not until the Goal is reached.
The search for union with God is the bridge which we cross to be free from this world of suffering. Seeking God is itself the guarantee that we shall find him. Many who lack confidence worry as to whether they can succeed in spiritual life, if they are “ready,” and so forth. But the very fact that they wish to find God means that they have already travelled far along the path in previous lives. Otherwise they would sleep along with most of the world. “He who just desires to know about yoga goes beyond the Vedas” (Bhagavad Gita 6:44). “Whatever meritorious fruit is declared to accrue from study or recitation of the Vedas, sacrifice, tapasya, and almsgiving–beyond all these goes the yogi; and he attains to the supreme, primeval Abode” (Bhagavad Gita 8:28).
Truly, may we know that “highest imperishable Brahman,” which is sought by those “who wish to cross over to the farther fearless shore.”
Know the Self as the lord of the chariot and the body as, verily, the chariot, know the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as, verily, the reins. (1.3.3)
The Atman is by nature the master of the body, intellect and mind. Yet it has become dispossessed by the usurper, the ego, and its attendant negative forces. It is like a legitimate government that has been overthrown and imprisoned by revolutionary thugs. The good and worthy do their best to restore that government to its rightful seat. Of course, since the body, intellect and mind cannot function without the presence of the Self, it is still master, yet in exile at the same time. This is the mystery of Maya.
The body is the chariot, a conglomerate of parts without any consciousness or will of its own. Yet, being pervaded by the intellect (buddhi) it does seem to have a mind of its own because it is an extension-expression of the mind and as such has great relevance for the spiritual aspirant. Sri Ramakrishna used to study the physical configuration of newcomers and thereby determine their spiritual qualifications. So we must not think of the body as an inert thing. It is alive, but alive through the indwelling spirit. We may not be the body, but the body is certainly an expression of our Self. The body is not only the vehicle of our accumulated karmas it is the embodiment of them. Our karmas are incarnated in the body much more than is the Self.
“The intellect as the charioteer.” Our movement through life is produced solely through the agency of the intellect, the buddhi. This is why in the Gita Krishna speaks of buddhi yoga as the process of liberation. “This buddhi yoga taught by Sankhya is now declared to you, so heed. Yoked to this buddhi yoga, you shall avoid the bonds of karma” (2:39).
Yoga is solely under the supervision of the buddhi. Yoga takes place both through the buddhi and takes us beyond the buddhi into the Self. This gives us a tremendous insight into the nature of liberation: it is totally a matter of regaining Atmic awareness. The wise certainly undertake many external, even physical, disciplines to assist in their practice of yoga, but all of these are intended to affect the buddhi in its striving towards enlightenment.
Since the buddhi is the charioteer, its quality determines everything in life. The cultivation of our buddhi, then, is a vital part of our sadhana. Any “humanimal” can be taught asanas and physical breathing exercises, but only the developed human can engage in real yoga. If you think this statement is extreme let me tell you something I learned early on in my “yoga life.”
In 1962 I was privileged to meet and listen to the venerable A. B. Purani, the administrator of the renowned Aurobindo Ashram. Sri Purani had been a fellow revolutionary with the (future) great master Sri Aurobindo Ghosh (who, incidentally, was a high school teacher and inspirer of Paramhansa Yogananda). Later he became Sri Aurobindo’s disciple and lived in the ashram for many years before the master’s passing.
During one of his brilliant discourses at the East-West Cultural Center in Hollywood, Sri Purani told of an experience he had while traveling to the United States. He had stopped over in Japan where he was invited to speak to a yoga group in Tokyo. This group taught and practiced only Hatha Yoga (asanas and breathing exercises). At the conclusion of his talk, Sri Purani asked them: “Would you agree that the greatest yogis of recent times were Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, and Sri Ramana Maharshi?” They expressed unanimous assent to this statement. “Yet,” he pointed out, “not one of them practiced Hatha Yoga. So why do you consider yourselves yogis when you only practice that which they never bothered with?”
No matter how many external assists we may use, yoga is essentially of the buddhi.
“And the mind as, verily, the reins.” By mind (manas) is meant the sensory mind, the intermediary between the intellect and the body. Through the mind the intellect sees whether the body should act or be still. For example, the mind conveys the sensation of a hand being burnt by fire to the intellect, which then directs the body–again, through the mind–to pull the hand away from the fire.
The next element in the matter are the senses, without which the mind would have nothing to show the intellect. Therefore:
The senses, they say, are the horses, the objects of sense the paths [they range over], [the Self] associated with the body, the senses and the mind–wise men declare–is the enjoyer. (1.3.4)
It is the senses that drag the chariot of the body along according to their impulses. If the buddhi is weak or underdeveloped, the mind which is driven by pain-pleasure motivation alone takes complete charge and gives full rein to the senses. Having no intelligence they plunge onward, ever seeking fulfillment and, not finding it, hurtling even further on the paths of unreason and folly. As a consequence the individual becomes hopelessly lost and mired in the morass of external sensation. Enslavement to body and senses is the only possible consequence.
“Who am I?” is the gate to real understanding, for it sets us seeking true knowledge. And the Upanishadic verse continues: “[The Self] associated with the body, the senses and the mind–wise men declare–is the enjoyer.” We certainly do not always enjoy a great deal of our experiences in/through the body, so perhaps a better translation of bhokta is “experiencer” rather than enjoyer.
The major idea in this verse is that the Self is the actionless consciousness that experiences the intellect, mind, senses and body. Sri Ramakrishna was once asked: “What is the Self?” He answered: “The witness of the mind,” which included the buddhi. As a consequence we can understand that the Self is never the doer at any time. The Gita illumines this for us, saying: “In all situations actions are performed by the gunas of Prakriti. Those with ego-deluded mind think: ‘I am the doer.’ But he who knows the truth about the gunas and action thinks: ‘The gunas act in the gunas. Thinking thus, he is not attached” (Bhagavad Gita 3:27-28). That is, the gunas as the senses move among and act within the gunas manifesting as the sense-objects and this world. “When the beholder sees no doer other than the gunas, and knows that which is higher than the gunas, he attains to my being” (Bhagavad Gita 14:19).
There is more material like this, but the sum is: “He who by the mind controls the senses, and yet is unattached while engaging action’s organs in action, is superior” (Bhagavad Gita 3:7). This is because: “The senses are superior to the body, the mind is superior to the senses, the intellect is superior to the mind. And much superior to the intellect is the supreme intelligence” (Bhagavad Gita 3:42-43).
He who has no understanding, whose mind is always unrestrained, his senses are out of control, as wicked horses are for a charioteer. He, however, who has understanding, whose mind is always restrained, his senses are under control, as good horses are for a charioteer.
He, however, who has no understanding, who has no control over his mind [and is] ever impure, reaches, not that goal but comes back into mundane life. He, however, who has understanding, who has control over his mind and [is] ever pure, reaches that goal from which he is not born again. He who has the understanding for the driver of the chariot and controls the rein of his mind, he reaches the end of the journey, that supreme abode of the all-pervading. (1.3.5-9)
The Upanishadic seers have just told us that the Self in the body is like a driver in a chariot. Now they set the intended journey before us.
Beyond the senses are the objects [of the senses] and beyond the objects is the mind; beyond the mind is the understanding and beyond the understanding is the great Self. Beyond the great Self is the unmanifest; beyond the unmanifest is the spirit. Beyond the spirit there is nothing. That is the end [of the journey], that is the final goal. (1.3.10-11)
It is the genealogy of perception that is being outlined here, beginning with the Source, the Eternal Witness Itself. This verse, then, is a exposition of the chain, or progression of consciousness. According to it, the hierarchy of perception is:
Unmanifested seed (Avyaktam)
Ego (Atman Mahan–the Great Self or Mahat Tattwa)
Physical objects (Arthas)
The Bhagavad Gita (3:42-43) gives a similar but simpler list relating exclusively to the individual (microcosm) rather than the Universal (Macrocosm), but we can translate the foregoing list to relate to us as individual beings (jivas). In that case we get:
The unmanifested yet out-turned will-energy
The sense of “I am”
The sense organs
Having descended the ladder, how do we get back up, especially since we have no memory of how we managed the descent? Luckily for us the yogis of India figured that out for us untold eons ago, and it works as well today as it did then. Meditation is the way of ascent back to awareness of the Self. It is possible to work our way back up the ladder, for the rungs are not disparate elements but evolutes or emanations of those above them. If all the rungs, including the senses themselves, were not extensions of the Self, we could not reach back to the Self. This is as true on the microcosmic level as it is on the macrocosmic. Fortunately Brahman has not fallen and forgotten Itself, but It, too, withdraws and projects himself as creation, as we do ourselves by coming into manifestation and eventually into physical birth. “As above, so below” has many ramifications.
“Beyond the spirit there is nothing. That is the end, that is the final goal.” So the Upanishad continues:
The Self, though hidden in all beings, does not shine forth but can be seen by those subtle seers, through their sharp and subtle intelligence. (1.3.12)
Who sees Brahman? The sukshma-darshibhih–those who can see the subtle, the inmost Reality. How, then, can we become seers of the Subtle? By continually developing our capacity for inner perception and simultaneously refining our inner faculties. To do that we must “go inside” in meditation and work with our inner mechanism called the antahkarana by the yogis until it is so subtle that it can grasp the Subtle Itself. As the Taittiriya Upanishad says: “Through austerity [tapasya], seek to know Brahman. Brahman is austerity” (3.2.1).
The wise man should restrain speech in mind; the latter he should restrain in the understanding Self. The understanding he should restrain in the great Self. That he should restrain in the tranquil Self. (1.3.13)
This is an invaluable instruction for the yogi. In meditation his perceptions of the mantra should become subtler and subtler. It cannot be described. Only the rightly practicing yogi will experience and understand.
Arise, awake, having attained your boons, understand [them]. Sharp as the edge of a razor and hard to cross, difficult to tread is that path (so) sages declare. (1.3.14)
After his translation of this verse Radhakrishnan cites Jesus’ words: “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24). The clue to difficulty in spiritual life is found in the description of the path as “sharp as the edge of a razor.” The idea is that the path is extremely subtle, not arduous. But that makes it all the more difficult, even impossible, for those of coarse minds. This, and this alone, is what makes the path hard to tread. The edge of a very sharp razor is so fine, so subtle, that it is almost non-existent. Narrow is almost too “broad” a word to use concerning it. Those who tread it have to be both in and out of this world at the same time. But the yogis manage.
No spiritual discipline comes near to being as hard as the things human beings commonly do every day to get the things they want. And “want” is the operative word. If we do not want a thing, then any action needed to obtain it will be tedious and too hard. But if we want it intensely, then no effort is too much or too hard. That is why the thirty-fourth Ode of Solomon says: “There is no hard way where there is a simple heart, nor any barrier where the thoughts are upright. Nor is there any whirlwind in the depth of the illuminated thought. Where one is surrounded on every side by pleasing country, there is nothing divided in him.” So the problem is in us, not in the path.
Here we see again that the solution is to refine our consciousness through meditation. We must also refine our physical and mental bodies through purity of thought and deed and especially purity of diet. The ingesting of animal flesh, alcohol, nicotine and mind-affecting drugs is a frontal attack on spiritual life. It is completely insane for a seeker to engage in such destructive habit-addictions.
The absolute necessity for refinement of perception through refinement of all the levels of our being is revealed by the nature of the path’s goal:
[The Self] without sound, without touch and without form, undecaying, is likewise, without taste, eternal, without smell, without beginning, without end, beyond the great, abiding; by discerning that, one is freed from the face of death. (1.3.15)
We must become able through yoga to experience all these aspects of the Self and thereby become ourselves embodiments of them.
Though most people do (will) not realize it, as long as we live on this earth we are literally in the jaws of death. That is why we pray: “Lead me from death to immortality.”
The Self is not to be sought through the senses. The Self-caused pierced the openings [of the senses] outward, therefore one looks outward and not within oneself. Some wise man, however, seeking life eternal, with his eyes turned inward, saw the Self. (2.1.1)
The first thing this verse teaches us is that the Divine itself has caused our consciousness to turn outward. What was the purpose of our turning outward? Evolution. We had to enter into relative existence and run the maze of ever-ascending evolution in order to satisfy our innate urge for infinity that is part of our eternal nature. (See Robe of Light for a complete exposition of this.) Consequently, there is nothing wrong with the senses turning outward; the problem is when the senses become locked in externalization. The purpose of our entering the field of evolutionary life was for us to experience the many shades of evolving consciousness while never losing awareness of our true nature or identifying with the bodies we constantly put on and off as the ages progressed. However it may have been intended, the situation has horribly changed, making us blind to inner realities.
Sunk in awareness of seeming mortality, human beings either seek to distract themselves from the terror and pain which arises from their delusion, or they seek some outer way to attain immortality. Both searches are based on delusion, so they can only fail. We need not become immortal, but realize our present, eternal immortality. Those who shut the eyes of their consciousness to the false appearances of external existence and turn within discover the truth of their immortality. No longer do they think that the solution is to be found in some external factor, but clearly see that their own Self is the wondrous answer.
The small-minded go after outward pleasures. They walk into the snare of widespread death. The wise, however, recognizing life eternal do not seek the stable among things which are unstable here. (2.1.2)
Interior experience in meditation will open our eyes to the ways of the world and bring us to spiritual adulthood. In its true state, relative existence is a vast field of life, but when it is overlain with the veneer of our inner delusions, it becomes death to us. That which is meant to expand our consciousness and free us into infinity becomes a prison, a killer of our soul, and this is all our doing. The world remains what it ever was, but we have lost sight of its nature just as we have become blind to our own Self.
The urge to expansion of consciousness through upward-moving evolution becomes distorted into a myriad desires arising from our false identity with the body and its illusory mortality. “Seize the moment!” is our despairing cry. Seeking to live, we plunge ourselves “into the snare of widespread death.” Saint Anthony the Great, looking back on the beginning of his spiritual awakening said: “I saw the nets of delusion spread upon the earth.”
The wise, who have come to know their immortality through the direct experience produced by meditation, turn from the snare and seek only that which cannot pass away because it has never come into being at some point in time, but is immortal, like us. In other words, we seek the kingdom of God that is nothing less than God and our own Self.
There is a seeking that is necessary, but a seeking for deepening our consciousness rather than for something that is not already ours. We must not fall into the facile illusion that we have nothing to do or attain. Certainly there is nothing objective to be done or attained, but in the subjective realm of consciousness there is literally everything to be sought and attained. “Establishment in the knowledge of the Supreme Self, keeping in mind the goal of knowledge of the truth–this is said to be true knowledge. The contrary is ignorance” (Bhagavad Gita 13:11).
That by which [one perceives] form, taste, smell, sounds and touch, by that alone one perceives. What is there that remains [unknown to it]? This, verily, is that. (2.1.3)
All the doors of perception function through the Divine Presence, not just the Divine Power. Our consciousness is the Consciousness of God, the finite drawn from the Infinite, as the wave draws its existence from the ocean. It is a grave error to decry the experience of our senses on themselves as either deluding or somehow degrading. It is our response to sensory experience that is often deluding or degrading, but we are at every moment living in and by God.
But God is not just the Power by which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He is the all-embracing Consciousness within our consciousness and within all things. If we come to know, to enter into the being, of that Infinite One we shall know with his knowing and therefore know all things. As Saint Paul said: “Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (I Corinthians 13:12). This is the inmost meaning of Saint John’s statement: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:2).
That by which one perceives both dream states and waking states, having known [that as] the great, omnipresent Self, the wise man does not grieve. (2.1.4)
All states of consciousness are directly rooted in the Self, individual and universal. When through yoga this is truly known, all grief ceases, for the yogi identifies with his all-perceiving Self.
He who knows this Self, the experiencer, as the living spirit close at hand, as the lord of the past and the future–one does not shrink away from Him. This, verily, is that. (2.1.5)
What an incredible statement! We are thinking that we are poor, mortal beings swept along by forces alien to us and totally beyond our control, when all the time we are the masters of past and future. All our fear comes from our unawareness of this glorious fact. By turning inward and discovering the truth of ourself we will pass beyond fear. The message of the Upanishads is inseparably bound up with the necessity for sadhana if it is not to be no more than dead words on a dead page.
He who was born of old from austerity, was born of old from the waters, who stands, having entered the secret place (of the heart) and looked forth through beings. This, verily, is that. (2.1.6)
This is a reference to Ishwara, the immanent aspect of Brahman within creation as its manifestor (creator) and guide.
Whenever “This, verily, is That” is said in this and the following verses it means that the individual Self is also one with that aspect of God or his manifestation. It further means that the Self is a reflection of that aspect of God. In that sense it “is” all those aspects that shall be cited. And all are found in the cave of the heart.
She who arises with life [prana], Aditi, the soul of the gods, who stands, having entered the secret place (of the heart), who was born with the beings. This, verily, is that. (2.1.7)
Prana referred to here is the universal life force, the substance of creation itself. The Self is that as well.
Agni, the all-knower, hidden in the fire-sticks, like the embryo well borne by pregnant women, should be daily adored by the watchful men with oblations. This, verily, is that. (2.1.8)
The universal element of fire, also the power of life, which is manifested in the sacrificial fire, especially in the inner fire sacrifice of meditation and spiritual practice and discipline: The Self is that as well.
Whence the sun rises and where it goes to rest; in it are all gods founded and no one ever goes beyond that. This verily, is that [Atman]. (2.1.9)
Infinite space, akasha, in which the entire cosmos rests and evolves, containing all things and beyond which no form of relative existence can go: The Self is that as well.
Whatever is here, that [is] there. Whatever is there, that, too, is here. Whoever perceives anything like manyness here goes from death to death. (2.1.10)
There is a pause in the theme of the preceding verses to assure us that “here” and “there,” relative and absolute existence, are mutual reflections of one another. “As above, so below,” is the way the wise of the Mediterranean world expressed it many centuries ago. And of course we can correctly come to the conclusion that they are not two, but One.
The outer is the inner; the inner is the outer. We have touched on this slightly. It is of inestimable importance to realize that our outer life is but a mirror image of our inner life, that whatever is taking place in our external body and environment is happening in the depths of our mind. So by studying and analyzing our outer life we come to gauge the true character of our inner life. This is not palatable to the ego, for it means that our misfortunes are our own doing and reveal our inner negativity. As the Chinese maxim has it: When mean-spirited people live behind the door, mean-spirited people come in front of the door. So let us be careful before we indulge in a litany of all the wrongs we have suffered and all the bad people that have done those wrongs to us. We will only be confessing our own sins. It is not sympathy we need, but self-correction. As a very wise book, The Astral City, says: “Self-pity is a symptom of mental illness.”
It is also necessary that our inner and outer lives be identical. We are all aware that very corrupt people can act and speak in a seemingly virtuous way. Also, many soft-hearted people pretend to be callous or even prickly. But neither is admirable. “What you see is what you get” should be our rule of life. Our outer life must be an exact imaging of our inner life. In the Gospel of Thomas, section 22, Jesus tells his disciples that they will enter the kingdom of God: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below.”
By mind alone is this to be obtained. There is nothing of variety here. Whoever perceives anything like variety here, goes from death to death. (2.1.11)
“Mind” in this verse means our individual consciousness which becomes totally non-dual in perfect realization. Only those possessed of such realization become freed from continual birth in relativity, which is really passage from death to death.
The universe and ourselves are in an ineffable way part of the indivisible Brahman. That is why Jesus said when praying to God: “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God” (John 17:3), and why the Upanishad tells us that “whoever perceives anything like variety here, goes from death to death.”
The Upanishad calls us to see God and enter into Life Eternal. For numberless ages, in the rest of the world people have been intent on the awesome greatness of God, and nothing more, whereas in India the sages were intent on the awesome greatness of both the individual and the universal Selves. Perceiving their unity, they understood that whatever can be said about one can be said about the other. Thus their teachings are a unique revelation of the true nature of us all. Without this self-understanding, our life is nothing but confusion with a few random stumblings into insight. It is an absolute necessity that we comprehend the Upanishadic teachings and strive to gain the Upanishadic vision.
The person of the size of a thumb resides in the middle of the heart. After knowing him who is the lord of the past and the future, one does not shrink [from Him]. This, verily, is that [Atman]. (2.1.12)
Since the Self transcends space, how can it have a measurable size? It cannot. Shankara explains in his commentary that “the lotus of the heart is of the size of a thumb. Existing in the space within the lotus of the heart, [the Self] has the size of a thumb, just like space existing in a section of a bamboo that is of the size of a thumb.” Just as water filling a vessel sunk in the ocean has volume and shape, in the same way the Self seems to have a shape and a measure. But once the vessel is broken, the shape and volume of the water cease to be, and so it is with the Self. Incarnate in a body, the Self pervades it and reflects it, but upon the dissolution of the body those seeming conditions cease instantly, for they have no objective reality. So it is not the Self that is really of the size of a thumb, but rather the lotus of the heart within which it momentarily dwells.
We should not mistake the lotus of the heart for the organ that pumps blood through the body. The real lotus of the heart is the core of our consciousness, the essence that is our Self, the inmost level of our being, our absolute essence beyond which we simply do not exist. It also indicates that to know ourself we must meditate and penetrate deep into our consciousness.
The person of the size of a thumb resides in the middle of the heart, like a flame without smoke. He is the lord of the past and the future. He is the same today and the same tomorrow. This verily is that [Atman]. (2.1.13)
The purusha, the individual spirit, is beyond space and therefore not really measurable. Nevertheless, people have seen it as a bright light or flame of white fire approximately the elliptical shape and size of a thumb. It is all light; it has no shadow or “smoke.” In my early teens I met a Christian minister who described the death of his twin brother. He said that at the moment of death his brother’s mouth opened, and as he exhaled for the final time, a white light shaped like a thumb emerged from his mouth and passed from the room.
The Self is pure light without covering or admixture. In our present state of delusion we think that the Self can be inhibited and even corrupted, but that is not so. The various energy levels within which the Self is dwelling certainly can be inhibited, corrupted and even destroyed. If we identify with those levels we will live in fear and uncertainty, relieved only occasionally by utterly false hopes. But once our consciousness is posited in the Self, all that is past, dispelled by the eternal Light of the Self.
Our Self is the master of our past and future, and therefore of the present, as well. Knowing it, we pass beyond fear. That Self never changes, but the bodies in which it is presently encased do evolve. They are the stage on which the drama of incarnation after incarnation unfolds, and through which by the practice of yoga the bodies are purified, evolved and ultimately revealed as themselves being the Self.
The changeless nature of the Self puts us beyond all fear, concern, and anxiety, knowing “this Self to be indestructible, eternal, birthless and imperishable” (Bhagavad Gita 2:21). The Self really has no past, present or future. It is itself the Eternal Now.
It is a grave error to think that we are helpless flotsam and jetsam on the bosom of the ocean of Relativity, being moved about by forces such as karma, our thoughts and even God. It is our own Self that determines whatever happens to us and is the sole controller of our past, present and future. Look at the chaotic lives of those who “trust in God” and “surrender to the divine will.” They rationalize their disordered state by saying they have peace of mind through their attitude, but that is a poor substitute for the truth of things. Look at how many people die peacefully. Peace counts for little when it is nothing more than an opiate. We must stop living a lie. It is not our karma, our thinking or even God that ordains our life. It is our Self. And until we unite our awareness with the Self we shall know nothing but uncertainty and confusion. But when we do, “the cessation of all sorrows is produced” (Bhagavad Gita 2:65) which is ours forever.
As water rained upon a height flows down in various ways among the hills, so he who views things as varied runs after them [distractedly]. (2.1.14)
The gravity of delusion pulls inexorably downward those who think that the many layers of their incarnate existence are the Self. Yet, they do not think they are enslaved by the consequences of their ignorance, but believe they have free will as they “run” into the valleys of darkness and pain. “It’s my life, and I will do what I want to,” they shout as they roll downward into the jaws of sorrow and death. Only when the unity of our Self is known, both in the fact of its unitary state of being and its eternal oneness with Brahman, will the earthward pull disappear along with the compulsion to continual rebirth. “Brahman is to be attained by him who always sees Brahman in action” (Bhagavad Gita 4:24). It is as simple as that.
As pure water poured forth into pure [water] becomes the very same, so the Self of the seer who has understanding becomes [one with the Supreme]. (2.1.15)
We and Brahman are one substance. There is no difference. We are not creations, we are beginningless and endless, co-eternal with God. “Truly there never was a time when I was not, nor you, nor these lords of men–nor in the future will there be a time when we shall cease to be” (Bhagavad Gita 2:12). Knowing this makes all the difference, the only difference we need. Brahman is Pure Being and we are Pure Being. Uniting with Brahman we remain what we always have been, but no longer subject to ignorance and delusion. The Self does not change, but becomes irrevocably established in the consciousness of its changelessness.
[There is] a city of eleven gates [belonging to] the unborn, uncrooked intelligence. By ruling it one does not grieve and being freed is freed indeed. This, verily is that. (2.2.1)
The human body is usually called “the city of nine gates,” as in the Gita (5:13), because of the nine apertures of the body, but here it has the number eleven. Shankara says this is because the navel and the Brahmarandhra, the “soft spot” at the crown of the head, are also being counted as gates. This is appropriate, as before birth we are nourished through the navel, and at death the adept yogi departs through the Brahmarandhra.
The important point being made here is in contradistinction to most religious thought and attitudes, even in the East. For it is commonly thought very spiritual to disregard the body, push it aside in our consciousness and despise it as a liability and even a prison. But the Upanishad tells us that the body is not alien to the Self (Atman), but rather belongs to the Self, just as the cosmos belongs to God and is in a sense the body of God. It is good to keep in mind that whatever can be said of God can usually be said about the individual being, as well. The body is ours, and is fundamentally a mirroring of our personal consciousness, which is why we can legitimately speak of “the body-mind connection.”
The body, the divine abode of the divine Self, is the vehicle through which the individual evolves during the span of life on earth, and must be taken into serious account by the yogi who will discover that the body can exert a necessary effect on the mind. Purification of the body, especially dietary purity, can greatly assist the mind in meditation. The yogi who observes will discover that the diet of the physical body is also the diet of the mind, that whatever is eaten physically will have an effect mentally. One who does not know this is no yogi at all. Authentic morality, based on the yama-niyama of Patanjali’s yoga system, also has a transforming effect on the mind.
“By ruling it one does not grieve.” When we master the gross and subtle bodies we will end all sorrow. The Gita says of the yogi who meditates on the Self: “When the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, beholding the Self by the Self, he is content in the Self. He knows that endless joy which is apprehended by the buddhi beyond the senses; and established in that he does not deviate from the truth (tattwatah: thatness). Having attained this, he regards no other gain better than that, and established therein he is not moved by heaviest sorrow. Let this dissolution of union with pain be known as yoga. This yoga is to be practiced with determination, with an assured mind” (6:20-23)
We must meditate on the Self, not on external deities or symbolic forms of psychic states. As Sri Ma Sarada Devi said: “After attaining wisdom one sees that gods and deities are all maya” (Precepts For Perfection 672). The Upanishads, Gita, and Yoga Sutras know nothing of meditating on ishta devatas and ishta mantras, only on our Self.
“And being freed is freed indeed.” There is no need for commentary, but here is some corroboration: “Those who are truly established in the buddhi, the wise ones, having abandoned the fruits of action, freed from the bondage of rebirth, go to the place that is free from pain” (Bhagavad Gita 2:51). “Released from desire and anger, with thoughts controlled, those ascetics who know the Self find very near to them the bliss of Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:26).
He is the swan in the sky, the pervader in the space [between earth and heaven], the priest at the altar, the guest in the house. He dwells in men, in gods, in the right and in the sky. He is [all that is] born of water, sprung from the earth, born of right [ritam], born of mountain. He is the true and the great. (2.2.2)
We have already seen in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that the Self is symbolized as a swan. Where in all the scriptures of the world can we find such a thrilling statement as this, thrilling and glorious because it is true?
To fully comprehend the teachings of the Upanishadic sages we must keep in mind that whatever can be said of the Paramatman on the cosmic, universal level can usually also be said of the jivatman on the level of our individual life within the cosmos. So the Upanishads do not only describe God, the Supreme Spirit, in passages like this, but the nature of our own individual spirit.
There is another, essential, side to this Upanishadic statement, and indeed to all scriptural teachings, that must be kept in mind at all times in our study: We must experience and know the realities spoken of by the sages. They did not write down their perceptions for us to merely accept them and be intellectually convinced of their veracity. Rather, they wrote them down as signposts so we could check our own perceptions against them. Never did they mean for their writings to become dogmas and doctrines. They assumed that their readers would be yogis like themselves, sadhaka pilgrims pressing on toward the ultimate frontiers of consciousness.
This is the absolutely unique character of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Nearly all other scriptures, including those of later authorship in India, are statements of truths we are supposed to accept on faith without question. This is why intelligent investigation and analysis are so little valued by the expounders of those scriptures, why nearly all religions warn their adherents away from reading the books of “heretics” and demand that they shun their company. Intellectual fearlessness terrifies “the chosen faithful” and sets their teeth on edge.
But no religious system that employs a bond of any type can lead us to freedom, only confusion and enslavement. For example, in Yoga yama and niyama are not commandments from God but necessary and helpful supports to our search for Self-realization. Just as we learn what food is harmful to the body, so from Patanjali we learn what conduct limits and clouds the consciousness of the aspiring yogi. If we wish to ignore his counsel, that is our own concern. No one will call us to account for our heedlessness except our own Self.
Those who are fit to be yogis joyfully learn what to cultivate and what to avoid, and live accordingly. Those who drag their feet, sigh and sullenly demand mitigations, are simply not fit for yoga and should occupy themselves in other areas. This is why Jesus asked: “Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:28-30).
Every yogi must be adhikarin–qualified and worthy, fit for yoga and capable of its total practice. Jesus said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). It is interesting that he likens spiritual life to the cumbersome wooden yoke of oxen or bullocks, assuring us that it will be restful and easy and light to bear. How is this? To a strong ox or bullock the heaviest of yokes will be of no consequence. So if we are the kind of people for whom yoga is intended, its requirements and disciplines will be light and easeful. But if instead of being oxen or bullocks we are dogs and swine (symbols used by Jesus for the unworthy), the light and easy yoke will break our backs. This is why some people should take up bowling or surfing and forget religion altogether, what to say of yoga. For the serious seekers, though, the ancient rishis hold back nothing, but give the full picture of the Self.
The Self can seem (please note I say seem) to enter into numberless conditions and interior states. It even experiences millions of births and deaths, yet it never really dies, for immortality is a fundamental trait of its nature. It is not easy, but the yogi must cultivate a continual awareness that he is Immortal Being and order his life accordingly. I do not mean by this that he denies his present (seeming) condition, but that, as Yogananda continually advised, he is always aware that he is only sitting in the motion picture theatre of the cosmos watching a movie that, cosmic as its scope may be, can be wiped away in a moment, that only he and the other viewers are real, and all must eventually leave the theater and go home to Infinity. How splendid are the truths of the Upanishads.
The Self is the source of all light, the Inner Light of Consciousness that illumines all things. For outside the Self there is no perception of even the brightest of material suns. It is the presence of the Self that produces awareness of all phenomena. Outside the Self nothing at all exists. Within the Self is everything.
The Self shines in the sky of the Chidakasha, the subtle Ether (Akasha). The Chidakasha is the infinite, all-pervading expanse of Consciousness from which all things proceed, the true heart of all things. The shining of the Self in the Chidakasha is Life itself. In the individual, the Chidakasha is the subtle space of Consciousness located in the Sahasrara, the Thousand-petalled Lotus that is the astral/causal brain. From that point the Self enlivens and illumines all things.
The Self is also that power which moves within the Chidakasha as the wind moves within earthly space. As the wind causes movement in the trees and on the surfaces of earth and water, in the same way it is the Self that produces all movement in the cosmos, in all the worlds gross and subtle.
The Self is the transmuting force of Cosmic Fire on the altar of the universe. In India of the Upanishadic rishis there were no temples, nor were there any external religious rites other than the sandhya (morning and evening salutations of the sun) and the havan, the fire ritual in which by the agency of consecrated fire the offerings were transformed into subtle energy forms and transferred into higher worlds. The Self, then is the ultimate transmuting power which evolves both the cosmos and the personal energies of the individual spirits within it. The entire universe is an altar in which, through the power of the Self, all things are offerings unto and into Infinite Being.
All things, even the least atom, are dwellings for the all-pervading Self. All things that exist have the Self as their inmost dweller. Where there is any objective thing, there is the Self. Yet, since no things are permanent, the Self is only a momentary Guest, but none the less real for that.
What is meaningful to us is the truth that the Supreme Self is the Dweller in all conscious beings. And since they like the Supreme Self are not “things,” the Supreme Self is not a guest but the permanent Indweller as the Self of the Self. The consciousness of each one of us is the only temple in which Spirit ever dwells in Its essential being. Although it can be said that in a sense our bodies are temples of God, that is not really true in the purest sense. Only in our consciousness is Spirit to be found. This is why the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita insist that we must identify with the Self alone, seeing all else as mirages destined to dissolve away and cease to exist. Their message has been summed up by Shankara in these words: “Brahman is real. The world is illusory. The jiva is nothing other than Brahman.”
In the Upanishads, “gods” mean not only highly evolved beings that can control the forces of nature, etc., but also our higher faculties of perception which illumine our awareness of both the inner and outer worlds. Here the idea is that the Self is the enlivening power by which our higher faculties function.
Wherever there is true knowing, there the Self is operative as the Sun of Consciousness, revealing both relative and absolute truth. For Truth is Its nature. A popular Sanskrit adage is Satyam eva jayate: “Truth alone conquers,” meaning that victory over ignorance and bondage is found only in the Self, the ultimate Truth.
By “sky” (vyoma) is meant the Ether, the Chidakasha, the natural home of the Self. Only in this inmost level of being can the Self be always perceived. In the lesser levels we usually lose the Self by losing perception of It. How can we establish ourselves in etheric awareness? Through the ever-increasing subtle states experienced in meditation.
In all forms of life that are found in this world, Brahman and the Self are “born.” All the things listed as abodes of the Self are ever-changing, and their forms are evanescent, soon seen to be without permanent reality. Since we identify with what we see around us, we continually fall into the snare of thinking that we, too, change and have no ultimate reality. Even if we think otherwise intellectually, we keep acting in a delusive manner. Hence we must keep reminding ourselves that we are changeless and absolutely real.
Equally wonderful is the truth that we are beyond limitation, that infinite are our possibilities, for we are the Infinite Self.
Those who embodied their realizations in the Upanishads did not do so to furnish us with a bundle of beliefs to take on faith and wrangle over. Their intention was to spur us onward to attain the same vision as they possessed, to be sages equal with them. Their call to us is that with which Swami Vivekananda, continually exhorted his hearers: “Awake! Arise! And stop not until you reach the Goal!”
He leads the prana upward, he casts downwards the apana; the dear one [vamanam] who is seated in the middle, all the gods worship. (2.2.3)
The life processes in our bodies are all movements of prana, the life-force. The Self causes the life-force to move upward as the prana and downward as the apana. It is this movement which manifests as our inhalation and exhalation, which is why it is such an important part of Yoga. “He who breathes in with your breathing in is your Self which is in all things. He who breathes out with your breathing out is your Self which is in all things. He is your Self which is in all things” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1).
The middle in which the Self is seated, controlling the movements of the life-force, is also called the heart. In the spiritual texts of India the word hridaya means not just the heart, or core, but also is said to indicate the space (akasha) where the inbreath and outbreath merge: the ultimate heart. This is why yoga must involve working with the inhaling and exhaling breaths in the form of subtle pranayama. (See Soham Yoga: The Yoga of the Self. “Life [Prana-Breath] is, in truth, Your Majesty, the highest Brahman. Life does not desert him, who, knowing thus, worships it as such. All beings approach him. Having become a god, he goes even to the gods” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.1.3). “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).
The word vamanam means adorable, dear and pleasing. These epithets are traditionally used in relation to Shiva, the symbol of the Atman and atmic consciousness. This is important, for when the Self is even just glimpsed, reverent awe arises in our minds. And that reverent awe is the beginning of true worship. When Jesus spoke about external, ritualistic worship to the Samaritan woman, he concluded: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). Meditation is the true worship of the God who is seated in the heart of every one of us. And that is where we find him.
“I am the Self abiding in the heart of all beings; I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings as well” (Bhagavad Gita 10:20). “The light of lights, beyond all darkness; knowledge, the to-be-known, the goal of knowledge seated in the heart of all” (Bhagavad Gita 13:17). “Seated within the hearts of all,… I alone am to be known” (Bhagavad Gita 15:15). To the yogi, then, the Self and Brahman are equally worshipful.
The “gods” who worship the Self are the various sensory faculties, the jnanendriyas, the organs of perception. The senses do homage in the evolved individual by drawing near to (upasate) and becoming merged in the Self, which is their source. This implies two interesting and usually unsuspected things. First, that it is natural for the Self to control the senses, not to be their slave. Second, it is completely natural for the senses to move inward toward the Self and experience the Self by uniting with It. Neither of these is our present experience. Rather, we consider it normal for the Self to be bound by the senses, and for it to require great struggle to turn them inward and bring them to experience of the Self. We have lived in a subnormal condition so long that we have come to think subnormality is normal. We are like the drunk man who was walking along with one foot on the sidewalk and the other down in the street. When someone stopped him and asked why he was walking with one foot on the sidewalk and the other down in the street, he burst into tears and answered: “Thank God! I thought I was a cripple.”
When the embodied Self that dwells within the body slips off and is released from the body, what is there that remains? This, verily, is that. (2.2.4)
The Self is as different from the body as the pearl is from the oyster and its shell. The body will disintegrate and be no more, but the Self will remain, for it is the Self alone that gives and is life.
Not by any outbreath or inbreath does any mortal whatever live. But by another do they live on which these [life-breaths] both depend. (2.2.5)
It is not breath that makes us live, though breath is the basis of our body’s metabolism. What we cannot do without and by which we do live is him who is the source of breath.
Jesus, himself a yogi having lived over half of his life in India, expressed the same idea, which he had first read in the Upanishad: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). That is, we live not on matter, but on the very Life of God, because matter is only a modification of that Life Energy. “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
I shall explain to you the mystery of Brahman, the eternal, and also how the soul fares, after reaching death. (2.2.6)
This is an interesting juxtaposition: Brahman and the Self after death of the body. The Upanishad puts these together because Brahman and the Self are one, and after death the spirit recovers the memory of its immortality and its eternity. One with Brahman, the Self yet experiences many changes. Those changes may only be appearances, but they are nonetheless real experiences, and profoundly affect the Self in its evolutionary journey. So they need to be set forth.
Some souls enter into a womb for embodiment; others enter stationary objects according to their deeds and according to their thoughts. (2.2.7)
Here we have a most interesting thing. Instead of discussing the worlds entered by the spirit after bodily death, and their nature as reflections of the spirit’s karma, physical rebirth is immediately being spoken of. This is because it takes a goodly degree of evolution for the subtle worlds to have meaning for the developing spirit. The undeveloped learn neither from earthly or astral experiences. Further, many of them simply go to sleep at the moment of death and awaken only at the moment of birth. The period of time in between does not exist for them in any meaningful sense.
In his commentary on this verse Shankara says: “Creatures are born in accordance with their knowledge”–that is, their level of awareness. For evolution is a matter of knowing (jnana). The spirits that are unaware of their true nature come back into two general categories: into living organisms that gestate them in some form or other, and “stationary” forms such as gaseous, mineral and plant life. (I am speaking of subhuman spirits, not humans.) Obviously, very little goes on in the life of such incarnations as far as consciousness is concerned. The development is subliminal. Only those who are born and live a life with some degree of control over a body vehicle can develop their consciousness to any significant extent.
Implicit in this verse is the principle of the transmigration of the Atman from lower to higher forms of life. We start out as atoms of hydrogen, move into mineral forms, then plant forms, then animal forms and then into the human body from which we shall eventually evolve into forms in higher worlds.
Most of the time earthly evolution is automatic and incredibly slow, but at some point we become capable of directing and enhancing our evolutionary movement. At first this is only through thinking and acting, but eventually we become capable of yoga, of fully taking charge of our growth in consciousness. Until this point is reached, little of any lasting importance occurs to us. So the Upanishad is starting at a basic rung of the ladder of evolution. But since, as I have said, nothing of much value take place on that level, the Upanishad moves ahead quite a bit to the level where we are capable of dreaming: to at least the intelligent animal level.
That person, who is awake in those that sleep, shaping desire after desire, that, indeed, is the pure. That is Brahman, that, indeed, is called the immortal. In it all the worlds rest and no one ever goes beyond it. This, verily, is that. (2.2.8)
It is a fundamental assertion of India’s primal wisdom that there are four states of consciousness: jagrat (waking), swapna (dreaming), sushupti (dreamless sleep) and turiya, the pure consciousness that witnesses the first three. Turiya is the state proper to the Self, actually is the Self, which is why this verse speaks of it as that which “is awake in those that sleep.”
“Shaping desire after desire.” There is more to this Self than consciousness. It is also creative power. Although as yogis we use the terminology of Sankhya and speak of Purusha and Prakriti as two entities, we are only speaking of two aspects or views of the One Absolute Existence. The Upanishad reveals this by telling us that the Self is not only witness, it is also the witnessed.
The Self is desireless, yet it shows us in dreams the things we desire. Why? Because the Self is more than witness, it is guide and guru. In every way it is attempting to show us our present spiritual status. Dreams are one of the avenues for its teaching.
It is true that dreams arise from the subconscious, but they do so at the impulse of the Self. Unfortunately our subconscious is distorted, like a badly ground lens or a bent mirror, so the original imaging of the Self comes through to us distorted or partial, and the message is flawed. However, the more we clarify our minds through meditation, the more faithful our dreams will be to the original impulses from the Self. In time our dreams can become on occasion authentic spiritual visions.
Although showing us our desires, the Self remains pure. The actual word in the Sanskrit text is shukra, which means “bright; resplendent; clear; pure; spotless; white,” to signify that the Self has no inherent “colors” (qualities or traits), for it is Brahman by nature. Thus it is also immortal, no matter how many deaths we may experience, both through the death of the body and the “little death” we experience each time we sleep, dreams being a kind of after-death astral experience.
All levels of experience arise from the Self in union with Brahman. Nothing exists apart from the Self. The Self is also the ultimate Being. There is no going beyond it. Because it is one with Brahman, even conscious union with Brahman does not cancel out our awareness of ourselves as the individual Atman. This is a most important principle, for many are led into the delusion that they have transcended the Self and “entered the Not-Self,” when they have merely sunk into the morass of tamasic ignorance. They are suffering from the subtlest form of mental illness which in time will manifest as recognizable psychosis and lead to great mental and moral disintegration, and in many instances to attempted or successful suicide. (See Dwelling in the Mirror.)
As fire which is one, entering this world becomes varied in shape according to the object [it burns], so also the one Self within all beings becomes varied according to whatever [it enters] and also exists outside [them all].
As air which is one, entering this world becomes varied in shape according to the object [it enters], so also the one Self within all beings becomes varied according to whatever [it enters] and also exists outside [them all].
Just as the sun, the eye of the whole world, is not defiled by the external faults seen by the eye, even so, the One within all beings is not tainted by the sorrow of the world, as He is outside [the world]. (2.2.9-11)
Each individual Self inhabits a vast number of body-vehicles as it moves up the ladder of evolution to the Highest. And in each one it appears to actually become that vehicle. Yet the Self remains only itself, one and unique. In this way the Self gathers experiences of every form of life that exists. This is necessary for it if it is to approximate the status of Brahman, for Brahman, existing in all forms, has the experience of being all those forms. Hence the microcosmic Self mirrors the macrocosmic Self.
Having spoken to us of the fact that the Self somehow takes on the form of its many incarnational forms, the Upanishad reminds us that the Self is nonetheless absolutely unmarked by that formation and undergoes no alteration or conditioning whatsoever. Even while immanent in relative existence, the Self remains essentially transcendent, in the same relation to its incarnate form as is Brahman to the universe. The divine eye of the Self illumines all things yet is affected by none.
The one, controller [of all], the inner Self of all things, who makes his one form manifold, to the wise who perceive him as abiding in the soul, to them is eternal happiness [sukham]–to no others. (2.2.12)
The Self is ever the Master, however much the forms inhabited by the Self may be bound. The Self is the essential principle of the existence of all those forms, always remaining one and unchanged. He alone who beholds the Self in/as the core of his being possesses eternal happiness (sukham).
The one eternal amid the transient, the conscious amid the conscious, the one amid many, who grants their desires, to the wise who perceive Him as abiding in the soul, to them is eternal peace and to no others. (2.2.13)
Consciousness of the conscious, the eternal link between all the temporal bodies it inhabits, the Self is “the one amid many, who grants their desires” through countless incarnations. He alone who beholds the Self in/as the core of his being possesses eternal peace.
Yamaraja has presented his student with a great deal of philosophical knowledge regarding the Self. This is all valuable, but Nachiketas feels impelled to ask a question, without the answer to which all the teaching on the Self means nothing. He asks:
This is that and thus they recognize, the ineffable Supreme happiness. How then may I come to know this? Does it shine [of itself] or does it shine [in reflection]? (2.2.14)
It is pointless to hear about the Self if we do not know how to find the Self. It is true that in metaphysical circles the majority of people are enamored of theory and discussion without practical application, but the wise see things differently. Nachiketas has already grasped the fundamental nature of the Self. Now he wants to know how to realize that Self, and whether it is swayamprakash, luminous by its very nature, or depends on another for illumination.
The Self is attainable. Those who at present are ignorant of the Self can become knowers of the Self. Although only the knowers of the Self are fully worthy of being called wise, we can certainly call those who are seeking the Self also wise. All of us can be among the potentially wise if we follow the path to Self-knowledge as outlined in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Self cannot be defined or evaluated in the terms of relative existence or relative objects, none of which exist outside the Self. Consequently the Self cannot be intellectually understood or even defined. Nevertheless, the Self can be known in a manner beyond any ordinary knowing, for it can be experienced as both object and subject, a quality unique to itself.
Analysis shows that the basic motivation of all beings is bliss (ananda) or happiness (sukham), that all the things we strive for are only prized because their acquisition will give rise to ananda. In this perspective we see that all beings are in search of the Self, for it alone is of the nature of ananda. Once a person truly grasps this fact he can only seek for the Self, all else being seen as insignificant.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad we read the exposition of Yajnavalkya about what makes things dear to us, ending: “Verily, not for the sake of all is all dear, but all is dear for the sake of the Self” (2.4.5).
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. (2.2.15)
Nothing of heaven or earth illumines the Self or causes it to be radiant. Rather, it is, as already said, swayamprakash, self-luminous. Furthermore, it is the Self that illumines all beings. “His shining illumines all.” The Self is the essential nature of all sentient beings that “shine” with consciousness. “He shining, everything shines.”
All glory to the blissful, supreme, and ineffable Self! All glory to the wise who strive to attain that Self as well as the supremely wise who have attained it!
With the root above and the branches below [stands] this ancient fig [ashwattha] tree. That [indeed] is the pure; that is Brahman. That, indeed, is called immortal. In it all the worlds rest and no one ever goes beyond it. This, verily, is that. (2.3.1)
The entire range of relative existence is symbolized by the ashwattha tree. Its roots are in Brahman. Therefore ultimately all things are rooted above in the Supreme Consciousness. Everything has Brahman for its essential Being. From this we get the Hermetic principle: As Above, So Below. Applying this principle to our own experience we can come to understand a great deal about the higher and truer nature of what is arising and subsiding in our life. Original Christianity, being rooted in the Upanishadic teachings of Jesus (Isha Nath), taught the same, and that is why in the oldest text of Christian hymns, The Odes of Solomon, we find this: “The likeness of that which is below is that which is above. For everything is above, and below there is nothing, but it is believed to be by those in whom there is no knowledge” (Odes of Solomon 34:4-5). That is, the ignorant believe that things have an independent existence, an existence that can cease, rather than the truth that they are not only rooted in Brahman, they are an imperishable extension of Brahman. “For in him we live, and move, and have our being;… For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28), as Saint Paul pointed out. “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:17). David simply sang: “For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Psalms 36:9). Brahman is the ultimate state and stage of being. There is no transcending Brahman, for Brahman is truly the Self of all.
From this we see the principle only comparatively recently discovered by science: that in essence all things are immortal, that there is not a single atomic particle in creation that can go out of existence, that the changes we think are death and birth are only rearrangements of the living energies of which all consist.
The whole world, whatever here exists, springs from and moves in life. [It is] the great fear [like] the upraised thunderbolt. They that know that become immortal. (2.3.2)
Vibration, spanda or movement, is the nature of relative existence. Movement is life. Brahman, its source is the Vibrationless Void. “Mahad bhayam” means great fear in the sense that those who perceive the infinite Brahman within the universe as Divine Potential are overcome with awe, indeed terror. This is the subject of the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita called The Yoga of the Vision of the Cosmic Form. There Krishna reveals the universal form of Brahman to Arjuna, the master yogi. Yet even he, greatly evolved as he was, tells Krishna: “I am delighted at having seen that which has never before been seen, and yet my mind trembles with fear” (11:45). We always think of fear being a reaction to something threatening, but in this case it is the overwhelming of the finite mind in seeing the Infinite Being.
Brahman is Inexorable Power as well as Infinite Consciousness. His presence is like the thunderbolt whose light blinds us to all lesser lights. But those who unite with Brahman experience their eternal immortality and become fearless, especially in the face of the mirage called death.
Through fear of him, fire burns, through fear [of him] the sun gives heat; through fear both Indra [the lord of the gods] and wind and Death, the fifth, speed on their way. (2.3.3)
Here, too, a state of ecstatic awe and wonder is meant. In older English, “fear” meant to be filled with awe and respect, not to be afraid. So when we read in the older Bible translations that we should fear God we are actually being told to reverence God.
In awesome reverence of Brahman the creation responds to the Supreme Will, for it is itself an extension of Brahman, as already said. All that occurs is the movement of Divine Consciousness in response to Divine Will. When Brahman moves Brahman, creation manifests and moves onward. When Brahman ceases to move Brahman, creation resolves into its potential, causal form and seems to cease. At all times it is Brahman moving Brahman. Even death is only a change of Life.
If one is able to perceive [Him] before the body falls away [one would be freed from misery], [if not] he becomes fit for embodiment in the created worlds. (2.3.4)
Perfect realization of Brahman, total union of our consciousness with Brahman, is the only passport beyond this world or any worlds of relative existence. Realization-experience is the root determinant of our rebirth or our freedom from rebirth. This is why most religion is so useless; it deals with good and bad, truth and error, on the tiny level of individual human mentalities. The infinite scope of Brahmic Consciousness simply does not come into its purview. Human beings waste lifetimes with such mundane religions that only program them for more and more births upon this earth. Even their ideas of the afterlife only condition them for more rebirth and bondage. Degenerate Christianity, especially, with its doctrine of physical resurrection and physical immortality instills material consciousness in its adherents, binding them to the wheel of perpetual birth and death. Thinking they are “creatures,” they sink into the quagmire of “creation.” Actually, they impel themselves into the morass, calling it the will of God. As Jesus said: “If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23). If our “truth” is actually untruth, its blinding and binding power is absolutely inescapable.
As in a mirror, so [is it seen] in the soul, as in a dream, so in the world of the manes, as [an object] is seen in water, so in the world of the gandharvas; as shade and light in the world of Brahma. (2.3.5)
This is outlining the various ways the Self is perceived in the less material worlds. Just as a mirror reflects objects without distortion, and the reflection is exactly as the reflected, so those whose consciousness is centered inwardly in the buddhi will perceive the Self exactly as it is. They are the yogis, striving for liberation consciously and intelligently through the practice of yoga. Those who live in the astral worlds of the departed have unstable, partial and even incomplete and distorted perceptions of the Self as in a dream. In the world of the gandharvas the Self is perceived waveringly and distorted like an image in water. Even in the world of Brahma, the creator of the lower worlds (bhur, bhuvah and swah), the Self is seen as a conglomerate of light and shadow, black and white, without color or dimension.
So here we see why it is said that even the gods desire human birth, for not only do the experiences of worldly life impel the wise to seek for liberation, the human is able to perceive the Self more truly than in those lesser astral regions. So, difficult as things can be here in material existence, we have a capacity that is missing in the denizens of the astral worlds, even though they may not have the afflictions that are universal “down here.” It is great wisdom to become a yogi right here and now and waste no time lest we become lost in the labyrinth of astral worlds. There is more spiritual opportunity and capacity in this world than in those realms.
Knowing the separate nature of the senses, which spring separately [from the various subtle elements] and [knowing also] that their rising and setting [are separate], the wise man does not grieve. (2.3.6)
If a lost person could somehow be lifted up high and see his surroundings from that perspective, he could easily see his way out of his confusion. In the same way, those who are lost in the jungle of the senses can find their way by heeding the wisdom of the Upanishads.
Sense experience is just that: the experiences of the senses themselves. We witness these experiences and think that we are really undergoing them and being affected by them. This produces great fear and suffering, what to say of the mountain-high heaps of illusions and delusions those experiences produce in our mind. Whether the senses are active or inactive, the potential suffering is ever there. If, however, we can realize that such perceptions are utterly separate from us, from our Self, all fear and sorrow cease forever. But we must realize that truth, not just accept it or act as though it is so.
Beyond the senses is the mind; above the mind is its essence [intelligence]; beyond the intelligence is the great Self; beyond the great [Self] is the unmanifest.
Beyond the unmanifest is the person, all-pervading and without any mark whatever, by knowing whom, a man is liberated and goes to life eternal. (2.3.7-8)
It is necessary for us to be aware of this personal hierarchy, for the lesser levels can be controlled from the higher levels, thus saving a great deal of time and frustration.
By “senses” is meant the five organs of perception: ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose. At other times “senses” means the five organs of action: voice, hand, foot, organ of excretion, and the organ of generation. Often the word “senses” really refers to the five sense perceptions. By “mind” is meant the sensory mind; the perceiving faculty that receives the messages of the senses. “Intellect” is the faculty of understanding, of reason: the thinking mind. The Great Atman (Paramatman) is the Self as it relates to the world, and the Unmanifest is its aspect that is always turned toward the Purusha, its essential being. These three could be called the lower Self, the higher Self and the ultimate Self.
The Self and Brahman being one, it is the knowledge of our Self that bestows upon us freedom and immortality.
But how do we know this Self–not merely hear about it or believe in it, but truly know it by direct experience?
Not within the field of vision stands this form. No one soever sees Him with the eye. By heart, by thought, by mind apprehended, they who know Him become immortal. (2.3.9)
We enter into the heart, into the Chidakasha that is at the core of our being, the pure mind/buddhi. There the Self is revealed. Immortality is the result of such knowing.
When the five [senses] knowledges together with the mind cease [from their normal activities] and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state. (2.3.10)
This is extremely important. Nearly everyone thinks that the highest state involves chills and thrills in the form of inner sensory experiences of cataclysmic proportion, including opening of chakras and rising of kundalini. Notice that the Upanishad says nothing like that, nor do the Gita or the Yoga Sutras. What it does tell us is that the pure consciousness that is Reality is experienced “when the five knowledges [senses] together with the mind cease [from their normal activities] and the intellect itself does not stir.” That, and that alone, is the highest state which in time becomes permanent and is itself liberation.
Obviously much that is called yoga is not yoga at all. This is brought out by the next verse.
This, they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses. Then one becomes undistracted, for Yoga comes and goes. (2.3.11)
The state of calm, or steadiness (sthiram) in awareness of awareness itself, is yoga. This frees us from delusion because it makes us aware of our true nature as the Self. In those who have not attained perfection this state comes and goes. The Upanishad tells us this so we will not be foolish enough to think that experiencing it once or even a few times is enough and wrongly believe we are enlightened. (People claim enlightenment on the basis of much less.) We must practice diligently to become permanently established in it.
Although I have told about Lahiri Mahashaya’s teaching on the subject of this state which he called sthirattwa in my Gita commentary, I would like to repeat it here. Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya continually expounded the idea that the goal of yoga is to be established in sthirattwa, in perfect tranquility.
“A group of spiritual leaders from Calcutta once conspired against Lahiri Mahasay. They invited him to join in an evening discussion on spiritual matters. Lahiri Mahasay accepted the invitation and accordingly attended the meeting.
“The conspirators had well prepared themselves to trap Lahiri Mahasay. For example, if Lahiri Mahasay were to express his preference for a particular deity, or Istadev, ‘desired Lord,’ then a particular leader would find exception to that choice.
“In fact, each member of the group selected a particular Devata, (‘deity’) such as Lord Vishnu, Lord Krishna, Lord Siva or the Goddess Kali (the Divine Mother) and prepared to debate and challenge Lahiri Mahasay’s choice.
“As soon as Lahiri Mahasay arrived, he was received in the traditional manner and shown proper courtesy. After a while one of the members of the group asked Lahiri Mahasay, ‘Upon which deity do you meditate?’
“Lahiri Mahasay looked at him but did not reply. Then another gentleman asked him, ‘Who is your Istadev, “desired deity?”’ Lahiri Mahasay turned his head towards him and looked at him in the same way, while keeping his peace.
“Finally, a third gentleman asked him, ‘Can you tell us upon which deity usually you meditate?’
“Lahiri Mahasay faced him and said very gently, ‘I meditate on Sthirattva (Tranquility).’
“The gentleman replied that he did not understand what was meant by this. Lahiri Mahasay continued to observe silence. After some time, another gentleman asked him, ‘Could you please explain this? I do not understand exactly what you are saying.’
“Lahiri Mahasay, as before, continued to maintain silence. Another gentleman asked, ‘Can you enlighten me as to what you mean by that? I do not understand at all!’ Lahiri Baba told him, ‘You will not be able to understand, and also I will not be able to make you understand (realize) through words.’
“The group was at a loss. All of their preparation and conniving had come to naught. Only silence prevailed. All kept silent.
“After a long time Lahiri Mahasay got up and silently prepared to leave the meeting. All showed him the traditional courtesy as he left.”
As Paramhansa Yogananda, who made Lahiri Mahashaya known in the West, often said: “He who knows, knows; none else knows.”
Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can he be apprehended. How can he be comprehended except by him who says, He is? [2.3.12)
If there is not the strong and constant intuitive conviction that the Self exists, no one can realize It. The Upanishad does not mean that simply affirming the existence of the Self is sufficient, but that without the needed conviction and assurance based on a goodly degree of spiritual awakening the yogi will not persevere and come to true experiential knowledge of the Self.
Brahman can only be truly known by direct experience in meditation. This verse is not speaking of that ultimate knowing, but of the knowing about Brahman that will stimulate us to seek Brahman. Empty words and intellectual ponderings cannot bring about this knowing, nor can our mind and senses. But those who know of Brahman, even imperfectly, possess a spiritual power in their minds which conveys an intuitive glimmer of the reality of Brahman. That glimmer, entering into our hearts, causes our inmost awareness to awaken, arise, and respond, and seek the full realization of Brahman for ourselves.
He should be apprehended only as existent and then in his real nature–in both ways. When He is apprehended as existent, his real nature becomes clear [later on]. (2.3.13)
It is common in Western metaphysical thought to speak of the “lower self” that is not truly the Self, but the lesser aspects of human existence, and the “higher self” that is the real Self. We must distinguish between the two, and this is impossible without enough inner development to make possible the intuition of the Self, even if it is not directly known. One who has this intuition, if intelligent, will then begin to seek to know the Self, to become a yogi. To such a one who perseveres, the Self will be revealed in its fulness. As Swami Gambhirananda renders the first part of this verse: “The Self is to be realized as existing, and then as it really is.”
“Lead me from death to immortality” is part of a prayer at the beginning of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In this final part of the Katha Upanishad we are given practical understanding of the way in which immortality is gained.
When all desires that dwell within the human heart are cast away, then a mortal becomes immortal and [even] here he attains to Brahman.
When all the knots that fetter here the heart are cut asunder, then a mortal becomes immortal. Thus far is the teaching. (2.3.14-15)
When desire dies, when ignorance drops away, immortality is revealed.
“Thus far is the teaching.” Shankara says that the subject of the Self and its realization is the only teaching in all the Upanishads, however varying the approaches may be. The aspirant must not lose himself in philosophical byways, including those set forth in mountains of books on the Upanishads. He must keep his vision clear and focused by understanding that liberation is the only point the Upanishads ever make.
It is easy to tell ourselves to rid ourselves of desire and ignorance, but how is that to be done, especially since we have been in the grip of these two ogres for creation cycles? The Upanishad gives us the yogic key to rising above desire and ignorance into immortality:
A hundred and one are the arteries of the heart; one of them leads up to the crown of the head. Going upward through that, one becomes immortal, the others serve for going in various other directions. (2.3.16)
It is noteworthy that this comes at the very end of the Upanishad. Yogananda used to say: “Yoga is the beginning of the end.” So it is appropriate that after all the philosophical exposition the yoga teaching should be given.
By “heart” is meant the hub located in the midst of the upper trunk of the body of subtle passages known as nadis (here translated “arteries”) through which the life force (prana) circulates throughout the gross and subtle bodies, just as the blood circulates from the heart through the veins of the physical body. One hundred of these nadis direct the life force to the life processes of the bodies and are the forces of embodiment. One unique nadi, however, rises directly upward from the heart-hub into the head and to the brahmarandhra, the crown chakra. (This nadi rises from the heart directly into the head; it is not the passage in the midst of the spine.) If at the time of death the departing spirit leaves through that channel, passing out through the crown of the head, he gains immortality. But if his consciousness attaches itself to any of the hundred other nadis he will be impelled into the subtle worlds that lead inexorably back to incarnation in relativity.
In every meditation involving the joining of Soham to the breath (see Soham Yoga: The Yoga of the Self), we activate this channel, causing the life force to spontaneously and effortlessly flow upward into the thousand-petalled lotus (sahasrara chakra) in the head toward the divine radiance that shines above and upon the upper levels of the brain-lotus. Then at the end of life, having prepared himself by this practice, sitting in meditation the yogi ascends upward from the body into the realm of immortality.
Who is liberated in this manner? In conclusion to his teaching, Yama tells Nachiketas:
The person of the size of a thumb, the inner Self, abides always in the hearts of men. Him one should draw out with firmness from the body, as one separates the tender stalk from a blade of grass. Him one should know as the pure, the immortal, yea, Him one should know as the pure, the immortal. (2.3.17)
If the Self is seen, immaterial as it is, it will appear as an oval light, in the shape of a human thumb. (The shape is also that of a naturally-formed Shiva Linga that is found in the sacred Narmada river, which is a symbol of the Self.) Those who have seen this are unanimous in describing it in the manner of the Upanishad.
“Him one should draw out with firmness, from the body, as one separates the tender stalk from a blade of grass.” If I had not lived in a small Illinois town where I spent a great deal of time roving through vacant, weed-filled lots, I would not know what this means. But I do. There was a kind of weed that in the midst of its length would have a joint like that of a bamboo stalk. If I carefully bent the joint until it split open all around and then pulled gently on one end, an inner blade of a lighter green and a few inches long, would come out. I found this a very curious mystery and did it a lot. I would like to think that I had a subconscious memory of this teaching of the Upanishad. But however it might be, I can now explain it to you. In the same way we are to draw out the Self from the confining and concealing body.
It is through meditation, as I have described it, that we daily work on the separation of the Self from the body which will finally occur at the time of death. Not that we leave our body in meditation, but we begin conditioning all our bodies so they will not hold on to us at the final moments. As the fully ripened kernel of a nut pulls away from the shell so that when it is cracked the kernel comes out in full separation, so will it be with our Self in relation to the body. Sri Ramakrishna described it as being like the release of a fish back into the river.
May these final words of Yama echo within us: “Him one should know as the pure, the immortal, yea, Him one should know as the pure, the immortal.
Now the Upanishadic sage gives us a final assurance:
Then Nachiketas, having gained this knowledge declared by Death and the whole rule of Yoga, attained Brahman and became freed from passion and from death. And so may any other who knows this in regard to the Self. (2.3.18)
Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for Awakening: The Prashna Upanishad