It is an interesting trait of the Western mind that it wants encapsulations of things, lists of essentials, advice on shortcuts, and “what is the one thing?…” in every department of life and thought. Whether this is a desire for efficiency or a form of intellectual minimalism or outright laziness–it varies from person to person. Nevertheless, “getting to the heart of the matter” is something dear to the heart of Americans, especially. They are not alone in this attitude. The Upanishads reflect the same mentality. Perhaps that is why Vivekananda considered the West, and America particularly, as being more suited to the teachings of the Upanishads than the contemporary East.
In the first section of the Mundaka Upanishad we find the highest expression of this attitude:
Brahma arose as the first among the gods, the maker of the universe, the protector of the world. He taught the knowledge of Brahman, the foundation of all knowledges, to Atharvan, his eldest son.
That knowledge of Brahman, which Brahma taught to Atharvan, and Atharvan in olden times told Angiras, he [in his turn] taught it to Satyavaha, son of Bharadwaja, and the son of Bharadwaja to Angiras–both the higher and the lower [knowledge].
Shaunaka, the great householder, duly approached Angiras and asked, through what being known, Venerable Sir, does all this become known? (1.1.1-3)
According to Indian texts, at the beginning of the present creation cycle Brahma, that person who was destined to be the creator/projector of the three lower worlds, awoke to find himself in infinite, empty space. At first he felt fear, but then he laughed at his foolishness, for there was no one there but him. Who would he fear? Then he pondered his situation, attempting to comprehend it. At one point a great voice resounded all around him, saying a single word: Tapa: “do tapasya.” This awakened Brahma’s memory of yoga meditation, so he began to mediate. After some time he attained full memory of his past as well as the knowledge of how to create the worlds: which he did. He also became established in direct perception of Brahman.
Among his “children” brought forth through his meditation was Atharva, to whom he taught the way to realize Brahman, who being everything, is the One Thing which when known all things are known. We have already been told by the preceding Upanishads that the knowledge of Brahman, Brahmavidya, is the foundation of all knowledge. But Sounaka has a very salutary impatience and ambition. He wants to know what is the one thing which, being known, causes all to be known. This is both a wise quest and a wise attitude.
Little Red Riding Hood ended up in the wolf’s stomach because she dawdled on the way instead of going straight to her destination. If we look at the history of religions we will find that the countries which produce the most enlightened persons are those countries which have produced empires. For when such people turn to spiritual life they become imperialists of the spirit and go after the loftiest spiritual attainments. They seek out the most direct way and go there. Shaunaka is one of them, and hopefully so are we.
Knowledge is the subject of the question, so Angiras lays a foundation for his answer.
To him he said, two kinds of knowledge are to be known, as, indeed, the knowers of Brahman declare–the higher as well as the lower.
Of these, the lower is the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, the Atharva Veda, Phonetics, Ritual, Grammar, Etymology, Metrics and Astrology. And the higher is that by which the Undecaying [Akshara] is apprehended. (1.1.4-5)
Now we should look at this very carefully. First of all, who do we believe? When I first emerged from the deadly cocoon of fundamentalist Protestantism my intellectual world was quite simple–simplistic, actually. Fortunately I first read the Bhagavad Gita and then Autobiography of a Yogi. The next step was to get out of my deadly environment, so within a few months I was on the plane to California and wider horizons.
But I discovered in a short time that wider horizons can have a drawback. I began encountering just about every shade of philosophical and religious thought and attitude, most of them incompatible with each other. Almost daily I was told conflicting things, and always with the utmost confidence. I loved being in the wide-open mental spaces of California, but which way should I go? Who could (or should) I trust?
Since I had been shaken out of my spiritual entombment by learning of the yoga tradition, I wisely followed the principle that only those who know God really know anything. So I sought out the teachings of illumined yogis of past and present, discarding those inauspicious Indian teachers who claimed to have a new revelation for a new age, and only paying attention to those who were right in the center of the Eternal Dharma. Once somebody asked me what a great yogi’s “distinctive teachings” were. “None!” I replied with satisfaction. “If he taught anything ‘new’ I would have nothing to do with him. Truth is eternal.” I appreciated it if the English of a book was good and free from typos, and expressed in a way that someone in the twentieth century like myself could comprehend, but I wanted to know what all the great yogis throughout history knew: the tried and proven way to God.
My great blessing was being able to trek many times to the Vedanta Bookshop in Hollywood. There I found an abundance of eternal wisdom, the same wisdom that had been flowing in a life-giving stream for countless ages like the holy Ganga. The Ganga that emerges at Gangotri high in the Himalayas is the same Ganga that flows into the ocean at Gangasagar. In the same way I found on the shelves of that little shop the same truth spoken by the primeval sages of India. All this prepared me for India where, as a friend of ours once said about the same pilgrimage, “I got the idea.” And have treasured it ever since.
So “two kinds of knowledge are to be known, as, indeed, the knowers of Brahman declare–the higher as well as the lower.” The lower, they say, is the knowledge of scriptures, ritual and philosophy, including, by the way, astrology. Please note that they do not denounce these things as useless or as ignorance. They are definitely said to be knowledge, and a sensible person appreciates and learns them to a reasonable and practical degree. But it must be understood that “the higher is knowledge of that by which one knows the changeless reality” which is Brahman.
The knowledge which enables us To Know is to be sought for and prized above all else. While writing this previous sentence I could clearly hear in memory the recorded voice of Yogananda saying: “I walked my feet off from Cape Cormorin to the Himalayas” in search of the knowledge that would reveal God to him.
The lesser knowledge tells us only of that which changes, including our own short physical life. But the higher knowledge brings us to the Changeless Reality.
That which is ungraspable, without family, without caste, without sight or hearing, without hands or feet, eternal, all-pervading, omnipresent, exceedingly subtle, that is the Undecaying which the wise perceive as the source of beings. (1.1.6)
The Absolute Consciousness, the Totality of Being, is shown to the wise, to the yogis, by this knowledge.
What about this world in which we find ourselves? Is it to be despised as worthless and antithetical to Brahman, our Goal? Angiras further says:
As a spider sends forth and draws in [its thread], as herbs grow on the earth, as the hair [grows] on the head and the body of a living person, so from the Imperishable arises here the universe. (1.1.7)
The world, then, is an extension or emanation of Brahman. In other words, Brahman is the world. We are living and moving in divinity manifesting as the world. Why, then, do we say that the world is illusory? It is the world in our mind, our perception, our interpretation of the world that is an illusion, not the world itself.
In Indian texts we often find the simile of the snake in a rope or a man in a tree stump. That is, in darkness we see a rope lying on the ground and immediately see a snake lying there. We see the glitter of its eyes and may even hear it hiss! Yet, when a light is brought we see only a rope. The rope was always real, was always there, but the snake was an illusion that existed only in our mind. In the same way, walking in the darkness we may see a dead tree and mistake it for a human being, taking its branches for arms. We may even see the arms move and think we see a face looking at us. But when we come closer we see it is only a tree, and a dead one at that. The tree was real, but the man was not. Illusion is never an objective thing, and yet is nevertheless real as a mental phenomenon. So it is illusion and ignorance we must decry, but never find fault with the world, for the world is Brahman.
In both instances, rope and tree, we may experience great fear. But the moment we see them for what they really are, our fear evaporates and we are at peace. This is how it is with us and this world. Our illusions fill us with terrible fears and anxieties, all of which will be dispelled when we see its actual nature as Brahman. No wonder, then, that Krishna told Arjuna: “Even a little of this dharma protects from great fear” (Bhagavad Gita 2:40).
The sage now gives us an outline of the process of the emanation of the world from Brahman.
By contemplative power Brahman expands. From that food is produced. From food, life [thence] mind, [thence] the reals [the five elements]; [thence] the worlds, [thence the rituals] in the rituals, immortality. (1.1.8)
Creation is also spoken of as expansions from Brahman, and that is the mode here. “Brahman” comes from the root word brih, which means “to expand.” Brahman first expands as primordial energy/matter. From this comes the intelligence inherent in creation, then the elements and the various worlds in which they predominate. The final ingredient, though, comes from the sentient beings within the universe: karma. God supplies the stage and we supply the actions and reactions which unfold upon the stage.
He who is all-knowing and all-wise, whose austerity consists of knowledge, from him are born this Brahma [Hiranyagarbha], name-shape and food. (1.1.9)
No wonder, then, that in the Gita we find the words: “Brahman is the offering, Brahman is the oblation poured out by Brahman into the fire of Brahman. Brahman is to be attained by him who always sees Brahman in action” (Bhagavad Gita 4:24).
The lower knowledge leads to the higher knowledge, so the Upanishad is returning to the lower knowledge and its practice as the way to the higher knowledge.
The next seven verses deal with the agnihotra sacrifice (literally, not symbolically) and have no relevance to us so I am omitting them.
Abiding in the midst of ignorance, wise in their own esteem, thinking themselves to be learned, fools, afflicted with troubles, go about like blind men led by one who is himself blind. (1.2.8)
“They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” said Jesus (Matthew 15:14), surely having this verse in mind.
“Afflicted with troubles.” How true. Promising others the cessation of all troubles and sorrows, these religious mountebanks are more afflicted than ordinary people. (Some even commit suicide.) Whether this is from the negative karma accruing from their dishonesty or a manifestation of their own inner diseases, the result is the same. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption,” as Saint Peter (II Peter 2:19) put it. Such hucksters and their dupes literally undergo “the sufferings of the damned.” And all the while they denounce those taking another path as deluded and of the devil. Well, as Jesus said: “They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2). And they must like it, for they certainly cling to it. Such is the grave danger of externalized religion.
The immature, living manifoldly in ignorance, think: We have accomplished our aim. Since those who perform rituals do not understand [the truth] because of attachment, therefore they sink down, wretched, when their worlds [i.e. the fruits of their merits] are exhausted. (1.2.9)
Foolish children are those spoken about in these verses. They are not evil, only undeveloped, ignorant and without good judgment. Nevertheless, their poor judgment keeps them from knowing the truth, and their attachments to egoic and earthly things drags them down from the lower heavens to which those who engage in external religion go after death. Because of this they are misery-stricken as they fall and after they enter another mortal body.
These deluded men, regarding sacrifices and works of merits as most important, do not know any other good. Having enjoyed in the high place of heaven won by good deeds, they enter again this world or a still lower one. (1.2.10)
Rituals of worship and good deeds certainly produce good karma, but that is not the force that lifts us above samsara, the ever-turning wheel of birth and death. If our religion consists only of outer observances it will condition our consciousness even more to identify with the material level of existence. And that identification will be a round-trip ticket for our return to another birth after another death.
Even helping others is spiritually valueless if it is not done with a wider, spiritual perspective. One of the hallmarks of today’s ineffectual religion is its obsessive involvement in social action and reform. When we look at the lives of saints we see they were the most generous of people, even sacrificing themselves for others. But they did these things not as their religion, but as an expression of their love for God and his children: which is the true religion.
We must not be those who “do not know any other good,” but must seek the Highest Good within through meditation and the cultivation of spiritual consciousness even outside meditation. Unless we do this we will find ourselves shuttled right back to earth on completion of our “heaven karma.”
But those who practice austerity and faith in the forest, the tranquil knowers who live the life of a mendicant, depart freed from sin, through the door of the sun to where dwells the immortal, imperishable person. (1.2.11)
Obviously those being spoken about are yogis living in solitude, engaged in tapasya and meditation. Such who purify themselves sufficiently will leave this world of rebirth behind and enter through the sun into the higher worlds. To better understand their character a look at some of the Sanskrit terms in this verse will be helpful to us.
The wise are said to be aranye–living in the forest. At the time of the Gita, many serious sadhakas lived on the outskirts of towns, preferring to live in the wooded areas where neighbors would not be visible, even if somewhat near. This ideal is found twice in the Gita: “Unswerving devotion to me with single-minded yoga, living in secluded places, having distaste for association with many people” (Bhagavad Gita 13:10). And: “Dwelling in a solitary place, eating lightly (what is easily digested), with speech, body and mind controlled, constantly devoted to yoga meditation, taking refuge in vairagya, forsaking egotism, force, pride, desire, anger, possessiveness, freed from the notion of ‘mine’ and peaceful–he is fit for union with Brahman” (Bhagavad Gita 18:52-53). It is not a matter of surrounding vegetation, but the inward withdrawal from outer association that is being praised here. Even in a crowded city we can live in the forest of inner solitude. In the thirteenth chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi, the master yogi, Ram Gopal Muzumdar, asked Yogananda: “Are you able to have a little room where you can close the door and be alone?” When he said that he did have such a room, the saint told him: “That is your cave. That is your sacred mountain. That is where you will find the kingdom of God.” Though that is so, still the aspiring yogi should be extremely sparing of social contacts, and then only with those who benefit him spiritually.
The first words of this verse in Sanskrit describe the wise as tapahshraddhe–an interesting fusion of tapasya and shraddha: ascetic discipline and faith. Shraddha in this instance means aspiration more than faith. Many people engage in spiritual practice for the wrong reasons, but the right one is a confidence in one’s ability to attain Self-realization. Tapah literally means to generate heat, so tapahshraddha can also mean heat-generating faith or aspiration, that which heats us up, builds the proverbial fire under us, gets us moving and keeps us moving. Tapasya is the energy generator of the wise directed by their assurance that the Goal exists and is within grasp. Tapahshraddha is the radiance (tejas) that fills the proficient yogi. In the Chandogya Upanishad, when a young man returns from a long period of tapasya, his teacher said to him: “Your face shines like that of one who knows Brahman” (Chandogya Upanishad 4:14:2). This is the effect of tapahshraddha.
The wise are vidvamsah–learned. They not only practice, they study and learn and assimilate what they have learned. There is no place in spiritual life for pious ignorance. Sentimental dummies are not devotees, they are fools. And fools do not find God. It is very true that many people get what Yogananda called “intellectual indigestion” from reading loads of theories and trivia. But the wise carefully choose books of spiritual wisdom such as scriptures, lives of holy people and the writings and teachings of those who possess genuine inner illumination. Such books can never do anything but good. It is especially necessary to read the teachings of realized yogis.
Naturally, they will have to use their own good sense as to whose words are worthwhile and whose are worthless or even poisonous. They will not have a library of thousands of books, but they will have a goodly number of spiritual gems which they will perpetually read and ponder. And if they are wise they read one chapter of the Gita daily. Certainly they will not spend hours a day on reading, but they will allot an appropriate amount of time for it each day.
Fake teachers and cults hate what I have just written, insisting that “loyal” and “in tune” cultists will read nothing but what the cult authorizes, so the dupes will not “get confused.” This only reveals their proprietary and predatory nature and motivation. Their “protection” of their “sheep” is nothing less than the “protective custody” of the Nazi death camps. They fear that if their followers become informed as to the real nature of religion and interior life they will realize they are being lied to and will sensibly go elsewhere and find real truth. And that is bad for business.
Now comes an interesting adjective: virajah–beyond (free from) rajas. This may seem odd, but some yogis, especially beginners, are very rajasic. First of all, they want to tell everyone they are yogis, and they often accumulate spiritual “stuff” of all kinds. They begin to star in their own spiritual movie and some of them make quite an epic. Their motives are perfectly all right, even laudable, but they are rajasic, filled with activity and passion for getting on to the Goal. The intentions are good, but the feverishness and externalization is not.
For a lot of people, when the rajas fizzles out so does their impetus toward God. Most abandon any form of spiritual life, while others settle down to a comfortable and ineffectual life in some yoga cult that makes them feel secure and one of the chosen. But what is needed is for the rajasic heat to mutate into the steady warmth and radiance of sattwa. Then the aspiration and involvement actually increases, but in a fully effectual way: an increasingly interior way. Spiritual life changes from a compulsion to an intelligent choice. Spiritual restlessness becomes steadiness in spiritual practice and development. God is no longer the brass ring to strain at, but an ever-present Reality whose perception keeps on increasing in a naturally supernatural way.
And the result of all this? The Upanishad says: “prayanti suryadvarena,” which Shankara says means: “they move superbly [skillfully] along the path of the sun.” That is, they ascend steadily and skillfully to the solar world, the realm of the Self-existent Light that is Brahman.
Having scrutinized the worlds won by works, let a Brahmana arrive at non-attachment [nirvedam]. The [world] that is not made is not [won] by what is done. For the sake of this knowledge, let him only approach, with sacrificial fuel in hand, a teacher who is learned in the scriptures and established in Brahman. (1.2.12)
Anyone whose spiritual conscious is awakened can rightly be called a Brahmin. Such a one will, “after having examined all these worlds that are gained by works, acquire freedom from desires.” Back in high school I came across an eighteenth-century collection of humor and satire. I have forgotten most of it, but there was one story about a man who fell in love with a woman he often saw at the theater when all lighting came from candles, and in that light she looked stunningly beautiful. He got the courage to ask her if he could visit her at home in the daytime. She agreed, and in the daylight he saw that she was horrible-looking, incredibly old, wore a wig and loads of make-up. He fell out of love instantly! It is the same with this and all other worlds and the enjoyments they offer in return for good karma. It is all deathly illusion. What we need is the light of spiritual day.
Seeing the world clearly is the only lasting antidote for the poison of worldliness. First we approach the matter intellectually. Just the fact of inevitable death should begin to turn us from attachment, and the fact that nothing lasts should seal our disillusionment. Yet, old habits do indeed die hard, and there is no habit as strongly entrenched as attraction to the world and its promises. So discipline is needed.
The wise aspirant must exert his will and refuse to even give a thought to the “good things” offered by the world, things that will melt away in time, and that often prove to be anything but good. Look at those who have worldly success. For many of them misery and confusion is their daily bread, but those who envy them are convinced that they have found the way to happiness. We must in contrast refuse to even look at the mirages held out to us by the world and our own habit-deluded mind.
How will we cure the mind of its awful addictions? Meditation cures the fevers of the mind and heart and dispels the hallucinations produced by illusions and desires. The only way to be absorbed in meditation is to be constantly cultivating interior consciousness through constant japa even outside of meditation. Our whole life must become a meditation process.
The Sanskrit word nirvedam means being indifferent, not being influenced or moved by something–in this case the world and its ways. It is an inner state, a condition of the mind very akin to the non-arising (nirodha) of mental reactions (vrittih) spoken about in the Yoga Sutras as being the state of yoga. “When your buddhi crosses beyond the mire of delusion, then you shall be disgusted with the to-be-heard and what has been heard” (Bhagavad Gita 2:52). And consequently you will be indifferent to the actions that produce those results as well as the world-stage on which their dramas are enacted. None of this occurs just for the asking or wishing, so Angiras give us practical advice:
“Let him only approach, with sacrificial fuel in hand, a teacher who is learned in the scriptures and established in Brahman.” The ideal of the Upanishads often differs from that of later Indian thought which often is not based on wisdom but on whimsy and theatrical effect. Today there is a lot of talk about how wonderful is the teacher who is ignorant of the scriptures, but who has spiritual knowledge. This is silly. You cannot get spirituality from books, it is true, but you can get spiritual instruction that will lead to the acquisition of spirituality. On the other hand, what kind of a person, supposedly intent on gaining spiritual knowledge, will choose to remain ignorant? Consider Sri Ramana Maharshi. He had no interest in academic matters, but after going to Arunachala and attaining realization he became a living library of countless spiritual texts, having read widely in several languages. So the Upanishadic sage tells us that a worthy teacher has a thorough knowledge of the holy writings and is also Brahmanishtham: established in the experiential knowledge of Brahman.
Such a teacher is rare, but if we find such a one we must learn all we can and then apply it. If we cannot find one, then we should diligently study the words of realized masters and follow them. Such a one will need to act on what he already knows if he hopes to gain further understanding. And if he is wise he will assiduously avoid all those who claim to be their representatives or intermediaries.
Unto him who has approached in due form, whose mind is tranquil and who has attained peace, let the knowing [teacher] teach in its very truth that knowledge about Brahman by which one knows the Imperishable person, the true. (1.2.13)
By these words we know the qualified student and the qualified teacher. When the two come together the result is Perfect Knowing.
This is the truth. As from a blazing fire, sparks of like form issue forth by the thousands, even so many kinds of beings issue forth from the Immutable and they return thither too. (2.1.1)
This is a spectacular simile, mostly because it happens to be the absolute truth. Swami Gambhirananda, the saintly President of Ramakrishna Mission, translated it this way: “As from a fire, fully ablaze, fly off sparks, in their thousands, that are akin to the fire, similarly from the Immutable originate different kinds of creatures and into It again they merge.”
There are three points being made here that are the bedrock of Upanishadic philosophy. First, all beings that exist–past, present, future–are of the same nature, even the same substance, as Brahman. Second, all forms (modes of existence), though ever-changing, proceed from the Unchanging Unchangeable. This seeming contradiction is made possible by the illusory power of Maya. That is, the changing forms are illusory while the essential being, the Self-Atman is unchanging. Third, having come from Brahman they shall all without exception return to Brahman. When life is viewed this way we can understand its nature and purpose, and live accordingly. For the Upanishads are not interested in giving us empty theory without a practical application.
Divine and formless is the person [purusha]. He is without and within, unborn, without breath and without mind, pure and higher than the highest Immutable. (2.1.2)
Pervading all, both Brahman and the Atman are yet untouched and unconditioned by any forms in which they dwell, knowing themselves through themselves: self-illumined (swayamprakash). Both the internal and the external are permeated with the presence of Conscious Spirit. Although the forms floating on the surface of the Ocean of Being are born, conditioned, endowed with mind and senses and compelled to to experience the consequence of the sowing and reaping of karma in previous lives, in reality none of this takes place in an absolute, objective sense. Rather, it is the power of Maya that produces these appearances.
As the Gita says: “All this world is pervaded by me in my unmanifest aspect. All beings dwell within me, but I do not dwell within them. And yet beings do not dwell within me: behold my Divine Yoga. Sustaining beings and yet not dwelling in them, I myself cause all beings to come into manifestation. As mighty winds move everywhere, yet always dwell in the ether, know that even so do all beings dwell within me. At the end of a kalpa, all beings merge into my Prakriti: at the beginning of another kalpa, I myself send them forth. Resting on my Prakriti, I send forth again and again this entire multitude of beings, helpless under Prakriti’s power” (9:4-8)
Yet, the sage is telling us in this Upanishad that, almighty as Maya seems to be, Spirit is higher. When we are sunk in delusion, then Maya seems the most powerful, but when we transfer our consciousness into spirit, then we find that the Self is always the master of Maya on the universal and the individual levels.
Again, Brahman is the Source:
From him are born life [prana], mind, all the sense-organs [also] ether, air, light, water and earth, the supporter of all. (2.1.3)
God’s creation is never separated from him for an instant. By his indwelling presence He maintains and unifies them. All that exists is held in the Mind of God, for they are his thoughts made visible or tangible.
Fire is His head, His eyes are the sun and the moon, the regions of space are His ears, His speech the revealed Vedas, air is His life and His heart the world. Out of His feet the earth [is born]; indeed He is the Self of all beings. (2.1.4)
The universe is not really God’s creation, it is his manifestation, his incarnation. And he remains its Inner Controller (Antaryamin).
From him [proceeds] fire whose fuel is the sun; from the moon, the rain; herbs on the earth [nourished by them]; thus are creatures produced from the person. (2.1.5)
Though this differs from her style of expression, it reminds me of the great wisdom spoken by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. She said that in reality we all come from God, but we ignore the fact. We say: “Everybody in my family gets…” and then name some disease or negative condition. We think it is genetics that must manifest. But our real genes are Divine Qualities. Why do we not believe they will manifest in us? Our father and mother were adult human beings, and we became the same. But the ultimate Father/Mother is God, so why do we neglect the development of divine consciousness? Divinity is our only true nature.
From him are born the rik [verses], the saman [chants], the yajus [formulas], the rites of initiation, all the sacrifices, ceremonies and sacrificial gifts, the year too, and the sacrificer, and the worlds where the moon purifies and where the sun [shines]. (2.1.6)
You cannot get more complete than that.
From him also the gods are born in manifold ways, the celestials, men, cattle, birds, the in-breath and the out-breath, rice and barley, austerity, faith, truth, chastity [brahmacharya] and the law. (2.1.7)
It is this last part that is of special meaning for us. We are told that austerity (tapasya), meditation, faith, truth, continence and law arise from God. They are the presence of God manifesting in our life and through us to the world. Who, then, can be more beneficial to the world than a yogi? The word vidhi, translated “law,” means both instruction and method. There is an innate order in the universe which each of us should embody. It is not learned intellectually but is intuited by the yogi. The yogi will then order his life accordingly: methodically. Of course the supreme method is the practice of meditation itself.
From him come forth the seven life-breaths, the seven flames, their fuel, the seven oblations, these seven worlds in which move the life-breaths, seven and seven which dwell in the secret place [of the heart].
From him, all the seas and the mountains, from him flow rivers of every kind, from him are all herbs and their juice too; by which, together with the elements, the inner soul is upheld.
The person [purusha] himself is all this, work, austerity and Brahma beyond death. He who knows that which is set in the secret place [of the heart], he, here on earth, cuts asunder the knot of ignorance. (2.1.8-10)
Brahman is all and therefore all that is to be known. Further description of Brahman is now to be given along with instructions on how to know Brahman. The Upanishad is so clear, and the concepts have been referred to before, so some verses hardly need more than a sentence of comment.
Manifest, well-fixed, moving, verily, in the secret place [of the hearts] such is the great support. In it is centered all this which moves, breathes and winks. Know that as being, as non-being, as the supreme object to be desired, as the highest beyond the reach of man’s understanding.
What is luminous, what is subtler than the subtle, in which are centered all the worlds and those that dwell in them, that is the imperishable Brahman. That is life, that is speech and mind. That is true, that is immortal, that is to be known, know [that]. (2.2.1-2)
The word translated “to be known” is actually veddhavyam, which means to strike something with the intention to penetrate into it, to reveal its inner condition. If we penetrate into our Self we will find Brahman, and knowing Brahman we shall ourselves be True [Real] and Immortal.
He who is all-knowing, all-wise, whose is this greatness on the earth, in the divine city of Brahma, in the ether [of the heart] is that Self established.
He consists of mind and is the leader of life and body and is seated in food [i.e. the body] controlling the heart. The wise perceive clearly by the knowledge [of Brahman] the blissful immortal which shines forth. (2.2.8)
Since the Self understands and knows all, to be truly knowledgable and wise all we need do is shift our awareness into our own Self.
Although the Self should not be identified with external things such as our body or the world, nevertheless, the glory of our Self (including the Supreme Self) is manifested in our own private universe and the greater universe as well. We can come to perceive spiritual realities hidden within the material illusions.
The Self abides in the core of our being. This is sometimes called the Chidakasha, the Space of Consciousness. Both God and the individual Self dwell there. In the Sanskrit text there is the expression Brahmapuri, the City of God, used for this spiritual heart. It further says that God and the Self are known by centering our awareness in this heart.
It is meditation which illumines the mind and enables us to see and know this blissful, immortal Self all around us, in everything.
The knot of the heart is cut, all doubts are dispelled and his deeds terminate, when He is seen–the higher and the lower. (2.2.9)
When we enter into the consciousness of our individual spirit and the Infinite Spirit, the blinding veil of ignorance will dissolve away along with all the bonds of karma.
In the highest golden sheath is Brahman without stain, without parts; pure is it, the light of lights. That is what the knowers of the Self know. (2.2.10)
What greater goal can we have than this? In summation of this section, the sage says:
The sun shines not there, nor the moon and stars, these lightnings shine not, where then could this fire be? Every thing shines only after that shining light. His shining illumines all this world.
Brahman, verily, is this immortal. In front is Brahman, behind is Brahman, to the right and to the left. It spreads forth below and above. Brahman, indeed, is this universe. It is the greatest. (2.2.11-12)
These thrilling words need no comment–only response.
Cross-eyed people see a single object as two. In the same way the ignorant see the One as many. Yet, there is a perverse spiritual cross-eyedness which works just the opposite, making its victims see two as one. This is the disease of half-baked Vedanta that is merely conceptual and not based on the experience that only yoga imparts. There is no such thing as a genuine Vedantist who is not first and foremost a Yogi. The Upanishad is now going to give us the right understanding of the Paramatman and the jivatman, the Supreme Self and the individual Self, their unity and their distinction, and their relationship with each other. Here, too, only the yogi will fully understand what is being said.
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. (3.1.1)
The same name of the two is Self: Individual Self (Jivataman) and Infinite Self (Paramatman).
This verse gives us three words in relation to the two Selves: suparna, sayuja and sakhaya. Suparna means intimately related, the idea being that the individual Self and the Cosmic Self exist in an eternal relation. Sayuja means being in a state of union–perpetual union, as Shankara points out in his commentary. A secondary meaning of sayuja is being in the same place, that the two Selves are inseparable, are ever present to one another. According to Shankara, the third expression, sakhaya, means that the two Selves have the identical name or designation, and exist in an identical manner. That is, they possess the same qualities: one in an absolute degree and the other in a limited degree. Sakhaya also means companionship and friendship, indicating the deep personal relation between the jivatman and Paramatman.
The “same tree” is the body, and by extension the cosmos. The form of every sentient being has two indwellers, the two Selves. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual, the jiva, “tastes” the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented and so forth. The individual undergoes experience. The Supreme Self, God, on the other hand, experiences being in all forms and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet he “looks on without eating,” without being affected or conditioned by it. But he does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences. On the other hand:
On the Self-same tree, a person immersed [in the sorrows of the world] is deluded and grieves on account of his helplessness. When he sees the other, the Lord who is worshipped and his greatness, he becomes freed from sorrow. (3.1.2)
We are bewildered by our impotence: submerged in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, unsurety, pain and confusion. Shankara points out that the individual is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness. All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of its being, the very God it has been hitherto worshipping as separate from itself. Experiencing within its own being the presence and the glory of God and thereby realizing that glory as his own, the individual becomes liberated from sorrow. The sage elaborates on this, continuing:
When a seer sees the creator of golden hue, the Lord, the Purusha, the source of Brahma, then being a Knower, shaking off good and evil and free from stain, he attains supreme equality with the lord. (3.1.3)
The jiva recognizes that Shiva, the Absolute, is its true nature. Then, no longer bound by “do” and “don’t,” it is able to act according to its essential being. Not that morality will be abandoned, but that there will be no more need to think if it “should” or “should not” do something. Rather, it will do the right and perfect thing spontaneously, naturally, as a consequence of its rediscovered divinity. For it will be free from all bonds or compulsions whatever. This is because in the divine vision it has become free from all defects or blemish.
But most important is the trait that is listed last: paramam samyam, supreme sameness, literally, but the meaning is absolute unity, and therefore absolute identity, with the Absolute Itself.
Since the two are really one, the Upanishad continues describing both the individual and the infinite Selves, as they partake of one another’s traits.
Truly it is prana that shines forth in all beings. Knowing him, the wise man does not talk of anything else. Sporting in the Self, delighting in the Self, performing works, such a one is the greatest of the knowers of Brahman. (3.1.4)
“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).
Anyone who ponders these astounding words with intelligence will be eager to attain Brahman, so the sage tells how that is done.
This Self within the body, of the nature of light and pure, is attainable by truth, by austerity, by right knowledge, by the constant [practice] of chastity. Him, the ascetics with their imperfections done away, behold. (3.1.5)
Unbroken observance of truthfulness, tapasya, right knowledge (insight) and brahmacharya: these enable us to behold the Self within.
This Self within the body. The Self is within the body, therefore it is absurd to disdain the body, and even more absurd to ignore the body and the necessity for its purification and spiritual empowerment. Just forgetting about the material side of things and flying off into pure spirit is an appealing idea, but the problem is, it can never work. However long or short a journey, it always begins right from the point where we are. And at this point we are not only in the body, we are tied into it by a multitude of bonds that must be dissolved. Our yoga practice must cover this situation.
The prime implication, though, is that since the Self is right here in the body, it is not far away. We need not even seek it: just perceive it.
The ascetics. The word rather poorly translated as “ascetic” is yati, which actually means a wanderer. This is because in the ancient times in India the wandering ascetics who moved about teaching dharma were given this title. They were not monks or sannyasis in the later sense. Obviously they were not married, as their mode of life prevented that, and their life was dedicated to spiritual discipline and teaching. Nevertheless, they were not considered outside society as the sadhu is today in India. They were simply those who sacrificed personal life to serve others. It was a noble way of life, but not a separation.
The original Christian ascetics were just the same. They wore ordinary clothes and were considered Christian laity. The only distinctive thing about them was their way of life. The men usually lived on the edge of towns, usually as hermits. The women lived together in houses within the town for mutual protection. In the eyes of everyone they were pious bachelors and spinsters, not at all distinct from other Christians in an official sense.
That is the historical background, but what is the meaning for us today? No matter where we might live, or how, we must all be wanderers in the spirit, aware with both Saint Paul and Saint Peter that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Jesus said: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). This is actually the truth about every single sentient being on the earth: there is no place here where we can come to rest and be at home, for our nature is spirit and our home is infinity.
So the yatis spoken of here are those who have become rootless in relation to this world. Or more to the point, those who have recognized that they have no roots in the world, only in God. “The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). And so in their hearts they are always on pilgrimage back to the Source, aware that wherever they may be it is only a temporary accommodation on the long journey home to Brahman.
With their imperfections done away. The Upanishad has a very informative expression: kshinadoshah: those whose mental defects such as anger, etc., have become significantly lessened. Eventually they will be totally eliminated, but even now such persons are capable of the beginning stages of knowing the Self. This is important, because we tend to think that until we are absolutely perfect we cannot know either God or our Self. This is not so. Just as the sky becomes lightened even before the sun appears above the horizon, so it is with those yogis who earnestly strive for realization. The elementary stages of enlightenment dawn for them.
Right knowledge. Samyag-jnanena, complete insight into the nature of the Self both intellectually and intuitively, also enables us to begin experiencing the realities of the Self. Of course this cannot occur outside of yoga practice that is disciplined and steady.
Constant practice. Some translators think this word nityam, perpetual, refers to continence (brahmacharya), but others think it refers to constant and uninterrupted observance of all the virtues and practices listed in this verse. That is logical, because a break in any of these will set back the sadhaka to a significant degree, and in some cases can destroy the possibility of his continuance in sadhana by turning his mind away from the Real to the unreal. This is, however, particularly true about brahmacharya, as is seen over and over. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda relates this sad but telling incident:
“A year later [after entering the ashram], Kumar set out for a visit to his childhood home. He ignored the quiet disapproval of Sri Yukteswar, who never authoritatively controlled his disciples’ movements. On the boy’s return to Serampore in a few months, a change was unpleasantly apparent. Gone was the stately Kumar with serenely glowing face. Only an undistinguished peasant stood before us, one who had lately acquired a number of evil habits.
“Master summoned me and brokenheartedly discussed the fact that the boy was now unsuited to the monastic hermitage life.
“‘Mukunda, I will leave it to you to instruct Kumar to leave the ashram tomorrow; I can’t do it!’ Tears stood in Sri Yukteswar’s eyes, but he controlled himself quickly. ‘The boy would never have fallen to these depths had he listened to me and not gone away to mix with undesirable companions. He has rejected my protection; the callous world must be his guru still.’” This narrative is particularly ironic, since “Kumar” means a young male virgin.
Now all this is extremely to the point, with no fudging under the guise of diplomacy or moderation. Perhaps that is why the sage then says to us:
Truth alone conquers, not untruth. By truth is laid out the path leading to the gods by which the sages who have their desires fulfilled travel to where is that supreme abode of truth. (3.1.6)
Satyam eva jayate: Truth alone conquers/wins. This satya is not just speaking truthfully, it means living truthfully, living as the eternal, immortal Self whose only goal is to reunite with the Supreme Self. This mode of life is called devayana–the way of the gods, the divine path. Those who pursue anything else pursue untruth, the path of the asuras, those that dwell in darkness of consciousness. Sri Ramakrishna often said that “God is realized if one holds fast to truth. If there is no strictness in observing truth everything is gradually lost.”
This is especially true in the matter of yoga sadhana. Many gurus in the West (and a few in the East) lie quite actively and shamelessly, telling their dupe-disciples that the ancient disciplines of yogis for thousands of years are no longer needed, particularly vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol, nicotine and (what else?) sex. The result spiritually is nil, but the guru laughs all the way to the bank.
Vast, divine, of unthinkable form, subtler than the subtle It shines forth, farther than the far, yet here near at hand, set down in the secret place [of the heart]. [As such] even here it is seen by the intelligent. (3.1.7)
This is the great mystery of the Divine. It is subtle beyond subtlety, yet exists equally in the most tangible. God is utterly beyond us, and yet nearer to us than can be conceived. This latter fact is a foundation-stone of spiritual life. The more we can turn inward, the deeper we can penetrate into our own essential being, the cave of the heart, the closer we will come to God.
He is not grasped by the eye nor even by speech nor by other sense-organs, nor by austerity nor by work, but when one’s [intellectual] nature is purified by the light of knowledge then alone he, by meditation, sees Him who is without parts. (3.1.8)
No action, feeling or idea can reveal God to us. But when the heart has become purified by tapasya the spiritual insight that only meditation can produce then reveals God to the yogi. For:
The subtle Self is to be known by thought in which the senses in five different forms have centered. The whole of men’s thought is pervaded by the senses. When it [thought] is purified, the Self shines forth. (3.1.9)
Meditation is the beginning, middle, and end of spiritual life. There is a remarkable statement made here: that the consciousness which even now causes the body, senses, and mind to function is the same consciousness in which the Divine Vision takes place. We need only use it to free ourselves into Spirit. For that which binds also frees. This is the unique understanding of the ancient sages of the East, an understanding needed by the whole world.
Whatever world a man of purified nature thinks of in his mind and whatever desires he desires, all these worlds and all these desires he attains. Therefore, let him who desires prosperity worship the knower of the Self. (3.1.10)
This tells us two things. First, whatever the liberated sage thinks of, wills, or desires, that comes about. Examples of this are given in Autobiography of a Yogi, and manifested all through Yogananda’s life, especially toward its end, as seen in Paramahansa Yogananda: In Memoriam. The life of Sri Ramakrishna also demonstrates this. Second, those that seek Self-realization as their highest good should reverence and honor the atmajnanam, the one who knows the Self. This is very important. The Upanishad is not counseling us to make a god of a Master or to substitute a Brahmajnani for God. When we want to learn something we go to an expert. In the same way, those seeking the knowledge of God should seek out the teachings of great masters of past and present. If very fortunate, the seeker will meet such a person in the flesh and have personal interchange with him. The mere presence of such a great soul can transform our thinking and awaken our consciousness.
If we follow the instructions of an enlightened person regarding our inner development we will come to the exact same state of consciousness attained by him. How can we tell a true master? A true master keeps pointing his students away from himself to God, the only Goal. And a true disciple is one who goes to God instead of making an idol or fetish of the guru. Anyone foolish enough can become a brainwashed groupie, but the wise heed the teacher’s message and go to God. As Buddha said, a worthy teacher or teaching is like a finger pointing at the moon. The idea is to see the moon, not the finger. Nevertheless, the sage can be a very meaningful factor in our spiritual life, so the Upanishad continues with more information for us.
He knows that supreme abode of Brahman, wherein founded, the world shines brightly. The wise men, who, free from desires, worship the Purusha, pass beyond the seed [of rebirth]. (3.2.1)
Here are two more principles: A sage is one who knows Brahman in the absolute sense, and those who honor him without any taint of ego, desiring only liberation, will break the ties of earthly rebirth.
This second part gives us a picture of real disciples or students who will attain spiritual benefit from a teacher: they have no egocentric or personal desire coloring the way they relate to the teacher. Their only interest is in the Self. They are not looking for a teacher to give them power or a reputation for having the best guru. Glory through association is of no interest to them. Nor are they wanting the guru to become a substitute for an unsatisfactory parent, friend, spouse or lover. They do not want a personal relationship with the guru, to either possess the guru or be possessed by the guru. They are not looking for some kind of fulfillment in a relationship with the teacher, but only fulfillment in the Self. They are not looking for Love, they are looking for Liberation.
Swami Bimalananda, a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, once told us in a conversation that those who lived in the ashram-headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship just for the personality of Yogananda eventually left the ashram as well as the spiritual life, but those who came for God remained steadfast in both. I think we can conclude that real disciples are as rare as real gurus. The Upanishad is not talking to spiritual fool-arounds, but to the worthy, those who wish to transcend the seed of human birth: the ego.
Since the sage Angiras has put so much emphasis on the value of approaching and reverencing a master-teacher, he now digresses a bit to point out what makes the student succeed or fail in spiritual life.
He who entertains desires, thinking of them, is born [again] here and there on account of his desires. But of him who has his desire fully satisfied, who is a perfected soul, all his desires vanish even here [on earth]. (3.2.2)
Those in the grip of desire are born where the objects of desire are to be found, and bring the desire for them along. It does not say that the objects are obtained, however, and we see that this is a continual torment for human beings: wanting something but not able to get it. To be in such a situation will only condition the mind more and more toward grasping at the things desired. After who knows how long, the object is then gotten and either lost, or in danger of loss, or proves to be disappointing or misery-producing. Such is the dilemma of those who desire.
There is no use asking questions like: “How do I kill desire?” or: “How do I get rid of the ego?” You do not kill desire or discard the ego, for that is a negative approach which by its nature will not work. Rather you take the positive approach: “I shall realize the Self.” For realization of the Self alone can quench all desire and dissolve the ego. Until then we ignore the clamor of desires, disregard the demands of the ego, and single-mindedly go after the Self. Along the way the desires will begin dropping away of themselves, and the ego, starved of attention, will become less and less until desires and ego are simply gone forever. It may not be easy, but it is marvelously simple.
This Self cannot be attained by instruction nor by intellectual power nor even through much hearing. He is to be attained by the one whom [the Self] chooses. To such a one the Self reveals his own nature. (3.2.3)
Anyone who has travelled this far through the Upanishads is very well acquainted with the fact that the Self is not to be known through the usual avenues of human knowledge. What is striking is the literal meaning of the next phrase: “He who chooses the Atman, by him alone is the Atman attained.” The desire for God is the way to God since the desire will prompt us to action, not just mere wishing. No one seeks for God who is not already able to find God, for it is the very nearness of God that prompts his seeking. Seeking God is a guarantee, a symptom, of sure attainment. It is also the thing which enables the Self to reveal itself to him.
This Self cannot be attained by one without strength nor through heedlessness nor through austerity without an aim. But he who strives by these means, if he is a knower [vidvan], this Self of his enters the abode of Brahman. (3.2.4)
There is a lot to think over here. Those devoid of the strength imparted by the strict observance of yama and niyama cannot possibly know the Self. Nor can dependence on God or guru be pled. It is with spiritual life just as the well-known adage about the American westward expansion: “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way.”
It is utterly useless to engage in meditation without making the life correspond to the sole purpose of meditation: liberation of the spirit. Yoga has been propagated here in the West for a little over a hundred years, and see how little good and how much devastation and delusion has resulted. The reason is supremely simple: yama and niyama are not followed, and in many instances the fake gurus actually tell their dupes that yama and niyama are unnecessary. I cannot calculate how many tangled-minded “yogis” have boasted to me that they do not need to be vegetarians. If a survey is taken of almost any yoga group, the ideal of brahmacharya is not being followed by anyone; many will be living together “in a relationship” without being married, and those who are married have no idea of the need for brahmacharya in marriage except for the conception of children.
I really have no hope that the foregoing will provoke anything but contempt or resentment in most instances, but it still has to be said in case some readers do want to reach the Goal, whatever the price. The neglect or rejection of yama and niyama: these two shoals have wrecked many a yogi of East and West. “But he who strives by these means, if he is a knower, this Self of his enters the abode of Brahman.”
Having attained Him, the seers [who are] satisfied with their knowledge [who are] perfected souls, free from passion, tranquil, having attained the omnipresent [Self] on all sides, the wise, with concentrated minds, enter into the All itself. (3.2.5)
What an inspiring description. To at last be ourselves as we really are, to end all struggle with unreality and ignorance: this is the worthy aim. The worthy prayer is that of Jesus: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).
How do the sages get that way? The next verse tells us.
The ascetics who have ascertained well the meaning of the Vedantic knowledge, who have purified their natures through the path of renunciation [sannyasa-yoga], they [dwelling] in the worlds of Brahma, at the end of time, being one with the immortal, are all liberated. (3.2.6)
Who have ascertained well the meaning of the Vedantic knowledge. First the Vedantic truths, the teachings found in the Upanishads, are carefully read and pondered. But this is not enough; in fact it is worthless unless they go on to realize those truths through meditation, for it is this realization which is of supreme value, and the wise diligently seek it.
Who have purified their natures. Not wanting empty theory, the wise understand that their lives must be disciplined for the purification of their outer actions and inner consciousness. Moreover, they establish themselves immovably in that purity.
Through the path of renunciation. Since neither Angiras or his students were monks, it is mistaken to interpret sannyasa yoga as monastic life. Rather, it is the inner discipline of detachment from all externals while fixing the mind on the Eternal.
At the end of time, being one with the immortal, are all liberated. For them there is no longer any need for future birth in the material plane. As the Buddhist texts say: “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled [has been lived], the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” But they are not just liberated from the earth, they are liberated from all worlds and enter the Real as their eternal abode. At that time:
Gone are the fifteen parts to their [respective] supports [the elements] and all the gods [the sense organs] into their corresponding deities. One’s deeds and the Self, consisting of understanding, all become one in the Supreme Immutable Being.
Just as the flowing rivers disappear in the ocean casting off name and shape, even so the knower, freed from name and shape, attains to the divine person, higher than the high.
He, verily, who knows the Supreme Brahman becomes Brahman himself. In his family, no one who does not know Brahman will be born. He crosses over sorrow. He crosses over sins. Liberated from the knots of the secret place [of the heart], he becomes immortal. (3.2.7-9)
There are two aspects to these verses: what is shed by the sage and What he merges with in liberation.
At the time of death, the various bodies no longer retain their configuration. Since they are no longer needed for future incarnations, they resolve back into the elements from which they came. What remains? Brahman and the Atman-Self. Since these are really the source of all the foregoing, in reality nothing whatever is lost, only the conditioning dreams that held them in false bondage for so long. Finitude is traded for infinity. Blessed bargain!
This very [doctrine] is declared in the verse. Those who perform the rites, who are learned in scriptures, who are well-established in Brahman, who offer of themselves oblations to the sole seer [a form of fire] with faith, to them alone one may declare this knowledge of Brahman [to them alone], by whom the rite [of carrying fire] on the head has been performed, according to rule.
This is the truth. The seer Angiras declared it before. Let none who has not performed the rite read this. Salutation to the great seers. Salutation to the great seers. (3.2.10-11)
In India everyone knows the basic principles of Brahmavidya. The sage is not recommending secrecy, but warning us away from wasting our time with people who are willfully disqualifying themselves for spiritual life. So those who are qualified (adhikari) to receive detailed instruction in the eternal truths are described here.
Those who perform the rites. The word translated by this phrase is kriyavantah, which means those who are engaged in the practice of kriyas. In the broad sense a kriya is any practice that entails doing something, because the root of kriya is kri, which means “I do.” Any practice, exercise, rite, or even movement can be called a kriya. Usually, though, kriya means a yogic practice or method which purifies the body and nervous system, as well as the subtle bodies, to enable the yogi to reach and hold on to higher levels of consciousness and being. Only those who are perpetually engaged in such practices need even hear about those states and their meaning. For to anyone else it is mere theory which can easily be misunderstood by those who have no practical yogic experience (and of course those who, hearing about those states, immediately start claiming to have them.)
Who are learned in scriptures. The word shrotriyah means one who both knows the scriptures and the disciplines and practices they enjoin. Although mere scriptural knowledge is of little value, it is necessary to know the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in order to retain a right perspective in spiritual life. Buddha said that a seeker for enlightenment must be careful to follow the teachings of the liberated ones that have gone before. A great deal of problems in spiritual life will be avoided if the Upanishads and Gita are studied daily and applied in their entirety.
Who are well-established in Brahman. Shankara says that the Brahmanishthah are those who are devoted to Brahman as manifested in the cosmos and are actively seeking to know the transcendent Brahman beyond the cosmos. They must not be intent only on Saguna or Nirguna Brahman to the exclusion of the other. The worthy seeker starts from where he finds himself–in the realm of Ishwara, the creation–but strives to know That which lies beyond, as well. This is the real “yoga of synthesis.”
Who offer of themselves oblations to the sole seer (a form of fire) with faith. In the Atharva Veda there is a form of sacred fire called ekarshi, but in this verse the reference is to “the sole fire,” the “fire” that is Brahman. For ekarshi is a contraction of eka-rishi, “the sole seer.” As the Gita says: “Brahman is the offering, Brahman is the oblation poured out by Brahman into the fire of Brahman. Brahman is to be attained by him who always sees Brahman in action” (Bhagavad Gita 4:24). The ultimate offering into Brahman is our own Self.
By whom the rite (of carrying fire) on the head has been performed, according to rule. Continuing this idea, the rishi speaks of those who have accomplished in due order the shirovratam, a vow of holding or carrying the holy fire on the head. That is, one who has established the divine fire of Brahman-realization within himself, who ever carries Brahman in his head–his consciousness.
Let none who has not performed the rite read this. This is a caution about a person reading the highest levels of philosophy such as the Upanishads with an untrained, unpurified and therefore inexperienced mind. For it is likely that his illusion-distorted mind will misunderstand the teachings and he might come to think and do wrong things. I can give an example. A friend of mine was talking about the value of human life and the evil of taking the life of another. Her brother asked: “Well, what about the Gita?” “What about it?” she asked, and he answered: “It says that he who thinks he kills and he who thinks he is killed are mistaken.” We were amazed. He was outrageously twisting the words of the Gita about the immortal Self: “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” (2:19).
But what is the vow (vrata) referred to? It is that which Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras calls “the Great Vow [Maha Vrata].” It is the observance of the five yamas: Ahimsa (non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness), Satya (truthfulness, honesty), Asteya (non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness), Brahmacharya (sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness).
There may not be a great number of students if these criteria are followed, but we must make sure that we are among them.
Salutation to the great seers!
Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for Awakening: The Swetashwatara Upanishad