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The Prashna Upanishad

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Chapter 8 from The Upanishads for Awakening

This Upanishad, the Prashna Upanishad, is called The Question (Prashna) Upanishad because of its format of question and answer throughout. But the first two verses set the stage for the reader, and also indicate what is needed for a successful quest after the knowledge of Brahman.

Sukesha son of Bharadwaja, Satya-kama son of Shibi, Gargya grandson of Surya, Kausalya son of Ashvala, Bhargava of the Vidarbha country, Kabandhi son of Katya, these, indeed, devoted to Brahman, intent on Brahman, seeking the highest Brahman, approached the revered Pippalada with sacrificial fuel in their hands, thinking that he would explain all to them. (1.1)

The listing of the parentage and family ties of these six seekers is significant, for a yogi must have psychological ancestors in the form of inner spiritual qualities that will help him to persevere in yoga practice. Besides a good inner background, the Upanishad cites three traits needed by every aspirant to higher evolution: “devoted to Brahman, intent on Brahman, seeking the highest Brahman.” Furthermore they desired a teacher that “would explain all to them.” They knew they needed the complete knowledge of the way to Brahman, not a little bit, nor even most, but all of it. That was because these wise seekers were intent on a single thing: the truth of the Supreme Brahman. We should aspire to and settle for nothing less.

Faith in the form of conviction of the reality of spiritual matters is also a necessity, for who can persevere in search of something about which they have no inner assurance? We need the conviction-faith that God is real and can be known. That is why the Apostle wrote: “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). For God had said to Abraham: “I am thy exceeding great reward” (Genesis 15:1). An interior knowing that God is real and can be experienced will give us the strength we need to keep on to the Goal.

The seeker must be keenly aware that he lacks something (a great deal, in fact), with emphasis on need. He must not forget that seeking implies needing and asking. Those who strut up to a teacher as though they are visiting a zoo will (and should) receive nothing. On the other hand, the seeker should not grovel or be unthinkingly accepting. The student should carefully examine the prospective teacher to see if he is qualified and worth listening to. The worthy teacher will also equally carefully examine the prospective student to see if he has the right attitude and is capable of learning and applying what is learned. A dud on either end ruins the equation.

To them that seer said; live with me another year with austerity, chastity and faith. Then ask us questions according to your desire and if we know, we shall, indeed, tell you all that. (1.2)

Now this is the way of a real teacher of Brahmajnana. He tells what they must do and what he will then do.

There is a story told in India of a young man who came to a guru and asked to live with him and learn from him. The guru told him what he would have to do during the time of preparation in order to qualify himself. Not very happy with the list, the youth asked what the guru would do in all that time. When told that the guru would teach him occasionally, as he would deem appropriate, the would-be disciple remarked: “Why don’t you make me a guru, instead; that sounds a lot easier.” Yes, indeed.

Many approach a teacher while living in a fantasy world projected by their over-confident ego. If the teacher is as false as they and conforms to their fantasy, they are happy. But if the teacher is real, and dares to speak to them realistically about the means and the goal, they are most displeased. We are not of this type, hopefully, so let us look at the requirements Pippalada sets forth.

We have been told that the seekers had three qualities that proved them worthy: “devoted to Brahman, intent on Brahman, seeking the highest Brahman.” And the teacher demands of them three observances: tapasya, brahmacharya and shraddha. (Shradda is faith, confidence or assurance that arises from personal experience). These are absolute necessities and they must be unwaveringly practiced and held to for all one’s life. First the students must be qualified, otherwise a qualified teacher will be of no use to them at all.

“Then ask us questions according to your desire and if we know, we shall, indeed, tell you all that.” This promise contains two major qualities of an authentic spiritual teacher.

First, the teacher will accept and consider whatever the student asks. He will not shrug off even the silliest inquiry, nor will he reject the student’s questioning of the veracity or value of what he believes or teaches. This is one of the most glorious characteristics of the wisdom of the Upanishads: it has no fear of honest inquiry and honest doubt. Not being insecure, the teacher of dharma is not disturbed by questioning or statements of disbelief.

A friend of mine told me that she quit being a Christian when, as a teenager, she dared to express doubts to her parish priest. He raved at her and threatened her with hell, saying that to even ask for explanation of “the mysteries” was a sin and an insult to God. So she walked away and never went back. Over sixty years (!) later she came into the orbit of Sanatana Dharma and Yoga, asked all her questions and received answers that restored her faith in Jesus (but not in Churchianity). In true dharma we find the key to understanding the teachings of all the masters of all the ages. I have found throughout nearly fifty years that the Upanishads and the Gita illumine their words to a degree that their professed followers and “isms” cannot even dream of.

Those who would follow Jesus and Buddha need to seek out the same source from which they drew their teachings: the Upanishads and the Gita. Then they can become their true disciples. The Upanishadic wisdom expands their horizons to embrace all truth wherever it may be found. It is true that of late there have arisen bigots in India who speak as hatefully and ignorantly about other religions as those religions speak of Sanatana Dharma. But they are not true followers of the ancient sages of India, for dharma has no place for hate, ignorance and sectarianism.

Second, a worthy teacher will acknowledge that he cannot answer some questions. This is because some things are simply beyond verbal expression. Further, no true teacher is egotistical, therefore he will readily admit it if he feels it is beyond his capacity to explain something, just as we find that sometimes we cannot find a word to express what we know well inwardly. And most of all, a good teacher is willing to admit when he just does not know the answer to something. Only a fool thinks he is omniscient, and only a fake wants others to think he is.

In my encounters with teachers, the person nearest to being (and perhaps was) all-knowing was Swami Sivananda, and he was known to reply: “I really don’t know” to certain questions. But he certainly knew the way to God, as the lives of his disciples attested.

So we have seen the two elements needed for a meaningful exchange of questions and answers: worthy questioners and worthy answerers.

Then Kabandhi, son of Katya, approached him and asked, venerable Sir, whence, verily, are all these creatures born? (1.3)

This is the question of any reflective person. There are many answers to it, but this Upanishad goes to the root of relative existence as Pippalada replies.

To him he said, Prajapati [the lord of creation], verily, was desirous of offspring. He performed austerity. Having performed austerity, he produced the pair, matter and prana, thinking that they would produce creatures for him variously. (1.4)

Prajapati (the Lord of Creation, Brahma) did not create the world in the manner understood in the West. Rather, he manifested it from the primal energy known as Prakriti by the power of his meditation. This was no new occurrence, for the projection and withdrawal of the cosmos in precise cycles has been going on from eternity. Just as wind moving over water causes it to take on a multitude of wave-forms, so does the creative thought of Brahma. In Genesis we are told: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.… and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). The Breath (Ruach) of God, the creative thought of God, moved on the causal “waters” and the cosmos began to manifest.

The following verses give a great deal of allegory that is obscure. I will spare you the tangle, but the whole idea is that creation occurs precisely and exactly as the individual consciousness takes up life in relative existence.

To them is [belongs] that stainless Brahma world, in whom there is no crookedness, falsehood or trickery. (1.16)

This is very straightforward, yet crucial. All untruth in whatever forms it may come, must be purged from our minds and hearts as well as our outer life.

Each of us is both Who and What. The Who is simple to define: individualized consciousness, the jivatman, the individualized Self. The What, on the other hand is quite complex, which is why we have gotten lost in it and confused for lifetimes beyond number. The first step in learning how to undo this dilemma is knowing what is keeping it going. And that is prana. Now follows a great deal of verses all about prana. Why is so much attention being given to the subject of prana? Because, as I pointed out in the commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, prana/breath is the foundation of yoga sadhana along with shabda/sound. The entire technique of authentic yoga consists of mental intonation of Soham in time with the breath. Everything follows from that, incredibly simple as it is.

Then Bhargava of the Vidarbha country asked him [Pippalada,] Venerable sir, how many powers support the created world? How many illumine this? And who, again among them is the greatest?
To him, he said Ether verily is such a power–wind, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, eye and ear too. They, having illumined it, declare, we sustain and support this body.
Prana, the greatest of them, said to them, Do not cherish this delusion. I, alone, dividing myself fivefold, sustain and support this body.
They believed him not. Through pride, he seemed to go upward [from the body]. When he went up, all the others also went up. When he settled down, all others too settled down. This, as all the bees go up when the long bee goes up and as they settle down when the long bee settles down, even so, speech, mind, sight and hearing. They, being satisfied, praised Prana. (2.1-4)

“Ether verily is such a power–wind, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, eye and ear too.” The devas (gods) are those faculties that convey information to us. They are formed of one or more of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Ether is the paramount element, for all the other four proceed from it and contain elements of it. Further, the five senses arise from earth (smell), water (taste), fire (sight), air (touch) and ether/akasha (hearing/speech). Only akasha has both an active and passive power: hearing and speech. The four have powers of perception, but not of projection or generation as does akasha. (Akasha is called both space and ether.) Akasha is the foundation of everything, even the creation. Sound arises from the akasha.

Sound and prana are the basis of yoga. Together they can liberate the consciousness of the yogi and reveal the Self and the Supreme Self.

When the various element/faculties boasted: “We sustain and support this body,” a heretofore unknown presence revealed itself. Prana spoke, admonishing them not to be deluded, but to realize that, dividing itself into the five lesser pranas or modes of itself, it alone was the support and sustainer of the body. The devas did not believe it, so prana just began to rise up from the body and they were carried along with it. When the prana settled back into the body they returned along with it. Realizing that prana was their life and existence, they began to praise it.

We see from this that the five elements are modifications of the cosmic life, the Prana (Vishwaprana)–that although the body seems to be formed only of the five elements, the prana itself is the underlying substratum as the ocean is to the waves. The body, then, is really nothing but prana, as is everything else in the realm of relative existence. Even the smallest particle of the cosmos is the Universal Life in manifestation.

All the elements of the cosmos are rooted in prana. It is the same with the elements and the senses in the individual’s body complex (for the human being has five bodies corresponding to the five elements). Just as the waves are in total dependence upon the ocean for their very being, so everything cosmic and microcosmic depend upon prana. Furthermore, the breath (also called prana) is the outermost, physical manifestation of prana. He who controls prana controls all, since prana is all. Therefore the elements praised Prana, saying:

As fire, he burns, he is the sun. He is the bountiful rain god; he is the wind. He is the earth, matter, god. He is being and non-being and what is immortal.
As spokes in the center of a wheel, everything is established in prana; the Rig [verses], the Yajus [formulas] and the samans [chants], as also sacrifice, valor and wisdom.
As the lord of creatures, you movest in the womb, it is then yourself that art born again. O prana, creatures–here bring offering to you who dwellest with the vital breaths.
Thou art the chief bearer [of offerings] to the gods; you are the first offering to the fathers, you are the true practice of the seers, descendants of Atharvan and Angiras.
Indra art you, O Prana, by your valor; Rudra art you as a protector. Thou movest in the atmosphere as the sun, the lord of the lights.
When you pourest down rain, then these creatures breathe [and] live in a state of bliss [thinking] that there will be food according to their desire.
Thou art ever pure, O Prana, the one seer, the eater, the real lord of all. We are the givers of what is to be eaten. O, all-pervading Air, you are our father.
That form of yours which is well-established in the speech or in the ear and in the eye, which exists continuously in the mind, make that auspicious, do not get away.
All this is under the control of prana, which is well established in the three worlds. Protect us as a mother her sons. Grant to us prosperity and wisdom. (2.5-13)

Prana, the universal life force, is all things. It is not just energy, it is also consciousness, for it is a manifestation of Brahman. Prana brings us into incarnation and takes us out of incarnation. It is the Life of all the living. It is Father and Mother to all. In us, the breath is the direct manifestation of prana, which is why in the practice of yoga attention is given to the breath, combining it with sound, the other basis of relative existence that leads beyond to the Absolute.

Mastery is the result of evolution. Prana, the universal life force, must be known about and mastered. So:

Then Kausalya, the son of Ashwala, asked him [Pippalada]. Venerable Sir, whence is this prana born? How does it come into this body? And how does it distribute itself and establish itself? In what way does it depart? How does it support what is external? How [does it support] what relates to the Self? (3:1)

All these questions are going to be answered subsequently, so the only important point is the referring to Prana as a conscious being, which it is because it is the life of Brahman and therefore is Brahman. The fact that everything is conscious is a clear teaching of the Upanishads. Science considers itself extremely bold in cautiously approaching this concept and tentatively postulating it. Those in the West who bravely make the statement as evident fact are those whose thinking has, at least in its ancestry, been derived from the wisdom of India.

To him, he then said, You are asking questions which are [highly] transcendental. Because [I think] you are most devoted to Brahman, I will tell you. (3:2)

This I have seen for myself in India. The great saints just will not bother with the idly curious and the hopelessly shallow. But they will gladly speak with those who are seeking the knowledge of Reality. Once I made the mistake of taking a Western spiritual wanderer to meet Maitri Devi, a beloved saint in New Delhi. When he told her he wanted to ask some questions, she replied in Hindi: “I do not speak English.” When he asked if someone could translate his questions she again responded: “I do not speak English.” So I said to him quietly: “Tell me your questions and I will ask them.” For quite some time he would softly tell me his questions and I would ask them (in English!) and she would readily answer through a translator. I appreciated her kindness to me, but I also decided to never again bother her with roamabouts. Other saints I met would do the same, some diplomatically, others not very tactfully.

We should learn from this and question ourselves as to why we seek and study: to eventually reach the knowledge of God, or just to cram more ideas into our head to show how wise we are? Yogananda often spoke of those who had “spiritual indigestion” from cramming useless philosophy into their minds.

But Kausalya is a worthy questioner, so the sage replies:

This prana is born of the Self. As in the case of a person there is this shadow, so is this [prana] connected [with the Self]. It comes into this body by the activity of the mind. (3:3)

Just as the cosmos is an extension of the Consciousness that is Brahman, in the same way our individual prana is an extension of our Self (Atman). It is inseparable from the Self because it is the Self. This is the authentic non-duality (advaita) of the Upanishads, not a negation or denial of either Prakriti or Prana. Seeing them as separate from Spirit and therefore dual, not acknowledging their innate reality, is an error.

Prana provides the continuity between our present and past lives. It is also the force that enables the continuation of our evolution from past lives and carries us through this present life and future ones as well. Prana truly is Life itself.

This verse also tells us that karma is a matter of the mind, and not some external force. Change the mind and you change the karma or even dissolve it. It need never extend into our external existence. “Working out” or “fulfilling” karma is not a compelling necessity. We are never slaves to karma. We are its creators and its masters, at least potentially. But we have forgotten that fact and lost control of our karma. It must be regained if we would be free.

As a sovereign commands his officers, saying, You superintend such and such villages, even so does this prana allot the other vital breaths to their respective places. (3:4)

We usually speak of “five pranas,” but there is really only pure prana and its four modifications, also called pranas. Here is the definition of Prana found in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary: “Life; vital energy; life-breath; life-force; inhalation. In the human body the prana is divided into five forms: 1) Prana, the prana that moves upward; 2) Apana: The prana that moves downward, producing the excretory functions in general. 3) Vyana: The prana that holds prana and apana together and produces circulation in the body. 4) Samana: The prana the carries the grosser material of food to the apana and brings the subtler material to each limb; the general force of digestion. 5) Udana: The prana which brings up or carries down what has been drunk or eaten; the general force of assimilation.” If this is kept in mind the following will be more comprehensible and meaningful.

The out-breath is in the organs of excretion and generation, the life breath as such is in the eye and ear as also in the mouth and nose. In the middle is the equalizing breath. It is this that equalizes whatever is offered as food. From this arise the seven flames.
In the heart is this Self. Here are these hundred and one arteries. To each one of these belong a hundred smaller arteries to each of these belong seventy-two thousand branching arteries. Within them moves the diffused breath.
Now, rising upward through one of these the up-breath leads, in consequence of good [work] to the good world, in consequence of evil to the evil world, in consequence of both to the world of men. (3:5-7)

Prana brings us into the body, prana sustains the body as long as we need it and then leads us into the astral world and either beyond or back into earthly birth, according to our karma.

Since each of us is a reflection of the universe, there is a cosmic pranic arrangement also, so the sage continues:

The sun, verily, rises as the external life for it is that which helps the life breath in the eye. The divinity which is in the earth supports a person’s outbreath. What is between [the sun and the earth] is the equalizing breath. Air is the diffused breath.
Fire, verily, is the upbreath. Therefore, he whose fire [of life] has ceased, goes to rebirth, with his senses sunk in mind.
Whatever is one’s thinking, therewith one enters into life. His life combined with fire along with the Self leads to whatever world has been fashioned [in thought]. (3:8-10)

This final principle is the most important. It is expanded in the Gita in this way: “At the time of death he who remembers me while giving up the body attains my Being–of this there is no doubt. Moreover, whatever he fixes his mind on when he gives up the body at the end, to that he goes. Always he becomes that. Therefore at all times remember me, and fight with your mind and intellect fixed on me. Thus without doubt you shall come to me. With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him” (8:5-8).

The importance of knowing the functions of prana by direct experience (through yoga practice) is summed up by the sage, saying:

The wise one who knows prana thus, to him there shall be no lack of offspring. He becomes immortal. As to this, there is this verse:
The birth, the entrance, the abode, the fivefold over-lordship and the relation to Self of the prana, knowing these one obtains immortality, knowing these one obtains immortality. (3:11-12)

For, as the other Upanishads declare: Prana is Brahman.

Then Gargya, the grandson of Surya, asked him [Pippalada], Venerable Sir, what are they that sleep in this person? What are they that keep awake in him? What is the god that sees the dreams? Whose is this happiness? In whom, pray, are all these established? (4.1)

Anyone who ponders the nature of consciousness comes to realize that there are three modes of experience: waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. All three of these states are experienced by a single witness who says: “I slept without dream,” “I slept and dreamed,” and “I am now awake.” Who is that witness? This is Gargya’s inquiry. Who is the unchanging witness of change? Who is the unseen seer? For no intelligent person of unclouded intellect can doubt the existence of such a one.

To him, then, he said, O Gargya, as all the rays of the setting sun become one in this circle of light and as they spread forth when he rises again and again, even so does all this become one in the supreme god, the mind. Therefore, in that state, the person hears not, sees not, smells not, tastes not, touches not, speaks not, takes not, rejoices not, emits not, moves not. [Then] they say, he sleeps.
The fires of prana alone remain awake in this city. The householder’s fire is the out-breath. The [southern] sacrificial fire is the diffused breath. The in-breath is the oblation fire, from being taken, since it is taken from the householder’s fire.
The equalizing breath is so called because it equalizes the two oblations, the in-breathing and the out-breathing. The mind, indeed is the sacrificer. The fruit of sacrifice is the upbreath. It leads the sacrificer every day to Brahman. (4.2-4)

Prana is the primal life-force or vital energy. The prana that manifests in the evolving universe also manifests in the evolving body of each human being. In the body there are five basic forms of prana as already listed in the definition of Prana. The pranas also correspond to the five elements: earth (prithvi), water (apa), fire (tejas), air (vayu), and ether (akasha). One of these five elements is the foundation for one of the five senses: earth=smell, water=taste, fire=sight, air=touch, and ether=hearing/speech.

In the waking state all the pranas are quite active and fundamentally outflowing, even those that maintain the internal functions of the body that are externalized through being expended in the fulfillment of their tasks. But in sleep they withdraw into the inner reservoirs of the body and the state of sleep occurs. On the subtlest energy level they withdraw into the manas, the energy field we call the mind. For the mind is the highest sense, being the sum and goal of them all. It is not amiss to say that the senses serve the mind, at least when the right order prevails. Otherwise they drag the mind helplessly along addicting and enslaving it. Breaking the web of this addiction-slavery is then impossible without the refinement of the pranas.

When the pranas withdraw into the mind, their distracting activities lessen unless they occupy and overwhelm the mind with constant and vivid dreaming. When (if) the mind is thus granted a reprieve from their clamor, it begins to sense what is behind it, just as it is behind the senses. The mind is the witness of the senses, but it is also itself witnessed. That ultimate witness is the Self. Therefore the Upanishad says that in sleep the mind is led nearer to the Self (Brahman).

Where do dreams come from? Gargya has not asked, but Pippalada tells him:

There, in sleep, that god [mind] experiences greatness. He sees again whatever object has been seen, he hears again whatever has been heard, he experiences again and again whatever has been experienced in different places and directions. What has been seen and not been seen, what has been heard and what has not been heard, what has been experienced and what has not been experienced, what is existent and what is non-existent, he sees all, being all he sees [all]. (4.5)

Everyone is creative in the dream state, though some are definitely better writer/directors of their inner movies than others.

When he is overcome with light, then in this state, the god [mind] sees no dreams. Then here in this body arises this happiness. (4.6)

From the very first yogis have spoken of the importance of the dreamless deep sleep state they call sushupti. This is because in dreamless sleep we are aware of awareness itself with no interference from the senses. This is the light we are “overcome” by. We are aware deep within ourselves, aware of our nature as simple, pure consciousness. Dreamless sleep is also proof that the Self exists. For although no objects are presented to the mind, there is a witness of that non-experiencing. Otherwise we would not awaken and say: “I slept but had no dreams at all.” Instead we would not know any time had passed, would not even know that we had been asleep. That witness which cognizes the waking, dream and dreamless states is the Atman itself.

There is a higher form “when sushupti [the dreamless sleep state] is rightly cognized [experienced] while conscious,” says the Shandilya Upanishad (2:46). In that state we are “asleep while awake” and are fully conscious of the fact. This is very near the actual experience of the Self and partakes of that experience to some degree, the happiness and ease we feel being a touch of the joy (ananda) that is the nature of the Self. It is extremely valuable because it shows us that when all sensory experience is gone beyond there yet remains the truth of ourselves in the form of pure, unconditioned consciousness that is the Self.

In deep meditation we enter this state intentionally and begin working our inner transformation from this center.

Even as birds resort to a tree for a resting-place so does everything here resort to the Supreme Self. They all find their rest in the Supreme Self.
Earth and the elements of earth, water and the elements of water, fire and the elements of fire, air and the elements of air, ether and the elements of ether, sight and what can be seen, hearing and what can be heard, smell and what can be smelled, taste and what can be tasted, the skin and what can be touched, speech and what can be spoken, hands and what can be handled, the organ of generation and what can be enjoyed, the organ of excretion and what can be excreted, the feet and what can be walked, the mind and what can be perceived, the intellect and what can be conceived, the Self-sense and what can be connected with the Self, thought and what can be thought, radiance and what can be illumined, life-breath and what can be supported by it. (4.7-8)

All the things listed here ultimately come to rest in the Supreme Self (Paramatman) because That is their origin. They are returning to their source after ages upon ages of separation in relative existence/experience.

He, verily, is the seer, the toucher, the hearer, the smeller, the taster, the perceiver, the knower, the doer, the thinking Self, the person. He becomes established in the Supreme Undecaying Self. (4.9)

“He” refers to the individual Self which is the experiencer in all beings, the knower of all things, and the doer of all acts. This points out the fact that Maya (illusion) is the misperception of things, not perception itself. Also, sense experience, thought, and actions are not illusions. It is our misunderstanding of them that is illusion. The Self is real and its experiences are real. It is true that they are purely mental in nature, but is the mind not real? Again, it is a matter of how we perceive.

The Self is a wave of the ocean of Brahman the Absolute whose nature is Consciousness. The Self is immutable, and beyond it there is nothing else, for in essence it is one with Brahman, the ultimate Being. Yet, the Self needs to attain itself, needs to attain the consciousness of its Being which is Brahman. Therefore the sage says further:

He who knows the shadowless, bodiless, colorless, pure, undecaying Self attains verily, the Supreme, Undecaying [Self]. He who knows thus becomes omniscient, [becomes] all. As to this, there is this verse:
He who knows that Undecaying [Self] in which are established the Self of the nature of intelligence, the vital breaths and the elements along with all the gods [powers] becomes omniscient and enters all. (4.10-11)

This is most important, for it indicates that first we know the Self–the individual Self, the jivatman–and then we are enabled to know the Supreme Self, the Paramatman: Brahman. And the Self we will know is immortal, luminous, beyond diminishment or differentiation, always exactly what it is, perfectly non-dual, neither inside or outside of any thing. It cannot be contained, so it is bodiless. It is “colorless” in the sense that it has no relative or objective qualities or characteristics, but is always I AM. All of this indicate that the Self is the same as Brahman. And the Self that knows its Self, Brahman, does in truth come to know all things, being one with the Self in all things. Omniscience and omnipresence are experienced by that liberated spirit who knows its oneness with the All.

So far the questions put to Pippalada have been about the components of the human organism which both empower and limit it. In the last section the subject of the Self was considered, specifically the nature of the Self and the results of knowing the Self. Now we approach the subject of the way in which the Self is known. Without knowing this, all the foregoing teaching is pointless.

Then, Sukesha, son of Bharadwaja, asked him, Venerable Sir, Hiranyanabha, a prince of the Kosala kingdom approached me and asked this question: Bharadwaja do you know the person with sixteen parts? I replied to that prince, I know him not. If I had known him, why should I not tell you about it? Verily to his roots, he withers, who speaks untruth. Therefore, it is not proper for me to speak untruth. In silence he mounted his chariot and departed. I ask you about him, where is that person? (6.1)

This is an introduction to the teachings of this section, but it also contains a couple of interesting points.

The Self is said in this verse to have sixteen parts. Yet the Self is one, so how can this be? The Upanishad is referring to the extensions or instruments of the Self by means of which it manifests within relative existence. They will be enumerated shortly.

It is impressive when a spiritual teacher honestly admits to not knowing something. In a filmed interview, Carl Jung was asked what he thought some dream symbol meant. He laughed and said: “I haven’t the faintest idea!”

Here we see the integrity of Sukesha who readily admitted not knowing the answer to a question. And he gives the reason for his admission, saying: “Surely he who speaks what is not true withers away to the very root; therefore I should not speak untruth.” Satya, truthfulness, is one of the essential observances of Yoga, according to Patanjali, and here we see why. This should be taken to heart by us throughout our life. Sri Ramakrishna said that a person can realize God by scrupulously adhering to truth. On the other hand, a person who speaks untruth will wither in his body, mind and soul. For a lie carries within it the vibration of anti-truth, of death. Since the power of speech is a human being’s most powerful faculty, a single lie uttered is poisonous to his entire being. Through lies a person loses himself utterly. I knew a man who in one part of his mind was insane as a result of continually lying to himself and others.

To him he said, Even here, within the body is that person in whom these sixteen parts arise. (6.2)

How precious, then, is the human body! And how foolish it is to think that spiritual experience will involve escaping from the body and flying off to some spiritual realm to hobnob with angels and masters.

Now he will describe the sequence of cosmic manifestation.

He [the person] thought [in himself]: In whose departure shall I be departing? And in whose settling down shall I be settling down? (6.3)

This is a problem for both the infinite and the finite Selves.

He created prana; from prana, faith, ether, air, light, water, earth, sense organ, mind and food; from food, vital vigor, austerity, [Vedic] hymns, works, worlds and in the worlds, name. (6.4)

The world was made by the mere thought of God. As said before, this is the dream of God; it is all creative thought. Merely thinking of something gets us human beings nowhere: we have to bring it into manifestation by action and materials. But this is not the case with God. He thought; and so it was. Consequently, in the following list of cosmic ingredients, we must think of them as cosmic thoughts.

Prana. First the Universal Life Force (vishwaprana) was manifested. This was the formless, basic substance of relative existence.

Faith. Next came the power of intention or aspiration. For unless we are motivated with the idea that something can be attained, we will not act. So the power to desire or will, and thereby to shape and work with the cosmic prana, is absolutely necessary for anything to happen. The Sanskrit word is shraddha. This was used, Shankara says in his commentary, to mean a stimulus to the individual spirits (jivas). That is, subliminally all of us know that we have come from God and are intended to return to God. With this aspiration as the deepest impulse of our being, we are moving up the evolutionary path, ever onward, however many delays our ignorance and laziness may bring about.

Space [akasha], air, fire, water, earth. the great primal elements and all their variations down to their material manifestations.

The sense organs. Actually, the word is indriyam, which means “organs” and often does mean only the five organs of perception (jnanendriyas): ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose, but Shankara feels (and so do I) that it no doubt includes the five organs of action (karmendriyas): voice, hand, foot, organ of excretion, and the organ of generation. The indriyas are here being thought of as sheaths of the individual consciousness as well as being instruments of bodily function.

Mind. The indriyas are unconscious. That which activates them is the mind which both perceives and acts through them.

Food. By this term is meant all that goes to affect the evolving consciousness, from physical food to psychological and intellectual impressions that shape and move our development either forward or backward, according to their character. That this is so is demonstrated by those things that are said to be made from food:

Vital vigor. Virya is the strength and energy that manifests in body, mind, and intellect, and especially as will power in the yogi.

Austerity. Tapasya is the application of practical spiritual disciplines, such as moral observances, self-purification, and the practice of meditation. Their practice is impossible without virya to empower it. Thus the yogi is careful about his diet because virya comes from food. Therefore only food that increases the life force should be eaten and not that which brings degeneration and death over a period of time. Furthermore, those without virya do not have the ability to sustain yogic practice or discipline. Consequently brahmacharya is a requisite for successful yoga practice, and that, too, is affected by diet.

Vedic hymns. The word is not Veda, but mantra: words of power which produce changes spiritually, mentally and physically by their repetition. From vigor comes the capacity for spiritual discipline, which is manifested in the form of the repetition (japa) and meditation (dhyana) centered on mantras. The vedic hymns and their verses are indeed powerful mantras, but mantra includes so much more, especially the Soham mantra which is the basis of sadhana.

Works. The actual word is karma, a very wide and far-reaching matter, indeed. Here it means the law of action/reaction which fuels the very existence of the world and our bodies within it. Karma causes the manifestation of the cosmos and impels all sentient beings to take incarnation within it in forms appropriate to their level of consciousness and the nature of their past deeds, both physical and mental. Certainly merit-producing actions are part of karma, but karma is much more and includes the practice of yoga.

The worlds. The many worlds (lokas) are produced in response to the varying degrees of evolution and past karma of the sentient beings within them.

And in the worlds (he created) names. The prime factor in relative existence is nama: name. This seems very peculiar to those whose philosophy does not postulate that everything is ideation (thought). But the primeval sages of India perceived through their meditation that the thoughtform, the idea that is the matrix around which the body-vehicle of any manifested entity forms itself, is that entity’s “name.” In the depths of their meditation the sages perceived the primal idea of each thing. Since everything is formed of vibration, they translated that into spoken forms. In all other languages a word is just an agreed-upon symbol of an object, but in Sanskrit each word is a sound-form of the basic energy pattern of the designated object. Sanskrit is a kind of sonic physics: creative speech. For that reason Sanskrit script is call Devanagari, The City of the Gods, meaning that the divine powers manifesting as all objects are inherent in the Sanskrit words. In the subtle levels of being the Sanskrit word is the thing designated by the word.

These are the sixteen parts of the cosmic and the individual Selves.

As these flowing rivers tending towards the ocean, on reaching the ocean, disappear, their name-shape [nama-rupa] broken up, and are called simply the ocean, even so of this seer, these sixteen parts tending towards the person, on reaching the person, disappear, their name-shape broken up, and are called simply the person. That one is without parts, immortal. As to that there is this verse:
In whom the parts are well established as spokes in the center of the wheel, know him as the person to be known, so that death may not afflict you (6.5-6)

There is an important principle here: All that exists has emanated from the Cosmic Self and is withdrawn into It. And the same is true of our many levels: they have come from our true Self and will remerge in our Self. The idea that the world is to be discarded or escaped from so we can be free, is as illusory as the world from which we wish to rid ourselves. It is ignorance alone that we need to banish. We need to refine all our bodies through the practice of tapasya so they will be seen as nothing more than the projections of our mind: projections that can be reabsorbed in the state of perfect knowing. The macrocosm and the microcosm are both proper to Spirit and spirit. They are not impositions or prisons, though we make them so, but rays of the Self. They exist because we exist.

The only path to the Self is that of realization through yoga. Once that realization arises within us, death dissolves and immortality alone remains.

To them, then, he [Pippalada] said, Only thus far do I know of that Supreme Brahman. There is naught higher than that. (6.7)

So anything more we may say, that has not already been said in the Upanishads (and the Gita), will really be of no worth and pointless. What is needed now is to become genuine yogis. Then we will truly know That Which Is To Be Known.

They praised him [and said]: You, indeed, are our father who takes us across to the other shore of ignorance.
Salutation to the supreme seers. Salutation to the supreme seers. (6.8)

Those who teach us the truth of the Self and the way to realize the Self are our true fathers, enabling us to enter into true Being. They are worthy of worship (archanam) and all honor. They are the gods that lead us to God.

Namah Paramarishibhyah–Salutations to the Great Rishis!

Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for AwakeningThe Mundaka Upanishad

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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