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The Dearness of the Self

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Section 85 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Now we come to the best-known dialogue of this upanishad: the conversation between the great sage Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi his wife. Maitreyi and Gargi (whom we will meet later in this upanishad) are evidence that in the time of the ancient sages women were among their number and were teachers of Brahman in their own right. True Hindu traditionalists such as the Arya Samajis make no distinction between male and female in the spiritual rituals (samskaras) received, all wearing the sacred thread (yajnopavita) and performing the Vedic rites. The most perfect and powerful fire sacrifice I have ever attended was that of the high school girls in the Arya Samaj girls’ school in Baroda. I have never seen better brahmins than those intelligent and skilled young women. I hope they have retained the glorious wisdom they learned at that true gurukula under the direction of the venerable sage Pandit Anandapriya of the Arya Samaj.

The vital question

“Yajnavalkya said to his wife: ‘Maitreyi, I am resolved to give up the world and begin the life of renunciation. I wish therefore to divide my property between you and my other wife, Katyayani.’

“Maitreyi said: ‘My lord, if this whole earth belonged to me, with all its wealth, should I through its possession attain immortality?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘No. Your life would be like that of the rich. None can possibly hope to attain immortality through wealth.’

“Maitreyi said: ‘Then what need have I of wealth? Please, my lord, tell me what you know about the way to immortality.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘Dear to me have you always been, Maitreyi, and now you ask to learn of that truth which is nearest my heart. Come, sit by me. I will explain it to you. Meditate on what I say.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:1-4).

What a beautiful picture! I cannot count the number of “spiritual” men who have rhapsodized to me about how special their wives were. Each time the wives turned out to be materialistic, anti-spiritual, manipulative harpies. Women have better sense; they rarely extol the duds they are married to–though both sexes are quite willing to use their spouse as justification for neglecting or abandoning spiritual life. After all, they have made vows and taken obligations on themselves! God, for another life, has to go to the end of the line and wait.

But that is not what we see here. We see a real spiritual marriage in action. Both seek Reality. We can be confident that Maitreyi’s sadhana was no less intense than his, for she has been honored for centuries as one of the great illuminati of India, no less than her husband.

Yajnavalkya calls Maitreyi priya, which means dear, beloved, and pleasing. He does not mean it in the small-minded egocentric way we are so inured to. And lest she think so, he now begins one of the most quoted passages of the upanishads.

For the sake of the Self

“It is not for the sake of the husband, my beloved, that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the wife, my beloved, that the wife is dear, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the children, my beloved, that the children are dear, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of wealth, my beloved, that wealth is dear, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the Brahmins, my beloved, that the Brahmins are held in reverence, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the Kshatriyas, my beloved, that the Kshatriyas are held in honor, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the higher worlds, my beloved, that the higher worlds are desired, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the gods, my beloved, that the gods are worshipped, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of the creatures, my beloved, that the creatures are prized, but for the sake of the Self.
“It is not for the sake of itself, my beloved, that anything whatever is esteemed, but for the sake of the Self.
“The Self, Maitreyi, is to be known. Hear about it, reflect upon it, meditate upon it. By knowing the Self, my beloved, through hearing, reflection, and meditation, one comes to know all things” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:5).

The Self (Atman) is of the nature of bliss (ananda). When the things enumerated above are encountered a person feels a touch of the joy that is the Self. Actually, our response to them opens the barrier between us and the Self for a while, and like the light coming through the shutter of a camera we get a flash, a glimpse, of the bliss of the Self. What we are really valuing is that touch of the Self, but in our ignorance we think those objects are the source. Therefore it really is because of–“for the sake of”–the Self that they are thought by us as dear.

The wise seek to know the Self through study, deep thought, and meditation upon the Self. And we are assured that “by knowing the Self through hearing, reflection, and meditation, one comes to know all things.”

All are the Self

To know the Self is to know everything. To not know the Self is to know nothing. So the sage continues:

“Let the Brahmin ignore him who thinks that the Brahmin is different from the Self.
“Let the Kshatriya ignore him who thinks that the Kshatriya is different from the Self.
“Let the higher worlds ignore him who thinks that the higher worlds are different from the Self.
“Let the gods ignore him who thinks that the gods are different from the Self.
“Let all creatures ignore him who thinks that the creatures are different from the Self.
“Let all ignore him who thinks that anything whatever is different from the Self.
“The priest, the warrior, the higher worlds, the gods, the creatures, whatsoever things there be–these are the Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:6).

That is certainly clear. And so is this: “As, when the drum is beaten, its various particular notes are not heard apart from the whole, but in the total sound all its notes are heard; as, when the conch shell is blown, its various particular notes are not heard apart from the whole, but in the total sound all its notes are heard; as, when the vina is played, its various particular notes are not heard apart from the whole, but in the total sound all its notes are heard–so, through the knowledge of the Self, Pure Intelligence, all things and beings are known. There is no existence apart from the Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:7-9).

The incredible spectacle of endless creations of infinite elaboration springs only from Brahman and has no existence apart from Brahman. The same is true of our own continuing saga of lifetimes: it all emanates from the Self. The cosmic and individual dreams arise only from Consciousness. The dreams are illusion, yet wisdom (jnana) is inherent in them. So Yajnavalkya further says: “As smoke and sparks arise from a lighted fire kindled with damp fuel, even so, Maitreyi, have been breathed forth from the Eternal all knowledge and all wisdom–what we know as the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the rest. They are the breath of the Eternal” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:10).

The all-pervading center

“As for water the one center is the ocean, as for touch the one center is the skin, as for smell the one center is the nose, as for taste the one center is the tongue, as for form the one center is the eyes, as for sound the one center is the ears, as for thought the one center is the mind, as for divine wisdom the one center is the heart–so for all beings the one center is the Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:11).

In the twenty-second chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda describes seeing with the “eye” of the Self: “Spiritual sight, x-raylike, penetrates into all matter; the divine eye is center everywhere, circumference nowhere. I realized anew, standing there in the sunny courtyard, that when man ceases to be a prodigal child of God, engrossed in a physical world indeed dream, baseless as a bubble, he reinherits his eternal realms. If ‘escapism’ be a need of man, cramped in his narrow personality, can any escape compare with the majesty of omnipresence?”

A doubt

“‘As a lump of salt when thrown into water melts away and the lump cannot be taken out, but wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, O Maitreyi, the individual self, dissolved, is the Eternal–pure consciousness, infinite and transcendent. Individuality arises by identification of the Self, through ignorance, with the elements; and with the disappearance of consciousness of the many, in divine illumination, it disappears. Where there is consciousness of the Self, [seeming] individual separation is no more. This it is, O my beloved, that I wanted to tell you.’

“Maitreyi said: ‘“Where there is consciousness of the Self, individual separation is no more.” This that you say, my lord, confuses me.’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘My beloved, let nothing I have said confuse you. But meditate well the truth that I have spoken.

“‘As long as there is duality, one sees the other, one hears the other, one smells the other, one speaks to the other, one thinks of the other, one knows the other; but when for the illumined soul the all is dissolved in the Self, who is there to be seen by whom, who is there to be smelt by whom, who is there to be heard by whom, who is there to be spoken to by whom, who is there to be thought of by whom, who is there to be known by whom? Ah, Maitreyi, my beloved, the Intelligence which reveals all–by what shall it be revealed? By whom shall the Knower be known? The Self is described as Not This, Not That. It is incomprehensible, for it cannot be comprehended; undecaying, for it never decays; unattached, for it never attaches itself; unbound, for it is never bound. By whom, O my beloved, shall the Knower be known?

“‘This it is that I teach you, O Maitreyi. This is the truth of immortality.’

“So saying, Yajnavalkya entered upon the path of renunciation” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:12-14).

Yajnavalkya is not saying that the enlightened go into a kind of non-dual coma in which nothing is perceived. Rather, he says that those who have known Brahman, even though they still hear and see names and forms, know that they are not seeing something “other,” but are seeing only the Supreme Self. They do not just believe that, they perceive that to be so. Only the One remains, however many things might be seen in the cosmic dream.

Nothing “other” can reveal this Consciousness to us, for that is the Revealer, never the Revealed. For the vision of God takes place within, not without–though afterward we do see Divinity both within and without. The machine does not run the operator, the operator runs the machine.

Because of Its transcendent nature, Brahman is described as Neti Neti–Not This, Not That. We can only say what Brahman is not, and when we come to the end, having negated everything, what remains, though unspeakable and inconceivable, is Brahman.

“By whom, O my beloved, shall the Knower be known?” Only to Itself–to our Self.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Divine Sweetness

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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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