“The Self within the heart is like a boundary which divides the world from THAT. Day and night cross not that boundary, nor old age, nor death; neither grief nor pleasure, neither good nor evil deeds. All evil shuns THAT. For THAT is free from impurity: by impurity can it never be touched” (Chandogya Upanishad 8:4:1).
Setuh literally means a dam. In the experience of conditioned beings within the realm of relativity, the individual Self or jivatman acts as a boundary between Its Supreme Self, Brahman, the Paramatman, and the world of samsara. This is a very interesting fact, made even more interesting by the fact that I have never encountered it except here in this section of the Chandogya Upanishad.
We may think of the Self as a sea wall. On one side is the vast ocean of Brahman, and on the other side is the earth of material form and change. On one side the wall is experiencing the wetness of the sea, and on the other the dryness of earth. That in which the individual finds himself immersed only applies to the earth side of his being. However much we may experience birth, death, change, and all that attends them, they never touch the realm of Brahman. Conversely, although we are living in–and as–Brahman, samsara never touches That. Samsara and Brahman are mutually exclusive of one another. But we participate in both, linking them with one another. Presently we are centered in samsara, experiencing our own Self as a barrier to Reality. But that barrier can be crossed, so the upanishad continues:
“Wherefore he who has crossed that boundary, and has realized the Self, if he is blind, ceases to be blind; if he is wounded, ceases to be wounded; if he is afflicted, ceases to be afflicted. When that boundary is crossed, night becomes day; for the world of Brahman is light itself” (Chandogya Upanishad 8:4:2). That is so powerful and obvious that there is no place for comment, other than to point out that the conditions listed from which the knowers of the Self are freed are really only illusions, just mirages. The Self being Real, such illusions vanish when It is known.
The way across the boundary
“And that world of Brahman is reached by those who practice continence [brahmacharya]. For the knower of eternal truth knows it through continence. And what is known as worship [yajna], that also is continence. For a man worships the Lord by continence, and thus attains him” (Chandogya Upanishad 8:4:3; 8:5:1).
You cannot get more clear than this. Brahmacharya is the indispensible way to the realm of Brahman (Brahmaloka). Certainly, sexual continence is the core of brahmacharya, but it is really self-restraint, discipline on all levels. This is it: there is no other way to qualify for union with Brahman than through brahmacharya. Yoga is an essential for that union, but frankly the practice of yoga is worthless without brahmacharya. The proof of that is the American and European yoga “scenes.” Nothing is coming of it spiritually, only profiteering and self-delusion.
Brahmacharya is the necessary worship-sacrifice to know God. As the Beloved Disciple wrote: “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (I John 3:3). Why claim to the teachings of the upanishads and the Gita if they ignored and despised-even degraded?
But there is more.
“What is called salvation is really continence. For through continence man is freed from ignorance. And what is known as the vow of silence, that too is continence. For a man through continence realizes the Self and lives in quiet contemplation” (Chandogya Upanishad 8:5:2). Perhaps I should explain a bit about this fulsome assurance that brahmacharya will accomplish everything.
We, like God, are incarnate in a field of energy which we are intended to evolve just as God evolves the cosmos. When the evolution is completed, that is enlightenment and liberation. This process requires the total application of the inner and outer powers (energies) of the individual, powers that are devastatingly dissipated through sensory experience, emotion, and desire–especially lust. It is like a machine that requires a certain amount of voltage, or an engine that cannot run without the right amount of fuel. This is a purely pragmatic proposition, having nothing to do with concepts of right, wrong, good, bad, or any kind of moral valuation. For example, sex is not inherently dirty, but it is destructive. Anything that diverts or dissipates the powers needed for evolution-enlightenment is to be avoided. It is a hindrance and distraction in spiritual life. For this reason the intelligent (buddhic) yogi is at all times vigilantly disciplined–in other words, a brahmachari or brahmacharini. Those who do not wish to pay the price of enlightenment are free to pass it by. No one is under coercion. To seek freedom the yogi must be free in that decision (sankalpa) and in the requisite disciplines for success in seeking.
The necessity for brahmacharya is an absolute.
“What people call dwelling in the forest [aranyayanam], that is continence” (Chandogya Upanishad 8:5:3).
Most yogis have an inward pull to the forest life, to live in the midst of real nature away from the noise and poisons of city life as well as the noise and pollutions of human society. The Gita describes the yogi as “remaining in solitude, alone” (6:10), and having “distaste for crowds of men” (13:10). Whether this is a samskara or an intuition, it will be found in nearly all serious yogis.
One of my best friends was constantly going out into the wilds and risking life and limb so he could meditate far from any other human being. I am not exaggerating about the risks he took. One time he was literally starving, and even wrote a note to anyone that might find his body, saying that it was his unwise ways that caused his death, and yoga should not be blamed. He had been taken into the wilderness by another man, but he had left his original camp and gone farther into the forest. So when the man came back after some weeks to check on him, he could not be found. As my friend was lying on the ground, preparing to die, suddenly that man came walking up and asked: “Where is that woman?” Hardly able to speak, my friend asked his own question: “What woman?” “That woman with the long black hair in the orange dress! If I hadn’t followed her, I couldn’t have found you.” At first my friend was flummoxed, but then he reached in his pack for his photograph of Paramhansa Yogananda. “Is that the ‘woman’?” he asked, holding it out to the man. “Yes, that’s her!” the man replied. The master certainly honored my friend’s forest-yearning, however impractical.
Solitude is a matter of interior condition. The remarkable Russian Orthodox saint, Saint John of Kronstadt, not only never slept, he was never alone more than two hours in twenty-four. Yet a man who knew him very well said: “Father John was always alone.” In contrast are those that go miles away from any human being and take the whole world and its population right with them. The teaching of the upanishad is that Brahmacharya is the way to accomplish true inner solitude and quiet.
“In the world of Brahman there is a lake whose waters are like nectar, and whosoever tastes thereof is straightway drunk with joy; and beside that lake is a tree which yields the juice of immortality. Into this world they cannot enter who do not practice continence. For the world of Brahman belongs to those who practice continence. They alone enter that world and drink from that lake of nectar. For them there is freedom in all the worlds” (Chandogya Upanishad 8:5:3,4).
Since Brahman is beyond materiality and even any kind of subtle name and form, these verses are speaking symbolically of the immortality-bestowing effects of union with Brahman–which can only be effected by those that practice brahmacharya. (Shankara agrees with me in his commentary.) The meaning is pretty obvious: those who enter the ocean of Brahman and drink will be filled with bliss, made immortal with the Immortality of Brahman, and will have access to all the worlds of relative existence and mastery in those worlds. Those who find the Absolute do not lose the relative, for the relative is a manifestation of the Absolute.
The core idea, like the preceding verses, is the necessity of brahmacharya.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Devas and Demons Seeking the Self