Have you ever seen, or been given, a little leaflet entitled “Four Things God Wants You To Know”? When I was young, long ago, it was quite a popular tool of Fundamentalist Protestants. It had four statements–mostly about sin, death, and hell–backed up with Bible quotations. Usually there was a place to sign on the back saying you were willing to let God save you. And that was it! Salvation for the masses. Here in the Chandogya Upanishad we find the real four things we all need to know.
Duty and realization
“The requirements of duty [dharma] are three. The first is sacrifice, study, almsgiving; the second is austerity; the third is life as a student in the home of a teacher and the practice of continence. Together, these three lead one to the realm of the blest. But he who is firmly established in the knowledge of Brahman achieves immortality” (Chandogya Upanishad 2:23:1). The basis of dharma, of life that leads to spiritual unfoldment has three elements which need scrutiny, each in turn.
Sacrifice, study, and almsgiving. Sacrifice (yajna) means formal religious observance, especially the offering of the daily activities to God, hopefully leading to the perfect offering of oneself to God–Ishwarapranidhana. Study (adhyaya) means just that, but study of spiritual texts, of the wisdom of the enlightened, and pondering the ways to incorporate that teaching into one’s own life. This is serious application to holy knowledge and its personal assimilation. Almsgiving (dana) means giving of time and money to the welfare of others. It is also the cultivation of generosity as a trait of mind and heart. These three are discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, especially in chapter seventeen, as absolute necessities on the spiritual path, never to be abandoned–not even by the renunciate. For these are not part of worldly life, but essentials of spiritual life.
Austerity–tapasya–is spiritual discipline, including control of mind, body, the factors of external life, and especially meditation. It is an entire reshaping and purification of the inner and outer life, not a mere dabbling or dalliance. It is total in its scope, and therefore total in its effect.
Life as a student in the home of a teacher and the practice of continence. It is a fact that the earlier we begin spiritual cultivation the more likely we are to persevere and therefore succeed. In the ancient culture of India from an early age everyone lived as a student in the house of a recognized spiritual teacher. Although the teacher imparted a great deal of practical, world-oriented knowledge, the primary subject was always spiritual life and development through spiritual practice and religious activities. Since the student remained in the teacher’s house until the attainment of adulthood, brahmacharya, sexual continence, was considered a fundament requisite–so much so that the student was called a brahmachari: one who observes continence.
In the West this system was totally unknown in the Indian form, but through the centuries it was not uncommon for monasteries and convents to permit children to live there and study, some becoming monastics and others leaving and leading a secular life. The Franciscan Order had “minor seminaries” in which young boys began preparation for religious life, especially the priesthood, from a very young age. If one decided that he did not wish to eventually be a monk or priest he usually returned home and continued an ordinary course of study.
But here in the West the majority of those interested in the dharma of the upanishads come to it as adults. They can engage in sacrifice, study, charity, and spiritual practice, but what about this factor, which the upanishad says is a requirement of dharma? They can devote themselves to study of the various scriptures and writings of masters of the spiritual life and “live” with them. Even if a teacher is no longer in the body, through study and application of his teaching they can be his student. The home of a teacher is not a building or ashram, but that teacher’s level of spiritual awareness. It is not easy to live in that real home, but it can be done. Those who attune themselves to the teacher’s consciousness are true disciples–physical proximity of itself means nothing. In India I have seen people that lived for decades in an ashram, often personally attending on or traveling with the teacher–and many of them never really met the teacher once on the level that counts.
For all students of whatever form or situation, brahmacharya is needed. A teacher that does not tell them that right from the start is no real teacher at all.
The blest and the Blesser
“Together, these three lead one to the realm of the blest. But he who is firmly established in the knowledge of Brahman achieves immortality.”
Honesty in spiritual life is a necessity, on the side of the teacher and the student. True spiritual teaching is not a matter of marketing, of appealing to the consumer. Therefore facts that may not be palatable or comforting are always to be found wherever truth is being taught. Degenerate religion revels in adjusting and dumbing down its teachings in order to gain more adherents, and therefore more power and money. True religion always follows the fundamental principle that the seeker conforms to the teaching, not the other way around. All of us really need to get this through our heads and into our hearts–and thereby into our lives.
I say this because we see that the upanishadic sage tells us the truth about what has been commended to us: they will take us into the “realm of the blest.” Now, he does not mean the earth-like heaven of most religions, but the realm of the wise and holy who have evolved to the point where earthly rebirth is no longer needed. They–and those who ascend there–are liberated from that bondage, but they are still subject to rebirth in the higher worlds, of which there is a seemingly infinite number. Painless as it is, and happy as are the worlds involved in our subtle births and deaths, we are still bound and subject to departing and returning. It is a higher and happy portion of the evolutionary ladder, but still not our transcendental Home beyond the ladder for which attainment we originally came forth into relative existence. So we must assiduously engage in the sacred three in order that we may at least become freed from earthly bonds, but always keeping in mind that there is something more needed: the knowledge of (not just about) Brahman. And we should be striving for that as well. So there really should be four elements in our endeavor, four things God really wants us to know.
Only the knower of Brahman has immortality, for only he is freed from birth and death in all forms.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Light Within