Now we come to the best known and most valued section of the upanishads: the story of Svetaketu and his learning about Brahman–and also his own Self. Prabhavananda has wisely condensed the narrative as it contains a great deal of repetition which at one time in India was considered high literary style, as the Pali Sutras of Buddhism show.
Learning that was ignorance
“When Svetaketu was twelve years old, his father Uddalaka said to him, ‘Svetaketu, you must now go to school and study. None of our family, my child, is ignorant of Brahman.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:1). What a blessed time it must have been when education was aimed at the attainment of Brahmajnana!
“Thereupon Svetaketu went to a teacher and studied for twelve years. After committing to memory all the Vedas, he returned home full of pride in his learning” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:2).
Yes, yes, yes, we all have read over and over that the Vedas are the basis of Hindu Dharma, and that “belief in the Vedas” makes one a Hindu. But this is not the perspective of the upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita. Vedic study is constantly being decried by them as worthless. In the same way in the Bible we find the prophets, including David in the Psalms, denouncing the ways of the Law and deriding those who follow it. However we may look at the question, there is no doubt that twelve years of Vedic study had left Svetaketu both ignorant and arrogant.
“His father, noticing the young man’s conceit, said to him: ‘Svetaketu, have you asked for that knowledge by which we hear the unhearable, by which we perceive the unperceivable, by which we know the unknowable?’ ‘What is that knowledge, sir?’ asked Svetaketu” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:3).
Here we have three words: Ashrutam, amatam, and avijnatam that are most important. Ashrutam means “the unheard,” amatam means “the unthought” or “the unconceived,” and avijnatam means “the unknown.” They also mean “the unhearable,” “the unthinkable,” and “the unknowable.” These are epithets of Brahman, the Absolute Being. Not only do we not at this moment hear, think of, or know Brahman, we cannot do so–not through the mind, that is. But we can know Brahman directly at the core of our Self. When we go beyond the usual perceptors into the Knower…then we will hear without hearing, think without thought, and know without knowing. For it it will be a matter of being alone. In other words, we must be yogis.
Uddalaka now tells Svetaketu: “‘My child, as by knowing one lump of clay, all things made of clay are known, the difference being only in name and arising from speech, and the truth being that all are clay; as by knowing a nugget of gold, all things made of gold are known, the difference being only in name and arising from speech, and the truth being that all are gold–exactly so is that knowledge, knowing which we know all.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:4-6).
This is pretty straightforward, but it has an interesting implication. Uddalaka says that if we know one lump of clay or one nugget of gold we will know all clay and gold. The Self (Atman) and Brahman are absolutely one, yet the Self is limited in Its scope, whereas Brahman is limitless–and willing to share that limitlessness with us. Therefore the way to know the Paramatman, Brahman, is to know the Jivatman, the individual Self. Once we know the part we know the Whole. There is more to it than this, because in that knowing we participate in the infinite Being of Brahman. This is a matter of yoga and beyond the scope of language to express or explain. That is why the Kena Upanishad says: “He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge; he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge” (Kena Upanishad 2:3).
In response Svetaketu says: “‘But surely those venerable teachers of mine are ignorant of this knowledge; for if they had possessed it, they would have taught it to me. Do you therefore, sir, give me that knowledge.’ ‘Be it so,’ said Uddalaka” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:7).
“‘In the beginning there was Existence, One only, without a second. Some say that in the beginning there was nonexistence only, and that out of that the universe was born. But how could such a thing be? How could existence be born of non-existence? No, my son, in the beginning there was Existence alone–One only, without a second” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:2:1,2).
In the beginning–and evermore–there was SAT: Existence; Reality; Being: Brahman, the Absolute, Pure Being. And this Sat was ekam, evam, adwityam: one only, without a second. This Absolute Unity is all that ever has been or that can ever be. This is a major principle of the upanishads, one that is not easy to always keep in mind since we find ourselves immersed in the experience of duality. But when through self-purification and the practice of yoga we sweep aside this delusive curtain we will see the One and know It within our own Self (atman) as its inmost essence. The Sat is always One, not one among many, and is absolutely indivisible. Duality cannot arise in It to any degree.
This being so, Uddalaka warns Svetaketu away from the mistaken idea that there was an original Nothing from which came Something. Certainly, Brahman is No Thing, but that is a far cry from Nothing. Rather, it is Everything. This is important to us for two reasons. First, if originally there was nothing, then when we return to our primal state we will be annihilated, dissolve back into nothing. And, indeed, there are those who believe and even yearn for this. But it is not so. Second, for us raised in Western religion, it points out the absurdity of the theological principle that God created the world ex nihil–from nothing.
Since this second proposition is merely an intellectual perception, it is not particularly negative, but the first one is, for it deludes us as to what our ultimate state is meant to be. And it is perfectly possible to enter into an empty, jada state of unconscious inertia that can be mistaken for Nirvana, that is often wrongly translated “annihilation” or “extinguishment.”
“He, the One, thought to himself: Let me be many, let me grow forth. Thus out of himself he projected the universe; and having projected out of himself the universe, he entered into every being. All that is has its self in him alone. Of all things he is the subtle essence. He is the truth. He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self.’ ‘Be it so, my child.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:2:3a; 6:3:2; 6:8:7).
This is extremely important. Brahman did not create anything: It projected everything out of Its own being–and not as a separate entity, for It is within every thing as its sole Reality, as its Self, as its subtle Essence.
You might be interested to know that this was the original teaching of Christianity. In the New Testament the word translated “made” in speaking of the origin of the universe is ginomai, which means to be generated–not made from nothing. It also means to arise or be assembled from something already existing. The expression “only-begotten” is monogenis, coming from the same root word. In The Apostolic Constitutions, one of the earliest liturgical texts of Christianity, God is said to have “brought forth all things as from a treasure house”–not from nothing.
After saying all these amazing things, Uddalaka enunciates the highest wonder: Tat Twam Asi: THOU ART THAT. This is the pinnacle of the Upanishads–of all the wisdom scriptures of India. This awesome truth that behind and beneath it all, including our own Self, is THAT, is Brahman. “Of all things he is the subtle essence. He is the truth. He is the Self.”
Svetaketu asked to hear more. In a sense there was no more, but there could be more affirmations of the single truth. So:
“As the bees make honey by gathering juices from many flowering plants and trees, and as these juices reduced to one honey do not know from what flowers they severally come, similarly, my son, all creatures, when they are merged in that one Existence, whether in dreamless sleep or in death, know nothing of their past or present state, because of the ignorance enveloping them–know not that they are merged in him and that from him they came. Whatever these creatures are, whether a lion, or a tiger, or a boar, or a worm, or a gnat, or a mosquito, that they remain after they come back from dreamless sleep. All these have their self in him alone. He is the truth. He is the subtle essence of all. He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self.’ ‘Be it so, my son.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:9:1-4).
All of us in relative existence are enveloped in ignorance. That should not be hard to recognize. But whatever the background or past of any sentient being, of whatever level, in dreamless sleep and death they all return to Brahman. But their enveloping ignorance prevents them from knowing Where they are, the way a submarine keeps those inside from being wet. So they are not enlightened in any way, though so close to the Light from Whence they came. Although in that state they have no self-concept, no identity with their present level of evolution, when they awake from sleep or return from death to rebirth, they find themselves in the form that corresponds to their inner development. And of course they immediately get lost in the dream and start wandering around, never really coming to rest anywhere. Yet at all times they are within Brahman and are Brahman.
Svetaketu wants more, so his father repeats what he has said from another angle. “The rivers in the east flow eastward, the rivers in the west flow westward, and all enter into the sea. From sea to sea they pass, the clouds lifting them to the sky as vapor and sending them down as rain. And as these rivers, when they are united with the sea, do not know whether they are this or that river, likewise all those creatures that I have named, when they have come back from Brahman, know not whence they came. All those beings have their self in him alone. He is the truth. He is the subtle essence of all. He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self.’ ‘Be it so, my child.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:10:1-3). No comment needed.
The all-pervading Source
“If someone were to strike once at the root of this large tree, it would bleed, but live. If he were to strike at its stem, it would bleed, but live. If he were to strike at the top, it would bleed, but live. Pervaded by the living Self, this tree stands firm, and takes its food; but if the Self were to depart from one of its branches, that branch would wither; if it were to depart from a second, that would wither; if it were to depart from a third, that would wither. If it were to depart from the whole tree, the whole tree would wither. Likewise, my son, know this: The body dies when the Self leaves it–but the Self dies not. All that is has its self in him alone. He is the truth. He is the subtle essence of all. He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self.’ ‘Be it so.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:11:1-3).
Everything is alive, but only because the Living Self, Brahman, inhabits it. If that Presence is withdrawn, then death results. Therefore when the Self leaves the body, the body dies, but not the Self. Yet see how backwards we are in the West. We think that it is being in the body that makes a person alive, that when they leave the body they die. Absolutely backwards! Not only that, we continue to treat the body as the person, dressing it up, putting makeup on it, fixing its hair and putting in in a satin-lined box and mourning over it. Even crazier, we will first have drained out its blood and pumped formaldehyde into it. Then we put the box in a concrete box in a grave and pile dirt on top of it, heap flowers on it, and leave. But we keep coming back to “visit” the “dead” with more flowers and even talk to the body as though it were the still-living person who has long ago departed from the body. Now, if that is not insane, tell me what is? And it is not only sanctioned by Western religions, it is encouraged by them, especially those that disdain prayers for the departed. Spot the looney.
“More,” says Svetaketu.
The subtle Essence
“Bring a fruit of that Nyagrodha [Banyan] tree.”
“Here it is, sir.”
“It is broken, sir.”
“What do you see?”
“Some seeds, extremely small, sir.”
“Break one of them.”
“It is broken, sir.”
“What do you see?”
“The subtle essence you do not see, and in that is the whole of the Nyagrodha tree. Believe, my son, that that which is the subtle essence–in that have all things their existence. That is the truth. That is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self.’ ‘Be it so.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:12:1-3).
This is easily understood. What I would like to point out is the fact that Uddalaka says “the whole of the Nyagrodha tree” is in the Divine Essence. It is not part in and part out, as we think in the West, believing that part of us is material and part is spirit, or that part of us lives in this world and part of us in the spiritual world. These distinctions are products of ignorance. There is only The ONE at all times.
In response to Svetaketu’s request, Uddalaka produces another object lesson.
“Put this salt in water, and come to me tomorrow morning.”
Svetaketu did as he was bidden. The next morning his father asked him to bring the salt which he had put in the water. But he could not, for it had dissolved. Then said Uddalaka:
“Sip the water, and tell me how it tastes.”
“It is salty, sir.”
“In the same way,” continued Uddalaka, “though you do not see Brahman in this body, he is indeed here. That which is the subtle essence–in that have all things their existence. That is the truth. That is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self,’ said the youth again. ‘Be it so, my child.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:13:1-3).
For some reason Prabhavananda did not translate this fully. In the original text Uddalaka asks Svetaketu to taste the water from the top, the middle, and the bottom of the bowl. Each time he finds it salty. The idea is that Brahman pervades the entire field of relative existence as that field. And we are That.
Svetaketu wants to hear more.
“As a man may be blindfolded, and led away, and left in a strange place; and as, having been so dealt with, he turns in every direction and cries out for someone to remove his bandages and show him the way home; and as one thus entreated may loose his bandages and give him comfort; and as thereupon he walks from village to village, asking his way as he goes; and as he arrives home at last–just so does a man who meets with an illumined teacher obtain true knowledge. That which is the subtle essence–in that have all beings their existence. That is the truth. That is the Self. And that, O Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU. ‘Please, sir, tell me more about this Self.’ ‘Be it so, my child.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:14:1-3).
The teaching here is of major import. We can know we are blind and lost and need to see and go back home, but it stops there. We have to be made to see and shown the way. This can only happen when we find the teachings of enlightened masters. If we can meet such a master face-to-face, our good fortune is incalculable. Over forty years have passed since I received the blessing and wisdom of the first masters of my acquaintance, and some decades since the last one spoke with me. Yet those memories are my heart’s rosary which I can go over and vividly return in memory to those days. I do not have to believe books: I have seen living embodiments of divinity and listened to their words, many of them addressed personally to me. However, I have spent many, many more hours reading the printed teachings of some of those great masters, and learned from many more masters that I have only met in books.
However the teachings come to us, it is the application that matters. I saw a lot of do-nothings circulating around the masters who just played groupie until the master died and then they wasted their time grieving over the loss of something they never really had, and waiting for the master to “give the green light” (a quote from one of them) so they could die and go to the master’s “loka” and be with him forever. Small chance! They were not really with the master in life, so why in death?
What I want to assure you is that truth is always truth. If you learn mathematics from a teacher or a book it is the same. Further, this upanishadic simile does not inculcate the guru-disciple enslavement that is considered so essential for enlightenment. Yes, one person did take away the bandage and point out the way, but notice that “thereupon he walks from village to village, asking his way as he goes.” So he has many teachers, not just one. And it should be the same with us. Enforced loyalty to a single teacher should not be a blindfold on the eyes of our soul. All masters are living, and as Yogananda said, we should realize that all masters are one and not make a differences between them. (He is speaking of masters, though, not just teachers).
Ultimately, even the teachers are just the mouthpieces of Brahman, of our own ultimate Self.
At his request, Svetaketu now receives one last instruction.
Forgetting and remembering
“When a man is fatally ill, his relations gather round him and ask, ‘Do you know me? Do you know me? Now until his speech is merged in his mind, his mind in his breath, his breath in his vital heat, his vital heat in the Supreme Being, he knows them. But when his speech is merged in his mind, his mind in his breath, his breath in his vital heat, his vital heat in the Supreme Being, then he does not know them. That which is the subtle essence–in that have all beings their existence. That is the truth. That is the Self. And that, O Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:15:1-3).
When we merge with Brahman in mahasamadhi–the great exit of death–then all that we knew and believed in is nothing to us: only Brahman remains for us to know and identify with. The long journey is over, Reality gained at last. All that was enslaving and misery-producing, all the trivia and folly of relativity, is over forever. No return engagement. No return trip ticket. Home at last; home forever. Home in Infinity; Life to a degree undreamed of by us for ages beyond calculation. For the final time we close our external eyes to open the eye of spirit. My grandmother asked me to have sung at her funeral the song “We’ll Say Goodnight Here, But Good Morning Up There.” It certainly is night here and eternal dawn in God. But attaining it is not so simple as the song implies. Nevertheless, one day–beyond all time–it will happen to us all. Then we will really know: “That which is the subtle essence–in that have all beings their existence. That is the truth. That is the Self. And THAT ART THOU.”
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Essence of the Mind and Prana