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Hierarchy of Consciousness

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Section 44 of the Upanishads for Awakening

The senses

“The senses have separate origin in their several objects. They may be active, as in the waking state, or they may be inactive, as in sleep. He who knows them to be distinct from the changeless Self grieves no more” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:6)

If a lost person could somehow be lifted up high and see his surroundings from that perspective, he could easily see his way out of his confusion. In the same way, those who are lost in the jungle of the senses can find their way by heeding the wisdom of the upanishads.

Sense experience is just that–the experiences of the senses themselves. The Self witnesses these experiences and thinks that it is really undergoing them and being affected by them. This produces great fear and suffering, what to say of the mountain-high heaps of illusions and delusions those experiences produce–not in the Self, but in the mind. The Self, however, attributes these things to itself and fears and suffers even more. Whether the senses are active or inactive, the potential suffering is ever there. If, however, we can realize that such perceptions are utterly separate from us, from our Self, all fear and sorrow cease forever. But we must realize that truth, not just accept it or act as though it is so. In other words, we must become yogis, for only yogis realize the truth of the Self and the error of the Not-Self.

The hierarchy

“Above the senses is the mind. Above the mind is the intellect. Above the intellect is the ego. Above the ego is the unmanifested seed, the Primal Cause. And verily beyond the unmanifested seed is Brahman, the all-pervading spirit, the unconditioned, knowing whom one attains to freedom and achieves immortality” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:7, 8)

It will be good to do some vocabulary building at this point.

By “senses” is meant the five organs of perception: ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose. At other times “senses” means the five organs of action: voice, hand, foot, organ of excretion, and the organ of generation. Often the word “senses” really refers to the five sense perceptions.

By “mind” is meant the sensory mind; the perceiving faculty that receives the messages of the senses.

“Intellect” is the faculty of understanding, of reason–the thinking mind.

The “ego” is the false “I”–egoism or self-conceit. It is also the self-arrogating principle “I” that is projected by the mind rather than the real Self. “Ego” is in manifestation whenever “I” is said or claimed by anything other than the spirit-Self.

“The unmanifested seed, the Primal Cause” is Prabhavananda’s translation of two terms: Mahat (Tattwa) and Avyakta. The Mahat Tattwa, or Great Principle is the first evolute from Prakriti. It is the principle of Cosmic Intelligence (Buddhi). The Avyakta is the Unmanifest, the primal Prakriti, from which all things evolve.

It is necessary for us to be aware of this hierarchy, for the lesser levels can be controlled from the higher levels, thus saving a great deal of time and frustration.

The Supreme, the Source

Beyond all these various levels that are the machinery of the individual and the cosmos is That which is the Supreme, the Source of all. Regarding That, the upanishad continues: “And verily beyond the unmanifested seed is Brahman, the all-pervading spirit, the unconditioned, knowing whom one attains to freedom and achieves immortality” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:8)

The Self and Brahman being one, it is the knowledge of our Self that bestows upon us freedom and immortality.

To know the Self

But how do we know this Self–not merely hear about It or believe in It, but truly know it by direct experience?

“None beholds him with the eyes, for he is without visible form. Yet in the heart is he revealed, through self-control and meditation. Those who know him become immortal” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:9).

What could be simpler? We enter into the heart, into the Chidakasha that is at the core of our being. There the Self is revealed to the disciplined meditator. Immortality is the result of such knowing. The upanishad continues with a description of the process that leads to Self-knowledge.

“When all the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not–then, say the wise, is reached the highest state” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:10).

This is extremely important. Because of the razzamatazz of the Yoga Carnival that has been rioting on from the last century, nearly everyone thinks that the highest state involves chills and thrills in the form of inner sensory experiences of cataclysmic proportion, including opening of chakras and rising of kundalini. Notice that the upanishad says nothing like that–nor does the Gita or the Yoga Sutras. What it does tell us is that the pure consciousness that is Reality is experienced “when all the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not.” That, and that alone, is the highest state which in time becomes permanent and is itself liberation.


Obviously much that is called yoga is not yoga at all. This is brought out by the next verse: “This calm of the senses and the mind has been defined as yoga. He who attains it is freed from delusion. In one not freed from delusion this calm is uncertain, unreal: it comes and goes” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:11).

The state of calm, or steadiness (sthiram) in awareness of awareness itself, is yoga. This frees us from delusion because it makes us aware of our true nature as the Self. In those who have not attained perfection this state comes and goes. The upanishad tells us this so we will not be foolish enough to think that experiencing it once or even a few times is enough and wrongly think we are enlightened. (People claim enlightenment on the basis of much less.) We must practice diligently to become permanently established in it.

Although I have told about Lahiri Mahashaya’s teaching on the subject of this state–which he called sthirattwa–in the Gita commentary, I would like to repeat it here. Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya continually expounded the idea that the goal of yoga is to be established in sthirattwa, in perfect tranquility.

“A group of spiritual leaders from Calcutta once conspired against Lahiri Mahasay.  They invited him to join in an evening discussion on spiritual matters.  Lahiri Mahasay accepted the invitation and accordingly attended the meeting.

“The conspirators had well prepared themselves to trap Lahiri Mahasay.  For example, if Lahiri Mahasay were to express his preference for a particular deity, or Istadev, ‘desired Lord,’ then a particular leader would find exception to that choice.

“In fact, each  member of the group selected a particular Devata, ‘deity’ such as Lord Vishnu, Lord Krishna, Lord Siva, the Goddess Kali (the Divine Mother) and prepared to debate and challenge Lahiri Mahasay’s choice.

“As soon as Lahiri Mahasay arrived, he was received in the traditional manner and shown proper courtesy.  After a while one of the members of the group asked Lahiri Mahasay, ‘Upon which deity do you meditate?’

“Lahiri Mahasay looked at him but did not reply.  Then another gentleman asked him, ‘Who is your Istadev, “desired deity?”’  Lahiri Mahasay turned his head towards him and looked at him in the same way, while keeping his peace.

“Finally, a third gentleman asked him, ‘Can you tell us upon which deity usually you meditate?’

“Lahiri Mahasay faced him and said very gently, ‘I meditate on Sthirattva (Tranquility).’

“The gentleman replied that he did not understand what was meant by this.  Lahiri Mahasay continued to observe silence.  After some time, another gentleman asked him, ‘Could you please explain this?  I do not understand exactly what  you are saying.’

“Lahiri Mahasay, as before, continued to maintain silence.  Another gentleman asked, ‘Can you enlighten me as to what you mean by that?  I do not understand at all!’  Lahiri Baba told him, ‘You will not be able to understand, and also I will not be able to make you understand (realize) through words.’

“The group was at a loss.  All of their preparation and conniving had come to naught.  Only silence prevailed.  All kept silent.

“After a long time Lahiri Mahasay got up and silently prepared to leave the meeting.  All showed him the traditional courtesy as he left.”

As Paramhansa Yogananda, who made Lahiri Mahashaya known in the West, often said: “He who knows, knows–none else knows.”

How can Brahman be known?

“Brahman words cannot reveal, mind cannot reach, eyes cannot see. How then, save through those who know him, can he be known?” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:12)

Brahman can only be truly known by direct experience in meditation. This verse is not speaking of that ultimate knowing, but of the knowing about Brahman so we can be stimulated to seek Brahman. Empty words and intellectual ponderings cannot bring about this knowing, nor can our mind and senses. But those who know of Brahman–even imperfectly–possess a spiritual power in their presence and in their words which convey an intuitive glimmer of the reality of Brahman. That glimmer, entering into our hearts through contact with them, causes our inmost awareness to awaken, arise, and respond, and seek the full realization of Brahman for ourselves. This is why the company of sadhakas is essential for the questing soul. It is like one candle lighting another.

The two selves

“There are two selves, the apparent self and the real Self. Of these it is the real Self, and he alone, who must be felt as truly existing. To the man who has felt him as truly existing he reveals his innermost nature” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:13)

It is common in Western metaphysical thought to speak of the “lower self” that is not truly the Self, but the lesser aspects of human existence, and the “higher self” that is the real Self. We must distinguish between the two, and this is impossible without enough inner development making possible the intuition of the Self, even if It is not directly known. One who has this intuition, if intelligent, will then begin to seek to know the Self, to become a yogi in some manner. To such a one who perseveres, the Self will be revealed in Its fulness. As Swami Gambhirananda renders the first part of this verse: “The Self is to be realized as existing, and then as It really is.” This realization is what is meant by distinguishing between the unreal and the Real.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for AwakeningFrom Mortality to Immortality

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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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