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The Birthless Self

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Section 38 of the Upanishads for Awakening

The subject of the Self is virtually inexhaustible. It is the sole object of the upanishads. So Yamaraj continues to expound the Self to Nachiketa.

“To the Birthless, the light of whose consciousness forever shines, belongs the city of eleven gates. He who meditates on the ruler of that city knows no more sorrow. He attains liberation, and for him there can no longer be birth or death. For the ruler of that city is the immortal Self” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:1).

This verse tells us many aspects of the Self, each of which should be scrutinized in turn.


A cornerstone of Eastern wisdom is the understanding that verbal formulas can never encompass the truth, but can only be hints, albeit excellent hints, that truth is always beyond books, concepts, and words; that in time the aspirant must pass beyond them into the level of spiritual intuition in which direct knowledge is possible. Yet it is understood that the aspirant will not be able to fully translate such direct knowledge into words–not from an attitude of arcane secrecy (always a symptom of spiritual pathology), but from the fact that knowing transcends speech and (discursive) thought. As the adage says: “He who knows tells it not; he who tells knows it not.”

Nevertheless, “according to your faith be it unto you” (Matthew 9:29). And faith is conceptual, even if not fully verbal. Consequently, our ideas about ourselves, our nature, and our life situation have a profound influence on our life and its unfoldment. If we think we are sinful mortals, we shall live like sinful mortals, incapable of reaching God. If we think we are evolving consciousness, moving onward to spiritual heights, we shall evolve beyond human limitations. But if we think we are eternal beings, part of God’s infinite Being, we shall rise to the state of Divine Unity and manifest the declaration: “Ye are gods” (Psalms 82:6).

“There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be” (Bhagavad Gita 2:12). It is necessary, then, for us to firmly set in mind that we are birthless beings, that we have never come into being or been created. Rather, we are co-eternal with God, the Essence of our existence. We never came into being, nor shall we ever cease to be. When we understand that our consciousness is somehow a wave of the Infinite Consciousness that is God, that we are irrevocably a part of God’s infinite Light and Life, it will have a transforming effect on us.

Sri Ramakrishna was fond of the simile of a washerman’s donkey. Each night the washerman passes a rope around the legs of the donkey and then removes it. The donkey believes it has been tied, so it never tries to move away from that spot. Its bondage is imaginary, yet because of its belief it is as bound as though it were tied. It is the same with us. If we believe we are bound, we shall be bound. But if we believe we are free we can manifest that freedom. This is what yoga–and yoga alone–is all about.

The light of consciousness

God cannot be defined, but it can be said that God is Light ( (I John 1:5))–even more, that God is the Light that is Life (John 1:4, 9). In other words, God is Conscious Light. And so are we. If this is realized, then we will not identify with the change and dissolution that is inherent in relative existence. The hymn says: “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou Who changest not, abide with me.” The mistake is in thinking that what is needed is God as a separate being, when what is really needed is the abiding awareness of our own Self, of which God is the Essence. As the Psalmist sang: “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.…When I awake, I am still with thee” (Psalms 17:15; 139:18)

Forever shines

Our divine nature may be obscured to our earthly eyes in the way that clouds can hide the sun and even make the earth dark. But the sun ever shines. Night occurs because of the turning of the earth, and spiritual ignorance and darkness arise because our awareness is turned wrong. Yet, as Buddha said: “Turn around and lo! the Other Shore.” And Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”–right here where it has always been. It is only a matter of attunement of consciousness. Again, that is where yoga comes in.

The Self is what It is forever, nothing can alter that. So what we need is a recovering of Consciousness. It need not be produced or even gained–only recognized. This is difficult for us to grasp since we have become habituated to the ways of relativity in which everything is a process moving along in stages. Yoga reveals the Truth of our Selves, and since the clouds of illusion have to be moved aside to reveal the ever-shining Self, yoga appears to be a process, too, but essentially it is not. Yoga is simply Seeing True.

The city of eleven gates

The human body is usually called “the city of nine gates” because of the nine apertures of the body, but here it has the number eleven. Shankara says this is because the navel and the Brahmarandhra, the “soft spot” at the crown of the head, are also being counted as gates. This is appropriate, as before birth we are nourished through the navel, and at death the adept yogi departs through the Brahmarandhra.

The important point that is being made here is in contradistinction to most religious thought and attitudes, even in the East. For it is commonly thought very spiritual to disregard the body, push it aside in our consciousness, and despise it as a liability and even a prison. But the upanishad tells us that the body is not alien to the Self (atman), but rather belongs to the Self, just as the cosmos belongs to God and is in a sense the body of God. (It is good to keep in mind that whatever can be said of God can usually be said about the individual being, as well.) The body is ours, and is fundamentally a mirroring of our personal consciousness, which is why we can legitimately speak of “the body-mind connection.”

The body is the vehicle through which the individual evolves during the span of life on earth, and must be taken into serious account by the yogi who will discover that the body can exert a necessary effect on the mind. Purification of the body, especially dietary purity, can greatly assist the mind in meditation. The yogi who observes will discover that the diet of the physical body is also the diet of the mind, that whatever is eaten physically will have an effect mentally. One who does not know this is no yogi at all. Authentic morality, based on the yama-niyama of Patanjali’s yoga system, also has a transforming effect on the mind.

No more sorrow

“He who meditates on the ruler of that city knows no more sorrow.” When we meditate on our Self, our atman, we will end all sorrow. The Gita says of the yogi who meditates on the Self: “To obey the Atman is his peaceful joy; sorrow melts into that clear peace: his quiet mind is soon established in peace” (Bhagavad Gita 2:65). “When, through the practice of yoga, the mind ceases its restless movements, and becomes still, he realizes the Atman. It satisfies him entirely. Then he knows that infinite happiness which can be realized by the purified heart but is beyond the grasp of the senses. He stands firm in this realization. Because of it, he can never again wander from the inmost truth of his being. Now that he holds it he knows this treasure above all others: faith so certain shall never be shaken by heaviest sorrow. To achieve this certainty is to know the real meaning of the word yoga. It is the breaking of contact with pain. You must practice this yoga resolutely, without losing heart” (Bhagavad Gita 6:20-23)

We must meditate on the Self–not on external deities or symbolic forms of psychic states. As Sri Ma Sarada Devi said: “After attaining wisdom one sees that gods and deities are all maya” (Precepts For Perfection 672). The upanishads, Gita, and Yoga Sutras know nothing of meditating on “ishta devatas”–only on our Self.

Liberation–no longer birth or death

“He attains liberation, and for him there can no longer be birth or death.” There is no need for commentary, but here is some corroboration:

“Know this Atman unborn, undying, never ceasing, never beginning, deathless, birthless, how can It die the death of the body?” (Bhagavad Gita 2:20). “The seers…reach enlightenment. Then they are free from the bondage of rebirth, and pass to that state which is beyond all evil” (Bhagavad Gita 2:51). “Knowing the Atman, man finds Nirvana that is in Brahman, here and hereafter” (Bhagavad Gita 5:26).


“For the ruler of that city is the immortal Self.”

The Gita encapsulates it perfectly: “This true wisdom I have taught will lead you to immortality. The faithful practice it with devotion, taking me for their highest aim. To me they surrender heart and mind. They are exceedingly dear to me” (Bhagavad Gita 12:20).

“For I am Brahman within this body, life immortal that shall not perish: I am the Truth and the Joy for ever” (Bhagavad Gita 14:27).

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Shining Self

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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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