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The Chariot’s Journey

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Section 32 of the Upanishads for Awakening

The upanishadic seers have just told us that the Self in the body is like a driver in a chariot. Now they set the intended journey before us.

“The senses derive from physical objects, physical objects from mind, mind from intellect, intellect from ego, ego from the unmanifested seed, and the unmanifested seed from Brahman–the Uncaused Cause. Brahman is the end of the journey. Brahman is the supreme goal” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:10, 11)

It is the genealogy of perception that is being outlined here, for if we reverse the order of perception we will come to perceive the Source, the Eternal Witness Itself. This verse, then, is a exposition of the chain, or progression of consciousness. According to it, the hierarchy of perception is:

Brahman (Purusha)

Unmanifested seed (Avyaktam)

Ego (Atma Mahan–the Great Self or Mahat Tattwa)

Intellect (Buddhi)

Mind (Manas)

Senses (Indriyas)

Physical objects (Arthas)

The Bhagavad Gita (3:42) gives a similar but simpler list relating exclusively to the individual (microcosm) rather than the Universal (Macrocosm), but we can translate the foregoing list to relate to us as individual beings (jivas). In that case we get:

The Self

The unmanifested yet out-turned will-energy

The sense of “I am”

The intellect

The mind

The senses

The sense organs.

My list is more literal than that of Swami Prabhavananda. It is not more meritorious when considering the cosmos, but it is better when looking at the situation of the individual being.

Having descended the ladder, how do we get back up–especially since we have no memory of how we managed the descent? Luckily for us the yogis of India figured that out for us untold eons ago, and it works as well today as it did then. Meditation is the way of ascent back to awareness of the Self. It is possible to work our way back up the ladder, for the rungs are not disparate elements but evolutes or emanations of those above them. If all the rungs, including the senses themselves, were not extensions of the Self, we could not reach back to the Self. This is as true on the microcosmic level as it is on the macrocosmic. Fortunately Brahman has not fallen and forgotten Itself, but It, too, withdraws and projects himself as creation–as we do ourselves by coming into manifestation and eventually into physical birth. “As above, so below” has many ramifications.

The destination and how to get there

“Brahman is the end of the journey. Brahman is the supreme goal.” But the simple saying counts for little. So the upanishad continues: “This Brahman, this Self, deep-hidden in all beings, is not revealed to all; but to the seers, pure in heart, concentrated in mind–to them is he revealed” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:12). Who sees Brahman? The sukshma-darshibhih–those who can see the subtle, the inmost Reality.

How, then, can we become seers of the Subtle? By continually developing our capacity for inner perception and simultaneously refining our inner faculties. To do that we must “go inside” in meditation and work with our inner mechanism called the antahkarana by the yogis. As the Taittiriya Upanishad says: “Seek to know Brahman by meditation” (Taittiriya Upanishad 3.2.1).

Turning back

“The senses of the wise man obey his mind, his mind obeys his intellect, his intellect obeys his ego, and his ego obeys the Self” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:13). This, too, is the product/effect of meditation! Meditation is the establishing of order within and without.

Marching orders!

“Arise! Awake! Approach the feet of the master and know THAT” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:14)

In point of fact, the text does not say “approach the feet of the master,” but prapya varan, which means “having attained boons.” The idea is to seek and attain kripa–grace. Actually, the scriptures speak of three kinds of kripa: 1) sadhana kripa, the grace of self-effort; 2) guru kripa, the grace of a teacher, and 3) divya kripa, divine grace. This wise will gain all three. But there is no denying that kripa is a requisite for those who, having arisen and awakened, seek Brahman.

The path

The verse continues: “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path. Narrow it is, and difficult to tread!” Immediately we think of Jesus words: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13, 14)

Because popular religion, despite its attempt to entice followers, continually implies or outright states that spiritual life is hard (I grew up with this in fundamentalist Protestantism and found it outrageous), we tend to look at the principles of the upanishads with a tainted perspective. The upanishad is not telling us in the manner of Western religion how hard it will be to follow the way of life.

The clue to difficulty in spiritual life is found in the description of the path as “like the sharp edge of a razor.” The idea is that the path is extremely subtle–not arduous. But that makes it all the more difficult, even impossible, for those of coarse minds. This, and this alone, is what makes the path hard to tread.

No spiritual discipline comes near to being as hard as the things human beings commonly do every day to get the things they want. And “want” is the operative word. If we do not want a thing, then any action needed to obtain it will be tedious and “too hard.” But if we want it intensely, then no effort is too much or too hard. That is why the thirty-fourth Ode of Solomon says: “There is no hard way where there is a simple heart, nor any barrier where the thoughts are upright. Nor is there any whirlwind in the depth of the illuminated thought. Where one is surrounded on every side by pleasing country, there is nothing divided in him.” So the problem is in us, not in the path.

Here, as in the last essay, we see that the solution is to refine our consciousness through meditation. We must also refine our physical and mental bodies through purity of thought and deed and especially purity of diet. The ingesting of animal flesh, alcohol, nicotine and mind-affecting drugs is a frontal attack on spiritual life. It is completely insane for a seeker to engage in such destructive habit-addictions.

The subtle Goal

The absolute necessity for refinement of perception through refinement of all the levels of our being is revealed by the nature of the path’s goal: “Soundless, formless, intangible, undying, tasteless, odorless, without beginning, without end, eternal, immutable, beyond nature, is the Self. Knowing him as such, one is freed from death” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:15)

We must become able to hear Silence, see the Formless, touch the Untouchable, live to the Immortal, taste the Tasteless, perceive the fragrance of the Odorless, and transcend all relative measure, and even relativity itself. Such a state is verily inconceivable to us at the present. But it can be achieved through yoga.

Let us arise, awake, pass from death unto life, and lay hold of Immortality.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Glorious Way

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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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