Brahman and the Self
“And now, O Nachiketa, will I tell thee of the unseen, the eternal Brahman, and of what befalls the Self after death” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:6)
This is an interesting juxtaposition: Brahman and the Self after death of the body. The upanishad puts these together because Brahman and the Self are one, and after death the spirit recovers the memory of its immortality–its eternity. One with Brahman, the Self yet experiences many changes. Those changes may only be appearances, but they are nonetheless real experiences, and profoundly affect the Self in its evolutionary journey. So they need to be set forth.
“Of those ignorant of the Self, some enter into beings possessed of wombs, others enter into plants–according to their deeds and the growth of their intelligence” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:7)
Here again we have a most interesting thing. Instead of discussing the worlds entered by the spirit after bodily death, and their nature as reflections of the spirit’s karma, physical rebirth is immediately being spoken of. This is because it takes a goodly degree of evolution for the subtle worlds to have meaning for the developing spirit. The undeveloped learn neither from earthly or astral experiences. Further, many of them simply go to sleep at the moment of death and awaken only at the moment of birth. The period of time in between does not exist for them in any meaningful sense.
In his commentary on this verse Shankara cites another upanishadic statement: “Creatures are born in accordance with their knowledge.” For evolution is a matter of knowing (jnana). The spirits that are unaware of their true nature come back into two general categories: into living organisms that gestate them in some form or other, and plant life. (I am speaking of subhuman spirits, not humans.) Obviously, very little goes on in the life of the plant as far as consciousness is concerned. Only those who are born and live a life with some degree of control over a body vehicle can develop their consciousness to any significant extent.
Implicit in this verse is the principle of the transmigration of the atman from lower to higher forms of life. We start out as atoms of hydrogen, move into mineral forms, then plant forms, then animal forms and then into the human body from which we shall eventually evolve into forms in higher worlds. For most of the time earthly evolution is automatic and incredibly slow. But at some point we become capable of directing and enhancing our evolutionary movement. At first this is only through thinking and acting, but eventually we become capable of yoga, of fully taking charge of our growth in consciousness. Until this point is reached, little of any importance occurs to us. So the upanishad is starting at a basic rung of the ladder of evolution. But since, as I have said, nothing of much value take place on that level, the upanishad moves ahead quite a bit to the level when we are capable of dreaming–to at least the intelligent animal level.
“That which is awake in us even while we sleep, shaping in dream the objects of our desire–that indeed is pure, that is Brahman, and that verily is called the Immortal. All the worlds have their being in that, and no one can transcend it. That is the Self” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:8)
It is a fundamental assertion of India’s primal wisdom that there are four states of consciousness: jagrat (waking), swapna (dreaming), sushupti (dreamless sleep), and turiya, the pure consciousness that witnesses the first three. Turiya is the state proper to the Self–actually is the Self–which is why this verse speaks of It as “that which is awake in us even while we sleep.”
“Shaping in dream the objects of our desire.” But there is more to this Self than consciousness. It is also creative power. Although as yogis we use the terminology of Sankhya and speak of Purusha and Prakriti as two entities, we are only speaking of two aspects or views of the One Absolute Existence. The upanishad reveals this by telling us that the Self is not only witness, It is also the witnessed.
The Self is desireless, yet it shows us in dreams the things we desire. Why? Because the Self is more than witness, It is guide and guru. In every way it is attempting to show us our present spiritual status. Dreams are one of the avenues for its teaching. It is true that dreams arise from the subconscious, but they do so at the impulse of the Self. Unfortunately our subconscious is distorted, like a badly ground lens or a bent mirror, so the original imaging of the Self comes through to us distorted or partial, and the message is flawed. However, the more we clarify our minds through meditation, the more faithful our dreams will be to the original impulses from the Self. In time our dreams can become authentic spiritual visions, at least on occasion.
Although showing us our desires, the Self remains pure–the actual word being “white” to signify that the Self has no inherent “colors” (qualities or traits), for it is Brahman by nature. Thus it is also immortal, no matter how many deaths we may experience, both through the death of the body and the “little death” we experience each time we sleep–dreams being a kind of after death astral experience.
All levels of experience arise from the Self in union with Brahman. Nothing exists apart from the Self. The Self is also the ultimate Being. There is no going beyond it. Because it is one with Brahman, even conscious union with Brahman does not cancel out our awareness of ourselves as the individual Atman. This is a most important principle, for many are led into the delusion that they have transcended the Self and “entered the Not-Self,” when they have merely sunk into the morass of tamasic ignorance. They are suffering from the subtlest form of mental illness which in time will manifest as recognizable psychosis and lead to great mental and moral disintegration–in many instances to attempted or successful suicide.
The indwelling Self
“As fire, though one, takes the shape of every object which it consumes, so the Self, though one, takes the shape of every object in which it dwells. As air, though one, takes the shape of every object which it enters, so the Self, though one, takes the shape of every object in which it dwells” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:9, 10)
Each individual Self inhabits a vast number of body-vehicles as it moves up the ladder of evolution to the Highest. (For a detailed study of this, see Robe of Light.) And in each one it appears to actually become that vehicle. Yet the Self remains only Itself, one and unique. In this way the Self gathers experiences of every form of life that exists. This is necessary for It if It is to approximate the status of Brahman, for Brahman, existing in all forms, has the experience of being all those forms. Hence the microcosmic Self mirrors the Macrocosmic Self.
The untouched Self
“As the sun, revealer of all objects to the seer, is not harmed by the sinful eye, nor by the impurities of the objects it gazes on, so the one Self, dwelling in all, is not touched by the evils of the world. For he transcends all” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:11)
Having spoken to us of the fact that the Self somehow takes on the form of its many incarnational forms, the upanishad reminds us that the Self is nonetheless absolutely unmarked by that formation and undergoes no alteration or conditioning whatsoever. Even while immanent in relative existence, the Self remains essentially transcendent, in the same relation to its incarnate form as is Brahman to the universe. The divine eye of the Self illumines all things yet is affected by none.
Bliss and peace
“He is one, the lord and innermost Self of all; of one form, he makes of himself many forms. To him who sees the Self revealed in his own heart belongs eternal bliss–to none else, to none else!” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:12)
The Self is ever the Master, however much the forms inhabited by the Self may be bound. The Self is the essential principle of the existence of all those forms, always remaining one and unchanged. He alone who beholds the Self in/as the core of his being possesses eternal bliss.
“Intelligence of the intelligent, eternal among the transient, he, though one, makes possible the desires of many. To him who sees the Self revealed in his own heart belongs eternal peace–to none else, to none else!” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:13)
Consciousness of the conscious, the eternal link between all the temporal bodies It inhabits, the Self is that which “makes possible the desires of many” through countless incarnations. He alone who beholds the Self in/as the core of his being possesses eternal peace.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Radiant Self