“The good is one thing; the pleasant is another. These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action. Blessed are they that choose the good; they that choose the pleasant miss the goal” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:1).
How simple and direct these words are! When, after years of being soaked (and sometimes drowned) in mere religion, when I found dharma one of the most beautiful and wonderful things about it was its incredible simplicity. The religion I had had before was simplistic–childishly so–but at the same time it was complex, convoluted and tangled, because that was state of mind which had produced it and which it produced in those unfortunate enough to accept and follow it. (Many avoided the problem by professing the religion but not really following it.) In contrast, the profound dharma was also as simple as the great ocean, gathering all into unity. I had tried reading Western philosophers and theologians, and found them impossible to understand–mostly because they were not really saying anything. The first time I opened a book by Shankara, the greatest philosopher India has ever produced, it was with real anxiety. Would I break apart on the rock of his verbiage? Not at all. Every sentence was so exquisitely clear, every concept so unbelievably simple–and equally vast and deep. I understood why: Shankara knew by his acquisition of Divine Consciousness what he was talking about. When Shankara talked to me God was speaking. And God knows how to communicate.
Neither Shankara nor the Upanishads or the Gita really require a commentary. All a commentator can really do is expand what is already there so we do not rush from point to point in the original text and miss so much of it. Actually, all my commentaries are really pauses and reflections. There is no need to explain to you what those sacred texts mean. You can easily understand them for yourself. So all I am really doing is ruminating over them with you. We are digesting them together. It is very satisfying. At least to me–I hope it is to you, also.
The good and the pleasant
“The good is one thing; the pleasant is another.” This does not have to be the situation–the problem is in us. Since the good dissolves the ego and frees us from its seemingly eternal domination and bondage, it is only natural that those who are inured, even addicted, to its rule will find the good bitter in the extreme. In the closing chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna speaks of the one who chooses the good: “Deep his delight after strict self-schooling: sour toil at first but at last what sweetness, the end of sorrow” (Bhagavad Gita 18:37). Who would not choose this? Just about everybody. Why? Because it requires strict self-schooling. We have to educate and deliver ourselves. Neither God nor any holy being can do it for us. Therefore those who cling to their ego-addiction avidly “take refuge” in and “surrender” to and “place all trust” in God, gods, gurus, saints, teachers, a religion, a scripture, and whatever, knowing at least subconsciously that it will not work, for they alone can do the needful. The Holy Ones have already done all they could do for them. They have given the message and pointed out the way. Now it is their turn to get to work. Otherwise nothing will happen. And in their perversity this satisfies them completely, though they cover it up with religiosity and “devotion.” Those who do wish to achieve the good must shake off their self-hypnosis and begin the labor. They will be surprised at how pleasant it really is, and in time will come to realize that they were enjoying pain and avoiding the real pleasure that is found only in spiritual life.
Krishna describes the pleasant as essentially “sweet at first but at last how bitter: that pleasure is poison” (Bhagavad Gita 18:38). It is not just harmful–it is deadly. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, wrote of those who, drinking a sweet drink that contains poison, “sweetly drink in their death” (Epistle to the Trallians). “Aren’t we having fun?” “Come on–live!” “What are you afraid of?” “Why don’t you find out what it is all about?” “What do you know about life?” These are the desperate appeals of those whose consciousness is awakened enough for them to be tormented by the example of those who have more fully awakened and who “touch not the cup–it is death to the soul.”
The wise know that the good and the pleasant utterly differ in their ends. The pleasant leads to ever more addiction, a craving for ever-increasing intoxication, and finally complete collapse and destruction.
“When senses touch objects the pleasures therefrom are like wombs that bear sorrow. They begin, they are ended: they bring no delight to the wise” (Bhagavad Gita 5:22). On the other hand: “Self-controlled, cut free from desire, curbing the heart and knowing the Atman, man finds Nirvana that is in Brahman, here and hereafter” (Bhagavad Gita 5:26). “For when a man’s heart has reached fulfillment through knowledge and personal experience of the truth of Brahman, he is never again moved by the things of the senses. Earth, stone and gold seem all alike to one who has mastered his senses. Such a yogi is said to have achieved union with Brahman. 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” (Bhagavad Gita 6:8, 21).
The good also leads to complete collapse and destruction–the collapse and disintegration of the ego and its attendants, ignorance and desire. Then: “He knows bliss in the Atman and wants nothing else. Cravings torment the heart: he renounces cravings. I call him illumined” (Bhagavad Gita 2:55). “The man of faith, whose heart is devoted, whose senses are mastered: he finds Brahman. Enlightened, he passes at once to the highest, the peace beyond passion” (Bhagavad Gita 4:39). “His mind is dead to the touch of the external: it is alive to the bliss of the Atman. Because his heart knows Brahman his happiness is for ever” (Bhagavad Gita 5:21). “Already, here on earth, before his departure, let man be the master of every impulse lust-begotten or fathered by anger: thus he finds Brahman, thus he is happy” (Bhagavad Gita 5:23).
“These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action.” Both the good and the pleasant impel us to actions, but they do so in completely different ways.
The good points us to the way of benefit in a completely intelligent and non-emotional way. For example, the good never motivates us by selfish means such as promising reward or threatening punishment–this is the way of evil, including much of religion. The good motivates us toward itself simply by revealing its inherent value.
The pleasant is altogether different. It only shows us its external appearance. It does not reason with us, but entices or even compels us to seize it. The pleasant only shows us its immediate or short-term effect, but completely hides from us its long-term effects and blinds us to its inherent defects. The archetypal example of this is found in the Bible. There we are told that “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat” (Genesis 3:6). Here we see all the problems with the pleasant: only the external is considered, emotion and instinct come to dominate and eclipse reason, and the ultimate effect is completely unapparent.
In sum, the good reveals but the pleasant conceals. It is necessary that we see the good as truly good and the pleasant as harmful and even evil. This is not easy.
The bigger picture
One of the problems with prevailing religion of all kinds is its incredible small-sightedness. Like the pleasant-oriented and pleasant-obsessed ego which it supports and feeds, it is concerned with only the moment at hand or with goals that are utterly irrelevant to the real nature of the human being. When we understand who/what we really are, then alone can we comprehend what is the sole purpose of our existence: conscious union with the Absolute. In light of this the upanishad concludes: “Blessed are they that choose the good; they that choose the pleasant miss the goal.” So the discrimination between the good and the pleasant is no light matter.
A genuine test of character
In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we find a parable about foolish and wise souls. Most of us do not really care if we are foolish, just as long as no one labels us so. But we should care, and so the upanishad continues its teaching, saying: “Both the good and the pleasant present themselves to men. The wise, having examined both, distinguish the one from the other. The wise prefer the good to the pleasant; the foolish, driven by fleshly desires, prefer the pleasant to the good” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:2). There is a lot of truth in these few lines, some of it embarrassing, but nevertheless beneficial for us. (The good is not the pleasant, even in philosophy.)
“Both the good and the pleasant present themselves to men.” Whatever may be the excuses we may make for ourselves, even portraying ourselves as weak or victims, no one, NO ONE, forces anything upon us in life, however much it may seem otherwise. Rather, the good and the pleasant simply present themselves to us. We are totally responsible for our response to them, although, like Adam and Eve back in Genesis, we try to put the blame on someone else, on some external factor. “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.…And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Genesis 3:12,13).
It is really essential to know that as we move through life (hopefully forward) that although our deluded experience seems just the opposite, in reality all things are completely neutral–it is our response to them that really gives them any character such as good, bad, destructive, positive, etc. A little thought will show this. The deadliest poison is harmless if we do not make contact with it. Conversely, the best medicine is worthless if we do not consume it. Or think of this: garbage seems heavenly food to a starving person, but not to someone who is well fed; a child’s toy means nothing to a mature adult. Nothing has an innate ability to draw or force us–all the drawing and forcing is in our own mind as it responds to the object. We can blame no one at any time. It is all in us. If there are no grass seeds in the soil no grass will grow. The seeds have to be in us to sprout and grow and bear fruit as thinking, willing, and acting.
“The wise, having examined both, distinguish the one from the other.” Viveka, the ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal, between the true and the false, between the transient and the permanent, is indispensable for the serious spiritual aspirant. The wise possess and exercise this faculty, the eye of wisdom, by deeply examining whatever is presented to them and discerning whether it is the good or the merely pleasant they are being confronted with. Intelligence comes into the foreground, feeling and emotion being banished from the mental field altogether. Human beings operate either rationally or instinctually-emotionally. The wise are rational at all times. For example, real love is clearsighted–never blind–whereas infatuation masquerading as love is both blinding and blindness.
Preferring and driven
If two people are walking, one toward the north and the other toward the south, the difference between them is very little–just the direction they are facing. But in the matter of the wise and the foolish the differences are profound, for they are rooted in their mind and intellect. Even as a child I always thought that the statement of Abraham to Lazarus: “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16:26), was spiritually symbolic, that a great gulf did indeed lie between the Godwards and the earthwards. The upanishad is outlining the nature of this gulf for us by describing its effects on both.
The wise prefer the good–they are not enticed, coerced, or “somehow drawn” to the good. They intelligently–yes, intellectually–prefer it because they know its nature and its effects. This is true of everything in their life, mundane, mental, and spiritual. This is markedly true in the matter of religion. The religious expression of the wise is always, peaceful, clear, intelligent, informed, and practical–it works.
The foolish, however are not so. They truly are a “troubled sea” (Isaiah 57:20) “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind” (Ephesians 4:14) as Isaiah and Saint Paul observed. “Driven by fleshly desires,” it only follows that they prefer the pleasant to the good, for the “flesh” cannot even perceive the good to any appreciable degree; but they create a lot of illusions about it–all negative and self-assuring.
Their religion is subhuman, of course, catering to their emotions and their demands for the indulgence of their whims and vices. However educated they may be, or how boring and dry their church services, still animality reigns and all manner of subhuman behavior is sanctioned and even elevated and “spiritualized.” Wallowing in the sty of their comforting and indulgent religion, they cast many a contemptuous (and secretly guilty) glance at those who are not so, and create many a bon mot about their “unnatural denial and repressions” hinting of sinister implications for those who “run away from life” and “refuse to face themselves,” and “expect too much from themselves and others.” Even though they like to say they are only human and that God understands they are, they are really only talking pigs. Driven by pleasure/pain, their humanity becomes submerged in the animality impressed in their subconscious by millions of incarnations in subhuman forms.
Merely possessing a human body is no guarantee of humanity. The redoubtable Dr. Bronner in a conversation with one of the monks of our ashram referred to some people as “not yet HUMAN!” He was right. A house does not make a home and a human body does not make a human being. Humanity only dawns when intelligence dominates and wisdom is gained. We need not be intellectual in the academic sense, but we must be intelligent. Then if we use our intelligence there is a chance we may become wise and thereby cross the great gulf.
The plain facts
Chances are Nachiketa never got voted “most popular” of anything and was not “a good mixer.” But Yama assessed him quite highly, saying: “Thou, O Nachiketa, having looked upon fleshly desires, delightful to the senses, hast renounced them all. Thou hast turned from the miry way wherein many a man wallows” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:3). Now this is a thumbnail portrait of a wise human being, but it is a test of the wise and the foolish. The wise will accept it and the foolish will not. So we should take a square look at it and our reaction will tell us which we are.
First of all, Nachiketa is not naive or “innocent.” He knows what is going on, even if most things should not be going on. He has not turned away, but has deeply looked into the desires of the flesh and the delights of the senses. He knows what the fake life of the foolish is all about, and he has renounced it all–not just a little bit or even most, but the whole mess. Why? Because he does not identify with the flesh and the senses, but with the intelligence and his true Self that is pure consciousness. He knows he is not the perishable body.
“Thou hast turned from the miry way wherein many a man wallows,” says Yama. Nachiketa sees that the world of body-sense enslavement is a suffocating bog–not just ugly and repulsive to the wise, but deadly. He knows, with Jesus, that: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). He also knows that in reality once a person has reached the level of human evolution he cannot really live like an animal without dire consequences, including terrible suffering. As humans we have simply gone beyond that to which the foolish cling to so obsessively.
This is strikingly illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son found in the fifteenth chapter of Saint Luke. After wasting his inheritance, the man hired himself out to a pig farmer. This is a symbol of someone who has enslaved himself to the lower nature and the senses–pigs that wallow in filth, eat garbage, and demand more. “And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.” Like nearly all of us, the poor soul wants to feed on and be satisfied with the garbage that the pigs revel in, grunting: “This is living!” But it cannot be; we are not pigs; we are not the senses or the body.
No matter how much we desire to regress to animal living, we cannot really do so. And usually only pain will wake us up from such folly. When we do wake up, like the Prodigal we will resolve: “I will arise and go” forward in the path of evolution, leaving the sty and its pigs behind. The rising and the going will not be easy, but there simply is nothing else for a true human being to do. Moreover, the path will not be long, though it may seem so, for time drags when we are having struggle and pain. Jesus indicates this, saying: “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” All the perfected souls that have gone before have assured us that the effort required of us is but a token–nevertheless a token that must be paid. If we can but get a glimpse or conceive a bit of what it will be to have arisen and travelled the way, then the price will seem so small. Amazingly, Saint Paul tells us that Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Just think: the joy. This should be our perspective, too.
Again, renunciation is the way of immortality.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Way of Ignorance
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary