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The Life-Giving Self

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Section 40 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Just as children babble on aimlessly about things they do not understand, we do the same, though in a more sophisticated way, especially in religion and philosophy. So the three verses relating to the Self and life are very much needed by us. First the upanishad tells us: “He, the adorable one, seated in the heart, is the power that gives breath. Unto him all the senses do homage” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:3)


The word Prabhavananda translates “adorable” is vamanam, which means adorable, dear, and pleasing. These epithets are traditionally used in relation to Shiva, the symbol of the atman and atmic consciousness. This is important, for the Self is not just Truth or Reality–a mere abstraction–but when experienced as either the individual Self or the Supreme Self produces in us a personal response, literally the response of bhakti (devotion) and even prema (love).

In contemporary India there is the idea that bhakti and prema can only be experienced toward a being that possesses form (rupa) or qualities (guna)–that it is impossible to have these responses to Brahman the transcendent Being. But in the upanishads and the Gita we are constantly exhorted to love Brahman–not just some forms of Brahman–and the atman. This also indicates that the ancient upanishadic sages did not believe that the Absolute or the Self was without attributes of any kind. Rather, they considered that, although anything said would be only approximations of divine realities, still human beings could conceive of God in at least a dim way. And they absolutely could experience God, and have reactions and definitions arising from their experience. In Chapter Twelve of the Gita, “The Yoga of Devotion,“ Krishna speaks of this in more detail, as you will find in the commentary, The Bhagavad Gita For Christians.

To the yogi, then, the Self and Brahman are equally adorable.

Seated in the heart

God and the Self are seated in the heart, as the upanishads and the Gita continually emphasize. There they abide permanently–it is not a matter of occasional visitations. Knowing this, Jesus said: “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). This, too, is a matter of direct experience. Saint Luke used the word idou–in other words, “See for yourself that the kingdom of God is within you.” This is not something Jesus wants us to believe and act on blindly–he wants us to experience this truth, for only experience produces lasting effects.

The heart is the throne of God and the throne of the divine Self. When Jesus says: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Revelation 3:21), he is speaking of our heart, not his. Our heart and the heart of God are not the same, but they are one.

Power that gives breath

The upanishads literally say that it is the Self which produces our inhalations and exhalations. “Who could live, who could breathe, if that blissful self dwelt not within the lotus of the heart?” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:7). “The Self is the breath of the breath” (Kena Upanishad 1:2). “The breaths are the Real, and their Reality is the Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.20). “He who breathes in with your breathing in is your Self. He who breathes out with your breathing out is your Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1). “From him is born the breath” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.1.2, 3). “The shining, immortal person who is breath is the Self, is Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.5.4). “Which is the one God? The breath. He is Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.9.9)

In the spiritual texts of India the word hridaya means not just the heart, or core, but also is said to indicate the space (akasha) where the inbreath and outbreath merge–the ultimate heart. This is why yoga must involve working with the inhaling and exhaling breaths in the form of subtle pranayama. “The breath is the Supreme Brahman. The breath never deserts him who, knowing thus, meditates upon it. Having become a god, he goes to the gods” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.1.3). “They who know the breath of the breath…have realized the ancient, primordial Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.18).

The senses do homage

In modern Hinduism we find a panorama of all kinds of gods, demigods, and suchlike, so it is supposed that the ancient texts refer to them when speaking of devas. But a simple perusal of the context of those references reveal that the upanishadic sages meant the senses (jnanendriyas), not some kind of external deific intelligences.

The senses do homage in the evolved individual by drawing near to (upasate) and becoming merged in the Self, which is their source. Now this tells us two interesting and usually unsuspected things. First, that it is natural for the Self to control the senses, not to be their slave. Second, it is completely natural for the senses to move inward toward the Self and experience the Self by uniting with It. Neither of these is our present experience. Rather, we consider it normal for the Self to be bound by the senses, and for it to require great struggle to turn them inward and bring them to experience of the Self. Evidently we have lived in a subnormal condition so long that we have come to think subnormality is normal. We are like the drunk man who was walking along with one foot on the sidewalk and the other down in the street. When someone stopped him and asked why he was walking that way, he burst into tears and answered: “Thank God! I thought I was a cripple.”

Basically, the Self is the goal of all.

The essence

The upanishad then asks: “What can remain when the dweller in this body leaves the outgrown shell, since he is, verily, the immortal Self?” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:4). The answer is quite simple: nothing but the body remains, for the Self is as different from the body as the pearl is from the oyster and its shell. The departure of the Self produces death and decay, for it is the Self alone that gives–and is–life, the sustenance of the body.

Jesus, himself a yogi having lived over half of his life in India, said: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). That is, we live not on matter, but on the very Life of God–because matter is only a modification of that Life Energy. The upanishad–which Jesus would have known–expresses the same idea by saying: “Man does not live by breath alone, but by him in whom is the power of breath” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:5)

It is not breath that makes us live–though breath is the basis of our body’s metabolism. This is why yogis can live without the physical act of breathing. What we cannot do without, and by which we do live is Him who is the source of breath.

“For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28)

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal 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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