Seeing is not always seeing and hearing is not always hearing. In some instances it is misperception, and in others it is no perception at all. This is illustrated by an incident from the life of Jesus. While speaking to the people, he prayed: “Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him” (John 12:28, 29). Four levels of perception are manifested here. One level knew that God had spoken, another thought that an angel had spoken, another thought it had only thundered, and the fourth did not hear a thing.
As a rule, phenomena can be classified in fours. The four castes spoken of in Indian scriptures are not social strata based on physical birth, but four levels of awareness–in fact, they correspond to the four responses to the speaking of God that Saint John has recorded in this Gospel passage. Krishna follows the same classification in the Bhagavad Gita, saying: “There are some who have actually looked upon the Atman, and understood It, in all Its wonder. Others can only speak of It as wonderful beyond their understanding. Others know of Its wonder by hearsay. And there are others who are told about It and do not understand a word” (Bhagavad Gita 2:29).
Yama had this to say to Nachiketa about this matter of understanding the Self: “To many it is not given to hear of the Self. Many, though they hear of it, do not understand it. Wonderful is he who speaks of it. Intelligent is he who learns of it. Blessed is he who, taught by a good teacher, is able to understand it” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:7).
The “silent” majority
“To many it is not given to hear of the Self.” Most people–by far the most people–have never heard of the Self and never will in this lifetime. Oh, yes, they will hear about an immortal soul/spirit that a tyrannical God will reward or punish according to His whim, but the real nature of that spirit as part of–and therefore one with–the Supreme Reality and therefore supreme reality itself, eternal, immortal, and indivisible, will never be even hinted at nor will they come up with the concept on their own. Further, it will not be even suggested to them, either from within or without, that the spirit nature is the Self–nothing more–and is the only true identity they can ever have.
Being unchanging, this Self cannot be affected or changed by anything–no, not even by God. It is what it is, just as much as God is what He is. It is, therefore, not only the most worthwhile thing for us to get involved with, it is the only thing we can possibly be involved with. Everything else is illusion. This glorious truth of the Self must be the sole perspective in which we view our present situation as consciousnesses experiencing the process of evolution.
“Many, though they hear of it, do not understand it.” This is true of many who, though ostensibly adherents of dharma, really do not get the idea–especially about the Self. These are those that frequent temples, ashrams and saints as a kind of insurance against calamity and trouble. Then there are those that only run to those holy places when problems arise. Obviously they have no degree of comprehension regarding the Self.
Neither do most who profess to understand the Self. This is seen by their words and deeds. If someone believes the building is on fire we can tell it by their attempts to get out. Similarly, if someone believes in the truth about the Self they will order their entire lives accordingly–not just assent to the concept. To know the Self, to enter into the fullness of its consciousness and being, will be the focus of their life and thought.
Sri Ramakrishna often said that if a thief learned of a great treasure being kept in the room next to where he was living, he would not be able to sleep for thinking about how to break through the wall and get it. In the same way, those who really understand about the wonder of the Self will not rest until they have (re)claimed the Treasure for themselves. Spiritual purification and spiritual practice are the means for breaking through the wall and claiming the prize.
We have a dilemma here, also: Only those who understand about the Self will be motivated to engage in tapasya to realize it fully; yet only those who are engaged in tapasya can have any glimmer of the Self and be motivated to practice. The solution lies in the fact that in time the Self begins to urge us to its realization, that we will intuit the presence of the Self and start moving toward the point where, when we hear about it, we will accept and act upon what we hear.
It is interesting to see that Yama does not mention those who reject or deny the truth of the Self. Apparently to him they do not even exist.
We joke sometimes about the exaggerations of the motion picture industry. “It is colossal! Magnificent! The greatest ever!” and similar effusions continually pour out in conversation and advertisements. The song, Hollywood, assures us that out there “you’re ‘terrific’ if you’re good.” Divinity, on the other hand, has a somewhat different viewpoint, so Yama tells Nachiketa: “Wonderful is he who speaks of it.” He is not speaking of a parrot, a spiritual phonograph, but of one who speaks with awakened awareness–even if not from perfect knowledge or realization. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). The implication here is that we should seek out and only listen to those who speak of the Self, from the Self, and in the perspective of the Self. Theology is usually only so much distracting noise, and so is most religious and “spiritual” talk. Buddha likened a true teacher or teaching to a finger pointing at the moon–only that which points us to our own Reality is itself real and worthwhile. Such a teacher or teaching is wonderful indeed.
Yama assures Nachiketa that the intelligent person is the one who pursues knowledge of the Self. This is done in two ways: listening to or reading the teachings about the Self of those who have themselves known the Self, and–most importantly–by actively seeking to know one’s own Self through careful analysis (swadhyaya) and spiritual practices, most especially meditation. This latter point is very necessary for us to grasp. Intellectually intelligent people love learning–and they should. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of studying all the theory and not getting down to any practice to determine the validity of the theory.
Saint Silouan of Athos said that delight in the study of theology was the false mysticism of the ego. When Swami Turiyananda first met Sri Ramakrishna he was intensely studying Vedanta for at least six hours a day. Upon hearing of this, Sri Ramakrishna was astounded. “What else does Vedanta say except that Brahman alone is real, the world is illusory, and the Self and Brahman are one?” he asked. “So why do you need six hours of study for that?” Turiyananda had the good sense to understand, and began to devote himself to japa and meditation in order to know the Self–not just know about the Self. In the West it is a common error to assume that knowing about something is the same thing as knowing it. More than once I have read in catechisms that knowing God is accomplished by reading the catechism.
To be wonderful and intelligent is good, but to be blessed is the ideal. So Yama concludes: “Blessed is he who, taught by a good teacher, is able to understand it.” This is because a good teacher does not just impart theoretical knowledge, but reveals to the student the practical means by which he can open his understanding through meditation to behold and know the Self. Krishna, being the Supreme Teacher, instructs Arjuna in the Gita about meditation, saying: “If he practices meditation in this manner, his heart will become pure” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12). “He must be…united constantly with me in his meditation” (Bhagavad Gita 12:14). “The practice of serenity, sympathy, meditation upon the Atman, withdrawal of the mind from sense-objects, and integrity of motive, is called austerity of the mind.”(Bhagavad Gita 17:16). “Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, who is the light-giver, the highest of the high” (Bhagavad Gita 8:8).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
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