Yamaraja has presented his student with a great deal of philosophical knowledge regarding the Self. This is all valuable, but Nachiketa feels impelled to ask a question, without the answer to which all the teaching on the Self means nothing. He asks: “How O King, shall I find that blissful Self, supreme, ineffable, who is attained by the wise? Does he shine by himself, or does he reflect another’s light?” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:14).
It is pointless to hear about the Self if we do not know how to find the Self. It is true that in metaphysical realms the majority of people are enamored of theory and discussion without practical application, but the wise see things differently. Nachiketa has already grasped the fundamental nature of the Self.
Analysis shows that the basic motivation of all beings is bliss (ananda) or happiness (sukham), that all the things we strive for are only prized because their acquisition will give rise to joy. In this perspective we see that all beings are in search of the Self, for It alone is of the nature of joy. Once a person grasps this fact–really grasps it–he can only seek for the Self, all else being seen as insignificant.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad we find the following relevant exposition:
”It is not for the sake of the husband, my beloved, that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the wife, my beloved, that the wife is dear, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the children, my beloved, that the children are dear, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of wealth, my beloved, that wealth is dear, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the Brahmins, my beloved, that the Brahmins are held in reverence, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the Kshatriyas, my beloved, that the Kshatriyas are held in honor, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the higher worlds, my beloved, that the higher worlds are desired, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the gods, my beloved, that the gods are worshiped, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of the creatures, my beloved, that the creatures are prized, but for the sake of the Self.
”It is not for the sake of itself, my beloved, that anything whatever is esteemed, but for the sake of the Self.
”The Self, Maitreyi, is to be known. Hear about it, reflect upon it, meditate upon it. By knowing the Self, my beloved, through hearing, reflection, and meditation, one comes to know all things” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5)
The Self is supreme–there is nothing that is higher or more desirable than the Self; there is nothing that exists beyond the Self. It is supreme because It is Existence Itself. There is no reality other than the Self. We must seek the Self because only the Self can be attained–everything else is a mirage.
The Self cannot be defined or evaluated in the terms of relative existence or relative objects–none of which exist outside the Self. Consequently the Self cannot be intellectually understood or even defined. Nevertheless, the Self can be known in a manner beyond any ordinary knowing, for It can be experienced as both object and subject–a quality unique to Itself.
Attained by the wise
The Self is attainable. Those who at present are ignorant of the Self can become knowers of the Self. Although only the knowers of the Self are fully worthy of being called wise, we can certainly call those who are seeking the Self also wise. All of us can be the potentially wise if we follow the path to Self-knowledge as outlined in the upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
A necessary question
Nachiketa has declared the Self to be Supreme, yet he prudently follows that statement with a question to dispel any possibility that he may be misunderstanding Yama’s teaching: Does the Self shine by Itself, is Light Its essential nature, or does It reflect another’s light? This is a most crucial inquiry. Is the Self Light, or is Its light drawn from a source other than the Self? This is a question that penetrates to the foundations of the cosmos, demanding a clear insight.
The sublime answer
“Him the sun does not illumine, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor the lightning–nor, verily, fires kindled upon the earth. He is the one light that gives light to all. He shining, everything shines” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:15). So Yama answers his worthy pupil’s worthy question.
Nothing of heaven or earth illumines the Self or causes It to be radiant. Rather, It is swayamprakash–self-luminous. Furthermore, it is the Self that illumines all beings. “He is the one light that gives light to all.” The Self is the essential nature of all sentient beings that “shine” with consciousness. “He shining, everything shines.”
All glory to the blissful, supreme, and ineffable Self! All glory to the wise who strive to attain that Self as well as the supremely wise who have attained It!
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Universal Tree