“The immortal Self is the sun shining in the sky, he is the breeze blowing in space, he is the fire burning on the altar, he is the guest dwelling in the house; he is in all men, he is in the gods, he is in the ether, he is wherever there is truth; he is the fish that is born in water, he is the plant that grows in the soil, he is the river that gushes from the mountain–he, the changeless reality, the illimitable!” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:2).
Where in all the scriptures of the world can we find such a thrilling statement–thrilling and glorious because it is TRUE?
The two that are One
To fully comprehend the teachings of the upanishadic sages we must keep in mind that whatever can be said of the Paramatman on the cosmic, universal level can usually also be said of the jivatman on the level of our individual life within the cosmos. So the upanishads are describing not only God, the Supreme Spirit, but the nature of our own individual spirit.
What is needed
There is another, essential, side to this upanishadic statement–and indeed to all scriptural teachings–that must be kept in mind at all times in our study: We must experience and know the realities spoken of by the sages. They did not write down their perceptions for us to merely accept them and be intellectually convinced of their veracity. Rather, they wrote them down as signposts so we could check our own perceptions against them. Never did they mean for their writings to become dogmas and doctrines. They assume that their readers will be yogis like themselves, sadhaka-pilgrims pressing on toward the ultimate frontiers of consciousness. This is the absolutely unique character of the upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Nearly all other scriptures, including those of later authorship in India, are statements of truths we are supposed to accept on faith without question. This is why intelligent investigation and analysis are so little valued by the expounders of those scriptures, why nearly all religions warn their adherents away from reading the books of “heretics” and demand that they shun their company. Intellectual fearlessness terrifies “the chosen faithful” and sets their teeth on edge.
But no religious system that employs a bond of any type can lead us to freedom, only confusion and enslavement. For example, in Yoga, yama and niyama are not commandments but helpful information. Just as we learn what food is harmful to the body, so from Patanjali we learn what conduct limits and clouds the consciousness of the aspiring yogi. If we wish to ignore his counsel, that is our own concern. No one will call us to account for our heedlessness except our own Self.
Those who are fit to be yogis joyfully learn what to cultivate and what to avoid, and live accordingly. Those who drag their feet, sigh, and sullenly demand mitigations, are simply not fit for yoga and should occupy themselves in other areas. This is why Jesus asked: “Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:28-30).
Every yogi must be adhikarin–qualified and worthy, fit for yoga and capable of its total practice. Jesus said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). It is interesting that he likens spiritual life to the cumbersome wooden yoke of oxen or bullocks, assuring us that it will be restful and easy and light to bear. How is this? To a strong ox or bullock the heaviest of yokes will be of no consequence. So if we are the kind of people for whom yoga is intended, its requirements and disciplines will be light and easeful. But if, instead of being oxen or bullocks we are dogs and swine–symbols used by Jesus for the unworthy–the light and easy yoke will break our backs. This is why some people should take up bowling or surfing and forget religion altogether, what to say of yoga.
For the serious seekers, though, the ancient rishis hold back nothing, but give the full picture of the Self.
“The immortal Self”
The Self can seem (please note I say seem) to enter into numberless conditions and interior states. It even experiences millions of births and deaths, yet It never really dies, for immortality is a fundamental trait of Its nature. It is not easy, but the yogi must cultivate a continual awareness that he is Immortal Being–never anything less, and never anything more–and order his life accordingly. I do not mean by this that he denies his present (seeming) condition, but that, as Yogananda continually advised, he is always aware that he is only sitting in the motion picture theatre of the cosmos watching a movie that, cosmic as its scope may be, can be wiped away in a moment, that only he and the other viewers are real, that all must eventually leave the theater and go home to Infinity. How splendid are the truths of the upanishads!
The Self is the source of all light–the Inner Light of Consciousness that illumines all things. For outside the Self there is no perception of even the brightest of material suns. It is the presence of the Self that produces awareness of all phenomena. Outside the Self nothing at all exists. Within the Self is everything.
“Shining in the sky”
The Self shines in the sky of the Chidakasha, the subtle Ether (Akasha). The Chidakasha is the infinite, all-pervading expanse of Consciousness from which all things proceed; the true heart of all things. The shining of the Self in the Chidakasha is Life itself. In the individual, the Chidakasha is the subtle space of Consciousness located in the Sahasrara, the Thousand-petalled Lotus that is the astral/causal brain. From that point the Self enlivens and illumines all things.
“The breeze blowing in space”
The Self is also that power which moves within the Chidakasha as the wind moves within earthly space. As the wind causes movement in the trees and on the surfaces of earth and water, in the same way it is the Self that produces all movement in the cosmos, in all the worlds gross and subtle.
“The fire burning on the altar”
The Self is the transmuting force of Cosmic Fire on the altar of the universe. In India of the upanishadic rishis there were no temples, nor were there any external religious rites other than the sandhya (morning and evening salutations of the sun) and the havan, the fire ritual in which by the agency of consecrated fire the offerings were transformed into subtle energy forms and transferred into higher worlds. The Self, then is the ultimate transmuting power which evolves both the cosmos and the personal energies of the individual spirits within it. The entire universe is an altar in which, through the power of the Self, all things are offerings unto–and into–Infinite Being.
“The guest dwelling in the house”
All things, even the least atom, are dwellings for the all-pervading Self. All things that exist have the Self as their inmost dweller. Where there is any objective thing, there is the Self. Yet, since no things are permanent, the Self is only a momentary Guest–but none the less real for that.
“In all men”
What is meaningful to us is the truth that the Self is the dweller in all consciousness beings. And since they are not things, the Self is not a guest but the permanent Indweller as the Self of the Self. The consciousness of each one of us is the only temple in which Spirit ever dwells in Its essential being. Although it can be said that in a sense our bodies are temples of God, that is not really true in the purest sense. Only in our consciousness is Spirit to be found. This is why the upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita insist that we must identify with the Self alone, seeing all else as mirages destined to dissolve away and cease to exist. Their message has been summed up by Shankara in these words: “Brahman is real. The world is illusory. The jiva is nothing but Brahman.”
“In the gods”
In the upanishads, “gods” mean not only highly evolved beings that can control the forces of nature, etc., the gods are also our higher faculties of perception which illumine our awareness of both the inner and outer worlds. Here the idea is that the Self is the enlivening power by which our higher faculties function.
“In the ether”
The Ether, the Chidakasha, is the natural home of the Self. Only in this inmost level of being can the Self be always perceived. In the lesser levels we usually lose the Self by losing perception of It. How can we establish ourselves in etheric awareness? Through the ever-increasing subtle states experienced in meditation.
“Wherever there is truth”
Wherever there is true knowing, there the Self is operative as the Sun of Consciousness, revealing both relative and absolute truth. For Truth is Its nature. A popular Sanskrit adage is: “Truth alone conquers,” meaning that victory over ignorance and bondage is found only in the Self, the ultimate Truth.
“The fish that is born in water”
Egotism is a prime trait of human beings–usually in the form of outright arrogance. In religion this manifests in the insistence that human beings are superior to all other beings. Even in India we have the idea that even the gods pray for human birth because supposedly only human beings can be enlightened. In Christianity there is an insistence that human beings are higher than angels because they alone can be saved through Christ. In the most ignorant of religions there is the insistence that only human beings are immortal and that animals are some kind of animated machines, that human beings alone are in the image of God and suchlike.
Therefore the upanishad tells us the truth: that even in the dullest of animals–the fish–the Self is present, that the fish is the Self in manifestation, as are we.
“The plant that grows in the soil”
Lest we confine the Self to animal life, the upanishad further tells us that plants are dwellingplaces of the Self, too.
“The river that gushes from the mountain” And lest we think that the Self is only in “living” things, the seers assure us that in inanimate things the Self is living and moving. Everything is alive in Spirit. What a sublime world-view.
“The changeless reality” All the things listed as abodes of the Self are ever-changing, and their forms are evanescent, soon seen to be without permanent reality. Since we identify with what we see around us, we continually fall into the snare of thinking that we, too, change and have no ultimate reality. Even if we think otherwise intellectually, we keep acting in a delusive manner. Hence we must keep reminding ourselves that we are changeless and absolutely real.
Equally wonderful is the truth that we are beyond limitation, that infinite are our possibilities, for we are the Infinite Self.
Those who embodied their realizations in the upanishads did not do so to furnish us with a bundle of beliefs to take on faith and wrangle over. Their intention was to spur us onward to attain the same vision as they possessed, to be sages equal with them, no longer servants but friends. “Henceforth I call you not servants;…but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Their call to us is the same as that of Swami Vivekananda, who continually exhorted his hearers: “Awake! Arise!”
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Life-Giving Self