Previously Yama has spoken to Nachiketa of the manner to experience the Self that is immanent in all that “is.” Now he completes the picture by an exposition of the Transcendent and the means to realize It. He does this in response to Nachiketa’s question: “Teach me, O King, I beseech thee, whatsoever thou knowest to be beyond right and wrong, beyond cause and effect, beyond past, present, and future” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:14). He desires to know about the Transcendental Reality that is beyond all qualities or designations. As the Immanent Being, That has infinite names, forms, conditions, and qualities, but beyond that is something much greater: the Transcendent. That can neither be said to exist or not to exist, to be with form or without form, with qualities or without qualities, for all these propositions are dualities, one presupposing the other. Where there is one there is its opposite–duality is an absolute in the realm of the Immanent Reality. Nachiketa is certainly pleased with the truth that all can be seen as the Divine Unity, but he wishes to complete his knowledge by learning about what lies beyond even that. For there is a state of consciousness in which even the question of duality/unity, form/formless, and such like cannot even arise. That is the state Nachiketa aspires to comprehend and experience.
The answer is in the question
Everything in manifestation is dual. This is the truth for every aspect of life. There is an interesting divinatory process known as The Alphabet of the Magi. To work it a question is formulated and then written on cards–one letter per card. These cards are then shuffled and dealt out in a special way to form the words that are the answer to the question. It was The Alphabet of the Magi, worked by a Benedictine monk who practiced divination and astrology in Paris after his monastery had been closed by the anti-religious government, that inspired Charlotte Corday to assassinate Marat and inspired Napoleon, then a mere corporal, to aspire to the rulership of France. So it works.
The idea that the answer is inherent in the question is very important, for it means that the questioner already knows the answer on the subconscious (or superconscious) level, that the question cannot arise until the answer is subliminally known. The purpose of questioning, then, is to bring out on the conscious level what is known unconsciously. When we seemingly ask another to teach us we are really seeking to stimulate and bring forth our own knowledge. That is why the wise have assured their students that in time they would be able to find the answers within themselves–it is only a matter of developing intuition through clarifying the mind.
It is very common to hear someone demand: “Why did you ask me if you are not going to accept what I tell you?” The reply should be: “So I can figure the answer out for myself.” The very fact that we reject a given answer indicates that we think we do know what is the truth about the matter. Otherwise we would mindlessly accept what we are told. (Many do, alas.) It is all inside us. Questioning reveals the ripening of our innate knowledge. Knowing this, Jesus said: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8). He is not urging us to seek outside ourselves, but to seek within.
Nachiketa seems to be asking Yama about the Transcendent, but his question reveals how much he already knows.
Beyond right and wrong
The moment we enter duality–relative existence–we become subject to the situation that some thoughts, words, and acts will impel us onward to higher consciousness and others will impel us to lower consciousness. No matter where we may be at the moment, it cannot be permanent. By the nature of things we will keep moving up and down, back and forth. Whenever we think we have attained some stability it is only a matter of the movement being so slow it is imperceptible to us. We are always in danger of incurring suffering because of this. In truth, suffering is inevitable, for even rising requires effort and unsureness or doubt as to the success of our endeavor. As Krishna says of us: “Anxiety binds them with a hundred chains” (Bhagavad Gita 16:12). We suffer anxiety as to what is the right or wrong and anxiety as to whether we can avoid the wrong and manage to think and do the right. Even more, we are busy getting and losing, anxious to get the good and rid ourselves of the wrong. And of course we are mostly deluded as to what is really right and wrong, usually thinking that the pleasurable is right and the painful is wrong. That is why Krishna told Arjuna: “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). The danger is obvious.
Nachiketa intuits that this terrible dragging back and forth, this dilemma inherent in relative existence, can come to an end–not in the realm of relative existence, but in its transcendence. Realizing this truth is a tremendous breakthrough for the developing consciousness and indicates that the end of the search is near. Some of our monks visited a great saint in the Himalayan foothills and spoke with him about spiritual life. He told them: “Your questions show that you are not far from the Goal.”
Beyond cause and effect
In ignorant religion “sin” and “righteousness” occupy a great deal of attention, not necessarily because of a sincere desire to be virtuous, but because of their effects. Desire and fear motivate the religionist–at least mentally and emotionally–for sin gets punished and righteousness gets rewarded. Punishment hurts and reward feels good. Punishment takes away and reward supplies. The dispenser of reward and punishment is some kind (or many kinds) of deity who, being an extension of the ignorant egos of the adherents of the religion, judges good and bad on the basis of “I like” and “I don’t like,” “I want” and “I don’t want.” Good sense and practicality have nothing to do with it. The deity is either pleased or displeased and acts accordingly. To complicate matters, the deity can be placated if “sinned against” and, being mollified by groveling and penitence, will reward the sinner as much as if he had been virtuous–maybe even more, so the deity’s “love” and “mercy” can be revealed. We see this behavior in human beings all the time: tears, apology and self-castigation not only stop the anger or displeasure, they evoke a tenderness and openness that should sensibly only be evoked by right conduct. So in evil religion (for ignorance is evil), despite the assurance that virtue is rewarded, we see that sin and repentance are rewarded and the sinner assured of salvation. Such a religion becomes a living hell populated and promoted by living demons.
Unfortunately we can carry this along with us if we only intellectually adopt a higher, more metaphysical view. For example, we see among people who “turn East” in their search that “good karma” and “bad karma” are bugaboos just as much desired and feared as any heaven or hell proffered by Western religion? I knew a man that had a metaphysical bookstore. Shoplifting was a real problem. Now, if he had put a sign on the door so the departing malefactors would have read something like: “Thou shalt not steal,” (Exodus 20:15) or “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” (Ezekiel 18:4,20) or “Know thou that God will bring thee into judgment,” (Ecclesiastes 11:9) it would have had no result–perhaps even the opposite. For after all, were not his customers “beyond all that Judeo-Christian negativity”? Indeed they were! So he did this. He put a sign on the door for all to see as they departed saying: “Shoplifting is Bad Karma.” Nearly every day that sign stopped at least one person. Most sheepishly shuffled back to the shelf and sneaked the book back. Some actually came to the owner and gave him the book along with an apology. Why? Had he evoked their higher moral sensibilities? Not a bit. They had traded fear of sin and hell for fear of bad karma and retribution–maybe even a bad rebirth. The ego was still in the driver’s seat, and quite liable to stay there for a long time. Karma may be more positive a concept than sin, punishment, and hell, but the fear engendered is just as egoic, and therefore just as negative and ultimately ignorant.
Nachiketa had a clear vision of things. The problem was not tears or smiles, but the LAW of cause and effect, the truth that for every action there is an equal responsive reaction. Reactivity, inner and outer, is also inherent in relative–dual–consciousness. But Nachiketa did not just want to get away from the noise and damp of the ocean of samsara, he wanted to get away from the ocean itself. A jail cell may be luxurious, but it is still a prison. Nachiketa aspired to freedom. He wished to attain that which was beyond cause and effect, not just a means of avoiding them. This is one of the reasons why religion is usually so pointless: it attempts to make the fire stop burning rather than showing the way out of the conflagration. It seeks to make bondage palatable, pleasing to both the egocentric deity and the egocentric devotee. A confederacy of dunces, indeed.
Beyond past, present, and future
My first reading of the Bhagavad Gita revealed to me something I had intuited all my life: the fundamental truth that space and time are the basic delusions of human consciousness. What a relief! So when in three or four days I heard one of the most intelligent of my university professors remark that time and space were the two fundamental realities, you can imagine how much I appreciated the Gita for clearing that nonsense up for me. (I appreciated myself, too, for being so clever as to understand it.)
The time-space continuum is a torment to the awakened consciousness, for it is the basis for the existence of cause and effect and therefore of right and wrong. It is impermanence itself, the root cause of all suffering, fear, anxiety, and instability. Since we have been immersed in relativity for creation cycles beyond number, we find ourselves in a present whose vast roots are thoroughly unknown, and whose effects will create an unknown future that will be a fusion of the past and the present. Uncertainty and confusion are the results of even a small attempt to make sense of the whole thing. And the idea of controlling any aspect is simply beyond our imagination. We are drowning in a shoreless ocean. But we do not just drown once and have it over with. We drown daily–every moment, actually. Only the stupid or the willfully ignorant do not see this. How can we blame those who take refuge in illusion, whatever the form? They do not need an analysis or judgment of their predicament; they need a way out. Nachiketa is asking for that, not for more philosophy or exposition of the problem.
There is not a place beyond right and wrong, beyond cause and effect, beyond past, present, and future, but a state of being that transcends them. Nachiketa sought to become an altogether different order of being, to enter into the state of Brahman Itself. Knowing this to be so, Yama does not hesitate, but literally spells it out. He begins: “Of that goal which all the Vedas declare, which is implicit in all penances, and in pursuit of which men lead lives of continence and service, of that will I briefly speak” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:15).
That which Nachiketa seeks is not an abstraction but a positive reality known to Yama. Perhaps the most heartening thing that can be said about That Which Is is the fact that it is The Goal. Its attainment is not only possible, it is inevitable. The entire field of relative existence, however much we have damaged or corrupted it and it in turn has damaged or corrupted us, has a single purpose: the attainment of Brahman and the consequent liberation of the questing spirit (atman). This is what everything is all about. So no wonder we have made such a mess of things–literally. Not knowing either their or our purpose, what else could be the result? We are like the character in the Woody Allen movie that tried to play the cello by blowing through the holes. Ignorance is the root of all the trouble.
“Shake off this fever of ignorance. Stop hoping for worldly rewards. Fix your mind on the Atman. Be free from the sense of ego” (Bhagavad Gita 3:30), counsels Krishna. “You dream you are the doer, you dream that action is done, you dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance, it is the world’s delusion that gives you these dreams” (Bhagavad Gita 5:14). “Seek this knowledge and comprehend clearly why you should seek it: such, it is said, are the roots of true wisdom: ignorance, merely, is all that denies them” (Bhagavad Gita 13:11). “When men have thrown off their ignorance, they are free from pride and delusion. They have conquered the evil of worldly attachment. They live in constant union with the Atman. All craving has left them. They are no longer at the mercy of opposing sense-reactions. Thus they reach that state which is beyond all change” (Bhagavad Gita 15:5).
By “vedas” Yama means the teachings of illumined sages regarding the nature of Brahman and the way to conscious union with Brahman. For “veda” means knowledge or wisdom. Although that word has come to be used only in the sense of the ancient Sanskrit hymns found in the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas, they are not meant here. At the time of Nachiketa the vedas were the orally transmitted wisdom of the Vedic Rishis that only later were written down as the upanishads. In a broader sense, the vedas are the words of any enlightened person about the nature of God and the realization of God. Books of speculative philosophy mean nothing to our search for Divine Consciousness. Only the teachings of those who have themselves reached the Goal are relevant and worthy of our attention.
Implicit in all penances
The word rather poorly translated here as “penances” is tapasya. Literally it means the generation of heat or energy, but is always used in a symbolic manner, referring to spiritual practice and its effect, especially the roasting of karmic seeds, the burning up of karma. Tapasya means a practical–i.e., result-producing–spiritual discipline which culminates in spiritual evolution and enlightenment.
The important idea in Yama’s words are that our spiritual practice must be congruent with the nature of God. Though tapasya implies a discipline, it cannot just be some type of militaristic coercion or mortification of the body and mind that are often nothing more than an expression of self-loathing.The Bhagavad Gita tells us: “You may know these men to be of demonic nature who mortify the body excessively, in ways not prescribed by the scriptures. They do this because their lust and attachment to sense-objects has filled them with egotism and vanity. In their foolishness, they weaken all their sense-organs, and outrage me, the dweller within the body” (Bhagavad Gita 17:5, 6). The religions of the world abound in admiration for those who torture the body and mind, attaining abnormal psychic states foolishly mistaken for spiritual attainment. But according to Yama, the Goal must be implicit in all disciplines. That is, the disciplines themselves must embody the nature of God–and our own selves, as well. A person unfamiliar with spiritual truth should be able through analysis of authentic spiritual practice to actually come to understand the truth regarding the nature of both the seeker and the Goal. If a spiritual practice cannot impart this knowledge by its very mechanics, then it is invalid and cannot possibly lead to the Goal. For this is a very valuable fact: only that practice which from the very first moment puts us in touch with God and begins to reveal our true nature is genuine yoga. All else is illusion. That is why Krishna says: “What is man’s will and how shall he use it? Let him put forth its power to uncover the Atman, not hide the Atman: man’s will is the only friend of the Atman: his will is also the Atman’s enemy” (Bhagavad Gita 6:5). The plain truth is that putting the force of the will into erroneous practices will hide the Truth from us even more, whereas applying the will in correct practice will reveal Divinity to us. For Divinity is inherent in true yoga.
In pursuit of which…
The upanishads teach us the truth of the unity of the atman and Brahman. Therefore that truth is known as advaita, “not two,” meaning that there is no separation of the atman and Brahman at any time. Simplistic thinkers, especially in the West, immediately begin to decry the idea of tapasya, yoga, or any other discipline, insisting very shrilly that there is no need for such, that to engage in spiritual practice is to affirm a delusion of separation between us and God. They usually end up denying that either we or God even exist, advocating a kind of petulant, bullying nihilism, reminding any sensible person of Krishna’s indictment: “These malignant creatures are full of egoism, vanity, lust, wrath, and consciousness of power. They loathe me, and deny my presence both in themselves and in others. They are enemies of all men and of myself” (Bhagavad Gita 16:18). Drastic words, these, but they address a drastic mental and spiritual aberration. Read the entire sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita for a full outline of such kinds of people. This is but one of the reasons why a continual study of the Gita is necessary for those who do not wish to go (or be led) astray in their spiritual pursuit. No student of the Gita could ever fall into such absurd pitfalls as these “advaitans” whose only unity is their absorption in the illusion of the ego.
The truth is that the realization of God not only can but must be pursued. We do not pursue God, understand, for God is everywhere and always one with us. Rather, we pursue the revelation of that eternal oneness and its manifestation on all levels of our present existence. Regarding this, a yogi-adept of the twentieth century, Dr. I. K. Taimni, remarked in his book The Science of Yoga: “According to the yogic philosophy it is possible to rise completely above the illusions and miseries of life and to gain infinite knowledge, bliss, and power through enlightenment here and now while we are still living in the physical body. And if we do not attain this enlightenment while we are still alive we will have to come back again and again into this world until we have accomplished this appointed task. So it is not a question of choosing the path of yoga or rejecting it. It is a question of choosing it now or in some future life. It is a question of gaining enlightenment as soon as possible and avoiding the suffering in the future or postponing the effort and going through further suffering which is unnecessary and avoidable. This is the meaning of Yoga Sutra 2:16: ‘The misery which is not yet come can and is to be avoided.’ No vague promise of an uncertain postmortem happiness this, but a definite scientific assertion of a fact verified by the experience of innumerable yogis, saints, and sages who have trodden the path of yoga throughout the ages.”
It is absolutely sure: “Seek, and ye shall find.”
Brahmacharyam is the word Swami Prabhavananda translates as “lives of continence and service.” Radhakrishnan renders it “the life of a religious student,” and Swami Sivananda: “life of a brahmacharin.” In India the first stage of life is that of a student, a brahmachari. The brahmachari-student leads a life of discipline, the core of which is sexual continence. He also serves his teacher in a practical way, for the ideal environment of the brahmacharya ashram is rural, a forest setting being the ideal. At the time the upanishads were first spoken, all Aryas lived in the forests, living an agrarian life of the utmost simplicity. The students of a teacher helped out in the day-to-day routine required by such a lifestyle. But Yama is not confining brahmacharya to the student’s stage of life. Whatever the age or outer circumstances of the seeker, both self control (abstinence) and practical positive action, including selfless service, are central to his life, next only to meditation.
I once saw a cartoon in which a drunk was lying in a gutter and asking a Salvation Army woman: “Can you save me here, or do I have to go somewhere?” Obviously, being “saved” did not interest him very much. But those who are truly interested say with the Prodigal Son: “I will arise and go” (Luke 15:18). And they do. Living a life of purity and discipline is the way they rise and go.
It is most significant that Yama says he will briefly speak of the Goal. Why is this? Because the Goal is Brahman, and Brahman can only be spoken of very briefly. This is because Brahman is exceedingly simple, in fact the only really simple (incomplex) “thing” there is. Also, the intellect can only grasp the tiniest bit of the truth about Brahman, so not only can little be said, little can be understood. In a way this makes it very easy for us. Here is how the Gita teaches us about Brahman:
“Now I shall describe That which has to be known, in order that its knower may gain immortality. That Brahman is beginningless, transcendent, eternal. He is said to be equally beyond what is, and what is not” (Bhagavad Gita 13:12). “Light of all lights, He abides beyond our ignorant darkness; Knowledge, the one thing real we may study or know, the heart’s dweller” (Bhagavad Gita 13:17).
But Nachiketa does not want to know about Brahman, he wants to know Brahman. With this in mind, Yama reveals both Brahman and the way to Brahman–for they are the same–by saying: “It is–Om” (Om ityetat. Katha Upanishad 1:2:15).
Om is Supreme Brahman
Yama thencontinues with a brief exposition of the nature of Om: “This syllable is Brahman. This syllable is indeed supreme. He who knows it obtains his desire” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:16). Yama tells Nachiketa that he who knows Om obtains whatever he desires, for Om is the cosmic creative Vibration which is manifesting as all things.
“It is the strongest support. It is the highest symbol. He who knows it is reverenced as a knower of Brahman” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:17). Some translators render this: “He who knows It is revered in the world of Brahman.”
“The Self, whose symbol is Om, is the omniscient Lord. He is not born. He does not die. He is neither cause nor effect. This Ancient One is unborn, imperishable, eternal: though the body be destroyed, he is not killed” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:18). We shall then know that we are not born, we do not die, we are neither cause nor effect; we are unborn, imperishable, eternal, unaffected by any conditions of the body whatsoever. For as Shankara sang:
I am not the mind, intellect, thought, or ego;
Not hearing, not tasting, not smelling, not seeing;
I am not the elements–ether, earth, fire, air:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I am neither Prana, nor the five vital airs;
Nor the seven components of the gross body;
Nor the subtle bodies; nor organs of action:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I have no aversion, clinging, greed, delusion;
No envy or pride, and no duty or purpose;
I have no desire, and I have no freedom:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I have no merit or sin, nor pleasure or pain;
No mantra, pilgrimage, Veda or sacrifice;
Not enjoying, enjoyable, or enjoyer:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I have no death or fear, nodistinction of caste;
Neither father, nor mother, nor do I have birth;
No friend or relation, guru or disciple:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
I am without attributes; I am without form;
I am all-pervading, I am omnipresent;
By senses untouched, neither free, nor knowable:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!
We do not really need to become immortal and eternal, for we are that already. Instead we need to get beyond the illusory consciousness of birth and death, cause and effect, and the entire range of relative existence.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Immortal 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
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