The Two Ways
Yama, the King of Death, praises Nachiketa, saying: “Far from each other, and leading to different ends, are ignorance and knowledge. Thee, O Nachiketa, I regard as one who aspires after knowledge, for a multitude of pleasant objects were unable to tempt thee” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:4).
It is interesting to note that the concept of Two Ways of human life are to be found in all religious traditions. Jesus spoke of the Broad Way and the Strait Way, and when they met in Jerusalem and issued a joint spiritual letter–The Didache, usually called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles–his apostles began by saying there are two Ways in this world. Long before that, the Katha Upanishad spoke of the Way of Ignorance and the Way of Knowledge.
The Way of Ignorance is the subject of the three verses we will be considering, but first Yama tells us the key trait of one who aspires to knowledge: he cannot be tempted by the pleasant. This is because he sees its nature and its results. The pursuers of the Way of Ignorance are not such as Nachiketa, and Yama now tells us about them and the results of their walking in that Way.
The Way of Folly
“Living in the abyss of ignorance yet wise in their own conceit, deluded fools go round and round, the blind led by the blind” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:5). That certainly is plain speaking! Let us go through this verse bit by bit.
Living in the abyss of ignorance. This word “abyss” is very disturbing in this context. It indicates that the condition of ignorance is profound–not something than can easily be removed or escaped. Rather, the person is sunk deep into the darkness of ignorance, so deep that he cannot see anything but darkness, so deep that he can hardly be extricated from it–at least in this life. It is not that his condition is utterly hopeless, but that he simply has neither awareness nor interest. If that dawns, he is on his way out of the abyss. But most of the time it does not happen. In a routine of the Firesign Theatre, a disease is described with the concluding words: “the only cure for which is death.” In many (actually most) cases of abysmal ignorance this is the truth. The individual requires another birth before he can arise from the depths. Until then he should be left alone.
Yet wise in their own conceit. Somewhere I once read the words: “The problem with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along.” Since ignorance is a by-product of ego, as ignorance increases so does egotism. Increasing in this alternating cycle, invincible arrogance and invincible ignorance arise, take hold and consume the ignorant person. This is really an ugly picture; but an accurate one. Thinking themselves wise, how can the ignorant ever see the truth about themselves–both the higher and the lower selves–and try to rectify themselves? They cannot. Not content to revel in their private kingdom of ignorance, they then set about to aggressively expand it through influence of others. And if they cannot influence they will dominate and bully until they have extended their sphere of darkness. Again: ugly but accurate. Living in the fantasy-land of ego, they sink deeper, believing that they are rising.
Deluded fools go round and round. Cycling in confusion, the foolish spiral downward, seeming to go up and down but really only going down and down. In their minds they veer back and forth, up and down, agitating themselves and others, but in actuality they just keep on sinking. Because of this they continually go round and round in the wheel of birth and death, perpetually bound to the torture wheel of samsara–and reveling in every moment. They have discovered the secret of false happiness in this world: unconsciousness.
The blind led by the blind. Ignorance as well as misery loves company, in fact needs it desperately and thrives on it. Supporting each other they stumble through this world until death claims them and they get to do it all over–and over and over. When they are not being the leader and the led, they are the pusher and the pushed, the dominating and the dominated, the victimizer and the victim–alternating in these two roles, they reel onward and downward.
Blind to eternity
“To the thoughtless youth, deceived by the vanity of earthly possessions, the path that leads to the eternal abode is not revealed. This world alone is real; there is no hereafter–thinking thus, he falls again and again, birth after birth, into my jaws” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:6).
Rendered heedless of the truth about his condition through involvement with materiality–both his body and objects in the world–and deluded by what he thinks is going on, the ignorant never sees the way beyond the abyss in which he dwells. He simply cannot see it, just as we cannot hear frequencies beyond the range of our hearing or see things beyond the range of our sight. He is deaf and blind to spirit in all its aspects. Even if by some chance he should seek the way, if he finds it he will not know it, nor if he come face to face with the way will he realize it. Just the opposite. He will despise and deny it, even denouncing it as delusive or evil. On the other hand, he will exult in devilish religion, teachers, and practices, seeking them out and devoting himself to them. Let me give two examples I know of personally.
A great master living in the West used to plead with a young man to learn meditation, assuring him that his progress would be rapid and he would be liberated in this life. But he did not heed the master’s urging. When the master was about to leave his body he told his disciples that if the man ever came to the ashram and expressed an interest, one of them was to instruct him in meditation immediately. A dozen or so years later one of the biggest frauds the Western yoga world has ever produced came to town charging money for a worthless technique. The man was in poor financial condition, and could not really afford it, but he immediately slapped down the cash and got initiated into nothing.
Two Buddhist friends of mine visit a prison and instruct the inmates in Buddhist philosophy and spiritual practice. They are practicers of the Pure Land School of Buddhism. Whenever they try to get the prisoners to chant the liberating name of Amida Buddha they refuse and insist that they chant “power mantras” instead. They love bondage and lust after control. They belong where they are.
“This world alone is real; there is no hereafter” is thought by many of the foolish, but there are many more who do not actually think it but live as though they did. Denial of spiritual realities is done more by deeds than by words. It does not matter how devoutly or spiritually we may think, if we live carelessly and materially, as centered on our ego as any ignoramus we would regard as “unspiritual.”
This is the real test. Thinking the material world alone is real, the ignorant return to it again and again, living in the jaws of death. If we do the same, then we are fools. If we do not, then we are wise.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Mystery of 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
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