The sense of nonsense
I once read a long and rather tedious essay on Shakespeare’s policy of putting discomfiting truths into the mouths of fools so people could scorn them and not get upset with him for unmasking their folly. It often happens that what people hope is “just fun” or “nonsense” is really insightful commentary on their foibles. This happens very often in poetry, for everybody “knows” we need not take poetry seriously.
Edward Lear, who protected himself by first claiming that he wrote “nonsense verse,” made some profound observations on life. Some of his limericks have a lot to say about how life should be lived. One of his wisest works was a poem entitled “The Jumblies,” in which he tells us at the end of every verse:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
These exotic people went to sea in a sieve. Everyone else said they would drown, considering that a sieve is more holes than anything else. Some even told them that though they might manage, it would be a wrong thing to do. But they did it anyway–excellently and to great profit. Upon their return, all the nay-sayers announced that they, too would go to sea in a sieve. But Lear assures us that still: “Far and few, far and few, are the lands where the Jumblies live.” No; everyone will not be going to sea in a sieve. Just the far and few Jumblies.
Perhaps Lear, as he wrote the poem, thought of the following from the Gospel of Saint Luke: “Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23, 24). This is not a statement of pessimism, but of simple fact. All manage in time, but in dribbles.
Yama has been very encouraging in his exposition of the Self, but now having told of its wonder he enters upon the subject of what is required to know the Self. Actually, the price he presents to us is quite simple and direct. If we are interested, then the price is substantial but not impossible. If we are only window-shoppers, then the price seems unreasonable and beyond payment. Here it is in two verses:
“The Self is not known through study of the scriptures, nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning; but by him who longs for him is he known.’ Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being.”
“By learning, a man cannot know him, if he desist not from evil, if he control not his senses, if he quiet not his mind, and practice not meditation” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:23, 24).
Not through study of the scriptures
Reading the Bhagavad Gita opened to me a world I had never thought could exist. How many wonderful things I found therein! Many were amazing, not the least being the statement: “When the whole country is flooded, the reservoir becomes superfluous. So, to the illumined seer, the Vedas are all superfluous” (Bhagavad Gita 2:46). Here was a scripture that told me I should go beyond it and know for myself–and showed me the way to do that! Sri Ramakrishna often used the simile of a letter. Once you read it and know what it says, what more need do you have for it?
The Self cannot be known through scriptural study, for Krishna tells us that “he who even wishes to know of yoga transcends the Vedic rites” (Bhagavad Gita 6:44). Books are nothing more than paper and ink. Obsession with them is detrimental, proving the truth of the statement that: “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6). We must get behind the words of even illumined masters and tap the Source of those words. There was a rabbi who was a leading authority on the Jerusalem Talmud. When he was asked how he understood it so well, he simply replied: “I know its Source,” God.
Sri Ramakrishna frequently pointed out that almanacs predict rainfall, but you cannot get a drop by squeezing them, however hard. In the same way, intense study of scriptures cannot give a drop of higher spiritual knowledge, for no book can reveal That which lies beyond all we think or know.
Not through subtlety of the intellect
We cannot possibly figure out the nature of anything, much less the Self, by mere intellection. This is not the fault of the mind, any more than it is the fault of a redio that you cannot get television programs through it. There is absolutely no faculty which can perceive or reveal the Self. The Self alone knows Itself. As long as we attempt to perceive the Self through any intermediary, just so long shall we be frustrated–or worse, deluded. There is no instrument, however subtle, no capacity of the mind, however refined, that can reveal the Self. Certainlythe purified intellect (buddhi) can intuit the presence of the Self and even some of its traits, and this is good, but this is not Self-knowledge. Many intelligent people with highly developed intellects mistake this intuition for direct experience and knowledge. This is a subtle trap we must avoid diligently. How could we know if we have fallen into the trap rather than risen into the Light? That actually is easy to determine. If we can talk about what we perceive, and define it, then it is not the Self, but only our approximation. That which lies within the range of speech lies outside the Self. No matter how near we can come to the Self, it is not the same as knowing the Self. For when the Self is revealed, all “knowing” not only ceases, it becomes impossible.
Intelligence should not be confused with intellectuality. Intelligence is a help to the revelation of the Self, but intellectuality is an insurmountable hindrance. That is why Jesus said to God: “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25). To demonstrate this vividly, “Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2, 3). Think how direct and uncomplicated a child’s mind usually is. Also, they are capable of intensely magical/mystical thought. How unquestioning they accept the idea of the miraculous, including the power of the individual–including themselves–to work marvels. How sad that they ever come to “know better” in a wrong way. A friend of mine was watching a television program in which a pianist seemed to be floating in the air and even turning over and over. “How do you suppose they do that?” she mused to herself aloud. Instantly her five-year-old son said: “Easy! There’s a magician hidden in the piano.” And that is so true: there is a magical being hidden in each one of us known as the Self which can do–and does–all things.
Not through much learning
Shankara was the greatest sage of post-Vedic India, commentor on the upanishads, Gita, Yoga Sutras, and Brahma Sutras (Vedanta Sutras) and author of books on Advaita philosophy. Vast as his writings were, he summed up everything that was taught by these holy books, saying:
I shall tell you in half a verse what has been written in tens of millions of books:
Brahman is real. The world is unreal. The jiva [individual spirit] is none other than Brahman.
That is it. So, as I have already mentioned, when the future Swami Turiyananda told Sri Ramakrishna that he studied Vedanta for several hours a day, the great master was astonished. Quoting these words of Shankara, he asked: “How can you spend hours studying something so simple? What more is there to say?” Turiyananda got the idea behind the idea and himself became a knower of the Self.
All the learning in the world is futile in relation to the Self and Brahman, for they lie outside the scope of the intellect. The ear cannot hear color, the eye cannot smell fragrance. No thing can know the Self but the Self.
It can be done
Yama’s words of seeming negation are really quite positive, for he then tells Nachiketa: “But by him who longs for him is he known. Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being.”
This is a remarkable statement. There are no tools or gimmicks that can mechanically lead us to the vision of the Self. Certainly there are methods that aid in our search–that is what yoga is all about. But it is a mistake to think that a technique can be applied like a crowbar to break open the inner treasury and loot the vault, though this is the attitude of most “seekers.” Methods, such as yoga (meditation), worship and good deeds are necessary to successfully prosecute our quest for God. Their function is twofold: they prepare us–make us capable–for the attainment of Self-knowledge, and they are manifestations–evidence, actually–of the genuineness of our aspiration. By engaging in them we live out our intention. The desire for God is the way to God–everything else are aids or expressions, but it is our own divine self-will that accomplishes our liberation. This is very important to understand.
It is commonly said that all religions are valid, that they all led to the same goal. That is true to some degree, but it leaves out the real fact: it is the seeking that brings about the finding. Frankly, it is the seekers who validate the religions, not the other way around. People finding God in all religions is not a statement about the worth of those religions, but a statement about the worth of those people. Sri Ramakrishna attained God-vision through the various religions he practiced and thereby demonstrated their viability as spiritual paths. But he also revealed that it is the nature of the individual to attain that vision whatever the path that is followed. For without that innate capacity what value would the religions have? The jivatman by its nature can know the Paramatman. As the Psalmist said: “Deep calleth unto deep” (Psalms 42:7). Like attracts like; it really does take one to know one.
Swami Prabhavananda notes that an alternate translation can be: “Whom the Self chooses, by him is he attained.” In India they have the saying: “He who chooses God has first been chosen by Him.” Jesus told his disciples: “ Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). The very fact that we are seeking God is guarantee of our finding, for it is an indication that He has called us. And He does not call in vain. Nor do we seek in vain. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7). “Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being.”
Yet there are obstacles to knowing the Self: “By learning, a man cannot know him, if he desist not from evil, if he control not his senses, if he quiet not his mind, and practice not meditation” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:24).
Yama lists mere intellectual study, the heaping up of extraneous “knowledge” which by its character is external and superficial as an obstacle–not so much in itself, but by the illusion of knowledge that arises in the self-satisfied mind of the “knower.” Yama’s assertion shows how mistaken it is to translate swadhyaya (self-study) as “study of scriptures” when we encounter it in the Yoga Sutras.
The Kena Upanishad examines this matter, saying: “He by whom Brahman is not known, knows It; he by whom It is known, knows It not. It is not known by those who know It; It is known by those who do not know It” (Kena Upanishad 2:3). Obviously the word “know” has two meanings here. One is the mere intellection about Brahman, the other is knowledge derived from the direct experience of Brahman, from conscious union with Brahman. There is a knowing that is unknowing and an unknowing that is knowing. That is why Swami Prabhavananda renders the Kena verse: “He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge; he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge.”
Persisting in evil
“The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (II Timothy 2:19). Evil in all forms must be abandoned if the Self, which is all good, is to be known. This should not be hard to understand, but many deny it anyway, or try to skirt around it. Of them Jesus said: “They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16)–a false security that is really “the sleep of death” (Psalms 13:3). But for us who wish to live it is important to determine what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong.
The upanishads present a concept of right and wrong different from that of the world religions, which teach that something is right or wrong because their God or Prophet has said so in their infallible scriptures. “It is in the Bible,” “It is in the ZendAvesta,” “It is in the Koran,” etc. Although the upanishadic sages know that things as good or evil, their basis for the classification is utterly different from that of ordinary religion. they do not look upon a thing as wrong because God or gods have declared it wrong or some lawgiver has prohibited it, or that something is right because they have advocated it. Rather, a thing is good or evil according to its innate character. The perspective of true religion (dharma) is this: “If it takes you toward the Goal it is good. If it takes you away from the Goal it is evil.” That which darkens, obscures, or limits our consciousness is bad. That which lights, clears, and expands our consciousness is good. That which helps in the search for God is good; that which hinders or delays it is not.
We all know people who declare that their addictions and illusions either do not hurt them or even are good for them. Very well; they have their reward. But the intelligent do not engage in such childish rationalization. They impartially examine and conclude accordingly. It is all a matter of the individual’s interest and honesty. In other words, it is all in our hands–as are all the aspects of our life if we face up to it. Those who wish to pursue dharma should judge for themselves on the basis of the foregoing principles. Before we can become gods we must first be truly human, and human beings use their intelligent reason. The upanishadic teachers, like God, leave everyone free to be wise or foolish. Dharma never condemns or praises. It just waits to be fulfilled.
Lack of sense control
The senses must be controlled, but we usually mistake the way to do so. The upanishads use the simile of horses pulling a chariot, and we mistake that, too, thinking it a symbol of incredible forces to be overcome. But we need not think of it so drastically. Before you control a horse, you tame it. So before we control the senses we tame them through purification. Sadhana is the only way. Meditation alone purifies in a lasting manner. At the same time we purify the senses by directing them Godward. We make the eyes look at sacred symbols or depictions, the ears to hear the words of sacred texts and sacred music, the nose to smell the offered incense, the tongue to taste the food blessed by offering and prayer, and the inner sense of touch to feel the exalted atmosphere created by worship and contact with the holy. The good news is that we need not struggle with the senses, but turn them in spiritual directions.
Restlessness of mind
Restlessness of mind is itself great suffering. Yama says that a quiet mind is indispensable to self-knowledge. Here is what Krishna has to say about it:
“If a yogi has perfect control over his mind, and struggles continually in this way to unite himself with Brahman, he will come at last to the crowning peace of Nirvana, the peace that is in me” (Bhagavad Gita 6:15).
“When can a man be said to have achieved union with Brahman? When his mind is under perfect control and freed from all desires, so that he becomes absorbed in the Atman, and nothing else. ‘The light of a lamp does not flicker in a windless place’: that is the simile which describes a yogi of one-pointed mind, who meditates upon the Atman. When, through the practice of yoga, the mind ceases its restless movements, and becomes still, he realizes the Atman. It satisfies him entirely. Then he knows that infinite happiness which can be realized by the purified heart but is beyond the grasp of the senses. He stands firm in this realization. Because of it, he can never again wander from the inmost truth of his being” (Bhagavad Gita 6:18-21).
Can anyone say more than that?
“Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness?” (Bhagavad Gita 2:66). The sine qua non of self-knowledge is meditation. The Self is ever-present but we do not perceive it because our vision is obscured by the illusion known as Maya. After describing the method of meditation, Krishna says: “If he practices meditation in this manner, his heart will become pure” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12). and the Self will become literally self-evident. In conclusion he remarks: “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).
The Self can be known by those who truly desire to know. And that true desire manifests through desisting from evil, controlling of the senses, quieting (restraining) the mind, and practicing meditation. This is the real Formula For Success.
Again: “The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (II Timothy 2:19).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The All-Consuming 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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