In the world we see a prime duality: cause and effect. Yet, we see no cause for the world itself. Inquiry into its cause naturally arises. The lazy and the cowardly insist there is no cause and pursue their exploitation of the world and its inhabitants. The worthy and the bold, however, seek to know. Many are the theories set forth by profound thinkers. But those who have gone beyond thought into pure knowing have unanimously told us of the cause, and in that insight have also come to perfectly understand the effect–the world and all within it.
The Kena Upanishad opens with a question that is answered in the rest of the upanishad: “At whose behest does the mind think? Who bids the body live? Who makes the tongue speak? Who is that effulgent Being that directs the eye to form and color and the ear to sound?” (Kena Upanishad 1:1). Nikhilananda translation: “By whose will directed does the mind proceed to its object? At whose command does the prana, the foremost, do its duty? At whose will do men utter speech? Who is the god that directs the eyes and ears?”
This is one of the few philosophical questions that really matter, for if we come to the wrong conclusion it will cloud, or even distort, our understanding of life. For example, if we say God, or Nature or happenstance is the the answer, we will in essence be saying that we have nothing to do with our existence, that a force far beyond us is making all this occur to us, that we are like seaweed being carried along on the wave of the sea, able to yearn for situations and things but unable to bring anything about. If we believe that if we somehow do the needful, in response God will give us what we want, still it will be his doing and beyond our capacity to accomplish or even hold on to once we have it. This view of ourselves as utterly helpless and therefore utterly insignificant in the vast universe will cripple and frustrate us, distorting us profoundly. You Are Nothing becomes the watchword of our life–a life which bears that maxim out. Hopeless and helpless we drift along, controlled by everything that is other than us. This is truly a living hell.
Into this darkness shines the realization embodied in the upanishads, a realization that we will somehow recognize from deep within us, for that realization is ours on the inmost level of our existence. We do not learn the truth–we recognize it.
All right, then: who makes the mind think, the body live, the faculty of speech to manifest, and causes the senses to operate?
“The Self is ear of the ear, mind of the mind, speech of speech. He is also breath of the breath, and eye of the eye. Having given up the false identification of the Self with the senses and the mind, and knowing the Self to be Brahman, the wise, on departing this life, become immortal” (Kena Upanishad 1:2).
The ear, mind, speech, breath, and eye are only instruments, only messengers. The one who causes them to function, the hearer of hearing, the witness of the mind and thought, the understander of speech, the source of the breath and the seer of seeing, is the Atman, the Self. External experience may be illusory, but if we trace the illusion back to the perceiver of perception we will find the reality that is the Self. In a motion picture we see so many images, so many illusions, but when the picture stops we see the pure white screen that was behind it all the time, without which no picture would have been possible. Such is the Self. Knowing the Self to be none other than Brahman, the Absolute, rebirth is no more.
Swami Prabhavananda has translated the word dhira as “the wise,” but in actuality dhira means those who are steadfast–in this instance those who are firmly established in the practice of yoga and in the realization arising from yoga.
Brahman the inexpressible
Brahman is beyond all sensory perception or intellectual comprehension. Yet we can infer the existence of Brahman by that which It causes to occur, by the consciousness that does perceive and comprehend. So in conclusion the upanishad says this, which really needs little comment:
“Him the eye does not see, nor the tongue express, nor the mind grasp. Him we neither know nor are able to teach.
“Different is he from the known, and different is he from the unknown. So have we heard from the wise.
“That which cannot be expressed in words but by which the tongue speaks know that to be Brahman. Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men.
“That which is not comprehended by the mind but by which the mind comprehends–know that to be Brahman. Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men.
“That which is not seen by the eye but by which the eye sees–know that to be Brahman. Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men.
“That which is not heard by the ear but by which the ear hears–know that to be Brahman. Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men.
“That which is not drawn by the breath but by which the breath is drawn know that to be Brahman. Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men” (Kena Upanishad 1:3-9).
When the upanishad says that we do not know Brahman, it refers to intellectual knowledge. Therefore, as it continues, we cannot “teach” Brahman as an intellectual subject.
When it says that Brahman is different “from the unknown” it is not speaking of Brahman’s unknowability, but rather that Brahman is not an unknown object that in time the intellect will come to know.
The most striking part of this passage is the statement that “Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men.” This presents two significant points. First, that Brahman is not an object, but the Eternal Subject, and consequently cannot be worshiped as an object. Second, “men” cannot relate to Brahman at all, but only those that have passed beyond all relative identity can experience Brahman as their own Self.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Knowing that is Ignorance, and Unknowing That is Knowing
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
Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary