We usually think of delusion and ignorance in terms of ordinary life and its situations. Those who are more occupied with spiritual matters assume that they are beyond ordinary things, but Angiras thinks differently, and so should we.
“Finite and transient are the fruits of sacrificial rites. The deluded, who regard them as the highest good, remain subject to birth and death” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:7. Swami Prabhavananda has omitted verses 1 to 6 of this section as they enumerate various technical aspects of Vedic sacrifices. Verse seven begins the philosophical exposition of the external rites.) Swami Nikhilananda translates a bit more literally: “Frail indeed are those rafts of sacrifices, therefore they are destructible. Fools who rejoice in them as the Highest Good fall victims again and again to old age and death.” “Back they must turn to the mortal pathway, subject still to birth and to dying” (Bhagavad Gita 9:3), says the Gita on the same subject.
Karma and religion
I think just about everybody puts karma into two lumps: Good Karma and Bad Karma. But that is not very satisfactory. Karma, like all of life, has many nuances and can vary greatly. Some karma, for example, creates more karma, and some actually dissolves karma. For example, Sri Ramakrishna said that all spiritual practices are part of Karma Yoga, but they deliver us from karma. There are material, mental, and spiritual karmas. The material and mental karmas impel us to more of the same, whether good or bad. But spiritual karma enables us to rise above the material and mental planes and free ourselves from karmic bondage.
Angiras wants us to understand that religious karma is not always spiritual. This should not surprise us when we can readily see that most religion is based on material goals. Material possessions and temporal happiness just about sums up the motives of all the religions of the world, including that of modern India. As a result, most religious acts culminate in more mental and psychological involvement, not freedom. In the verses omitted by Swami Prabhavananda it is pointed out that most religion creates karma that takes us to heaven and then dumps us back on earth when our merit is used up. So we end back where we started.
Just because a religious act is either directed toward God or offered to God does not mean it will ultimately lead to God. Usually it leads us away from God into the labyrinth of relative existence in some form or other. Since most people have been cultivating a taste for earthly things through life after life, this suits them. But it should gall us, and we should refuse the pursuit and get off the merry-go-round.
So there are aspects of religion we should avoid adamantly. Otherwise: “Living in the abyss of ignorance, yet wise in their own conceit, the deluded go round and round, like the blind led by the blind” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:8). “They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matthew 15:14), said Jesus, surely having this verse in mind.
Swami Gambhirananda’s translation points out a sad aspect of all this: “Remaining within the fold of ignorance, and thinking, ‘We are ourselves wise and learned,’ the fools, while being buffeted very much, ramble about like the blind led by the blind alone.” Buffeted very much. (“Being afflicted by many ills” is the translation of Swami Nikhilananda.) How true. Promising others the cessation of all troubles and sorrows, these religious mountebanks are more afflicted than ordinary people. Whether this is from the negative karma accruing from their dishonesty or a manifestation of their own inner diseases, the result is the same. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption” (II Peter 2:19), as Saint Peter put it.
You have better ways to spend your time, so I will not recount to you the observations of over fifty years in which I have seen such hucksters and their dupes literally undergoing “the sufferings of the damned.” And all the while they denounce those taking another path as deluded and of the devil. Well, as Jesus said: “They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). And they must like it, for they certainly cling to it.
Such is the grave danger of externalized religion.
As I say, they love and cling to their miserable condition. As the upanishad continues: “Living in the abyss of ignorance, the deluded think themselves blest. Attached to works, they know not God. Works lead them only to heaven, whence, to their sorrow, their rewards quickly exhausted, they are flung back to earth” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:9).
Then the heart of the matter is revealed in the next verse: “Considering religion to be observance of rituals and performance of acts of charity, the deluded remain ignorant of the highest good. Having enjoyed in heaven the reward of their good works, they enter again into the world of mortals” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:10).
Rituals of worship and good deeds certainly produce good karma, but that is not the force that lifts us above samsara, the ever-turning wheel of birth and death. If our religion consists only of outer observances it will condition our consciousness even more to identify with the material level of existence. And that identification will be a round-trip ticket for our return to another birth after another death.
Even helping others is spiritually valueless if it is not done with a wider, spiritual perspective. One of the hallmarks of today’s ineffectual religion is its obsessive involvement in social action and reform. When we look at the lives of saints we see they were the most generous of people, even sacrificing themselves for others. But they did these things not as their religion, but as an expression of their love for God and His children–which is the true religion.
We must not “remain ignorant of the highest good,” but must seek that Highest Good within through meditation and the cultivation of spiritual consciousness even outside meditation. Unless we do this we will find ourselves shuttled right back to earth on completion of our good “heaven karma.”
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Wisdom and Truth