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Getting in Perspective

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Section 56 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Many things are needed in spiritual endeavor, but none more important than an overview, a perspective, on the values of life itself. This is true for everyone, so the sage now speaks of it in a spiritual context.

“Let a man devoted to spiritual life examine carefully the ephemeral nature of such enjoyment, whether here or hereafter, as may be won by good works, and so realize that it is not by works that one gains the Eternal. Let him give no thought to transient things, but, absorbed in meditation, let him renounce the world. If he would know the Eternal, let him humbly approach a Guru devoted to Brahman and well-versed in the scriptures” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:12).

This certainly needs to be looked at bit by bit.

Let a man devoted to spiritual life examine carefully the ephemeral nature of such enjoyment, whether here or hereafter, as may be won by good works, and so realize that it is not by works that one gains the Eternal. Back in high school I came across an eighteenth-century collection of humor and satire. I have forgotten most of it, but there was one story about a man who fell in love with a woman he often saw at the theater. That was when all lighting came from candles, and in that light she looked stunningly beautiful. He got the courage to ask her if he could visit her at home in the daytime. She agreed, and in the daylight he saw that she was horrible-looking, incredibly old, wore a wig and loads of make-up. He fell out of love instantly! It is the same with this and all other worlds and the enjoyments they offer in return for good karma. It is all deathly illusion. What we need is the light of spiritual day.

Seeing the world clearly is the only lasting antidote for the poison of worldliness. First we approach the matter intellectually. Just the fact of inevitable death should begin to turn us from attachment, and the fact that nothing lasts should seal our disillusionment. Yet, old habits do indeed die hard, and there is no habit as strongly entrenched as attraction to the world and its promises. So discipline is needed.

Let him give no thought to transient things. The wise aspirant must exert his will and refuse to even give a thought to the “good things” offered by the world, things that will melt away in time, and that often prove to be anything but good. Look at those who have worldly success. Misery and confusion is their daily bread, but those who envy them are convinced that they have found the way to happiness. We must in contrast refuse to even look at the mirages held out to us by the world and our own habit-deluded mind. How will we cure the mind of its awful addictions? By being…

Absorbed in meditation. For meditation cures the fevers of the mind and heart and dispels the hallucinations produced by illusions and desires. The only way to be absorbed in meditation is to be constantly cultivating interior consciousness even outside of meditation. Our whole life must become a meditation process.

Let him renounce the world. The Sanskrit word nirvedam does not really mean renunciation, though many translators use that term. Actually, nirvedam means being indifferent, not being influenced or moved by something–in this case the world and its ways. It is an inner state, a condition of the mind very akin to the non-arising (nirodha) of mental reactions (vrittih) spoken about in the Yoga Sutras as being the state of yoga. “When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future” (Bhagavad Gita 2:52). And consequently you will be indifferent to the actions that produce those results as well as the world-stage on which their dramas are enacted. None of this occurs just for the asking or wishing, so Angiras give us practical advice:

If he would know the Eternal, let him humbly approach a Guru devoted to Brahman and well-versed in the scriptures. The ideal of the upanishads often differs from that of later Indian thought which often is not based on wisdom but on whimsy and theatrical effect. Today there is a lot of talk about how how wonderful is the teacher one who is ignorant of the scriptures, but who has spiritual knowledge. This is silly. First of all, a scholar can tell you what the great masters of the spiritual life taught in the scriptures, and you can learn from them just as you would if they were still on earth. You cannot get spirituality from books, it is true, but you can get spiritual instruction that will lead to the acquisition of spirituality. On the other hand, what kind of a person, supposedly intent on gaining spiritual knowledge, will choose to remain ignorant? Consider Sri Ramana Maharshi. He had no interest in academic matters, but after going to Arunachala and attaining realization he became a living library of countless spiritual texts, having read widely in several languages. So the upanishadic sage tells us that a worthy teacher has a thorough knowledge of the holy writings and is also Brahmanishtham–established in the experiential knowledge of Brahman.

Such a teacher is rare, but we should accept no lesser teacher. If we find such a one we must learn all we can and then apply it. If we cannot find one, then we should diligently study the words of realized masters and follow them. The Mahayana Buddhists say a very wonderful thing: Whenever someone resolves to seek enlightenment a host of buddhas and bodhisattwas immediately become aware of it and begin blessing and guiding him. Real masters never die, so we can become their disciples no matter how long ago they lived in a physical body. This is especially true of three great masters who both teach and save even now: Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus. One who sincerely, with right intention, takes refuge in them and prays for guidance will find they respond. Such a one will need to act on what he already knows if he hopes to gain further understanding. And if he is wise he will assiduously avoid all those who claim to be their representatives or intermediaries.

“To a disciple who approaches reverently, who is tranquil and self-controlled, the wise teacher gives that knowledge, faithfully and without stint, by which is known the truly existing, the changeless Self” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:13). By these words we know the qualified student and the qualified teacher. When the two come together the result is Perfect Knowing.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Origin and Return

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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