“Brahman is supreme; he is self-luminous, he is beyond all thought. Subtler than the subtlest is he, farther than the farthest, nearer than the nearest. He resides in the lotus of the heart of every being” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:7).
This is the great mystery of the Divine. It is subtle beyond subtlety, yet exists equally in the most tangible. God is utterly beyond us, and yet nearer to us than can be expressed. This latter fact is a foundation-stone of spiritual life. The more we can turn inward, the deeper we can penetrate into our own essential being, the closer we will come to God. Yoga is an absolute necessity. Though Prabhavananda uses the expression “lotus of the heart,” the Sanskrit text has guhayam–“in the cave,” referring to the absolute core of our being.
“The eyes do not see him, speech cannot utter him, the senses cannot reach him. He is to be attained neither by austerity nor by sacrificial rites. When through discrimination the heart has become pure, then, in meditation, the Impersonal Self is revealed” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:8). No action or feeling or ideas can reveal God to us. But when the heart has become purified by the spiritual insight that only meditation can produce, then in meditation itself God is revealed. For: “The subtle Self within the living and breathing body is realized in that pure consciousness wherein is no duality–that consciousness by which the heart beats and the senses perform their office” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:9). Meditation is the beginning, middle, and end of spiritual life. There is a remarkable statement made here–that the same consciousness which even now causes the body, senses, and mind to function is the same consciousness in which the Divine Vision takes place. So we need not try to turn ourselves into something other than what we are. We need only use it to free ourselves into Spirit. For that which binds also frees. This is the unique understanding of the ancient sages of the East, an understanding needed by the whole world.
The West may have no history of such great wisdom, but we have a little platitude that can say much: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” As yogis we should keep this principle ever in mind. The results of our yoga practice reveal its character, relevance, and value. The yogi should be thoroughly pragmatic. “What is this doing for me?” should be the constant inquiry regarding his sadhana. That this is not inappropriate is shown by the last verse in this section: “Whether of heaven, or of heavenly enjoyments, whether of desires, or of objects of desire, whatever thought arises in the heart of the sage is fulfilled. Therefore let him who seeks his own good revere and worship the sage” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:10).
This tells us two things. First, whatever the liberated sage thinks of, wills, or desires, that comes about. Examples of this are given in Autobiography of a Yogi, and manifested all through Yogananda’s life, especially toward its end, as seen in Paramahansa Yogananda: In Memoriam. The life of Sri Ramakrishna also demonstrates this. Second, those that seek their highest good–Self-realization–should reverence and honor the atmajnanam, the one who knows the Self. This is very important. The upanishad is not counseling us to make a god of a master or to substitute a Brahmajnani for God. When we want to learn something we go to an expert. In the same way, those seeking the knowledge of God should seek out the teachings of great masters of past and present. If very fortunate, the seeker will meet such a person in the flesh and have personal interchange with him. The mere presence of such a great soul can transform our thinking and awaken our consciousness.
If we follow the instructions of an enlightened person regarding our inner development we will come to the exact same state of consciousness revealed in him. Remember, true masters never die. They can bless and guide those who approach them in their hearts. Often this is sufficient for the seeker, and can be much safer than following a physically embodied teacher, for often sentimentality and emotional projection completely blind the seeker to the reality/unreality of the teacher. I have known gurus whose presence was astounding, even supernatural, but after their physical death they vanished from the earth plane, leaving their followers empty. But I also have known teachers who became more intimately present to seekers after their physical form had departed, proving themselves to truly be one with the Immortal and Omnipresent. Those who meditate can attune themselves to such masters and benefit from their very real presence.
How can we tell a true master? A true master keeps pointing their students away from themselves to God, the only Goal. And a true disciple is one who goes to God instead of making an idol or fetish of the guru. Anyone silly enough can be a brainwashed groupie, but the wise heed the teacher’s message and go on to God. As Buddha said, a worthy teacher or teaching is like a finger pointing at the moon. The idea is to see the moon–not the finger. Nevertheless, the sage can be a very meaningful factor in our spiritual life, so the upanishad continues with more information for us.
“The sage knows Brahman, the support of all, the pure effulgent being in whom is contained the universe. They who worship the sage, and do so without thought of self, cross the boundary of birth and death” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:1). Here are two more principles: A sage is one who knows Brahman in the absolute sense, and those who honor them without any personal desire for benefit or gain from them will break the ties of earthly rebirth.
This second part gives us a picture of real disciples or students who will attain spiritual benefit from a teacher: they have no egocentric or personal desire coloring the way they relate to the teacher. Their only interest is in the Self. They are not looking for a teacher to give them power or a reputation for having the best guru–glory through association is of no interest to them. Nor are they wanting the guru to become a substitute for an unsatisfactory parent, friend, spouse, or lover. They do not want a personal relationship with the guru to either possess the guru or be possessed by the guru. They are not looking for some kind of fulfillment in a relationship with the teacher, but only fulfillment in the Self. Swami Bimalananda, a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, once told us in a conversation that those who lived in the ashram-headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship just for the personality of Yogananda eventually left the ashram as well as the spiritual life, but those who came for God remained steadfast in both. I think we can conclude that real disciples are as rare as real gurus. The upanishad is not talking to spiritual fool-arounds, but to the worthy, those who wish, in the actual words of the upanishad, to “transcend the seed of human birth”–the ego.
Two kinds of seekers
Since the sage Angiras has put so much emphasis on the value of approaching and reverencing a master-teacher, he now digresses a bit to point out what makes the student succeed or fail in spiritual life.
“He who, brooding upon sense objects, comes to yearn for them, is born here and there, again and again, driven by his desire. But he who has realized the Self, and thus satisfied all hunger, attains to liberation even in this life” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:2). The Sanskrit implies that those in the grip of desire are born where the objects of desire are to be found, and bring the desire for them along. It does not say that the objects are obtained, however, and we see that this is a continual torment for human beings–wanting something but not able to get it. To be in such a situation will only condition the mind more and more toward grasping at the things desired. After who knows how long, the object is then gotten and either lost, or in danger of loss, or proves to be disappointing or misery-producing. Such is the dilemma of those who desire.
There is no use asking silly questions like: “How do I kill desire?” or: “How do I get rid of the ego?” You do not kill desire or discard the ego, for that is a negative approach that by its nature will not work. Rather you take the positive approach: “I shall realize the Self.” For realization of the Self alone can quench all desire and dissolve the ego. Until then we ignore the clamor of desires, disregard the demands of the ego, and single-mindedly go after the Self. Along the way the desires will begin dropping away of themselves, and the ego, starved of attention, will become less and less until desires and ego are simply gone forever. It may not be easy, but it is marvelously simple.
“The Self is not to be 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” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:3).
Anyone who has travelled this far through the upanishads is very well acquainted with the fact that the Self is not to be known through the usual avenues of human knowledge. What is striking is the literal meaning of the next phrase: “By the very fact that he [the aspirant] seeks for It, does It become attainable.” The desire for God is the way to God since the desire will prompt us to action, not just mere wishing. No one seeks for God who is not already able to find God, for it is the very nearness of God that prompts his seeking. Seeking God is a guarantee, a symptom, of sure attainment. It is also the thing which enables the Self to reveal Itself to him.
“The Self is not to be known by the weak, nor by the thoughtless, nor by those who do not rightly meditate. But by the rightly meditative, the thoughtful, and the strong, he is fully known” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:4). Too many meanings are being missed by this translation. Here it is literally: “This Self is not attained by one devoid of strength, nor through delusion produced by false experience, nor through tapasya devoid of corresponding externals. But the Self of the man of knowledge who strives with diligence through these means [strength, clarity of sight and mind, and a life ordered in conformity to tapasya] enters the abode of Brahman.” There is a lot to think over here.
The plain truths
Those devoid of the strength imparted by the strict observance of yama and niyama cannot possibly know the Self. Both yama and niyama should be listed here for our most serious consideration. Yama (Restraint) consists of ahimsa (non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness), satya (truthfulness, honesty–i.e., non-lying), asteya (non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness), brahmacharya (sexual continence and control of all the senses), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness). Niyama (Observance) consists of shaucha (purity, cleanliness), santosha (contentment, peacefulness), tapas (austerity, practical–i.e., result-producing–spiritual discipline), swadhyaya (self-study, spiritual study), and Ishwarapranidhana (offering of one’s life to God).
A great deal of people, including yogis, are simply deluded, mostly because they follow false teachings and teachers whose errors actively harm them or cause them to stagnate spiritually. No matter how dedicated they may be, or even how disciplined, they cannot know the Self because their intellects are confused and distorted–especially by their aberrant meditation practices. Lucky are those “yoga duds” who merely vegetate. But neither reach the Goal.
It is utterly useless to engage in meditation without making the life correspond to the sole purpose of meditation: liberation of the spirit. Yoga has been propagated here in the West for a little over a hundred years, and see how little good and how much devastation and delusion has resulted. The reason is supremely simple: yama and niyama are not followed, and in many instances the fake gurus actually tell their dupes that yama and niyama are unnecessary. I cannot calculate how many tangled-minded “yogis” have boasted to me that they do not need to be vegetarians. If a survey is taken of almost any yoga group, over half will be living together “in a relationship” without being married, and those who are married have no idea of the need for brahmacharya in marriage except for the conception of children–and even then, not unrestrained. Sri Ramakrishna said that after the birth of two children the parents should live in chastity. In my commentary on the Gita I wrote the following that is most relevant here:
“The Dharma Shastras which describe the correct life of non-monastics are quite explicit about the need for husband and wife to lead lives of continence. See how the yogi parents of Paramhansa Yogananda lived it as presented in Autobiography of a Yogi. In the very first chapter we find: ‘Mother made a remarkable admission to my eldest sister Roma: “Your father and myself live together as man and wife only once a year, for the purpose of having children.”’ The fact that Yogananda, a devoted son and a pure-hearted yogi, would reveal this to the world in the pages of a book show how necessary he felt it was for both Eastern and Western readers to be shown the standard of chastity that yogis should observe in their life, not using their non-monastic status as excuse for lesser behavior. He underlined this later in the forty-fourth chapter, giving these words written to Mahatma Gandhi by his wife Kasturbai: ‘I thank you for the most perfect marriage in the world, based on brahmacharya and not on sex.’ Please note that these are examples of married yogis, not monks imposing their ideas on others. Also remember that the guru of Yogananda’s parents was himself a married yogi, so there is no monastic influence in their case.”
I really have no hope that the foregoing will provoke anything but sullen resentment, but it still has to be said in case some do want to reach the Goal whatever the price. The other aspects of yama and niyama are also important, but these two shoals have wrecked many a yogi of East and West.
“But the Self of the man of knowledge who strives with diligence through these means”–strength, clarity of sight and mind, and a life ordered in conformity to tapasya–“enters the abode of Brahman.”
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Hail To the Sages!