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The Two Selves

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Section 59 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Cross-eyed people see a single object as two. In the same way the ignorant see the One as many. Yet, there is a perverse spiritual cross-eyedness which works just the opposite, making its victims see two as one. This is the disease of half-baked Vedanta that is merely conceptual and not based on the experience that only yoga imparts. There is no such thing as a genuine Vedantist who is not first and foremost a Yogi. The upanishad is now going to give us the right understanding of the Paramatman and the jivatman–the Supreme Self and the individual Self–their unity and their distinction, and their relationship with each other. Here, too, only the yogi will really understand what is being said.

“Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:1). This is a case where the Sanskrit original gives very precise information which is necessary for us to carefully peruse. Otherwise we will miss some remarkable truths.

Three qualities

This verse gives us three words in relation to the two “birds”–the two Selves: suparna, sayuja, and sakhaya. Suparna means intimately related, the idea being that the individual Self and the Cosmic Self exist in an eternal relation. Sayuja means being in a state of union–perpetual union, as Shankara points out in his commentary. A secondary meaning of sayuja is being in the same place–that the two Selves are inseparable, are ever present to one another. According to Shankara, the third expression, sakhaya, means that the two Selves have the identical name or designation, and exist in an identical manner. That is, they possess the same qualities–one in an absolute degree and the other in a limited degree. Sakhaya also means companionship and friendship, indicating the deep personal relation between the jivatman and Paramatman.

The “selfsame tree” is the body–and by extension, the cosmos. The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual, the jiva, “tastes” the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual undergoes experience. The Supreme Self, on the other hand, “tasting of neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes.” God experiences being in all forms and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, as a more literal translation says, He “looks on without eating”–without being affected or conditioned by it. But he does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

The problem and the solution

On the other hand: “The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true Self, and beholds his glory, he grieves no more” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:2). This is quite interpretive, though correctly so. The literal translation of Swami Gambhirananda is: “On the same tree, the individual soul remains drowned, as it were; and so it moans, being worried by its impotence. When it sees thus the other, the adored Lord, and His glory, then it becomes liberated from sorrow.”

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, unsurety, pain, and confusion. Shankara points out that the individual is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness. All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of its being, the very God it has been hitherto worshipping as separate from itself. Experiencing within its own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

The sage elaborates on this, continuing: “When the seer beholds the Effulgent One, the Lord, the Supreme Being, then, transcending both good and evil, and freed from impurities, he unites himself with him” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:3). More literally: “When the seer sees the Purusha–self-effulgent, creator, lord, and source of all [relative existence]–then the illumined one completely shakes off both virtue and vice, becomes taintless, and attains absolute equality [non-duality].” That is, the jiva recognizes that Shiva–the Absolute–is its true nature. Then, no longer bound by “do” and “don’t,” it is able to act according to its essential being. Not that morality will be abandoned, but that there will be no more need to think it “should” or “should not” do something. Rather, it will do the right and perfect thing spontaneously, naturally, as a consequence of its rediscovered divinity. For it will be free from all bonds or compulsions whatever. This is because in the divine vision it has become free from all defects or blemish.

But most important is the trait that is listed last: paramam samyam, supreme sameness, literally, but the meaning is absolute unity–and therefore absolute identify–with the Absolute Itself.

Since the two are really one, the upanishad continues describing both the individual and the infinite Selves, as they partake of one another’s traits. “The Lord is the one life shining forth from every creature. Seeing him present in all, the wise man is humble, puts not himself forward. His delight is in the Self, his joy is in the Self, he serves the Lord in all. Such as he, indeed, are the true knowers of Brahman” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:4).

How to do it

Anyone who ponders these astounding words with intelligence will be eager to attain Brahman, so the sage tells how that is done.

“This Effulgent Self is to be realized within the lotus of the heart by continence, by steadfastness in truth, by meditation, and by superconscious vision. Their impurities washed away, the seers realize him” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:5). This is quite clear, but some precise terms should be considered to put a fine point on the message of this verse. Swami Gambhirananda renders it: “The bright and pure Self within the body, that the monks with attenuated blemishes see, is attainable through truth, concentration, complete knowledge, and continence, practiced constantly.”

The Self within the body. The Self is within the body, therefore it is absurd to disdain the body, and even more absurd to ignore the body and the necessity for its purification and spiritual empowerment. Just forgetting about the material side of things and flying off into pure spirit is an appealing idea, but the problem is, it is mistaken and can never work. However long or short a journey, it always begins right from the point where we are. And at this point we are not only in the body, we are tied into it by a multitude of bonds, bonds that must be dissolved. Our yoga practice must cover this situation.

The prime implication, though, is that since the Self is right here in the body It is not far away. We need not even seek It–just see It.

The monks. The word rather poorly translated as “monk” is yati, which actually means a wanderer. This is because in the ancient times in India the wandering ascetics who moved about teaching dharma were given this title. They were not monks or sannyasis in the later sense. Obviously they were not married, as their mode of life prevented that, and their life was dedicated to spiritual discipline and teaching. Nevertheless, they were not considered outside society as the sadhu is today in India. They were simply those who sacrificed personal life to serve others. It was a noble way of life, but not a separation. The original Christian ascetics were just the same. They wore ordinary clothes and were considered Christian laity. The only distinctive thing about them was their way of life. The men usually lived on the edge of towns, usually as hermits. The women lived together in houses within the town for mutual protection. In the eyes of everyone they were pious bachelors and spinsters, not at all distinct from other Christians in an official sense.

That is the historical background, but what is the meaning for us today? No matter where we might live, or how, we must all be “wanderers” in the spirit, aware with both Saint Paul and Saint Peter that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13; I Peter 2:11). Jesus told someone: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). This is actually the truth about every single sentient being on the earth: there is no place where we can come to rest and be at home, for our nature is Spirit and our home is Infinity.

So the yatis spoken of here are those who have become rootless in relation to this world. Or more to the point, those who have recognized that they have no roots in the world, only in God. (“The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” Galatians 6:14). And so in their hearts they are always on pilgrimage back to the Source, aware that wherever they may be it is only a temporary accommodation on the long journey home–to Brahman.

Attenuated blemishes. The upanishad has a very informative expression: kshinadoshah–those whose mental defects such as anger, etc., have become significantly lessened. Eventually they will be totally eliminated, but even now such persons are capable of the beginning stages of knowing the Self. This is important, because we tend to think that until we are absolutely perfect we cannot know either God or our Self. This is not so. Just as the sky becomes lightened even before the sun appears above the horizon, so it is with those yogis who earnestly strive for realization. The elementary stages of enlightenment dawn for them.

Complete knowledge. Samyag-jnanena, complete insight into the nature of the Self both intellectually and intuitively, also enables us to begin experiencing the realities of the Self. Of course this cannot occur outside of yoga practice that is disciplined and steady.

Practiced constantly. Some translators think this word nityam–perpetual–refers to continence (brahmacharya), but others think it refers to constant and uninterrupted observance of all the virtues and practices listed in this verse. That is logical, because a break in any of these will set back the sadhaka to a significant degree, and in some cases can destroy the possibility of his continuance in sadhana by turning his mind away from the Real to the unreal. This is, however, particularly true about brahmacharya as is seen over and over. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda relates this sad but telling incident:

“A year later [after entering the ashram], Kumar set out for a visit to his childhood home. He ignored the quiet disapproval of Sri Yukteswar, who never authoritatively controlled his disciples’ movements. On the boy’s return to Serampore in a few months, a change was unpleasantly apparent. Gone was the stately Kumar with serenely glowing face. Only an undistinguished peasant stood before us, one who had lately acquired a number of evil habits.

“Master summoned me and brokenheartedly discussed the fact that the boy was now unsuited to the monastic hermitage life.

“‘Mukunda, I will leave it to you to instruct Kumar to leave the ashram tomorrow; I can’t do it!’ Tears stood in Sri Yukteswar’s eyes, but he controlled himself quickly. ‘The boy would never have fallen to these depths had he listened to me and not gone away to mix with undesirable companions. He has rejected my protection; the callous world must be his guru still.’” This narrative is particularly ironic, since “Kumar” means a young male virgin.

Now all this is extremely to the point, with no fudging under the guise of diplomacy or moderation. Perhaps that is why the sage then says to us: “Truth alone succeeds, not untruth. By truthfulness the path of felicity is opened up, the path which is taken by the sages, freed from cravings, and which leads them to truth’s eternal abode” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:6). Once again Swami Gambhirananda helps us understand: “Truth alone wins, and not untruth. By truth is maintained for ever the path called Devayana, by which the desireless seers ascend to where exists the supreme treasure attainable through truth.”

Sri Ramakrishna often said that “God is realized if one holds fast to truth. If there is no strictness in observing truth everything is gradually lost.” As this upanishad says: Satyam eva jayate–truth alone triumphs, both in material and in spiritual life. The path to liberation, Devayana, “the Path of the Shining Ones,” is opened through truth.

Truth in this context has a much higher and wider meaning than mere accuracy or honesty in speech. It means to be a living embodiment of the truth of our Self-nature, and eventually to be a virtual incarnation of the realized Truth: God, “the supreme treasure attainable through truth.”

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The God Within, The Sage Without

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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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