This upanishad, the Prashna Upanishad, is called The Question (Prashna) Upanishad because of its format of question and answer throughout. But the first two verses set the stage for the reader, and also indicate what is needed for a successful quest after the knowledge of Brahman–at least that which can be taught and comprehended intellectually.
“Sukesha, Satyakama, Gargya, Kousalya, Bhargava, and Kabandhi, devotees and seekers after the truth of the supreme Brahman, with faith and humility approached the sage Pippalada” (Prashna Upanishad 1:1).
Because it would have no meaning for Western readers, Swami Prabhavananda has omitted the parentage and family ties of these six seekers. Nevertheless, their listing is significant, for a yogi must have psychological ancestors in the form of inner spiritual qualities that will help him to persevere in yoga practice. Besides a good inner background, the upanishad cites four good traits needed by every aspirant to higher evolution: devotion in the sense of dedication, desire to know God, faith, and humility.
Dedication is needful, for it keeps us steady when we encounter snags and obstacles in our path, and it keeps us plodding along in times of dryness and uncertainty. It ensures that we will persevere in our efforts to attain spiritual heights.
It is easy to forget why we originally took up spiritual life and wander into byways of lesser endeavor. This is why many become tangled up in externalities of religion, wrangling over philosophical concepts, and even becoming enamored of control over others under the pretence of religious discipline. As Jesus told Martha: “Thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful” (Luke 10:41, 42). Because of this the upanishad tells us that these wise seekers were intent on a single thing: the truth of the Supreme Brahman. We should aspire to–and settle for–nothing less.
Faith in the form of conviction of the reality of spiritual matters is also a necessity, for who can persevere in search of something about which they have no inner assurance? We need the conviction-faith that God is real and can be known. Saint Paul encapsulated the whole matter when he wrote: “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). An interior knowing that God is real and can be experienced will give us the strength we need to keep on to the Goal.
Humility in the sense of a willingness to listen and learn, aware of all we do not know, is essential. Respect is also implied here. In the East they overdo it to the point of groveling and mindless acceptance, while in the West the casual, one-on-one attitude is exaggerated into overfamiliarity and virtual disrespect. It is amazing how very wise Western ignoramuses consider themselves. As someone once wrote: “The trouble with ignorance is that it gains confidence as it goes along.”
The seeker must be keenly aware that he lacks something–a great deal, in fact–with emphasis on need. He must not forget that seeking implies needing and asking. Those who strut up to a teacher as though they are visiting the zoo will–and should–receive nothing. On the other hand, the seeker should not grovel or be unthinkingly accepting. The student should carefully examine the prospective teacher to see if he is qualified and worth listening to. The worthy teacher will equally carefully examine the prospective student to see if he has the right attitude and is capable of learning and applying what is learned. A dud on either end ruins the equation.
“Said the sage: ‘Practice austerity, continence, faith for a year; then ask what questions you wish. If I can, I will answer’” (Prashna Upanishad 1:2). Now this is the way of a real teacher of Brahmajnana. He tells what they must do and what he will then do.
There is a story told in India of a young man who came to a guru and asked to learn from him. The guru told him what he would have to do to qualify himself. Not very happy with the list, he asked what the guru would do in all that time. When told that the guru would teach him occasionally, as he would deem appropriate, the would-be disciple remarked: “Why don’t you make me a guru, instead; that sounds a lot easier.” Yes, indeed.
Many approach a teacher while living in a fantasy world projected by their over-confident ego. If the teacher is as false as they and conforms to their fantasy, they are happy. But if the teacher is real, and dares to speak to them realistically about the means and the goal, they are most displeased. We are not of this type, hopefully, so let us look at the requirements Pippalada sets forth.
1) Spiritual discipline (tapasya), most particularly the practice of meditation. 2) Control of the senses (brahmacharya), especially continence. 3) Faith in the teaching of the upanishadic sages regarding the Supreme Goal, the possibility of attaining It, and their assertions as to the means of attainment.
These are absolute necessities–and they must be unwaveringly practiced and held to for a significant length of time before the seeker can possibly be mentally and spiritually capable of comprehending the wisdom of the sages. First the students must be qualified, otherwise a qualified teacher will be of no use to them at all.
“Then ask what questions you wish. If I can, I will answer.” This promise contains two major qualities of an authentic spiritual teacher.
First, the teacher will accept and consider whatever the student asks. He will not shrug off even the silliest inquiry, nor will he reject the student’s questioning of the veracity or value of what he believes or teaches. This is one of the most glorious characteristics of the wisdom of the upanishads–it has no fear of honest inquiry and honest doubt. Not being insecure, the teacher of dharma is not disturbed by questioning or statements of disbelief.
A friend of mine told me that she quit being a Christian when, as a teenager, she dared to express doubts to her parish priest. He raved at her and threatened her with hell, saying that to even ask for explanation of “the mysteries” was a sin and an insult to God. So she walked away and never went back. Over sixty years (!) later she came into the orbit of Vedanta, asked all her questions, and received answers that restored her faith in Jesus–but not in Churchianity. In true dharma we find the key to understanding the teachings of all the masters of all the ages. I have found throughout nearly fifty years that the upanishads and the Gita illumine their words to a degree that their professed followers and “isms” cannot even dream of.
Those who would follow Jesus, and Buddha, need to seek out the same source from which they drew their teachings: the upanishads and the Gita. Then they can become their true disciples. The upanishadic wisdom expands their horizons to embrace all truth wherever it may be found. It is true that of late there have arisen bigots in India who speak as hatefully and ignorantly about other religions as those religions speak of others. But they are not true followers of the ancient sages of India, for dharma has no place for hate, ignorance, and sectarianism. As Jesus said: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Second, a worthy teacher will acknowledge that he cannot answer some questions. This is because some things are simply beyond verbal expression. Further, no true teacher is egotistical, therefore he will readily admit it if he feels it is beyond his capacity to explain something–just as we find that sometimes we cannot find a word to express what we know well inwardly. And most of all, a good teacher is willing to admit when he just does not know the answer to something. Only a fool thinks he is omniscient, and only a fake wants others to think he is.
In my encounters with teachers, the person nearest to being all-knowing was Swami Sivananda, and he was known to reply: “I really don’t know” to certain questions. But he certainly knew the way to God, as the lives of his disciples attest. (Sometimes a master does not know the answer to a question because it is trivial and foolish, and his mind is free from triviality and foolishness).
So we have seen the two elements needed for a meaningful exchange of questions and answers: worthy questioners and worthy answerers.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Father and Mother of All