“Lastly, Sukesa approached the sage and said: ‘Holy sir, Hiranyanabha, prince of Kosala, once asked me this question: ““Sukesa, do you know the Self and his sixteen parts?”” I replied, ““I do not. Surely, if I had known them, I should have taught them to you. I will not lie, for he who lies perishes, root and all.”” The prince silently mounted his chariot and went away. So now I ask of thee, Where is the Self?’” (Prashna Upanishad 6:1).
This is an introduction to the actual teachings of this section, but it contains a couple of interesting points.
The Self is said in this verse to have sixteen “parts.” Yet the Self is one, so how can this be? The upanishad is referring to the “extensions” or instruments of the Self by means of which it manifests within relative existence. They will be enumerated shortly.
It is impressive when a spiritual teacher honestly admits to not knowing something. In a filmed interview, Carl Jung was asked what he thought some dream symbol meant. He laughed and said: “I haven’t the faintest idea!” End of question!
Here we see the integrity of Sukesha who readily admitted not knowing the answer to a question. And his reason he gives, saying: “I will not lie, for he who lies perishes, root and all.” Satya–truthfulness–is one of the essential observances of Yoga according to Patanjali, and here we see why. This should be taken to heart by us throughout our life. Sri Ramakrishna said that a person can realize God by scrupulously adhering to truth.
Abode of the Self
Where is the Self? “The sage replied: “My child, within this body dwells the Self, from whom sprang the sixteen parts of the universe; and in this manner they came into being” (Prashna Upanishad 6:2).
How precious, then, is the human body! And how foolish it is to think that spiritual experience will involve escaping from the body and flying off to some spiritual realm to hobnob with angels and masters!
Now he will describe the sequence of cosmic manifestation.
Stabilizing Itself within creation
“If, creating, I enter my creation, the Self reflected, what is there to bind me to it; what is there to go out from it when I go out, to stay within it when I stay?” (Prashna Upanishad 6:3). This is a problem for both the infinite and the finite Selves.
“Pondering thus, and in answer to his thought, he made Prana; and from Prana he made desire; and from desire he made ether, air, fire, water, earth, the senses, the mind, and food; and from food he made vigor, penance, the Vedas, the sacrificial rites, and all the worlds. Thereafter, in the worlds, he created names. And the number of the elements he thus created was sixteen” (Prashna Upanishad 6:4). We need to take this part by part.
Pondering thus, and in answer to his thought, he made…. The world was made by the mere thought of God. As said before, this is the dream of God; it is all creative thought. Merely thinking of something gets us human beings nowhere–we have to bring it into manifestation by action and materials. But this is not the case with God. He thought–and so it was. Consequently, in the following list of cosmic ingredients, we must think of them as cosmic thoughts.
Prana. First the Universal Life Force (vishwaprana) was manifested. This was the formless, basic substance of relative existence.
Desire. Next came the power of intention or aspiration. For unless we are motivated with the idea that something can be attained, we will not act. So the power to desire or will–and thereby to shape and work with the cosmic prana–is absolutely necessary for anything to “happen.” “Desire” is the explanatory translation of Prabhavananda, and I think it is the best one. But the actual word in the Sanskrit is shraddha–faith. This was used, Shankara says, to mean a stimulus to the individual spirits (jivas). That is, subliminally all of us know that we have come from God and are intended to return to God. With this aspiration as the deepest impulse of our being, we are moving up the evolutionary path, ever onward, however many delays our ignorance and laziness may bring about.
Ether, air, fire, water, earth–the great primal elements and all their variations down to their material manifestations.
The senses. Actually, the word is indriyam, which means “organs” and often does mean only the five organs of perception (jnanendriyas): ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose, but Shankara feels (and so do I) that it no doubt includes the five organs of action (karmendriyas): voice, hand, foot, organ of excretion, and the organ of generation. The indriyas are here being thought of as sheaths of the individual consciousness as well as being instruments of bodily function.
Mind. The indriyas are unconscious. That which activates them is the mind which both perceives and acts through them.
Food. By this term is meant all that goes to affect the evolving consciousness, from physical food to psychological and intellectual impressions that shape and move our development either forward or backward, according to their character. That this is so is demonstrated by those things that are said to be made from food:
Vigor. Virya is the strength and energy that manifests in body, mind, and intellect–especially as will power in the yogi.
Penance. Tapasya is practical spiritual disciplines, such as moral observances, self-purification, and the practice of meditation.
Vedas. The word is not Veda, but mantra–words of power which produce changes spiritually, mentally and physically by their repetition. From vigor comes the capacity for spiritual discipline, which is manifested in the form of the repetition (japa) and meditation (dhyana) centered on mantras.
Sacrificial rites. This is not only an interpretive translation, it is a very narrowing one. The actual word is karma–a very wide and far-reaching matter, indeed. Here it means the law of action/reaction which fuels the very existence of the world and our bodies within it. Karma causes the manifestation of the cosmos and impels all sentient beings to take incarnation within it in forms appropriate to their level of consciousness and the nature of their past deeds, both physical and mental. Certainly merit-producing actions are part of karma, but karma is much more.
All the worlds. The many worlds (lokas) are produced in response to the varying degrees of evolution and past karma of the sentient beings within them.
Names. The prime factor in relative existence is nama: name. This seems very peculiar to those whose philosophy does not postulate that everything is ideation–thought. But the primeval sages of India perceived through their meditation that the thoughtform, the idea that is the matrix around which the body-vehicle of any manifested entity forms itself is that entity’s “name.” In the depths of their meditation the sages perceived the primal idea of each thing. Since everything is formed of vibration, they translated that into spoken forms. In all other languages a word is just an agreed-upon symbol of an object, but in Sanskrit each word is a sound-form of the basic energy pattern of the designated object. Sanskrit is a kind of sonic physics–creative speech. For that reason Sanskrit script is call Devanagari–The City of the Gods–meaning that the divine powers manifesting as all objects “dwell” in the Sanskrit words. In the subtle levels of being the Sanskrit word is the thing designated by the word.
These are the sixteen parts of the cosmic and the individual Selves.
The Great Return
“As the flowing rivers, whose destination is the sea, having reached it disappear in it, losing their names and forms, and men speak only of the sea; so these sixteen parts created from out his own being by the Self, the Eternal Seer, having returned to him from whom they came, disappear in him, their destination, losing their names and forms, and people speak only of the Self. Then for man the sixteen parts are no more, and he attains to immortality. Thus was it said of old: ‘The sixteen parts are spokes projecting from the Self, who is the hub of the wheel. The Self is the goal of knowledge. Know him and go beyond death.’” (Prashna Upanishad 6:5, 6).
There is an important principle here: All that exists has emanated from the Cosmic Self and is withdrawn into It–and the same is true of our many levels: they have come from the true “us” and will remerge in us. The idea that the world is to be discarded–escaped from–so we can be free is as illusory as the world from which we wish to rid ourselves. It is ignorance alone that we need to banish. We need to refine all our bodies through the practice of tapasya so they will be seen as nothing more than the projections of our mind–projections that can be reabsorbed in the state of perfect knowing. The macrocosm and the microcosm are both proper to Spirit and spirit. They are not impositions or prisons (though we make them so), but rays of the Self. They exist because we exist.
The only path to the Self is that of knowledge. Once that arises within us, death dissolves and immortality alone remains.
The right ending
“The sage concluded, saying: What I have told you is all that can be said about the Self, the Supreme Brahman. Beyond this there is naught” (Prashna Upanishad 6:7). So anything more we may say, that has not already been said in the upanishads (and the Gita), will really be nothing–worthless and pointless, if not outright self-deception. This merits being taken to heart. We should toss away our books of idle philosophy and speculation and become genuine yogis. Then we will truly know That Which Is To Be Known.
So: “The disciples worshiped the sage, and said: You are indeed our father. You have led us beyond the sea of ignorance. We bow down to all the great seers! Obeisance to the great seers!” (Prashna Upanishad 6.8).
Those who teach us the truth of the Self–and more: the way to realize the Self–they are our true fathers, begetting us in Knowledge. They are worthy of worship (archanam) and all honor. They are the gods that lead us to God.
Namah Paramarishibhyah–Salutations to the Great Rishis!
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Knowing the ALL
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary