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Necessary Lessons

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Section 64 of the Upanishads for Awakening


All sentient beings–not just humans–seek for security, for safety. “Shelter” means a lot more than a place out of the rain. It is commonly said that there is safety in numbers, but that is not true. There is only one assurance of safety, and the next verse expresses it rightly: “May truth protect me, may it protect my teacher, may it protect us both. May glory come to us both. May the light of Brahman shine in us both” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:1:1, 1:3:1).

Satyam means truth, both relative and absolute, truthfulness, and Brahman Who is The Truth. Obviously, this verse is referring mostly to Brahman, but simple truth in the sense of accuracy and honesty is also implied. If Truth is possessed by both student and teacher, then it only follows that renown (yashah) and the splendor of Brahman (Brahma-varchasam) will accrue to them as well.

A lesson on Om

“Thou art Brahman, one with the syllable Om, which is in all scriptures–the supreme syllable, the mother of all sound. Do thou strengthen me with true wisdom. May I, O Lord, realize the Immortal. May my body be strong and whole; may my tongue be sweet; may my ears hear only praise of thee. The syllable Om is verily thine image. Through this syllable thou mayest be attained. Thou art beyond the grasp of the intellect. Vouchsafe that I forget not what I have learned in the scriptures” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:4:1).

This verse and those following are addressed to the Infinite, to Brahman, but there is a purpose for opening with a declaration that Brahman and Om are the same: what is going to be petitioned for can be attained through the japa and meditation of Om. We should look at these verses in that context.

Thou art Brahman, one with the syllable Om, which is in all scriptures–the supreme syllable, the mother of all sound. The more literal description is: “The Om that is the most exalted in the Vedas, that pervades all words, and that emerged from the immortal Vedas as their quintessence.” Om is the crown jewel of the Vedas–which includes the upanishads. All sound, including humans speech, is contained in Om–is actually a variation of the root-sound (mula shabda) that is Om. All words, then, are permutations of Om. This indicates that the faculty of speech is the supreme faculty in human beings, the one that most directly links them to their Divine Source–that actually Om IS their Source. The quintessence of the Vedas is the Divine Vision which is their very basis. And Om is identical to that Illumination. No wonder, then, that Patanjali tells us that the japa and meditation of Om is the way to the highest realization. (Yoga Sutras 1:28).

Do thou strengthen me with true wisdom. True wisdom is knowledge of the True (Sat), the knowledge of God. Nothing can impart such knowledge but God.

May I, O Lord, realize the Immortal. Swami Gambhirananda renders this phrase: “May I be the receptacle of immortality.” We can become vessels of immortality, of Brahman.

May my body be strong and whole; may my tongue be sweet; may my ears hear only praise of thee. Through spiritual realization our external, material life becomes spiritually glorified.

The syllable Om is verily thine image. Through this syllable thou mayest be attained. There is no need for comment on this–what we need is experience of its truth through our own spiritual practice.

Thou art beyond the grasp of the intellect. Vouchsafe that I forget not what I have learned in the scriptures. Since the nature of Brahman is beyond conception and words, it is only natural that we keep forgetting the Truth of It, just as Arjuna kept forgetting the true nature of Krishna. Since right now we are not consciously established in the Being of Brahman, the fact keeps slipping away from us. For that reason we need to set the scriptural statements regarding Brahman most firmly in our minds. For the moment, at least, we need to let the sacred texts “remember” for us.

“Thou art the source of all happiness and of all prosperity. Do thou come to me as the goddess of prosperity and shower thy blessings upon me. May the seekers after truth gather round me, may they come from everywhere, that I may teach them thy word” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:4:2). Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, is, like all the other “gods,” a symbol of the divine power–in her case, the power of abundance. As we see here, there is no fault in the yogi aspiring to material fulfillment so he can have his mind free to be fixed on the awareness of God. It is noteworthy that it is not only lawful to desire material welfare, we should also desire to impart to worthy souls around us the truth of “Thy Word”–the teachings of the upanishads. We should all to some extent be yogacharyas–teachers of yoga. We must share our spiritual wealth with others. “Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

“May I be a glory among men. May I be richer than the richest. May I enter into thee, O Lord; and mayest thou reveal thyself unto me. Purified am I by thy touch, O Lord of manifold forms. Thou art the refuge of those who surrender themselves to thee. Reveal thyself to me. Make me thine own. I take my refuge in thee” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:4:3). This says a lot:

May I be a glory among men. This is not a bid for fame as some translators think. As Swami Prabhavananda understands, our desire must be to manifest glorious humanity on our way to divinity. Even if no one knows we exist, we can still through our sadhana be “a glory among men.” That is a worthy ambition, realized through Yoga.

May I be richer than the richest. This is done by possessing everything in Infinite Consciousness. What is mere money–or even a mere universe–in comparison to that? Brahman is Infinite Consciousness.

May I enter into thee, O Lord; and mayest thou reveal thyself unto me. “O Adorable One, may I enter into Thee. O Venerable One, enter into me.” This is Gambhirananda’s rendering. This is the great “Meeting of the Twain.” We unite with Brahman and Brahman unites with us.

Purified am I by thy touch, O Lord of manifold forms. Just a touch of Divine Consciousness purifies us profoundly, and those who continually touch Brahman become as pure as Brahman and enter into permanent union with Brahman.

Thou art the refuge of those who surrender themselves to thee. Through Ishwarapranidhana, the offering of ourselves to God, we attain Eternal Refuge.

Reveal thyself to me. In meditation Brahman will reveal Itself to the faithful yogi.

Make me thine own. By ending all separation from Thee.
I take my refuge in thee. By holding on to the awareness of Brahman we enter into Life Itself.

A lesson on Brahman

Now Brahman is addressed in words of those that have crossed the sea of samsara and entered the harbor of the Supreme Self. Rather than obscure them with comments, I will give them just as they are for your inspiration.

“Thou art the Lord, immortal, self-luminous, and of golden effulgence, within the lotus of every heart. Within the heart art thou revealed to those that seek thee” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:6:1).

“He who dwells in thee becomes king over himself. He controls his wandering thoughts. He becomes master of his speech and of all his organs of sense. He becomes master of his intellect. Thou art Brahman, whose form is invisible, like ether; whose Self is truth. Thou art perfect peace and immortality, the solace of life, the delight of the mind. May I worship thee!” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:6:2).

“Om is Brahman. Om is all. He who meditates on Om attains to Brahman” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.8.1).

“Having attained to Brahman, a sage declared: “I am life. My glory is like the mountain peak. I am established in the purity of Brahman. I have attained the freedom of the Self. I am Brahman, self-luminous, the brightest treasure. I am endowed with wisdom. I am immortal, imperishable” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.10.1).

A lesson on learning

To conclude the first part (adhyaya) of the upanishad, we are given a four-verse exhortation to a student who is departing from the teacher’s house after the completion of his study. It is fitting for all who are involved in the world or society to any degree to take these words to heart. For without them we will lose our way, however much we may have read and learned.

“Let your conduct be marked by right action, including study and teaching of the scriptures; by truthfulness in word, deed, and thought; by self-denial and the practice of austerity; by poise and self-control; by performance of the everyday duties of life with a cheerful heart and an unattached mind.

“Speak the truth. Do your duty. Do not neglect the study of the scriptures. Do not cut the thread of progeny. Swerve not from truth. Deviate not from the path of good. Revere greatness” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:11:1).

If we seriously intend to get anywhere in spiritual life, these principles will guarantee our success–as surely as their neglect or omission will guarantee our failure. Spiritual life is not a lark or a bit of spice to add to life. And absolutely it is not some emollient to make a negative and foolish life somehow tolerable. Many years ago at the beginning of the yoga boom sparked off by the Beatles I began outlining a book to be called Is Yoga For You? My intention was to warn people away from wasting their time with yoga if they intended to live a life incompatible with yoga’s fundamental character. But I soon realized that it would be a waste of time to write a book for spiritual idlers and dabblers who really would not care whether they succeeded or failed–they just wanted a diversion and something to impress others with, a topic for conversation. But now is the time for the facts to be set forth. I hope the authority of the upanishads will carry sufficient weight.

Let your conduct be marked by right action. There could be many lists of what constitutes right action, but the best is that of Patanjali the master yogi:

1) Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness.

2) Satya: truthfulness, honesty.

3) Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness.

4) Brahmacharya: sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses.

5) Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness.

6) Shaucha: purity, cleanliness.

7) Santosha: contentment, peacefulness.

8) Tapas: austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline.

9) Swadhyaya: introspective self-study, spiritual study.

10) Ishwarapranidhana: offering of one’s life to God.

Ahimsa involves gentleness, kindness, mercy, and abstinence from taking life–a matter that necessitates a vegetarian diet. Ishwarapranidhana is not just some noble or sentimental vowing of our life to God, but a very real and practical manner of ordering our life so that every moment brings us closer to God-realization, to union with God.

Including study and teaching of the scriptures. Being justly weary of being beaten over the head by “The Word of God,” both Westerners and Middle-Easterners naturally shy away from the idea of scriptural authority, whether the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran. Because of this they misunderstand the very motivation behind reverence for scriptures in the East. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism do not respect their spiritual texts because of who has spoken them or written them down. Rather, the value of the scriptures rest solely upon their practical value–nothing else. For them, a principle is not true just because it is written in a holy book, rather it was written in the holy book because it was the truth–truth that can be put to the test and demonstrated to be true. For example, water is not hydrogen and oxygen because a science book says so; the book says so because it is true. The only reason those who follow Eastern religions quote scriptures is because they say it so well–often much clearer than they could on our own.

The upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita are masterpieces of concise expression. Worlds of meaning often lie within a single phrase, even a single word. The bottom line is this: their teachings WORK. For thousands of years multitudes have proven in their own life that their principles have practical value. And so can we. It is also our duty to teach what we know to others who are sincere and qualified. Whether by informal conversation, giving of books to read, or formal instruction, we must help others as we have been helped.

By truthfulness in word, deed, and thought. It is so important to realize that truth is not a verbal formula, but a way of life, a state of mind. We must live truthfully. Since God is the ultimate truth, we must live godly.

By self-denial. Here, too, the East means something totally different from the negative “mortification” of Western religion that is nothing more than an expression of self-loathing, a declaration of human “vileness” rather than the divine nature the Orientals know to be the truth of ourselves. In the East, “self-denial” means discipline and control of the egoic impulses to indulgence and laziness. It means not slipping into the morass of sensuality and selfishness. Basically it is ignoring the false ego to foster the true Self, the Spirit.

And the practice of austerity. This is not “mortification” or “penance” either. Tapasya is any practice which rouses up and expresses our inner virtue, which clears the way for the revelation of our divine nature. It is not self-denial in the Western sense, it is Self-affirmation through spiritual practices that produce results in freeing us from ignorance and limitation.

By poise and self-control. I cannot recall ever hearing anyone exhort someone to cultivate dignity, we are so obsessed with the “plain folks” syndrome that we equate with democracy. How it can be considered a compliment to refer to someone as being “comfortable as an old shoe” is quite beyond me–perhaps an indication of my Eastern samskaras. The sadhaka should have dignity and even an intelligent reserve in dealing with others. This should arise from respect, both for himself and for others. We need not be artificial and put on airs, acting like “Lady Bottomley’s plush horse” (a favorite expression of my father), but we should act with self-respect and awareness. (It was called “circumspection” in a more sensible era.) Anyway, you get the idea.

By performance of the everyday duties of life with a cheerful heart and an unattached mind. This is possible only for a yogi. Cheerfulness is a natural side-effect of valid yoga practice. When you see a “yogi” that is not happy and optimistic, then either the yoga is no good or it is not being practiced. I am not speaking of the manic behavior of some “yogis” that were either cracked before they started yoga or the yoga cracked them. (I am referring to those that laugh raucously at the slightest expression of humor, or grin/smile all the time no matter what. These are the “yoga clowns,” the “bliss bunnies,” whose motto seems to be “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.” I heard of a man who once remarked to some of these yoga-hebephrenics: “You know, the way you all smile all the time is spooky.” When they responded by grinning all the more he insisted: “No, I mean it–IT IS REALLY SPOOKY!”) As they say: spot the looney.

Yoga promotes cheerfulness, but so does “an unattached mind”–it may be the major factor. As the Gita says: “He puts aside desire, offering the act to Brahman. The lotus leaf rests unwetted on water: he rests on action, untouched by action” (Bhagavad Gita 5:10).

Speak the truth. This is not easy, especially since you have to first know the truth. Patanjali claims that a person who speaks absolute truth at absolutely all times will find that whatever he says will come to be. This is discussed more fully in The Foundations of Yoga. Here is an example from the first chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi:

“Another early recollection is outstanding; and literally so, for I bear the scar to this day. My elder sister Uma and I were seated in the early morning under a neem tree in our Gorakhpur compound. She was helping me with a Bengali primer, what time I could spare my gaze from the near-by parrots eating ripe margosa fruit. Uma complained of a boil on her leg, and fetched a jar of ointment. I smeared a bit of the salve on my forearm.

“‘Why do you use medicine on a healthy arm?’

“‘Well, Sis, I feel I am going to have a boil tomorrow. I am testing your ointment on the spot where the boil will appear.’

“‘You little liar!’

“‘Sis, don’t call me a liar until you see what happens in the morning.’ Indignation filled me.

“Uma was unimpressed, and thrice repeated her taunt. An adamant resolution sounded in my voice as I made slow reply.

“‘By the power of will in me, I say that tomorrow I shall have a fairly large boil in this exact place on my arm; and your boil shall swell to twice its present size!’

“Morning found me with a stalwart boil on the indicated spot; the dimensions of Uma’s boil had doubled. With a shriek, my sister rushed to Mother. ‘Mukunda has become a necromancer!’ Gravely, Mother instructed me never to use the power of words for doing harm. I have always remembered her counsel, and followed it.

“My boil was surgically treated. A noticeable scar, left by the doctor’s incision, is present today. On my right forearm is a constant reminder of the power in man’s sheer word.

“Those simple and apparently harmless phrases to Uma, spoken with deep concentration, had possessed sufficient hidden force to explode like bombs and produce definite, though injurious, effects. I understood, later, that the explosive vibratory power in speech could be wisely directed to free one’s life from difficulties, and thus operate without scar or rebuke.”

Do your duty. Dharma–here translated “duty”–is the way of life in accordance with the deep wellsprings of our personality–karma and samskaras. These comprise our fundamental nature, our prakriti. Through our personal dharma, our swadharma, we most quickly unfold our inner potential and stimulate our spiritual consciousness. It is so much more than a mere observance of right and wrong, do and don’t. So important is dharma, that the Gita tells us: “It is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to assume the duties of another person, however successfully. Prefer to die doing your own duty: the duty of another will bring you into great spiritual danger” (Bhagavad Gita 3:35). This is obviously a very serious matter

Do not neglect the study of the scriptures. This is not just a helpful hint, it is a major spiritual principle. True dharma is a lifelong study, and dharma is perfectly expressed in the eleven major upanishads (the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, and Svetashvatara Upanishads), the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras (Yoga Darshana), the Brahma Sutras, and the commentaries on them by Shankara. The Gita should be a daily study of the sadhaka as it contains the essence of all the others in a most practical and easily understood manner. For centuries many spiritual teachers in India have required their students to study the Gita daily. Much of the gross misunderstanding of Hinduism, and Advaita in particular, would be eliminated if the Gita were carefully studied and applied throughout the aspirant’s life.

Do not cut the thread of progeny. This does not mean to not kill our children! Spiritual progeny or parentage is being spoken of here. We must not cut the thread of our spiritual inheritance by snapping our spiritual connection with those that have gone before us by not applying their wisdom in our lives, or by cutting the thread by neglecting to teach others the same wisdom we have learned.

Swerve not from truth. Patanjali says that the need for absolute truthfulness is “not conditioned by class, place, time or occasion, and extending to all stages.” One sign of a sociopath is the belief that he is not bound by the rules but is a law unto himself. There are a lot of spiritual sociopaths, but we cannot be one and survive spiritually. That is why the next counsel is:

Deviate not from the path of good. “The good” is learned by studying the scriptures and associating with the good–the godly. As Davey Crockett said: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

Revere greatness. Only those who can give respect–even reverence–are worthy of respect; only those who bow can rise. Those who cannot see greatness in others have no greatness in themselves. As the saying goes: “Mediocrity recognizes nothing above itself.” The capacity to perceive, value, and honor virtue, wisdom and holiness in another person is an essential ingredient in spiritual life. This is why those religions that open the way to liberation have great veneration for saint and masters, in contrast to the “bow down and worship me” religions that can only guarantee earthly rebirth whatever their claims and promises may be. (The more they boast, the less they have.) The lives, teachings, and images of holy beings should fill our homes, keeping us aware that the ideals of spiritual life are attainable for us, too.

A lesson on respect

“Let your mother be a god to you; let your father be a god to you; let your teacher be a god to you; let your guest also be a god to you. Do only such actions as are blameless. Always show reverence to the great” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:11:2). The last two sentences have really been just covered, so we will look at the earlier ones.

First, the word translated “god” is deva. Here is the definition given in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary: “Deva: ‘A shining one,’ a god–greater or lesser in the evolutionary hierarchy; a semi-divine or celestial being with great powers, and therefore a ‘god.’ Sometimes called a demi-god. Devas are the demigods presiding over various powers of material and psychic nature.” As you see, deva in no ways means God–Ishwara, Bhagavan, or Brahman. It is indefensible to cite this verse in an attempt to coerce innocent people into worshipping some guru as God.

The meaning is as clear as it is simple. We should revere our mother, father, teacher (acharya), and even our guests as citizens of higher worlds. We need not be blind to their defects, for the gods have defects, also–otherwise they would be free souls and not gods at all. We should do our best to accommodate these earthly gods and to care for them with all love and solicitude. Here, too, exaggeration is not intended. If our parents tell us to commit wrong or damage or neglect our spiritual life we should ignore it, but as much as is sensible we should defer to them in a reasonable manner. This is dharma.

There are many who do good grudgingly as though taking bitter medicine, or with a kind of weary “after all it’s my duty” attitude. Many treat the objects of their care or charity in a rude and contemptuous manner or adopt the attitude of an exasperated adult toward a worrisome or recalcitrant child. This is not dharma. So the upanishad continues: “Whatever you give to others, give with love and respect. Gifts must be given in abundance, with joy, humility, and compassion” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:11:3). This is a high ideal, but I have seen it done in both America and India by Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. All it requires is a pure heart free from ego and selfishness. One time In Varanasi I saw two people feeding hundreds of poor people. At the end of the meal, each person was given money and clothing. As they left, they walked by the benefactors who saluted each one with folded hands, saying “Thank you” to each of them. They understood: by letting them give in charity, those poor people were enabling them to create good karma for the future.

A lesson on right conduct

Anyone who has a developed conscience is concerned about accurately determining what right conduct really is. So the upanishad tells us: “If at any time there is any doubt with regard to right conduct, follow the practice of great souls, who are guileless, of good judgment, and devoted to truth. Thus conduct yourself always. This is the injunction, this is the teaching, and this is the command of the scriptures” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1:11:4). Scriptures are important, but they are sometimes abstract, whereas the lives of saints show us exactly how things should be done. If we can have access to a living saint who will advise us, then we are most fortunate. But if not, we should seek out and read the lives of saints of all traditions and learn how to live. Often we may not at all care for the formal theology of a particular saint’s religious tradition, but his life transcends such things and shows how to live in a divine manner. (Do not forget: many saints have been persecuted by their own religion–even martyred. So we need not accept the religion when we honor the saint.) “Guileless, of good judgment, and devoted to truth”–such are the saints. And so should we be.

Those who learn and follow these lessons given us in the upanishad shall be wise indeed.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Source and the Goal

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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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