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The Ladder of Understanding

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Section 67 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Life is change; nothing ever stands still. When you do find something that is without any kind of change, then that thing is dead–including a lot of religion. A worthy spiritual aspirant is steady and unwavering in his aspiration and his endeavor, but he is always changing, for he is ever learning. He continually sees things either differently or better than before. To show us this, the upanishad is giving the account of Bhrigu’s search for knowledge of Brahman. In the Gita (10:25) Krishna says: “Among the great sages I am Bhrigu,” so this is a very important teaching that is being given us.

Know Brahman…

“Bhrigu, respectfully approaching his father Varuna, said: ‘Sir, teach me Brahman.’ Varuna explained to him the physical sheath and the vital sheath and the functions of the senses, and added: ‘He from whom all beings are born, in whom they live, being born, and to whom at death they return–seek to know him. He is Brahman.’” (Taittiriya 3.1.1).

It is absolutely necessary to know the territory in any endeavor, whatever its kind. If equipment is involved, we must know and understand it thoroughly. This is why Oriental religions are so intent on the makeup of the human being. First we have to be a conscious human before we can move on to the next level of evolution. Therefore Varuna taught Bhrigu about the gross and subtle bodies, pointing out to him that all these have proceeded from Brahman–are reflections of Brahman–and that dealing with them is dealing with Brahman in manifestation. Brahman is the totality of all being.

Gambhirananda gives a better version of the latter part of this verse: “Crave to know that from which all these beings take birth, that by which the live after being born, that towards which they move and into which they merge. That is Brahman.” The first point is that we should not just seek to know Brahman, we must crave to know It–there must be an intense hunger, a sense of absolute necessity, a life-and-death attitude behind us. For that is the fuel which propels us onward to realization. At the same time, we are not going against the current, but cooperating with the Eternal Flow, for all beings move toward Brahman through the many stages of evolution, and eventually merge into Brahman. This is the only natural mode of life, the only way of life which puts an end to all suffering and brings supreme fulfillment.


“Bhrigu practiced austerity and meditation. Then it seemed to him that food was Brahman. For of food all beings are born, by food they are sustained, being born, and into food they enter after death. This knowledge, however, did not satisfy him. He again approached his father Varuna and said: “Sir, teach me Brahman.” Varuna replied: ‘Seek to know Brahman by meditation. Meditation is Brahman.’” (Taittiriya 3.2.1).

Bhrigu was highly intelligent, so his concept of food was not just what humans eat to stay alive. Rather, as in the teachings of the Prashna Upanishad, food is emblematic of anything that sustains or is assimilated to the evolving organism and the inner consciousness. But even that did not satisfy him, for it was too here-and-now while Reality is mostly transcendent. Varuna opened new vistas for him by saying that Tapasya is Brahman. In A Brief Sanskrit Glossary we find this definition: “Tapasya: Austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline; spiritual force. Literally it means the generation of heat or energy, but is always used in a symbolic manner, referring to spiritual practice and its effect, especially the roasting of karmic seeds, the burning up of karma.”

Who else but Brahman can incinerate the seeds of karma? Although tapasya includes specific methods of spiritual practice, ultimately it is the power of release, of transmutation into Perfect Being. So tapasya in the highest sense is the active power of Brahman that IS Brahman bringing about liberation (moksha). Tapasya is Brahman within us. This should be the yogi’s constant perspective. But tapasya is the means, not the end, so the search continues. It is necessary to realize this, for some people meditate a bit, get a little experience, and think they are enlightened and know the mysteries of the universe. But, like Bhrigu, we must never be satisfied. Sri Ramakrishna told the following parable:

“Once upon a time a wood-cutter went into a forest to cut wood. Suddenly he came upon a Brahmachari [a monk]. The Brahmachari told him, ‘My good man, go forward.’ The wood-cutter upon returning home began to think, ‘Why did the Brahmachari tell me to go forward?’

“A few days passed. One day as he was sitting idly the words of the Brahmachari came to mind. Then he said to himself, ‘Today I will go further forward.’ Going into the forest and moving deeper he discovered innumerable sandalwood trees. He felt happy and brought back cartloads of sandalwood. And selling them in the market he became a rich man.

“A few days passed and he remembered again that the Brahmachari had said, ‘Go forward.’ He returned to the forest and advancing deeper discovered a silver mine near a river. He had not even dreamt of it. Then he only mined silver and selling it made heaps of money.

“A few more days passed. And one day he thought, ‘The Brahmachari did not tell me to go up to the silver mine alone. He told me to go forward.’ This time going across the river he discovered a gold mine. Then he thought, ‘Ah! That’s why the Brahmachari asked me to go forward.’

“Again a few days afterwards, he advanced further and saw heaps of diamonds and other gems. Then he became prosperous like the god of wealth himself.

“Therefore I say whatever you may do you will find better things if you go forward. Do not think that you have achieved all that is there because you felt a little inspired. If you go still further you will find God.”

Primal Energy–Prana

“Bhrigu practiced meditation and learned that primal energy is Brahman. For from primal energy all beings are born, by primal energy they are sustained, being born, and into primal energy they enter after death. But Bhrigu was still doubtful about his knowledge. So he approached his father again and said: ‘Sir, teach me Brahman.’ Varuna replied: ‘Seek to know Brahman by meditation. Meditation is Brahman.’” (Taittiriya 3.3.1).

The word here translated “primal energy” is really Prana. Prana as used in this verse means the Vishwaprana, the universal life force that makes all things live. It is energy, but that particular energy that manifests as living things as well as the power of life itself.


“Bhrigu practiced meditation and learned that mind is Brahman. For from mind all beings are born, by mind they are sustained, being born, and into mind they enter after death. Still doubtful, he approached his father and said: ‘Sir, teach me Brahman.’ His father replied: ‘Seek to know Brahman by meditation. Meditation is Brahman.’” (Taittiriya 3.4.1).

The word translated “mind” is manas(a), which means the mind of the senses, that which perceives the message of the senses. It is like the screen on which images are projected. For this reason it is very easy to confuse the mind with consciousness–indeed with the Self. But that is not so.


“Bhrigu practiced meditation and learned that intellect is Brahman. For from intellect all beings are born, by intellect they are sustained, being born, and into intellect they enter after death. Not yet satisfied, doubting his understanding, Bhrigu approached his father and said: ‘Sir, teach me Brahman.’ Varuna replied: ‘Seek to know Brahman by meditation. Meditation is Brahman.’” (Taittiriya 3.5.1).

The word translated “intellect” is vijnana. This is one of those instances in which the Sanskrit has more than one meaning, and they are all intended. First, vijnana means the buddhi, the intellect, which is superior to the manas, the merely sensory mind. The buddhi is the intelligent, thinking mind, the faculty that hopefully marks humans out from lesser evolved life-forms. Since the cosmos is Intelligence, it is easy to equate the buddhi with that; but it is not so. The other meaning of vijnana is supreme knowledge, supreme wisdom, and supreme realization: the knowing that transcends mere intellectual knowing. It is the direct intuitive knowing of the spirit. This is so exalted that no one can be faulted for assuming it is the highest. But it is not, so:


“Bhrigu practiced meditation and learned that joy is Brahman. For from joy all beings are born, by joy they are sustained, being born, and into joy they enter after death. This is the wisdom which Bhrigu, taught by Varuna, attained within his heart. He who attains this wisdom wins glory, grows rich, enjoys health and fame” (Taittiriya 3.6.1).

Ananda is the word translated here as “joy.” Ananda means bliss, supreme happiness, joy, and delight. It is a very dynamic experience, for Brahman is defined as bliss (ananda). So to experience this supreme bliss (Paramananda) is to be united with Brahman, for Brahman is that bliss.

Some reflections

This account of Bhrigu’s ascent to Brahman-knowledge has some very instructive points. First, no one needed to tell Bhrigu that he had not really found Brahman–his meditation-produced intuition told him that. So he was not deluded by any experience he had; rather, the experience led him onward of itself. Of course, all along he was intuiting Brahman, but only partially, and he knew that. And he knew when he finally had attained to complete realization, Purnananda, the Perfect (Total) Bliss. Equally important is the fact that Varuna never comments on Bhrigu’s experience or conclusions, but just keeps telling him to engage in tapasya. This is the way of the true masters. They do not waste the aspirants’ time with hours and hours of theoretical philosophy, but urge them to find out the truth for themselves through the practice of yoga. This is the glory of yoga: it will reveal everything in time. It must also not be overlooked that perfection in yoga brings about abundance in this world as well. Many are the yogis who live simply and frugally, but that is their choice–the treasurehouse of the world is open to them.

Final teachings

Swami Prabhavananda skips some verses that are little more than a tedious recap of the “food” part that has gone before and comes directly to the meaningful verses at the very end:

“Brahman is to be meditated upon as the source of all thought and life and action” (Taittiriya 3.10.2). We must know that Brahman is ALL.

“He is the splendor in wealth, he is the light in the stars. He is all things. Let a man meditate upon Brahman as support, and he will be supported. Let him meditate upon Brahman as greatness, and he will be great. Let him meditate upon Brahman as mind, and he will be endowed with intellectual power. Let him meditate upon Brahman as adoration, and he will be adored. Let him worship Brahman as Brahman, and he will become Brahman. He who is the Self in man, and he who is the Self in the sun, are one” (Taittiriya 3.10.3. 4). To know Brahman is to know our Self as well, enabling us to exclaim: “I am that Self! I am life immortal! I overcome the world–I who am endowed with golden effulgence! Those who know me achieve Reality” (Taittiriya 3.10.6). Anyone who knows who a realized person is knows himself also. This is the true value of meeting those who are liberated–it furthers our own liberation.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for ChristiansThe Worlds and the Self

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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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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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