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Sanatana Dharma, Part One: Basic Hindu Religious Ideas

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The One Existence

“One only, without a second” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1). Thus all the Shrutis proclaim. Infinite, Absolute, Eternal, Changeless, the All, is THAT, without attributes, without qualities, beyond name and form: Nirguna Brahman.

“Then was not non-existence nor existence… THAT only breathed by its own nature: apart from THAT was naught” (Rig Veda 10.129.1-2). It contains all, therefore can no particular thing be said of It. It is all, therefore can no one thing alone be ascribed to It. It is not Being only, for that would exclude Non-Being; but Being arises in It, and Non-Being is also there. “When no darkness (was), then (there was) not day nor night, nor being nor not-being, (but) the Blessed alone” (Shwetashwatara Upanishad 4:18). The same upanishad (5:1) says: “In the imperishable infinite supreme Brahman knowledge and ignorance are hidden.” “It is,” (Katha Upanishad 2.3.12)–such is all that can be said.

When Nachiketa presses Yama, Lord of Death, to reveal to him the supreme secret, and when Yama has admitted that he is worthy to hear it, Nachiketa prays: “Other than dharma and adharma, other than action and inaction, other than past and present, THAT which you see, THAT declare” (Katha Upanishad 1.2.14). And Yama answers: “THAT which all the Vedas declare, THAT which all austerities utter, THAT, desiring which men lead the life of brahmacharya, that I tell you” (Katha Upanishad 1.2.15-16).

This unity, which never appears but which is, is implied in the very existence of universes and systems and worlds and individuals. It is not only recognized in all religion, but also in all philosophy and in all science as a fundamental necessity. Endless disputes and controversies have arisen about It, but none has denied It. Many names have been used to describe It, and It has been left unnamed; but all rest upon It. It has been called the All and the Nothing, the Fullness and the Void, Absolute Motion and Absolute Rest, the Real, the Essence. All are true, yet none fully true. And ever the words of the sages remain as the best conclusion: Neti; neti. “Not this, not this”(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6. Sometimes rendered “Not this, not that.”).

Words seem to put far off and to veil in mystery THAT which is in truth nearest and closest, nay, which is more than close, is our very Self. One name, perhaps, speaks most clearly, the Paramatman, the Supreme Self.

The jivatman, the individual Self

And within THAT the jivatman, the individual Self lives and evolves. “This atman (is) Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad 2). Such is the truth declared over and over again, insisted on in various forms lest it should not be grasped. “As by knowing one clod of clay all clay is known, as by knowing one piece of gold all gold is known, as by knowing one piece of iron all iron is known, no matter by what number of names men may call the objects made of clay, or gold, or iron; so to know one’s Self is to know The Self, and knowing It, all is known “(Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.4-6). 

Moreover, as is said in the Chandogya Upanishad: “All this verily (is) Brahman” (3.14.1). “This” is the technical word for the universe, and the universe is Brahman, because “therefrom it is born, thereinto it is merged, thereby it is maintained.” All that we see around us comes forth from that Fullness and is as the shadow of that Substance. And yet, as the upanishad declares, we need not go far to seek: “This my Self within the heart, this (is) Brahman” (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.4).

It is not necessary for a student to try to grasp metaphysically this great truth, nor to grapple with the questions that spring up in the thoughtful mind when it is stated. It is enough that he should know that this truth is recognized in some shape or another by all thoughtful men, that it is the foundation of all right thought, and later may be known to himself by deeper study. It is enough for the present–in the case of most, at least–if he try to feel the unity as a center of peace and a bond of fellowship with all. It is the Heart of the universe, equally in all and therefore in himself; and this may be felt before it is understood intellectually.

This knowledge is the paravidya, the supreme wisdom, and it is to be gained by purity, devotion, self-sacrifice and knowledge. “(He who) has not renounced evil ways, nor (is) subdued, nor concentrated, nor (of) subdued mind, even by knowledge he may not obtain It” (Katha Upanishad 1.2.24). “Nor is the atman obtained by the strengthless, nor by the careless, nor without marks of austerity: the wise, who strives by these means, of him the atman enters the abode of Brahman” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.4).

Here is the Supreme Peace, the Nirvana of Brahman. “The seers whose evils have been annihilated, whose doubts have been dispelled, whose inner being is mastered, who rejoice in the welfare of all beings, attain Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:25). Of such a one, says Sri Krishna: “He attains peace” (Bhagavad Gita 5:29).

Unity in duality-Duality in unity

But now we read: “Verily, O Satyakama, this is the Supreme and the Lower Brahman” (Prashna Upanishad 5:2). And again: “There are two states of Brahman, with form and without form–formless; changing and unchanging; finite and infinite; existent and beyond [existence]” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.1). This second, lower, with form, changing, finite, existent Brahman is not “another,” but is Brahman conditioned–and therefore limited, manifesting–and therefore Saguna, with attributes.

The Rigveda, in the hymn before quoted, declares this arising of a seeming duality in the Absolute: “By the great power of tapas uprose The One” (10.129.3). Again, the Wise are asked: “What was that One, who, in the form of the Unborn, has established these six regions?” (Rigveda 1.164.6).

The One: that is His Name, for That wherein He arises is numberless, beyond number, and being the All is neither one nor many. Manu describes that arising in stately slokas: “This was in the form of darkness, unknown, without marks (or homogeneous), unattainable by reasoning, unknowable, wholly, as it were, in sleep. Then the Self-existent, the Lord, unmanifest but making manifest, This–the great elements and the rest–appeared with mighty power, dispeller of darkness. He who can be grasped by that which is beyond the senses, subtle, unmanifest, ancient, containing all beings, inconceivable, even He Himself shone forth. That unmanifest cause, everlasting, in nature Sat and Asat, that produced the purusha famed in the world as Brahma” (Manu Smriti 1.5-7, 11).

“This” is the universe, but here in darkness, i.e., in the unmanifested condition, as Mulaprakriti, the Root of matter, “unknowable.” This becomes manifest only when the Swayambhu, the Self-Existent, shines forth. The emergence is simultaneous; for He cannot become manifest save by clothing Himself in This, and This cannot become manifest save as illumined, ensouled, by Him. This Two-in-One, by nature Sat and Asat [“Being and non-being am I,” (Bhagavad Gita 9:19)], the Self and the Not-Self, Purusha and Prakriti, everlasting but appearing and disappearing, is the cause of all things. “When He has shone forth, all shines forth after (Him); (by) the shining forth of Him all This shines forth” (Katha Upanishad 2.2.15).

Satchidananda Brahman

We have seen that He is the Saguna Brahman, and He is declared to be in His own nature Sat, Chit, Ananda (Satchidananda), Pure Being, Pure Intelligence, Pure Bliss. He is called Akshara, the Indestructible One, on whom the other–Prakriti–is woven; He is the Atmantaryamyamrita [Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.7-8], the Self, the Inner Ruler, Immortal, who dwells in the earth, the waters, the fire, the atmosphere, the wind, the heavens, in all that is, in the devas, in the elements, in the bodies of all beings, the all-pervading.

“Unseen He sees, unheard He hears, unthought of He thinks, unknown He knows. None other than He is the Seer, none other than He is the Hearer, none other than He is the Thinker, none other than He is the Knower. He is the Self, the Inner Ruler, Immortal. That which is other [than This] perishes” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.1, 23).

He is “the Self abiding in the heart of all beings” (Bhagavad Gita 10:20). This is the clearest idea to grasp. The conditioned Brahman is the Self-conscious Universal Ego as against the Non-Ego, Spirit as against matter, the “I” everywhere, always and in all things, identical in nature with the Nirguna Brahman, but manifested, with qualities, and always united to mulaprakriti.

In the language of symbols, so largely employed by the Sanatana Dharma, Ishwara is represented by a triangle pointing upwards, the triangle symbolizing His triple nature, Sat, Chit, Ananda.

Triangle with Sat Chit Ananda

We see this–especially when interlaced with a second downward-pointing triangle, which will presently be explained–in many temples.

This idea of the eternal Subject, the Spirit, the Self, the “I,” being firmly grasped, the student must next seek to grasp the eternal Object, matter, mulaprakriti, the Not-Self, the Not-I.

We have already seen in the Manu Smriti that, in the unmanifested state, this is homogeneous and unknowable; it is therefore often compared with the ether, formless but the root of all forms, intangible but the root of all substances. Its inherent nature is divisibility, as that of the eternal Subject is inseparateness; it is multiplicity, as He is unity. While He is the Father, the Life-Giver, she is the Mother, the Nourisher. Matter is the womb in which the germ is placed.

“For me great Brahma is the womb, and in that do I place the egg [seed]. The origination of all beings comes from that” (Bhagavad Gita 14:3)–explained by Shankara as the prakriti of three gunas.

The three gunas

We must pause for a moment on the three gunas, for an understanding of them is necessary for any clear conception of the working of nature: Prakriti.

First, what “they” are not. The gunas are not effects, but inherent qualities. They are not matter. The creation is not made of three basic “substances” or materials that are the gunas. Nor are they mere qualities or characteristics inherent in the basic “material” of creation. Rather, they are modes of manifestation within the basic energy/vibration of the creation, which at all times is Consciousness. They are really aspects of the dream of the Cosmic Dreamer in the sense that they are three modes of the apparent “behavior” of the Cosmic Energy, the Cosmic Vibration, of which creation is formed. Tamas, rajas and sattwa are not things or superficial appearances: they are three modes of energy behavior which the basic energy of the creation can take on temporarily–but which itself never is fundamentally or permanently behaving in that manner or quality.

With that in mind we can now consider what “they” are. Everything in the universe is vibrating, magnetic energy that interacts in and upon itself. When the energy of something within creation is heavy, unyielding and unresponsive–basically resistant to any change whatsoever, even if it is eventually forced into change–it is tamasic. If it is always moving, always changing, alway in flux and agitation it is rajasic. If it is to a degree fluidic yet coherent and stable and capable of many variations, yet never unstable or unsure, it is sattwic.

Tamas and rajas cannot be changed, except perhaps to some limited degree or extent. Sattwa is stable yet responsive to outer influence of a sufficient degree and is therefore malleable but not unstable or uncontrollable as rajas. Sattwa alone responds. Tamas and rajas never vary and never fundamentally change and therefore never respond in any significant degree to outside influence or pressure.

The conscious energy of the creation can take on these three modes of behavior while remaining absolutely unchanged in its eternal nature. This is possible because the creation is a dream, a thought, a wave in the Cosmic Mind. It is a very real Illusion, the Dreamer alone being Real. It is easier for a yogi to grasp this since he is used to experiencing his subtle energy makeup which to some extent is an inner reflection of the creation outside him.

These gunas are named: Tamas, Rajas and Sattwa. Tamas–often translated darkness or foulness, the effect of tamasic predominance being taken as the guna itself–is resistance, stability, what is called in science the inertia of matter. All matter is fundamentally and always resistant; it resists. Its capacity for taking form is due to this constituent. Rajas is motion, the capacity of every particle to change its place, and the necessity of so changing it unless prevented; in scientific phrase this is motion, inherent in matter. Sattwa is rhythm, the limiting of movement to an equal distance in an equal time on each side of a fixed point, the power and necessity of what is, in scientific phrase, vibration. Hence every particle of matter has resistance, motion, and rhythm.

When the equilibrium of the three is disturbed by the breath of Ishwara, these three gunas at once manifest: tamas appearing as inertia, resistances, rajas throwing every particle of the resistant mass into active movement, thus producing what is called chaos; and sattwa imposing rhythm on the movement of each particle, each thus becoming a vibrating, i.e. a regularly moving, particle capable of entering into relations with the surrounding particles. All the qualities found in matter arise from the interaction of these three gunas, their endless permutations and combinations producing the endless variety of attributes found in the universe. The predominance of tamas in a body made up of countless particles gives rigidity, immovability, such as is seen in stones and other things that do not move of themselves. The predominance of rajas in a body gives unregulated hasty movements, restlessness, excess of activity. The predominance of sattwa gives harmony, controlled rhythmical movements, order, beauty. But in the most immovable stone, the minute particles are in a state of unceasing vibration, from the presence of rajas and sattwa; in the most restless animal there is stability of material and vibration of particles from the presence of tamas and sattwa; and in the most harmonious and controlled man there is stability of material and movement from the presence of tamas and rajas.

As the triple nature of Ishwara, Sat-Chit-Ananda, was symbolically represented by a triangle pointing upwards, like a flame, so is the triple nature of mulaprakriti symbolized as a triangle, but now it points downwards, like a drop of water.

triangle with Sattwa Rajas Tama

From these two triangles is formed the symbol of Ishwara and His universe, often seen in temples, the two interlaced, and a point in the center, the symbol of the One, the whole giving the Great Septenary, the Supreme Brahman and the Universe.

interlaced triangles

Thus we have before us the second member of the Duality which, as we saw above in the Manu Smriti, is the cause of all things.


The divine power, or Shakti–the will of Ishwara, His light sent forth and making “This” manifest, as says the Smriti–is called Maya. Maya is inseparable from Ishwara; their unity is like that of the moon and the moonlight, or that of fire and its power to burn. Thus we read: “The will am I, O Daitya, of Him [the Supreme Purusha]; I send forth the whole universe. He beholds me, He the Universal Self, I His benign nature” (Devi Bhagavata 5.16, 36).

Nilakantha, commenting on the above, quotes one of the Shiva Sutras: “Will-power (is) Uma, the Virgin.” While inseparable from the Lord, when turned towards Him She is called Mahavidya, Supreme Knowledge. She is also called, when turned away from Him, Avidya, Nescience, and emphatically Mahamaya, the Great Illusion, as She permeates mulaprakriti and becomes inseparable from it. These are Her two forms: “Maya manifests as a duality; these (are) ever vidya and avidya” (Adhyatma Ramayana 3.3.32).

This identification of the shakti of the Lord with mulaprakriti often causes Maya to be called Mulaprakriti and Prakriti. So Sri Krishna, having defined prakriti as generally understood, said: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect and ego-principle: these are the eight divisions of my prakriti. This is my lower prakriti,… Know my higher prakriti [as] consisting of all jivas (spirits), by which this world is sustained (supported; is the substratum)” (Bhagavad Gita 7:4-5). This “other prakriti” is also spoken of by Him under the name of “the eternal Origin of beings” (Bhagavad Gita 9:13), His own Power, His Yogamaya, by which truly “this world is sustained.” As says the Shruti: “Let (the student) know Maya as prakriti; the possessor of Maya as the Great Lord” (Sveshavatara Upanishad 4:10).

In the Devi Bhagavata some very beautiful descriptions are given of this matter side of Nature, regarded as Maya, thus: “She (is) Bhagavati, the Goddess, the Cause of us all, Mahavidya, Mahamaya, the Fullness, the Imperishable Prakriti.… The Will of the Supreme Self verily (is She), in Her nature (uniting) the Everlasting and the Ever-passing.… (Her) embryo the Veda, the long-eyed, the Primal Goddess of all. At the pralaya, having rolled up the universe, She sports, hiding within Her own body the types of all living beings.… Mulaprakriti is She indeed, ever united with Purusha. Having made the world-systems, She shows them to the Supreme Self.… The cause of it (is) She, the All, Maya, the benignant All-Ruler” (Devi Bhagavata 3:51-61).

This Maya is inseparable from Ishwara, the Saguna Brahman, as said above: “She, Maya, is ever in the Supreme Essence, whose nature is Consciousness, subordinate to Him, and by Him ever sent forth among jivas. Therefore should be worshipped that Consciousness, whose nature is Sat, Chit and Ananda, Lord of Maya, the Divine, with Maya, the Supreme Lady” (Devi Bhagavata 6:48-49).

Being thus seen as the illusion-producing power of the Lord, She is known as the cause of bondage and also as the path to liberation. As Avidya She deludes; as Vidya She leads to Her Lord, and as She vanishes in Him the atman knows itself as free. “This notion of separateness being present sends (the jiva) forth into samsara. This is avidya. O fortunate one! Vidya is the turning away from this. Vidya and avidya should be always known by the wise. Without sunshine how (should) the pleasure of shade be known? Without avidya how should vidya be known?” (Devi Bhagavata. 1.18, 42-44). “The travelers on the pravritti-marga (the forth-going path) are under the power of avidya. The travelers on the nivritti marga (the returning path) ponder the teaching of the Vedanta” (Adhyatma Ramayana 3.3.32).

When the jiva goes forth, facing prakriti and looking at it, Maya envelops him as Avidya. When he turns his back on prakriti and turns towards the Lord, then She turns with him and becomes Vidya, and he is free. As Nilkantha says, quoting the Shaivagama: “The inward-facing shakti is Vidya.”

Then he realizes the mighty power of Maya, Her divine nature, and Her identity with the Supreme, and hymns Ishwara and Maya as One: “Thou Sovereign of endless crores (tens of millions) of world-systems, we bow to Thee! Hail! (Thou that art) in the form of the rock-seated (the changeless and motionless Eternal), the form of Consciousness, we bow to thee! Hail! (Thou that) mayest be known by the Vedanta, the Ruler of the universe, we bow to Thee! Thou whom all the sacred books only describe by the words ‘Not this, not this.’ Goddess! the cause of all, with our whole nature we bow to thee!” (Devi Bhagavata 7:28, 31-32).

The Supreme Ishwara, by His Maya, creates preserves and destroys the innumerable world-systems that form the ocean of samsara. He produces the many: “That willed: May I be many, may I be born” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:2,3). Then, He is given many names: “To what is One, the Wise give many names” (Rigveda 1.164.46). But whatever the names given, Ishwara is One. Thus has it ever been taught in the Shruti and Smriti, as we have seen, and this is repeated in the more popular teaching of which the Vishnu Purana may serve as example: “Thus the One Only God, Janardana, takes the designation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, accordingly as He creates, preserves or destroys.… He is the cause of creation, preservation, and destruction” (Vishnu Purana 1.2.62).

The points to be remembered

To sum up. The student must remember,


1. The Absolute, the All, Paramatman, Nirguna Brahman.


2. The One, Ishwara, the Self, the Subject, Sat, Saguna Brahman.
3. Mulaprakriti, the Not-Self, the Object, Asat.
4. Maya, the shakti, the power, the will, of Ishwara.
5. The many, arising from Mulaprakriti by the Maya of Ishwara.

As to the precise definition of the nature of these five and of their mutual inter-relations there is much discussion, and more or less difference of opinion, in the Six Darshanas and their subdivisions, as now taught. But the fact of these five, under whatever names, is recognized by all, and the student who studies deeply enough will come to the conclusion that the differences between the Darshanas arise from each great teacher emphasizing one aspect of the relations, and that all the Six Darshanas, rightly understood, form one organic whole.


The Many

“At the approach of [Brahma’s] Day, all manifested things come forth from the unmanifest, and then return to that at [Brahma’s] Night. Helpless, the same host of beings being born again and again merge at the approach of the Night and emerge at the dawn of Day. But there exists, higher than the unmanifested, another unmanifested Eternal which does not perish when all beings perish. This unmanifest is declared to be the imperishable (eternal), which is called the Supreme Goal” (Bhagavad Gita 8:18-21).

Here, in a few slokas, the coming forth of The Many is stated. At the beginning of the day of manifestation, all beings stream forth from the unmanifested Root of matter, mulaprakriti, from “This” in darkness, as the Manu Smriti has it. When the day is over, and the night of pralaya comes, then all these separated existences again dissolve into mulaprakriti. Over and over again this occurs, for universes succeed universes, in endless succession. Behind this, then, there must be another Unmanifested, Ishwara, the Saguna Brahman, other than mulaprakriti, the Indestructible Lord. The wise man “perceives the various states of being as resting in the One, and their expansion from that One alone” (Bhagavad Gita 13:30).

How it happens

We have now to study the nature of this procession from, or production of, the Sarga, the creation, the sending forth, or evolving.

The Sanatana Dharma does not recognize an unscientific creation, a making of something out of nothing. The supreme Ishwara evolves all beings out of Himself. “As the spider sends forth and retracts (its web), as in the earth herbs grow, as from a living man the hairs of the head and body, so from the Indestructible the universe becomes” (Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.7). “As from a blazing fire in a thousand ways similar sparks spring forth, so from the Indestructible, O beloved, various types of beings are born, and also return thither… From That are born breath, mind, and all the senses, ether, air, fire, water, and earth, the support of all.… From that in various ways are born the gods, sadhyas, men, beasts, birds” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.1.1, 3, 7).

In the Manu Smriti more details are given as to the order of evolution, and here again it is said that the immediate Creator, Brahma, created all beings from Himself and from the elements previously produced from Himself, as we shall immediately see. Brahmandani, literally Eggs of Brahma, or as we should say, world-systems, are numberless, we are told: “All around this Brahmanda there blaze infinite crores of other similar Brahmandas, with their envelopes. Four-faced, five-faced, six-faced, seven-faced, eight-faced, successively, up to the number of a thousand-faced portions of Narayana, in whom the rajoguna is predominant, creators each of one world-system, preside in them. Portions of Narayana, called Vishnu and Maheshwara, in whom the sattwa and tamo gunas predominate, also preside in them, performing the work of preservation and destruction in each. They wander about, these Brahmandas, like shoals of fishes and bubbles in a vast mass of water” (Atharvana Mahanarayana Upanishad). “Grains of sand are perhaps numerable, but of universes (there is) not any (numbering). So there is no numbering of Brahmas, Vishnus, Shivas and the rest. In each of these universes there are Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and other (devas)” (Devi Bhagavatam 9.3.7-8).

This we could have imagined, even had we not been told it, for since, as we saw in the Vishnu Purana, the “one only God, Janardana, takes the designation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva accordingly as He creates, preserves, or destroys, and creation, preservation and destruction must go on in every world-system, God must manifest in each in these three Forms.” This is the Trimurti, the reflection as it were in Space and Time of that Supreme Triple Unity, the Source of beings–the Nirguna Brahman, the Saguna Brahman and mulaprakriti, outside of Space and Time, Eternal. The Trimurti is the manifestation, then, of Ishwara in a world-system, or Brahmanda, and is therefore the supreme will, wisdom and activity in a concrete form.

Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

Brahma is the Creator, and His Shakti is Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom, without whom activity could not be wisely guided. He is pictured as with four heads, one looking towards each quarter, as the Maker of the four quarters and their contents, and riding on the Hamsa, the Swan. The name hamsa, a rearrangement of sah, aham, Soham, is an allusion to His relation with ahamkara, the divider, the maker of atoms.

Vishnu is the preserver and sustainer, the principle underlying and sustaining the universe in order, and preserving forms, holding them together by His attracting force. His Shakti is Lakshmi, the Goddess of Happiness, of Prosperity, of all desirable objects. He is pictured with four arms, as sustaining the four quarters, and rides on Garuda, the emblem of speed and of intelligence. He is the source of avataras, and in them, or in His own person, is perhaps the most generally worshipped manifestation of Ishwara. Indeed, as Narayana, He whose dwelling is in the (causal) waters, He is worshipped as Saguna Brahman, dwelling in matter.

Shiva, or Mahadeva, or Maheshwara, is the destroyer (dissolver), He who frees the atman from imprisoning forms, who destroys avidya and so gives vidya, and who, finally rolling up the universe, brings the peace of liberation. His Shakti is Uma–ichchha shakti, will–called also Brahmavidya, who reveals Brahman.

He is pictured always as an ascetic, it being He who is the object of worship for yogis, who have renounced the world. He rides on the bull, the emblem of the mind (and sometimes of physical nature), as having subdued it, and wears the tiger-skin, the emblem of the slain desire-nature. Hence He is, as the name Shiva implies, ananda, the peace and bliss of the atman, freed from desire and master of mind.

These supreme forms of Ishwara, separated by their functions but one in essence, stand as the central life of the Brahmanda, and from and by them it proceeds, is maintained, and is indrawn. Their functions should not be confused, but their unity should never be forgotten.

The Brahmanda

Brahma, as the creative God, is spoken of as appearing first, born in the Golden Egg, which grows out of the seed of the One in the [causal] waters of matter. “He, having meditated, desiring to produce various beings from His own body, first put forth the waters; in these He placed the seed. That became a Golden Egg, equal in radiance to the thousand-rayed (the Sun). In that was born Brahma Himself, the Grandsire of all worlds” (Manu Smriti 1.8,9). Here the waters, matter, mulaprakriti, receive the seed of Life, and this becomes the Hiranyagarbha, the Golden Egg, in which the Creator is born, in order to form His world-system. Hence a world-system is called a Brahmanda, a Brahma-Egg, a very significant epithet, as world-systems are oval (elliptical) like an egg, and seen from outside present exactly an egg-like form, each planet following an egg-like, elliptical, orbit. Of this Egg we read in the Vishnu Purana that within it Brahma and the world-system were contained, while it was invested externally by seven envelopes: water, fire, air, ether, the origin of the elements (ahamkara), mahat and primal homogeneous matter, which surrounds the whole (Manu Smriti 1.2). Every world-system is thus surrounded by the great cosmic elements, as described in the first chapter of the Manu Smriti by Manu himself (slokas 5 to 59). The account of the later creation is given over to Bhrigu, who explains briefly the repetition of the process within the World Egg. A similar and fuller account is given in the Mahabharata, and in the Vishnu and other Puranas.

It will be enough if the student grasps the general principles, and he can fill up later the complicated details from the many accounts given in the sacred books. He should remember that the process in the universe containing many Brahmandas, and in the separate Brahmandas, is similar.

More about how it happens

We shall now see that the creative process within a Brahmanda follows on the same lines. Brahma is surrounded by homogeneous matter, called pradhana, in the Vishnu Purana–in which the gunas are in equilibrium; His energy disturbing this tamasic condition, rajoguna prevails and there is rapid motion. Then He puts forth the principle of mahat-buddhi, pure reason–which, entering matter, being invested by it, and causing the predominance of the sattwaguna, the motion becomes rhythmical, harmonious. Then follows ahamkara, the individualizing principle, separating the homogeneous matter into particles–anus, atoms. Ahamkara, causing the tamoguna to prevail in prakriti, forms successively the five tanmatras, or subtle elements, and the senses: hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell, with their appropriate gross elements: akasha, vayu, agni, apa, prithivi–ether, air, fire, water, earth. Causing the rajoguna to prevail, ahamkara gives rise to the ten indriyas: the five ideal types of sense-organs (jnanendriyas) and the five ideal types of action-organs (karmendriyas). Causing sattwaguna to prevail, ahamkara calls out the ten deities connected with the sense-and-action-organs, and manas, the centralizing organ of the indriyas. These three creations are called respectively the bhutadi, that of the elements; taijasa, that of the fiery, the active energies; and vaikatrika, the directing, administrative powers. The points to remember here are: in what is usually called matter, tamoguna predominates; in the indriyas, rajoguna predominates; in the presiding deities, sattwaguna predominates.

Brahma’s assistant-creators

The work of creation proceeded by calling into existence the suras or devas, described by Manu as karmatmana “whose nature is action,” that vast multitude of intelligent beings of very varying power and authority who guide the whole course of nature, and direct all its activities. It is of course, clearly understood by all Hindus that this vast host of devas no more obscures the unity of Ishwara in His triple form as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, than do the vast hosts of men, animals, plants, and minerals. As said in the Shruti: “Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, they call Him, and He is golden-feathered Garuda. Of what is One, sages speak as manifold; they call Him Agni, Yama, Matarishwan” (Rigveda 1.164.46). So also the Smriti: “All the gods (are) even the Self: all rests on the Self. Some call Him Agni, others Manu, (others) Prajapati, some Indra, others Life-breath, others the eternal Brahman” (Manu Smriti 12.119, 123).

But the devas have their own place in nature as the ministers of the will of Ishwara, ruling, protecting, adjusting, guiding, with intelligence and power far greater than human, but still limited. The name deva–shining or radiant–very well describes their resplendent appearance, their bodies being formed of a subtle luminous matter, and hence flashing out light. They are concerned with the matter-side of nature, and the guidance of its evolution, and all the constructive energies studied by science are the energies of the devas. On their work depend the fruits of all human activities concerned with production, in all its branches.

Humans and devas

Those who seek for material prosperity need their continual co-operation, and this co-operation is granted under quite definite laws. It may be obtained by a scientific knowledge of their methods of working, man falling in with their activities and thus sharing the result. Or it may be obtained from them by what is literally exchange, man supplying them with objects which facilitate their work, or which they enjoy, and they, in return, directing their energies, the energies of “nature,” to suit his ends–as a strong man may help a weak man in the performance of a task. Or their increased co-operation may be won by prayers, accompanied by such acts as they approve, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. Or their services may be commanded by great rishis and yogis who by purity, knowledge and austerity have risen above them in the scale of being. Sometimes a man wins the favor of a deva by some service done in this or a previous birth, and then all his efforts prosper, and he succeeds where others fail, and he is called “lucky.” “Good luck” is the result of the working of devas, and as their working is invisible, men think the result is a chance, or accident. But it must be remembered that all devas work within law, and not by arbitrary fancies. The sacrifices and offerings prescribed in the Vedas form a great occult system for obtaining and regulating this co-operation between devas and men, whereby the work of both is carried on with the largest results.

“May you foster the gods by this, and may the gods then foster you. Then, each the others fostering, you shall attain the highest welfare. The gods, fostered by sacrifice, will give you desired enjoyments” (Bhagavad Gita 3:11-12). And the reason is given: “From food all beings are produced, and from rain all food is produced. From sacrifice there comes down rain” (Bhagavad Gita 3:14). “Longing for success in action, in this world men sacrifice to the gods” (Bhagavad Gita 4:12).

But the benefits obtained from them are transient: “Temporary is the fruit” (Bhagavad Gita 7:23). Hence the worship of the devas is not practiced by men whose hearts are set on higher, spiritual things. They worship Ishwara, rather than His ministers, either as Brahman, or as revealed in the Trimurti, or in the Shaktis, or in such a deva as Ganesha for learning, or in the avataras. But this will be further dealt with in Part Two, Chapter Five.

Devas of the elements and the four quarters

The devas of the elements–ether, air, fire, water and earth–Indra, Vayu, Agni, Varuna and Kubera, are the Five Devarajas, Deva Kings, of these great departments of nature, Indra being the Chief Ruler. Under them are divided the great hosts of devas. Thus the sadhyas, vasus, adityas and apsaras are specially connected with Indra; the maruts with vayu; the yakshas, gandharvas, vidyadharas, and kinnaras with Kubera. Some have charge of the animal kingdom, as the nagas and sarpas of snakes, the suparnas of birds, etc.

Four great gods rule the four quarters: Indra, Yama, Varuna and Kubera, as the protectors of mankind. Yama is the Lord of Death, the wise and gracious deva who instructed Nachiketas in the Katha Upanishad.


The asuras, the beings who are opposed to the suras, or devas, in their activity, embody the destructive energies of nature; they are as necessary and as useful as the constructive, though on the surface opposed to them. They hinder and obstruct evolution, embodying the very essence of matter, the tamoguna, inertia, resistance, and by that very resistance make progress steady and durable.

Samsara: the world-process

These creations belong to the invisible worlds, although, in their activities, they were to be closely connected with the visible–the worlds visible and invisible, indeed, forming the field of a vast evolutionary process–samsara, the world process.

The order of the process in the physical world at its origination was: minerals, plants, animals, men. In the Vishnu Purana it is stated that while Brahma was meditating on creation–the three primary prakrita (prakritic) creations of mahat, the elements and the indriyas, being over–the immovable creation, minerals and plants, appeared. Then followed the animal kingdom, called tiryaksrotas. The creation of some devas followed here, according to the Purana, but they do not belong to the physical world, with which we are here dealing. Then came the creation of men. It must be remembered that while this is the fundamental order of evolution, many varieties occur in different kalpas, and accounts in the different books vary, within certain broad limits, since these great classes of beings overlap each other, so that new kinds of animals and plants appear long after man. The world in fact is ever-becoming along the four great lines, however much we may separate them for purposes of exposition.

Evolution in the world-process

The stages of evolution are very plainly given in the Aitareya Brahmana. “He who knows the atman as Him (the Purusha) in manifestation, he most enjoys that manifestation. Herbs and trees and all that bears life, he knows as the Self in manifestation. In herbs and trees rasa (sap, life) is seen, and mind in them that have prana. In them that have prana, the atman is (more) manifest. In them, rasa also is seen, while mind is not seen in the others. In man, the atman is (most) manifest; he is most supplied with knowledge. He speaks that which he knows; he sees that which he knows; he knows what occurred yesterday; he knows the visible and the invisible; by the mortal he desires the immortal. Thus supplied is he. But of the others, animals, hunger and thirst are the only knowledge. They speak not the known; they see not the known; they know not what belongs to yesterday, nor the visible and the invisible. Only this much have they. According to the knowledge are the births” (Aitareyaranyaka, 2.3.2).

On this Sayana comments as follows: “All objects whatsoever, being of the nature of effects, are upadhis [adjuncts] for this manifestation of the Supreme Self, Sat, Chit, Ananda, the cause of the universe. In the unconscious, earth, stones, etc., only Sat is manifest, and the atman has not yet attained to the form of jiva. The unmoving jivas, namely the herbs and trees, and also the moving jivas, which have prana as breath, both these are stages of manifestation in a higher degree.” 

The student should note these passages, as it is currently supposed that the idea of evolution is of modern birth.

A larger view

In the Vishnu Bhagavata mention is made in connection with the making of the World Egg as an organized form, but, as said before, the process is similar on the large scale or the small. The point to be recognized is that Vishnu is the Organizer. “When these separated existences, the bhutas, indriyas, manas and gunas, were unable to create organisms (literally, a dwelling-place, an upadhi), O best of Brahma-knowers, then, mixing with each other, they were impelled by the power of Bhagavan (Vishnu), and, becoming both Sat and Asat, existent and non-existent evolved this” (Vishnu Bhagavata 2.5.32-33).

The ten maharishis, Marichi, Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, Prachetas, Vasishtha, Bhrigu and Narada, were superhuman beings, who having obtained liberation in former kalpas, were called forth to aid in the direction of the world process, and who remain, superintending the destinies of the worlds, and will remain until the pralaya. Sometimes only seven are given this rank, Prachetas, Bhrigu and Narada not being included in the list. Sometimes others are added, as Daksha and Kardama.

The Kumaras, variously given as four, five, six and seven, are, as their name implies, Virgin Beings, ascetics, and they watch over the world. Shiva Himself took the form of one–Rudra or Nilalohita. Sanatkumara, Sanandana, Sanaka and Sanatana are the four most often referred to. Ribhu, Kapila and Sana are also mentioned.

To this brief sketch of the world process it should be added that the early human races preceding the aryan are often referred to under the names of danavas and daityas, huge beings of enormous strength and energy, who carried on many a struggle with the devas themselves. The rakshasas were another race, more brutal in nature, usually malformed, huge, cruel, powerful cannibals, the terror of milder races. They possessed, moreover, many magical secrets of a dark kind, which they used for terrorizing and oppressing. All these have long entirely disappeared from the earth.

Such is the vast field of samsara in which the pilgrim jivatmans wander until, in some human form, they reach the knowledge of the Self, and obtain liberation.

The points to be remembered

  1. The coming forth of the many from Saguna Brahman, and Mulapraktiti by the power of Maya, and their return at the close of the day of manifestation.
  2. The manifestation of Ishwara as the Trimurti, in the forms of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, with their Shaktis, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Uma.
  3. The work of Brahma, forming the materials of the universe and the ideal types of all beings, suras, asuras, minerals, plants, animals and men.
  4. The work of Vishnu, giving prana and chit, and hence making living organized forms possible, all such forms being preserved and maintained by Him.
  5. The work of Shiva, breathing into these forms when they arrive at the human stage; jivatmans that have reached in previous kalpas a stage at which such highly organized bodies can be utilized by them–bodies in which avidya can be destroyed, and they can attain vidya.
  6. The existence throughout the world process of lofty superhuman intelligences, such as rishis and kumaras, intent on human welfare.
  7. The past races on the earth, danavas, daityas and rakshasas.



“In the vast Brahma-wheel, the source and support of all jivas, the hamsa (the individual) is made to wander, thinking himself and the Ruler different. United with Him, he obtains immortality” (Svetashvatara Upanishad 1.6). Here, in a single sloka, we are given the reason of rebirth and its ending. Man wanders about in the universe so long as he thinks of himself as different from Ishwara; knowing (not just believing)  himself to be one with Him, he obtains liberation.

In Shruti and Smriti, in Purana and Itihasa, the Self in man is declared to be of the nature of Brahman. “Then, having known the Supreme Brahman, the Supreme Immensity, as the Essence hidden in all creatures, the one Pervader of the universe, the Lord, they become immortal. The measure of a thumb, the purusha, the inner Self, ever dwelling in the heart of men” (Svetashvatara Upanishad 3.7, 13). “He, this Self, is Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5). “He, this great unborn Self, (is) He who (is) this intelligence in living creatures, He who (is) this akasha in the heart” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.22). “He, this great, unborn, undecaying, deathless, immortal, fearless Self, (is) the fearless Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.25).

It is this nature, identical with Brahman as the sparks from a fire are identical with the fire, which evolves, unfolds itself as the jivatman in all living beings. As a seed grows to be a tree like its parent, so the jivatmic seed grows into self-conscious deity. Samsara exists that the jivatman may learn to realize himself. The jivatman differs from Brahman only as the seed from the tree that bears it. “Wise and unwise, both unborn, powerful and powerless” (Svetashvatara Upanishad 1.9).

Therefore, although unwise and powerless, the jivatman can become wise and powerful; to this end he must evolve, and his evolution is on the wheel of births and deaths. Transmigration is the word usually given to this journey, for the jivatman transmigrates from one body to another–as one grows old and wastes away he takes another. “Even as a man casts off his worn-out clothes and then clothes himself in others which are new, so the embodied casts off worn-out bodies and then enters into others which are new” (Bhagavad Gita 2:22). The word “reincarnation” (in Sanskrit, punarjanma) is also very generally used in modern days, the stress being here laid on the body rather than on the jivatman; it again takes a fleshly covering.

This truth of the evolution of the jivatman from ignorance to wisdom, from feebleness to power, is definitely revealed in the Shruti, and a knowledge of it is necessary as a basis for good conduct and for the wise shaping of life. Man is not a creature of a day, here today and gone tomorrow, but an unborn immortal being, growing into a knowledge of his true nature and powers. Everything is within him, the fulness of divine wisdom and power, but this capacity has to be unfolded, and that is the object of living and dying. Such a view of man’s nature gives dignity and strength and sobriety to life. It has been believed in by wise men in all ages, and has been a part of every ancient religion.

Only in modern times, during a period of great ignorance, was this truth lost sight of in the West, and very irrational and fantastic notions have in consequence grown up there as to the human soul, its nature and destiny, undermining belief in the just and loving rule of Ishwara. But even in the West such great scientific thinkers as Professor Huxley have begun to recognize the continued existence of the jivatman from life to life. “Like the doctrine of evolution itself,” he says, “that of transmigration has its roots in the world of reality; and it may claim such support as the great argument from analogy is capable of supplying” (Evolution and Ethics, p. 16.)

The jivatman contains within himself infinite possibilities, but when first descended into prakriti, embodied in a rupa (body) made up of the five elements, all these are inherent, not manifest. He passes through the diversified existences of the mineral kingdom, and of the plant and of the animal realms–the udbhijah (born by fission in the minerals and plants); the swedajah (born by exudation or gemmation, in certain low forms of plants and animals); the andajah (born first as eggs, the oviparous animals)–before coming into the jarayujah (the viviparous, womb-born, higher animals and the human kingdom).

Dual evolution

In these many of his lower powers are developed, and his consciousness passes from the latent to the active condition. A double evolution goes on; there is the continued life of the jivatman himself, continually increasing in richness and complexity; and there is a corresponding continuity in the forms he occupies, as each physical form is directly derived from a preceding physical form. Each form, however independent it may seem, was once part of another form, whose characteristics it shared, and from which it has been separated off for an independent career. While part of the parent form it shared all the advantages and improvements, or the reverse, due to the developing jivatman within that parent form, and thus starts on its separate life on a little higher level than its parent if the jivatman has progressed, or on a little lower level if it has retrograded. For while the general movement is one of progress, there are little ebbs and flows, like the waves that run on and fall back in a rising tide. This unbroken physical inheritance from form to form causes what science calls heredity, the passing on of characteristics from parents to offspring.

But it has been observed by scientific men that mental and moral characteristics do not pass from form to form, and they are puzzled to account for the evolution of consciousness. Their theory needs to be completed by the acceptance of transmigration. For just as physical continuity is necessary for physical evolution, so is the continuity of consciousness necessary for the evolution of mental and moral characteristics. This continuity is the consciousness of the jivatman, which takes a form suitable to his condition, as we shall see presently in Section Four, enlarges his own powers by using the form, and thereby improves the form also. The bodies of the children of the body share these improvements of the form, are improved again by other jivatmans, and pass on still more improved bodies. When the old body is worn out, the jivatman throws it off, and takes another form, as said above.

Human evolution begins

When the animal stage has been fully experienced, and the jivatman is ready to pass on into the human form, his triune nature, the reflection of the triune nature of Ishwara, begins to manifest. The human jivatman–as we may now call him–manifests the three aspects of jnana, ichcha and kriya which have ever been in him, and these begin to evolve as self-consciousness. Ahamkara appears, and the recognition of the “I” as opposed to the “Not-I” rapidly develops. The desire-nature, developed in the animal kingdom, now becomes much more powerful, by seizing on the evolving mind as its slave and using its growing powers for the satisfaction of its own cravings. As the mind grows stronger and the jivatman by experience learns the pains that result from unbridled desires, he begins to exert his strength in checking and directing the desires, and the long struggle commences between the jivatman, dimly beginning to feel his own divinity, and the kamic elements of his upadhis. As is written in the Katha Upanishad: “Know the Self the chariot-owner, the body the chariot; know reason as the charioteer, and the mind as the reins; they call the senses the horses, the sense-objects their province. The Self, joined to the senses and mind, (is) the enjoyer; thus say the wise. Whoever is ignorant, always with mind loose, his senses (are) uncontrolled, like bad horses of the charioteer. Whoever is wise, always with mind reined-in, his senses (are) controlled, like good horses of the charioteer. Whoever is indeed ignorant, thoughtless, always impure, he does not obtain that goal, (but) comes again into samsara” (Katha Upanishad 1.3.3-7).

When a term of earth-life is over, the jivatman withdraws from the physical body, and in a subtle vehicle passes into the invisible worlds. He carries thither the results of the earth-life to be enjoyed and suffered as fruits, going to the worlds in which these fruits can be consumed. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.4) a description of this is given. The jivatman leaves the body, taking with him the knowledge he has gained and the result of his work; then: “As a goldsmith, having taken a piece of gold, makes another form, new and more beautiful, so verily the atman, having cast off this body and having put away avidya, makes another new and more beautiful form.” In this he goes to the invisible world for which he is fitted–a matter to be dealt with in Section Six–and then the upanishad goes on to say what happens when his fruit in that invisible world is consumed. “Having arrived at the end of (the fruit of) that work–(of) whatsoever he here does–this one returns again from that world to this world of action; thus verily (the story of) him who desires.”

This process is repeated over and over again as long as he has desires, for these desires bind him to the wheel of transmigration. It is truly “the story of him who desires.” So also in the Devi Bhagavata (4.21.22-25) the same idea is expressed: “Having abandoned the former body, the jiva, following karma’s rule, obtains either swarga [heaven] or naraka [hell] according to his deeds. And having obtained a celestial body, or a body of suffering born of objects of desire, experiences varied fruit in swarga or naraka. At the end of the fruits, when the time for his rebirth arrives… then Time unites him again with karmas (selected out) of the sanchita karmas.” The development of the chit aspect of the jivatman, and the purification of the ichcha aspect, being the main work of the human stage of evolution, the growth of manas, and later of buddhi, marks out the steps of the journey.

The human constitution

The constitution of the human being is very clearly outlined in the Mahabharata (Shanti-parvan, 202), from which we give the following summary:

The Self in man, the jivatman, is identical in nature with the Supreme Self, Brahman. From this comes forth the understanding (buddhi) and from the understanding the mind (manas); when to these the senses (indriyas) are added, the man, the dweller in the body, is complete; the body, his dwelling, is made up of the five elements. The senses, through the body, come into touch with the outer world; the senses hand on to the mind the results of the contact, giving the attributes or properties of the objects contacted–the way in which the objects affect them. The mind receives these reports, and groups them into mental images, and presents these to the understanding; the understanding pierces to the reality in which these mental images, made up of attributes, inhere. This is the outgoing of the jivatman, and his gathering of experience, the pravritti marga, the path of going forth.

The first step or stage of this evolution is the experiencing of varied sensations; and therefore manas is regarded as the sixth sense, which receives and organizes the impressions conveyed to it by the five senses, affected by their contact with the outer world through the sense-organs. “The senses, and the mind as the sixth sense” (Bhagavad Gita 15:7). Or, when the senses and sense organs are taken together: “The ten senses and one” (Bhagavad Gita 13:5).

Manas at this stage is the slave of kama, and develops its capacities by directing the search for objects of enjoyment. Evolution is quickened by the instruction of the rishis, who teach man to sacrifice the objects of enjoyment to the devas, first to gain increased worldly prosperity, and then to gain the delights of swarga.

The second stage of evolution is one of continual conflict between manas and kama, manas being now sufficiently developed to recognize that the pleasures longed for by kama usually, in the long run, bring more pain than pleasure. “Pleasures born of contact [with the senses] are wombs of pain” (Bhagavad Gita 5:22).

Manas, therefore, begins to resist the searching for objects of enjoyment, instead of directing it, and hence conflict, in which manas grows more rapidly. The thwarting of the kamic longings purifies kama, and the higher aspect of ichcha begins to show itself–ichcha which is will, the Shakti of Shiva, who is the destroyer of Kama, the son of Vishnu and Lakshmi, and also the lower aspect of ichcha. (Dharma is born from the wisdom of Vishnu, kama from His Love, which must be developed in man first by desire for material objects; therefore dharma, kama and artha are enjoined together on the pravritti marga.)

The third stage of the evolution of manas consists in the development of the higher intellectual powers; manas no longer enslaved by, nor even struggling with kama, has become free, is the pure manas, engaged with ideas, wrought out by his own labor, not with sense-born images. The jivatman ceases to delight in sense-contacts, or in their mental reproductions, and engages himself in pure thought, in the endeavor to understand the Self and the Not-Self. This stage leads up to the evolution of buddhi, the pure reason or the Higher Understanding, of which the expression is wisdom, the result of the union of knowledge and love, wisdom which sees and loves the Self alone. “Better than the sacrifice of material things is knowledge-sacrifice. All action without exception is fully comprehended (contained) in knowledge.…. By this you shall come to see all creation in your Self and then in me” (Bhagavad Gita 4:33, 35).

When the jivatman reaches this stage, he is on the threshold of liberation. He has long “ceased from wicked ways,” is “subdued,” “concentrated,” “of pacified mind” (Katha Upanishad 1.2.24). “Whoever verily is wise, thoughtful, always pure, he obtains that goal whence he is not born again” (Katha Upanishad 3.8).

Freedom from rebirth

For this round of births and deaths is not everlasting for the jivatman; bound to it by his own desires, with the ceasing of those desires he becomes free; bound to it by his ignorance of his own nature, with the ceasing of that ignorance he knows himself free. Only: “He goes from death to death who here sees manyness” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.19). “When all the desires hiding in his heart are loosed, then the mortal becomes immortal; here he enjoys Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.7). “Therefore having thus becomes wise, calm, subdued, dispassionate, enduring, collected, he sees the Self in the Self, he sees the Self as all; nor does sin overcome him, he overcomes all sin; nor does sin consume him, he consumes all sin. Free from sin, free from passion, he becomes a Brahmana (of the nature of Brahman); this the Brahman-world” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.23).

The return is the reversal of the process of outgoing, as is very clearly outlined in the Mahabharata, from which we can summarize the return as we summarized the outgoing. The senses are withdrawn from contact with the outer world through the body, and become tranquil. The mind is withdrawn from its study of the images obtained by the senses, and thus also becomes tranquil. The understanding withdraws from the study of the concepts presented by the mind, and, thus tranquil, reflects the Self. So long as the mind turns to the senses it finds misery. When it turns to the understanding it finds bliss. Along this road, the nivritti marga, or returning path, the jivatman returns from his wanderings in samsara and reaches his true home, the Eternal, paying, while he treads this path, all the debts contracted on the pravritti marga.

To see the Self is jnana, wisdom; to love the Self is bhakti, devotion; to serve the Self is karma, action. Such jnana, bhakti, karma, are the three margas, ways, to moksha, liberation. The jnana marga is for those in whom chit predominates; the bhakti marga for those in whom ichcha predominates; the karma marga for those in whom kriya predominates. But in each path, as each jivatman is triune, the evolution of all of its three aspects must be carried on. The jnani, as he gains wisdom, will find devotion and right activity appear; the bhakta, as devotion is perfected, will find himself possessed of activity and wisdom. The karmanya, as his activity becomes wholly selfless, will achieve wisdom and devotion. The three margas are, in fact, one, in which three different temperaments emphasize one or other of its inseparable constituents. Yoga supplies the method by which the Self can be seen and loved and served.

The words spoken by Sri Krishna, as to the Sankhya and Yoga Darshanas, may well be applied here: “Sankhya and [karma] yoga are different, the childish declare–not the wise. If one is practiced correctly, that person finds the fruit of both. The state (realization) that is attained by the followers of Sankhya is also attained by the followers of [karma] yoga. Sankhya and [karma] yoga are one” (Bhagavad Gita 5:4-5).

The mukta, the man who has reached liberation, may or may not remain active in the three worlds. The rishis are muktas, and are employed in the maintenance and guidance of the worlds. Janaka was a mukta, and was a king, ruling his realm. Tuladhara was a mukta, and was a merchant, weighing out his goods. Many a mukta is spoken of in the Itihasa who is surrounded by physical conditions. For mukti is not a change of external conditions, but a change of internal condition; not an alteration of the circumstances surrounding the jivatman, but the attitude of the jivatman to the Self and the Not-Self.


It was said above that while the general sweep of evolution is upward and onward, temporary retrogression might occur, and in some of the very ancient aryan books a good deal of stress is laid on the danger of such reversions. Sri Krishna, speaking in much later days, says that “the most degraded of men” are thrown “into only the wombs of demons” (Bhagavad Gita 16:19), are born of evil people, such as he had just been describing as demonic (asuric). The law is that when a man has so degraded himself below the human level that many of his qualities can only express themselves through the form of a lower creature, he cannot, when his time for rebirth comes, pass into a human form. He is delayed, therefore, and is attached to the body of one of the lower creatures, as a co-tenant with the animal, vegetable or mineral jiva, until he has worn out, exhausted, the bonds of these non-human qualities and is fit to again take birth in the world of men. A very strong and excessive attachment to an animal may have similar results, where the man should be far beyond such exaggerated fondness. Such was the case of Jada Bharata, a king of ancient India who became so fond of a pet deer that he was thinking of it intently at the time of death and was temporarily reborn as a deer though with full awareness of his previous life.

The points to be remembered

  1. The jivatman is Brahman, as a seed is the tree, and remains as a wanderer in samsara till he realizes his own nature.
  2. There is continuity of forms, by a new form separating from an old and leading an independent existence; and continuity of life in each evolving jivatman.
  3. The jivatman, embodied in a form, experiences through that form, throws it away when outworn, reaps his reward in the invisible worlds, and returns to the visible.
  4. The jivatman may be detained in animal forms by self-degradation.
  5. There are three stages of the evolving manas: (a) subjection to kama; (b) conflict with kama; (c) triumph over kama and development of the higher intellectual powers.
  6. Buddhi is evolved, and liberation is reached.
  7. There are three paths to liberation, jnana, bhakti, and kriya (action), and these finally blend.



Karma literally means action, but as every action is triple in its nature, belonging partly to the past, partly to the present, partly to the future, it has come to mean the sequence of events, the law of causes and effects, the succession in which each effect follows its own cause. The word karma, simply action, should however remind us that what is called the consequence of an action is really not a separate thing but is a part of the action, and cannot be divided from it. The consequence is that part of the action which belongs to the future, and is as much a part of it as the part done in the present. Thus suffering is not the consequence of a wrong act, but an actual part of it, although it may be only experienced later. A soldier is sometimes wounded in battle, and in the excitement does not feel any pain; afterwards, when he is quiet he feels the pain; so a man sins and feels no suffering, but later the suffering makes itself felt. The suffering is not separated from the wound, any more than heat from fire, though experienced as a result. Hence all things are linked together indissolubly, woven and interwoven inseparably; nothing occurs which is not linked to the past and to the future. “How shall there be in this samsara an uncaused action?” (Devi Bhagavata 1.5.74).

The law of karma

The jivatman, then, comes into a realm of law and must carry on all his activities within law. So long as he does not know the law in its various branches, called the laws of nature, he is a slave, tossed about by all the currents of natural energies, and drifting whithersoever they carry him. When he knows them, he is able to use them to carry out his own purposes. A boat without oars, sails, or rudder is carried about helplessly by the winds and currents, and the sailor finds himself drifting along under the press of forces he can neither change nor direct. But a clever sailor, with oars, sails and rudder, can send along his boat in any direction he pleases, not because be has changed the winds and the currents, but because he understands their directions, and can use those that are going in the direction he wants, and can play off, the one against the other, the forces that oppose him. So can a man who knows the laws of nature utilizes those whose forces are going his way and neutralize those which oppose. Therefore knowledge is indispensable; the ignorant are always slaves.

It must be remembered that a law of nature is not a command to act in a particular way, but only a statement of the conditions within which action of any kind can be done. Water boils at 100° C under normal pressure. This is a law of Nature. It does not command a man to boil water, but states the conditions under which water boils at 100° C. If he wants boiling water at that temperature these are the conditions which are necessary. If he is on a high mountain where the pressure is much less than the normal, his water will boil at a temperature not sufficiently high for cooking purposes. How then does the law help him? It tells him how to get his boiling water at 100° C by increasing the pressure: Let him shut his water up in a pot from which the steam cannot escape, and so add to the pressure the weight of the steam given off, till the temperature of the water rises to 100° C. And so also with every other law of nature. The laws state conditions under which certain results follow. According to the results desired many conditions can be arranged and, given the conditions, the results will invariably follow. Hence law does not compel any special action, but only renders all actions possible, and knowledge of law is power.

The jivatman, as we have seen, is three-fold in his nature; he consists of ichchha, jnana and kriya, will, wisdom and activity. These, in the lower world of upadhis, of forms, express themselves as desire, knowledge and action, and these three fashion a man’s karma, and each works according to a definite law.

Desire stands behind thought, stimulating and directing it; thought, energized and determined by desire, stands behind action, expressing itself therein in the world of objects. “Man verily is desire-formed; as is his desire, so is his thought; as (his) thought is, so he does action; as he does action, so he attains” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5). On this passage Shankara comments that desire is the root of the world.

Three laws

We have then to study three laws, which, taken together, make up the law of karma. We shall then understand the conditions under which things happen, and can shape our future destiny according to the results we have chosen.

1. Desires carry the man to the place where the objects of desire exist, and thus determine the channels of his future activities. “So indeed the desire goes by action to the object in which his mind is immersed” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.6). Desire attaches a man to the objects of desire, binding him to them with unbreakable links; wherever is the object of desire thither must go the man who desires it. The object of desire is called fruit, and the fruit which the man has sought he must consume, in whatever place it is found. The man “attached to action based on desire is bound” (Bhagavad Gita 5:12). Whether the fruit be good or evil, pleasurable or painful, the law is the same. So long as a man desires fruit, he is bound by his attachment to that fruit, and is said to have “good” or “bad” karma according as the fruit is pleasant or painful. When a man understands this law, he can watch over his desires, and allow them to attach themselves only to objects the possession of which will yield happiness; then, in another life, he will have opportunities of attaining them, for they will come and place themselves in his way. This is the first law, belonging to the desire-nature.

2. The second law concerns the mind. Mind is the creative power, and a man becomes that which he thinks. “Now verily man is thought-formed; as a man thinks in this world, so, having gone away hence, he becomes” (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1). As Brahma created by meditation, so does manas, which is His reflection in man, have creation as its essential activity. Brahma embodies kriya, activity, but we find that his activity consisted in meditation, thought, and this gave birth to the worlds. Hence action is only thought thrown outwards, objectivized, and a man’s actions are only his past thoughts materialized. As Brahma created His world, so manas creates his vehicles, and by the same means, thought. Character, the nature of the man, is thought-created; this is the first of the three factors of karma. What the man essentially is in himself, that is the outcome of his thinking. As he is thinking now, so hereafter he will himself be. If he thinks nobly, he will become noble; if he thinks basely, he will become base. Thus knowing, a man can deliberately shape his character, by dwelling in his mind on all that is good and pure and elevating, and driving out of it all that is evil, foul, and degrading. This is the second law, belonging to the mind.

3. The third law concerns action. Circumstances are made by actions. “Devoted to the fruits of acts, whatever kind of acts a person covetous of fruits accomplishes, the fruits, good or bad, that he actually enjoys, partake of their character. Like fishes going against a current of water, the acts of a past life are flung back on the actor. The embodied creature experiences happiness for his good acts, and misery for his evil ones” (Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, 201.23). “Nothing can sprout forth without a seed. No one can obtain happiness without having accomplished acts capable of leading to happiness” (Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, 291.12).

Sowing and reaping

If a man spreads happiness round him, he will reap happiness hereafter; if he spreads misery, he will reap misery. Thus knowing the law, he can prepare for himself favorable or unfavorable circumstances, as he prepared a good or bad character, and pleasure-giving or pain-giving objects. This is the third law, belonging to actions.

These three laws cover the making of karma, for the jivatman consists of will, wisdom and activity, and these show themselves in the world by desires, thoughts and actions. When we have divided the factors in a man’s destiny into opportunities, character–or capacities–and surrounding circumstances, we have covered them all. Nothing else remains.

We find, then, that we are always making new karma, and experiencing what we have made in the past. We are obliged to act now in the conditions we have created in our past; we have only the opportunity of obtaining the objects then desired; of using the capacities then created; of living in the circumstances then made. But the living jivatman, that then desired, thought and acted, is still the same powerful agent as he then was, and can put out his powers within the limits he has made, can modify and slowly change them, and create better conditions for the future. Therefore Bhishma places effort above destiny.

Two wrong views of karma

A view of karma that paralyzes human efforts is a crude and mistaken one, and men should see in karma a guide, and not a paralyzer, of action. One very commonly-felt difficulty in connection with karma is this question: “If I am destined by my karma to be bad or good, to do this or not to do it, it must be so; why then make any effort?” The fallacy of this line of thought should be very clearly understood, if the above has been grasped, for it turns upon a complete misunderstanding of the nature of karma. The effort is part of the karma, as much as the goodness or badness; karma is not a finished thing awaiting us, but a constant becoming, in which the future is not only shaped by the past but is being modified by the present. If a man desires to be good, he is putting forth an energy which presently will make him good, however bad he may be now. A man is not a helpless being, destined by his karma to be either bad or good, but he becomes that which he daily chooses as desirable–badness or goodness. He always is, and always must be, making efforts, merely because he is alive, and his only choice lies in making an effort to move in one direction rather than in another; his quietude is merely a choice to let past choices have their way, and to go in accordance with them. He does not eliminate the element of choice by doing nothing; he simply chooses doing nothing. A man has only to desire, to think, to act and he can make his karma what he chooses. Thus the gods have risen to their high estate, and thus may others rise.

“By his karma a jiva may become an Indra, by his karma a son of Brahma. By his karma he may become Hari’s servant, and free from births. By his karma he may surely obtain perfection, immortality. By his karma he may obtain the fourfold mukti connected with Vishnu: salokya (being in the same plane or world as God), samipya (being in close proximity and association with God), sarupya (having the same form as God) and sayujya (united with God; one with God). Godhood and manhood and sovereignty of a world-empire a man may obtain by karma, and also the state of Shiva and of Ganesha” (Devi Bhagavata 9.27.18-20).

The main thing is to see in karma not a destiny imposed from without, but a self-made destiny imposed from within, and therefore a destiny that is continually being remade by its maker.

Another mistake sometimes made as to karma is that which leads a person to say respecting a sufferer: “He is suffering his karma; if I help him I may be interfering with his karma.” Those who thus speak forget that each man is an agent of the karma of others, as well as an experiencer of his own. If we are able to help a man, it is itself the proof that the karma under which he was suffering is exhausted, and that we can be the agent of his karma bringing him relief. If we refuse to carry the karmic relief, we make bad karma for ourselves, shutting ourselves out from future help, and someone else will have the good karma of carrying the relief and so ensuring for himself aid in a future difficulty. Further, “ifs” and “maybe’s” are no ground for action; “If I do not help him I may be interfering with his karma,” is as valid an argument as “If I help him.” Action should be based on what we know, and we know it is right and good to help others; it is constantly commanded by the wise. Only a full and clear knowledge of the causes in the past resulting in the suffering of the present could justify refusal to help on karmic grounds.

The three kinds of karma

Karma is said to be of three kinds: prarabdha, santchitam, and vartamanam, called also agami. Prarabdha karma is that which is ripe for reaping and which cannot be avoided; it is only exhausted by being experienced. Sanchita karma is the accumulated karma of the past, and is partly seen in the character of the man, in his powers, weaknesses and capacities. Vartamana karma is that which is now being created. “That which was in the olden time produced in many births, is called sanchita… That karma which is being done, that is called vartamana. Again, from the midst of the sanchita is selected a portion, and, at the time of the beginning of the body, Time energizes this: it is known as prarabdha karma.” (Devi Bhagavata 6.10.9, 12-14)

The Sanchita karma is the karma which is gathered, collected, heaped together. It is the mass which lies behind a man, and his tendencies come from this. The Vartamana karma is the actual, that which is now being made for the future, or the agami, the coming karma; while the prarabdha karma is that which has begun, is actually bearing fruit.

Now this prarabdha karma is, as said in the sloka quoted above, selected out of the mass of the sanchita karma. In Vedantic literature it is sometimes compared to an arrow already shot. That which is sufficiently congruous to be worked out in one physical body is selected by the devas who rule this department of nature, and a suitable physical body is built for it, and placed with the parents, nation, country, race and general surroundings necessary for the exhaustion of that karma.

Prarabdha karma, as said above, cannot be changed; it must be exhausted by being experienced. The only thing that can be done is to take it as it comes, bad or good, and work it out contentedly and patiently. In it we are paying our past debts, and thus getting rid of many of our liabilities. The exhaustion of prarabdha karma is possible only by the suffering of the consequences of it.

Sanchita karma may be largely modified by the additions we make to it: vicious tendencies can be weakened, virtuous ones can be strengthened, for with every thought, desire and action we are adding to that which will be the sanchita karma in our next birth.

Vartamana karma may, to a great extent, be destroyed in the same life, balanced up, by one who deliberately expiates a wrong done by restitution, voluntarily paying a debt not yet due, instead of leaving it to fall due at a future time.

Freedom from karma

There remains the question: how can a man become free from karma?

From the general karma of the universe he cannot be freed so long as he remains in the universe; devas, men, animals, plants, minerals, all are under the sway of karma; no manifested life can escape from this everlasting law, without which the universe would be a chaos. “All, Brahma and the rest, are under its sovereign rule!” (Devi Bhagavata 4.2.8)

 If a man would escape this universal karma, he must go out of the universe–that is he must merge in the Absolute. But a man may escape from the wheel of births and deaths, and yet remain manifested so long as Ishwara chooses for him to manifest, by ceasing to create fresh karma and by exhausting what already exists. For the tie that binds man to the wheel is desire, and when desire ceases man creates no more bonds. “When all the desires hidden in the heart are loosed, then the mortal becomes immortal, then he here enjoys Brahman” (Katha Upanishad 2.6.14). Such is the reiterated teaching of the Shruti.

Again, we read in the Bhagavad Gita: “Whose undertakings are devoid of plan and desire for results, whose actions are consumed in the fire of knowledge–him the wise call wise.… The action (karma) of one who is free from attachment, whose thought is established in knowledge, undertaking action for sacrifice, is wholly dissolved” (Bhagavad Gita 4:19, 23). Then freedom is achieved, and the man may either remain, as the rishis have remained, to aid in the evolution going on in the Brahmanda or may enter fully into nirvana (moksha; total liberation).

The points to be remembered

  1. The nature of action and its consequence.
  2. The nature of law.
  3. The three laws which make the karma of the jivatman.
  4. The relation between exertion and destiny.
  5. The three kinds of karma.
  6. The ceasing of individual karma.



The Purusha Shukta

A thousand heads hath Purusha, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.
This Purusha is all that yet hath been and all that is to be; the Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.
So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusha. All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.
With three-fourths Purusha went up: one-fourth of him again was here. Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats.
From him Virāj was born; again Purusha from Virāj was born. As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.
When gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering, its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.
They balmed as victim on the grass Purusha born in earliest time. With him the deities and all sadhyas and rishis sacrificed.
From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up. He formed the creatures of the air, and animals both wild and tame.
From that great general sacrifice Riks and Sama-hymns were born: Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus [Yajur Veda] had its birth from it.
From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth: from it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.
When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahmana [Brahmin] was his mouth, of both his arms was the Kshatriya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.
The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vāyu from his breath.
Forth from his navel came mid-air, the sky was fashioned from his head, earth from his feet, and from his chariot the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.
Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared, when the gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Purusha.
Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim; these were the earliest holy ordinances.
The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the sadhyas, gods of old, are dwelling. (Rig Veda 10.90)

The law of sacrifice

As far-reaching as the law of karma is the law of sacrifice, the law by which the worlds were built, the law by which they are maintained. All lives can only be supported by absorbing other lives: all forms can only be preserved by absorbing other forms. Sacrifice permeates all religion as it permeates the universe. Says Sri Krishna: “This world is not for the non-sacrificing–how then the other [worlds]” (Bhagavad Gita 4:31).

The Sanatana Dharma has incorporated this law into its very essence; all the Shrutis declare it; all the Smritis inculcate it; the Puranas and the Itihasas are full of it; the Six Darshanas lay it down as the pathway to be trodden before knowledge can be gained.

We shall see in Part Two how sacrifices pervade the whole life of the true aryan; we are here concerned with the general principle, not with the specific applications. 


Creation began with sacrifice: “The dawn verily is the head of the sacrificial horse” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.1.1).The dawn is explained as the beginning of the day of Brahma, the day of creation. Then is the great horse sacrifice, the horse, whose body is the universe, the sacrifice of the One who carries the many–devas, gandharvas, asuras, men–as the next sloka says. And then the upanishad goes on to describe the beyond, when there was not anything, and the building of the universe.

So also in the Rigveda the splendid Purusha Shukta that begins this section, describing the sacrificial slaying of Purusha, tells how all creatures were formed by one-fourth of Him offered up as “victim” in “that great general sacrifice,” three-fourths remaining in heaven as the Eternal Life.

The great sacrifice involved in creation is beautifully described in the Shatapatha Brahmana (13.7.1): “Brahma, the Self-existent, performed tapas. He considered: ‘In tapas there is no infinity. Come let me sacrifice myself in living things and all living things in myself.’ Then having sacrificed himself in all living things and all living things in himself, he acquired greatness, self-effulgence and lordship.” Manu also declares that Brahma created “the eternal sacrifice” before He drew forth the Veda.

This profound teaching, that Ishwara sacrificed Himself in order to create His universe, means that He limited Himself in matter–technically died–in order that His life might produce and sustain a multiplicity of separate lives. Every life in His universe is a part of His life: “A fragment of Myself” (Bhagavad Gita 15:7). Without this sacrifice, the universe could not come into existence. As only a fourth part of Purusha is said to suffice for the bringing forth of all beings, so Sri Krishna says: “I ever support this whole world by just one portion of myself” Bhagavad Gita 10:42). Ishwara is far more than His universe, but it is wholly contained in Him, lives in His life, is composed of His substance.

Humans and sacrifice

Sri Krishna tells how Prajapati “having emanated mankind together with sacrifice,” bade man find in sacrifice his Kamadhuk, the cow whence each could milk the objects he desired. So action is essentially rooted in sacrifice: “The offering in sacrifice which causes the genesis and support of beings is called karma” (Bhagavad Gita 8:3).

“The pouring out” is the pouring out of life, which alone enabled separate beings to live, and this pouring out is that same sacrifice described in the Purusha Shukta. So thoroughly has this been recognized that karma has become the general name for sacrifices, and karma-kanda is the name which covers all sacrificial rites.

The essential idea of sacrifice, then, is the pouring out of life for the benefit of others; such pouring out is the law by which life evolves. It is imposed on the lower creation by strife and continual combats; its voluntary acceptance by self-sacrifice is the crowning glory of man. Hence all man’s higher evolution is marked out by self-sacrifice, by sacrificing himself and all his actions to the Supreme man obtains liberation. “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer [in sacrifice], whatever you give, whatever tapasya you practice, do that as an offering to me. Thus shall you be freed from the bonds of actions producing both good and evil fruits” (Bhagavad Gita 9:27-28).

The law of sacrifice in the world

Let us see how the law of sacrifice is seen in the physical world. The life in the mineral kingdom evolves as the mineral forms in which it dwells are broken up to nourish plants of every kind. The mineral forms perish to feed the life in the vegetable kingdom, and the life in the mineral forms has grown more complex and developed by this sacrifice.

The life in the vegetable kingdom evolves by the sacrifice of the lower plants to nourish the higher, the countless annual plants perishing to enrich the soil in which trees grow. Myriads of others are eaten by animals, and their forms go to build up animal bodies, in which the Life has fuller scope.

The life in part of the animal kingdom evolves by the sacrifice again of the lower forms to the higher, and also to the maintenance of the human kingdom, within which also the weak are devoured by the strong in the savage state. But here gradually, with increasing development of the animals to keen sensibility, and with the development of conscience and sympathy in man, another form of the law appears, and man begins to refuse to sacrifice to the support of his own life those who share with him the feelings of pleasure and pain. He first revolts against cannibalism–eating his own kind–and then against eating his weaker brothers in the animal kingdom. He realizes that the divine nature in him develops by sacrifice of himself to others, and not by the sacrifice of others to himself. He lessens as much as he can his demands on the lives of others, and increases as much as he can his own sacrifices for them. So long as a man identifies himself with his body, he is always trying to take, to absorb, because the body continues only by such taking and absorbing. When he identifies himself as the Self, he is always trying to give, to pour out, because the joy of the Self is in forth-pouring. On the pravritti marga he takes; on the nivritti marga he gives. Thus evolves the life of man.

Sacrifice in Sanatana Dharma

The alphabet of the lesson of sacrifice was taught to man by the rishis who watched over the human race in its infancy. They did not attempt to teach men the full lesson of self-surrender, but merely laid down for them a system of sacrifices, in which they should sacrifice some of their possessions with a view to their large increase in the future; the firm grasp with which a man grips the objects on the maintenance of which his life in the body depends was slowly loosened by the sacrifice of some of them, the return for this not being immediate but lying in the future.

“O Kings! Indra, Varuna, to this our sacrifice be turned by offerings and homage:… O Indra, Varuna, plenteous wealth and food and blessing give us:… This my song may it reach Indra, Varuna, and by its force bring sons and offspring” (Rig Veda 7.84.1, 4-5). Such prayers are found on every page of the samhitas, and thus were men taught to sacrifice what they valued for a future gain. By these sacrifices they were also taught to see that man is part of a great whole, and related to all around him; and that as his own life was maintained by the sacrifice of other lives, so he must repay that debt by sacrificing to others some of his possessions, sacrificing to the devas in the fire which was “the mouth of the gods,” or “the eater of food” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.6), and to men by charitable gifts. In this way the sense of obligation was impressed on them, and the interdependence of lives.

The next step was to train them to sacrifice these same possessions, immediately valuable, for happiness on the other side of death, a far-off invisible reward. “Let him sacrifice who desires swarga.” “Whoever works (sacrifices), pouring libations into the shining of these [the seven flames previously mentioned], at the proper time, him these sun-rays lead where dwells the one Lord of the devas. Saying to him ‘Come, come,’ these resplendent libations carry the sacrificer by the sun-ray, worshipping him and saying the sweet words: ‘This is your pure well-deserved Brahma-world’” (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.5-6).

The higher sacrifice

A great step forward was made in this sacrificing of the visible to the invisible, of the present to a far-off future. But the object of this training in sacrifices was no more the enjoyment of swarga than the enjoyment of wealth on earth. They had learned to curb their greed for possessions by the practice of giving, and to recognize themselves as owing their lives to the larger life around them; they were thus prepared for the third stage, that of sacrifice as duty, for which no reward should be sought.

Men now began to see that the sacrifice of the lower to the higher was “right,” a duty that was owed in return for the perpetual sacrifice of the higher to the lower, of the life of Ishwara for the maintenance of His children; and further that the body also owed a debt to the lower creatures who supported it, that ought to be paid by helping and serving them in turn. Then they were ready for the lesson: “Your authority (right) is to action alone, never to its fruits at any time. Never should the fruits of action be your motive; [and] never should there be attachment to inaction in you. Steadfast in yoga, perform actions abandoning attachment” (Bhagavad Gita 2:47-48).

The wheel of life which is ever turning, this interdependence of lives, being thoroughly understood, men see it as an obvious duty to help in the turning, and readily see the unworthiness of trying to live without doing their share of work: “He who here on the earth turns not the wheel thus set in motion, lives full of sense delights, maliciously and uselessly” (Bhagavad Gita 3:16).

This, practiced for long, led up to the last lesson, the complete self-surrender of the man to Ishwara, recognizing himself as only an instrument of the divine will carrying out in the physical world the purposes of that will. “Fix your mind on me, be devoted to me, sacrifice and bow down to (worship; reverence) me. In this way you shall truly come to me, for I promise you–you are dear to me. Abandoning all duties, take refuge in me alone” (Bhagavad Gita 18:65-66).

Thenceforth the whole life is a sacrifice, and the man lives only to do the divine will. Hence he abandons all separate dharmas as dharmas, as having over him no binding force. He has but the one dharma, of carrying out the divine will, and if he fulfills all family and other relationships more perfectly than he ever did before, it is not because they in themselves bind him, but because Ishwara having placed him amid these surroundings as part of Himself, as His representative, he must fully meet all the necessities of the case in this representative character.

During this long training, men were gradually led to see that outer sacrifices of wealth were less valuable than inner sacrifices of virtue, and that the purification of the heart and mind were of more real importance than the external purifications. While these should not be neglected, the neglect of the other was fatal. “He who has undergone the forty-two Samskaras [life-changing and spiritually empowering Vedic rituals], but has not the eight virtues of the Self, will not obtain Brahman, nor will he go to Brahmaloka. But he who has only a part of the forty-two Samskaras, but has the eight virtues of the Self, he will attain to Brahman and go to Brahmaloka” (Gautama Dharma Sutras 8:22-23).

The object of sacrifice is purification, and this has been insisted on over and over again. Says Sri Krishna: “The ignorant, delighting in the word of the Veda, proclaim this flowery speech: ‘There is nothing else.’ Those of desire-filled natures, intent on heaven, offering rebirth as actions’ fruit, performing many and various rites, are aimed at the goal of enjoyment and power. To those attached to enjoyment and power, their minds drawn away by this speech, is not granted resolute (firm; definite) insight in meditation” (Bhagavad Gita 2:42-44). And again: “Better than the sacrifice of material things is knowledge-sacrifice…. No purifier equal to knowledge is found here in the world” (Bhagavad Gita 4:33, 38).

Bhishma speaking of truth and declaring it to be sacrifice of a high order, says: “Once a thousand horse-sacrifices and truth were weighed against each other in the balance. Truth weighed heavier than a thousand horse-sacrifices” (Mahabharata, Shanti Parvan, 162:26). With regard to abstention from cruelty he says: “Gifts made in all sacrifices, ablutions performed in all sacred waters, and the merit acquired by making all the possible kinds of gifts–all these do not come up to abstention from cruelty (ahimsa). The penances of a man that abstains from cruelty are inexhaustible. The man who abstains from cruelty is regarded as always performing sacrifices” (Mahabharata, Anushasana Parvan, 40-41).

To destroy the sense of separateness is to gain the ultimate fruit of all sacrifices–purification and union with the Supreme. This is the road along which the great rishis have led the true followers of the Sanatana Dharma.

The points to be remembered

  1. The world was created and is maintained by a Divine Sacrifice.
  2. Sacrifice is essentially giving, pouring forth.
  3. Sacrifice is the law of evolution; compulsory in the lower kingdoms, becoming voluntary in the human.
  4. Man rises by definite stages from Vaidika (Vedic) sacrifices to self-sacrifice.
  5. Sacrifices of virtue and wisdom are more effective than the sacrifices of external objects.


The Worlds–Visible and Invisible

We have followed the jivatman in his evolution, and have seen the laws of his growth, the unfolding of his consciousness. We have now to consider the upadhis (bodies) in which he dwells, and the worlds that he inhabits during his long pilgrimage. These upadhis are related to the worlds, and by them the jivatman comes into contact with these worlds, and is able to gain experience from them and to act in them. The upadhis are only brought into existence to serve the purposes of the jivatman, moved by desire to experience these worlds. That the jivatman’s own desire is at the root of his embodiment is very plainly stated in the Chandogya Upanishad. First comes the statement: “O Maghavan, this body truly is mortal, controlled by death. It is the dwelling of the immortal bodiless atman” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.12.1).

Then the wish to experience is said to lead the atman to form organs for receiving and transmitting to himself the experiences. His wish lies at the root of each, and matter obeys his impulse, and obediently moulds itself into a form suitable for the exercise of the life-function. (Science, in these later days, proves over and over again that an organ is formed under the pressure of the life seeking to function in a particular way.) “He who has the consciousness, ‘may I smell,’ he, the atman, in order to smell, (makes) the organ of smell; he who has the consciousness, ‘may I speak,’ he, the atman, in order to speak, (makes) the voice; he who has the consciousness, ‘may I hear,’ he, the atman, in order to hear, (makes) the organ of hearing; he who has the consciousness, ‘may I think,’ he, the atman, (makes) the mind, his divine eye…” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.12.4-5).

It is by this subtle organ, the mind, that he sees and enjoys, for the grosser matter cannot affect his subtle essence. The Shruti continues: “He, verily, this (atman), by the divine eye, the mind, sees and enjoys these (objects of) desires.”

Here is, at once, the psychology and physiology connected with the jivatman. He is a conscious being, and that consciousness, seeking external experiences, fashions senses and sense-organs for contact with the outer worlds, and a mind of nature more akin to itself as a bridge between the outer and the inner. It is these and the worlds to which they are related, that we have now to study.

Sri Krishna speaks on exactly the same lines, reminding us further of the essential identity between the jivatman and the Supreme Ishwara: “A fragment of myself, becoming an eternal jiva (spirit; being) in this world of jivas, draws to itself the senses, and the mind as the sixth sense, abiding in Prakriti.… Presiding over hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell as well as the mind, this one [Ishwara] experiences the objects of the senses.” (Bhagavad Gita 15:7, 9)

The three worlds and the seven

There are three worlds in which the jivatman circles round on the wheel of births and deaths. These are bhurloka, or bhuloka, the physical earth; bhuvarloka, the world next to the physical, and closely related to it but of subtler matter; swarloka, or swarga, the heaven-world. Beyond these are four other worlds, belonging to the higher evolution of the jivatman: mahaloka, janaloka, tapaloka, and satyaloka. The first three lokas, or worlds, perish at the end of a day of Creation, a day of Brahma, and are reborn at the dawn of the succeeding day. The others persist, but as mahaloka is rendered untenable and deserted by all its inhabitants, four lokas may be regarded as perishing at the Night of Brahma, while three–janaloka, tapaloka, and satyaloka–remain. All these seven lokas are within the Brahmanda.

These lokas mark the stages of evolution of the consciousness of the jivatman; as his powers unfold, he becomes conscious of these lokas one after the other, and becomes able to feel, think and act in upadhis made out of the bhutani, the bhutas or elements, which correspond to these stages of consciousness. Each loka, as a state, represents a form of the consciousness of Ishwara; and, as a place, represents a modification of prakriti, expressing that state of consciousness. As the jivatman is of the nature of Ishwara, he is capable of realizing these seven states of consciousness, and of thus living in touch with the seven worlds or modifications of prakriti, which correspond to them. These seven, as said above, make up the Brahmanda, the World Egg, within which the creative work of Brahma proceeds.

“Above the earth is bhurloka, then bhuvarloka beyond. Then next is swarloka, and janaloka beyond. Yet beyond is tapaloka, and again beyond is satyaloka. Then beyond is Brahmaloka, like burning gold. All this is made, one within the other; when that perishes, all perish, O Narada! All this collective universe is like a water-bubble, transient” (Devi Bhagavata 9.14-16). Here “Patala” is made to cover the seven Talas and Mahaloka is omitted, Brahmaloka being added at the end to make up the seven.

Let us examine these words more closely. The first three, Bhur, Bhuvar and Swar lokas, are those in which the jivatman lives during his long evolution, in which he dwells while on the wheel of births and deaths. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: “Now verily there are three worlds, the world of men, the world of the pitris, the world of the devas” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.5.16).

These three are called the triloki, the three worlds. Each of these worlds is a definite region, marked off by the nature of the matter of which it is composed. The tattwa that predominates in bhurloka, or prithvi, the earth, is the prithvi tattva. There are seven modifications of it, prithvi, ap, agni, vayu, akasha–solid, liquid, gaseous, radiant matter, etheric, super-etheric and atomic. In all the combinations which make up these modifications of prakriti, the various aggregations of the anu, the prithvi tattwa, is predominant. In bhuvarloka the apa tattwa is predominant and in the seven corresponding modifications there the aggregations of the anu of that world, this apa tattwa, is the most prominent characteristic. In swarloka the agni tattwa is the ruling power, and all the combinations bear the stamp of this fiery anu. All the bodies of the beings belonging to that region are flashing and luminous, and from this comes the name of deva, “a shining one.” We then come to mahaloka, in which also the agni tattwa is predominant, a world composed only of the three finest and subtlest aggregations of the fiery anu.

The three higher lokas, jana, tapa and satya lokas, are not reached by the jivatman till he is very highly evolved. In janaloka and tapaloka the vayu tattwa predominates, hence all the combinations interpenetrate each other without any difficulty, as gases do down here, and the sense of unity predominates over the sense of separateness.

In satyaloka the akasha tattwa predominates, and the jivatman here attains the shabda-brahman-world, and is on the threshold of mukti. He has reached the limit of the Brahmanda. Beyond it lie the realms of the two highest tattwas, the mahat-tattwa–sometimes called anupadaka, because it has as yet no upadaka, receptacle or holder–and the adi-tattwa, the root of all.

Seven states of consciousness

These seven lokas correspond to seven states of consciousness of the jivatman. The life in man which is consciousness is that of the Self; it is written: “Of atman this life is born” (Prashna Upanishad 3.3). And: “From this these seven flames become” (Prashna Upanishad 3.5).

Again, in the Mundaka Upanishad, the seven worlds are connected with the seven flames, and these flames take the departed soul to the heavenly worlds (Prashna Upanishad 1.2.3-6). And the Devi Bhagavata says: “From whom the seven prana-flames, and also the seven fuels, the seven sacrifices and worlds: to that All-Self we bow” (7.33.49). The seven pranas, or life-breaths, of the body are the representatives of the seven great pranas, the true life-breaths, of the Self, consciousness sevenfold divided in man. This is plainly stated in the Chandogya Upanishad, where it is said that there are five gates out of the heart which lead to heaven, the five pranas, or life-breaths, each of these leading to a special region, that to which each belongs. Thus prana itself, the chief life-breath, leads to the Sun, here standing for the chief, or highest loka, satyaloka. Vyana, leading southwards, carries to the Moon–here to the dark side of the moon, connected with bhuvarloka. Apana leads to the fire Region, mahaloka, and samana, “which is the mind,” to swarloka. Udana leads to the air region, that of vayu which includes janaloka and tapaloka. The pranas in man correspond to the cosmic pranas, for man is related to, and reflects in every part, the image of Ishwara and His universe.

Four states of consciousness

In the Mandukya Upanishad, the Self is said to have four states: the jagrat, waking, in which he is called vaishwanara; the swapna, “dreaming,” in which he is called taijasa; the third sushupti, the dreamless sleep, “well sleeping,” in which he is called prajna; and the fourth, that which is Brahman. These three states belong to the seven lokas, as will be clearly seen, if we now consider the deha, the bodies, in which the aspects of consciousness are manifested. We shall return to the aspects of consciousness when we consider them in their several material sheaths.

The bodies (shariras/koshas) of the atman-self

There are three chief bodies which the atman uses as upadhis: (1) The sthula-sharira, sense or gross body; this is the upadhi of the vaishvanara consciousness. (2) The sukshma sharira, subtle body; this is the upadhi of the taijasa consciousness. (3) The karana-sharira, or causal body; this is the upadhi of the prajna consciousness.

“Atman in the karana (causal body) is prajna; He is taijasa in the sukshma (astral) body; in the sthuladeha (physical body) he is named vishva. Threefold he is thus called.… The Lord also is thus spoken of as threefold, by the names Isha, Sutra (Sutratma) and Viraj. The first (Jivas) is the distributive form, while the Collective Self is the Supreme.” (Devi Bhagavata 7.32.47, 49)

As every man has, then, three upadhis and uses them as the organs of three different forms of consciousness, the Lord has three dehas, upadhis, and three different forms of universal consciousness; these are called Isha, Sutra (Sutratma) and Virat respectively, corresponding to the three human forms of consciousness–prajna, taijasa, and vaishvanara.

These upadhis may be considered as expressions in matter of the three aspects of the Self: will, wisdom and activity. The sthula-sharira is the organ of activity; the sukshma sharira is the organ of wisdom; the karana-sharira is the organ of will. And just as these three aspects express themselves in higher and lower states of consciousness–will and desire, wisdom and knowledge, creation and generation–so are the shariras made up of sheaths, composed of differing densities of matter, according to the subdivision of the consciousness working in each sheath. The three shariras are related to the seven lokas as follows: The sthula-sharira is the upadhi in Bhurloka. The sukshma sharira is the upadhi in Bhur, Bhuvar, Swar, and Mahar lokas. The karana-sharira is the upadhi in Jana, Tapa, and Satya lokas.

The shariras, as said above, are made up of sheaths, and here the Vedantic division of the five koshas, sheaths, is very helpful.

The first kosha is that which is built of the particles of food, and is therefore named annamaya kosha, the food sheath. This is identical with the sthula-sharira, the dense body, and is composed of solids, liquids, and gases, in which the prithvi tattwa predominates. Here the outer expressions of the karmendriyas, the organs of action–hands, feet, voice, generation and evacuation–have their place. Here is the nervous system, with its central organ, the brain, through which vaishvanara, the waking consciousness, acts, and comes into touch with bhurloka. 

The second, third and fourth koshas–the pranamaya kosha, life-breath sheath; the manomaya kosha, mind sheath; and the vijnamaya kosha, the knowledge sheath–make up the sukshma sharira, the subtle body.

The indriyas

“The five jnanendriyas, the five karmendriyas, and the five pranas, and manas with vijnana, this is the sukshma sharira, which is called my realm.” (Devi Bhagavata 7.32.41-42). 

The student must here notice the word karmendriyas. The absolute organs–hands, feet, etc.–belong obviously to the sthula-sharira, but the centers which govern them, the true motor centers, are in the sukshma sharira, as are the sense centers which have as their organs in the sthtula sharira the eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin. Each indriya is essentially a subtle center in the sukshma sharira, and has an organ in the sthula-sharira. If this be grasped, the student will not be puzzled by the (seemingly) verbal contradictions that he may meet with in his reading.

A restatement

The sukshma sharira is connected with bhurloka by that part of it which is called the pranamaya kosha; this kosha is composed of the subtle ethers of the physical world, bhurloka, and the pranas move in this etheric sheath, the life-currents which carry on all the functions of the body. Of these there are five at work–the remaining two being latent–and these are: prana, the outgoing breath; apana, the incoming breath; vyana, the held-in breath; udana, the ascending breath; samana, the equalizing breath, which distributes the digested food throughout the body. In these pranas the magnetic energies of the body exist, and all bodily energies are modifications of these. “I, indeed, fivefold dividing myself, by my support maintain this (body)” (Prashna Upanishad 2.3). “From whatever limb prana departs, that indeed becomes dried up (withered)” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.19). And, as we shall presently see, when prana leaves the body, the body dies. For the purusha asks: “Who is it in whose going I shall go, in whose staying I shall stay? He created prana” (Prashna Upanishad 6.3).

Modern science, it may be remarked, has come to the conclusion that all these energies are movements in ether, and it is this ether, as said above, which forms that pranamaya kosha.

The part of the sukshma sharira connecting it with bhuvarloka and swarloka is the manomaya kosha, or mind-sheath. This manomaya kosha is composed of matter from these two worlds, and is the upadhi of the lower mind, manas affected by, mingled with, kama. This mind, which is never separated from desires, has in this sheath matter of bhuvarloka, in which desires function, and matter from swarloka, in which thoughts function.

Lastly, the sukshma sharira, by its subtlest particles, is connected with mahaloka, to which pure manas, manas free from kama, belongs, and these particles, of the matter of mahaloka, form the vijnanamaya kosha. 

This body, it will be seen, is a very complicated one, yet it is necessary to understand it, if the path of the man after death is to be followed. It is the upadhi of the taijasa consciousness, in which the Self comes into touch with the permanent invisible worlds, the consciousness spoken of sometimes as that of dream. It includes, however, far more than is indicated by the modern use of the word dream, for it includes the high states of trance, attainable by yoga, in which a man may reach mahaloka.

The third sharira, the karana sharira, is composed of the matter of the three higher and relatively permanent lokas, jana-, tapa-, and satya- lokas.

The anandamaya kosha of the Vedantins is the same as this karana sharira, and this is composed of the materials of the three lokas just named. The name covers the three–as there are really three sheaths under one name. In the bodies of the dwellers in janaloka the material of that world predominates and wisdom specially characterizes them, that world being the abode of the Kumaras, the beings whose pure wisdom is untouched by any desire. In the tapaloka the great ascetics and devotees live, and in their bodies the materials of tapaloka predominate, ananda being their chief characteristic. Satyaloka (Brahmaloka) is the home of those whose peculiar functions are in activity, closely allied to the nature of Brahma.

In this third sharira the prajna consciousness works, not affecting the lower bodies; beyond this is the Brahmanda, and the atman rising beyond it unites with Ishwara.

Consciousness, in the annamaya kosha, functions in the brain and is concerned with external activities; it uses at the same time the pranamaya kosha to carry on the life-functions of the body, and affects, by this, all the objects with which it comes into contact; these two koshas leave minute particles of themselves on all the objects they touch, and the rules of physical purity are based on this fact. 

Consciousness, in the waking state, also uses the manomaya kosha, by which it desires and thinks, and these three sheaths are active during all waking consciousness. A deep thinker, a philosopher or metaphysician, also uses the vijnanamaya kosha in working out his thoughts, but ordinary men do not get beyond the manomaya kosha.

When the time of death comes, the pranamaya kosha separates from the annamaya kosha, and leaves the latter inert and helpless, fit only for the burning-ghat. Its elements are scattered, and go back into the general store. The presence of prana is necessary for its life. “As long as prana dwells in the body, so long is life” (Kaushitaki Brahmana Upanishad 3.2). This same upanishad describes a dying man, and tells how all the powers of the waking consciousness are gathered up in prana, so that when prana goes out all these accompany it, and the man, the Self, going out, all these powers go with him. He is then in the karana and sukshma shariras.

The pranamaya kosha, the part of the subtle body made of ethers, soon drops away, and the man enters the pretaloka, the world of the departed, a special region in bhuvarloka. If he has been a bad man, the coarser part of the manomaya kosha is rearranged to form the dhruvam sharira, the strong body (Manu Smriti 12.16), called also the yatana sharira, in which he suffers the results of his evil deeds. If he be a good man, these coarser particles gradually drop away, and in the partially purified manomaya kosha he goes to the peaceful pitriloka, the “watery world,” still a region in bhuvarloka. When the manomaya kosha is quite freed from its desire particles, he goes on into the division of swarga allotted to the departed, sometimes called the moon. “They who depart from this world all go to the moon.… The moon is the gate of swarga” (Kaushitaki Brahmana Upanishad 1.2). And again we read in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that the departed go to “pitriloka, from pitriloka to the moon” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.2.16).

The manomaya kosha is called the lunar body, and, as we shall see in a moment, is also called Soma, the moon. This path, from the earth to pitriloka, from pitriloka to the moon, or the part of swarga allotted to ordinary men between death and birth–other than Indraloka, Suryaloka, etc., divisions of swarga gained by special merits–is called pitriyana, the path of the pitris.

From the moon they return to the earth, the first stage being that in which a new manomaya kosha is obtained. This is brought down to bhurloka, where the pranamaya and annamaya koshas are formed, and so rebirth is gained.

“Those who desire offspring and are devoted to almsgiving and rituals, considering these the highest accomplishment, attain the world of the moon and are born again on earth.… They travel by the southern path, which is the path of the fathers [pitris]” (Prashna Upanishad 1.9).

“From… from the world of the fathers [they pass] to the moon.… Having dwelt there as long as there is residue [of good karma] they return again [to earthly rebirth]” (Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.4-5).

The path of freedom

The devayana, the path of the devas, is only trodden by those who do not compulsorily return to the earth during this kalpa. They depart as do the others, but they pass on from the moon, casting off the manomaya kosha, to the deva world, and from that to the sun and the lightning, to Brahmaloka. “In those Brahma-worlds they dwell immemorial years” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.2.15. See Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.2.) Shankara remarks that these worlds are not absolutely free from transmigration, but that they will not be reborn within this kalpa. These are they of whom the Vishnu Purana (1.3) says that they dwell in the higher lokas while Brahma sleeps.

One other matter of importance remains in connection with man’s bodies and the seven lokas. By yoga, a man may, during his lifetime, separate himself from his lower sheaths and rise into the higher worlds; and, far more, he may reach the vidya which liberates. “Now within this Brahmapura (the body) there is a minute lotus-like chamber, and within it a minute inner space” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.1.1). Therein dwells the atman, unobserved by ordinary men. “As those ignorant of the nature of the field pass over a hidden gold mine and do not find it, so all men daily go to this Brahmaloka and do not find it” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.3.2). Leaving the body in sleep, they, as it were, walk over it, but do not know it. But he who knows it, daily retires to this region in the heart, and “Having risen from this body, he attains a splendid body of light, and dwells in his own form. This is the Atman” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.3.4). By yoga this separation is effected, and it is written: “That (purusha) let him draw out from his own body with self-possession, like a grass-stalk from its sheaths” (Katha Upanishad 2.6.17).

This is not the place to enter into details as to yoga. It is enough to know that such high possibilities are within the reach of man, and may be realized by purity, by knowledge and by love.

The points to be remembered

  1. The jivatman, seeking experience, forms bodies.
  2. He dwells in three worlds, during the cycle of births and deaths.
  3. There are seven lokas within the Brahmanda, and seven talas.
  4. There are three great shariras, corresponding to three main states of consciousness, and these are subdivided into seven, corresponding to the seven lokas.
  5. At and after death, the jivatman throws off the lower koshas, dwelling finally in swarga in the purified manomaya kosha, after leaving pitriloka.
  6. The jivatman may, by yoga, free himself from the lower koshas during physical life.
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Chapters in Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Religion

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