by Swami Nirvikarananda | 119,635 words
The first chapter contains the story of Naciketas and Yama; the second chapter teaches the path to liberation; the third chapter relates to Jivatma and the Paramatma; the fourth to sixth chapters contain the conclusion and verses on rebirth. The Katha Upanishad is one of the mukhya (primary) Upanishads and is also notable for first introducing th...
In the last Canto, the exposition ended with the note of fearlessness as the fruit of realization. In the third Canto, into the study of which we enter now, we are presented with further insights in to the nature of our spiritual journey and the concern that the Vedantic teacher feels for his student’s spiritual welfare. In verses one and two, Yama says:
ऋतं पिबन्तौ सुकृतस्य लोके
गुहां प्रविष्टौ परमे परार्धे ।
छायातपौ ब्रह्मविदो वदन्ति
पञ्चाग्नयो ये च त्रिणाचिकेताः ॥
ṛtaṃ pibantau sukṛtasya loke
guhāṃ praviṣṭau parame parārdhe |
chāyātapau brahmavido vadanti
pañcāgnayo ye ca triṇāciketāḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 1st Mantra Canto 3)
Two there are who dwell within the body, in the supreme cavity of the buddhi (intelligence), enjoying the sure rewards of their good (and bad) deeds. The knowers of Brahman, as also those householders who have performed thrice the Nachiketā sacrifice, describe them as shade and light.
यः सेतुरीजानानामक्षरं ब्रह्म यत् परम् ।
अभयं तितीर्षतां पारं नाचिकेतं शकेमहि ॥
yaḥ seturījānānāmakṣaraṃ brahma yat param |
abhayaṃ titīrṣatāṃ pāraṃ nāciketaṃ śakemahi ||
(Katha Upanishad, 2nd Mantra Canto 3)
We are capable of performing the Nachiketā sacrifice which is the bridge (to heaven) for the sacrificers, and (we also capable of knowing) the imperishable Brahman the Supreme which is sought by those who wish to cross over to the shore of fearlessness.
The Kingdom of Heaven Is within You
It is a favourite theme with the Upanishads and other books of the Vendantic literature that the highest truth is within us. In the first verse, Yama refers to the buddhi or intelligence of the man as a cave in which are the finite self of man—the jīva or soul— and the infinite Self of the universe— the Ātman or Brahman. These two are described as chhāyā and ātapa, shade and light, respectively. Brahman is the light of all lights, and jiva or finite soul is Its reflection in the buddhi or intelligence. Brahma, being the all and present everywhere, has no journey to perform. But the finite jīva has a journey to perform, the journey towards fulfilment, the journey to the infinite, which takes him through the discipline of actions which produce their fruits invariably. The verse, however, attributes such a journey to Brahman also, since it refers to the two—jīva and Brahman—as enjoying the reward of good and bad deeds by using the verb—
— enjoy in the dual number. This is just a figure of speech says Shankara in his comment on the verse on the analogy of the expression ‘the possessors of the umbrella.’ When a king with his retinue moves out in a procession with umbrellas, people say, ‘
— people with umbrellas are going’ though most of the people in the procession do not possess umbrellas. It is due to the fact that Brahman also abides in man and is associated with his soul. It is the jīva only who enjoys the fruits of actions, this is the purport.
The Upanishads describe this association variously; this verse speaks of it as
— shade and light. The Mundaka Upanishad (III. I. 1) speaks of it as
, ever together in friendship. The two are present in the buddhi or intelligence of man, which is referred to as guhā, cave, in view of its depth and inaccessibility; this intelligence is designated as
— the supreme abode of the highest (Brahman);
— it is verily there( in the intelligence) that the supreme Brahman is experienced, comments Shankara. This truth is not only to the knowers of Brahman, the philosophers, but also to the householders who are panchāgnayah—those who are given to the performance of five ritual sacrifices. That is Gārhapatya, Āhavanīya, Dakshināgni, Sabhya, and Āvasathya — heaven, cloud, earth, man and woman (Brhadāranyaka Upanishad VI. ix-xiii.)
तस्मिन् हि परं ब्रह्म उपलभ्यते
tasmin hi paraṃ brahma upalabhyate
Yama speaks of himself in verse two as capable of following the direct spiritual path indicated by the knowledge of Brahman, as well as the spiritual path through the worldly experience of profit and pleasure indicated by sacrificial ritual. By the later, man crosses over, as in the case of a setu or bridge, to the external security of heaven. By the former, he crosses the ocean of fear, which is life in this world or in a world of heaven; he crosses over to the other shore of fearlessness through realization of Brahman, his true Self.
Life is a Journey to Fulfillment
Like Yama, every man is entitled to follow either of these two paths. Life is a journey to fulfillment. The attainment of fulfillment, however, will depend upon the path that man takes. The path of profit and pleasure, earthly or heavenly, the way of preyas, as we have seen while discussing the opening verses of the second chapter, can never lead to true fulfillment; though involving much action and movement, and capable of yielding gross or refined sensate satisfactions, it is repetitive, but not creative; it tends only to increase of tension, sorrow, and fear. The Upanishad treats this path as unworthy of man. The path of knowledge and illumination, the way of shreyas, on the other hand, offers the supreme opportunity for man. And this path also, like the other path, lies through life itself, and not outside of it; it lies through life’s struggles for profit and pleasure, knowledge and virtue, and through its ups and downs of joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, and all such dual throng. Guided by discrimination and detachment, life forges ahead in this path to achieve fulfilment in character and vision. Such a life alone is creative, unlike the life of mere profit and pleasure which, as we have seen, is only repetitive and stagnant.
The Imagery of the Chariot
Yama now proceeds, in verses three to nine of this chapter, chapter three, to expound Nachiketā the nature of this heroic journey to summit of character and vision through the field of life and action; in verses three and four, he first speaks of the wonderful equipments for life’s journey that every human being is provided with:
आत्मानं रथिनं विद्धि शरीरं रथमेव तु ।
बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव च ॥
ātmānaṃ rathinaṃ viddhi śarīraṃ rathameva tu |
buddhiṃ tu sārathiṃ viddhi manaḥ pragrahameva ca ||
(Katha Upanishad, 3rd Mantra Canto 3)
Know the Ātman as the master within the chariot, and the body verily, as the chariot; know the buddhi (intelligence) as the charioteer, and the manas (insipient mind), verily, as the reins.
इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुर्विषयां स्तेषु गोचरान् ।
आत्मेन्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीषिणः ॥
indriyāṇi hayānāhurviṣayāṃ steṣu gocarān |
ātmendriyamanoyuktaṃ bhoktetyāhurmanīṣiṇaḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 4th Mantra Canto 3)
The sense-organs, they say, are the horses, and the roads for them are the sense-objects. The wise call Him (the Atman) the enjoyer or experiencer (when He is) united with the body, senses, and mind.
Yama here views the human personality, consisting of the body, the sense-organs, mind, intellect, and the soul, in the light of the mighty evolutionary movement of the nature; and he employs a beautiful imagery—the imagery of the chariot—to illustrate his teaching about the evolutionary advances at the human level. This imagery was later used by Plato also. He says (Φαίδρος (Phaedrus), Dialogues of Plato, Vol. III, p.153, Jowett’s Edition):
To show her (soul’s) true nature would be a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, but an image of it may be given in a briefer discourse within the scope of man; in this way, then, let us speak. Let the soul be compared to a pair of winged horses and charioteer joined in natural union. Now the horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed. First, you must know that the human charioteer drives a pair; and next, that one of his horses is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; so that the management of the human chariot cannot but be a difficult and anxious task.
Consider the human body as a chariot, says Yama. The very idea of the chariot with its wheels, suggests journey; a chariot is not meant to be kept stationary in a shed, but to be put on the road. But the chariot has no motive power itself; neither has the human body. The chariot gets its motive power from the horses yoked to it. Similarly, the body gets its motive power from the sense-organs of the nervous system and the brain.
The organs of perception and the organs of action convert this animal body in to a centre of the most dynamic activity in nature. But at the level of the senses themselves, this activity is mostly uncoordinated and, therefore, not fit for purposes beyond mere organic survival. This co-ordination is found in man in a new faculty of what modern neurologists call ‘imagination’ or incipient mentality (Grey Walter, The Living Brain, p. 2). This is termed manas in Sanskrit; it is defined as
— consisting of an attitude of may be and may not be. Swami Vivekananda accordingly translates manas as ‘mind indecisive’. Indian thought treats it in its raw state as on a level with the five sense-organs of perception, and calls it the sixth sense-organ. In the imagery of the chariot, the reins stand for this manas.
The reins involve the charioteer; they have no meaning except in the hands of an intelligent charioteer. In the absence of the charioteer, horses without reins make better sense than horses with reins. For the horses have their own journeys, which are just physical journeys in space and time, the objectives of which are survival and sensate satisfactions. But when yoked to a chariot and reined, their movements subserve the purposes of some one other than themselves. Similarly, the combination of body, sense- organs, and manas points to a reality which has the capacity to control and direct their movements, like the charioteer in the imagery. This is buddhi or vijnāna, reason or enlightened intelligence. ‘Know buddhi as the sārathi or charioteer’, says the verse.
Even the charioteer, though necessary, is not sufficient; he points to a reality beyond himself, namely, the master of the chariot. The journey is ultimately his; the chariot, the horses, the reins and the charioteer are only the instruments of his purposes. Similarly, the buddhi also points to a reality beyond itself. That reality is the Ātman, the Self of man. ‘Know the Atman as the master of the chariot’, says the verse.
But this statement that the Ātman is the master of the chariot and, consequently, the master of the journey needs a qualification, thinks Yama. For the Ātman is ever perfect, ever free. He does not have anything to gain from a journey. Yet the journey is there; it is a fact of experience—this journey of life, this passage from unfulfilment to fulfilment. And there is also an experiencer, a subject of this journey. If the Ātman is not this subject, who else it may be? Yama answers:
— The Ātman identifying Himself with the body, sense-organs, manas (and buddhi) is the enjoyer (experiencer of the journey), so say the wise.’ The Ātman so conditioned is known as jīva, the equivalent of ‘soul’ of western thought. The jīva is a unique entity; Vedānta terms it variously: it is the jīvātman—‘the individual self’; it is the vijnānātman—‘Ātman identified with buddhi’ it is the chit-jada-granthi—the knot of intelligence and non-intelligence’, of spirit and matter. This condition explains its finitude, its limitation as an individual self. It also explains the rationale of the journey. A journey is a going out of oneself in search of fulfillment. In this case, however, it is a search for fulfillment by one who is essentially free and perfect, but who has forgotten this ever present fact. This is the tragedy of the human life. The journey at its best constitutes a necessary education for man for the re-acquisition of his spiritual awareness and freedom. The stark fact of the felt bondage and fulfillment against the ever present truth of inborn freedom and perfection converts the human heart into a battle-field of forces, a veritable Kurukshetra, and makes the human being the only restless pilgrim in God’s creation. It is this pilgrimage to which Yama introduces us in these two verses.
Two Types of Journey
The finite soul, satisfied in its finiteness of being, and seeking ever-increasing sensate satisfactions in the wide world of the becoming, is also engaged in a journey; but that journey is a movement within finitude itself. It is, in effect, a mere circular journey, ending where one started from. This stagnation at the sensate level is known as samsāra, worldliness, which is characterized by much movement with little or no spiritual progress, and in which man experiences in invariable sequence the three ‘e’s of entertainment, excitement, and exhaustion. The Upanishads considers this as the spiritual death of man; and Yama will refer to it in the second verse of the fourth chapter of this Upanishad.
But the journey which Yama is expounding in the present chapter is a journey which, though conducted in and through finitude, takes man out of his confines, and leads him to infinitude and universality. This is similar to man experiences in the physical world. Man, moving on the roads of the earth in a vehicle, may experience freedom and delight compared to the stagnation of a stay-at home man; he will experience greater freedom and delight if a rocket were to put his vehicle successfully in an orbiting motion round the earth. But that joy of movement will still be repetitive, and that freedom will still restricted and controlled by the gravity of the earth. He will experience full freedom from earthly bonds only if a powerful rocket were to take him beyond the earth’s gravitational field into a flight in free space. The criterion of man’s spiritual progress is this steady expansion towards the freedom of universality; this is the sign of Vedanta calls spiritual intelligence; stagnation at the sensate level, on the other hand, signifies spiritual unintelligence.
This is the fruit of materialism as consistent life philosophy. Great thinkers have protested against it both in ancient and modern times. The views of Thomas Huxley, the eminent scientific thinker of the nineteenth century and collaborator of Darwin, and R.A. Millikan, the eminent astrophysicist of this century, (quoted earlier) can bear repetition in this context. Says Huxley. (Methods and Results, pp. 164-65):
If we find that the ascertainment of the order of nature is facilitated by using one terminology, or one set of symbols, rather than another, it is our clear duty to use the former: and no harm can accrue, so long as we bear in mind that we are dealing merely with merely terms and symbols.
But the man of science, who forgetting the limits of philosophical enquiry, slides from these formulae and symbols into what is commonly understood by materialism , seems to me to place himself on a level with the mathematics who should mistake the x’s and y’s with which he works his problems for real entities—and with his further disadvantage as compared with the mathematician, that the blunders of the later are of no practical consequence, while the errors of systematic materialism may paralyze the energies and destroy the beauty of life. (Italics not author’s)
Says astrophysicist R.A. Millikan (Autobiography, last chapter):
My own personal testimony is that I do not see how there can be a sense of duty or any reason for altruistic conduct that is entirely divorced from the conviction that what we call goodness is somehow worthwhile and there is Something in the universe which gives significance and meaning to existence. Call it value if you will, but surely there can be no sense of value in mere lumps of dead matter interacting according to purely mechanical laws. To me, a purely materialistic philosophy is the height of unintelligence. (Italics not author’s)
This journey towards universality and fulfillment through the development of spiritual intelligence forms the theme of next four verses, verses five to eight, of the third canto of this Upanishad:
यस्त्वविज्ञानवान्भवत्ययुक्तेन मनसा सदा ।
तस्येन्द्रियाण्यवश्यानि दुष्टाश्वा इव सारथेः ॥
yastvavijñānavānbhavatyayuktena manasā sadā |
tasyendriyāṇyavaśyāni duṣṭāśvā iva sāratheḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 5th Mantra Canto 3)
He who is devoid of right understanding and with manas always undisciplined, his senses become uncontrolled like the bad (uncontrolled) horses of a charioteer.
यस्तु विज्ञानवान्भवति युक्तेन मनसा सदा ।
तस्येन्द्रियाणि वश्यानि सदश्वा इव सारथेः ॥
yastu vijñānavānbhavati yuktena manasā sadā |
tasyendriyāṇi vaśyāni sadaśvā iva sāratheḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 6th Mantra Canto 3)
But he who is possessed of right understanding and with manas always disciplined, his senses become controlled like the good (controlled) horses of a charioteer.
यस्त्वविज्ञानवान्भवत्यमनस्कः सदाऽशुचिः ।
न स तत्पदमाप्नोति संसारं चाधिगच्छति ॥
yastvavijñānavānbhavatyamanaskaḥ sadā'śuciḥ |
na sa tatpadamāpnoti saṃsāraṃ cādhigacchati ||
(Katha Upanishad, 7th Mantra Canto 3)
And he who is devoid of right understanding, with manas not held and always impure, never attains that goal, but gets into the round of worldliness.
यस्तु विज्ञानवान्भवति समनस्कः सदा शुचिः ।
स तु तत्पदमाप्नोति यस्माद्भूयो न जायते ॥
yastu vijñānavānbhavati samanaskaḥ sadā śuciḥ |
sa tu tatpadamāpnoti yasmādbhūyo na jāyate ||
(Katha Upanishad, 8th Mantra Canto 3)
But he who is possessed of right understanding, with manas held and ever pure, reaches that goal whence there is no birth (return to worldliness) again.
The Meaning of the Chariot Imagery
These four verses bring out the meaning of the chariot imagery. The phenomenal world itself is the road for the journey —
, says Yama. Vedanta summons us to play the game of life; neither the play nor its final fruit is a postmortem venture; it is all here and now, as Yama will tell us emphatically later. The world of sight and sound, of touch and taste and smell, is the environment for the journey, but it is not a physical journey outward in space. It is a spiritual journey of inward penetration, a reaching out into the heart of things.
विषयां स्तेषु गोचरान्
viṣayāṃ steṣu gocarān
The horses provide the motive power of the journey; but they cannot be allowed to set the pace for journey; lest it should turn out to be their journey, with the charioteer and the master of the chariot becoming just helpless victims. The reins are meant to prevent this: the more energetic the horses, the tougher the reins should be. But the reins can control the horses only when they are in the firm hands of the charioteer. One of the striking representations of Energy given by the world’s artistic heritage has this very theme of reckless horse under control of energetic rider. It is the charioteer that should set the pace of the journey, guided by the purposes and satisfactions of the master behind. For this is the charioteer has to be possessed of vijnāna—right understanding. It is not safe to entrust one’s journey to drunken or emotionally unstable charioteer; that will be worse than entrusting the journey to the horses themselves. The reins should be tough; if they snap at the slightest pull, it will be disastrous. The chariot, the horses, the reins, the charioteer, and the master of the chariot, each of these plays a significant part in a journey. Each succeeding member of the team is to provide the motive force for each of its preceding member or members.
The Emancipation of Buddhi or Reason
Similarly, life’s journey, to be successful, needs the contribution of all the constituents of the personality: the body, the senses, the manas, the buddhi, and the Self; each of these plays a significant part in this journey. But the most important thing is to ensure that the initiative and control pass from the senses to the buddhi through manas. This cannot happen unless the buddhi and the manas are trained and disciplined into their true forms. The true form of the manas is its pure state when it is aligned with buddhi, and ceases to be a mere appendage of the senses; then alone it can stand the stress and strain involved in its unique situation, namely, between the two powerful and initially and opposite forces of the senses and the buddhi. The true form of the buddhi is its pure state as Reason, when it is independent of the manas and sense-organs. It then reflects the pure light of awareness of the Atman behind, the true Self, and becomes possessed of discrimination and sound judgement. The buddhi, under liberation of any sort, be it through wine, or through wealth, power, knowledge, or pedigree, falls from its true form, descends to the level of senses. Free from these inebriations, it becomes luminous and calm, steady and sure. Such a buddhi is the best guide in life’s journey. It denotes the fusion of intelligence, imagination, and will in their purest forms. Its impact on life is irresistible as well as wholesome.
When the senses dominate the journey, life remains at the gross worldly stage, at the near-animal level. The spirit is sold in the market-place of the flesh. Life’s achievements are then measured in terms of mere titillations of the nerves and survival of the body.
When the manas, which is naturally volatile, dominates the journey, life experiences erratic movements and intense fluctuations between luminous inspirations and low depressions, between high moral and aesthetic levitations and low selfish and worldly gravitations.
When the buddhi dominates the journey, life rises to the steady ethical and spiritual levels, tastes true freedom and delight, and achieves fulfilment in universality through spiritual illumination.
Yama now sums up the theme in the next verse, verse nine, in a compressed statement of utmost significance:
विज्ञानसारथिर्यस्तु मनः प्रग्रहवान्नर ।
सोऽध्वनः पारमाप्नोति तद्विष्णोः परमं पदम् ॥
vijñānasārathiryastu manaḥ pragrahavānnara |
so'dhvanaḥ pāramāpnoti tadviṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padam ||
(Katha Upanishad, 9th Mantra Canto 3)
He who has vijnāna, buddhi or Reason, for his charioteer and a (disciplined) manas as the reins—he verily attains the end of the journey, that supreme state of Vishnu.
Herein is expressed the central core of the chariot of the chariot imagery. When the psycho-physical energy of man is directed by intelligence, something wonderful happens; every step of his life’s journey is accompanied by a steady rise in the quality of his life energy. His sensate life was largely governed by the physical criterion of quantity; the functions of his intelligence at that stage was to be high priest of his sensate nature.
It was then cribbed, cabined, and confined in physical moulds, and functioned more as physical energy and as a tool of nature than in its true spiritual form. Even in this unfree state, its services to human life are not insignificant. Civilization, with its social order and sensate refinements, constitutes the best of its gifts. These very gifts suggest the possibility of still higher gifts lying dormant in its unplumbed depths, the stirring of which may help to release those higher gifts. But this depends upon its functioning freely; it must cease to be the tall-end of the senses; these later are blind; their concern is with survival and self-preservation. Intelligence, though luminous, is rendered largely blind when functioning as the servant of the senses, as the tool of nature; its own contributions, far higher than mere survival or self-preservation, are stifled. Both Vedanta and modern biology agree that the aim of human life is not mere physical survival. Says Julian Huxley (Evolution after Darwin, Vol. I, p. 20):
In the light of our present knowledge, man’s most comprehensive aim is seen not as mere survival, not as numerical increase, not as increased complexity of organization or increased control over his environment, but as greater fulfillment—the fuller realization of more possibilities by the human species collectively and more of its component members individually.
The freeing of intelligence from thralldom to the senses and from the service of mere physical survival was achieved by nature in a small measure even in the pre-human stage. To quote neurologist Grey Walter, quoted earlier, (The Living Brain, p.16):
The acquisition of internal temperature control, thermostasis, was a supreme event in neural, indeed in all natural history. It made possible the survival of mammals on a cooling globe. That was its general importance in evolution. Its particular importance was that it completed, in one section of the brain, an automatic system of stabilization for the vital functions of the organism—a condition known as homeostasis. With this arrangement, other parts of the brain are left free for functions not immediately related to the vital engine or the senses, for functions surpassing the wonders of homeostasis itself.
The matter is epitomized in a famous saying of the French psychologist, Claude Bernard: La fixite du milieu interieur est la condition de la vie libre (a fixed interior milieu is the condition for free life).
Life under the Guidance of Buddhi
This liberation of intelligence on the part of man is fraught with tremendous consequences for him and his civilization. It will ensure what Julian Huxley calls the enthroning of quality over quantity in the evolutionary process. It will see man surpassing himself through a reaching out to transcendental levels of existence. The glory of the infinite and the universal will shine through the finite and the trivial. Every step in the freeing of intelligence marks an advance in the spiritual journey of man, the end of which is universality, or, as Yama expresses it:
— the supreme state of Vishnu.
तद्विष्णोः परमं पदम्
tadviṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padam
This is the state of universality of being. Says Shankara in his commentary on this verse:
व्यापनशीलस्य ब्रह्मणः परमात्मनो वासुदेवाख्यस्य परमं प्रकृष्टं परं स्थानं सतत्त्वमित्येतत्यदसौ आप्नोति विद्वान् ।
vyāpanaśīlasya brahmaṇaḥ paramātmano vāsudevākhyasya paramaṃ prakṛṣṭaṃ paraṃ sthānaṃ satattvamityetatyadasau āpnoti vidvān |
He, the wise one, attains the supreme, that is excellent or high, state of the all-pervading Brahman, the Reality in all, which as the supreme Self (of the universe), is designated as Vāsudeva.
Buddhism also employs the wheel and chariot imagery to illumine its presentation of man’s spiritual journey. Sings Buddha (
, The Book of Kindred Saying, Part I, I.V.6; Pali Text society Edition):
‘Straight’ is the name that Road is called,
And ‘Free from Fear’ the Quarter whither thou art bound.
Thy Chariot is the ‘Silent Runner’ named,
With wheels of Righteous effort fitted well.
Conscience the Leaning-board; the Drapery
Is Heedfulness; the Driver is the Norm (Dharma),
I say, and Right Views, they that run before.
And be it woman, be it man for whom
Such chariot doth wait, by that name car
Into Nibbāna’s (Emancipation’s) presence shall they come.
Life Itself Is Religion
This chariot imagery brings before us the vision of life as continuous education, as a dynamic creative movement towards complete life fulfillment. In its light, we see evolution at the human level as a striving for the liberation of spiritual values; life itself becomes a unitive process of education and religion; it is total educational process, of which the secular and the sacred become the earlier and the later phases of a single movement. No more is spirit at loggerheads with matter, nor soul in eternal conflict with the body, the sense-organs, the manas, the buddhi, and the Self, is the finest contrivance that nature has evolved for the exploration not only into her world of facts but also into her world of values, into the world of truth, goodness, and beauty. The privilege of being a human being is accordingly highly praised in Indian literature. This unique privilege has a double reference, namely exploration and control of the outer world, namely, the world of fact, and exploration and control of the inner world, namely, the world of meaning and value. Modern man has unique achievements to his credit in the former. Today, however, his supreme opportunity lies in the latter. In the words of astrophysicist R.A. Millikan which, though quoted before, bears reproduction in this context (Autobiography, last chapter):
It seems to me that the great pillars upon which all human well-being and human progress rest are, first, the spirit of religion, and second, the spirit of science—or knowledge. Neither can attain its largest effectiveness without support from the other. To promote the latter, we have universities and research institutions. But supreme opportunity for everyone with no exception lies in the first.(Italics not author’s)
Human Life: Its Uniqueness
This is what the Vedantic thinkers have been emphasizing ever since from the time of the Upanishads. The privilege of being a member of the species called Homo Sapiens can lead man to life fulfilment only if it is sustained by another privilege, namely, the striving for knowledge and the urge for spiritual freedom. Homo Sapiens is a single species, the only inter-breeding species in nature. The privilege of one, therefore, is the privilege of all. Every member of the human species is equipped by nature for the exploration of both the outer and the inner worlds.
If, in spite of adequate equipments, we do not advance on the path to fulfilment or reach the end of the journey, we have to conclude that we have not either taken proper care of the equipments or used them properly. The understanding of the technical know-how in this pervasive field is much more important than in the restricted fields of economic or social productivity. Hence the Vedantic thinkers speak of a third privilege to sustain and nourish the other two, namely, the guidance of a competent teacher. Nature is a total terra incognita to a new-born infant. Its exploration of external nature begins with the help of his mother and father, teachers and elders; it advances with the further help it receives from its professors and research directors, and eventually, by the aid of its own scientifically disciplined mind. All help from external teachers is meant to awaken the teacher that is ever within, says Vedanta. At the higher stages of all education, the mind itself becomes one’s guru says Shri Ramakrishna. If the external world was terra incognita to the child, needing guidance from an array of teachers for its exploration, the inner world is more so, not only to the child, but also to the adults. To enter on its exploration, they have to fortify themselves with a new humility and start as children with the freshness and with the curiosity of children. Before the great mystery of the inner life, man, be he a scientist or a scholar, a top executive or a millionaire, is but a child. Sings Tennyson expressing this chastened mood (In Memoriam, LIV):
… but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light;
And with no language but a cry.
Sanity in Spiritual Life
All productive activity depends upon the proper use of the tools and equipments, which, in turn, depends upon the mastery of their technical know-how. In the chariot imagery, The Upanishad stresses this point as applied to the field of the science of spirituality. Though our central concern in this science is with the buddhi, yet we are asked not to ignore the other two factors namely, the body the sense-organs, and the manas. These have to be kept in health and vigour. Their fitness is imperilled as much by senseless austerity as by foolish indulgence. We have seen, while studying the first chapter of this Upanishad, that Nachiketa had rejected the latter on precisely this ground, namely, that it ‘destroys the vigour of the sense-organs’:
Buddha has similarly rejected the path of sense-less austerity after trying it for six vain years. He then chose and followed the middle path and attained enlightenment. Afterwards, he powerfully advocated this path of sanity in spiritual life. Addressing his first disciple at Sārnāth, near Vārānasi, Buddha said in his very first discourse after enlightenment (Vinaya Pitaka Mahāvagga, Abridged, I. VI. 17):
सर्वेन्द्रियाणां जरयन्ति तेजः ।
sarvendriyāṇāṃ jarayanti tejaḥ |
These two extremes, monks, are not to be approached by him who has renounced the world. Which two? On the one hand, that which is linked and connected with lust through sensuous pleasures, and is low, ignorant, vulgar, ignoble, and profitless; on the other hand, that which is connected with the self mortification, and is painful, ignoble, and profitless. Avoiding both these extremes, monks there is the middle road, which brings realization and knowledge, and leads to tranquility, wisdom, full enlightenment, and peace.
The Gita also similarly advocates the middle path (VI. 16-17):
नात्यश्नतस्तु योगोऽस्ति न चैकान्तमनश्नतः ।
न चातिस्वप्नशीलस्य जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन ॥
nātyaśnatastu yogo'sti na caikāntamanaśnataḥ |
na cātisvapnaśīlasya jāgrato naiva cārjuna ||
Yoga, is verily not for him who over-eats, nor for him who over-fasts, nor also for him who over-sleeps, nor also for him who over-wakes.
युक्ताहारविहारस्य युक्तचेष्टस्य कर्मसु ।
युक्तस्वप्नावबोधस्य योगो भवति दुःखहा ॥
yuktāhāravihārasya yuktaceṣṭasya karmasu |
yuktasvapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkhahā ||
To him who is moderate in eating and recreation, who is moderate in the performance of actions, who is moderate in sleeping and waking, yoga becomes a destroyer of misery.
Kālidāsa, the great poet of classical Sanskrit literature, after arguing for moderation in physical austerity, sums up the Indian wisdom on the subject in a pithy utterance (Kumārasambhavam, V. 33):
शरीरमाद्यं खलु धर्मसाधनम्
śarīramādyaṃ khalu dharmasādhanam
The body, verily, is the primary means to the higher life.
Freedom is the Birthright of All
By proper discipline of the body, the sense-organs, and the manas, the buddhi becomes pure, free, and luminous. It then becomes capable of realizing the infinite dimension of the Ātman, of that Reality which presents itself in experience as the self of man. Man in his spiritual blindness has been identifying this self of his with the undoubtedly finite and perishable constituents of his personality, such as the body, the sense-organs, the manas, and the ego, separately or in combination. This had confined him to the bondage of finitude, with which, however, he had never been reconciled. Something within him had always told him, loudly or in whispers, that freedom was his birthright, that bondage was but a fall from grace. He had accordingly been lured by the scent of freedom. This lure had made him restless and peaceless, ever seeking, ever converting every achievement into a springboard for something higher, a pilgrim ever on the move, even though he was hardly aware of his final destination.
In the course of his long pilgrimage, he had achieved knowledge and virtue, civilization and culture; it had also given him an ever expansive view of his own self. All these achievements, however, belonged to the world of time, to the sphere of becoming, to the field of relativity, where freedom was still conditioned and challenged by the brute fact of death. Freedom can never be sure of itself—it ever stands imperiled—in the world of becoming, in the region of cause and effect determinism; it is only in the world of Being that freedom can find its sure and steady form. Says Swami Vivekananda (‘Inspired Talks’, Complete Works, Vol. VII, Fifth Edition, pp.52-53)
No law can make you free; you are free. Nothing can give you freedom, if you have it not already. The Ātman is self illumined. Cause and effect do not reach there and this disembodiedness is freedom. Beyond what was, or is, or is to be, is Brahman. As an effect, freedom would have no value; it would be a compound, and as such would contain the seeds of bondage. It is the one real factor, not to be attained, but real nature of the soul.
This knowledge and this conviction help man to invest his search for freedom with a new spiritual urgency, and orient it from the outer to the inner world; it becomes transformed into a search for his true Self, a search conducted, however, in the very context of his life and action. It is specifically this inward journey, and its happy consummation in fullness of freedom through infinitude of being, that Yama has delineated in the verse nine:
He who has vijnāna—enlightened intelligence—for his charioteer, and manas for the (tough and well controlled) reins, he reaches the successful end of the journey— the supreme achievement of universality of being.
Swami Vivekananda brings out the significance of this chariot imagery for the education of the spiritual pilgrimage of man in a marvellous passage of his lecture on ‘The Real Nature of Man’. Though partially quoted earlier dealing with verses ten and eleven of the second Canto of this Upanishad, it can bear full reproduction in the present context. Says he (Complete Works, Vol. II, pp. 81-82):
… Evolution is not in the spirit. These changes which are going on—the wicked becoming good, the animal becoming man, take them in whatever way you may like—are not in the spirit. They are evolution of nature and manifestation of spirit. Suppose there is a screen hiding you from me, in which there is a small hole through which I can see some of the faces before me, just a few faces. Now suppose the hole begins to grow larger and larger, and as it does, more and more of the scene before me reveals itself, and when at last the whole screen has disappeared, I stand face to face with you all. You did not change at all in this case; it was the hole that was evolving, and you are gradually manifesting yourselves. So it is with the spirit. No perfection is going to be attained. You are already free and perfect.
What are these ideas of religion and God and searching for the hereafter? Why does man, in every nation, in every state of society, want a perfect ideal somewhere, either in man, in God, or elsewhere? Because that is within you. It was your own heart beating, and you did not know; you were mistaking it for something external. It is the God within your own self that is propelling you to seek for Him, to realize Him.
After long searches here and there, in temples in churches, in earths and in heavens, at last you come back, completing the circle from where you started, to your own soul, and find that He, for whom you have been seeking all over the world, for whom you have been weeping and praying in churches and temples, on whom you were looking as the mystery of all mysteries shrouded in the clouds, is nearest of the near, is your own Self, the reality of your life, body and soul. That is your own nature. Assert it, manifest it. Not to become pure, you are pure already. You are not to be perfect, you are that already. Nature is like that screen which is hiding the reality beyond. Every good thought that you act or think upon is simply tearing the veil, as it were; and the purity, the infinity, the God behind, manifests itself more and more.
This is the whole history of man.
The sages of the Upanishads realized the infinite and immortal Ātman as the true Self of man. There in alone is the true life for him. And the Upanishads are never tired of holding up before man this high and true destiny of his and providing him with the ethical and spiritual stimulus for its realization. These forms the theme of the remaining eight verses of this chapter, Which we shall study next.
We learnt the Upanishad expounding to us, with the aid of the chariot imagery, the ever-fascinating theme of the man’s journey to truth and fulfilment. The Upanishad is now going to tell us, something more about this journey. This chapter of the Upanishad, the third, is unique for its practical bent of teaching. In all the Upanishads, generally what we get is pure idea, the statement of lofty truths as attained facts. It is not that they are merely theoretical as opposed to practical; they are not theoretical in this sense, for the truths expounded are drawn from experience and not derived from intellectual cogitations. But the Upanishads, while conveying the highest truths, expect the listeners to grasp them straightaway, since such listeners were constituted of select group of qualified students. The struggle to grasp and realize the truths becomes reduced to a minimum when both the teacher and his students are competent; and competency in the case of spiritual truths always involves purity of heart apart from clarity of intellect. In such cases, the imparting of highest spiritual truths does not need the help of much practical demonstration. The sages and their pupils move, as it were, on air so thin and rare as to leave hardly any visible footprints.
Light on the Path
But in this chapter of the Katha-Upanishad, as also in the parts of the Chandogya and Tattiriya Upanishads, they have left some footprints for the benefit of the less gifted; they have deigned to come down to the level of struggling humanity and thrown some light not only on the goal, which they have always done, but also on the path. We mark this note of concern for the struggling seeker in the verses we studied, now we shall come across this mood , with its touch of compassion for man yearning for the light of truth, with its word of cheer and hope for the pilgrim braving mountain-high obstacles on his path, in some of the verses to follow.
Generally speaking, the body of spiritual insights of the Upanishads constituting Vedānta is like lofty monument; it is intellectually impressive and spiritually alluring; and we feel tempted to reach the heights; but on going closer, we soon realize that neither have they provided it with steps from the ground to the crest of the edifice, nor have we been provided with wings to fly to the crest. Vedānta speaks of dispassion and spiritual awareness, vairāgya and bodha, as the two wings with which man can fly to the crest, steps or no steps. Sings Shankara in his immortal Vivekachudamani or the Crest-jewel of Discrimination (verse 374):
वैराग्यबोधौ पुरुषस्य पक्षिवत्
पक्षौ विजानीहि विचक्षण त्वम् ।
ताभ्यां विना नान्यतरेण सिध्यति ॥
vairāgyabodhau puruṣasya pakṣivat
pakṣau vijānīhi vicakṣaṇa tvam |
tābhyāṃ vinā nānyatareṇa sidhyati ||
Know, o wise one, that, for man, dispassion and spiritual awareness are like the two wings of a bird. Unless both are there none can, with the help of either one, reach Liberation that grows like a creeper, as it were, on the crest of an edifice.
But how few have developed these sturdy wings of blessedness! For the rest, it is only wonder and admiration from a distance; or, as sometimes happened, mere external imitation of the ‘winged’ ones, ending in spiritual disaster through delusive compromise. Steps are necessary, and even wayside resting places at intervals, so that spiritually inclined men and women, with ordinary moral and spiritual gifts, may venture on this journey to life-fulfilment with some hope of eventual success. This is the service that the mighty edifice of Vedānta received from some of the later spiritual teachers, and more especially, from Shri Krshna, the teacher of the Gitā.
Vedanta on the inner Layers of the Universe
Introducing verses ten and eleven of the third chapter of the Katha Upanishad, which form a single theme and which we shall study now, Shankara says in his commentary:
अधुना यत्पदं गन्तव्यं तस्य इन्द्रियाणि स्थूलान्यारभ्य सूक्ष्मतारतम्यक्रमेण प्रत्यगात्मतयाऽधिगमः कर्तव्य इत्येवमर्थमिदमारभ्यते ।
adhunā yatpadaṃ gantavyaṃ tasya indriyāṇi sthūlānyārabhya sūkṣmatāratamyakrameṇa pratyagātmatayā'dhigamaḥ kartavya ityevamarthamidamārabhyate |
Now, that state, which is to be attained (through the spiritual journey), a journey which begins with the sense-organs which are gross, and proceeds through comparatively subtler and subtler aspects—that state is to be realized as the pratyagātman, the inner Self. In order to convey this truth, the Upanishad proceeds as follows.
Verses ten and eleven, which tell us of the landmarks of the journey to the Self, read thus:
इन्द्रियेभ्यः परा ह्यर्था अर्थेभ्यश्च परं मनः ।
मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिर्बुद्धिरात्मा महान्परः ॥
indriyebhyaḥ parā hyarthā arthebhyaśca paraṃ manaḥ |
manasastu parā buddhirbuddhirātmā mahānparaḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 10th Mantra, Canto 3)
The sense-objects are higher than the sense-organs; the manas is higher than the objects; the buddhi is higher than the manas; the mahān ātmā (great self) is higher than the buddhi.
महतः परमव्यक्तमव्यक्तात्पुरुषः परः ।
पुरुषान्न परं किञ्चित्सा काष्ठा सा परा गतिः ॥
mahataḥ paramavyaktamavyaktātpuruṣaḥ paraḥ |
puruṣānna paraṃ kiñcitsā kāṣṭhā sā parā gatiḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 11th Mantra, Canto 3)
The avyakta (undifferentiated nature) is higher than the mahat (mahān ātma); the Puruŝa (the infinite Self) is higher than the avyakta. There is nothing higher than the Puruŝa; that is the finale, that is the supreme goal.
The term artha appearing in the first verse means sense-objects; here it means, however, not the objects visible to the eye, but their nuclear dimension, the tanmātra, as Sānkhya and Vedanta term it, which is the cause of both the sense-organs and the sense-objects. In this sense, the objects are higher than the sense-organs; ‘higher’ in this context means, In the words of Shankara,
— subtle, immense, and of the nature of the inner Self. A scientific study of experience reveals its deeper and deeper layers; the three criteria of such depth, as given by Shankara in the passage quoted above, are subtlety, immensity and inwardness.
सूक्ष्मः महान्तश्च प्रत्यगात्मभूतश्च
sūkṣmaḥ mahāntaśca pratyagātmabhūtaśca
Each succeeding layer is the self of the preceding one, and fills it as well as transcends it. All objects of experience, subtle or gross, are limited by space, conditioned by time, and constantly under the pressure of causality. The material objects of daily experience, according to this criterion, are lowest in the order of reality, because they are most gross, most finite, and most external. The sense-organs are superior to them, being subtler, more immense, and more inward. Yama, however, begins his scale of evolution not with the external objects, but with the sense-organs. The objects or tanmātras are higher than the organs. The manas is higher than the objects as also the organs. As the sixth sense, in the terminology of both Vedanta and modern scientific thought, and being subtler, more immense, and more inward, manas co-ordinates the activities of the five sense-organs and the movements of the tanmātras. The manas in man is only a fraction of the physical face of the universe. Higher than the manas is buddhi, intellect or reason; it controls and regulates the manas and the sense-organs. The buddhi in man is not all the buddhi that is in the universe; it is only a fraction of that cosmic buddhi which is termed mahān ātma in the verse.This mahān ātma or mahat is higher than buddhi, says Yama; as the cosmic mind, it is subtler, more immense, and more inward than all the rest.
Modern Science on the Inner Layers of the Universe
Vedanta and Sankhya reduce the universe of objects and events, external and internal, to consciousness. This is the mahān ātma or mahat, which is the totality of the mind and matter in the manifested universe in their subtlest form. When knowledge penetrates the universe to its depth, it reveals itself as consisting of nothing but an ocean of awareness of consciousness. Knowledge and the object of knowledge, which began as the two poles of experience at the commencement of the knowing process, increasingly shed their antithetical nature as knowledge advances beyond the sensory level, and get resolved into an ocean of awareness. This is also the conclusion to which some of the outstanding representatives of modern physics have come.
This ocean of awareness, this cosmic mind, is what is designated by the term mahat. Modern biology discovers the presence of mind in nature through the evidence of its presence in one of nature’s evolutionary products, namely man. Sensing a fundamental unity between the physical energies of the external universe and the spiritual energies within man, the late paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin characterizes them as the tangential and the radial forms, respectively, of one and the same energy. Says he (The Phenomenon of Man, p. 63):
Since the inner face of the world is manifest at the very base of our human understanding, and there reflects upon itself, it would seem that we have only got to look at ourselves in order to understand the dynamic relationships existing between the within and without of things at a given point in the universe.
In fact, so to do so is one of the most difficult of all things…..
Without the slightest doubt, there is something through which material and spiritual energy hold together and are complementary. In the last analysis, somehow or other there must be a single energy operating in the world.
Tracing this unity through the labyrinth of evolution, he says (ibid., p.146):
Since, in its totality and throughout the length of each stem, the natural history of leaving creatures amounts on the exterior to the gradual establishment of a vast nervous system, it therefore corresponds on the interior to the installation of a psychic state on the very dimension of the earth. On the surface, we find the nerve fibres and ganglions; deep down, consciousness. We were looking for a simple rule to sort out the tangle of appearances. And now (entirely in keeping with our initial anticipations on the ultimately psychic nature of evolution), we posses fundamental variable capable of following in the past, and perhaps defining in the future, the true curve of the phenomenon.
Recognizing a layer deeper than the physical and the biological, and giving that layer the name of noosphere, Chardin says (ibid., p.183):
The greatest revelation open to science today is to perceive that everything precious, active, and progressive, originally contained in that cosmic fragment from which our world emerged, is now concentrated in and crowned by the noosphere.
Nature: Differentiated versus Undifferentiated
Thus the universe of experience reveals itself at its depth, to the farthest vision of some of the modern scientific thinkers, as a noosphere. Verse ten of Canto III of this Upanishad refers to this as the mahān ātmā or mahat, which, though deeper than the physical, the sensory, and the physical layers, is still finite nature, being within the texture of cause and effect determinism. All manifestation has non-manifestation behind it; all effect is manifestation; and all cause is non-manifestation. As the cosmic manifestation, the mahān ātmā points therefore to a deeper reality behind and beyond itself. Vedānta terms this reality avyakta, undifferentiated nature; it is the totality of the universe, material and mental, in its non-manifested form;
— greater than the mahat is avyakta says verse eleven. This is one of the significant concepts of Sānkhya and Vedānta. These view nature in two aspects, namely, the undifferentiated and differentiated, much as modern physicist views energy as bottled up and released. Clarifying this concept of avyakta in his comment on verse eleven, Shankara says:
महतोऽपि परं सूक्षतरं प्रत्यगात्मभूतं सर्वमहत्तरञ्चाव्यक्तं सर्वस्य जगतो बीजभूतमव्याकृतनामरूपं सतत्त्वं सर्वकार्यकारणशक्तिसमाधाररूपमव्यक्तम् अव्याकृताकाशादिनामवाच्यं परमात्मनि ओतप्रोतभावेन समाश्रितं वटकणिकायामिव वटवृक्षशक्तिः ।
mahato'pi paraṃ sūkṣataraṃ pratyagātmabhūtaṃ sarvamahattarañcāvyaktaṃ sarvasya jagato bījabhūtamavyākṛtanāmarūpaṃ satattvaṃ sarvakāryakāraṇaśaktisamādhārarūpamavyaktam avyākṛtākāśādināmavācyaṃ paramātmani otaprotabhāvena samāśritaṃ vaṭakaṇikāyāmiva vaṭavṛkṣaśaktiḥ |
Greater than the mahat is avyakta, subtler, more inward, and more immense than all; as the seed-form of the whole universe, with name and form undifferentiated, this avyakta is (yet) a real entity, being the combined energies of all effects and causes, like the fig (banyan) seed in which are all the energies of the fig (banyan) tree; it is denoted by such terms as avyākrta ākāsha, etc., and is dependent on the supreme Self which forms its warp and woof.
Vedanta speaks of avyakta as primordial nature, and mahat as the first evolute of nature, like the sprout from the seed. Is nature so conceived, self-explanatory, or does it point to a truth beyond itself? This is the crucial question which divides all materialistic philosophies from spiritual ones. All nature is matter in gross and subtle forms; and avyakta is its subtlest form. The subtle is always the inner layer, of which gross is the outer layer, the inner is more vast and immense than the outer. From gross sensible matter at the outer end to the avyakta at the inner end lie the infinite links in the chain of effects and causes, in which, as Shankara expresses it in the passage quoted earlier, the cause is always finer and more inward than the effect and consequently, more immense in magnitude, range, and power. That is why things and forces are better known and controlled through knowledge and control of their causal forms than through themselves.
The Concept of Personality
This entire range of the gross and the subtle resolves itself into certain distinct layers; beginning with the physical and sensible at the outermost reaches, nature reveals its inner faces to modern science in her biospherical, physical, and noospherical layers in an ascending order of subtlety, immensity and fineness, in the terminology of Shankara. The noosphere, according to Chardin, is centered in a higher phase of reality which he calls the Omega, of which the central focus is the Omega point, in view of its combining within itself, according to him, the two values of universality and personality. Says he (The Phenomenon of Man, pp.262-63):
By its structure, Omega, in its ultimate principle, can only be a distinct Centre radiating at the core of a system of centres; a grouping in which personalization of the All and personalizations of the elements reach their maximum, simultaneously and without merging, under the influences of a supremely autonomous focus of union. That is the only picture which emerges when we try to apply the notion of collectivity with remorseless logic to a granular whole of thoughts.
The Omega, according to Chardin, has not only an evolutive aspect in time, but a transcendent aspect in time, but a transcendent aspect beyond time. Refering to its attributes, he says (ibid., p.271):
Autonomy, actuality, irreversibility, and thus finally transcendence are the four attributes of Omega.
In the Omega which, for him, forms the inner layer of the noosphere and the final category of the universal, Chardin finds the scientific equivalent of the God of Christian theology. These attributes of the Omega tally in essentials with the attributes given to mahat in Vedanta. As the highest reach of the value of personality, the mahat is known as Hiranyagarbha or cosmic Person, the ‘Self-born’, of whom only one quarter is (in time and) expressed in cosmic evolution, while three quarters are ever transcendendent and immortal:
(Rg Veda, X. 90.3).
पादोऽस्य विश्वा भूतानि त्रिपादस्यामृतं दिवि ॥
pādo'sya viśvā bhūtāni tripādasyāmṛtaṃ divi ||
A person is a being possessed, among other things, of the attribute of consciousness. As defined by Julian Huxley (The Phenomenon of Man, ‘Introduction’, p.20):
Persons are individuals who transcend their merely organic individuality in conscious participation.
From millions of ordinary human persons at the base to the extraordinary cosmic person at the apex, through various intermediary levels, we have a multitude of beings possessing the attributes of consciousness in varying degrees. So long as consciousness remains as the attribute of an entity, that entity or its consciousness cannot be truly universal or infinite. But the search for the infinite through the objective can yield only such an infinite—of infinite of extension, an infinite of matter and thought.
Limitations of Personality
Vedānta found this limitation in its mahat or Hiranyagarbha. As the unity of matter and thought, mahat is a great synthesis, but a synthesis which can provoke questions as to what lies beyond it. The personal God of all monotheistic religions is more unsatisfactory to reason than Hiranyagarbha, in view of their extra-cosmic character. The Hiranyagarbha and the Omega Point are satisfactory to reason to this point of view, but reason questions the adequacy of finality of the very concept of personality, whether of the personal God or of the personal man; it questions its claim to infinitude and universality.
In his ‘Introduction’ to Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man referred to, Julian Huxley also questions the finality of the Omega concept. Says he (p. 18):
Père Teilhard, extrapolating from the past into the future, envisaged the process of human convergence as tending to a final state, which he called ‘point Omega’, as opposed to the Alpha of the elementary particles and their energies.
And adding a footnote to the above, Huxley says:
Presumably, in designating this state as Omega, he believed that it was a truly final condition. it might have been better to think of it merely as a novel state or mode of organization, beyond which the human imagination cannot at present pierce, though perhaps the strange facts of extrasensory perception unearthed by the infant science of parapsychology may give us a clue as to a possible more ultimate state.
’ Personality is a concept involving not a unity of an irreducible simple, but a unity of complex elements admitting of analysis and reduction. What is invariable in all personality, whether of man or Hiranyagarbha, is the principle of intelligence or consciousness. The Vedāntic and the Buddhistic analysis of personality find powerful endorsement in modern thought.
In the words of the authors of the monumental book The Science of Life (H.G. Wells, G.P. Wells, and Julian Huxley, p. 878):
Personality may be only one of Nature’s methods, a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic value.
The Impersonal behind the Personal
The Vedāntic seers were bold enough to face this problem and explore a more promising avenue of approach to the infinite. Receiving no conclusive answer from the approach through the object end, they approached it through the subject end. Again, instead of confining their investigation to the person or entity possessed of the attribute of consciousness, they investigated the nature of consciousness itself. This brought them to the impersonal behind the personal, not impersonal in the sense in which rational enquiry in the external world through physics and other positive sciences reveal the impersonal unity of nature, the impersonal of non-intelligence, but impersonal in a higher sense; for consciousness is the very nature of this impersonal. It is chit-svārūpa, unlike the Hiranyagarbha and other conceptions of the personal God, as also the personal man, where consciousness is only an attribute. The infinite universal consciousness is also infinite existence and infinite bliss—sat-chit-ānanda. This is the impersonal-personal God of Vedānta, the One without a second —
— known variously as Brahman, Ātman, Purusha.
This is the Light of all lights, the light of pure Consciousness or Intelligence lighting up every object in the world, from the sun and stars, from unconsciousness mind and consciousness reason to Hiranyagarbha or the Omega, and even the apparent darkness of the avyakta. ‘By its light all these are lighted’ —
, as the Katha Upanishad (V. 15) will tell us later.
तस्य भासा सर्वमिदं विभाति
tasya bhāsā sarvamidaṃ vibhāti
The Purusha is this supreme Light of intelligence, about which the Panchadaśī says (1. 7):
मासाब्दा युग कल्पेषु गतागम्येष्वनेकधा ।
नोदेति नास्तमेत्येका संविदेषा स्वयं प्रभा ॥
māsābdā yuga kalpeṣu gatāgamyeṣvanekadhā |
nodeti nāstametyekā saṃvideṣā svayaṃ prabhā ||
In all the countless months, years, ages, and aeons, which are past and which are yet to come, Samvit (pure Consciousness), which is one and self-luminous, does neither rise nor set.
The Inner Layers as Kośas
The layers spoken of in verses ten and eleven of the third chapter as covering reality are described as kośas or sheaths in another Upanishad, namely, the Taittirīya. There are five of them. The outermost sheath is annamaya the material or physical universe revealed by the sense-organs. The next interior is the prānamaya, followed by the manomaya and the vijnanamaya kośas. These correspond to the three layers of indriya, manas, and buddhi mentioned in the tenth verse, and the biospherical, physical, and noospherical layers of the modern enumeration. The vijnanamaya, again, in its macroscopic aspect, corresponds to the mahat or the mahān ātma of the same verse. The fifth and last sheath is the ānandamaya, corresponding to the avyakta of verse eleven; it has no corresponding concept in modern western thought, but purely from the point of view of the science of physics, the ‘background material’ of astrophysicist Fred Hoyle may be considered a near equivalent.
The Taittirīya Upanishad presents each of these, commencing from the second, namely, the prānamaya or the biospherical sheath, as ‘another interior self’ —
, and adds that the succeeding one fills the preceding one —
(Taittirīya Upanishad, Brahmānandavallī, II. 2). Before inquiry, man takes each of these as his self; philosophical inquiry reveals the not-self character of each of them. This forms the second discourse of Buddha to his first five disciples at Sarnath after his enlightenment at Bodha-Gaya. The Upanishads had earlier come across them in their search for the true self of man.
These sheaths, according to the Upanishads, are non–intelligent aspects of reality; whatever intelligence is manifested in and through them proceeds from the Ātman or Self, the changeless, impersonal, infinite reality, of the very nature of intelligence, of which these form the kośas or sheaths, like a sword encased in five sheaths. This Self is to be realized, say the Upanishads; in that realization, knowledge reaches its highest consummation in perfect non-duality; in it, knowledge and experience become one.
Beyond the mahat is the avyakta, says verse eleven of chapter three of the Katha Upanishad; beyond the personality of the Hiranyagarbha is the apparent darkness or vacuity of cosmic non-manifestation. This avyakta constitutes the fifth and last inner layers or kośa of reality, where the entire universe of causes and effects exists in its cosmic potentiality; where time, space, and causality are entirely involuted; and where the categories of nothingness apply with equal force. This is the ocean in which all personality is submerged, and out of which it later emerges. This corresponds, as we have seen, to the ānandamaya kośa the kośa or sheath of ananda or bliss, so called because of the suspension in it of all the stress and strain of the cause and effect process.
The Changeless behind the Changing
And beyond the ānandamaya kośa is the impersonal Brahman, the unchanging Self of the universe, beyond the cause and effect process, of the nature of pure Consciousness, one and non-dual, like the calm ocean in which all waves have subsided. This is the Puruŝa, the very principle of intelligence, which Vedānta sees as the ultimate reality behind man and universe.
Vedānta, in another of its significant enumerations, classifies these five sheaths into three śarīras or bodies; like the sheaths, they are also inside the other. The first and the most obvious of these bodies is the sthūla śarīra, the gross body, constituted of the outermost sheath, the annamaya. This is the physical body of man, the product of anna or physical food, the subject of physiology and anatomy. The second, not so obvious, is called the sūkŝma śarīra or linga śarīra, the subtle body, constituted of the next three sheaths, namely the prānamaya the manomaya, and the vijnānamaya. This is the subject of neurology and psychology, and partly also of philosophy It constitutes almost the entire content of man’s personality and the focal point of the Indian theory of Karma and Reincarnation. Modern psychology, in its parapsychology field, is confronted today with mystery of this sūkŝma śarīra.
The third body is called the kārana śarīra, the causal body, constituted of the fifth the last sheath, the ānandamaya. This is subject of psychology and epistemology at their deepest levels. There is nothing corresponding to the kārana śarīra in modern western thought. These three are referred to as bodies because they are the products of matter in its gross and subtle forms. They constitute the non-spiritual vesture of the truly spiritual part of man, the Ātman. In human experience, these three bodies have their specific fields of manifestation; these are the waking state for the sthūla śarīra, the dream state for the sūkŝma śarīra, and the dreamless sleep state for the kārana śarīra. These conclusions are the fruit of the Vedāntic study of man in depth.
Studying the phenomenon of man and seeking for the true focus of his experience of selfhood at the core of his personality, Vedanta came across the five kośas or sheaths and three śarīras or bodies where, in the words of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in his English translation of the Gitā (Bhagavat Gitā, p. 177), ‘there is no changeless centre or immortal nucleus in these pretenders to selfhood’. The body, the sense-organs, the mind, and the ego, all lay claim to being the Self of man. Before enquiry, man takes one or other of them as his self. But philosophical inquiry reveals their not-self character; it reveals each one of them as an object and not a subject; each is samghāta or aggregate, in the terminology of Buddha, and, as such, subject to change and destruction.
The search for the Self must leave them behind and proceed deeper. If nothing exists beyond these changing not-self elements, man is right in resigning himself to nihilism in philosophy and pragmatism in life. Vedanta, however, finds in such a nihilism nothing but philosophic despair. It finds in the facts of experience enough intimations of a changeless reality, which justify a more penetrating investigation of experience by reason. Reason is confronted by the puzzling fact that the diverse experiences of man form a unity; and there is also the fact of memory. These presuppose a changeless centre in man; without such a changeless centre, the perceptions of change, the experience of memory, and their attribution to one and the same knowing subject will become inexplicable. Such a scrutiny of experience reveals the presence of a changeless subject or knower at the centre of the knowing process, at the core of the human personality. As Shankara affirms in his Vivekachūdāmani (Verses 125 and 126):
अस्ति कश्चित्स्वयं नित्यमहंप्रत्ययलम्बनः ।
अवस्थात्रयसाक्षी सन्पञ्चकोशविलक्षणः ॥
asti kaścitsvayaṃ nityamahaṃpratyayalambanaḥ |
avasthātrayasākṣī sanpañcakośavilakṣaṇaḥ ||
There is some entity, eternal, by nature, the basis of the experience of egoism, the witness of the three states (of waking, dream, and sleep), and distinct from the five sheaths.
यो विजानाति सकलं जाग्रत्स्वप्नसुषुप्तिषु ।
yo vijānāti sakalaṃ jāgratsvapnasuṣuptiṣu |
Who knows everything that happens in the waking, dream, and sleep states; who is aware of the presence or absence of the mind and its functions; and who is the basis of the notion of egoism.
The Purification of Reason
When man as person, and with the limitations of personality, seeks to know the infinite behind the finite, the highest that he can get at is the personal God. In the words of Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, Vol. III Eighth Edition, p.37):
Īśvara (the personal God), is the highest manifestation of the absolute Reality, or in other words, the highest possible reading of the Absolute by the human mind.
But man’s reason has never felt satisfied with this reading. Vedānta alone has shown that this dissatisfaction experienced from reason does not arise from the limitations of God, but is due to a limitation in reason itself. The limitations human reason are most evident in man’s common-sense knowledge of the universe. The advance of science has witnessed a steady erosion into these limitations, resulting in a clearer and truer knowledge of reality. This is glowingly demonstrated in the scientific advances of the twentieth century, which has experienced a complete break with the common-sense view. The common-sense view is what is derived from the sense-organs; and twentieth century science has released scientific reason from thraldom to the senses and put it on the road to a knowledge of the deeper levels of reality. In the words of Sir James Jeans (The New Background of Science p. 5):
Thus the history of physical science in the twentieth century is one of a progressive emancipation from the purely human angle of vision.
This human angle of vision comprises not only the framework of the sense-organs, but also the constitution of the mind. The minds knowing process is conditioned and limited by the three factors of space, time and causality. The mind’s capacity to penetrate to the deeper levels of experience is dependent upon its release from these three limitations. Twentieth-century science has freed reason from thraldom to space and time, and so enabled it to discover the grand unity of the space-time continuum and effect a unification of many of the different laws of nature with a view to the eventual unification of all its laws in a unified theory.
Vedānta has always maintained that the purification of the reason is the way to the gaining of true knowledge about the universe of experience. It is through such purification that the Vedāntic reason unraveled the different layers covering reality, and proclaimed the infinite and immortal Puruŝa as the non-dual reality beyond the avyakta, or beyond the unity of undifferentiated nature.
The relationship with the avyakta to the Puruŝa is the most crucial point in this philosophy. Vedanta in its final reaches of thought tells us that the avyakta is the Puruŝa when viewed non-causally; that is the personal aspect of the impersonal Puruŝa. This unity is revealed to reason when it sheds the last constituent of ‘the human angle of vision’, namely, causality. Causality according to Vedānta, is the last impurity of reason, the obstinate and intractable, which alone prevents reason from rising from the finite to the infinite. When it is eliminated, reason itself becomes infinite, and reveals the non-duality and unseparable unity of the Puruŝa and the avyakta, which is also the unity of the Self and the not-Self, the subject and the object. this is the impersonal-personal God of Vedānta, the inseparable unity of Brahman and Śakti, or Śiva and Śakti, in which the avyakta becomes transformed into the Energy of cosmic manifestation.
The glory of reason rising to this infinite dimension, and revealing the fundamental spiritual unity of the universe, is sung in a famous verse of the Māndukya Upanishad Kārika of Gaudapāda (IV. 1):
ज्ञानेनाकाशकल्पेन धर्मान्यो गगनोपमान् ।
ज्ञेयाभिन्नेन सम्बुद्धः तां वन्दे द्विपदां वरम् ॥
jñānenākāśakalpena dharmānyo gaganopamān |
jñeyābhinnena sambuddhaḥ tāṃ vande dvipadāṃ varam ||
I salute that best among men who, through his jnāna (Knowledge or Reason) which is infinite in nature and non-different from the object of knowledge, realized (Its non-difference from) the subjects which are, again, infinite in nature.
The Advaitic Vision
Vedānta upholds the unity of the macrocosm and the microcosm. Says Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on ‘Cosmology’ (Complete Works, Vol, II, Ninth Edition, p. 440):
The whole of the universe is built upon the same plan as a part of it. So just as I have mind, there is a cosmic mind. As in the individual, so in the universal. There is the universal gross body: behind that, a universal fine body; behind that, a universal mind; behind that, a universal intelligence. And all this is in nature, the manifestation of nature, not outside of it.
This is the Atman, the true Self of man, which is also the Self of the universe. The Puruŝa is higher than the avyakta,
, says verse eleven, and concludes with the statement:
— There is nothing higher than the Puruŝa; that is the finale, that is the supreme goal.
पुरुषान्न परं किञ्चित्सा काष्ठा सा परा गतिः
puruṣānna paraṃ kiñcitsā kāṣṭhā sā parā gatiḥ
From this Everest of spiritual vision, man and nature, spirit and matter, the One and the many, are all seen as one. The sheaths and layers which were left behind, when knowledge was forging ahead in its search for the infinite and the eternal, are now seen, in the new strange new light of the Atman, as of the very stuff of the Atman. Sense-knowledge, mental intuitions, and rational judgments were but attempts to reveal this infinite universal Consciousness, which alone lights up every activity of the senses, the mind, and the intellect. Hence the Upanishads speak of the Atman as That from which speech recoils along with mind unable to reveal It,
(Taittirīya Upanishad, Brahmānandavallī, IX. 1). This is the main theme of the Kena Upanishad as we shall study that Upanishad. The infinite Self appears as finite and subject to the laws of time, space, and causality, when It is viewed through the limited moulds of the knowing apparatus. The Upanishds again and again invite us to realize the Ātman as one’s own self. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’, exhorts Jesus. The Puruŝa represents the innermost reach of this inward penetration, where finite knowing becomes transformed into infinite being; hence the statement: There is nothing higher than the Puruŝa;
यतो वाचो निवर्तन्ते अप्राप्य मनसा सह
yato vāco nivartante aprāpya manasā saha
Behind the personal God and the personal man, Vedānta sees the unity of the impersonal-personal Brahman,
— The Puruŝa alone is the universe;
पुरुष एवेदं विश्वम्
puruṣa evedaṃ viśvam
— This (manifested universe) is only Brahman, the Immortal;
— This Ātman is all this (manifested universe), proclaims the Upanishads (Mundaka Upanishad, II. 1. 10; II. 2. 11; Chhandogya Upanishad, VII. 25.2). This is the central theme of the lofty philosophy of Advaita, the philosophy of non-duality. Whereas modern physical science upholds materialistic advaita, the Upanishads uphold a spiritual advaita. And modern biology in its philosophical reaches is steadily tending in the latter direction.
Its Impact on Religion
Dealing with the enrichment that the concept of the personal God receives from the idea of the impersonal, Swami Vivekananda says in his second lecture on ‘Practical Vedanta’ delivered in London in 1896 (Complete Works, Vol. II, Ninth Edition, pp.319-20):
The impersonal God is a living God, a principle. The difference between personal and impersonal is that the personal is only a man, and the impersonal idea is that He is the angel, the man, the animal, and yet something more which we cannot see, because impersonality includes all personalities, is the sum total of everything in the universe, and infinitely more besides. ‘As the one fire coming into the world is manifesting itself in so many forms, and yet is infinitely more besides (Katha Upanishad, V. 9)’, so is the impersonal.
In his third lecture on ‘Practical Vedānta’, he further says (ibid.,p. 333):
What is the outcome of this philosophy? It is that the idea of personal God is not sufficient. We have to get to something higher, to the impersonal idea. It is the only logical step that we can take. Not that personal idea will be destroyed by that, nor that we supply proof that the personal God does not exist, but we must go to the impersonal for the explanation of the personal, for the impersonal is a much higher generalization than the personal. The impersonal can only be infinite, the personal is limited. Thus we preserve the personal and do not destroy it. Often the doubt comes to us that, if we arrive at the idea of the impersonal God, the personal will be destroyed; if we arrive at the idea of the impersonal man, the personal will be lost. But the Vedāntic idea is not the destruction of the individual, but its real preservation. We cannot prove the individual by any other means but referring to the universal, by proving that this individual is really the universal. If we think of the individual as separate from everything else in the universe, it cannot stand a minute. Such a thing never existed.
Speaking on the subject of ‘The Absolute and Manifestation’ in London in 1896, Swami Vivekananda refers to the beneficent impact of this impersonal idea of the Advaita Vedānta on religion (ibid., p. 141):
Another peculiarity of the Advaita system is that from its very start it is non destructive. This is another glory, the boldness to preach, ‘Do not disturb the faith of any, even of those who through ignorance have attached themselves to lower forms of worship’. That is what it says, do not disturb, but help everyone to get higher and higher; include all humanity. This philosophy preaches a God who is sum total. If you seek a universal religion which can apply to everyone, that religion must not be composed of only the parts, but it must always be their sum total and include all degrees of religious development.
Man: the Perennial theme of Vedānta
Man, his growth, development, and realization, is the perennial theme of Vedānta. Exploring the ‘within’ of the universe through the human personality, the Vedāntic sages discovered the Puruŝa or Brahman—the Immortal behind the mortal, the Infinite behind the finite. In verses ten and eleven, we learnt, Yama expounding to Nachiketā the various layers or sheaths which cover Brahman, the penetration of which constitutes not only man’s spiritual journey but also his intellectual journey. While reading the exposition, the spiritual student experiences, even at this distance of time from Yama and Nachiketā, a stirring of the deeper levels of his own personality. When a great teacher utters a profound truth even in whispers, it will reverberate through the corridors of space and time. It was said of Vivekananda in our own time by a great thinker that, even when Vivekananda speak to themselves, they address the whole humanity. The truths that the Upanishads proclaimed ages ago are of contemporary interest in every age, because they are the fruits of a detached and rational, sustained and sincere pursuit of truth, and because they were addressed to man as such, and not to any group or section thereof, and have profound bearing on his growth, development and fulfillment. In the remaining six verses of the third chapter, which we shall be taking up next, we shall experience this intimate communion of minds, and feel the impact of Yama’s summons to man, as powerfully rendered by Swami Vivekananda in our own age, to ‘arise, awake and stop not still the goal is reached!’
The discovery of this Immortal behind the mortal is the universal ‘Gospel’ or good news which the Upanishads have left as their immortal legacy to all humanity. It was not just an intellectual discovery; it was a spiritual realization, holding at the same time vast possibilities for the intellectual and moral life of man. It underwrites and guarantees the precious value of freedom of the human spirit. Being a spiritual discovery, it is announced to the world at large not as an intellectual formula to be believed in, but a spiritual fact to be realized by every human being. The discovery by a few is to be translated into a rediscovery by the many; for it is the birthright of one and all. This makes it a compelling message to all humanity.
The ‘Imprisoned Splendour’
Yama was aware of the universal appeal of this message. In verse twelve of the third chapter, we find Yama spelling out the universality of this truth of the Ātman, and its verifiability in life.
एष सर्वेषु भूतेषु गूढोऽत्मा न प्रकाशते ।
दृश्यते त्वग्र्यया बुद्ध्या सूक्ष्मया सूक्ष्मदर्शिभिः ॥
eṣa sarveṣu bhūteṣu gūḍho'tmā na prakāśate |
dṛśyate tvagryayā buddhyā sūkṣmayā sūkṣmadarśibhiḥ ||
(Katha Upanishad, 12th Mantra, Canto 3)
This Ātman, (being) hidden in all beings, is not manifest (to all). But (It) can be realized by all who are accustomed to inquire into subtle truths by means of their sharp and subtle reason.
Bringing out the gist of the two verses, Yama tells us in this verse that this Ātman is present in every being. It is not an object, but the subject or knower. As the central subject, it is an ever-present datum of experience and not a mere logical construction. But it does not reveal itself as such to one and all. Not to speak of ordinary people, even great scholars fail to comprehend the Ātman. The verse gives the reason:
— It but imprisoned, in the language of Robert Browning in his poem Paracelsus; and therefore
— It is not manifest,
— since (it is) unknown to him whose buddhi (reason) is not refined (purified) comments Shankara. It is not present on the surface of experience; it is hidden in its depth. In verse seven of the second chapter, Yama had already told us this and had added that the teacher and the student of this subject should be of the extraordinary type:
श्रवनायापि बहुभिर्यो न लभ्यः
शृण्वन्तोऽपि बहवो यं न विद्युः ।
आश्चर्यो वक्ता कुशलोऽस्य लब्धा
आश्चर्यो ज्ञाता कुशलानुशिष्टः ॥
śravanāyāpi bahubhiryo na labhyaḥ
śṛṇvanto'pi bahavo yaṃ na vidyuḥ |
āścaryo vaktā kuśalo'sya labdhā
āścaryo jñātā kuśalānuśiṣṭaḥ ||
Even to hear of It is not available to many; many having heard of It cannot comprehend. Wonderful is Its teacher and (equally) talented Its pupil. Wonderful indeed is who comprehends It taught by a talented preceptor.
The Splendour Can be Released
In the first part of verse twelve, Yama throws light on this mystery by explaining why people do not comprehend the Ātman even after hearing about it, and, in its second part, he reveals the nature of that extraordinary discipline which helps the student to penetrate into the heart of this profoundest of all mysteries. Though a mystery, The Atman shall not always remain so; though an unknown, Vedānta does not treat it as an unknowable.
— It can be seen, realized, says Yama, since it is an ever-present datum of experience. To the logical reason, the Atman will ever remain a mystery, an unknown and unknowable. But when certain conditions are satisfied, buddhi or Philosophical Reason which achieves the break-through. What is that Reason which achieves this? This is set forth in the second half of the verse—
— by buddhi which is sharp and subtle.
अग्र्यया बुद्ध्या सूक्ष्मया
agryayā buddhyā sūkṣmayā
While discussing the implications of verse nine of the chapter two of this Upanishad, we had dealt with the subject of the limitations of logical and scientific reason and its development into unfettered philosophical Reason. Philosophical Reason is reason freed from thraldom to the limited universe revealed by the senses and the sense-bound mind. Every effort to free reason thus renders it more and more one-pointed and capable of seeing subtler and subtler truths. The dullest reason is that which believes that what is seen by the senses is alone true. It is accepted by science that the senses are highly limited in their perception of reality; that they conceal more than they reveal reality. Reason in this case functions as the tail-end of the senses and transfers their dullness to itself. Every step in freeing reason is a step towards increasing its range and penetration. It thus develops the capacity to dive to the depths of experience. The stage-by stage fruit of such diving is the knowledge of the various layers or sheaths of reality, which Yama expounded to us in verses ten and eleven of the third chapter. As the innermost core of all is revealed the Puruŝa or the Ātman.
The subtler the layer of reality, the subtler should be the reason which seeks and discovers that reality. This subtlety is the measure of its purity and strength; it is also the source of its power of penetration. This power in its extraordinary form is what makes reason in man capable of realizing the Ātman. Such a person is the best among those who belong to the
, ‘perceiver of subtle truths’ says Yama. Explaining the meaning of this word in his comment on this verse, Shankara says:
इन्द्रियेभ्यः परा ह्यर्था इत्यादिप्रकारेण सूक्ष्मतापारम्पर्यदर्शनेन परं सूक्ष्मं द्रष्टुं शीलं येषं ते सूक्ष्मदर्शिनः ।
indriyebhyaḥ parā hyarthā ityādiprakāreṇa sūkṣmatāpāramparyadarśanena paraṃ sūkṣmaṃ draṣṭuṃ śīlaṃ yeṣaṃ te sūkṣmadarśinaḥ |
They are sūksmadarśinah—“subtle seers”—who are accustomed, through seeing subtler and subtler realities as mentioned in the passage “the objects are higher than the sense-organs” etc. (verses ten and eleven), to see the supremely subtle reality (of the Puruŝa or the Ātman).
Yama will give us a little insight into the technique of this inner penetration in the next verse, verse thirteen. and into the rationale of it in the opening verse of the next chapter.
In equating the Puruŝa of verse eleven with the Ātman of verse twelve, the Upanishad emphasizes the truth that the highest reality is not external, but is the innermost self of man. But then the idea of a journey, which involves space and time, becomes meaningless. And the Upanishad, with the help of its chariot imagery has been expounding just a journey to the Ātman. What then the Upanishad mean by the phrase
— he attains the end of the road (or journey)’ of verse nine? In his comment on verse twelve, Shankara explains this apparent contradiction. Though quoted in part earlier, during our study of verses ten and eleven of chapter two, it can bear a requoting in full in the present context:
सर्वस्य प्रत्यगात्मत्वादवगतिरेव गतिरित्युपचर्यते । प्रत्यगात्मत्वञ्च दर्शितमिन्द्रियमनोबुद्धिपरत्वेन । यो हि गन्ता सोऽगतमप्रत्यग्रूपं गच्छत्यनात्मभूतन्न विन्दति स्वरूपेण तथा च श्रुतिः — अनध्वगा अध्वसु पारयिष्णवः ।
sarvasya pratyagātmatvādavagatireva gatirityupacaryate | pratyagātmatvañca darśitamindriyamanobuddhiparatvena | yo hi gantā so'gatamapratyagrūpaṃ gacchatyanātmabhūtanna vindati svarūpeṇa tathā ca śrutiḥ — anadhvagā adhvasu pārayiṣṇavaḥ |
Since the Atman is the inner Self of all, avagati (knowledge or realization) is alone spoken of figuratively as a gati (a going or journeying). That the Ātman is the inner Self is shown by its description (in the previous two verses) as higher than the sense organs, manas, and buddhi. He who is a goer is one who goes away from the inner Self and towards the not–self; (by this, he) never realizes himself as he truly is. Accordingly, the Śruti (one of the Upanishads) also (says): “They (knowers of the Ātman) travel by no road who go to the other shore (of samsāra or relativity)”
Speaking on the subject of ‘Steps to Realization’, Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. I, Eleventh Edition, p.412):
All knowledge is within us. All perfection is there already in the soul. But this perfection has been covered up by the nature; layer after layer of nature is covering this purity of the soul. What have we to do? Really, we do not develop our souls at all. What can develop the perfect? We simply take the veil off; and the soul manifests itself in its pristine purity, its natural, innate freedom.
The Pre-eminence of Adhyātmavidya
Yama proclaims the capacity of buddhi or philosophical Reason to realize the Ātman, when it is trained in concentration and in the perception of subtle truths. That such discipline increases the power of penetration of the human mind is well demonstrated in the fields of education, science and culture. That it has the still more extraordinary power of penetrating the ultimate mystery of existence is upheld in Vedānta. The opening verse of the next chapter will tell us about this power and the extraordinary technique to be employed for its gaining. Our experience with the phenomenon of radiation helps to illustrate this truth. Ordinary light has very little power of penetration; it can be obstructed even by a piece of paper. But this light gets the power to penetrate thick masses of matter when it is developed into the various types of high frequency radiations. Similarly, we have in air an element which is flimsy by ordinary standards, but which develops the power of cutting into masses of rock or metal under the discipline of compression. All effective mental training, says Vedānta, is training in concentration; it is the development of a capacity for penetration, the penetration through the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. Referring to this penetrating power of the trained mind, Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. I, Eleventh Edition, pp. 130-31);
How has all the knowledge in the world been gained but by the concentration of the powers of the mind? The world is ready to give up its secrets if we only know how to knock, how to give it the necessary blow. The strength and force of the blow come through concentration. There is no limit to the power of the human mind. The more concentrated it is, the more power is brought to bear on the point; that is the secret.
‘There is no limit to the power of the human mind.’ This is significant. Who can put a limit to its capacity? Whatever limitations we see arise from the limitations of the fields and methods of inquiry and their terms of reference. Vedānta exhorts us ever to remember that at the very back of the inquiring buddhi or Reason is the infinite Ātman. Physics, astronomy, and chemistry have their own terms of reference; so have biology and other sciences of life and mind. At the higher reaches, the separate areas of these sciences tend to merge into a unified field; and their separate terms of reference blend in to the broard philosophical quest for the One behind the many. Vedānta sees in this fact clear evidence of the increasing impact of the Ātman behind the mind on the mind’s own search for knowledge and certitude. And it felt impelled long ago to investigate this phenomenon; the fruit of that investigation is the great adhyātmavidyā, the science of the Ātman, first developed in the Upanishads. Indian thought treats it as ‘the pre-eminent-science’
, as the Gita puts it; or as ‘the science of the sciences,’
, as the Mundaka Upanishad expresses it in its opening verse.
Yoga as the Science and Art of the Spiritual Life
Referring to the methods and results of the extraordinary Vedāntic discipline of the mind, which is collectively known by the term ‘yoga’ and to which Yama will refer in verses ten and eleven of chapter six of this Upanishad, Swami Vivekananda says in a luminous utterance (Complete Works, Vol. VI, Sixth Edition, p. 124):
When the mind is concentrated and turned back on itself, all within us will be our servants, not our masters. The Greeks applied their concentrations to the external world, and the result was perfection in art, literature, etc. The Hindu concentrated on the internal world, upon the unseen realms in the Self, and developed the science of yoga. Yoga is controlling the senses, will, and mind. The benefit of its study is what we learn to control instead of being controlled. Mind seems to be layer on layer. Our real goal is to cross all these intervening strata of our being and find God. The end and aim of yoga is to realize God. To do this, we must go beyond sense-world. The world is awake to the senses; the children of the Lord are asleep on that plane. The world is asleep to the Eternal; the children of the Lord are awake in that realm.
Yama now proceeds to expound in the next verse, verse thirteen, this extraordinary Vedāntic discipline for the realization of the Ātman:
यच्छेद्वाङ्मनसी प्राज्ञस्तद्यच्छेज्ज्ञान आत्मनि ।
ज्ञानमात्मनि महति नियच्छेत्तद्यछेच्छान्त आत्मनि ॥
yacchedvāṅmanasī prājñastadyacchejjñāna ātmani |
jñānamātmani mahati niyacchettadyachecchānta ātmani ||
(Katha Upanishad, 13th Mantra, Canto 3)
Let the prājna (wise man) merge the speech in the manas, and the manas in the buddhi; let him merge the buddhi in the great self (mahat), and that great self, again, in the Self of peace (the Ātman or the Puruŝa).
Vāk or speech refers to the organ of speech, the brain centre controlling the functions of speech. Here, it is used in an illustrative sense, meaning all the sense-organs. If the Atman is a mystery hidden in the heart of all, it logically follows that the method of its investigation and realization is through the discipline and control of man’s inner life. This is achieved, says Vedānta, by two paths, namely, jnāna, the path of negation, and karma (including bhakti or devotion), the path of affirmation. The first one, the philosophical and the more difficult one, is what is specially and stressed in the Upanishads. ‘Merge the speech (and the sense-organs) in the manas’, exhorts Yama, ‘the manas in the jnāna ātman or the buddhi, the jnāna ātman in the mahat, and the mahat, again, in the śānta ātman, in the peace of the infinite Self.’
The Atman is significantly characterized as consisting of śānti, peace. Commenting on this, Shankara says:
शान्ते सर्वविशेषप्रत्ययस्तमितरूपेऽविक्रिये सर्वान्तरे सर्वबुद्धिप्रत्ययसाक्षिणि मुख्यात्मनि ।
śānte sarvaviśeṣapratyayastamitarūpe'vikriye sarvāntare sarvabuddhipratyayasākṣiṇi mukhyātmani |
In the peace of the primary (or real) Ātman, (which is) characterized by the complete cessation of all differentiation (phenomena), the innermost reality of all, and the witness of all the pulsations of buddhi.
If the innermost Self is all peace, the outermost or the annamaya or the physical self is all noise and distraction. The farther we are from our centre in the Ātman, the more become the noise and distraction of our lives. Peace is not things in outside, but within man himself. This peace has to be realized by the development of the capacity for inner penetration through inner discipline. The structure of human life becomes steady when it is founded on the rock of the eternal Ātman within.
Here is the practical side of that philosophy of reality which was expounded in verses ten and eleven, in which, through a penetrating analysis, the Atman was shown as the ‘eternal within’ of man and the universe. The inner, it was shown there, is more subtle and more immense than the outer. As man penetrates deeper into himself, he realizes wider and wider dimensions of his being. This is the spiritual paradox referred to by Jesus as gaining life by losing it. By losing life at the outer levels, we gain it in its inner depths; we lose life which is finite and trivial, and gain life which is infinite and immortal.
Jnāna Yoga: The Awesome Yet Fascinating Path
This piece of second –hand knowledge, say the Upanishads, must become first-hand experience—immediate and direct—through a mighty effort of reason and will, backed by moral purity and intense desire to be spiritually free. The knowledge, ‘Ātman is’, is mere information, says Vedānta; it must be transformed into the conviction, ‘I am the Ātman’. A moving illustration of this awesome yet fascinating path of jnāna in the following story of Shri Ramakrishna’s discipleship under Totapuri, has been shown.
Totapuri and Shri Ramakrishna
By about the end of 1865, when he was twenty-nine years old, Shri Ramakrishna had finished his ten years-long sādhanās based on the path of bhakti or devotion in which the devotee looks upon God as a Person and as the Other. He had been blessed with innumerable visions and other spiritual experiences. Endowed with highest purity and renunciation, his mind had attained an extraordinary moral and spiritual sensitivity which made it plunge into a divine mood at the slightest spiritual suggestion. Absorbed in one of these moods, Shri Ramakrishna was one day sitting in a corner of the open portico at the bathing ghat of the Dakshineshwar temple on the sacred river, the Gangā. Just then a wandering monk, by name Totapuri, alighted from a boat at the steps of the ghat, and walked up to the portico. As soon as his eyes fell on Shri Ramakrishna, he felt an instant attraction for this young man and felt a conviction in his heart of hearts that he was far out of the ordinary.
Totapuri himself was out of the ordinary. Hailing from Punjab and entering the monastic life in his boyhood, he was endowed with a robust physique and an iron will; and he had fascination for the impersonal God, the non-dual-Brahman. After forty years of unremitting spiritual practice, performed on the banks of the sacred Narmada river in Central India, he obtained the fruit of this path of the Advaita Vedānta, the experience of nirvikalpa samādhi, the impersonal unconditioned state which Shankara describes thus in three glorious verses in his Vivekachūdāmani (408-410):
किमपि सततबोधं केवलानन्दरूपं निरुपममतिवेलं नित्यमुक्तं निरीहम् । निरवधिगगनाभं निष्कलं निर्विकल्पं हृदि कलयति विद्वान् ब्रह्म पूर्णं समाधौ ॥
The wise one realizes in his heart in samadhi, the infinite Brahman, which is an ineffable Something, of the nature of eternal Knowledge and absolute Bliss, which has no exemplar, which transcends all limitations, is ever free and without activity, which is like the limitless sky, indivisible and absolute.
प्रकृतिविकृतिशून्यं भावनातीतभावं समरसमसमानं मानसबन्धदूरम् । निगमवचनसिद्धं नित्यमस्मत्प्रसिद्धं हृदि कलयति विद्वान् ब्रह्म पूर्णं समाधौ ॥
The wise one realizes in his heart, in samdhi, the infinite Brahman, which is devoid of touch of cause and effect, which is the reality beyond all imagination, which is homogeneous, matchless, beyond the reach of the logical proofs, (but) proved by the experience of the wise as recorded in the Vedantic spiritual tradition, and ever familiar to man as the basis of his self-awareness.
अजरममरमस्ताभाववस्तुस्वरूपं स्तिमितसलिलराशिप्रख्यमाख्याविहीनम् । शमितगुणविकारं शाश्वतं शान्तमेकं हृदि कलयति विद्वान् ब्रह्म पूर्णं समाधौ ॥
The wise one realizes in his heart, in samdhi, the infinite Brahman, which is undecaying and immortal, the Reality which is the negations, which resembles the ocean when the waves have subsided, which is without a name, in which have subsided all the modifications gunas, (natures modes), and which is eternal, pacified, and One.
Having achieved this blessed experience, Totapuri wandered from place to place without any or purpose of his own, but fulfilling inscrutable divine purposes. The incomparable strength and freedom behind that wandering is difficult to gauge by ordinary minds. We get a glimpse of it in Buddha’s inspiring charge to the enlightened soul (Dhammapada):
Go forward without a path! Fearing nothing caring for nothing, Wander alone, like the rhinoceros! Even as the lion not trembling at noises, Even as the wind not caught in a net, Even as the lotus-leaf unstained by the water, Do thou wander alone, like the rhinoceros!
Realizing Brahman as the one Reality, and looking upon the world as an appearance, Totapuri spent is life under the canopy of heaven, alike in storms and sunshine, maintaining himself on alms. His wanderings took him many a holy place in India, including Gangāsāgar in Bengal, where the holy Gangā meets the sea. It wason his return journey from there that he went to the Dakshineshwar temple which, thanks to the piety, generosity, and broad-mindedness of its founder, Rani Rasmani, was then drawing holy men, ordinary and extraordinary, from all creeds and sects. Some of these, like Jatadhari and Bhairavi Brahmani, had already met Shri Ramakrishna and guided him to realization through their respective spiritual paths of the bhakti school. Totapuri represented an altogether different path, the path of jnāna, the path of the impersonal God, the blazoned by the sages of the Upanishads and the great Buddha.
As soon as Totapuri’s eyes fell on Shri Ramakrishna he recognized in him a fit aspirant for the path of the unconditioned and impersonal Brahman. He asked Shri Ramakrishna whether he would like to learn Vedānta. Would you like to be initiated in the path of Advaita realization?’ Shri Ramakrishna felt a divine urge wiyhin to to agree. Under Totapuri’s direction, Shri Ramakrishna performed the various ceremonies preliminary to the grand ceremony of sanyāsa—total renunciation of the world. One say about two hours of before dawn, both repaired to a small hut in a sequestered spot, not far from Shri Ramakrishna’s room. Toatapuri administered to Shri Ramkrishna the traditional monastic vows of complete renunciation of all the pleasures of life, both earthly and heavenly, and the holy vow to dedicate all one’s mind and heart to the highest truth of the non-dual Brahman, and to be a source of fearlessness to all beings. And in the stillness of that early dawn, the teacher and the disciple re-enacted the momentous drama of tangible spiritual communication which has so often been enacted in India before. Protrating himself before the teacher, Shri Ramakrishna then took his seat to receive instruction from Totapuri in the philosophy of Brahman.
To quote the words of Swami Saradananda, one of the direct disciple of Shri Ramakrishna (Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, 1952 Edition, Ramakrishna Math, Madras 4, pp.254-55):
He (Totapuri) said to the Master: “The Brahman the one substance which alone is eternally pure, eternally awakened, unlimited by time, space and causation, is absolutely real. Through Maya, which makes the impossible possible, It causes, by virtue of its influence to seem that It is divided into names and forms. Brahman is never really so. For, at the time of Samadhi, not even a drop, so to speak, of time and space, and name and form, produced by Māyā is perceived. Whatever, therefore, within the bounds of name and form can never be absolutely real. Shun it at the good distance. Break the firm cage of name and form with the overpowering strength of a lion and come out of it. Dive deep into the reality of the Self existing in yourself. Be one with It with the help of samadhi. You will then see the universe, consisting of name and form, vanish as it were into the void; you will see the consciousness of the little “I”, where it ceases to function; and you will have the immediate knowledge of the indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss as yourself. The Brhadāranyka Upanishad (II. iv. 14) says: ‘The consciousness, with the help of which a person sees another, knows another, or hears another, is little or limited; whatever is limited is worthless; for the supreme bliss is not there; but the knowledge, established in which a person becomes devoid of the consciousness of seeing another, knowing another, and hearing another, is the immense or the unlimited one. With the help of that knowledge, one gets identified with the supreme bliss. What mind or intellect is able to know that which exists as the Knower in the hearts of all?”
After instructing his disciple thus in the central ideas of the jnana path of Vedanta, Totapuri exhorted Shri Ramakrishna to fix his mind on the unconditioned Brahman. This part of the momentous story is best told in the words of Shri Ramakrishna himself (Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Sixth Edition, pp. 189-90):
After the initiation, Nangta, “the naked one” (this was the appellation which Shri Ramakrishna, out of respect, invariably used for his guru, who being a monk of the Nāgā Order, generally went about naked) began to teach me the various conclusions of the Advaita Vedānta and asked me to withdraw the mind completely from all objects and dive into the Ātman. But in spite of all my attempts I could not the cross the realm of name and form and bring my mind to the unconditioned state. I had no difficulty in withdrawing the mind from all other objects except one, the all too familiar form of the blissful Mother—radiant and the essence of the pure Consciousness—which appeared before me as a living reality preventing me from passing beyond the realm of name and form. Again and again I tried to concentrate mind on the Advaita teachings, but every time the mother’s form stood in my way. In despair I said to ‘the naked one’, “It is hopeless. I cannot raise my mind to the unconditioned state and come face to face with the Ātman.” "What? You can’t do it. But you have to.” He cast his eyes around, and finding a piece of glass he took it up and pressing the point between my eyebrows said, “Concentrate the mind on this point.” Then with a stern determination I again sat to meditate, and as soon as the gracious form of the Divine Mother appeared before me, I used my discrimination as a sword and with it severed it in two. There remained no more obstruction to my mind, which at once soared beyond the relative plane, and I lost myself in samādhi.
Shri Ramakrishna passed into the unconditioned state of the nirvikalpa samādhi; the senses and the mind stopped their functions; the body became motionless. He had realized Brahman, become one with Brahman, beyond all speech and thought.
Totapuri sat for a long time silently watching his disciple. Finding him still more motionless, he left the hut, locking the door from outside lest anyone should intrude without his knowledge; he remained outside awaiting the disciple’s call from within to open the door. The day passed, night came, a second and third day and night also passed, and still there was no call. Totapuri was astonished. He opened the door and entered the room. He was speechless with wonder to see Shri Ramakrishna seated in the very same position in which he had left him. The face was calm, serene, and radiant. In breathless amazement he examined the disciple’s heart and respiration and touched again and again the disciple’s almost corpse-like body. There was no sign of consciousness. He cried in bewilderment at the miracle of this young man achieving in a single day this highest realization of nirvikalpa samādhi which had taken him forty years of hard practice to realize.
Totapuri immediately took steps to bring the mind of his disciple down to the world of phenomena. The little room rang with the holy mantra—Hari Om—uttered in a solemn tone by the teacher. Little by little Shri Ramakrishna’s mind came to an awareness of the outer world; and as he opened his eyes, he saw his teacher looking at him with tenderness and admiration. The disciple reverently prostrated himself before the teacher who in turn locked him in warm embrace.
Expounding in gripping words the glory of this path in his lecture on ‘The Ideal of Universal Religion’, Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. II, p. 394):
We lastly come to the jnāna yogī, the philosopher, the thinker, he who wants to go beyond the visible. He is the man who is not satisfied with the little things of this world. His idea is to go beyond the daily routine of eating, drinking, and so on; not even the teaching of thousands of book will satisfy him. Not even all the sciences will satisfy him; at the best, they only bring this little world before him. What else will give him satisfaction?....His soul wants to go beyond all that into the very heart of being, by seeing Reality as It is; by realizing It, by becoming one with that universal Being. That is the philosopher. To say that God is the Father or the Mother, the Creator of this universe, its Protector, and Guide, is to him quite inadequate to express Him. To him, God is the life of his life, the soul of his soul. God is his own Self. Nothing else remains which is other than God. All the mortal parts of him become pounded by the weighty strokes of philosophy and are brushed away. What at last truly remains is God Himself.
Again speaking on ‘The Free Soul’, he says (ibid., Vol. III, Eighth Edition, p. 11):
It is very hard to come to jnāna, it is for the bravest and most daring, who dares to smash all idols, not only intellectual, but in the senses.
In the history of India, it was the great Buddha who illustrated in the most glowing manner this Upanishdic path of jnāna in his spiritual struggle and realization.
The raising of consciousness from lower to higher levels, and finally taking it out of the network of relativity, is the hardest task that man can set for himself. The gravitational pulls of the non-spiritual parts of his being make this path out of bounds for any but the most heroic of men—the dhīra—as will describe this type in the opening verse of the next chapter.
Yama now proceeds, in verse fourteen, to sound the clarion call of struggle and alertness:
उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया
दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥
uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varānnibodhata |
kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā
durgaṃ pathastatkavayo vadanti ||
(Katha Upanishad, 14th Mantra, Canto 3)
Arise! Awake! enlighten yourself by resorting to the great (teachers); like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so say the sages, difficult to tread and hard to cross.
Here is sounded the bugle for the march, the summons for the greatest adventure of human life, namely scaling the heights of the Mount Everest of Experience. No thinking human being can help being fascinated by the tremendous vista of human fulfillment herein presented by Vedānta. The prospect held out is as much hope-inspiring and pleasing as awe-inspiring and forbidding. Most people may have to content themselves by reverentially bowing down to the peak from a distance unless they are provided with external aids. In the Vedāntic path of affirmation, namely the paths of karma and bhakti, such aids are provided; but not in the Vedāntic path of negation, the path of jnāna. Nor are such aids needed by the few who are truly entitled to tread this path. And there are men and women everywhere, such morally gifted and spiritually daring ones, to whom the lure of such an adventure is irresistible, and who depend entirely on their inner resources.
Arise, Awake , O Man!
Yama, however, sends out his clarion call to one and all—to the hesitant as much to the daring, to the weak as well as to the strong. For implicit in this philosophy is the fulfillment of the hopes of one and all to reach the summit, forming his very Self, is built into each and every human being. What is needed is only man’s awakening to this inalienable heritage of his—his inborn divinity—as expounded in verse twelve earlier. Awakened thus, each may follow the path that suits him best. And Vedānta provides, as we have already seen, different paths to suit different types of mind and mood, of endowment and capacity.
Ordinary man is immersed in his sense life; he treats it as the be-all and end-all of existence. The search for truth, the quest for the meaning of the existence, does not disturb the humdrum routine of his life. He is blissfully unaware of the triviality of his world of hopes and achievements and the immensity of the inner spiritual world lying at hand within. But a time comes when he becomes ripe for awakening, when a mere suggestion is enough to awaken him from the stagnation of sense life to the dynamism of spiritual life. It is such a galvanic touch that Yama administers by the first two words of his utterance:
— Arise, Awake!
A similar clarion call is given by Buddha; himself awakened, he sends forth this message of awakening to fellow to human beings (Itivuttakam, II. 10):
Jāgarantā sunāth-etam ye suttā te pabujjhatha । Suttā jāgaritam seyyo natthi jāgarato bhayam ॥
Let the awakened ones hear this (message); they who are asleep, let them awake. To be awake is more beneficial than to be asleep; to the awakened, there is no fear.
The Need for a Teacher
The awakening is to be followed by the march; but the spiritual path is an unfamiliar path. The sense-bound intellect or reason, which is highly esteemed in the sense life, becomes an unsure guide in this strange new field of experience. It has to seek help and guidance from the insights of a higher reason which has traversed the path and gleaned the truth. Such guidance is available to a seeker either occasionally from a living teacher, or always from the living thoughts of teachers gone by.
The river of spiritual tradition is an ancient ever-flowing stream augmented from time to time by the contributions of realized souls. This constitutes the central core of the world’s religious tradition, which is perennial and universal, as distinguished from its peripheral non-essential elements, which are temporary and local. Indian thought refers to the first as Shruti and the second as Smrti. The Shruti content of the Indian spiritual tradition is represented by the literature of the Upanishads whose main goal is awakening and the books like Bhagavad-Gita are helpful to achieve the Upanishadic achievements and termed as smrti.
Yama exhorts the seeker to ‘learn the truths of spiritual life from these master minds’:
Seeking such help is not mandatory, just as eating is not mandatory; one eats when one is hungry; similarly, one seeks such help when one feels the need for it. If, however, one refuses, from a foolish sense of self-esteem or smug self-satisfaction, to seek help from such available competent sources, it is sure to make one’s spiritual journey end up in a state of learned ignorance or, what Aldous Huxley calls, ‘intelligent foolishness’ or in much fuss and movement with no advance of light and truth. For spiritual life is not meant to fatten man’s false ego, but to annihilate it, so that he may shine in his true self. The pitfalls of the path are many. It is not strewn with roses, but with stones and thorns. In the words of Yama:
प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
prāpya varānnibodhata |
— Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so say the sages, difficult to tread and hard to cross. As expressed by another great teacher, Jesus Christ (Matthew, 7.13-14):
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति
kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṃ pathastatkavayo vadanti
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in threat:
Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
None can hope to advance in spiritual life if he enters on to it absent-mindedly. An awakened alert mind is necessary, for the journey is hard going. This warning of Yama and other great spiritual teachers is especially in the modern age, when the tendency is strong to seek easy and comfortable ways in religion, which is the product not of the true spiritual mood, but of the contemporary tyranny of the sensate life. Religion then becomes equated either with a new form of sensation or with, what Swami Vivekananda termed, ‘not-thinking-carelessness’.
The Vedantic Concern for Man
Since the commentary of Sankara on this verse has captured in an ecstatic passage the spiritual depth and human concern of the Upanishad, it will be appropriate to produce in part in this context:
एवं पुरुषात्मनि सर्वं प्रविलाप्य ... स्वात्मयाथात्मज्ञानेन ... स्वस्थः प्रशान्तात्मा कृतकृत्यो भवति यतोऽतस्तदद्दर्शनार्थमनाद्यविद्याप्रसुप्ता उत्तिष्ठत, हे जन्तवः, आत्मज्ञानाभिमुखा भवत । जाग्रताज्ञाननिद्राया घोररूपायाः सर्वानर्थबीजभूतायाः क्षयं कुरुत । कथम् ? प्राप्योपगम्य वरान् प्रकृष्टानाचार्यांस्तद्विदस्तदुपदिष्टं सर्वान्तरमात्मानमहमस्मीति निबोधतवागच्छत । न ह्युपेक्षितव्यमिति श्रुतिरनुकम्पया आह मातृवत् । अतिसूक्ष्मबुद्धिविषयत्वाज्ज्ञेयस्य ॥
evaṃ puruṣātmani sarvaṃ pravilāpya ... svātmayāthātmajñānena ... svasthaḥ praśāntātmā kṛtakṛtyo bhavati yato'tastadaddarśanārthamanādyavidyāprasuptā uttiṣṭhata, he jantavaḥ, ātmajñānābhimukhā bhavata | jāgratājñānanidrāyā ghorarūpāyāḥ sarvānarthabījabhūtāyāḥ kṣayaṃ kuruta | katham ? prāpyopagamya varān prakṛṣṭānācāryāṃstadvidastadupadiṣṭaṃ sarvāntaramātmānamahamasmīti nibodhatavāgacchata | na hyupekṣitavyamiti śrutiranukampayā āha mātṛvat | atisūkṣmabuddhiviṣayatvājjñeyasya ||
Since by merging everything in the Puruŝa, which is the Self, and realizing the true nature of oneself, man becomes self-established, supremely tranquil, and fulfilled (literally, achieving what ought to be achieved), therefore, in order to realize that, Arise! O creatures immersed in the sleep of beginningless ignorance; may you turn in the direction of the knowledge of the Self! Awake from this sleep of unknowing, which is terrible and seed of all troubles. Destroy it! How? By resorting to the great ones—the excellent teachers who have realized the truth. And instructed by them, realize (for yourself) the innermost Ātman as “I am (That)”. This is not to be neglected; hence exhorts the Śruti (the Upanishad) out of compassion, like a mother; since the truth to be known is such as can be realized only by the most subtle reason.
Diving to the Depth
Yama now proceeds to show in the next verse, verse fifteen, the extremely subtle nature of the truth of the Atman which are in search of:
अशब्दमस्पर्शमव्ययं तथाऽरसं नित्यमगन्धवच्च यत् ।
अनाद्यनन्तं महतः परं ध्रुवं निचाय्य तन्मृत्युमुखात् प्रमुच्यते ॥
aśabdamasparśamavyayaṃ tathā'rasaṃ nityamagandhavacca yat |
anādyanantaṃ mahataḥ paraṃ dhruvaṃ nicāyya tanmṛtyumukhāt pramucyate ||
(Katha Upanishad, 15th Mantra, Canto 3)
By realizing that Ātman which is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable, similarly without taste, eternal, without smell, beginningless and endless, (even) beyond the mahat, and immutable, one is liberated from the jaws of death.
Something wonderful happens when man succeeds in stilling the sense-organs and the mind; it brings him face to face with the mystery of his own true self. Just as in physical science we study the behaviour of matter under various conditions such as under extremely high or extremely low temperatures, and the resulting phenomena are wonderful, similarly, in the science of our inner life, which Vedanta developed into what Julian Huxely calls ‘science of human possibilities’, we have a study of man under various conditions of inner discipline, which has yielded results more wonderful and significant than those in the physical sciences. The highest result of such discipline of the energies of the inner life is total illumination—jnāna, man attaining the spiritual incandescence.
The Conquest of Death
This verse describes this unique phenomenon, whereby mortal man becomes immortal by realizing his infinite, eternal dimension.
— Is liberated from the jaws of death, says Yama in a picturesque phrase of the verse. Time consumes everything; but the infinite Ātman, beyond the reach of time, space and causality consumes time itself, as also space and causality. In the last verse of chapter two of this Upanishad, Yama have earlier described death or time as but the ‘pickle’ of the Ātman —
. Vedānta technically describes the whole world of phenomena, physical as well as non-physical, as ‘death’. It describes the ignorance which takes these phenomena, to be the sole reality also as ‘death’. And it characterizes the Ātman, and also the knowledge of it, as that which ‘eats and digests’ all these phenomena.
When Buddha met his first five disciples at Sārnāth after his enlightenment at Bodh-Gaya, he accosted them thus: ‘Hearken, monks, the Immortal has been gained (by me).’
This illumination with its fruit of immortality is the consummation of evolution, according to Vedānta. This immortality does not mean the soul’s survival at death; nor is it the doubtful product of magical rites or incarnations. It is the product of illumined reason and is realized here and now, as Yama will be emphasizing in verses fourteen and fifteen of canto six.
The Spiritual Basis of Character-development
Yama’s exhortation to ‘merge speech in manas and manas in buddhi’ has deep significance for the development of human intellect and character. Speech and other sense-organs are good as servants, but not so good, and positively bad, as masters. When disciplined by manas and buddhi, they become efficient tools in the pursuit of truth and life-excellence. By the word ‘merge’ is meant this discipline by self-canceling energies of the sense-organs are transmuted and unified into the higher energy of buddhi or Reason. When this transformed energy next finds expression through the sense-organs, it manifests the quality of scientific detachment and precision, and moral purity and character efficiency.
— Utter speech that is purified by mind (thought), says Manu (Manu-Smrti, VI. 46). The objective of character development is the transformation of life-energy into its purest and highest form; physical energy gets transformed into moral and intellectual energy, and that again into spiritual energy. The finer the quality of the energy, the greater is its power of impact and wider its scope and range of action. This is the explanation of the enormous energies manifested by the worlds spiritual giants like Buddha and Jesus, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
सत्यपूतां वदेद्वाचं मनःपूतं समाचरेत्
satyapūtāṃ vadedvācaṃ manaḥpūtaṃ samācaret
In Praise of Wisdom
The Upanishad now, in the last two verses of this chapter, verses sixteen and seventeen, proceeds to conclude in its own words this section of its teaching:
नाचिकेतमुपाख्यानं मृत्युप्रोक्तं सनातनम् ।
उक्त्वा श्रुत्वा च मेधावी ब्रह्मलोके महीयते ॥
nāciketamupākhyānaṃ mṛtyuproktaṃ sanātanam |
uktvā śrutvā ca medhāvī brahmaloke mahīyate ||
(Katha Upanishad, 16th Mantra, Canto 3)
The intelligent person, having heard and related this perennial story of Nachiketā as told by Death (Yama), is glorified in the world of Brahman.
य इमं परमं गुह्यं श्रावयेद् ब्रह्मसंसदि ।
प्रयतः श्राद्धकाले वा तदानन्त्याय कल्पते ।
तदानन्त्याय कल्पत इति ॥
ya imaṃ paramaṃ guhyaṃ śrāvayed brahmasaṃsadi |
prayataḥ śrāddhakāle vā tadānantyāya kalpate |
tadānantyāya kalpata iti ||
(Katha Upanishad, 17th Mantra, Canto 3)
He who relates, with great devotion, this profound mystery to an assembly of spiritual seekers, or at the time of the śrāddha ceremony, makes himself fit for the Infinite, ay, makes himself fit for the Infinite.
The Upanishad, in these two verses, eulogizes the wisdom gained by Nachiketā from his teacher Yama. By receiving this story from a teacher and by communicating it to others who are spiritually ready to receive it, man, says the verse, becomes glorified in the world of Brahman. Śrāddha is the annual ceremony prescribed by the Hindu religion for the remembrance of one’s immediate ancestors. The time of śrāddha is mentioned as propitious for the imparting and receiving of this message, because it is associated with the crisis of death, which is more likely to impart depth to human thinking than other occasions. Of course apart from the annual ceremony śrāddha is observed after twelve days of the death of a person. The repetition of the sentence ‘makes himself fit for the Infinite’ twice in the text indicates the end of the chapter or the end of the section.
The world of Brahman is the world of universal consciousness. Ordinary man takes that as his highest glory which proceeds from the achievement either of physical strength, material possessions, worldly power, or intellectual knowledge. But these are passing and trivial compared to that inalienable glory which is his by his very nature as the Infinite Brahman. At the lowest end is man considering himself as a collection of specks of dust, and at the highest end is man realizing himself as infinite universal consciousness. The sages of the Upanishads realized this inborn glory of man as Brahman. And they seek to awaken all men and women to an awareness of this glory of theirs. In the stirring words of Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, Vol. III, p. 193):
Teach yourselves, teach everyone his real nature; call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes. Power will come, glory will come, goodness will come, purity will come, and everything that is excellent will come, when this sleeping soul is roused to self-conscious activity.
The realization of Brahman, the Self of man and the universe, the unity of the ‘within’ and the ‘without’, is the consummation of knowledge into wisdom. This vision of the unity of all existence and the training of the mind for its realization form the main theme of Yama’s teaching to Nachiketā in the next chapter, into the study of which we shall enter next.