Kena Upanishad

Kena Upaniṣad

by Swami Nirvikarananda | 28,281 words

The very title of this Upanishad is philosophically significant. Kena in Sanskrit implies a question, and means by ‘by whom?’ Philosophy matures only when it becomes a critical estimate of experience and all its assumptions; otherwise it remains dogmatic and immature, or skeptical and over-mature. This Upanishad registers the appearance of critical...

In this second chapter of this Upanishad we are treated to a subtle communication of spiritual truth from teacher to student. The teacher helps the disciple to capture the right frame of mind with which to comprehend this extremely subtle truth of the Ātman. The disciple tries earnestly and feels that he has comprehended the truth well; and he expresses this to his teacher. But the teacher in order to remove the least flaw in his understanding of so vital a truth, asks the student, in the very opening verse, to reassess himself carefully:

यदि मन्यसे सुवेदेति दहरमेवापि
नूनम् त्वं वेत्थ ब्रह्मणो रूपम् ।
यदस्य त्वं यदस्य देवेष्वथ नु
मीमाँस्येमेव ते मन्ये विदितम् ॥ १ ॥

yadi manyase suvedeti daharamevāpi
nūnam tvaṃ vettha brahmaṇo rūpam |
yadasya tvaṃ yadasya deveṣvatha nu
mīmāṃsyemeva te manye viditam || 1 ||

‘If you think that you know Brahman well, then you know little indeed; for the form of Brahman that you see as conditioned in living beings is but a trifle. Therefore you should enquire further about Brahman.’

(The disciple, after reflecting further and fully realizing Brahman, replied):

‘I think I have understood (Brahman).’

The teacher had a suspicion that the disciple had understood Brahman as the spiritual presence in the vast objective manifold; and even in this, he felt, the disciple had not grasped the infinite dimensions of that presence. Daharamevāpi nūnam tvam vettha brahmano rūpam — ‘very little indeed of Brahman’s form have you known’, said the teacher and continued: Atha nu te (brahman) mimāmsyām eva — ‘Therefore your Brahman needs further investigation.’

The disciple took the hint and sat quietly and thought deeply about the implication of the words of the teacher that Brahman is other than the known and beyond the unknown. ‘What can this profound truth be?’ In the depths of his meditation, the truth dawned on the disciple’s pure mind and he exclaimed Manye viditam — ‘I think I know it.’

The cautious mood and the careful approach on the part of disciple and teacher bespeak of the extreme subtlety of the subject. Easy and quick comprehension may turn out to be wrong comprehension, as in the case of Virochana, whose discipleship together with Indra under the teacher Prajāpati forms a fascinating section of the Chhāndogya Upanishad (VIII. vii-xv).

Referring to this episode in his comment on this verse of the Kena Upanishad, Shankara says:

दृष्टम् च, “य एषोऽक्षिणि पुरुषो दृश्यते एष आत्मेति होवाच, एतदमृतम् अभयम्, एतद् ब्रह्म”, इत्युक्ते प्राजापत्यः पण्डितो अपि असुरराट् विरोचनः, स्वभावदोषवसात् अनुपद्यमानमपि विपरीतमर्थम् शरीरम् आत्मेति प्रतिपन्नः । तथा इन्द्रो देवराट् सकृत् द्विस्त्रिरुक्तम् च अप्रतिपाद्यमानः स्वभावदोषक्षयम् अपेक्ष्य चतुर्थे पर्याये प्रथमोक्तमेव ब्रह्म प्रतिपन्नवान्

dṛṣṭam ca, “ya eṣo'kṣiṇi puruṣo dṛśyate eṣa ātmeti hovāca, etadamṛtam abhayam, etad brahma”, ityukte prājāpatyaḥ paṇḍito api asurarāṭ virocanaḥ, svabhāvadoṣavasāt anupadyamānamapi viparītamartham śarīram ātmeti pratipannaḥ | tathā indro devarāṭ sakṛt dvistriruktam ca apratipādyamānaḥ svabhāvadoṣakṣayam apekṣya caturthe paryāye prathamoktameva brahma pratipannavān

‘It has been seen that when the teacher said: ‘The person that seen in the eye, this is Ātman, this is the immortal and fearless Brahman.’ Virochana even though a scholar and ruler of the asuras and son Prajāpati, on account of the blemish in his nature, and in spite of non–comprehension of the teaching understood the opposite of what was taught, namely, that the body was the Ātman. Similarly Indra, the ruler of the devas, not comprehending the teaching at his first, second, and third attempts, grasped the truth of Brahman at the fourth attempt from the initial exposition itself as a consequence of the destruction of the blemish in his nature.’

It is a matter of daily experience in education that some students stumble many times in trying to understand even an ordinary subject. The capacity to grasp also varies from student to student. To quote Shankara’s interesting remarks on this point from the same commentary:

लोके अपि, एकस्मादूगुरोः श्रृन्वताम्, कश्चित् यथावत् प्रतिपद्यते, कश्चित् अयथावत् कश्चित् विपरीतम्, कश्चित् न प्रतिपद्यते; किमु वक्तव्यम् अतीन्द्रियम् आत्मतत्त्वम्

loke api, ekasmādūguroḥ śrṛnvatām, kaścit yathāvat pratipadyate, kaścit ayathāvat kaścit viparītam, kaścit na pratipadyate; kimu vaktavyam atīndriyam ātmatattvam

‘Even in the world, from among a group of students listening to a teacher, some students grasp correctly, some wrongly, some just the opposite, while some fail to grasp anything at all; (If this is so in the worldly sphere), what to speak of the difficulty in comprehending the truth of the Ātman which transcends the senses?

 

Cautiousness of Statement

The student said: manye viditam—‘I think I know It.’ What was the content of his realization? We have it in the next verse (II. 2) in the words of the student himself:

नाहं मन्ये सुवेदेति नो न वेदेति वेद च ।
यो नस्तद्वेद तद्वेद नो न वेदेति वेद च ॥ २ ॥

nāhaṃ manye suvedeti no na vedeti veda ca |
yo nastadveda tadveda no na vedeti veda ca || 2 ||

‘I do not think I know It well; nor do I think that I do not know It; I know too. He amongst us know It who knows that It is other than the unknown and known,’

In his commentary on this verse, Shankara brings out the power of spiritual conviction behind the words of the student:

“अन्यदेव तत् विदितात्, अथो अविदितात् अधि”, इत्याचार्योक्तागमसम्प्रदायबलात् उपपत्यनुभवबलाच्च, जगर्ज च ब्रह्मविद्यायाम् दृढ़निश्चयताम् दर्शयन्नात्मनः ।

“anyadeva tat viditāt, atho aviditāt adhi”, ityācāryoktāgamasampradāyabalāt upapatyanubhavabalācca, jagarja ca brahmavidyāyām dṛढ़niścayatām darśayannātmanaḥ |

‘The teacher had said: “It is other than the known and beyond the unknown.” On the strength of the spiritual tradition embodied in that saying and on the strength also of rational conviction and personal experience, the student roared (like a lion) thus demonstrating his firm conviction in the knowledge of Brahman.’

Naham manye suvedeti — ‘I do not think I know It well.’ This kind of knowing—Suveda—can apply only to things objective. But Brahman is the eternal subject. And therefore the second negation: no na vedeti—‘But not that I do not know It.’ How can the student say that he does not know It when he has realized It as his own Self? What he has achieved is not mediate knowledge but knowledge immediate and direct, like the recognition of one’s name; and so he adds: veda cha—‘I know too.’

Says Shankara in his Vivekachudāmani (Verse 532):

देवदत्तोऽहम् इत्येतत् विज्ञानम् निरपेक्षकम् ।
तद्वत् ब्रह्मविदोऽपस्य ब्रह्माहमिति वेदनम् ॥

devadatto'ham ityetat vijñānam nirapekṣakam |
tadvat brahmavido'pasya brahmāhamiti vedanam ||

‘The awareness “I am Mr. Devadatta” is independent of external circumstances; similar is the case with the realization of a knower of Brahman that he is Brahman.’

Questioned by the teacher, the student in the Kena Upanishad clarifies himself in the second half of the verse:

Yo nah tat veda tat veda no na vedeti veda cha

‘He amongst us knows It who knows that It is other than the unknown and the known.’

And in the verse (II.3) the Upanishad itself clarifies the student’s statement:

यस्यामतं तस्य मतं मतं यस्य न वेद सः ।
अविज्ञातं विजानतां विज्ञातमविजानताम् ॥ ३ ॥

yasyāmataṃ tasya mataṃ mataṃ yasya na veda saḥ |
avijñātaṃ vijānatāṃ vijñātamavijānatām || 3 ||

‘He knows It, who knows (conceives) It not; and he knows It not, who (conceives) It. To the man of true knowledge, It is the “unknown”, while to the ignorant It is the “known.” ’

A concept of the idea of Brahman is not Brahman. When a man thinks he knows Brahman, he has formed only a concept of It; He does not know Brahman truly. On the other hand, He who truly knows Brahman, knows that he cannot know It through his sense-organs and mind. In the words of the Ashtāvakra Samhitā (XII. 7)

अचिन्त्यम् चिन्त्यमानोऽपि चिन्तारूपम् भजत्यसौ ।
त्यक्त्वा तद्भावनम् तस्मात् एवमेवाहम् आस्थितः ॥

acintyam cintyamāno'pi cintārūpam bhajatyasau |
tyaktvā tadbhāvanam tasmāt evamevāham āsthitaḥ ||

‘Thinking on the unthinkable One, one betakes oneself only to a form of thought. Therefore giving up that thought, thus verily do I abide.’

Sri Ramakrishna explains this truth through a parable (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 1947 edition, Ramakrishna Math, Madras 4. p.28):

‘A man had two sons. The father sent them to a preceptor to learn the knowledge of Brahman. After a few years they returned from their preceptor’s house and bowed low before their father. Wanting to measure the depth of their knowledge of Brahman, he first questioned the older of the two boys. “My child,” he said, “You have studied all the scriptures. Now tell me what is the nature of Brahman?” The boy began to explain Brahman by reciting various texts from the Vedas. The father did not say anything. Then he asked the younger son the same question. But the boy remained silent and stood with eyes cast down. No words escaped his lips. The father was pleased and said to him: “My child, you have understood a little of Brahman. What It cannot be expressed in words.” ’

The greatest among the mystics of East and West have referred to this inadequacy of human language to communicate the deepest spiritual experience. The thought of Jacob Boehme, a great European mystic who was an unlearned shoe-maker, and of Eckhart, the scholarly saint, also of Europe, bears close kinship to the thoughts of the Upanishads. Says Boehme (Quoted by Evelyn Underhill: The Mystics of the Church, p.217):

‘I can but stammer of great mysteries like child that is beginning to speak; so very little can the earthly tongue express of that which the Spirit comprehends.’

Says Eckhart:

‘ “Thou shalt apprehend God without image, without semblance, and without means”— but for me, to know God thus, without means, I must be very He and He very me.’

Even great masters of language have felt a profound humility before the deep mystery of experience. Sings the English poet Tennyson in his Memoriam (54):

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.


 

The Nature of Brahman-Realization

If Brahman is entirely unknown to the knowing ones — avijnātam vijānatām — then what is the difference between the knowing one and the ignorant one? Therefore it cannot be that Brahman is entirely unknown to the knowing one. In what way, then, does he know Brahman? The next verse, verse four of chapter two, gives the answer to the question in one of the most profound utterances of all the Upanishads.

प्रतिबोधविदितम् मतम् अमृतत्वम् हि विन्दते ।
आत्मना विन्दते वीर्यम् विद्यया विन्दते अमृतम् ॥ ४ ॥

pratibodhaviditam matam amṛtatvam hi vindate |
ātmanā vindate vīryam vidyayā vindate amṛtam || 4 ||

‘Indeed, he attains immortality, who realizes It in and through every bodha (pulsation of every knowledge and awareness). Through the Ātman he obtains strength and vigour, and through (Its) knowledge, immortality.’

Pratibodhaviditam means bodham bodham pratividitam — known through every mental act. The Ātman is pure Awareness is the unchangeable witness of all mental states, whether waking, dreaming, or in dreamless sleep. Shankara’s comment in this verse is illuminating:

‘सर्वे प्रत्यया विषयीभवन्ति यस्य, स आत्मा, सर्वबोधान् प्रतिबुद्ध्यते, सर्वप्रत्ययदर्शी चिच्छक्तिस्वरूपमात्रः, प्रत्ययैरेव प्रत्ययेषु अविशिष्टया लक्ष्यते, नान्यत् द्वारम् आत्मनो विज्ञानाय ।

‘sarve pratyayā viṣayībhavanti yasya, sa ātmā, sarvabodhān pratibuddhyate, sarvapratyayadarśī cicchaktisvarūpamātraḥ, pratyayaireva pratyayeṣu aviśiṣṭayā lakṣyate, nānyat dvāram ātmano vijñānāya |

He is the Ātman to whom all mental modification are objects of awareness, who knows all mental states, who is the seer of all mental states, who himself is of the nature of pure Awareness, whose reflection is perceived by mental states in and through mental states as indistinguishable from them, there being no other means of knowing Him.’

The Ātman is the light of pure Awareness which lights up every act of knowledge and awareness of the mind. It follows accordingly that every mental modification reveals the light of the Ātman, reveals the light that lights up the modification. Hence the Ātman is pratibodhaviditam — ‘known through every pulsation of awareness and knowledge.’ As expressed by Shankara in his Vivekachudamani (Verse 217):

जाग्रत्स्वप्नसुषुप्तिषु स्फुटतरं योऽसौ समुज्जृम्भते
प्रत्यग्रूपतया सदाहमहमित्यन्तः स्फुरन्नैकधा ।
नानाकारविकारभागिन इमान् पश्यन्नहंधीमुखान्
नित्यानन्दचिदात्मना स्फुरति तं विद्धि स्वमेतं हृदि ॥

jāgratsvapnasuṣuptiṣu sphuṭataraṃ yo'sau samujjṛmbhate
pratyagrūpatayā sadāhamahamityantaḥ sphurannaikadhā |
nānākāravikārabhāgina imān paśyannahaṃdhīmukhān
nityānandacidātmanā sphurati taṃ viddhi svametaṃ hṛdi ||

‘That which clearly manifests Itself in the waking, dream, and dreamless sleep states, which is inwardly perceived in the mind, in various forms, as an unbroken series of “I” impressions; which is the witness of the ego, buddhi (intellect), etc. which are of diverse forms and modifications; and which shines as the eternal existence-knowledge-bliss Absolute, know thou this Ātman, thy own Self, within thy heart.’

 

The continuity of the Indian Spiritual Tradition

Spirituality, according to the Upanishads, is as much a communicable and verifiable truth as any physical scientific truth. The behaviour of liquids, solids, and gases under high temperatures or low, under high pressure or low, is scientific truth arrived at by experiment, and open to verification by any competent individual. This Ātman, the divine nature of man, and Its realization, which this Upanishad expounds through a dialog between a realized teacher and his earnest student, is truth similarly established by spiritual experiment, and verified by countless spiritual experiments in subsequent stages. As in physical science, so in religion, we do not live on the plane of guessing or surmise but on the plane of verified and verifiable truth. This dialogue between teacher and student discloses the last stages of the journey of man to spiritual centre of his being which is also the spiritual centre of all existence. The summit of that experience is the truth expressed in the equation: Ātman is Brahman. That experience makes the fortunate ones who achieve it universal in vision and sympathy.

The Kena Upanishad dialogue is not the account of a final and closed revelation which we are asked to accept in faith. On the contrary, it is a revelation open to re-creation in his own life by every man and woman; it has found verification in scores of spiritual experimenters in subsequent ages, of whom the most glorious and outstanding was Buddha. It found its latest verification in Sri Ramakrishna in the 19th century. The account of his Advaita sādhana under guidance of his teacher, Totapuri, throws a flood of light on this Kena Upanishad dialogue and reveals the livingness and unbroken continuity of the Upanishadic spiritual tradition.

 

Totapuri and Sri Ramakrishna

By about the end of 1865, when he was twenty-nine years old, Sri 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 the 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, Sri Ramakrishna was one day sitting in a corner of the open portico at the bathing ghat of the Dakshineswar 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 Sri 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 a fascination for the impersonal God, the non-dual Brahman. After forty years of unremitting spiritual practice, performed on the banks of 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) (in some editions (409-411)) :

किमपि सततबोधं केवलानन्दरूपम्
निरुपममतिवेलम् नित्यमुक्तम् निरीहम् ।
निरवधिगगनाभम् निष्कलम् निर्विकल्पम्
हृदि कलयति विद्वान् ब्रह्म पूर्ण समाधौ ॥

kimapi satatabodhaṃ kevalānandarūpam
nirupamamativelam nityamuktam nirīham |
niravadhigaganābham niṣkalam nirvikalpam
hṛdi kalayati vidvān brahma pūrṇa samādhau ||

‘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, invisible and absolute.’

प्रकृतिविकृतिशून्यम् भावनातीतभावम्
समरसम् असमानम् मानसम्बन्धदूरम् ।
निगमवचनसिद्धम् नित्यमस्मत्प्रसिद्धम्
हृदि कलयति विद्वान् ब्रह्म पूर्ण समाधौ ॥

prakṛtivikṛtiśūnyam bhāvanātītabhāvam
samarasam asamānam mānasambandhadūram |
nigamavacanasiddham nityamasmatprasiddham
hṛdi kalayati vidvān brahma pūrṇa samādhau ||

‘The wise one realizes in his heart in samadhi, 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 logical proofs, (but) proved by the experience of the wise as recorded in the Vedāntic spiritual tradition, and ever familiar to man as the basis of his of his self awareness.’

अजरममरमरस्ताभाववस्तुस्वरूपम्
स्तिमितसलिलराशिप्रख्यमाख्याविहीनम् ।
शमितगुणविकारम् शाश्वतम् शान्तमेकम्
हृदि कलयति विद्वान् ब्रह्म पूर्ण समाधौ ॥

ajaramamaramarastābhāvavastusvarūpam
stimitasalilarāśiprakhyamākhyāvihīnam |
śamitaguṇavikāram śāśvatam śāntamekam
hṛdi kalayati vidvān brahma pūrṇa samādhau ||

‘The wise one realizes in his heart in samadhi, the infinite Brahman, which is undecaying and immortal, the Reality which is the negation of all negations, which resembles the ocean when the waves have subsided all the modifications of the gunas (nature’s modes), and which is eternal, pacified, and One.’

Having achieved the blessed experience, Totapuri wandered from place to place without any aim 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 (Khaggavisana Sutta, Sutta Nipata, Khuddaka Nikaya, Sutta Pitaka) :

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 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 his life under the canopy of the heaven, alike in storm and sunshine, maintaining himself on alms. His wanderings took him to many a holy place in India, including Gangāsagar in Bengal, where holy Gangā meets the sea. It was on his return journey from there that he went to the Dakshineswar 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 Jatādhārī and Bhairavī Brāhmanī, had already met Sri Ramakrishna and guided him to realization through their respective spiritual paths of the bhakti school. Totapuri represented an altogether different path of the impersonal God, the path blazoned by the sages of the Upanishads and the great Buddha.

As soon as Totapuri’s eyes fell on Sri Ramakrishna he recognized in him a fit aspirant for the path of the unconditioned and impersonal Brahman. He asked Sri Ramakrishna whether he would like to learn Vedānta. He told him ‘You seem to be an advanced seeker after truth. Would you like to be initiated in the path of Advaita realization?’ Sri Ramakrishna felt a divine urge within to agree. Under Totapuri’s directions, Sri Ramakrishna performed the various ceremonies preliminary to the grand ceremony of sanyāsa — total renunciation of the world. One day, about two hours before dawn, both repaired to a small hut in a sequestered spot, not far from Sri Ramakrishna’s room. Totapuri administered to Sri Ramakrishna 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 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. Prostrating himself before his teacher, Sri 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 disciples of Sri Ramakrishna (Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master, 1952 Edition, Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 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 Māyā, which makes the impossible possible, It causes, by virtue of its influence, to seem (sic) that It is divided into names and forms. Brahman is never really so. For at the time of samādhi, 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 a 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 samādhi. You will then see universe, consisting of name and form, vanish as it were into the void; you will see the consciousness of the little “I” merge in that of the immense “I”, where it ceases to function; and you will have the immediate knowledge of the indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss as yourself. The Brhadāranyaka 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 Knower in the hearts of all?” ’

After instructing his disciple thus in the central ideas of the jnāna path of Vedānta, Totapuri exhorted Sri Ramakrishna to fix his mind on the unconditioned Brahman. This part of the momentous story is best told in the words of Sri Ramakrishna himself (Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Sixth Edition, pp. 189-90):

‘After the initiation, Nangta, “the naked one” (this was the appellation which Sri 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 my all attempts I could not 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 of the essence of pure Consciousness—which appeared before me as a living form. Again and again I tried to concentrate my mind on the Advaita teachings, but every time the Mother’s form stood in my way. In despair I said to the “the naked one”, “It is hopeless”. I cannot raise my mind to the unconditioned state and come face to face with the Ātman.” He grew exited and sharply said “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.’

Sri Ramakrishna passed into the unconditioned state of the nirvikalpa samādhi; 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 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 a third day and a 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 Sri Ramakrishna in the very same position in which he had left him. The face was calm, serene, and radiant. In breathless amazement he examined the disciples heart and respiration and touched again and again the disciples 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 Sri 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.

 

The Fruit of Wisdom Is Strength

‘Through Ātman man obtains real strength, and through knowledge immortality; Ātmana vindyate vīryam vidyayā vindate amrtam, said verse four of the second chapter of the Kena Upanishad. Strength is the product of man’s knowing himself. A little self-knowledge has enabled man to control animals physically stronger than himself. Man possessed of self-knowledge control men bereft of it. Ordinary self-knowledge can be used to control and exploit others; but self-knowledge proceeding from the Ātman, the one Self in all, confers universality of outlook and sympathy, as the next verse of the Upanishad will tell us. This Ātman is the infinite reservoir of all strength and energy. Its manifestation is what we achieve through proper education. A well-developed character manifests more of this innate strength and energy than an ill-developed character. There is the quality of innateness and inalienability in the strength derived from all forms of character as different from that derived from wealth and power and other external possessions. Hence character is the most dependable source of strength and energy. External possessions, on the other hand, can confer only limited strength and limited fearlessness. Of all character, a spiritual character a character that draws nourishment from the Ātman within manifests the greatest strength; for it overcomes death itself. Commenting on this passage, Shankara says:

धनसहायमन्त्रौषधितपयोगकृतम् वीर्यम् मृत्युम् न शक्नोति अभिभवितुम्, अनित्यवस्तुकृतत्वात् । आत्मविद्याकृतम् तु वीर्यम् आत्मनैव विन्दते, न अन्येन, इत्यतो अनन्यसाधनत्वात् आत्मविद्यावीर्यस्य, तदेव वीर्यम् मृत्युम् शक्नोति अभिभवितुम् ।

dhanasahāyamantrauṣadhitapayogakṛtam vīryam mṛtyum na śaknoti abhibhavitum, anityavastukṛtatvāt | ātmavidyākṛtam tu vīryam ātmanaiva vindate, na anyena, ityato ananyasādhanatvāt ātmavidyāvīryasya, tadeva vīryam mṛtyum śaknoti abhibhavitum |

‘The strength proceeding from wealth, friends, magic incantations, drugs, austerity, and mind-control cannot overcome death; because it is the product of things which are themselves transitory. The strength proceeding from the knowledge of the Ātman, on the contrary, is attained through the Ātman only and not through something else. Thus the strength arising from the knowledge of the Ātman, being self-attained, can alone overcome death, it being self-attained and not mediated by some other thing.’

Being the source of supreme strength, this knowledge confers also immortality. The knowledge that “I am the Ātman” is also the knowledge that “I am immortal.”

The nature of this realization of immortality forms the theme of the fifth and last verse of this second chapter which we shall discuss next.

In the last discussion the Kena-Upanishad expounded to us the nature of the highest spiritual experience which is so rarely obtained because it lies beyond the senses and the mind.

The Upanishad told us, in its own enigmatic language, that the profound truth of the Ātman, our immortal divine nature, is unknown to those who know but known to those who do not know. But if this truth is so transcendent and so extremely subtle, how are we to grasp it, to profit by it?

The Upanishad in the fourth verse of the chapter two assured us that the Ātman, though it transcends the mind and the senses, has yet left its impress, its footprints, so to say, on the world of experience, especially on the mind and the senses.

Pratibodhaviditam matam amrtatatvam hi vindate — ‘Indeed, he attains immortality who realizes the Ātman in and through every pulsation of knowledge and awareness.’

 

Footprints of the Ātman on the Sands of Experience

The movements of the mind reveal the presence of the Ātman behind. Says the Brhadāranyaka Upanishad (I. iv. 7):

तदेतत् पदनीयम् अस्य सर्वस्य यद् अयम् आत्मा; अनेन ह्येतत् सर्वम् वेद, यथा ह वै पदेनानुविन्देत् ।

tadetat padanīyam asya sarvasya yad ayam ātmā; anena hyetat sarvam veda, yathā ha vai padenānuvindet |

‘Of all these, this Self alone should be realized; One knows all these through It. Just as one may get at (an animal) through its footprints, (so may one get the Self through Its footprints on the sands of experience).’

Commenting on the above passage Shankara says:

कथम् पुनः एतत् पदनीयम्, इति उच्यते; यथा ह वै लोके पदेन; गवादि खुरांकितो देशः पदम् इत्युच्यते, तेन पदेन, नष्टम् विवित्सितम् पशुम् पदेन अन्वेशमानो अनुविन्देत् लभेत ।

katham punaḥ etat padanīyam, iti ucyate; yathā ha vai loke padena; gavādi khurāṃkito deśaḥ padam ityucyate, tena padena, naṣṭam vivitsitam paśum padena anveśamāno anuvindet labheta |

‘How again, is This (Self) to be attained? It is thus replied: Just as, in the world, one may get back a missing animal that is wanted by seeking it through its foot, “foot” here means the ground with the print left by a cow etc.’

The Kena Upanishad further told us that this realization is the source of infinite strength: Ātmanā vindate vīryam vidyayā vindate amrtam — ‘Man attains energy and vigour through the Ātman, and immortality through the knowledge of It.’

Change and death belong to the body, the senses and the mind, to all things in our personality that are composite. But the Ātman is a simple and not a compound. Hence it is deathless. We become immortal when we become truly ourselves, when we know our true nature.

 

Scholarship versus Spirituality

This Vidyā or knowledge is not the knowledge that we usually acquire through books or through the study of nature. That cannot confer immortality, as it deals with the perishable and the changeable and with things external to ourselves. This knowledge on the other hand has reference to the unchangeable in experience, it is knowledge of the Self, ātmajnāna, and not of the non-Self. It is beyond sense-knowledge, it is beyond the known and unknown’, which are two categories of knowledge at the sense level, anyadeva tat viditāt atho aviditāt adhi.

When a man understands this, he will consider the enormous fund of scholarship hitherto gathered to be so much lumber in his head; he will then wish for nothing more than to get rid of this mental weight, this learned ignorance, and strive for true knowledge. When young Ramakrishna was pressed by his loving elder brother to go to school, he gave reply characteristic of this mood and temper (Life of Ramakrishna, p. 50):

‘Brother, what shall I do with a mere bread winning education? I would rather acquire that wisdom which will illumine my heart and, getting which one is satisfied forever.’

When Swami Vivekananda, then young Narendra about to appear for his law examination, experienced this tremendous thirst for spiritual realization, the following interesting conversation took place between him and his master, Sri Ramakrishna (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 925):

‘Master to Narendra smiling): “Won’t you continue your studies?” ’

‘Narendra (looking at the Master and M): “I shall feel greatly relieved if I find a medicine that will make me forget all I have studied.” ’

Says the Ashtāvakra Samhitā (XVI. 1 and 11):

आचक्ष्व शृणु वा तात नानाशास्त्राण्यनेकशः ।
तथापि न तव स्वास्थ्यम् सर्वविस्मरणात् ऋते ॥

ācakṣva śṛṇu vā tāta nānāśāstrāṇyanekaśaḥ |
tathāpi na tava svāsthyam sarvavismaraṇāt ṛte ||

‘My child, you may often speak on various scriptures or hear them. Even then you cannot be established in the Self unless you forget all.’

हरो यद्युपदेष्टा ते हरिः कमलजोऽपि वा ।
तथापि न तव स्वास्थ्यम् सर्वविस्मरणात् ऋते ॥

haro yadyupadeṣṭā te hariḥ kamalajo'pi vā |
tathāpi na tava svāsthyam sarvavismaraṇāt ṛte ||

‘Let even Hara (Shiva), Hari (Vishnu), or the lotus-born (Brahmā) be your instructor; even then you cannot be established in the Self unless you forget all.’

The enormous energies proceeding from the personalities of the great spiritual teachers of mankind like Buddha, Jesus, Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda have their source in this immortal divine Self. All knowledge is power; but Self-knowledge is power par excellence.

 

Realization Here and Now

Having thus expounded the glory and excellence of this knowledge the Upanishad now proceeds to tell us, in the fifth and last verse of chapter two, that this realization is to be achieved here and now, in this very life, and not in a post-mortem heaven:

इह चेदवेदीत् अथ सत्यमस्ति न चेदिहावेदीत् महती विनष्टिः ।
भूतेषु भूतेषु विचित्य धीराः प्रेत्यास्मात् लोकात् अमृता भवन्ति ॥ ५ ॥

iha cedavedīt atha satyamasti na cedihāvedīt mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ |
bhūteṣu bhūteṣu vicitya dhīrāḥ pretyāsmāt lokāt amṛtā bhavanti || 5 ||

‘For one who realizes It here (in the world) there is true life. For one who does not so realize It, great is the loss. Discovering the Ātman in every single being, the wise-ones dying to this world (of sense-experience), become immortal.’

This is a great pronouncement of Vedānta. Truth is to be realized iha—here and now, in this very life. This emphasis is valid only if truth is our very nature, our very birthright. Truth is the very Self of man, declares Vedānta. True life for man begins only when he turns his energies in the direction of the deathless Ātman within. It becomes fully achieved when the Ātman is realized. The Upanishad summons man to this realization so that he may experience true life before his body falls away. But if he neglects it and misses it in this life, great shall be his loss. What other gain by way of wealth and power and pleasure in the world, or the ephemeral delights in heaven, can compensate for this loss? Asks Jesus (Mark, VIII. 36-7)

‘For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’

The life of the senses is finite and trivial. All exclusively secular education has reference to this finite level of existence. That education is healthy and creative when it leads man to the search for this infinite existence, to the search for the true life; otherwise, it ends in sharpening man’s sense appetites and in an endless round of the trivial and the finite, which Vedānta characterizes as the stagnation of samsāra. And Vedānta finds the tragedy of life in man’s confining himself, through spiritual blindness, to the finite and the trivial, in spite of his being born heir to the vast and infinite.

What must be the dimension of that awareness which lifts man from the finite and trivial and gives him an insight into the vast and the infinite! This movement from the finite to the infinite is also the movement from the false life to the true; it is also the passing from mortality to immortality. All moral and spiritual life expresses this passion for and movement towards the infinite, the immortal. The human heart is never satisfied with the small, with the finite; it ever seeks the great, the infinite. In the words of the Chhāndogya Upanishad (VII. xxiii. 1)

यो वै भूमा तत् सुखम् न अल्पे सुखम् अस्ति ।
भूमैव सुखम् भूमात्वेव विजिज्ञासितव्यम् ॥

yo vai bhūmā tat sukham na alpe sukham asti |
bhūmaiva sukham bhūmātveva vijijñāsitavyam ||

‘That which is infinite is verily happiness, there is no happiness in the small, (in the finite; the great (the Infinite) alone is happiness, the Infinite alone should verily be sought after.’


 

Universality of Vision

The transcendence of the limited ego and the liberation of the universal man is what is sought to be achieved by the scientific and moral discipline of detachment. The individual is not destroyed by the practice of detachment, but grows into largeness and fullness. Says J.B.S. Haldane in his book Possible Worlds:

‘I notice that when I think logically and scientifically or act morally my thoughts and actions cease to be characteristic of myself and are those of intelligent or moral being in the same position. In fact, I am already identifying my mind with an absolute or unconditioned mind.

‘Only in so far as I do this can I see any probability of my survival, and the more I do so the less I am interested in my private affairs and the less desire do I feel for personal immortality.’

It is this growth and development of the human awareness, which has been nourished earlier by scientific and ethical discipline, that Vedanta consummate in the spiritual realization of universality in this very life. Says Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on ‘Practical Vedanta’ (Complete Works, Vol. II. p. 331)

‘The Vedāntic idea is not the destruction of the individual, but its real preservation. We cannot prove the individual by any other means but by 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.’

Where shall man seek for the Infinite and the immortal? Within himself say the Upanishads, within himself, says also Jesus. The Infinite is his true nature; that is his true dimension. The Self of man is eternally pure, awakened and free, says Vedanta. In the firm language of the Chhandogya Upanishad (VI. xiv. 3)

स य एषो अणिमा, एतत् आत्म्यमिदम् सर्वम्, तत् सत्यम् स आत्मा, तत् त्वम् असि ।

sa ya eṣo aṇimā, etat ātmyamidam sarvam, tat satyam sa ātmā, tat tvam asi |

‘Everything in this universe has this subtle (infinite) Reality for its Self; That is the True; That is the Ātman; and That thou art.’

 

The Evolutionary Vision

Vedānta views the entire evolutionary process as progressive evolution of structure and form and greater and greater manifestation of the Infinite Self within. It is evolution of matter and manifestation of spirit. The first emergence of living organisms is marked by the appearance of a rudimentary form of awareness. This awareness grows in richness and variety as we move up the evolutionary ladder. The evolution of the nervous system discloses a progressive development of awareness in depth and range, and a consequent increase in the grip of the organism on its environment.

This awareness achieves a new and significant dimension with the appearances of man on the evolutionary scene. The field of awareness of all other organism is, largely, the external environment, and to a small extent, the interior of their bodies as well. Man alone has awareness of the self along with awareness of the not-self. Self- awareness, which nature achieved through the evolution of the human organism, is a new dimension of awareness containing tremendous implications both for nature and for man. A rudimentary form of self-awareness enabled the earliest man to establish his dominance over the entire animal kingdom. Neurologists speak of the emergence, in the earliest man, of the faculty of imagination—the power of retaining ideas in the mind and viewing them. This power is absent in the highest of the sub-human species.

Says the neurologist W. Grey Walter in his book The Living Brain (p. 2)

‘Thus the mechanisms of the brain reveal a deep physiological division between man and ape….If the title of soul be given to the higher functions in question, it must be admitted that the other animals have only a glimmer of the light that so shines before men….The nearest creature to us, the chimpanzee, cannot retain an image long enough to reflect on it, however clever it may be in learning tricks or getting food that is placed beyond its natural reach. Unable to rehearse the possible consequences of different responses to a stimulus, without any faculty of planning, the apes and other animals cannot learn to control their feelings, first step towards independence of environment and eventual control of it. The activity of the animal brain is not checked to allow time for the choice of one among several possible responses, but only for the one reflex or conditioned response to emerge. The monkey’s brain is still in thrall of its senses. Senito ergo sum might be the first reflection of a slightly inebriated ape, as it is often the last of alcoholic man; so near an yet so far apart, even then are they.

‘The brain of lion, tiger, rhinoceros and other powerful animals also lacks the mechanism of imagination, or we should not be here to discuss the matter. They cannot envisage changes in their environment, so they have never sought to alter it in all their efforts to retain leadership of their habitat.’

Man alone achieved this power of imaging ideas; and this power was not in him an isolated phenomenon. Within the increased area of the cortex of the ancestral organ, man evolved a mechanism capable of a series of new processes: observation, memory, comparison, evaluation, selection, and judgment. And in achieving these, he achieved two things:

Firstly, discovery of the path leading to the processing of raw experience into knowledge, of knowledge into power, and of power into control and manipulation of the environment constituted by the not-self of experience.

Secondly, a faint awareness of the reality of himself as the subject, as the self behind the fleeting images, and the discovery of the road leading inward to the total comprehension of this new dimension of reality, with its increasing liberation of moral and spiritual values in his life and action and behaviour.

Man’s steady advance on these two fronts constitutes the story of civilization and culture; it constitutes also the story of the march of evolution at the post-human stage. With the emergence, on the evolutionary scene, of the mind of man, disciplined in the knowledge of the not-self and the self in varying degrees, nature yields, in increasing measure, to one of her own products, the control and manipulation of the evolutionary process.

 

From Knowledge to Wisdom

In spite of his rudimentary self-knowledge which gave him control over the animal world, the earliest man remained an animal in appetites and behaviour. A little more of this self-knowledge, gained through the reflection in the context of social experience, helped to increase his control over himself and to humanize him. This process, ever in operation in human civilization and socio-political organizations, has led up to the man in the modern age, with his almost total control over the not-self environment through an efficient technology, with his global sweep in socio-cultural interests and contacts, and with his yearning for the universal and human. Yet the disparity between his control over himself and his control over external nature, between his moral efficiency and his technical efficiency, confronts him with the most serious problem that his evolution has so far posed. This is thwarting the realization of his heart’s yearning for the universal and human. Neglected and unsolved, this problem may make him the only possible destroyer of his civilization and of the fruits of evolution as well. In the meantime, he is destined to move from one tension to another, from one sorrow to another. The only solution lies in the deepening of his moral and spiritual awareness. Biological evolution achieved a measure of this in the life of earliest man in his rudimentary knowledge of his own self. Social evolution, guided by human intelligence, advanced this still further; a physical and organic self separate from all others gave place to a social self, morally related to an increasing number of other individuals. The dynamism of human evolution demands that this education of man must continue till he rises from self-centeredness to self-transcendence and from knowledge to wisdom. Says Bertrand Russell (The Impact of Science on Society, pp. 120-21)

‘We are in the middle of a race between human skill as to means and human folly as to ends. Given sufficient folly as to ends, every increase in the skill required to achieve them is to the bad. The human race has survived hitherto owing to ignorance and incompetence, but knowledge and competence combined with folly, there can be no certainty of survival. Knowledge is power, but it is power for evil just as much as for good. It follows that, unless men increase in wisdom as much as in knowledge, increase of knowledge will be increase in sorrow.’

 

The Spiritual Training of the Will

This increase in wisdom in what man achieves when he transcends his little separate self, when he moves in the direction of his true Self, which is also the Self of all; the path to this lies through increasing control over the senses and the mind, and through discrimination between the real and the unreal, between the changeless One and changing many. This is the highest education for man according to the Upanishads; it is the education for him in what the Mundaka Upanishad (1.i.5) terms para vidyā, the highest knowledge, wisdom, the realization of the imperishable One in the perishable many.

This education should not be postponed, say the Upanishads; it should not be left to be accomplished by nature’s slow evolutionary process. Nature accomplished the first stage of this education in the rudimentary self-knowledge imparted to early man. She thus put him among all her products on the road to full self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. Modern man does not stand in need of another Nature’s care to the same extent as early man did or the animal world still does. He has the intelligence and capacity to control the processes of nature and society, and to use these to ensure human fulfillment everywhere. But his will is perverse; it seeks the ways of folly; it is his enemy; and it will remain his enemy so long as it is in thralldom to animal nature and to the little ego centered in that nature. It has to be turned in the direction of his divine nature within, then alone will his intelligence and will and feeling fuse into a new value to emerge as buddhi, wisdom. This is the sattvik-will, luminous and pure, according to the Gitā (XVIII. 33):

धृत्या यया धारयते मनः प्राणेन्द्रियक्रियाः ।
योगेनाव्याभिचारिण्या धृतिः सा पार्थ सात्विकी ॥

dhṛtyā yayā dhārayate manaḥ prāṇendriyakriyāḥ |
yogenāvyābhicāriṇyā dhṛtiḥ sā pārtha sātvikī ||

‘The will that controls the functions of the mind, the vital energies, and the sense-organs, and turns their energies uniformly in the direction of the divine Self within, that will O Partha, is the sattvik-will.’

 

The Direction of Human Evolution

Since this subject of the growth of man and his fulfillment is a common theme in Vedanta and in modern biological thought, I can do no better than quote a significant passage from Swami Vivekananda; though rather long, it is worth quoting in full in view of its relevance. In a lecture on ‘The Powers of the Mind’ delivered in California in 1900, the Swami said (Complete Works,Vol. II, pp. 18-19):

‘I shall tell you a theory which I will not argue now, but simply place before you the conclusion. Each man in his childhood runs through the stages through which his race has come up; only the race took thousands of years to do it, while the child takes a few years. The child is first the old savage man—and he crushes a butterfly under his feet. The child is at first like the primitive ancestors of his race. As he grows, he passes through different stages until he reaches the development of his race. Only he does it swiftly and quickly. Now, take the whole humanity as a race, or take the whole of the animal creation, man and the lower animals, as one whole. There is an end towards which the whole is moving. Let us call it perfection. Some men and women are born who appreciates the whole progress of mankind. Instead of waiting and being reborn over and over again for ages until the whole human race has attained to that perfection, they, as it were rush through them in a few short years of their life. And we know that we can hasten these processes, if we be true to ourselves. If a number of men, without any culture, be left to live upon an island, and are given barely enough food, clothing, and shelter, they will gradually go on and on, evolving higher and higher stages of civilization. We know also that this growth can be hastened by additional means. We help the growth of trees, do we not? Left to nature they would have grown, only they would have taken a longer time; we help them to grow in a shorter time than they would otherwise have taken. We are doing all the time the same thing, hastening the growth of things by artificial means. Why cannot we hasten the growth of man? We can do that as a race. Why are teachers sent to another countries? Because, by these means we can hasten the growth of races. Now, can we not hasten the growth of individuals? We can. Can we put a limit to the hastening?.....you have no reason to say that this much a man can do and no more. Circumstances can hasten him wonderfully. Can there be any limit then till you come to perfection?’

Referring to the corollary of this line of thought, he continued;

‘So, what comes of it?—That a perfect man, that is to say, the type of that is to come of this race, perhaps millions of years hence, that man can come today. And this is that the Yogis say, that all great incarnations and prophets are such men; that they reached perfection in this one life. We have had such men at all periods of the world’s history and at all times.’

And referring to his own master, Shri Ramakrishna, as an example of this achievement in our own age, He said:

‘Quite recently, there was such a man who lived the life of whole human race and reached the end—even in this life.’

And pleading for a scientific study of this spiritual growth of man so as to deepen the sciences of anthropology and sociology, he said:

‘Even the hastening of the growth must be under laws. Suppose we can investigate these laws and understand their secrets and apply them to our own needs, it follows that we grow. We hasten our growth. We hasten our development, and we become perfect, even in this life. This is the higher part of our life, and the science of the study of the mind and its powers has this perfection as the real end. Helping others with money and other material things, and teaching them how to go smoothly in their daily life, are mere details.’

And adverting to the utility and urgency of this science of spirituality, and presenting the Vedantic view of the uniqueness of man, he concluded:

‘The utility of this science is to bring out the perfect man, and not let him wait for ages, just a plaything in the hands of the physical world, like a log of drift-wood carried from wave to wave and tossing about in the ocean. This science wants you to be strong, to take the work in your own hands, instead of leaving it in the hands of Nature, and get beyond this little life. That is the great idea.’

 

The Dynamics of Human Evolution

This is the direction of human evolution according to Vedanta. The dynamics of evolution at the human stage finds its true expression in the struggle to liberate the universal man imbedded in individual man. Bereft of this spiritual direction, every human action and struggle serves but to throw him deeper and deeper into the net of delusion of his finitude, sharpen his animal appetites, and increase his tension and sorrow. In Vedanta such a life is termed a life of samsāra, worldliness. It is a static life, in spite of all the stir and movement which it may exhibit. As a stagnant pool is to a sheet of flowing water, so stands this static life of samsāra in relation to the dynamic life of spirituality. Such a spiritual life is unworldly, but it is not outside the world. Live in samsāra, says Shri Ramakrishna, but allow not samsāra to get into you; a boat should be in water, but water should not be in the boat. Samsāra itself becomes the field of struggle, the Kurukshetra, for the transcendence of the ego, for this achievement by men of universal awareness, brahmajnāna, says this great verse of the Kena Upanishad:

इह चेदवेदीत् अथ सत्यमस्ति

iha cedavedīt atha satyamasti

— ‘If man realizes It here, then there is true life for him.’

 

The Uniqueness of Men

It is not only his true life but it is also the highest human excellence and the acme of his life fulfillment. Vedānta further adds that it is also the birthright of every human being and the crown of the entire evolutionary process. Says the Shrimad-Bhagavatam (XI. ix. 28):

सृष्ट्वा पुराणी विविधान्यजयाऽत्मशक्त्या
वृक्षान् सरीसृपपशून् खगदन्दशूकान् ।
तैस्तैरतुष्टहृदयः पुरूषं विधाय
ब्रह्मावलोकधिषणं मुदमाप देवः ॥ २८ ॥

sṛṣṭvā purāṇī vividhānyajayā'tmaśaktyā
vṛkṣān sarīsṛpapaśūn khagadandaśūkān |
taistairatuṣṭahṛdayaḥ purūṣaṃ vidhāya
brahmāvalokadhiṣaṇaṃ mudamāpa devaḥ || 28 ||

‘The Divine One, having projected (evolved) with his own inherent power various forms such as trees, reptiles, cattle, birds, insects, and fish, was dissatisfied at heart with all these; He then projected the human form endowed with the capacity to realize Brahman (the universal divine Self of all), and became extremely pleased.’

This is how Vedānta speaks of the uniqueness of man; it is quite different from the modern scientist’s view of man’ uniqueness, such as is expounded in a book like the The Uniqueness of Man by Sir Julian Huxley. There Huxley says (p.27):

‘Those of man’s unique characteristics which may better be called psychological and social than narrowly biological spring from one or other of three characteristics. The first is his capacity for abstract and general thought: the second is the relative unification of his mental processes, as against the much more rigid compartmentalization of animal mind and behaviour: the third is the existence of social units, such as tribes, nation, party, and church, with a continuity of their own, based on organized tradition and culture.’

He says further (ibid, p. 29):

‘The trouble, indeed, is to find any human activities which are not unique. Even the fundamental biological attributes such as eating, sleeping, and mating have been tricked out by man with all kinds of unique frills and peculiarities.’

These are, undoubtedly, unique characteristics. But they belong, says Vedanta, to a field of experience, namely, sense experience, which he shares with the animals. Even his advanced thought is sense-bound. Huxely is aware of higher dimensions revealed by the manifestations of man’s extra-sensory faculties, for he drops the following hint (ibid, p. 31)

‘Man may thus be unique in more ways than he now suspects.’

Huxley is, unfortunately, not aware that man, in countries such as India, outside the sphere of western development, went far beyond this stage of ‘suspicion’ and systematically explored and developed a science of those higher dimensions of his uniqueness.

The Upanishads view man both as actor in and spectator of the dreams of existence. He transcends himself in the act of knowing himself. His supreme uniqueness lies in his ability to realize it. He alone can solve the mystery of existence by transcending himself. He alone has ego sense; and it is the supreme mark of his intelligence and courage that he treats this mysterious value within himself, fugitive in itself but suggestive of hidden depth, not as a final conclusion but as a initial datum, as a starting point for a penetrating investigation into the mystery of its hidden depth; and he then discovers the Ātman, the infinite and immortal Self, as his true nature, and as the true nature of all beings.

This is the uniqueness man, the uniqueness of his intelligence, that the Upanishads and the Indian spiritual tradition proclaim. Sings the Shrīmad Bhāgavatam in words spoken by Krshna, the God-man, to man, the spiritual seeker (XI. xxix. 22):

एषा बुद्धिमतां बुद्धिर्मनीषा च मनीषिणाम् ।
यत सत्यमनृतेनेह मर्त्येनाप्नोति मामृतम् ॥

eṣā buddhimatāṃ buddhirmanīṣā ca manīṣiṇām |
yata satyamanṛteneha martyenāpnoti māmṛtam ||

‘This is the intelligence of the intelligent and the wisdom of the wise—that they attain Me(God), the True and the Immortal, by means of the unreal and mortal (the body and the ego).’

Vedanta, however, considers the two dimensions of human excellence upheld by the Upanishads and modern science as complementary and not contradictory.

This is clearly stated in the following similar verses which are also from the Shrīmad Bhāgavatam (XI. vii. 19-21):

प्रायेण मनुजा लोके लोकतत्वविचक्षणाः ।
समुद्धरन्तिह्यात्मानमात्मनैवाशुभाशयात् ॥

prāyeṇa manujā loke lokatatvavicakṣaṇāḥ |
samuddharantihyātmānamātmanaivāśubhāśayāt ||

‘In the world, men are generally efficient in the investigation of the truth of nature; (and through that) they uplift themselves by themselves from all sources of evil.’

आत्मनो गुरुरात्मैव पुरुषस्य विशेषतः ।
यत् प्रत्यक्षानुमानाभ्यां श्रेयोऽसावनुविन्दते ॥

ātmano gururātmaiva puruṣasya viśeṣataḥ |
yat pratyakṣānumānābhyāṃ śreyo'sāvanuvindate ||

‘For a human being, particularly, his guru or guide is verily, his own self; because he achieves his welfare through the help of direct sense experience, and through inference based on it.’

पुरुषत्वे च मां धीराः सांख्ययोगविशारदाः ।
आविस्तरां प्रपश्यन्ति सर्वशक्त्युपबृंहितम् ॥

puruṣatve ca māṃ dhīrāḥ sāṃkhyayogaviśāradāḥ |
āvistarāṃ prapaśyanti sarvaśaktyupabṛṃhitam ||

‘Wise men who have mastered the science and art of the spiritual life realize clearly, within the human personality itself, Me (the universal Self of all) the unlimited source of all the (limited psycho-physical) energies (of the individual)’

Vedanta considers that since man shares his sensuality with the animals, his distinctive uniqueness is spirituality only. The urge to this spirituality alone makes him truly himself. And so Vedānta would ever strive, out of compassion for man, to assimilate this urge in him, to quote the Shrīmad Bhāgavatam again to get a touch of Vedantic concern for man’s spiritual growth (XI. ix. 29):

लब्ध्वा सुदुर्लभमिदं बहुसम्भवान्ते
मानुष्यमर्थदमनित्यमपीह धीरः ।
तूर्णं यतेत न पदेदनुमृत्यु यावन्-
निश्रेयसाय विषयः खलु सर्वतः स्यात् ॥

labdhvā sudurlabhamidaṃ bahusambhavānte
mānuṣyamarthadamanityamapīha dhīraḥ |
tūrṇaṃ yateta na padedanumṛtyu yāvan-
niśreyasāya viṣayaḥ khalu sarvataḥ syāt ||

‘Having obtained, at the end of many births, the human form which is difficult to obtain, and through perishable, capable of conferring on man, should strive earnestly, before death overtakes him, for spiritual freedom which is his highest excellence. Sensual delights can be had in all other bodies; (hence the human body need not be dedicated to them.)’

 

The Place of the Ego in the Strategy of Evolution

Modern physical and biological knowledge reveals to us the grand design of the linkages in nature. Things and events are interlinked; nothing is absolutely separate and self-sufficient. In the context of this grand design of nature, belief in a separate self-sufficient ego becomes a delusion. And modern biology, along with Vedānta and Buddhism and all higher spiritual thought, proclaims this truth of the insufficiency of the ego. In the voluminous digest of the modern biological knowledge entitled The Science of Life, produced by H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley, and G.P. Wells, the authors have discussed in a moving passage this subject of man’s ego (pp. 1368-69):

‘Alone in the silence of the night and on a score of thoughtful occasions we have demanded, can this self so vividly central to my universe, so greedily possessive of the world, ever cease to be? Without it surely there is no world at all! And yet this conscious self dies nightly when we sleep and we cannot trace the stages by which in its beginnings it crept to an awareness of its own existence….

‘Personally may only be one of the Nature’s methods, a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic value.’

And further (p. 1497):

‘The more intelligent and comprehensive man’s picture of the universe has become, the more intolerable has become his concentration upon the individual life with its inevitable final rejection.’

Again referring to man’s ethical and spiritual capacity for identification with and participation in a greater reality, the authors conclude (p. 1497):

‘He escapes from his ego by this merger and acquires an impersonal immortality in the association; his identity dissolving into the greater identity. This is the essence of much religious mysticism, and it is remarkable how closely the biological analysis of individuality brings us to the mystics. The individual, according to this second line of thought, saves himself by losing himself. But in the mystical teaching he lose himself in the Deity, and in the scientific interpretation of life he forgets himself as Tom, Dick, or Harry, and discovers himself as Man. The Buddhist treatment of the same necessity is to teach that individual life is a painful delusion from which men escape by conquest of individual desire. Western mystic and Eastern Sage find a strong effect of endorsement in Modern science and everyday teaching of practical morality. Both teach that self must be subordinated, that self is a method and not an end.’

This is familiar language to students of the Upanishads and Buddhism mentioned earlier. The subject of the unreality of the ego is the theme of second discourse delivered by Buddha to his disciples at Sarnath (Varanasi) 2,500 years ago. Stripping the notion of individuality of all its unreal elements, Buddha says (Vinaya Pitaka, Mahāvagga, Khandaka, I vi):

Rūpam (Material form) is an-attā (not the Self); vedanā (sensation) is an-attā ….sannā (perception) is an- attā …..; samkhārā (pre-disposition) is an- attā ….vinnānam (consciousness) is an- attā.’

Then follows a dialogue between Buddha and his disciples. Stripping the Self of all its unreal elements, Buddha said:

‘Again what think you Bhikkhus? Is the material form permanent (niccam) or impermanent (a-niccam)?’

‘Impermanent revered Sir.’

‘But that which is impermanent, is that suffering (dukkham) or happiness (sukham)?’

‘Suffering revered Sir.’

‘That then, which is impermanent, suffering, and by nature changeable (vi-parināma dhammam), is it proper to regard it thus: This is mine, I am this, this is my Self (etam mama, eso’ham asmi, eso me attā)?’

‘No indeed, revered Sir.’

‘Is sensation permanent? …..Is perception permanent? Is pre-disposition permanent?..... That, then, which is impermanent, suffering, and by nature changeable, is it proper to regard it thus: This is mine, I am this, this is my Self?’

‘No indeed, revered Sir.’

‘And so, Bhikkhus, all material form, whether past, future or present, whether within us or external, whether gross or subtle, low or high, far or near, is to be regarded with right insight, as it really is (yathā bhūtam) , thus: This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my Self….All sensation…. gross or subtle, all perception….gross or subtle…..all pre-disposition…low or high,…. all consciousness…far or near, is to be regarded with right insight, as it really is, thus:

This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my Self.

‘Regarding them thus, O Bhikkhus an instructed Āryan (noble) disciple becomes indifferent to (nibbindati) material form, becomes indifferent to sensation, becomes indifferent to perception, becomes indifferent to consciousness. Becoming indifferent, he becomes free from desire (vi rajjati); through non-desire he is liberated.’

This is the teaching of Buddha on the subject and it is also the teaching of the Upanishads. And today the authors of The Science of Life tell us that the given personality of man, centered round the ego, is but an assemblage of constantly vanishing elements cannot be his true self. It is, at best, as they said, ‘one of the nature’s methods, a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic value.’ And it needs to be transcended. With this hint, the science of biology withdraws from the scene, leaving the field to the science of spirituality.

To the question: ‘When I shall be free?’ Sri Ramakrishna gave the significant answer: ‘When I shall cease to be.’

The only transcendence of the ego which biological science can place before man for his acceptance is either his total mergence in the species, yielding an experience of a biological or genetic immortality, or his achievement of sort of cosmopolitan awareness through a humanistic education by which he will learn to forget himself as ‘Tom, Dick, or Harry and discover himself as Man,’

The philosophical insufficiency of this theory of mergence in nature, the prakrtilaya conception of Indian thought, has been discussed and demonstrated by Shankara and other Indian thinkers. They have also pointed out the pitfall of the fallacy of total nihilism bordered on by any philosophy which upholds the unreality of the ego. Modern biological and philosophical analysis must go deeper in the search for man’s sense of individuality in order to this dangerous fallacy and discover his true dimension in the universal Self. Neither his eternal sleep in nature nor his reduction into a soulless nothingness, nor even the achievement of a cosmopolitan humanism, can satisfy man’s rational urges or spiritual hungers. The limited ego may not be the final truth, but it is a significant first datum; for it is the promise of something unlimited and eternal. Hence the aptness of the statement that it is ‘a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic value’. In what sense it is strategic?

A baby, till its birth, is part of the mother’s body. At birth it becomes a new organism with a separate existence of its own. The first step in the education of the baby is the development of its ego sense, the sense of individuality. The new-born child considers itself as one of the items of the world around it. The education it receives after birth is designed to give is an awareness of its own personality, of its own uniqueness among the objects. This rudimentary subjective awareness of the baby develops, as it grows in its powers and capacities, through the handling of objects and entities and persons around it. The education given to the child is meant to strengthen his ego sense; he draws to himself the energies and influences around him and grows into a distinct individual, an identified person.

This is the first stage of ego’s strategic value, almost simultaneously begins the second phase when, first, under external influences, and later, under his own conscious efforts, the child becomes aware of his close relationship not only with things and objects but also with other subjects like himself and learns to treat them as subjects, as would himself like to be treated by them. This is social ethics, the recognition of the subject in a social object, which sees the emergence of a moral personality in the child, in which the idea of a totally separate individuality gives place to a personality with ever-widening frontiers within the milieu of the psychic world of society around him. The old limited individuality is transcended giving place to an expansive individuality and an expansive awareness and love; through this process Nature’s strategy, now expressed through the human personality itself, grows and finds its consummation in the spiritual realization of the Universal, the Brahman, as Vedanta calls it, the eternal, pure, enlightened Self of all. And this strategy and is final issue in the realization of this universal Self forms the grand theme of verse five of chapter two of the Kena Upanishad which we have been discussing so long.

इह चेदवेदीत् अथ सत्यमस्ति न चेदिहावेदीत् महती विनष्टिः ।
भूतेषु भूतेषु विचित्य धीराः प्रेत्यास्मात् लोकात् अमृता भवन्ति ॥

iha cedavedīt atha satyamasti na cedihāvedīt mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ |
bhūteṣu bhūteṣu vicitya dhīrāḥ pretyāsmāt lokāt amṛtā bhavanti ||


 

The True Life for Man

Its realization here and now, iha, is the consummation of man’s education says the verse. That is the true life for man; life at the level of the ego is only a shadow life. If man gets stuck at this level, if he fails to treat it merely as ‘a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic value’, and refuses to march onward to capture the sunlit heights of true individuality, it will be to his great loss, mahatī vinashtih. What can be a greater loss than to be condemned to live in a phantom shadow world when just behind him is the true world of light and life, of which he is heir? What can be a greater loss than to be a chained prisoner in a dark cave, handling all the time shadows thrown on the wall in front by the light behind, as depicted in Plato’s famous allegory? No, that shall not be, says the verse. There is the touch of concern and compassion for man in the temper and tone of the verse. The Upanishad is deeply concerned to help man to find his true life, life lived in the light of truth. And what is that truth?

भूतेषु भूतेषु विचित्य धीराः प्रेत्यास्मात् लोकात् अमृता भवन्ति ॥

bhūteṣu bhūteṣu vicitya dhīrāḥ pretyāsmāt lokāt amṛtā bhavanti ||

Realizing the universal Self as his true nature, of which is own ego was but a projecting tip he recognizes his oneness with every being: by this he becomes dhīra, the wise one, one who has achieved the highest elevation of spirit; and by this rising above the given world of the ego and the senses, the world which is subject to change and mortality, by thus using it not as the final goal but only as a strategic base, he achieves immortality—amrtā bhavanti; he achieves true life in which the shadows of death weave no patterns unlike the false life of the ego which is but the darkness of spiritual blindness and also of death, hazily lit up with a trace of the light of the eternal Self. This answers Bartrand Russell’s demand, in the passage quoted earlier, for knowledge growing into wisdom: Unless men increase in wisdom as much as in knowledge, increase of knowledge will be increase of sorrow.


 

Immortality

By rising above the transient world of sense experience and the ego, man becomes immortal says the verse. What is the nature of this immortality? Biology speaks of the genetic immortality; individual organisms die; but the species continue to exist through the genes. Psychology today hints at the possibility of the immortality of the soul in the sense of survival after death. Several theologies hold to the idea of immortality as continuity of the soul in higher spheres after death. Vedanta alone speaks of an immortality which is realized in this very life; this is possible because freedom is the nature of man. Whatever is conditioned is mortal, to be conditioned is to be bound by space, time and cause; to be unconditioned is to be free from all these bonds. Whatever, therefore, is free, in the sense of being unconditioned, is immortal. The body and the ego, as the things of nature around, are all conditioned and mortal. The Ātman alone is unconditioned, free, and therefore immortal. The Ātman alone is the true nature of man. Man is essentially the nitya-suddha-buddha-mukta-swabhāva paramātman—the eternally pure, awakened, and free Self, says Vedanta and adds that, this realization is the goal of human life. The sages of the Upanishads achieved this realization and communicated it to humanity for the first time. Says the Katha Upanishad (VI. 14)

यदा सर्वे प्रमुच्यन्ते कामा येऽस्य हृदि श्रिताः ।
अथ मर्त्योऽमृतो भवत्यत्र ब्रह्म समश्नुते ॥

yadā sarve pramucyante kāmā ye'sya hṛdi śritāḥ |
atha martyo'mṛto bhavatyatra brahma samaśnute ||

‘When all the desires of the heart are overcome, this very mortal becomes immortal and experiences Brahman, the universal Self, here, in this very life.’

After attaining enlightenment, Buddha gave expression to the content of that enlightenment in the remark that the immortal had been gained by him. The message of all spiritual religions is this message of the Immortal. Vedānta adds that it is to be realized here and now, as this Kena Upanishad verse puts it: iha chedavedīt atha satyamasti, and by realizing which man transcends this transient world of sense experience, and realizes immortality: pretyāsmāt lokāt amrtā bhavanti.’

Commenting on this line Shankara says:

प्रेत्य, व्यावृत्य; ममाहंभावलक्षणात् अविद्यारूपात् अस्मात् उपरम्य, सर्वात्मैक्यभावम् अद्वैतम् आपन्नाह सन्तो, अमृता भवन्ति, ब्रह्मैव भवन्ति, इत्यर्थः ।

pretya, vyāvṛtya; mamāhaṃbhāvalakṣaṇāt avidyārūpāt asmāt uparamya, sarvātmaikyabhāvam advaitam āpannāha santo, amṛtā bhavanti, brahmaiva bhavanti, ityarthaḥ |

‘Dying, meaning, rising above, renouncing the world which is of the nature of spiritual blindness, and characterized by the notion of “I” and “mine”; thus achieving the non-dual state of unity of the universal Self, they become immortal; meaning thereby, become, verily, Brahman.’

Brahman is the life and soul of the universe. The rest of the Upanishad will expound this basic truth of Vedanta through a beautiful allegory which we shall study next.

Kena Upanishad gave us the profound message of Indian philosophical thought that truth is not a matter of mere belief or intellectual formulation, but that it is something to be realized by each individual. This is what converts the philosophical urge into a spiritual passion. A man’s life will not become fruitful until he realizes the mystery that within life itself. This idea of realizing truth runs through all Indian religious literature. Religion is a matter of realization. Life grows, and this growth is mental as well as physical. In the higher reaches of mental growth and development, life experiences the glow of truth playing about itself; and at the summit of that development, truth pervades and penetrates life through and through. This fact was communicated to us by in the famous verse of the second chapter:

इह चेदवेदीत् अथ सत्यमस्ति
न चेदिहावेदीत् महती विनष्टिः ।
भूतेषु भूतेषु विचित्य धीराः
प्रेत्यास्मात् लोकात् अमृता भवन्ति ॥

iha cedavedīt atha satyamasti
na cedihāvedīt mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ |
bhūteṣu bhūteṣu vicitya dhīrāḥ
pretyāsmāt lokāt amṛtā bhavanti ||

‘For one who realizes It here (in this world) there is true life. For one who does not so realize It, great is the loss. Discovering the Ātman in every single being, the wise-ones dying to this world (of sense-experience), become immortal.’

The Kena Upanishad, in its opening verses, had begun with the statement that the body, the senses, the mind, and the ego are not self-sufficient entities but that they point out to a supreme Reality beyond and above them—Brahman, the universal Self of all—by whose energy they all live and function. By themselves, each one of them is but a zero, in the words of Ramakrishna, and the zero becomes significant only when the figure one is placed before it. The reality of this One behind the many was expounded to us by several subsequent verses of the Upanishad. The Upanishad also enlightened us with the truth that this one is a spiritual reality, being the innermost Self of all, and that the realization connotes the achievement of universality of vision and sympathy. This is the true Self of man. But in his state of ignorance, he mistakes the senses, the mind, the intellect, or the ego, for his Self. This false notion, with its attendants evils, vanishes with the dawn of true knowledge.

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