by Swami Krishnananda
Now we are introduced into another important aspect of this subject, namely, the stages of consciousness. You may call these the stages of the realisation of the Atman which manifests itself through the conditions known as waking, dream and deep sleep, a subject which is elaborately discussed in the Mandukya Upanishad. Here also, it is discussed in an equally important and interesting manner by means of an anecdote which is very famous in the Upanishads.
On one occasion, Prajapati made an announcement. He was in his assembly hall. He loudly proclaimed a great truth in the presence of all people. All could hear what he spoke. And what did he speak? What was the announcement he made that is mentioned here?
This was the proclamation made by Prajapati in an open assembly. "This Atman is free from every kind of evil. It is unaffected by old age or decay of any kind. It has no connection with death. It is free from mortality. Death cannot touch it. It is immortal. It is free from every kind of grief, turmoil or trouble we see in this life. It has no hunger and no thirst. These do not affect It in any manner. Its will is truthful. Its wishes are immediately materialised. All the desires arising from here are immediately fulfilled without any limit of space or time. This Atman is to be investigated into. This Atman is to be known. Whoever investigates into this Atman and knows the nature of this Atman attains all the worlds and fulfils all desires. This is the great benefit accruing to the knowers of the Atman."
Thus did Prajapati make an announcement. Loudly was it told, and everyone heard what was said. Well, the meaning is very clear. It does not require much explanation. What is the content of this proclamation is well-known. It excited the curiosity of many who heard it. The gods and the demons both heard this proclamation made in that celestial assembly.
The gods hurried back to their homes and held a conference among themselves with Indra as their chief. They said, "Brahma has told us such an interesting thing! Whoever knows the Atman has mastery over all the worlds and has the capacity to fulfil every wish or desire. We must know this Atman. Some of us should be deputed for getting training in the school of Brahma. We must get initiated into this mystery of the Atman." The gods chose Indra, their chief, as the proper deputy and sent him to Brahma. They said to him, "Go and have training under Brahma and know this Atman, because he has already made an announcement, that if we know It such wonderful results would follow."
Similar was the reaction of the asuras, the demons. They also heard this. They went back to their world and then held a conference. They said, "This Atman is a very wonderful thing and we must know this Atman." So they deputed their chief, Virochana, for the purpose. They told him, "You go to Brahma and have training in this wisdom of the Atman, so that we too will be benefited by this knowledge as was proclaimed." This was the outcome of this announcement.
Both Indra and Virochana met each other, perhaps on the way, but one did not speak to the other about the purpose for which he was travelling. Each one was keeping the idea as a secret. Indra and Virochana are deadly enemies. They did not say anything to each other as they were very much preoccupied with the objective for which they were travelling. So, both went to Brahma's place and approached him as humble disciples with the sacred offering of samit. And having gone there, it does not appear that they said anything. From what the Upanishad says, it appears that they stayed there for thirty-two years without saying anything, observing austerity, controlling their senses and living a very disciplined life. They lived in the abode of Brahma, having said nothing either between themselves or to Brahma himself.
Then after thirty-two years of this kind of living there, Brahma seems to have observed their stay and asked them: "What is the matter with you? Why are you staying here for so many years observing self-discipline? What do you want?" Then both of them said the same thing, "We are here for some purpose." "What is that purpose?" queried Prajapati. They replied, "O Great Lord, we have heard your great proclamation. You made an announcement that the knower of the Atman fulfils all desires, has mastery over all the worlds and is unaffected by pains of any kind. In search of the knowledge of the Atman have we come here. This is the purpose of our visit, and for this reason it is that we have been living here for thirty-two years observing austerity." "Oh, that is very good," said Prajapati. And inasmuch as they had already undergone some discipline, Brahma did not ask them to undergo any further vow or any other formality. He immediately started giving initiation: "You want to know the Atman? Here is this knowledge." He gave a very pithy and precise instruction which could be interpreted this way or that way. It was like the statement - "The Greeks the Romans shall conquer." No one knows what the exact meaning of the statement is. It may mean that Romans shall conquer the Greeks, or the Greeks shall conquer the Romans. Prajapati's instruction was enigmatic.
"That Being which you see in your eye is the Atman," said Prajapati. It was a very strange statement indeed. This was all the instruction. There was no further explanation whatsoever. He is right in what he said, but it can be very easily misconstrued. "That Purusha, the Being that you see in your eyes, that is the Atman. Are you satisfied? I have given you an initiation. This is the immortal, this is the abode of fearlessness, this is the Absolute."
Immediately the whole instruction was misconstrued by both the disciples, just as any one of us would have done. They at once came to the same conclusion regarding the reflection seen in the eye. We know what is seen in the eye. A body is reflected. What can be reflected in the eye except a body? "Oh, I see, this is the Atman. What is reflected in the eye is the Atman"-thus concluded both Indra and Virochana. "Then, what is reflected in water, is that the Atman?" they asked. "That which is reflected in the mirror, is that also Atman?" They were so happy that the Atman is so easy to reach. So they want to get this instruction confirmed by asking, "Which is the Atman, that seen as reflected in the water or that seen as reflected in the mirror? Is that also the Atman? Is it true? Is it so?" They queried Brahma, and his answer was very simple. He said, "It is seen in every kind of reflection." "Well, is it in the water?" they again asked. "Yes, in water also. It is reflected everywhere," he replied.
A very short instruction! And both were very happy. The disciples felt that they had known the Atman. Actually the teacher must have felt pity for the ignorance of these disciples who immediately misunderstood the whole teaching and thought the physical body could be the Atman, because that alone can be reflected in this manner. What else can be reflected if not an external object!
Now Brahma said, "Please go and look at yourselves in a pan of water and see what is there; if you cannot understand anything about the Atman, then let me know." They went and saw themselves in a pan of water. Then Brahma asked them, "What do you see?" They immediately gave the answer: "Up to the hair and the nails, everything that we are, we see exactly reflected in this water. This is what we see. We see ourselves as we are."
Then Brahma said, "This is the Atman." Now what Brahma said was highly significant. But the mystery behind the instruction was so deep that it was again grossly misunderstood by the disciples. Whatever we see is God-this is generally what we say. It is a true statement, no doubt. But it is also an untrue statement. The untrue aspect of it can simply take us astray. But the true aspect of it will, of course, liberate us from bondage. So is the instruction of Brahma. "What you see in your eyes is the Atman. What you see in the reflection is the Atman. This is the Atman, this is the fearless abode, this is the Absolute." So they were told about what they saw as their reflection. Happy and composed in heart, both the students went back thinking that they have known the Atman.
When they had gone out of sight, Prajapati thought, "What a pity! These students have understood nothing from me. They have mistaken my teaching completely. They are thinking that their own body is the Atman, and if any one is to consider this body as the Atman and regard it as the ultimate Reality, and teach others a doctrine that this material body is the Atman, it will not succeed. Those who follow this doctrine are going to be defeated everywhere."
Virochana went to the demons and said, "I have received initiation. Now I know what the Atman is, by which you can control all the worlds and fulfil all your desires. This body itself, what we see here, is the Atman. This is what Prajapati told us. This body is to be adorned beautifully and taken care of well. It is to be tended well, because it is the Reality. There is nothing more real than this body. It is to be protected by any manner available. It is the knowledge of this Reality, this Atman, this physical embodiment that will help us in fulfilling all our desires. The body is an instrument for the fulfilment of desires and it is through the instrumentality of this body that you have to control all the worlds." This is the doctrine of the crass materialist and the sensualist that the demons learnt from Virochana. This became the doctrine of the asuras.
To this day people generally say, "Here is a demon" when a person has no charitable nature. He who has no faith in the super-physical realms, who never worships deities above this world, who never performs sacrifices of any kind, who is intensely selfish, self-centred and body-centred, is generally called a demon in common language. "Here is a demon," they say. This is the doctrine of the asuras. Those people who think that the body is very valuable adorn even a corpse. They decorate it beautifully. They cover it with silk, gold, etc., and keep it as if it is very valuable, falsely thinking that it is the true self of man. People are there even now who think that the body has a tremendous value, and even after its death they cannot afford to think that its value is completely gone. This was the conclusion that Virochana arrived at, and all the asuras were taught this philosophy. This demoniacal doctrine was proclaimed as a consequence of the initiation that Virochana received from Brahma in respect of the Atman. This is the fate of Virochana and his followers.
Now what happened to Indra? Did he also follow the same doctrine? Poor man! He did not reach home at all. Halfway itself he had doubts in the mind. He thought, "How could this body be the Atman? That cannot be, because if what is reflected in water or reflected anywhere, which is nothing but this body, is the Atman, then the Atman would be affected by every kind of defect to which the body is subject. So there would be a defective Atman. This Atman cannot then be called immortal. This body is subject to death. When this body goes, the Atman also will go, if the body is the Atman. Where then comes fearlessness and immortality and brahmatva mentioned by the Creator? There seems to be some mistake in my understanding of this teaching." So he had these doubts and he did not go to the gods to communicate this knowledge. Instead, he returned immediately to Prajapati.