by Swami Krishnananda
The Kathopanishad may be regarded as a most appropriate introduction to spiritual life in general. The story with which the Upanishad begins provides the proper foundation for commencing a study of the science of the higher life of man. From the exoteric ritual of the performance of sacrifice and charity by sage Vajasravasa, the Upanishad takes us to the spiritual longing of the seeker, Nachiketas, which moves along a definite pattern of development. The three boons requested for by Nachiketas from Yama represent the terrestrial, heavenly and spiritual realms of attainment. In the movement from the outward liturgy of Vajasravasa in the world to the inner aspiration of Nachiketas for spiritual values, we have the first step taken towards the higher consciousness. The second step is the rise from temporal relationships to the universal significance of all things found in the all-comprehensive Vaisvanara, known also as Hiranyagarbha in his higher manifestation, and as Virat in his lower universal form, represented in the second boon granted by Yama. The third step is the ascent from the universal to the Absolute, which is the third boon asked for by Nachiketas, but most reluctantly granted by Yama, after subjecting Nachiketas to a severe test in the form of supernormal temptations of sense and ego, to which even the best minds cannot but succumb when placed in favourable circumstances. The Upanishad now leads us on to the theme it intends to propound.
The path to perfection can be trodden only after encountering several threats and temptations. The example of Nachiketas shows that he was even cursed to death and tempted severely in his attempt at adhering to righteousness and truth of the spirit. In the process of the search for truth, the subjective propensities and objective tendencies show their heads in concrete forms and either tempt or threaten the aspirant. For an aspirant of weak will advanced spiritual practices are very near impossibility. A person believes in what he sees and experiences and not in what he does not see and does not experience. He has love for certain things and fear for certain others, because he has a faith in the value of those things, as they are the objects of his direct experience. He, however, does not believe in supersensuous realities, because they are not the objects of direct experience. Love for comfort and hatred for pain and sorrow pull the aspirant from two opposite sides, and he is left at sea. It is here that the strong weapon of will and discrimination should come to one's help. One has to clear the way in the midst of these oppositions which are inevitable in one's struggle for transcending one's individuality in the Absolute. The individual modes try their best to persist in appearing again and again, and to bar the gate to Truth. It is hard to recognise the faces of these thieves in the form of friends, who deceive the aspirant every moment and frustrate all his aspirations. The objects and states of every plane of consciousness have to be rejected, as they are objective, and one has to resort to the Infinite Subject which is divisionless fullness. One should realise that anything that is achieved as the result of desires and actions shall vanish one day or the other, and that the only thing ever enduring and worth knowing is the one Self in all. Nachiketas persisted in his aspiration for Truth, in spite of the most formidable temptations, and in the teeth of the refusal of Yama to impart knowledge to him. Finally, Yama initiates him into the mysteries of the Self.
The good is one thing and the pleasant is another. They have different aims, and they drag a person from different directions. Of these two, he who chooses the good obtains blessedness, but he who chooses the pleasant falls from his aim. The good is that which leads one to God or the Absolute. It gives the freedom of Moksha or liberation from Samsara. It is not pleasant, because it is against body-consciousness. It destroys what is pleasant and, hence, is rather painful. The pleasant, on the other hand, is intimately connected with the body, and prevents a person from choosing the good. One falls down from one's aim if one chooses the pleasant, because one shall never be able to possess the pleasant objects for ever, and, also, these objects are false appearances and not real existences. All pleasant things shall vanish, and only the good shall remain. One cannot pursue the good and the pleasant at the same time, even as light and darkness cannot be perceived in the same place. One who chooses the good should reject the pleasant and take refuge in the supermundane Truth, though it is invisible. The good does not come quickly, though the pleasant may do so. The Real is the unseen. One who pursues the Real attains the blessed state of eternity, but that short-sighted and dull-witted person who pursues the pleasant is separated from the objects of his desire, and he shall mourn for their death and take birth for their sake.
Both the good and the pleasant come to a person. But the wise man discriminates between the two. The wise one prefers the good to the pleasant, and the stupid one chooses the pleasant, for the sake of protecting and fattening the body and ego. All run after the pleasant alone and not after the good, because the pleasant is connected with the present limited life. The good is not longed for, because it is transempirical. The good and the pleasant are opposite to each other, like the two poles. One cuts the tree of Samsara, and the other waters it. Those who justify sense-enjoyments are blind men guided by blind philosophies and they fall into deep pits. All enjoyment is mere friction of nerves. It does not merely bring pain but is the very form of misery itself. A sensation cannot be called bliss, and all worldly experiences are sensations. Those who believe in the reality of this present world alone and do not care for the existence of another plane of life get attached to this world, and, thus, have to experience births and deaths, incessantly.
The Atman, being the presupposition of all acts of understanding, feeling and willing, is not known to any individualised knower, and so it appears as a mystery, a Wonder of wonders, awe-inspiring. To many, this Atman is difficult to hear of, to many others, even when heard of, it is difficult to understand. Wonderful is the teacher of this; blessed is the obtainer of this; wonderful is the knower of this, who is taught by a blessed teacher. The Atman cannot be known if it is taught by an inferior teacher, even if it is thought of in various ways. Only when the Atman is taught by one who is identical with the Atman (i.e., a Brahmanishtha), it can be known, because the Atman is subtler than the subtlest and does not come under any of the logical categories. The Atman cannot be known through logic, but it can be known when it is instructed about by one who has realised it. The wealth of the universe, its resources and powers, are insufficient as means to the realisation of the Atman, for the permanent is not reached by the impermanent. The Atman is reached when the whole universe with its contents is abandoned. Even the source of the highest happiness, the basis of the world, the end of all desires, the state of fearlessness, the praiseworthy great being, viz., Hiranyagarbha, is not worth having. Rejecting all these, that Atman which is very difficult to know, which is seated in the innermost cavity of the heart, the attainment of which is attended with great dangers, should be known by abstracting the senses and the mind from their respective objects and resolving this energy into Self-consciousness. Knowing this self-luminous being, the hero casts off both joy and grief. He rejoices in the bliss of the Self, because he has attained the highest object of attainment through hearing, understanding and contemplation of this subtle Truth. It is different from what is done and what is not done, different from past and future, and is of the nature of immediate knowledge. All the Vedas speak of the glory of this. All penances point to the greatness of this. All observe continence for the attainment of this. This supreme state is denoted by the word OM. This is the Supreme Absolute. After knowing this, whatever one wishes for, becomes one's own. This is the supreme support; knowing this support, one glories in the region of the Absolute.
This omniscient Atman is not born, nor does it die. It has not come from anywhere, and it has not become anything. Unborn, eternal, perpetual and ancient, this Atman is not killed when the body is killed. Birth is the process of the production of an effect from a cause, and hence, it is the process of transient becoming. For the same reason, death also is a process. The processes of birth, life and death are impermanent and, therefore, they are denied in the Atman. Ceaseless consciousness is free from all change. Change is the character of phantasmal presentations. Changelessness is the nature of the Atman. This Atman does not come from anywhere, and it has not become anything else, because coming and becoming are, again, transient processes. It has not ceased to be itself. It does not decay or suffer diminution. It is the most ancient and the newest of all. An object becomes new when its constituents are changed and set in a different condition. The Atman exists even prior to and later than the newest of objects. It exists together with everything, and also after everything. Nothing newer and other than the Atman can ever be produced. In other words, the Atman is whatever is, was and will be. Hence, it is indestructible. It neither kills anyone nor is killed. It suffers from nothing, because it is untouched like ether. It is free from the experiences of Samsara. It is bodiless, and hence relationless. Non-becoming or changelessness is the one character which denies of the Atman all phenomenal natures. The Atman is subtler than the subtlest and larger than the largest. It is situated as the central being of all. Free from thought and action, one beholds it through the cessation of distraction and attainment of tranquillity, and becoming sorrowless, rejoices in the glory of the Atman. It is the subtlest of all, because it is limitless. It is possible to know it through the practice of hearing, contemplation and meditation, after getting oneself freed from desires and actions, and separating oneself from objects, seen as well as heard of. As long as the mind shakes and the body gets agitated, it is not possible for one to know the Atman. Perfect satiety of the mind, the senses and the body is absolutely necessary before the attempt at the vision of the Self. Those who have desires and passions are prevented from the realisation of the Self.
The Atman, lying down, goes everywhere. Sitting, it moves far. It is the bodiless among all bodies, it is the permanent among the impermanent. It is the great omnipresent being, knowing which the hero does not grieve. It is not possible to know this Atman through debate, intellectuality and study. It is attained through a relationless immediate method in which the Self is both the subject and the object of attainment. One who has not ceased from bad conduct, who is restless, whose mind is wandering, who has no peace within, cannot know the Atman through any amount of thinking. The Atman is beyond all knowledge and power conceivable in the world. Death itself is swallowed in it, and all processes are put an end to.
The conscious principle within is the lord of the chariot. The body is the chariot, the intellect is the charioteer or the driver, the mind is the reins, the senses are the horses, the objects of the senses are the roads. This chariot is useful either to drive down or drive up. The body is dragged by the horses of the senses in different directions. The driver is responsible for the movement of the chariot, and this is the intellect, which can either understand or misunderstand, and consequently either ascend with the chariot to the Abode of Vishnu or fall down to the mortal state. Whatever is done through this body, consciously, is done, ultimately, by the intellect. It is the principle of egoism, desire, activity, birth and death. It is the factor which brings pain and pleasure, unity and separation. The doer or the enjoyer is a strange mixture of consciousness, mind and the senses, because, independently, none of them can be either a doer or an enjoyer. This shows that doership and enjoyership are illusory; their constituents have no independent existence. The knowledge of this chariot and its contents is to be obtained before attempting to drive the chariot. One whose intellect is bad and uncontrolled, whose mind is weak and impure, cannot control the horses of the senses, and they will run riot in different directions. He does not attain to the Supreme, but enters Samsara. One whose intellect is steady and brilliant, and whose mind is strong and pure, can control the horses of the senses, and drive the chariot to the supreme state of Vishnu, and is never born again, having reached the Highest Consummation of life.
The objects of the senses are grosser than the senses, which, again, are grosser than the subtle rudimentary principles which actuate the senses. The subject which is characterised by the senses is always superior to the object which is bereft of consciousness, because the subject is subtler than the object. Only that which is subtle can pervade and comprehend what is gross. The mind, however, is subtler than even the subtle principles which preside over the senses, because the mind is the synthesising agent and the real operator behind the diverse sense-functions. The mind is nearest to consciousness and, hence, it has the greatest power over all that is an effect and that which is inferior to the mind in subtlety. The mind is naturally fickle in character, and hence, it is not useful to the individual in acts like steady knowledge of anything. The intellect is subtler than the mind, and it is free from the fickleness which the mind is infected with. Intelligence in its aspect of determination is found only in the Buddhi or the intellect. The highest faculty of knowledge in the individual is the intellect.
The intellect, however, has certain defects, in spite of its being the most precious possession of an individual. The intellect always functions on a dualistic basis. It can have no knowledge except by connecting the subject with the object. Unfortunately, contact is not the way of acquiring perfect knowledge of anything. This means that the intellect cannot have perfect knowledge, unless it ceases from working on the basis of duality. With duality there is no real knowledge and without duality there is no intellect at all. Therefore, perfect and complete knowledge is not given to the human being. It is only the cosmic intelligence or the Mahat-Tattva that can have complete knowledge, because it is free from the perception of duality. It is the collective totality of all principles of intelligence in the universe, and, therefore, outside it there is nothing. The cosmic intellect is not the understander of anything external to it. But it knows itself as complete in itself. Thus, the Mahat is superior to the individual intellect. The Mahat is characterised by omniscience, and omniscience necessitates the acceptance of a cause of omniscience. This cause of even the Mahat is called the Avyakta which is superior to the Mahat. The cosmic intellect exists buried in a potential condition in this Avyakta. In fact, the Avyakta is not an existent something but only the possibility and the explanation of the appearance of the Absolute as cosmic intelligence, etc. Superior to the Avyakta is the Purusha. The Purusha is the same as Brahman, beyond which there is nothing. This is the Supreme Goal.
The Purusha is described as the supreme destination of all the individuals. The word 'destination' may give rise to a doubt that it is possible for one to move towards the Purusha, even as a person may move towards a town or a village. In the case of movement towards a place, destination has got its literal meaning, but, in the case of the attainment of the Purusha, it has only a figurative meaning. The Purusha which is to be attained is not different from the one who attains it. It is the knowledge of the Self which is signified by the word, destination. Movement is an action, and knowledge is not action; in movement we have to do something; but in knowledge, we have to do nothing. A literal movement towards the Purusha is not possible, because external to the Purusha there is nothing. Movement is the function of the Pranas, the senses, the mind and the intellect. But knowledge is not the property of any of these. Hence knowledge is different from movement or any kind of action. If one can go to or move towards anything, one can also come back from it. Action always implies reaction. But the Srutis declare that there is no return to mortal experience after the attainment of the Purusha. This shows that the attainment of the Purusha is the same as existence which is eternal, and not an act which is temporary. The Sruti says, "They go by the pathless path", which means that the path to perfection is not like a lengthy road situated in space but a state of consciousness within. It is quite obvious that one cannot have the awareness of oneself through any amount of external struggle, even as a sleeping person cannot know himself except by waking into consciousness.
The Atman is subtler than every conceptual being. Therefore it does not shine before the organs of knowledge. The cognitive organs can know only what is grosser than themselves and not what is subtler. This Atman is beheld only by the subtlest condition of the intellect, viz., the steady intelligence of a Sattvika character in which alone the consciousness of the Self can be reflected. The Atman is known only by the most careful seers who have the subtlest sense of perception and the most acute and penetrating intelligence freed from the shackles of desires and actions. In fact, even the principle of the creator of the universe, himself, is an object when compared to the Brahman-consciousness. Therefore, even the creator is less than Brahman. The knowers of the Atman constitute only a minority of the individuals, because of the difficulty of the transfiguration of oneself from mortal experience in the world to nonrelational Absolute-Experience. The principle which is nearest in subtlety to the Atman knows it the best and those that are subtler know it better. The senses have the least knowledge of the Atman. The mind has a better knowledge of it. The intellect knows it still better. The cosmic intellect supersedes even the ordinary intellect in knowledge. It is the cosmic intellect that has omniscience, because of freedom from the obstructions of objectivity. The state transcending omniscience is the Absolute or Brahman.