by Swami Krishnananda
The great impediments to spiritual progress are known as avidya, kama and karmaignorance, desire and action. These three aspects of the obstacle are really a single obstacle presenting itself in three different ways. An ignorance of the true and ultimate nature of things is called avidya. We call it ignorance, or nescience, or the absence of knowledge, or darkness, etc. This ignorance, avidya, breeds a desire for the external objects of sensekama. An ignorance of the character of reality, which is avidya, at once presupposes an affirmation of personality, ahamkaraand a desire to contact other personalities. Avidya causes ahamkara simultaneously. They are almost inseparable, like the heat and the light of fire. The moment there is this self-affirmation born of ignorance, there is a necessary consequence of it following, viz. a longing to make good what has been lost, by way of contact with things. That is called kama. To fulfil kama or desire there is karma or action. So the whole of ones life is a threefold effort of avidya, kama and karma ignorance, desire and action. This is the tripura or the threefold fortress of the demoniacal powers, which Lord Siva is supposed to have broken through with a single arrow. These are the three citadels made of gold, silver and iron, as they say in the Puranas. These are the three knots or granthisBrahma-granthi, Vishnu-granthi and Rudra-granthi which the hatha-yogins and the kundalini-yogins and the tantrikas speak ofavidya, kama, karma. It is a single power appearing as three independent impediments to the expression of knowledge.
triṇᾱciketas tribhiretya sandhiṁ
trikarmakṛt tarati janma-mṛtyῡ.
The three fasts of Nachiketas may be compared to the souls endeavour to break through these three fortresses, a withdrawal gradually effected from the outer to the inner, overcoming the force of karma, overcoming the power of kama and finally overcoming avidya. Three forms of tapas or austerity have to be undergone with three aids and with the help of three sadhanas or spiritual practices. This is what is meant by trinachiketa, in the Upanishad. You overcome birth and death with these three processes. You gain mastery over those conditions which limit you to the body in all its three layers of expression and to the three planesthe physical, the astral and the celestial. These are the essential bondage of the soul inwardly as well as outwardly limiting its expression and confining it to samsara or earthly existence and suffering. The overcoming of this threefold bondage is the implication of the term trinachiketa mentioned in the Upanishad. The instruments that have to be made use of in this effort are the mind, the intellect and the spirit (manas-buddhi-atma), all combined in a single-pointed efforttribhiretya sandhim. You have also to perform three actions, to which a reference has been made in the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita: trikarmayajna, dana, tapas. Yajna is the sacrifice which one performs for attaining union with Reality. It includes all forms of self-abnegation and dedication. Yajna is a very comprehensive term whose meaning is deep. You may, in a sense, say that the entire culture of Bharatavarsha is summed up in this single word, yajna. The Lord himself is compared to yajnaYajno vai vishnuh, and in the masterly Purusha-Sukta of the Vedas the whole creation is compared to a yajna of the Supreme Being. Yajna is, therefore, the supreme effort of the soul to unite itself with God. Dana is the charitable disposition of the soul towards others. Charity does not mean only parting with a few cents or a few rupees or dollars or pounds. Charity is an attitude of the mind. It may be expressed in the form of physical action, or it may not be so expressed. It includes charitable feelings, a charitable attitude, conduct and behaviour towards others. The capacity to appreciate the situation of others is charity. When you are in a position to enter into the feelings and the actual conditions and circumstances of other souls and other persons and feel as they feel and think as they think and act as they act, not with a sweating effort but with a spontaneous expression of your nature, that would be the essence of a charitable naturedana. Tapas is personal discipline, bodily, verbal as well as mental. One who puts forth this threefold spiritual endeavour overcomes birth and deathTarati janma-mrityu.
All this is an introductory exposition given by the Upanishad to the essential secret about which Nachiketas put his third question. Nachiketas does not expect anything else from this mighty lord of knowledge, will not be satisfied with any other offering from him than the answer to this central question which pertains to the Great Beyond, mahati samparayae. This third boon that you are going to bestow upon me pertains to the innermost secret of things, the secret which is hidden in the cave of the heart of all beings. Other than this, nothing can satisfy this Nachiketas. Nanyam varam nachiketa vrinite.
Now, Yama comes to the main argument of the whole Upanishad, and the heart and soul of the aspiration of Nachiketas. How can one know it? There must be something extremely difficult about it; else, Yama would not have been so reluctant to speak of it. However much you may scratch your head, rack your brain or think about it, or argue, or read, or speak, you cannot understand it.
nᾱyam ᾱtmᾱ pravacanena labhyo
na medhayᾱ, na bahunᾱ śrutena.
Even if you ponder over it in all possible ways, you will not gain an access into this knowledge. So difficult is its deep significance to grasp. That is why Yama thought it better if he kept quiet about it. But Nachiketas would not leave him.
na nareṇᾱvareṇa proktᾱ eṣa
suvijñeyo bahudhᾱ cintyamᾱnaḥ.
An ordinary person cannot expound this mystery. An inferior type of understanding cannot appreciate it or expound it, however acute it may be from the worldly point of view. This is not the usual scientific knowledge. This is not like the studying of physics, chemistry or mathematics. This is not concerned with anything that you can see or hear or touch or taste or see. This is unconditioned knowledge and therefore conditional speech cannot express it. Thought itself being conditioned, cannot become the means to the expression or conveyance of this knowledge. How can the unconditioned be conveyed through the conditioned? This wisdom imperishable, eternal, cannot be carried through any perishable means or a vehicle of a temporal character.
The rational faculty fails here because the highest form of rationality is merely what is available in that we call scientific knowledge. We are rightly told that religion begins where science ends. The limit of science is the beginning of the higher wisdom. On account of its subtlety of nature, this wisdom becomes superlogical. This Atman, this truth of all things, cannot be known through argument or speech or discourse, not by immense scholarship in the scriptures, not by acuteness of intellect, because the subtlety of the intellect is, after all, based on what we call the logical law or principle. Today man hangs upon the logical system of thinking as the ultimate means of knowledge. But logic is the outcome of an assumption which itself is an hypothesis taken for granted and finally indefensible. All logic is an attempt to bring about a union between what we call the subject and the predicate of an argument. Those who have studied logic, induction or deduction will know what it means. Every logical proposition is made up of a subject and a predicate, and for any sense to be conveyed, you must express it in a sentence, and the conjunction in a sentence is that which links the meaning of the predicate with the subject or the meaning of the subject with the predicate. The distinction that we make in this way between the subject and the objectyou may call it the predicateis based on a presupposed notion of the mind that things are divided among themselves. Why should you try to connect the subject with the predicate? The necessity of connecting them arises only if they are different. But why should you take it for granted that they are already different? That you exist as a bodily individualthat this individuality observes a world outsideis a hypothesis which cannot be scientifically proved, because all scientific argument is based upon this assumption that the world exists, and that you exist as a part of it; but this assumption itself is untenable as it is merely taken for granted and is not proved. How do you know that the world exists? Because you see it! How do you know that your vision is correct? You cannot prove this logically. You have only to say it is: I am seeing it, and therefore it must be there. This is called dogma. Science is against all dogma, but it is itself based on a dogma that the world is, and the scientist also is in it. Human understanding, ordinary intelligence is of no use here, and a lot of learning founded on this understanding, also, is of not much help. Unless you seek for another means of knowledge, altogether, there is no way of gaining entry into the mystery. Ananya-prokte gatir atra nasti, says the Upanishad.
The nature of reality becomes a difficulty for the human understanding because of there being no defining characteristics of reality. You cannot say it has a colour. You cannot say it has a shape. You cannot say it has any kind of quality which can be interpreted in human language. All definition is in terms of visible or sensible characters. The sensible character of an object is not the ultimate definition of it, because we are here trying to understand the essential constituent of an object and not its character as it is presented to the senses. The test of reality, the nature of Truth or Satya, is non-contradiction. Truth is that which can never be contradicted by any other definition, experience or realisation, which means to say that eternity is the character of Truth. Nothing in this world can be said to be ultimately real, because everything passes into something else. The whole world is transitory. It is made up of bits of process parts, as it were, of a wholeand so it is not a completeness by itself. A juxtaposition of parts cannot be regarded as a reality, for the real is that which endures forever. We have never seen any object in this world, any person here, enduring for all times. We are told by master astronomers that even the solar system will not be ever enduring. There was a beginning for even the sun and there will be an end even for the sun. The cosmos will perish in the process of time. How can you call it real? The satisfactory definition of reality cannot be applied to any visible object. How will you define it, then? The mind of man, which is the central faculty of knowledge, depends entirely on the information gathered through the senses. The function of the mind is mostly a confirmation and association of ideas acquired, through the sensory passages. The mind does not give us any independent knowledge apart from what we obtain through the senses. What is not visible and what is not audible, what cannot be seen or heard or tasted or touched or felt, cannot also be known by the mind. So the mind also is a kind of sensewe call it the sixth sense. It has a capacity to synthesise the different reports of the senses, no doubt; but synthesis is not knowledge. In this organisation of the sensory knowledge brought about by the mind, we are not given a new, qualitative knowledge. We are only given a new type of organisation of what is already there, come through the senses. And the intellect is only a form of judgement that is passed on to this organised knowledge of the mind. So, the intellect, the mind and the senses seem to be of a common group. They belong to the same category. What other faculty have we except the intellect, the mind and the senses? With these untrustworthy servants of knowledge, which we have employed for our knowledge, we cannot really know Truth. This is why the Katha Upanishad warns us that by sheer argument, study, intellectuality and rationality, Truth cannot be known.
Truth has to be known by one with the blessing of a special type of instrument. No commentator has been able to properly explain what this term ananya-prokte, in the Upanishad, actually means. Many of the words used in the Upanishad are cryptic. They are like difficult nuts which you cannot easily crack. Ananya, grammatically, meansother than what is already there, or different from what is there, or non-difference. This word occurs also in the Bhagavadgita, and even there the commentators vary in the interpretation of what it really signifies. The teacher should not be an anya, or an other, but must be an ananya, a non-other. An ananya, is one who is not different from that which he teaches. Nowadays we have learned men, professors, who are supposed to be repositories of knowledge, but their lives are different from what they preach. They are anya or other from knowledge. The practical life of a professor is different from what he teaches in his college. When knowledge is different from life, such knowledge becomes a husk without substance. It is a burden that you carry, like an ass carrying bricks. Knowledge becomes valuable when it becomes ananya with ones own life. Knowledge becomes meaningful when it is lived, and not merely taught, or heard, or read about. Knowledge is identical with beingsat and chit are regarded as identical. Your sat or existence, or life, is to be in conformity with your chit, or what you know, teach and study. So, this knowledge can be imparted only by one who is established in a practical knowledge of Truth, one who is a brahmanishtha. A Guru is supposed to be a shrotriya and a brahmanishtha. A shrotriya is one who has a thorough insight into the meaning of the scriptures and has the capacity to express it in the best form of language. A brahmanishtha is one who is established in the knowledge of Truth. It is said that the Guru should be both a brahmanishtha and a shrotriya for a practical reason. A brahmanishtha is one who is in union with God, but one who is in such union may not always be in a position to teach, because of his transcendence of all means of communicating knowledge. He is above normal body-consciousness, above the empirical means of expression. And a mere shrotriya is like a pundit or scholar. Unless he is a brahmanishtha, he will not carry conviction when he teaches. Your teaching should carry weight and force. It should go into the hearts of the hearers. That is possible only if you live that knowledge yourself, and also you are in a position to expound it through language and diction.
Now, the Guru should have a double qualification. He must be living what he teaches, and also he should have the power to express what he knows. That is a brahmanishtha and a shrotriya, beautifully blended. Such a person is an ananya. You have no other alternative than this. You approach a Guru who is established in the knowledge which he has acquired, in whom knowledge has become a part of his being and life and practice, and who has also the blessing of the power of expression; otherwise, this truth cannot be known. This knowledge cannot be obtained through mere study for oneself, by private enterprise, merely. It requires the grace of a Master. Knowledge acquired through a Guru is living knowledge. It has a vitality about it, whereas the knowledge that you acquire merely by study of books is inert knowledge. It is like tinned food which has no life in it. There is a difference between a mango that is plucked from a tree and the mango that has been saturated in syrup in a tin for three years. Academic knowledge is also knowledge, but it cannot carry conviction and cannot transform your heart. What you gain through the Guru is full of living force and energy and vitality and power which the Guru conveys to the disciple through initiation, which is called the process shaktipata, by which the will of the Guru enters the mind of the disciple. The role that the Guru plays in the imparting of knowledge is not mean. No one should underestimate this process of initiation. It is a super-logical mystery, a super-scientific fact. The Upanishad confirms it. Wherever you see in the Upanishad a description of the imparting of knowledge, you find it has always been done through a Guru to a disciple. Indra went to Prajapati for knowledge. Narada went to Sanatkumara for knowledge. Brahmanas who were well-versed in the scriptures, and great men in their own way, went humbly even to a Kshatriya king, with sacred firewood in their hands, with offerings, and without any superiority-feeling of their being in a higher order of society. The Kshatriya kings sometimes used to feel awkward and were placed in an embarrassing situation. The king would say, I am a Kshatriya and I am not supposed to impart knowledge to you, Brahmanas. But these seekers used to say, We have not come here as Brahmanas. We have come as humble students and aspirants of knowledge. The Vaishvanara-Vidya described in the Chhandogya Upanishad was given by a Kshatriya to learned Brahmanas. Where the question of knowledge and aspiration for God are concerned, class and social distinction do not count. Anyone can be a disciple of any superior. It is only knowledge that is expected and not social category. The Guru is most important and initiation very essential. This is what seems to be conveyed by this term ananya in the Upanishad. Subtle is this knowledge.