by Swami Krishnananda
The path of the soul to its supreme destination is explained in the Katha Upanishad through a description of the chariot of the body. How does this chariot move? What is the methodology involved in the progress of the individual to its goal? This inner process of the movement of the individual to the Absolute is what we know as the practice of sadhana, or yoga. While there are elaborate textbooks on this subject, the Upanishad touches upon the point in a single mantra, as follows:
yacched vᾱṅ manasī prᾱjñas tad yacchej, etc.
The way of yoga is a process of gradual ascent and illumination. It is also a systematised process of achieving freedom by stages. Our bondage is not of a uniform character. The way in which we are tied down to mortal experience is a complicated structure. You are not tied with one rope to a single peg, as a cow is tied, for example. The bondage of samsara is of a different nature from the way in which we usually understand bondage or suffering to be. Our sufferings are very peculiar. Because of the peculiarity of this suffering of ours, we sometimes do not know that we are suffering. There are people who will be ill for years together and be accustomed to that sort of life. That itself becomes a normality for them. In the beginning, it comes like an inconvenience. Later on, it is a natural life. Aeons must have passed since we have entered this plane of samsara. We have passed through various kinds of birth. We have moved through different species and organisms, and are said to have now reached this level of the human being. We have had experiences in every kind of life that we lived, and all these experiences were peculiar to the particular species into which we were born. But, rarely do we realise that life can be a bondage. We, as human beings, today living in this world, this earth plane, at this moment of time, do not consider the fact of the bondage involved in our life. Are we always conscious that we are bound, or are in an unfortunate state of existence? We have occasions for rejoicing, exultation and delights of various kinds. Life is a pleasure to most people, and the bitterness that is hidden beneath it comes to the surface only occasionally, under certain circumstances. Our consciousness gets accustomed to conditions of experience to which we are habituated. This habituation of the consciousness to certain states is the reason why we mistake pain for pleasure. The life of a human being—life in general, for the matter of that—is an involvement of such a complicated nature that our ignorance of it is indeed very serious. To regard this ignorance itself as a source of enjoyment is the worst that can befall a created being.
This is what is known as avidya—nescience. Avidya, ignorance, does not necessarily mean oblivion or total torpidity of mind. The ignorance in which we are shrouded is not an abolition of all understanding or mentation. It is something worse than that. It is not a sleepy state of the mind where it knows nothing at all, but it is a positive error of perception. One thing is mistaken for another, and that another which is erroneously superimposed on what actually is, is regarded as reality. The impermanent, transient, momentary structure of the universe is mistaken for a permanent, stable abode of enjoyment. This is one form of ignorance, because it contradicts Truth. The bodily encasement, the physical personality, the social circumstances under which we live, are all considered by us as sources of pleasure, and our body itself is worshipped as an object of beauty, a piece of art which we daily look at in the mirror, if possible; and we embellish it in every possible manner, not knowing what it is really made of. The experiences of our life are not really pleasurable. The conditions through which we pass in mind and intellect from morning to evening are not ones of happiness; but we try to make the best of this suffering itself, and we try to create a heaven out of hell. This is to mistake pain for pleasure. And the greatest error which tops all the list is the mistaking of the non-Atman for the Atman, the object for the subject, the external for the Universal, the perishable for the permanent, the material for the conscious. This is, truly speaking, the state in which we are. From this kind of bondage, which is of such a difficult make-up, we have to free ourselves, step by step. This is the aim of yoga. From ignorance and its offshoots we have to gain freedom, and simultaneously gain mastery over our own self.
Bondage is not only dependence on the non-Atman but also forgetfulness of the nature of the Atman, at the same time. The consciousness of the object necessitates a forgetfulness of the subject in some proportion. As a matter of fact, the awareness of the existence of anything outside is due to a transference of a part of our consciousness to the object outside. All perception is an extroverted operation of consciousness. The awareness of an object, the knowledge that we have of things outside, is a form of the operation of our consciousness within in terms of what is outside. We are aware of the existence of a world on account of our being in a state of motion towards the conditions of externality. This is why human life is to be regarded as a state of becoming, rather than being. Life is considered as a process of transiency by masters like the Buddha. They never considered the world as ultimately existent. Nothing in the world is. Everything passes. Everything moves. Even our awareness of the existence of the world is a process, a transitory condition of the activities of the mind, due to which we are said to be living in perpetual anityata, perishability, changefulness and an urge towards something beyond at every stage in which we are. There is a perpetual asking for the ‘more’ in us. We ask for more and more, endlessly—we do not reach an end of it. One of the philosophers of the West, William James, called this process the philosophy of the more. The whole life of man is nothing but an asking for the more. Whatever is supplied to you is inadequate for your purpose. If you become the ruler of the earth, you would like to become the ruler of the sky, and so on. This is because there is a tendency in us to move beyond the limited self, to overstep the boundary of the body and mind, to break through all bondage, and to reach that which we seem to have lost and of which we have at present no knowledge whatsoever. Our bondage is of such a nature that we do not know what type of bondage it is. It is like a sick man not knowing what ailment he is suffering from. Bondage becomes real when its nature is not known. A real thief is one who is never caught at any time. A thief who is caught is not a good thief! Likewise, when you know what sort of bondage you are in, you are not in bondage. You have already overcome it to some extent. But we are in it right up to our necks. We are not only in it, but are also deprived of the knowledge of what has happened to us. This is samsara in its quintessence.
The difficulty of the practice of yoga, the way of the Spirit, lies in this central enigma of our not having any knowledge of what has befallen us, where we stand actually at this present moment, and what is required of us for our true freedom. There are several layers of our bondage. The bondage is not only external, but also internal. It is woven into our texture like a carpet that is knit with various layers of thread. It is wide, and also thick. If you remove one layer, you will find another layer underneath it. There is an organic complication, as it were, in the bondage which is part of us. The practice of yoga is, thus, not a straight movement towards a given point or a target in front of us. It is a winding process, sometimes a circular motion, occasionally with forward and backward steps, and with ascents and descents. It is like entry into the chakravyuha, the impregnable fortress described in the Mahabharata. One does not know how to enter it, and if anyone enters it, he does not know how to come out of it. Such is the difficulty involved in the practice of the path of the Spirit, the way of the Atman.
The bondage understood, we shake up our being from the mire of ignorance, and we place the first step on the initial rung of yoga. The hundreds of implications in this woven structure of human bondage are difficult to describe in an ‘open-book’ fashion. We shall confine ourselves to the aspects that are touched upon by the Upanishad, in this context.
The first step, according to the Upanishad, in the mantra cited, is a withdrawal of the senses, such as speech, etc.—all the senses of knowledge and action—into the mind. But this is not all. The instruction goes further. The mind has to be settled in the intellect (jnana-atman). The intellect is then to be set in tune with the Cosmic Intelligence (Mahat-atman). This Cosmic Function should get settled in Cosmic Being (Shanta-atman). Here, Being, Consciousness, Freedom, Bliss are all one, indivisible essence (Akhanda-Ekarasa- Satchidananda).
yadᾱ pañcᾱvatiṣṭhante jñᾱnᾱni manasᾱ saha,
buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati, tᾱm ᾱhuḥ paramᾱṃ gatim.
The intelligent one, the discriminative seeker, should introvert the senses in such a way that they stand in unison with the substance of the mind. The mind and the senses, though they work in collaboration with each other, are not identical in their function. The difference in their activities lies in the fact that while the mind can contemplate spatial and temporal objects independently of the functions of the senses, the senses require space and time and externality for their activity. Also, they cannot work unless the mind is actively associated with them. There is a speciality in the working of the senses, the speciality being that they cannot move inward to the subjective centre, but are always accustomed to move outward to the object. So you will never be able to make them contemplate themselves or meditate upon the source on which they have their very being. The senses are the forms of the mind itself. We may say, to give a working example, the senses are to the mind what the rays are to the sun or the light of the sun. The analogy is not complete, but there is some similarity in this illustration. As there is a jetting forth of rays from the orb of the sun, there is a projection of force from the psychological organ, the antahkarana, in the form of sensory activity. The mind itself becomes the senses when it contacts objects. The senses are the mind thinking external forms. So, the first step, according to this mantra of the Upanishad, in the practice of yoga, is the attempt on the part of the seeker to block the avenues of the senses, so that the mind is not channelised towards objects but stands self-controlled, self-subdued and centred in itself. The five senses mingle with the mind in a blend of unified function; the intellect does not flicker with desire or distraction; there is a feeling of wholeness, then, in oneself. This is the yoga of meditation.
Our energies get depleted through sensory activity. This is something well known to us. Our strength does not depend upon what we eat, merely. It depends upon something else.
na prᾱṇena nᾱpᾱnena martyo jīvati kaś cana
itareṇa tu jīvanti, yasminn etᾱv upᾱśritau.
Our life does not depend merely on the breathing process of prana and apana. It depends on something else, from which even the prana and apana rise. The intake of diet is, indeed, very important for the maintenance of health, but health does not rest on food alone, because everything can be thrown out of order if the mind is upset, in spite of the taking in of the best form of diet. A shock that is injected into the mind is enough to disturb the entire balance of the personality, notwithstanding the fact that one has every amenity possible. The energy of the individual is in the individual himself. Your strength is in you. It is not outside you. The weakness of the personality, or the weakness of the body, is not due so much to physical contact with objects as to an erroneous adjustment that we make with the conditions of the world outside. All our suffering can ultimately be boiled down to an error of understanding, wrong knowledge. Just as we do not understand our own self, we also do not understand others. As a matter of fact, that we do not understand others properly follows from our not understanding our own self. A misjudgement of our own self implies a misjudgement of everything else also, because perceptions are emanations of our own consciousness. The sadhaka, or the seeker of Truth, should be confident that all that he needs will be provided to him by the very laws of existence. It is law that supplies you with strength, not the discrete objects of sense. Obedience to law is at once an acquisition of power, because law protects. The Upanishad, therefore, tells us that the senses which are powers of the mind, moving towards objects outside, should be sublimated into the mind itself. They should melt into the substance of the mind, so that they become the mind itself. This is pratyahara, sense-abstraction, described also in one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. When Patanjali defines pratyahara, he says that it is nothing but the standing together of the senses with the mind, which is what the Katha Upanishad also says.