by Swami Krishnananda
Just as the teaching of the Bhagavadgita commences in the second chapter, after having described Arjuna’s confusion, the profound instruction of this Upanishad begins now—after Nachiketas having steadfastly passed the test.
anyac chreyo anyad utaiva preyaste ubhe nᾱnᾱrthe puruṣam sinītaḥ:
tayoḥ śreya ᾱdadᾱnasya sᾱdhu bhavati, hīyate’rthᾱd ya u preyo vṛṇīte. (1)
“There are two things in this world, and people pursue either this or that. These two may be regarded as the path of the pleasant, and the path of the good. Most people choose the former, and not the good. The pleasant is pleasing, but passing, and ends in pain. It is different from the good. But while the good need not necessarily be pleasant, the pleasant is not good.”
Both come to a person, and we are free to choose. But we choose the tinsel because it glitters. An experience seems to be pleasant because of the reaction of our nerves. A condition that is brought about as a result of a reaction is passing, and not being. Lack of discrimination is the reason for choosing pleasure; confusion of mind causes a wrong choice. When you grope in darkness, you fall into the pit, but you know it only after the fall. Similarly, the sense-world is darkness, and sense-objects come to ruin you, but the misguided mind cannot understand this. “Good comes to a person who chooses the good. But he who chooses the pleasant falls short of his aim.”
śreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etas tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ.
śreyo hi dhīro’bhipreyaso vṛṇīte, preyo mando yoga-kṣemᾱd vṛṇīte. (2)
“The dull-witted person chooses the pleasant: he wants to pass the day somehow. He does not know where or how the good is. The dhira or hero who is endowed with viveka, the power of discrimination, chooses the shreyas or the ultimate good.”
When the pleasant and good come to us, they come together, in a mixed form, so that you cannot understand them. The best example for this is the world itself: you can use it as a passage to eternity, or for your pleasure. Yama tested Nachiketas in the same way as this world tests us. Temptations come every day, in every thing we see. We are caught in them because we are unable to distinguish between right and wrong. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. But our ignorance is so dark that we expect more pleasure, forgetting that death may come any moment. Death is the best teacher; there is not a better one: vairagya dawns by meditation on death. Suppose death comes to you in five minutes. Suppose you know it. What will you do? Will you act as you act now? You will act differently. It is true that we may die any moment. Yet, we do not think of it. Who prevents us from choosing the good? It is lack of understanding, aviveka or ajnana, which hides the defective side and shows only the pleasant aspects.
sa tvam priyᾱn priyarῡpᾱṁś ca kᾱmᾱn abhidhyᾱyan naciketo, tyasrᾱkṣīḥ;
naitᾱṁ sṛṅkᾱṁ vittamayīm avᾱpto yasyᾱm majjanti bahavo manuṣyᾱḥ. (3)
“Nachiketas, you have carefully examined all these temptations, scrutinising the nature of their delight, and you have rejected them; you have not taken my garland of wealth in which people get lost.”
At the very commencement, Yama makes a distinction between shreyas and preyas. It is not easy to do this in practical life. Most people unwittingly go for the preyas. This is illustrated by many stories. There once was a fakir who, loudly crying, carried a dog to the king. When some compassionate souls asked him for the reason of his wailing, he said: “My friend who did so much service to me is dying!” “Why?” asked the others. “Because of starvation,” replied he. “But what do you have here in your bag?” “Provisions.” “Why don’t you give them to the dog?” And he answered: “Shedding tears is cheaper.”
Though it is a humorous tale, it reveals a truth. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used a simile to illustrate the same thing: When the husband of the village woman dies, she will hit her head against the ground, but takes care to see that the ornament in her nose does not break.
These are tales telling of the human heart. We only shed empty tears, and call out God’s name half-heartedly. This is because very few can part with their possessions. The greatest obstacles in the spiritual path are the three eshanas. Even the greatest of friends get separated if one of them gives them trouble; so too attachment to wealth, sex or self-respect causes trouble. And anyone who hugs any one of them is a materialist, not merely one who believes in matter and disbelieves in God. The practical materialist cannot live without matter, but can live without God.
We think of life as a material event, and evaluate everything in terms of physical relations. We fly into tempers due to them, and pass sleepless nights due to them. And due to them we get confused as to our duty. Positively, they express themselves as attachment to sense-objects; negatively, as inertia or sleep. Who takes to spiritual life risks the danger of becoming a victim to stupour due to sense-control, putting even the mind to sleep. Sadhakas may get addicted to excessive sleep, or become gluttons, due to sense-control, thus just being sensuous in another way. While you deny satisfaction to one sense-organ, others will become powerful, like a river when its natural course is blocked may break open somewhere else, growing more powerful than if it would follow its natural course. If the senses are denied their usual satisfaction, they become uncontrollable.
Seekers who have done sadhana for years may not progress well. Often, a silent complaint is heard from within that nothing has been achieved. This is so because, while they restrain themselves physically, they indulge on the psychic level. So, the most important thing in spiritual practice is honesty to oneself, because the path is of one’s own Self, or Atman, and external aid is of little value. When we get tested by forces physical and celestial, we fail. Only a real sadhaka knows the difficulties. They may look silly, like a child’s cry for his toy, but to him the toy is of deep importance. Seekers are placed in situations that tear their minds apart; mind and senses go amuck. Pratyahara, sama and dama in yoga are dams constructed on a river, not allowing any leakage, and when the water level increases, it is very hard to control.
Nachiketas, purposely tempted by Yama, is an example. The Guru places disciples in such situations to train them, to burnish them. They are blessed, because they are given an opportunity to overcome the obstacle, and they are also given strength. But those who practice self-control in seclusion for years, without a proper guru, fail when the test comes as a hard reality, because tests in the spiritual path are not announced like school-examinations. In the latter, date, subject, time and textbooks are pre-announced. But here, there is no such thing: you may be tested any time, on any subject, in any manner. So, one has always to be ready and vigilant. The Upanishad says, later on, that one who is not careful falls. It is very easy to fall, and it is even pleasant, but it is very difficult to rise again.
“Nachiketas, I tested you and offered everything, and I am glad that you were not tempted even by the universal fire that bestows omniscience.”
Subtle difficulties present themselves only in the subtle realms. In the physical realm, we have only physical difficulties, the sthanidharmas. Each level has a law of its own, and we cannot know the temptations and difficulties of other realms. They are only theories now. And when they come, they come not as temptations, but look like necessities. When you know that they are temptations, obstacles, you will not fall. They are temptations only so long as you do not understand them. If you know your enemy, you will be careful. So, they come with a mask, and you are deceived.
dῡram ete viparīte visūcī, avidyᾱ yᾱ ca vidyeti jñᾱtᾱ:
vidyᾱbhīpsinaṁ naciketasam manye, na tvᾱ kᾱmᾱ bahavo lolupantaḥ. (4)
The shreyas and preyas mentioned can also be called vidya and avidya: knowledge and ignorance. Desire is ignorance because it arises on account of a misunderstanding. Why does a moth fly into the fire? It does so because of its ignorance. It does not understand the structure of fire. Similarly, people go to sense-objects because they do not know that they are harmful. It is said that fire looks beautiful and probably cool to the eyes of the moth. This is what happens to all in regard to objects of desire. They jump into the fire, thinking that it is a soft bed. Why does the mind through the senses move to objects? Because due to avidya it sees something in them, like the moth does in the fire. We see in the objects something which is not really there. The coolness is not in the fire, and yet it is seen by the moth. Children sometimes go and touch a snake, not knowing what it is.
We desire objects, not knowing what they are made of. They appear as one thing, but they are made of something else. The objects are not made in the way the eyes and senses see them. They are not solid; they are not beautiful; they cannot give pleasure. Not only this: they can bind you and hurl you into more and more misery and even cause rebirth. In fact, rebirth is due to unfulfilled desires. But everyone has to pass through every difficulty. Otherwise, they are not known, as they cannot be avoided by mere theoretical understanding. Solid objects are forces and not physical bodies. They appear as solid because our body appears to be solid, but neither of them is. All are forces whirling in space, and they appear as solid due to our sense of touch. When this sense is not functioning, you cannot know solid objects, and so too with all the five senses; they deceive you. This is avidya or ignorance: the inability to appreciate and understand the true nature of things and yet run to them. But vidya is different.
“Nachiketas, you are a student of shreyas because you were not attracted by any of the objects I tempted you with.”
avidyᾱyᾱm antare vartamᾱnᾱḥ, svayaṁ dhīrᾱḥ paṇḍitam manyamᾱnᾱḥ.
dandramyamᾱṇᾱḥ pariyanti mῡdhᾱḥ, andhenaiva nīyamᾱnᾱ yathᾱndhᾱḥ. (5)
Yama says: “People who are sunk in ignorance, considering themselves great heroes, well-learned, understanding everything, are like blind men led by one who is blind himself. They run hither and thither, finding not what they seek.”
Foolish are such ones. We take advice from people who do not understand. How can it be helpful? But this is the world. People run here and there for happiness because of their desires, but find it nowhere. They are misguided, and it is unfortunate that there is no one who can see things as they are. Everyone is on the same level of learning. Not only this: the blind thinks that he sees, the ignorant thinks that he is learned. Learning itself becomes a form of ignorance, just as our happiness is itself ignorance because we think we are happy when we come into contact with sense-objects.
Ignorance has two sides, positive and negative. Negatively, you are not conscious of it at all. It is avarana, a veil; what you experience in deep sleep. Positively, it is called vikshepa. It projects itself outside, making you think of what is not there. That is the dream state. Which one is better? In dream we suffer more than in deep sleep, and it may appear that sleep is better. Or you may prefer the false happiness of dreams. The very same vikshepa also works in the waking state.
There are three kinds of realities: pratibhasika, vyavaharika and paramarthika. The world of waking appears to have a practical value, a utility; but it is as much a world of ignorance as the world of dream from the point of view of paramarthika-satta. The objects are much more real than the dream objects. Our present happiness and sorrows seem to be more meaningful than dream happiness or dream sorrows. The fact is that both are avidya or ignorance—waking and dreaming. In sleep which is avarana, as well as in dream or waking which are vikshepa, ignorance prevails. On account of this, people think that there is nothing wrong with the world and foolishly imagine that they are learned. Can you regard a dream pandit as a really learned man? Likewise, in the waking state you are ignorant, and so is your teacher.
na sᾱmparᾱyaḥ pratibhᾱti bᾱlam pramᾱdyantaṁ vitta-mohena mῡḍham:
ayaṁ loko nᾱsti para iti mᾱnī, punaḥ punar vaśam ᾱpadyate me. (6)
“The hereafter does not shine for the simple-minded, who think this is the only world, there is no other; just as the waking world does not exist to a dreaming person. People get deluded because of wealth and greed for things, and in this ignorance of youth, health, fame and position, they proclaim: ‘This world is real, and there is nothing beyond.’ These persons come to me,” says Yama. What he means is that they undergo unending births and deaths. Falling under the law of karma, they do not learn until they are given a painful lesson by nature itself. There is not only birth and death, but there is suffering. Those cannot escape Yama’s clutches. They are proud even when they do not know anything.
śravaṇᾱyᾱpi bahubhir yo na labhyaḥ, śṛṇvanto’pi bahavo yaṁ na vidyuḥ
ᾱścaryo vaktᾱ kuśalo’sya labdhᾱ, ᾱścaryo jñᾱtᾱ kuśalᾱnuśiṣṭaḥ. (7)
“My dear child, this mysterious Being of all beings is difficult to understand. It is difficult even to hear, and there are people who cannot understand It even then. A wonder is the explainer of It; wonderful is that person who can understand It when taught by a competent one. Both are wonders: the teacher and the taught.” Teachers of this knowledge are rare indeed, and rare indeed are the students.
The second section of the Upanishad is an analysis of the nature of duty and desire: shreyas and preyas. Their whispers are heard by us simultaneously—one trying to overpower the other, sometimes creating a small tumult, so that they cannot be distinguished. Daily life is one dilemma, the conscience speaking of shreyas, and the lower self murmuring that pleasure is desirable in preference to duty. Why do people mostly listen to the latter voice? Because the objects connected to pleasure are visible to the senses, while the side of duty is not so visible. We believe in what we see, but find it hard to believe in the invisible. The senses are connected with objects of pleasure, but duty is something which the senses cannot understand.
Often duty seems to be painful and imposed. The reason is simple: we know pleasure will come by contact with objects, but we do not know what will happen in the other world. Limited to this world of senses, we cannot see the other realms, so we do not concern ourselves with them. And for all practical purposes, we take for granted that they do not exist at all. The ignorant, proud of empty learning, do not pay proper attention towards duty; they do not believe in the ultimate good, in God and the other worlds, but they believe in objects, even though they are perishable, even though they may bring death, humiliation, deprivation, because of their visibility, and this, because of the indivisibility of the good and the other worlds.
Both duty and desire, the good and the pleasant, have been examined by Nachiketas. This position is not one of acquisition, but of understanding, of discrimination. He is the example of a seeker who got over temptations by comprehending, and not because they were curbed by law, scriptures or the guru. When the disciple understands the true situation, no ordinance by any of them is necessary. When we are awake, we don’t have to be told not to drown ourselves in a river. Nachiketas realised that objects are not to be acquired for enjoyment, but to be understood and studied. They are not for hugging. The world is not to be possessed. No one can possess the world, because everyone is a part of it; belongs to it in an integral way. So an individual fails when he treats it as an object of enjoyment, for the world and all its objects are an opportunity to train ourselves in understanding.
The world is one of the ways in which God peeps through space and time: “Shreyas or preyas—what do you want?” He asks. Most people are like Duryodhana and want adoration rather than the silent divinity that does not reveal itself to the senses. The more we realise the interconnectedness and harmony of being, the nearer are we to God. The more the separation between man and man, the greater the assumption of the individual, the more are we away from Him. This is what Yama implies in the conversation with Nachiketas: that the silent music of the Spirit is drowned in the clamour of the senses.
Though God is speaking to us daily, we do not hear Him because of the noise the senses set up. We see the colour and the panorama of the world they present us, but not Him. This is the meaning of ‘the other world is not visible’, which includes God also, as well as the astral, causal and the absolute. Realms beyond the physical are less and less separated in their contents or units. While in the physical world we see many persons, one thing having no relation to another, the higher we go into the subtle realms, the nearer do persons and things appear to come—just as in a triangle with a wide base there is also an apex, and as the two sides go higher towards it the distance between the two sides becomes less and less until they meet.
In the Absolute, people come together; and when you realise the intimacy of things, your love for them diminishes, just as you do not love your body the way you love sense-objects. There are what is called nether regions, lower than this physical world, which are inhabited by asuras, demons and the like—beings who are more sensuous, wrathful and body-conscious. There are seven worlds above and seven below ours, which means that there can be states of consciousness worse than the human, ignorance deeper than the human, and knowledge higher than the human. The seven higher realms are of great subtlety and intimacy, so that when we reach the highest, one reflects in the other and one becomes the image of the other. This is omniscience or cosmic consciousness: everyone is everyone else.
We do not like each other because of our believing in the reports of the senses, and thus we are said to live in mrityu-loka: the world of desires and self-affirmation. The higher world is not visible to the ignorant, and so we cling to this world. If we were aware of all the higher ones, we would no longer think: ‘O, I am so far from Truth’, but feel like a dreamer who is aware of the waking world while in dream. Like a sudden waking up from dream, there is sometimes a sudden awakening into Reality. This is called sadyo-mukti.