States of Apprehending the Divine

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 4-5:  “If in this world of men and before thy body fall from thee, thou wert able to apprehend it, then thou availest for embodiment in the worlds that He creates.  In the self one sees God as in a mirror, but as in a dream; in the world of the Fathers: and as in water one sees the surface of an object, so one sees Him in the world of the Gandharvas.  But He is seen as light and shade in the heaven of the Spirit.”

Verse 4 focuses on the result of a shift to the divine standpoint while embodied in this world.  This shift makes it possible for the soul to take birth in any world or plane of existence in the entire manifestation, as the soul is then consciously united with the Divine and thus, shares the same capacity of manifestation.  The divine standpoint provides the ultimate freedom to the soul in the creation.

Verse 5 describes the mode of perception of God in various states of existence.  For those whose gaze is directed outwards, they do not perceive God in the external forms generally.  If they turn their gaze inwards to the inner self, they quiet the mind-stuff, quell the perceptions of the senses, and they can then reflect the apprehension of God as in a mirror.  The world of the fathers, the ancestors if you will, is one that honors the working of karma through the chain of cause and effect, as the ancestors and their actions in the past cause our current existence and the actions of the present.  The perception of God in this realm therefore is as in a dream, as it flows and changes and does not take on a definitive form, thus impossible to grasp solidly.  The Gandharvas are heavenly beings who live in a space beyond the physical world, what we may call a vital or astral plane of existence.  The vision of God in this realm is as seeing an object in water, which can be either extremely clear in calm water, or distorted and broken up into facets in moving or disturbed water.  In the “heaven of the Spirit” God is perceived as light and shade.  Light is the constant symbol of the Divine throughout the world and the ability to perceive the distinction between light and darkness implies a clearer vision of the distinction between the Divine in its true form and the darkness of our outer state of fragmentation and separation from the source.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The Terror of the Consciousness of Separateness

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 2-3:  “All this universe of motion moves in the Prana and from the Prana also it proceeded: a mighty terror is He, yea, a thunderbolt uplifted.  Who know Him, are the immortals.  For fear of Him the Fire burns: for fear of Him the Sun gives heat: for fear of Him Indra and Vayu and Death hasten in their courses.”

The Prana referred to here is not the individual Prana, or breath, but the universal Prana, the cosmic breath, the cosmic motion that vibrates in the ether and brings forth the forms and dissolves them.  The process of the manifestation involves the action of Prakriti, what is called elsewhere Para-Prakriti, the supreme Nature.

The Upanishads distinguish between the “knowers of Brahman” who are considered to be the “immortals” and the various separative forms and forces, including the universal forces such as fire, sun, wind and the action of death.  The Kena Upanishad shows that the universal forces do not recognise the One, but attribute their power to themselves.  The Taittiriya Upanishad emphasizes that recognizing even the slightest difference from the One is a cause for terror.  The “immortals”, the “knowers of Brahman” do not have this fear as they see Oneness, but until that realisation is achieved, there is fear.  Fear motivates movement or action, and thus, in the diversified forms of the universal creation, it is a power of putting the processes into motion.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The Eternal Ashwattha-Tree

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verse 1:  “Yama speaks: ‘This is an eternal Ashwattha-tree whose root is above, but its branches are downward.  It is He that is called the Bright One and Brahman, and Immortality, and in Him are all the worlds established, none goes beyond Him.  This is That thou seekest.’ “

The image of the Ashwattha-tree, representing the source and development of life, appears also in the Bhagavad Gita.  The tree, known variously as the Peepul tree, the Bodhi Tree, the Ficus religiosa, is considered to be a sacred tree in India.  The physical tree, of course, is rooted in the earth and expands upwards; but the Upanishad (and the Gita) reverse this normal order and have the roots above and the branches below.  The source of all life is the Brahman and the world, and all its forms and beings, and forces, and developments grow and manifest from that source, thus, “the roots are above”.

The normal human viewpoint is rooted in the earth and believes everything starts with Matter.  All life, mind and existence, from this viewpoint, somehow develops out of the primordial chemical soup of Matter.  A shift in standpoint, however, shows us that Matter itself is not the primary or “first cause” and that there is something that precedes and originates material existence.  This is the Brahman and this is the true “root of existence”.

 

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The One Eternal in the Transient

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 13-15:  “The One Eternal in the transient, the One consciousness in many conscious beings, who being One orders the desires of many: the calm and strong who behold Him in their self as in a mirror, theirs is eternal peace and ’tis not for others.  ‘This is He’ is all they can realise of Him, a highest felicity which none can point to nor any define it.  How shall I know of Him whether He shines or reflects one light and another?  There the sun cannot shine and the moon has no lustre: all the stars are blind: there our lightnings flash not, neither any earthly fire.  For all that is bright is but the shadow of His brightness and by His shining all this shines.”

The Upanishad provides a clue for the seeker who aspires to the Eternal.  All that we see around us in the world exists and acts solely due to the presence of the One consciousness.  The seeker experiences the One through an awareness “as in a mirror”, in other words, not through active external perception or analytical action of the mind, but through reflection in a quiet mind.  Those who gain this experience have peace.  Others, pushed by the forces of desire and the ever-changing sensory stimuli,  thoughts and emotions, cannot experience this peace.  The Eternal is not able to be defined, labeled or categorised as it transcends every attempt to limit Him through the mind.

When we view the sun and the stars, we consider them to be “self-luminous”.  The Upanishad disabuses us of this notion by pointing out that no light in the universe exists but for the light of the Eternal, which illuminates the entire creation.  All the forms, all the forces, all the beings we can see or experience in the world are manifestations of the divine Presence and they radiate their energy and luminosity due solely to the luminosity and energy of the Divine.

The Katha Upanishad reinforces here the need to unify the two dicta “One without a second” and “All this is the Brahman.”  There is no contradiction between these two when we recognise that everything that exists is the Brahman.  Sri Aurobindo calls this “reality omnipresent” and it bridges the divide between the seeking of the renunciate, who focuses all his attention on the One, and the life of the man of the world, who focuses all his attention on the Many.  The Many exist solely as manifested forms of the One, and thus, when we observe the radiance of any luminous energy or form, we are looking at the radiance of the One Eternal.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

One Spirit Within All Creatures

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 9-12:  “Even as one Fire has entered into the world, but it shapes itself to the forms it meets, so there is one Spirit within all creatures, but it shapes itself to form and form: it is likewise outside these.  Even as one Air has entered into the world, but it shapes itself to the forms it meets, so there is one Spirit within all creatures, but it shapes itself to form and form: it is likewise outside these.  Even as the Sun is the eye of all this world, yet is not soiled by the outward blemishes of the visual, so there is one Spirit within all creatures, but the sorrow of this world soils it not: for it is beyond grief and his danger. One calm and controlling Spirit within all creatures that makes one form into many fashions: the calm and strong who see Him in their self as in a mirror, theirs is eternal felicity and ’tis not for others.”

All of the forms we observe in the world are of the substance of one Spirit; there is no other existence than this One.  Western science recognises that all material forms consist of atoms, which differentiate themselves based on the internal configuration of numbers of protons, electrons, neutrons, etc.  They already recognise that matter is convertible to energy.  They also recognise, through the processes of nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, that one element can be transformed to other elements.  This provides a basis for understanding the Oneness spoken of in the Upanishad.

At a more outward level, we see that air is the same for all creatures.  Each creature takes from it the elements it can use, and returns to the air the elements it cannot use.  In the natural process of Nature, we then see that all living things on the planet are symbiotic.  Plants take up the carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen.  Animals take up the oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide.  There is a balance, a homeostasis that pervades all Nature, and if the balance between plants and animals is upset, or other elements, created artificially, change the balance of the components of air, there can be enormous consequences.

The question arises, if there is one Spirit that embodies itself in all these forms, does it take on the burden of deficiencies, failures, sins, if you will, of specific forms or beings.  The example of the Sun is given that, while it is also one with all of creation, it carries out its function without becoming itself negatively impacted by the successes or failures of those upon which it shines.

The universal Observer, the universal Existent, takes on all the various forms, constitutes them, and is yet transcendent to them, and does not suffer under the weaknesses of any individual embodiment.  The ego-personality attached to a specific being experiences joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure.  The divine Being is free of the attachment that brings about the suffering of the dualities.  The individual who is able to shift his awareness to the divine standpoint similarly escapes the bonds of the ego and the consequent suffering.

 

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Focus, Attention and Intensity Guide the Soul to Its Next Birth in the Chain of Cause and Effect

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 7-8:  “For some enter a womb to the embodying of the Spirit and others follow after the Immovable: according to their deeds is their goal and after the measure of their revealed knowledge.  This that wakes in the sleepers creating desire upon desire, this Purusha, Him they call the Bright One, Him Brahman, Him Immortality, and in Him are all the worlds established: none goes beyond Him.  This is That thou seekest.”

The question posed by Nachiketas constituting the third boon he had been granted by Yama required a very substantial background of understanding about the nature of existence, the soul and the universal creator, and the purpose of life.  At long last, Yama is now directly addressing the third boon.  The response involves considerable complexity and subtlety which needs to be looked at through various viewpoints in order to yield a comprehensive understanding.

The first issue taken up is the manner in which the soul takes birth in the world.  The mechanism is what some call the chain of cause and effect, or the role of karma.  Karma means action.  Action proceeds from focus and attention.  Focus and attention proceed from the promptings of desire in the human being.  As we live our lives, we turn our attention to a variety of goals, and with a variable level of focus and intensity.  In some cases, we carry out the action under this impulsion, and in others we suppress the action, but retain the impulse as a bottled-up unfulfilled desire.  As complex beings with multiple levels of development, physical, vital, emotional, mental, and spiritual, we are actually more of a combination of goals and focus than one single line of action.  To the extent that some of these lines of development retain more intensity, they have a greater impact on our direction than those that have less intensity.

When the human being dies, the flow of focus and energy does not simply dissipate entirely with the destruction of the physical being, the nexus of this energy in the present life and personality; rather, the energy continues along its lines of development, with the stronger impulses guiding the soul beyond death and into the next embodiment wherein those impulses can be carried out.  Those enthralled by desire for worldly results, power, wealth, sex, physical comforts and well-being, will naturally be drawn to take birth in new bodies that provide opportunities for such fulfillment.  Those who, for instance, have followed a spiritual path with strong aspiration may be able to take birth in a body and setting that further supports that development.  There is thus, not one single answer for the fate of the soul after death, but rather, a complex inter-relation of “cause and effect”.  Even those who do not accept the existence of the soul can nevertheless understand the direction, intensity and flow of energy at different levels continuing on through existing momentum to create the next result in the chain of cause and effect, and thus we come to the position espoused by Buddhist practitioners.  The difference between the two is whether there is a “nexus” that carries this stream of impulse forward which can be called the “soul”, or whether it continues without nexus into the universe where it simply creates new forms as needed, and in interaction with similar streams of energy flowing throughout the creation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Exploring the Mystery of Life and Death

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 4-6:  “When this encased Spirit that is in the body, falls away from it, when He is freed from its casing, what is there then that remains?  This is That thou seekest.  Man that is mortal lives not by the breath, no, nor by the lower breath; but by something else we live in which both these have their being.  Surely, O Gautama, I will tell thee of this secret and eternal Brahman and likewise what becomes of the soul when one dies.”

The mystery of life and death is explored in detail starting with these verses.  When an individual is born, what is it that signifies life in the body?  When an individual dies, what is it that departs to signify the death.  The most obvious physical sign is the departure of the breaths, inhalation and exhalation being the primary observable breaths (prana and apana in the Sanskrit).  Without the breath of life, the body begins to decompose and decay, “dust to dust” as the Christian burial eulogy goes.  But the breath alone does not bring with it automatically those things which we associate with intelligent life.  The breath can be functional without there being any active mental process of perception, will, memory, imagination, analysis or synthesis, or logic and reason.  When the breath departs, it is true, that these higher functions also depart.  The Upanishads evaluated causation and primacy and determined that the body itself, as well as the life-breath, were not primary causative factors, rather they were instruments utilized by some other factor.  Further analysis yielded the understanding that the mental process is also contingent on something further.  Eventually they came to appreciate that there is a “first cause”, which they called Brahman, which creates all life and infuses it with awareness and purpose, and which is itself the container and the substance of the creation..  The spark of the Brahman that activates what we recognise as the human being was called the Atman or as we may call it, the soul.

From this viewpoint, it is the Atman which, when it enters into the physical form, provides awareness and life energy, harnessing the prana or life-breaths to carry out the actions of life.  When the Atman departs, the machinery of the physical body infused with life-energy ceases and the physical body breaks down into its constituent elements.

The Atman, being a spark of the awareness of the Brahman, does not die with the death of the body.  It should be noted that some believe that the Atman is not a particular formed individuality, but a stream of conscious energy that continues and takes new forms as it evolves.  Either way, it is the Brahman which supplies the continuity throughout the process of birth, life and death, and the recurrence of the pattern.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129