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

The Divine Being Contains and Constitutes All that Exists

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 2-3:  “Lo, the Swan whose dwelling is in the purity, He is the Vasu in the inter-regions, the Sacrificer at the altar, the Guest in the vessel of the drinking: He is in man and in the Great Ones and His home is in the law, and His dwelling is in the firmament: He is all that is born of water and all that is born of earth and all that is born on the mountains.  He is the Truth and He is the Mighty One.  This is He that draws the main breath upward and casts the lower breath downward.  The Dwarf that sits in the centre, to Him all the Gods do homage.”

These verses illustrate that the Divine Being pervades, permeates, embodies and constitutes all that exists.  The image of the Swan traditionally, in the Indian spiritual tradition, relates to the Atman, the individual soul portion of the universal soul.  Dwelling in the purity references the unmanifest, unmoving substratum of reality.  From there the imagery moves to the universal creation and the forces that move within it.  Vasu references the force of wind in the “inter-regions”.  (There are multiple “vasus” but in this context the commentators hold that it is the force of wind that is implied.)  The divine Being is in man, in the universal creation and in the unmanifest beyond the universal creation.  The “Dwarf” that sits in the centre is a reference to the individual soul that is “no larger than a thumb seated in the heart of man” described in earlier verses.

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

The City With Eleven Gates

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Second Chapter, Verse 1: “Yama speaks: ‘The unborn who is not devious-minded has a city with eleven gates: when he takes up his abode in it, he grieves not, but when he is set free from it, that is his deliverance.  This is That thou seekest.”

The divine Presence takes on forms, including the human form, to manifest Spirit in Matter.  In the human being this Presence has developed an instrument of action that includes the physical body, the vital-nervous sheath which carries the sense perceptions and impulses to action, and the mind.  The Divine does not suffer from this embodiment.  While appearing to be bound, He is always free.  When He recognises His freedom, he is able to act from the divine standpoint rather than from the limited human standpoint.

The city with eleven gates has been defined variously by historical commentators.  Some commentators indicate this refers to the physical body and that the eleven gates are the 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils, mouth, the anus, the genitalia, the navel and the crown of the head.  The crown of the head is the location where the soul exits the body at the time of death.  Other commentators indicate that the city with eleven gates refers to the 5 senses of perception, the 5 senses of action, and the mind.  Based on the usual starting point for the link between the Purusha and the embodiment in the world, it is likely that the first reading is the intended one, and it is by far the one most often described in the commentaries.  The body is a vehicle for the soul in the world and is the way we identify ourselves in our lives, first and foremost.

 

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