The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 4: The Adventure of Knowledge

The problem of human existence and activity is really the problem of the human consciousness. Or, to put it more precisely, the problem is that man is not able to realise that this is the problem. Knowledge and activity are the fruits of education. But neither knowledge nor activity is unconcerned with an object outside. This would mean that our relationship with external things is the deciding factor in judging the worth of our knowledge and the value of our activities. This, again, suggests that the worth and value of our education lies in the meaning attached to our relationship with the objects of our study. The whole question is one of subject-object relation. There is no such thing as either knowledge or effort unrelated to an aim or objective. If this aim is to be missed, if the purpose is to go out of one’s mind, if the object is to be separated from the subject, if the content of consciousness is to be cut off from consciousness, then, the result is obvious. And this is exactly what has happened to our educational methods, to the entire process of education today. When knowledge is devoid of content, what do we call it? Mere name? Only words? Objectless knowledge would be tantamount to an aimless activity. How would knowledge of this kind, activity of this character, contribute to human weal—bring real knowledge, power and happiness, which are the ultimate aims of humanity?

It is impossible to avoid reference to fundamental principles in the solution of ultimate problems. This is to say that one cannot entirely free oneself from the need to judge things philosophically and be under the cozy and misconceived notion that philosophy is a lyrical theory and errand of unpractical thinking, for, philosophy is not an ‘arm-chair’ affair as the wise old man is usually dubbed by the inexperienced younger blood, but forms the science of laying the very foundation of human society and life in general.

Things in the world are not so simple as they appear on the surface. That some people are friends and some are enemies, some things are good and some bad, some beautiful and some otherwise, is the outcome of the credulous thinking of an illiterate mind. Such judgments as these imply a wrong assessment of the relation of the subject with the object, of consciousness with its content. At this stage it would not be proper to delve into this matter without, first of all, getting ourselves acquainted with the state of affairs in which mankind as a whole is placed, an outline of which is pictoriously depicted in the Aitareya Upanishad. To paraphrase this description in a language intelligible to us:

The One Being that was from eternity, outside which there was nothing, willed to materialise itself in the form of creation. It concretised itself, through this Universal Will, into the Presiding Person of the whole universe. It grossened itself into the density of the material worlds (which are constituted of the five elements: ether, air, fire, water and earth).

The process of manifestation of the worlds, originally as the object of subjective experience, was something like this: From the Mouth of this Universal Person Speech came out, and from Speech Fire. From His Nostrils Breath came out and from Breath Air. From His Eyes Light came out and from Light Sight. From His Ears Sound came out and from Sound the Quarters or the Directions. From His Skin Hairs came out and from Hairs Plants and Trees. From His Heart Mind came out and from Mind the Moon. From His Navel the Out-going Breath came out and from the Out-going Breath the principle of Death. From His Virile Member Vital Force came out and from Vital Force Waters.

This description of the origin of cosmic differentiation is intended to give an idea of the state of consciousness in which the human being particularly finds himself at the present moment. Though it is difficult to make a complete analysis of consciousness from this narration given by the Upanishad, there is, no doubt, in it a hint at the method of the type of analysis that has to be conducted for the purpose of acquiring a correct knowledge of the exact position of man in the universe. But the Upanishad takes us by a greater surprise when it does not end the story with this description alone, and goes further, and makes it a little more difficult for us to understand what has actually happened to us in the state in which we are today. The individuation of the Cosmic Being is not merely the separation of a part from the Whole, as a simple reduction or subtraction of a quantity from a larger measure, so that we cannot say that we as individuals are small gods, because we are little bits of that very same Supreme Cosmic Person. We are not small chips of this larger mass of gold, but something worse has happened to us, so that we have ceased to be the gold that we were once. In fact, there is nothing in this world that can act as a comparison to what has actually happened to us. Metaphors, images, examples and similes of every kind fail here. The condition in which we are is something quite different from what any language can explain. This is the reason, perhaps, why we cannot understand either ourselves or others, properly. To baffle us, as it were, with a greater mystery, the Upanishad goes on:

When the individual was separated from the Whole, Fire became the speech and entered the mouth of the individual; Air became breath and entered the nostrils; Sun became sight and entered the eyes; The Quarters became sound and entered the ears; Plants and Trees became hairs and entered the skin; Moon became the mind and entered the heart; Death became the out-going breath and entered the navel; Waters became the vital force and entered the virile member.

We should be careful to observe the tremendous reversal of process that has taken place in the functions of the principles originally at the time of cosmic individuation, and subsequently at the time of the commencement of the individual’s functions, independently. Let us take only one of the functions mentioned above: when there was the first isolation of the individual from the Cosmic Being, we are told that from the Mouth of the Universal Person Speech came out and from Speech, Fire. But, when it becomes the question of the individual’s function, we are told that Fire became speech and entered the mouth of the individual. What operated as the cause primarily during the origination of things becomes the effect in the individual, so that, we may say, while the power that we call Speech is the effect of the location called the Mouth in the Universal Person and the principle of Fire is the effect of the power of Speech, the reverse is the case with the individual; that is, Fire, which was the last effect originally, becomes now the first cause and engenders the force of speech in the individual and restricts the operation of the vocal organs in the mouth. To take the instance of another function: Nostrils, breath and air act as cause and effect successively, originally, but now, in the individual, the process is reversed so that Air, breath and nostrils form the order of succession in a cause-and-effect relationship. And so on, with the other functions.

From a consideration of the above description of the evolution of the individual from the Cosmic, we have only to conclude that a great woe has come upon man, so that he has not got a direct means of easily contacting the Cosmic through the faculties or powers with which he is immediately endowed. For, in the ‘reversal-process’ of the functions, described above, the ‘original’ function operating as an ‘effect’ turns back upon the individual as the ‘cause’ of its functions, as it happens in reflections, wherein the features either become topsy-turvy or inversed in some way. And how does a reflection contact its original? There is a partial similarity of this position with the attempt of the reflection of the sun in water to come in contact with the original sun. In this comparison, the similarity is that the reflection truly pictures the original even as man is supposed to be made in the image of God. Now, how can a reflection catch the original or become the original? What is its relation to the original? Apparently there is no relation, for the two are far removed by the absence of any real contact, mutually. Yet, there is a relation; else, the original will not appear in the reflection. The analogy of the reflection of the sun in water; though it presents the context of the similarity between the original and the reflection, is, at the same time, partial: it does not represent the whole truth. This is because the reflection of the sun is spatially removed from the original by a great physical distance, while, in the case of the Cosmic Being and the individual, no physical distance can be introduced between the original and the reflection. The two overlap each other, as it were, which is the reason why the whole circumstance becomes difficult to investigate and even to understand.

The reversal of the process of the functions in the descent of the Cosmic to the individual can be explained by another analogy, namely, the reflection of our own face seen through a mirror in which the right becomes left and the left becomes the right: what exists as the effect in the Cosmic becomes the cause in the individual. In the terminology of the Vedanta philosophy, the process of the Universal Being passes through the stages of isvara, hiranyagarbha and virat, which are the cosmic levels of the Absolute itself. Here, the latter stage is the effect of the former. But in the individual these cosmic levels are reversed in the form of the experiences known as visva (waking condition), taijasa (dreaming condition) and prajna (sleep condition). While the virat is the lowest effect in the cosmic procession of descent, Visva is the highest cause in the individual, so that we may say, at least in some sense, that the connecting link between the individual and the Cosmic, that is, between visva and virat, is the waking consciousness of the individual. But, beware! The waking individual is not an exact quantitative part of the virat, for the former is also a reflection at the same time, so that it does not and cannot partake the characters of the original, such as omniscience and omnipotence, to mention only two of the prominent characteristics of the Universal.

The whole case has been laid bare. Without entering into further investigative comments, we may leave the reader here with the power of his own thought and imagination for deeper contemplation on this dramatic event.

However, a clue for this onward research may be given here: The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (I. 3) says that every individual function is smitten with death, that is, with the principle of change and destruction, and that when these functions are freed from the clutches of death they revert to the original from which they came. So, how can the reflection become the original, the part become the whole, the effect become the cause? The answer is: by freeing the reflection or the part from the conditions which make it a reflection or a part. And what are these conditions? The principles which cause change and destruction, which are the constituent factors of individuality on account of which it is that the individual is said to be mortal, while the Cosmic Being is immortal. This Upanishad says that speech, when it is freed from the principle of death, becomes Fire. Similarly, breath, when it is freed from the principle of death becomes Air. The eyes, when they are freed from death, become the Sun; and likewise with the other functions. The meaning here seems to be that the reversal process of functions referred to above is the principle of death in the individual and the individual becomes the Universal when the former is freed from the principle of death or destruction. Becoming has to revert to Being.

And, death or destruction does not mean annihilation but a tendency to move from the effect to the cause, a change that is necessitated by the urge within the part to become the whole, for the latter contains the former, in fact, in an organic oneness. What we call evolution in a vast sense is nothing but this; the struggle of the universe to evolve from the lower to the higher, in which process the individual’s tendency for the Universal is included. The whole universe is busy with the activity of re-arranging its constituents for a self-realisation of itself in the Absolute. Evolution is a movement of the not-self to the Self, by deepening as well as expanding its jurisdiction, inwardly in quality and outwardly in quantity, until the Supreme State is reached, wherein quality and quantity merge into the single Being. of the Infinite Self. For an interesting and majestic discourse on the relation of the Absolute to the individual one is referred to the 4th Section of the First Chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. As our present concern is the educational process, we shall not touch this subject here to any extent more than necessary for our present need for clarification.

There can be no real meaning in education if it is not a systematised art of contacting reality by graduated stages. And reality is inseparable from our own life, our very existence—anything unconnected with our existence is not reality for us. From the above-quoted description of man’s position in the universe, provided to us in the Upanishad, it appears that reality, to us, is an approximation of experience, by degrees, to larger dimensions of universality. Thus, the educational process also has to be a gradual rise of experience, by degrees, through the different stages which connect our existence with reality.

A consideration of the true educational process, then, obliges us to take the immediate facts of experience as the basic truths of education. This means to say that no experience whatsoever can be outside reality, for every experience is a part of it, as it is revealed in some degree, and every degree is a degree of reality. Education, then, is a universal movement of the mind towards self-recognition in the highest state of Reality, though it takes its stand in and commences from the most initial and primitive stage of experience. It ranges from a child’s simplest notion of the external world to the loftiest concept of the scientist and the philosopher. If, from this point of view, we are only to name the themes that may have to be gathered by the studies to be comprehended in the educational process, we may tentatively list them thus: the kindergarten stage and the Montessori methods of approach; reading, writing and arithmetic in their most basic forms; elementary geography and history in the form of stories and inspiring narratives; simple dramatic portrayals; grammar, language and literature through stages of increasing width and intensity; mathematics, natural science, botany, zoology and physiology; ethics, civics, sociology and political relationship; astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology in their more developed form; psychology, aesthetics, economics, the philosophy of history, and world-culture. This enumeration of subjects practically covers all that is taught today in our colleges and universities, perhaps the only things that are taught to us in these institutions under the, impression that these subjects exhaust all possible studies. But this is a sad mistake. The study of reality is not complete merely with a sojourn into these empirical extensions of the human mind in the visible world of sense-perception. To detect why these studies are incomplete in themselves, we have to go back to the evolutionary details supplied to us in the Upanishad as observed in the earlier paragraphs. At best, all these studies are the worst forms of knowledge that we can hope to gain, for these are only notions gathered subjectively concerning the objects ofthe outside world which manages to retain its own independence over the individual experiencing subject. But, how is the world so independent and unmanageable? For an answer we have only to go back to the Upanishad. The world ofthe elements-earth, water, fire, air and ether—has unfortunately become the cause of our experiences which are the effects produced by our sensations of them. This is only the knowledge which the reflection has of the original, far removed from truth due to the reversal process mentioned in the Upanishad. If the reflection can be regarded as the original, our present-day educational career also can be regarded as the final shot in man’s pursuits. No wonder that Sage Sanatkumara considered all this knowledge as only a name, because it has estranged itself from the original which is supposed to be its object. Yet, Sanatkumara regarded ‘Name’ as the first step in the investigation of reality; the ‘name’ points to what is ‘Named’, though it is no more than a mere ‘pointer’. So, too, is the need and the extent of value of our empirical sciences and arts. But, if knowledge is isolated from its object, how can knowledge bring happiness? How can knowledge be equated with power? How can knowledge be the same as virtue? For, happiness, power and virtue are associated with reality, and when knowledge is unconnected with reality—because it is only a symbol, a pointer, a reflection, and not the original-it remains only a name, though in the sense of the lowest degree of reality. It becomes a pretension to progress, growth and culture if it usurps the status of the original by exceeding the limits of a ‘pointer’; a ‘hint’ or a ‘reflection’. We have to investigate into the principles of real knowledge more deeply and courageously. What is real knowledge? What should be the aims and methods of education? What should be the nature of a comprehensive curriculum?