The Brahma Sutras as a Moksha Shastra
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Retracing Our Steps

Our subject is that part of the Brahma Sutras which deals with the salvation of the soul. In this context, the Sutras start from the causative factors of the bondage of the soul because unless there is bondage, there is no need to search for salvation. What is our bondage? This is picturesquely described in the Brihadaranyaka and Chhandogya Upanishads under the title Panchagni Vidya. ‘Pancha’ means five. ‘Agni’ means fire. ‘Vidya’ means knowledge. So Panchagni Vidya is the knowledge of the five fires.

What are these five fires? They are the fires into which the soul offers itself for its own bondage—something surprising even to hear. It was Buddha who is reported to have said that the world is a burning pit of live coals. It is not a hotel where milk and honey are served. This is a place of discipline, and we will examine the nature of the discipline during the course of our studies.

The Panchagni Vidya is actually a description of the process of the birth of a person. The birth means birth into bondage. How are we born into this world? That we are born through our parents is a very simple answer, but it is not really the case. The parents, so-called, are only the last link in a long chain of development that originates far above even the skies, and we are not children of our father and mother—two persons of a specific type, of a particular country, speaking a particular language. Nothing of the kind is the truth. The whole world presses us forward into this pit of bondage.

The process is very intricate. When a person falls sick and complains of a fever, we should not be under the impression that the sickness is in the physical body. It is only an outer manifestation of a dislocation that has taken place inside. We may even say it is from the causal body itself. The very root is sick, and it vibrates in the form of a discomfort of the whole personality through the subtle body, and only when it manifests through the physical body do we come to know that we are sick. When a fruit is ripening and we see that its outer colour is changing, we should not conclude that it has suddenly become ripe in one day. The ripening process started right from the seed form. The fruit was ripening gradually, little by little, manifesting that ripeness until it reached the outer skin. Only then can we know that the fruit is ripe.

Great thinkers even in the West, such as Plato, for instance, have said that every action originates in the heavens. Every event is a vibration that takes place first in the high heavens, and then it descends in a gradually condensed form until it comes to the Earth as war, catastrophe, cataclysm, disturbance, cyclone, tornado, or whatever we may call it. The events that take place on the surface of the Earth are merely outer manifestations of a disturbance in the higher levels of being.

The birth of a person into this body is a disturbance that is taking place. What kind of disturbance? How are we born at all, and what is the purpose of our coming into this world? The reason for the birth of a person is explained in terms of certain pressures in the cosmic substance, that pressure being the reactions produced by a person’s thoughts and actions in an earlier incarnation. When we take birth into the world, we do not drop suddenly from the skies. There is a process of precipitating the congealing process of birth from what we may consider the archetypical condition of existence.

Modern science tells us that events do not take place in space; they take place in a space-time continuum, which is another way of saying that they do not take place in the world at all. The space-time continuum does not pervade the surface of the Earth; it is transcendent in its operation, which ordinarily a mind cannot understand. It is a fourth dimension, as it is called, which is the original source of the three-dimensional manifestation in the form of anything that happens in this world, whether social revolutions, war, or anything that we can think of. That is to say, the event is a cosmic disturbance. A philosopher humorously said, “At the birth of every event, the whole world is in travail.” Travail is the birth pang. The pang of birth is felt by the whole world when any event takes place anywhere, even in the remotest part of the world.

That is to say, there is no such thing as a secret event. There is no such thing as unknown, secret action. Everything is public because the world is a public arena of performance. Any pain in any part of the body is a pain in the whole body. It is not only in a finger, a toe or the nose. When we sneeze, we are not sneezing only through our nose. The whole body ejects a pressure, and it comes up visibly in the form of a sneeze. It says that our body is sick, not that our nose is sick.

The Panchagni Vidya is the Upanishadic doctrine of the coming of the soul into the birth of individuality through certain operations taking place in the high heavens. First the whole space-time continuum, in the language of modern science, vibrates. Any reward or punishment that the administration of a country may award to a person is based on the articles of the country’s constitution. That is to say, the reward is given by the whole nation; it is not one person uttering some word and rewarding or punishing. When a judge pronounces a word of decree, it is not a person speaking; it is the constitution of the country speaking. So the whole nation is active when a judgement is passed in a court. We have to understand that we are units of the whole nation, inseparably connected to the whole structure of the country. We are not living in a marketplace somewhere, or in a remote place such as Uttarakashi. We are living in a country. We are living in India, in Europe, in America, whatever it is. We should not say we are living in a house, in a cottage. That is a very poor way of understanding our location. We belong to the world, and this is what we have to understand. We belong not only to our nation, not only to the United Nations, we belong to the world, and so anything that is connected with us is a world action. The five elements—ether, air, fire, water, earth—and everything that is on the Earth, take part in the birth of an individual.

We know very well that there is space, air, heat, liquid, and solid matter inside our body. All the five elements congeal into the formation of this particular individuality of ours—this man, this woman, whatever it is. Therefore, our bondage is not created by some neighbour near us. We may say that someone is creating trouble for us, but it is the whole world that is troubling us, not one person, because no one can lift a finger unless the order comes from the skies. They are only external instruments. As I mentioned, if a person is sent to prison it is not a policeman taking that person to the prison; the whole nation is behind it in the form of the manifestation of the constitution through the judge’s pronouncement. This is also in the case of rewards, and the good and bad things that we think of in the world. They are all universal operations. We cannot find fault with any person, nor can we praise any person. Nobody is worthy of praise, and nobody is worthy of condemnation. The whole world is with us, either for our pleasure or for our pain.

How this vibration of the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—actually takes place is beyond our comprehension, nor can we say when it starts. Can we say when the four-dimensional continuum thinks of becoming the three-dimensional world? We can say it does not take time at all, or we can say it may take time for the solidification of the material of manifestation, just as we cannot say how many days it takes for a person to fall sick or to recover from illness and become healthy. We cannot immediately give an answer to this question. We must have fallen sick one month earlier, but we came to know of it only today because of its outer manifestation in the form of pain in the external crust of this body.

The five fires mentioned in the Panchagni Vidya are the five pressures exerted by the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—to press the individuality of a person into manifestation through two persons, called father and mother, who are only the last link in the process of development. We have many fathers and many mothers. The whole world is our parent. The sky itself is our father, and time is our mother. They join together and produce this individuality. We belong to the whole world. You are a child of the Immortal, says the Upanishad: amritasya-putrah. The immortal kingdom ordains the coming of our individuality into this process for the fulfilment of all the reactionary processes created by our previous actions. Karma is the cause of our birth, as people generally say. This karma is not something that we do secretly somewhere inside our room. It is a disturbance that we are causing to the whole world by interference with it.

Every thought is an interference with the world structure. That is why it produces a reaction. Why is it so? It is because every thought of an individual is contrary to the thinking of the world mind. In spite of the fact that individual minds are basically inseparable from the cosmic mind, the egoistic nature of the assertion of individual minds assumes such an atrocious importance of self-complacency that it violates the dictates of the cosmic mind in its self-affirmation. Then the cosmic mind immediately gives a kick. That kick is the reaction of the action. If we touch a high voltage electric wire or we go near a high magnetic field, we will immediately be thrown back by the current of the electricity. Any thought which is not in consonance with the dictates of the cosmic mind is a karma that we are producing, and so the reaction is produced. The reaction is not an unintelligent, meaningless thing that is taking place. It is an attempt of the cosmic mind to set right the balance that it is maintaining by counteracting the interference caused by any individual mind.

To reap the fruit of these reactions, one is born into this world; and to learn the lesson of the manner of harmonising one’s thoughts and actions in the light of the requirements of the cosmic mind—we may call it nature’s mind or God’s mind—is how we are born. You can imagine how important you are. You are not just dropped from the mother’s womb as a non-entity or a good-for-nothing individual. You are a very important person. The whole nature knows that you are here. It loves you, and it punishes you if you do not agree with its edicts. The punishment is not born of anger and hatred. Nature has no anger, nor has it any affection. It maintains a balance. The maintenance of balance is the nature of anything, and we may call it a good thing or a bad thing. There is no ethical mandate that can be applied to such operations either of God or of nature. It is a scientific operation, like the law of gravitation. We cannot say it is good or bad. Gravitation is not a friend of anybody, nor is it an enemy of anybody. It just is what it is, and it is up to us to obey its laws. Law is impersonal, and if we make it a personal matter of our so-called individualised satisfaction, that universal law will give us a kick and teach us a lesson by throwing us out into the arena of individual suffering, which is the birth.

We have to free ourselves from this bondage of cosmic involvement in this process. The method of gaining this freedom is the process of the salvation of the soul.

The Brahma Sutras are based on the Upanishads. We cannot say they are independent treatises saying something totally new. The Brahma Sutras are interpretations of varied expressions in the Upanishads concerning man’s bondage and salvation. The Upanishad is a moksha shastra, as is one section of the Brahma Sutras, particularly the fourth chapter.

I mentioned in the previous session that the Brahma Sutras have four parts. The first part is known as Samanvaya Adhyaya, the chapter on the reconciliation of apparently disconnected statements in the Upanishads. In the case of the Bhagavadgita, for instance, it is difficult to know what the Gita is saying because, on a cursory outward look, it may appear that many things are told in a disconnected, haphazard manner, one not being in harmony with the other. That the whole thing is a contradiction and chaos is the feeling which one may have on a sudden reading of the Bhagavadgita. So is the case with the Upanishads. There is a harmony behind it if we go deep into it, but if we do not have time enough to go so deeply, they look like contradictions. To show that there is no contradiction among the variegated statements of the Upanishads is the purpose of the first chapter of the Brahma Sutras, which is not my subject. I am going into more practical sides because you are here for a short time and I am not going to theorise philosophical doctrines unnecessarily, as they will not benefit you much.

The second chapter of the Brahma Sutra is confined to the creative process of the universe—how God creates the world—as well as explaining the relationships of God with the world, of God with the individual, of one individual with another individual, of the individual with the world, and of one part of the world with another part of the world. This theme is highlighted in the second chapter. There are various schools of philosophy which have something to say of their own on this subject. The second part of the Brahma Sutras also deals with the problem of the refutation of unorthodox doctrines which create a mess in their interpretation of the relationship of God, world, etc., and do not try to harmonise them by going deep into their meaning. Negative doctrines are refuted, and the positive doctrine of the reconciliation of all statements in the Upanishads is taken up in the second chapter. It is called Avirodha Adhyaya, the chapter on non-contradiction in the statements of the Upanishads.

In the third chapter, which is called Sadhana Adhyaya, the methods of Upanishadic meditations are described. The Upanishads prescribe their own ways for meditation on the Supreme Being. Everything is said in the Upanishads. There are social doctrines, personal psychological questions, eschatology, cosmology, and metaphysics. Everything is there in the Upanishads, only it is spread out in different places because the Upanishads are not the creations of one person; they are a collection of meditations by various rishis or sages. As the Upanishads are not one textbook written by one author, reconciliation is necessary among them.

How are we to take the statements of the Upanishads as a means of meditation on the Supreme Absolute? The fourth chapter is now what we are concerned with—Phala Adhyaya, the fruit of knowledge. The fruit of knowledge is moksha, liberation. What is liberation, actually? What does it mean? Moksha means liberation from bondage. Then what is bondage? In order to make us understand what salvation is, the Upanishads have taken pains to first explain what bondage is. This is why I briefly stated that bondage is our disharmonious relationship with the structure of the universe.

We are at loggerheads with everything in the world. Nothing is agreeable to us, and we condemn all things. Then a tit-for-tat attitude is developed by that with which we are at loggerheads, and we will get what we have done. We will be paid in the same coin. There is nothing that can please us, finally. Something is abhorrent in everything. Even a most delicious thing looks tasteless after awhile. If we see our friend continuously for years together, our friendship gets diluted. Too much familiarity breeds contempt.

This is the case with everything in the world. We want to eat food, but we do not want too much food, nor should it be very little. We want to breathe air, but we do not want all the air pumped into our nose. We want to sleep, but we do not want to sleep twenty-four hours a day, nor should it be too little. We cannot be satisfied with anything. There is a basic dissimilarity between the workings of individuality and the operations of nature. We are dissimilar to the opinion of people outside, dissimilar to the requirements of natural laws, dissimilar to God’s ordinance, and also dissimilar to what is good for our own physical health. There is a non-alignment of the inner constituents of our own individual personality, non-alignment with society outside, non-alignment with nature around us, and finally, the worst of things, non-alignment with the glory of God—which we cannot tolerate if we do not understand; and even if we try to understand it, we get frightened rather than appreciate it.

Hence, this bondage of ours is a very intricate involvement from which we have to free ourselves through certain techniques that we have to adopt, called meditation or dhyana. We can imagine what kind of meditation we have to practise from the nature of the bondage in which we are involved. Universal bondage requires a universal meditation to set it right. A little scratch on a rock made by a pin will not create any dent in the rock; it requires a hammer or a chisel to make some impression. In a similar manner, a cosmically involved bondage cannot be set right by a little casual thinking of an individualistic mind.

The gradual shedding of the insistence of individual thinking and a gradual attempt to expand the dimension of the process of thinking is the preliminary to any kind of worthwhile meditation. The nearer we go to the cosmic mind, the better is our meditation. But if we insist on our own individualistic process of thinking, and go on insisting on it again and again, day and night, that kind of individualised meditation will bring no result. That cannot lead to moksha, or salvation.

The process of meditation towards the salvation of the soul is a gradual befriending of the individual with the cosmic. Tell the cosmic mind, “I am going to be friendly with you and appreciate what you are saying.” The cosmic mind is not blind; it is not unintelligent. It can see us, and it can know what we are thinking. If we inwardly feel and decide, “I shall be friendly with everything around me,” this decision itself is a repentance which can set right all our past karmas. Many of our sufferings get mitigated by our heartfelt conviction that we shall not commit such mistakes in future.

The cosmic mind is the mind of God, the mind of society, the mind of nature. It is very fond of us. God loves us more than we love Him. Nature loves us more than we love it. The entire structure of the environmental procedure outside loves us. The larger always loves the smaller, with more intensity than the individual can love the larger, because the individual is included in the larger, so it has a greater force. Even the thought of the larger dimension is a great virtue, actually. The greatest form of righteousness and virtue, ethicality, or morality that we can think of is the inward friendship that we establish with that which is above us and more than us. As the Bhagavadgita tells us, uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet (Gita 6.5). We have to love our higher Self, and tell it, “I love you. I want you. I cannot be here without you. Come to rescue me.” We may call it the rescue operation taking place from the higher Self or from nature or from God. Whatever be the case, it is actually all the same thing. The higher Self is higher nature; it is higher God. Nātmānam avasādayet: Never be despondent in your spirit, or think, “This is not for me.”

In meditation we have to retrace our steps. When we come down, we have to step on every step. When we go up, we have to step on the very same steps in another direction. So salvation is a retracing of the very thing that happened when we were pushed down into this birth through individuality. Whatever might have happened anywhere when we were pushed into this physical birth, that has to be set right. The tables have to be turned. There has to be a right-about turn, as they say.

This is a simple method, if only our mind is prepared for it. It is very easy to speak truth, but very difficult to speak untruth. This art of the salvation of the soul is the movement toward truth. It succeeds everywhere. Satyam eva jayate nānṛtam, satyena panthā vitato deva-yānaḥ (Mundaka 3.1.6). Any movement in the direction of the Ultimate Truth or the Reality of the universe is a blessing to us. Even the thought of it is a grace that will descend upon us. God will bless us with His divine grace when we want it inwardly. “O God, we want Your grace.” It will come, and the whole of nature will pour its blessings.

Āsīnaḥ sambhavāt (4.1.7). The Brahma Sutra says, meditation should be practised by sitting, not by walking, standing or lying down. We must sit in such a posture as would not cause any agony to the limbs, pain in the joints, pain in the back, neck and so on. We may assume any position that we like according to our convenience so that we may remain in it for protracted period, say for an hour at least. We can do japa even while walking, but part of the mind goes to the legs because otherwise we will fall down. So is the case with standing. And lying down is still worse because we may go to sleep. So, āsīnaḥ sambhavāt: Success is immanent if the meditation is carried on by sitting.

In the same way as the Panchagni Vidya of the Upanishads is the process of the coming down of the soul into individual form, there is also a detailed description of the way of ascending to God. It is a reconciliation of ourselves with anything in the vicinity that is connected with us, whether remotely or in any manner whatsoever. The Upanishads are particularly our help here, especially the Brihadaranyaka and the Chhandogya Upanishads.

In the seventh chapter of the Chhandogya Upanishad, the great sage Narada is introduced into the system of graduated meditation on the Absolute by the supreme master, Sanatkumara, the son of Brahma. Narada, a master of all sciences and arts conceivable, approaches Maharshi Sanatkumara and asks, “Please teach me, great Master.”

Sanatkumara says, “Let me know what you have already studied.”

Narada opens up his repertoire; the whole encyclopaedia is open. “There is nothing that I do not know. Every art, every science is mastered.”

“Then what is the problem now?” asks Sanatkumara.

“I have no peace of mind,” Narada says. “Peace of mind has not come after being a master of all the arts and the sciences.” So’ham bhagavaḥ śocāmi (Chhandogya 7.1.3): “Great master, I am in grief.”

The great master says, “All this that you have studied is only verbal jugglery. It is a network created by words and linguistic processes. You have not touched the soul of things by learning their external characteristics.”

“So please teach me,” says Narada.

Gradually, from the lowest category of perceptual process, Sanatkumara, the great master, takes the mind of Narada higher and higher, higher and higher, through various stages of the developmental process until he touches upon the nature of the Absolute, wherein one can find peace.

As with Narada, people also come here and say, “I want to achieve peace of mind.” They have a very curious idea of peace of mind. If there is no noise anywhere, it is peace of mind. If nobody talks to them, it is peace of mind. This is what people imagine, but peace of mind is nothing of the kind. Until you reach universal perfection, peace of mind is not going to come.

Yatra nānyat paśyati nānyac chṛṇoti nānyad vijānāti sa bhūmā (7.24.1): Where you operate from the point of view of that eternal perfection that outwardly you do not see anything, outwardly you have not to hear anything, outwardly you need not have to struggle with your intellect to understand anything, that self-complete universality is Brahman, the Bhuma, the Absolute. Here is the peace of mind. This is the instruction received by Narada from Sanatkumara.

All these, as well as many other things such as the Vaishnavarna Vidya described in the Chhandogya Upanishad, are taken up for consideration in the Brahma Sutras. One by one I shall gradually try to touch upon them. You will be very pleased to hear them, and perhaps many of you will be able to practise them and feel blessed in this very life.