The Chhandogya Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter One: Vaishvanara-Vidya

The Course of the Soul After Death (Continued)

These souls which are to return to the mortal world get identified in a subtle manner by their subtle bodies through these natural phenomena, viz., space, air, cloud, rain and foodstuff, even up to the grains like sesamum and barley, beans, rice and wheat, herbs, plants and trees, etc. It is very difficult to understand how they get mixed up with these things. In a very subtle form, these souls are supposed to get identified with these natural things. And they get into the body of the individual through the foodstuff with which they have been identified. Then the same process of birth takes place. The individual soul has come from the above, after finishing its career of enjoyment due to the performance of good deeds here. The soul gets identified in every manner, in every way characteristically, with the particular level through which it has to pass. It is difficult in get out of this existence, says the Upanishad (Ato vai khalu durnishprapataram). Once it enters into these lower levels of grain, foodstuff, etc., one cannot say what will happen to it afterwards. Perhaps God knows what happens; ordinarily this secret cannot be known. It is a very complicated situation. Where will the soul be driven, in what direction, into the womb of which mother, for what type of experience, no one can say. The way of action and reaction is difficult to understand. The descended soul gets identified with these levels; it becomes one with the father, one with the mother, one with the social life into which it is born. And then it begins to say: "This is my mother; this is my father; this is my house; this is my property." It forgets everything that happened earlier. It really belongs to wider regions; it has many friends in the other realms of being—it is a citizen of a vaster world, but it has forgotten all this like a foolish individual, an idiot of the first water. It begins to identify itself with a little locality, a small house, a village, or even a thatched hut, and says: "This is my property." And it has no connection with anything else. Very pitiable existence indeed, says the Upanishad. What happens then?

People who have done good deeds are born in favourable circumstances. This is the law of karma. The happiness, the freedom and the satisfaction that one experiences in life are due to some good deeds performed earlier, especially unselfish charitable deeds. The more you give, the more also will you receive. This is the law of action and reaction. You cannot get what you have not given. You cannot expect happiness here if you have not given happiness to others in an earlier life. If you are a greedy person, a miser who has grabbed the happiness of others and enjoyed everything for your own self and put others to grief and sorrow—that would be your fate also in this world. You would be a sufferer. You may be a poverty-stricken individual, and you may be a pauper having nothing, as the result of your selfish deeds in the previous lives. You have grabbed things from others, and therefore you are deprived of things in this life. But if you have been charitable, broad-minded, good-hearted and amiable, philanthropic, serviceful, that would be the same experience you will have in this life also. You would be given back the same thing that you have given to others. If you have given joy to others, joy will be given to you here. If you have given sorrow to others, sorrow will be given to you. So, the type of birth you take in this world, and the conditions of your existence here are all determined by what you did in your earlier existences. You may even be born as an animal, says the Upanishad, if the karma is very bad. This is what happens to the individual when it takes birth in a particular world, or in this world. Thus is, therefore, the cycle or the rotation of the wheel of samsara, the going up and coming down in the circle of transmigration. There is only one path moving along which there is no coming back. That is the devayana-marga mentioned above. The other path brings the soul back.

There is another kind of birth, says the Upanishad, which is not connected either with the Northern Path or the Southern Path. It is the birth of small creatures like insects, such as flies, gnats. They live for a few hours and pass away. In the rainy season you will see moths and small insects rising up from the damp earth and then dying that very day, sometimes even in a few hours. This is another kind of birth. Hard is life, indeed! Their life is so short, of such an insignificant duration that one may say that they are born and then dead. When you are seeing them being born, they are dead also at the same time. So short is the life of these creatures. This is the third way of being born and living, other than the life which we live through the Northern and the Southern Paths. Why is this world not filled up with people, and why is this other world also not filled up by people even if many people die here? The answer is given here that there is a cycle or rotation of people. They go from this realm to that realm, from that realm to this realm, so that no world is completely filled to the brim or overflowing.

"One should get disgusted with this life," says the Upanishad. You must be having enough of this life. Who wants to live like this, in this manner, where you are subjected to the law over which you have no control and regarding which you have no say whatsoever, where you are always a sufferer, always in a state of liability, and you do not know what will happen to you the next moment. Is this a life worth living? This is not life, but a form of unbelievably torturous mortality. Oh, what a life is of this world!

Ignorance breeds further troubles in the form of likes and dislikes, selfish actions and their consequences which bring about a birth of this kind, and eventually sorrow. In this connection it is said, in conclusion, that those who live a life of spiritual meditation are not affected by this law. This is a solacing conclusion that the Upanishad gives. You are affected by the law when you cannot understand the law. A person who knows what law is cannot be harmed by law. This is the case with any kind of law, whether it is governmental law or the law of electricity or the law of social life or the law of the spirit. It is ignorance of the way in which law works that binds us to the operation of the law. If we are thoroughly conversant with the intricacies of the working of the law, naturally we will abide by that law. And why should we be bound by it or harassed by it, or punished by it? We do not know how the law works. The whole difficulty is here. So, we cannot even abide by it. How can one abide by a law of which one has no knowledge? So, ignorance is the real trouble; every other trouble is subsidiary and an offshoot of it. One who knows this truth of the universe, is free from every sin and trouble.

Now, here, the words "one who knows this" signify something that occurs again and again in the Upanishad. We should repeatedly mention here that "one who knows this" does not mean one who has read the Upanishad, or one who has read it and understood what it says. No, not like that. Here, in the case of the Upanishad, knowledge means 'life' itself. It is 'living'; it is the extent to which this knowledge has become part of one's life. This is the knowledge that we are speaking of here in the Upanishad. Knowledge is being; this is the central philosophy of the Upanishad. This we cannot forget, when we study the Upanishad. Knowledge is life; knowledge is being, knowledge is existence; knowledge is what you are. So, what you are determines what you shall be in the future. And, if yours is a life of knowledge in the sense mentioned here, if you are an embodiment of this wisdom, if you are scintillating with the brilliance of this understanding, even here as a part of your own vital existence, if this knowledge is what you yourself are made of, if this knowledge is the very substance of your life, not merely an intellectual information, then you are free from the bondage of action. Then these laws of the world will not act upon you, because these laws are nothing but the expression of knowledge which is the nature of the ultimate Reality, finally. So, to the extent you are identified with the character of Reality, to that extent you are free from the law of karma, or action. Karma is the name we give to the way in which the law of Reality acts upon all particulars or individuals, reacts upon everyone and everything, when one is in a state of ignorance. To the extent of the percentage of the law of which you are ignorant, to that extent you are bound. And to the extent you are aware of it and live it, and are able to abide by it, to that extent you are also free.

So, one who knows these Five Fires is free. It is difficult to know these Fires unless we live a life of meditation. Your whole life should be one of meditation. Perpetually, we must be seeing things in this light only. Our meditation should not mean merely a little act of half-an-hour's closing of the eyes and thinking something ethereal. It is a way of living throughout. When you see a thing, you see only in this way; when you speak, you speak from this point of view; when you think, this is at the background of your thought. So, you cease to be an ordinary human being when you live a life of this Upanishad. You are conditioned by this great knowledge, and it becomes, therefore, a liberator of your soul. Even if you are in the midst of atmospheres which are otherwise not desirable, you shall be free from contamination, says the Upanishad, because no such things as the undesirable exist for such a person. The knower becomes coextensive with the way in which Nature works in all its ways. And everything is Nature working in some way, the desirable as well as the undesirable, as we may call it. We become commensurate with the way in which Nature works in every way because of the meditation conducted in this manner. Thus, we cannot be harmed by any atmosphere, by anyone or by anything that is around us. On the other hand, perhaps, we may be able to influence positively the atmosphere in which we are living. "One who knows this," reaches the higher realms reached only by meritorious deeds; "ya evam veda"; yea, "One who knows this."

This section, dealing with the Panchagni-Vidya, is partly a description of a lofty type of meditation, so that we may live in this world without being bound by the laws of the world, and after death go to higher regions for the liberation of the spirit, ultimately. Partly, also, it is a light thrown on the fact of the misery of life. There is a side of things apart from the fact that there is a comical aspect involved in every working of Nature. Life is sorrow; life is full of misery. It is full of grief and pain, because one is living in a state of ignorance. The Upanishad on the one hand extols the greatness and the glory of knowledge which leads to the liberation of the soul, and on the other hand tells us how hard the laws will descend upon us and put us to the subjection of their mandate and requirements, and what sorrow will come upon us, what would be the unhappy state to which the soul would be subjected if it is deprived of this knowledge and lives merely a life of utter ignorance.

Vaishvanara, The Universal Self

In the course of the study of the Panchagni-Vidya, it has been incidentally pointed out that there is great sorrow in life if it is attended with ignorance. Ignorance is the cause of suffering because it breeds erroneous action towards motives which are wrongly directed. This is the cause for the transmigratory cycle of the soul, which can be put an end to only by proper meditation on the inward structure of the Universe in its essential nature, and not as it appears to the senses in ordinary life. The birth and death of an individual, the process of reincarnation, the impulsion to action propelled by desires and the compulsion to restrain the consciousness within the four walls of one's own body—all these are aspects of the bondage of the individual. Life is an essence of bondage, a prison-house, as it were, because of a very complicated type of nescience, or ignorance, which has enmeshed the phenomenal existence of the jiva, the individual. There must be some remedy for this state of affairs. Is there not a way of freedom? Are we to suffer only in this manner, subjected to the law of transmigration, conditioned by the law of cause and effect, and having to pass through the ordeal of this life in which no factors there seem to be over which we have either any control or of which we have any knowledge? With a view to expound a doctrine of freedom, or the liberation of the spirit from the bondage of samsara, the Upanishad embarks upon a new subject subsequent to the exposition of the Panchagni-Vidya. The new section will be confined to the elucidation of the renowned meditation known as Vaishvanara-Vidya. In this context we are introduced to an anecdote, or a precedent story.

There were five wise people learned in sacred lore, all great meditators, performers of sacrifices, but who could not come to a conclusion in regard to the final destination of their meditations. These great men are named here. Prachinasala Aupamanyava, Satyayajna Paulushi, Indradyumna Bhallaveya, Jana Sarkarakshya, Budila Asvatarasvi; these are the great men. They were all lofty meditators according to their own techniques, but they had doubts in their minds, because in the course of their meditations, in spite of the fact that they discovered a palpable result of a magnificent nature, there was something lurking in their minds, pointing to a defect in their meditations. And they could not know what was the defect. So, they conferred among themselves: "What is Atman? What is Brahman? What is the difficulty with us? Can you enlighten me?" Each one was questioning the others: "What is the proper course? Is there a possibility of bringing about a harmony among our meditations?" Each one was meditating in a particular manner, and each one was a great person with grand results following from the meditation. In spite of these happy consequences of their meditations, they had different techniques altogether, one not agreeing with the other. And they had a suspicion in their minds, "Why is it that there is no agreement among ourselves? There must be some peculiar point which escapes our notice. We all meditate on the Atman, the highest Reality of things, as the Self of beings, the Supreme Absolute which is Brahman. In spite of this endeavour of ours, there seems to be something irreconcilable among our methods of meditation." And then they conferred among themselves, but could not come to a conclusion.

Then they thought, "Well, in our locality is another great man. Why do we not go to him? Perhaps he knows this secret of the Vaishvanara-Atman. He is Aruni Uddalaka, the great sage of Upanishad fame. Let us go to him." "Well," they said, "this is a good idea, we shall all go to this great man and put our questions to him if he can enlighten us and tell us what is the difficulty with us, what are the defects in our meditations, and what would be the proper procedure." So, they all went to him in a group, to raise a query on this subject.

But it was a surprise for Uddalaka to see all these great men coming in a mass to his cottage. They were not ordinary persons. So, he thought within himself, "Why are all these people coming? There must be some great point about it. Evidently they want to put some difficult question to me in regard to the highest Reality. Because they themselves are great men, and when they are all coming together to me, it definitely implies that they want to discuss with me the nature of the ultimate Reality, and I may not be able to answer their questions. Why should I risk my presence in the midst of these great men? So, when they come I shall direct them to somebody else, who, perhaps, will be in a position to answer all the questions." Thus he surmised within his mind that there must be some difficulty, and that he might not be able to swallow any poor show put before them if he attempted to answer their questions. So even before they arrived, he had been thinking like this. "They will certainly put questions to me. They are great learned people and renowned for their large sacrifices. I cannot say that I know everything. There are many things which I myself cannot understand. So, why should I put myself in this predicament of answering questions which I may not be able to understand? I shall direct them to another."

The king of that country was a very great soul. He was known as Ashvapati. He was a highly spiritual adept, a great meditator on the Principle called the Vaishvanara. His kingdom was well-administered. He was an ideal ruler. He was very much revered like a parent in the whole kingdom. There was every virtue embodied in his personality. Uddalaka Aruni said: "O great men! I know why you have come. I am also in the same boat as you are. I have also doubts of my own. I do also meditate as you are all doing, and I have also some difficulties in spite of the fact I have been meditating for years together. Why not we all go together to the great emperor Ashvapati who is a master-meditator and a great adept in that supreme technique of meditation called Vaishvanara-Vidya?" They all, including Uddalaka, went to the king's palace and presented themselves before him.