The Chhandogya Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter Three: Sanatkumara's Instructions on Bhuma-Vidya

Section 15: Life

  1. Prano vava asaya bhuyan, yatha va ara nabhau samarpitah, evam asmin prane sarvam samarpitam, pranah pranena yati, pranah pranam dadati, pranaya dadati, prano ha pita, prano mata, prano bhrata, pranah svasa, prana acaryah, prano brahmanah.

Nobody can understand what life is. We utter the word 'life' many times, but we cannot explain what it means. It is not what we do daily that is called life. Though we generally identify life with our activity, it is a mistake that we commit. Life is something inscrutable. Life is really what we are. Here, it is called prana. It is not the breathing process, but the life principle itself, without which there would be neither aspiration, nor self-consciousness, nor anything for that matter. The entry of the universal into the particular is the juncture which is called life operating in our personality. It is the borderland of the infinite, where the individual expands into the expanse of the infinite and the infinite contracts itself into the finite, as it were. This particular junction is what we call life. It has the characteristics of both. Therefore, it is inscrutable. It is neither individual nor universal. We do not know what it is. We are unable to define what life is. But whatever it be, this principle of life is superior to everything else. This is what we call the reality of life. It is not merely the activity of life, the function of life, social life, or personal life or any kind of manifestation of it, but life as such. This is superior to everything. The Upanishad now tells us how inscrutable it is.

"Beyond all things, superior to all that I have told you up to this time, is life," says Sanatkumara. As spokes are fixed to the nave of a wheel, so is everything fixed to the principle of life. Whatever there is in this world, anything worthwhile, meaningful, that is nothing but prana, life. Minus life, everything is meaningless. What do we mean by saying "He is my father", "She is my mother", "She is my sister", "He is my brother"? We do not know. We are not referring to the body as father, mother, sister and brother. There is something else in them and that is the father, the mother, the brother, the sister, and so on. We ourselves do not know what we are when we speak about ourselves. Our importance vanishes when the life principle is withdrawn. We are valuable only so long as we are living. If we have no life, what are we? We are nothing. What we regard ourselves in worldly parlance, viz., the body, is not our real personality.

  1. Sa yadi pitaram va mataram va bhrataram va svasaram va acaryam va brahmanam va kimcid-bhrsam iva pratyaha, dhik tvastvity-evainam ahuh, pitrha vai tvam asi, matraha vai tvam asi, bhratrha vai tvam asi, svasrha vai tvam asi, acaryaha vai tvam asi, brahmanaha vai tvam asiti.

Why do we say that life is superior to everything, and minus life everything is valueless? The Upanishad says that if one speaks irreverently to one's father, for instance, people would say, "How stupid this person is; he talks irreverently to his own father." Similarly, if a person speaks something harsh to his mother, to his relatives, and to revered persons, good people censure him. We revere great people, we value humanity and we respect life in this world. This is something well-known to us. "Fie upon you," say people when we talk irreverently to elderly ones or behave in a stupid manner which would not be becoming of one in a human society. And if we behave in such a way in respect of elders, they say that it is like slaying them, or injuring them. We say, "Do not hurt people." What do we mean by this? Hurting whom? Hurting people. But what is 'people'? Surely not the body. The Upanishad here implies that we are enjoined not to hurt the life in them. The life principle in a person is affected by our reaction to that person. The manifestation of life principle in the embodiment of a particular person is what is referred to as 'a person'. A person is nothing but the life in that person, not the mere shape of that person in the form of a body. So, when we say that one has behaved in such and such a way with one's father or mother, with one's sister or brother, with this person or that person, we mean to say that one has behaved in that way with the life principle present in them, not merely with the body. But suppose the life principle has gone from the father, that revered one whom we have been worshipping. Then what happens? We simply set fire to that 'father', we throw him, we prick him with pokes in the funeral pyre. Then people do not say, "Oh, this man is burning his father." Nobody says anything like that. What happens to that father, the very same father whom we revered just a few hours before, who is just before our eyes and whom we are now setting fire to in the funeral pyre? It may be our sister, it may be our Guru, it may be anybody, it makes no difference to us. It may be an emperor whom we have been respecting so much and regarding so much, and now we throw him into the pitch and bury him in the ground, or float him in the water, or set fire to him. And everybody then says, "Very nice", "Well done". You set fire to the emperor and then say, "It is very nice"! How is it possible? Yes, it is possible, because it is a great ritual that we are performing. But when he is alive, if we do that, it is murder. It is a heinous crime. So, what is our definition of mankind or humanity or any worthwhile thing in this world? Not the body certainly. If the body was our father, we would not set fire to him in the funeral pyre, and we would not prick him with pokes as if he means nothing. Even the dearest and the nearest ones are cast aside if the life principle withdraws itself from them. So, what we love as our relatives and our dear and near ones is the life, and not the body. But we never understand this point. We say, "Oh, my father is no more." Where has he gone? He is there in the way in which he was, but we mistook him for something else. It is the principle of life that is valuable in this world, and not anything that is manifest as name and form.

  1. Atha yady-apy-enan utkranta-pranan sulena samasam vyatisandahet naivainam bruyuh pitrhasiti, na matrhasiti, na bhratrhasiti, na svasrhasiti, na acaryahcasiti, na brahmanahasiti.

The whole of life is nothing but this inscrutable thing which we call prana. This is the great reality manifesting itself in various names and forms. We mistake the names and forms for this supreme Being which is masquerading here as the objects of sense, as human beings and everything else that we see with our eyes. The supreme reality of every form of visible existence is life. It is manifested in some degree in plants, in greater degree in animals, and in still greater degree in human beings, and it has to manifest itself in still more greater degrees higher up. We have come to a point where it is very difficult to understand where exactly we are. We are in an inscrutable realm. We cannot understand still as to what we are speaking about. We think we have understood what life is, but we have not understood what it really is. It is a mystery that is operating in all names and forms. Whoever understands this mystery as the all-comprehensive Reality which is superior to all names and forms, which is infused into all names and forms, which is the Reality of even the so-called names and forms, including the name and form of our own self, is a master of Knowledge. He is called in this Upanishad as ativadi, a specific term here indicating one who possesses surpassing knowledge and whose utterances are surpassingly true.

  1. Prano hy-evaitani sarvani bhavati, sa va esa evam pasyan, evam manvanah, evam vijanan atvadi bhavati, tam ced bruyuh ativadyasiti, ativady-asmiti bruyat, napahnuvita.

The greatest knowledge is the knowledge of life, not merely the knowledge of objects of sense. Whoever sees this Reality as it is in itself, whoever can think in this manner, whoever can understand in this way, transcends all, because here the knowledge has gone beyond all objects of sense. It has comprehended them in its own Being. And, therefore, it has become one with Truth. It is not merely a pursuit of truth that we are referring to here as knowledge, but Truth itself that has become one with knowledge. A person who has such a knowledge has really comprehended Truth, and what he speaks in such a stage of knowledge is called ativada. This term ativada means transcended speech, speech which is pregnant with truth, speech which is to materialise in life as truthfulness. Whatever a person with this knowledge speaks will get materialised in life, because the truth or the reality of all things is contained in the knowledge which this person has. Therefore, speech being an expression of one's thought and knowledge, whatever one utters becomes true in this stage of experience. And if people cannot understand him and they say to him, "You are speaking something which we cannot understand." Then he must say, "Yes, I speak something which you cannot understand, because this is a matter which is not supposed to be understood by your mind." Here, we are not in the realm of understanding of objects of sense, but we are in the realm of Being with things. So, one who is capable of attuning himself with the Being of the objects, alone can understand what the truth of this exposition is. It is true when the Upanishad speaks like this; it speaks what one cannot understand. Neither is it intended to be understood by the layman whose mind has not been adequately transformed, because here we are being led gradually from mere sensation and perception, from mentation and understanding, to the intuition of objects, wherein the objects become one with the knowing perceiver, knowing reality-the Subject.

At this stage, Narada is unable to speak. His breath is held up, as it were. He does not know what he is hearing from this great master. This master observes the silence of the disciple who now does not say as on previous occasions, "Please let me know if something more is there." He keeps quiet, his mouth is hushed and his mind has stopped thinking. He does not know what to speak. Seeing this, the master himself starts pursuing the subject further without being accosted by the disciple.

Section 16: Truth

  1. Esa tu va ativadati yah satyenativadati; so'ham, bhagavah, satyenativadaniti, satyam tv-eva vijijnasitavyam iti, satyam, bhagavah, vijijnasa iti.

Transcendent speech is an expression of transcendent knowledge. And transcendent knowledge is that knowledge which is identical with transcendent truth. This is the peak of experience, the peak of wisdom. Our speech should be based on the reality of Being. Only then it manifests itself as reality. Truth and knowledge are identical. Our speech becomes true, because our speech is based on the knowledge of the true. This is what Sanatkumara means when he says—esha tu va ativadati yah satyenativadati. "Well, my master, then I wish I would be like that-so'ham bhagavah satyenati vadan-iti," says Narada. "Please initiate me into this mystery of acquiring that knowledge which is tuned up to Reality, which is one with Being. Is it possible for me to have this knowledge?" "Satyam tv-eva vijijnasitavyam—my dear Narada," says Sanatkumara. "You want a knowledge which is tuned up with reality, but you must know what reality or truth is. Unless you know what truth is, how can you try to identify your knowledge with truth, or truth with knowledge? You must have a clear conception of what I mean by 'truth'. Only then can you have an aspiration for identifying your knowledge with truth, knowing truth and speaking truth." "Then Master, I would like to know what truth is-satyam, bhagavah vijijnasa iti. Please tell me what is truth."

Section 17: Truth and Understanding

  1. Yada vai vijanati, atha satyam vadati, navijanan satyam vadati, vijananneva satyam vadati" vijnanam tveva vijijnasitavyam iti, vijnanam, bhagavah, vijijnasa iti.

Again we are in a vicious circle of argument, as it were. You want to know what is truth. Truth has to be known as it is, and not as it appears. There are various types of truth before us: One says, "This is true," "That is true," and "Everything is true." But is everything ultimately true? We must have a clear conception what ultimate truth is. "O Narada," says Sanatkumara, "you can speak truth only when you know what truth is; otherwise, how can you speak truth? But do you know what truth is? Truth is not what you perceive as true in this empirical world. The whole world is not true. It is not the ultimate truth. So, how can you say that anything in the world is true? Whatever you speak is not true. You must know what is really true. When one knows what truth is, then one speaks truth." Narada is instructed in this manner.

An ignoramus cannot speak truth. Knowledge of truth is, therefore, very important. We have to know knowledge itself, because it is knowledge that comprehends truth. What is knowledge and what is truth? We are here entering into the difficult subject of the ultimate principle of our very life, knowledge and truth, jnana and satya. What is truth and what is knowledge—this must be known. Without that no one can proceed further.

Section 18: Thought and Understanding

  1. Yada vai manute, atha vijanati, namatva vijanati, mataiva vijanati, matistveva vijijnasitavyeti, matim, bhagavah vijijnasa iti.

The word mati and similar other words used in these passages of the Upanishad carry a meaning much more deep than what appears on the surface, because we are treading upon forbidden land where the mind cannot easily reach, where things go almost beyond and above our heads. We do not know what we are speaking and what we are hearing. Such is the condition that is being explained here. Such is the state into which Narada is being initiated by Sanatkumara, the great master.

There is something higher than this knowledge or aspiration for truth. What is that? It is the tendency of one's being to move towards Reality. It is the very reason behind our aspiring for Reality. How do we know that Reality is to be known? Who put this idea into our head? We say, "I must know God," "I must search for Reality," "I must aspire for the Absolute." How did this idea arise in our mind? There is a tendency in us to move towards the Reality. This tendency is prior to our consciousness of Reality. We cannot be conscious of this urge itself, because it is prior to everything else, even becoming conscious of anything. Nobody knows what this urge is and from where it comes. "Isvaranugrahad-eva pumsam advaita vasana," says the great master Dattatreya. We do not know how aspiration arises in our mind. It has not come due to our efforts, because effort cannot be there without knowledge. But the question is, "How has this knowledge arisen?" So Bhagavan Dattatreya says that perhaps it is God's grace, or we may call it the grace of the Absolute, or the mysterious outcome of the very process of evolution which is egged on by some principle of which we have no idea and the purpose of which is far, far beyond our understanding.

"So, Narada," says Sanatkumara, "beyond and prior to all that is in you including your knowledge of reality, including your aspiration for it, behind everything, is a tendency in you to move towards it. The mind will stop thinking completely, for it does not know what to think at all if this tendency were not there. Only when this tendency, this inclination of your total being towards the Reality is there, only then can you have an aspiration for Reality, not otherwise. This is the object of your meditation now." "This is what I want. How is this possible? I want to have knowledge of this mystery that you are speaking of," says Narada.

Section 19: Faith

  1. Yada vai sraddadhati, atha manute, nasraddadhan manute, sraddadhad-eva manute, sraddha tveva vijijnasitavyeti, sraddham, bhagavah, vijijnasa iti.

Sraddha, faith in the existence of Reality, and the working of this tendency of movement of one's being towards Reality are almost simultaneous. How do we know that Reality exists? That is a faith that is in our mind, introduced into us by the very tendency of Reality urging itself forward towards its own Self-realisation. This faith is superior to thought and understanding. It is not what we call blind faith, but an irrepressible feeling in us that Reality is. It must be there. We do not have any doubt about Its being. Mati and sraddha go together. So, Narada is told here, "This sraddha, faith in the very existence of Reality, is somehow to be taken as prior to mati, the consciousness of the tendency towards Reality working through your being, when this faith is present in you. You have to differentiate ordinary faith from this superior faith that I am speaking of. It is almost a kind of realisation. Without this faith in you which is born of tremendous experience of a higher calibre, nothing else is possible." Narada says: "I want this faith to be implanted in me, O great master."

Section 20: Steadfastness

  1. Yada vai nististhati, atha sraddadhati, na'nististhan sraddadhati nististhanneva sraddadhati, nistha taveva vijijnasitavyeti, nistham, bhagavah, vijijnasa iti.

When one has steadfastness in Reality, then this superior faith also comes. A person who has steadfastness becomes one with the Reality, as it were, in his psychological being. This is called nishtha in this section. Sanatkumara says that when there is nishtha, there is sraddha, and when there is sraddha there is mati, the tendency in one to move towards Reality.

What exactly is this steadfastness referred to in this section? It is an incapacity of the mind to contemplate anything except Reality. If we think, we think only that; otherwise, nothing. The very function of the mind is set in tune with the nature of Reality so profoundly that we have virtually become that. This is the cause of the faith in us, and the working of the tendency in us towards Reality which we have mentioned already.

"I want to know what this nishtha is. O great master, kindly instruct me further," says Narada.