by Swami Krishnananda
We observed yesterday that our present experiences seem to be involved in a misconception. With this point of view, the instruction of the Katha Upanishad begins. When Nachiketas, the seeker, rejects the grand presents offered by Yama and insists on a practical answer being given to the question of the nature of the soul on its dissolution, the teacher recognises in Nachiketas a fit disciple to receive this supreme knowledge, and immediately goes to the very heart of the question.
There are two sides of experience, which pull a person in two different directions:
śreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etas tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ.
śreyo hi dhīro’bhipreyaso vṛṇīte, preyo mando yoga-kṣemᾱd vṛṇīte.
This is the first precept of the great teacher Yama, the Lord of Death. There are two directions along which the mind of man moves, viz. the outward and the inward. The outward path is the way of pleasure and enjoyment. The inward way is that of the search for Reality. The two terms, sreyas and preyas, used in this instructive sentence, refer to blessedness and sensory satisfaction respectively. The human mind is always after immediate results. It does not care so much for ultimate values. What does it bring to me now, whatever may happen to me tomorrow? I may even be hanged tomorrow, but today I must have the satisfaction. This seems to be the usual argument and the wish of the human mindperhaps of every kind of mind in creation. But the great Master says, it is an utter folly on the part of the mind to assume an attitude of the solution of problems by coming in contact with objects of sense merely because they bring immediate satisfaction. What is immediate satisfaction, after all?
Satisfactions are of various kinds. Whenever we come under the compulsion of an urge and get under its thumb, a release from its clutches appears to be a satisfaction. When a creditor comes and sits at your door, if he goes away from there, it is a great satisfaction because his presence there is a heavy pressure on your mind. If an amin comes with a warrant from the court and enquires whether the master of the house is there, if the gentleman goes away from there for a few minutes, it is a great satisfaction. If you have incurable eczema all over the body and you are itching all over the skin and you scratch it, the scratch brings a great satisfaction. There is burning hunger from within like fire flaming forth; you have not eaten for several days, you have a mealit is a great satisfaction. You are boiling with anger at somebody and you give vent to your feelings by blurting out certain ignoble wordsit gives a great satisfaction. So, satisfactions are umpteen, numberless, all amounting to a release of the nervous and psychological tension caused by an incurable urge that has arisen from within, of which we are not masters but only slaves.
Satisfaction seems to be a consequence of our being slaves, of not being masters. We are under the pressure of a particular power that rises from within us, which has its own say in every matter. Human satisfaction, therefore, is nothing but yielding to a particular urge. It may be a nervous urge; it may be a physical urge of any kind; it may be a purely mental, emotional or volitional urge. You have been pressurised in a particular manner, and to yield to that pressure brings satisfaction. This is a negative approach to the solution of problems. Merely because the creditor has gone away, the problem has not been solved. Because the warrant amin could not find you on a particular day, the problem has not vanished. Because you have been scratching your itches for days and days, it does not mean that you have been cured of the disease. Because you are taking food every day, it does not mean that you have ceased from being mortal. We do not seek for a solution of problems, because we find that they are beyond us, apparently. So we simply want to follow the psychology or the tactics of the ostrich which hides or buries its head in sand under the impression that nobody sees it, though the larger part of its body is outside it.
The human mind is a fool, really. It understands nothing, but yet it assumes an arrogance of all-knowingness and omniscience. Nothing can be worse than this attitude of the mindknowing nothing and imagining that it knows everything. This attitude is called ignorance. This is called vanity. This is egoism. To assume an attitude of what you are not, that is ahamkara. But the whole of life is nothing but a pretension of this kind. In every one of our activities and attitudes, and even our expressions and speeches and conduct and behaviour, we are hypocritical to the core, if we go deeply into the matter. We do not expose ourselves, because that exposure of our true personality would go contrary to the assumed satisfaction which we wish to acquire through contact of senses with objects. There is, thus, a psychological cloud covering our mind, as psychoanalysts would tell us. Our great psychoanalysts, masters of the West like Freud, Adler and Jung, have told much about this subject of how the human mind can be completely clouded over by factors which have been allowed to grow like accretions upon the tablet of the mind, until a time comes when the cloud itself becomes a reality and the mind becomes a subsidiary fungus, as it were, growing as if it is not there at all with any importance of its own. This is what we call samskaras in Sanskrit, impressions of perceptions, cognitions, desires, etc.
The great Master of the Katha Upanishad points to the unfortunate position of the human mind when he says that preyas or the asking for sensory gratification is a folly. It is not a wisdom on our part. To ask for any kind of pleasure in the world is not an aspect or form of knowledge, for knowledge is identical with sreyas or blessedness. Your good or real prosperity lies not in your yielding to urges or to psychological pressure, but in your being a controller, a regulator, a restrainer, or a master over these urges.
According to the science of psychoanalysis, there is no such thing as individual freedom. It is all compulsion, urge, which is mistaken for freedom of will. We are not going to enter into this subject here, but I am only mentioning it as a side-issue to point out to what extent we can become slaves of such forces of psychology from within, of which we have absolutely no knowledge. The hypnotic condition is an instance on hand. When a patient is hypnotised by a physician, the patient acts as if he has freedom of his own. He goes in a particular way, speaks in a particular mood; and if you ask him as to why he is going in that direction, why did he do this particular thing, he will say, Well, I wanted to do it. He will never be aware that he has been pressurised by the will of the physician when under hypnosis. So freedom, at least from the point of view of psychological analysis, is a chimera. It does not exist. You mistake the forgetfulness of your background of action for freedom of will that you are deliberately exercising. You take your lunch everyday with a freedom of choice. Nobody compels you to eat. So you can say that the daily breakfast or lunch or supper that you are partaking of is an act of free will. But it is not. You are compelled to do it. Why? Because an illness has arisen within you in the form of hunger and thirst. You cannot call it an act of free will. Even the choice of items of food depends upon ones physiological structure and condition.
A student of yoga should be a very thoroughgoing psychologist to understand his own mind or her own mind, because the practice of yoga implies a knowledge of the workings of the mind. If you know nothing about the mind, the practice of yoga is far from you. There should not be any kind of predisposition, prejudice, taking for granted or mere assumption, irrationally. You must be an expert analyst of your own mind.
We mistake enjoyments for acts of freedom, which is far from the truth, says Yama, the teacher of the Katha Upanishad. The man of wisdom chooses the blessed and the good rather than the pleasant and the satisfying to the senses. Both come to you. The blessed and the pleasantboth are before you. You can choose any one. Man is free either to stand or to fall. This is the endowment which God has bestowed upon human nature. Sreyas and preyasboth are at your disposal. Nectar and poisonboth are kept in two cups before you. You can drink whichever you like. But the glamour of the poison kept in a beautiful cup is more attractive than the immortalising essence of nectar that seems to be covered in a bushel. Truth is hidden, whereas appearance is visible to the eyes. The hero, the courageous individual bent upon probing into the mysteries of Reality, chooses what is ultimately real and not what appears to be immediately valuable. In the practice, in the search for knowledge, you have to be cautious to see that you do not get entrapped by appearance. All is not gold that glitters. Truth is covered with a golden vessel. Appearances are deceptive. You cannot judge the worth of a book by the cover and the get-up of it. But this is the fate of man! On account of a mistaken attitude developed due to yielding to the urges of sense, man denies the hereafter:
na sᾱmparᾱyaḥ pratibhᾱti bᾱlam pramᾱdyantaṁ vittamohena mῡḍham:
ayaṁ loko nᾱsti para iti mᾱnī, punaḥ punar vaśam ᾱpadyate me.
The egoistic individual that man is, confined as he is to the perceptions of the senses, takes the world for reality and does not admit the existence of anything beyond and behind the visible scene. This world is all, and nothing is beyond. This is the argument of the senses, and this is the argument of man! Why do you say that? Because I do not see it. That which is the visible is the real, the invisible is not the real, is the human argument. But, unfortunately for us, the reverse is the truth. The real is the invisible, and the visible is not the real.
The visible, the seen world, is a conglomeration of action and reaction. The world that you see before you, the objects that are presented before the senses, the solid substances and the tangible presentations in front of us, are not what they are. Experience as it is presented through the senses is nothing but a network of reactions. The way in which reactions are set up by objects in their relation to the senses and the mind, produces an illusion in our consciousness. Depth can be seen where there is only a flat surface, as in a cinema, for example. There is only a flat screen. There is no depth or three-dimensional picture. But when you go and see a picture, you see a three-dimensional personality and movement. You can see miles of distance projected through the screen, though the screen is only a surface. It is only two-dimensional. If you have a concave or a convex glass put on your eyes, a lens of a particular kind, you will see ups and downs where there is only a level ground, and vice versa. Your vision is, therefore, not trustworthy. Your tongue will tell you different things when your bodily temperature is of a different degree. Tastes and visions, auditions and touches, smells, etc. are not reliable agents of knowledge. They produce an illusion of experience on account of a particular type of reaction they set up due to a given type of contact established between them and the objects of a given nature at a given moment of time. This is why we say that the world is relative. It is relative in the sense that every experience is dependent on some factor or the other. The world is not made up of one or two factors alone but hundreds and thousands of constituents form the world of experience. Just as a piece of cloth is made up of several threadsone thread cannot make a cloththe world is not made up of one type of experience, one factor alone that is conditioned. The mind of man, being wedded to the report of the senses, is able to grasp only an aspect of experience, totally oblivious of other factors which are also equally contributory to this particular type of experience. As medical men sometimes tell us, a particular visible form of disease is not always caused by one factor alone. It is an effect of cumulative conditions that were gradually growing from within, without our knowledge of them. You do not suddenly fall sick. You have been tending towards it for days together or perhaps for months. It is not a sudden experience. The whole universe is made up of items of determining factors. It is one single pattern created by God, if you would like to call it a creation at all, and no factor of it can be isolated from other factors.
Every event is a universal event. There is no such thing as a local event taking place in a corner or a corridor of the world. You cannot say that a particular event has taken place only in a mohalla or a lane of a particular town. No such thing is the truth. Every experience, every event, every action, is a universal event. It takes place, in a conditioned form, everywhere in the world. Every illness is a total illness of the body. It is not an illness only of the nose or the eyes or the feet. The whole personality is sick even when there is only a sneeze that has come out from your nose. Likewise, every experience is a universal conditioning event, of which we have no knowledge because of our mind being tethered to a bodily locality and the minds mistaking this bodily locality for the entire reality. As the Bhagavadgita tells us, this is tamasic knowledge:
yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kᾱrye saktam ahaitukam;
atattv ᾱrthavad alpaṁ ca tat tᾱmasam udᾱhṛtam.
Mistaking a part for the whole, the body for reality, a localised experience as all-in-all is the worst kind of knowledge that one can have. It is not knowledge at all. It is a form of ignorance. On this ignorance is based our sensory enjoyment, and when it is mistaken for reality, you deny God and deny the existence of the hereafter. Na samparayah pratibhati balam: Childish is the mind of that individual who denies the hereafter and takes this world itself as the all. What is the result of this ignorance? Punah punar vasam apadyate: The individual falls into the net of births and deaths in a series of metempsychosis.
Births and deaths are the punishment meted out to the individual for its ignorance of the law of the cosmos. Every type of ignorance of law is punishable under the code of the government. The government of the universe inflicts a penalty on the human individual; and all individuals in the world, in the shape of transmigratory existence, as people, are sent to jail or reformatories for training themselves and becoming better. Births and deaths are nothing but processes of experience and training in this institution of the universe so that, by repeated births and deaths, you gain experience and move towards what is real, turning away, gradually, from what is an appearance.
The teachings of the Upanishad are an exposition of the various stages of the ascent of man to Truth. It is a wonderful scripture, like the Bhagavadgita. The different degrees of approach to Reality and the method of approach to Reality through these various degrees form the exposition of the Katha Upanishad. The sacrifice of Gautama Vajasravasa, the feelings of the lad Nachiketas in respect of the charities and the philanthropic acts of his father, the rising of the soul of Nachiketas to the abode of Yama and his fasting for three days in that abode, the appearance of Yama after three days and nights and bestowing of boons of a threefold character upon Nachiketas, and the wonderful instructions Yama gave to Nachiketas, are all descriptions of the stages of the rise of the soul to the Absolute.
The first stage is the exoteric approach of the human mind to the values of the worldthe mistaking of the external for the ultimate, which is represented by the sacrifice of Vajasravasa Gautama. The world is a real presentation as it is in its crass form, and the after-death experiences are supposed to be merely a copy of the present life experiences, only in a more rarefied form, so that the popular conception of heaven after death is of a magnified form of the pleasures of sense that we have in this earthly world. If you get kheer only occasionally here, you will get kheer every day there! This is the type of joy that we seem to aspire for in the sensory world of the gods. We have no concept of God or the Creator, or the hereafter, except in terms of what we experience today. This is why Vajasravasa Gautama aspired for a heaven of satisfaction through the senses, and therefore he thought that a mechanical act of pretended charity can also procure for him such an enjoyment of the senses, because he was not prepared to part with everything that he had. Nothing can be so painful to the human ego as to part with its own pleasures. It wants to seek satisfaction of the senses both here and hereafter. If the scriptures tell you to give in charity so that you may become happy in the heaven hereafter, you try to make a counterfeit charity of giving only a coin that will not work anywhere, or a torn currency note. You imagine it is a charity. You have given in charity, and yet you have not lost anything! Sometimes you give in charity only to your dear and near friends. You give a lot of charity to your own son when he is educated in the college, or bring wonderful saris to your wife. This is a great charity, indeed. You give two pence to the poor servant who washes your vessels. This charity will not procure you anything worth the while. But this was the type of mistaken charity carried on by Vajasravasa Gautama. The Upanishad explains beautifully the fate of the human mind in a state of ignorance.
The mind rises beyond this level in the conscience of Nachiketas and searches for a meaning in life, which comes to us as a teacher in the form of the observance of the transience of all phenomena. Death is the greatest teacher. Yama is, therefore, the great Guru of the Katha Upanishad. You will not learn a lesson better than through the experience of the transitory nature of things. When you have lost all your belongings, when your life itself is at stake, you learn a lesson better than you learn in universities. People lose all their belongings in political revolutions, of which you can read through the history of the nations. The lessons they learn are sufficient for them throughout their lives. The transitory nature of things points to the existence of an eternal value in life. This is why Yama comes into the picture of the Katha Upanishad. When you lose everything, as in a political catastrophe, you begin to feel that there is no worth in life at all. Oh, everything has gone! I have lost my relatives. I have lost my property. All my bank balance is gone. I am not sure whether I am secure in my physical life itself. Awful is ones situation at that time. Nobody can explain it through discourse or study of books. One who has passed through this stage will know what it is. But, even then, we do not learn the lesson properly. We once again come back to the same old groove of thinking when we are placed in better circumstances. That is to say, even if death itself is to threaten you with its uplifted rodyamadandaand you are frightened for a moment and wish to turn to the ultimate Truth, God, when the rod is withdrawn you go back to the rut of old thinking, and the pleasures of sense attract you. This is what happened to Nachiketas, also. Though Yama himself came as the great Master of the teaching of the yoga, knowledge was not immediately bestowed upon even such a qualified student as Nachiketas. It is not that you can go to a Guru and say, Teach me; I have got to catch a train in the evening. There are many students who come here and say, I have only half an hour at my disposal. Can you tell me something about yoga? This sort of yoga will carry you nowhere. You may catch the train first, and then come. This mechanised and merchandised yoga will not be of any use. It is a foolhardy attempt and a mockery of God Himself.
Nachiketas, a first-rate student of yoga, was not given this knowledge, what to talk of second class and third class students! We are much below that; and Nachiketas was a superlatively good student, and yet Yama said, Dont ask, dont talk. And, what was given to him? The wealth of the whole worldtemptation! Buddha was tempted. Christ was tempted. None will be free from these temptations. And it does not mean that all the students of yoga will have to pass through the same kind of temptation, so that you can catalogue the temptations and keep them in your mind. No! They come in different forms, though the background of the temptations is one and the same. Just as, though everyone has the same kind of hunger every day, everyone does not eat the same dietyour likings for diet vary according to your own predilections and physiological condition, though hunger is uniform and equal in every individuallikewise, temptations are uniformly present on the path of yoga, but the forms in which they come vary from individual to individual, so that what I face will not be the same as what you have to face. You cannot say what will come to you tomorrow.