Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 18: Heavenly Achievements Have No Eternal Value

Traividyā māṁ somapāḥ pūtapāpā yajñair iṣṭvā svargatiṁ prārthayante, te puṇyam āsādya surendralokaṁ aśnanti divyān divi devabhogān (Gita 9.20): Those who perform elevated actions, which is the meaning of good actions, raise themselves up to the heavenly region and there, for a long time, enjoy the delight of the gods. But there is a corollary following from this. Te taṁ bhuktvā svargalokaṁ viśālaṁ kṣīṇe puṇye martyalokaṁ viśanti, evaṁ trayīdharmam anuprapannā gatāgataṁ kāmakāmā labhante (Gita 9.21): The coming and going in a cycle of births and deaths becomes the fate of even those people who have spent their life in those good deeds which are sanctioned in the ritualistic portions of the Vedas, whereby they appease the gods in heaven.

Reaching heaven has been the longing of humanity throughout history. All religions speak of heaven. Sometimes heaven is considered even as the abode of the Creator Himself, as when we say that God is in heaven. Here, in these cited verses of the Bhagavadgita, heaven is described in a different fashion altogether—not as the location of the Almighty, but as a region of enjoyment.

Since enjoyment has been analysed threadbare in our earlier sessions, and enjoyment is unimaginable except through the sense organs coming in contact with the objects external to them, a person cannot rejoice in one’s own self. That is the whole matter. We require something else outside us, some object to titillate the sense organs, whereby it looks that a principle of satisfaction is generated within oneself.

Now, what is said about gods in heaven and the possibility of reaching these heavenly regions by good deeds is something worth considering. Does one really go to heaven, and are there gods in such a realm? Is there a blissful region above this physical level? Is it inhabited by divinities like Indra, Varuna, and others? How does it come about that a deed that is regarded as good propels a person’s soul to the heavenly regions? What is the connection between a good deed and the remote region called heaven, populated by the divinities?

The constitution of the heavenly regions must have some similarity with the constitution of the virtuous or praiseworthy deeds performed in this world. What is a virtuous action? What is a good action? This question is not easily answered because we generally go by the principles of social conduct laid down by the community of people in whose midst we are living. The possibility of reaching a region above this physical level through a good deed implies that the so-called good deed also does not belong to this Earth.

Earthly action cannot take a person to a non-Earthly condition. As is the cause, so is the effect. The perishable cannot take us to the imperishable—taking for granted that the heaven of the gods is imperishable, from one angle of vision at least.

Now, what kind of action should we perform in this world in order that we may be made eligible to ascend to the heaven of the gods? We do many good deeds. We do charity, plant trees, dig wells along the road, construct temples, and feed the poor. Are these actions that take us to the heaven of the gods?

For this purpose we have to analyse the meaning of ‘action’ itself. What do we mean by ‘action’? Is it a movement of the limbs of the body in some direction—digging, planting, giving, etc.? Do these physical gestures of the limbs of the body constitute action? Evidently, it does not look that they can take us anywhere. A performance which is purely motivated by physical movement does not seem to be adequate to propel us above the physical level. Physical movements will be limited to the physical realm only. A superphysical realm cannot be reached unless there is also some superphysical element in our action. There should be some kind of harmony or similarity of construction between the means adopted and the end that is our aim.

What kind of heavenly character do we find in actions known as ‘good’ that we perform in this world? Can anyone think that any of our actions have a heavenly content? We will shudder to even hear a question of this kind because to us, heaven seems to be so far away, remotely situated above us, that it is difficult to believe that the little acts that we perform, even with a good intention, have anything to do with that blessed region of the gods.

What is the mystery behind this? Why does the scripture say that good deeds will take us to heaven and make us rejoice like Indra, the chief of the gods, and so on? The goodness of an action, therefore, does not seem to be definable in terms of social sanction. It has to be sanctioned by the gods themselves. It should be a good deed in the eye of the gods, not only in the eye of people. If all humanity says, “This is a wonderful thing that you have done,” it need not necessarily be wonderful. It should be wonderful from the point of view of the structural pattern of the region higher than the physical level.

All glory that we earn on this Earth planet conditioned by human thinking, whatever be the imaginary greatness of this achievement, cannot be said to have any kind of heavenly content—which would mean that nothing can take us to heaven if only a heavenly deed can take us to the heavenly region.

Actually, we must understand the meaning of ‘heaven’ in this context. What is heaven? Is it so many kilometres away, above the Earth plane? If we travel high in a rocket, far, far beyond in the distant sky, will we reach heaven? Even if we touch the border of the expanded space, heaven will not be seen there. The reason is that heaven is a state of consciousness. It is not placed physically above the physical Earth. An elevated sensation arising from our own selves, lifting us above our physical personality; a longing that arises from the depths of our soul lifting us above our physical needs, a condition not easy to understand and appreciate; a longing that cannot be equated with anything that is available in this world, may be regarded as a heavenly longing.

From that point of view, any physical or human achievement in this world cannot be regarded as so good as to be capable of rocketing us up to the heavenly region. A non-physical operation should take place from within our own selves. Are we physical personalities, or is there anything non-physical in us? When we are enthused or in a state of intense artistic rapture, beautiful music, delighting painting, or even an architecture or a sculpture can take us above the consciousness of our physical personality.

There is an element in us which is not limited to this body, which is what it is that longs for achievements beyond the ken of this Earth, or human thought. Even to reach the heaven of the gods is not easy, though in these verses of the Bhagavadgita Bhagavan Sri Krishna does not regard this achievement as anything worthwhile. It is regarded by Him as a poor achievement, ending finally in a coming down from the heaven of Indra to the mortal realm of action once again. Gatāgataṁ kāmakāmā labhante: People who desire objects of sense enjoy the cycle of coming and going, even if it be going to heaven and coming back to the Earth.

So, notwithstanding the fact that the Bhagavadgita here does not regard an achievement in heaven as having any permanent value, it is still necessary for us to know where this heaven is. We always look up, above, opening our eyes to the skies when we pray to a god in heaven because the concept of the above, from our physical point of view, is geometrical, distance-oriented, and spatially conditioned. But, the heaven of the gods is supposed to be not measurable in this manner. It is not in space at all. If we travel the endless space for ages, we will not reach the heaven of the gods because all these experiences, even in the distant space and time process, belong to the Earth level only.

We have to be gods in our own selves, to some extent, in order that we may reach the gods. Even to reach this poor blessedness of the heaven of the gods, which Sri Krishna considers as not of much value, we have to be gods in our own selves because only from a god can a godly deed emanate.

A thorny bush does not produce apples. Likewise, what kind of action can proceed from an individual with a distracted mind tethered to the physical body, bothered much about family relations and connections with this Earth? Purely Earthly. Have you seen a godly person anywhere whose deeds may be regarded as divine and motivated by nothing of this Earth? If such a person is available, that person may be regarded as fit for going to heaven. It is so difficult to reach the heaven of the gods. That is why the sacrificers of the Vedas take intense pain in performing these yajnas with meticulous care, because if they commit even a little mistake in the chanting of the mantra or the arrangement of the sacrificial altar, it will not be enough to push them up to the region above the world.

Questions as to the ultimate utility of a sacrificial action in converting the mortal into the immortal are raised in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where one of the opponents of Yajnavalkya put this question: “As all actions are perishable, how will they take us to the imperishable?”

To that, Yajnavalkya gives an answer: “All worldly actions are perishable indeed, but there is one type of action which is not perishable. Generally, when we perform an action, we consider certain constituent factors: the performer of the action, the person concerned, the yajamana so-called; the method adopted, the means employed in the performance of the yajna or the sacrifice; and the intention behind the performance of the sacrifice itself. All these are done with an idea that this type of action will satisfy the divinity whose name is taken in the chanting of the mantra of the Veda. That divinity, being far away, above the Earth plane, cannot make this action immortal, though the divinity itself is immortal.

“All action should be considered as a spiritual meditation. It is not a performance of an externalised movement by a person, but a total concept that arises in the performer of the action, wherein the divinity also is included—in which case, it would look that the action is performed by the divinity itself. The yajamana, the performer, gets transformed into the divine power present in the divinity worshipped and adored through the action. The means, the instrument and the intention all get divinised because the meditation that is carried on together with the performance of this yajna also brings the divinity into the purview of this action, so that in this process of meditation one cannot know who is actually performing the yajna and who is meditating. The divinity itself enters the heart and soul of the performer, or the yajamana, and takes upon itself the responsibility of seeing that the yajna is perfectly conducted.”

It was difficult for Sage Sakalya, who put this question in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, to understand this answer given by Yajnavalkya. However, here is a secret which has to be studied carefully.

Heaven is a region which is above the physical consciousness of humanity; therefore, actions that are not limited to the physical consciousness of bodily individuality can alone take a person to the heavenly region. Only an intensely holy person can aspire to go to the heavens.

There was a sage called Vajasravasa, as we have it in the Kathopanishad. He wanted to go to the heavens. He performed a yajna called Sarvavedas, in which he had to give in charity everything that he had. He gave away all his wealth—all his land and property, everything that he had—so that it appeared that nothing was left with him. He had to give everything, but he did not really give everything, because he did not offer himself also. In this sarvatra, or all-inclusiveness of the charitable deed, the performer also goes with it. But here the egoism of the performer of the Sarvavedas sacrifice maintained itself. This Kathopanishad story is very interesting.

Yet, Bhagavan Sri Krishna says all this achievement is nowhere before another great achievement that is ahead of us: gatāgataṁ kāmakāmā labhante (Gita 9.21). After that, the great admonition of the Almighty Lord Bhagavan Sri Krishna follows: ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yogakṣemaṁ vahāmy aham (Gita 9.22). Here also is a passage which prescribes the method of what we call total action, and total meditation.

We have heard these things said many a time, but the mind is so treacherously selfish and can connive ways and means of not allowing a person to succeed that we do not know what the meaning of this verse actually is. When the Great Lord says, “Everything shall be provided to that one whose mind and consciousness are united with me,” what does He actually mean?

Where is this god whose meditation or union can provide us with everything that we need? Far away is the god—that is what we generally think. Brahma is in Satyaloka; Vishnu is in Vaikuntha; Siva, Rudra, is in Kailasa. How far are they? How much time will they take to come to rescue us and provide us with our requirements?

Our relationship to God should also be clear to us before we try to understand the meaning of this great promise given by the Almighty Himself: “Everything shall be provided to you. Not only your requirements will be given to you, these requirements granted to you will also be taken care of, so that you need not have fear of losing them afterwards.” The gift is offered, and it is also protected for our sake. This is a wonderful, miraculous statement which will shake us from our roots if we can really understand what it implies. This is not like going to the heaven of the gods for some time, by the performance of a godly deed. This is not a godly deed. It is something more than that. What is it? It is unity with the very purpose of creation, the meaning of existence, the principle of eternity itself.

A shopkeeper may take time to supply our goods, sending them through a vehicle, a cart, but God does not take time. ‘Instantaneous’ is a poor word to describe the way in which God acts, because instantaneousness has a tinge of the time process in it. Timeless action is God’s action. It is done before we say it is done. We cannot even say it is just now, or here itself. It is more than that. Even the words ‘here’ and ‘now’ are poor to describe the manner in which God acts, because we think in terms of space and time, whereas this action comes from eternity, which is not in space and not in time.

To deserve this blessing which is so great and grand even to conceive, we have also to manifest from within ourselves the eternity that is within us and that we ourselves are. Mortal deeds, we said, do not take us to heaven; similarly, time-conditioned devotion, spatially limited actions, will not summon this protection that is promised to us in the Bhagavadgita. Yogakṣemaṁ vahāmy aham. The practice of yoga is essentially this much: it is a unity of the deepest in us with the deepest in the cosmos.

What is the deepest in us? We are likely to think that this visible, photographed personality is what we are. We know, psychologically at least, that we have a mind which is deeper than the body; there is an intellect and something very deep, but the ‘I’, the ‘we’, the ‘thisness’ which is asserted through this personality basically even at the time of death, even in deep sleep—that one is the deathless principle in us. That deathless eternal principle in us is what defies the consciousness of death and tells us that we cannot die.

That is the reason why we always feel that death is far away from us. Though we have seen people dying, we never think that it is our fate because the eternity that is within us says, “This is not your fate because you are eternal.” The eternity is not known, but it is inside, flashing forth in this conviction that, “All may die, but I will not.” This feeling arises due to the eternal principle operating within us.

In this meditation which is the requisition for the fulfilment of the promise of Bhagavan Sri Krishna—yogakṣemaṁ vahāmy aham—we have to perhaps think as He would like us to think. If a friend can provide us with what we need, we have to think like a friend, and not like somebody else. If we turn our face away from the friend, the friend will not provide us with our requirements. Unity of purpose, identity of feeling, oneness of existence are implied in friendship. That friendship is also to be found between a devotee and the Supreme Almighty. Suhṛdaṁ sarvabhūtānāṁ jñātvā māṁ śāntim ṛcchati (Gita 5.29): “Peace will be your blessing and your attainment when the time comes for you to realise that I am your true friend. I am the friend of all beings.”

So, there is a heaven above the heavens that we are given in a description: gatāgataṁ kāmakāmā labhante. The ananyāś cintayanto verse is a declaration of the eternal principle in the universe and in our own selves. While the temporal reality speaks in the earlier verses, the Eternal Being speaks in the subsequent verse: ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yogakṣemaṁ vahāmy aham.

Difficult is this to think in the mind; more difficult is it to meditate like this. The mind is accustomed to think only in terms of what it sees or perceives outside; the eternal principle, the God element, always escapes its notice. It cries and weeps and expects something from somewhere, not believing that whatever one needs will emerge instantaneously from one’s own self, provided the eternal comprehensiveness, which is the factor that provides our needs, is also present in our own selves.

This is the meaning of “Thou art That”. We have read this many times in Vedanta scriptures, but the ‘art’ in the middle coming between ‘Thou’ and ‘That’ spoils the whole thing. There is no ‘art’. We should not use that word ‘are’. That connecting link, the verb, spoils the actual relationship between ‘Thou’ and ‘That’, because there is no relationship at all between ‘Thou’ and ‘That’. The ‘Thou’ is the ‘That’, and vice versa.

In this ananta chintana mentioned in this verse, non-separate contemplation, all blessing is poured upon the person. This is the highest devotion, bhakti, we can think of. It is the highest yoga and jnana—by attaining which, we do not live like mortals any more, but veritable moving gods on this Earth, which shall be our blessing.