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The Chhandogya Upanishad

by Swami Krishnananda


The Panchagni-Vidya

The Upanishads are mainly meditations intended to act as correctives to the binding effects that are produced by the phenomena of natural processes. While what we call a natural process subjects us to its own laws, these laws can be overcome and their imposition upon the individual can be counteracted by techniques of meditation. The philosophy of the Upanishads is that it is an ignorance of the way in which the Universe works that binds the individual to samsara - the series of births and deaths. Our sorrows are, in a way, created by our own selves, because they follow as a consequence of our not abiding by the law of the universe. The affirmation of a reality independent of what really is, is called the ego. That is the centre of personality. This affirmation of individuality, jivatva, personality, or something separate from the organic structure of creation, is the cause of the sorrow or the suffering of the jiva, the individual manifested due to the affirmation of the ego. Births and deaths are the punishments, as it were, meted out to the individual in order that it may be reformed in the field of experience of the world for the purpose of enabling it to return to the normal state of consciousness which is universality of being, of which it is deprived at present due to the ignorance of its connection with the universe and a false notion that it has about its own self that it has an independence of its own.

The sections of the Chhandogya Upanishad, which we are going to study, are a gradational ascent of knowledge for the purpose of meditations which lift us above the phenomena of ordinary experience, such as birth and death and bondage of every kind, and point to the methods of transcending all sorrow, whatever be its nature, and regaining the originality of being. The various sections that follow are a systematic teaching on what we may call Adhyatma-Vidya, or Atma-Vidya, a knowledge of the ultimate Self, which is the only remedy for the malady of empirical existence.

This section which we are about to commence, is a treatise on a particular method of meditation called Panchagni-Vidya, the knowledge of the Five Fires, by which the Upanishad means the various processes of manifestation, or, we may say, evolution, it being one's bondage and the way in which the cycle of transmigration revolves. There is a coming and going, descending and ascending in this samsara-chakra, or the revolving wheel of bondage. How it happens, and how one can be free from it, what are the methods to be employed for the purpose of freeing oneself from the clutches of this involuntary law that imposes itself upon us and binds us to its own mandate so that we do not seem to have any say in the matter of births and deaths or even the experiences that we have to pass through - these are our themes. The law of the universe is so vastly spread in its magnitude that it weighs heavy upon us when it is not followed. This question of the bondage of the soul brought about by its own ignorance, and the various remedies therefore, are discussed in the various sections.

While the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is more transcendent in its approach and provides techniques of meditation which are mostly above the reaches of the ordinary mind, the Chhandogya Upanishad takes us along the path of ordinary experience, and then, finally, lifts us above into the empyrean of supreme transcendence. Often, scholars have held the opinion that the Brihadaranyaka is aprapancha in its view and the Chhandogya is saprapancha, which means to say that the Brihadaranyaka concerns itself with the ultimate Absolute and every solution is from the point of view of the Absolute only. So, it has taken the final step in setting about finding a remedy for the problems of life, while the normal man has also been taken into consideration in the Chhandogya, though the ultimate aim is the same, here also. Thus, the Brihadaranyaka and the Chhandogya form, in a way, complementary aspects of a single study.

The Course of the Soul After Death

The Panchagni-Vidya, to which reference has been made, is a particular type of knowledge, or meditation, which is introduced to know the inner meaning of the common phenomenon of birth and death. What we experience in normal life is only the effect of certain causes which are invisible to the eyes. We see people being born and people dying, but we do not know why people are born and why people die. The causes are unknown to us. What is it that compels a person to be born and what is it that forces him to die? We know very well, we have no say in either of these ways. We cannot say this or that in respect of these processes. Nor is there any adequate knowledge of the secret of one's own experiences. Birth, death and the experiences in life are apparently effects produced upon us by causes of which we seem to have no knowledge. The Upanishad, in these meditations, tries to introduce us into a new type of knowledge which is the solution to the sorrows that are incumbent upon being subject to the laws of this natural phenomenon.

In this connection, the Upanishad commences with a story. There was a student named Svetaketu who was the son of sage Uddalaka. This student was well-read and finely educated. He was so confident about his knowledge that he used to parade his learning and calibre in the midst of all learned people, have discussions in courts of kings etc., and was very reputed for his great educational gift. This boy went, by chance, to the court of the king called Pravahana Jaivali, a noble emperor. The moment the boy arrived at the court, the king received him with respect, and after offering him the requisite hospitality becoming of a Brahmin boy well-versed in the Vedas and all the branches of learning, the king put a question to the boy.

"Are you well educated? Have you studied? Is your education complete? Has your father instructed you?" The boy said, "Yes, my education is over, and I am well-read."

Then the king put some questions. "Naturally, you are a well-informed person so as to be able to answer any pose. You are proficient in every branch of learning." That the boy professed to be, that he would be able to answer any question. Then the king posed five questions.

The first question was: "Do you know where people go after they depart from this world? When people die, where do they go? Do you know the answer to this question, my dear boy?" The boy said, "I do not know. I cannot answer this question." Then the king asked another question, "Do you know wherefrom people come when they are reborn into this world?" The boy said, "I do not know this also." "Do you know, have you any idea of the paths along which the soul ascends, the paths being known as the devayana and the pitriyana? Do you know the difference between these two paths? Why is the one distinct from the other?" The boy said, "I do not know the answer to this question also."

Then the fourth question: "Why is it that the yonder world is not filled with people and overflowing? Always, the world is able to contain people and it is never flooded with them. What is the reason for this?" "This, also, I do not know." Now the fifth question: "Do you know what are the five oblations that are offered and how the fifth oblation as liquid becomes a human being?" "This, too, I do not know," said the boy.

Then, the king said, "Why did you say that you are instructed and well-read? How is it possible for one to regard oneself as properly educated if one cannot answer even these questions? What made you think that you are educated? What is it that your father taught you if he has not told you these things?" The boy was humbled, his pride vanished, he began to realise that there are things which he could not understand. His education was not complete. This was the first time that he was taken aback from the conviction that he knew everything.

Though the king asked him to stay, he ran in agony back to his father. He did not stay in the palace, and in the intensity of discomfiture he rushed to the father and cried out, "How is it that you told me once that I have been instructed and well-educated, and that I have been informed in every branch of learning? This is what you told me one day. You told me that there is nothing more for me to learn, that I have completed my education." The father replied, "Yes, what about it?" "No," retorted the boy. "It is not like that. This fellow of a king put me some questions and I could not answer even one. Not properly educating me, you merely told me that I am accomplished." "What are the questions?" the father asked. The boy repeated all the five questions. "These are the five questions that were put to me by the king. Now, what is the answer to these questions?" he asked the father. The father said, "If I knew the answers to these questions, naturally I would have taught them to you. I myself do not know what these mean. I have taught you what I knew, and these are things which are beyond myself, also. I have never heard of these things. So, how is it possible for me to give a reply to this query? Let us both go as students before the king. This is the only alternative left to us. We can learn this knowledge from the king himself. We have to go as humble students." The boy said, "You yourself may go, I am not coming." He was so ashamed that he would not like to show his face before the king, again. And so, the father went; the boy did not go.

The father humbly went to the court of the king. The king, of course, received the great Brahmin with high honour, with great respect and showed the required hospitality. Gautama stayed in the palace, for the night. The next morning, when the king came to the court, in the assembly, to give audience, the Brahmin also went there. The king said: "Revered one, ask for anything which is of this world; any material gain, any amount of wealth, whatever you need for your maintenance. Ask for it, and I am ready to give it to you. Anything that pertains to this world, anything that is human, anything that is material - ask for such a boon and I shall give it as a gift." The Brahmin replied: "By God's grace I have enough of material wealth. I do not need anything of this world. You may keep this wealth for yourself. I do not require this wealth, but do give me the reply to the questions you put before my son. I have come to you for knowledge, not for wealth, not for any material gift which you are so kindly offering to me and which I do not need. But I want the wisdom of the questions which you posed before my son, and which he could not answer."

The king was perplexed; he was disturbed in his mind when the Brahmin spoke thus. He did not know what to say, because it is difficult suddenly to impart knowledge to a person the moment he asks for it. That is the procedure of any teacher. This is the position of the imparting of knowledge. Also, Kshatriyas do not seek Brahmins to be their pupils. That was the ancient custom. The king was a Kshatriya and now the student here is a Brahmin. Brahmins teach Kshatriyas; Kshatriyas do not teach Brahmins. So, under those circumstances, the king did not know what to tell this Brahmin. He was a little bit concerned in his mind and was not sure as to what to tell him.

What the king could tell the Brahmin then was just this: "You stay here for some time. We shall think about it." It is believed that he was asked to stay, perhaps, for a year. That is what the tradition makes out. The Brahmin stayed there as a preparatory austerity for the reception of this knowledge. Thereafter, the king said one day: "You ask me to give you the knowledge of the things which have been set apart as a secret by the Kshatriyas up to this time. It has never gone to the circle of Brahmins till today. But, now the time has come for it to go out of the circle of Kshatriyas, because you have come to me as a student and you want this knowledge. Till now, because of this secret of knowledge which the kings held, they were predominant everywhere. They could rule over everybody due to the power that they wielded by this knowledge, and now you want to get this secret out of me." Anyhow, the king was ready, he was not reluctant; he was prepared to share this knowledge with the Brahmin, the elderly man who came as a humble student in the ordinary tradition of obedience and humility. And to him the king spoke the great truth.

Now comes the actual answer which follows in respect of every one of the questions which the king put to the boy. These answers which the king gives are certain meditations. They are processes of the attunement of the mind to higher levels of being. They are called vidyas because they are specific types of knowledge. Vidya also means a meditation, a contemplation. A higher knowledge is called vidya, something distinct from ordinary knowledge, scientific or artistic knowledge, and the like.

The superiority of the knowledge arises on account of the fact of its being more inclusive in its character than all the other known branches of learning. Every form of learning in this world is isolated in the sense that it bears no connection to the other branches of learning. A person who is proficient in one branch need not be proficient in another, and, therefore, there is a limitedness of such knowledge. Our knowledge is finite; it is not all-comprehensive. Whatever be the education of a person, he cannot become all-knowing. There is something which he does not know, which keeps him subject to laws of which he has no knowledge. What binds us is the ignorance of something which exists somewhere, but about which we have no information whatsoever. Wherever there is ignorance, there is also bondage in respect of that subject or that circumstance. When we have knowledge of a thing, we are not bound to that thing, we have a control over that thing. The greater is the knowledge that we have about anything, the greater also is the capacity we have in making it subservient to our own selves. But, the more is the ignorance we have about a thing, the more are we subservient to its laws. The world binds us; the law of gravitation limits us; the law of Nature restricts us, because we do not have an adequate knowledge of these laws. We do not know how they operate and why it is that we have been made subject to these laws. What is wrong with us? We do not know this, though we know that there is something fundamentally wrong with every one of us, on account of which the whole world keeps us in subjection. We are under the thumb of every law in the world. The reason is that we are apparently outside the realm of the operation of this law. We are like exiles cast out into the winds, and the law set around our necks, as it were, compels us to follow its dictates. We cannot overcome the law of gravitation, to give only one instance. We are slaves of this law. We can fall down and we can break our legs; we can get drowned; we can be burnt; anything can happen to us. Our very life on earth is based on and is decided by that law. But this happens on account of certain patent limitations in our life. There is some sort of a finitude in our own bodies and the entire personality of ours. Our fate is the same in respect of any law that operates anywhere. We cannot think things which are not purely sensory or physical; we cannot visualise things which are super-physical; we cannot understand any aspect of reality which is not in space, which is not in time and which is not casually related. And outside the realm of our own organic personality, we cannot have a real knowledge. We are finites, we are bound, we are limited in every way.