The Chhandogya Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter One: Vaishvanara-Vidya

The Course of the Soul After Death (Continued)

The processes of birth and death, again, are to be explained from this point of view. There is some law which works in some peculiar manner on account of which we are compelled to follow this course known as transmigration. Is anyone prepared to die? But we have no say in the matter. We will die one day or the other. But why should we die? Who tells you that you must die? No one knows this. And if somebody is born, well, it is doubtful if anyone is born due to the personal wish of anyone. There is some force working behind. So is the case with every kind of experience through which we pass. We do not know what will happen to us tomorrow. So much is our ignorance, so that it appears that we are utterly humiliated beings, shamefaced in every way, ignorant to the core and completely subject to the law of forces of which we have absolutely no knowledge.

Now, the Panchagni-Vidya is a kind of remedy prescribed by way of a meditation which is regarded as a great secret by the Upanishadic teachers. Even if you hear it being expounded once, you will not be able to understand much out of it. It does not mean that you will get out of the law of Nature merely by listening to what the king appeared to have said, because they are secrets bound up with one's own personal life. To us, they are only theoretical information like the existence of a fourth dimension etc. as propounded by physics. You may hear it a hundred times, but you are not going to enter it for reasons obvious. Likewise is this Panchagni-Vidya, or even the greater still Vaishvanara-Vidya, which will follow. They will remain as a mere doctrine and exposition. To the Upanishads, knowledge is the same as being. It is practice. A thing that you live in your own personal life is true knowledge, and apart from the fact that it has to be a part of your being, it is also to be comprehensive. It should not exclude any reality or any aspect of manifestation. These two conditions have to be fulfilled. Neither can we be confident that some aspect of reality is not excluded from our purview, nor are we sure that this knowledge can become a part of our vitals. So, they will remain a mere theorem in the books. However, we can have an outline of the knowledge which the great king imparted to the circle of Brahmins by way of this initiation called the knowledge of the Panchagni-Vidya.

As I mentioned, vidya means knowledge, meditation, a comprehensive insight into the nature of the reality behind any phenomenon. Now, what are these phenomena? The insight into which the Upanishad here leads us is the phenomenon of the descent of souls from the other regions into this world and the phenomenon of the ascent of souls from this region to the higher ones—how souls descend and how souls ascend. When we consider these processes as mere events among many others, they exert a binding influence upon us. You know people are born; you know people die. This much of knowledge we do have. And, perhaps, we have also a knowledge that certain actions that we perform are responsible for our births and deaths and our experiences in life. The good that we do brings good experiences, the pleasant ones; and the bad ones produce contrary results. This much of information we have gathered by study, hearing etc. But this is not the knowledge that will liberate us.

The Five Fires, called the Panchagnis, mentioned here, are not actually fires in the physical sense. They are meditational techniques. The Fire, here, is symbolic of a sacrifice which one performs through contemplation. How are these sacrifices performed visibly with the traditional sense of rituals? There is a sacrificial ground; there is a sacred altar in which the holy oblations are offered through the instrumentality of the sacred fire. There is the blazing fire flaming forth from the altar in the holy atmosphere of the sacrifice. And there is a substance that is offered, the sacrament. And certain ideas are entertained in the mind of the yajamana or the performer of the sacrifice, which are conveyed through the recitation of certain mantras. The mantras that are chanted or recited, in the performance of the yajna, or the sacrifice, are the sacred intentions of the performer expressed in language. This is the methodology of the performance of a sacrifice usually. The offerings are made to certain deities. The invocation of a particular celestial, a god, or a deity is the intention behind the performance of the sacrifice. Now, the Upanishad here tells us that the whole universal activity of creation may be conceived as such a kind of sacrifice—yajna.

If we are unable to conceive the internal connection and the pros and cons and the relative relationships involved in a particular process of creation, we would not be free from the law of subjection to these forces which are responsible for this creation. Again, unless we have a practical living knowledge of the various factors that are involved in the process of manifestation, or creation, we cannot be free from the law of manifestation. Births and deaths are parts of the universal process. What we call the universal process of manifestation is inclusive of every event that takes place anywhere, in any manner, including the experiences through which we are passing here in life.

The point that the Upanishad would make out is that no event or no experience can be isolated from other experiences. Just as every performance or every item of ritual in a sacrifice is connected to every other item, the whole yajna, or the sacrifice is a single comprehensive act of which the various items are only parts internally connected, the whole universal manifestation is a single process. It is a continuity throughout from beginning to end, and births and deaths and other phenomenal experiences are not isolated factors. They are connected to ultimate causes. If we can contemplate the internal connection that obtains between the effects that are visible with the causes that are invisible, then we would be free from the clutches, or the harassments, of these laws which are operating outside us.

There are various stages of manifestation. Here, a specific type of manifestation is under consideration for the purpose of meditation. How the birth of an individual takes place, how a child is born, is the actual question on hand. We are so ignorant that we think that the child is born from the womb of the mother. We know only that much, but this is the least type of knowledge that one can have about the birth of a child. The child is not pushed out of the womb of the mother, as if by magic. It is a tremendous process that takes place throughout the cosmos. All the officials of the government of the universe are active in the production of a single child's career. The whole universe vibrates with action even if a single baby is to be born somewhere in the corner of a house. It is not a private phenomenon of a little child coming out unknown somewhere in a nook and corner of the world, as people ignorantly behold or believe. The whole universe feels the presence and the birth of a single child anywhere. So what produces a child is not the father or the mother. It is the whole cosmos that produces the child. The universe is the parent of this little baby. It may be a human baby, a subhuman one or a superhuman form. Whatever be the character of that child, even if it may be an inorganic production, an atom, or an electron, or the composition of a molecule, the birth of it is regarded as the birth of a child, and it is made possible by the operation of cosmic factors. The whole universe is our father; the entire universe is our mother; the universe is the parent. That is the cause, and even if a little liquid is jetted from a pore we would realise that, ultimately, it has some connection with the universal cause of all causes, by a chain of relations.

The Upanishad tells us this secret of cosmic interconnectedness and involution of factors which are unknown to the senses and unthinkable to the mind. There is no such thing as a private act in this world. There is also no such thing as 'my' child and 'your' child. If this secret is known, no one will say, "It is my son, my daughter." It is neither yours nor anybody's. It belongs to that from where it has come. And from where has it come? It has come from every cell of the universe. It has not come from the seminal essence of the father or the mother, as it is believed. It is the quintessence of every particle of the whole of Nature, so that the cosmos is reflected in every body. That is why we say the brahmanda is in the pindanda—the macrocosm is in the microcosm. The cosmos is reverberating and is reflected in the little baby. How, then, can you say that it is your child? It is the child of the universe, which is to take care of it; and it shall withdraw it when it is to be summoned back; it projects it when it is to be sent out for reasons which are known to the universal law alone. Here is the philosophical background of the vidya, called Panchagni-Vidya.

The Upanishad, in its exposition of the Panchagni-Vidya, takes the standpoint of the wider background that operates behind every event in the phenomena of natural processes. Things are not what they seem; there is a deeper significance behind every visible process or activity in Nature. This is the esoteric side, or the invisible aspect of the visible phase of our practical existence. It is not that events suddenly emerge out into visibility, as if by magic, and that something happens at one stroke. Take the case of thunder, for instance. We do not know how the thunder has burst forth from the clouds. There is an immediate rainfall, there is wind blowing cyclonically. The rain stops and suddenly it is hot, after it became suddenly cold when it rained with winds. These are natural phenomena from our point of view, but they are supernatural mysteries to the vision of the Upanishad. There is nothing merely exoteric in the sense of a crass material event in the world. Events take place first in the highest heaven, and then their presence is felt gradually in greater and greater density as they come down to the level of more and more grossness and perceptibility and tangibility, as is the case with a disease. The illness does not manifest itself suddenly in the physical body. It happens inside first. Its seed is sown within. There is some kind of event that is taking place in the depths of our personality, and in the recesses of the world. This impulse is manifest outside as some occurrence.

The cause of a particular event which is ordinarily regarded as normal, physical, personal, social, visible, tangible, etc., this particular thing, has a transcendent secret behind it. This is the great point made out in the Panchagni-Vidya.

The birth of a human being in this world does not take place in this world alone, exclusively. It takes place in the highest regions first. One is born first in the higher levels in certain degrees of expression, and the impact of this birth is felt in the lower levels until it becomes visible to the physical eye on this mortal earth. Then we say that a child is born, someone has come, there is a rebirth, and so on. But this someone has not come suddenly from the skies. There has been a complicated interior process preceding, which always manages to escape the notice of ordinary vision. This is the case not only with the birth of a human being, but it is so with the coming of every event in the world. The Panchagni-Vidya is not an elucidation of a single phenomenon merely, namely, the organic birth of a human individual in the mother's womb. This is only an instance which is to be extended to phenomena of every kind comprehended in the whole of Nature. There is a total activity, in a subtle form, taking place prior to the apparently individual expression of it in the form of experience and perception.

The king, Pravahana Jaivali, in his mode of instruction, speaks to Gautama, the sage, initiating him into this mystery of the Panchagni-Vidya.

"The Yonder World, O Gautama, is indeed the Fire. Here, the Sun is the fuel; the Light-rays are the smoke; the Day is the flame; the Moon is the coals; the Stars are the sparks. In this Fire, the gods offer faith. From this oblation arises King Soma."

The activity of the celestial region may be compared to a sacrifice. It would be surprising to a novitiate, no doubt, that the Upanishad should regard anything and everything as a sacrifice. If we understand the intention behind these analogies, we would be able to realise that nothing could be a greater comparison for life than the concept of sacrifice, because the principle of sacrifice, or yajna, is the essence of all creative processes. And the principle is applicable to every type of creativity, whether physical, social, aesthetic, or, for the matter of that, any other aspect of life. The principle of sacrifice is that of the recognition of the higher values operating behind and transcendent to the ordinary activity of the visible world or the functions of human beings. There is a comprehensiveness of approach in the understanding of the principle of sacrifice. Every part of the sacrifice is as important as any other part, and every part of the sacrifice subserves a purpose transcendent to it, as is the case with the operation of a huge machine or a working medium in a factory. No part of the machine works for itself; it has a transcendent purpose. Look at the limbs of a human body. No organ of the body works for its own sake; it has a purpose beyond itself, and this purpose is an output in the case of a machine and an intention in the case of an organic body. So is the case with the parts of a sacrifice, and especially so when the sacrifice is identified with the creative process of the universe. Everything is interconnected, interlinked in an organic manner, so that everything becomes as important as the other.

This concept of comprehensiveness is the secret of the meditation that is the Panchagni-Vidya. If this interrelatedness of the parts of the sacrifice is lost sight of, it ceases to be a meditation. As a matter of fact, any meditation is the attempt of the mind to bring all the parts of the psychic organ into a single focus of organic action. Just as there is a connectedness of the parts of a sacrifice performed outwardly as a ritual, there is this harmony in the inner sacrifice performed through what we call meditation. The Panchagni-Vidya is a meditation—it is not an outward ritualistic sacrifice; it is a contemplation by the mind in which it harnesses every aspect of its force for the purpose of envisaging the reality that is transcendent to the visible parts of this inner sacrifice.

The Upanishad tells us, here, that the first vibration propelling any kind of activity or event in this world takes place not in this world alone, but in a higher realm. The cause has to be churned first in order that the effect may feel the impact of that stir in the cause. Now, the cause is not merely a single factor. There is a chain of factors involved in the conception of the cause. If, for the purpose of our study, we may say A is the effect that is physically felt by us in this world, it has a cause which is B, impelling this effect to manifest itself in that particular manner in the physical world. But, this B which is the cause of A has another cause behind it, which is C. So, we may say, that B is the cause of A, or we may say, C is the cause of A because it is the cause of B also. But, this C has another cause behind it, and that is D. So, while D is the cause of C and B, and through these, of A, we may also say that it is the cause of the last effect also. Thus, the first cause is the real cause which pushes itself downwards to lower levels of reality, until they express themselves in space and time. This expressed form in space and time alone is known by us, seen by us, felt by us and experienced by us.

We are likely to mistake this visible effect for everything, and then it is that we are either pleased with the manifestation of an effect or we are displeased with it. Sometimes we say, "It is raining cats and dogs; it is horrible." And we say, "It is terrible, it is so hot; it is awful, it is blowing so hard." What we like or what we do not like are only the various reactions that our personalities produce or evoke in respect of impersonal causes of phenomena which have nothing to do with the pleasures or the pains of individuals.

The Upanishad takes us, for the purpose of the explanation of a small event in this world, to the highest heaven and tells us that the universe finds the cause of the lowest event in this lofty realm, in an invisible region, which is called the "Yonder World" in the words of the Teacher. For the purpose of understanding what the "Yonder World" means, we may take it to be the celestial region, regions which are super-physical, beyond even the astral realm, which are the causes of what we observe in the atmospheric region. We know very well that every phenomenon in this world is, to a large extent, controlled by the sun shining in the sky. This does not require much of an explanation. Sometimes it looks that even our very existence itself is regulated by the presence of the sun. Our life and activity here has a cause, and we may say that the sun is the cause of life on earth. But, who is the cause of the sun? The sun is also an effect of certain factors—we may call them astronomical or designate them by any other name which are precedent to the formation of the sun. Astronomers tell us that stars, of which the sun is supposed to be one, are formed out of the condensation of nebular dust, forming what we call the Milky Way, which form themselves into rotating and flaming masses. But why should they form themselves into such masses is beyond our understanding. They must have causes beyond. What is the cause behind the formation or the curdling of the nebular dust as the Milky Way and into the formation we know as the stars, like the sun, etc? There has to be, naturally, some vibration behind. That vibration is precedent and anterior to what we call the manifestation of even the causal condition of this world. Prior to all this, something else must be there, and prior to that, again, another thing, and so on, so that even our insignificant life in this world, in this physical body, can be said to be completely controlled by factors which are transcendent, beyond the sun and the moon and the stars, and where we go in this manner of tracing our cause back, we cannot know. We have to reach levels which are thoroughly imperceptible to the eyes and unthinkable to the mind. This is the point driven home into the mind of Gautama by Pravahana Jaivali in the context of the explanation of the Panchagni-Vidya.

In this descent of the celestial realm which has to be contemplated, or meditated upon, as a sacrifice, there are certain parts or limbs. The world, which is called the celestial realm, is itself the sacred fire into which oblations are offered. This is how the meditation is to be conducted. The fuel, which ignites the fire and causes the flames to rise up in this sacrifice, is the sun. As smoke rises from the fire in a sacrifice, we contemplate the rising or the emanation of the rays from the sun, symbolically. As the flames shine, so is the shining of the daytime due to the fire of the sun in the sacrifice. We may compare the embers, remaining after the flames subside in a sacrifice, to the moon who is something like the subsidence of the flames of the light of the sun, or we may even say, the comparison is made because moonlight arises generally when the sun's flames subside. Compare the stars to the sparks which are ejected from the flames of the fire, because they are scattered, as it were, in the sky. Now, this is a sacrificial mode of contemplation on the higher regions of the cosmos.