The Chhandogya Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: An Analysis of the Nature of the Self

Section 12: The Self as Spirit

  1. Maghavan, martyam va idam sariram attam mrtyunatad-asyamrtasyasarirasyatmano'dhisthanam, atto vai sasarirah, priyapriyabhyam, na vai sasarirasya satah priyapriyayor-apahatirasti, asariram vava santam na priyapriye sprsatah.

Prajapati said, "O Indra, please listen to me. This body is perishable. It is enveloped and overwhelmed by death from every side. How could this be the Atman?"

The physical body is subject to death and transformation, a matter known to everyone. So is the state of the psychic individuality also. The mind is not in any way better than the body in that it is equally finite, limited, and conditioned in the same way as the body is. The limitation of personality in space and time and exclusiveness of oneself from other individuals are similar, whether it be the case of the physical body or the psychic personality. So this individuality is subject to death. Anything that is visible, individual, particular, or finite cannot be the Atman. Neither the body nor the mind can be the Atman. Neither the waking individual, nor the dreaming individual, nor the experiencer of deep sleep can be the Atman. Sleep is a causal condition which engenders the experiences of the mind through dream and waking. It is a potential food which contains the seed of life in the form of these experiences in dream and waking. Hence, being the mother of this phenomenal experience here, it cannot be regarded as being out of touch with phenomenality.

The Atman is neither an individual conscious of itself as a person, nor is it an unconscious entity. It is something quite different. It is not personality consciousness; it is also not non-consciousness. Then what sort of consciousness can it be? Can you even imagine what sort of awareness it is, where one is not aware of one's individuality, nor is one not unaware of anything? Such awareness is the Atman about which we have to know. It is not the body because it is characterised by change, transformation and death.

No one can escape death as long as he has a body. This body is nothing but a vehicle for the manifestation of the immortal, bodiless Atman. This body manifests one degree of the Reality of the Atman. That is true. In that sense, it is a receptacle, as it were, of this consciousness which is the Atman. The immortal is capable of manifesting its existence through the functions of the body, but it is not identical with the body. This physical experience, the mortal life that we are living here, is incompatible with the immortal life of the Atman. But it is the vehicle in the sense that it has characters in itself by which we can proceed to the nature of the Atman gradually by the logical process of induction. Though it is the vehicle, it is not identical with it.

Anyone who has a body, whatever that body be, physical or psychic, cannot escape being conditioned by the vicissitudes of pleasure and pain. There is no use exulting in pleasure, because it is not going to be there permanently. There is always the undercurrent of future sorrow even at the time of the experience of the present so-called happiness. It is a transitory wind only that is blowing in the form of happiness in this world. So is the case with the sorrow of life. No one can escape the clutches of pleasure and pain as long as one lives in this finite body. No one can be free as long as one has a body. Freedom is a chimera as long as there is bodily individuality. One has to pass through these ruts of pleasure and pain, these transitory experiences of life as long as one is content to be in this body. The body we are speaking of is not necessarily this body here on earth. It may be any body of any realm of existence. It may be even a body in paradise. That also is subject to destruction, because it is also in space and time, though of a different order. It is, after all, characterised by finitude. And what is finitude? It is the consciousness of something being outside one's self and of something limiting one's own being. This is the fate of everyone who has a body and no one who has a body can be free at any time, in any manner whatsoever.

  1. Asariro vayuh, abhram, vidyut, stanayitnur-asariranyetani. tad-yathaitany-amusmad-akasat samatthaya param jyotir-upasampadya svena rupenabhinispadyante.

But these difficulties do not arise when the body vanishes and when one experiences a bodiless existence. It is impossible to conceive what bodiless existence is. It is beyond the conception of the mind because of the fact that the mind is only a handmaid of bodily experiences. It simply accepts what the body wants, what the body clamours for and what the senses speak. Whatever the mind thinks is only in terms of the body. So how can the mind imagine what is bodiless? It has to stand on its own head, as it were, which is impossible. So, the injunction of Prajapati that the bodiless existence is free from the vicissitudes of pleasure and pain cannot easily be made intelligible to the mind that is affected by the cognitions of bodily existence.

But here is the truth. The Atman is bodiless. That does not mean that it is an ethereal abstraction. The doubt in the mind that is likely to arise that freedom from the body may be some ethereal abstraction is due to the misconceptions arising consequent upon the habits of the mind. The Atman is not an abstraction from the physical existence. What the Atman is, the mind cannot think, for the simple reason that we are used to imagining that physical bodies are substantives which have qualities and characters inhering in them. In our present condition we can never for a moment think that the substantive can be other than a physical body. Whatever we think is physical only. Even if we close our eyes and imagine something non-physical with the stretch of our imagination, it cannot be non-physical because it will be located in space and time. That which is located in space and time is physical. This is the very meaning of physicality. There is no such thing as non-physical thinking and, therefore, the Atman cannot be thought of by the mind. That is the reason also why we cannot imagine what this bodiless existence means.

The bodiless existence of the Atman is not the divesting of Reality in any manner whatsoever. It is complete freedom and not the negation of anything. It is like the gaining of health from a condition of disease. It is an impersonality of state, an impersonality of condition, an impersonality of experience, and an impersonality of being. The so-called body or the physical atmosphere is a finitisation of this impersonal being. Can we say, to give only a very gross intelligible example, that a lump of ice which is finite in its bodily being is in any way superior to the causes out of which it has come into existence? The ice is nothing but a solidified form of water. Water is more general in its formation than this limited form of ice. But even water has a cause behind it, hydrogen and oxygen, and we cannot say that the water is superior to its cause in any manner whatsoever. Can you say that water vapour is inferior to the manifestation that is called water or ice? But even these gases, hydrogen and oxygen, are not ultimate causes. They are again manifestations chemically of something superior or more subtle in character, more unthinkable. Merely because something is unthinkable it does not become a non-real existence. The more is the capacity of our mind to conceive causes, the more will we be able to understand the nature of the Atman. Why it looks abstracted is because it is generalised and is universal.

Space is, in a sense, an impersonal existence. It has no finite form in the sense of a body that we can see with our physical eyes. But it cannot be said, even physically speaking, that space or ether is divested of the realities of the physical earth, fire, air or water. We are told that the contents of the earth can be withdrawn by way of sublimation into the causes thereof, so that they become liquids and gases which can all be absorbed into ether, which in turn is not a negation of physical substances but a very ethereal impersonal existence of everything that we call physical. Some such thing happens when we enter into the consciousness of the impersonal Atman. Because of this impersonality of Being, it cannot be affected by anything, because anything which can affect something else has to be other than that which it affects, and other than that (the Atman) nothing is.

So, this seems to be the implication of the great injunction of Prajapati. Indra might understand it or not, but this is the fact. Prajapati gave some examples to make Indra understand this impersonal nature of the Atman. Air has no body. It is not affected by pleasure and pain. In a sense it is bodiless, because it is not located in some particular place. It is not attached to any particular body. It has free movement. The lightning in the sky is also of an impersonal character to some extent. The clouds are also of an impersonal character to some extent. The thunder is also of an impersonal character. These clouds will vanish into space. They get absorbed into space. Wind also ceases and gets identified with space when it is heated up by the light of the sun. These movements of wind, the falling of water as rain and every phenomenon that we see in the atmosphere-all these are capable of being lost in space ultimately, under certain given conditions. They go to their sources. They arise from their cause and they go back to their cause. Space is the ultimate cause of every physical element. By space we do not mean emptiness, but a most subtle impersonal state of physical existence. So, everything goes back to its cause, which is the universal ether, and everything arises from that universal ether. Even so is the case with all this creation which has arisen, as it were, from this universal Atman and it goes back to this universal Atman.

  1. Evam evaisa samprasado'smac-charirat samutthaya param jyotir-upasampadya svena rupenabhinispadyate, sa uttamah purusah, sa tatra paryeti, jaksat kridan ramamanah stribhir-va yanair-va jnatibhir-va nopajanam smarannidam sariram, sa yatha prayogya acarane yuktah, evam evayam asmin sarire prano yuktah.

Just as finite objects appear to get lost in the impersonal causes from where they have come, even so this being, having risen from its bodily existence, attains to the immortal state, shining in nature, as the pure consciousness which it originally was. This is the most serene condition of one's own Self. We cannot say we are serene or composed merely because there are no sounds and there are no contacts. Serenity or composure is real freedom, the experience of which is free from every kind of sorrow or limitedness in the states of waking, dream and sleep. One has to rise above these three states, the physical, the subtle and the causal conditions, which are limitations of the Atman. The three states—waking, dream and sleep-are the three conditions to which the consciousness of the Atman is apparently attached, and due to which one appears to be an individual. One has to rise up from these limited embodiments. From the waking physical experience, from the limitations of even the mind which works in dream, and from the limitations of deep sleep, one has to rise up. Then it is that one becomes the true Being.

True Being is not unconscious. It is not a cause, nor is it the subtle manifest condition. It is not also a physical body. It is supreme luminosity, param jyoti. It is the Light of all lights. It is not a light like the light of the sun, but it is self-luminous Being. It is a Light which does not need illumination from something else other than itself. It is self-luminous in the sense that it illumines itself. This does not mean that it is ignorant of the existence of others. It is the Self of all beings. It is not the self of one person or two persons, of one individual or a group of individuals. The word 'self' is an abused term; so is the term 'Atman' due to the limitations of language. We are always accustomed to use the term 'self' in respect of individuals as 'myself', 'yourself', 'himself', 'herself', 'itself', etc. It is not in this sense that the word 'self' is used here. It is not this self or that self we are referring to. It is the Selfhood which is the true Being of everything that is.

So, Self-luminosity does not mean the luminosity of any particular self in the sense of a body, because we have already made it clear that the Self is not a body. To bring it once again in association with a body for the purpose of the interpretation of the meaning of the Self would be a travesty of affairs. Self-luminosity is Universal luminosity. It is not luminosity of an individual. Why is it Universal luminosity? Because, it is the Self of everything in the universe. It is the Selfhood of everything that is anywhere. So it is a comprehensive luminosity of universal Selfhood.

"O Indra, such is your true Being into which you seek initiation. This is the true serenity and composure of the Self. You have to stand by your own right. You have to assume your real status. This is freedom, this is called atma-svarajya, the freedom of the Self," said Prajapati.

We are not in our own status. We do not enjoy our status when we are in the physical body. We know very well how much slavery is there in bodily individuality. The conditions of the body which are the outcome of the way in which the physical laws of nature work are limiting us. We are very sorry and very unhappy in this world, indeed. We are not secure, on account of our subjection to the body and its laws in the waking state. Nor are we happy in the dreaming state, merely because we have a mind alone, because the mind is a slave of the body in all its cognitions. So, that too is not going to be our guide and support. What is the good of this sleeping condition? It is as good as annihilation, as Indra himself has pointed out. So, none of these states through which we pass can be of any value for us. We are nothing in all the three states—waking, dream and deep sleep. We are just nobodies or we are like puppets drifting about, but controlled by strings operated by 'somebody' whose existence we cannot understand. The true status is freedom from all kinds of external subjection to every kind of law outside. And, this can be attained only when the so-called outsideness or externality ceases to exist. As long as there is outsideness, its law will operate. Thus, there is no freedom except in a state of universality. There is no freedom as long as there is body.

  1. Atha yo veda, idam manvaniti sa atma, mano'sya daivam caksuh sa va esa etena daivena caksusa manasaitan kaman pasyan ramate.

  2. Ya ete brahma-loke tam va etam deva atmanam upasate, tasmat tesam sarve ca loka attah sarve ca kamah, sa sarvams-ca lokan apnoti sarvams-ca kaman, yas-tam atmanam anuvidya vijanati, iti ha prajapatir-uvaca, prajapatir-uvaca.

Whatever thinks through the mind also is the Atman. The so-called mind is only a cognitive instrument. But it is a superior kind of instrument. It is a celestial eye provided to us. In fact, the mind alone works in Brahma-loka. The senses do not exist there. These manifestations in five ways as hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling do not come into operation in Brahma-loka. The great souls living in Brahma-loka do not see with the eyes, do not speak with the tongue and do not eat and drink as we do. They merely exist in their mental body. There are some who even think that the mind also does not work there in the ordinary way. It is something super-physical and non-material that becomes the vehicle for the experience of the soul in Brahma-loka. This celestial eye comprehends all things at one stroke, unlike the senses which perceive only one thing at a time. This is the instrument that is used in Brahma-loka. The moment such a mind thinks, the whole conglomeration of objects connected with that thought appears at one stroke there in its presence. The archetypes of things are perhaps visualised in Brahma-loka, not the reflections. The objects which we see in this world are not the originals. They are only reflections. All the originals including those of myself and yourself are in Brahma-loka. We are all reflections of the original. We are all unreal bodies, apparitions in some respect, looking like very important persons. Our importance is somewhere else and we are rooted in a higher realm. And we are even now connected with that realm. Our legs are there though we appear to be moving here! We are reflections and therefore distorted. We are partial and finite, on account of which we are incapable of fulfilling our desires. The original which is the whole, the infinite, alone can work. Reflections cannot really work as efficiently as the original. This efficiency in working comes only when we reach Brahma-loka.

Now this Brahma-loka does not mean some other world which is several million miles away. It is a state of consciousness. It is within these very walls of our room. It is only a higher frequency of consciousness that is called Brahma-loka, into which one can raise oneself even here. Really there is no question of 'here' and 'there'. These are only inappropriate terms used in connection with sense experiences for want of better terms. There is neither 'here' nor 'there', neither 'then' nor 'now'. All these words cannot apply in Brahma-loka. Wherever you are, there is Brahma-loka, if only you can tune up your mind to the high frequency of its level of consciousness.

The great gods, having Indra as their leader who obtained this superior initiation from Prajapati in the manner mentioned here, contemplate on this Atman. Therefore they are able to fulfil all their wishes by mere thought. They establish contact with their inner mind in respect of everything that they think at any moment of time. All the worlds are comprehended by them. They can penetrate throughout the universe. Objects like huge mountains cannot impede their movement. Physical bodies are no obstacles for them. We sometimes hear in scriptures that angels fly and that gods easily move from plane to plane. This is so because they are in their subtle mental bodies. They are not physical vehicles, so they are not controlled by the power of the gravitation of the earth. Everything is under their sway. They can have entry into every realm. They can move anywhere. All desires of theirs are fulfilled on account of this permeating consciousness which is not capable of being obstructed by anything.

This is a glorification of the knowledge of the Atman in respect of the gods who had it through Indra. This is a knowledge which can be had not only by gods alone, but anyone, including yourself and myself. It is not a prerogative of any particular person or individual. Everyone is heir-apparent to this great knowledge, provided the necessary discipline is undergone. We can imagine what hardship Indra had to pass through. Perhaps our hardship will be much more. We must be prepared to pay the price of this knowledge. Then it shall come. It can be the property of everyone, but first one has to be ready to become a receptacle for it. As is the case with all those who have realised the Self, so will be the case with everyone who attains this Knowledge. There will be complete control over things and fulfilment of everything, even of a mere wish that arises in the mind, at that very moment it arises. This is what Prajapati said in conclusion.

So, we have here an analysis of the various states of consciousness, through this story of instruction to Indra by Prajapati. This analysis is actually the logical approach by way of inference to the existence of a consciousness deep within every one of us. What Prajapati actually wanted to drive home to the mind of the disciple was that the Atman is ubiquitously present everywhere in all the three states. That is why he said first that It is in the eye in the waking state, then in the dream state, then in the sleeping condition, and finally as something transcendent. Now, all these definitions are correct, though we should not take them literally. The implication or the actual intention behind the instruction has to be understood. The Atman is in deep sleep state. Yes, it is true. It is in dream. It is also in waking. It is reflected through the eyes and the senses. All these statements are correct, because without the operation in some way or the other of this consciousness, there would be neither sleep, nor dream nor waking. A compartment or a wall, as it were, has been introduced by us between these various experiences, so that we are unable to connect the deeper implications of these different experiences. When we are in one condition, we completely forget the other conditions. When we are awake, we cannot be dreaming or in deep sleep. When we dream, we cannot be in deep sleep or awake. When we are in deep sleep, we cannot be awake or dreaming. This is our difficulty, in spite of the fact that our consciousness is one with the same substratum that is responsible for all these experiences. The difference arises on account of a peculiar faculty in us called the mind. It is not the defect of consciousness which is the same that is in me, in you, and in the Jivanmukta. The so-called mind is also not an independent thing absolutely different from the Atman. It is a hybrid, as it were, born from one side partially and belonging to another side partially. However, for all practical purposes of analysis, we may say that it is the same consciousness that we call the Atman which has somehow got twisted, as it were, and focussed in a single particular direction and got obsessed with the view that that direction alone is real and that every other direction is unreal and does not exist. This obsessed movement of consciousness, the mind, in respect of a particular direction is what we call its target or the object of sense. This is a creation of its own, due to its prarabdha and we cannot say how and why it works. But the background is the Atman, the Consciousness. It does not vary. The mind in waking, the mind in dream, the mind in sleep and the mind that has transcended itself—all these are basically pervaded through and through, warp and woof, by the same consciousness. The feeling that 'I exist' is the Atman speaking in its own language. This feeling is persisting even in dream, and you cannot say that it does not exist even in deep sleep. So it is there always. Not only that, It exists as self-sufficient awareness. We are aware in one way in the waking state and we are aware in a different way altogether in the other two states. There is a difference in the structure of the awareness, because of difference in the nature of the objects with which this particular compartment-like consciousness is connected. So we get shifted wholly due to our affiliation with the mind to these realms in which it moves, and then it is that we are unable to connect the one phase of consciousness with another phase.

So, Prajapati's instruction is a universal instruction that the Atman is present in every state. Even in the so-called unconscious state, it is there. The unconsciousness is not of the Atman. It is of the mind. It is a kind of stifling taking place in the finitude of individuality. The finitising principle we call the mind, and that gets suffocated, as it were. It closes its eyes in sleep, in coma, and even in death in a state of unconsciousness which cannot be attributed to the Atman. So, this is the difficulty with us.

Now the transcendent state which the great master Prajapati speaks of as bodiless, free from embodiment, is capable of being attained by means of certain disciplines as is pointed out by the Upanishad. But we are not told as to what these disciplines are. We have been told of brahmacharya, but we cannot fully understand what it means. Thirty-two years, again thirty-two years, a third time thirty-two years and again five years, thus one hundred and one years-it may even be a thousand years. But what was it that Indra did all these years? Was he merely having his breakfast and lunch in the hotel of Brahma and getting on there? It was not like that. There must have been something very strange in the way of life he lived there, an inkling of which we can get from a study of the way in which students lived in ancient times in their masters' hermitages and conducted themselves wholly and solely for the purpose of the realisation of the Self.

There should be a complete channelisation of our aspiration in the correct direction. It is for this that we come to the masters. There should be no distraction of aim or purpose. The discipline that is spoken of in the Upanishad is nothing but a channelisation of consciousness. We may call it brahmacharya, or we may call it self-control. It is concentration of our entire being in a given direction, so that it does not move in any other way or direction. It is like an arrow moving towards its target. The arrow will not be aware of anything else, either this way or that way. This arrow-consciousness is what is expected of us and we should not budge until the goal is reached. We are told of this sort of attitude of mind even in the case of comparatively recent personalities like Buddha and others who budged not from the aim which was given to their minds from their own point of view.

Modern times are perhaps unfit for these strict disciplines. We have umpteen problems. But the wisdom lies not in merely saying that there are problems. There were problems even for those people. We should find ourselves in the proper place. We should not misplace ourselves in unsuited contexts. We have to rise from the level in which we are, whatever the level be. It may be a child's level, an adult's level, or a mature mind's level. It may be an official's level, a student's level, or a professor's level. Each one should be able to judge for himself where he stands. He must understand what is the context in which he is placed in the background of the aspiration, what he entertains in his mind, and what are his problems.

We are told that the great Ramatirtha had a peculiar technique of his own for self-control. He used to make a list of all his desires. It was no joke. It was an honest investigation into his own mind. To some extent we can know what our desires are. Go to a secluded place, or sit in your own room, or sit behind a temple or in a forest and think what your desires are. You should not say, "I have no desires." Nor can you say, "I do not know anything." You do know something, because it is the persistent thoughts in the mind that are your desires. When you are free from the distractions of the daily functions of life, your real desires will manifest themselves. These desires have to be dealt with in a proper manner. That is the discipline called for. The discipline or brahmacharya which the Upanishad speaks of is the discipline of dealing with the desires. What are you going to do with your desires? Are you going to just swallow them, or oppose them and crush them, or fulfil them? You cannot answer this question easily. This is the reason why a superior person's guidance is necessary. These desires are like snakes. You cannot touch them, and you cannot keep them lying in a corner. You can not do anything with them. But you cannot keep quiet also. You know very well the nature of the snakes. So a very dexterous method has to be employed. Neither subjugating, nor crushing, nor fulfilling, in the literal sense, but tackling them in the manner they should be tackled, under the circumstances in which you are placed, considering the strength and weakness of your mind, and the consequences also of your actions-this is the discipline. So, many factors have to be considered. All this an individual cannot do alone. Therefore, a Guru is necessary.