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Being the Cosmic Whole
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 4: The Forbidden Question

Previously we were considering the nature of human individuality and human personality, and their mutual relationship. Now we shall go a little further. In the Kathopanishad this question is raised once again in a different manner altogether. There is a story attached to the teaching of the Kathopanishad.

There was pious boy called Nachiketas whose father, a very religious person, was performing a sacrifice called Sarvavedas. Sarvavedas is a sacrifice in which all belongings are given away so that the sacrificer, by the virtue of this act, may reach heaven and enjoy the pleasures of heavenly existence. He was giving, giving, giving everything he owned. The boy was a shrewd little lad, and was observing that his father was giving poor skeleton-like cows that had given milk and eaten grass for the last time. Nachiketas was thinking, “What good is there in giving a charity of cows that will live only for a few days?” Willy-nilly, he held his tongue.

Because the son also is considered as a property of the father, Nachiketas asked, “Father, to whom are you giving me? If you hand over all your belongings, you will naturally hand over me also.” The father kept quiet at this impertinent question. Twice, thrice the boy kept on repeating this question. The father got irritated and replied, “To hell I shall send you,” because he did not expect the boy to speak so irreverently regarding the sacrifice that he was performing.

There is something hidden after that. The boy must have actually died, but the thread of the story is missing. However, what we are told is that Nachiketas found himself in the abode of the Lord of Death, Yama, who, mysteriously, was absent. The gatekeeper said, “The boss is not here.” Without eating and drinking, the boy stood at the gate of Yama's palace for three days and three nights.

After three days, Yama appeared. “Oh, my dear boy! A Brahmin lad is starving in front of me. I have to do some compensation for this unwitting mistake I committed. For three days and nights he has starved and stood before me. Ask for three boons as my compensation for my absence here for three days and nights,” Yama said.

“Great Master, I have three questions. My father sent me here in anger. When I go back, let him receive me with joy,” asked Nachiketas.

“Granted,” replied Yama.

“I have heard that there is a vidya called Vaishvanara Vidya, the knowledge concerned with the heavenly fires,” said Nachiketas.

“Take it, granted,” Yama said. Universal knowledge was granted. When Nachiketas returned to the world, not only his father but the entire humanity would receive him as a dear friend. This heavenly secret was granted in the form of what is called Vaishvanara Vidya.

“I have a third question,” said Nachiketas. “I want to know what happens if the individuality disappears and dies, as people generally think.”

“No, my dear boy. You should not ask questions like that. Take the wealth of the worlds, all glory, the longest life. Such pleasures I shall grant you which no human being has ever thought of. Be happy. Don't harass me. Go. Now further you should not talk to me,” replied Yama.

The boy stood firm. “Great Master, I shall stand here until you give the answer.”

“Don't bother me. I am sorry that I said that you should take three things. I never knew that you would ask this kind of question. Don't bother me. Please go,” said Yama.

“No, I shall not,” insisted Nachiketas.

What happens in mahati samparaye? Mahati samparaye means the great death. It is not the ordinary death that he is referring to because the intelligent boy that he was must have known what happens after the death of the body. There is a reference made to it, and he knew it. He was already dead, and his spirit, as it were, was now speaking. “I want to go back to the world,” he said. Therefore, Nachiketas knew all these mysteries of after death. But he was asking for something else. “Mahati, the Great Beyond – tell me what happens.”

Devair atrāpi vicikitsitam purā, na hi suvijñeyam, aṇur eṣa dharmaḥ, anyaṁ varaṁ naciketo vṛṇīṣva (Katha 1.1.21). “Even the gods cannot answer this question. Ask for some other boon.”

“Great Master, you are saying that the gods cannot answer. It means that you can answer. Now tell me.”

“Don't worry me. This question cannot be answered. Nobody can answer this question. Nobody has seen the Great Beyond,” replied Lord Yama.

Later on the Kathopanishad appears to be giving some kind of answer, though the answer is not clear. There is only an appearance of an answer. It looks to the ordinary reader that Lord Yama side-tracks the whole issue and makes it appear that the answer is given, but the answer actually does not come forth. In the Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads we find some indication of the answer to this question.

The problem is like this. Everywhere we hear, whether from scientists or from scriptures, that the origin of things was a phenomenon of the One becoming the two. Then two becomes four, four becomes eight, and endless variety comes out. Now, in this position, where are we, the people who are asking questions?

We must be very careful in understanding the difference between one and two. We cannot think of the one without thinking the two. We cannot think of two without thinking the one. It appears that there is a correlation between one and two, but there cannot be a correlation because already we said one, two. There is a division. The concept of the one is followed by the concept of two, as if there is some kind of internal relationship between one and two. And yet the usage of the word ‘two' defies this possibility. Two things cannot become one thing. If two things can become one thing, then there are no two things.

Now, we all, having been created from this mysterious occurrence, are perhaps on one side of this duality as being bodily created. This one side is called either the subject or the object, as we cannot belong to both sides simultaneously. Where are we among these two things which are the effect of the split of one? To which part do we belong?

Philosophers have designated these two parts as subject and object. Which is the subject, which is the object? That also is a difficult thing to understand. Am I the subject here and you are the object, or are you the subject and I am the object? Either way it looks very fine, nothing wrong. But there is a quandary. What are we asking now? Beyond this individuality, what is there? First of all, what do we mean by individuality? Let us explain it. It is the state in which one is. Now, what is the state in which we are? Are we objects because we belong to one side of the split part of the One? Or are we subjects? Are we seeing things, or are we seen by something else? We can think only one side of the matter, but the question is: What is beyond this so-called split of the One into two things? Who can answer this question?

The One who split into two alone can answer this question. No one on Earth can answer this question because everyone on Earth is one of the two. We belong to some party. We cannot belong to two parties simultaneously. Only if we belong to two parties at the same time is there some hope, and that is an impossibility. Therefore, no answer can be given to this question. We are asking an impossible question. The origin of things, about which we are raising a question, cannot be thought by that which has been downgraded as a split of the One into two parts.

Yama does not say all these things, but his reluctance and refusal to answer has an implication of this type. He could answer a hundred questions as he was an omniscient being, but he would not speak on this matter. It is mind-boggling. The Upanishad says that if anyone tries to probe into this mystery their heart will break. An incident of this type took place in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Someone asked a question of this kind to Sage Yajnavalkya. “Ask not, lest your head break,” he said. And it broke, and the questioner fell. There are two sides of the brain. How they coordinate themselves is a mystery. Why do we not have one brain? Why are there two sides? Somehow, mysteriously, they coordinate, cooperate, and make it appear that there is only one mass of brain and not two halves.

We live together in this world as if we know each other. We are friends. I will cooperate with you, and you will cooperate with me. But why should I cooperate with you, and you with me? You are different from me, and I am different from you. If we accept that we are totally different, where comes the question of cooperation? Here is an artificiality behind every concept of cooperation and social values. There is a problem at the very root of things, and therefore Yama, knowing this, would not talk more.

The two parts which were the effect of the splitting of the One have no relationship between one and the other, and are trying to know what is beyond them. Now, what is the answer? As I said, the answer does not come in the Kathopanishad. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is some indication. “After death there is no consciousness,” says Sage Yajnavalkya. His consort Maitreyi got befuddled. “What are you saying?” By ‘death' he meant the same thing about which Nachiketas was asking. It is not the death of the body, but the death of individuality. So there is no consciousness. “How is it?” Maitreyi asks. “What happens to consciousness?”

“My dear Maitreyi, as any one beholds the other, there is perception. There is a consciousness of the object.” So is the case with the ear, the nose, and all the senses. Where there is one, and also there is the other, there is the possibility of perception, cognition and sensory knowledge, conceptual knowledge, intellectual knowledge, and all kinds of knowledge that we can boast of in this world. But you are caught up in an imbroglio of belonging to one party and not being able to understand your relation to the other party. So all knowledge is futile, in one way. All learning, all professorial degrees, fall flat because of this intrinsic defect in the very fact of knowledge of this kind because this knowledge arises from one side of the matter without knowing the other side.

What is the meaning of saying there is no consciousness after death? There is no consciousness after the death of individuality. Here is the answer to Nachiketas' question. “Why is there no consciousness?” Maitreyi asked. It is because normally by ‘consciousness' we mean the phenomena arising out of sense contact. Where there is no one to see or hear or touch or breathe, of what can there be consciousness?

Salila eko draṣṭādvaito bhavati, eṣa brahma-lokaḥ, samrāḍ iti. hainam anuśaśāsa yājñavalkyaḥ (Brih. Up. 4.3.32). Yajnavalkya spoke to King Janaka, “An ocean is there, like an ocean without boundaries.” That consciousness which does not arise from sense perception is indescribable. It is something like God-consciousness – not consciousness of God, but consciousness which is God. It knows nothing but itself. Pure Being is conscious of itself. Sat is chit, chit is sat. You are speaking about that, but you are incapable of touching that subject because you are not Pure Being.

As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says, everyone in the world is like a part of the split pea. The pea has two sides. It looks as if the two are one, but they are split in the middle. Two persons cannot coordinate themselves. It is an impossibility. Under any circumstances, there is a rift between one and the other. There is a subtle possibility of separation even in the best of united existence. There is sorrow at the bottom of things. In all the joys of the world there is great grief hidden beneath, like a serpent's fangs, because we are finally caught up in a very difficult, mysterious phenomenon which we are trying to probe into, but we cannot find an answer to it. Here is something which is very, very interesting in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Tat kena kam paśyet (Bri. Up. 2.4.14): When the One alone is there, who will see whom, and who will be conscious of what? Therefore, there is no consciousness after the death of this individuality. Nachiketas would have heard this if he had been there with Yajnavalkya.

Questions of this kind should not be asked. They are called forbidden questions – ati prasannas. One of the great scholars mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a great saintly lady called Gargi, went on asking questions, pressing, pressing, pressing, one question after the other. Yajnavalkya said, “Gargi, ask not more lest your head fall.” Then she held her mouth. There is a limit for asking because the whole universe is empirical, and everyone inside is a part of this empirical existence. It is phenomenal. We are caught up in phenomenality, and we are trying to exert hard to transcend phenomenality and reach something that is beyond. That is not possible because we are already accepting the fact that we are phenomenal. The phenomenal cannot become that which is not phenomenal. One cannot become two; two cannot become one. Nothing is clear.

This is at the back of human life. We believe that everyone is fine, no problem. “I am getting on well,” everybody says, but there is death gnawing underfoot. We think we are happy, very happy, but what kind of happiness is it?

Towards the end of the Mahabharata there is a story. A person was being pursued by a tiger, and he fell into a well. In fear he caught hold of the root of a tree which was above, and when he looked down he found a crocodile inside the well. He could not climb up because of the tiger above, and he could not fall down because of the crocodile below. Two rats are gnawing at the root on which he was hanging, and at any time it could break. He was in a terrible situation. At that time he saw honey dripping from a beehive on a branch at the top of the tree, and he stretched his tongue to catch the drops because whatever be the tragedy, honey is sweet. This is our life.

It is hard to search for God, and so hard to understand our own selves. Impregnable is this mystery. “My dear Nachiketas, go back. Be happy. I will give you whatever you want, but this question should not be asked.”

Severe tapas is necessary to understand this mystery. Great austerity is to be practised. What kind of austerity has to be practised? It is the withdrawal of the consciousness of the sense organs, and utilising that consciousness by centralising it in the mind which is to concentrate on this mystery. When the mind and the senses stand together with the intellect, that is the state of yoga, says the Kathopanishad. The sense organs, the mind and the intellect should stand together as one focussing attention. Attention on what? Not on any object because the sense objects have been withdrawn, so there is no consciousness of the object. It is a sinking down into an abyss of unthinkable majesty of experience where we cannot know where we are or what is happening to us. Wonderful! Śravaṇāyāpi bahubhir yo na labhyaḥ, śṛṇvanto'pi bahavo yaṁ na vidyuḥ āścaryo vaktā kuśalo'sya labdhā, āścaryo jñātā kuśalānuśiṣṭaḥ (Katha 1.2.7): The Upanishad tells us this is a wonder. One looks at it as a wonder. A wonder is what we are hearing, a wonder is the person who is expounding this, and a wonder is the one who can receive this knowledge. We cannot say anything about this mystery except that it is a wonder. ‘Wonder' explains everything. We will not say anything further.

All philosophy began with wonder, according to one theory. All philosophy began with doubt, is another theory. The Greeks were wonderstruck by the majesty of creation, and there were also people who had doubts in their minds. So wonder and doubt are the beginnings of philosophical thinking. But we have not come to any conclusion. Endless schools of philosophy are there, but each one is a facet of what is possible in the field of knowledge. Total knowledge does not come because the sense organs, which are more than one, do not come together. They refuse to fuse themselves into a single organ of perception. So there is an element of duality, multiplicity, even in our best attempt to know what is beyond the sense organs.

Even with the best of intentions, there is a desolation at the bottom of things because of the fact that we do not belong to the whole, we belong to a part of things. It is like, as I said, belonging to one party and always being afraid of the other party, so any amount of reconciliation is only artificial. We have to rise beyond the subjective side and the objective side. But who are we to do that? We have already dubbed ourselves as belonging to one side only. Can we belong to two sides simultaneously? This is called yoga.

“Ah, I belong to both sides simultaneously.” Who is this ‘I' that is able to belong to two sides simultaneously? To break the barrier of the twoness, the human mind is not competent enough to probe further. Gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ (Gita 4.17): The activity of the human mind is very mysterious. Yogo bhavati duḥkhahā (Gita 6.17): The unitedness that is spoken of in the form of yoga is a destroyer of sorrow of every kind – intellectual, sensory, mental, psychological, everything. The world is an abode of sorrow. Duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam (Gita 8.15) are the words used in the Bhagavadgita. Dukha, sorrow, is embedded in the very fact of our being in a peculiar state of phenomenality and yet struggling to break out of it, which we find is impossible.

This is why an answer cannot be given to Nachiketas. “Go back and take the pleasure of the whole world, and live a long life,” said Yama to Nachiketas.

“What is long life, my dear Master? When the long life ends, it becomes short. Do not deceive me like that. You said that you will bless me with the power of enjoyment of the whole world. What is enjoyment? It will wear out the sense organs. The body will become decrepit and collapse. Don't tell me all these things. Take away all your joys, and answer my question,” replied Nachiketas.

All these things seem to be involved in the refusal and hesitancy of Lord Yama in answering this question. It is a question of life; it is not a question about something else. So deep is the implication of these Upanishads. We read the Upanishads so many times, we memorise grammar and lexicon and so on, but the heart does not open. It is like trying to break a rock. Grammar cannot break the rock.

The individual, which belongs to one side of the issue, has to belong to both sides in order for the two sides to not exist at all. The subject is the object; the object is the subject. Are you able to think like that? The mind, which is obliged to think in terms of subjectivity and objectivity, refuses to answer this question. Here is the reason for Yama's refusal to answer the question. He knew everything, but he thought it is not good to speak further.

These are some of the issues arising from the study of the Upanishads, and as we go further the Upanishads become deeper and deeper until, in my opinion, the Brihadaranyaka answers every question. It touches every aspect of life. The Chhandogya and the Brihadaranyaka should be studied together. The Chhandogya Upanishad emphasises mostly cosmological phenomena, but the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad goes beyond and emphasises the non-empirical side. You have to read both the Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads.

We are not reading; we are actually refreshing ourselves and trying to become another thing altogether. We are expecting a touch of the philosopher's stone so that the iron that we are becomes gold. We are not reading and studying just because we have no other work. It is in order to become different. We do not want to acquire knowledge. We want to become different. We have to be transmuted, transformed and given a new touch of our very existence itself. The Bhagavadgita says that after many, many incarnations we may have the blessing of knowing what this truth is. The samskaras of the previous birth will urge us on to further investigation, and one day we will reach a solution to this question.