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Being the Cosmic Whole
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 5: The Paths of the Soul to Liberation

In answering the great question that the little boy Nachiketas raised, we also considered the reason of the difficulty because the question was concerning the transcendent, which is beyond the area of human perception and cognition. That is, an individual was trying to know what is beyond the individual. That was the problem. The tuning of the individual to that which is beyond the individual is the impossibility. So Yamaraja, the great god, was not willing to say anything on this matter; however, something was said.

Actually, the Kathopanishad is a reservoir of the wealth of spiritual knowledge. It tells many things. These are all connected with the processes of the spiritual ascent of a person. In some ashrams in India, the students are asked to commit to memory the whole of the Kathopanishad. The Kathopanishad should be learned by heart, just as we read the Gita and chant it every day.

There is nothing concerning spiritual life which the Kathopanishad does not touch. Everyone should read it thoroughly. There are commentaries on this Upanishad, as in the case of the other Upanishads also. One adventurous British scholar wrote a regular thesis on the Kathopanishad. He was in the Indian Air Force during the British regime and settled in India after the war, becoming a professor of English literature in Lucknow University. Afterwards he took sannyas under the Vaishnava system of renunciation, changed his name to Krishna Prem, and started an ashram of his own called Uttar Vrindavan in Almora, in the hill districts. He wrote two books, one called The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita on the intricate mystical meaning behind the gospel of the Bhagavadgita, and the other called The Yoga of the Katha Upanishad, in which he has made a very deep analysis of every verse of the Upanishad. It is highly mystic and touching. Both are wonderful books. He wrote in a state of rapture, as it were.

I directed your mind to the conclusions of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where we find an inkling into the difficulty of the problem, and why one cannot know another thing. One can know oneself only. The ‘another thing' is a debarred experience. When you are trying to know something other than yourself, you will never succeed. But this thing that you are seeking is not something other than yourself. So the knowledge of the Ultimate virtually amounts to be knowledge of one's own self: Know thyself and be free.

The stages of actual practice also are given in certain verses of the Kathopanishad. Indriyebhyaḥ parā hy arthā, arthebhyaś ca param manaḥ, manasaś ca parā buddhir buddher ātmā mahān paraḥ; mahataḥ param avyaktam, avyaktāt puruṣaḥ paraḥ, puruṣān na paraṁ kiñcit: sā kāṣṭhā, sā parā gatiḥ (Katha 1.3.10-11). This is a suggestion for gradational ascent of consciousness, stage by stage, to the Ultimate Being.

We cannot tear ourselves abruptly in order to become the transcendent. The transcendent has to be opened very, very carefully, like the blossoming of a flower. We cannot cut open the bud and expect the flower to come forth. This bodily individuality is also to be taken into account. We cannot destroy the body for the sake of the Realisation of the Supreme Being because, unfortunately, the Supreme is indwelling even in the physical body. This is one of the selfs, as we call it.

In the Bhagavadgita there is a reference to this. The Self should raise the self in meditation. Uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet, ātmaiva hy ātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ (Gita 6.5). What does this mean? Raise the self by the Self. Raise the lower dimension by contact with the higher dimension. What is this higher dimension? It is the pervasive character of consciousness.

Usually in ordinary persons, ignorant ones, consciousness pervades only within the limit of the physical body of the person. Cultured people who are conscious of the presence of a society outside feel compelled to extend the consciousness locked up in the body in the direction of the wider circumstance of human society. Then it is that one begins to feel the necessity to cooperate with other people. Purely selfish persons have no need for cooperation. They are, and nothing else is. This activity of recognising the presence of other things external to one's own self is the activity of the same consciousness expanding its dimension in the direction of the area of society of living beings. But this is an artificial way in which the consciousness within tries to expand itself. Consciousness cannot expand itself unnecessarily. It can only pervade, but it cannot become different from what it really is. That is the reason why, despite all our efforts to be one hundred percent friendly with others, our attempt does not succeed because this relationship cannot be one hundred percent at any time. There is a snag at the back of it which comes out under difficult situations. The difficulty is the clinging of consciousness to one's own physical existence. It is the first and foremost thing that consciousness takes care of. When everything fails and nothing is okay, it reverts to itself and feels: Let me be alone to myself.

People who are socially very active, politically very aggressive and hardworking, go on doing this work until they feel the pinch of the difficulty in pleasing everybody, and actually end up quarrelling with everybody. Politicians, social welfare workers, get fed up with their work. They say, “We have had enough of it. We will go to an ashram and stay alone.” This is the reversal of the consciousness to its primitive condition of encasement within the body which is its primary status. As when monkeys are threatened they will run up to the top of the tree and sit, likewise, consciousness will suddenly come back and enter the person. The person will start saying, “I am fed up with everything because there are immense pains that one has to undergo in political and social life.” Oftentimes these people are rejected completely. Society does not want them. This is the fate of most people, if we read history. The reason is that consciousness is physically bound and has to be liberated gradually.

Indriyebhyaḥ parā hy arthā. The sense organs are conditioned by the characteristics of the objects. The nature of the structure of the objects outside impinge upon the perceptive capacity in us, and then perception gets conditioned by objectivity. This is another controversy in philosophical history: whether knowledge comes from outside or it arises spontaneously from inside. Those who insist that knowledge comes by contact with outer conditions are called empiricists, and those who insist that knowledge spontaneously arises from inside are called rationalists. There is always a clash between these two opposing views. Many other philosophers have tried to reconcile these two extreme positions.

Empirically speaking, as long as we are in a world of physicality, we have to give due consideration to the fact that objects influence us very much. It is not that we are directly influencing them. We have the capacity to influence the objects in our deeper consciousness but ordinarily, like waves dashing over one another in the ocean, the objects perceived attack us and compel us to be attentive and conscious because they are more powerful.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us that there are two processes involved, the graha and the atigraha. The sense organs catch the objects; that is graha. The objects catch the sense organs with double force; that is atigraha. Once we are involved in objective perception, the objects will not leave us so easily. The memory of the contact with the objects will harass us for all time, and our little, individual consciousness will not be able to bear the brunt of this assault. If we attack a tiger with all our strength, it will attack us with greater force and maul us completely. We have the capacity to control the tiger to some extent, but its strength is much more.

The priority of the existence of objects in the process of creation and the posteriority of the sense organs and our individuality explain the whole situation. The world is more powerful than the individual. This is another way of saying the objects have an impelling and forceful effect on human individuality which is, according to the process of evolution, a latecomer. The Upanishads tells us we have to liberate ourselves from this situation gradually. Objects are very powerful. Now, what to do next?

Indriyebhyaḥ parā hy arthā: Objects are more powerful, and seem to be beyond the control of the indriyas, the sense organs. Arthebhyaś ca param manaḥ: The mind has the capacity to understand the activity of the objects. By analytical understanding, one can know why the objects are harassing us. Here the intellect comes into action. Why do the objects harass us? Why is it that we are always thinking of the objects? We always think what is outside. The reason is the weakness of physical individuality and the greater strength of objective reality.

If we consider the process of evolution as mentioned in our scriptures and also in scientific processes, space and time came first. Therefore, we cannot get over the clutches of space and time. Whatever we think is in space, and in time. Even if we feel that we are going to transcend space, that thought also will be in another kind of space. This is the catching aspect of objective reality. The cosmic vibrations created by the activity of space and time, which are unintelligible at present, reduce the potentials of further creation. These are what we may call the electrical forces. Electrical forces are not substances; rather, they are the prior conditioning factors which congeal themselves into solid objects. In Sanskrit they are called tanmatras, potentials, not manifested parts. When they are actually manifested in gross form they are called elements, bhutas, such as earth, water, fire, air and ether.

Now, where comes the human individuality? Strangely, the Taittiriya Upanishad tells us: tasmād vā etasmād ātmana ākāśas sambhūtah, ākāśād vāyuh, vāyor agniḥ, agner āpaḥ, adbhyaḥ pṛithivī, pṛthivyā oṣadhayaḥ oṣadhībhyo annam, annāt puruṣaḥ (Tait. Up. 2.1.1.). Our humble status in this world is described here in the gradational description of the Taittiriya Upanishad. The first evolute from the universal Atman is space-time. It is a terrifying thing, if at all we are able to think of it. We cannot know what this space-time is: how long it is, how wide it is, how big it is, how powerful it is. It is a cosmic heat producing the impact of further evolution in the form of solid objects – earth, water, fire, air and ether.

Now, the Upanishad says after the earth has manifested, it produces herbs, edibles, etc. – oṣadhībhyo annam. The food that one eats is the product of edible plants, herbs, and other vegetables in the vegetable kingdom, by eating which the human body is formed. The human body is a feeble structure. It assumes some kind of strength due to combining the foodstuffs provided by the products of the earth, and feels a kind of energy inside which is purely derivative and not original. None of us has original strength. We have only a derivative strength based on the cooperation of earth, water, fire, air, ether, etc. We cannot even breathe, as we have no facilities to manufacture the breathing apparatus. We cannot manufacture air, and we cannot manufacture heat in the body. We can manufacture nothing. This is the humble status of the human being, and must be recognised. One should not try to jump over one's own shoulder.

Indriyebhyaḥ parā hy arthā, arthebhyaś ca param manaḥ. The mind spoken of is twofold: the higher mind and the lower mind. Yoga practice is very difficult. We must understand all this psychological apparatus. The lower mind always agrees with what the sense organs bring to it as reports from outside. Whatever report comes through the sense organs regarding the world outside, the mind agrees, so the mind also is sensorily conditioned to a large extent. The mind thinks, but it thinks only sensory thoughts. We cannot think something more than that.

But beyond the mind there is what is called the intellect, which analyses the whole thing and finds out what is true and what is not true in the operation of the mind. Why should the mind agree with every report that the sense organs give? It is weak, and simply says “yes” to everything. The viveka shakti, the discriminative faculty of the intellect, analyses and extracts the milk from the water with which it is mixed. This faculty is called the higher reason. The lower reason is that which just acquiesces with the working of the mind in terms of the sense organs. The higher mind is an ambassador of the Supreme Being, and it reflects the characteristics of the Absolute. Here, in this stage, people become philosophers. They contemplate the Eternal through the shining aspect of the intellectual organs.

There are two kinds of argument: empirically conditioned argument and transcendently conditioned argument. Reason can confirm by one way or the other what the mind is thinking in terms of the sense organs, but it cannot liberate itself from the clutch of the lower mind and rise above to the contemplation of what is beyond. It is the presence of the activity of a higher reason in us that makes us unsatisfied with everything in this world. The lower mind, the lower reason, the sense organs say, “Everything is well with you, the world is very fine.” But the higher reason says, “I am an ambassador of God. I have come here to fulfil the dictates of the Supreme Being.” The higher reason pulls us up in the direction of non-sensory experience, whereas the ordinary mind pulls us down in the direction of sensory gratification.

Arthebhyaś ca param manaḥ, manasaś ca parā buddhir: Beyond the mind is this reason. Reason is intellect. This intellect, so-called, is a part of, or we may even say a reflection of the cosmic intellect or Mahan, Mahat-tattva. Mahat-tattva is identified with cosmic intelligence, and is often equated with Brahma the Creator, the factor of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence.

Slowly take the mind from the physical body, from the sense organs, from the mind, to the discriminative intellect, and apply that which the reason provides you with an inkling of the presence of that which is above individuals. Can you imagine cosmic understanding? It is an understanding of a type of intellect which is not physically encased. It is present everywhere. It is a universal intelligence pervading every kind of expression in the form of varieties of individualities.

It requires a little bit of courage on the part of the spiritual seeker to raise the mind to that level of universal intelligence. Here is the beginning of true yoga. When the Gita says that the self has to be pulled up by the higher Self, it means the Mahat-tattva should pull up the lower intellect. How does the Mahat-tattva pull up the lower intellect? Your intellect is bodily conditioned. How did it reach the status of a universal intelligence? It reached it by intense tapasya, discipline of the consciousness which extricates itself from attachment to bodily conditions and sensory demands, and confirms itself to be that in the liberated cosmic intellectual condition. It does not require the help of sense organs, nor does it want any objects because the so-called objects and the apparatus of the sense organs gets melted down and subsumed under this cosmic understanding that is Brahma, the Cosmic Being. Concentrate your mind on that as if you are in that state and not in this world. “I am in the Cosmic Intelligence.” Cosmic intelligence pervades even space and time. Therefore, you are beyond space and time.

Very great courage is necessary here to apply the will in this manner. Determination is necessary in yoga. Will power is necessary. Go on, go on, go on every day: “I am cosmically pervasive. I am not sitting in one place. As cosmically pervasive, my objects are myself. There are no objects here because this cosmically pervasive intelligence includes not only all the objects of the world, but myself also.” The subject and object do not stand apart in that condition. They get fused into one another, and there is one experience. This is what they call the experience in Brahmaloka, which is unthinkable for ordinary people, where everything is reflected in everything else as if millions of mirrors are positioned with every mirror shining on another mirror so which shines where, nobody knows, and everything is everywhere. Every person is all persons. This is one of the great experiences referred to in our Upanishads, and some of these indications are available even in the circle of Western mystics like Plotinus. Everything is everywhere. Everywhere is sunlight, everywhere is the sun. The sun is beholding the sun. This is what Plotinus explains in his ecstasy.

Nobody can know what Brahmaloka is. It is an operation where all externalised conditions of operations cease. Automatic cosmic operation takes place where it is not directed to any objective outside because the outsideness is subsumed in this cosmic intelligence. Mahan, Mahat. Buddher ātmā mahān paraḥ. On that you concentrate. Very vigorous and determined willpower is necessary. You should not take it lightly.

Mahataḥ param avyaktam. Here is a dark screen before oneself. The word ‘avyakta', the indeterminate cosmic screen, the source of the creation of diversity, is used here. Before you reach the orb of the sun you will see everything dark everywhere. You can imagine the brilliance of the sun. But if you gaze at the sun, you will not see the sun. You will see only blackness. Everything is black, dark. The darkness is due to the excess of light of the sun.

The reversal order of perception takes place here in a similar way. It is impossible to understand. Even the Rigveda says in its cosmological hymn: “Who can know what happened?” In a sarcastic way the mantra ends: “Perhaps the Creator Himself does not know what He has done.”

There we will find ourselves stationed like Nachiketas trembling before Lord Yama, finding nothing, and wanting everything. If you are determined spiritually, this nexus of subject-object relation will be darkness, but when you pursue the art of going beyond them, they will get dispersed; the clouds will scud here and there, and the sun will shine.

It is not a question of one or two years of practice. Anekajanmasaṁsiddhas tato yāti parāṁ gatim (Gita 6.45), the Bhagavadgita says. Ordinarily we have to pass through many incarnations, many births and deaths, in order to make ourselves eligible to have this kind of experience, but there may be exceptions. A determined soul may get released in this birth itself. That is also possible. The pranas of such a person who has dissolved all desires and dissolved the capacities of sense organs do not depart. He dissolves himself then and there, like a bubble merging in the ocean. The bubble need not travel a long distance in the ocean; it becomes the ocean. But if such a thing is not possible, if there is hesitation in the mind, if there is a pull from below, then there is a gradational ascent from one stage to another stage, one stage to another stage, one stage to another stage. Passing through the solar orb, and further stages, are all mentioned in the Panchagni-vidya in the Chhandogya Upanishad until, surprisingly, one finds oneself in the inscrutable Brahmaloka.

There are some people who hold different opinions here. What is Brahmaloka? It is the ultimate creative repository of compulsive activity which is called creation. As creation is compulsive, it cannot become retrograde; you cannot break it through. That may mean you are breaking through the creative force itself. Some say it is possible. You can break through the creative force and transcend Brahma also, and immediate liberation is possible. That is called sadyo mukti. Rare are those souls. Rare are these people who can break through the creative force, the intricate nexus of creativity in the cosmic level.

To break through the cosmic nexus, what strength you must have, what power! You should not be a human being at all. How pure you must be in your heart, how desireless you must be for paltry things in the world, how detached, how balanced, and how united with everything! Unthinkable is this exercise. For such people, liberation is instantaneous. It does not come tomorrow. When you sleep and wake up, you do not wake up tomorrow; you wake up now itself because all the cords which put you into the torpidity of sleep are broken instantaneously when it is invaded by the waking consciousness. So is the case here. When the Absolute consciousness invades all the creative apparatus looking so hard indeed, it bursts forth all this nexus, and an eternal sun shines – not shining upon you, because you are not there as separate. The sun shines on itself. God knows Himself. He shines on Himself. He knows Himself, not somebody else. That state of one knowing one's own self in a cosmical sense, God knowing Himself – it is impossible to think what kind of thing it is. That is the stage of liberation.

Thus, the Kathopanishad has also given some prescriptions for going from the lower to the higher gradually. It is a masterpiece of spiritual literature. In the beginning it looks very hard and practically useless. Yama will not give the answer. But then he gives the indication of the route that you have to pursue. Go this way, until you cross the several gates of entry into this cosmic citadel. These gates are the obstacles. They are the presence of subtle desires in your own mind. The mind will not allow itself to be abolished like that. You cannot say that you want nothing, that you do not have any desire. Such a person is impossible to imagine. But if such a thing is possible, that great possibility is immediate liberation.

Seekers in the general sense cannot expect this kind of liberation. They have to pass through the process of exercise from one stage to another stage, gradationally, until they get purified – slowly, not abruptly. This is why it is said that one may have to take many births.

Sometimes the joy of the possibility of reaching God bursts forth so quickly that all the karmas are destroyed in one second. There is a story mentioned by Sri Ramakrishana Paramahamsa. There was a gardener who tended fruit trees, and there was a farmer who tilled the land. At that time Narada was passing that way.

“Great Master, where are you going?” they asked.

“I am going to Vaikuntha to see Lord Narayana,” Narada replied.

“Oh, please ask him when I will be liberated,” requested both the farmer and the gardener.

When Narada returned from Vaikuntha they asked, “Oh, what is the answer? What did the Lord say?”

Narada told the farmer, “You will take five more births to reach God.”

“Oh, no good! So much sadhana I have done, after all. Oh, no good,” said the farmer.

But the gardener was told, “You will take as many births as there are leaves on the tree.”

“Oh, is it possible that after all I am eligible? Oh, after all I am eligible!” The gardener burst, and attained liberation there itself, whereas the farmer was crying because he had to take five more births.

There is a possibility for us to break through the chain absolutely in one instant, provided our longing is so intense and we are one hundred percent bursting with the love of God. Sadyo mukti, immediate salvation is possible. Otherwise, we have to pass through the gradual steps through the gatekeeper and so many other conditioning factors. Here the door is flung open at once, and we are there in the glory of that great thing which Nachiketas wanted to know.