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The Essence of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Spiritual and the Temporal

The stages of the evolution of man's desires and aspirations may be said to rise from his economic needs (Artha) to his vital urges (Kama), from these two, further on, to the fulfilment of the Universal Law (Dharma) and, finally, the liberation of the self in the Absolute (Moksha). The last-mentioned, the longing for spiritual freedom, is, again, constituted of certain stages of approach to Reality. From the ordinary impulse to the doing of selfish actions, there is an onward, rather an upward, ascent to the performance of unselfish activity (Karma-Yoga), and then through the more inwardised stage of devotion, adoration and worship (Upasana), one finds the culmination of one's aspiration in total spiritual absorption by means of the higher knowledge of Reality and meditation on It (Jnana).

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad purports to be a compendium of instruction on every one of these stages of the ascent of the soul to the Supreme Being. While the first four Chapters are confined pre-eminently to the elucidation of the nature of Reality( Jnana) and Its Law as operating in the Universe (Dharma), there is a predominant emphasis on internal worship (Upasana) in the Fifth Chapter, to which subject it is entirely devoted. There is reference interspersed in different places, in some degree, to ritualistic performances as well as concrete meditations in practically all the Chapters of the Upanishad.

The First Section of the Sixth Chapter is, again, a discourse on worship and adoration, the objects here being the supreme Prana, the speech, the eye, the ear, the mind, etc., in their universalised forms. The superiority of the Universal Prana over everything else is emphasised. The second section of the Sixth Chapter deals with the famous Panchagni-Vidya, or the doctrine of the Five Fires, as taught by king Pravahana Jaivali to the Brahmana sage Gautama, in answer to the great questions: (1) Where do people go after death? (2) From where do people come at the time of birth? (3) Why is the other world never filled up even if many die here repeatedly? (4) How do the liquids offered as libations rise up as a human being? (5) What are the paths of the gods and the manes?

The Five fires of the universal sacrifice mentioned here are the celestial realm, the atmospheric realm through which rainfalls occur, the physical earth or the world of living beings, the male, and the female, with all which, gradually, by succession, the souls, when they reincarnate, are supposed to get identified until they enter the womb of the mother; i.e. the first urge for rebirth or the impulse to descend into grosser forms is supposed to originate in the super-physical realms, and then it grossens itself by greater and greater density through rainfall, the foodstuffs of the earth, man's virile energy and a woman's womb. On birth and after appreciable growth there is the natural tendency to work for ulterior gains, which produces effects (Apurva) causing the rise of the soul to other worlds after death here, only to bring about its descent to the lower worlds once again on the exhaustion of the force of the works done here.

However, those individuals who practise meditation on the Five Fires as universal forces and do not regard them merely as natural phenomena, getting subjected to them, go to the higher worlds through the path of gods (known also as the Northern Path), until they reach the region of the Creator. But those who do not perform such meditation, and are ignorant of the universal relatedness of all phenomena in creation and perform merely the so-called good works and charities known in this world as virtues, go after death through the path of the smoke (known as the Southern Path), only to return to the lower worlds on the exhaustion of the force of their merits. It is also added that those who do not go through either of these paths get reborn as animals, insects, etc., whose lives are either of utter ignorance and instinct or of immensely short durations.

The third section of the Sixth Chapter is devoted to certain mystical rites, explained in detail, intended to acquire earthly prosperity, wealth and glory, in this world. Through the successful execution of these ritualistic performances coupled with a sort of meditation as would be required in the context, the performer is expected to fulfil his desires for wealth and earthly glory (Artha). The fourth section, which is the conclusion of the Sixth Chapter, elaborates the mystical rites connected with the various stages of the procedure and process of childbirth, which includes a fairly detailed touch of the spiritual implications or the diviner aspects of ordinary love-making or the manifestation of the usual relationship between man and woman (Kama). Uninformed students of the Upanishad hold the erroneous opinion that the section dealing with the way of acquiring wealth and the romantic periods in one's social existence are unbecoming of an Upanishad which is expected to deal with the nature of God, or the Absolute. The criticism arises from quarters having no knowledge of the connection of the temporal with the spiritual or the inter-relationship of every stage in evolution with every other stage, the higher stage at every level being implicit in the lower and the lower one getting illumined in the higher by the spotlight of knowledge. The spiritual is the vitalising value in the secular, which is what enables the latter, at the proper time, to evoke the deepest levels of even the mightiest genius. As stated earlier, the Upanishad is a comprehensive text explaining the ways of an integrated life, pointing to ultimate perfection, as is abundantly made clear in the doctrine of the Five Fires—Panchagni Vidya—wherein the importance of every stage in creative integration is visualised in its relevance to the realisation of complete being.