Commentary on the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda


Section 3: The Tree of Life

The World Tree Rooted in Brahman

ῡrdhva-mῡlo’vāk-śākha eṣo’śvatthas sanātanaḥ,
tad eva śukraṁ tad brahma, tad evāmṛtam ucyate,
tasmin lokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tad u nātyeti kaś cana: etad vai tat. (1)

“This is that eternal Ashvattha Tree with roots above and branches below. That indeed is the pure. That is Brahman. That alone is the immortal. In It, all worlds are contained, and none goes beyond. This, verily, is That.” The third section, the concluding one of this Upanishad, commences with a unique comparison, the same which we find in the fifteenth chapter of the Gita. While the words of the Gita differ slightly from those of this mantra, the idea is the same: it is the description of the famous Tree of Life.

The analogy of this tree is not peculiar to our scriptures alone. The tale of this tree can also be found in the mystical texts of other cultures, though descriptions may differ slightly; but they all symbolise life.

While trees usually have their roots growing downwards, this tree has them growing upwards. Why so? Why should it be unlike other trees? There is a spiritual significance in this. Just as a tree has an origin, life has an origin. As the tree goes through the process of growth and evolution, so does life. As the tree is sustained by certain elements, life also is sustained. As the tree has many branches, life is manifold too. As the tree sprouts forth into flowers and fruits, life does similarly. As the tree is exuberant in certain seasons, so is life. As the tree can be felled, life can be cut. As the tree falls, life also ends. The process of living can be compared to the growth of the tree. The reason why its roots strike upwards is the process of life itself.

The manifestation of the universe can be seen in two ways: it is not clear whether God created it instantaneously, by an act of Will, or whether it evolves, rising from one stage to another. The Bible says that God willed, and the universe came into existence. But the view of the scientists does not agree with this doctrine of yugapat-srishti; they hold that it has evolved. Vedanta accepts both theories. Even if creation is yugapat, this does not exclude the idea of evolution. The fact that time and space belong to creation does not necessarily suggest that it need be in space and time. In this timeless causation which is difficult for the mind to understand, the process of world evolution is super-intellectual. ishvara creates in a mysterious manner, not in the logical way we think of. If His sudden Will were the cause of creation, it might be called whimsical. He would be accused of having made some people good and some bad. But, according to the Gita, God has no fancy. He takes the karmas of the jivas into consideration. Many trees grow on this earth: somewhere mango trees; somewhere thorns; various kinds in various places. The earth will bring forth whatever you sow, and sustain it, whether it is a tree with sweet fruit or a tree with bitter fruit. Likewise do the sun, the river, etc.; they shed light or give water to all in the same manner. Nature is absolutely impartial. So is God, the general Sustainer; He is supreme Impartiality, sustaining both the wicked and the virtuous. “The seeds are there,” says Shankaracharaya. Seeds represent those jivas who have been wound up in the previous cycle and who lie in deep sleep, as it were.

For example, we all go to sleep. A king sleeps, a beggar sleeps, a lawyer sleeps, and so on. We may say that in the state of deep sleep, we are all the same in one sense. The differences arise only when the ego sprouts. When it is hushed down in sleep, there is equality. In brahma-loka, the Cosmic Sleep into which all jivas are withdrawn at the end of a cycle, when Brahma, or hiranyagarbha, withdraws His personality, they do not get liberated, but lie wound up, ready for germination in the next kalpa. Just as sleep is not samadhi, the being wound up after a kalpa is not liberation. When Brahma wakes up into consciousness in the next cycle, the jivas shoot forth, and as we awake, being what we were yesterday, after our nightly sleep, so do they wake up to work out their karmas. The manner of working them out may vary slightly from kalpa to kalpa, but the method or pattern is the same. And so, at every pralaya or cyclic dissolution, the seeds of jivas are in the tree of life. They are there; they are not created.

Since when do they exist? This question cannot arise. Time is also a part of creation; it is from eternity to eternity. To every kalpa there is an earlier one, just as we cannot say whether the tree came first, or the seed.

The tree described here refers to a span of life. It has its roots above in Brahma, or hiranyagarbha. The Sankhya tells us that the world has evolved from mulaprakriti. If the seed is prakriti, the trunk is constituted of mahat and ahamkara. It has no branches; they shoot forth later on. It is sustained by the root of prakriti, the impartial light of the purusha. The branches ramify from the trunk. Two huge branches shoot forth from ahankara-tattva. These are the macrocosm and the microcosm, the brahmanda and the pindanda, we may say; a huge and a small branch, but both are sustained by the same trunk. On one side we have the tanmatras which mix to form the five elements, and the mahabhutas. On the other side, there are the psychological organs such as the mind, intellect, etc., in the individual. Then come the ten senses, the five pranas, the subsidiary pranas, the physical body; all intimately related to the brahmanda, constituted of the same stuff, all organically connected to the trunk. The psychological organs, senses, etc., have their loves and hatred, the tendency to virtue and vice, all the strong and weak points of human nature; the urge to evolution and involution, for sense-gratification and God-realisation.

The sap of the tree permeates each cell. Having its branches in the form of the elements, the mahabhutas, the sense-organs, it spreads out and downward, right from brahma-loka through the seven worlds above to this gross earth and the seven worlds below. This tree is sustained by the universal purusha or Brahman; it is permanent in one sense, and impermanent in another one. It is shashvata—it cannot be destroyed. It runs from eternity to eternity. The karmas of the jivas are the ultimate cause of it, and they are endless. But it is really not constituted of any eternal element. Neither this world nor this body can be said to be permanent.

The world and body, the panorama of creation, present before our senses a picture of permanency on account of the speed with which they rotate. If our eyes could rotate with the speed of the body’s electrons which form the bricks of the world, we could see them, and there would be no world to behold. They move fast and our eyes move slow, and hence there is perception of forms. There is destruction of body cells, a change in the position of electrons, and nothing remains steady. Like the flowing water of a river: when you touch it for a second, it is not the same as you touched earlier. Likewise, when you touch an object twice, you are not touching the same object. The flame of a lamp appears to be steady, but there is constant flow and you do not see the same flame a second time.

The world is constituted of such unsteady elements, and so it is said to be ashvatha, that which will not last till tomorrow; and yet it appears as permanent, shashvata. This so-called tree of samsara has its roots struck in prakriti constituted of sattva, rajas and tamas, but it is ultimately made up of one substance, whatever be the variety of this vast creation. The absolutely pure Brahman is the Source of it, and also its Sustainer and Withdrawer. From This, everything starts, and into This everything returns. Many examples are given to illustrate this point. Like the spider and its web, so is creation. The web is part of the matter of the spider’s body, but it appears as outside it. Or like the flashing forth of sparks of fire. This life-tree has its roots in Brahman. Even prakriti is in Brahman.

Ultimately, all is reducible to one substance: Consciousness. And into This, all creation gravitates. All beings are strung upon this Being. Every thing is connected to It, inseparably—even the distant stars and the high heavens. All things in all degrees of subtlety are connected to It; nothing is beyond the purusha, was said in an earlier verse.

“What is it that remains in the end of all things?” was Nachiketas’ question. “This is That,” is Yama’s answer.

The Great Fear

yad idaṁ kiñ ca jagat sarvam prāṇa ejati niḥsṛtam,
mahad bhayaṁ vajram udyatam, ya etad vidur amṛtās te bhavanti. (2)

All things are strung on this Being, but not in a mechanical manner. The thread has no control over the beads, though they hang on it. But here, the relation is quite different. It is one of inseparability and organic connection: without the cause, there is no effect. Some say the relation between God and the world is like between an earthen pot and the earth of which it is a form. But others feel that it does not explain the whole situation. God is not merely the material; He also fashions it. He is the effective as well as the instrumental cause simultaneously. As ishvara—the universal Intelligence—He becomes the efficient cause, but as sattva, rajas and tamas—as what the Sankhya calls prakriti—He becomes the material one; the avarana-shakti and vikshepa-shakti, as the Vedanta puts it.

His control over creation is absolute, it is not conditional. Whatever the threads do, that happens to the cloth. If the threads extend, the cloth also expands. If the threads contract, so does the cloth. Whatever the thread’s colour, that is the cloth’s also. If there is no thread, there is no cloth. The expansion of God is the expansion of the world, because His will and the object—the world—are the same. They are not different like our will and objects. He works from within, not like a carpenter who is outside the object on which he works.

We cannot imagine what this combined material, instrumental and efficient causality of God is. Nothing can shake or move or be without His Will. This supreme hiranyagarbha, the sutratman, is the ultimate Controller of this vast puppet show of the cosmos. As He manipulates through His Will, so acts the universe. He is the mahaprana, the cosmic breath, and nothing can exist without Him; even the direction in which a leaf moves is determined by His Will: “The whole universe—whatever exists—vibrates because it has sprung from Brahman. It is a great terror, like the poised thunderbolt. Those who know It become immortal.” Great fear is God. Everything is afraid of this Supreme Will of ishvara. No one can go against it. Those who had the hardihood of disobeying are getting roasted in samsara, and yet He attracts everything back to Himself again.

The Satan of the Bible is a symbol for the original deviation of individual consciousness from ishvara’s will. The boons that God bestows on you, as well as the punishment He inflicts, are indescribable. The ocean of completeness, that is ishvara-sankalpa. It can sweep off everything, or absorb everything into Itself. It is like the vajra of Indra: a terror, an uplifted thunderbolt against everyone. Yet, people go against it and run after sense-objects, and thus are caught in the widespread net of death. It is compared to supreme fear because, like the parts of a machine that cannot deviate to an extra activity of their own, there is no freedom of going beyond ishvara-sankalpa. Freedom is not independence asserted over His Will. It is freedom to move within that. Our idea of freedom is to do whatever we like. It is not freedom, but license. The more we are away from ishvara-sankalpa, the more are we bound. The nearer we are to it, the freer we become. Human freedom is only a partial manifestation of His will in us. Even our apparent freedom is allowed by ishvara, and because of His sankalpa, we exist.

The moment you know this, you become free, because to know is to be. To know the existence of God as the material, instrumental and efficient causes in one’s own being is to rise at once to the state of immortality.

Thought moves things better than the limbs of the body. A powerful thought is capable of working great miracles, because of its capacity to permeate things more thoroughly than bodies coming into contact with external objects. Thus your thought, your attitude and volition have greater command. God being the greatest of these psychological forces, He can execute not merely by thought—thinking being too inadequate for Him—but by His mere being or existence, just as the sun, which moves not, can determine the movement of the orbit of other planets. Every star, every planet, every thing seems to have a prescribed way of motion. All are being controlled by a power which need not be visible. So does the whole cosmos act in all levels. This is the true meaning of the verse in the Bhagavadgita: ishvarah sarvabhutanam hrideshe’arjuna tishthati—God seated in all hearts works in a miraculous manner, without rest. His Existence is so interconnected with that of all else in creation that by His asserting it, all things are determined. This is what is meant by saying that fear is driven into the hearts of everything like a thunderbolt: no one can move out of the orbit of God’s will.

Birth and death are only a fraction of this miraculous will, because these two ends of the chain of development are not two distinct, unconnected elements in our life. They are means evolving to an end which need not be known to those involved. The entire process of the tree’s unfolding, from the seed to a small plant, a tree, into flowers, into fruits, to a condition of withering—everything is determined by the seed’s constitution. Similarly, the momentum hidden in space rockets, which is known only to the scientists, allows them the time to reach their destination, to return, etc. All this is contained in the mechanism’s hidden force.

When a thing is born, it is released with a momentum for working matters out. The force latent in the sperm and ovum, before the birth of the child, is a potential form, and the length of time from its revelation upto its death is determined in it. Birth, therefore, determines death. It is not an unconnected event taking place in a life. It is an organic link of the jiva’s existence. Likewise, too, is the peculiar determination of things, one being connected to another, and one life not getting merely extinct, but continuing after death. We may be reborn in any realm, and such birth would be impossible if some sort of relation were not already established between the soul and the realm into which it enters. The physical and astral worlds, organic and inert bodies—everything in all realms is determined by one single Will called ishvara-sankalpa.

bhayād asyāgnis tapati, bhayāt tapati sῡryaḥ,
bhayād indraś ca vāyuś ca, mṛtyur dhāvati pañcamaḥ. (3)

“From fear of It, fire burns, the sun shines; through fear of It, Indra, the wind and Death, the fifth, speed on their way.” The shining of the sun, the pouring of rains, the blowing of the wind, the changing of seasons—all these are determined by this single Law; and the scriptures say that no complaints should be made against rain or wind or heat, because they are divine. This illustrates that God is present in everything. He dwells in all natural processes, and we can worship Him through them. In all these manifestations, God is to be seen in the river that flows, in the sun that shines, in the trees that grow, in the birds that chirp, in the moral laws within us. Knowing this, one becomes immortal.

Perception of the Self

iha ced aśakad boddhum prāk śarīrasya visrasaḥ,
tataḥ sargeṣu lokeṣu śarīratvāya kalpate. (4)

This is a highly controversial mantra, because the translation as it is seems to be incorrect. Shankara adds some words to give it a proper meaning, while Madhava changes the word ‘sarge’ into ‘svarge’.

Literally and grammatically translated it reads: “If a person is in a position to know this before casting off his body, he becomes fit for rebirth in some world.” This way, the latter part contradicts the earlier one, and because it does not make sense, Shankara says: “If one is not in a position to know... .” Max Mueller agrees in his translation. This is a possible meaning, but not suggested by the words. Other interpreters translate with: “If one has the strength to realise this truth before the shedding of this body, he becomes endowed with the power to enter into everything in the universe.” This seems to be correct, because it is corroborated through a mantra of the Chhandogya Upanishad which says that if one realises God he has free access to everything and nobody can restrict him. His freedom is unlimited like that of the gods, if only he reaches the goal before he sheds this body.

So, if we compare the three meanings; Shankara: “If one can realise this truth before he sheds this body, then, of course, he is not reborn.” Madhava: “If you cannot realise this truth before the shedding of this body, you will be reborn in such realms as heaven.” And lastly: “If one realises this truth before shedding this body, he becomes possessed of such power that he enters into everything.” This agrees with the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, too: “A person who knows the Truth, he knows the world and the world is his.”

yathādarśe tathātmani, yathā svapne tathā pitṛ-loke,
yathāpsu parīva dadṛśe, tathā gandharva-loka chāyā-tapayor iva brahma-loke. (5)

“As in a mirror, so in the intellect; as in a dream, so in the World of the Fathers; as in water, so in the World of the gandharvas; and as in light and shade in the World of Brahma.” This mantra illustrates the experiences of souls in the different realms of creation. What is your experience in this world? What is your experience in the world of the forefathers, in the world of the gandharvas, and in brahma-loka? They differ greatly, says the Upanishad. Here, in this world of mortals, we are not able to see the distinction between the Atman and objects, including our own body. They seem to be mingled. The latter one is superimposed on the former, and this super-imposition is brought about mutually by subject and object. You see your Self in the object, and that is why you love it.

As a face reflected in a mirror is not the original, so does the subject project its own psychic impurities onto the object and creates a tension of love and hatred between them. One does not become the other. One cannot become the other. But the characteristics of one get transferred to the other so much that you do not know which is the subject and which the object. Thus, in our world, there is a mix-up of the seer and the seen. This is samsara. You are mentally connected with so many things. This psychic connection has to be snapped. When the mirror is clean, you see the Atman. But this is not so easy, because you have become one with the object, and when you see the object instead of the Atman, there is ignorance and aviveka; there are raga-dvesha, attachment and suffering.

In pitri-loka, consciousness is only involved as in dream. There, the souls have a hazy notion of the Reality behind subject and object, just as when we wake up, we know that the dream selves and objects were not real. So there are occasional breaks on that level of consciousness, and an awakening into the nature of the Atman.

In the world of the gandharvas, the Atman is visible in the same way as our body is seen reflected through shaky water. The object and subject are not so egoistically involved with each other as to cause attraction and repulsion. Therefore, awakening is more easily possible than in other realms, the transiency of experience being indicated by the symbol of the shaky water surface. And so now and then they awaken to the consciousness of the Atman, though they are also subject to attraction and repulsion because these are present everywhere, though in higher realms to lesser degrees.

In brahma-loka, there is a clear-cut distinction between the divine light of the Self and the darkness of objects, just as light is seen different from shadow, because souls stand free from sensations and desires. While there is objective experience even there, Brahma sees Himself in creation clearly, devoid of the darkness of superimpositions.

The perception of objects in this world is a play of colours. By manipulating light and shade, objects can be perceived differently. It is colour that gives perceptibility to them, and how they really are can never be seen, because the moment you put light on them, they change. Likewise, our mental light colours them according to our own psyche, and this is jiva-srishti. The existence of an object, light, a particular distance, a particular mental condition, senses, emotional relation—all are necessary to create a perceptional process. But in brahma-loka, things are as they are in themselves.

In ordinary perception, there is a mixing-up of shabda, artha and jnana, says Patanjali. The utterance of a name creates a sensation and produces an idea and a picture in the mind. Therefore, we do not perceive the objects as they are in themselves, but the idea we have of them. But spiritual intuition is independent of all these. In brahma-loka, we do not need the mind in order to perceive. The Spirit beholds in a peculiar manner which is all luminosity. There, the anandamaya-kosha functions, and the psychical body which we need in this world is not necessary.

There are infinite degrees of difference between subject and object. The instances described here are only a few. We can have as many types of experiences as there can be numbers of worlds. The Yoga Vasishtha goes into great details of all this. In some worlds, all material is made of gold; in others, of copper. Some are filled with trees or reptiles. There is an infinite variety in this creation of God. The highest perception, all luminous and free of particularisation, is Brahma’s. For this, we have to purify ourselves of all mental and psychic layers. We must be able to withdraw in the manner prescribed in the earlier mantras: by pranayama, by not getting attached to things, by standing as a witness. The process is described in mantra six.

indriyāṇām pṛthag-bhāvam udayāstamayau ca yat,
pṛthag utpadyamānānam matvā dhīro na śocati. (6)

“The indriyas are different from the Self; their rise and fall belongs to them alone, thus, the wise man does not grieve.” These ideas have already been expressed earlier. The instruction is that our senses should be controlled. All our difficulties are of the senses, brought about by their mischievous unintelligibility. It is like employing an untrained, devious servant. But worse even, they are impetuous, often compared to bulls, mad horses etc. In the beginning, a wild bull will rise against the one who tries to tame it. There is a series of very interesting pictures on this in Tibetan literature. The bull can be brought round by various means: sometimes with a cajolery, sometimes by a threat, etc., but there is always the danger or the threat to the life of the tamer himself. Similarly, if the sadhaka is not careful in his way of self-control, or if he resorts to wrong practices, there is a chance of his suffering aberration. He may even bring about his own destruction. It is thus very difficult to control the senses. They cannot be controlled by force, because they, too, have force, and force meeting force is not a safe method. One brahmastra meeting another brahmastra brought about great destruction in the Mahabharata war.

So it is necessary to approach the senses carefully. Sama, dana, bheda and danda methods are necessary. When you act like a friend, with great understanding, you use sama. Dana is the second method. You cannot starve them forever; so you have to give them a little something at times so that they get not too bewildered, but you cannot agree with everything they want. Then there is the third method of bheda: the mind must be told and made to understand, ‘if you control yourself, you will get the joy of Brahman’, because it is foolish and it thinks it is being tormented for nothing, and so it does not go to yoga with joy. But when it is told through svadhyaya, satsanga etc., that there is a great goal awaiting it, that if it undergoes a little pain it will get a vast treasure, it will understand. Sometimes, you have to starve the mind by vak-danda, mano-danda and kaya-danda. The punishment of speech is not to utter any word, and the punishment of the body is not to give any food to it. The punishment of the mind is concentration, ekagrata, to think of one thing only. If the mind thinks of a second thing, shout that second thing loudly so that it will be prevented from going after it.

“Don’t be friendly with the senses,” says this mantra. “They are not your friends, and you have nothing in common. They try to run outward, while you want to go within. They tell you that there are many things, while you seek the One Thing.”

The five senses give us five types of reports. These are consolidated by a single consciousness, and the knower of them is not the senses. They are inert, they belong to prakriti; and chaitanya is of the purusha. The senses rise and fall at the bid of consciousness that brought them forth, and the knowledge which they try to give is not theirs. You have to bring it together. The eyes can only report colour, the ears, sound etc., and yet you seem to think that there is one unified experience. What is the secret? The secret is the intelligence, and so you should resort to that.

indriyebhyaḥ param mano manasaṣ sattvam uttamam,
sattvād adhi mahān ātmā, mahato’vyaktam uttamam. (7)

Why do you go to the senses as if they were everything? “The mind is superior to, and controls the, senses. The intelligence controls the mind; superior to the intellect is the mahat-tattva beyond which is mulaprakriti, of which hiranyagarbha is the manifestation. Beyond everything is the purusha.” Why don’t you go to the Supreme Being? Why to the senses which are the lowest manifestation? This purusha is all-pervading, and nothing is greater than He.

avyaktāt tu paraḥ puruso vyāpako’liṅga eva ca,
yaṁ jñātvā mucyate jantur amṛtatvaṁ ca gacchati. (8)

Unfortunately for us, we cannot define this purusha. The mind and the senses can be defined; hiranyagarbha and virat can be symbolically explained, but not the purusha. We cannot define anything without reference to its qualities and attributes, but He is devoid of these, and He is therefore undefinable. “He is alinga—but if you have the blessedness to realise Him by some means or other, moksha is attained.” The purusha without any mark cannot be meditated upon. So different Upanishads give us definitions and qualities of Him to be meditated on, like satyam, jnanam, anantam, vijnanam, tat tvam asi, etad vai tat, etc. These are symbols; not definitions of God. There are various symbols, including the idols in temples. Any one will do, provided it is taken as the final one. By this, the purusha can be realised.

na saṁdṛśe tiṣṭhati rῡpam asya, na cakṣuṣā paśyati kaścanainam,
hṛdā maṇīṣā manasābhikḷpto ya etad vidur amṛtās te bhavanti. (9)

“With open eyes this great Being cannot be seen; nobody has seen Him with his eyes. He has to be felt in the heart. Those who know Him in this manner, they become realised.” He is not seen by the senses, but felt in the mind as sattva. The senses cannot give us this feeling; they are too dissipated. So try to meditate in the deepest recesses of your heart. This meditation is yoga.

yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha,
buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati, tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim. (10)

Yoga is meditation, finally, and every other technique is an accessory to it. What is meditation? It is a joint activity of the senses, mind and intellect. Three conditions are stated: “When the five senses stand together with the mind, the mind is still and the intellect is also still—which means to say that the senses, the mind and intellect should come together—that state is yoga, the highest state.” A steady repose of the senses is yoga; steadfastness of the senses is yoga. This is a simple definition. It may appear to be simple, but one should be very careful here because you may be in yoga or you may not be in yoga. You may fall if your balance is not maintained.

The five senses are to stand together with the mind and intellect, because generally they do not. The mind and senses work independently though the mind depends on them. It is like the photographic film which receives the impressions from outside. The function of the intellect is to judge. It does not directly move to the objects. It judges them through the mind in terms of the reports given by the senses. The objects are in immediate proximity to them, and remotely connected to the mind and intellect. But an experience and judgment is so rapid that all these processes take place almost simultaneously. For instance, when the eyes see a snake on the road, the report is given to the mind and at once the intellect not merely judges, but also gives orders to the prana, and you run away.

But in yoga these different activities are integrated, brought together for a single purpose. All five senses should be engaged in the same activity. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, pratyahara is defined as non-difference of the sense-power from the mental-power. It is like the prodigal son coming back home. In meditation or yoga, the senses who, in daily life, have never been one with the mind, come back, having realised the futility of wandering in the world. They have nothing more to do with it. You open your eyes and look because you want information from outside, but they do not want anything now. They feel they had enough and they return to their source. Thus, when they come, it is like a river entering an ocean—the mind gets flooded with all the energy you have wasted in sensation; in seeing, hearing, tasting etc. This conserved energy of pratyahara has a tremendous power, and here, whatever you think takes place. If you say anything, it happens immediately.

When the senses come together with the mind, the work of the intellect is reduced. Before, it had to pass different judgments because of the variegated activities of the senses, but now it has only one judgement to pass. The whole universe stands as a single object, and if you know it, you know all objects. When the senses, mind and intellect stand together, there is a fusion of forces. This is called the union of shakti and shakta: all the powers of the mind and intellect merge into the intelligence.

More, you enter the highest form of meditation where a steady flame of consciousness is burning, self-consciousness in the universal sense. The seer resting in himself is called kaivalya-mukti. When the Seer is busy shedding light on the intellect, the intellect busy in judging the report of the senses presented by the mind and when the senses are busy with the objects, it is not yoga. But when the senses have ceased from their function and return to the mind and the mind stands with the intellect, and the intellect merges itself into the Seer, it is yoga.

tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām
apramattas tadā bhavati, yogo hi prabhavāpyayau. (11)

“The steady control of the senses is yoga.” Don’t worry about the mind. Control the senses. That is yoga. But the senses are not the organs of perception. They are called jnanendriyas, senses of knowledge. So in every activity of sensation, there is a type of knowledge involved: the cars, trees, etc., are not the senses, and they are not to be controlled. The senses are the different types of sensation; an understanding, knowledge, consciousness or appreciation in respect of the world outside. Looking is mere indeterminate perception, which is harmless. But seeing is appreciation of values. This is called bondage; this is jiva-srishti. Mere sensation in an indeterminate, general psychological sense is not what binds. Selfish concern it is that binds. Do you have such an interest in a thing? Then you should be careful.

You may see or touch an object without being attached to it, because sensation not related to emotion is different from emotional sensation. You feel a joy in touching a thing; by seeing a thing, you are either pleased or displeased. But by looking at something, if there is no such emotional reaction, you will not be bound. So tying a piece of cloth over the mouth and such other austerities is not control. If there is a steadfastness of the internal senses, it is yoga.

In short: ishvara-drishti, or the sight of God, is to be developed in yoga. He also sees, but the way in which He sees is different from our way. His perception is yoga and ours is bhoga. We are to develop God’s vision towards things and not a personal attitude. I-ness and mine-ness have to be given up. Try to develop ishvara-drishti for one day and see what a difference it makes. When you practice it, you will see how difficult it is! Vigilance is necessary, because the senses will din on you again and again that there are many objects, that they are desirable or undesirable, etc. So be vigilant!

You cannot be in yoga always. Be careful. “Just because you concentrated well one day does not mean that you have risen to the highest. Yoga comes and goes.” Never think you are well-off in yoga. Spiritual pride is the worst thing. No one should have the hardihood to say that he has achieved the pinnacle of yoga. Great people are always humble. Swami Sivananda used to say: “I try to be good; I do not know anything more.” Studying the life of yogins, we should learn to be careful on the path. Unless one becomes cautious at all times there might be a fall which will bring him to the lowest state. The repetition of mantras ten and eleven is therefore very beneficial.

The Self as Existent, The Concept of Reality

naiva vācā na manasā prāptuṁ śakyo na cakṣuṣā,
astīti bruvato’nyatra kathaṁ tad upalabhyate. (12)

“What it is that you will achieve in yoga is difficult to say. Neither words nor things can explain Him. The mind cannot in its farthest imagination touch the fringe of Him. How can you speak of Him except to accept that He is what He is.” Don’t try to understand; you will know Him when you reach Him.

The concept of Reality is the subject of mantras twelve and thirteen. It has often been held that Reality cannot be conceived of; it is beyond thought. And in such ancient scriptures as the Rig Veda we have a famous negative definition of Reality in the Nasadiya Sukta: “It could not be said that there was something or that there was nothing; such was what was before the origin of the universe.” And it ends with: “Who could say what was, because who was there to say?”

The difficulty lies in it being the Absolute while all definitions are relative. No description is possible without relations, and inasmuch as the Absolute Truth is non-relational, there is nothing with which it can be compared. It is on this account that the Mandukya Upanishad defines it as: “nantah prajnam, na bahih prajnam...” It is not light, not darkness, not above, not below... These are the ways in which we are lead to the neti-neti doctrine in the Brihadanyaka Upanishad: if you are to say something about Reality, you have to say what it is not. That the human mind is cornered in its attempt to know Truth does not solve the problem, because what one needs is not a negation of form merely, but a realisation of the Essence. Negative definitions might satisfy the logical mind, but not the aspiration of the seeking soul. The heart is pleased and the intellect convinced by a positive thing.

A peculiar urge in the human being leaves it dissatisfied in spite of the logical conclusion that only negative definitions are possible. There is no pleasure in any kind of negativity. This was observed in the Chhandogya Upanishad, where Maharishi Uddalaka says that if you negate everything, you end in a large non-being. Everything that seems to be existent has to be traced to the universal Being. So the difficulty lies in the fact that when the reason for the intellect’s resort to negative definition is forgotten, only a void is reached. It is not that we seek negativity. We have been forced by a logical necessity, in order to conceive Reality, but what we get is not Reality, but a logical conclusion. This negative definition found its apotheosis in the shunya-vada of Buddhism, the negation of all positive values, including that of existence; swallowing everything the mind can conceive of, leaving nothing positive. Maybe this is why Uddalaka makes an affirmation: “My dear child, the original Reality should be regarded as being, and not non-being.” While there is the danger of emptiness or pessimism when postulating a negative definition of Reality, there is another danger in affirming a Being of which we have no knowledge. Even the Buddha said that to say nothing is one extreme, and to say everything is another extreme, because truth lies in the middle.

The Kathopanishad, too, takes up the concept of the Supreme Reality in practical realisation. Some psychologists and gurus believe that one should not think in meditation. This idea does not seem to be correct. I happened to have an interesting talk with some ardent followers of this dogma.

“‘If you feel nothing and think nothing, what is your experience?” was my question. They said that there is no experience, because even experience is a thought which is to be set aside. This is also a negative attitude, and not a positive one of realisation. One of the tests of success in meditation is that you return from it with a sort of great satisfaction or delight. It is not that you enter a lion’s den where you find nothing. Meditation is a contact with Reality, though it may be the farthest fringe of It.

So in all our discussions of truth, we should not be satisfied merely with grammatical explanations or verbal definitions, but attempt to have a practical experience.

Is Reality positive or negative, is a crucial question. If you negate everything, if you deny Brahman, then you deny yourself, because Brahman is only another name for your own Reality. But in your effort to think of Reality, what attitude are you to adopt? In mantra twelve, the Kathopanishad says that no attempt is going to succeed easily. You cannot think It with your mind. How then can you have an idea about It? You cannot see It with your eyes, nor explain Its characteristics. Mind, speech and all senses return baffled when they attempt to know Reality.

“Nevertheless,” says Yama, “finally I might say that you should regard it as ‘being’, because what else could be said about It?” So being seems to be the attitude recommended here. Brahman is not the negation of all things, because even if It is that, It implies the existence of something: the final remainder, pursued through the process of neti-neti, is Reality. The doctrine of negation also implies your own self. What then remains? Not nothing, because that which has denied or set aside everything, that which has done the act of negation remains, and thus we come to a kind of ‘being’, and not ‘non-being’.

That is why we are advised to entertain the attitude of being, and this attitude gives comfort: the last item of existence which is identical with the bottom of our being, is Reality. That which exists is not anything which has a shape or form. They do not give satisfaction.

We have no real kinship with objects, which fact is disclosed when they desert us without notice. And so we are not finally satisfied with anything in the world, though tentatively we shake hands with them. That which is in real kinship with us, becomes us. The spirit cries for a supreme satisfaction. All beings run after that Being of being: satyasya-satyam. We all rush towards It, running in all directions, seeking It and asking for It from everything that comes across. But all give us a negative reply; no one can help us as no one has seen It.

All our searching in objects for this Reality is only an experimentation; and the answer is always negative because It is not there—outside you—in objects. You carry It with you always. It is the greatest negation, objectively; but subjectively, It is the Supreme Being or Absolute Existence which is the negation of everything external, of everything outside Brahman. So astitva or be-ness is the final resort of consciousness, and this is what consciousness realises in meditation. Chit becomes sat—this is the essence. As water enters water, or milk gets poured into milk, consciousness mixes with being in highest meditation. Hence it is not existence of this or that object, but even of the relations that exist between them. This is the positive advice in this Upanishad: “Hold onto being in meditation!”

astīty evopalabdhavyas tattva-bhāvena cobhayoḥ,
astīty evopalabdhasya tattva-bhāvaḥ prasīdati. (13)

“He should be realised as existent, and then in His transcendental nature. When He is apprehended as existent, His real nature becomes clear.”

Mantras twelve and thirteen are difficult to understand. If you must choose between being and non-being, it is better to hold onto being, because if we persist on that thought, Truth will reveal itself. This hints at the highest Upanishadic meditation which to achieve all study is done. How you are to meditate on Reality is here defined.

Being is Reality; sat is the same as chit. The sat or being which we are to meditate upon is not of objects. It is the great being which sets aside all externality. It is general existence, including your existence. It is not someone meditating on something else. It is not you meditating on God. You become a part of that on which you meditate, because you are part of the general existence. It is difficult to explain what it is, but it becomes easy in actual practice. Thus this all-inclusive meditation is jnana-marga, where you are face to face with God immediately. Here, you do not meditate on forms, because your form is merged in God—you meditate on Existence.

yadā sarve pramucyante kāmā ye’sya hṛdi śritāḥ,
atha martyo’mṛto bhavatyatra brahma samaśnute. (14)

Again a warning: if you have unfulfilled desires in your heart, you cannot succeed in meditation. “When all desires from the heart are cast aside, you enter Brahman here itself; the mortal becomes immortal.”

Our difficulties and problems are self-made, caused by desires. We intellectually crave for Reality; emotionally, we crave for the world. This predicament is beautifully depicted in this mantra. It is no use saying “I have no desires,” because they are not merely in the conscious level of the mind. They are also buried in the subconscious. In your dreams you can sometimes see what desires you have. When you are in a good position socially and economically, everything appears to be fine, and you seem to be desireless. But when you are thrown to the winds, when everything goes dead wrong with you and when you feel like dying, the truth comes up. These deep-lurking desires have to be cast out. Then we can meditate as mentioned here, and then we will get Brahman. Here itself Brahman is attained, and the mortal becomes immortal when all desires are cast out.

yadā sarve prabhidyante hṛdayasyeha granthayaḥ,
atha martyo’mṛto bhavaty etāvad anuśāsanam. (15)

Here, the teaching is concluded. This is the instruction:

“When the knots of the heart are broken asunder, the mortal becomes immortal. This is the teaching.” The knots of the heart are avidya, kama and karma. The ignorance which screens ourselves from Reality is avidya; the desire that arises for objects on account of avidya is kama; and the daily activities due to kama are karma, by which we are tied down to mortal existence. When these are rent asunder, the mortal becomes immortal. There is nothing more to say.

The Upanishadic teaching concludes with this mantra. The knots of the heart are those centres of bondage which limit consciousness to the body and earthly existence because they limit it and its sphere of activity. While consciousness is infinite, they bind it to finitude.

These knots are identified with certain psychic centres called chakras, which special mention is made of brahma-granthi, rudra-granthi and vishnu-granthi. Philosophically and mystically speaking, they refer to avidya, kama and karma. Consciousness is tied with a threefold knot, thus being firmly fastened to world-perception rather than God-consciousness. To pierce these three is the real tripura-samhara, the feat which Lord Shiva accomplished. Nobody but He could destroy these three asuras. Likewise, we have these three knots and not any weapon will be of any avail in destroying them. They are supposed to be made of gold, silver and iron—sattva, rajas and tamas. They are our internal structure and psychic problems by which we are made finite. Just as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva had to concentrate their efforts to destroy the three asuras, a tremendous effort is necessary to pierce them. The three are inseparable from one another. They work together jointly, like the creating, preserving and transforming powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Durga have to work together. These knots cannot be manipulated. Most people do not even know that they exist. We cannot visualise them; they are so near to us. They cannot be separated from our normal consciousness and distorted; just as when we see through spectacles, we see objects but not the spectacles themselves.

Oblivion of God, desire to acquire things and consequent action all take place simultaneously. Extraordinary precautions have to be taken by seekers who undertake to destroy them; ordinary intelligence is of no avail.

It is at this point that people realise that the difficulty is within rather than outside. Most find fault with external circumstances, saying that the world is wretched and things and circumstances are not conducive. They feel that there is nothing wrong inside. But a complete turning of the table is necessary. Things are all right! Only, something is wrong with us; inside us. Our difficulties are personal, psychological and purely individual. Strictly speaking, we are a bundle of ignorance, desire and action, and consciousness has to struggle hard to get outside these.

The method is meditation as prescribed earlier. When this is done, there is at once a transformation of mortal consciousness to immortality. Nothing further is to be said.

Now follows a concluding set of three mantras which do not add any new knowledge, but only form the conclusion.

śataṁ caikā ca hṛdayasya nāḍyas tāsām mῡrdhānam abhiniḥsṛtaikā:
tayordhvam āyann amṛtatvam eti, viṣvaṅṅ anyā utkramaṇe bhavanti. (16)

Some sort of relation can be established between mantras fifteen and sixteen: while the former mentions the three knots, the latter mentions the nadis that emanate from the three knots. “There are a hundred and one currents of the heart, called nadis. One of them rises up to the crown of the head. By passing through that, one becomes immortal. But by passing through any other, one becomes fit for rebirth in some other realm.” Also in the Yoga Shastras it is said that internal to and pervading the physical body, which is constituted of flesh, muscles, blood and bones, we have a set of subtle tubes called nadis. They are subtler than the nerves referred to in modern physiology. Some Upanishads say that there are seventy-two thousand of them, and that their width is that of a hair split into hundred parts. It is through them that the prana moves, just as electricity passes through a wire. There is no part of the body where one or the other of them is not present. It is also said that we have seventy-two thousand hairs or pores on our body, though no one has counted them. These nadis form the connecting link between the physical and subtle body; thus they are psycho-physical in nature.

Of all these, a hundred and one are very important, the most important ones being three. They are ida, pingala and sushumna. The latter is the central nerve-current, and generally it does not function; either ida or pingala do, which are also called chandra-nadi and surya-nadi, the cooling and heating current respectively, flowing through the left and right nostril. These three nadis are indicators of our psychological condition too. We should not allow only one of them to work throughout the day.

So yogins influence their flow, but this is only a lower aspect of their function. In the Upanishad, we are concerned with the higher ones. Ida and pingala bring about world-consciousness. The sun and moon represent their two poles, and we roam between them. But when the energy is made to move through sushumna to the crown of the head, the right and left nostril cease to function, and breath-retention takes place. By the artificial method of kumbhaka, we force the prana in a physical way upwards. The Tantra and Hatha Yogas are concerned with this aspect, as against the psychological and spiritual ones of meditation in the Upanishads. The prana is made to flow through the central sushumna by pranayama, by exerting pressure on the muladhara-chakra and by bandha-traya. When this is done protractedly, heat is created, which causes the rushing up of energy. This is a very difficult process and is not advised for an impure mind. The technique is all right, but the person has to be very cautious. He should be without worldly cravings.

This sushumna is the trunk of which many nadis ramify in all directions, just as the branches of a tree shoot out variously. When the time of death comes, what happens?

The outer form of our system is a mixture of the five elements. Internal to it are the nadis. Internal to the nadis is the energy or vitality. And internal to these is the mind, internal to which is consciousness. There is a tremendous shake up of all five koshas at the time of death. What passes on is not consciousness as such, because that is everywhere. What passes is the mind.

Mind and intelligence, when they are animated by consciousness, make the jiva, and when we talk of death we are concerned with the jiva. Consciousness cannot move, but mind does. And when it seeks an exit, if it passes through the sushumna-nadi, it reaches immortality because of having brought about a balance. When the mind passes through sushumna, there is neither inspiration nor expiration. Whenever we are world or object-conscious, we are distracted. Just as the condition of the world is indicated by the position of the planets, the condition of the whole human system is indicated by the flow of breath. Sometimes we breathe slowly, sometimes fast, etc. The svara-shastra deals with this subject. The breathing process is an indication of our mental condition also. We are therefore not so much concerned with breath but with the cause behind it. So all the physical controls cannot directly help in God-realisation, as the process of breathing outside is connected with the mind inside.

It is very difficult to say what enters the sushumna—it not being air but prana, which is energy. It is a peculiar admixture of the psycho-physical force, the total force in the body, which is called jiva. It is this jiva that finds its exit through sushumna. And when this happens there is a harmony of consciousness, which is called samadhi. When there is world or body-consciousness, we are out of balance. Samadhi is equilibrium of consciousness between the subject and the object. The Yoga Vasistha says that our body is made up of mind only, and that we are under the illusion of it being a hard object, even as we are in dream when we see hard objects while they are not really there. In the proportionate state of samadhi, the body gets evaporated into consciousness. So if one passes away through sushumna, he becomes immortal, because there is samadhi at once. But if he goes through other nadis, the soul has to take rebirth.

aṅgusṭhamātraḥ puruṣo’ntarātmā sadā janānām hṛdaye sanniviṣṭaḥ,
taṁ svāc charīrāt pravṛhen muñjād iveṣīkāṁ dhairyeṇa,
taṁ vidyāc chukram amṛtaṁ taṁ vidyāc chukram amṛtaṁ iti. (17)

“The purusha, of the size of a thumb, dwells always in the heart of men. Him one should draw out from the body, as the stalk from a blade of grass. Him one should know as the Pure, the Immortal.” Consciousness is compared to the purusha of the size of a thumb. This is for the sake of concentration and meditation. In relation to His entry into various beings, this universal Self appears to be of the size of a thumb; and He is in all.

This consciousness is to be separated from the body, like separating the pith of the munja grass or the plantain stem from its outer covering, as is done in various rituals; the covering is to be removed. Likewise, the body is to be isolated from consciousness; and this consciousness is to be concentrated on itself; then it becomes immortal. “Know this to be the Pure, Immortal—know this to be the Pure, Immortal.” This is the teaching of the Upanishad.

mṛtyu-protāṁ naciketo’tha labdhvā vidyām etām yoga-vidhiṁ ca kṛtsnam,
brahmaprāpto virajo’bhῡd vimṛtyur anyopy evam yo vid adhyātmam eva. (18)

This is something like the last Verse of the Gita: “Having received this wisdom, as well as the rule of yoga from Yama, Nachiketas attained Brahman, having been freed from impurities and death. And so will any other who has this knowledge of the inmost Self.”

This is brahma-vidya and yoga-shastra—having attained this in its totality and completeness from Yama, Nachiketas attained Brahman, because he was free from all desires. This practice of yoga, knowledge of Brahman and freedom from death is a universal truth. As Nachiketas attained, so can any other.

To this adhyatma-vidya, you take the totality of your being. It is the supreme vidya, because while all others give knowledge of things in relation to space and time, in adhyatma-vidya we gain knowledge of the Absolute Self, or ishvara. Having thus been freed from rajas and tamas, desire and the impulse to selfish action, one reaches Brahman.