From the Grossest to the Subtlest – 1/2

Shankara opens his commentary on the 6th chapter of chAndogya with a very brief intro. bringing out the context of Svetaketu’s story and its relationship (sambandha) to the rest of the Upanishad. He says that the 6th chapter explains two important points, which are:

  1. “How this whole universe proceeds from, subsists in and becomes absorbed (or merged) into brahman because the seeker has been previously ASKED TO MEDITATE, free from all love and hate and being self-controlled, upon that universal brahman to be the source, sustainer and dissolver at 3.14.1 of the Upanishad”; and
  2. “How when the Knower of the Truth has eaten, the whole universe becomes satiated.”

Appropriately enough, after the completion of the 16 sections, at the end of the chapter, he makes the following concluding remarks:

  1. There is no difference in the way the body falls at the time of its death whether it is a Knower of brahman or an ignorant person; however, the Knower of brahman is not born again after the fall of the body, having ‘merged’ with the pristine Beingness. The ignorant man who wallows in the worldly objects, in contrast, will be reborn after death of the body as per his karmic load. [We may say that his case will be somewhat like waking up back into the awake world after a night’s sleep.]
  2. Liberation is abidance as/in the Self. The Self is that “which is immortal, free from dangers, blessed, without a second and is the Truth.”
  3. A seeker is the one who is “eligible to learn and study, then to ponder over and finally understand the Self.” Further, he is the one “who did not know and had not attained the true nature of his own Self, until he was taught by a teacher.”
  4. Only a shadow of the True Beingness (Self) enters the body which is an assemblage of various kinds of matter. The Self entering into the body is comparable to “a man’s reflection entering into a mirror or the Sun entering into a pool of water.”
  5. Normally everyone assumes that he is a separate individual (jIva) and that he is the “doer of actions and the experiencer of results of those actions.” [As a matter of fact, the individuation (jIvatva) is defined as the sense of doership (kartrutva) and experiencership (bhoktrutva).]
  6. All such notions as at # 5 above are “set aside in the Knower of the Self which is the Truth and the cause of all.”
  7. When it is realized by a seeker that “I am the Self, One without a second, it is not (anymore) possible for him to have such notions that involve diversity” or multiplicity. In other words, “On the realization of himself being the Self, the Non-dual Truth, the idea of ‘being the individual (jIva) which is a product and unreal’ will not arise.”
  8. The principal teaching of the Upanishad contained in its declaration that “You are That” is NOT a eulogy, nor a flattery nor a pep up talk made for inspiring the seeker. It is also not a symbolical statement.
  9. “The Upanishad makes the assertion saying that “You are That,” by first showing that the Being  is something distinct from the world, and then it is declared that ‘You are That” which asserts, without the slightest restraint, that the ‘You’ lS absolutely and entirely the same as Being, the Self.”
  10. “I am the Beingness, the Self,” is not an ‘idea’ to be cultivated and practiced by a seeker. If such an interpretation were to be given to the teaching of the Upanishad, it would mean “that even without the realization of one’s having his self in Being, if one formed the said idea only once, he would immediately attain liberation (as he would have fulfilled the injunctions of cultivating the said notion).” Such a contention would render the mantra at 6.14.2 infructuous because the mantra speaks of a delay – it says, “for him, the delay is only so long as he is not liberated and become merged.”

The points at # 7 and10 above should be particularly noted by those who think  that “in order to be enlightened, it is enough to know that the perceived world is unreal.”

Shankara avers that the teaching in the 6th Chapter is totally focused on and expounds only the Pure Consciousness and the Unicity of the individual and brahman. He contends that, just based on the 6th Chapter, it is hard and difficult for everyone except for the most qualified of the seekers to understand and assimilate that core Non-dual message, which is the import of not only chAndogya but all the Upanishads. The 6th Chapter, having restricted itself to the subject of the Self, does not concern with regard to the extrudates – the world of objects.

Therefore, Shankara says that the 7th Chapter of the chAndogya Upanishad takes a step by step approach in progressively inculcating the Advaitic Truth to a slow learning seeker. It walks him, holding his hand, from the familiar ground he is on (the grossest form of matter) to the Supreme Self (the Subtlest) which remains otherwise inaccessible to the mind and the senses (2.4.1, taittirIya).

Mr. Svetaketu Aruni, a young man in his early twenties is the hero of the 6th chapter. In contrast, a highly acclaimed and revered Sage Narada is the central character around whom the 7th chapter is designed. The name Narada has the derivative meaning as “the one who constantly provides  the waters of Knowledge to people” (nAram jnAnam dadAti iti nAradaH —  “nAra” in Sanskrit means water; Knowledge). He has fulfilled all his responsibilities, and had obtained every type of intellectual knowledge available in the world. Yet, he did not know the Supreme Self, knowing which, it is said that one transcends all sorrow and attains the Ultimate (7.1.3, chAndogya; 2.1.1, taittirIya).

The Encyclopedic knowledge that Narada has already possessed extends to and covers an astoundingly long list of subjects as:

All the four Vedas – Rk; sAma; yajur; and atahrvaNa; Ancient Histories; Archery; Arts; Astronomy; Crafts; Dancing; Epics; Grammar; Mathematics; Music – vocal and Instrumental; Mythologies; Perfumery; Phonetics; Physics; Prosody; Rituals and Worship procedures; Science of Ethics; Science of Portents; Science of the Celestials beings; Science of the Eschatology; Science of the Exploration of Treasures; Science of the gods; Science of the Logic and Reasoning; Science of the Materials; Science of the Philology; Science of the Snakes; and Science of the War;

Narada admits that what he knows is all verbal information and he has it in his mind. In spite of possessing so much of information load,  alas, he did not “realize” brahman. Therefore, he approaches, in all humility, the Sage Sanatkumara requesting him to teach the Supreme Knowledge of the Self. [We may take that Narada in this section of the Upanishad represents a typical highly educated intellectual in the modern day world, according to an Advaita teacher.]

Sanatkumara expresses that what all Narada had learnt and got in his mind can be categorized as “nAma,” a Sanskrit word to indicate mere intellectual information that constitutes ideas or conceptual knowledge. In short, all that he knew is no more than  a product of words (6.1.4, chAndogya). Such a knowledge is far inferior to the Knowledge of the Self. Sanatkumara, therefore, leads Narada to the Knowledge of the Self through a golden staircase of 15 steps in an ascending order of subtlety and spiritual value. The steps proceed from nAma at the bottom to prANa at the top and they are:

Spirit (prANa)

Hope (AshA)

Remembrance (smarah) 

Space (AkAsha) 

Fire (tejah) 

Water (Apah) 

Food (annam) 

Strength (balam) 

Learning and Study (vijnAnam) 

Contemplation (dhyAnam) 

Intelligence (cittam) 

Intention (samkalpa) 

Mind (manas) 

Speech (vAk) 

Name (nAma)

Every knowledge from the “Name” to “Spirit” fluctuates and is mobile. The Knowledge of the Self is beyond the Spirit and is utterly stable and unmoving.

(To Continue … Part – 2)