A serious quest
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: August 3, 2015
There is a story in the Chhandogya Upanishad (viii, 8-12) about Indra and Virochana. Indra is the Lord of the illumined mind, and with that he is the noble, but weak and often seriously beleaguered king of all the occult and psychological forces that rule over human nature. Virochana is of quite a different character: he is the Lord of all the dark egoistic and destructive forces in man. As all too often in these stories, both godheads are bogged down in an interminable fight about who will ultimately rule human nature. As we all know from our own experience, in spite of best efforts, our mind, Indra, however noble, is incapable of inflicting a definite defeat on the powers of darkness, so our hero is beginning to feel quite desperate, when suddenly there arises new hope. A rumour goes round through the heavens that there is on Earth a famous teacher, Prajapati, who has the Knowledge of the Self. The rumour has it that this Knowledge of the Self is not just some minor novelty but that it gives infinite bliss and that it makes immortal! It is even said, though this is not mentioned in the Chhandogya, that the knowledge of the Self is a special kind of Knowledge, which makes everything known. Clearly this is the mother of all weapons and should deliver supremacy to whoever possesses it, so Indra decides to make the, for the Gods always painful, journey to Earth. Unknown to him, his arch enemy, Virochana has heard the same rumours, and so it happens that they both arrive simultaneously at the gates of Prajapati’s Ashram, “with fuel in their hands”.
Indra and Virochana are accepted as Prajapati’s pupils and they begin to live with their teacher. Then one day, after 32 years, Prajapati asks them, “Why did you come to me”? When they explain they want to learn about the Self, Prajapati tells them that the Self is that what can be found “behind the eye”. Realising that his students don’t get the point, he then instructs them to look at themselves in a bowl of water. They see their own appearance reflected in the water and initially both take that outer appearance to be their self. Virochana, the lord of the asuras, the devils who take themselves to be the measure of all things and who recognise no power above themselves, is so enchanted with his own image that he permanently leaves his teacher. Indra, the illumined mind, realizes his mistake and accepts that there must be more to learn. Indra recognizes that his physical body cannot be the immortal self as the body may fall sick and is bound to get old and die. He takes another 32 years to realize that his dream-self cannot be his real self either, as in dream too, one can be miserable and die. After a third time 32 years he has to admit that even sleep cannot be it, as in sleep one is not aware of anything at all. Having denied all three, during the last five years of his study, he is shown by his teacher that there is secret, fourth state and it is there that he finally finds both the inalienable joy and the immortality he is looking for.
But what does all this mean? The Chandogya makes in this story several fascinating psychological assertions. From a practical standpoint, the most important assertion is perhaps simply the case it makes for subjective enquiry. It comes first in the form of a short assertion made by the guru right in the beginning when he says that the Self can be found "behind the eye": in other words, by studying one's own consciousness. Interestingly his students don't get it and so he resorts to what we now know as Behaviourism.
The manner in which the story unfolds makes clear that a complete and thorough knowledge of the Self is indispensable to win the continuous fight between the forces of Light and Darkness that takes place within human nature [INTERNAL REF]. But there are several other assertions that are expressed directly. The first one says that the ultimate nature of the Self is an unalienable delight, and we will come back to how this should be understood in several places throughout this book [INTERNAL REFS].
The second major claim is that knowledge of the self makes immortal. This is such a bold claim, and one that is so central to Indian Psychology and the theme of this book, that we’ll say a little more about it right here.
To understand what the Chhandogya means with immortality, we must realize that the ancients were not, like us, engineers: they were seekers. Our modern civilization takes the physical world as the primarily reality, and when we think of achieving immortality, the first thing we think of is the immortality of our physical bodies, and so we think of the physical things we need to do to avoid death in the physical world: we think of tinkering with genes, of changing our food habits, “life-style”, and so on. The people who composed the Upanishads experienced themselves and the world in which they lived in a very different manner: for them the world was primarily a manifestation of consciousness. And so, becoming immortal meant for them primarily a change of consciousness. In the story of the Chhandogya Upanishad, this change of consciousness begins with liberating oneself from the mistaken identification with a skin-encapsulated, time-bound ego that lives in the ordinary waking consciousness, and it ends, after many years of inner work, or sadhana, by finding inalienable delight and immortality in a “fourth” state of consciousness beyond waking, dream and sleep.
Even this much, our modern mind is likely to misunderstand. First of all, dream and sleep do not mean here the stages we all go through at night. These words are used metaphorically for states of consciousness that are far more difficult to reach and that just happen to have some elements in common with the nightly adventures of the same name. We’ll discuss the characteristics of these inner states of consciousness later [INTERNAL LINK]. Secondly, for us consciousness is a product of the brain, something that arises within our physical skull. So we tend to look at a change of consciousness as something minor, something that is “only subjective”. For the ancients it was far more than that. For them consciousness was the container, the inhabitant and ultimately the very stuff of reality. For them the required change of consciousness meant the realization of a higher-level truth, something that changed not only subjective but even objective reality. For them finding immortality meant recovering from the error of living in one’s small physical and social ego, and returning to a truer understanding and a truer life in which one knows one simply is eternal. This book is an attempt at explaining why this immortality could, and perhaps should be considered a fact; how it can be made real to our experience; and what all follows from it. For the magnificent manner in which Indian psychology has worked out how immortality effects our nature, is one of the things that makes it so valuable for humanity.
There are many fine details in the story that may be worth noting. The first is that it is said that both arrive “with fuel in their hands”. It is a standard phrase used for aspirants visiting a guru, and one could take it to mean simply, "with the willingness to pay for the knowledge one wants to acquire", or, in more psychological terms, “with a high level of motivation”, but there is more to it. Fire is in many cultures a metaphor for an intense will or aspiration, but in the Indian tradition it is specifically used as a symbol for the human aspiration for the Divine. One reason for this might be that our little fires always rise upwards, and can be seen as representatives the sun, Surya, who stands in the Ṛg Veda for the ultimate Truth on whose presence all life on earth is dependent. The little fire of our sacrifice can thus be looked at as our private mini-sun, the outward symbol of the presence of the Divine in our heart. Psychologically, Agni, the god of the fire, is thus the inhabitant of the innermost recesses of the human heart and in the Ṛg Veda it is through Agni’s mediation that all the other great godheads are called down “to increase in us”. Every modern day psychotherapist knows that the success of therapy depends on the motivation of the client, and so it should not be surprising that the Ṛg Veda begins with a hymn to Agni. In fact, throughout the text of the Rg Veda, Agni, will, and Indra, insight, are the celestial powers that are most often mentioned. As may be clear from the above description, Agni’s characteristic qualities go, however, far beyond those of the simple motivation known to mainstream psychology. Agni is nothing less than the representative of the Divine in our hearts, and he is, amongst many other things, described as the knower of our births.
Another thing worth noting is that unknown to Indra, Virochana has heard the same rumour and reaches the guru's house at the same time. And this is actually how it goes: When one obtains new knowledge during one’s sādhanā, the darker parts of one’s nature will immediately jump up and try to usurp the new knowledge for their own nefarious ends. Fortunately, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that in the end sincerity and persistence help the “good you” to win the race.
As a method of sadhana, the first part of this story in the Chandogya follows the method of negation, in the Indian tradition known as neti, neti (not this, not that), and in European philosophy as the via negativa. This approach is used especially for defining the Divine by denial of what it is not.
About Prajapati’s method of teaching, the Upanishad is remarkably silent. Right in the beginning he tells whatever he has to say in one short sentence. When they don’t get it, Prajapati give his students one simple instruction on how to go about their studies and then lets them figure things out for themselves. Rather impressively, when they come to a wrong conclusion he does not bother to correct them. Only when Indra realizes his own errors, his teacher confirms that there is indeed more to learn, and tells him once more to “live with him". This points to a fascinating aspect of the traditional methods of teaching yoga by “osmosis”, to which we’ll come back in the chapter on Change and once more under Education.
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