The first part of the Katha Upanishad, if we have interpreted its symbols aright, taught the descent of Nachiketas — the soul — into this outer world, graphically described as the House of Death; its lingering there for three nights, which are the three times, past, present, and future, that condition everything in the House of Death; there confronted by Death, the prince of this world; the soul is offered three wishes, one for the past, one for the present, one for the future. The first is the quiescence of the past and the tranquil return of the soul to the source whence it fell into the "mouth of death", the second, the secret of the three fires on the four-fold altar, or the three divine energies which underlie the four-fold world of manifestation, the world of the present; the third is the secret of the Great Beyond, that real world to which the soul's true life belongs, and whence it has strayed into this House of Death.
The first two wishes have been already satisfied; the third is treated of in the second and third parts of the Upanishad, which we shall translate and comment on as before. In the second part, the speaker is Death the Great Initiator; not the body's death, but the death of the lower self, which alone can open the doors of the Great Beyond. What lies behind that door is told as far as words can tell it; it is the eternal mystery, which remains hidden in secret, and everlastingly unrevealable for all who have not passed the initiation — or "new beginning" — of the death of the lower self.
– The better is one thing; the dearer is another thing; these two draw a man in opposite ways. Of these two it is well for him who chooses the better; he fails of his object who chooses the dearer.
The better and the dearer approach a man; looking closely at them, the Sage discerns between them. The Sage chooses the better rather than the dearer; the fool chooses the dearer, through lust of possession.
The better is what belongs to the real world, the Great Beyond. The dearer is what belongs to this unreal world, the House of Death, in whose gift are "wealth and length of days, the great treasure-house of the world, and the beauties with their chariots and lutes"; representative of the ideals of the lower self. The better and the dearer are the blessedness and the happiness, in Carlyle's inimitable chapters of Sartor Resartus which speak of the Everlasting No, the Center of Indifference, and the Everlasting Yea; where with matchless vividness and power are depicted the death of the lower self and the new birth of the soul. These two, the better and the dearer, draw every man in opposite ways; every man, that is, has the longing for Death's fair gifts; and also the incipient sense of the Great Beyond, called, in its negative aspect, Conscience, but which becomes positive, as intuition and growing omniscience, when Death's Initiation has been passed through.
– Thou, indeed, understanding dear and dearly loved desires, Nachiketas, hast passed by them. Not this way of wealth hast thou chosen, in which many men sink.
Wide apart are these two minds, unwisdom, and that of which the knower says "it is wisdom". I esteem Nachiketas to be one seeking wisdom, nor do manifold desires allure thee.
Others, turning about in unwisdom — self-wise, thinking they are learned — and fools, stagger, lagging in the way, like the blind led by the blind.
The Great Beyond gleams not for the fool, led away by the delusion of possessions. "This is the world, there is no other", he thinks; and so falls again and again under my dominion.
The understanding of desire is the deep and irrevocable conviction, based upon the experience of innumerable lives, innumerable incarnations, that desire can never be satisfied; that the gratification desired is never actually touched, but remains each time just one step out of reach. Like fruit under a glass case, the object of desire is never seized, but every effort towards perfect gratification is stopped by an irresistible barrier. The essential nature of desire is that it actually is never gratified, but every effort at gratification leads to another and this again to another. Every attempt at gratification is at once a disappointment and the father of a new desire. To this understanding of desire, which is the last ripeness of the lower self before it falls off the tree of life, must be added another qualification, the firm steady will, which, after the conviction of the futility of desire has been fully reached, gives effect to that conviction by checking the little children of desire, as they are born in the mind and run down through emotion into action. These three worlds, the world of mind, of emotion, and of action, are the "three worlds" which are to be conquered by the neophyte, and the first, that of the mind, must be conquered first. When this is done, the outward actions of desire, robbed of their motive power, will cease of themselves; their continuation would show, not that the soul had risen above the body, of whose mere outward acts it was independent, but that the first of the three worlds, the mind where the children of desire are born, was still unconquered and unclean. The delusion that a pure soul may accompany impure action is a part of that unwisdom which brings men "again and again under the dominion of death". Then Death speaks of the Great Beyond:
– That is not to be gained even for a hearing by many; and, hearing it, many understand it not. Wonderful is the speaker of it, blessed is the receiver; wonderful is the knower of it, blessed is the learner.
Not by a baser man is this declared; but it is to be known by much meditation. There is no way to it unless told by another, nor can it be debated by formal logic.
The comprehending of this cannot be gained by debate; but when declared by another it is dearest to a good understanding. Thou hast obtained it, for thou art steadfast in the truth, and a questioner like thee, Nachiketas, is dear to us.
That which many do not even gain for a hearing is the Voice of the Silence, the first glimmer of the inner light which shines in the soul and illumines the Great Beyond. Many who hear it understand not; they follow the "promptings of conscience" blindly and haltingly, knowing not that this is the first gleam of the light that lightens the world. "The speaker of it" is the Higher Self, which brings the light to the soul; the hearer of it is the soul which receives that light. The Higher Self is the "other that tells it"; without being told by that other, it cannot be known; but whenever the hearer is ready, the teacher is ready also; when the soul is purified and reaches out toward the light, the light will certainly appear.
– I know that what is called precious is unenduring; and by unlasting things what is lasting cannot be gained. Therefore the triple fire was chosen by me, and instead of these unenduring things I have gained what endures.
Thus saying, and having beheld the fulfilment of desire, the seat of the world, the endless fruit of sacrifice, the shore where there is no fear, great praise, and the wide-famed world, thou, Nachiketas, hast wisely passed them by.
The lasting thing which cannot be gained by the unlasting is peace, which can never come from the gratification of desire, but only from the kindling of the triple fire, the three-fold Higher Self, of Being, Bliss, and Knowledge. The words "the fulfilment of desire" refer to Death's offer in the first part of the Upanishad. The seat of the world is the "Kingdoms of this world and the glory of them"; the fruit of sacrifice or good deeds is the rest in Devachan — the shore where there is no fear; all this, Nachiketas, understanding its unlasting character, had passed by.
– But that which is hard to see, which has entered the secret place and is hidden in secret, the mystery, the Ancient; understanding that bright one by the path of union with the Inner Self, the wise man leaves exaltation and sorrow behind.
A mortal, hearing this and understanding it, passing on to that righteous subtle one and obtaining it, rejoices, having good cause for rejoicing; and the door to it is wide open, I think, Nachiketas.
"The Mystery, the Ancient" is the Higher Self, which for the unenlightened is hidden in the secret place, the beyond, above the ordinary consciousness of the soul; it is the ancient, because the Higher Self is the power which again and again causes the incarnation of the personality through a vast series of lives, and thus, as the Ancient of Days, it is endless both backwards and forwards. It is to be found by the path of union with the Inner Self, the bridge so often spoken of in the Upanishads. This bridge, which the disciple must cross by becoming it, is really the identification of the personality with the life of the Higher Self by perfectly following its dictates and assimilating its nature; by the perfect obedience through which alone there is liberty.
A mortal learning this obedience and understanding it, and then becoming himself the path by identifying himself with the law of the path, reaches that Subtle one, where is eternal joy and not that lower exultation which is merely the opposite of grief; this exultation and grief being the two sides of the lower, personal self, while joy and peace are of the Higher Self and have no opposites; for the Higher Self is beyond the world of opposites, heat and cold, sorrow and exultation, and the rest. As the law is always waiting for obedience, the door is always open.
– What them seest to be neither the law nor lawlessness, neither what is commanded nor what is forbidden, neither what has been nor what shall be, say that it is THAT.
That resting-place which all the Vedas proclaim, and all austerities declare; seeking for which they enter the service of the eternal; that resting-place I briefly tell to thee.
It is the unchanging Eternal; it is the unchanging Supreme; having understood that eternal one, whatsoever a man wishes, that he gains. It is the excellent foundation, the supreme foundation; knowing that foundation, a man grows mighty in the eternal world.
The Higher Self is again defined as that which is free from the pairs of opposites; that which is neither the righteousness of the ritual law nor yet the unrighteousness of breach of that law; neither the performance of ritual nor its neglect; but a new life, a new yet ancient being, above the virtue and vice of the ritual law, because it dwells in the Great Beyond, while the law of ritual is, at best, for this world or for Devachan. The Higher Self is also the resting-place declared by the Vedas, because it rests above the personal life, while the personal life goes through endless alternations of birth and death; as the Higher Self, being a facet of the Infinite One, contains within itself the infinite; he who has gained it possesses all things, and therefore possesses whatever he may desire.
– The knower is never born nor dies; nor is it from anywhere, nor did anything become it. Unborn, eternal, immemorial, this ancient is not slain when the body is slain.
If the slayer thinks to slay it, if the slain thinks it is slain, neither of them understands; this slays not, nor is slain. Smaller than small, greater than great, this self is hidden in the heart of man.
He who has ceased from sacrifices and passed sorrow by, through the favor of that ordainer beholds the greatness of the Self.
Though seated, it travels far; though at rest, it goes everywhere; who but thee is worthy to know this bright one, who is joy without rejoicing?
The "knower" is again the Higher Self, which knows all things. It is the ordainer, because it is the will and power of the Higher Self which ordains the incarnations of the personality and directs the whole series, with a single purpose, from beginning to end; correcting one life and supplementing its deficiencies in those that follow. Though seated, though at rest, it travels far, from one end of the chain of births to the other; it is everywhere, in every birth, because it overshadows and ordains them all.
– Understanding this great lord, the Self, the bodiless in bodies, the unstable in stable things, the wise man cannot grieve. This Self is not to be gained by speaking of it, nor by cleverness, nor by much hearing. Whom this chooses, by him it is gained; and the Self chooses his body as its own.
He who has not ceased from evil, who is not at peace, who stands not firm, whose emotions are not at rest, cannot obtain it by understanding. Brahman and Kshattriya are its food; its anointing is death; who knows truly where it is?
This final clause reiterates the truth that through the death of the lower self, and perfect integrity, and through these only, the path to the Self can be known; that Self whose food is Brahman and Kshattriya — knowledge and power; and whose anointing comes only through the death of selfishness. When selfishness is dead, then that Self chooses the purified soul, which gradually becomes one with it, in the resting-place which all the Vedas sing.
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