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From the Upanishads: The Path to Immortality
Category : April/May/June 2018

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FROM THE UPANISHADS

The Path to Immortality

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Reaching the sannyasa ashrama, Yajnavalkya leaves home for the Ultimate

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The following is a translation of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad—meaning “Of the Great Forest”—chapter 2, section 4, by S. Radhakrishnan. This longest and most revered Upanishad is made of the dialogue between a great sage, Yajnavalkya, and his wife Maitreyi. Yajnavalkya has just reached a critical juncture in his life where he is about to leave home in the pursuit of truth, or Self Realization. Maitreyi shares his yearning for immortality, and so the parting dialogue between them turns into a deep session of spiritual instruction—one of the meanings of the word Upanishad.

“Maitreyi,” said yajnavalkya, “i am about to go forth from this state. Come, let me make a final settlement between you and Katyayani.” “My lord,” said Maitreyi, “if all the world's wealth were mine, would I be immortal through those means?” “No,” replied Yajnavalkya, “Your life would be the same as that of the rich. Of immortality, however, there is no hope through wealth.” Maitreyi then asked, “Of what use then are money and material possessions to me? Please tell me, bhagavan, of the way that leads to immortality.”

“Ah, dear, you have always been dear to me, Maitreyi, and even more now that you have asked me about immortality. Come, sit down, I will explain to you. Reflect deeply on what I say.

“A wife loves her husband not for his own sake, dear, but because the Self lives in him. A husband loves his wife not for her own sake, dear, but because the Self lives in her. Children are loved not for their own sake, but because the Self lives in them. Wealth is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it. Brahminhood is dear not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it. Kshatriyas are loved not for their own sake, but because the Self lives in them. The universe is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it. The Gods are loved not for their own sake, but because the Self lives in them.”

Yajnavalkya continued, “Creatures are loved not for their own sake, but because the Self lives in them. Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it. This Self has to be realized. Verily, O Maitreyi, it is the Self that should be seen, heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. And, by the seeing of, by the hearing of, by the thinking of, by the understanding of the Self, all is known.

“For brahmins, kshatriyas, the universe, even God and creatures confuse those who regard them as separate from the Self. Everything confuses those who regard things as separate from the Self. Brahmins, kshatriyas, creatures, the universe, the Gods, everything: these are the Self.

“No one can understand the sounds of a drum without understanding both drum and drummer; nor the sounds of a conch without understanding both the conch and its blower; nor the sounds of a vina without understanding both vina and musician. As clouds of smoke arise from a fire laid with damp fuel, even so from the Supreme have issued forth all the Vedas, history, ancient lore, sciences, Upanishads, verses, aphorisms, explanations and commentaries. All these are the breath of the Supreme.

“As the ocean is the uniting place of all waters, as the skin is the center of all touch, as the nostrils are the center of all smells, as the tongue is the hub of all tastes, as the eye is the core of all forms, as the ear is the meeting ground of all sounds, as the mind is the uniting place of all determinations, as the heart is the center of all forms of knowledge, as the hands are the tools of all acts, as the organ of generation is the uniting place of all kinds of enjoyment, as the excretory organ is the uniting place of all evacuations, as the feet are the center of all movements, as speech is the center of all Vedas.

“As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification dissolves, there can be no more separate self. This is what I want to tell you, beloved.”

Maitreyi then said, “I am bewildered, blessed one, when you say there is then no separate self.”

“As long as there is separateness,” Yajnavalkya answered, “one sees another as separate from oneself, hears another as separate from oneself, smells another as separate from oneself, speaks to another as separate from oneself, thinks of another as separate from oneself, knows another as separate from oneself. But when the Self is realized as the indivisible unity of life, who can be seen by whom, who can be heard by whom, who can be smelled by whom, who can be spoken to by whom, who can be thought of by whom, who can be known by whom? Maitreyi, my beloved, how can the knower ever be known?”

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PIETER WELTEVREDE

Holding the mountaintop perspective: Husband and wife, Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi, embrace one last time before their schism. Yajnavalkya extends a final expression of his duty and attempts to explain the inexplainable.

SARVAPELLI RADHAKRISHNAN was an Indian philosopher, author and statesman. He was India’s first Vice President (1952–1962) and second President (1962–1967).