Why do the Upanishads warn seekers that following the path to God is akin to walking on a razor’s edge—narrow and difficult to traverse?

By Swami Advayananda

 God is the very self, the very core of one’s personality. However, veiled by the mind, He remains unknown. Thus, beyond the mind is Ishvara-darshanam, the vision of the Lord. But, to meet Him, the journey beyond the mind can be accomplished with the help of mind alone. This precisely is what makes the spiritual journey comparable to walking on the razor’s edge. 

The mind rarely cooperates in this sacred journey, for going inward and transcending itself is anathema to it. Its natural inclination is to rush out and bask in the warmth of the external world of glittering objects and eke out small tinsels of ephemeral pleasures. The mind is unaware of joys other than these fleeting, albeit alluring ones. Furthermore, having repeatedly engaged in such pursuits, life after life, the mind is firmly habituated and addicted to these. Thus, on embarking upon a spiritual pursuit, all seekers face the uphill task of weaning the mind from the external world. 

Compounded to this extrovertedness, the mind is enmeshed in a web of desire–anger–greed–delusion–pride–jealousy, the “six enemies” (sadripu) of spiritual pursuit, all interconnected. To explain: Desire when not fulfilled transforms into anger; and when fulfilled graduates to greed. Anger when not curtailed leads to delusion. Indeed, one in the grasp of raging anger is oblivious to the damaging consequences of one’s own rage. Gratified greed leads to pride and ungratified greed disfigures itself to become jealousy. Such is the interconnected web of the mind’s negativities. All accept this status quo of their minds, except the spiritual seeker who discerns the wicked game of the mind and with alertness and alacrity wages a determined war against the six enemies. 

Even if one were to conquer, so to say, these “regular” enemies, the task of mastering and transcending the mind is still a work in progress. There are yet three more deeply entrenched inner saboteurs—loka-vasana, shastra-vasana and deha-vasana—who hide unrecognized until the six visible, wicked foes are somewhat weakened. While the negativity of the wicked six is evident, these three impostors pretend to be our good friends.

Loka-vasana is the hankering for recognition, for name and fame. It is the desire to conduct oneself in such a manner so as to evoke the admiration and approbation of others. It also manifests as the tendency to avoid by all means the criticism of those around us. This does not mean that the scriptures advocate us to live a life of utter disregard to the feelings or thoughts of others, but rather it is the inner maturity born from the understanding that one can never win the admiration of all or stop the mindless chatter of others.

Truly speaking, what is important is to be rooted in dharma, rather than considering whether it will bring respect or disrespect. Has there been anyone in this whole world who was or is praised by one and all? Was not Sri Rama, the embodiment of all virtue, criticized? Was not the venerable mother Sita, the epitome of nobility, slandered? If they were not spared by this mindless world, what then to say about you and me! One should learn to be equanimous in praise and censure.  

The next is shastra-vasana. It is the attachment to study and the mastery of many disciplines of knowledge. This too is a distraction for spiritual unfoldment. What is more important is to know the essence of the scriptures and walk the path to the Ultimate. Poets speak of the hamsa bird that drinks only milk from a mixture of milk and water. So too, a seeker ought to grasp the essence of the scriptures. Spending all one’s time just mastering the scriptural content, one text after another, for an entire lifetime, would be a sheer waste of life. All scriptures have one instruction alone: turn within and realize the Self. Shastra-vasana forces one to shift the goalpost from knowledge “of” God to knowledge “about” God! 

There is an anecdote of Sage Durvasa going to Kailasa carrying a mountain load of books for his study. The celestial Sage Narada laughed at him, comparing him to a donkey, a beast of burden. Angered at this comparison, Durvasa threw all his books into the ocean. It was only thereafter that Lord Siva taught the sage the sacred Self-knowledge, liberating him from all incompleteness and inadequacy. Beware: shastra-vasana is a subtle but firm bondage. The wise declare that an ounce of practice is worth tons of knowledge. 

Deha-vasana, the third of the subtle tendencies, results from deep-rooted identification with the body. It expresses as a preoccupation with the body—to ever add some goodness to it and/or constantly strive to remove some defect pertaining to it. It manifests in numerous ways: being ever intent in beautification—decoration of the body, striving for a smooth, shining skin, perfect body structure, non-stop worrying about maintaining consummate health and so on.   

It is the nature of the body to decay, and one day it must perish. Keep it as healthy and fit as you possibly can without undue preoccupation with it. Constant thinking of the body will only keep a seeker firmly rooted in body consciousness and prevent the higher pursuit of the Self. Remember this is not a call to “disregard” the body, but is rather to not “over-regard” it and make it the sole focus of one’s life. The human body truly serves its purpose if it is utilized for Self-Realization.

For all seekers, the spiritual path becomes akin to walking on the razor’s edge because of these six enemies (sadripu) and three tendencies (vasana-traya). But where do all these reside? In the mind, isn’t it? Who has to conquer them? Indeed, the mind alone. The mind is the robber; the mind is the police! Therefore, O seeker! Be alert. Turn to the Lord and the guru. Their grace and blessings are your sure support. 

Swami  Advayananda, disciple of the late Swami Chinmayananda, is President of the Chinmaya International Foundation, a Trustee of Chinmaya University and the Resident Acharya of the Mission’s two-year Vedanta Course at Sandeepany Sadhanalaya, Mumbai.