The Upanishads on the Atma

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The Upanishads are that section of the Vedas which deal with the Higher Wisdom. The name Upanishads means steadfast study of the means of attaining to the Ultimate Reality. There are in all 108 Upanishads of which 10 have gained popularity through the commentaries by Shankara, the great teacher of the East.

The Katha Upanishad deals specifically with the subject of the Atma.

To very few is it given to hear about the Atma
Many more who hear of the Atma, do not understand.
Wonderful is the person who speaks of it.
Intelligent is the person who learns of it.
Most blessed is he who hears it
from a knowing teacher and understands it.

The Katha Upanishad contains the story of the young and virtuous Nachikethas. When the father of Nachikethas gives away inferior gifts as part of a ritual ceremony, the boy tries to lessen the impact of this serious error in judgment. The father gets angry and in disgust at his interference shouts that he is going to give the son away to Yama, the god of death. The son resolves that the words uttered by the father should not be untrue so he proceeds to the residence of Yama to offer himself up as a ritualistic gift. The boy spends three nights waiting to see the god. When Yama discovers his presence, he feels sorry that the boy had to wait so long, so he decides to grant him three boons, one for each night he waited.

Nachikethas asks first that when he returns home, his father will have shed his anger and gained mental equanimity and so welcome him home. Second, he asks to know the secret of the absence of hunger and fear of death in the heaven worlds. Yama gladly grants these boons and further initiates his new disciple into the details of a special ritual ceremony. Yama sees the reverence, intelligence, and eagerness of his new pupil and is much pleased with him. Nachikethas then asks for his third boon. He tells his new teacher: "some say that death is not the end; that there is an entity called the Atma which survives the body and senses. Teach me that secret of the Atma". Yama at first resists and decides to test him to see if he is deserving of this unique knowledge. He offers him many other attractive boons involving worldly prosperity and happiness. But Nachikethas firmly declines these ephemeral favors. "The alternative boons you hold before me cannot assure me the everlasting benefit that Atmajnana (Atmic knowledge) alone can bestow". Yama is again pleased with his pupil and decides he is fit to receive the highest wisdom. The remainder of the Upanishad contains his teachings to Nachikethas. The young disciple grasped the teachings immediately and thoroughly and, putting them into practice, he attained to Brahmam.

Teachings of the Katha Upanishad:

There are two distinctly different types of experiences and urges. The two paths may be called the pleasant and the good. The first path binds, the second releases. Choosing the good leads to salvation. Choosing the pleasurable leads to incarceration. If you pursue only the path of pleasure you leave the path of realization of the highest goal of man far behind. Choosing the path of good requires exercising the refined intellect (the power of discrimination).

The Atma is pure unwavering awareness. It is agitationless,: it is Consciousness, infinite and full. Our innermost essence is Atma. We are not the body, mind or senses. We are not the individual with name and form. The Atma is not the knower, the known, or even knowledge. Discovering this is the supremest vision. Teaching this is the supremest instruction. The instructor is Brahmam; the instruction is Brahmam. the instructed is also Brahmam. The Atma is the eternal unchanging witness within. This mystery cannot be understood through logic. It must be experienced by diverting the mind from it's natural habitat, the objective world until it becomes a placid lake, reflecting the reality of the effulgent Atma. By purifying the buddhic principle of higher mind, the illusion of the object universe dissolves and the vision of Atma is glimpsed.

The image of the Sun in a lake quivers and shakes due to the quivering and shaking of the waters; the sun is but a distant witness. It is unaffected by the media which produces the images. Likewise the Atma is the witness of all this change in space and time.