The Path – January 1894

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE UPANISHADS: I — C. J.

I

Students of the Oriental Theosophy, which finds its highest expression in the Ten Upanishads, are met at the outset by a serious difficulty which has proved a real stumbling block in the way of many earnest disciples, and has almost completely veiled the true meaning of these most ancient mystical books to all who have approached them in a purely literary or philological spirit.

This serious difficulty, which is caused by the symbolism of the Upanishads, requires two qualifications for its solution: first, some knowledge at first hand of the interior truths and realities represented by these symbols; and secondly, a certain acquaintance with the symbology of the great religions of antiquity. This ancient symbology is marked by such a uniformity in countries and times as widely separated as those which gave birth to the Vedas and the Book of Job, the Mysteries of Osiris and the Apocalypse, that, in view of these resemblances, not only is one led to infer an identity of inspiration underlying all ancient symbolism, but also that an acquaintance with the method of expression of one ancient faith will often give clear insight into the darkest passages of another.

The source of this original identity of inspiration is not far to seek: for all the ancient religions treat of the same subject, the mysteries of the interior development of man, and the understanding of the universe which is reached in the course of that interior development. It is evident that a complete and exhaustive understanding of the ancient scriptures and the mysteries of inner life which are hidden beneath their symbols can be attained only by those whose inner unfoldment has gone so far as to identify them with the spirit in which these ancient scriptures were written, the universal spirit of wisdom and goodness. But though a complete understanding of the whole meaning of books like the Upanishads is thus impossible for all but the highest and holiest Sages, one cannot follow the path of interior development, of the inner light, with earnestness and integrity, without gaining some insight into the hidden meaning of the symbols; and this, added to an acquaintance with other scriptures, may make clear much that seemed hopelessly obscure.

The best way to illustrate this is by a concrete example; and we cannot do better than begin with the Katha Upanishad — the "Secret of Death," as one translator calls it — which is distinguished for its purity and beauty of style and its universal application to human life, not less than for its avoidance of mere technical and scientific treatment of certain special powers and potencies of the inner life, such as one finds, for instance, in the Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. The Katha Upanishad begins:

Vajashravasa, verily, seeking favor, offered in sacrifice all he possessed. He had a son, also, by name Nachiketas. Him, though still a child, faith entered, when the offerings were brought. He meditated:

– These have drunk water, eaten grass, given milk, and lost their strength. Joyless worlds he gains who offers these. He addressed his father:

– To whom, then, wilt thou give me? said he. Twice, thrice he asked him.

– To Death I give thee, said he.

It would not be contrary to the spirit of these ancient scriptures to find a meaning in the names of Nachiketas and his father. Vajashravasa may mean "one who sacrifices according to tradition or ritual", while Nachiketas may mean "one who has lost the desire for sensation". But without insisting upon this, we may turn to the general meaning of father and son. A son, in the symbolism of the Upanishads, means a new birth; either spiritual regeneration, or simply reincarnation; this meaning of the new life which faith had entered, or of the soul in that new life, is represented here by Nachiketas. His father is the past birth, or the condition before the spiritual rebirth, which offers an inadequate sacrifice.

The lean cattle, who have "given milk and lost their strength", represent either worldly enjoyments or the physical powers which enjoy them; just as perfect, well-nourished cows represent the spiritual powers, which succeed them. Vajashravasa, the type of the soul in the former or unregenerate birth, offered up these lean cattle, the physical enjoyments; Nachiketas, his son, the new or regenerate birth, perceived that this offering was inadequate; the offering needed was not the sacrifice of worldly enjoyments, but the sacrifice of self.

[Nachiketas meditates.]

– I go the first of many; I go in the midst of many. What is this work of Death, that he will work on me today?

Look, as those that have gone before, behold so are those that shall come after. As corn a mortal is ripened; as corn he is born again.

[Nachiketas comes to the House of Death. Nachiketas speaks:]

– Like the Lord of Fire, a pure guest comes to the house. They offer him this greeting:

Bring water, O King Death!

Fair hopes and friendship, truth and holy deeds, sons and cattle, all forsake the foolish man in whose house a pure guest dwells, without food.

What is the House of Death to which Nachiketas comes? It has two meanings. The first and universal meaning is the physical world, the 'world of birth and death" to which the soul comes in each new life. The second, more special, meaning is the underworld, visited by the spirit of the neophyte at initiation.

[After three days, Death returns. Death speaks:]

– As them, a pure guest and honorable, hast dwelt three nights in my house without food — honor to thee, pure one, welcome to thee — against this, choose them three wishes.

[ Nachiketas speaks: ]

– That my father may be at peace, well-minded, and with anger gone towards me, O Death; that he may speak kindly to me, when sent forth by thee; this of the three as my first wish I choose.

[Death speaks:]

– As before will he be kind to thee, sent forth by me; by night will he sleep well, with anger gone, seeing thee set free from the month of Death.

The three nights which Nachiketas passes in the House of Death have also two meanings; the first, the universal meaning, in which the three nights are the "three times", present, past, and future, the three conditions to which everything is subject in this physical world, the House of Death. The special meaning refers to the initiation in which the soul "descended into hell, and rose again the third day. One of the three wishes of Nachiketas refers to each of these "three times"; the first, "that the father may be at peace", refers to the past; the meaning of "father" being the same as before.

[Nachiketas speaks:]

– In the heaven-world there is no fear; nor art thou there, and fear comes not with old age. Crossing over hunger and thirst, and going beyond sorrow, he exults in the heaven-world.

The heavenly fire thou knowest, Death; tell me it, for I am faithful. The heaven-worlds enjoy undyingness. This as my second wish I choose.

[Death speaks:]

– To thee I tell it; listen then to me, O Nachiketas, learning that heavenly fire. Know thou also the excellent winning of endless worlds, for this is hidden in the secret place.

He told him then that fire, the source of the worlds, and the bricks of the altar, and how many and what they are. And he again spoke it back as it was told; and Death, well pleased, again addressed him.

The next three verses, which speak of the triple fire as part of a ceremony, are evidently a later addition; they are therefore omitted here. It is possible that they take the place of older verses which spoke too clearly of the sacred fire and were therefore omitted in the later manuscripts. But the secret of the triple fire may be revealed by the words, "he told him that fire, the source of the worlds, and the bricks (of the altar), how many and what they are"; the triple fire being here the Higher Triad, the unmanifested three that underlie creation, preservation, and regeneration; as also the being, consciousness, and bliss of the Self, the Atma. The altar being the manifested world, which is crowned by the unmanifested three. The square altar is thus the lower quaternary, the bricks being the four or seven planes or worlds of manifestation. The triple fire and the square altar would thus be the triangle above the square in symbolism, the triangle being the same as the Egyptian pyramid, also connected with "pur" or fire. The "speaking back" is the reflection of the seven in Nachiketas, the individual soul.

[Death speaks:]

– This is the heavenly fire for thee, Nachiketas, which thou hast chosen as thy second wish. They shall call this fire thine. Choose thy third wish, Nachiketas.

[Nachiketas speaks:]

– This doubt that there is of a man that has gone forth; "he exists" say some, and "he exists not" others say. A knowledge of this taught by thee: this of my wishes is the third wish.

[Death speaks:]

– Even by the gods it was doubted about this; not easily knowable and subtle is this law. Choose, Nachiketas, another wish. Hold me not to it; spare me this.

[Nachiketas speaks:]

– Even by the gods, thou sayest, it was doubted about this; nor easily knowable is it, O Death. Another teacher of it cannot be found like thee. No other wish is equal to this.

This third wish is the essence and crown of the whole Upanishad. Not the first wish "that the father may be at peace," that the past may "sleep well"; nor the second wish, the heavenly fire, are the true mystery of the Secret of Death.

The words, "the doubt that there is of a man that has gone forth," evidently bear two meanings. They refer first to the death of the body, and the doubt as to the survival of the personality. But this is not the deeper meaning. Nachiketas has confidently looked forward to the time when he shall be "released by Death" and "freed from the mouth of Death"; and has spoken of "the heaven-world which enjoys immortality"; so that he does not doubt as to the immortality of the soul, in its ordinary sense of the individual survival after death.

It is not this physical death, but the death which precedes the true spiritual rebirth and inward illumination; the death of the passions and selfishness, of personal desire, which must be passed through before the initiation by the spirit is reached; what Paul calls the "death to sin, and the new birth to righteousness"; the death which comes only once, while the physical death comes many times; the turning-point of the soul, after it has reached its extremest limit on the outward path. This is the death whose secret Nachiketas asks. The "man that has gone forth" would be, in this sense, the Jivanmukta, "for whom there is no return", who has entered Nirvana, of whom the gods have doubted; " 'he exists' say some, 'he exists not,' others say."

Of this secret there is no teacher but Death; the death of selfishness must be passed through before an understanding can be reached of that true undyingness "which is not immortality but eternity"; and which may be reached in the midst of life, long before the time of physical death has come.

[Death speaks:]

– Choose sons and grandsons of a hundred years; and cattle and elephants and gold and horses. Choose the great treasure-house of the world, and live as many autumns as thou wilt.

If thou thinkest this an equal wish, choose wealth and length of days. Be thou mighty in the world, O Nachiketas. I make thee an enjoyer of thy desires.

Whatsoever desires are difficult in the mortal world, ask all desires according to thy will.

These beauties, with their chariots and lutes — not such as these are to be won by men — be waited on by them, my gifts. Ask me not of dying, Nachiketas.

This answers to the offer made by the Lord of the House of Death to another neophyte, who, like Nachiketas, "descended into hell, and rose again the third day"; the offer of the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. It would seem that the knowledge and power which make the spiritual rebirth possible are great enough to render certain the winning of any lesser prize, if the ambition to be mighty on the earth remains. These alternatives are offered, therefore, by the power which, if they are refused, will become the Initiator.

[Nachiketas speaks:]

– By tomorrow these fleeting things wear out the vigor of a mortal's powers. Even the whole of life is little; and chariots and dance are in thy power.

Not by wealth can a man be satisfied. Shall we choose wealth if we have seen thee? Shall we desire life while thou art master? But the wish I choose is verily that.

Coming near to the unfadingness of the immortals, a fading mortal here below, and understanding it, understanding the sweets of beauty and pleasure, who would rejoice in length of days?

This that they doubt about, O Death, what is in the great Beyond, tell me of that. This wish that draws nigh the mystery, Nachiketas chooses no other wish but that.

(To be concluded)


The Path

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