Parables from the Upanishads
Rishi Sanatkumara was once approached by Narada (evidently not yet become a Rishi), who said, “Lord, I desire to be taught by you. Please teach me.” The Rishi replied,”Very well, but first tell me how much you know; then I shall tell you if you need more.” Narada thereupon made out an inventory of his learning; it was a formidable list.
“My Lord, this is what I have learnt: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, the Fifth Veda comprising History and Mythology; next, Grammar, Mathematics, Logic and Politics, the Science of Computing Time, Theology, Fine Arts and the Ritual Lore; Demonology, Astrology, and the Art of Predicting Fate; the Knowledge of Ancestors and of Serpents. I know all this, my Lord, and very well. This has made me master of the Word, but has not given me knowledge of the Self. I have heard that only by the knowledge of the Self can one pass beyond sorrow and pain. I am immersed in sorrow and pain, please help me reach the other shore.”
Sanatkumara said, “All that you have studied and learnt is nothing but ‘Name’, no more than words. You have reached as far as ‘Name’ can take you, giving you as fruit the power to roam at will, that is, you can go unimpeded where you will. But that is about all.”
Then Narada asked, “Is there anything superior to Name?” “Of course, there is,” replied Sanatkumara. “Then tell me about it.”
“Superior to Name is Speech, that is, Name with form and meaning.” Thus he went on replying to the series of Narada’s questions. Speech, Mind, Will, Thought, Meditation, Knowledge — these are the ascending grades, each higher than the one preceding. And each carries with it the power to move at will. The goal of this ascending series is, to use our own terminology, a widening of the consciousness. As we rise from grade to higher grade, our consciousness gains in width and depth and intensity.
But after Meditation comes Power.
It seems that marks the end of one series and the beginning of another. The first seven of the earlier series represent the line of our externalized consciousness already manifest. But these powers or functions cannot get their full play by remaining confined to the field of our inner being. In order to make them active and fruitful and effective in practice, Power is needed, the power of work. Hence, under this category of Power, are grouped the fourfold series that constitute in essence the material world in its forms of solids, liquids, energy and air — the fifth or ethereal element is omitted for it is not relevant here. The solids form the body’s material substance, the liquids give it life and mobility, energy is stamina and prowess, air gives it the sense of width and expansion. What sustains them all as their basic support has been termed Power, which ordinarily conveys the sense of capacity and strength.
But beyond this second series there is a fresh turn which takes us round to the third. Here we get to the realm of the subliminal, with its silent movements behind our ordinary consciousness. This series consists of Memory, Hope, Life-force and Truth. In our language, Memory is constant remembrance, Hope is aspiration, Life-force is energy at work, and Truth means the rejection of falsehood and the unreal and the acceptance of what is real and true. Beyond this there is yet another series, the ascent to which lies in taking a further turn from behind. The first step on this path is Knowledge, that is, knowledge of the Vast and the Particular. The second step is Contemplation, implying a concentrated one-pointedness.
The third is Faith, an unwavering trust. Faith implies steadfastness and, to make the latter effective, there is need of action, its application in life, making it concrete. Finally, action leads to joy, it is indeed the mainspring of action. We know that joy alone is the essence of creation, joy is its source, joy the ultimate end. But the Rishi says, this joy is no ordinary pleasure; its other name is the Vastness — the Vast, verily, is the Delight, there is no joy in smallness, says the Text.
Starting from “Name”, the outermost expression and most concrete figure of gross physical substance, we have risen by stages to another Name of substance, to the Supreme Name, into the Highest Consciousness, from the uttermost division of the individualized ego to the endless infinity of Being. This progress or ascent of the consciousness or being has not been in a simple straight line, it has taken a zigzag serpentine path.
First to develop were, as I have said, the parts of the externalized or manifest being; this is the stage of the waking mentality. On this level, the highest attainment is Knowledge. From Name or gross physical Word as our starting-point, we arrive in the end at its culmination as the knowledge of particulars, what we call the power of discrimination. But the growth and cultivation of the mind alone is not enough. For its sufficient development and capacity there is needed a physical capacity that has the body as its base. That is why, in the second stage of our progress, there is a turning back from the mind down to a lower level, for the cultivation of this physical base, in order to attain mastery there.
Once the base got firmly established, the consciousness had to take another turn and enter upon a new stage of its progress. This was in the realm of the inner being. In this stage, there was gained the acquaintance and control of the functions and powers that work from behind the physical mind. From here there is the ascent to the fourth step while still keeping behind the veil, on to the gates of the spiritual consciousness, crossing beyond the limits of our ordinary state. Already, as we reached the level of the life-force, the Rishi had something new to say : one who gained entry into the inner or universal life became “extraordinary”, in that he had passed the limits of his ordinary consciousness, crossed over to the other side. And one who got firmly established in the integral Truth of the final stage attained the state of superconscience.
According to our present-day Science there is no such thing as motion in a straight line, all movement has to take a zigzag serpentine path. The reason is that the created universe is actually spherical in shape, all lines on it must be curves. And because of the gravitational pull, all motions in it must be wave-motions. All progress or forward movement in the consciousness of man or in the lines of creation must likewise be a spiral movement. In the course of an ascent or forward movement, one can notice one thing, namely, that one has to pass again through the same place or condition which one has already crossed once. In actual fact one does not return to precisely the same place or condition, but certainly to an analogous place or situation: it is as if a replica of the earlier state appearing once again in the next higher stage or forward position.
We know that the same process applies to our spiritual endeavour or even in ordinary training, when a particular quality or state has to be made more firmly and fully established. If, for example, peace is established in the first state of mind, in its physical functioning, the same state of peace has to be established over and over again in the depths of the inner being and on its ascending peaks. A somewhat similar method or process of working is noticeable in the path shown here by Rishi Sanatkumara to Narada. At the beginning of the series is the physical mind, at the end is the spiritual mind. The physical mind is the slave of sense, the spiritual mind is to become centred in God. The first series ends with Knowledge, Knowledge again begins the last series. It seems that the first is the knowledge of particulars, the last is that of the Vastness.
Narada started on the march of consciousness with “Name”. He has passed from stage to stage, from level to higher level, till at last he has crossed beyond the material “Name” to the Supreme Name, Brahman. Thus surpassing the state of mortal man, he has, at last, attained the status of Rishi.
With deep gratitude to Nolini Kanta Gupta of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, or Nolini Da, as he was fondly known to all in the Ashram.
More on Nolini Da here