Pravrajika Vivekaprana is a senior sannyasini of the Sri Sarada Math and the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Order. She is presently secretary of Sri Ramakrishna Sarada Mission New Delhi and is also head of the Retreat Centre of Sri Ramakrishna Sarada Mission at pangot district Nainital India.
Since the time she joined the order in 1963 she has been sharing her thoughts and understanding of the Hindu Scriptures of Vedanta and of the meaning of life with rapt audiences. Taking her inspiration form the dynamism of the lives of Sri Ramakrishna Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda her ability to reach out to her listeners always leaves a lasting impression. The depth of her understanding is based on over 50 years of the study of Hindu philosophy in the context of human psychology with the specific background of the teaching of Swami Vivekananda.
Over the years she has visited Holland, Germany, France, England, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and the United States of America. In 1993 Pravrajika Vivekaprna was invited to address the parliament of Religions in Chicago exactly 100 years after swami Vivekananda spoke at the same forum in 1893 and made his first electrifying impact on the west.
This is the third book in the Understanding Vedanta series based on a series of lectures that she gave on the katha Upanishad Pravrajika Vivekaprana first explains the historical philosophical and psychological background and then discusses some select sholkas of the Upanishad against that background.
We are going to deal with a book that most of you must have heard of, by name at least, the Katha Upanishad. Everyone is perhaps aware of the word Upanishad The Upanishads are part of the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures, and they primarily explain Hindu philosophy and psychology. They form the core of Vedantic thought. This is one of the eight well-known Upanishads, and perhaps the most famous.
The Katha Upanishad became especially popular or significant because Swami Vivekananda talked about it in great detail. I am neither a scholar nor a Sanskrit student. Whatever Sanskrit I know is what I picked up after reading Swami Vivekananda because he keeps pointing to our ancient heritage, which is in a language that has vanished from the minds of modern Hindus. I tried to go back to this language so as to get some of the original significance or feeling, because there are many expressions that cannot be translated into any other language. To understand them one has to have a feel for the language.
Before going straight to the book, however, I think it is necessary for us to understand the historical background and some other important aspects.
The Rise and Fall of Civilizations
India stands for the evolution of religious and philosophic concepts. What has been the process of evolution in other civilizations? Has there been any kind of evolution in them?
The Chinese Civilization reached a great level of social evolution. Each person knew his exact place in society. This happened in India also — that is what the caste system, the varnas, etc. were meant for But no other society, other than the Chinese, laid so much emphasis on what a social being was and how the society was superior to the individual. So their energy went in that particular direction. They tried to make a society where everyone had a specific place, and that place could not be confused with any other role. Having played its part, this civilization that existed with this particular social structure, is now vanishing.
The Egyptian Civilization reached great heights from the points of view of architecture, art, writing system and so on but the emphasis was on — where does the person go after death? They spent great energy or decorating their tombs, the Pyramids, and also on wrapping dead people, and preserving them as ‘mummies’. It is unfathomable as to how they perceived of the passing away of life from the body and its passage into the next world. They spent so much time and energy on that. They wanted to somehow ensure that the dead person was kept ‘alive’. They believed that if the body was kept intact, and prevented from decay, then somehow the person remained alive. I think they came to the idea of the subtle body, which does not die along with the gross body, but they did not evolve the concept of the Atman — that there is something beyond the gross and subtle bodies, something that is ever free. Because they did not reach that concept, their energy was spent in only looking after the dead bodies. This civilization vanished over time.
The Japanese Civilization gave tremendous importance to the sense of duty and aesthetic values. Today, their creativity has changed and they have focused on technology.
The point I am making here is that many civilizations did focus their energy on some specific aspect of human society, but the original impulse is no longer there. In India, it is not that we did not have outstanding art and sculpture, or architecture; we did. We have monuments standing as evidence. But the creators of Ajanta and Elora are not here today; the makers of the Taj Mahal are no longer seen. But what has come back, and is being resurrected repeatedly, is the idea that beyond the body and mind there is something changeless and free. We find this in our ancient books, and this is what the most ancient thinkers gave us. According to Swami Vivekananda, that original energy and impulse is what has kept this civilization alive.
The Degeneration in Society
This Upanishad is very ancient; these ideas evolved over 5000 years ago. People tried to live according to them, but then decay set in because the, focus shifted. So what caused the decay? Rituals became more important. About 2500 years ago, the Buddha wanted to resurrect these ideas and arrest that decay lie wanted to take the people away from the rigidity of rituals, especially from the practice of the sacrifice of animals. The Buddha chose to analyse his own mind. We do not know the details of the process he used to reach the root of his mind. He wanted to give a message to society, which at that time needed a particular focus. So he gave the four-fold path that laid emphasis on ethics and values. People were inspired by this message and by the personality of the Buddha and for 500 years it thrived and spread rapidly. It brought great progress in education, and in art and culture. But again decay set in. Because the Buddha had not talked about any ultimate reality of the individual, his disciples spread the message that there was nothing permanent. His disciples were forced to write books, very learned hooks, on the psychology of the human mind. There is no other movement that has gone deeper into human psychology than Buddhist thought. They tried to show that there is absolutely no background to this whole show, which is happening from moment to moment. Therefore, as human beings we just need to pay attention to our daily conduct and keep that based on ethics and moral science. The Buddha gave this moral lesson without a metaphysical background. But, if this world is all that there is, then why would people bother about morality and ethics? They would want to live as they please, take what they can, and satisfy their desires in any which way. Human minds being the way they are need the assurance that there is permanence somewhere, otherwise why will they change their conduct at all?
After the decay of Buddhism had set in, Sri Shankaracharya came on the scene. He wanted to show that this decay was due to neglect of the basic concept — does the individual have any reality or not? He emphasized the steady background, of Brahman. Without that background, steadiness is not possible.
Then came the Muslim invasion, and the civilization was in turmoil. The women were restricted indoors, they were deprived of education, and the society degenerated. That started the Bhakti Movement and it became very prominent. The belief of this movement, was, “pray to God and He will look after you.” Subsequently, the ego was called the source of all human problems. But a human being cannot rise from the level of decay without belief in his ego, the ‘I’. This is what Swami Vivekananda emphasized.
Flux or Permanence?
The Buddhist says, look at the outside world, it is changing all the time. It is absolutely clear that nothing is steady. Then moving inwards look at the mind; that is also in a state of flux. So ‘1’ has no basis. In a state of flux how can you look for permanence? I am also not the same. I am also changing. A river is only moving drops of water. We give it the name of river and thus emphasize its permanence. Common human belief therefore, seems to seek permanence.
Vedanta says, beyond the body and mind there is something permanent. Vedanta’s response to Buddhism is there is just one reality, it is not two. The flux is perceived against a background of permanence. Reality is here and now. It is not a matter of going anywhere. It isn’t a question of renouncing anything. It is merely a question of going deeper within and understanding that there is just one reality, which is manifesting itself in many ways because of the limitation of the sense organs. So once we can train the sense organs and the mind to concentrate, it will be revealed to us that there is just One, and I am That.
These ideas were developed by Sri Shankaracharya. Unfortunately though, he came at a time when society had completely degenerated. He therefore declared that the common herd of people was incapable of understanding these ideas and practising them. Only Brahmin men were found to be suitable to learn these concepts. The right of learning was taken away from the common people. But history has shown that if the majority of people are told that they are not fit for something, then eventually it is this majority that pulls down the minority.
The Resurrection of Society
As Hindus, today we are totally confused as we do not know where we are coming from. The concept of one reality was accepted in India earlier. We are a race that wants to make concepts practical. Though we may be trying to become materialistic, we still have a tendency to base our lives on concepts. We, as a nation, are sensitive to something subtle. But if that something subtle is confusing then our life cannot be meaningful and strong. Strength comes when concepts are cleat We are confused because our basis was the subtle level, and now we are trying to shift to the physical. We cannot change overnight. Such is the power of heritage that in spite of cosmetic changes there is something which remains — a sensitivity to subtlety. Our subtlety was connected with this question: is there anything permanent beyond even the mental level?
Today we are in a situation when Bhakti is gone, Jnana is gone. We must resurrect these concepts once again as this is the strong point of Indian thinking. Once we can revive them, we revive everything. The freedom movement of India was based on the dynamics of this revival and resurrection that point to the same source.
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