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Nachiketas Fire


A hundred and one are the heart's channels; of these one passes to the crown. Going up by this, he comes to the immortal.


Viraga – indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived – marks the beginning of the razor-edged Path. For reasons connected with the cosmogony of divine wisdom, human beings find the first step on the Path the most difficult. They must come to an initial standpoint of detachment from the world, with its false values, its glamour and attractions, its nightmares and anguish. Indifference simply means perceiving no essential difference between pleasure and pain because both arise from cerebral reaction to sensory stimuli. They are alike devoid of intrinsic meaning for that Self which nurtures its own transcendent conception of growth. Two individuals, from seemingly identical experiences of pleasure or pain, may come to contrasting conclusions and derive radically different implications. Consider two persons who enjoyed identical dinners, containing ingredients guaranteed to produce a stomach-ache, such that both experienced gastric pains the next day. Similar facts yield no insight into the diverse meanings that persons might ascribe to their experiences. This points towards the philosophical basis of self-reference and action. Man is a value-assigning agent, who needs minimal freedom from titillation and disturbance induced by pleasurable or painful experiences. Once this initial standpoint of philosophical indifference is established even to a small extent, one will find out for oneself that it points to the Path of inward growth.

 When one averts attention from the chaos of external events, through the dawning realization that assigning meaning and value is one's own task, one aspires to gain greater knowledge and control. Yet, turning inward, one soon confronts a host of unresolved elements – repressed fears and fantasies – within what is often called the unconscious. Once they are set in motion, one risks slipping into alternating euphoric and terrifying states, losing hold over the real world of spiritual light which one seeks as well as the public world of shared sensory impressions. To dare to face oneself fully is difficult, because the more illusions one strips away, the more illusions crop up. The protracted and painful, self-reinforcing nature of persisting illusions is familiar, but they must be cut through. Sufficient detachment enables one to glimpse the central but undiscovered truth of Self, omnipresent and indestructible, shining behind and beyond the world. This truth about oneself is equally the truth about the Path, which must be trodden in secret. Only by taking each step is the next revealed. Like a winding mountain path which cannot be discerned from a distance, it cannot be traced without treading it.

 One must foster steadiness, determination and continuity, remaining fixed in the recognition of the spiritual insignificance of the passing panorama of the subconscious and the supreme value of the single truth that one now partly sees and wholly seeks. When a natural detachment is secured at this level, one is ready to experience greater fearlessness and more penetrating insight. Viraga is "the Gate of Balance". Repeatedly at different levels of growth, through daunting trials at successive stages of spiritual life, one needs to establish a stable fulcrum reflecting a mentally constant standpoint of inward steadiness and balance. Though seemingly complicated, this is not unlike walking, or balancing on a bicycle or a tightrope. One only knows for oneself that it is possible to balance, or that it is necessary to have absolute faith in one's spiritual strength. A tightrope walker cannot mechanically teach someone how to balance and perform delicate manoeuvres upon a very thin, taut thread. The experienced tightrope walker can take all the appropriate security measures in regard to the wire, but it is the learner who must not move one iota from an absolute, immovable conviction that he can both maintain and restore balance, and that even if he experiences a sudden loss of equilibrium, he can still bring himself back to the state of balance. Existential equilibrium cannot be taught to someone who is not actually involved in the dynamic struggle for balance amidst ceaselessly shifting variables. Yet the more one gains proficiency in the practice of viraga, the more it becomes as natural as breathing.

 One must be yoked, by regular meditation and recurrent reflection, to the universal Self. That Self is veiled rather than revealed by compulsive speech and chaotic thought-patterns. One has to sustain in daily life a secret spiritual discipline which no one else can gauge from observation of externals. This discipline has to do with constancy in that standpoint which steadily sees the universal Self behind the mental furniture of the world and the manifest self. What is at first an exercise in repeated balancing can become, after a while, a mental breathing as natural as physical breathing, leading to the state of inmost tranquillity. The Voice of the Silence enjoins the disciple to be ready to find "thy body agitated, thy mind tranquil, thy Soul as limpid as a mountain lake". It is possible to realize this within oneself and remain continuously in those depths of spiritual awareness where there are no ripples, but rather a serene experience of the limpidity intrinsic to Atmic consciousness. This may be brought down into the realm of the mind in a manner that makes for self-tranquillization and self-regeneration, and it is compatible with vigorous incarnation in the sphere of active duty. Like all subtle delineations of detachment, these lines from The Voice of the Silence have an archetypal significance. They are relevant at the beginning, but they presage the efflorescence at the end, and they have applications all along the Path.

 The Katha Upanishad teaches that once one hears of this Path, one cannot pretend life will be the same again. Once the flashing insight has torn away "the loathsome mask", the words of truth cannot be set aside as if they were never heard. All who enter the orbit of great Teachers are self-condemned: they will never again be able to nestle in the soft folds of delusion, for "the Hound of Heaven" will pursue them to the end. Not to realize this is either naive ignorance about oneself and the universe, or perversity in the face of the embodiment of spiritual light within the vestures and limitations of this deceptive world. Since balance in motion requires both vision and aim, when one is in right earnest about treading the Path, it will be found that one cannot keep one's feet on that Path without practising spiritual archery. This is the continual realignment of mental vision, symbolized in archery by the relation of the eyes to the target. The target is the indestructible, the invisible, the formless, the great Self, which is mirrored in the divine Triad within and beyond one's manifest identity.

 As the Buddha taught, one realizes upon entering the Path that it is impossible to fall back into thoughtlessness with impunity. On the razor-edged Path everything is finely balanced and highly energized. The greater the knowledge, the greater must be the responsibility and courage to accept the consequences of thoughts, images and ideation. More and more, one must feel a profound and cool heart-awareness of identity with every being whose limitations have become, through ignorance, like the entwining coils of a serpent. Compassionate awareness cannot be sustained without making the teaching come alive. Teachers vivify the ancient teachings by the light of their spiritual wisdom and through their own effortless embodiment of the oneness of all and the transcendence of the divine Triad beyond all cosmic phenomena. It is only through them that the disciple has the opportunity of lighting up "the Nachiketas Fire" of discernment and daring. Once lit, it must be tended and guarded by the disciple himself, and eventually fanned into a bright flame. Established on this Path, a stage will come when indifference to earthly reward will be natural and easy. In the Katha Upanishad Nachiketas simply could not see the point of the various gifts Yama first offered him: riches, kingship, kingdoms and pleasures. All these had no meaning for Nachiketas because he knew they were the trappings of a life he had long since outgrown. He sought the secret of immortality and was unconditionally willing to honour the privilege of receiving the secret and living by it. Every skill and faculty is needed while climbing the steep mountain precipices of the Path. It must never be forgotten that the necessary equipment is within oneself, and that it will all have to be used, because this Path is like a razor's edge. Those who would understand what these things mean cannot do so except by the effort to attain some initial foothold on the Path. Having heard about the Path and having grasped that one cannot evade this recognition, however partial or fleeting, one needs to see the profound sense in which the Path is difficult to travel.

 The great metaphors – indeed, the entire parable of the Katha Upanishad – have manifold layers and levels of meaning, all pointing to the secret spiritual heart. In The Voice of the Silence the Path is connected with antaskarana, the bridge between the impersonal and personal selves. A time will come when a person must choose between the two, for either must prevail. One cannot both be on the Path and also maintain the absurd but common misconception that there is a personal entity inside oneself, to whom things are happening and who is planning the course of life. This is the prime illusion in the eyes of Seers: no such entity exists; there is only a bundle of propensities and reflexes. The concatenation of elemental entities comprising the shadowy self are engaged in their own activity. The personality may have the illusory thought lodged in it that it is acting freely, but it is only a congeries of life-atoms pursuing their own ends. The celebrated metaphor of the chariot, also deployed in Plato's Phaedrus, is given a vast extension in the Katha Upanishad as it is applicable to cosmic as well as to human activity. The Katha Upanishad may be seen not only as a philosophical dialogue, but also as an alchemical text, replete with deeply evocative, enigmatic and magical mantrams.

 The image of the chariot and charioteer symbolizes a hierarchy of cosmic and human forces bridging the unmanifest and the manifest. Rather than an abrupt and stark dualism, they involve continuous degrees of manifestation. Consider a great architect, potter or creative cook. In the translation of a mental conception to the physical plane, one may discover that some critical ingredient is unavailable. When improvisation is required, the greater the artist, the more he or she can turn a supposed set-back into a timely opportunity for innovation which enriches the art. The artist knows that a creative and resourceful mind simply cannot be confined by a priori specifications attached to any great conception. Layers, levels and hierarchies, constituting thought which is cosmic and undifferentiated, intelligence which is bound up with differentiated matter and specific forms, and mediating will-energy, recur at every level of spiritual gestation and material manifestation.

 At some point one must mentally let go of the route by which one has come, what the Buddha called the Raft and The Voice of the Silence terms the antaskarana bridge. This letting go is depicted in the image of the complete sacrifice of personal existence to the impersonal Self upon the altar of the heart. For a manasa to be engaged in personal existence means that an impersonal universe has made an immense sacrifice. This is symbolized physically by the sacrifice of the father in giving of his life-essence, and mentally by the magnanimous sacrifice of a great being giving freely of his spiritual essence so that evolution may go on. It is also evident in the noble sacrifice of the mother who, over a period of painful growth, gives everything to the astral body of the soul coming into the world, just as the maternal matrix of Akasa nourishes the embryo of the world. The impersonal has sacrificed for the sake of manifestation on the personal plane. This must be deliberately reversed through an intent awareness of what one owes to one's father, one's mother, and to all of one's teachers, especially to one's spiritual parents and teachers. The deliberate reversal involves taking everything that one has, with all one's strength and limitations, and sacrificing it for the sake of the self-conscious reemergence on the plane of manifestation of the inward god, the inner sovereign, who otherwise would remain the silent Self. One must allow that Self within, who is no different from the Self of all, to assume kingship.

 No one can tap the highest resources without becoming secure enough to want nothing for the puny, shadowy self. Moved only by desires that elevate the whole of mankind and the entirety of life, and established in that proper posture, one can abandon the antaskarana bridge, because one can re-create it at will. Seeing one's personal self as no different from other personal selves, one can do the bidding of the divine through the instrumentality of anything in nature, including, therefore, the use of one's persona, in which one has renounced absolutely all proprietary interest. Becoming aware of the life-atoms in that vesture, one realizes that there is no such thing as the "personal self" save in a metaphorical sense. Life-atoms are constantly streaming in and out as part of the ceaseless spiritual transmutation of matter on seven planes and the uninterrupted law of sacrifice within the seven kingdoms of nature. The true hotri is an alchemist able to send out beneficent emanations through a mighty current of thought, meditation, vision and universal compassion, quickening the upward growth of all the life-atoms that are available. To such a sage the antaskarana Path does not have its former significance, except as a drawbridge to be extended at will in the service of universal welfare.

 The important thing for all seekers is to seize upon that teaching which refers to taking the first step. One may begin with the profound feeling of gratitude for all one's gifts. Even every limitation could be seen as an opportunity. This attitude of mind is certainly helpful for any person trying to gain an initial self-understanding before treading the Path. At another level, it is even more important to recognize, in the words of The Voice of the Silence, how great is "the priceless boon of learning truth". Nachiketas is an archetypal man, a Golden Age figure who lived at a time when many people were aware that nothing was more precious than the teaching of immortality and the standpoint of the Supreme Self. Men searched all their lives and went through many tribulations and trials simply for the sake of coming closer to anyone who belonged to the Brotherhood of Mahatmas. Now, in the Iron Age, only those who have devoted many lives to this Path can know the magnitude of what has already been given. The fire is being rekindled for the sake of nothing less than the community of mankind of the future, most of whom are still unborn. It would be a sad mistake not to take full advantage and to make the best possible use, within one's own limitations and situation, of the opportunity to make a grateful, reverential response to the teachers of Divine Wisdom. This can only be authentically achieved through the attempt to live by and embody the teachings. Though initial efforts may falter, the moment a person begins to nurture a holy resolve whereby one will neither remit nor run away from the task to one's last breath, even a modest effort at the beginning will be charged with meaning and significance by the unconditional nature of the affirmation.

 The value of the first step is enhanced when a person, instead of starting off with a limiting conception of personal and individual success and failure, thinks instead of human need, human pain and human ignorance. The stakes are high for multitudes of souls in our time, and immense could be the harvest from seeds sown in the right places with a wise detachment toward results. Individuals, galvanized by spontaneous love of their fellow-men in great need, can be sustained till the last breath by a steadfast determination to persevere. When one truly wakes up and stands firm, then one may also seek spiritual instruction from those who bear witness to the Master-soul within. One can thereby increase one's own possibilities of conscious access to Sat or truth, Chit or ideation, and Ananda or bliss, which abide in a single triad of supreme and active peace within the quiet depths of every human heart. Even though one may feel, in personal consciousness, that one can never become wholly one with It, nonetheless, one must continually seek and yearn, keeping alive this Nachiketas fire of devotion.

 To comprehend this teaching in terms of the spiritual heart, one must start from the cosmic and descend to the human. The pulsating rhythm of life can never be perceived until a person begins to inhabit those higher planes which permit conscious use of subtle matter, in relation to which the physical body is like a coat or a garment. The Upanishads teach that for a wise man death is not an event. No one would think that the shadow is alive in the same sense in which the body is. For the wise, the body is like a shadow of that which is subtler and which it reflects. This subtle body in turn is a shadow in relation to something still more subtle which it partially mirrors. The dialectical method of the Hermetic fragments and the neo-Platonic mystics requires that we keep rethinking our view of light and shadow at many levels as we travel inward and upwards. One may approach the vast mystery of life by sensing the sun as a great heart which is constantly beating. There is a systole and diastole to the cosmic heart of the sun, without which no single heart could beat. The thrill of life in every atom and mineral, in every plant and animal, and in every human heart, is merely a derivative expression of perpetual motion in the ceaseless, rhythmic breathing of the great heart of the cosmos.

 Everything is sevenfold and acts upon seven planes. Descending by analogy and correspondence to that miniature solar system which is the individual human being, one discovers an outwardly disordered and disharmonious system. But this is only true apparently, not fundamentally. Every person consists of a hierarchy of dynamic and complex systems, among which the most invisible are the most harmonious. What is most visible is the most disordered, being the most heterogeneous. On the external plane there are many obscurations and many violent, discordant movements. Therefore, it is difficult to grasp the majesty and grandeur of the proposition that every man is a microcosm, a little universe. But the core of the teaching of Buddhi Yoga is that each individual is capable, from the realm of the disordered and disharmonious, of coming closer through a series of progressive awakenings to that realm where one spontaneously affirms the mantram of Jesus, "I and my Father are one." Manifested consciousness may be yoked to the unmanifest consciousness of the real, unembodied Self – the Spiritual Sun at the heart of all, which is eternally in a proper relationship to every planet and to the subtlest constitution of man.

 Anyone may begin by cultivating the highest feelings of which he or she is capable. This unravels the paradox, for the Heart Doctrine is the only key by which individuals may unlock the chamber of the deeper teaching, which by definition must be secret, as suggested in the Upanishads and their commentaries. The word upanishad itself implies secret, direct teaching from Master to pupil. The Heart Doctrine must be felt before one will be ready to use freely the spiritual teachings about the inner analogues – in the realms of idea, emotion and vital energy – of the circulatory, respiratory and all other systems of the physical frame. A beautiful Sanskrit word for the heart occurs in the Upanishads: guhya, "that which is hidden, that which is in secret". It is like the sanctum sanctorum of an old Hindu cave temple, with its analogies to the human body. Even if one goes into the temple, and even if one is admitted into the sanctum sanctorum, there is nevertheless a mystery beyond that which is seen. There is a sense, analogous to the mathematical concept of limit, in which one will never quite arrive at the end. The wise know that this is the symbolism of the temple: even if one presses into the darkest place in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, it is only a point of entry to other states. The word guhya refers to what anyone who grows self-consciously in regard to various sheaths of human nature is going to discover – that which may be called the astral brain and heart. None of the five physical senses is any more than a mechanical outpost for activities that are located in the astral body. There are astral senses, and those who develop them will experience their tremendous range and extension, along with appropriate problems which would not be intelligible in terms of the physical plane. So too with the brain and the heart. There would be a progressive series of discoveries of correspondences to the heart at different levels in the different vestures or sheaths of the Supreme Self. Anyone who feels that there is a divine spark in every human being, about which one could silently think and with which one could inwardly commune, taps the potential wisdom of the hidden fire within the heart. Those who at some level begin to live this truth in every thought and feeling-impulse that they generate, deepen their inmost feeling for the sacred cause of the spiritual elevation of the race, the deliberate pursuit of self-knowledge for the sake of all. The more they can light up and rekindle, deepen and sustain this heart-feeling as a continuous flame of devotion, the more they can take what might look like thin, frail candles and light up their hearts. In time, the Nachiketas flame blazes up and is established on the square platform of the altar in the sanctuary of the heart. There it can shine in its full, hidden glory as a continuous regenerator of the kingdom in which man lives and which is his share in the great kingdoms of nature. Thus the true beginning is in the sphere of soul-feelings. Unless one's heart can feel something of the generosity and compassion, something of the immense heart-pulsation behind the movement of all nature and the great Lodge of Perfected Sages – those Rishis who gave the Upanishads – one will not be able to light up one's own pathway. This heart-light will take the persistent beginner from the broad plains to the entrance of the true Path, for which many are called, but few are chosen.

Hermes, April 1978
by Raghavan Iyer

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