in post

Under my tree

So I took the dog for her morning walk and sat under my favourite tree, with a copy of Patrick Olivelle's translation of the Upanisads. I turned to the final pages of the Chaandogya, which tells the story of Virocana and Indra's visit to Prajapati (the creator) in their quest for knowledge. After they have spent 32 years with him, he finally asks them why they have bothered to come to see him? They tell him they have come in a quest to understand the Self. They've heard that such an understanding will bring them untold riches, all they could ever want or desire. Ah, that's why you're here, he says. It's quite simple - just put on some fine clothes, spruce yourself up, look at yourselves in a mirror and tell me what you see. They do so and tell him that they see themselves togged out in fine clothes, looking lovely. That's it! Says Prajapati. That's your immortal self! Virocana and Indra go away happily.

Virocana returns to the gods and tells them Prajapati has told him the truth. We should worship our body as the highest thing in the universe. But Indra is troubled by doubt. If that were the case, he thinks, then if I'm old, lame and crippled and look in the mirror, that will be the self, the highest truth, instead. That cannot be. So he goes back to Prajapati and explains his doubts. Prajapati confirms them and tells him to wait another 32 years. Then he tells him that the self is not something material, but like in a dream. Indra goes away happily but returns with doubts. And the same thing happens again, and again. And finally after 101 years Prajapati tells him the ultimate truth, that the Self is the "one who is aware" of everything perceived by the senses.

It isn't that Prajapati was lying through his teeth all along. He was telling the truth in a way that Virocana and Indra could understand it at the moment of their asking. There are levels of understanding. Only when one aspect of the truth leaves us dissatisfied are we ready to understand further. The Chaandogya says that although the truth is there all along, the process of obtaining it takes many years. And most of those years are spent carrying out mundane task. The learning comes only during the bit of spare time left over from them.

I'm actually a little weary of these spiritual stories. I know they are here to couch fine points of wisdom in ways that we can understand, but the end result is to pacify us, rather than challenge us. What if there were no Upanisads, no Dhammapada, no Bible to guide us? We would have to interpret the signs left for us in our own experiences. The hexagrams and their interpretation are all out there in the real world, hidden under rocks or sometimes punching us in the nose. But it does take long years, and the insights come slowly, if they come at all.