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Only the Self chooses the Self || On Mundaka Upanishad (2021)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
20 min
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नायमात्मा प्रवचनेन लभ्यो न मेधया न बहुना श्रुतेन । यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्यस्तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूं स्वाम् ॥

nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo na medhayā na bahunā śrutena yamevaiṣa vṛṇute tena labhyastasyaiṣa ātmā vivṛṇute tanūṃ svām

This Self is not won by exegesis, nor by brainpower, nor by much learning of Scripture. Only by him whom It chooses can It be won; to him this Self unveils its own body.

~ Verse 3.2.3

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Acharya Prashant (AP): “This Self is not won by exegesis, nor by brainpower, nor by much learning of Scripture. Only by him whom It chooses can It be won; to him this Self unveils itself.”

Nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo na medhayā na bahunā śrutena . A very famous and a very meaningful verse from Vedanta. In the same vein comes the next verse, and together these two verses will discount much that is usually thought to lead to the great Self, to liberation.

The seer is saying your intellect won’t suffice; understanding the scriptures in an intellectual way, commenting on them or reading commentaries, gaining a lot of knowledge by way of hearing—which was the mode those days—none of these is going to suffice when it comes to Self-realization. You will not get it using any of these traditional methods, these usual tricks; they will all fall flat.

How do you gain the Ātman , then? The answer is:

You do not gain the true Self. The true Self makes itself available to those whom It chooses.

So, it’s not your choice that leads you to the Truth. The Truth has to choose you, and then you gain the Truth. Now, what does that mean?

First of all, the inadequacy of the choices we make owing to the state of the chooser: Our actions will not suffice because there is an agency problem; the very state of the actor, the very presence of the actor militates against the success of the action. The actor is forbidding the action from success. The actor commands the action; the actor is the action. If the actor itself is configured in a way that is not conducive to the success of the action, obviously the action is never going to fetch results.

So, that’s the moot point here. As long as you continue to act from your personal, conditioned, flawed, insufficient and imaginary center, even the best of your choices are not going to succeed. Do not say, “I did my best.” The best comes way later. When you say, “I did my best,” you come first; the ‘I’ is the first letter. As long as you put yourself first, the best will not be good enough.

So, none of your actions succeed, none of your actions suffice when it comes to your highest possibility, and that exactly is what is to be seen. Though we want to know much more, all that is of importance has already been said. You as you are can succeed in only one way: deny yourself, defy yourself.

Self-realization can have only one method: self-defiance and self-denial. Self-expression or self-expansion will not lead you to the true Self. How can the expression of the false lead to the Truth? How can the expansion of the false ever touch the Truth?

These are very important words because we usually want to play very smart. That’s why the sage says here: Nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo na medhayā na bahunā śrutena . Medha is being discounted as a valid means of Self-attainment. ‘*Medha*’ means intellect. Intellect won’t succeed, your smartness won’t succeed. Absence of smartness succeeds. Innocence succeeds, not intellect.

It is extremely difficult to be innocent. You take great pride in your cleverness, in your medha , intellect, in your smartness. But that’s very much physical, very material, very bodily.

Having intellect is no great feat. Intellect arises from your physical system: if your physical system is configured in a certain way, you will have a high IQ. And there are people who are just designed in a particular way; as far as the dimension of the intellect goes, they aren’t great achievers. Or, if you look at other species, intellect is way lower there. And irrespective of how much you work on them, the intellect isn’t going to rise beyond a point.

That’s also the case with humans. Certain things are just biological, like your height. You can’t work too much on your height. Even if you apply the smartest methods, maybe a couple of inches is all you can gain. Same is the case with intellect. Intellect is not a function of your effort or your consciousness; intellect is a function of your brain cells, largely. You can’t raise it beyond a point, and if it is present it won’t dip beyond a point.

So, that’s what. By expansion of your prakritik self you cannot reach the Ātman . Prakriti wants to maintain your center. To maintain your center, it can have you work really hard. So, even hard work is not of much avail if it is going in the direction of self-preservation.

There are so many species of animals, birds, insects, who work terribly hard. If you compare the quantum of their work to their size or to their lifespan, you will get a staggering ratio; the little thing is working just too hard for itself. That doesn’t take them much ahead of themselves. An ant remains an ant irrespective of how much it slogs. An insect might live just two days—that might be its natural, biological lifespan—and so much of the two days it might just be slogging and endeavoring to reach its biological goals. But that’s all that it attains: biological goals, if at all.

So, hard work, intellect, reading books, arguing a lot, discussing a lot, debating a lot, speaking a lot, hearing a lot—all have been discounted by the seer here. It’s the intention that matters. But not your intention, your intention in the sense of you being a biological-social entity. If you are a biological-social entity, then your intention can never be towards self-dissolution.

So, it’s the intention of the best that you can be—that’s what counts. Which means you have to intend as the best one that you can be if you want to be the best one that you can be. If you intend from a point any lesser than, lower than your absolute maxima, then you cannot reach a point equal to your absolute maxima.

The point you reach is determined by the point you start from. If you start from the ego, you are not going to reach the Truth. The sage is saying, “If you want to reach the Truth, you have to decide as the Truth,” which means the Truth has to decide in your favor—and the Truth always decides in your favor.

In fact, saying that the Ātman must select you for you to be liberated is a bit of a contradiction. That’s why the verse needs deeper explanation. Because the Ātman is choiceless, the Ātman does not choose at all—or you could say that if the Ātman has to choose, it has already chosen everybody, it has already blessed everybody. The grace of the Truth is unconditional, available to all.

So, from the side of the Truth there is no choice pending to be made; the choice has already been made. You are all welcome—that’s the choice. You are all eligible for liberation—that’s the choice that the Truth has made.

The choice is pending from the side of the ego, and what is the choice that the ego needs to make? It needs to make the right decision, but it cannot make the right decision being what it is. So, the ego has to decide as the Truth to reach the Truth. And that’s an option that you have.

You can choose your ego-state, it is possible. You can choose who you are, it is possible. Before your choice manifests in your life, it has to be made internally; before you start living Truthfully, firstly you have to internally choose the Truth. Then that internal thing starts getting reflected in your being, in your life, everything.

So, being yourself, whatever choices you make—being smart, being learned, being knowledgeable, being this, being that—all are doomed to fail. That’s one thing. Secondly, the Truth is very, very available, provided you decide as the Truth.

Being the ego you can never decide in favor of the Truth. The ego will have to make an extraordinary decision: to be the Truth. And once the ego is the Truth, then the choiceless choice is in favor of the Truth. Remaining who you are, you will always have many choices and you will always go for the wrong one.

So, don’t hanker too much about action; look for the actor. You see, that’s where the Upanishads reign supreme. That’s where they are an improvement on—if I do not want to say they break away from—the initial parts of the Vedas. The initial parts of the Vedas are very ritualistic and they deal with action—ritualistic and materialistic in a sense, because all the deities that are being sought to please all refer to the forces of nature. All the deities thus are representations of something very material.

And the Vedas are an entire journey, I have often said. In the initial part they are saying, “This is the kind of sacrifice we will offer to please you, Varuna; to please you, Agni; to please you, Indra.” In fact, the very first verse of the Rig Veda is in service of the fire god, Agni. So, that’s what the Samhita part or the Mantra part is mostly about: doing something to get something.

So, an object is decided, a target is decided, the target is the god, and there are several gods there representing forces of nature. So, the target is somewhere in Prakriti , because what are all the gods representing there? Forces of Prakriti . So, the target itself is Prakriti . So, that part is quite material. Do you see this? The target is Prakriti , and the teaching is about the methods: do this ritual, offer this sacrifice in this way, narrate this mantra in this way, and you will get what you want to get. The target is material, and the method is smart: “I am giving you this method, it will help you reach your target.”

But then as the Vedic journey matures and reaches its summit, what you get is Vedanta, Upanishads. And Vedanta represents the very spirit of Vedas. If the word ‘*veda*’ means knowledge, then real knowledge is contained in Vedanta.

And Vedanta, contrary to what the early parts of the Vedas said, does not care at all about actions. The gods do not find a place in Vedanta; rituals, traditions, desires, offerings, sacrifices, blessings, benedictions find no place in Vedanta. Vedanta is all about aham (ego) and Ātman ; the relationship of aham with jagat . And when aham sublimates to be the Ātman , then the jagat is Brahman . When the false duality between aham and jagat is gone, then what remains is the non-dual identity between Ātman and Brahman .

So, it is not without reason that Vedanta is since long acknowledged as the peak of the Vedic process: because it looks at the actor. The work of Vedanta is still largely incomplete, because mostly what religion and spirituality have to offer even today is actions—means, methods, tricks, tactics, rituals, kriyas .

In the world, the Upanishads are yet to succeed. Forget about the common folk; even most of the religious texts and religious teachers are preaching a particular kind of action, as if mankind is yet to muster the deep courage that is needed to face the mirror. We do not want to look at who we are; we do not want self-knowledge. Instead, we want to remain occupied doing this and that, hoping that our actions will yield good results.

There is a great difference between the way of Vedanta and the way of recommended action. This verse highlights that brilliantly.

If you are not operating from the right place, then smart work, hard work, any kind of work, any direction of work, will just give you more and more frustration, that’s all. Because you would have worked and worked hard, and you would have applied all your biological, physical, prakritik resources, and apparently you might even have succeeded in attainment of your material target. Yet, the inner success would elude you, and you would be very frustrated, very discontented.

It’s not as if you didn’t work hard enough; it’s not as if you weren’t smart enough. You didn’t lack in patience either; you gathered and applied all the required resources even. Yet, there is that inner feeling of defeat lingering as ever. That can be very unnerving, that can sap the life out of you, and you will not know why that happened. From your side the application has been close to perfect, yet there is such an inner hollow—why?

Because you kept yourself first. Because your efforts were not directed towards self-dissolution. Because you were working very hard to get what you wanted to get. You were just working to please your wants, and your wants do not care for who you are, not at all.

It’s very strange. Your wants have very little to do with your reality. So, if you give everything that you have to your desires, that’s still not going to take you anywhere. That day I said, “Man keeps fulfilling desires; do desires ever fulfill man?” Desires keep getting fulfilled one after the other, day by day; man remains as unfulfilled as ever. Such a tragedy, such a tyranny—tyrannical desires.

And don’t curse life; don’t say, “Well, that’s the nature of life. In the long run we are all dead,” or any other such smart quips. Don’t hide your frustration behind a smart saying. Life has not conspired to keep you thirsty; life is quite agnostic, pretty much neutral. You have missed on something important, and you better acknowledge that.

Life can be very fulfilling, very rewarding as well—provided your ego doesn’t stand at its center.

Questioner (Q): You just said that one has to defy oneself. I am unable to renounce entertainment, movies, beautiful imaginations and physical comfort, which has cost me professional, academic and spiritual progress. Please help.

AP: You see, you have to understand that whatever you do is all a movement towards the same oneness. Whether you are watching movies or entertainment or whatever else you said, all that is directed towards the one same thing. However, you are not being fair to yourself; you are not asking yourself whether you love the destination deeply enough to take the shortest route to it.

There is nothing in the world that does not lead to the Truth. The most heinous of crimes, venal intentions, egoistic approaches—even all these in the larger scheme of things are flowing towards the one great end. But you as a person are limited, and your time, your lifespan is small. So, in your interest you must take the simplest and shortest route.

The route deserves no consideration on its own; the target has to be kept in mind, and whatever route takes to the target has to be blindly chosen. Instead, we are captivated by the routes. Entertainment is one such route. Movies, imaginations, comforts, dreams, desires—all that is the same thing.

You have to go to, let’s say, Mumbai from Delhi, but the road is quite bad. The road to Kolkata is a sixteen-lane expressway. Would you take the expressway? But that’s how most of us operate. You have to ask yourself how wise it is.

Entertainment is some kind of food to the mind; it stimulates the mind in a way. But stimulates towards what? What do you want out of it? Just stimulation? You just want to rev the car engine, just stimulate it? Or must it reach somewhere? What is the car for? Just want to rev the engine? Entertainment is a certain excitement in the engine called the mind. Fine, you have excited it—but now, where must it reach?

So, even entertainment must have a certain goal, and you have to assess what entertainment is doing to you, where is it taking you. If your entertainment brings you closer to the Truth, entertainment is wonderful. And if Truth is to be approached more easily by abjuring entertainment, so be it.

It’s not entertainment or the lack of it that matters. What matters is: what are these things doing to you? You are the target. Your welfare, which lies in your reduction, is the target. If the kind of entertainment you are choosing reduces you, go for it. If the kind of entertainment you are choosing just greases you, bad, very bad. You are wasting your time—that’s what is bad.

I am not saying bad on some moral account or something. I said we are finite creatures of limited lifespan; that’s what decides what is good and bad for us. That which wastes your time is bad. Time is meant to reach the timeless. That which took away your time without taking you any closer to the timeless is bad.

If there is something in your life that eats away your time without bringing you closer to the timeless, that’s bad. Now, the corollary: you would know what good is. Great utilization of your time is good. And what is great utilization of your time? Spend time in a way that destroys your bondages, exposes your falsenesses, rids you of illusions. That’s what is good.

The next time you are busy in your imaginations or entertainment, ask yourself: What is going on? There is a pleasure in getting lost in imagination, and there is a higher pleasure in remaining attentive to imagination. There is a pleasure in remaining asleep when the thief is breaking into your house—the thief is breaking in and you are happily asleep, there is pleasure there, right?—and there is higher pleasure in catching the thief red handed. Which pleasure do you want to choose?

I do not deny that there is pleasure in snoring on even as the thief is using his skill on your walls and then on your lockers; you are so blissfully lost in dreams, it is pleasure. But compare this with the pleasure that lies in nabbing the thief and holding him by the scruff of his neck.

Ask yourself, how do you want to remember yourself? As the one who kept sleeping when he was being robbed, or as the one who caught a most wanted thief?

So, choose your pleasures wisely. Spirituality is not against pleasure; rather it is for higher pleasures. Go for pleasure, but go for higher pleasure. Choose your pleasures, as we said, wisely. Remain attentive.

Q: Do astronomy and the actions and remedies prescribed in the Vedas help in self-dissolution? Or should I just be with the Upanishads?

AP: You see, the Upanishads are what the Vedas have traveled so much for. When you are served bread, do you ask, “Must I have the bread or should I have raw grain as well?” The raw grain reached its consummation in the bread, right?

So, the rituals etc. that are mentioned in the earlier parts of the Vedas all come together in the Upanishads. It is as if the Upanishads are the one output, one grand and great result of everything that the Vedas ever said. A thousand things are said in the Vedas, and those thousand things coalesce to become just one thing: Vedanta.

So, if you are with Vedanta, obviously you are with Vedas. Is Vedanta separate from the Vedic literature? Where are the Upanishads found? They are found amid the Vedas, in the Aranyak part, in the Brahmana part—in fact, a couple of Upanishads are found even in the Mantra part of the Vedas. So, the Upanishads are in the very body of the Vedas; they are not separate, not at all.

So, it’s not an either/or choice. Go for Vedanta, and you have everything that the Vedas have to offer. When you are going for the Upanishads, it is not as if you are rejecting the rest of the Vedic verses. It is the effort and the desire of all those verses that has resulted in the final and ultimate blossoming of Vedanta.

So, let nobody use Vedanta to belittle the Vedas. Vedanta is inseparable from Vedas. Veda and Vedanta are not to be put against each other, even if what the Upanishads say is a great advancement upon what the initial verses of the Vedas say. Remember, it is an advancement, not an opposition.

The tenderness of the flower apparently has very little in common with the hardness and roughness of the bark of the trunk, but are the two separate from each other? Please. You look at a tender flower and you look at the tree trunk; they don’t appear similar, but they are one. That’s the relationship between Vedanta and Veda.

But remember that the flower becomes the fruit; for you the fruit is worth consuming. You are not going to consume the bark or the trunk or the wood. Leave the trunk and the twigs as they are, leave them at their place. You relish the fruit, or the Upanishads.

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