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The marks of the right seeking and the rewards of the right seeker || On Mundaka Upanishad (2021)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
18 min
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नायमात्मा बलहीनेन लभ्यो न च प्रमादात्तपसो वाप्यलिङ्गात् । एतैरुपायैर्यतते यस्तु विद्वांस्तस्यैष आत्मा विशते ब्रह्मधाम ॥

nāyamātmā balahīnena labhyo na ca pramādāttapaso vāpyaliṅgāt etairupāyairyatate yastu vidvāṃstasyaiṣa ātmā viśate brahmadhāma

This Self cannot be won by any who is without strength, nor with error in the seeking, nor by an askesis without the true mark: but when a man of knowledge strives by these means his self enters into Brahman, his abiding place.

~ Verse 3.2.4

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Acharya Prashant (AP): “This Self cannot be won by any who is without strength, nor with error in the seeking, nor by an askesis without the true mark: but when a man of knowledge strives by these means his self enters into Brahman .” Beautiful.

“The Self cannot be won by any who is without strength”—now, what does that mean?

Somebody said, “Only dead fish flow with the stream.” It requires no strength to go with the flow, right? Even if you are dead, you will be traveling with the speed of the stream. It requires strength to go against the stream. It requires strength to go upstream.

You would have guessed which flow is being referred to. The flow of our tendencies, the continuous flow of the mind, the continuous flow of the blood and the fluids and the hormones, all the biological chemicals within—all these are flows.

The ‘I’, the aham , the little self is a little thing in this massive flow. This speck of dust being carried away by great winds has no choice, no resistance. A dead leaf floating on the surface of a boisterous river—what option does it have? It is choiceless, as choiceless as the common man is in front of his biological tendencies and social conditioning. That’s the flow.

Have you watched the flow of thoughts in the mind, how incessant and how irresistible it is, and how powerless you are in front of it? Have you watched the flow of your reactions? Something happens and you react—where are you? It is only the powerful flow of the reaction, and you have just been taken away, you couldn’t stand it; the pressure was just too much for you.

Blown away, surrendered without resistance—that’s how we live usually. Greed, anger, fear, lust, jealousy—that’s the flow. Self-preservation, self-delusion—that’s the flow.

Now you see why the sage is saying that the Truth cannot be obtained by the one without strength? The Truth is upstream, and the flow of tendencies is taking you downstream. You will have to have great strength to go against the flow, to go against yourself, to go against your very constitution. If you want to be crude, you could even call it self-destruction. If you want to be sophisticated, you would call it self-sublimation.

And that strength has to be awakened through practice. Practice, practice, practice… Sri Krishna puts it very succinctly in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita; he says just two things matter: practice and detachment. If he could, he would have said just one thing matters, but these two go so much hand-in-hand that he had to say two. These two things matter because you cannot practice strength without renouncing weakness. So, abhyāsa and vairāgya .

The more you want to awaken your strength, the more your weaknesses will pain you; they want to survive by offering you pain. You want to develop some shoulder muscles, so you lift some weights. What do you feel? Pain. What is pain, then? Pain is the method of weakness to survive. Weakness offers you pain so that weakness remains. When you feel pain, what will you do? You will put the weights down, and when you put the weights down, what survives? Weakness.

Pain is a conspiracy. That’s why it has to be faced and destroyed. If you are someone who is not prepared to live through pain, to play through pain, to exercise through pain, to work through pain, then you are just patronizing your weaknesses. The moment you let the pain get the better of you, your weaknesses smile. That’s exactly what they wanted, no? “Give him pain, he will keep the weights down. Make him drowsy, he will crash to bed”—that’s exactly what they wanted.

You wanted to work, your weaknesses wanted you to sleep. All they had to do was make your eyelids heavy, and you succumbed and now you are snoring. And we say your weaknesses are smiling.

Nāyamātmā balahīnena labhyo . Truth is not for those who love their weaknesses. If you love your weaknesses, or if you have people around you who love your weaknesses, then you must know that all this is just conspiring to keep you from the Truth.

Have an attitude within that has no soft corner for weaknesses, and have great company without, outside of you, who just do not protect, promote, patronize, or console your weaknesses.

But that’s exactly how our relationships are formed, no? How we love those who are soft to our weaknesses, and how we hate those who call out our weaknesses. That’s the way of the ego—to hate its wellwishers and to fall in love with its enemies.

Somebody who relates to you primarily through your weaknesses is not good for you, not at all good for you. Somebody who loves your greatnesses is someone who you should never let go. Keep them at all costs.

Questioner (Q): If the Self chooses to reveal itself only to those who are worthy, it means that even if we dedicate our whole life to seeking the Truth with all that we have, there is still the possibility of not realizing the Truth or not being chosen. How to walk the path of Self-realization without fear or worry about whether we will be successful or not?

AP: That’s exactly the way to approach the Truth: you do the right thing without worrying for what will happen.

You see, the Truth is not a whimsical chooser. It chooses purely on merit, and your merit is something that you decide. Therefore, the choice is not really made by the Truth; the choice is made by you . We clarified this, didn’t we?

The Truth is not partial or biased; the Truth is quite universal. Grace is very unconditional, your receptivity is not. It’s not grace that increases when you do the right things; it’s your receptivity that you have to increase. And if your receptivity increases, then what you receive increases on its own.

The Truth is choiceless; the Truth won’t hold back anything. If you are deserving, you will get it. So, just work towards being more deserving. And how does one become more deserving of the Truth? By being less fond of the false.

In fact, that’s the reason I do not talk so much of the Truth. I do not say, “Be more deserving of the Truth”; I would rather say, “Be less enamored by the false”—because the Truth is a given, the Truth is unconditional. The Truth is already; you are not ready. You are not ready because you are too much with the false.

The false has to be worked upon; that’s where the challenge lies for you. Identify what is false in life. The moment it is identified as false, be honest and drop it. And if you cannot drop it after calling it false, either you have still not seen it clearly or you are determined to remain dishonest; one of these two things. Usually these two go together.

Realization leaves no space for dishonesty. And if you are dishonest and intent on remaining dishonest, realization remains distant.

Realization usually remains distant, so we cannot do much about it. So, I talk of the one thing that is very close to you and you can do something about, and that is dishonesty. Repeatedly I ask you to be more honest with yourself. I call it acknowledgement. I say, “You already know, just acknowledge.”

The distance between knowledge and acknowledgement is the distance between bondage and liberation, the distance between ego and Ātman . Knowledge is not at all acknowledgement. You can have a lot of knowledge, but you just don’t acknowledge. Some part of you, in spite of having knowledge, defies knowledge. That part is Maya . Beware.

So, “The Self cannot be won by any who is without strength, nor with error in the seeking.”

What is the error we make in seeking? We focus so much on the sought without casting a glance at the seeker; much more concern about the seeker than the sought. When the seeker is purified, you find that the seeker and the sought are indistinct. And the dirtier the seeker is, the farther the sought is; and the farther the sought is, the more the seeker feels like running towards the sought and applying smart and cunning ways to reach it. It’s a bad cycle to be caught in.

The more deluded you are, the less you feel like looking at yourself; the less you look at yourself, the more deluded you remain. The more you need to look at yourself, the less likely you are to look at yourself.

We act exactly against our needs. We need one thing, we want exactly the opposite of what we need. That’s the problem. Our needs and wants are not merely different, they are opposite to each other.

“Nor with error in the seeking”—you get the error in the seeking? The direction of the seeking has to be towards the seeker, not towards the sought. That’s the error in the seeking.

“Nor by an askesis without the true mark”— tapasya , austerities, penance. False austerities, false askesis will not take you there. What is false tapasya ? The same as false seeking or sādhana . It is directed towards an object rather than the subject. Effort, which is sādhana , which is tapasya , has to be directed towards the subject rather than the object. And that’s the right definition of work.

Work is not to be done to attain something in the world; work is to be done to destroy our limitations. In the process of destruction of your limitations you attain something in the world, wonderful. If attaining something in the world is necessary to challenge your limitations, fine, attain something. But attainment cannot be the target; the target has to be within. If you are working to attain, you are missing the point. You would be working without the right results.

“But when a man of knowledge strives by these means he enters into Brahman .”

But when you know yourself— vidvān , a man of the word in the śloka : ‘ vidya * ’. * Vidya is self-knowledge, not knowledge of the world. When a man who knows himself, when a man of self-knowledge, a vidvān , uses power, seeking, action, he attains Brahman .

Self-knowledge comes first, and then comes action arising from self-knowledge, and then comes Brahman .

Don’t just work, don’t just act. You are not here to work, you are not here to slog; you are here to be liberated. So, work towards liberation; don’t just work. You are not here to consume and be pleased. Work, therefore, cannot be a means to just fetch you some results or money or livelihood. Work means action towards liberation.

Liberation is not something that you keep for the one hour in the morning and half an hour before you go to bed. Liberation is your chief work. What do you work for? Liberation. Liberation is not a part time activity; it is not a hobby or an interest. It is your central occupation, it is your prime purpose. There’s nothing else to work for.

Ask yourself: What is your work taking you towards? Remember to ask this: When all your work will be done, what will you be left with? Ask.

Q: These verses feel very discouraging to me. All the activities that the ego can undertake have been discounted, and that leaves us nowhere to go.

AP: It is discouraging to that within you that wants to continue and protect itself. It is encouraging you to make the right choice, and the right choice is to become choiceless in the service of Truth. That’s why the ego does not like this verse so much: because this verse leaves nothing for the ego to do except disappear.

It’s like, you know, you want to really make your presence felt, and you enter this room and repeatedly keep asking me, “What can I do for you? What can I do for you?” And I say, “Get lost! That’s what you can do for me.” That’s what this verse is telling the ego. The best you can do for yourself is: get lost. So, it feels discouraging.

But what if that’s the best thing that can happen to you? Because the way you are will only act wrongly. This wrong one is being told to get lost. It’s just that you think that you are this wrong one and without this wrong one you have no existence. So, you don’t feel like appreciating or thanking what you are being told.

When the false one gets lost, the Truth very much still remains, doesn’t it? Even when false work is dropped, a lot of real work yet remains to be done. So, it’s not as if you are being told to do nothing at all.

Look at the verse that follows the one you are pointing at. It says you have to work with strength, with power, askesis is important, seeking is important, but with self-realization. So, the right one must work, but the right one is dormant and the wrong one is too busy working. The wrong one is being told to get lost.

Don’t work from the wrong center; don’t work being the wrong one. That’s the message. Work comes later, the worker comes first. Be the right worker before you start working. Or, work in the direction of being the right worker, whichever way you want to understand it.

But one thing is being strictly warned against—in fact being prohibited, if we could use that word in the context of Vedanta; it doesn’t really prohibit anything.

Don’t continue galloping as you are. It just gives you some temporal pleasure but takes you only towards your destruction.

Q: As students, we are already very aversive to practice, to following the right thing. Then why did the Rishi have to say that practice, reading, etc. will not take you there? This may be said to somebody who is already good in practice and working, but we are aversive to all that.

AP: Depends on the student in front of the Rishi.

You see, Vedanta has so many interpretations. Why do you think that has happened? Because the verses were not all spoken to one person, or in one context, or at one time, or at one place. Therefore, differences can be perceived between one Upanishad and the other. Even in the same Upanishad one verse can apparently differ from another one, or even the next one, as in this case. We have one verse, and the next one doesn’t seem to sit well with it.

That’s because the Upanishads were composed over a period of no less than seven, eight or ten centuries. The process started probably eight hundred or thousand years before Christ, and continued probably till five hundred years after Christ. Eight hundred years or thousand years or probably fifteen hundred years… And the geographical spread was wide, Āryāvarta was no small territory—south of Himalayas, north of Vindhyas, the entire continental plane eight up till river Indus, and in fact even west of river Indus.

So, such a huge area, and there were these pockets of discussions taking place largely independent of each other. The spirit was the same, but the discussions were all, in a sense, independent. Knowledge was sprouting from a hundred different places, and then it all came together in an encyclopedic form in the Vedas, or it kept coming together; even the formation of Vedas was not a one-off event, it was a long-drawn process.

So, you will find divergence in the verses, even thematic dissonance. That has to be appreciated in the context of their genesis. And what is to be remembered is: the spirit is of exploration of the Truth. So, you have to look at what connects the verses. You must always remember that Vedanta is a darśana , philosophy, and it has its basic principles.

So, whenever you feel lost, wherever you feel that a verse needs clearer interpretation, then you have to fall back upon the fundamental principles of Vedanta. The fundamental principles will decide the meaning of the verse. No verse can, for example, violate the Mahāvākyas . No verse can say that Ātman and Brahman are not identical; no verse will say that your real nature is not Brahman itself.

No verse will say that the action is more important than the actor. No verse will say that there is anything more important than realization for the ego. Realization precedes action. Prajñānam Brahman , not karma but prajñānam . Realization is Brahman . Action comes later, and action will automatically come on its own from realization.

So, don’t worry so much about action; first of all, know, realize, and then act. And if you will ask, “What if I realize and don’t act?” well, you haven’t yet realized. Realization makes right action indispensable.

Before you jump into anything, ask, “Do I understand?” and that changes the very state of the ego. There is ego deluded, there is ego that understands, and there is nothing else. Nothing else.

Are you the deluded ego, or are you the realized ego? Realize. And how do you realize? By paying attention, paying attention to whatever is. You are never short of objects in your mind, are you? Pay attention to them.

So, don’t ask me, “What do I have to pay attention to if I don’t do anything?” No, you never have a void; your mind is always full. Pay attention to whatever fills you up, and that will lead to realization.

You don’t have to pay attention to one particular thing; pay attention to whatever is available to you. The mind is a crowd; there is so much available to be observed. Observe whatever surrounds you within and without, and you will realize.

Q: How do I clearly recognize whether the work I am doing is taking me towards liberation or not?

AP: Your life has the answer.

How are you living? Are you able to see things more clearly? Do you feel less afraid, less confused? Are you able to penetrate what used to earlier appear like an opaque wall of appearances? Can you see behind the appearances now? Have you developed insight? Can you see what connects two apparently unrelated things or events? Are you more forgiving now? Are you developing the ability to love and give without reason?

Your life has these answers. You must look at your life.

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