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The Path of the Gods and the Path to the Fathers: Reincarnation and Liberation in the Chandogya Upanishad

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Matthew R. Horton
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2/16/05

The Path of the Gods and the Path to the Fathers: Reincarnation and Liberation in the Chandogya Upanishad

The Chandogya Upanishad, in slokas 5.3-10, contains a lecture given by the King of Pancala to the Brahmin Guatama on the process of reincarnation and the path of liberation from rebirth, describing them as the paths to the fathers and path of the gods, respectively. The King uses the metaphor of the sacrificial fire to describe the creation of an incarnate being by the Gods, the fates of the dead, and the causes of rebirth. Finally, the King tells Guatama how to avoid the path to the fathers leading to rebirth, praising those who seek the path of the gods, which lead to Brahman. The fire sacrifice of the gods is presented as the cause of the entire process of creation. The Vedic idea of the primordial sacrifice is transformed into an overarching metaphor for the process of the transmigration of the Atman and its inevitable realization of Brahman, the Absolute Spirit. These ideas are prevalent in later Hindu scriptures, most particularly in the Bhagavad Gita, and this Upanishad is thus a bridge between the Vedic use of the concept of sacrifice as a sacred act of oblation to attain pragmatically conceived ends (more cows, good sons, a favorable afterlife, etc.) and the later yogic use of the concept to denote the offering of the senses into the fire or renunciation, leading to union with Brahman. The Chandogya Upanishad develops the idea that creation is a progressive sacrifice by the Gods leading inevitably to the incarnation of a human being (jiva or embodied soul) as the fetus. The process is defined using the metaphor of yajna, the fire sacrifice. But what is the underlying meaning of this metaphor? The Upanishad tells us that in the fire of the heavens “the gods offer faith, and from that offering springs King Soma.” In the actual physical yajna, the intoxicating Soma plant, which is supposed to enable one to experience divine bliss or obtain visions of the heavenly realms, is offered to the gods, and is also considered itself a god. In this text, soma is the result of the sacrifice of faith. Just as the human sacrificer must have faith in the gods for the sacrifice to be effective, the gods also require faith (or concentrated will and energy) in order to create humankind. The soma produced by that offering is the primordial life force which is the foundation of the process of incarnation. It is thus akin to the all pervasive Shakti (or universal energy) said to be the foundation of matter in the tantra yoga tradition. Next, the gods offer soma in the fire, which forms the rain, the gods offer rain, which becomes food, the gods offer food which becomes semen, and finally the gods offer semen, which becomes the human fetus. Beginning with the creation of a primordial life force, the gods initiate an observable physical process of life which the author postulates leads to the incarnation of a soul, or jiva in the material world. Thus, incarnate beings are the product of a divine sacrificial process. The concept of creation resulting from a primordial sacrifice harkens back to the Vedic conception of the universe being born from the self immolation of the cosmic man, Purusha, or spirit. Likewise, the “heaven” of our spiritual nature (as the atman or soul) is sacrificed in the fire of egoic individuality, resulting in the jiva; the embodied atman identified with the physical world. Since the fire sacrifice is used to attain desires by men in the material world, the metaphor of the fire sacrifice creating man indicates the idea that our ego, or ahamkara, is created by material desire, and it is thus desire that perpetuates the cycle of reincarnation. The process is then reversed at death and an incarnate being returns to the same “fire from which he came.” The jiva ascends to the heavens, where their mentality and karma determine their fate. Those who think religion is primarily “offerings to the gods and to priests” are seeking only the meritorious rewards of religious rites, and hence their sacrifices are done out of desire for the things of the world or the enjoyment of the heavenly realms attained by good deeds. These individuals are said to follow the path which leads to “the world of the fathers” and when King Soma i.e. the spiritual energy and merit of their sacrifice is exhausted, they return to this world from which it is “difficult to get out.” The “world of the fathers” is then only a pleasant heavenly resting house, a way station between lives, but not the ultimate goal of human life. The Chandogya Upanishad describes the path of those who seek the fruits of material desire as leading to rebirth. Depending on their karma, they will attain various stations in their next life. Those that follow the spiritual and social laws (dharma) will attain good karma and enter into the caste of the twice born as either Brahmins, Ksyatriyas, or Vaisyas. Those with negative karma, accrued by ignoble deeds in opposition to the dharma, are reborn in “a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig, or an outcaste woman.” Those with even worse karma are reborn as lower animals, ceaselessly circulating between birth and death. This admonition to follow the dharma demonstrates the relationship of our actions in previous lives to our circumstances in this one. The belief that the universe and hence man are governed by a moral order of causation is a consistent feature of Hindu thought and is of prime importance in understanding both its social and religious practices. A practitioner of the dharma is thus esteemed above one that foolishly pursues immoral acts that, by their very nature, are out of harmony with the eternal laws governing the cosmos, and must therefore lead to suffering in this life and the next. But attaining a favorable rebirth, no matter how high the caste, is not the highest message of the writer of the Chandogya Upanishad. The goal of moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth is postulated as the highest aim of man, though not in those terms. Just as the Gods initiated the process of creation through sacrifice, ascending back to them also requires a sacrifice. All that has been manifested must be stripped away, like the peeling of an onion, until only the essential reality of the atman remains. This, we are told, is accomplished by those who realize that “austerity is faith” and practice techniques of spiritual training “in the forest,” that is to say, away from the concerns and affairs of the worldly person. Those who sacrifice the fruit of sensory enjoyment through renunciation and spiritual discipline attain the full realization of Brahman as the sole reality and thus transcend the egoic identification with the body that precipitates the cycle of reincarnation. The Upanishad states that “a person who is not human—he leads them to Brahman. This is the path leading to the gods.” This is a reference to the Guru-disciple relationship. The Guru is one who has been liberated from the egoic state and hence can lead the aspiring disciple to emancipation in Brahman. The Guru-disciple relationship is a pivotal aspect of many forms of yoga and most of the renunciant traditions in Hinduism. The Guru is the preceptor through which one perceives his indwelling atman, and hence realizes his oneness with Brahman. This realization brings the final liberation from rebirth in the physical world, represented in the text by the metaphor of the Northern (or ascending) path of the Sun. The Chandogya Upanishad reveals, through its natural imagery, the spiritual process by which the atman is “sacrificed” and becomes an embodied jiva, from whence it must return through renunciation and spiritual practice to its original spiritual state. If not, it is continuously reborn and attains either favorable or unfavorable circumstances dependent on its karma. While urging its readers to follow the dharma to avoid negative future incarnations, it emphasizes the superiority of the “path of the gods” that leads to the realization of Brahman. The implication of the metaphor of yajna in this selection from the Chandogya Upanishad, is that human beings are the end product of the progressive sacrifice of the gods by which the atman (which in its realized state is one with Brahman) forgets its real nature in an egoic state of identification with the material world. It becomes an embodied jiva and must ceaselessly reincarnate until it realizes that “austerity is faith” and seeks Brahman by performing the sacrifice of material attachment in the fire of the spiritual disciplines prescribed by a Guru. Sacrifice is thus the beginning an end of the cycle of creation, and just as the cosmic Purusha sacrificed himself to create the universe, a human being must sacrifice them self to attain Brahman, the Imperishable Absolute that is immanent in all beings and yet transcendent to them. Moksha is thus the conclusion of the entire cycle of creation, the point at which an individual manifestation realizes that is essentially Brahman itself. Like an oblation of soma, given in reverence to the gods, must the disciple surrender his ego in the fire of spiritual practice, until all of his mortal dross is burned away and only the pure atman, the perfect reflection of Brahman, remains.

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