4. Analysis of Knowledge
Now we should have a critical look at this statement. It should be noted that no denunciation of Vedas or their auxiliaries as useless or as ignorance is meant in this Mantra when it says such knowledge is lower [apara]. They are definitely said to be knowledge, and a sensible person appreciates and learns them to a reasonable and practical degree. The lesser knowledge tells us only of that which is transient, including our own short physical life. But the higher [para] knowledge brings us to the Changeless Reality – Brahman which is Eternal.
By this Para Vidya what is invisible, ungraspable, without origin or attributes, which has neither eyes nor ears, neither hands nor feet, which is eternal and many splendored, all-pervading, subtler than the subtlest, is fully revealed to the wise who regard it as the source of all creation. [M.U. 1:1:6] The Absolute Consciousness, the Totality of Being, is shown to the wise–to the yogis–by this knowledge.
Then what about this world in which we find ourselves? Is it to be despised as worthless and antithetical to Brahman, which is our Goal? Lest we think such a foolish thing, Angiras further says: As the web comes out of the spider and is withdrawn, as plants grow from the soil and hair from the body of man so springs the universe from the eternal Brahman. [M.U. 1:1:7]
The world, then, is an extension of or an emanation from Brahman. In other words the world IS BRAHMAN. We are living and moving in divinity manifesting as the world. The next question to consider is why, then, do we say that the world is illusory? The answer to this question is OUR OWN MIND.
It is the world in our mind – our perception, our interpretation of the world – that is an illusion, not the world itself. In our scriptures we continually find the simile of the snake in a rope. That is in darkness we see a rope lying on the ground and immediately assume it is a snake lying there – we see the glitter of its eyes and may even hear it hiss and start perspiring out of fear and try to run away from the site! Yet, when a light is brought we see only a rope. The fear and excitement then vanish within no time.
The rope was always real, was always there. The snake was an illusion that existed only in our mind causing all sorts of mental disturbances. Illusion is always a mental phenomenon, never a real or objective thing. So it is illusion and ignorance we must decry, but never find fault with the world; for the world is Brahman.
In our state of illusion, we may experience great fear. But the moment we see the objects for what they really are, our fear evaporates and we are at peace. This is how it is with us and this world. Our illusions fill us with terrible fears and anxieties, all of which will be dispelled when we see its actual nature as Brahman. No wonder, then, that Krishna told Arjuna: Even a little of this dharma delivers you from great fear. [Bhagavad Gita 2:40]
Angiras then gives us an outline of the process of the emanation of the world from Brahman. From Brahman, who is all-knowing and all-wise, whose tapas consists of Consciousness, are all these produced: the creator, names and forms and food for all. [M.U. 1:1:8, 9]
5. Ceremonial Religion
After explaining what is Para Vidya and Apara Vidya the sage now tells the enquirer about the merits and demerits of each. The Upanishad says that the sacrificial rites and rituals prescribed in the Karma Kanda of the Vedas come under Apara Vidya. When such a drastic statement is made by the Rishi we must understand that it has got a deeper significance than the apparent opposition to the observance of rites.
That there is no desire to denigrate Vedic rituals is evident when the Upanishad enumerates various technical aspects of Vedic sacrifices and emphasizes the need for their sincere and flawless performance and the great evil resulting from carelessness in this regard.
However, it lays stress on the fact that the fruits of sacrifices and rites are nothing but perishable and transitory in nature. Finite and transient are the fruits of sacrificial rites [frail is the boat of yagyas]. The deluded, who regard them as the highest good, remain subject to birth, old age and death. Steeped in ignorance, yet thinking themselves wise and learned such ignorant people wander about, suffering again and again like the blind led by the blind. Reveling in multifarious ignorance, these people childishly think that they have gained the ends of life. But being subject to passions and attachment, they never attain knowledge and therefore they are flung back to earth when the fruits of their good deeds are exhausted. [M.U. 1:2:7-9]
These ignorant persons fancying sacrifices and charitable gifts as their highest objective remain unaware of the highest good. Having enjoyed in the high place of heaven won by good deeds they enter again this world or a still lower one. [M.U. 1:2;10]
Rituals of worship and good deeds certainly produce good karma, but that is not the adequate force that can lift us above Samsara, the ever-turning wheel of birth and death.
Even helping others is spiritually valueless if it is not done with a wider, spiritual perspective. If our religion consists only of outer observances it will condition our consciousness even more to identify with the material level of existence. And that identification will be a round-trip ticket for our return to never ending another birth after another death!
Hence the Upanishad exhorts the aspirants who are endowed with discrimination to cultivate dispassion, austerity, faith, concentration and love for solitude for the attainment of salvation or immortality and eternal bliss.
Let an aspirant devoted to spiritual life examine carefully the ephemeral nature of such enjoyment, whether here or hereafter, as may be won by good works and so realize that it is not by works that one gains the Eternal. Let him give no thought to transient things and be free from all desires and be absorbed in meditation. To gain the knowledge of the Eternal, let him humbly approach a Guru who is well-versed in the scriptures and established in the Brahman. To such a seeker, whose mind is tranquil and whose senses are controlled, who has approached the Guru in a proper manner, let the learned teacher impart knowledge of Brahman by which alone Imperishable Being [Purusha] is realized. [M.U. 1:2:12, 13]