FAQ Karma & Reincarnation

Practices Leading to Heaven     

This chapter starts with a short story of Nachiketa that serves as a model for a spiritual journey. Next it outlines three steps to heaven. One is to have a cool and composed mind – tells you how to have one - the importance of yamas & niyamas. The objective of two is solving the mystery of life and death. The science of fire that unveils the mystery of heaven is known in the yoga tradition as Agni vidya. Three is the final stage of Sadhana.
THE SAGES HAVE DIVIDED the vast range of spiritual practices into three main categories. One set of practices helps us live a happy and healthy life while in this world. Another set ensures a graceful departure, the acquisition of heavenly delights, and return to this world to complete our spiritual journey. The third and highest set consists of techniques that enable us to transcend earth and heaven altogether by freeing ourselves from the cycle of death and birth. The Katha Upanishad, which is the story of Nachiketa’s (NACK) journey to liberation, gives a beautiful description of the vast range of spiritual practices in these three categories.

The essence of NACK’s story is that achieving liberation is like climbing a mountain: the only way to reach the summit is to traverse the lower slopes and make our way for the higher. The lower slopes are in no way inferior but are a necessary part of the journey. Friends it is like success. If it is earned by working hard, without taking shortcuts we find that it lasts longer or else what goes up fast comes down faster.

Story - NACK was a young seeker, full of enthusiasm, honesty and courage. He practiced what be believed. His father, known throughout the land for his wealth, knowledge and generosity had already reached the peak of worldly success. Now he was interested in finding a place in heaven. Following religious injunctions he began a practice of meditation, recitation of the scriptures and making a fire offering. In the last phase, the practice required that he give away his wealth to learned and needy people.

NACK saw that his father showed strong signs of attachment to his wealth. He was becoming irritable. In those days cows were like cash. His father gave away all the old, sick cows and kept the healthy ones. For NACK worldly objects were of little value. Since in those days the son was supposed to be owned by the father NACK assumed that his father would give him to an enlightened teacher to guide his sadhana. So he went to his father and asked him to whom he would be given. His father was silent. When NACK persisted for a reply his father burst out angrily, “I give you to death!”

NACK did not get upset. Instead from his pure and tender heart came a powerful voice: “Parents always want the best for their children. Today my father has handed me over to death. There must be something auspicious for me in this meeting”. As he pondered over what his father said he realized that death meant he must seek and find one who understands the complete mystery of death so he could attain victory over it and become immortal. People who are afraid of death and who therefore have limited courage cannot meet such masters, regardless of how long they seek them. But NACK thought of his father’s emotional outburst as a blessing and set out to find such a master.

He eventually arrived at the door of Yamaraja, the king of death, and a mortal who had become immortal through his sadhana. Yamaraja was not in so NACK waited for three days without food and water. When Yamaraja returned he was impressed by NACK’s perseverance and said, “You may ask for three boons”.

NACK replied, “may my father regain his peace of mind. may he become cheerful and may he be free from anger. Upon my return from here, may he acknowledge me as his son”.

Yamaraja blessed NACK with the following boon: “Aruni, your father, will become the way he used to be. Free from anger and mental anguish he will sleep well at night”.

Then he asked NACK for the second boon. NACK replied, “I have heard that in heaven there is no fear or old age. People are free from hunger and thirst. But only those who have transcended worries enjoy life there. I know you know that the science of fire unveils the mystery of heaven. I ask that you teach it to me, endowed as I am with faith”.

Yamaraja happily imparted this knowledge. He explained how the fire that unveils the mystery of heaven resides in the interior cave of the human being and in what respect it is the origin of the universe. He also explained how the pit that contains the fire is made. So impressed was he with NACK’s repetition of what was explained that the master gave him an additional blessing: from time forward, this fire would be known as Nachiketa agni.

The master was so pleased with NACK that he poured out another blessing. “May you receive this necklace consisting of multifarious beads”? Through this blessing, the master was indirectly preparing NACK for ichchha siddhi, which fulfills all wishes. As the Katha Upanishad states, by gathering knowledge of NACK agni, the aspirant transcends worries and mental anguish, cuts as under the snares of death and delights in heavenly pleasure.

After NACK had received and absorbed the second boon, the master gave him permission to ask for the third. “In regards to a person who has left this world, there are many hypothesis. One is that the soul continues to exist after death; another is that it does not. While studying and practicing under your discipline, may I gain this knowledge”?

The master replied, “Even people in heaven are not clear on this question. It is extremely subtle and therefore almost impossible to communicate through words or even thoughts. Ask for anything else except this. Ask for wealth, land or I can turn you into a wish-yielding pot – so that anything you desire will manifest in your life”.

NACK remained unmoved by these temptations and this resolve melted Yamaraja’s heart. NACK had passed the final test and his master gladly imparted him the knowledge of immortality and systematically taught his disciple the method of identifying the pranic forces and channels through which they flow. He explained how these energy channels become entangled, forming knots which the seeker of immortality must disentangle in order to allow the energies to flow unhindered. He also explained how our desires and attachments are what bind us to the body, and that attaining freedom from them frees us from slavery to this mortal frame.      End Story

The sages have used NACK’s story as a model for the spiritual journey each of us makes.  The first boon tells us that we must make peace within ourselves and with others. A person struggling with inter-personal relationships has no time and energy for higher pursuits. Friends so well said. If we are busy fighting battles how can we create, get the time for understanding the more subtle mysteries of life. Mere intellectual knowledge is not enough to improve the quality of interpersonal relationships. Despite the power of knowledge many of us are victims of attachments, desires, ego, anger etc. While we are good at analyzing others problems we are unable to recognize those problems within ourselves which is why we react abruptly and treat our loved ones badly. Lacking in introspection and caught in negative thinking patterns, we blame others while others blame us.

There is a direct link between such tension and energy blockage at the two lowest charkas, which in turn causes the organs in our pelvic and abdominal region to become weak and diseased. Much of our consciousness is occupied by the issues relating to the first two charkas, which leaves little time for exploring the wealth in other charkas.

According to Yogic and Tantric scriptures, the first two chakras are enveloped by darkness and are only faintly illuminated by the sun and moon; even this faint illumination can be perceived only if we have eyes to see. During sleep or at the time of death, the mind that has not transcended the first two chakras and their corresponding issues falls into a dense darkness. It stumbles blindly in the dark territory of its unconscious, constantly tumbling into the vortices created by the subtle impressions of its own karmas. This is called Hell. Overcoming these problems by imbibing the wisdom contained in NACK’s first boon is the goal of initial stage of practice. 
The First Step  - 1
The object of stage 1 is to cultivate a positive and composed mind. The first prerequisite for a higher spiritual understanding is an uncomplicated mind, one that knows the value of a simple and relaxed life and has formed the habit of forgiving and forgetting. When our mind is disturbed we are unable to think clearly and make wrong decisions. We have no way of knowing where our duty lies, and unless we learn to pay off our karmic obligations by performing our duties selflessly, lovingly we will be in the caught in the cycle of birth and death. Friends whenever am confused just stay still and avoid making any decisions or responding to people’s remarks.

Yamaraja imparted the knowledge & practices needed in the first journey because he was a perfect master and NACK a fully prepared student. NACK was already free from emotional turmoil, his understanding of life was so profound that he did not consider his father to be unfair and abusive.      

The techniques for cultivating a clear, composed mind have been elaborated from different perspectives in a number of scriptures. They are mainly contemplative techniques – tools for introspection, self-analysis and self-observation. They consist of certain do and don’ts, restraints and observances. In the yoga tradition they are known as Yamas and Niyamas. (given in detail in the article Six Systems of Indian Philosophy).

Yamas the restraints consist of five principles: nonviolence, nonlying, nonstealing, nonsensuality and nonpossesiveness. Practicing them helps us become healthy and civilized members of our families and society. They reduce distractions and reduce the problems for ourselves. Consequently we are not a threat to others or are others a threat to us. There is no ground for fear, and peace begins to grow. Friends agree with the former but there are some religions in the world whose sole objective is conquest of the other. In such a case what does one do?

Niyamas, the observances also consist of five principles, purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender to God. These give principles open new channels for physical, mental and spiritual nourishment. By purifying our thought, speech and action we prepare ourselves to greet the Divine who resides within us. Each observance has a function like self-study helps us to identify our strengths and weaknesses. It also includes the study of mantras and scriptures that deepen our understanding of spirituality and improve our one-pointedness. Surrender to God prevents us from being egotistical and helps us to acknowledge and deepen our connection with the Divine.

These yamas and niyamas help us become simple, gentle, humble, disciplined and kind characteristics that are necessary for self-transformation. Practicing these restraints and observances in this mild fashion i.e. as part of our daily living does not guarantee that we will achieve freedom from the subtle traces of our karmas. As explained earlier the subtle impressions stored in our unconsciousness mind are the direct cause of our personality traits. Powerful traits like jealously, greed, anger originate from the unconscious and are nourished by it – a passive practice is not enough to neutralize them. That is why for a deeper level of mental and behavioral cleansing, the Yoga Sutra and other scriptures prescribe the four fold practice:

 An attitude of friendship for those who are happy.
 Compassion for those who are suffering.
 An attitude of cheerfulness toward those who seem to be virtuous.
 An attitude of indifference toward those who not seem to be virtuous.

The ego is the root cause of all problems. Negative tendencies like anger, hatred, greed are a part of ego’s wealth even though it becomes miserable in the process. Not knowing how to handle its self-created misery, the ego searches for faults in others. The most striking exhibition of ego is jealousy. Not only do we want to be happy and virtuous, we also want others to know what we are happy. Further we do not want anyone to be as happy as we are.

These tendencies are a breeding ground for mental anguish, as a result of which we loose peace of mind. In this case we cannot focus on the main goal of life. Letting go these negative tendencies of anger, jealousy, contempt and animosity help us compose our mind. This is why the fourfold technique is known in yoga as Chitta Prasadanam – mind purifier.

In addition, the first stage of spirituality also consists of specific and methodical practices that enable us to know ourselves at the level of body, breath and mind. In the initial stages it is advisable to follow a balanced path, one that combines elements of karma yoga (the yoga of selfless action), jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge), bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion & love) and hatha yoga. The balanced path is known as Raja Yoga and the ten observances / restraints as well as the four-fold method of purifying the mind are an integral part of it. Other components of raja yoga include physical exercise (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and spiritual absorption (samadhi). 

As we get a deeper understanding our selves and mind we will come to know which particular aspect of raja yoga should be our main focus. For e.g. those that are interested in getting a deeper understanding of their body are attracted to hatha yoga, those interested in knowing all – body, breath, mind and soul, and their relationship with the Absolute, use hatha yoga and meditation as a stepping stone to the practice of kundalini yoga.

But for others this knowledge is not enough. We find ourselves contemplating on the unpredictable nature of life and wonder what happens at the time of death. We want to know the mystery of life & death? Does one go to heaven or hell?

The Intermediate Stage - 2
Objective in this stage is to solve the mystery of life and death.

The practices associated with this stage are advances practices known as vidyas (spiritual sciences) and according to the scriptures they can be undertaken only by those who have a clear mind and know exactly what they are seeking. The aspirant must have a firm intellectual grasp of the vidyas as well as firm faith in their master’s knowledge and abilities. Those who wish to experiment with these sciences to test their validity are not fit for the practices.

This is demonstrated by NACK’s decisive statement in requesting the second boon from his master: “I have heard that in heaven there is no fear or old age. People are free from hunger and thirst. But only those who have transcended worries enjoy life there. I know you know the science of fire that unveils the mystery of heave, I ask that you teach it to me, endowed as I am with faith”. Here NACK knows that heaven exists, says that his master knows the science of fire and has full faith in the master’s accuracy & depth of knowledge. This reflects the perfect blend of humility and self-confidence that is a prerequisite for receiving this knowledge.

The science of fire that unveils the mystery of heaven is known in the yoga tradition as Agni Vidya. This is the ground where science and spirituality, yoga and mysticism meet. The science is complex and is taught on two levels – bahir yoga (meditation of external fire) and antar yoga (meditation of internal fire) – but the practices pertaining to both are grounded in a common philosophy and metaphysics.

According to agni vidya, fire is both the origin and the intrinsic contribution of the universe. Fire is both the object of transformation and the object being transformed. Matter & energy are both aspects of fire. Fire exists in two forms: ignited and unignited. In the scriptures these are referred to in terms of awakened and dormant energy. Agni vidya holds that it is only out of ignorance that we see fire solely in its physical aspects” fire is an intelligent entity; it is fire’s intelligence that makes us intelligent.

We have become so materialistically minded that we do not have an accurate perspective concerning the reality of fire. We see fire as a resource not as an intelligible force with inherent consciousness. Yet the scriptures tell us that it is possible to overcome this barrier and to receive guidance directly from the fire. The way to communicate with fire is in the language of the mantras – agni vidya (the science of fire) and mantra vidya (the science of mantras) are complementary. Through the power of mantra, we awaken the external fire, and this awakened fire awakens the dormant fire within us.

Adepts who have mastered this science give practical lessons on how to invoke the fire as an intelligent force residing in non-intelligent matter. They explain how to ignite it and place it in the kunda, the ceremonial pit, and further tell us how to build the firepit. The selection of its size, shape, number of bricks to be used follow scientific rules and laws codified in the scriptures.

The presence of pranic forces give life to our body, so also, the power of mantra gives life to the fire pit, transforming it into a living entity. There are marmasthanas (centers of vital energy) and chakras (centers of consciousness) in our body, which we can identify. The science of agni vidya teaches the aspirant where the marma points and chakras are located in the firepit.

By this process we can identify the centers of vital energy in the firepit, penetrate them by performing a three-fold ritual, and use the energy generated by this ritual to cross the river of birth & death. To avoid being considered as a ritual by the ignorant, the yogic sages advised aspirants to invoke the internal fire.

Meditation on the internal fire requires that an aspirant learn the techniques for activating the energies, which lie dormant at the navel center. This is the “manipura chakra” – the chakra filled with gems. Ordinarily our mind is occupied with the issues of the two lowest chakras: the muladhara (the center at the base of the spine) and the svadhishthana (the pelvic center). Because these two chakras are the seat of four primitive urges (hunger, sleep, sex and self-preservation), they govern related issues to fear, hunger, survival, sensual pleasures, desire and attachment. They diminish the fire at the third chakra, the naval center, and block our access to it.
The fire at the naval center is the source of our existence. The fetus is connected to the mother through this center. Although our desire for children manifest in the mind and in the form of the biological urge at the second chakra, the life force which desires to manifest lies at the navel center. Thus the process of our outward journey – birth – begins at the naval center. The Katha Upanishad (1:1:18) clearly states, “After knowing the science of fire a learned seeker who gathers this Nachiketa agni cuts as under the snares of death, transcends all worries and enjoys life in heaven”.

According to the Svetashvatara Upanishad (2:6), “The mind is drawn to the center where fire is being churned, prana is being retained, or the energies of soma (sensual energies) are heavily concentrated”. This means that in order to introduce our mind to the third chakra we must either churn the fire at the navel center, or practice breath retention, or pull the sensual energies up from the first and second chakras so as to concentrate them at the third chakra. By doing so we illuminate the mind. And those who have penetrated Rudra Granthi (the knot at the navel center) are blessed with the light of the fire of the manipura chakra.

AGNI VIDYA or mastery of the navel center unveils many mysteries. Yoga Sutra says, “Meditation at the solar plexus enables yogis to understand the entire dynamics of the celestial realm – the sun, moon, stars, planets, and the galaxies which rotate round the polar star”. (3.26). Yogis unveiling this mystery can perceive and communicate with the beings who reside in the celestial realm without having material bodies. The joy experienced is heavenly joy. It is in that sense that the scriptures say that thru agni vidya yogis gather the inner fore, transcend worries, and enjoy life in heaven. The Yoga Sutra calls these yogic achievements Siddhis.

The aspects of agni vidya that involves meditation on the internal fire includes higher techniques of hatha – kundalini and mantra yoga. Gaining knowledge is of little use if it does not lead to complete freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Thus we see that thru the practice of agni vidya we can illuminate our thoughts and emotions, live a heavenly life on this plane, and continue to enjoy heavenly pleasures after death. This does not mean that we have attained complete freedom from the cycle of death and birth. Agni vidya gives us access to the naval center “filled with gems” and with this access we longer suffer from the poverty of mind imposed upon us when we dwell in the first two chakras. The knowledge of heaven and hell appears to be a great achievement only for those who lack a higher purpose in life. However, if we stop here and neglect the higher purpose of life, sooner or later the effects of the lower chakras would become manifest in worry, anxiety and fear. Which is why we need to move on the final stage of Sadhana.

The Final Stage of Sadhana  3 
After NACK had mastered agni vidya and its related yogic sciences he continued to wander in this world. He therefore asked for knowledge that could lead him beyond this realm. Yamaraja offered him wealth, immortality but NACK wanted to know the eternal truth and his relationship with it. This is the criterion for graduating from the intermediate to the final stage of sadhana, this stage is for those who are consumed by the desire to know the truth, which is eternal, self-illumined and divine. This is the highest form of vairagya (non attachment) and it is the prerequisite to both nirbija (seedless) samadhi and parabhakri (the highest form of devotion to God).  At the dawning of this level of nonattachment, the fire of true knowledge ignites itself and consumes all the subtle impressions of our past. Our longing to taste the immortal nectar is so strong that wordly and celestial pleasures become tasteless.

At this stage, those seekers who have a strong orientation toward knowledge long for only self-realization, and this by its very nature involve experiencing oneness with the Absolute. Those, on the other hand, with a strong orientation towards bhakti – love & devotion – long to have a direct experience of the Divine, and when they do, they merge with the beloved.

Aspirants who have been endowed with both deep knowledge and strong bhakti from the earliest stages of journey prefer to bypass the second stage by following the path of contemplation, meditation or prayer and absorbing their mind in the Divine Being. With the help of knowledge and non-attachment they burn all their samskaras, and through their unwavering faith and love for the Divine their entire unconsciousness is filled with divine awareness. Whichever way they leave their body, these yogis go to the realm that transcends the cycle of birth & death, heaven & hell.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna stresses the importance of cultivating such a high level of purity & one pointedness of mind that at the time of death the mind fixes itself only on the Lord of Life within us. Only then do we enter the realm beyond, which shines through its own effulgence. In Krishna's words, “One who at the time of death remembers me alone becomes one with my essence. There is no doubt about it”. (8.5).

He adds, “Those who are fully established in yoga with an unwavering mind leave their bodies contemplating only on the Divine Being and thus reach the realm of the Divine. With a stable mind, those endowed with the power of yoga and j – who make their entire pranic force enter the center between the eyebrows and thus leave the body – reach the realm beyond-----. Controlling all the gates, confining the mind in the heart, placing the pranic force in the crown of the head, thus fully established in yoga, one who, remembering me alone, leaves the body with sound “OM, goes to the supreme realm. (8:8, 10,12-13).

Often in our ignorance we think that we can wait until our old age to commit ourselves to spirituality believing that the subtle impressions created by spiritual practices will come forward at the time of death and enable us to attain freedom from transmigration. This is not correct.

Friends in 1998 at 37 I was the youngest in a group of nine to visit Mount Kailash. Everyone else was above 55 and mocked me for going there so young. They said 37 is the age to enjoy life.

Two reasons. One is what everybody realized after the trip. Out of nine only three of us were fit to do the 53 km walk around the holy mountain the rest were too fat or scared of the cold. Since most of our holy places are in the mountains it is practical to visit and enjoy them when one is young. Two the spiritual transformation that I have undergone has made me be at peace with myself and imparted a sense of direction to my life. Non-vegetarian food, expensive clothes, drinking, materialism do not enthuse me any longer. Surely these desires have not vanished but are reducing continuously. Have realized that happiness comes from sharing without expecting anything in return. Like others if I had done the trip twenty years later I would have continued to lead a materialistic / stressful life during this period. Think of the happiness that I might have missed out on. 

If we are to form and accumulate spiritually illuminating samskaras of knowledge, love and devotion, then we need to practice faithfully for a long time without interruption – for which we need to begin as soon as possible. Friends having worked in the corporate world for long some of you might argue that can ambition and spirituality go together. Believe me going spiritual will increase your productivity, give you peace of mind and make you succeed. 

We are always surrounded by the grace of the Divine, and inspite of the law of karma and the forces of destiny, all of us are guided and protected by this grace. No matter, how good or bad we are, the divine always dwells in our heart. It takes only a moment to realize that this internal friend is always with us; we are suffused with an overwhelming sense of oneness with the Divine. From this moment onwards, no force can hinder our journey. That is why sages tell us, “Be not disheartened, O child of Divinity. The light you are seeking burns within you. Surrender and it will unveil itself to you”. Thus for one who treads the path of love and divine ecstasy, it is never too late.

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