The clearest vision of Brahman is possible only in this life.
As one sees one’s reflection clearly in a clean mirror, so one sees Brahman in the buddhi…the intellect purified by self-control and contemplation. After death…the vision of Atman is indistinct…since one is engrossed there in the enjoyment of the fruits of past karma.
Katha Upanishad II, iii., 5
Reading this was a revelation. Here’s why.
Swami Sarvadevananda sat in class, his legs crossed under the low wooden table he used for the more formal evening classes, slowly moving through one of Swami Vivekananda’s books on the purpose of devotional worship. Every week, the same people sat scattered throughout the chapel, one, maybe two to a pew. When the subject of heaven and hell came up, Swami Sarvadevananda said, laughing, “We’re very organized, we Hindus. There are many, many levels to heaven, many levels to hell!”
While I can tell you I have experienced moments of heaven and hell in my life right here and now, I can’t get my head wrapped around the notion of a single, literal, afterlife heaven or its opposite, let alone an entire hierarchy of heavens and hells. But Hinduism’s concept of heaven and hell seems different from the Christian idea of heaven and hell. While Hinduism does believe in an afterlife and in a fairly complex and stratified heaven and hell, these are all only waystations, intermediate steps on a multi-life journey, not a final destination.
The swami cheerfully described a heaven where those who wanted to be rich, for example, could go to heaven after death and, assuming they’d done good during their lifetime, enjoy their wealth. They could even return in their next life as a wealthy person.The catch is: desires like these, for wealth, for human love, for good health, even for a long life, keep us subject to the law of karma, meaning, we keep coming back over and over again until we fully enjoy and no longer want these things.
I’ve had glimpses of that truth. I’ve worked past reason, I’ve knocked people over, trying to get to some goal, some new rung on the imaginary ladder I chose to climb, only to get it and realize it wasn’t The Answer I thought it would be, that it didn’t and could never make “everything all right.” Buying stuff, owning stuff has never mattered as much as it did when I was, say thirteen. Getting rid of stuff feels pretty good but that feeling doesn’t last either. Financial concerns come and go but, if I’m honest, I can get pretty disconnected from my own life when I’m comfortable and, while I don’t want financial anxiety especially when my parents are aging and my kids are about to go off to college soon, my life has often actually improved during the stress of those times.
There’s some glimmer of “it” inside the decision to worry less about what other people think of me and also in the very real love I have in my life – two sons who have remained people I admire and a marriage to someone who knows everything about me and yet still loves and likes me. Our marriage has weathered inconceivable storms.
I am a very, very spoiled person with unfathomable good fortune so Hinduism’s description of the limits of heaven actually makes some sense to me. But the Hindu notion of heaven is even more radical than that. Swami Nikhilananda, in his commentary (CHECK) on the Katha Upanishad, says that “The clearest vision of Brahman (of the Infinite) is possible only in this life.”
This life? This flesh-and-blood life? This is the only time we can have the “clearest possible vision” of the Infinite? The passage goes on… “As one sees one’s reflection clearly in a clean mirror, so one sees Brahman in the buddhi…the intellect purified by self-control and contemplation. After death…the vision of Atman is indistinct…since one is engrossed there in the enjoyment of the fruits of past karma.”
See, according to this passage, the entire point of being alive is to finally come to realize the truth: that there’s nothing but (insert your name for God here), nothing but the Absolute. And, you need to be alive to truly see this, in other words, not asleep, not dead, not even in heaven. In fact, in heaven you’d be too busy enjoying your stuff to see much of anything else. “The clearest vision of Brahman is possible only in this life.” However, “this life” can only function as a clear vantage point if our “buddhi,” our higher mind, is free of the clutter and confusion of what we tend to think is important in our day-to-day existence.
If you think about it, this pretty deftly deals with the question everyone asks any spiritual leader they can get their hands on: why does bad stuff happen? Why is there evil? If you believe that our job here, in this body, in this lifetime, is to “clean our mirror”, to purify and cleanse our vision so we might see “Brahman” reflected in us, then any challenge we face could be seen as a squeegee for that mirror, right?
- - -
So here's the other entry I wrote that day...
One of the enormous and, as yet, unanswered questions I’ve had in this project is: how will I know when it’s okay to move on to the next tradition? It’s absurd to think that I will ever be “done” with Hinduism so, what yardstick, what sign, am I looking for? Maybe this is part of the answer…
There’s a library where I went to college whose main floor is actually the third floor of the building. There are two floors above and two floors below the entrance level. It was utterly confusing at first. I didn’t know how to find what I needed in it, where the card catalogue was, or whether to go up or down if something was on the “second” floor. But, by the end of the first few weeks, I knew. I didn’t know where everything was and I certainly hadn’t read more than a handful of books inside it, but I knew, generally, what subjects were housed there and how to find what I needed, and that I walked downstairs if I needed to get to the first or second floor. I could then focus on digging into the material instead of dealing with the logistics of finding it.
I’m starting to know where the card catalogue is in Hinduism. I don’t have a mantra but that’s probably as it should be. I do know how to get one. And I know why I should want one.
- - -
When I finished typing up these two entries, it was time to go home. I turned my computer off, cleaned my tea cup, tossed a pitcher of water into the ficus, took out the trash, and locked my office door. But, in the middle of the night I found myself waking up, laughing. (My poor husband.) The tradition I plan to concentrate on next?
I got this much clarity: I’m not moving on, I’m adding. It’s time.
Later that morning, while taking off a windbreaker with elastic bands at the wrists, Hemu’s magenta puja string broke and fell off.
I tied what was left of it to my keychain.
12 March 2007