The Silver Thread: A Dialogue with Death


The Upanishads are one of the primary religious texts of Hinduism. The Upanishads primarily address the mystical (mysterious)concerns of life, which are (1) The creation of the world; (2) The nature of death.

There are 11 Major Upanishads and 4 minor ones. The Katha Upanishad is the second (2), and one of the most famous. It offers a dialogue on death:

When a person dies, there arises this doubt. “He still exists, say some. “he does not,” Say others, “I want you to teach me the truth.”

The Katha Upanishad consists of a running dialogue between Yama, the Hindu god of death, and Nachiketa, a boy.

Nachiketa approaches death and wants to learn its secrets. Death discourages Nachiketa, telling him, that learning the mystery of death can be destructive, but the boy persists, and a dialogue unfolds.

Yama first introduces Nachiketa to a form of discovery, called brahmavidya. The most rational inquiry focuses on explorations of the external world. To explore death from this perspective leads us to see it in material and sensual terms, such as the deterioration of body and brain, or the loss of connection with loved ones. But the exploration of brahmavidya seeks knowledge of an underlying reality which forms the foundation of all other inquires and activities. That is, it explores the basic force or primal ground, which makes all life processes possible: The basic life force.

The fundamental grounding is the concept of Brahma. Brahma is a timeless, formless state of consciousness. It is represented in the mind as an experience of nothingness or omnipresent presence only. In the world, it is the non-dualistic universe, above the senses, and, and different from all other aspects of the world and consciousness. An aligned Hindu concept is Perusha or spirit. We may call it soul.

In contrast is the world and individual consciousness, the realm of the senses and of the ordinary mind, all emanating from a body that is has physical and temporal dimensions. This is the world of the Ego, the “I, “where all experiences are personalized. This is the world outside of Perusha, and it is called Prakiri, a realm of the physical and of the senses. The ego is called ahamkara.

The Brahma held in individual consciousness is called Atman. It is the manifestation of Brahma in us, but filtered, into our consciousness and sensory apparatus.

In western discourse, Brahma is often referred to as the soul. Western mystical traditions generally equate God to this concept of transcendence. The infinite. The unknowable Yama teaches that death is only of the ego. To transcend death, Brahma consciousness must be developed.

Beyond the senses are the objects, beyond the objects is the mind. Beyond the mind, the intellect, beyond the intellect, the Great Atman. (10)

Beyond the Great Atman, the Unmanifest: Beyond the Unmanifest, The Perusha. Beyond the Perusha there is nothing, this is the end, the Supreme Goal (11)

As Brahma enters man, Two levels of consciousness develop. Brahma is mediated when it enters the ego, the world of the senses:

As the same non-dual air, after it has entered the world, becomes different according to whatever it enters, so also the same non-dual Atman, dwelling in all things, becomes different according to whatever it enters. (Valli 5-10).

In a sense, this fundamental energy becomes distributed in our mental and physical being, all dualistic modes. However, the Brahma is the true self, while the ego world is maya or illusion.

We live in two worlds by virtue of our humanity-body and mind-, with the Atman coexisting with the Ego in the same body. Most of us choose to live in the Ego world, but we can imbue even our day to day chores with the spirit of Atman. We must create experiences that peel back the layers of ego to direct experiences of Atman.

In fact, we go in and out of these two states. During meditation practice, we often touch Atman, and as I have written before, experiences of nature often change our level of consciousness to Atman. Atman infuses certain sleep states.

The two worlds we live in are reflected in the mind. The experience of Atman is like a calm pool, and the Ego world is a series of summer storms. The deadlines, disappointments, successes, and failures are part of that outer layer. We often confuse that for who we are. But we are deeper and more primal, and that pristine part of us is the pure vitality, the pure aliveness of being, that we touch by letting go and entering Brahma.

The Katha Upanishad is a roadmap for conquering death. Conceptually it sees man as having a body-ego side and a Brahma side, which, like the soul, is transpersonal and moves from the host body to the next body.

Psychically we live in both worlds. Our first task is to experience that separation in us, a separation of those two modes of being. Secondly, we must cultivate the transpersonal self. (Atman)

Now we come to Yoga. Yoga refers to unity or integration. In the Vedic tradition, yoga is the tool for developing this higher level of consciousness. Yoga has come to the west as a series of postures, in India, which is one of the many tools of transformation. Through yoga, including meditation, pranayama, and asana, we access the Self. We have transient moments of life’s ecstasy, of the Self within us.

Once “mastered” we become aware of both levels of consciousness operating within. One teacher explained it: we live in two rooms; when we are in the ego room, the Self room is just behind us; we can access it at will, just like going from room to room. When possible, we go into that Atman room for long periods of rejuvenation; other times, we draw Atman energy into our daily egoic life.

In the Vedic tradition the most orthodox-priests and acolytes -. seek to dissolve Ahankara. (the ego) They devote their lives toward cultivating a Brahma sense of consciousness and avoid participating in the ego-secular world.

For those who wish the benefits of this world-career, family, community-Ahankara is purified. It is integrated into one’s daily life.

The forms of yoga will foster this integration:

Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Philosophy, values, and ideas. The major thrust is a focus on presence and process as opposed to a focus on effort to a goal. There are strong trends in Hindu literature against conceptualizing and reaching for goals. Instead, the emphasis is staying in the here and now and focusing on the process. We think of our endeavors as “duty,” and immersing our self in the process, not the goal, engages a spiritual sense of Consciousness.

This is the lesson of the Bkagavad Gita.. In this famous Hindu tome, the warrior Arjuna does not want to fight because he will have to kill relatives and friends. In response, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that his dharma or duty is to be a warrior. Warriors must fight according to Krishna, and performing your duty is more important than personal feelings or desires. Never think of the personal consequences, focus on doing your duty in the best way possible, be the warrior only you can be.

The lesson for us all is that we spiritually evolve when we follow the dharma that nature has given us. This is compromised we let the ego guide us;

Bhakti Yoga; The expression of the Divine through practices that change consciousness through prayer, meditation, chanting, and music.

Karma Yoga: The path of service. Like charity Giving in a selfless way to others. Unconditional service.

Raja Yoga: Integrating the three forms of yoga mentioned with the 8 Limbs or stages of yoga.

It should be noted that Yama, the God of death, is also the God of Justice. From the Ego perspective, we seek to die justly, having accomplished our potential in this, the secular world.


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