The Supreme Austerities

A kind of contentment arises in the mind when we fulfil a desire. If things do not go how we planned then the mind becomes disturbed. In Yoga, contentment is the state when we totally accept what has happened, favourable or unfavourable.

It is a condition of the human mind to desire for things to be other than the way they are, wishing that we might live long and hoping that there will be no loss or sickness and death.

We all have desires that we want fulfilled. This momentum of desire (raga) and its opposite, aversion (dvesa), leads us to the cycle of birth, death and birth. We have not become liberated from this cycle because we will not give up desire.
The mind afflicted by the five klesa continues the cycle of birth and death.

A few years ago I met Sri T.K. Sribhashyam, the youngest son of Sri T. Krisnamacharya. I was fortunate enough to interview him about the books he had written and I visited him at his home in Nice where I was cordially received by his family. This led to Sribhashyam coming to the UK and teaching a five day Seminar on the Yoga teachings he had received from his Father. After this Sribhashyam gave me some guidance to study Indian Philosophy; the Yoga Sutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. I was scheduled to visit him again in Nice to help with any questions I had. He even arranged for his nephew in India to obtain some books for me that I was having difficulty finding. He had suggested that I take practical lessons with one of his senior students and I have continued doing that. I thought that I was so fortunate to have this opportunity to learn from Sribhasyam. I imagined that he would live to one hundred years like his Father and I would have twenty years to study with him. When he passed away in 2017 just before our next scheduled meeting I was filled with grief and a sense of loss. Not only because he had passed away but because of my lost opportunity to study with him.

I found it difficult to reconcile myself with this situation.

I was prompted by Sribhashyam’s wife Claire to continue to follow the line of study he had indicated. So picking up the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad where I had left off I read for the first time the eleventh brahmana of this text.

This is a section that I always turn to now when faced with difficulty or a situation I find it difficult to accept.

Sribhashyam advised to take refuge in the teaching of your Spiritual Master when in difficulty.

I am sharing this here in the hope that others might find it elevating and liberating.

Thank you to Sri T.K. Sribhashyam and Claire Sribhashyam.
Thank you Swami Krishnananda and homage to the sages of the Upanishads.

The Supreme Austerities 

11th Brahmana, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

etad vai paramam tapo yad vyahitas tapyate; paramam haiva lokam jayati, ja evam veda; etad vai paramam tapo yam pretam aranyam haranti; paramam haiva lokam jayati, ya evam veda etad vai paramam tapo yam pretam agnav abhyadadhati. paramam haiva lokam jayati ya evam veda.

The Supreme Austerity is indeed that a man suffers when he is ill. He who knows this wins the highest world.

The Supreme Austerity is indeed that a man, after death, is carried to the forest. He who knows this wins the highest world.

The Supreme Austerity is indeed that a man, after death, is laid on the fire. He who knows this wins the highest world.

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Commentary by Swami Krishnananda

If one is sick, one need not grieve, says the Upanishad. The Upanishads do not want grief of any kind. They are accustomed to a life of exuberance, joy and positivity. What you call sorrow or grief is a condition into which the mind enters when it cannot adjust itself with that condition. After all, pain or sorrow of any kind is nothing but a conscious experience of an irreconcilable position. If it can be reconciled, it is not sorrowful. 

But our physical and mental states are such, unfortunately for us, that they cannot reconcile themselves with anything and everything in this world. So, when certain things impinge on us, physically or psychologically, when we are forced to undergo experiences of conditions which cannot be reconciled with our physical or mental states, then it is called pain. Now, merely because something is painful or sorrow-giving, it need not mean that it is an undesirable object. It only means that we cannot reconcile ourselves with it. I cannot adjust myself to the conditions demanded by the presence of that thing which is immediate to me. Therefore it causes pain to me. It does not mean that it will cause pain to everybody. To me it causes pain. The particular environment in which I am living, the particular atmosphere in which I have to continue my life in this world, the particular object or person in front of me is irreconcilable for reasons of my own, and therefore it causes pain. But the Upanishad tells us, this is not the correct attitude to things. Even if you have high fever, you are supposed to understand why the fever has come. You are not supposed to cry and shed tears. So, that itself is a meditation – the understanding of the nature of sorrow and an attempt on the part of the meditating mind to reconcile itself with it through understanding.

 Etad vai paramam tapo yad vyahitas tapyate: ‘When you are suffering due to fever or illness, contemplate on the condition of illness.’ What is the meaning of illness? Something which I do not like. A physical condition mostly which is tormenting my mind – that is illness. Why is the mind tormented when my body is ill? Because the mind requires of the body certain given conditions only. It does not require other conditions. There is an agreement or a pact signed, as it were, between the mind and the body. We have to adjust ourselves in this manner – I give this, you give that. That is called a pact or an agreement. That pact has to be followed by the body as well as the mind. Then there is psychophysical health. But if the mind revolts against the body, there would be insanity, and if the body revolts against the mind, there is what is called Vyadi, or illness. You do not want any kind of revolt. Now, the Upanishad does not talk of mental revolution, because then the question of meditation does not arise. It is taken for granted that the mind is sane and it can understand things, but the body is not reconciling itself with the condition of the mind.It is in as state which we call ill-health. Ill-health is itself an object of meditation. When you have temperature, you contemplation temperature itself. Naturally it is difficult, because it is painful. You are undergoing a Tapas, says the Upanishad. A Tapas is a heat generated by intensity of thought, and fever is a great heat produced in the body. Now, this heat itself becomes the object of meditation. How is it an object of meditation? You will be laughing at the Upanishad. How is it possible? It is not a deity; it is not a god; it is not going to help you in any manner, you think. It is going to help us in the manner of an understanding because, as I hinted earlier, the incompatibility of physical illness with the present mental state is the cause of pain, and the mind is supposed to understand the nature or the reason behind this incompatibility. Why is there this incompatibility between the condition of the body and the mind? Because the mind cannot adjust itself to the condition of the body. When you are dipped in the cold waters of the Ganges in winter, you know what you feel. You shiver to death. You may actually die if you are placed inside the water for one hour. But why do the fish not feel the cold? They are inside the water and they are so happy. Because the condition of the body of the fish is compatible with the condition of the water of the Ganga. That is all. There is no incompatibility. But our body is irreconcilable with that condition. So, it is a kind of maladjustment of personality with the outer atmosphere and the outer conditions prevailing, that is called ill-health and any kind of sorrow or pain, for the matter of that. So let the mind contemplate on the possibility of a reconcilability or a compatibility with everything. That is one kind of Tapas.

 The Upanishad tells us further that you can also contemplate the condition of your being carried to the cremation ground. You have not yet been taken like that; but just imagine that you are still on the deathbed, and that you will be carried to the cremation ground in procession. Can you imagine this condition? ‘Yes, I am gone, here I am on the stretcher, people are weeping, some are happy, perhaps; they carry me, and to the cremation ground do I go.’ Contemplate like this. Then the sorrow of death will be averted. You are deliberately contemplating the practicality, the possibility of going to the cremation ground and being burnt there.

 When you are carried to the forest or the jungle to be buried there or to the cremation ground, a very uncomfortable experience is of course capable of being entertained in the mind. Nobody wishes to undergo that experience of falling ill, of being taken to the jungle for being buried or on a stretcher to the cremation ground to be burnt there. Who would like such an experience? But every experience is an experience. It has to be taken philosophically and scientifically. You will lose nothing by being buried; lose nothing by having an illness; you will lose nothing by going to the cremation ground. It looks like a horror on account of incompatibility again, an inadjustability of the mind with the conditions outside. The whole point of the meditation here is that the mind should be able to contemplate a reconcilability of itself with any and every condition. In other words, it is a symbolic hint at meditation on universality.

Books by Swami Krishnananda are available from The Divine Life Society

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