The steps to realize the Ultimate Truth: (Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter 8.7 – 8.12)
Prajapati (The Lord of people) said, “One has to search and realize the Atman. The Atman is pure, free from hunger, thirst, old age, and death. Its desires and vows come true. If one searches the Atman following the scriptures and the guidance of a competent teacher and realizes It, then all his desires are fulfilled and he attains everything.”
The devas and demons heard Prajapati’s declaration. The realization of Atman, they thought, would fulfill all their desires and allow them to attain everything they ever dreamed of. They decided to pursue this quest for the Atman.
Devas asked their king, Indra, and the demons asked their king, Virochana, to go to Prajapati to learn about Atman.
Both Indra and Virochana went to Prajapati’s ashram with offerings in their hands. Jealous of one another, they vowed to themselves, I will learn about Atman first.
Prajapati asked them to stay in the ashram, live an ascetic life, and take the vow of celibacy. They lived there for 32 years.
After 32 years Prajapati asked them, “What is it that you desire? What has motivated you to stay here?” Both said that they had heard the Revered Prajapati’s declaration, “One has to search and realize the Atman. The Atman is pure, free from hunger, thirst, old age, and death. Its desires and vows come true. If one searches the Atman following the scriptures and the guidance of a competent teacher and realizes It, then all his desires are fulfilled and he attains everything.” They too wanted to know and realize the Atman.
Prajapati said, “The Person that is seen in the eyes,-that is Atman. That is the immortal and fearless Brahman.”
Indra and Virochana asked, “Between these two, one which is perceived in the water and the one which is perceived in the mirror, which one is Atman?” Prajapati said, “The same one, indeed, is perceived in all of these.”
Prajapati said, “Both of you go and look at yourselves in a pot filled with water.” They both looked at their reflections in the water. Prajapati asked, “What do you see?” Both said, “O Lord! We see Atman from head to toe, along with hair and nails.”
Then, Prajapati asked both of them to wear their best clothes and ornaments. Indra and Virochana did as they were told and returned in their finest clothing and ornaments. Prajapati told them to look at themselves in the water. He then asked, “What do you see?” Both Indra and Virochana said, “O Lord! We see that the reflection is dressed as we are dressed up. Prajapati said, “That is Atman. That is the immortal and fearless Brahman.” Satisfied with that answer, Indra and Virochana left the ashram.
Watching them leave, Prajapati mumbled, “Both of them are leaving without knowing and realizing Atman. Devas or demons, those who do not truly know Atman will perish.”
Virochana, the king of the demons, was satisfied with what he had learned. He went to the demons and started to teach them that the body is Atman. It is this Atman (body) that has to be worshiped and nurtured. One who takes care of this Atman (body) fulfills all desires and attains everything.”
Therefore, even today people say that a person is of demonic nature if he/she has no faith in something higher than his/her body, and sees no purpose in charity and spiritual development. People of demonic nature adorn even dead bodies with make-up, nice clothing, and ornaments thinking that these things will help the dead person attain everything.
Indra too was on his way to see the Devas. Yet, a thought kept disturbing him. Something was definitely wrong with his understanding of Atman. He started thinking, ‘when a body is adorned with nice clothes and ornaments, its reflection too is adorned with nice clothes and ornaments. Similarly, if a person becomes blind, then its reflection becomes blind; if a person is hurt, then its reflection is hurt, and when a person dies, then its reflection also dies. Something was awry. How could there be anything beneficial in this knowledge of Atman?’
Indra went back to Prajapati with offerings in his hands. Upon seeing Indra, Prajapati asked “O Indra! I saw that you and Virochana were satisfied with the knowledge of Atman and had left. Why did you come back again? What do you want?” Indra replied, “O Lord! I do not see any benefit in my understanding that the reflection of the body, which I see through my eyes, is Atman. If I put on nice clothes and ornaments, my reflection puts on nice clothes and ornaments. If I am clean, my reflection is clean. But, if I become blind, my reflection becomes blind. If I am hurt, my reflection is hurt and if I die, my reflection dies.” Prajapati said, “O Maghavan (Indra)! Yes, it is like that. Live here for another 32 years observing celibacy. After 32 years, I will explain it to you more.”
After 32 years, Prajapati said, “The One who moves about, exalted, in our dreams is Atman. It is the immortal, fearless Brahman.” Indra was satisfied and left.
But, before he reached the Devas, he thought, there is something wrong with his understanding of Atman. If one becomes blind, his dream-self does not become blind; if one gets hurt, his dream-self does not get hurt; and if one dies, perhaps his dream-self does not die. Thus, the limitations and changes of the body do not apply to the dream-self. But, if in one’s dream, someone beats the dream-self, the dream-self feels the pain, if someone treats the dream-self badly, then it gets upset, and if danger approaches the dream-self shows fear. Thus, one’s dream-self cannot be Atman and there is no benefit in this knowledge of Atman.
Indra came back to Prajapati with offerings in his hand. Prajapati asked, “O Indra! You had left satisfied with your understanding. Then, why did you come back? What do you want?”
Indra answered, “O Lord Prajapati! It is true that my dream-self does not get affected by whatever happens to my body. For examples, it does not become blind if my body does, it does not get hurt even if my body gets hurt, and it does not die even if my body dies. But, if someone beats my dream-self, then this dream-self feels pain, if someone treats my dream-self badly, then it gets upset, and if some danger comes to my dream-self, then it shows fear. Thus, I do not see any benefit in knowing that my dream-self is Atman.”
Prajapati said, “O Maghavan! It is like that. Live here for another 32 years observing celibacy. After 32 years, I will explain it to you more.”
After 32 years, Prajapati said, “When a person is in deep sleep, he sees no dreams and is happy – that is Atman. It is the immortal and fearless Brahman.” Indra was satisfied and left.
But, before he reached the Devas, he thought to himself, in deep sleep one is not even aware of his own self and other people. In deep sleep one is not aware that “I am Atman.” What is good about this deep sleep state? It is as good as being a dead person. Indra did not see anything good about this knowledge of Atman.
Indra came back to Prajapati with offerings in his hands. Prajapti asked, “O Indra! Satisfied with your understanding of Atman, you had left. Then, why did you come back? What do you want?”
Indra replied, “O Lord Prajapati! In deep sleep I am not aware that “I am Atman” and I am not aware of all people and things around me. It is like I have died. I do not see anything good in this knowledge.”
Prajapati said, “O Maghavan! It is like that. This time, live here for another 5 years observing celibacy. After 5 years, I will explain it to you more.”
Indra lived with Prajapati for another 5 years observing celibacy. Thus, they say that Indra had lived with Prajapati for 101 years observing celibacy.
After 5 years, Prajapati told Indra, “O Indra! The body is mortal. It dies. But, this mortal body is the abode of the immortal, body-less Atman. As long as one has body-consciousness, one has likes and dislikes. But, likes and dislikes do not touch a person who is aware of the body-less Atman lying within.”
“Wind, cloud, lightning, and thunder are body-less. All these arise from the space and, through the light of the sun, go back to their original forms. Similarly this Atman arises from the body and through the Supreme Knowledge of Itself, goes back to Its original form.
In that state, the Atman moves about–laughing, playing, and rejoicing–without thinking of the body. But, this very Atman remains attached to the body as an animal remains attached to a cart.
The Atman is the cause of seeing and the eyes are Its instruments to see. When one is aware of this fact, that person realizes that the Atman is the “Seer” and the eyes are Its instruments.
– When one is aware that the Atman is the cause of smelling, the “Smeller” is the Atman and the nose is Its instrument.
– When one is aware that the Atman is the cause of speaking, the “Speaker” is the Atman and the mouth is Its instrument.
– When one is aware that the Atman is the cause of listening, the “Listener” is the Atman and the ears are Its instruments.
– One who is aware that the Atman is the cause of thinking, the “Thinker” is the Atman and the mind is Its instrument. The mind is called the divine eyes of the Atman. The Atman sees all the desires in the world through the divine eye of the mind.
After learning this Truth, the Devas meditated on this Atman. As a result, all their desires were fulfilled and they attained everything.” “Thus,” Prajapati declared, “One who understands the teachings about Atman from the scriptures and from a competent teacher and realizes It fulfills all his desires and attains everything.”
This story beautifully describes the four states of a human being: Jagrata (physically awake state), Swapna (dream state), Sushupti (dreamless sleep state) and Turiya (state of awareness of Atman).
Jagrata (physically awake state): Most people remain in the physically awakened state for most of their time. Also, most people think that this is the only real state of a human being. Whatever we perceive in this physically awakened state is real and all other things are imaginary or delusion. Most of us consciously or unconsciously believe that what we perceive through our senses are the only useful things in life. We try to understand the world with what we perceive through our senses. All our physical knowledge lies on these grounds, on sense perception.
We perceive most parts of our bodies through our eyes. We also perceive our bodies through their reflections in the mirror or water or through our photographs. All our joys and sorrows are based on this sense perception.
Indra thought that the physically awaken state was the only reality. But, then he realized that what we perceive through our senses is limited. The body undergoes changes. It is subject to disease, old age, and death. Indra realized that Prajapati wanted him to reflect further; the body was not the Ultimate Reality. Human beings are more than their body. One cannot be really happy by nurturing the body alone and constantly thinking about the pleasures of the body.
Swapna (dream state): Prajapati drew Indra’s attention to another state of a human being– the dream state. When a person is in the dream state, his/her mind creates an entire universe. In this state, the outer world, the world perceived through the senses, disappears. In a dream a person can create the Yankee Stadium filled with thousands of people watching a ball game. That person can even create themselves in the dream, enjoying the game. For the dreamer it is all real. Many a times, in one’s dreams, a person fulfills all of the unfulfilled desires of his Jagrata (physically awakened) state.
Indra realized that the limitations of the Jagrata state do not follow in the dream state. Even when one is poor in the physically awakened state, he may become rich in his dreams. However, unpleasant things may happen. A rich person may become poor in his dream. A hungry tiger may chase the dreamer, in an attempt to devour him. It is good that we do not remain in the dream state all the time and we wake up in the middle of unpleasant dreams.
Indra realized that the dream state was not what he wanted. He wanted all his desires to be fulfilled and wanted to be happy and free from the fear of death. He found that dream state too has sufferings and limitations. So, he came back to know more.
Sushupti (state of deep sleep): When a person is going to sleep, one turns off all the lights of the house, goes to the bedroom, turns the light off in bedroom, keeps a night-lamp on and sleeps on the bed. Similarly, when a person is going to sleep, slowly all the senses are withdrawn and get cut off from the physically awakened state. Then, he enters in the dream state. At one point, all the dreams go away and he falls into deep sleep. Like that night-lamp which remains on in the bedroom, in deep sleep the vital forces keep one alive. The senses have merged into mind and mind has merged into Atman. If a person has good dreamless sleep, he feels very happy. However, as soon as he wakes up, within a fraction of a nano second all of the things connected to the physical-self come rushing back: all work, all the plans and desires, all associations, joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes and more. The person does not find any change or a transformation within oneself, all that has happened is that the body and mind have had a good rest.
Indra realized that this state of dreamless sleep was as good as being lifeless or dead. There is no awareness of the Atman. He did not see anything deeper in this state beyond having achieved physical rest. He recognized that the awareness of Atman could not be this state. Prajapati agreed with him. Prajapati acknowledged that Indra was finally ready to understand the Atman after thoughtfully ruling out the other three states.
Turiya (state of awareness of Atman): Prajapati gave excellent analogies of body-less entities. When we think of Atman as body-less, we have difficulty grasping this concept. But, Prajapati points to the wind, cloud, lightning and thunder which are also body-less. They come from space and disappear into space. Thus, through these analogies, we get a little glimpse of what Prajapati was trying to explain. We can see that something can come from an infinite source; it reveals itself after becoming tangible or graspable by the senses and again it can merge into the infinite. Sound and light are waves. These waves are graspable to humans at certain frequencies, and they can exist beyond our comprehension. The body-less infinite unchangeable Ultimate Reality or Ultimate Power creates bodies and things of the universe that are comprehensible by our human senses, which eventually merge back into that Ultimate Reality or Power. That Ultimate Reality or Power is called Brahman and it is called Atman with reference to an individual. This body-less Atman is our true identity. It resides in our finite body. This Atman is the cause of our capacity to touch, taste, smell, speak, hear, and think. This Atman has created its instruments to perceive the world of senses.
A person can attain this Turiya state where there is only awareness of Atman and it is not a state of dreamless sleep. People have witnessed such states of awareness. It is called a Nirvikalpa Samadhi. One example I know is that of Sri Ramakrishna. He used to be in such a state often. Atheists, critics and medical doctors have examined this state and accepted that physically there was no sign of life, but it was not death or a deep sleep. The face of Sri Ramakrishna was beaming with joy even in the intense painful physical state of throat cancer. He was oblivious of the pain and pleasures of the body.
Swami Vivekananda said that the difference between a person going into dreamless deep sleep and the Nirvikalpa Samadhi is this: a dull minded person remains dull minded after going into deep sleep, but a dull minded becomes a wise person after coming back from Nirvikalpa Samadhi. After attaining this state one experience so much bliss that all the joy of fulfilling all the possible worldly desires becomes an insignificant small fraction of that bliss. After realizing Atman, no desires remain to be fulfilled and one feels that one has attained everything that a human being can attain.
This Turiya state is possible by any person who follows the guidance described by the scriptures and competent teachers. Even if one does not attain Nirvikalpa Samadhi, going towards this state of awareness of Atman brings fulfillment, knowledge, and fills the heart with unselfish love and unlimited bliss.
Swami Vivekananda says, “There is something behind this world of senses, this world of eternal eating and drinking and talking nonsense, this world of false shadows and selfishness. There is something beyond all books, beyond all creeds, beyond vanities of the world-and that something is the realization of God within yourself.”
(Thanks to Nisha Parikh for editing this post)