Spiritual Dedication-A Commentary on the Katha Upanishad

In very ancient times a man named Vajrabasa decided to perform a rite intended to give the performer great merit. The rite entailed the giving away of all the performer’s possessions. However he had no such intention, and instead was going to give away only his cattle–and of them only the useless ones: the old, the barren, the blind, and the lame. His son, Nachiketa, observing this, came to his father and said: “Father, do not repent thy vow! Consider how it has been with those that have gone before, and how it will be with those that now live. Like corn, a man ripens and falls to the ground; like corn, he springs up again in his season.” (Katha Upanishad 1:1:6)

There is no use denying it: we all follow in the path of Vajrabasa on occasion, though some do it more exuberantly. This is especially deadly in the realm of spiritual life.

I well remember when two newly-made Indian friends from South India asked me wonderingly: “What is an ‘Indian giver’?” When I said it meant someone who promised but did not deliver, or who gave and then took back, they were really bewildered. But when I explained that it was not the Indians who were the “givers” but the deceitful white men, they understood–and to my confusion thought it was very funny. (When I told them about “Honest Injun?” and “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” they laughed till they cried, and thereafter frequently asked: “Honest Injun?” when I told them something.) It is not funny when we are “Indian givers” in spiritual life, just as double-tongued and devious with God and our own spirit as the politicians were with the Native Americans.

One of the funniest and most typical examples is found in the comic motion picture, The End. In one scene Burt Reynolds is swimming in the ocean about to drown. He starts shouting out to God how much of his income he vows to give if he survives. The percentage goes up and up to the total amount. But then he sees that there is a chance he may make it back to shore. So the percentage starts dropping in proportion to how near he gets to the land! Finally he is telling God that he will be giving nothing, and if God does not like it, that is just too bad. We are very much (often exactly) like that ourselves. When we think we are not going to have something, or will have no use for it, we generously offer it to God or renounce it. But the moment we see a need or a use for it, then we announce to ourselves that God would not expect us to hand it over or renounce it.

Many people start out spiritual life with great enthusiasm, ready to dedicate and sacrifice in order to attain liberation. But as time goes by the sands in the hourglass of will and interest grow less and less, shifting back to the bottom level of ego and the material life until what remains is so feeble and negligible it would be better if it, too, were eliminated in honesty.

The principle that we reap only and exactly what we sow is an absolute in spiritual life. Here are Saint Paul’s words on the subject: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”(Galatians 6:7-9) Fainting is a very real possibility for all of us, and that is why these warning words of Nachiketa were written in the upanishad: “Father, do not repent thy vow! Consider how it has been with those that have gone before, and how it will be with those that now live. Like corn, a man ripens and falls to the ground; like corn, he springs up again in his season.”

The law of reaping what has been sown–and conversely not reaping what has not been sown–is to be taken most seriously in all aspects of life, but especially in spiritual matters. Solomon cautions us: “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for…better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.” (Ecclesiastes 5:4) The question here is not that of God being angry or sad at our non-payment, but the negative effect our own perfidy will have on us directly. It is not God that rewards and punishes, but our own self, and its justice is inexorable. So asking God to release us or forgive us means positively nothing–it is our own self we are dealing with and it cannot be gotten around in any degree whatsoever.

Sad to say, there are many examples of “those that have gone before” who foolishly reneged on their own selves and suffered the consequences, from simple unhappiness to abject and long-lasting misery, and even death. This latter is no exaggeration, I know of examples myself. If you will excuse me, I will not cite any examples at all, for it is simply too bleak. Just do not be one yourself! But I will tell you the principle I have seen demonstrated over and over again: Whatever a person abandons his spiritual life to keep or to gain will be (usually abruptly or even violently) taken away from him and he will never regain or restart his spiritual life in this incarnation. I have never seen an exception. Never. (I am, however, not speaking of merely risking or retarding the personal spiritual life–we all do that just from making mistakes or from silly foibles–but of the actual giving up and turning from, even rejecting of, one’s spiritual life and obligations. This is fatal.)

At every step of our spiritual life we must keep in mind the law of cause and effect and “consider how it has been with those that have gone before, and how it will be with those that now live.” And lest we think that if we escape the karmic reaction in this life we are “home free,” Nachiketa added: “Like corn, a man ripens and falls to the ground; like corn, he springs up again in his season.” So there are future live in which our neglect can come to fruition in many forms–all inimical to our further progress.

Of course, the words of Nachiketa only have meaning to the wise. As Krishna told Arjuna: “Even a wise man acts according to the tendencies of his own nature. All living creatures follow their tendencies. What use is any external restraint? If a man keeps following my teaching with faith in his heart, and does not make mental reservations, he will be released from the bondage of his karma. But those who scorn my teaching, and do not follow it, are lost. They are without spiritual discrimination. All their knowledge is a delusion.” (Bhagavad Gita 3:33, 31,32)

Swami Nirmalananda Giri is the abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram, a traditional
Hindu monastery in the small desert town of Borrego Springs in southern
California. He has written extensively on spiritual subjects, especially about
atmajyoti.org/meditation.asp meditation.
Read more of his Commentary on the Upanishads on our atmajyoti.org/spirwrit_hinduism.asp Hindu writings page.

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