The Best Upanishads Quotes by Shankara (2)

Attaining Liberation

Now to sum up:

The Knowledge of Brahman, which bestows the Highest Good, is designated as Upanishad because it shatters and destroys avidya, or ignorance, the seed of samsara, in those seekers of Liberation who, having lost all thirst for objects seen on earth or heard of as existing in heaven, pursue this Knowledge with utter firmness and devotion. The Knowledge of Brahman is also called Upanishad for the further reason that it enables the above-mentioned seekers to attain the Supreme Brahman, or loosens for them the possibility of such miseries as dwelling in a womb and experiencing birth, old age, and death.

The following objection may be raised:

If the Knowledge of Brahman were the sole means to the attainment of Liberation, then one could justify the teachings of the Upanishad, which establishes that Knowledge; but this is not so; for work, too, is said to bestow Liberation. For instance, one reads such passages in the Vedas as: "We (the devas) have drunk the soma juice; therefore we are immortals" (Atharva-sira Upanishad III. 2.) and "Those who perform the sacrifice known as the Chaturmasyam earn undying merit." This objection, however, cannot be accepted as valid, because it contradicts the Vedas, the Smritis, and also reason.

* The word karma, or work, denotes the sacrifices (ritualistic and philanthropic actions) described in the Vedas. An action is dependent upon the doer, the instrument of action, and the result. Because it is associated with these multiple factors, karma, or action, is utterly distracting from the Knowledge of the non-dual Brahman, which transcends even the slightest trace of diversity.

The following passages may be cited from the Vedas as refuting it:

"As on this earth the objects [such as rice or wheat] earned by action [such as tilling the ground, sowing, etc.] come to an end [through consumption], so also, in the heavenly world, the celestial pleasures earned by meritorious action come to an end through enjoyment." (Chhandogya Up. 8.1. 6.)

"By knowing It (Brahman) alone, one attains Immortality—there is no other way to its attainment." (Mahavakya Upanishad 3.)

"Neither by work, nor by offspring, nor by wealth, does one attain Immortality, but by renunciation alone" (Kaivalya Upanishad I. 3; Mahanarayana Upanishad VUI. 14.)

"Frail indeed are those rafts of the sacrifices, conducted by eighteen persons, upon whom rests the inferior work; therefore they [the results of the sacrifices] are destructible. Fools who rejoice in them as the Highest Good fall victims again and again to old age and death." (Mundaka Up. 1. 2. 7)

"Nothing that is eternal
can be produced by what is not eternal."
(Mundaka Up. 1. 2. 12.)

"The following may be cited from, Smriti:

"A man is bound by karma and freed by Knowledge; therefore the far-seeing sannyasins do not engage in karma."

"This ancient samsara is said to be stained because it is filled with the impurities of ignorance.

Liberation is attained through the destruction of impurities, and not through millions of actions."

"The wise do not achieve Liberation by means of offspring or action or wealth. It is achieved only by means of renunciation. Otherwise, alas, one wanders about in the world."

"As one performs work, so one develops attachment to its fruit, which stands in the way of overcoming death. The wise, by means of Knowledge alone, realize the eternal and self-luminous Brahman;
there is no other path to Its realization."

"Thus abiding by the injunctions of the three Vedas and desiring desires, they are subject to death and rebirth." (B. G. IX. 21.)

"The stages of life and the duties pertaining to them, which are prescribed for brahmins and members of the other castes, are wearisome. Atman cannot be realized through the performance of duties belonging to a particular stage, or by means of the Vedas, Samkhya, Yoga, or penances and various intense austerities, or by means of diverse kinds of gifts. The wise realize Atman through Knowledge alone."

"The various actions laid down in the Vedas are, like the kimpaka fruit,* inauspicious in the end. Filled with myriads of miseries, they do not yield any real happiness.

* The kimpaka fruit looks very attractive from outside, but inside it is repulsive.   Likewise, the ritualistic actions prescribed by the Vedas yield happiness both here and hereafter, and therefore appear very agreeable. But that happiness, however enjoyable, is finite and comes to an end when the experience is over, whereupon one feels bitter. On the other hand, Liberation, which is achieved through Knowledge, is eternal and undying. Hence the wise abstain from sacrifices and other actions that produce a limited result, and engage in the pursuit of Knowledge.

Therefore why should I, who am eager for Liberation, perform the Vedic actions? Chained by ignorance, a man is said to be bound. Knowledge puts an end to his bondage, as light destroys darkness. Therefore Liberation is achieved through Knowledge, by means of the destruction of ignorance."

"All actions—such as giving gifts of various kinds, performing penances, austerities, and sacrifices, being truthful, making pilgrimages, and discharging the duties belonging to various stages of life—yield fruit which is reaped in heaven. They are mixed with pain and are impermanent. But Knowledge yields a fruit that is certain, peaceful, and highly significant."

"By means of sacrifices one attains a godly status; by means of austerities, the status of Brahma (the Creator God); by means of gifts, one enjoys various delectable objects. But Liberation is attained through Knowledge."

"By means of the rope of good action one climbs to heaven, and by means of the rope of evil action one descends into hell. But the wise sever both ropes with the sword of Knowledge, become free from body-consciousness, and attain peace."
"Give up both righteousness and unrighteousness. Give up both truth and untruth. And then give up that by which you have given up those two." [* I.e. philosophical discrimination.]

Thus karma cannot be a means to Liberation, for such a view conflicts with the injunctions of both the Vedas and the Smritis.

The attainment of Liberation through action is in conflict, also, with reason. If Liberation is the fruit of karma*, then it must be one of the four kinds of fruit.

* There are four kinds' of action, each with its fruit:

(1) Action by which a previously non-existent entity is produced, as when a pot or cloth is produced from clay or thread;

(2) action by which one entity is produced through the transformation of another, as when curds are made from milk;

(3) purificatory action, as when a mirror is cleaned by rubbing off the dirt that covers it; and

(4) action by which one attains an object unattained before, such as reaching a village by walking. But Liberation, or Self-Knowledge, does not belong in any of these four categories. It is ever existent, immutable, always pure, and the inmost Self of all.

That which is accomplished by means of action is seen to he non-eternal. "What is produced from a cause comes to an end." All agree that Liberation is eternal. The Vedas, in one of their ritualistic chapters, state: "O mortal man, you are reborn as your offspring. That is your immortality." Further, in discussing rituals, the Vedas speak of the immortal fruit of sacrifices. But as has already been stated, work brings about bondage and cannot bestow eternal Liberation.
Objection: By means of action, according to your own admission, one attains to the status of the deity. Is this bondage?

Reply: Yes, all works by their nature create bondage. The Vedas and the Smritis state:

"By means of work one goes to the Plane of the Fathers." (Brihadaranyaka Up. I. V. 16.)

"Such a plane is earned through merit." (Chhandogya Up. II. xxiii. 1.)

"Ignorant fools, regarding sacrifices and humanitarian works as the highest, do not know any higher good. Having enjoyed their reward on the heights of heaven, gained by good works, they enter again this world or a lower one." (Mundaka Up. I. ii. 10.)

"The far-seeing sages are not attached to action. The Purusha is Knowledge alone, and not action."

"Thus abiding by the injunctions of the three Vedas and desiring desires, they are subject to death and rebirth." (B. G. IX. 21.)

But if work is performed only for the gratification of the Lord, without any desire for fruit, then it causes the purification of the heart, which in turn produces knowledge conducive to the attainment of Liberation. Thus motiveless action brings about Liberation by gradual stages.

The Lord says in the Bhagavad Gita:

"He who works without attachment, resigning his actions to Brahman, is untainted by sin, as a lotus leaf by water. Only with the body, the mind, the understanding, and the senses do the yogis act, without attachment, for the purification of the heart." (B. G. V. 10-11.)

"Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away, and whatever you practice in the form of austerities, O son of Kunti—do it as an offering to Me. Thus shall you be free from the bondage of actions, which bear good or evil results. With your mind firmly set on the yoga of renunciation, you shall become free and come to Me." (B. G. IX. 27-28.)

Liberation is impossible without the purification of the heart. The heart is purified by work. This is the process of attaining Liberation; and it is thus described in the Vishnudharma:

"First of all
a man studies the Vedas;
next he performs sacrifices;
afterwards he renounces action; and
at last he becomes qualified for knowledge leading to Liberation.

Thus the yogi is liberated step by step. Until the sins accumulated through many births are consumed, a man's mind is not directed to Govinda (God). Through the austerities, knowledge, and deep meditation of thousands of births, his sins are destroyed, and then love of Krishna grows in his heart.

Sinful desires alone are the obstacles to final Liberation; therefore those who are fearful of samsara should make intense efforts to control such desires. They are controlled through the giving of gold, through bathing in sacred waters, and through the practice of great physical austerities, as prescribed by the scriptures. Sinful desires are also removed by worship of the Deity, the hearing of the Vedas and other scriptures, pilgrimages to holy places, and service of the guru."

Rishi Yajnavalkya, too, speaks of the need of purifying the heart to attain Liberation and of the method of such purification:

"The purification of the heart is the duty of all aspirants, especially of world-renouncing sannyasins; for this is the means of cultivating knowledge which leads to the freedom of the soul. As a mirror stained with impurities cannot reflect an image, so the impure heart cannot reflect Self-Knowledge.

Purifying the Heart

The yogi realizes Immortality after having purified the heart by the following means:

worship of the spiritual preceptor,

inquiry into the Vedas and other scriptures based upon them,

performance of righteous actions,

the keeping of holy company, the hearing of holy talk,

avoidance of the touch and sight of a woman,

the seeing of the Self in all beings,

non-acceptance of others' property,

the wearing of the coarse ochre cloth* [* Sannyasins dress in ochre cloths],

withdrawal of the senses from the enjoyment of objects,

relinquishment of sleepiness and idleness,

investigation into the nature of the physical body,

the regarding of selfish action as sinful,

control of rajas and tamas and cultivation of sattva,

desirelessness, and

control of the sense-organs.  

Study of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas,
and other religious treatises,
performance of sacrifices,
practice of brahmacharya and austerities,
control of the senses,
faith in the words of the teacher and the scriptures,
fasting, and non-dependence upon others are also among the means for the attainment of


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* Excerpts translated by Swami Nikhilananda