We have seen or heard of situations where people with vested interests do not like others to get educated, either due to selfishness, or due to jealousy or to maintain their hegemony. In certain feudal pockets of India a few decades ago, the village chiefs did not allow the villagers to have modern education as it would encourage them not to work in their fields or do domestic service.
An interesting discussion on similar lines is seen in the BrihadAranyaka Upanishad (mantra 1-4-10) where the Upanishad makes some harsh remarks on the ritualist perpetually seeking favours from the gods. These remarks come in the context of discussion on how the knower of Brahman ‘becomes’ Brahman. The Upanishad states that in the case of a seeker who attains the sarvAtma bhAva i.e. ability to see Brahman everywhere, not even the gods can obstruct him from becoming Brahman. It implies that under some other circumstances the gods can really obstruct the seeker, and that is how the discussion starts.
Let us see as to what are these circumstances.
There is a statement in the Veda (TaittirIya Samhita) which says: jAyamAnO vai brAhmaNO tribhih rnavAn jAyatE, which means that every person is born indebted in three ways, and that his indebtedness is to the sages, the gods, and the forefathers. He is indebted to the sages who have given him his culture and the way to redeem from the debt is to follow and preserve that culture. Gods fulfill our wishes and indebtedness to them has to be redeemed by performance of yagnas, the mutually preserving activities as the Gita says. The indebtedness to forefathers is to be redeemed by preserving the family line by having children. The cultural, spiritual and familial indebtednesses bind a human being in various karmas/actions.
It follows that humans should continue to propitiate the gods through yagnas.
The gods, in Vedic context are intermediary beings between humans and the Supreme Being. They also have likes and dislikes (rAga,dvEsha), and, like humans, aspire for realization of Brahman. They are only a step above the humans in virtues and powers. There is interdependence between the gods and humans, the yagnas performed by humans sustain gods and the gods give prosperity to humans (Gita 3-11).
A realized person i.e. jnani is neither bound by karmas, nor bound to perform them; he is free from any such obligation. He goes out of the karma cycle. As he is not bound to do the rituals like yagna, the gods feel that their vassal is slipping away from their flock and so have a vested interest to keep him in the flock.
A doubt arises: if the gods are so mischievous, they can even be harassing us in a routine way by not giving or delaying results when we perform a good deed or perform a yagna. In such a case it would be unwise to do any worship.
It is not so. Karma phalam or fruit of one’s action is as certain as Newton’s first law, it can’t be changed even by the gods. In fact the followers of MimAmsa school (called karma mimAmsakas) believe in a strict determinism in which a specific karma gives a specific result. There is no freedom to gods to meddle with this. They can give fruits, no doubt, but strictly according to karma.
The main question emerges: is bramavidya an action/karma? It is a self-enquiry leading to self-realization. It is not an action like yagna. In yagna there is a giver-taker relationship or a vassal-master relationship. It is ‘I’ worshipping ‘you’. There is a dwaita bhAva i.e. feeling of duality or bhEda bhAva i.e. feeling of separateness in the whole process, but not so in case of self-enquiry. The scripture says that self-enquiry is only getting rid of ajnAna or ignorance, and not achieving something which is not already there. There can be a time gap between an action/ritual and the result, but in the case of self-enquiry liberation is simultaneous with removal of ignorance. So when it is clear that self-enquiry is not karma, how can the gods obstruct?
Besides, gods themselves are aspirants for brahmavidya. They can obstruct when the humans are aspiring for tangible results like prosperity, success and so on. All actions in the realm of duality/dwaita bhAva can be obstructed but not self-enquiry where the duality disappears and the seeker becomes Brahman.
Realization stops all future actions that are in the plane of duality. Even if a person performs an action, it is karmAbhAsa or mere appearance as karma. It may look like karma from the point of view of others, but the doer himself does not have the ‘I’ feeling or doer-feeling (kartRitvabhAva). He may be doing some activities because of the continuing result of a karma which has started giving result, and it cannot be stopped just as an arrow already shot from the bow cannot be stopped (an example given in the texts).
The ‘I’ feeling in any action is the cause of duality. When this feeling disappears due to self-realization, there is no worshipper-worshipped or vassal-master relationship. In fact the realized person does not see god as other than himself.
For those who can’t do this, the Upanishad has some harsh words: yO anyAM dEvatAMupAstE anyOsAvanyOhamasmIti,na sa vEda, yathA pasurEvam hi dEvanAm. It means that like a farm animal labors for the master, so does the person serve the gods, because he sees duality, i.e. worships god as other than himself, in a servant-master mode. He will be perpetually indebted.
If we reason like this, people in society would stop going to temples or churches falsely assuming that they are in the process of realization or that they are already realized souls. There is a danger to social order. Devotion is a disciplining force in society contributing to social harmony and hence Shankara does not want to discount this. Hence, slightly going beyond the text he suggests that humans, however, have to worship gods and seek their help in attaining liberation. It is like a servant obediently serving a master while also praying for his release from bondage. The gods, in turn, see as to who are the selfish slaves and who are the seekers and release those who serve well with selfless devotion and love.
If we closely see, this is one passage where the text is strongly commenting on a karmaTha i.e. one who has karma-fixation. Can a ritual for ritual’s sake or for selfish desires liberate a person? This is the question. Logically speaking, one who seeks boons is a debtor, and hence the Upanishad says: avidyAvAn hi rNi, i.e. an ignorant person is an indebted person.
Narada-bhakti-sutras echo the same idea while defining bhakti/devotion. Narada says: sA twasmin paramaprEmarUpA,(sutra-2) which means that the true form of worship is supreme love. Gods also love those who do not seek boons.
Examine this with commonsense psychology. Is it the gods who are obstructing the seeker or is it his own desires, greed and ambition? The answer is clear. Shankara’s commentary gives a good psychological account of the seeker who is vacillating between desires and the struggle to get rid of them. The Upanishad uses a no nonsense language. A person who sees the achievables as other than himself desires them. One who has sarvAtma bhAva, the ability to see Brahman in all things, has nothing to aspire. One who sees diversity seeks things, one who sees unity (one Brahman) is already complete.