The average human life span is approximately 75 years. That may seem like a long time, however, the search to prolong life is neverending. Perhaps a loftier goal is the search for the key to immortality. Nearly every culture has myths and legends of individuals who looked for the proverbial "fountain of youth" or even of an individual who found it. Some have claimed to know the secrets of immortality and how anyone could attain it. A close look at the Upanisads can reveal how the nature of immortality is viewed from the perspective of Hinduism.
From a Western standpoint the idea of reincarnation would seem to indicate the immortal nature of life. A soul continuing on the cycle of birth and death is reborn again and again. Upon dying if a person is born again it seems to be immortality. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad suggests in 4.4.6 that a person with desire is the one who travels the cycle of rebirth. Attachment to action will bring a person back to the world of action after completing action because the mind and character of the person cling to it.
The Katha Upanisad asserts as well that "Fools pursue outward desires, and enter the trap of death spread wide" in 4.2. The cycle of rebirth is the trap it refers to. The Katha (4.10) and Brhadaranyaka (4.4.19) Upanisads both go on to say that anyone seeing diversity in this world inevitably go from death to death in the cycle of rebirth. The process of rebirth is even explained in detail in the Chandogya Upanisad (5.10.3-8) for people who have both pleasant and unpleasant behavior as well as for those who are born merely as tiny creatures only to die.
Judging by these passages it appears that the Western perception of the cycle of rebirth being immortality is wholly inaccurate. The ones who return time and again to live here are desirous fools. If successive rebirths do not constitute immortality, then does the idea of immortality enter in to the Upanisads ?
Naciketas says to Death, "People who are in heaven enjoy th'immortal state--It is this I choose with my second wish," in the Katha Upanisad (1.13). Obviously, the nature of immortality does have a place in the texts. An examination of the texts can reveal who can attain it and how to get there.
Death tells Naciketas in 2.18 of the Katha Upanisad:
The wise one--
he is not born, he does not die;
he has not come from anywhere;
he has not become anyone.
He is unborn and eternal, primeval and everlasting.
And he is not killed, when the body is killed.
Later in 4.2 of the Katha Upanisad it is said "the wise know what constitutes th'immortal." These two passages make it clear who knows the nature of immortality. Only the wise know the true secret to gaining immortality.
How does one reach this state of wisdom? The Upanisads give plenty of information regarding this question. Death explains to Naciketas that to become the wise a man is lucky if he is taught and grasps the teachings to reach the immortal state ( Katha Upanisad 2.7). This transit, as he calls it, is smaller than an atom (2.8) and it is hidden from the fool (2.6). Death also says many never hear of the transit nor do they actually understand once they do hear it (2.7). The secret of immortality appears to be knowable only to those few wise ones who can understand the teaching.
The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad describes this teaching as a far reaching ancient path. In 4.4.8-9 it says the wise travel on this path which they discovered by brahman to be released from the cycle of rebirth. Brahman is said to be the "noncorporeal and immortal life breath" in 4.4.7. Brahman is further explained in 4.4.25 to be "...the immense and unborn self, unaging, undying, immortal...." By knowing brahman one can find the way to immortality. At the same time, brahman is the immortal. This seems like a circular idea: to get to the immortal, one needs to know the immortal.
In the Katha Upanisad Death says to Naciketas, "...to the attainment of an endless world...Know that it lies hidden, In the cave of the heart" (1.14). What exactly is "it?" In 2.20 Death says "it" is the atman . He calls it "finer than the finest, larger than the largest." The transit is smaller than an atom and is the most fine: atman . At the same time it is the infinite, or brahman . Within the heart of man lies the atman which is a reflection of brahman . The path to immortality is already within one's self.
5.12 of the Katha Upanisad reads,
The one controller, the self within every being
who makes manifold his single appearance;
The wise who perceive him as abiding within themselves,
they alone, not others, enjoy eternal happiness.
To attain immortality one only needs to recognize brahman within himself. In 6.14-15 the Katha Upanisad says precisely how one can reach brahman in this world. By releasing attachments to this world one can reach brahman . These attachments are the desires and actions which keep the fool firmly entrenched in the cycle of rebirth. 4.4.6 of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad puts it clearly as such:
"...a man who does not desire--who is without desires,
who is freed from desires, whose desires are
fulfilled, whose only desire is his self...
Brahman he is, and to brahman he goes."
The desire only to know the atman is what connects one to brahman .
Once one has recognized the atman , and through it, brahman , he has become one of the wise. 4.9 of the Kena Upanisad says once this connection between atman and brahman has been recognized, one is sure to become immortal. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad also says once a man recognizes the atman within he becomes immortal (4.4.13-14). 1.2 of the Kena Upanisad and 6.10 of the Katha Upanisad both suggest this state of recognition comes once a person is freed from the mind and senses.
The path of the fool and of the wise are best described in chapter 3 of the Katha Upanisad . The body is a chariot. The self is a rider while the intellect is the charioteer. The mind is the reins. The senses are the horses and sense objects the paths around them. A man who has no understanding has an uncontrolled mind with no control over the senses. This uncontrolled behaviour leads to rebirth. It also explains in this chapter how a man who understands has a controlled mind and control of his senses. With this control he is able to reach brahman .
This chapter also describes brahman :
It has no sound or touch,
no appearance, taste or smell;
It is without beginning or end,
undecaying and eternal;
When a man perceives it,
fixed and beyond the immense,
He is freed from the jaws of death (3.15).
This passage once again confirms that recognizing brahman , one can be freed from the cycle of rebirth to become immortal.
It is obvious from Upanisadic evidence that Hinduism has definite ideas as to how to attain immortality. The cycle of rebirth, to the Western mind, may appear to be immortality, but the Upanisads show true immortality to be a far more transcendent concept. Understanding brahman leads to true immortality which is the path of the wise. Only the fool stays on the wheel of rebirth.
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