The phrase, tarati śokam ātmavit, the knower of the Self crosses (over) grief, occurs in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad in course of a dialogue between the student, sage Nārada, and the teacher, sage Sanatkumāra . Sage Nārada approaches the teacher asking to be taught, and Sanatkumāra asks him what he already knows so that he can tell him of what lies beyond. Sage Nārada tells him in all humility that he knows the four Vedas and has studied the Purānas, Itihāsa, the rules of grammar, the science of numbers, the principles of logic, etymology, astronomy, the fine arts, and various other secular subjects. He then says, “But, Sir, all this knowledge has not helped me to know the self. I have heard from spiritual teachers like you that he who knows the self goes beyond grief. I am lost in sorrow. Will you please help me cross over sorrow?” Sage Sanatkumāra accepts him as a student, saying that all worldly knowledge belongs in the realm of mere words or names and is of limited consequence, and one must seek to know that which lies beyond everything else. Sage Nārada is asked to meditate upon various entities, such as speech, the mind, one’s will, food, etc. as symbols of Brahman and later taught the knowledge of the self. Sage Sanatkumāra showed sage Nārada the other side of darkness, or helped transcend grief.
Grief stands for all mental afflictions
What is grief? Grief here stands for all mental afflictions, saṁsāra or suffering. It is a state of mind that reflects afflictions such as sorrow, unhappiness, distress, disappointment, anxiety, fear, hurt, guilt, etc. Grief arises in all of us, regardless of who we are or how accomplished we are. In grief, we are overcome by a sense of helplessness and self-pity; we feel incapable of doing what we must do and avoid what must be done. We also feel limited, tired, fearful, and confined to this body-mind complex as doers and experiencers. This wrong perception is the result of self-ignorance, the fundamental human problem and reason for all grief and suffering.
How does grief arise? Grief, like anger, simply happens. One does not choose to grieve, just as one does not choose to get angry. Grief is the fundamental problem of the human being. In the vision of Vedanta, grief is the result of our ignorance of the true nature of the self and arises due to aviveka or non-discrimination between the self and the non-self. We are all born ignorant, and this ignorance persists throughout our lives. Unfortunately, we do not recognize it to be the source of our problems in life; we do not know what makes us grieve and conclude that the world is the cause of our sadness, frustration, etc.
The human being is endowed with the faculty of self-consciousness and sees himself as inadequate and wanting. Indeed, we constantly sense some lack in ourselves. That there is always someone else who is more competent than ourselves also leads us to feel inadequate. This perception of insufficiency gives rise to feelings, such as insecurity, fear, selfishness, or jealousy, which, in turn, result in attachments, aversions, disappointments, and frustrations. This is how grief arises. One’s self-dissatisfaction can gradually also transform into self-rejection and self-condemnation. These are but varying degrees of the problem of sadness or grief. Unlike every other kind of problem, grief is centered on the self, and, therefore, the solution to grief also lies within. The solution to other problems, like hunger for instance, lies outside of the self, such as in acquiring and consuming food, but the problem of grief can be understood and addressed by self-knowledge alone.
To be continued…..
(Part 2 will be posted on August 25th, 2020)
This essay is based on Swamiji’s 2020 Memorial Day Camp lectures on ‘tarati śokam ātmavit.’ Transcribed and edited by students of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Saylorsburg, PA.
2 Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 7-1-3