Living Gita: 19: The Religion of the Upanishads

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When families are destroyed, timeless family traditions are destroyed. And when that happens, families plunge into lawlessness. And with families plunging into lawlessness, women become corrupt. And when women become corrupt, Krishna, varna sankara results. Varna sankara [the intermixture of varnas] leads to hell both those who destroy the families and the families themselves. Deprived of the offerings of water and food, the spirits of the ancestors fall. By these evil deeds of those who destroy families, causing confusion of varnas, the eternal dharmas of families and castes are destroyed. BG 1.40-43

The religion of the Upanishads is very different from religion as we commonly know it. It is a religion that takes us straight to the very heart of spiritual seeking. They tell us what the only way worth living is. They show us the only way to end all bondage and achieve ultimate freedom. They show us the path to reach the goal all humanity is pursuing, consciously or unconsciously. And they do not beat about the bush when they do this.

The Upanishads do not give much importance to rituals. The term Upanishads use for rituals is ishta. Ishta comes from the same root word from which ishti comes and as is well known, ishti means Vedic rituals like putrakameshti. The word ishtika, another word of common origin, means bricks and it is because all vedic sacrifices are performed in vedis or kundas [sacrificial pits] made of bricks that they are all called ishtis or ishtas.

They speak of rituals as the lowest form of religion. Some of them openly reject rituals altogether so that people climb to the true heights of spirituality without getting trapped in the lower world of the religion of the rituals. For instance, the Maitreyi Upanishad says “The real temple is the body wherein resides the living soul, jeeva, the one and only Shiva” The Upanishad arranges sadhanas in a hierarchical order and says the best spiritual practice is meditation on the truth [uttamaa tattvachintaiva], then comes the analysis of the scriptures as the mediocre way [madhyamam shaastra-chintanam] and the lowest is the preoccupation with mantras [adhamaa mantrachintaa cha – repetition of the mantras, mantrajapa]. But there is one thing that is worse than the lowest – endlessly roaming from one pilgrimage site to another [teertha-bhraanti adhamaa-adhamaa].

Let me talk of one more mantra from the precious Upanishad to make the spirit of the Upanishads clear before we move on.


Worshipping idols of stone, metal, jewels, crystals and clay will lead the seeker only to repeated births in the world of bondage. For that reason, if he wants liberation, freedom from the cycle of births and deaths, the committed seeker should offer worship in his own heart and abandon external worship.

What the Gita teaches is the religion of the Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita is the essence of the Upanishads retold by Krishna for the modern man – of his day and of today. One of the dhyana shlokas of the Bhagavad Gita traditionally chanted before any study of the scripture begins says:

Sarvopanishado gaavah dogdhaa gopaala-nandanah
Paartho vatsah sudheer bhoktaa dugdham geetaamritam mahat

The Upanishads are all cows and Krishna is the milkman. Arjuna is the calf and intelligent men are those who get to drink the milk [of these cows]. And the milk itself is the supreme nectar called Gita.

So the Bhagavad Gita is the milk of the Upanishads.

A great modern teacher once said that religions begin with the profound spiritual experiences of great masters, but in the hands of their disciples, they are reduced to philosophy and over generations of these disciples they end up as mere rituals, by which time there is very little that is true religion or spirituality left in them.

But in spite of that, to the common man rituals mean much. In fact, for the vast majority of people, religion is nothing but rituals – the daily rituals you perform at home, the rituals performed in places of worship, the ones performed on special occasions like birth, marriage and death, rituals performed as part of religious festivals and so on. When Arjuna says the ancestral spirits [pitarah] shall fall from their worlds when varna sankara takes place because they then will not get the offerings of water and food offered to them through rituals [lubdha-pindodaka-kriyaah], he is referring to rituals like shraaddhas and so on. Let’s now take a look at this argument he forwards as a reason for abandoning his duty as a kshatriya and running away from the battle for dharma leaving power over people in the hands of those who believe in power for the sake of power and not for the good of people.


Nga Nyo and Ba Saing were two poor twenty years old friends who lived in a Burmese village called Chaungo who made a living by selling betel leaves. One day Ba Saing borrowed some rice from Nga Nyo but was bitten by a snake and died before he could return the rice. This happened sometime between 1270 and 1280 of the Burmese Era, corresponding to the beginning of 20th century CE.

Sang was now reborn in Nyo’s house, perhaps because his dying thoughts were of the rice he had borrowed from his friend and not returned. He was born not as a human being though, but as a cockerel and Nyo trained it in cock fighting. The cock won its first three fights, but lost the fourth fight and in anger Nyo brutally dashed its head on the ground holding it by its legs. Carrying the dying cock home, he threw it down near a water pot, where his cow came and touched it gently by its lips.

The affection of the cow apparently touched the dying cock deeply. After his death as a cock, Saing was reborn as a calf to this cow. His tragedy doesn’t end here either. When the calf was a year or so old, Nyo sold it to four of his friends who butchered it and cut up the meat in preparation for a feast, which Nyo himself was to join. A clerk from the nearby town and his wife happened to pass by them at that time and the woman, looking at the calf being cut up, said she wouldn’t have slaughtered it so cruelly had it been their calf. “Even if it had died a natural death,” she added, “I wouldn't have the heart to eat its meat. I would just bury it."

The calf is now reborn as the child of this couple. He remains without speaking until the age of seven, perhaps because of the pain of his previous life experiences which he still remembers. One day his father tells him that it was his payday and he will bring some fresh clothes for him, but he must speak. That evening the father comes home from office with pretty clothes for his son. And for the first time in his life the child speaks. His first words were, “Pay back Nga Nyo’s measure of rice.”

When the father agrees he would do anything for him, pay back not just a measure of rice but a whole bag if necessary, the boy tells him in that case they should go to Nyo and settle the debt immediately.

Guided by their seven-year-old son at each step, the father reaches Nga Nyo’shome, carrying with him a bag of rice in a cart. Instantly recognizing Nga Nyo and delighted at seeing his old friend who is by now an elderly man, the boy asks him, "Hey Nga Nyo, don’t you remember me?" The elderly man is offended when he is thus addressed by his name by a mere childbut is pacified when the clerk explained that the child believes he is old friend of Nyo.

The boy then tells Nyo that he is actually his old friend Ba Saing. He recalls several of their experiences together when they betel sellers and explains how he had died by snake bite and had been reborn as a cockerel in his house. He recalls the cockfights and Nyo’s killing the cockerel in anger and his subsequent birth as a calf because of the kindness a cow had shown him. Saing then recalls to a by now silently weeping Nyo how he was butchered as a one year old heifer to be eaten in a feast by him and his friends. He recalls the compassionate words of his present mother to the dying heifer as a result of which he was born as their child, adding that he has come to repay the rice he had borrowed from him as Ba Saing.

As the Bhagavad Gita says, death is the individual leaving one body to move on to another – in the words of the Gita, like discarding old clothes and using fresh ones. It is something that happens to all of us – jaatasya hi dhruvo mrityuh. And just as death is certain to the living,it is equally certain that everyone who dies is reborn – dhruvam janma mritasya cha.

This cycle of birth, life and death, and again birth, life and death goes on and on endlessly. Because of what happens between death and rebirth, because of the trauma of the life in the womb [which the west does not accept as painful but considers the most blissful state] and the trauma of the process of the birth itself [which the west accepts], most of us do not remember our past lifetimes. It is only rare individuals who escape this vismarana, the erasing of the memory oftheir past existences, though people who remember their past existences in their childhood are not as rare as we would like to believe. For instance, lots of children in their moments of great fear, like during a nightmare, scream for their father or mother but fail to recognise them when they come running and continue screaming and looking for their mother or father as was portrayed frighteningly in the movie The Reincarnation of Audrey Rose. Even in the case of people who retain these memories, practically all of them lose those memories over time. Nga Nyo seems to be a rare individual who retains these memories.

Speaking to Arjuna in the Gita, Krishna tells his friend that both of them have had numerous lives in the past and he remembers them all though Arjuna does not:

bahooni me vyateetaani janmaani tava cha arjuna
taany aham veda sarvaani na twam vettha parantapa
BG 4.5


As we saw in the Burmese story above, after Ba Saing is killed by snakebite he is immediately reborn as Nga Nyo’s cockerel – there does not seem to have been much time gap. And after the cockerel is killed by Ba Saing, it is soon reborn again as a calf – again without much time gap. And then after the calf is slaughtered, it is reborn as the son of the clerk while Ba Saing is still alive, though by now he has grown old. All the four life times of Ba Saing happen within a single life time of Nnga Nyo.

In the Mahabharata we have the story of Princess Amba of Kashi who kills herself in a ritual fire she ignited with the desire to be reborn as Bhishma’s killer. She is subsequently reborn as Drupada’s daughter Shikhandini while Bhishma is still alive.

The Padma Purana tells us that the washer man who criticises Rama for keeping in his house Sita who has lived in ‘Ravana’s house’ was in his previous life one of a pair of birds whom Sita in her childhood had separated from its mate. The bird kills itself after cursing that it would soon be reborn and will cause Sita’s separation from her husband in that life.

The understanding of India’s epics and Puranas, as well that of other scriptures, is that rebirths happen is fairly quick succession and the bodiless state, the state between death and rebirth, is usually not long.

One of the books that talks most authentically about death and explains what happens in the moments of death and immediately afterwards is the very unusual book called The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol, authored by Tibet’s great Yogi Padmasambhava about a thousand years ago and first translated into English in 1924 by W.Y. Evans Wentz and published with an introduction by Dr Carl Jung. It is a book based on the experiences of great yogis who die consciously, live in the post-death state consciously and then take birth consciously. The book discusses what happens to us immediately before death, during the moments of death and following death. It describes in great detail the experiences the bodiless individual undergoes during the first forty-eight days after death. Bardo Thodol stops with the forty-eighth day because practically all dead individuals find a new body to be reborn into by then. The book describes how the dead individual searches for an appropriate body and chooses one among the available ones according to his karmas – his driving psychological needs – and enters it to be reborn again.


Let’s now look at a case of reincarnation from the western world discussed by Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her Tales of Reincarnation – that of Gail Bartley, an attractive young woman who worked as an advertising professional in New York. Let me reproduce here part of an article of mine called Reincarnation, Transactional Analysis and Karma [available online] in which I discuss her case as narrated by Guiley.

“Soon after her marriage ended in divorce, she fell in love with Roger. As an advertising executive she had ample opportunities for meeting other attractive young men, she did not really like Roger, her mother took an instant dislike for him and a voice in Gail’s head kept screaming all the time, ‘Get away. He hates you. He is trying to destroy you!’ In spite of all these Gail felt irresistibly drawn toward Roger. And he abused her constantly, hurt her emotionally and did not hesitate to beat her up occasionally; once he even tried to choke her to death during one of the fairly frequent violent outbursts between them. The relationship had wrecked her personal life, drained her emotionally, destroyed her self-esteem. However, in spite of all this, Gail found herself unable to get away from the man – and she completely failed to understand her love-hate relationship with this man, as did the other people around her.

“It was this riddle of her relationship with Roger that eventually sent her to a past life regressionist. Upon regression, reaching her first past life experience, Gail found herself standing in a bedroom with high ceilings. She was now a twenty-three year old woman called Joyce in the 1920s. The experience, completely new to Joyce, was strange and eerie: she was at once the woman Joyce and Gail, who was watching her. Gail experienced that Joyce was shaking with fear, fear caused by a man who was with her in the room, lying on their bed – and that man was none other than Joyce’ s husband and the man Gail knew as Roger.

“And then Gail experienced the man getting up from their bed and walking towards her. Joyce was now shaking in terror and Gail’s breathing changed as she watched it. She began to hyperventilate and the regressionist asked Gail what was happening and she told her the man was strangling her. Joyce fell on her knees at the violence of the attack and then collapsed on the ground as the man continued to throttle her. However, Joyce did not die. Before that could happen, the man released her throat and walked away, leaving her on the ground, struggling to breathe.

“In a later part of the regression, Gail once again felt Joyce’s terror. Joyce was in their room again, that same night, and she hears him approaching her, climbing the stairs leading to their room. As he comes near, she sees he has something in his hand, which he is hiding behind him. His eyes are cold and she breathes in the hatred that emanates from him.

‘He rips open her gown with the knife he was hiding behind him, and brutally stabs her with it. Gail feels choked, her breath escapes her and she realizes she is experiencing the last moments of her life as Joyce. Coming out her body and hovering in a corner of the room, Joyce watches what is happening. One of the things she witnesses is her husband’s utter shock at what he has done, his complete disbelief and intense remorse.

“Further regressions reveal a sad tale of revenge and guilt spanning across life times, centuries and continents. It all started in ancient Rome where Roger and Gail in a long ago lifetime lived as brothers. The two of them loved each other deeply and thoroughly enjoyed their life as Roman citizens. In her regression, Gail sees herself as the younger brother, a blond young man filled with raw energy and impatience to win a chariot race that is about to begin. The race begins and his chariot takes off like a storm, another chariot keeping abreast with him. And then the tragedy takes place. His chariot swerves violently, hits the other chariot, the man driving that chariot thrown off his balance and falls, his head hitting his own chariot wheel, causing an instant death. In the middle of his shock he realizes the saddest truth: the man killed by his mistake is none other than his beloved brother.

“This life follows a series of lifetimes revealed by the regression, in each the elder brother is violent and vengeful, and the younger brother, Gail of this lifetime, is his victim. In one of these, Gail is a boy of seventeen, George, who lived in the Old West of America with his ill tempered, hateful, domineering father and his mother who was terrified of him. On one occasion his father catches George with his girlfriend, a girl who had grown up with him as his playmate. The two were together in the barn and they were kissing and feeling each other. The father orders George back into the house and then rapes George’s girlfriend. One night the boy is asleep in his tent while camping out with his father in the wilderness. He wakes up hearing repeated dull thuds and realizes his father is digging something in the night. His father has been furious with him that evening about some small thing, maybe he hadn’t tied up the horses properly. Sudden realization comes: his father is digging a grave for him! And then the father hits him on the head with a shovel and he is dead and out of his body. He sees his father dragging his body to the pit he had dug and burying him in it.”

More regressions reveal more such lifetimes in each of which the elder brother who was killed in the accident is the violent aggressor and the younger brother his victim. They are born again and again, repeating their life pattern that is now more than two thousand years old.

As this real life past life regression story too tells us, the dead does not live forever in some mysterious dimension, but are born again and again, directed by their life scripts that India calls karmas.

Dr Brian Weiss is today the most widely known authority on rebirth and past life regression in the western world who uses his knowledge and expertise for healing people from diseases which cannot be explained by causes in their current life. In his best seller books like Many LivesMany Masters and Through Time into Healing, he talks about people being born again and again and when regressed reliving their past lives. In his work too what we come across is every one of us being reborn after our death, as the Gita speaks of when it says jatasya hi dhruvo mrityuh dhruvam janma mritasya cha: Those who are born are certain to die and those who die are certain to be born again.


Even though the Upanishads reject ritualism and the path the Bhagavad Gita teaches is not of rituals but of the yogas of bhakti, karma, jnana and so on, rituals do have their own beauty if you practice them with the right vision. For instance, bali and tarpana are offered to the dead ancestors in the rituals of shraaddha. Shraaddhas are offerings made out of shraddhra for ones ancestors – love and reverence for them. They are also expressions of our gratitude and indebtedness to them – we wouldn’t have been born but for them. In that sense they are beautiful. But what Arjuna means when he says that when varna sankara happens these ancestors will fall from their worlds is that these ancestors are not reborn on earth but live permanently in another world where they are sustained by the tarpana we offer to them and would fall from there if tarpana is not offered by their children.

As the Gita says, to quote again verse 2.27 quoted earlier, jatasya hi dhruvo mrityuh dhruvam janma mritasya cha: those who are born are bound to die and those who die are bound to be reborn. If the ancestors are already born on earth and living their lives here as new individuals, with new identities, in new families, with new parents, then sending offerings for them into some other world does not make sense, apart from the question how something physical offered here can reach them in their world.

Shraadha rituals are exactly what the name says – expressions of our love, reverence and indebtedness to the dead. As far as sustenance in post-death existences is considered, what sustains us there is our own karmas and not what others do.

So Arjuna’s argument that the war will cause varna sankara and that will ultimately make our ancestors fall from their worlds does not hold water. That is yet another argument he gives for running away from the unhappy challenge he has to face in the battlefield.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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