The Panchagni Vidhya

Chandogya Upanishad, By Swami Krishnananda, Chapter 1, Discourse 2 & 3


The Panchagni-Vidya is a kind of remedy prescribed by way of a meditation which is regarded as a great secret by the Upanishadic teachers. It is practice. A thing that you live in your own personal life is true knowledge, and apart from the fact that it has to be a part of your being, it is also to be comprehensive. It should not exclude any reality or any aspect of manifestation.

The Five Fires, called the Panchagnis, mentioned here, are not actually fires in the physical sense. They are meditational techniques. The Fire, here, is symbolic of a sacrifice which one performs through contemplation.

The point that the Upanishad would make out is that no event or no experience can be isolated from other experiences. Just as every performance or every item of ritual in a sacrifice is connected to every other item, the whole yajna, or the sacrifice is a single comprehensive act of which the various items are only parts internally connected, the whole universal manifestation is a single process. It is a continuity throughout from beginning to end, and births and deaths and other phenomenal experiences are not isolated factors. They are connected to ultimate causes. If we can contemplate the internal connection that obtains between the effects that are visible with the causes that are invisible, then we would be free from the clutches, or the harassments, of these laws which are operating outside us.

There are various stages of manifestation. Here, a specific type of manifestation is under consideration for the purpose of meditation. How the birth of an individual takes place, how a child is born, is the actual question on hand. We are so ignorant that we think that the child is born from the womb of the mother. We know only that much, but this is the least type of knowledge that one can have about the birth of a child. The child is not pushed out of the womb of the mother, as if by magic. It is a tremendous process that takes place throughout the cosmos. All the officials of the government of the universe are active in the production of a single child's career. The whole universe vibrates with action even if a single baby is to be born somewhere in the corner of a house. It is not a private phenomenon of a little child coming out unknown somewhere in a nook and corner of the world, as people ignorantly behold or believe. The whole universe feels the presence and the birth of a single child anywhere. So what produces a child is not the father or the mother. It is the whole cosmos that produces the child. The universe is the parent of this little baby. It may be a human baby, a subhuman one or a superhuman form. Whatever be the character of that child, even if it may be an inorganic production, an atom, or an electron, or the composition of a molecule, the birth of it is regarded as the birth of a child, and it is made possible by the operation of cosmic factors. The whole universe is our father; the entire universe is our mother; the universe is the parent. That is the cause, and even if a little liquid is jetted from a pore we would realise that, ultimately, it has some connection with the universal cause of all causes, by a chain of relations.

The Upanishad tells us this secret of cosmic interconnectedness and involution of factors which are unknown to the senses and unthinkable to the mind. There is no such thing as a private act in this world. There is also no such thing as 'my' child and 'your' child. If this secret is known, no one will say, "It is my son, my daughter." It is neither yours nor anybody's. It belongs to that from where it has come. And from where has it come? It has come from every cell of the universe. It has not come from the seminal essence of the father or the mother, as it is believed. It is the quintessence of every particle of the whole of Nature, so that the cosmos is reflected in every body. That is why we say the brahmanda is in the pindanda - the macrocosm is in the microcosm. The cosmos is reverberating and is reflected in the little baby. How, then, can you say that it is your child? It is the child of the universe, which is to take care of it; and it shall withdraw it when it is to be summoned back; it projects it when it is to be sent out for reasons which are known to the universal law alone. Here is the philosophical background of the vidya, called Panchagni-Vidya.

The Upanishad, in its exposition of the Panchagni-Vidya, takes the standpoint of the wider background that operates behind every event in the phenomena of natural processes. Things are not what they seem; there is a deeper significance behind every visible process or activity in Nature. This is the esoteric side, or the invisible aspect of the visible phase of our practical existence. It is not that events suddenly emerge out into visibility, as if by magic, and that something happens at one stroke. Take the case of thunder, for instance. We do not know how the thunder has burst forth from the clouds. There is an immediate rainfall, there is wind blowing cyclonically. The rain stops and suddenly it is hot, after it became suddenly cold when it rained with winds. These are natural phenomena from our point of view, but they are supernatural mysteries to the vision of the Upanishad. There is nothing merely exoteric in the sense of a crass material event in the world. Events take place first in the highest heaven, and then their presence is felt gradually in greater and greater density as they come down to the level of more and more grossness and perceptibility and tangibility, as is the case with a disease. The illness does not manifest itself suddenly in the physical body. It happens inside first. Its seed is sown within. There is some kind of event that is taking place in the depths of our personality, and in the recesses of the world. This impulse is manifest outside as some occurrence.

The cause of a particular event which is ordinarily regarded as normal, physical, personal, social, visible, tangible, etc., this particular thing, has a transcendent secret behind it. There is a total activity, in a subtle form, taking place prior to the apparently individual expression of it in the form of experience and perception.

The activity of the celestial region may be compared to a sacrifice. It would be surprising to a novitiate, no doubt, that the Upanishad should regard anything and everything as a sacrifice. If we understand the intention behind these analogies, we would be able to realise that nothing could be a greater comparison for life than the concept of sacrifice, because the principle of sacrifice, or yajna, is the essence of all creative processes. And the principle is applicable to every type of creativity, whether physical, social, aesthetic, or, for the matter of that, any other aspect of life. The principle of sacrifice is that of the recognition of the higher values operating behind and transcendent to the ordinary activity of the visible world or the functions of human beings. There is a comprehensiveness of approach in the understanding of the principle of sacrifice. Every part of the sacrifice is as important as any other part, and every part of the sacrifice subserves a purpose transcendent to it, as is the case with the operation of a huge machine or a working medium in a factory. No part of the machine works for itself; it has a transcendent purpose. Look at the limbs of a human body. No organ of the body works for its own sake; it has a purpose beyond itself, and this purpose is an output in the case of a machine and an intention in the case of an organic body. So is the case with the parts of a sacrifice, and especially so when the sacrifice is identified with the creative process of the universe. Everything is interconnected, interlinked in an organic manner, so that everything becomes as important as the other.

This concept of comprehensiveness is the secret of the meditation that is the Panchagni-Vidya. If this interrelatedness of the parts of the sacrifice is lost sight of, it ceases to be a meditation. As a matter of fact, any meditation is the attempt of the mind to bring all the parts of the psychic organ into a single focus of organic action. Just as there is a connectedness of the parts of a sacrifice performed outwardly as a ritual, there is this harmony in the inner sacrifice performed through what we call meditation. The Panchagni-Vidya is a meditation - it is not an outward ritualistic sacrifice; it is a contemplation by the mind in which it harnesses every aspect of its force for the purpose of envisaging the reality that is transcendent to the visible parts of this inner sacrifice.

The Upanishad tells us, here, that the first vibration propelling any kind of activity or event in this world takes place not in this world alone, but in a higher realm. The cause has to be churned first in order that the effect may feel the impact of that stir in the cause. Now, the cause is not merely a single factor. There is a chain of factors involved in the conception of the cause. If, for the purpose of our study, we may say A is the effect that is physically felt by us in this world, it has a cause which is B, impelling this effect to manifest itself in that particular manner in the physical world. But, this B which is the cause of A has another cause behind it, which is C. So, we may say, that B is the cause of A, or we may say, C is the cause of A because it is the cause of B also. But, this C has another cause behind it, and that is D. So, while D is the cause of C and B, and through these, of A, we may also say that it is the cause of the last effect also. Thus, the first cause is the real cause which pushes itself downwards to lower levels of reality, until they express themselves in space and time. This expressed form in space and time alone is known by us, seen by us, felt by us and experienced by us.

For the purpose of understanding what the "Yonder World" means, we may take it to be the celestial region, regions which are super-physical, beyond even the astral realm, which are the causes of what we observe in the atmospheric region. We know very well that every phenomenon in this world is, to a large extent, controlled by the sun shining in the sky. This does not require much of an explanation. Sometimes it looks that even our very existence itself is regulated by the presence of the sun. Our life and activity here has a cause, and we may say that the sun is the cause of life on earth. But, who is the cause of the sun? The sun is also an effect of certain factors - we may call them astronomical or designate them by any other name which are precedent to the formation of the sun. Astronomers tell us that stars, of which the sun is supposed to be one, are formed out of the condensation of nebular dust, forming what we call the Milky Way, which form themselves into rotating and flaming masses. But why should they form themselves into such masses is beyond our understanding. They must have causes beyond. What is the cause behind the formation or the curdling of the nebular dust as the Milky Way and into the formation we know as the stars, like the sun, etc? There has to be, naturally, some vibration behind. That vibration is precedent and anterior to what we call the manifestation of even the causal condition of this world. Prior to all this, something else must be there, and prior to that, again, another thing, and so on, so that even our insignificant life in this world, in this physical body, can be said to be completely controlled by factors which are transcendent, beyond the sun and the moon and the stars, and where we go in this manner of tracing our cause back, we cannot know. We have to reach levels which are thoroughly imperceptible to the eyes and unthinkable to the mind. This is the point driven home into the mind of Gautama by Pravahana Jaivali in the context of the explanation of the Panchagni-Vidya.

A mystery in this connection is mentioned here. What is our connection with these higher regions of the world? The higher regions are, in fact, not unconnected with us. The shining of the sun or the moon, the twinkling of the stars, or the blowing of the wind - all these phenomena are vitally connected with our own life here. They are not just something taking place somewhere erratically, as if they have nothing to do with anyone. Our life is related to every phenomenon outside, and vice versa. While our way of living has something to do with the activity of the world outside, our life is also dependent on that activity. There is a mutual dependence between the outer world and the inner life of the individual. Our thoughts influence the atmosphere. Many a time we must have heard people saying, "These days people are very bad; so there is no rainfall." What is the connection between rainfall and the goodness or the badness of people? Practically, it is difficult to understand the connection, but the connection becomes obvious and patent when we realise that thoughts and modes of living are vibrations that we set up around us. It is not some isolated activity taking place within our heads. When we think, we do not privately think inside our skulls; it is a vibration that we create in us. And the vibration of a person is not confined merely to the physical body; it emanates like an aura to a certain distance from the body of the person. The distance to which the aura goes depends upon the intensity of the aura, or the intensity of the thoughts, or the force of the vibration. This is the principle behind the advice that we must have the company of good people and not of bad people, etc., because vibrations interact. We can be influenced by the atmosphere around us. There is a vibration that is generated within every person whenever a thought occurs. Whenever we think something, whenever we feel something deeply, even when we speak something, there is a vibration generated because we do not speak without thinking. There is a thought behind every action or speech. Naturally, if we take into consideration the cumulative effect of the vibrations produced by all the individuals in the world, we can also contemplate the effect of the vibrations they produce. They disturb the whole atmosphere; they create a magnetic field in the atmospheric realm. And the total effect of the psychic influences set up by the individuals in the world naturally influences the conditions of the manifestation of natural forces. We can obstruct their movement; we can impede their activity; we can interfere with their natural way of working, and so on.

Based on this concept of the relationship of our life with the activity of Nature outside, the Upanishad tells us that our actions are like an oblation offered in a sacrifice. Our activities are not mere impotent movements of the physical body or the limbs; they are effective interferences in the way of Nature. When we pourghee or charu into the flaming fire in a sacrifice, we are naturally modifying the nature of the burning of the fire. Much depends on what we pour into it. If we throw mud into it, well, something, indeed, happens to the fire. If we pour gheeinto it, something else happens. So, likewise, is the activity of the human being or, for the matter of that, any other being. The interference by a human activity in the working of Nature is an important point to consider in the performance of the sacrifice. If we coordinate ourselves and cooperate with the activity of Nature, it becomes a yajna, but if we interfere with it and adversely affect its normal function, it will also set up a reaction of a similar character. Then, we would be the losers.

Every action produces an effect, called apurva, that occurs in the process of the thought that underlies it. Actions are not merely unconnected physical movements of the body; they are vibrations, as we have observed. Every vibration impinges upon its atmosphere. It has an effect produced in the environment, and this subtle effect that the action produces, invisible to the eyes though, is called the apurva. It is something newly produced; it is not already there. So, this newly produced effect, the consequence of an action that we perform, is the apurva. Now, this apurva, or the effect of our actions, has something to do with us. We are the causes. As we are the causes of this apurva, or the effect of the actions, we would be the reapers of the fruit of these actions. So the apurva, or the result of the actions, becomes the determining factor of what would happen to us even after we depart from this world. Sometimes its effect is felt in this very life. If our actions are very intense, either good or bad, the results are experienced in this life itself; if they are mild, they materialise in a later life. We offer our actions as oblations in this sacrifice of natural phenomena.

The philosophy of this vidya, the Panchagni-Vidya, is that such is the meditation of these processes. We should not regard anything as a local event, local structure, local body, local individual. These do not exist; and the idea that they exist is the source of bondage. We are bound by our erroneous notions of things, not by the things themselves, but the wrong idea we have about their relationship mutually or to other things. We have notions about things based entirely on sense-perception, not on the intuitional insight into the background of the occurrence of events. What do the senses tell us? They can report exactly what they can abstract concretely in the form of bodies of perception from the vast reservoir of information. The reservoir, as a background, is unperceivable to the eyes, not even cognisable to the ordinary mind. But the meditation proposes to introduce a technique of envisaging the whole universe as responsible for the manifestation of everything, so that everything is all things, and anything is everywhere. There is no such thing as a particular individual or a particular body. This is the meditation which frees us from the bondage of attachment to particular things. If this meditation could be conducted effectively throughout one's life, there would be a universal perception of everything. When you look at any particular object you will see the whole world in it, and not merely one person in front. There is no such thing as one person; that does not exist. The description of the causes with their effects, in these passages of the Upanishad, is therefore intended to take us above the level of ordinary sense-prerception and open the gate of a new knowledge altogether, behind the visible effects which are the so-called objects of sensation, perception and cognition.

Bondage is due to the connection of our consciousness, or the soul, we may say, with the report of the senses, which is confirmed by the activity of the mind and the intellect. The mind, the intellect and the senses work together in collaboration in giving us a wrong idea about things. The first mistake is committed by the senses. The mind and the intellect only corroborate and confirm in a more synthesised manner this report of the senses. The report is wrong in the sense that it does not take into consideration the invisible factors involved in the production of an effect. The clouds do not gather in the sky suddenly. There are many causes which are beyond one's comprehension, which come together into action for the production of a single effect called the appearance of the clouds in the sky, and the fall of the rain, etc. So is the case with everything. So is the case with anything that happens anywhere in the world; so is the case with anything that appears as an effect or a person in the world; so is anything, whatever anyone can think of in one's mind this world.

There is a determining factor of the span of life of an individual even when it is in the womb of the mother. It cannot be increased or decreased; it is set for ever by the particular force of the apurva, mentioned earlier, which becomes responsible for the birth of an individual. There are causes and causes. All of them join together and pass a resolution, as it were, in their meeting, as to how long an individual should live. That is determined by the character of the cumulative effect of the actions known as the apurva, part of which alone is allowed to manifest itself as what we call prarabdha-karma (force which has already fructified into experience). The prarabdha is the cause of everything that we experience in this life, the length of life, the nature of the experiences through which we pass, the circumstances into which we are born, etc. All our pleasures and pains, including length of life, are determined by the actions we performed earlier, portions of which are allotted for experience in this particular life, that portion being called the prarabdha-karma.   

"One should get disgusted with this life," says the Upanishad. You must be having enough of this life. Who wants to live like this, in this manner, where you are subjected to the law over which you have no control and regarding which you have no say whatsoever, where you are always a sufferer, always in a state of liability, and you do not know what will happen to you the next moment. Is this a life worth living? This is not life, but a form of unbelievably torturous mortality. Oh, what a life is of this world!

Ignorance breeds further troubles in the form of likes and dislikes, selfish actions and their consequences which bring about a birth of this kind, and eventually sorrow. In this connection it is said, in conclusion, that those who live a life of spiritual meditation are not affected by this law. This is a solacing conclusion that the Upanishad gives. You are affected by the law when you cannot understand the law. A person who knows what law is cannot be harmed by law. This is the case with any kind of law, whether it is governmental law or the law of electricity or the law of social life or the law of the spirit. It is ignorance of the way in which law works that binds us to the operation of the law. If we are thoroughly conversant with the intricacies of the working of the law, naturally we will abide by that law. And why should we be bound by it or harassed by it, or punished by it? We do not know how the law works. The whole difficulty is here. So, we cannot even abide by it. How can one abide by a law of which one has no knowledge? So, ignorance is the real trouble; every other trouble is subsidiary and an offshoot of it. One who knows this truth of the universe, is free from every sin and trouble.

Now, here, the words "one who knows this" signify something that occurs again and again in the Upanishad. We should repeatedly mention here that "one who knows this" does not mean one who has read the Upanishad, or one who has read it and understood what it says. No, not like that. Here, in the case of the Upanishad, knowledge means 'life' itself. It is 'living'; it is the extent to which this knowledge has become part of one's life. This is the knowledge that we are speaking of here in the Upanishad. Knowledge is being; this is the central philosophy of the Upanishad. This we cannot forget, when we study the Upanishad. Knowledge is life; knowledge is being, knowledge is existence; knowledge is what you are. So, what you are determines what you shall be in the future. And, if yours is a life of knowledge in the sense mentioned here, if you are an embodiment of this wisdom, if you are scintillating with the brilliance of this understanding, even here as a part of your own vital existence, if this knowledge is what you yourself are made of, if this knowledge is the very substance of your life, not merely an intellectual information, then you are free from the bondage of action. Then these laws of the world will not act upon you, because these laws are nothing but the expression of knowledge which is the nature of the ultimate Reality, finally. So, to the extent you are identified with the character of Reality, to that extent you are free from the law of karma, or action. Karma is the name we give to the way in which the law of Reality acts upon all particulars or individuals, reacts upon everyone and everything, when one is in a state of ignorance. To the extent of the percentage of the law of which you are ignorant, to that extent you are bound. And to the extent you are aware of it and live it, and are able to abide by it, to that extent you are also free.

So, one who knows these Five Fires is free. It is difficult to know these Fires unless we live a life of meditation. Your whole life should be one of meditation. Perpetually, we must be seeing things in this light only. Our meditation should not mean merely a little act of half-an-hour's closing of the eyes and thinking something ethereal. It is a way of living throughout. When you see a thing, you see only in this way; when you speak, you speak from this point of view; when you think, this is at the background of your thought. So, you cease to be an ordinary human being when you live a life of this Upanishad. You are conditioned by this great knowledge, and it becomes, therefore, a liberator of your soul. Even if you are in the midst of atmospheres which are otherwise not desirable, you shall be free from contamination, says the Upanishad, because no such things as the undesirable exist for such a person. The knower becomes coextensive with the way in which Nature works in all its ways. And everything is Nature working in some way, the desirable as well as the undesirable, as we may call it. We become commensurate with the way in which Nature works in every way because of the meditation conducted in this manner. Thus, we cannot be harmed by any atmosphere, by anyone or by anything that is around us. On the other hand, perhaps, we may be able to influence positively the atmosphere in which we are living. "One who knows this," reaches the higher realms reached only by meritorious deeds; "ya evam veda"; yea, "One who knows this."

Life is sorrow; life is full of misery. It is full of grief and pain, because one is living in a state of ignorance. The Upanishad on the one hand extols the greatness and the glory of knowledge which leads to the liberation of the soul, and on the other hand tells us how hard the laws will descend upon us and put us to the subjection of their mandate and requirements, and what sorrow will come upon us, what would be the unhappy state to which the soul would be subjected if it is deprived of this knowledge and lives merely a life of utter ignorance.