Vidyaam chaavidyaam cha yasatadvedobhayam saha; Avidyayaa mrityum teertvaa vidyayaamritamashnute.
Yah: he who; Tat ubhayam: both of them; Vidyaam: knowledge; Cha: and; Avidyaam: ignorance; Cha saha: simultaneously; Veda: knows (he); Avidyayaa: through ignorance; Mrityum: death; Teertvaa: having crossed; Vidyayaa: by knowledge; Amritam: immortality; Ashnute: attains.
He, who knows both vidya and avidya together, crosses death through avidya and attains eternal life through vidya.
On this teaching Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh has said: Mrityu or death here refers to 'work and worldly knowledge', in the sense that these lead to mortality or death. Teertvaa means 'having crossed over'. Ashnute means 'attains'. To have communication with the deities is amritam or 'immortality'.
Those who know karma and dhyana, action and meditation, and practise them both together do not enter into the path of darkness. They cross over death due to their practice of avidya, and enjoy immortality due to their practise of vidya. By following the path of both vidya and avidya, something strange happens; the individual crosses over death. What is this death that is spoken about? Death is the dark passage in the realm of the personality, the barrier between the conscious and super-conscious life. The river that flows between two realms, the realm where we are and the realm beyond, is the river of death. The realm of absolute unconsciousness is the realm of death.
In Hindu mythology only one person can cross that river of death, and he is known as Yama. People wrongly interpret Yama as the god of death, but I call him the all-pervading and all-powerful spiritual consciousness of man. The 'river' is known as Vaitarani, which is also misunderstood, even by Hindus. They think that the soul crosses a particular river after death, but the whole idea is misconceived. Death here does not mean physical death, but the complete dissolution of consciousness.
This state of consciousness is very difficult to pass through. The doer of good actions, the performer of tapas or hard penance, the person who has lived a spiritual life, alone is able to cross this river of consciousness, where all the dimensions of consciousness are dissolved. This state of consciousness is called mrityu, death. It does not mean the death of the physical body. As long as one remains in this physical body, he is aware of everything. However, the moment the soul is out of the physical body, the consciousness dissolves until it is born again in a new body.
The state of dissolution of consciousness is called mrityu, which may be explained in two ways. Firstly, it is the death of the physical body in that the awareness is withdrawn from the physical dimension to the innermost centre, which may be anahata or any chakra in the body. The awareness is withdrawn, as if it were sucked up, from all the parts of the body and concentrated at a particular point within. This is a kind of death to the world of the mind and senses, so it is true to say that by avidya one crosses death.
Secondly, by karmas one exhausts samskaras, and the accumulated karmas, known as karmashaya, are destroyed. When the storehouse of karmas is absolutely empty, and the awareness is passing through the unconscious state, there will be no difficulty in crossing the river of death or unconsciousness. Only a man of ignorance or avidya will find it difficult to go beyond that river. If samskaras are annihilated, it is easy for the spiritual aspirant to go through the states of dhyana and samadhi.
What is amritam? It is a state beyond mortality. Some call it turiya; others call it samadhi, self-realization or God-realization. This Upanishad calls it amritam, which means 'no death'. It is the refraction of consciousness. It is a state where consciousness revives again, but in a different dimension. These states are achieved in meditation, and not outside.
In meditation one goes through different phases of awareness, according to one's capacity. One who has no karmas, desires, ambition, or fear of losing anything, will cross that realm of death easily. When his awareness revives again, he will enjoy immortality. Amrita means 'immortality'; it is a state where the soul goes beyond death.
Therefore, the mantra states that karma and meditation should be practised side by side. One should neither postpone meditation for karma, nor karma for meditation. In the personality there appears to be some grossness. In the subtle dimension of consciousness there appears to be some gravity or rigidity. This grossness of the personality makes it impossible for a sadhaka to go beyond the realm of darkness, before actually working out the samskaras in life.
This mantra is an important guide to spiritual life. One can understand that karma and dhyana are both necessary and go together. There should be a happy blending of the two. A synthesis between the two paths of karma and dhyana, a compromise between extroversion and introversion, is necessary in life.