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Article LVIII: Nivritti and Pravritti

The Katha Upanishad distinguishes between two paths in the verses below. One path is described as good and the path of Knowledge, followed by the wise, whereas the other path is described as pleasant and the path of ignorance, followed by the foolish. The good path leads to Knowledge of the Self, and the pleasant path leads to a cycle of rebirth. These two paths are described by Vedanta as pravritti marga (the path of pleasure) and nivritti marga (the path of perfection). Pravritti literally means to turn toward while nivritti means to turn away, with respect to the pleasurable, yet transient, objects of the world. In pravritti marga, one identifies with the ego through increased physical wealth, but ultimately will realize the transient nature of happiness from worldly objects. However, in nivritti marga, one transcends the ego, discriminates between the worldly and eternal, and, therefore, attains bliss independent of worldly objects.

It is important to note that nivritti marga does not necessarily have to be a path of literal renunciation of the world and seclusion to a forest or mountain. In fact, such seclusion could even be detrimental to the spiritual growth of those who are not of that nature. Different types of renunciation are appropriate depending on one's vasanas (tendencies, lit: fragrances), samskaras (impressions from past action), and distribution of gunas (tamas - inertia, rajas - activity, and satwa - purity). Hence, renunciation to the forest might be appropriate for one spiritual aspirant whereas selfless action and devotion might be appropriate for another. Or it is possible that different types of renunciation are appropriate during different times of one's life. It might be that one's dharma (duty) involves serving the world for some part of life, and literally renouncing the world at a later time in life.


Katha Upanishad

The first chapter of the Katha Upanishad establishes the context of this Vedantic teaching. As a tribute to the patience and faith of Naciketas, Yama, the god of death, fulfills a boon for Naciketas by providing an explanation of the nature of eternal existence. The first ten verses of the second chapter are as follows:

II.1: One thing is the good, and quite different indeed is the pleasant; having been of different requisitions, they both bind the Purusa. Good befalls him who follows the good, but loses he the goal, who chooses the pleasant.
II.2: Both the good and the pleasant approach man; the wise one discriminates between the two, having examined them well. Yea, the wise man prefers to good to the pleasant, but the fool chooses the pleasant, through avarice and attachment.
II.3: So thou, O Naciketas, hast renounced all those pleasurable objects of love and those pleasant in appearance, having pondered over them well. Thou hast not gone into this path of wealth in which many men perish.
II.4: Wide apart and leading to different ends are these two: Ignorance and what is known as Knowledge. I consider Naciketas an aspirant of Knowledge, because much prospect of pleasure did not shake him.
II.5: Fools, dwelling in the very midst of ignorance yet vainly fancying themselves to be wise and learned, go round and round staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.
II.6: To the careless child, befooled by the delusion of wealth, the path of the hereafter never appears. "This is the only world and there is no other" - he who thinks thus falls into my control again and again.
II.7: Even to hear of it is not available to many; many, even having heard of it, cannot comprehend. Wonderful is its teacher, and (equally) clever the pupil. Wonderful indeed is he who comprehends it when taught by an able preceptor.
II.8: This (Atman) can never be well comprehended, if taught by an inferior person, even though often pondered upon. Unless it is taught by another, there is no (other) way to it. Subtler than the subtlest, it is unarguable.
II.9: This knowledge, which thou hast obtained, is not attained by mere argumentation; it becomes easy of comprehension indeed, O dearest, when taught by another. Thou art of true resolve indeed. May we get enquirers like thee!
II.10: I know that (all) treasure is transient: for verily the Eternal is never attained by the non-eternal; yet by me has been performed the Naciketas fire with the transient objects, and (through that) I have attained the eternal.

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