Upon hearing that the highest thing to accomplish in life is Self-knowledge, both the kingdoms of gods and demons were excited. Indra and Virochana were chosen by the two populations to go to Lord Prajapati and ‘get’ that coveted Self-knowledge. Prajapati had made a great announcement, “Those who can realize the Self (Atman) through the grace of the guru can acquire everything in the universe! The Atman is beyond birth and death. Hunger, thirst and there afflictions do not affect the Atman.”

Indra and Virochana were asked to live for some time at Prajapati’s place in self-control, which they did for 32 years! Then the revered teacher asked them, “What did you come here for?”

“You made a statement that the knowledge of Atman can lead to acquisition of everything. Therefore we came to you – to get everything!”

“Atman resides in your eyes; he is beyond death and fear.”
When the students seemed not to understand, Prajapati gave them a practical exercise to perform.

“Go and look into water. If you do not understand even then, come back to me.”

Both the leaders came back after a while to report that they saw their own images in water, and humorously enough, they promptly reported that their nails and hair had grown very long!

Prajapati smiled and said, “Look again into water after having your nails cut, hair trimmed and dressing up well!”
They returned after a while to say, “We are pretty and our images also now look pretty.”

To their great delight, the preceptor said, “This now is the Atman, which is free from fear and untouched by death.”

Prajapati actually never meant their bodies were the Atman. Consciousness enlivens the body, the senses and the mind. All of them gain their brilliance thanks to pure consciousness, which really is Atman. When Indra and Virochana took leave of Prajapati, imagining that their bodies were the reality, the teacher kept quiet, waiting for them to come back with fresh doubt.

Virochana did not come back. He thought, “Lord Prajapati has confirmed that this body is the Atman. I must take all care of this body, and I will acquire everything through that.” He went to his subjects, the demons, and they too were happy with the message he brought. All of them took to a life of (increased) pleasure pursuit, indulging in all luxury and became more irreligious than ever.

Indra however thought over the matter and concluded that the body just could not be so great. The body will die one day, he thought, and the Atman is beyond death. His initial mood of joy disappeared and, though he was on his way to his kingdom to report to his subjects, the gods, he changed his mind and came back to Prajapati.

The wise teacher welcomed him back, agreed that his understanding needed revision, and asked him to first spend another 32 years in self-control.

The second teaching Indra received from Prajapati expected him to move away from his preoccupation with the body and look at the subtle body, the self that enjoys dreams. This too satisfied Indra for a while because this subtle personality later was indeed not subject to many a misery that the gross body suffered. He almost went back to the heavens but again reflected on the teaching to discover that the dream ego too had its own sad story at times. Fear and sorrow were part of dreams too.

He returned and spent another 32 years with Prajapati. At the end of 96 years thus, he was guided to reflect on the state of consciousness during deep (dreamless) sleep. This seemed perfect but Indra could figure out that he was ‘almost there but not quite’!

Five more years with the divine guru, and Indra – of pure mind – received the final teaching, which helped him see that Atman, the Pure Self, was the substrate of waking, dream and deep sleep egos.

Indra’s realization was possible, above all, due to his strong detachment. He was able to question himself, inquire further and go about this quest with the greatest patience.

[Chandogya Upanishad – Chapter 7 – narrates this story.]