The Wisdom of the Katha Upanishad
We enter this world as an unknowing baby, and even after a long and learned life-span, our knowledge is minute compared with what remains unknown to us. Given more time—‘life piled on life’—our store of knowledge may grow, but will always remain a fragment of the whole, and we have no idea of the extent of that whole! The great metaphysical questions about the meaning and purpose of existence, usually baffle our intellect, unless we accede to dogmas; otherwise we can only speculate about possibilities, or else ignore these profound matters and get on with life.
Is there a cure for this limitation of our knowing capacity, which grows more troublesome the more we think about it? Is there some great experience that banishes forever the feeling ‘I do not know’ and confers omniscience—complete knowledge which brings lasting fulfilment?
One of the meanings of the word Upanishad is ‘secret knowledge’. The implication is that these collections of teachings, formulated in ancient times, shed light on our potentiality for higher knowledge that is not revealed to us in the normal course of our secular, or even our religious life. The knowledge is also secret because it was intended only for those who were sincerely and persistently thirsting for it, willing to make it their main quest in life. As the Shvetashvatara Upanishad states: ‘It is not to be given to one who has no self-control... or to one who is not a disciple’. [6:22]
We may regard this caveat as outdated, now that the contents of the Upanishads are universally available. But the knowledge still remains ‘secret’ in the sense that, though the assemblage of words and sentences is available and widely studied, the living experience they refer to can only be grasped by one who has met the requirements of discipleship, prioritising the quest and making the necessary and progressive adjustments to the life of body, mind and speech. Many are those who are rich in book knowledge; fewer are those who wish to hold the precious teaching in their mind as ‘indirect knowledge’; rarest of all are those who strive to convert their intellectual wealth into the supreme peace and fulfilment of direct experience of ultimate reality. For that is what the Upanishads have to transmit to us.
In essence, the upanishadic wisdom relates to the deepest fact about human life: the nature of our real Self. This assumes that our conventional idea of self, as a fusion of body and mind, is inadequate. Such a view, though seemingly obvious and reasonable, condemns the self to transiency and obliteration. But the text of the Katha Upanishad states that its wisdom ‘leads to a great result’. The great result is the realisation that our innermost essence is one with the supreme and infinite power which pervades, reveals and supports the whole universe. From this standpoint, experience knows no limitation or divisions within itself. Our true nature, or innermost Self, is therefore one with the Self of all, completely and eternally beyond the sorrows that we normally associate with the human condition. This is the non-duality taught in the Upanishads, and is what is meant by ‘the highest Truth’.
One feature of the Katha Upanishad is that it attracts our interest in these teachings by suggesting their difficulty. One verse compares the path of higher knowledge to a walk on the edge of a razor:
Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones. The wise ones describe that path to be as impassable as a razor’s edge, which, when sharpened, is difficult to tread on. [1:3:14]
The path is thus presented as a challenge, which may deter the cautious. It confirms the seriousness of the endeavour, suggesting the deepening of a single interest, which may at first seem narrow and restrictive, but will prove expansive and universalising. It also suggests how easily we may be sidetracked and forget our purpose. Yet the image of the razor’s edge, though discomfitting, may strike a note of recognition at some deeper level of our being, and, because of that, exercise an attraction.
Another indication of the challenge posed by the higher life comes in the first interchange between the pupil, a young man called Nachiketas, and the teacher, who, in the mythological narrative setting of the Katha Upanishad, is none other than the God of Death, Yama.
Without going into the details of the story, let us simply say that Nachiketas has gone to the underworld and there he seeks out the God of Death, Yama, in order to learn the secret of immortality. He wants to know one thing in particular: Is there a principle in us which transcends the process of birth and death?
So he asks: ‘Some people hold that there is such a principle, but others say that such a thing does not exist. Under your instruction, O Death, I want to know the answer to this mystery.’ [1:1:20]
This question apparently throws the God of Death into a quandary. For Nachiketas has asked for nothing less than to be told about the secret wisdom contained in all the Upanishads, and which, when realised, will render Death itself ineffectual and meaningless.
The God of Death is represented as someone who has this knowledge—who knows the secret and is reluctant to share it, until he is sure that his would-be pupil is qualified to receive it. So he replies:
O Nachiketas, concerning this question, even the gods entertained doubts about it in days of old, for this principle in man is subtle and hard to understand. Ask for something else; do not press me to share this knowledge with you. [1.i.21]
Not only does Death, in his role as the Guru, seemingly try to dissuade Nachiketas from pursuing this enquiry. He proceeds to tempt him with all that is pleasing and satisfying in the material world. In accordance with his godly powers, he offers Nachiketas all manner of sense-delights, unchallenged kingship over vast regions of the earth, and the capacity to live as long as he pleases without any decay of his physical powers or sense faculties.
All these fantastic and alluring temptations are presented to the pupil as advantages far more worthwhile and concrete than the strange, subtle and abstract knowledge that he is now seeking. But this attempt to dissuade the pupil by emphasizing the difficulties of the quest, and holding up the worldly glories as a valid alternative is, in Nachiketas’s case, counter-productive. It only serves to increase his thirst for the higher knowledge and his determination to have nothing to do with joys and benefits that he knows are hollow and second-rate.
And so we find that Nachiketas strongly and insistently rejects everything which, however tempting, he views as a set of limitations to fetter the soul and divert it from the real purpose of life. Having been tempted, he resolutely declares:
O Death, ephemeral are these, and waste the vigour of all our senses. All life, without exception, is short indeed. Let these pleasures, these riches and this rulership over the earth be yours alone. My only prayer is that you shall teach me the knowledge of the immortal principle in man. This is the highest goal of life. [1:1:26]
Yama then is assured of the maturity of Nachiketas, and praises him. He knows that the quest for the supreme wisdom has first place in Nachiketas’s heart, and that he is not hankering for other things that belong to the world of finite experience. Yama therefore is inspired to confer on Nachiketas the highest instruction, knowing that he will be capable of receiving the teachings in a spirit of purity and co-operation. At one point he says: ‘I consider that the mansion of the Absolute is wide open to Nachiketas.’ [1:2:13]
Looking at the Upanishad as a whole, we can see that our path to enlightenment leads us from the outer to the inner. But this unfoldment only reaches its consummation with the direct recognition of a deeper reality that transcends both outer and inner.
At first, there is our inevitable involvement and development of the outer life. Then there is a time of disillusionment, leading to philosophical reflection or longing for lasting fulfilment. This leads in the end to a return home, in order to discover the hidden facets of our own inner being, by turning within to the source of the mind itself . The process up to this point is summed up:
The Lord created human beings with sense-faculties that look outwards. Therefore one sees the outer things, and not the inner Self. A rare discriminating man, desiring immortality, turns his eyes away, and then sees the indwelling Self. [2:1:1]
The verse suggests that there is something divinely-ordained about the outer adventure of life. After all, it is the Divine Lord who has created human beings with outgoing sense-faculties. Our senses reveal to us the world’s great stage, and we are drawn onto that stage through our education and our need for physical survival. As extrovertive beings, we are endowed with mental and physical faculties that need to be expressed and developed, and so the young child is encouraged to take increasing notice of the outer environment, and learn skills that will enable it to deal with life.
At first, the world seems a more than adequate field for our expansion and fulfilment. It holds out the hope of lasting satisfaction. Even if the road is sometimes bumpy, the happy moments and circumstances that often result, do seem to make the outer climb worth the effort.
But this is not the end of the story. After a while, a sense of disillusionment, or weariness, sets in. This tiredness may have nothing to do with the age of the body. It is more to do with the gaining of insight. This insight reveals to us that, whatever we achieve in the outer world, ultimate satisfaction, final fulfilment, still seems to be as far away as ever. And yet, something deep down seems to be saying: ‘There is a way to true satisfaction; it is not a fantasy; investigate; dig deeper; seek and you shall find.’
It is at this stage that we become aware that the paths of the world, which are numerous, wide and crowded, are not the only paths open to us in life. There is another path which is concerned not with worldly well-being but with awakening our potentiality for enlightenment. This path really is a way of progress, but the progress shows itself inwardly, not outwardly. It manifests as growing inner peace, understanding, freedom, security, joy and self-reliance. But it is a way of progress that has to be consciously worked for: it won’t just happen.
In the Katha Upanishad, Yama’s first positive teaching to Nachiketas is to affirm that there is a higher path available to us that leads to enlightenment. It is called the good path, and is contrasted with the pleasant path, where we are totally preoccupied with our worldly well-being, and neglect our higher evolution. Yama equates the good path with the way of wisdom leading to the goal of life, self-realisation. He associates the pleasant path with ignorance, comprising a chain of experiences where happiness is mingled with sorrow, and our infinite nature remains undiscovered.
Yama then expresses joy that Nachiketas has freed himself from the false glamour of the world—that he has outgrown it. He tells him:
You are one who has examined patiently the whole of worldly experience and its fruits. You have even turned away from the conventional religious goals, like heaven. Your only concern is for knowledge of the highest truth about the Self. You are gifted with true resolution and are worthy of compassionate help in your quest. May our questioner be like you, O Nachiketas. [1:2:9-11]
The teacher then explains that wisdom requires an inner transformation, and is not simply a case of acquiring information or believing in a particular doctrine or creed. Belief, or faith, is a starting point, but it must be accompanied by practice in daily life and an ongoing enquiry to discover the deeper meaning of the teachings we believe in.
To be informed that the immortal principle really does exist, and is present as one’s deepest Self, the core of one’s being, is to learn something of the highest significance. But this indirect knowledge needs to be converted into direct knowledge, so that the infinity and immortality of our true nature becomes a matter of personal experience. This progression, from theory to practice leading to living experience of the infinite, is brought about by self-training, and the process is known as ‘pursuing the path to wisdom’.
Yama makes the point that the immortal Self can only be effectively taught by one who is at one with it—who knows, in his or her own experience: ‘This infinite reality am I.’ Otherwise, if the doctrine and philosophy are only known intellectually, one’s ability to teach the path and its goal will be mixed with errors and misunderstandings. On the other hand, where there is identificative knowledge on the part of the teacher, and a true desire to learn on the part of the hearer, this partnership or bond is something rare and auspicious for the one seeking the higher knowledge:
Of that Self, which few have the chance to hear about, and fewer understand even though hearing of it, the Teacher is wonderful, and wonderful too is the one who receives the teachings. [1:2:7]
Having prepared the ground by testing Nachiketas and then teaching him about the good path, Yama then goes straight to the heart of the matter. He tells Nachiketas about the supreme Self that is concealed in the innermost recesses of his own being, and, by implication, in the being of every man and woman.
The Self, that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great, is lodged in the heart of every creature. [1:2:20]
Although no word does justice to this transcendent principle, since it is beyond the realm of speech and idea, the word Self, or innermost Self—Adhyatma—is used. This word, Self, indicates, more than any other concept, the direction in which we must seek for enlightenment—namely, within, and this is directly spelt out in the following verse:
The wise man gives up happiness and sorrow by developing concentration of the mind on the Self. He practises meditation on the everlasting deity within his own being, who is hard to discern, hidden deep within, established in the cave of the intellect, and seated in the midst of misery. [1:2:12]
When the verse speaks of giving up happiness and sorrow, it means turning away from a mode of life in which the kind of happiness we seek and sometimes achieve is mingled with anxiety and fear of loss, and causes pain and frustration if things go wrong. Instead, the seeker follows the secure path of higher wisdom, which gives peace and leads away from selfishness and conflict.
The everlasting deity within one’s own being, referred to in the verse, is our innermost essence, the true Self. In ordinary experience, this ultimate dimension of being is hard to discern, because it is extremely subtle and inward. Yet it is eternally present. It is the hidden source of light and consciousness that enables the intellect to function. As the revealer of all mental and physical conditions, the Self is present even in the midst of the miseries of human life. But in its true nature, it is transcendent, and is never touched by sorrow and limitation. It is to realise this free and untaintable nature of our inmost Self that the higher Yoga is practised.
Our journey to fulfilment has so far been outlined as a turning within to the source of our own being. It has been described as a sort of u-turn, from an almost total and naive pursuit of the things of the world, through the phase of disillusionment and longing, to the discovery of a path which gives promise of liberation and methods of how to seek within effectively and correctly.
We have also heard that the eternal principle at the heart of our being is most subtle. It cannot be seen with the eye, for it is not a sense object. As the Upanishad says:
His form does not exist within the range of vision; nobody sees Him with the eye. [2:3:9]
Nor can the presence of this Self be discovered by our normal thinking processes. The Self is the supremely subtle and all-pervading consciousness in which these mental activities form and dissolve, like clouds in the sky. Nonetheless, there is a way of training and inner discipline which will help us to control and refine the mental operations in such a way that our mind can approach this subtle, innermost truth, and through which our mind will gain light from that innermost region—the light of true understanding.
The path which the Katha Upanishad has compared to a razor’s edge is difficult, but not impossible, to tread, and its successful crossing is indicated in the following verse:
He is hidden in all beings and hence He does not appear as the Self of all. But by the seers of subtle things, He is seen through a pointed and fine intellect. [1:3:12]
The Upanishad then explains human nature in terms of a hierarchy of faculties, and how the required transformation can be effected if we can learn to take our stand on what is best and highest in ourselves. What is best and highest is ultimately our true Self. But even before we gain sufficient insight to make the Self a living reality in our inner experience, there are other ways we can learn to evolve a sense of self-mastery through the wise direction of our senses and mind.
We saw how Nachiketas had realised, from his own experience and reflection, the limitations of what the senses offer us in the way of satisfaction. Satisfaction there is, but it is short-lived, and not sustainable. Therefore we find that control of the senses is recommended in the Katha Upanishad, and when making this point, the Upanishad uses the simile of the chariot and the charioteer.
The senses, we are told, are like the strong and mettlesome horses tied to the chariot, which is our body, and pulling the body in different directions to find opportunities for enjoyment and gratification. But the message of the Upanishads, and of all great wisdom traditions, is that the journey of life has a higher goal, which will satisfy and fulfil the whole of our nature, and forever. In order for our journey to go smoothly towards that goal, these senses, like the horses, need to be carefully guided.
We have acknowledged how the senses are wonderful faculties, of divine origin, that give us our knowledge of the world. But they can also keep our gaze fixed outwardly, as if their domain were the only one worthy of our attention, keeping us unmindful of the passing of the precious time and ignorant of the real purpose of life.
In partnership with the senses is the mind, in its lower, practical aspect as a centre of reacting awareness. The Upanishad compares the mind to the bridle that is attached to the horses, and makes it possible to control and lead them. But the mind in this role—as the link with the sense impressions and their co-ordinator—is itself only an instrument or a servant. It is like a sophisticated device that is meant to be ruled and operated by a still higher part of our being, called, in Sanskrit, the buddhi. The buddhi (sometimes inadequately translated as the intellect) is the purest and most refined level of the mind, closest, so to say, to the true Self. When operative, buddhi has the capacity to discern the real from the transient, to initiate decisive action, and to pursue the path of wisdom.
Thus the buddhi is compared to the charioteer, the one who has a precise understanding of the purpose and goal of the journey and how the horses may best be guided to that end. But the unevolved mind, as yet unguided by buddhi, may exhaust itself in trivialities, just as the unskilled charioteer may allow the horses to go their own way, and eventually go careering off the road into a ditch.
Even so, the buddhi itself is not the highest principle which is associated with our inner being. Higher than the buddhi is the Self, which is compared to the owner and master of the chariot. The Katha Upanishad informs us that this seemingly individualised self is not different, in essence, from the supreme power which sustains, yet transcends, the Cosmos. The true path of life is meant to awaken us to this identity.
Not being awake to this identity, we naturally identify our self, our ‘I’, with the body, senses, mind and buddhi, enjoying or suffering life’s experience as it affects and registers on these instruments. The practices of the higher Yoga are aimed at freeing us from this bondage of mistaken self-identity, through awakening and maturing our sense of power and mastery emanating from that which is highest in us.
The Upanishad speaks of ascending grades of experience within our being, characterised by increasing refinement and penetration. These grades of experience have a growing degree of subtlety, inwardness and pervasiveness. At their peak shines our true Self, called the Purusha. This marks the limit of transcendence and inwardness, and nothing can transcend our real Self because it is the ultimate reality.
To simplify the presentation given in the verses, we can say that: the mind is higher than the senses; the buddhi is higher than the mind; and highest of all is the supreme spirit, the true Self. This, says the Upanishad, is the culmination; ‘this is the highest goal’.
What are we to make of this teaching of the Katha Upanishad as it has been presented so far? Two points emerge which bear on our practice. Firstly, there are higher aspects of our being, which, in the ordinary course of life, are not normally operative, but which can be awakened through the higher Yoga. Secondly, every man and woman is destined to realise, that in their true nature, they are the inner ruler of their body, mind, senses and buddhi, and need not be a slave to mental limitations, moods and doubts. This principle of rulership, the real Self, needs to be investigated, affirmed and brought to light.
Nachiketas originally asks: ‘Does this immortal principle exist, or does it not exist?’ As seekers, we must be prepared to accept and take our stand on the positive answer to this question. At first it is a matter of faith, supported by our personal enquiry into the non-dual interpretation of our nature. Then, the assumption that the infinite Self exists and has personal relevance becomes the rock-firm basis for our practice of meditation and self-enquiry. It is essential to feel and believe: ‘The higher Self, as revealed in the Upanishads, really does exist, and it is my true nature.’ The Upanishad itself says:
The Self is first to be realised as existing, and then as it really is. Of these two, the real nature of the Self that has been known as merely existing, becomes favourably disposed for self-revelation. [2:3:12]
This verse refers to an inner revelation of the true Self as it really is. It speaks of that Self becoming favourably disposed to the seeker, and revealing its true nature as a divine favour or grace. It reminds us that the ultimate source of divine grace is within our own being, and will manifest when the right inner conditions are created.
Therefore, in the context of the teachings on non-duality, the grace of higher self-knowledge is not conceived as coming from any outer source or from a godly being that is essentially separate from us. We hold within our core not only the seeds of the practices and higher intuitive faculties that will lead us to self-transcendence. We also harbour within our own being the ultimate liberator, and this liberator is not other than what we really are in our true nature.
We remember that Yama conferred the teachings on Nachiketas only when he had proved his sincerity as a seeker. So, too, we have to prepare most carefully for the revelation of ultimate Self-knowledge. It only becomes possible when we have learnt to withdraw our sense of identity from the finite aspects of our being—the body, senses, mind and buddhi—and affirm un-reservedly our identity with the innermost Self taught in the Upanishads. This assumes that we have no longing for anything whatsoever in the world of finite experience that will keep us identified with limited aspects of our own nature. It is then that our own true Self, though beyond the realm of action and change, appears to manifest its favour, that is, to show its grace. When this happens, the infinite and transcendent nature of the Self is realised with certainty, and known through the identity-consciousness: That I am.
In this realisation, all ideas of outer and inner, God and man, path and goal, self and not-self, are cancelled as false super-impositions that seem real only while there is unawareness of the true nature of the Self. The only self-experience that now has authority is the realisation that one’s own Self is the only reality. The Katha Upanishad began with Nachiketas’s quest for inner satisfaction, and his need for a final solution of the riddle of life. But in its ultimate vision of non-duality, the teachings transcend personality and speak of the dominating presence of the true Self as universal. Time and space, before and after, here and there, turn out to be concepts that do not apply to the ultimate reality.
What indeed is here is there, what is there is here. He who sees as though there is difference, goes from death to death. [2:1:10]
In its later teachings, where the exposition has moved away from self-discipline, and now expresses a cosmic or universal vision, we find that attached to several of the verses is the statement, ‘This is That’, or ‘This verily is That’. ‘This’ is the Self of our immediate experience. ‘That’ is the supreme Reality. Therefore the statement ‘This is That’ is an affirmation of non-duality—the identity of our innermost Self with the supreme.
Here, for example, is one verse where the Upanishad speaks of the reality as the mighty force that holds the universe together:
On That, from which the sun rises and in which it sets, are fixed all the forces of nature. None ever transcends That. This is That. [2:1:9] Other verses describe the divine presence as pervading all aspects of nature and human life, and they complete the revelation by saying: ‘This verily is That’.
Such is the illumined understanding that the Upanishad shares with mankind. The traditional path to this awakening begins when we learn how to enquire more deeply into our own being, in search of peace, wisdom and fulfilment. Let us draw together some statements that come in three different verses, for together they express the purpose and goal of the Adhyatma Yoga found in the Katha Upanishad:
Eternal happiness and peace is for those who are wise, who realise in their hearts the One who is the eternal in the midst of the passing, the truly conscious One, the inner controller of all, and who, though One, makes himself appear spread out as the multiplicity of names and forms, though, in reality, there is no duality whatsoever. [2:2:12-13]
Meditating on Him, one does not grieve, and being freed, one is emancipated. This is that. [2:2:1]