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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Major Upanishads - 3


Katha Upanishad:  This is part of Krishna Yajur veda. This has the famous story of Nachiketas who is given over to Yama, the Lord of Death, by his own father in a bit of anger. Nachiketas goes to Yama’s place and has to wait for three days before he meets Yama. Yama feels he broke his dharma by not feeding a guest for three days and as a repentance offers three boons. Nachiketas’s first request is for Yama to forgive his father. The second is his desire to know about the role of agni and homa (fire sacrifice) in the vedic rituals. The third request is as follows in the words of Nachiketas: “ Some say Self (IT) exists; some others say it does not. Oh Yama, please tell me the correct answer”.  Yama says that this is a difficult question, offers several other boons and asks Nachiketas not to persist with this question. Naschiketas persists by saying “what is the use of all the wealth you are offering. They will perish. Life is short and all of us live only as long as you have determined. So, please tell me about THAT”.  

The main message is that Atman (Brahman) cannot be known by reason or by learning. It can only be experienced after instructions from someone who has experienced IT. It can be apprehended by intuitive insight.  

Some famous passages from this Upanishad are in Part 1:2.  In sloka 1:2:2, Yama says that the world is full of pleasurable (preyas) things and the preferable (shreyas) things. The wise choose the preferable, Nachiketas being one of them. The knowledge Nachiketas is seeking cannot be obtained through logic and dialectics (na tharkena). So, Nachiketas asks: So, please tell me about That which is different from and beyond the opposites of virtue and vice, cause and effect and the past and the future. Then, Yama says: That Supreme is indicated by the symbol OM (OM ithi ethath).  

Then in Sloka 18, Yama says that the Self is neither born nor does it die. It does not originate from anything nor did anything originate from IT. It is birthless, eternal, undecaying and ancient. It is not injured even when the body is killed. This sloka is repeated verbatim in Gita. (Therefore, Gita should have come into vogue after this Upanishad, although the reverse is also possible)   In Sloka 20, Yama says that the Self is smaller than an atom and larger than the universe; and is hidden in the hearts of every creature.  

Sloka 1:2:23 is the essence of this Upanishad, because after indicating what Self is, Yama says that It cannot be reached through study or intellect. It can be known through Self alone and then uses the word vivrunuthe, which means “reveals itself”. In other words, Self is the Seeker; Seeker is the sought. The seeker cannot know it, cannot see it by his efforts alone. It has to show Itself.

In Chapter 1, Section 3, slokas 3 to 9 compare the body, intellect, mind and the senses of a human being to a chariot, charioteer, bridle and the horses of a chariot respectively. The Self is the Master of the chariot. This is the famous pictorial representation of Gita in which Arjuna (the person) stands near the chariot with Lord Krishna in control of the horses (mind and the senses). Sloke 14 of this section asks us to wake up and learn the intellectual path, a passage made famous by Vivekanada to wake up the slumbering India. The last part of this sloka compares the path to realization of the Self to the edge of a razor, and these words became the title of a book (Razor’s edge) by Somerset Maughm. 

During my recent re-reading of Katha Upanishad I might have understood the symbolism behind homa (fire oblations) and the principle of inward looking in meditation. In Sloka 1:2:10, Yama tells Nachiketas “One cannot reach the Permanent through impermanent things. Therefore I piled up sacrificial fire with impermanent things”. This suggests that building a sacrificial altar with bricks, using firewood and leaves to light the fire and pouring ghee, milk and food offerings into the fire represent our desire to reach the Eternal, Indestructible Self through these perishable things.  

In Sloka 2:1:3, Yama says that when the Supreme Brahman entered the individual bodies He turned off His senses since he does not need them. But the Jivan which lives because of His presence and energy, has its organs of senses turned outwards towards the objects of perception in this world. Therefore, if you wish to experience that Brahman inside, you also have to turn the senses away from following sense objects. This gives the principle behind meditation. 

There are no Mahavakyas (Major quotes) from this Upanishad. If there should be one it will be Etatvai Tat, which is almost the same as tatvamasi (Thou are That) or OM ithi ethath.