The Kathopanishad: A Wondrous Epic of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on June 19, 1972)

The search for truth is an arduous task demanding of us the spirit of real adventure. We have records of such instances where adventurous spirits had to encounter forces which were most unexpected in their search and quest for the unknown. A remarkable example given to us through the Upanishads is the heroic march of that lad called Nachiketas to that unknown mystery which began to work within him in a subtle, inexpressible manner.

In that mystical tale of the Kathopanishad we are given a history of the human spirit, which passes through various stages of suffering, test and experience. It is not all milk and honey that we see before our eyes when we walk the path of the spirit. That it is hardship and also accompanied with a sense of mystery and awe is exemplified by Nachiketas in the philosophical epic that we have in the Upanishad.

There are three or four stages of approach or ascent that we are given in this Upanishad, the stages by which human nature evolves towards its destination. We do not suddenly grapple with reality. We seem to be moving towards it, but the hurdles on the way are umpteen in number. They cannot be counted. The problems and the difficulties, the oppositions that come on the way, differ from person to person, from individual to individual in accordance with the intensity of the aspiration, as also the structural pattern of the individuality of the person concerned. It is like a disease, like a fever which varies from person to person. The character, the quality, and the mode of operation are all different in the various temperaments of human nature.

We are told at the outset that Nachiketas was obliged to confront a mysterious, terrific power whom we mythologically know in India as Lord Yama, the Lord of Death. He was forced to encounter this Lord, and in this story of Nachiketas’ approach to Yama, we are told in the Upanishad that when the lad approached the gateways of the palace of Yama, the Lord was absent. He was not to be seen for three days. Three days and three nights did Nachiketas pass, without even water, waiting for the coming of the Master whom he had to meet, and from whom he had to receive boons of various kinds.

These three days mentioned in the Upanishad are also of great mystical significance. Nachiketas stands for the human spirit, as Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita stands for mankind in its completeness. The human spirit is in search of the Supreme Spirit, and in this quest there is a very peculiar encounter which seems to be unavoidable. The Lord of Death is to be faced before we come face to face with the Spirit Supreme. In this quest of the spirit it is possible to overestimate oneself and underestimate the powers of nature. It is the powers of nature that go by the name of death. They appear to be ferocious powers that work in dissonance with this structure of our personality, so that we cannot face them without a sense of dread. They can simply topple the sun and break the stars. The natural forces have to be released, and man’s spirit seems to be a small spark that is ready to be extinguished before the mighty tempest that nature can blow over it.

Death is the greatest fear that we have before us. Among all the dreads in nature, death is the greatest. The highest punishment is hanging. We cannot conceive of anything worse than that. And the fear that is attended with the concept of death is also associated with the notion of self-extinction. The fear of death is the same as the fear of self-extinction, the abolition of oneself, the complete negation of one’s personality. The cessation of one’s being is what is implied in death.

The father of Nachiketas is supposed to have cursed the boy: “Go to death. The devil be with you!” Some such imprecation was cast upon the lad in a moment of fury by the father, as we are told in the Upanishad.  Sometimes we tell people, “Go to hell!” Now, those words were literally taken by Nachiketas. Or, we may interpret the passage of the Upanishad as meaning that Nachiketas actually died. The words of sages have tremendous power. Curses have force, and maybe the lad died because of the curse of the father, which was engendered by anger due to an impertinent remark made by the boy on his observation of an erroneous sacrifice performed in the name of a yajna meant to ensure salvation to the soul.

Now, those three days passed by the spirit of Nachiketas before the palace of Yama have a tremendous significance on the path of the spirit. They are not four days or seven days, but only three days, and Yama is absent for three days. The starvation of the spirit is implied here as, for example, we have a famous saying of Christ given to us in the New Testament: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It is not poverty of economic existence, but poverty of the spirit; starvation and fasting of the spirit in its threefold entanglement is what is meant by Nachiketas’ three days of fasting.

We are involved in a threefold manner in this universal concatenation of forces. The threefold involvement is physical, astral and causal. Psychologists know that our bodily personality is not our entire personality. What experiences we pass through bodily or physically in this world of nature is not the entirety of our experience. We are a deeper psychological unit than the bodily experience can reveal to us. We have an astral or a subtle personality which works as the force or the incentive power behind the movements of the limbs of the body. So the bodily or physical austerity that we are likely to perform in the name of ritualistic observances in the name of religion, etc., is one part of the spiritual discipline, no doubt, but it is not the whole of the discipline.

The first day’s fast can be compared to the discipline of the physical nature. The physical nature indeed is to be disciplined, but that is not all, because the physical body is like a cart that is pulled by bulls, energies which are supplied by forces that are inside us. The senses are not the organs of perception. The eyeball, the eardrum, the palate, the nostril, these are not the senses. They are the outer instruments or the mechanisms which are utilised by powers that are internal. So the discipline of the personality has to imply and involve not merely the mustering in the physical forces of the body, but also the bringing together or focusing of the internal nature within us, which is the true man. The true individual is within, and what we see outside is only a contour; it is only a map drawn of the hidden significance which is the mark of our individuality.

The subtle body is called the linga sharira. ‘Linga’ means a mark or a symbol. It is an insignia of what we really are. It gives an idea of our nature. By looking at the face or the bodily structure of a person, we cannot understand the person so beautifully as by the analysis of the internal nature, the linga sharira, the insignia of individuality or personality.

The mind is the index of our nature, as they say, while the mind is the ruler of the subtle body. It is the king in this realm of the astral personality of ours. Unless that is disciplined, fasted down, the body, poor thing, is nowhere. The bodily discipline assumes a significance only when the subtle body, the real force within the physical body, is disciplined. That is the second day’s fast. But that alone will not do. We are much more than what our mind is. This is what ordinary psychology cannot detect, that we are more than what the mind is. Psychology is merely a study of behaviour of the mind, but the mind is not the entire human individuality, as Indian psychology will tell us. While the bodily personality is only an outer crust of our real nature, even the mental personality, the subtle body within us, is not the whole of our human individuality. There is a causal basis of our being which is the repository of forces, the reservoir of energies wherein we can find the seed latently present of all our future incarnations. All the rebirths that we have to undergo in our future lives have their potent seeds in what we call our causal personality, which is invisible to us. We do not see our mind. We see only the bodily behaviour, but by reflection, by inference, by contemplation, we can get an idea of what our mind is. As to our causal nature, we have absolutely no idea.

Unfortunately for us, it is the causal personality that is the real personality. The tree of samsara has its roots in the causal body. It is the root. As long as the root is there, the tree will survive even if the branches are cut off. The mind and the body are only the ramifications of this root of the individuality that is the causal body. The third day’s fast of Nachiketas is the drying up of the root itself, and then the spirit reveals itself before the seeking aspiration in all its might and mane.

But here we may also bring to our mind the three processes of sadhana prescribed by the ancients: karma, upasana and jnana. What I refer to as the fasting of the physical, the mental and the causal nature is equivalent in many respects to the sadhana that we perform through action, through worship or devotion, and through knowledge. These are the three stages of the ascent of the spirit by which the whole personality or individuality is disciplined, focused and concentrated on the knowledge or wisdom that is to be imparted by the Master or the Guru. It is only when this discipline is complete that we are in a position to receive the initiation from the Guru; otherwise, initiation has no meaning. Just as when the electrical installations within a house are complete the power connection is given from the powerhouse – and the connection cannot function when the electrical installation is not complete – so, in some respects, we may say that unless our personality is made ready to receive the inflow of the shakti or the divine power that is injected by the Guru through the process of initiation, there would be no question of the possibility of higher contemplation or meditation.

Meditation is nothing but the implementation of the knowledge that is received at the time of initiation from the Guru. Initiation is only a single act that is performed by the Guru, perhaps in a single minute. It is like striking a match, but we have to manufacture the match. We cannot strike a straw or a bamboo stick because it will not give a spark of fire. The preparation of the matchstick takes all the time, while the striking takes only a second. So is this striking of the match, we may say, which is the initiation that is received by the Guru. This initiation process is a tremendous encounter, though it may be for a short period. This encounter came before this master spirit Nachiketas also. After three days’ discipline of fasting, Yama appeared before Nachiketas.

“My dear child, you have been fasting for three days. I am very sorry. What do you want from me?” asked Lord Yama.

Then we have the real Upanishad describing the history of the march of the spirit to its destination.

What does the lad say? What does the spirit speak? What does Nachiketas beg of Yama? He asks first of all that he may be set in harmony with the law that operates in the world. “May my father not be angry with me, and may he recognise me when I go back.”

This is again a mystical boon which speaks of the desire of the spirit to be in harmony with the different levels of manifestation. The realisation of the Supreme Spirit is at once the realisation of harmony in all the levels of manifestation. Spirit is nothing but harmony, and when the Spirit is realised, there is at once, instantaneously, a realisation of harmony in every realm of manifestation of reality. So there is, first of all, a mystical hint given to us through the first boon which Nachiketas asked for from Yama. “May I be set in harmony with my father, with society, with the world.” Everything is implied. With the universe that is astronomically present before us, the physical universe in its totality may also be implied here in this asking of the first boon, which is physically significant; and that is granted. “May it be so,” said Lord Yama.

Nachiketas is wonderfully set in tune with all human society, people recognise him as a wonderful person, and his father will recognise and receive him with delight and satisfaction when he goes back, forgetting all enmity. That is all wonderful. People will respect him and honour him in this world. That is good so far as it goes, but that is not all.

“What is the second thing? What else do you want, my child?” asked Lord Yama.

“Then, my Lord, may I be initiated into the mysteries of the celestial fire,” said Nachiketas.

Now, this language used in the Upanishads is always mystical, eluding, and its significance is difficult to grasp. The mystical fire is really the celestial knowledge of the heavens which is imparted to Nachiketas by Yama, and this celestial fire is also described in one or two passages of the Kathopanishad itself. It is the Vaishvanara, or the cosmic fire, whose mystery is given to Nachiketas. Lokādim agniṃ (Katha 1.1.15), says Yama. This is not the ordinary fire with which we cook our dinner. It is the fire which burns in the hearts of all beings, and it is the origin of all things.

Lord Yama says, “Into the mysteries of this universal fire, Vaishvanara, whom the Vedanta speaks of as Hiranyagarbha or the creative force, Sutratma, into the mystery of this Universal Being I hereby initiate you, Nachiketas. You shall glory in this universe as long as this universe lasts; immortal shall be your fame, everything shall be your possession, you shall lack nothing, you shall neither sweat nor sorrow, and neither shall you die. You shall be magnificently ruling over the realm of the cosmos as long as the cosmos lasts. Are you happy? Are you satisfied? What else do you want? The whole world is with you, society is your friend, the world is in harmony with you, and the cosmic mystery is revealed to you.”

“No,” said Nachiketas. “There is one thing more. Will you tell me that?”

“What is that?” asked Lord Yama.

“Some people say that after one is absorbed into the Beyond, one ceases to exist. Others say that when there is this absorption into the Beyond, one does exist. Does one exist, or does one not exist when there is this self-absorption into the Beyond of beyonds?”

This is also a very difficult terminology used in the Upanishads: the Beyond. And it is not merely the Beyond; it is beyond the Beyond. “When one is absorbed into that, does one exist or does one not exist?” is the question of Nachiketas.

“Do not ask this question,” said Yama. “Keep quiet. I shall give you everything, other than this. Why do you ask this question – a question which was put by the gods, and to which question an answer has not been given up to this time. Devair atrāpi vicikitsitam purā, na hi suvijñeyam, aṇur eṣa dharmaḥ. (Katha 1.1.21): “Subtle is this mystery, Nachiketas. The gods themselves do not understand it. Ask not this question. Have glory in this world again. I shall give you the longest life, the happiest life possible, and the healthiest life with all the riches conceivable. Why do you ask this question? Ask not this, because this question has never been answered, and shall never be answered. Do not be persistent, O Nachiketas.”

But Nachiketas is equally persistent. “Ah, you want to tempt me with all this wealth and the riches of the world, and a long and healthy life. Take it back. I shall be happy if these wondrous boons that you have granted me are received back by you. Śvo-bhāvā martyasya yad antakaitat sarvendriyāṇām jarayanti tejaḥ (Katha 1.1.26): Lord, you give me satisfaction of the senses? Śvo-bhāvā: They are capable of lasting only until tomorrow. How long will these satisfactions of the world last? Indriyāṇām jarayanti tejaḥ: What are these experiences of delight and satisfaction in this world but forces which wear out the senses? After some time you cannot see, you cannot hear, you cannot touch, you cannot smell, you cannot taste. All the energy has been worn out completely by the friction of the senses with the objects. What is all this long life that you are giving me in this eternity of time? What is long life? What is even the longest life?”

Such is the feeling of Nachiketas. Nachiketas shall not be satisfied with any other thing than this question: What happens to one when he is absorbed into the Beyond? Does one exist or does one not exist?

Well, the best Guru has found the best disciple. It is impossible to evade the question any more. Pointedly Nachiketas presses forward this question. “I shall not be satisfied with any other thing than the answer to this question that I put before you: What happens to the soul when it is absorbed?”

Now, this is, concisely speaking, the initial difficulties which we have to face when we tread the path of the Spirit. We are not to be given this treasure so easily as we imagine. It is literally searching for the golden apple in the garden of Hesperides. It is not easily gotten, and we have to encounter death on the way. Yama comes before us. Yama’s facing Nachiketas is nothing but death facing us and threatening us on the way of the Spirit. “You ask for the Spirit? I shall devour you before you ask for it.”

This happened to all the saints and sages. Nachiketas is only a classical example before us in the Upanishad. We have records even in the case of Buddha. Illumination did not come to him so easily. The first thing was temptation, and then came opposition. Temptation is what is offered. Opposition is death coming over our head, like a Damocles sword hanging over us, and if we are not weaned away from this quest by the wondrous temptations that are offered before us, we shall be punished with death. What shall we do then? The rod of Yama is on our head.

Buddha was tempted in this manner. You can read for your satisfaction and intellectual delight the sixth chapter of Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, where Buddha’s experiences on the night prior to the dawn of illumination are beautifully described. All the celestial beauties and delicacies were offered to Buddha – not mortal beauties, but celestial beauties. He had to shun them as mara, and when he was not to be distracted by these temptations, these offerings of magnificences of the earth, threats came, a thunderbolt came, and a sword came. “Do you know what we shall do to you? We shall pound you, crush you, cut you to pieces.” And these threats also are not easy to face. We may read it beautifully in literature, but when the things actually come on us, they will come like a storm. We shall be taken unaware, and we do not know where we are. We shall be thrown to the winds. It will look as if the very ground on which we stand is cracking under our feet.

Here it is that the world seems to desert us completely. The earth and the glories of heaven do not seem to be of any use to us when we are face to face with the terror of nature. It looks as if everything is against us; there is not one single friend anywhere in this world. Such situations will arise, and there, who will help us? The power of discrimination which we have been nurturing for so long through the threefold discipline which we have practised earlier, and the pura-punya, the meritorious deeds that we have performed in our previous life will help us. Dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ (Manusmriti): Our righteous acts and righteous deeds, our righteous thoughts and feelings of previous lives will come and take possession of us, and lead us with a powerful ray of light. No human being will be of any help here. Nothing that is mortal, nothing that is earthly will be of any assistance. We will be alone, naked before Truth, as it were, and in this storm of natural forces we shall be helpless victims. If we can bear this test, the last test of the spirit in its quest for Reality, well, then we are really blessed, thrice blessed.

Nachiketas had to pass through all these stages of severe test, which is all given only in a few verses in the Kathopanishad. It does not mean that the experiences of Nachiketas were so simple as we find them described in the few verses there. They must have been very terrific for him, as they were for Buddha. It is very awful indeed even to think and read about them, what to experience. But these are the experiences that everyone has to pass through – you, I, and everyone. Not one of us is exempted. Everyone has to pass through the same ruts, the same path, the same discipline, the same ordeal of fire, which cannot be escaped. There is no shortcut to Reality. It is all the same beaten track over which people have trodden years and years back, and in future also they shall tread it, and we too presently have to tread the same path. Well, this is the preliminary ground that is laid before the spirit that is now to receive the higher wisdom of the soul’s absorption into the Beyond.

What is this Beyond? Yama does not give a direct answer; he evades the answer, though it looks that he was giving the answer. Instead of giving the answer directly, he says something else. What does he say? The very first thing that Yama speaks is śreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etas tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ (Katha 1.2.1): “Nachiketas, two things will come to every person – every person, without exception. The good as well as the pleasant, both will come. I have offered the pleasant before you, and you have rejected it. I am happy. I have a true disciple before me. All the best conceivable pleasantries in the universe I have offered to you. You said, ‘I do not want them.’ I am really glad, Nachiketas. Those persons who come face to face with these two forces, the pleasant and the good, have to choose between the two. Do you want the pleasant or the good? The good is not necessarily the pleasant; the pleasant is not necessarily the good. The sreyas is the good, the preyas is the pleasant. Now, what is it that you really want?”

Mostly we would ask for the pleasant, the satisfying, the delightful, the pleasing, and the beautiful. Who would ask for the bitter? The cup of death is bitter, but that is an ordeal that we cannot escape. Nobody escaped it. If we read the lives of saints and sages, we will find that it was at the point of death that they were lifted to the realm of illumination. Everything had to leave them, and they were completely disillusioned of the values and worth of the visible world and senses. Such is the good, which is bitter in the beginning but pleasant afterwards. Bitter is the cup of the spirit and the cup of death. The pleasant is the cup of sensual satisfaction, but bitter is the consequence. Which do we want? Do we want an early satisfaction and a grovelling suffering later on, or would we like to pass through the hardship of training now and then enjoy the delights of the spiritual realisation later on?

The good is different from the pleasant. Now, we mix up the two and mistake the pleasant for the good, and the good for the pleasant. The pleasant is nothing but the kama, or the desire, of the mind. What happens to those people who desire objects of the senses? In the Mundaka Upanishad we have the answer, or perhaps in the Kathopanishad itself we are given the very same answer: kāmān yah kāmayate manyamānaḥ sa kāmabhir jāyate tatra tatra, paryāpta-kāmasya kṛtāmanas tu ihaiva sarve pravilīyanti kāmāḥ (Mundaka 3.2.2). Here is the essence of spiritual life in this single verse. Kāmān yah kāmayate manyamānaḥ sa kāmabhir jāyate tatra tatra: In accordance with the structural pattern of your desire, you will be reborn in such and such a place. There is no hope of freedom for that soul which desires or longs for objects of the senses.

What is rebirth? It is nothing but the materialisation of the spirit in the form of the body in a particular locality of space for the sake of the satisfactions that have been frustrated or defeated in an earlier incarnation. Nobody punishes us. Our own desires punish us. Desires have to be fulfilled. Every desire has to be fulfilled. It will not leave us. It cannot go unfulfilled because a desire is a force. It is an energy that is manifest outside for the sake of materialisation, and if before the materialisation of the force of desires the body is shed on account of the exhaustion of prarabdha karma, what happens? That force of desire which had not been materialised will clamour for satisfaction and drag the soul to those conditions or circumstances where alone it can materialise the desire, and so there is rebirth. It can be in any realm, but it will be that particular locality or circumstance where alone these unfulfilled desires would be fulfilled. Kāmān yah kāmayate manyamānaḥ sa kāmabhir jāyate tatra tatra.

Paryāpta-kāmasya kṛtāmanas tu: If there is no desire, what will happen? If we want nothing, then what is rebirth? Rebirth is only the materialisation of desire. If there is no necessity for the materialisation of desire on account of the absence of desire itself, there is no rebirth. Paryāpta-kāmasya kṛtāmanas tu. Kritatma is one who has fulfilled himself completely on account of the cessation of desire for objects of the senses. Ihaiva sarve pravilīyanti kāmāḥ: Desires melt here itself like camphor that is burnt without any residue. There is a merger of the soul here itself into the spirit. There is no travelling or movement from place to place. The travelling in the realms or the lokas is due to the presence of desire in the mind. When the desires are absent, the soul has no cause to move from place to place in space.

So this is the fate of those who entertain desires, pursue the pleasant, or the preyas. But those who pursue sreyas, or the good, what happens to them? They unite themselves with Reality in every spec of space. It is not a uniting of oneself with any particular object. They spontaneously get united with every atom of space.

In the concluding portion of the Mundaka Upanishad, we have a description of the salvation of the soul. Mysteriously enough, the answers given by Yama to Nachiketas are not direct. They are all indirect answers, only giving a hint to what is intended behind the answers. The whole of the Kathopanishad is a vast history of the evolution of the spirit from stage to stage. Gradually the mind of Nachiketas is led from the lower stage to the higher stage – from the physical to the astral, from the cosmic fire Vaishvanara, and to the Atman itself, whose Self-absorption is questioned by Nachiketas. The entire answer is not to be seen in the Kathopanishad. We have to find this answer in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Yajnavalkya speaks to his consort Maitreyi. The question of what ultimately happens to the soul is not fully answered in the Kathopanishad, but the answer is given in the Brihadaranyaka. That is a different subject. We shall not touch it just now.

But Yama gives a tentative answer as to what happens to the soul when it enters samparaya. The word samparaya is used in the Kathopanishad, which means destruction, death, or the Beyond – which means to say, that which is on the other side of this world. After death, what happens to the soul is the literal interpretation or meaning of the question of Nachiketas. Well, this is not really the implied meaning of the question because Nachiketas would not have been so ignorant as to put this question as to what happens to the soul after death. It will be reborn, it is already told. The question was something else. “The Ultimate Beyond” is the word used there. When that is reached by the soul, what happens? Or, to put plainly, when the individual spirit, or the spark of divinity within us, unites itself with the Absolute Spirit, what happens to us? What do we experience? What do we feel?

To this again, no answer comes forth from Yama, but Yajnavalkya gives the answer. Towards that end we are led by Yama by another sort of discipline, which we have to bring to our memory so that we may not be too enthusiastic in any sort of bubbling emotion, as if we are very near Reality. We are far from it, because another severe discipline is prescribed towards the end of the Kathopanishad. That is, a definition of yoga is given there because yoga is supposed to be the path to the Spirit, the way to the Absolute. But what is yoga? Concisely in one verse it is described. Tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām, apramattas tadā bhavati, yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.11).

What is yoga? Tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām: The fixing of the powers of the senses is called yoga, according to Yama. Yoga is the focusing of the attention of the mind through a discipline of the senses, a conservation of the energy of the senses, and the mustering in of the powers of the senses so that they are fixed on one spot: tām yogam iti manyante. Sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām: The indriyas, or the powers of the senses, as I mentioned, are not the organs of perception. The indriyas meant here are not the eyes or the ears, etc., but the powers behind the action or function of seeing, hearing, etc. These energies have to be concentrated – pratyahara, as we usually call it in yoga. This has to be practised. This is called yoga: sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām.

But this is not a state in which we can remain for a long time: apramattas tadā bhavati, yogo hi prabhavāpyayau. This state of concentration, which is tentatively, temporarily gained by a focusing of the energies of the senses, comes and goes: yogo hi prabhavāpyayau. It has a beginning, and it has an end. Today we may be in a good state of concentration, and tomorrow we may not be in that state. Therefore, a caution is given: apramattas tadā bhavati. In the Sanat-Sujata of the Mahabharata, pramada is described. Pramada is heedlessness, carelessness. Carelessness is veritable death, says Sanatkumara to Dhritarashtra in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata, so here the very same point is brought in by Yama in the Kathopanishad when he says apramattas tadā bhavati: Do not be heedless. If we are careless and go by the notion that we have attained to yoga merely because we were concentrated yesterday for a few minutes, we will be done for. Be careful. It will not last long, even for a few minutes. It will slip out of our hand.

And also the definition is elaborated further in another mantra of the very same Upanishad: yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha, buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati, tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim (Katha 2.3.10). Pañcāvatiṣṭhante: pancha is the fivefold energy of the senses – the energy of perception through the eyes, the energy of hearing, of tasting, of smelling, of touching. When all these forces are brought together into a single point of focus, what happens? There is conservation of energy. Yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni. Jnanani means jnana-indriyani. Manasā saha: when the indriyas come together with the mind, or rather, when the rays of the mind are drawn back and there is a doubling of the energy of the mind. The mind is weak on account of the movement of force through the senses. The mind gets strengthened on account of the withdrawing of the energy of the mind that usually gets spilt out through perception through the senses: yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha. Not merely that, buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati: when the intellect does not oscillate; tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim: when that state is attained, you have reached the Supreme State. But we know the highest condition is the non-oscillation of the understanding or the intellect. The intellect oscillates whenever there is the function of judgment or decision.

Judgment is a logical process of dovetailing a predicate with a subject. Whenever we make a statement, give an opinion or pass a judgment, what happens is we connect the subject to the predicate. There is always a separation of two units, and then an artificial bringing together of these two units. We assume a difference between the subject and the predicate, and then try to bring the two together in logical judgment. So this is a defect of the process of ratiocination.

Hence, the intellect is not supposed to be independently a source of wisdom of the spirit. Naiṣā tarkeṇa matir āpaneyā (Katha 1.2.9), says the Kathaopanishad itself. By logical argumentation, this Spirit is not to be gained because logic has its defect. The initial flaw is having to separate two units of a judgment and then having to bring them together. We break the legs, and then bring them together. This is the defect of the logic and ratiocinating process, but the intellect has not to perform these functions. It has to stand by itself as a single lamp, merely illumining but not associating itself with the activities of the senses or the mind. The senses, the mind and the intellect have to come together and form a single energy. That is the Supreme State – tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim.

Also, we are told simultaneously there: yadā sarve pramucyante kāmā ye’sya hṛdi śritāḥ, atha martyo’mṛto bhavatyatra brahma samaśnute (Katha 2.3.14). These are all small verses giving a wealth of meaning, and perhaps the entire system of yoga is pressed into the few words of the verses. Yadā sarve pramucyante kāmā ye’sya hṛdi śritāḥ: When all the desires are liberated from the heart, what happens? Atha brahma samaśnute: The mortal becomes immortal here itself. Not tatra, but atha – not far off in a distant place, tomorrow or afterwards, after death, but now. Eternity is a here and a now. It is not an after, and it is not a tomorrow. It has no space, it has no time; therefore, it is just here: atha brahma samaśnute.

Now, with such elaborate descriptions of the path of the Spirit, Yama gives a sort of answer to the ultimate question: What happens to the soul when it is absorbed into the Absolute? This was the question of Nachiketas. We are led from the points mentioned in the Kathopanishad to the higher reaches given to us in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which are the crowning glory of culture, we may say, in one sense. The heights which the mind of Yajnavalkya reached are the Himalayas of the spirit, we may say. There is nothing higher than that. No human mind can conceive anything loftier than what Yajnavalkya conceived, and in a tumultuous emotion of having heard something shocking, Maitreyi queries Yajnavalkya. “What are you saying, my lord?”

There is loss of personality when the Absolute is realised. This is hinted at by Yajnavalkya after a long discourse with Maitreyi. What is meant by loss of personality? Is it a loss or a gain? We are not after losses. We are only after gains. Nobody wants to lose what one possesses. But this is a loss of what obstructs the vision of the Spirit. It is something like losing a fever or a cancer in the body. We are not a loser really; we are only a gainer. If a tumour is lost, we do not regard ourselves as losers, really speaking. We are only gaining. Health is gained but illness is lost.

But what does this mean? What is actually the experience? Does one see anything there, or does one not see anything there? “If one sees anything there, what does one see there?” was the question of Maitreyi. Yatra hi dvaitam iva bhavati, tad itara itaram paśyati, yatra tv asya sarvam ātmāivābhῡt, tat kena kam paśyet, yenedam sarvaṁ vijānāti, taṁ kena vijānīyāt (Brihad. 2.4.14). Terrifying and bewildering is the answer of Yajnavalkya to Maitreyi. What is one to see there? What does one expect to see there in that ocean of the spirit? Where one has something in front of oneself, one does necessarily see something, but where one has only oneself in front of oneself, what does one see? Does one not see anything there?

For that, the answer is given by Yajnavalkya again in his instruction to Janaka in another context altogether. It is not that one does not see there, but one does not see as one usually sees. Yad vai tan na paśyati, paśyan vai tan na paśyati (Brihad. 4.3.23): He sees, and yet does not see. He sees, and yet it is not an actual seeing through the senses. Why do we say that he sees, and yet does not see? Na hi draṣṭur dṛṣṭer viparilopo vidyate, avināśitvāt; na tu tad dvitīyam asti, tato’nyad vibhaktam yat paśyet: The seer has become one with the seen there. So what does one really see there? We cannot say that one does not see anything there, because the object of seeing is already there. Everything that is to be seen is there; necessarily, therefore, there is seeing. But a mysterious phenomenon has taken place. That which is to be seen has become a part of seeing itself. Then what does one really see? Does one see, or does one not see? Yes, one sees, because all the objects of perception are there intact. And yet one does not see in another sense because that which is to be seen or cognised has become part of the cogniser himself.

These are the crowning answers of Yajnavalkya as if to give a satisfying conclusion to what Yama in the Kathopanishad began in answer to the question of Nachiketas. We pass from stage to stage, from one encounter to another. The path of the spirit is a path of encounter, of facing problems and problems, vistas and vistas, newer and newer visions, and higher and higher integrations of oneself. The integration becomes complete when the object which is to be cognised becomes a part of the cogniser himself. That is the pinnacle of integration.

But the lower integrations are of a different nature altogether. The lesser integration is where we see a harmony around us. It is not actually unity of the object of perception with the perceiving process, which is the last thing to be experienced, but only a harmony or a collaboration of forces. But in the lower stage, still we see a difference of things as if there is nothing connected in this world. Everything is thrown in different places by an invisible connecting link of space, time and cause.

But for gravitation, space, time and cause, etc., there would not be even a conceptual unity or harmony among things. We cannot see a physical unity of things. We have only an imaginary unity, such as what we call social unity, international unity, family unity, etc., which is really not there. It can be broken any moment because it is only a conceptual relationship that has been established by the function of the mind of people. But higher than that is actual physical merging of forces, a creative entering of forces into themselves so that there is an awakening of oneself to the fact that harmony is not merely conceptual or notional as we have in the physical world, but it is creative existence. It really is there. There is a real collaboration of forces. One is connected with the other as threads in a cloth, we may say. Physically we can see the interconnection of threads in a cloth. They are not merely notionally connected, but really and physically are related to one another. However, the highest integration is where the threads themselves get lifted to an awareness of there not being any kind of warp or woof, but a single indeterminate mass of existence, a featureless transparency of Spirit.

Towards that we have to move through these arduous processes of ordeal – the discipline of the body, the discipline of the mind, the psychological organs, and finally the overstepping of the boundaries set before us by the causal body itself, which I said are represented by the three days of fasting by Nachiketas. So from the individual body there is the rise of consciousness to the astral level, from the astral level the consciousness rises to the causal level, and from the causal level the consciousness rises to the cosmic intellectual level, the Mahat-tattva, as it is mentioned in the Kathopanishad. From the cosmic intellectual level we rise to the cosmic causal level. This is what the Vedanta calls as Ishvara. And from the cosmic causal level, we rise to the Absolute.

All these stages are described in a scattered manner in the Kathopanishad itself, so that we may safely say that the Kathopanishad is a wondrous epic of the spirit before us, a beautiful scripture which I would like every one of you to study with deep concentration.