The Esoteric Significance of the Kathopanishad
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 1: The World is an Arena of Sacrifice

The need we feel in life for mutual cooperation in all the enterprises in which we engage ourselves would perhaps reveal that we live in a world of sacrifice. If this had not been the case, it would have been easy for each person to live each for oneself and mind not the existence of other people in the world. Though often we, as human beings, feel an impulse from inside to assert ourselves as independent beings, and this affirmation many a time takes a vehement form, landing even in clashes among people, there is a subtle undercurrent vibrating at the back of all this outward manifestation of disparity as an inclination towards cooperation and a wish for the welfare of all people. In spite of a vicious impulse of a terrific self-affirmation of one’s individuality in an obviously selfish form, in spite of all this well-known fact in human nature, there seems to be another voice speaking within us that the welfare of others is a good thing, and it is not merely a good thing, but an unavoidable thing.

From one angle of vision it may appear that one is working for his own self or her own self, and there is some justification for this view considering the way in which people behave in the workaday life and the secret and the subtle motivations of personality hidden beneath outward enterprises in public existence. This we see in political fields and in the communities of people. When we are rubbed very hard to an extent which we may consider as intolerable, we may manifest an utterly selfish attitude and stand only for ourselves as totally independent individuals, wishing that the world may go to the dogs. This is not impossible for any person, and often it looks as if this is the true nature of man.

But there has always been a ringing tone in the voices of people, right from creation onwards evidently, that we have to live together for a common purpose. Even selfish motivation may not succeed finally unless it is capable of receiving sufficient cooperation from other people. An unselfish gesture in respect of the existence of other people like us sometimes seems to contribute to the prosperity of one’s own selfish objective also. There is a very peculiar dextrous movement of the mind in its daily activities which rapidly takes effect, like the movement of cinematographic films moving so fast that we cannot even know that they are moving. The adjustment psychologically that we make in our lives quickly and precisely, to the point, is a miracle of human nature. There is a multifaceted encounter of human nature which it faces with a tremendous dexterity, an art which it learns right from childhood even without being tutored in any university. Each one knows how to maintain oneself; even an animal or a beast knows that. There does not seem to be much of an education necessary to know the science of maintaining oneself.

But together with this impulse which is totally individualised and offsetting itself as the crude urges of hunger, thirst and the like, we have a feeling for others. Even animals live in herds. They do not live alone. Even birds live together. We do not see one bird sitting alone, unbefriended. Pigs have their own community. Cattle think alike. And there is a social instinct apparently manifesting itself together with the individual instinct of man. This is the reason why psychoanalysts and social philosophers have not been able to come to a concurrence in their opinions as to the true character of human individuality.

Are we altruistic essentially or selfish essentially? The social psychology, based on a social philosophy, seems to proclaim that without the positive manifestation of the social instinct, the individual may perish. At the same time, it appears that the human being is basically selfish and the social instinct is not an independent activity of the mind. It is an extended form of human selfishness, says psychoanalysis. Even our gesture of goodwill towards others may be a subtle expression of a secret selfishness which it tries to fulfil by a method which is very carefully projected onto the screen of public actions.

The question boils down to this fundamental crucial issue: Is man also a kind of animal if his basic instincts seem to be non-distinguishable from the animal instincts of self-preservation, even at the cost of everything in the world? Are we tigers, snakes, lions walking on two legs? This has been accepted by certain political philosophers and psychoanalysts, to the discomfiture and consternation of all well-meaning people in the world. Man is a mystery. He cannot be fully studied by sociology or psychoanalysis. He is not a mathematical equation. ‘A’ is equal to ‘B’, and ‘B’ is equal to ‘C’; therefore, ‘A’ is equal to ‘C’. This kind of argument will not hold good with human nature. It is a marvel in itself, and therefore, no scientific observation can study man. If psychoanalysis and psychology are sciences, and sociology is also one of the sciences, call them humanities if you like, they will fail miserably in understanding what man is. He is more than all these sciences and arts. He is the creator of these.

We cannot gainsay that we have a goodness in us with all the crude behaviours that one is capable of under pressurised circumstances. This basic cooperative instinct is seen seen sometimes in animals, though we may dub them as utterly beastly and selfish. Tame animals do not behave like animals. When they are educated into a new type of awareness, they behave in a more coordinated way than they would be expected to behave as beasts in the jungle.

The miracle of God’s creation is said to be man himself, and this mystery that man is incapable of being dissected into scientific apparatus or objects capable of observation by telescopes or microscopes is laid before us in an interesting narration of a scripture that goes by the name of the Kathopanishad, a spiritual saga sung before us by the ancient masters who had, to a large extent, plumbed the depths of being and saw things with an eye that could vitally associate itself with what it saw.

I began by saying that this world seems to be an arena of sacrifice. We cannot explain the martyrdom of people and the hectic activity of nationalists, or even the protagonists of creeds and cults and religions, if utter beastly selfishness is the essential nature of man. Would any person wish to die for the sake of the objective which is not visible to one’s eyes – national welfare, communal wellbeing, and family protection, for instance? Even the guarding of one’s own brother or sister cannot be associated with utter selfishness unless we completely rule out the very existence of such expressions of the human psyche in the world.

No sane person in moods of sobriety and sanity would agree with the definition of man as a wholly self-centred beast, though we cannot argue against the discoveries of psychoanalysts. There are things which we cannot argue against nor argue for, yet there may be facts which cannot come within the purview of arguments. As I mentioned, argumentative logic and scientific observations do not exhaust the truths of the universe. There are facts, there are truths, there are realities which logic cannot fathom and science cannot observe. One of such mysteries is man himself, the human character.

The Kathopanishad, to which I made reference, is the story of man as he is located in the context of creation, a theme which I would like to dilate upon on this occasion of the Sadhana Saptaha, inasmuch as it appears, to me at least, that the Kathopanishad is the story of spiritual ascent. It is the sadhana, the spiritual endeavour of the human individual towards the achievement of ultimate perfection that is narrated to us in epic form in the Kathopanishad.

The word ‘sacrifice’ is familiar to you all. We perform sacrifices everywhere – yajnas, havanas as they are called. We hear of great sacrifices which the ancients performed – rajasuya, asavameda, somayajna, etc. Large altars are constructed, mantras are recited, and oblations are offered to the deities. Sacrifices of a ritualistic type are not unknown, especially in this country. They are prevalent in some measure even in this day. So when we speak of yajna or sacrifice, we are likely to think of pouring sacred objects into the fire in a yajna kunda or an altar. Maybe. This is one form of sacrifice. But this is a ritual expression of sacrifice which life seems to be. Life does not appear to get exhausted by rituals or gestures or activities of any kind.

Now we are coming to a very interesting feature of human existence itself, which I was trying to identify with sacrifice. If life cannot be equated wholly with activity and we can be alive even without being active, and therefore, life may be something different from what we call action or performance, then yajna or sacrifice need not necessarily be the ritualistic performances with which we are usually familiar in orthodox circles.

The concern of man, and of all living beings, is primarily the instinct of living. It is the instinct to exist, to live, a word which you cannot define adequately. You do not know what it is to live. You may say to live is to do something. On a careful study of this situation you will realise that to live need not necessarily mean to do something. There may be something in you which cannot be equated with activity of any kind. You, the so-called I or you, evidently, obviously, indescribably though, seems to be transcendent to anything that you consider as a performance, a duty, an activity, a ritual, any kind of relationship. You may be able to live without any relationship, without any activity, performance, ritual or doing of any kind. Yet, life is a sacrifice. Therefore, it has to be a sacrifice in a difference sense, not necessarily in the sense of doing something, even if it be a religious way of doing as yajnas in yajna kundas, etc.

The Kathopanishad begins with a description of this large sacrifice. This was undertaken in ancient times by a very great sage called Vajasravasa for his future welfare. Now, we are driven again back to the same point of the purpose behind activities and sacrifices. The purpose seems to be one’s welfare. We may say it is others’ welfare also. Again we are jumping into the same difficulty of the relationship between the individual and society. Let us not probe into it too much now. It was the intention of the great performer of the sacrifice, Vajasravasa, to lay by some merit for his future exaltations in the other realm when the body is shed, when the phenomenon of death takes place. The ancient tradition was followed by him that one has to reach the heaven of the gods, the celestials, and it is a belief prevalent right from the time of the Vedas that sacrifices offered to gods will promise heavenly enjoyment in the future for the yajnamana, or the performer.

Sacrifice is parting with something which one possesses. It may be the offering of ghee when we actually utter the mantras and conclude with saying svaha. We offer to the sacred fire some charu or holy ghee or some such thing. Some article which we possess, which belongs to us, is offered as a gesture of parting with our own little joy for the sake of a larger joy, maybe in heaven.

The yajna, or the sacrifice, which Vajasravasa the sage performed was called vishwajit, a sacrifice which is not known to people these days and not undertaken by anyone nowadays. A world-conquering sacrifice was vishwajit, as we have Indrajit; one who has conquered Indra is called Indrajit, one who conquers the universe is vishwajit. Vajasravasa the sage performed a yajna called vishwajit for the conquering of the blessedness of heavenly satisfaction. He gave away all his possessions because it is laid down that the more is the charity that you do, the greater is the joy that comes to you as a recompense thereof.

But man is after all man, he cannot be anything else. Man cannot be an angel in one minute. The aspiration for heavenly enjoyment in Vajasravasa was one thing, and the man that Vajaravasa was, was another thing. So two operations were taking place simultaneously in this person. He was thinking as a learned Brahman, Vajasravasa, owning wealth and cattle and many other possessions, and at the same time aspiring for that which is not of this world. He had to offer all the things of this world for the sake of another world. Here is a suggestion that the other world seems to be superior to the present world, else no one would be prepared to offer this world for the sake of another world. You would not like to die here merely because you want to live somewhere else, unless life somewhere else is far superior to life here. This was known to Vajasravasa, and everyone knows that perhaps this is the meaning behind every gesture of goodwill, kind word, a word of thanks or servicefulness. Else, there is no point in doing any of these things.

The little gesture of sacrifice that we communicate in respect of others is a tendency towards movement in the direction the higher world. Our world is this body only, and when we do a little sacrifice we have transcended this bodily world and extended it to the realm of other people’s existence. We cannot have any sense of affection for other people unless we have overcome the sense of satisfaction with only this bodily world. If this body were all and I am totally satisfied with living in this body only, there would be no point in my talking to another person. I would totally mind my own business. The gesture of good will, in whatever form it may be expressed, is a tendency to the recognition of an existence of a world transcending the physical world of body. Here is a philosophical note attached to the story that I am trying to narrate.

Vajasravasa performed this yajna, and offered everything that he possessed. What was it that he possessed? He had plenty of land, buildings, silver, gold, cattle and the like, evidently, the details of which are not available to us in the Kathopanishad. The Upanishad, in a very cryptic form, tells us that this sacrifice which he performed was not true to its spirit, it was true only to the letter. He followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.

Often we can conduct ourselves very cleverly by engaging ourselves in the letter and very conveniently ignore the spirit. Sacrifices, performances, even religious attitudes may turn into a letter rather than a spirit if a long rope is given to the instinct in man, because though man has an aspiration for that which is superhuman, yet man is still man only. A human instinct works simultaneously with a superhuman aspiration in every one of us. We are two people at the same time, almost every minute of the day. We can behave as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in one second. Such a double attitude each person has in this world. So we agree with the noble aspiration that manifests itself in us in the direction of a larger dimension of existence which we may call the heavenly existence, yet the greed for physical existence persists.

People are thinking what will happen to their family – sons and daughters and property, etc. – after their death. They are worried even before they die. When I go to the other world, what will happen to the land? Who will take care of it? “What will happen to this house? Someone may grab it and take it. Or my children may become spendthrifts and exhaust all the wealth that I have earned with the sweat of my brow.” These anxieties are not uncommon in man. Though it is true that a person who is thinking thus is not going to have any relationship with what he is thinking of now after he sheds this body – he will be in a new space-time complex altogether, he will not have any kind of sensible contact with the things he is worrying about now – yet the worry continues. Human nature goes simultaneously with a transhuman aspiration.

So in the case of this sage Vajasravasa there was greed for satisfaction, joy in the heavenly empire after the passing from this world, but he was not prepared to entirely give up his possessions in this world in the true spirit of sacrifice. So he was evidently throwing off bad coins in the coffer of temples, torn notes which could not be used by anybody. God can take it because man cannot use it. This is sometimes the gesture of people like us. No one takes this torn note or some old coin which nobody will use today, every shopkeeper rejects it, so we throw it in some temple.

In this spirit of a self-deceptive conduct, Vajasravasa is said to have been offering things which were not worth their salt. Cattle which were famished, cows which would not yield any milk further and were counting their days, having drunk their water for the last time and eaten their fodder finally – such things were evidently being given as charity, a great sacrifice for the sake of the heavenly rejoicings to come later on.

He seems to have had a son called Nachiketas. We know very little of this intricate story except the bare outline we have been given in the Taittariya Brahmana and the Kathopanishad. From what we can gather from the story given to us in outline, it appears this boy was intelligent. He knew the nature of the sacrifice that was being performed by the father, the purpose for which it was conducted, and so on. He knew that it was a sacrifice, a vishwajit, which required the performer to give in charity everything that he possessed. The boy seemed to have observed that he did not offer in charity everything that he possessed. The good cows were kept perhaps, and the old ones, the decrepit ones, were given in charity. In a mood which we are not able to describe today as we are not living in those days, in a peculiar mood the boy ran to the father and queried him: “My father, to whom are you offering me?” because he was also one of the properties belonging of the father. Why the boy queried like this, we are not able to understand. What was the motive behind this question? Was he sarcastically pointing out to the father that his sacrifice was only a whitewash, or was he honestly feeling that he too had to be given one day because he is also one of the properties? Whatever the reason be behind this query of the boy, he presented himself before the father and said, “Father, to whom are you going to offer me?”

Well, no father would like to listen to such impertinent poses. The father kept quiet. He was busy with his own activities, yajnas. The boy persisted. “To whom are you going to offer me? The father kept quiet. A third time the boy insisted, “To whom are you going to offer me?” In a contour of anger or rage, the father seems to have blurted the imprecation: “To death I give you.” “Go to hell,” as we sometimes say in anger.

The story is very mystical. It is not merely a narration like a novel. Something seems to have happened to the boy immediately after this incident, and the next thing that we are told in the Upanishad is that the boy found himself in the courtyard of the god of death, Yama. Whether he went astrally travelling voluntarily by his own God-given power or he died due to the imprecation and his spirit gravitated to Yamaloka, this is not mentioned in the Upanishad. However, for our purposes it is immaterial as to how he went there. The point before us is something quite different, to which I will refer a little later.

The Upanishad tells us that Yama, the god of death, was not there. The lord of the house was absent; he was out of station; he was not there. The boy stood at the gate of the palace of the great lord. One night passed, two nights passed, three nights passed. He did not eat, he did not drink, and he did not sleep. He observed fast and vigil for three continuous days and nights, and on the third day Yama appeared before him.

“Dear boy, what made you come here? Where were you for these three days? What were you doing? I am very sorry I could not greet you with the respect that is due to a holy man like you. I was not here. It is unbecoming on the part of any person to show scant respect to a guest who comes, especially a guest like you. What have you eaten?”

“I have eaten all the merit that you have performed,” the boy replied. That is, if a guest starves outside while you are eating well in your house, that guest is supposed to eat all your merits. Though you are eating your meal, he is eating your good. All your good karmas are swallowed by him. “I ate your cattle, your children, your merit. Everything I ate.” Some such peculiar reply was given.

Yama was startled. “I am deeply grieved. You have starved before me for three days. Ask for three boons, and go happy.”

Here we conclude today.