The Esoteric Significance of the Kathopanishad
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 4: Overcoming the Limitations of Space and Time

The great attainment which is the subject of the three boons granted to Nachiketas is not an easy affair. While the Upanishad grandly describes the glory and the magnificence of this supreme realisation and experience, it also side by side gives us some hints regarding the efforts that may have to be put forth for being blessed with this experience. This effort is called sadhana, spiritual practice, or yoga.

The word ‘yoga’, commonly translated as ‘union’, is also to be understood in its proper context, connotation and spirit. The whole of life is a yoga. It is an art of communing oneself with Reality. Every moment of our life we are attuning ourselves to the reality of circumstance. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, we are practising some kind of yoga, without which life would be impossible even for three minutes. The intelligent adjustments that we are making with the reality and the circumstances prevailing around us consist in a method that we are adopting to place ourselves in the context of this atmosphere, a context of harmony and alignment. This is precisely yoga.

When we are a member in a small family of several people, we are practising yoga if we are to live harmoniously in that family. If we are not to be in a state of perpetual conflict with the other members of the family, if the family is to be an undivided happy one, we are practising a yoga there, though we may not call it a yoga. Our individual proclivities or our whole personality is tuned up to the purpose of the whole family, which consists of many members like us. This is yoga. When we unite ourselves with Reality, we are in a state of yoga. The family is a reality, and we have united ourselves with the pattern and the arrangement and the structure and the objective of the family. If each member behaves independently from his own or her own point of view, there will be no such thing as a family. It will be dismembered in one second.

If a family is a good thing and a necessity, if it is to exist as an undivided compound or a composite structure, each member has to participate in the welfare of another in the light of a purpose for which the family exists. The family is a transcendent meaning that is immanent and inherent in every member of the family.

What we call a family is not the different people that are living in a house. It is an aim, objective, purpose – an ideology. The family is an idea. Thus, we may say the family is a concept, and not something that is visible to the eyes. What is visible is only people. Many people sitting together do not constitute a family. A family is a conceptual harmony operating immanently in the midst of the individuals that are supposed to constitute the family. So when we are united with the family, we are united with an immanent principle that pervades the members of the family. This is yoga. We are sacrificing our personality for the purpose of the welfare of the family because the welfare of the family is also our welfare. We know it very well. It is our own welfare because we are not separate from the family.

This yoga can be extended to larger dimensions like community, nationality, etc. If the nation is happy, we are also happy. A citizen of a particular nation practises yoga when he behaves like a citizen. When we belong to a larger body and adapt ourselves in a harmony with the purpose for which this body or an organisation or a setup exists, we are in a state of yoga.

I am trying to tell you how all life is yoga. There is nothing anywhere in this world except yoga. Yoga pervades every nook and corner of the Earth, without which everyone will vanish in one moment. There will be a destruction of all life if yoga is not to be practised. We are practising it without knowing that we are doing it. I have given you only a very little, crude, simple example of a family or a communal structure.

These ideas of being a citizen of Bharatmata or Bharatvarsha, America or Britain are transcendent to individuality. When you say “I am British”, you are not referring to your body. You are referring to an ideal for which you are standing. When I say “I am an Indian”, I am not speaking of this body seated here. I am speaking of a cultural pattern of unity to which I belong, of which I am a part, with which I am attuned.

The world is a human family. Today the world has grown so large, and also shrunken at the same time into a single unit; therefore, at the present moment, not to consider our involvement in the setup of the whole of humanity would be to think very poorly. There is no use merely thinking in terms of family, our little community or even one country. These small countries are involved in a larger setup of organisation, which is the human species in its wholeness. Like that, atmospheres around us, when they seem to determine us, demand from us a sacrifice which is not a loss, but a gain.

A sacrifice is not losing something. Generally, when we speak of sacrifice, we feel that something has been lost. “Oh, that person has done a great sacrifice.” When we make statements like this, we mean the gentleman or the lady who has done the sacrifice has lost some precious thing which belonged to himself or herself. Nobody would like to lose anything. That would be a sorrow. But sacrifice is a joy. How can loss be a joy? Sacrifice is a gain, and not a loss. Yoga is a sacrifice; therefore, it is not a loss.

If to be a member in the family, which requires a sacrifice on our part, would be a loss on our part, who would be in the family? We would run away and be independent. Why do people form organisations if to sacrifice their personal motivations for the welfare of the organisation is a loss? To organise a setup is a gain. People register societies, form trusts, and arrange groups of people for the fulfilment of a purpose which is above the individual purpose of each member belonging to that group. This consciousness that the individual is organically connected to a purpose transcendent to one’s own personality is the yoga consciousness.

So when we are united in yoga, we are not united with any person or object. We are united with an ideal for which people stand, and this ideal is the reality, and not the visible objects.

I have been hinting at this point for the last one or two days – namely, that a reality is transcendent to visible objects. All the activities, engagements and enterprises of ours in life are intended for the fulfilment of an ideal which is invisible to the eyes though it appears as if we are clinging to bodies of persons and things. Nobody will be interested in an object or a person unless there is a purpose behind it, and that purpose is other than the person and the thing concerned. My relationship to a person or a thing is for a purpose. That purpose is more important than the person or the thing. This we should not forget. If I love my child, if I have affection for my father or mother, if I am united with a family, if I work for a nation, it is for a purpose, an intention, an objective, an ideology which we cannot see with our eyes.

So everyone lives for a great ideal. We are living for something which is invisible to the eyes. This is an interesting revelation. We are working for invisible things, and not for the visible world, though we wrongly may interpret our associations as physical, visible, concrete and the like. We have no love for any physical thing in the world. The physical thing, so-called, is an instrument which evokes in our mind a consciousness of an ideal for which we are existing and working.

The great point made out in the Kathopanishad through these great boons granted to Nachiketas are ideals. What was Nachiketas asking for? He did not want the three worlds or the pleasures of heavens. He was asking for knowledge of a secret which cannot be called a visible object, which he considered as superior to everything – all three worlds and planes of existence. What a wonder! All the realms of being and the planes of existence are nothing compared to the knowledge of this secret.

E=mc2 is an algebraic equation. It is not something visible to the eyes. But this knowledge is superior to everything that is visible to the eyes. This little, conceptual equation can do and undo things. It can create the world and destroy the world, though it is merely an algebraic equation. Mere concepts can rule the world, and concepts do rule the world. I gave you a hint the other day that the government is only a concept, and it is ruling the world. Individuals are not the government; particular objects do not constitute money and property and value. Ideals are our properties.

We will be surprised to know that we seem to be existing for something which is invisible to our eyes, though we are appearing to cling to things which are visible. Our understanding is not rooted in sankhya, to put it in the language of the Bhagavadgita. We have no proper discrimination. We do not know what we are thinking, we do not know what we are doing, and we do not know what we are working for.

This great ideal of the universe is the object with which we have to get united. Yoga is the union of ourselves with the ideal for which the whole universe stands. The ideal for which the universe stands is also the ideal for which mankind stands. It is also the ideal for which any country stands. It is the same ideal for which our family stands, for which every human being stands, for which even an ant crawls and a bee buzzes, the wind blows, the rain falls, the sun shines. Everything is active for a single purpose. If we can be in tune with this purpose, we are in a state of yoga.

Yoga is a miracle: āścaryavat paśyati (Gita 2.29). People speak of yoga, that it is a miracle. It is a miracle because it is not a physical object that can be seen or experimented upon with instruments. Ātmānaṁ rathinaṁ viddhi, śarīraṁ ratham eva tu: buddhiṁ tu sāradhiṁ viddhi, manaḥ pragraham eva ca; indriyāṇi hayān āhur viṣayāṁs teṣu gocarān, ātmendriya-mano-yuktam bhoktety āhur manīṣiṇaḥ (Katha 1.3.3-4) says the Kathopanishad. We are moving towards the goal through the process of the evolution of the universe. Our participation in this cosmic movement is yoga. We are driving a vehicle in this direction of the great purpose of the cosmos. This vehicle is this personality of ours. This individuality of ours is a chariot, a vehicle, a ratha, and this body moves like the vehicle in the desired direction. As there is a driver for a motorcar and a charioteer for a chariot, and the vehicle does not move of its own accord but is directed by an intelligence, the reason in us is the charioteer.

The chariot is yoked to the horses, which pull the chariot in the desired direction. These horses are the senses, and the horses are controlled by reins. The charioteer controls the movement of the horses by the reins he holds in his hands. The mind is the reins; the senses are the horses. This body is the chariot, and the intellect is the charioteer. The objects of the senses are the roads along which the chariot is driven towards the destination of what is called in the Upanishad tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam (Katha 1.3.9): the abode of the Supreme Being.

If the charioteer is drunk or he has taken a sleeping pill, if he is not concentrated in the attention which he has to give for the movement of the chariot, he will find the chariot in the ditch. The motorcar will go down the precipice. If our reason is not properly directed, our personality can go amok due to the restive horses which have not been properly controlled by this reason through the reins of the mind.

Thus, many things are involved in the practice of yoga. The road has to be well laid. The objects are the roads. Whatever we see with our eyes is the road along which we have to move. This world is a passage to God. It is not an obstacle; it is not a hell that God has created for us. Along the very objects that are visible to the eyes, this chariot has to be driven. Here is a great secret which may easily escape our notice: how the objects of the senses, which are considered as evils from which we have to restrain ourselves, are also considered as the way or the road along which we have to move. We shall consider this matter shortly.

Self-control is the meaning of this description given in the Upanishad. What does the driver of the motorcar do except practise self-control? What vigilance does he exercise? He cannot be wool-gathering when he drives the vehicle along a winding road. The people who are seated in the vehicle may be sleeping, or reading a newspaper. Whatever they may be doing, the driver cannot afford to be missing the point of his attention.

Sri Krishna was the charioteer of Arjuna, and more intelligent than the rider; otherwise, the chariot would go astray. This chariot analogy is everywhere. It is in the Bhagavadgita, in the Mahabharata, in the Kathopanishad, in the Dialogues of Plato, to our surprise. Plato mentions this analogy of the chariot in his Dialogues, though we cannot expect him to have read the Upanishads or even heard of the Bhagavadgita. He lived some three centuries before Christ. All great men think alike, so they need not read scriptures for that.

The comparison of this body to the chariot is interesting. It is significant with the necessity for control of oneself. Yoga is self-control. On the one hand, yoga is a movement towards the Supreme Being and, simultaneously, it is self-control because self-control is the same as movement in the right direction. Withdrawal is the same as forging oneself forward. To go within is the same as going without. These are intriguing statements. The more we go deep into ourselves, the more we are plumbing into the depths of the universe. The less do the senses operate in respect of external contact with the objects, the more do they attune themselves with the reality that is inside.

A question may arise: What is the point about self-control? Why should we control the senses? On the one side, you say the roads along which the chariot has to move are the very objects of the senses. On the other side, you say you must withdraw the senses from the objects. What do you mean by these statements?

The objects so-called, with which the senses cognise and come in contact, do no harm. The roads cannot do any harm to the vehicle. It is the driver that can go wrong. It is the machine that can go out of order; the road is perfectly all right. The road does not attack the vehicle and force the vehicle to fall down somewhere. Likewise, the world does not trouble us. The objects of the senses are simple creations of the Almighty. They are not there either to please us or to displease us. The road is not meant for our satisfaction or our dissatisfaction. It is there. It is up to us to utilise it in the way we are expected to use it. The wind blows, and we cannot say the wind should blow only in this way for us, or the sun should shine in this manner only. They do their work properly from the point of view of a large setup of things to which they belong and of which they seem to be conscious, of which we are perhaps not conscious. They are more impersonal than we individuals are.

The senses are not properly united with their objects in ordinary sense perception. Actually, what we call sense contact is only a sense repulsion. Our loves are not really loves; affections are not affections. They are diseases of the mind. All our longings, cravings, affections and loves are diseases, and are not healthy attitudes. Sometimes illness also may bring a satisfaction, such as eczema which may cause some joy by scratching it. But eczema is an illness only; it is not a joy merely because we scratch and find satisfaction.

All sense satisfaction is an itching of the senses, which we are scratching and feel that we are satisfied. Actually, the senses do not come in contact with the objects. They are repelled by the objects. And when an electric current repels us, we feel a sensation. This sensation it is that we are interpreting as pleasure or pain. Pleasures and pains are electrical repulsions caused by the presence of objects in respect of our senses, and they are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. They are impersonal occurrences taking place.

The senses cannot come in real contact with the objects because there is a thing called space-time which prevents the union of things. The very purpose of space and time is to separate things. Space is the factor that divides objects, and as long as space hangs like a curtain in front of us, it will not permit us to come in real contact or union with the objects. So we never come in real union with our beloved. We are always outside. Therefore, there is bereavement. We cannot possess anything in this world because the space-time complex will not permit possession. Yet we crave. Why do we crave in spite of the inability to fulfil the craving? This is because of a double activity that is taking place in our personality due to our placement in two realms of being: the phenomenal and the noumenal.

The phenomenal involvement of our personality in the space-time complex prevents our real union with the objects of the senses. Therefore, there is bereavement, sorrow, death, destruction, suffering in this world. But the craving persists nevertheless because we also belong to the noumenal world which presses itself forward for union with its own self as an immanent reality pervading all things.

So while our intention is pious, the method that we are adopting is impious. The desire that we have for union with the objects in our affections and loves is not basically morbid or undesirable. The method that we are adopting is erroneous. There is a wrong notion in the mind that objects are outside the senses and external to our personality. I have tried to mention this earlier that we are not outside the world and the world is not outside us. So the question of coming in contact in a spatial sense does not arise as long as it is true that we are not outside the objects.

Yet we cannot love a thing unless it is outside us. We cannot love our nose and kiss it every day because it is us. We do not embrace our own arms: “My dear arm, how are you, my beloved?” We do not say “my dear beloved” to this arm, though it is very beloved, of course. Our beloved is something which is not us, which is outside us, which we cannot get in three periods of time. We are, therefore, fools of the first water.

Thus it is that we are suffering from birth to death. Our beloveds cannot be obtained by us. We are tantalised by the appearances which we are wanting to obtain, possess and enjoy, but we can never have. The world deceives us, if at all we may say it is deception, because of the involvement of a peculiar arrangement called space-time which eludes our grasp and yet persists in acting contrary to our wishes. This is the travesty of involvement in phenomenal existence. By phenomenon, I mean involvement in externality; and space-time is nothing but that.

But we are not merely phenomenal beings. “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” This is from Shakespeare. There is a divinity within us, though sometimes there is a devil also. The divinity is the noumenal reality persisting to come in contact with its own self as a pervading principle everywhere, which is the reason why we are perpetually desiring from day to day. Births and deaths are not a bar to the fulfilment of desires.

So the longing for the objects of sense, or the longing of any kind whatsoever, is basically motivated and impelled by the universality of the Supreme Being. But the impossibility to come in contact with it is due to our involvement in the phenomenal world of space-time, this bodily complex. Thus it is that we are tantalised from moment to moment, like the carrot that is hung in front of the nose of an ass, which it can never get though it moves forward because the carrot is also moving forward. It is like catching the horizon, which we can never reach because as we move towards the horizon, it goes further and further away from us. It is like a mirage. All that we love in this world is a mirage. When we go near it, it goes further and further, so that we die without getting it.

The necessity for self-control or sense control or mind control arises because of the fact that phenomenal contacts are not yoga. Yoga is noumenal union, called samadhi.

The great Vaishvanara, about which I said a few words regarding the second boon granted to Nachiketas, is the Universal Being, whose original is touched upon in the third boon asked for by Nachiketas. Self-control is the freedom that we exercise as noumenal realities from involvement in the phenomenal world of externality, which is space-time. So we should not try to contact the objects with the senses. We cannot contact them because they are always outside. A thing that is really outside cannot be contacted. A thing that is really outside us cannot be possessed, cannot be enjoyed. So to expect anything in this world is idiocy. We cannot expect any satisfaction in this world. It will not give us one jot of joy because we cannot really come in contact with the reality of the world. The reason is that we are outside the world; the world is outside us. This is what it says when space-time hangs heavily upon our heads.

Thus, sense control or self-control is a transcendence of space-time itself, in one sense. Patanjali, in his great Yoga Sutras, gives detailed techniques of this practice of sense control or self-control, which is precisely what we call yoga. The Kathopanishad analogy of this chariot is the analogy of the manner in which the senses, the mind and the reason have to be directed properly towards the achievement of the great destination – tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam: Narayana the Almighty, Brahman the Absolute.

Why should the senses be controlled? Because the senses are unnecessarily trying to come in contact with a thing with which they cannot come in contact under the existing conditions. If a rose flower is reflected through a glass window, sometimes honey bees hit their head against the pane without knowing that there is glass which prevents them from touching the flower. Sometimes they hit themselves so hard that they die there. They cannot see the obstruction because it is transparent. The flower is seen, and they want to touch it and go and sit on it, enjoy the honey that is in the flower. They go on buzzing and hitting it, but they cannot go through it. They will die there, but cannot get anything.

Something like this happens to us. We go on hitting our head against the objects of the senses but there is something midway between us and the objects, against which we strike our heads and die without getting the things. This glass pane is the space-time arrangement. It is transparent. We cannot even see it. We cannot imagine that this so-called thing, this space and time, is so hard a substance that it can prevent our contact with realities. Glass is transparent; it cannot be seen. We think that it is not there at all, but it is enough to prevent our entry.

Space and time are subtle ethereal obstructions which are harder than rock and flint; therefore, we cannot come in contact with our beloved objects in the world, whoever it be – father, wife, children, whatever it is. We cannot get any one of them. We are utterly foolish.

Thus, it is necessary to withdraw the senses. What for? Not to lose these beloved things, but to come in real contact with them. When you withdraw the senses you overcome the limitations of space and time, and then you will really be able to love, enjoy, possess, and come in contact with your father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children. Now you are not getting them, but afterwards you will get them. You are seeing their shadows now; afterwards you will get their realities. Which is better, reality or shadow? Do you want a shadow of your wife, or an original? The original is somewhere else; you are seeing only the shadow now. That original you can contact when the soul of your father, mother, property, wealth, wife, children, is grasped by you, by your soul. Only the soul can grasp the soul; the body cannot grasp. One body cannot enter into another body. Even if you embrace a person, you are not entering that person. You are outside. You are unnecessarily imagining that you have embraced. You are outside still.

There is only a psychological deception which makes us feel that we have come in union with objects. We are always outside. We are external. We are driven exiles. With all our attempt to come in contact with power, authority, money, wealth, this and that, we are outside. Externality is this world. That is the world of death. To be driven out from Reality is real death. This is what is happening to us.

Yoga is union with Reality, not a state of being driven out of it. The senses have to be restrained because the senses wrongly direct our consciousness externally while Reality is not external, but Universal.