The Secret of the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

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Discourse No. 1

ōm saha nāvavatu; saha nau bhunaktu;
saha viryam karavāvahai;
tejasvi nāvadhitamastu;
mā vidvishāvahai;
ōm sāntih; sāntih; sāntih

Om! May He protect us both, (the teacher and the taught). May He cause us both to enjoy protection. May we both exert to find out the true meaning of the scriptures. May we never quarrel with each other. Let there be threefold Peace. Om. Peace! Peace! Peace!

It is the wish of several seekers who have come to participate in the Sadhana Week this year that during this holy occasion a concise presentation be made of the principles expounded in the great Vedic scripture, known as the Katha Upanishad. The purpose of so many sadhakas coming from long distances to this sacred abode at the foot of the Himalayas is obvious, viz. to gain a knowledge of the secret of life and gain also an access into the mysteries in which our life seems to be involved. The aim and mission of your visit to this sacred abode is naturally, as it ought to be, the revelation or the unfoldment of the entanglement of your personality, the involvements of your life, and to return with a newer type of enlightenment about that which you are, and that which involves you or in which you are involved.

Our life itself is the subject of study in the Katha Upanishad. Our life is a beautiful pattern of various threadwork woven dexterously by an expert Maker of all things, such that one cannot easily or intelligibly comprehend how it is made or why it is made. We often, as human beings, take life for granted, as if it is an open book before us. We regard our life as a clear presentation like daylight and go headlong along the business of our daily activities under the impression that things are perfectly perspicuous and we have simply to act on the thought that occurs to our mind. This is an unfortunate assumption on the part of the human being. The cloth of life is spread before us, but it is not a flat surface as we imagine it to be.

In ancient times, it is said, most people imagined the world or the earth to be a flat surface; the sun rose and the sun set, illumining a perfectly flat surface of the earth, not knowing that it was round like a ball or something like that. It was also thought that the sun revolved round the earth; the sun was smaller than the size of the earth, not knowing that the revolution of the planetary system is a highly complicated involvement of powers and forces not easily reducible either merely to the sun or the planets as the earth. Today astronomy, the science of the existence and the operation of the planets and the stellar system, is known to be a highly complicated structure of forces rather than of things. Likewise we, with a crass perception of visible objects, mistaking objects seen with our senses for what they appear to be, rush like fools where even angels fear to tread. The consequence is that we are caught in the grip of unknown powers and forces. As monkeys are caught with the help of rope-nets spread to divert them into a mistaken idea of food being spread for them for their maintenance, likewise, the Maker of things seems to have spread out before us a pattern we call the world which we mistake for a heaven of enjoyment for our senses; but when we rush into it we are caught, and then it would be too late for us to repent.

Everyone has been caught in this network of things called the world, right from creation up to the present day, and we have no reason to believe that the future generation will not be so caught. The pattern of life is not merely a location of objects for our enjoyment, for our likes and dislikes. The pattern of existence is a tremendously well thought-out involvement, externally as well as internally. The more we probe into the mystery and the structure of this involvement of the world, the more we begin to admire the wisdom of the Maker of things. It is not a simple structure. It is not a small ball of earth we call the planet on which we merely live like ants crawling on the surface of a ball. The world, our life, is more subtle and more involved in various ways than our intelligence can permit us to understand.

This mystery is the subject of the Katha Upanishad, which is generally defined as the mystery of death and the mystery of life. Well! Both mean one and the same thing if we understand them carefully. Life and death are identical. They are two aspects of one and the same event that takes place. This mystery of life, or the mystery of death as you would like to call it, is the secret of the Katha Upanishad; and side by side it is also a revelation of the mystery of the whole of existence, the mystery of you, the mystery of me and the mystery of everyone else, the mystery of your deeds, the mystery of the reactions of your actions, the mystery of the consequences of what you do and suffer and enjoy, the mystery of God Himself.

We shall, during these few days before us, try to have a quintessential comprehension of this very interesting Upanishad—‘Upanishad’ which means the secret knowledge or the wisdom of life—and try to be blessed in our souls that our speaking as well as listening becomes a contemplation of a particular form, a meditation, veritably, by which I pray and I wish that our souls may be lifted up into a higher knowledge and experience.

The Katha Upanishad is one of the esoteric appendices to a section of the Vedas known as the Brahmanas. A particular Veda has a particular Brahmana and it has also a concluding esoteric exposition known as the Upanishad. The Katha Upanishad is such an esoteric, mystical, spiritual exposition appended to a Brahmana of the Krishna-Yajur-Veda. This Upanishad has within it implanted the wisdom of the entire life of man woven into a story of a great seeker of Reality we know as Nachiketas. This is the story of a great aspirant called Nachiketas; how this young lad aspired for the highest Reality of life and got an access into it through the working of mysterious forces.

The story that is the background of this exposition of the Upanishad is something like this—to give you in outline. There was a sage called Vajasravasa, known also as Gautama. He performed a yajna or a sacrifice called Vishvajit, a yajna or a sacrifice by which he aspired to enter the heaven of the gods. This sacrifice was of a very peculiar nature which demanded of the performer that he gave in charity everything that he possessed, dear and near. This Vishvajit sacrifice known as the sarvavedasa yajna was performed by Gautama or Vajasravasa, the sage. In this yajna, through which performance he aspired to enjoy the pleasures of the heaven of the gods, he gave in charity as philanthropy everything that he possessed. All his belongings were given in charity—everything, whatever be the value of that possession—because that was the requisition of the yajna. Everything was given, and given, and given, nothing was left. Every day he began to give in charity all his possessions. This great sage known as Vajasravasa had also a son, perhaps the only son, known as Nachiketas. This unlettered boy, perhaps, untutored, simple, unsophisticated, observed this wonderful ritualistic performance of the Vishvajit sacrifice by his father, went on seeing everything being given—‘all things are going’. All the wealth of the sage was being given. Those days cattle were regarded as a great wealth. The cattle wealth was held to be real wealth. All the multitude of the cattle belonging to the sage were given in charity, but unfortunate it was to the sensitive mind of the poor lad Nachiketas, he began to observe that these cattle were famished. They were only skeletons. Such cows were being given in charity—the cows which had drunk their water for the last time, which had eaten their grass for the last time, which were not going to calve again, which were without any strength in the body and were tottering with their poor legs. “Oh! Such charity is being given by my father!” The boy had no guts to speak but something urged him to speak forth his feelings. The sensitive lad spoke out his inner heart and called out to his father, “Father, you give everything that belongs to you. I am your son. Perhaps I too belong to you. To whom do you propose to give me in charity? Because in this sacrifice you have to offer everything that belongs to you, and inasmuch as a son also seems to be a property of the father to some extent, evidently you think of giving me also. To whom do you want to give me?” The father had no idea of giving the son in charity to anyone. It was the last thing that he could imagine. The father paid a deaf ear to the words of the son. He said nothing. The second time the son asked the same question, “To whom do you want to give me, father?” He did not say anything. He was wroth. “Oh, this boy is butting in and impertinently putting me a question!” When a third time the boy asked the same question, the father responded, “To hell you go.” This is what we generally say when we are irate. And he said, “To death I give you.” He was angry. “Oh, I see! You give me to death.” The boy went on thinking, “What has death to do with me, death presided over by Yama? I am being sent to him. What has Yama, the Lord of Death, to do with me? I do not understand.”

This imprecation of the father upon the son, the curse that he threw upon him, evidently drew the soul out of the body of the boy. He died, apparently, if we read between the lines of the Upanishad. The boy went to the abode of Yama in search of that for which the father seems to have sent him. Yama is not there to be seen. The guest is standing outside the gates of the palace of the Lord of Death, Yama, but the master of the house is absent. Somewhere he has gone. No one knows what has happened to him or where he has gone. One day passes, one night passes, the second day and night passes, the third day and night passes. The boy is standing there without water, without food. Nothing can be worse for a man than for a guest to stand starving at his gate. It is said that if a guest starves at the gates of a householder, that would be a veritable curse upon the householder. All his virtues will be withdrawn by the guest who is standing there starving.

Yama returns on the expiry of the third day. He hears that a mortal has come in search of him for some purpose and has been starving for three nights and three days. “Oh, what a pity!” says Yama, and rushes outside. “Oh, great sage! What service can I do for you? You have been standing here for three days. Have you eaten anything for three days? What have you eaten on the first day, what have you eaten on the second day, what have you eaten on the third day, my dear child?” “I ate your offspring on the first day.” “What did you eat on the second day?” “All your cattle and wealth I ate.” “What did you eat on the third day?” “All the good works that you have done.” “Oh! Horrible! This is awful.” Yama immediately brought the sacred waters from inside, the purna-kumbha that is offered to the honoured guest, washed the feet of the guest and made him seated. “Please excuse me for my absence for these three days and nights. May I know the purpose of your visit? May I be of any service to you? You have starved for three days. You can ask from me three boons. Three boons I am ready to bestow upon you, my dear child, as a recompense for the pain that I inflicted upon you inadvertently for three days and nights, when I made you starve at my gates.”

“All right! You want me to choose one boon. When I return to the world, may my father recognise me without any anger upon me.” “Yes, granted!” said Yama. “When you return to the world, the father will recognise you and will receive you with affection and not with ire or wrath.” “Ask for another boon.” “Tell me the mystery of that Universal Fire out of which the whole world has been created.” “Yes, granted!”—and an elaborate performance of the sacrifice of the Universal Fire called the Vaishvanara was expounded. “Now my dear child, one more boon is left. You can ask for the third boon also.” “Ah! Now there is one thing. May I ask you? They say there is a soul, they say there is no soul. Some say it is, some say it is not. Some say it is born, some say it dies. Some say it is not born, some say it does not die. What happens to it, if it is, when it goes to the beyond?” “Child, do not ask this question! Ask for anything else. The longest life possible, the greatest pleasures conceivable, rulership of all the three worlds—whatever you want, here they are. Do not put this question. Don’t ask me about soul and all that; whether it is, whether it is not, what happens, and all that. You please keep quiet. Everything that is available, which is not available even to the gods, is presented to you now. Pleasures which the human being cannot even dream of are at your disposal by my grace. Delights of the celestials living in the seven heavens above are at your disposal. You can live unaffected by disease, old age and fatigue for as long as the universe lasts. You are the emperor of the three worlds. Are you satisfied? Don’t put this question.”

Nachiketas was made of a different stuff. He was not an ordinary boy. “Why should I not put this question? What is the trouble about it? You give me all these wonders that you have described to me but will not answer this simple question.” “Not even the gods have been able to answer this question. Not all the celestials put together in all the seven heavens can answer this question that you have put. Therefore, child, please do not pester me with this question. You keep quiet. I have made the mistake of telling you that you can ask for three boons, and now you are putting me in this embarrassing situation with a question which I cannot answer and I am not prepared to answer. You should not put this question. Take anything else. I am ready to give you. Please excuse me. Don’t bother me with this question.” “You say, O Lord, that even the gods cannot answer this question, which means to say, perhaps, that you know the answer to the question, and you want to turn me off with all the glamour of the perishable world, longest life, and all that. But what is longest life in this eternity? In this eternity of existence, what is the life of the whole universe? You say ‘the delight of all the gods’, but what is delight except itching of the senses? What are these pleasures but methods of wearing away the energy of the senses? You want to tempt me with these pleasures and will not answer me the question which you say even the gods cannot understand. You want to make me the ruler of this universe as long as it lasts, but what will happen to me when it does not last? When the universe dies and perishes, and it dissolves, what will happen to this ruler? He also goes! Take back all your pleasures, your offerings, your dance and the music and the chariot and the cattle and the enjoyment and the long life and the rulership of the worlds. O Lord, take back all these gifts that you have offered to me! I am thankful; but Nachiketas will not budge from this place unless this question that he has asked the third time is answered.”

This is the introduction to the Upanishad. Now, the Upanishad really begins. This great sacrifice of Vajasravasa Gautama for the purpose of enjoying the pleasures of heaven is the exoteric multitude of the deeds of humanity. The Upanishad is, as I mentioned to you, an exposition of the secret of the entire life of man, the secret of your life, the secret of my life and the secret of the life of every blessed thing. Vajasravasa represents humanity, as in the Bhagavadgita we say Arjuna represents mankind. The performance of this Vishvajit sacrifice by Vajasravasa Gautama is the performance of deeds by mankind as a whole. Man performs actions for the purpose of the enjoyment of the consequence of his actions. Why do you work from the morning till the evening in the various fields of your duties? To relieve yourself of the tensions of life and to enjoy the pleasures that are consequent upon the release of tension, and these pleasures to be enjoyed for as long a time as possible. You understand the purpose of your works in life. You work in this world because you want to come to a state of affairs when you need not work any more but will only enjoy the pleasures consequent upon your actions.

But what is your conception of happiness and delight? What is your notion of the happiness that may come as a consequence of your actions in life? It is the very same concept that Vajasravasa had. “I shall go to heaven and be with the gods and enjoy life.” But what do you mean by “enjoying life”? Can you describe to me what actually is meant by enjoyment of life? Have you any idea, the faintest notion, of what enjoyment means? If you are pressed to answer this question, you may say, “Logically and scientifically I cannot say anything about this; but it appears to me that my idea of happiness is to be in the possession of all desirable things in the world. Well! That possession is perhaps happiness for me. The greatest amount of physical wealth, the largest amount of pleasurable relations and perhaps the longest life with this body to come in contact with these objects and be in their possession—what else can be my notion of enjoyment?” This was Vajasravasa Gautama’s concept, and is our concept also. Man is man, always. He never changes. What man was when the world was created, he is today, also. He is made of the same stuff. He will never change. You rub any man, you will find the same substance inside. He may be a primitive or the modern cultured, so-called educated man—they are all made of the same substance, same stuff. They have the same weaknesses and their desires are of the same character. So, what Vajasravasa Gautama thought, we also think today, and what was his fate shall be our fate, also.

But, we have something inside us, an urge that propels us in some other direction, apart from this exoteric urge which directs us to the enjoyment of the objects of sense. This something peculiar within us is the Nachiketas. The son of Vajasravasa Gautama, the progeny of the sage, is the conscience of the sage, which spoke out his heart. In the mythical terminology of the Upanishad, the conscience of Gautama speaks in the language of his son, Nachiketas. While we are after the enjoyment of life, rulership, authority, prestige and power and whatnot, we have also a subtle voice speaking from within us, every now and then, pestering us, as it were, sometimes annoying us with its demands, telling us something quite different from what we are thinking in our mind. “Are you going to enjoy the pleasures of the world? Are you going to perform deeds and actions for this sake alone?” What are the kinds of action that we perform? They are selfish to the core. They are utterly related to our bodily personality. Though we have heard much of what is known as unselfish action, it is something quite strange to our bodily individuality.

All the deeds of our day-to-day life are remotely connected with our personal pleasures known as egoistic enjoyments. As the enjoyments are brittle, short-lived, with a beginning and an end, so are the actions which engender these pleasures. Our deeds have a beginning and an end. They started sometime and they shall end also sometime. Similarly, that fruit which accrues out of these actions also has a perishable constitution. Our longing shall never be quenched by the brittle, dry, momentary objects of the world.

Sometimes, in certain persons, almost every day, there is a shake-up of the personality from within, which tells us that we are not entirely what we appear to be. We are not the Mr. and Mrs. that we are now. We are not the boss or the servant that we appear to be. We are not the man or the woman or the child that people call us. We seem to be in possession of something, a little different from all these things which are the ultimate values of earthly existence. That something seems to speak to us from within, oftentimes, and makes us restless. If at all we are restless in our day-to-day existence, it is because we are made up of something which is a little different from what we are constituted of in our physical existence. If our physical personality and our social relationships in the world are to be the all, then there would be no uneasiness in life. Our unhappiness, our sorrow— whatever be the kind of that sorrow—our insecurity, whatever be its character, is born of a stuff of which we are made in the deepest recesses of our being, which boils up to the surface and struggles to gain access into the surface of consciousness. But we stifle its words, we hush it down and curse it to death, as Vajasravasa Gautama did to his son. “You go on speaking again and again. You go to hell!” This is what we tell our conscience. If our subtle conscience begins to give us a wise advice occasionally—“Friend, you are going wrong!”—you stifle it, cut its throat, and curse it to hell. “Speak not again,” do we tell it; and we make it blunt, and it cries within us. Our real nature within is weeping, “Oh, what is my fate!” We have layers of personality, a description of which is given beautifully in this Upanishad, about which we shall speak on the succeeding days.

The layers of our personality corresponding also to the layers of the outer cosmos speak in their own languages at different moments of time. We do not entirely belong to this earth, because we have other layers of personality which cannot belong to the surface of the physical world. We are not merely social individuals or entities. Our relationship is not one of father and mother, father and son, mother and son, daughter, brother, sister, boss, subordinate, this and that, as we usually imagine. We have within ourselves mysteries which we ourselves do not understand, and cannot understand. This amounts to saying, we do not know our own selves. We cannot know our own selves under the present circumstance. What is beneath our own skin, we cannot say. Our endowment, the faculty of the highest character with which we are blessed in this human life, the intelligence that we are possessed of, is skin-deep. We cannot go beneath the skin. Therefore we cannot know the other layers of our personality which are more real than what appear outside. Unfortunately for us though, what is invisible in our own personality is more real than what is visible in the outer personality of ours. The real ‘I’, the real ‘you’, the real ‘we’ is screened away from the intelligence that works in unison with the senses, so that when you see the world, you are not seeing the real world. When you think about yourself, you are not thinking about the real ‘you’ in you. When you conceive the relationships that you have with others, you are not really conceiving or understanding the real relationship that you have with others. Your loves and affections—your relationships with others in the form of like and dislike—all are misconceptions, root and branch. All our activities, it follows from this analysis, are also a thorough outcome of a complete misconception of life. We are done for if this state of affairs is to continue. We cannot say what will happen to us and what will befall us if this misery of misconception in our own selves is to continue for endless years.

One who cannot understand oneself cannot also understand others, because understanding is a faculty of oneself, and if this faculty is to be the judge and the instrument for other personalities in this world, if that itself has gone wrong, well, your relationship with other people would also be a misconception that has gone wrong entirely. Well, it follows, again, that your understanding of the world also is a misconception. When you do not know yourself, you do not know other things, you do not also know the world as a reality. So the whole series of our experiences in life is a piled up layer of clouds of misconception, sorrow piled over sorrow, grief coming upon grief, misery incarnate in this life. “Anityam asukham lokam,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. What is this world? We do not know when it started and when it will end. Every moment it changes, without any notice being given to us. Therefore misery indeed is this world— asukham. Why is this misery? Because experience, which is inseparable from the pleasures and pains of life, is based on an understanding which is thoroughly mistaken. Outwardly and inwardly, to the right and to the left, in the top and the bottom, everywhere we live in a misconceived world.

The Katha Upanishad breaks through this fortress of ignorance, pierces through the veil of this darkness of the series of misconceptions we seem to be involved in, and takes us to the heart of things, and enthrones us on the empyrean of immortal existence, eternal life, infinite satisfaction. Wonderful is this Upanishad. God shall bless you with this knowledge.