The Secret of the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

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Discourse No. 5

The path of the soul to its supreme destination is explained in the Katha Upanishad through a description of the chariot of the body. How does this chariot move? What is the methodology involved in the progress of the individual to its goal? This inner process of the movement of the individual to the Absolute is what we know as the practice of sadhana, or yoga. While there are elaborate textbooks on this subject, the Upanishad touches upon the point in a single mantra, as follows:

yacched vāṅ manasī prājñas tad yacchej, etc.

The way of yoga is a process of gradual ascent and illumination. It is also a systematised process of achieving freedom by stages. Our bondage is not of a uniform character. The way in which we are tied down to mortal experience is a complicated structure. You are not tied with one rope to a single peg, as a cow is tied, for example. The bondage of samsara is of a different nature from the way in which we usually understand bondage or suffering to be. Our sufferings are very peculiar. Because of the peculiarity of this suffering of ours, we sometimes do not know that we are suffering. There are people who will be ill for years together and be accustomed to that sort of life. That itself becomes a normality for them. In the beginning, it comes like an inconvenience. Later on, it is a natural life. Aeons must have passed since we have entered this plane of samsara. We have passed through various kinds of birth. We have moved through different species and organisms, and are said to have now reached this level of the human being. We have had experiences in every kind of life that we lived, and all these experiences were peculiar to the particular species into which we were born. But, rarely do we realise that life can be a bondage. We, as human beings, today living in this world, this earth plane, at this moment of time, do not consider the fact of the bondage involved in our life. Are we always conscious that we are bound, or are in an unfortunate state of existence? We have occasions for rejoicing, exultation and delights of various kinds. Life is a pleasure to most people, and the bitterness that is hidden beneath it comes to the surface only occasionally, under certain circumstances. Our consciousness gets accustomed to conditions of experience to which we are habituated. This habituation of the consciousness to certain states is the reason why we mistake pain for pleasure. The life of a human being—life in general, for the matter of that—is an involvement of such a complicated nature that our ignorance of it is indeed very serious. To regard this ignorance itself as a source of enjoyment is the worst that can befall a created being.

This is what is known as avidya—nescience. Avidya, ignorance, does not necessarily mean oblivion or total torpidity of mind. The ignorance in which we are shrouded is not an abolition of all understanding or mentation. It is something worse than that. It is not a sleepy state of the mind where it knows nothing at all, but it is a positive error of perception. One thing is mistaken for another, and that another which is erroneously superimposed on what actually is, is regarded as reality. The impermanent, transient, momentary structure of the universe is mistaken for a permanent, stable abode of enjoyment. This is one form of ignorance, because it contradicts Truth. The bodily encasement, the physical personality, the social circumstances under which we live, are all considered by us as sources of pleasure, and our body itself is worshipped as an object of beauty, a piece of art which we daily look at in the mirror, if possible; and we embellish it in every possible manner, not knowing what it is really made of. The experiences of our life are not really pleasurable. The conditions through which we pass in mind and intellect from morning to evening are not ones of happiness; but we try to make the best of this suffering itself, and we try to create a heaven out of hell. This is to mistake pain for pleasure. And the greatest error which tops all the list is the mistaking of the non-Atman for the Atman, the object for the subject, the external for the Universal, the perishable for the permanent, the material for the conscious. This is, truly speaking, the state in which we are. From this kind of bondage, which is of such a difficult make-up, we have to free ourselves, step by step. This is the aim of yoga. From ignorance and its offshoots we have to gain freedom, and simultaneously gain mastery over our own self.

Bondage is not only dependence on the non-Atman but also forgetfulness of the nature of the Atman, at the same time. The consciousness of the object necessitates a forgetfulness of the subject in some proportion. As a matter of fact, the awareness of the existence of anything outside is due to a transference of a part of our consciousness to the object outside. All perception is an extroverted operation of consciousness. The awareness of an object, the knowledge that we have of things outside, is a form of the operation of our consciousness within in terms of what is outside. We are aware of the existence of a world on account of our being in a state of motion towards the conditions of externality. This is why human life is to be regarded as a state of becoming, rather than being. Life is considered as a process of transiency by masters like the Buddha. They never considered the world as ultimately existent. Nothing in the world is. Everything passes. Everything moves. Even our awareness of the existence of the world is a process, a transitory condition of the activities of the mind, due to which we are said to be living in perpetual anityata, perishability, changefulness and an urge towards something beyond at every stage in which we are. There is a perpetual asking for the ‘more’ in us. We ask for more and more, endlessly—we do not reach an end of it. One of the philosophers of the West, William James, called this process the philosophy of the more. The whole life of man is nothing but an asking for the more. Whatever is supplied to you is inadequate for your purpose. If you become the ruler of the earth, you would like to become the ruler of the sky, and so on. This is because there is a tendency in us to move beyond the limited self, to overstep the boundary of the body and mind, to break through all bondage, and to reach that which we seem to have lost and of which we have at present no knowledge whatsoever. Our bondage is of such a nature that we do not know what type of bondage it is. It is like a sick man not knowing what ailment he is suffering from. Bondage becomes real when its nature is not known. A real thief is one who is never caught at any time. A thief who is caught is not a good thief! Likewise, when you know what sort of bondage you are in, you are not in bondage. You have already overcome it to some extent. But we are in it right up to our necks. We are not only in it, but are also deprived of the knowledge of what has happened to us. This is samsara in its quintessence.

The difficulty of the practice of yoga, the way of the Spirit, lies in this central enigma of our not having any knowledge of what has befallen us, where we stand actually at this present moment, and what is required of us for our true freedom. There are several layers of our bondage. The bondage is not only external, but also internal. It is woven into our texture like a carpet that is knit with various layers of thread. It is wide, and also thick. If you remove one layer, you will find another layer underneath it. There is an organic complication, as it were, in the bondage which is part of us. The practice of yoga is, thus, not a straight movement towards a given point or a target in front of us. It is a winding process, sometimes a circular motion, occasionally with forward and backward steps, and with ascents and descents. It is like entry into the chakravyuha, the impregnable fortress described in the Mahabharata. One does not know how to enter it, and if anyone enters it, he does not know how to come out of it. Such is the difficulty involved in the practice of the path of the Spirit, the way of the Atman.

The bondage understood, we shake up our being from the mire of ignorance, and we place the first step on the initial rung of yoga. The hundreds of implications in this woven structure of human bondage are difficult to describe in an ‘open-book’ fashion. We shall confine ourselves to the aspects that are touched upon by the Upanishad, in this context.

The first step, according to the Upanishad, in the mantra cited, is a withdrawal of the senses, such as speech, etc.—all the senses of knowledge and action—into the mind. But this is not all. The instruction goes further. The mind has to be settled in the intellect (jnana-atman). The intellect is then to be set in tune with the Cosmic Intelligence (Mahat-atman). This Cosmic Function should get settled in Cosmic Being (Shanta-atman). Here, Being, Consciousness, Freedom, Bliss are all one, indivisible essence (Akhanda-Ekarasa- Satchidananda).

yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha,
buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati, tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim.

The intelligent one, the discriminative seeker, should introvert the senses in such a way that they stand in unison with the substance of the mind. The mind and the senses, though they work in collaboration with each other, are not identical in their function. The difference in their activities lies in the fact that while the mind can contemplate spatial and temporal objects independently of the functions of the senses, the senses require space and time and externality for their activity. Also, they cannot work unless the mind is actively associated with them. There is a speciality in the working of the senses, the speciality being that they cannot move inward to the subjective centre, but are always accustomed to move outward to the object. So you will never be able to make them contemplate themselves or meditate upon the source on which they have their very being. The senses are the forms of the mind itself. We may say, to give a working example, the senses are to the mind what the rays are to the sun or the light of the sun. The analogy is not complete, but there is some similarity in this illustration. As there is a jetting forth of rays from the orb of the sun, there is a projection of force from the psychological organ, the antahkarana, in the form of sensory activity. The mind itself becomes the senses when it contacts objects. The senses are the mind thinking external forms. So, the first step, according to this mantra of the Upanishad, in the practice of yoga, is the attempt on the part of the seeker to block the avenues of the senses, so that the mind is not channelised towards objects but stands self-controlled, self-subdued and centred in itself. The five senses mingle with the mind in a blend of unified function; the intellect does not flicker with desire or distraction; there is a feeling of wholeness, then, in oneself. This is the yoga of meditation. 
Our energies get depleted through sensory activity. This is something well known to us. Our strength does not depend upon what we eat, merely. It depends upon something else.

na prāṇena nāpānena martyo jīvati kaś cana
itareṇa tu jīvanti, yasminn etāv upāśritau.

Our life does not depend merely on the breathing process of prana and apana. It depends on something else, from which even the prana and apana rise. The intake of diet is, indeed, very important for the maintenance of health, but health does not rest on food alone, because everything can be thrown out of order if the mind is upset, in spite of the taking in of the best form of diet. A shock that is injected into the mind is enough to disturb the entire balance of the personality, notwithstanding the fact that one has every amenity possible. The energy of the individual is in the individual himself. Your strength is in you. It is not outside you. The weakness of the personality, or the weakness of the body, is not due so much to physical contact with objects as to an erroneous adjustment that we make with the conditions of the world outside. All our suffering can ultimately be boiled down to an error of understanding, wrong knowledge. Just as we do not understand our own self, we also do not understand others. As a matter of fact, that we do not understand others properly follows from our not understanding our own self. A misjudgement of our own self implies a misjudgement of everything else also, because perceptions are emanations of our own consciousness. The sadhaka, or the seeker of Truth, should be confident that all that he needs will be provided to him by the very laws of existence. It is law that supplies you with strength, not the discrete objects of sense. Obedience to law is at once an acquisition of power, because law protects. The Upanishad, therefore, tells us that the senses which are powers of the mind, moving towards objects outside, should be sublimated into the mind itself. They should melt into the substance of the mind, so that they become the mind itself. This is pratyahara, sense-abstraction, described also in one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. When Patanjali defines pratyahara, he says that it is nothing but the standing together of the senses with the mind, which is what the Katha Upanishad also says.

Yoga is the rise of consciousness from the lower to the higher degree of reality, by stages. The universe evolves by stages, and yoga is a process of the reversal of the diversifying creative activity of the universe. If creation is the coming out of an effect from the cause, yoga is a movement of the effect towards the cause, a recession of the particular into the universal, in greater and greater degrees. The effects have to be understood in order that we may know what their causes are. Also, in this attempt of the effect towards its cause, it should not try to jump to the third or the fourth level, or the ultimate level, at once. In yoga, there is no double promotion. You have to pass through every stage, though due to the intensity of the practice it may appear that you have achieved the goal at once, in a short time. How this happens is sometimes illustrated by a homely example. Suppose you have one thousand petals of lotus, kept one over the other. You pass a needle through them. How much time would the needle take to pierce through the thousand petals kept one over the other? The needle will come out immediately. Though the act of the passing of the needle looks immediate, it has passed through every petal, one after the other. It has not suddenly pierced through the petals, at one stroke, without any passage of time involved. Similarly, advanced sadhakas, seekers of a high order, may seem to have achieved success quickly, sometimes even in a few days. But they have to pass through all the stages, without omission. The stages, primarily, are those of the objects of sense, the senses, the mind, the intellect, the Mahat-tattva, and the Supreme Atman, or the Paramatman.

While the raw material of sensory operation may be said to be what we call the mind, the intellect is superior to it in the sense that it has a greater power of judgement. The mind is more instinctive, the intellect more ratiocinative. The mind is a bundle of instinctive stimuli that are invoked into ourselves in respect of things outside. But the intellect is superior, because it does not act merely on stimulus or instinctive urge, but understands things by a consideration of the pros and cons of a given situation. This means to say that our activities, whatever they be, should be an outcome of understanding and not mere instinctive reaction. This is a higher step in the practice of yoga. Never act without understanding the total involvement of any step or action. We are used to go headlong in a particular direction, not thinking properly as to what we are doing. The Bhagavadgita gives us a warning about this matter, in its eighteenth chapter. Action is not a simple movement of the mind towards its target. It is an involved process. The whole of our life is an involvement, as we observed earlier. It is not a movement along a beaten track, where we can walk by closing our eyes. It is an involved process, and therefore we have to keep ourselves vigilant always, even when we take a single step. Action should be based on understanding—then life becomes yoga. Otherwise, life is a bondage. The verse of the Bhagavadgita in this connection is this:

adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā karta karaṇaṁ ca pṛthag-vidham
vividhāś ca pṛthak ceṣṭā daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam.

You are not the only conditioning factor of your actions. Do not say, “Everything depends on me; I shall do it in this way”. Everything does not depend upon you, unfortunately. The action that you perform is not conditioned merely by what you think at that moment of time. This is why we are caught by our own actions. While we are under the impression that good will follow as an outcome of a particular deed of ours, suffering becomes the consequence, and then we beat our breasts and weep silently. No one can understand all the implications of an action. This verse of the Gita points out that several personal and super-personal factors contribute to the character of an action, and these, together, determine the result thereof. As fire is covered with smoke, all initiatives that we take in life are stifled by an ignorance of their involvements and implications. The bodily condition, the fitness of the personality, the nature of the mind and the character of the motive behind the action, the powers of the senses at that given moment of time, the various aspects of even a single action that we are going to undertake, and, above all, the centrality of the factor of a universal reality operating behind every action—all these are the conditioning factors of action.

The ultimate principle determining everything is the universal law—providence working. Human effort, while it is very essential, is not all. It becomes successful only when all these different elements are borne in mind. This is enlivened, illumined, conscious, deliberately directed activity—activity based on right understanding. This is a higher step than merely the work of the withdrawal of the sense into the mind. This is the state of dhyana or meditation in  practical  life. The first stage described in the mantra of the Upanishad corresponds to pratyahara or abstraction, and dharana or concentration, the fixing of the understanding, the vijnana or the buddhi, corresponds to dhyana or meditation. But meditation here is directed to a higher end.

This is the beginning of spirituality in the proper sense of the term. Up to this time, it has only been a preparation for it. Virtuous deeds, good actions, moral conduct are all an introductory necessity in the practice of the higher yoga. The spiritual element in the practice comes into relief when the intellect, the buddhi or the jnana-atman, is attuned to the Mahat-atman or the Universal Intelligence. This is not an easy affair, but this is, precisely, meditation proper. The attunement of the intellect to the Mahat, the establishment of the jnana-atman in the Mahat-atman is possible only when we have an adequate understanding as to what this Mahat-atman is. We hear of this term ‘Mahat’ several times in the Sankhya, and also in the Vedanta. It is said that Mahat comes out of prakriti and the Mahat is superior to the individual intellect, and so on. But what is this Mahat? What is our relation to it? What are we supposed to do about it, especially in our spiritual practices?

The Mahat is the great, the large, or the big, literally translated. But what is this largeness or the bigness or the vastness of it? The largeness of the Mahat consists in the fact that it is inclusive of all other particular units which go to constitute it. The Mahat is the ocean, while the buddhi is a drop in the ocean. As many drops make the ocean, we may say that all the intellects constitute the Mahat in its completeness. So, if the intellect or the Mahat in its individual form is to stabilise itself in its own nature, if the jnana-atman is to unite itself with the Mahat-atman, the drop has to understand its relation to the ocean. For the jnana-atman to contemplate the Mahat-atman, the intellect has to rise to the Universal. The prerequisite is to understand its relation to the latter. If the drop is to meditate upon the ocean, supposing that the drop has consciousness of its own, what would be required of it? What has the drop to think when it meditates on the ocean? You know very well what the drop would think in the ocean in order that it may contemplate the ocean. What is the relationship between the drop and the ocean? Analogies should not be stretched beyond their permissible limits. While the intellect of the human being, the individualised understanding, is a part of the Universal or the Mahat-tattva, like the drop in the ocean, this analogy again is not complete. It is only a partial illustration. When we say the world is superimposed on the Absolute as a snake is superimposed on the rope, we do not mean that the Absolute is long like the rope. The aspect of the illustration here is only one of superimposition and not of all the other characteristics. The intellect is not exactly like the drop in the ocean, though it has some sort of a relationship with the Mahat-atman as the drop has with the ocean. While in quality the drop is the same as the ocean, the intellect is not in quality the same as the Mahat-atman. This is the difference. Otherwise, we would be small gods sitting in this hall. We are not that. We have something else in us, other than the element of the Mahat-tattva. While the Mahat is imbedded in our hearts, while the Mahat-atman is the soul of our intellect itself, it is the background, the presupposition of all our thoughts and understanding. Yet, our understanding is not an exact fraction of the Universal Understanding. Our will is not a direct part of the Divine Will. It does not mean that if all the people would think together, they would think like God. Not so! Qualitatively we are inferior. This inferiority in quality is brought about by the illustration of reflection. We have what is known as the avachheda-vada and pratibimba-vada in Indian Philosophy. The individual is an avachheda and also a pratibimba. Avachheda means ‘a limited part’. Pratibimba means ‘a reflection’. While the drop is a part of the ocean, it is not a reflection of the ocean. It is an exact part of the ocean. Qualitatively it is identical with the ocean, though quantitatively smaller. But suppose you begin to see the reflection of the sun in several pots of water in a manifold way, you will not see in the reflection of the sun all the qualities of the original sun, though there is a refraction of light and luminosity present in the reflection. We have in us certain characteristics of the Mahat-atman, and yet we do not have all the characteristics of it. Because of the fact that we have some quality or characteristic of Mahat-atman in us, we are aspiring for it. If we had been totally cut off from it in every way, then, there would have been no longing for moksha or liberation. Something of the eternal speaks even in the mortal frame of our personality. Hence we struggle and writhe to get out of bondage. And a lot of effort is involved in it, the reason being that we are refracted, distorted, limited parts of the Mahat-atman—parts, no doubt, but reflected ones.

In the practice of yoga, therefore, we have to perform a double function—to enlarge ourselves in our quantitative make-up, and also deepen ourselves in our qualitative nature. We do not merely become wide in the perspective of knowledge, but also profound in the quality of our experience. There is a simultaneous movement of the soul outwardly and inwardly, in the practice of yoga. You become wide and also deep at the same time. It is not simply like plunging into the bottom of the ocean, which is merely going into the depths of it. It is also enlargement of the personality into the size of the ocean, gradually. The pratyahara process, the practice of dharana and dhyana, are not merely methods of the enlargement of the personality, but also the increase of the quality of our knowledge and power. Yoga changes us completely and makes us gold, as it were, out of the iron that we are. We become different in substance itself. There is a transfiguration of personality. We grow in every sense of the term. It is not like the growth of a baby into an adult, but like the growth of the plant into the animal, the animal into man, and so on, where there is a qualitative increase of knowledge and power. When the child becomes an adult, there is not much of a qualitative change in the species and the way of thinking of the individual. Man is man. He does not change. The human way of thinking does not alter merely because we have grown from childhood to the adult stage. But when one grows from the animal to man, there is a change of perspective and understanding and the way of thinking itself. The attitude to life changes. The practice of yoga is an evolutionary process and not merely a physical growth or a quantitative  expansion.  ‘Evolution’  is  a  very  significant term. It is growth of a very novel type. It is a change in the very substance of what we are. It is a growth from humanity to Divinity. From world-consciousness we rise to God-consciousness, step by step. Just as we cannot have at present a clear concept of what God is, or the goal of life is, we cannot also have an idea as to what stages of yoga are ahead of us. We have only a slight inkling of what is immediately above us, and not of what is far beyond us. The identification of the intellect or the jnana-atman with the Mahat-atman, the union that is to be established through yoga between the individual understanding or buddhi and the Universal Intelligence, is constituted of many subtle inward conscious processes. From now onwards, yoga becomes a purely internal affair, a growth of consciousness, properly speaking, from its lowest involvement to the stages of its higher freedom.