The Secret of the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

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Discourse No. 6

The most consequent and difficult part of yoga commences when we try to rise beyond the vijnana-atman or the intellectual personality. That stage whereby the human individual struggles to attune itself to the Universal is the hardest one in yoga. There are difficulties of various kinds in one’s attempt on the path of Spirit, but these difficulties can be classified into two groups—the natural and the supernatural.

The natural difficulties are, to some extent, conceivable by the human mind, and these are those which we have to confront until we reach that level of concentration and meditation wherein the intellect reaches its limits. When the limit of the intellect is reached, we also reach the limit of our powers. Our capacities get exhausted. All that we had with us, we have already spent. The reserve forces have been employed and further effort is unthinkable. The human individual has its ultimate fortress in the power of the rational faculty, which the Upanishad calls the vijnana-atman, or simply vijnana. But how can the vijnana rise to the Mahat-atman? Here, ordinary human effort is not of much avail, because the very act of the entry of the individual into the Universal is equivalent to the cessation of all the possibilities of conceivable human effort. We have an idea of effort, which is always in terms of the organs or the limbs of the body and the senses of knowledge and action. Whenever we speak of effort of any kind, we always think in terms of the body and our individuality. But what is the kind of effort that we are supposed to put forth when our individuality begins to melt in the menstruum of the Universal which we seek in the higher reaches of meditation? Here, it is not the mind that functions, not the intellect, not anything that we can think of normally in our life. Some unusual, unthinkable, supernormal element begins to operate. In one or two passages of the Chhandogya and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads we are told that, during the passage of the soul to Brahmaloka, through the Archiradi-Marga or the Northern path, as they call it, a stage is reached when human effort ceases, and symbolically the Upanishad points out what happens to the soul when it cannot anymore put forth personal effort. Effort is possible only as long as there is consciousness of personality. When I exist, or you exist, or this or that exists, there is the chance of exertion in the relativistic or empirical sense. But a stage is reached, says the Upanishad, in the ascent of the soul, where it ceases to be an isolated individual. That is, it is no more a spark of light seeking access into the reality of the higher light. The Upanishad, metaphorically, tells us that a superhuman being comes and leads the soul from that point onwards, taking it by hand, as it were, to the higher destination. An amanava purusha, someone who is not a human being, comes there. No one has been able to make out who this superhuman being is. There are those who think it is the Guru that comes there in his supernormal personality. The relationship between the Guru and the disciple does not break with the body. Even if the Guru dies physically, or the disciple passes away from this physical world, the relationship between them does not cease, because the Guru-disciple relationship is not merely physical or social. It is a spiritual bond which persists till the individuality melts into the Absolute. So it is opined by some that this superhuman amanava purusha is the Guru himself, who comes there taking the soul along the path that leads to the Absolute. Others think that it is God himself appearing in one form.

When the vijnana-atman tries to commune itself with the Mahat-atman, it does not have world-consciousness in the ordinary sense of the term. It does not see the world but it sees something else. This is the significance, perhaps, of what the Yoga Vasishtha calls padartha-bhavana-tyaga, one of the stages of knowledge or experience in spiritual life. In the language of the Yoga Vasishtha, padartha-bhavana-tyaga or padartha-abhavana, or to take it in another sense, padartha-bhavana, means the cognition of the substance of things. If we take the word as padartha-bhavana, we can interpret it as the cognition of the substantiality or the ultimate stuff of things, which begins at this stage. If we take it as padartha-abhavana, or padartha-bhavana-tyaga, it means the obliteration of the cognition of objectivity. This happens when the vijnana-purusha, the individual centre, communes itself with the Mahat. What happens? What takes you to the Mahat? Not your effort. But what else? Words fail, the mind gets hushed in its function, language becomes abortive and a new kind of silence prevails when one tries to comprehend what this mystery is. A pull is exerted on the soul. What is this pull? We may say it is the gravitational pull of the Centre of the Universe. When a stone is thrown into the sky, it falls back on the surface of the earth on account of the pull of the earth. However forcefully you may throw the stone above, it will come back to the earth by the force of gravitation. They also say that if you cross the gravitational barrier of the earth, there will not be any pull by the earth, but you will be pulled by some other planet, or star, or whatever there be, whose region the traveller in space may enter by chance. The pull of the earthly personality, the urge of individuality, the attraction towards objects it is that prevents us from going higher in our spiritual pursuit. Whatever be the strength and the power and the intensity of your meditation, you will see that the mind comes back to the earth. It will think of family, relations, office and many other earthly experiences. The individuality tries to have its say whatever be the attempt at a supersession of its calling or requisition. But by a chance, by a miracle, by the grace of God, if we try to overcome the urges of our personality, hard though it be to overcome them, we get into the gravitational region of the Universal. Then you are no more yourself. You are not a meditator, or a sadhaka, or a seeker. You appear to be nothing, because you are trying to become everything. The Mahat-atman takes you into its fold. You become a citizen of a different region of reality, altogether. A government of another type of existence will protect you and take charge of you. The Constitution of the Universe of the Mahat-tattva will govern the operations and the needs of the individual that has gained entry into that realm. Everything will be done of its own accord, and there is no need to do anything else there. All things spontaneously happen there. They are not done by any individual or person. We cannot use the word doing, or working, in that realm, because the doer himself ceases to be there. When the agent of action melts, gradually, like camphor exhausting itself by burning, the meditation with which our effort began ceases, and the individuality begins to evaporate. It gets consumed in the Fire of the Universal, and here effort becomes a part of the Universal Process. Action is absorbed into the Law of Being and everything becomes an operation of the Eternal. Eternity begins to work inexorably, and the seeker, the meditator, has nothing to say, and nothing to do there. May we add, to our own surprise and shock, that the Force exerted by that gravitational pull of the Universal is much more than any power that one can think of in this world. Not all the powers put together in the world can equal a jot of that Force. It is the Force that attracts the Universe towards itself. How does God pull the world towards Himself? Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, says in one place that the world is moved by God as the heart of the lover is moved by the beloved. It is an action which is no action. It is a movement which cannot be called movement. It is an event which is other than any temporal happening. Eternity working is unthinkable, inconceivable, because according to us, all working is temporal movement—but there is a kind of action which is Eternity keeping vigil. The power of the Eternal is not the power of the body, not the power of the elements, not a force which moves in the direction of objects, but is a power that becomes self-conscious. It is shakti that is identical with the shakta. That is the nature of Mahat, and when the vijnana-atman enters this realm, it sees a new light altogether, an entirely novel, sunlit day of Eternity. Eternal day prevails there, says the Chhandogya Upanishad—Sakrid vibhato hi brahmalokah. It does not mean that this sun of ours shines there. This sun does not shine there, nor the moon, nor the stars or this fire, says the Katha Upanishad. That One shines eternally, as if in perpetual day—That which illumines even the glorious light of the sun. That is the abode of Mahat-tattva which the vijnana-atman enters. Universality consumes particularity. You begin to be a member of the whole Universe. Every corner of Creation receives you with hospitality. Everything in the world begins to smile at you with a satisfaction of the deepest order. Wherever you go, you receive hospitality, kindness, sympathy and a loving goodness. Everyone begins to feel that you are his own or her own. Stones will melt and trees will bend before you. This is what happened in the case of Suka Maharshi. Such is the experience of that master yogin who is blessed or is fortunate enough to gain entry into the Mahat-tattva. ‘God-man’ is not the word that we can call him with. He is something more. You cannot explain what it is.

But is it all? The Upanishad goes still further. We become giddy even when we think of the Mahat. Is there something more than that? Yes, there is. Well! The mind cannot think. It is better it does not think. The Upanishad goes on, taking us above the Mahat.

tad yacchec shānta-ātmani.

There is something more than Universality. What could it be? If the mind is to contemplate it, the heart would give way, the brain would cease to function. Every cell of the body will melt, and it is this condition, indescribable, inscrutable, that made saints and sages dance in ecstasy. You must have heard of Mira dancing, Tukaram dancing—all these saints danced. And why did they? They were not crazy people. It was the bursting experience of a supernatural delight that entered them. They could not explain it. They could not express it in words. They could not even contain it within themselves. It could be expressed only in an ecstasy of a supernormal behaviour. The individual is invaded by the Absolute.

The Shanta-atman is the Peace that prevails when even the Universality of the Mahat becomes an inadequate experience. It is inadequate because the notion of a universe subtly persists even in the Mahat. In the language of the yoga of Patanjali, we may compare it to the last verge of savikalpa or sabija samadhi, where a vestige of the Universal experience persists, but it is not perception of the universe. What happens to the soul beyond the fifth stage of Knowledge, no one can say. These are merely language and words for us, which will convey no sense, practically speaking. But something exists beyond the Mahat. There is something beyond the Universal also. What could it be? The Katha Upanishad tells us:

astīti bruvato’nyatra kathaṁ tad upalabhyate.

How can one say anything about it except that it is? It is not the Universal, it is not Virat, it is not Hiranyagarbha, it is not Ishvara. How can one attain it except by accepting that it simply is. It was St. Augustine who said that it can only be called ‘That which is’. Nothing else, nothing more, nothing less; and centuries before Augustine was born, the Katha Upanishad had already said it—asti, astitva. Not even asmita, Self-consciousness, can explain the nature of Truth.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we are told that the Creative Will felt, ‘I am’, ‘Aham asmi’. But Pure Being is something beyond the state of ‘Aham asmi’. It is Kevala-astitva—Absolute Existence. ‘Tathata’ is the term used for it in Buddhist philosophy. They also call it Bhutatathata—‘Thatness’ or ‘Suchness’. These are the attempts of language to express the inexpressible. Bhutatathata or Astitva, Kevalata, or Be-ness as they put it in English, is the Shanta-atman which is experienced, realised as the Inner Soul of even the Universal Mahat.

The yoga that is the means to this realisation, if we can call it a means, is as difficult to comprehend as the goal itself. Gaudapada, in his Karika, says it is asparsa yoga. It is not yoga in the sense of union or contact of one thing with another. Generally we define yoga as union. Here, in this Experience-Whole, one thing does not become another thing. As a matter of fact, one thing cannot become another thing. Everything maintains its own substantiality. It is not sparsa yoga or the yoga of contact or union, but asparsa yoga or the yoga of non-contact. As a baby cries in fear when it is placed in an atmosphere where it can see nothing outside, not because it is afraid of anything that it sees, but because it does not see anything, the soul trembles, shivers, quakes and is taken aback when it gains entry into That wherein it cannot see anything external. It cannot contact anything. Do you know what you will feel when you are absolutely alone? Something more indescribable and miraculous than this takes place here, where the soul perceives nothing outside it, because it begins to get absorbed into That which it sees.

This is also described in one of the sutras of Patanjali, where he says that the meditating consciousness slowly gets tinged with the nature of the object, and the object gets tinged with the nature of the subject. The objects in the world begin to speak to you in their own language, by recognising you: “My dear friend, you have come!” The mask which covers the objects is lifted. The world is no more a stranger to you. The world begins to speak to you as your dear and near friend, kith and kin of the family to which you belong. Originally you belonged to it, but now you have forgotten it.

In this union of the soul, which cannot be called a literal union of one thing with another thing, where the subject melts into the object, and vice versa, what yoga can be practised? Here the Upanishad alone is our guide. The yoga of the Upanishad is a masterly technique of soul-transformation. In various places they give us indications, hints of what this yoga could be. The Upanishad yoga is not the ordinary yoga that we usually study in our yoga institutions of the world. It is the yoga which can be practised only by the soul, not even by the mind and the intellect. It is soul contemplating itself as its goal. In this yoga, what does the soul do? How does it recognise its goal? It is the perception of the Self of all things that is the yoga of the Upanishad.

The world will not lose you and you will not anymore lose the world. You will not be a stranger in this world and the world will not be anymore a stranger to you. You will not be denied anything by the world, and you will not deny anything to the world. The object, the world outside, the things that you see with your sensory functions, all assume a new character altogether, which could not be discovered or detected earlier. We can never dream that the objects have any quality or character which is akin to our own nature. There, in the stage of the contemplation of the Universal where the vijnana-atman rises to the Mahat and the Shanta-atman, the objects lift the covering which has been hiding them upto this time, and you see what it is in front of you. In this meditation, you do not see the objectivity of things. A tree is not a tree, a stone is not a stone, a mountain is not a mountain, the world is not the world. In this yoga of meditation, according to the Upanishad, you rise into a state of consternation when the objects begin to seem as those in whose company you once lived. The universe is not anymore a field where you live as a content thereof, but it becomes a part of your nature, a part of your very skin itself so that when you think, everything will begin to think; when you breathe, everything will start breathing.

In the Chhandogya Upanishad, there is an anecdote of Raikva, the sage, who used to sit under a cart, scratching his body as a person with no work whatsoever, known to nobody in the world, a great master of yoga. There was a king called Janasruti in that country, who was also a yogin and a master. The Upanishad tells us that two birds were flying across in the sky and Janasruti was on the ground on some mission of his, and one of the birds said to the other, “Don’t cross him, don’t cross him. Don’t you know it is Janasruti, the sage who will burn us if we cross over his head?” The other bird retorted, “Who is this Janasruti, about whom you are speaking, as if he is Raikva, the sage?” This conversation between the two birds was heard by Janasruti, the king, who was also a great sage. “Oh! look at it! They are speaking about me in this manner!” “Who is this Janasruti as if he is Raikva?” The birds went on: “All the virtuous and good deeds that anyone performs are credited to the account of Raikva. If anyone does any good thing, it goes to his credit.” What is this? Suppose you all people start earning salary, and it is all credited to my account, what is the good of your working? But this is what happens—whatever wonderful things, good things, beautiful things, glorious things or valuable things or signficant things exist in the world, all these belong to such a person of Knowledge. The whole world converges towards that personality which practises that yoga of ‘That which is’, says the Chhandogya Upanishad:

yatheha kshudhita balah mataram paryupasate;
evam sarvani bhutani agnihotram upasate.

As hungry children sit around their mother asking for bread, cringing for a little food from the mother, loving her, jumping on her lap, so does the world cringe for you, crave for you, come round you, sit on your lap, fall at your feet, when you realise this Stupendous Reality. This is what will happen to you when you practise this yoga of the communion of the vijnana with the Mahat and the absorption of the Mahat into the Shanta-atman.

The Upanishad gives us this wonderful message, the glorious message of eternity to all mankind, enough to fill us all with unbounded joy for all times to come. But the Upanishad is also cautious in giving us sufficient advice of a motherly character, when we tread the path. It is the path of the sword, the path of the razor’s edge—kshurasya dhara. Who will try to walk on the edge of a sword? But this is the path of true yoga. The tests you have to pass through, the various disciplines one has to undergo before this yoga becomes successful, are indeed difficult to explain. The whole body, the mind and the senses have to be chastened simultaneously. How this is done is also hinted at towards the end of the third chapter of the Bhagavadgita, where we are told that it is only with the strength and the power and the grace of the Atman that the senses and the mind can be controlled—buddheh param buddva.

In the Gita, immediately preceding these verses, we have the advice given that the senses have to be controlled. But how can the senses be controlled? Who is to control the senses? We are wedded to the senses in such a way that we have no power over them. We work in terms of the senses, according to their demands and their interpretation of the nature of things. How can we exert any kind of pressure on the senses without utilisation of a higher power? Morality, truly speaking, is the interpretation of the lower in terms of the higher. This is the principle of all ethics. All success depends upon the extent to which we can utilise the resources of the higher when we deal with a lower principle. Unless we draw sustenance from the higher forces for our progress in the path of yoga, let alone in our efforts in the ordinary activities of life, there would be the least chance of success. Where God is forgotten, success is far to seek. Everything is done by the Absolute, Universal Ishvara, God Himself. All actions are His actions. He hears through the ears, sees through the eyes, speaks through the tongues of all beings. Our sight, our hearing, our taste, our action, our thought, our intellection, our very existence, is His existence and His action.

When this yoga takes possession of us, the world takes care of us. We are no more in poverty, we are no more in fear, we have no more any kind of insecurity around us. We are well guarded by the police of the whole cosmos. The Yogavasishtha has this comforting message for us all. The guardians of the quarters themselves begin to take care of us. Why should we worry about our daily meal? It is a pittance and a poor thing to think of. You shall be filled with the ambrosia of the Eternal. Everything will be supplied to you in the proper manner, at the proper time, to your fullest satisfaction. These implications and consequences naturally follow from the practice of this majestic yoga.