Commentary on the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda


Section 2: The Existence of the Supreme Being

Just as the teaching of the Bhagavadgita commences in the second chapter, after having described Arjuna’s confusion, the profound instruction of this Upanishad begins now—after Nachiketas having steadfastly passed the test.

The Two Ways

anyac chreyo anyad utaiva preyaste ubhe nānārthe puruṣam sinītaḥ:
tayoḥ śreya ādadānasya sādhu bhavati, hīyate’rthād ya u preyo vṛṇīte. (1)

“There are two things in this world, and people pursue either this or that. These two may be regarded as the path of the pleasant, and the path of the good. Most people choose the former, and not the good. The pleasant is pleasing, but passing, and ends in pain. It is different from the good. But while the good need not necessarily be pleasant, the pleasant is not good.”

Both come to a person, and we are free to choose. But we choose the tinsel because it glitters. An experience seems to be pleasant because of the reaction of our nerves. A condition that is brought about as a result of a reaction is passing, and not being. Lack of discrimination is the reason for choosing pleasure; confusion of mind causes a wrong choice. When you grope in darkness, you fall into the pit, but you know it only after the fall. Similarly, the sense-world is darkness, and sense-objects come to ruin you, but the misguided mind cannot understand this. “Good comes to a person who chooses the good. But he who chooses the pleasant falls short of his aim.”

śreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etas tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ.
śreyo hi dhīro’bhipreyaso vṛṇīte, preyo mando yoga-kṣemād vṛṇīte. (2)

“The dull-witted person chooses the pleasant: he wants to pass the day somehow. He does not know where or how the good is. The dhira or hero who is endowed with viveka, the power of discrimination, chooses the shreyas or the ultimate good.”

When the pleasant and good come to us, they come together, in a mixed form, so that you cannot understand them. The best example for this is the world itself: you can use it as a passage to eternity, or for your pleasure. Yama tested Nachiketas in the same way as this world tests us. Temptations come every day, in every thing we see. We are caught in them because we are unable to distinguish between right and wrong. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. But our ignorance is so dark that we expect more pleasure, forgetting that death may come any moment. Death is the best teacher; there is not a better one: vairagya dawns by meditation on death. Suppose death comes to you in five minutes. Suppose you know it. What will you do? Will you act as you act now? You will act differently. It is true that we may die any moment. Yet, we do not think of it. Who prevents us from choosing the good? It is lack of understanding, aviveka or ajnana, which hides the defective side and shows only the pleasant aspects.

sa tvam priyān priyarῡpāṁś ca kāmān abhidhyāyan naciketo, tyasrākṣīḥ;
naitāṁ sṛṅkāṁ vittamayīm avāpto yasyām majjanti bahavo manuṣyāḥ. (3)

“Nachiketas, you have carefully examined all these temptations, scrutinising the nature of their delight, and you have rejected them; you have not taken my garland of wealth in which people get lost.”

At the very commencement, Yama makes a distinction between shreyas and preyas. It is not easy to do this in practical life. Most people unwittingly go for the preyas. This is illustrated by many stories. There once was a fakir who, loudly crying, carried a dog to the king. When some compassionate souls asked him for the reason of his wailing, he said: “My friend who did so much service to me is dying!” “Why?” asked the others. “Because of starvation,” replied he. “But what do you have here in your bag?” “Provisions.” “Why don’t you give them to the dog?” And he answered: “Shedding tears is cheaper.”

Though it is a humorous tale, it reveals a truth. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used a simile to illustrate the same thing: When the husband of the village woman dies, she will hit her head against the ground, but takes care to see that the ornament in her nose does not break.

These are tales telling of the human heart. We only shed empty tears, and call out God’s name half-heartedly. This is because very few can part with their possessions. The greatest obstacles in the spiritual path are the three eshanas. Even the greatest of friends get separated if one of them gives them trouble; so too attachment to wealth, sex or self-respect causes trouble. And anyone who hugs any one of them is a materialist, not merely one who believes in matter and disbelieves in God. The practical materialist cannot live without matter, but can live without God.

We think of life as a material event, and evaluate everything in terms of physical relations. We fly into tempers due to them, and pass sleepless nights due to them. And due to them we get confused as to our duty. Positively, they express themselves as attachment to sense-objects; negatively, as inertia or sleep. Who takes to spiritual life risks the danger of becoming a victim to stupour due to sense-control, putting even the mind to sleep. Sadhakas may get addicted to excessive sleep, or become gluttons, due to sense-control, thus just being sensuous in another way. While you deny satisfaction to one sense-organ, others will become powerful, like a river when its natural course is blocked may break open somewhere else, growing more powerful than if it would follow its natural course. If the senses are denied their usual satisfaction, they become uncontrollable.

Seekers who have done sadhana for years may not progress well. Often, a silent complaint is heard from within that nothing has been achieved. This is so because, while they restrain themselves physically, they indulge on the psychic level. So, the most important thing in spiritual practice is honesty to oneself, because the path is of one’s own Self, or Atman, and external aid is of little value. When we get tested by forces physical and celestial, we fail. Only a real sadhaka knows the difficulties. They may look silly, like a child’s cry for his toy, but to him the toy is of deep importance. Seekers are placed in situations that tear their minds apart; mind and senses go amuck. Pratyahara, sama and dama in yoga are dams constructed on a river, not allowing any leakage, and when the water level increases, it is very hard to control.

Nachiketas, purposely tempted by Yama, is an example. The Guru places disciples in such situations to train them, to burnish them. They are blessed, because they are given an opportunity to overcome the obstacle, and they are also given strength. But those who practice self-control in seclusion for years, without a proper guru, fail when the test comes as a hard reality, because tests in the spiritual path are not announced like school-examinations. In the latter, date, subject, time and textbooks are pre-announced. But here, there is no such thing: you may be tested any time, on any subject, in any manner. So, one has always to be ready and vigilant. The Upanishad says, later on, that one who is not careful falls. It is very easy to fall, and it is even pleasant, but it is very difficult to rise again.

“Nachiketas, I tested you and offered everything, and I am glad that you were not tempted even by the universal fire that bestows omniscience.”

Subtle difficulties present themselves only in the subtle realms. In the physical realm, we have only physical difficulties, the sthanidharmas. Each level has a law of its own, and we cannot know the temptations and difficulties of other realms. They are only theories now. And when they come, they come not as temptations, but look like necessities. When you know that they are temptations, obstacles, you will not fall. They are temptations only so long as you do not understand them. If you know your enemy, you will be careful. So, they come with a mask, and you are deceived.

dῡram ete viparīte visūcī, avidyā yā ca vidyeti jñātā:
vidyābhīpsinaṁ naciketasam manye, na tvā kāmā bahavo lolupantaḥ. (4)

The shreyas and preyas mentioned can also be called vidya and avidya: knowledge and ignorance. Desire is ignorance because it arises on account of a misunderstanding. Why does a moth fly into the fire? It does so because of its ignorance. It does not understand the structure of fire. Similarly, people go to sense-objects because they do not know that they are harmful. It is said that fire looks beautiful and probably cool to the eyes of the moth. This is what happens to all in regard to objects of desire. They jump into the fire, thinking that it is a soft bed. Why does the mind through the senses move to objects? Because due to avidya it sees something in them, like the moth does in the fire. We see in the objects something which is not really there. The coolness is not in the fire, and yet it is seen by the moth. Children sometimes go and touch a snake, not knowing what it is.

We desire objects, not knowing what they are made of. They appear as one thing, but they are made of something else. The objects are not made in the way the eyes and senses see them. They are not solid; they are not beautiful; they cannot give pleasure. Not only this: they can bind you and hurl you into more and more misery and even cause rebirth. In fact, rebirth is due to unfulfilled desires. But everyone has to pass through every difficulty. Otherwise, they are not known, as they cannot be avoided by mere theoretical understanding. Solid objects are forces and not physical bodies. They appear as solid because our body appears to be solid, but neither of them is. All are forces whirling in space, and they appear as solid due to our sense of touch. When this sense is not functioning, you cannot know solid objects, and so too with all the five senses; they deceive you. This is avidya or ignorance: the inability to appreciate and understand the true nature of things and yet run to them. But vidya is different.

“Nachiketas, you are a student of shreyas because you were not attracted by any of the objects I tempted you with.”

avidyāyām antare vartamānāḥ, svayaṁ dhīrāḥ paṇḍitam manyamānāḥ.
dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mῡdhāḥ, andhenaiva nīyamānā yathāndhāḥ. (5)

Yama says: “People who are sunk in ignorance, considering themselves great heroes, well-learned, understanding everything, are like blind men led by one who is blind himself. They run hither and thither, finding not what they seek.”

Foolish are such ones. We take advice from people who do not understand. How can it be helpful? But this is the world. People run here and there for happiness because of their desires, but find it nowhere. They are misguided, and it is unfortunate that there is no one who can see things as they are. Everyone is on the same level of learning. Not only this: the blind thinks that he sees, the ignorant thinks that he is learned. Learning itself becomes a form of ignorance, just as our happiness is itself ignorance because we think we are happy when we come into contact with sense-objects.

Ignorance has two sides, positive and negative. Negatively, you are not conscious of it at all. It is avarana, a veil; what you experience in deep sleep. Positively, it is called vikshepa. It projects itself outside, making you think of what is not there. That is the dream state. Which one is better? In dream we suffer more than in deep sleep, and it may appear that sleep is better. Or you may prefer the false happiness of dreams. The very same vikshepa also works in the waking state.

There are three kinds of realities: pratibhasika, vyavaharika and paramarthika. The world of waking appears to have a practical value, a utility; but it is as much a world of ignorance as the world of dream from the point of view of paramarthika-satta. The objects are much more real than the dream objects. Our present happiness and sorrows seem to be more meaningful than dream happiness or dream sorrows. The fact is that both are avidya or ignorance—waking and dreaming. In sleep which is avarana, as well as in dream or waking which are vikshepa, ignorance prevails. On account of this, people think that there is nothing wrong with the world and foolishly imagine that they are learned. Can you regard a dream pandit as a really learned man? Likewise, in the waking state you are ignorant, and so is your teacher.

na sāmparāyaḥ pratibhāti bālam pramādyantaṁ vitta-mohena mῡḍham:
ayaṁ loko nāsti para iti mānī, punaḥ punar vaśam āpadyate me. (6)

“The hereafter does not shine for the simple-minded, who think this is the only world, there is no other; just as the waking world does not exist to a dreaming person. People get deluded because of wealth and greed for things, and in this ignorance of youth, health, fame and position, they proclaim: ‘This world is real, and there is nothing beyond.’ These persons come to me,” says Yama. What he means is that they undergo unending births and deaths. Falling under the law of karma, they do not learn until they are given a painful lesson by nature itself. There is not only birth and death, but there is suffering. Those cannot escape Yama’s clutches. They are proud even when they do not know anything.

śravaṇāyāpi bahubhir yo na labhyaḥ, śṛṇvanto’pi bahavo yaṁ na vidyuḥ
āścaryo vaktā kuśalo’sya labdhā, āścaryo jñātā kuśalānuśiṣṭaḥ. (7)

“My dear child, this mysterious Being of all beings is difficult to understand. It is difficult even to hear, and there are people who cannot understand It even then. A wonder is the explainer of It; wonderful is that person who can understand It when taught by a competent one. Both are wonders: the teacher and the taught.” Teachers of this knowledge are rare indeed, and rare indeed are the students.

The second section of the Upanishad is an analysis of the nature of duty and desire: shreyas and preyas. Their whispers are heard by us simultaneously—one trying to overpower the other, sometimes creating a small tumult, so that they cannot be distinguished. Daily life is one dilemma, the conscience speaking of shreyas, and the lower self murmuring that pleasure is desirable in preference to duty. Why do people mostly listen to the latter voice? Because the objects connected to pleasure are visible to the senses, while the side of duty is not so visible. We believe in what we see, but find it hard to believe in the invisible. The senses are connected with objects of pleasure, but duty is something which the senses cannot understand.

Often duty seems to be painful and imposed. The reason is simple: we know pleasure will come by contact with objects, but we do not know what will happen in the other world. Limited to this world of senses, we cannot see the other realms, so we do not concern ourselves with them. And for all practical purposes, we take for granted that they do not exist at all. The ignorant, proud of empty learning, do not pay proper attention towards duty; they do not believe in the ultimate good, in God and the other worlds, but they believe in objects, even though they are perishable, even though they may bring death, humiliation, deprivation, because of their visibility, and this, because of the indivisibility of the good and the other worlds.

Both duty and desire, the good and the pleasant, have been examined by Nachiketas. This position is not one of acquisition, but of understanding, of discrimination. He is the example of a seeker who got over temptations by comprehending, and not because they were curbed by law, scriptures or the guru. When the disciple understands the true situation, no ordinance by any of them is necessary. When we are awake, we don’t have to be told not to drown ourselves in a river. Nachiketas realised that objects are not to be acquired for enjoyment, but to be understood and studied. They are not for hugging. The world is not to be possessed. No one can possess the world, because everyone is a part of it; belongs to it in an integral way. So an individual fails when he treats it as an object of enjoyment, for the world and all its objects are an opportunity to train ourselves in understanding.

The world is one of the ways in which God peeps through space and time: “Shreyas or preyas—what do you want?” He asks. Most people are like Duryodhana and want adoration rather than the silent divinity that does not reveal itself to the senses. The more we realise the interconnectedness and harmony of being, the nearer are we to God. The more the separation between man and man, the greater the assumption of the individual, the more are we away from Him. This is what Yama implies in the conversation with Nachiketas: that the silent music of the Spirit is drowned in the clamour of the senses.

Though God is speaking to us daily, we do not hear Him because of the noise the senses set up. We see the colour and the panorama of the world they present us, but not Him. This is the meaning of ‘the other world is not visible’, which includes God also, as well as the astral, causal and the absolute. Realms beyond the physical are less and less separated in their contents or units. While in the physical world we see many persons, one thing having no relation to another, the higher we go into the subtle realms, the nearer do persons and things appear to come—just as in a triangle with a wide base there is also an apex, and as the two sides go higher towards it the distance between the two sides becomes less and less until they meet.

In the Absolute, people come together; and when you realise the intimacy of things, your love for them diminishes, just as you do not love your body the way you love sense-objects. There are what is called nether regions, lower than this physical world, which are inhabited by asuras, demons and the like—beings who are more sensuous, wrathful and body-conscious. There are seven worlds above and seven below ours, which means that there can be states of consciousness worse than the human, ignorance deeper than the human, and knowledge higher than the human. The seven higher realms are of great subtlety and intimacy, so that when we reach the highest, one reflects in the other and one becomes the image of the other. This is omniscience or cosmic consciousness: everyone is everyone else.

We do not like each other because of our believing in the reports of the senses, and thus we are said to live in mrityu-loka: the world of desires and self-affirmation. The higher world is not visible to the ignorant, and so we cling to this world. If we were aware of all the higher ones, we would no longer think: ‘O, I am so far from Truth’, but feel like a dreamer who is aware of the waking world while in dream. Like a sudden waking up from dream, there is sometimes a sudden awakening into Reality. This is called sadyo-mukti.

na nareṇāvareṇa proktā eṣa suvijñeyo bahudhā cintyamānaḥ:
ananya-prokte gatir atra nāsty aṇīyān hy atarkyam aṇupramānāt. (8)

This knowledge cannot be had by personal effort alone. You cannot get it by reading a book. The teacher of it must be an expert—so subtle is this knowledge. “If an inferior teacher teaches about Him, this knowledge will not enter you, as He is thought of in many ways. But there remains no doubt when He is taught by one who knows Him as himself. Subtler than the atom is this truth. You may be able to see an atom, but this cannot be seen.”

Knowledge is not words, but spirit spoken. The teacher is like the honeybee who draws the honey from all books and gives you the essence. The force behind the words spoken by the Guru is important. It is his power that is conveyed through his words. Not merely this; the proximity to the teacher is itself a force. The words he speaks, his thoughts and the good notion he has about the disciple are important. Unless it is taught by a superior teacher, it cannot be understood. Without him, there is no way.

naiṣā tarkeṇa matir āpaneyā, proktānyenaiva sujñānāya preṣṭha:
yāṁ tvam āpas satyadhritir batāsi; tvādṛṅ no bhῡyān naciketaḥ praṣṭā. (9)

“It is not only that you cannot attain this knowledge without a teacher, but also that you cannot attain it by logic and reasoning. But, my dear, taught by one who knows the truth, it is well understood.”

Mental processes belong to the realm of phenomena, but truth does not; and so there is no connection between them. Even scriptures speak in a language, and words cannot convey it. It cannot be communicated to another for want of means, say the scriptures. It is insight—the intuition of the Guru that reveals this knowledge. The intuition of the Guru reveals itself as intuition in the disciple. They are not two persons; they are only two centres—one revealed and the other unrevealed. “If seekers there be, if questioners there be, may we have seekers, questioners like you, Nachiketas!”

The Superiority of Wisdom to Wealth, Earthly as Well as Heavenly

jānāmy aham śevadhir ity anityam, na hy adhruvaiḥ prāpyate hi dhruvaṁ tat
tato mayā naciketaś cito’gnir anityair dravyaiḥ prāptavān asmi nityam. (10)

There is a transition of instruction between the lower and the higher, vaishvanara-agni and hiranyagarbha. “I know that all the treasures of the world are perishable, and that the perishable cannot be a means to the imperishable. Yet, as a candidate of the celestial realm, I performed the vaishvanara sacrifice. I have reached the everlasting by impermanent means.”

This is a difficult mantra to understand, and various commentators have different opinions about it. Some think it is spoken by Yama; some others, by Nachiketas. There is no ‘uvacha’ in the Upanishad like in the Bhagavadgita. However, it cannot be Nachiketas saying it for at least one reason. The speaker says, ‘I have performed the nachiketas-agni’, so they must be Yama’s words. Because Nachiketas has only heard about it but has not yet performed it.

Anandagiri’s comment, which has been accepted by many, says that this is the teaching of Yama to Nachiketas, revealing the former’s own personal condition. “Do you know how I have become Yama, the Lord of Death? It is by performing the vaishvanara-agni. I know it does not by itself lead to the absolute Truth. It is anitya and through it one cannot reach the nitya.” This means that nothing of this world can lead you to the imperishable; even the higher realms are, like this world, for the senses even though objects come closer in these higher realms because of their subtlety. The residents of brahma-loka do not have a physical or even subtle body, but have only a causal one, merely one step below the Absolute where it makes no difference as to where things are; everything is everywhere. But there is something higher than these levels: the subject of the third boon, which Yama refuses to teach.

What is the wonder of this? The wonder is that nothing is the means to it. The non-eternal cannot take you there; and everything you have—body, mind, intellect etc.—are non-eternal. “Then what is the means to it?” is the great question which Yama refuses to answer. But Nachiketas wants to know only that. “People say it is ‘something’. It must be, because we are asked to do good, show affection to others. A rule of righteousness is imposed upon us. So, there must be something, but what is it? When one approaches it, one loses himself. And when I am not there, neither is the other. If the subject is not, the object is also not. This is the mystery: that something seems to be there, and yet it appears as not there.” Thus, Yama says that nothing that is non-eternal can be a help in knowing the eternal. Logic, your possessions, all that is conceivable by your thoughts, is perishable and cannot help you. Hence, in the realisation of God, nothing can come to your aid but God Himself. The human element, everything sensual and external must be cast aside, and only the divine element relied upon. The question of Nachiketas is how to bring about this transition from the human to the divine.

When the soul is released of its individuality, what happens to it? No one has given an answer to this. When asked by Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya says that the question itself ceases to exist when the answer reveals itself. The questioner and the answer vanish: ‘Where one speaks to another, sees another, understands another, communication is possible. But where there is no one to speak, no one to see, and no one to understand, who is to communicate to whom?’ Yama comes to a similar conclusion by taking Nachiketas to the universal knowledge of hiranyagarbha, to That Which Is, asti. We have to know It as That Which Is. Even the state of universal knowledge is comparatively transient, because in it everything is an object of omniscience. The subject-object relationship exists even there. But Reality is going beyond everything, because there is not even that everything in the Absolute. Though eternal means alone is the eternal realised; this is the mystery. Because of the subtlety of this wisdom it is said that a Guru is necessary as an embodiment of insight which can be conveyed, but not spoken or written.

kāmasyāptiṁ jagataḥ pratiṣṭhāṁ krator ānantyaṁ abhayasya pāram
stoma-mahad urugāyam pratiṣṭhāṁ dṛṣṭvā dhṛtyā dhīro naciketo’tyasrākṣīḥ. (11)

This is a description of the state of mahatattva or hiranyagarbha – the highest state that can be reached in all creation, the satisfaction of all desires. Here, all your loves and affections get fulfilled, like flowing rivers finding their contentment in reaching the ocean. The movement of desires to objects is a blind activity of the senses, continuing until this stage is reached. All desires are due to a sense of separation from the beloved object. The longing to unite oneself with that from which one is separated is desire. The urge to come together is desire. So, when you come into union with an object, you seem to be in a state of fulfillment. But, says the Upanishad, this is not really fulfilling wants, because they rise again, like a creditor coming again and again until his dues are cleared. If they had really been fulfilled, why should desires rise again? They are not satisfied with what you give, because in a so-called enjoyment, you do not unite. The whole world cannot make you happy because you never can come into union with it, and because you fail in this, you take another birth. Yet, you do not learn the lesson. Your understanding cannot arise, precisely due to the desires. Satisfaction comes only in the ocean of hiranyagarbha. Here, you reach a state of perpetual balance. You do not stand opposed to the object of desire, as you do now. You are able to move freely into the very soul of it. There is no isolation of subject-object, and hence there is perpetual happiness.

Hiranyagarbha, the universal mind or intelligence, is also the support of all the worlds, the cause of all creation. The virat is an external or physical expression of that internal hiranyagarbha. Just as our mental condition supports our body, hiranyagarbha supports all the worlds. Here, all sacrifices, all good works, all charity, find their rewards, because from indra-loka, swarga-loka and other realms, you come back, but from brahma-loka there is no return. Tearless is this region, because there are no desires. Where there is no desire, there is no fear, because there is no opposition or counterpart to one another. One flows, merges into the other. All your praises reach hiranyagarbha. You may praise anyone, it reaches Him. All words that you utter are a description of His Being. He is the only object of praise. When you call anyone, you call Him. When you taunt anyone, you taunt Him, because He is the One Ultimate Being. He is the grand Goal of expression in action and speech. Can you imagine this state? Your head will reel. Nachiketas rejected even this, because it is a part of creation.

“Having seen this Supreme Being, O wise Nachiketas, you have rejected even this!”

Apprehension of the Supreme Through Adhyatma-yoga

taṁ durdarśaṁ gῡḍham anupraviṣṭaṁ guhāhitaṁ gahvareṣṭham purāṇam
adhyātma-yogādhigamena devam matvā dhīro harṣa-śokau jahāti. (12)

What did he choose, then? Hiranyagarbha is the highest satisfaction, but the seeking soul must abandon It and ask for that which is hidden even behind It. What happens to a person when he overcomes the sense of individuality, was Nachiketas’ question, and Yama, satisfied, begins to answer.

That about which even the gods have doubt, about which even the scriptures do not speak adequately, what is That—That Being which cannot be perceived, either by the eyes or any other sense-organ? He is the most hidden of all hidden secrets, the mysterious divine Being. Where is He hidden? In the jungles? In the caves? In the sky? In the forest? What a mystery! People go to different places seeking Him, but He is hidden in the bottom of the very seeker himself. You carry Him wherever you go, yet you ask for Him. He cannot be seen because He is what sees through the eyes. He cannot be thought of, because He is that which thinks through the mind. So deeply hidden is He in your own heart that you cannot see Him. You yourself stand as an object to Him. You are an empirical subject, while He is the Absolute Subject or the paramarthika-satta. Most ancient is this Being.

He was here before your coming into existence, before creation came into existence. Before the creation of the cosmos, even behind the sankalpa of the cosmic Creator He was. And so, even the gods came into being after Him. Temporary, transient things cannot be a means to the realisation of this Truth. There is something fundamentally wrong in our approach to it. You can liken it to a supreme emperor whom one can approach by no means; yet he is approachable. Even the ground upon which you tread to see the king is his. Similarly, even the life that we possess is His. It is difficult, thus, to understand how to reach Him. Nothing can please Him because He has everything. You cannot offer anything to Him because everything belongs to Him, and you yourself are His property. Then, what is the way? Yama does not want to explain it, because it cannot be explained, as all questions imply the connection of a means with an end, while He is neither a means nor an end.

By the practice of adhyatma-yoga this God of gods is known. This yoga is the way to God-realisation. In the whole Kathopanishad, there is no explanation of what this adhyatma-yoga is. We have to go to other Upanishads, like the Brhadaranyaka—especially in the discourses of Yajnavalkya to Janaka and Maitreyi—for a description of it. “There is no conceivable consciousness after the annihilation of individuality. Then you have nothing before you, of what can you be conscious? And yet I say it is consciousness; for while there is nothing to be conscious of, still It Is consciousness, because everything has merged into It. This is the Absolute.”

Adhyatma-yoga is a state of meditation where there is no thinking. Where there are objects to think of, it is hiranyagarbha, but where everything has merged into consciousness, nothing remains to be explained.

“It is attainable by him through whom it is sought,” is Sankara’s explanation to this mantra. The seeker and the sought are the same. “One, having known that primal God deeply hidden in the cave of the heart, abandons joy and sorrow because they belong to the world of thought.”

etac chrutvā samparigṛhya martyaḥ pravṛhya dharmyam aṇum etam āpya
sa modate modanīyaṁ hi labdhvā vivṛtaṁ sadma naciketasam manye. (13)

Yama continues: “On hearing this and reaching the Essence, the Source of joy, one rises to a status of ecstatic consciousness. Nachiketas, for you this gate is open.”

It is difficult to say what happens to him who catches a glimpse of it. The Atman is the support of all dharma, the supreme law. Every law is but an expression of His nature. This supreme righteousness is anu, the subtlest of all existences, and once we have seen the Atman, we know all laws. Saints are therefore the vehicles of righteousness. They do not follow the Manu Smirti or any other law, but the smritis follow them. If one listens to this supreme dharma, one gets transported into spiritual ecstasy. One becomes supremely joyous, because the object of joy has been attained. If your son whom you thought dead came back to you, how joyous you would be! You have lost your own Self and you have found it now! That which you have been seeking for years and years has come!

While the gates of heaven are closed to ordinary people, they are open to such seekers as Nachiketas who have a clarified understanding. Really speaking, the gates of heaven are always open. What happens is that people lose their eyesight when they go near them. This happens every day to us, in deep sleep. We touch them, but we become unconscious and blindly pass them by, and then say that they are closed. Our own desires make us pass them by when we try to approach these gates, by saying: ‘We are unfulfilled! No going unless we are fulfilled!’ Like the worldly wife of one who wants to take sannyas forcibly drags him away, the desires drag us from that high state. They give us a blow on our head when we are about to see God face to face. No man of desires can see God.

When Sri Krishna was to visit Duryodhana’s palace, Vidura told the people that they would not see Him. The reason behind this is that the Lord cannot be seen by men of desires.

anyatra dharmād anyatrādharmād anyatrāsmāt kṛtākṛtāt.
anyatra bhῡtāc ca bhavyāc ca yat tat paśyasi tad vada. (14)

“Glad am I, O Lord! Please, tell me more!” says Nachiketas. Now that Yama has answered, Nachiketas will not cease to question. After having been given a wonderful description of the highest, he says: “Tell me what is other than dharma and adharma, beyond what is done and not done—That which Is.” That which is neither dharma nor adharma, neither truth nor falsehood, neither goodness nor otherwise, neither subject nor object—what is that? Where dharma and adharma have their play, where subject and object come together, is world-consciousness. What is That which shoots up like a spark when the match is struck, consuming that which is hidden in it? What is That which is neither the done nor the not-done, midway between doing and not-doing, like the karma yoga of the Bhagavadgita? That which is not past or future—not coming by your effort and also not otherwise.

That which Yama sees is not a content of creation, because what is seen is hiranyagarbha which has already been passed over. You must go beyond creation. It is not contained in space, and so not in time. It is an eternal Presence. It is said to be ‘here and now’, meaning that it is infinite and eternal. The question of Nachiketas is itself a hint of what he seeks from Yama. That which exists as the non-interfering Principle in all, that which is the Seer of the activity of the cosmos—that is the Being which he wants.

sarve vedā yat padam āmananti tapāṁsi sarvāṇi ca yad vadanti,
yad icchanto brahmacaryaṁ caranti, tat te padaṁ saṁgraheṇa bravīmi: aum ity etat. (15)

This mantra is echoed in the Bhagavadgita. Yama says: “I shall tell you about the supreme Abode which you are asking for, which the Vedas extol in all their mantras; for which people do tapas, observe vratas, do charity. It is Aum.”

For what sake do people observe brahmacharya? They control their energies to pierce through the fortress of ignorance, to melt the flint of avidya, kama and karma. No passionate person can do this. No one who lacks brahmacharya can behold this Being. People think that the Vedas speak of many gods, but they speak of one God only. They speak of the same God in different languages. The Veda itself says, ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti: The one God is spoken of variegatedly in different expressions of ecstasy by the sages to whom the mantras were revealed.

When the Kumaras went to Dakshinamurthy for wisdom, the answer was silence. At least Yama says one word. The Mandukya Upanishad describes what this Om is: a vast reservoir of knowledge and power, the symbol of the Absolute Existence, of Brahman—saguna and nirguna, accessible and inaccessible. In the form of creation, it is accessible; but formless, as the Absolute, it is inaccessible. It is the visible and the invisible. It is in creation, and it stands beyond it as well.

The chant of Om is in itself a great sadhana. It puts the whole system into spiritual balance. “This is the supreme mantra,” says Yama, “the supreme Brahman, akshara.” Akshara means a letter, a word, a phrase. It also means imperishable. So it is all this. If at all you can reach Brahman by any means, it is by Om. It is the Supreme, beyond which there is nothing.

etadd hy evākṣaram brahma, etadd hy evākṣaram param
etadd hy evākṣaram jñātvā, yo yad icchati tasya tat. (16)

etad ālambanaṁ śreṣṭham etad ālambanam param
etad ālambanaṁ jñātvā brahma-loke mahīyate. (17)

These two mantras describe the glory of pranava or omkara, the symbol of the Supreme for the realisation of which people observe all vows, perform austerities and practice meditation. It is the imperishable, and it is both the manifest and the unmanifest, by knowing which one gains access to everything. When you chant or meditate on Om, you have with you whatever you want. You become possessed of all things by realising it. You can possess only that which you have seen and over which you have control. Here, knowledge and power merge into a single experience. One who performs this upasana diffuses his personality into Om. The worship of a sadhaka is to get into the soul of his devata, and when the upasana is complete, the devata enters the worshiper, and both become the same. Pranava is not a symbol in the sense of the term. A word you write on paper may represent a name or description. When you write ‘tree’, you do not have the tree on the paper. You have the symbol which makes you call a tree into consciousness. But Om is not like that. It is a vibration that is produced in our system, and it is the symbol of the symbol; a secondary symbol of Brahman. It is a chant, and not a written word. It is a force or power engulfing our personality when we chant it. Om emanates from the centre of the body, which is the navel. The original condition of pranava is not audible. Coming from the subtle body, it becomes audible only when finally uttered by the mouth. The initiation into it is most important, because this chant and meditation is a great art, and is difficult. Once one flows into the chant of Om, one transcends all mantras. Om has no devata—it is all things, and to enter into it is to enter into creation. It is the supreme imperishable Brahman.

It is Brahman because it gives access to everything, and having experienced it or known it in realisation, or having become it, one becomes fit to possess anything anywhere. The answer to your needs flows to you from all directions when this Supreme becomes manifest in your consciousness, and you become an instrument of its manifestation in this world.

While all other supports will leave you, it will not leave you. It is the best of, and support of, all supports—knowing which you reach brahma-loka. In its manifest form, it represents brahma-loka. And in its unmanifest form, it represents the Absolute, expanding itself gloriously. This is the description of the soul’s liberation by stages, krama-mukti. This syllable Om is the Atman or Brahman about which Nachiketas asked. What is that which transcends everything, was his question. That is Om. Nothing else but Om can become a vehicle for the expression of the Highest, because it is general and not particularised. The content of Om is the Imperishable.

na jāyate mriyate vā vipaścin nāyaṁ kutaścin na babhῡva kaścit:
ajo nityaḥ śaśvato’yam purāṇo na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre. (18)

“This Supreme Knower, vipashchit, is not born, never comes into being at any time, and so has no death.” This Atman is the Knower—not a knower in the ordinary sense of the term. He is Knowingness; the capacity to know. He does not know things like the mind knows or sees. The knower of the Atman does not exist. Who is to know the knower? If he is known, he is not the Atman.

When the form changes, the essence does not change. Such is the Atman. He has not come from somewhere; he has no place; he occupies all this universal space. He has neither a cause nor an effect, nor can he go anywhere nor become anything. Creation does not apply to him. The whole of it is a vehicle for him, and nothing happens to him when it changes. “He is unborn, eternal, perpetual; the most ancient. While the body is destroyed, he does not undergo transformation. Most wonderful is he!”

hantā cen manyate hantuṁ hataś cen manyate hatam,
ubhau tau na vijānīto nāyaṁ hanti na hanyate. (19)

“If one imagines that He is destroyed when the body is destroyed, or if one imagines that He destroys something, both do not know. Neither the destroyer nor the destroyed know the truth when they think that the Atman goes with the body.” The body appears to move because of it being contained in space, but the Atman is the presupposition of even space, and thus cannot move. He who thinks that He can be destroyed knows not the truth because he thinks He is an object, whereas He is the supreme Subject. People look at the Atman like they look at an object, but He is not that either. He is subtler than the mind and intellect, and hence cannot be seen.

aṇor aṇīyān mahato mahīyān, ātmāsya jantor nihito guhāyām:
tam akratuḥ paśyati vīta-śoko dhātu-prasādān mahimānam ātmanaḥ. (20)

“Smaller than the smallest atom is the Atman. Most expansive is He, greater than the great. Because He is the innermost existence in every thing, He is seated in the hearts of all beings.” Never is it possible to explain the meaning of the term ‘Atman’, because when you start to explain it, you make Him an object of the world. This Atman, the Soul of all beings, is the Heart; not the physical one that pumps blood, but the Centre of our personality; the very Source of all that we are; the Essence of our being. Shantoyamatma—this Atman is peace. He is the flooding of feeling that rises in us when we lose consciousness of our personality and yet are conscious. When we forget the existence of everything outside ourselves, and ourselves too, the Essence of this is the Atman. The ‘I’ has a soul behind it which is He, speaking through the entire personality. Such is this mysterious, magnificent, elusive Atman who is hidden in all beings. How can we behold Him? “Freed from all sorrows does one behold the Atman.”

Ceasing from willing of all kinds, you behold Him. Any sankalpa prevents His manifestation. If you assert yourself, either by feeling or willing or thinking, you block His ray. To affirm anything is to have sankalpa, and such a one cannot be a yogin. Think not, affirm not, will not—this is the way! He who has no personality, who wants not anything, becomes fit for His realisation. How does He manifest? In whom and when? Dhatuh prasadat—what this means is a matter of controversy. All commentators of the Bhakti School, especially the Vaishvanas, say that it means the grace of God. Dhatu is creator, and prasada is grace. Your effort has to cease, because any effort is an obstacle to His revelation. When effort ceases, God’s grace unveils that Atman. “It is advaita vasana, or an inclination for advaita—realisation by the grace of ishvara,” says Dattatreya in the Guru Gita.

How God’s Grace arises in the jiva is a question difficult to answer, and the difficulty has been accepted by everyone, even by Sankara. Knowledge arises by the will of God. But Sankara’s commentary differs from the one of the Bhakti-School. He interprets ‘dhatuh prasadat’ in an advaitic manner. “Through tranquility of the substances which constitute the personality is the Atman beheld.” Prasada is tranquillity which tends to universality. When the whole personality becomes tranquil, when there is a tendency to universality, the entire person gets focused in consciousness. This is Sankara’s explanation. We may accept both. God is everything. He is the other as well as your own Self. If He is the other, you need God’s grace. But He is within also. God can send His grace from within, but can also send it from without, and then it is that you behold His glory. It is not described in books. It is beheld directly.

The Opposite Characteristics of the Supreme

āsīno dῡraṁ vrajati, śayāno yāti sarvataḥ:
kastam madāmadaṁ devam mad anyo jñātum arharti. (21)

“How can one conceive Him?” Nachiketas may think. Yama answers,”Sitting, He moves to all distances. Lying down in one place, He goes everywhere.” He moves not an inch, and yet He is the fastest of all things, faster than even light. Before our mind reaches brahma-loka, that Atman is already there. Here is the Thing “whose centre is everywhere, but whose circumference is nowhere”, as the mystic saying goes. You cannot describe Him by the words we know. Only by such enigmatic statements is anything said about Him.

Who can know the Atman? “Except to the blessed ones, like me, who has access to Him, He is not known, this God of gods who enjoys and yet does not enjoy, who is the subject as well as the object, who is within and without.”

That fortunate divine person who has the knowledge of truth in its essentiality is a dharma-raja.

aśarīraṁ śarīreṣu, anavastheṣv avasthitam,
mahāntaṁ vibhum ātmānam matvā dhīro na śocati. (22)

“Once having beheld the Atman who is bodilessly present in all bodies, who is stable, and in every process of transformation without undergoing any transformation, the wise grieves not and rises into rapture.” Just as breaking a pot does not break the space within it, the conditions that affect the body do not affect the Atman. When the pot moves, the space within does not move, nor is it destroyed. The Atman is present in all bodies, unaffected and unchanging. The bold, heroic and fortunate one who has known Him is the highest being and has no sorrow. Stage by stage we are taken from world-consciousness to that of hiranyagarbha, and finally to consciousness of the Absolute.

The Moral Preparation for Brahma Knowledge

nāyam ātmā pravacanena labhyo na medhayā, na bahunā śrutena:
yamevaiṣa vṛṇute tena labhyas tasyaiṣa ātmā vivṛṇute tanῡṁ svām. (23)

This is a very famous, often quoted verse: “Not by speech can He be known; not by the intellect, not even by hearing.” Speech returns baffled. Who expresses speech? The Atman! Who can express the Atman? Even rationality, His partial expression through the buddhi which is a modification of prakriti, cannot express Him. Frail is the intellect when it tries to stretch itself beyond its limits. As a person who cuts the branch on which he sits will fall down, he who tries to know the Atman through the intellect will break. All the faculties of the human mind break down when they try to turn towards the Atman. “He is known only by him whom He chooses.” If God chooses, you may know; otherwise not. This is the interpretation of the Bhakti School. It is God’s grace that He gives you darshan. By a miracle taking place, you can see God; not by ordinary effort.

But Sankara’s interpretation is unique: It is not that someone chooses, because, for Sankara, that someone does not exist to choose. His understanding of this part of the mantra is: “He is beheld only by That which is the seeker himself.” That which you behold is within yourself, is the meaning. Who is the seeker? Is he outside the Atman? God is the prompter even behind the seeker. Sadhana is not possible without Him. Rather than from without, the choice has to come from within. The seeker and the sought are one.

The sought or God is not outside the seeker, choosing him arbitrarily; if it were so, we would have to attribute partiality to Him. Reality is one, and on the basis of this doctrine, Sankara opines that Self-knowledge is an inexplicable wonder: it arises—that is all. It is not caused by the jiva, because he has no freedom. But, if God is the cause, what conditions does He impose? If you say it is the jiva’s karmas, you limit His power; so even that is not a satisfactory explanation. Hence, either you accept that God’s ways are mysterious, ununderstandable, or knowledge is a miracle, and when you say miracle, you cannot say anything. By the passage of time, by the fructification of good deeds, by the process of the universe, by the grace of God—by a mysterious combination of all these factors which the jiva cannot understand, God is revealed. When He reveals Himself, the person (jiva) is no more. God reveals Himself to Himself. It is not an end reached by the effort of human personality.

The whole difficulty is expressed in a single statement: the Atman is the subject, not the object. Thus, He cannot be manipulated by an instrument. Speech, mind and intellect are signified by the terms pravacanena medhaya. Speech is indicative of all senses. So, not through them, not through the mind, not through the intellect can the Atman be realised, because these faculties have a tendency to move outward. They catch the object, not the subject. The mind never catches the mind. Both the mind and intellect work on the dictate of the senses which are untrustworthy, concluding that all reality is confined to phenomena. Any description of the Atman is given by them, and they cannot conceive of anything other than objects.

This mystery of atmasakshatkara is given in the second half of the verse. The Atman chooses the Atman. God chooses God. It is Self-efflorescence. To such a fortunate being who has so withdrawn himself into himself that he is indistinguishable from the Supreme Subject, to such a one is the Atman revealed—not by process, but instantaneously. It is a timeless flash of a sudden consciousness which is called atmasakshatkara. It comes by the maturity of one’s sadhana. The links of this process are indescribable. The last occurrence is such that it cannot be regarded as an effect of all the preceding ones, though it comes as a result of these. It is beyond the causational process.

nāvirato duścaritān nāśānto nāsamāhitaḥ
nāśānta-mānaso vāpi prajñānenainam āpnuyāt. (24)

There is no chance of success in any walk of life without moral purification: “Not he who has not ceased from bad conduct; not he who has no tranquillity within; not he who has no collectedness of thought can hope to achieve this Atman.” A person should cease from every kind of evil in thought, word and deed, and then achieve calmness of the senses, and then of the mind and intellect.

The three words: navirata, nasharta, nashantamanasa, represent three processes of self-withdrawal. In the lowest stage, we behave like animals, committing harms of various kinds; a gross attitude of the tendency to see ourselves separate from each other. This apparent isolatedness of individuals and things, which itself is due to wrong thinking, is affirmed by evil conduct. While all is interrelated, we see it as differentiated. This itself is bad enough, and is called a metaphysical evil. But it is made worse by violence for the acquirement or abandonment of things. Then it becomes a moral evil in addition to the metaphysical one. The wrong is not only committed, but also affirmed by harmful conduct, and thus it is a moral vice and against spirituality.

When you have somehow succeeded in extracting yourself from this illusion, you have other difficulties, subtler in nature. Even if you avoid violence of any kind, you will have no tranquillity within. Calmness of mind is different from moral goodness. You may be morally good, but not tranquil in mind. Spirituality is both inner goodness and mental calm. This shanti within becomes an effective instrument in overcoming duscharita or evil conduct. You have to be good even when you are alone, not merely to others, socially.

Even this inactivity of the senses is not total harmony. Spirituality is collectedness of consciousness within, one-pointedness and equilibrium. This is the state known as samahita—a total surrender of personality; not a mathematical, but a spiritual total. This Atman, the completeness of being, is attained only by inner composure; not by being intellectual.

yasya brahma ca kṣatraṁ ca ubhe bhavata odanaḥ
mṛtyur yasyopasecanaṁ ka itthā veda yatra saḥ. (25)

Grand is this Atman, marvel is His being! This is a very interesting and humorous mantra. Literally translated, it means: “He is That to which the brahmin and kshatriya are both food, and death itself is its condiment.”

But there is deeper meaning to it. The brahmana and kshatriya represent knowledge and power, internality and externality, spirit and matter, consciousness and object. The words brahmin and kshatriya do not signify personalities, but the spirit behind them. In the Atman there is a blending of absolute knowledge and power. “Some philosophers hold that there is no power in the Atman, because power means action, and since He is universal, there can be no question of it, because to us power is always particularised, an exercise of authority. But His is shakti, the capacity; not karma or doing something. The whole universe is a standing example of His power. You know how much force is in an atom; it can blow the world. Then what should be the strength of the cosmos which is full of them? And what should be the power of the Atman who is the controller of their source?

Power is not authority, and knowledge is not omniscience—they are more than that. In the Atman, the existence of one is the existence of the other. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are represented as One, and as Trinity in the Puranas. So also knowledge, power and the transcendence of individuality—symbolised as death being the condiment—are represented in the Atman. The affirmation of individuality is death. But death is not possible in Him, because in His Being all that you conceive of is transcended. To us, existence is regarded as a qualification of something. We say: “I exist” or “you exist”, but in reality, existence is the substance, and is prior to ‘I’ or ‘you’. The predicate, to make sense, is connected to the subject. But general existence is prior to particular existence, which latter is better called formation. In the case of the Atman, existence is general and absolute. This is paramarthika-satta. In it, individuality is ruled out, and so death has no meaning there; death is dissolved in it. “Such Atman—who can know where He really is?”

This concludes the description of the general nature of the Atman, hinting that when He is misconstrued, He may appear as jiva or individual, which is equated with death.

In the next section, we hear in greater detail of the individual or jiva in his relation to the paramatman.