The Esoteric Significance of the Kathopanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: Sannyasa – The Renunciation of Erroneous Notions

This body is like a chariot. The consciousness within that rides this body is the Lord of this chariot. The reason, the purified intellect, is the charioteer. The horses are the senses. The mind is the reins. Thus, with controlled movement this chariot has to be driven in the direction of its destination. What is the destination? Every vehicle moves in some direction. In a similar way, the vehicle of this human individuality also moves. It is already moving. Sometimes the charioteer sleeps. He is not fully conscious, or he starts looking this way, that way, either side, in the direction of the shops, the bazar, the noises, the music, the cinemas and the loud clamours of people, and may fail to give the attention needed for the onward march of the vehicle.

The driver cannot afford to be distracted by a circus going on or a dance being performed, whatever be the glamour of these sights. Self-control is required on the part of the driver, the charioteer; else, the vehicle will go into the ditch.

I mentioned yesterday that the road, the path along which the chariot of this body moves, is the sense object. The sense objects are the roads. It is the sense objects from which we have to restrain the mind and the senses. It is also the sense objects which are the conducting medium of this vehicle driven by the very senses which are to be restrained from contact with the objects.

That which is to be avoided is the very thing that we have to take advantage of. This is a principle made out in the tantra sadhana. That by which we fall is also that by which we rise. The medicine that can kill also is the medicine that can save our life, at least from the point of view of the homeopathic system. In a particular potentised form, poison saves life. If it is given in a crude form, it destroys life. The objects are bondages. They are hell for the jiva which is caught up in samsara.

But this world is also the road along which we have to move. Otherwise, where comes the need for karma yoga? Why should we have any duty to perform in this world since we have nothing to do with this world, and we have to abstain from every kind of relationship with the world? “This is what I shall do,” said Arjuna. “I shall cut myself off from everything in this world. It is a bondage and a horror.” And the advice of Sri Krishna was altogether different. While the world is a bondage, it is also a necessary medium of communication of ourselves with the great destination which we have to reach. The world is ishvara-srishti, God’s creation. It is not a hell that God has created for us. It is uncharitable on our part to imagine that God can create a hell for us. That karuna murthi, the ocean of compassion, father and mother, the great Almighty, will He create a hell for us? How would He be a father and mother for us? Mātā dhātā pitāmahaḥ (Gita 9.17). This is what is told us about God in the Bhagavadgita. God has not bound us. He will be the last person to do any harm to us. So if the world is a hell from which we have to extricate ourselves at the earliest opportunity, and the objects of senses are to be shunned wholesale, in a sense we are condemning the world which God has created.

The world is an evil. Some doctrines tell us that the whole world is Satan’s kingdom. This is samsara; this is bondage. But the Kathopanishad says: atra brahma samaśnute (Katha 3.3.14). The Absolute is realised here itself inside this very hall, in the very kitchen that we are dining, in the very bathroom that we are taking our toilet cleansing; that is the very spot where we enter into the bosom of God. The very hell that we are thinking in our mind is also the Vaikuntha into which we are going to enter.

How is all this possible? Samsara and moksha are supposed to be the same according to certain great teachings such as the Yoga Vasishtha and also the Madhyamika philosophy of Buddhism, which is a highly mystical doctrine of logical analysis. Nagarjuna, who wrote the Madhyamika Karika, emphasises throughout his writing that where hell is, there itself is heaven. Where there is sleep, there itself is waking. They are not two different worlds. They are two degrees or conditions of being, and not two different realms like the North Pole and the South Pole.

The objects are bondages when the senses erroneously try to commune themselves with them. The senses come in contact with the objects, but really they do not enter into them, or possess them. We cannot really enjoy anything in this world; we are catching hold of a shadow of a reality that is beyond us. When the shadow is grasped under the impression that it is the original, we are given a hint as to the way in which we can contact the original through the shadow. Because the shadow is cast by the original, we can move to the original through the shadow. The world is a shadow as well as the original combined at the same time. From one angle of vision it is bondage, samsara, hell, a shadow, and transitoriness par excellence. Nothing is real here; everything is passing. On the other side, everything is here. Eternity is dancing its tunes in this transitory panorama of the movement of the time process. At the heart of time is eternity. Within samsara is the Absolute. Inside our dream is waking, and within every grain of sand is a universe contained.

The objects of the world are to be approached with wisdom, like an electrical engineer touching live wires. Any kind of ignorance is not to be permitted here. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. We are suffering due to the ignorance of the law that operates in this world. We have mistaken one thing for another thing. Our individual wills do not work in consonance with the universal will. We have come out from the roots of our personality to the shadows that we are seeing. Again to come to the analogy of Plato, the shadows cast by originals in the caves he describes in The Republic are regarded as the originals by prisoners shackled by chains in a den which is dark, through which light cannot penetrate, where only the shadows can be seen and be mistaken for realities.

We are all the shadows cast by our own originals. All of us seated here are not originals of ourselves. Our originals are in higher realms. They are operating, and when they move it appears as if the shadow also moves. All things happen in the originals first. The activity is motivated in Brahmaloka, and it descends gradually into grosser and grosser forms of condensation until it appears as if we are moving here. We say a shadow is moving because the original is moving. If the original does not move, the shadow cannot move. All our movements and activities are the reflections of an original activity taking place in the centrality of the universe – the archetypes, as they are called.

Therefore, the universe is not a bondage if it is to be envisaged as its own reality and not as it appears. The world is what it is, and also what it appears. We cannot see the world as it is; we see the world only as it appears. When a marionette or a puppet show is demonstrated before us, we can see the movement of the puppets; but the marionettes move on account of the movements of the fingers of somebody else behind them who operates the strings in a dextrous manner.

We may, for our understanding, compare these dancing marionettes to the shadows. The originals are the fingers. If the fingers do not move, the marionettes will not play, and according to the dance or the movement of the fingers, so is the movement or the dance of these marionettes.

Therefore, again we come to the point that we are doing nothing. Somebody else is doing everything. That Somebody is not outside us. Here is a very crucial, difficult point for us to understand. Our own originals are acting in communion with the originality and the original archetype of the universe, which is the substance behind the objects of sense – ishvara-sristi, which is different from jiva-sristi. The world of God is not a bondage. The world of the jiva, the individual, is a bondage. Men, women, sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, trees – these are enjoying a status of their own, and they exist independent of relations which are apparent social manoeuvres.

A human being is a human being, but to consider a human being as a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, an enemy, a boss, a subordinate, a this, a that, this is jiva-sristi. Any kind of psychological relationship is the individual’s world, but things taken as they are in their own way, from their own points of view and in their own status, that would be to enter into ishvara-sristi. The originals, the substances, are to be viewed from their own points of view and not from our own point of view. If I am to know you properly, I have to try to think as you think. I have to enter into your mind, operate through your mind, and be you rather than be myself as something outside you, looking upon you as this and that. You, from your own point of view, are neither this nor that. You are what you are, but you appear to be this or that to another. This anotherness is jiva-sristi, but each one is what one is from one’s own point of view.

Hence, the objects of the world become bondages, and the senses have to be withdrawn from them in the sense that what we call contact with objects is an artificial attempt to operate upon the mental perspective projected upon the objects in space and in time, which is what is called jiva-sristi. “Judge not lest ye be judged” is an old saying; to judge a thing is to place ourselves outside the thing, and this is jiva-sristi. When we are able to visualise a thing from its own point of view, we consider everything as an end in itself and not as a means to an end. This is a very advanced way of thinking where no one is a servant of another, no one is subservient to another, no one can be harnessed for the purpose of another, no one can be utilised for another’s purpose. Each one is what each one is. He is not something else.

When this independent status rules the world, and not relations rule the world, we are in the kingdom of heaven in one second. Brahmaloka, the kingdom of heaven, the golden age when government does not exist, is that circumstance where each one is what one is and no relation is necessary. Each one knows one’s own dharma, duty – which is to visualise everything from its own point of view as substances, originals, archetypes, not shadows, not locations of things, substances in the principle of externality called space, and in time. If each one is what one is and there is no relationship, space vanishes. In Brahmaloka, there is no space-time. In God’s kingdom it is eternity and infinity, non-spatial and non-temporal. It is from this point of view that the world is to be viewed for spiritual practice. Then the very samsara that you are afraid of becomes the heaven which you are willing to commune yourself with.

There is, therefore, a dual duty on our part as spiritual seekers in the practice of yoga: a withdrawal, and a bouncing back to the very thing from which we withdrew ourselves. We have to withdraw ourselves from our notions about things, and not from the things themselves. The things themselves are not visualised by us. As some philosophers say, the thing in itself cannot be contacted. We see only the appearance of the thing in itself in space and in time through conditions of the mind.

So when we practise renunciation, when we take to sannyasa, when we become monks and nuns, when we abandon this world for the sake of God, when we practice austerity, self-restraint, sense control, what are we doing? We cannot run away from this world, because we are in the world wherever we go. Even the person who has renounced the world is in the world only. He is not hanging in the sky. Even if we are in the sky, it is in the world. We cannot go out of the world even if we think that we have renounced the world. But the world has to be renounced in one special sense.

As I mentioned on an earlier occasion, the world is an idea finally, not a thing or a substance. I need not repeat this point again and again. Finally, it is a concept that is the ruling principle, that is the reality. Idea is the reality, concept is the reality, consciousness is the reality, finally. Chit is sat, consciousness is being. The substance, the reality of anything, is consciousness, and not tangibility, sensibility, etc. This is why the senses have to be withdrawn.

When we say the senses have to be withdrawn, self-control has to be practised, what do we actually mean from a purely spiritual point of view? Do we mean that we close our eyes, plug our ears, and desensitise our sense organs? We get benumbed completely and call it sense control. Are we going to paralyse our senses with an anaesthetic? Can we call that renunciation?

Renunciation is a difficult thing to understand because it is an operation of concepts. It is a wholly internal operation that is taking place within us. As the Bhagavadgita says in the Second Chapter, whatever the renunciation be that we practise physically, the taste for the objects may continue – rasavarjaṁ. Viṣayā vinivartante nirāhārasya dehinaḥ rasavarjaṁ (Gita 2.59). Though we may not be emperors, kings, presidents, prime ministers, the taste for status may be present in our minds. What do we lose if we become the president of a large country? Do we think it is an abominable thing? We may say it is useless because we know we cannot get it. We know very well it is impossible to get, and so it is a useless thing for us. This is called the philosophy of sour grapes. We are like the jackal. We cannot get the grapes, and so they are sour; we do not want them. On Mt. Everest we cannot get milk, so we have renounced milk.

The taste for an object cannot leave a person as long as the interpretation of things in a particular manner continues. A taste for an object is nothing but an interpretation of an object. A visualisation of a thing in a particular manner is what is called a taste. Whether the object is there or not is a different matter. What is our opinion about that object? How do we understand a thing, and what does it mean to us? That meaning that we read into a particular thing is our connection with that thing. If there is absolutely no meaning at all, like the absence of meaning in dream objects when we are awake, that would be wonderful.

But do we look upon objects from which we have withdrawn ourselves as dream objects? They are not like dream objects. We have come to a temple or a church or an ashram, and we have left our relations. They have no contact with us. We do not even write letters to them. But do we regard them as unsubstantial as dream objects? No, they are not like that. They are realities. Though we may not have a physical, social relationship with them, the psychic interpretation of the reality of those persons continues, and then there will be some movement of our mind when something happens to them.

Thus, the control of the senses has to be understood in a purely spiritual manner, and not in a social sense. Spirituality is not social activity; it is transmutation of the very conscious outlook of life. All this is a training that one has to undergo by service to a great Master. Tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā, upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattvadarśinaḥ (Gita 4.34). By an academic certificate or reading in a library, this knowledge cannot come.

Hard is this way. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way. Strait: very narrow. One cannot pass through that gate. The path of the spirit is compared to the track of birds in the sky which is not visible to the eyes, or the path of fish in the water which cannot be seen physically. The birds have a path in the sky, but we cannot see that path. Kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā; durgam pathas tat kavayo vadanti (Katha 1.3.14): Like the edge of a razor which is subtle and cannot be seen by the eyes, so is the subtlety and the sharpness of the path of the spirit. It is not a wide national highway on which we can roll, closing our eyes.

It is a very, very difficult thing because the mind which is gross cannot grasp this subtle, narrow, hairsbreadth of the spirit. We can jump this way, jump that way, but cannot strike this via media. We can go to extremes, but we cannot be harmonious. The path of the spirit is a harmonious adjustment of personality – not eating too much or fasting too much, not being awake always or sleeping too much, not doing nothing or always doing something, says the Bhagavadgita. Nātyaśnatas tu yogosti na caikāntam anaśnataḥ, na cātisvapnaśīlasya jāgrato naiva cārjuna; yuktāhāravihārasya yuktaceṣṭasya karmasu, yuktasvapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkhahā (Gita 6.16-17).

Yukta: One who is united with the structure of reality is in a state of yoga. What is the structure of reality? It is universal existence. A pervasive being is the nature of reality. It is not in one place only, so we can neither withdraw ourselves from it nor enter into it. Neither can we run away from it nor can we enter into it because it is everywhere. This is the reason why it is so difficult. Aṇur eṣa dharmaḥ (Katha 1.1.21), says the great Lord Yama to Nachiketas. Subtle, atom-like, minute, electron-like is this path – invisible. Naiṣā tarkeṇa matir āpaneyā (Katha 1.2.9): Logic is not the way. By logical argumentation one cannot know this.

Thus, this chariot of the body has to be driven by a discriminating reason. Bhagavan Sri Krishna and Arjuna should be seated in one chariot. God and man should work in unison. It is hard for us to imagine how God and man can work in unison, how the will of the individual can be united with the will of the nation so that there is no conflict with the government. Otherwise, there is fighting with everybody, and we cannot be in peace.

When the will of God, the will of the universe, or the process of the whole of nature is in harmony with our own ways of thinking and our volitions, we are citizens of all the worlds. Tasya sarveṣu lokeṣu kāma-cāro bhavati (Ch. Up. 7.25.2): You can enter into all the worlds. We have a passport which is valid for all the nations of the world at one stroke because we are nationals of every country. Now we are nationals of only this body. We cannot enter into another body; we cannot touch it; we cannot have anything to do with it. This is because we are hard-boiled individuals, caught up within the prison of this body.

In an intricate manner, the yoga spiritual is described in a very few verses of the Kathopanishad. Yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha, buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati, tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim; tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām, apramattas tadā bhavati, yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.10-11): When the five sensory operations stand united with the mind – yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha – then the intellect or the reason does not oscillate. Like the flame of a lamp placed in a windless place, that is yoga. That is the supreme state: tām āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim. Tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām: That is called yoga wherein the senses stand united with the mind and the reason.

How can the senses stand united with the mind and the reason? The senses are not the eyeballs or the eardrums or the skin or the tongue or the nostrils, though we are often told that these are the sense organs. The senses that we are speaking of here from the point of view of spiritual practice are not the physical lobes or the eyeballs, etc. The powers that project themselves through these avenues or apertures and forcefully jet themselves externally are the senses. What is a sense which has to be subdued? It is an energy that is struggling to rush vehemently outward through the channel of the eyes, the ears, etc. It is not the eye or the ear that we are speaking of, but the energy of consciousness that is vehemently attempting to rush outside for grasping, grabbing external objects.

Therefore, the restraint, which is sense control, is not closing the eyes or plugging the ears, etc. It is not physical fasting, etc. It is a difficult internal conscious technique by which the very thought, which cannot be separated from conscious manipulation in terms of objects, is melted down into a point of concentration which is automatically en rapport with the all-comprehensiveness of the object of concentration. Whatever we consider as our god, our deity or the object of meditation is a principle of universality. The ishta-devata, so called, is an emblem of what is universal. Thus, there should be no occasion for the mind to run here and there from this point of concentration. If the mind is not willing to concentrate upon this object which is called the ishta-devata, it means we have not considered this as a principle of universality and think of it as one particular object among many other things.

Our minds are not philosophically trained. We are not acquainted with the art of thinking in terms of ultimate causes. We are accustomed to think only of immediate occurrences. We are empirically oriented and not metaphysically trained.

Everything has to be understood in terms of ultimate causes. This understanding is called philosophical understanding. When something happens, we must find out why it has happened, and when we know the cause behind it, we must find the cause of that also, and go on finding the cause behind cause until we get at the final cause. This art, this technique, this method is called philosophy. But generally we are not used to this way of thinking. We do not want to go to the final cause of things. The mind is not used to it.

The senses, therefore, are our own mind, the consciousness within, the energy of the whole personality gushing outside with a tremendous force with a longing to pervade a particular object or group of objects outside in space and in time. Then what is sense control? It is the blocking of the movement of this energy through the avenues outside. But how are they blocked? This is called repression, which psychology condemns. If we build a huge dam across a river in spate, what will happen to the water of the river? We know what will happen. Thus, sense control is not damming the energy of the senses, though it is the same as not allowing the energy of the senses to move outwardly in the direction of the objects. It is a utilisation of this very energy in a different manner. It is not repression, suppression, not even substitution. It is not providing us with something instead of another thing. It is an entry into a condition where the need for the energy to move outward ceases. This is possible only when there is aspiration, mumukshutva, for the liberation of consciousness from the longing to come in contact with anything whatsoever.

Desires are controlled by a higher desire. We cannot control any desire unless it is dominated by a still higher desire. A poor man will run to receive dakshina of five rupees, but if he knows that at another place he will get a hundred rupees, he will run to that place, and will not mind losing this five rupees. The loss of five rupees is not a loss because it is covered by the hundred. Similarly, the withdrawal of the senses from desirable objects, so-called, is not a tension that we are creating in our personality. It is not a repression; it is a gaining of a larger thing.

The practice of yoga is not a disconnection from the beloved objects of sense. If that is the case, we will be perpetually in sorrow and curse yoga. We are going to gain a larger ground. For this, a new type of education is necessary. Otherwise, why should we be prescribed this long training under a Master? Why did disciples live under Gurus for years and years in those days? Independently, the senses cannot be controlled. They will impetuously rush forward, if not today, then tomorrow. A crying child may keep quiet for a few minutes when given a toy or a little sugar candy, but its desire is not fulfilled even though its attention has been distracted.

We are crying day in and day out for something that we have lost, and what we get is a little sugar candy, a toy, etc., which distracts our attention for the time being and makes us believe that we have obtained our desire, while we have not got it. We are misdirected. So we ever remain dissatisfied with all the possessions and satisfactions of life.

Now I come to the point again. The senses are to be controlled for the reason that the senses cannot come in real contact with the objects because these objects are only shadows cast by originals, and our real desire is to come in contact with originals only. We do not want the shadows, though the shadows may look like the originals. How is this achieved? By self-control, sense control. How do we do this? It is by educating the mind in the art of convincing itself that yoga is the operation of the consciousness in a wider field of acquisition, possession, enjoyment of a greater reality than this narrow limited circle of contact with a shadow thereof.

This is a hard thing for the mind to accept, but by protracted practise, by abhyasa and vairagya, it is controlled. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tan nirodhaḥ (Yoga Sutras 1.12); abhyāsena tu kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate (Gita 6.35). Yacched vāṅ manasī prājñas tad yacchej jñāna-ātmani, jñānam ātmani mahati niyacchet, tad yacchec chānta-ātmani (Katha 1.3.13), says the Kathopanishad. The senses have to be placed in the mind, the mind in the intellect, the intellect in the cosmic intellect, and the cosmic intellect in the Absolute. The lower is to be drowned in the higher, absorbed in a greater reality, just as when we are promoted to a higher job we have not lost the lower job. We will not cry that we have lost something, because the higher job is inclusive of whatever we are getting at the lower level.

The object of meditation in yoga is a reality that is inclusive of all things that we would like to expect in this world by contact of the senses. As I told you, the mind will not accept this argument. It will say, “No, I have got many desirable things here and this little object that I am concentrating upon is a candle flame, a rose flower, a dot on the wall, an image, an idol, a concept, a notion. It is not the reality.” The mind will say this again and again.

Great training is necessary, and hard is the path. Apramattas tadā bhavati (Katha 2.3.11): We have to be very cautious. Durgam pathas tat kavayo vadanti (Katha 1.3.14): Impregnable is this fortress of God, through which we cannot pierce. There are many ramparts stronger than steel and iron, such as the chakravyuha which we cannot enter without dire consequences. Fearsome is yoga, yet it is the greatest blessedness we can think of. It looks fearsome because we have to cut ourselves off, as it were, apparently, from all the beloved things in the world. But the point is, we are not so severing ourselves, as people who were mistaking shadows for realities in Plato’s cave will not lose anything when they are released from the prison and look at the brilliant daylight outside and the originals which cast the shadows which they mistook for realities. All these analogies, comparisons, images, are to enable us to understand where we really stand in this world.

Therefore, yoga requires an adamantine tenacity of purpose, and when we take to it, we have taken to it once and for all – no budging, no retracing our steps. A great force of will is necessary, coupled with deep longing, desire, mumukshutva, aspiration for freedom from the thraldom of involvement in this perishable body and the false relationships, social and otherwise.

The senses are, thus, to be united with the mind, the mind in the reason, and our individually operated reason or understanding has to be regarded as a drop in the ocean of understanding, which is Mahat-tattva, Hiranyagarbha, the supreme universal reason. Thus it is that our reason has to operate in a universal manner, as if we are thinking through every person in the world. When we think, we think through all the persons and through all things by communing ourselves inwardly through consciousness with all the objects and persons that we may think are outside.

Therefore, the renunciation that we are expected to execute is the renunciation from the notion of the external existence of things, and not the things themselves. The idea that objects and persons are outside us is that from which we have to free ourselves, and that which we have to renounce. What we practice in renunciation is the renunciation of ideas only. Sannyasa is the renunciation of willing, the sannyasa of sankalpa. Na hi asannyasta saṁkalpaḥ yogī bhavati kaścana (Gita 6.2). Nobody can be a yogi who has not renounced the externalised willing volition which places itself around an object outside.

Thus, sannyasa, renunciation, austerity or spiritually oriented, religiously oriented abnegation is the freedom achieved from a notion that is erroneous. It is not a physical cutting off from ishvara-sristi which is not a bondage. On the other hand, it is the way to God, the road along which the chariot has to be driven to the Supreme Abode of Vishnu.