The Secret of the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse No. 2

We observed yesterday that our present experiences seem to be involved in a misconception. With this point of view, the instruction of the Katha Upanishad begins. When Nachiketas, the seeker, rejects the grand presents offered by Yama and insists on a practical answer being given to the question of the nature of the soul on its dissolution, the teacher recognises in Nachiketas a fit disciple to receive this supreme knowledge, and immediately goes to the very heart of the question.

There are two sides of experience, which pull a person in two different directions:

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

This is the first precept of the great teacher Yama, the Lord of Death. There are two directions along which the mind of man moves, viz. the outward and the inward. The outward path is the way of pleasure and enjoyment. The inward way is that of the search for Reality. The two terms, sreyas and preyas, used in this instructive sentence, refer to blessedness and sensory satisfaction respectively. The human mind is always after immediate results. It does not care so much for ultimate values. “What does it bring to me now, whatever may happen to me tomorrow? I may even be hanged tomorrow, but today I must have the satisfaction.” This seems to be the usual argument and the wish of the human mind—perhaps of every kind of mind in creation. But the great Master says, it is an utter folly on the part of the mind to assume an attitude of the solution of problems by coming in contact with objects of sense merely because they bring immediate satisfaction. What is immediate satisfaction, after all?

Satisfactions are of various kinds. Whenever we come under the compulsion of an urge and get under its thumb, a release from its clutches appears to be a satisfaction. When a creditor comes and sits at your door, if he goes away from there, it is a great satisfaction because his presence there is a heavy pressure on your mind. If an amin comes with a warrant from the court and enquires whether the master of the house is there, if the gentleman goes away from there for a few minutes, it is a great satisfaction. If you have incurable eczema all over the body and you are itching all over the skin and you scratch it, the scratch brings a great satisfaction. There is burning hunger from within like fire flaming forth; you have not eaten for several days, you have a meal—it is a great satisfaction. You are boiling with anger at somebody and you give vent to your feelings by blurting out certain ignoble words—it gives a great satisfaction. So, satisfactions are umpteen, numberless, all amounting to a release of the nervous and psychological tension caused by an incurable urge that has arisen from within, of which we are not masters but only slaves.

Satisfaction seems to be a consequence of our being slaves, of not being masters. We are under the pressure of a particular power that rises from within us, which has its own say in every matter. Human satisfaction, therefore, is nothing but yielding to a particular urge. It may be a nervous urge; it may be a physical urge of any kind; it may be a purely mental, emotional or volitional urge. You have been pressurised in a particular manner, and to yield to that pressure brings satisfaction. This is a negative approach to the solution of problems. Merely because the creditor has gone away, the problem has not been solved. Because the warrant amin could not find you on a particular day, the problem has not vanished. Because you have been scratching your itches for days and days, it does not mean that you have been cured of the disease. Because you are taking food every day, it does not mean that you have ceased from being mortal. We do not seek for a solution of problems, because we find that they are beyond us, apparently. So we simply want to follow the psychology or the tactics of the ostrich which hides or buries its head in sand under the impression that nobody sees it, though the larger part of its body is outside it.

The human mind is a fool, really. It understands nothing, but yet it assumes an arrogance of all-knowingness and omniscience. Nothing can be worse than this attitude of the mind—knowing nothing and imagining that it knows everything. This attitude is called ignorance. This is called vanity. This is egoism. To assume an attitude of what you are not, that is ahamkara. But the whole of life is nothing but a pretension of this kind. In every one of our activities and attitudes, and even our expressions and speeches and conduct and behaviour, we are hypocritical to the core, if we go deeply into the matter. We do not expose ourselves, because that exposure of our true personality would go contrary to the assumed satisfaction which we wish to acquire through contact of senses with objects. There is, thus, a psychological cloud covering our mind, as psychoanalysts would tell us. Our great psychoanalysts, masters of the West like Freud, Adler and Jung, have told much about this subject of how the human mind can be completely clouded over by factors which have been allowed to grow like accretions upon the tablet of the mind, until a time comes when the cloud itself becomes a reality and the mind becomes a subsidiary fungus, as it were, growing as if it is not there at all with any importance of its own. This is what we call samskaras in Sanskrit, impressions of perceptions, cognitions, desires, etc.

The great Master of the Katha Upanishad points to the unfortunate position of the human mind when he says that preyas or the asking for sensory gratification is a folly. It is not a wisdom on our part. To ask for any kind of pleasure in the world is not an aspect or form of knowledge, for knowledge is identical with sreyas or blessedness. Your good or real prosperity lies not in your yielding to urges or to psychological pressure, but in your being a controller, a regulator, a restrainer, or a master over these urges.

According to the science of psychoanalysis, there is no such thing as individual freedom. It is all compulsion, urge, which is mistaken for freedom of will. We are not going to enter into this subject here, but I am only mentioning it as a side-issue to point out to what extent we can become slaves of such forces of psychology from within, of which we have absolutely no knowledge. The hypnotic condition is an instance on hand. When a patient is hypnotised by a physician, the patient acts as if he has freedom of his own. He goes in a particular way, speaks in a particular mood; and if you ask him as to why he is going in that direction, why did he do this particular thing, he will say, “Well, I wanted to do it.” He will never be aware that he has been pressurised by the will of the physician when under hypnosis. So freedom, at least from the point of view of psychological analysis, is a chimera. It does not exist. You mistake the forgetfulness of your background of action for freedom of will that you are deliberately exercising. You take your lunch everyday with a freedom of choice. Nobody compels you to eat. So you can say that the daily breakfast or lunch or supper that you are partaking of is an act of free will. But it is not. You are compelled to do it. Why? Because an illness has arisen within you in the form of hunger and thirst. You cannot call it an act of free will. Even the choice of items of food depends upon one’s physiological structure and condition.

A student of yoga should be a very thoroughgoing psychologist to understand his own mind or her own mind, because the practice of yoga implies a knowledge of the workings of the mind. If you know nothing about the mind, the practice of yoga is far from you. There should not be any kind of predisposition, prejudice, taking for granted or mere assumption, irrationally. You must be an expert analyst of your own mind.

We mistake enjoyments for acts of freedom, which is far from the truth, says Yama, the teacher of the Katha Upanishad. The man of wisdom chooses the blessed and the good rather than the pleasant and the satisfying to the senses. Both come to you. The blessed and the pleasant—both are before you. You can choose any one. Man is free either to stand or to fall. This is the endowment which God has bestowed upon human nature. Sreyas and preyas—both are at your disposal. Nectar and poison—both are kept in two cups before you. You can drink whichever you like. But the glamour of the poison kept in a beautiful cup is more attractive than the immortalising essence of nectar that seems to be covered in a bushel. Truth is hidden, whereas appearance is visible to the eyes. The hero, the courageous individual bent upon probing into the mysteries of Reality, chooses what is ultimately real and not what appears to be immediately valuable. In the practice, in the search for knowledge, you have to be cautious to see that you do not get entrapped by appearance. All is not gold that glitters. Truth is covered with a golden vessel. Appearances are deceptive. You cannot judge the worth of a book by the cover and the get-up of it. But this is the fate of man! On account of a mistaken attitude developed due to yielding to the urges of sense, man denies the hereafter:

na sāmparāyaḥ pratibhāti bālam pramādyantaṁ vittamohena mῡḍham:
ayaṁ loko nāsti para iti mānī, punaḥ punar vaśam āpadyate me.

The egoistic individual that man is, confined as he is to the perceptions of the senses, takes the world for reality and does not admit the existence of anything beyond and behind the visible scene. “This world is all, and nothing is beyond.” This is the argument of the senses, and this is the argument of man! “Why do you say that?” “Because I do not see it.” “That which is the visible is the real, the invisible is not the real,” is the human argument. But, unfortunately for us, the reverse is the truth. The real is the invisible, and the visible is not the real.

The visible, the seen world, is a conglomeration of action and reaction. The world that you see before you, the objects that are presented before the senses, the solid substances and the tangible presentations in front of us, are not what they are. Experience as it is presented through the senses is nothing but a network of reactions. The way in which reactions are set up by objects in their relation to the senses and the mind, produces an illusion in our consciousness. Depth can be seen where there is only a flat surface, as in a cinema, for example. There is only a flat screen. There is no depth or three-dimensional picture. But when you go and see a picture, you see a three-dimensional personality and movement. You can see miles of distance projected through the screen, though the screen is only a surface. It is only two-dimensional. If you have a concave or a convex glass put on your eyes, a lens of a particular kind, you will see ups and downs where there is only a level ground, and vice versa. Your vision is, therefore, not trustworthy. Your tongue will tell you different things when your bodily temperature is of a different degree. Tastes and visions, auditions and touches, smells, etc. are not reliable agents of knowledge. They produce an illusion of experience on account of a particular type of reaction they set up due to a given type of contact established between them and the objects of a given nature at a given moment of time. This is why we say that the world is relative. It is relative in the sense that every experience is dependent on some factor or the other. The world is not made up of one or two factors alone but hundreds and thousands of constituents form the world of experience. Just as a piece of cloth is made up of several threads—one thread cannot make a cloth—the world is not made up of one type of experience, one factor alone that is conditioned. The mind of man, being wedded to the report of the senses, is able to grasp only an aspect of experience, totally oblivious of other factors which are also equally contributory to this particular type of experience. As medical men sometimes tell us, a particular visible form of disease is not always caused by one factor alone. It is an effect of cumulative conditions that were gradually growing from within, without our knowledge of them. You do not suddenly fall sick. You have been tending towards it for days together or perhaps for months. It is not a sudden experience. The whole universe is made up of items of determining factors. It is one single pattern created by God, if you would like to call it a creation at all, and no factor of it can be isolated from other factors.

Every event is a universal event. There is no such thing as a local event taking place in a corner or a corridor of the world. You cannot say that a particular event has taken place only in a mohalla or a lane of a particular town. No such thing is the truth. Every experience, every event, every action, is a universal event. It takes place, in a conditioned form, everywhere in the world. Every illness is a total illness of the body. It is not an illness only of the nose or the eyes or the feet. The whole personality is sick even when there is only a sneeze that has come out from your nose. Likewise, every experience is a universal conditioning event, of which we have no knowledge because of our mind being tethered to a bodily locality and the mind’s mistaking this bodily locality for the entire reality. As the Bhagavadgita tells us, this is tamasic knowledge:

yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kārye saktam ahaitukam;
atattv ārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhṛtam.

Mistaking a part for the whole, the body for reality, a localised experience as all-in-all is the worst kind of knowledge that one can have. It is not knowledge at all. It is a form of ignorance. On this ignorance is based our sensory enjoyment, and when it is mistaken for reality, you deny God and deny the existence of the hereafter. Na samparayah pratibhati balam: ‘Childish is the mind of that individual who denies the hereafter and takes this world itself as the all.’ What is the result of this ignorance? Punah punar vasam apadyate: ‘The individual falls into the net of births and deaths in a series of metempsychosis.’

Births and deaths are the punishment meted out to the individual for its ignorance of the law of the cosmos. Every type of ignorance of law is punishable under the code of the government. The government of the universe inflicts a penalty on the human individual; and all individuals in the world, in the shape of transmigratory existence, as people, are sent to jail or reformatories for training themselves and becoming better. Births and deaths are nothing but processes of experience and training in this institution of the universe so that, by repeated births and deaths, you gain experience and move towards what is real, turning away, gradually, from what is an appearance.

The teachings of the Upanishad are an exposition of the various stages of the ascent of man to Truth. It is a wonderful scripture, like the Bhagavadgita. The different degrees of approach to Reality and the method of approach to Reality through these various degrees form the exposition of the Katha Upanishad. The sacrifice of Gautama Vajasravasa, the feelings of the lad Nachiketas in respect of the charities and the philanthropic acts of his father, the rising of the soul of Nachiketas to the abode of Yama and his fasting for three days in that abode, the appearance of Yama after three days and nights and bestowing of boons of a threefold character upon Nachiketas, and the wonderful instructions Yama gave to Nachiketas, are all descriptions of the stages of the rise of the soul to the Absolute.

The first stage is the exoteric approach of the human mind to the values of the world—the mistaking of the external for the ultimate, which is represented by the sacrifice of Vajasravasa Gautama. The world is a real presentation as it is in its crass form, and the after-death experiences are supposed to be merely a copy of the present life experiences, only in a more rarefied form, so that the popular conception of heaven after death is of a magnified form of the pleasures of sense that we have in this earthly world. If you get kheer only occasionally here, you will get kheer every day there! This is the type of joy that we seem to aspire for in the sensory world of the gods. We have no concept of God or the Creator, or the hereafter, except in terms of what we experience today. This is why Vajasravasa Gautama aspired for a heaven of satisfaction through the senses, and therefore he thought that a mechanical act of pretended charity can also procure for him such an enjoyment of the senses, because he was not prepared to part with everything that he had. Nothing can be so painful to the human ego as to part with its own pleasures. It wants to seek satisfaction of the senses both here and hereafter. If the scriptures tell you to give in charity so that you may become happy in the heaven hereafter, you try to make a counterfeit charity of giving only a coin that will not work anywhere, or a torn currency note. You imagine it is a charity. You have given in charity, and yet you have not lost anything! Sometimes you give in charity only to your dear and near friends. You give a lot of charity to your own son when he is educated in the college, or bring wonderful saris to your wife. This is a great charity, indeed. You give two pence to the poor servant who washes your vessels. This charity will not procure you anything worth the while. But this was the type of mistaken charity carried on by Vajasravasa Gautama. The Upanishad explains beautifully the fate of the human mind in a state of ignorance.

The mind rises beyond this level in the conscience of Nachiketas and searches for a meaning in life, which comes to us as a teacher in the form of the observance of the transience of all phenomena. Death is the greatest teacher. Yama is, therefore, the great Guru of the Katha Upanishad. You will not learn a lesson better than through the experience of the transitory nature of things. When you have lost all your belongings, when your life itself is at stake, you learn a lesson better than you learn in universities. People lose all their belongings in political revolutions, of which you can read through the history of the nations. The lessons they learn are sufficient for them throughout their lives. The transitory nature of things points to the existence of an eternal value in life. This is why Yama comes into the picture of the Katha Upanishad. When you lose everything, as in a political catastrophe, you begin to feel that there is no worth in life at all. “Oh, everything has gone! I have lost my relatives. I have lost my property. All my bank balance is gone. I am not sure whether I am secure in my physical life itself.” Awful is one’s situation at that time. Nobody can explain it through discourse or study of books. One who has passed through this stage will know what it is. But, even then, we do not learn the lesson properly. We once again come back to the same old groove of thinking when we are placed in better circumstances. That is to say, even if death itself is to threaten you with its uplifted rod—yamadanda—and you are frightened for a moment and wish to turn to the ultimate Truth, God, when the rod is withdrawn you go back to the rut of old thinking, and the pleasures of sense attract you. This is what happened to Nachiketas, also. Though Yama himself came as the great Master of the teaching of the yoga, knowledge was not immediately bestowed upon even such a qualified student as Nachiketas. It is not that you can go to a Guru and say, “Teach me; I have got to catch a train in the evening.” There are many students who come here and say, “I have only half an hour at my disposal. Can you tell me something about yoga?” This sort of yoga will carry you nowhere. You may catch the train first, and then come. This mechanised and merchandised yoga will not be of any use. It is a foolhardy attempt and a mockery of God Himself.

Nachiketas, a first-rate student of yoga, was not given this knowledge, what to talk of second class and third class students! We are much below that; and Nachiketas was a superlatively good student, and yet Yama said, “Don’t ask, don’t talk.” And, what was given to him? The wealth of the whole world—temptation! Buddha was tempted. Christ was tempted. None will be free from these temptations. And it does not mean that all the students of yoga will have to pass through the same kind of temptation, so that you can catalogue the temptations and keep them in your mind. No! They come in different forms, though the background of the temptations is one and the same. Just as, though everyone has the same kind of hunger every day, everyone does not eat the same diet—your likings for diet vary according to your own predilections and physiological condition, though hunger is uniform and equal in every individual—likewise, temptations are uniformly present on the path of yoga, but the forms in which they come vary from individual to individual, so that what I face will not be the same as what you have to face. You cannot say what will come to you tomorrow.

The temptations which the scriptures speak of in our search for reality are nothing but the reactions set up by the desires of the mind and the senses. The desires are not exhausted even if there is a tentative discriminative faculty arisen in us. You may be aware of the existence of a higher reality which you have to aspire for—vivekashakti might have dawned in your mind, a sense of vairagya or dispassion for appearances also might be there—but this will not do. The personality of the human individual is deep, far deeper than what it appears on the surface. A withdrawal of oneself from physical contact with objects of sense does not mean renunciation, totally. If you abstain from physical contact with objects by living in a sequestered place, the desire for them will still remain. The liking for the objects of sense is a mental condition which is different from actual physical contact with the objects, so that even if you are in a holy place like Badrinath or Kedarnath, you may be contemplating in the mind the old pleasures that you have experienced and inwardly dream, “Oh! I am far from them”. The rasa or the taste for enjoyment does not cease, even if you are physically weaned away from objects. This is condemned in the Bhagavadgita as hypocrisy:

karmendriyāṇi saṁyamya ya āste manasā smaran
indriy ārthān vimῡḍhātmā mithāchārāḥ sa ucyate.

Futile is the attempt of that seeker who withdraws his physical senses from contact with objects in the name of vairagya or austerity, but allows the mind inwardly to contemplate them in some form or the other. He will not succeed. A husband may be away from his wife, but thinking of his wife. The mother may be away from her son, but the mind is thinking of her son. This will not yield any benefit in the way of virtue. What you think in the mind is more important than what you physically come in contact with. Yoga is a mental process, a psychological effort; it is not a physical activity of the body. So, let us not mistake physical conduct for virtue or the otherwise of it. Man is mind, and mind is man. The study of mind is the study of man, and the study of man is the study of mind. Your physical features do not represent you wholly. A mere assessment of what takes place on the conscious level of our personality will not give us the knowledge of what we are essentially. The desires of the human being are buried deep beneath the conscious level. So, even if you are consciously free from desires, you cannot be free from them subconsciously. The subconscious seeds of an urge for sensory gratification set up reactions in the counterpart of the cosmos outside and come as temptations. What happened to Nachiketas will happen to everybody. What happened to Buddha will be our experience also, and everyone has to pass through the same ‘strait gate’ as the Christ put it.

Narrow is the passage to the Eternal. You cannot take your bag and baggage with you when you go there. You cannot take your purse with you. You cannot take your clothing, even. You cannot take even this body through that narrow gate. You have to drop everything. Such is the subtlety, such is the narrowness, such is the sharpness of that path—kshurasya dhara, as the Katha Upanishad would tell us. Like the sharp edge of a razor or the cutting point of a sword is the path of spirituality. Therefore, the more cautious you are in the understanding of your own nature, the better it is for you. The less arrogant you are, the better it is for you. An assumption of knowledge on the part of the human individual or a seeker of Truth is not going to help him in his pursuits. Humility is the first prerogative of a true search for knowledge. Vidya (knowledge) and vinaya (humility) go together, says the Bhagavadgita. But, unfortunately, the more is the learning, the more is also the arrogance of man today. You want a pedestal, a higher seat, because you are learned; but the path of God is different from the way of the world. Study the lives of great saints like St. Francis of Assisi, the great masterminds like the Alvars and Nayanars of our own country, great saints like Purandaradas, Tukaram—how they lived. They possessed nothing. They wanted nothing. They never craved for position and prestige or name, not even a thanking word from anybody. They were the lowest of individuals from the point of view of the human evaluation of values, but they were the greatest persons from the point of view of the higher values of life. It is difficult to tread the path of yoga. Nothing can be more difficult than this arduous struggle of the soul.

The urges within our personality come as temptations of various kinds and types. When you tread the path of yoga, the first thing that you will face or encounter is a temptation which you cannot resist. No one can resist temptations, because temptations come not as temptations. The devil does not come in the form of a devil; otherwise you will recognise it. The devil comes as a saint, and you mistake the devil for the saint. The urge for sensory gratification, the urge for satisfying the ego comes as a necessity of life. “Oh, it is a necessity,” is what you argue within yourself. It is a need. It is not a temptation. It is a virtue. Attachment will be mistaken for compassion. Passion and greed will be mistaken for the needs of life. Egoism will be mistaken for altruistic activity. One thing can be mistaken for another. The world will be mistaken for God. Pain can be mistaken for pleasure. Illusion can be mistaken for realisation. All these are encounters on the path.

This is why we say a Guru is necessary. The Guru will tell you where you stand and what is happening to you. One cannot know what will happen to oneself the next moment, and when an encounter comes, one cannot know what is actually before him—whether it is a Ravana or a sannyasin. You cannot find out. He was Ravana himself but he appeared as a sannyasin and poor Sita got entrapped. So Yama tempts Nachiketas, and we shall also be tempted. We are being tempted even today, and just now also, and we do not know what is happening to us. It is only when we refuse the temptations set before us that illumination dawns and practical discrimination between appearance and reality arises within us. Then it is that we begin to accept the existence of a value and a reality beyond what is presented to the senses.

The stage of withdrawal and experience described in the Katha Upanishad includes at least three fundamental levels of the passage of the soul. The lowest and the first experience is the world of perception through the senses, which is represented by the sacrifice of Vajasravasa Gautama. The second is the rise of aspiration within the individual, symbolised in the search for Truth in the mind of Nachiketas. Then comes the temptation, and then comes the revelation of knowledge. This knowledge of reality also comes by stages. It does not come suddenly like the rise of the sun at six o’clock in the morning. It has stages, and it comes very gradually; as they say in a proverb, while knowledge comes, wisdom lingers. It does not come as quickly as ordinary scientific knowledge comes. From the external, the souls gradually rise to greater and greater approximation to reality by self-discipline, tapas or austerity, represented in the three fasts observed by Nachiketas. Nachiketas fasted for three days and nights.

Nachiketas is the seeking soul, and the three fasts are the threefold discipline of the human individuality. The entire yoga is here given in a nutshell. The three levels of the human individuality, corresponding to the three levels of the cosmos outside, are to be disciplined. They should not be given a vent or a long rope for indulgence externally. The physical, represented by sensory activity, the psychological, constituting emotion, will, etc., and the spiritual, are the fundamental stages of the ascent for which sake Nachiketas, the individual soul seeking Reality or Truth, observed a fast. What is a fast? It is withdrawal from indulgence—the gradual subdual of the sensory powers.

The bodily individuality is represented by sensory activity. Our bodies are weak, incapable of meeting the onslaught of natural forces on account of our yielding to the urges of sense. We cannot bear heat, we cannot bear cold, we cannot bear hunger, we cannot bear thirst, we cannot bear a strong wind, we cannot bear a flood. Natural forces are uncontrollable. Nature in its physical form has been estranged from the human personality on account of the yielding of the individual to the senses. The senses create a gap between the individual and the world outside. They tell you that the world is outside you, unconnected with you and you have to dread it, and sometimes cringe before it. You know that the world is more powerful than you in every way. We seem to be a nobody before it. We are afraid of all kinds of natural forces. So the fast of the senses, which represents the first discipline of a level of the human personality, releases such energy that you master the physical forces of nature. That is the first boon granted to Nachiketas: “When you return to the world, you will go as a master and not as a servant.” The world will recognise you as its friend and not as its enemy. The realised soul can come back to the world after a type of realisation, and when the realised soul comes back to the world, the world receives that soul in a different way from what it did earlier. The world treats you in a particular way now, in your state of ignorance, but will treat you differently when you meet it with knowledge. That is why Nachiketas asked, “When I go back to the world, may I be greeted with recognition and not with wrath and anger.” “Yes, may it be so,” said Yama, the Lord of Death. This means to say that even by the reception of a single boon, let alone the other two, you will become a master of the physical forces. The world will not threaten you any more. It will become your friend. At present the world is not our friend. That means we are afraid of it. The world is not our friend today, at this present moment of time, because the senses have created an attitude of estrangement between us and the world. “If you come to my residence and I treat you as a stranger, you will also treat me as a stranger; but if I treat you as a friend, as if I know you from eternity, you will be so immensely pleased and will treat me as your friend.” The world will treat you in the same way as you treat it. If you regard it as external to you, it will also treat you as external to it. If you say you are a foreigner, the world will tell you, “You are also a foreigner, come with a visa and passport, as you have no place for me. You get out,” it says, and you get out afterwards, one day or the other. You die because of estrangement of personality from the world—otherwise there would be no birth and death. If you unite yourself with the forces of the world, there will be no birth and death. Births and deaths are the consequence of estrangement of personality from natural forces. So the first day’s fast of Nachiketas, physically through the withdrawal of the senses, created a reaction from the master of yoga, Yama, in the form of bestowal of a boon with such energy that it received the world as an organic part of its own self. The physical world became a friend of Nachiketas. This will happen to us, also. We are also Nachiketas, individually. Everyone is a Nachiketas, because Nachiketas is only a representation of a seeking soul. So when you control your senses, what will happen to you? The world will receive you as its friend and well-wisher. The consequence of sense-control is abundance in every way. You will not lack anything in this world, afterwards. All things will flow to you like rivers entering the ocean.

āpῡryamāṇam acala-pratiṣṭhaṁ samudram āpaḥ praviśanti yadvat;
tadvat kāmā yam praviśanti sarve sa śāntim āpnoti na kāma-kāmī.

says the Bhagavadgita. As rivers enter the ocean from all sides, all that you need will come to you like a flood coming from different directions. You need not run after the world; the world will run after you. You need not ask for anything from the world; it will come to you automatically, without your asking for it. This is the first boon, due to the first tapas of Nachiketas.

The second tapas is of a psychological character. This second day’s fast of Nachiketas represents the subdual of the mind, not merely of the senses. When the mind is disciplined properly, it gradually gets attuned to the cosmos. This is the secret of the Vaishvanara-Agni-Vidya which came to Nachiketas as a boon from Yama. While the control of the senses physically makes you a friend of the physical universe and all material things flow to you in abundance, and you become the richest of persons, literally, you become a master of the psychological world also—not merely of the physical world or of material things—in the higher stage of mind-control. The second fast of Nachiketas is therefore a psychological fast of the mind and all that constitutes the psychological stuff—mano-buddhi-ahamkara-chitta, as it’s called. All the aspects of the psychological organs are disciplined in the second form of tapas. While the physical body is estranged from the physical world on account of the activity of the senses, the mind is estranged from the Cosmic Mind on account of the spatio-temporal linkage. You think in terms of space and time, objectivity or externality, and therefore you are estranged from the Cosmic Mind. In such a condition, even God does not seem to help you. Your prayers do not seem to reach Him at all. Why? Because you have cut yourself off from the source of cosmic energy by thinking individually, by the egoistic affirmation of personality. The second tapas or discipline of Nachiketas, the seeking soul, means, thus, the uniting of the individual mind with the Universal Mind, the result of which is the second boon bestowed by the Master of yoga, Yama.

Vaishvanara-Agni-Vidya represents the knowledge of the cosmic fire. In certain philosophies, fire is regarded as the Ultimate Reality. For example, there was a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus by name, who considered cosmic truth as a form of fire. This is not an original thought of Heraclitus alone. In India also we regard agni, fire, as the symbol of the Ultimate Will. The very first mantra of the Rig Veda is an invocation of this fire, not the physical fire with which you cook your meal but the universal fire which is a representation of cosmic energy—the Vaishvanara-Agni. Aham vaisvanaro bhutva praninam deham asritah—“I, the Supreme Soul, work as the Vaishvanara-Agni within the individual,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavadgita. A knowledge of this Vaishvanara-Agni, which is the cosmic form of the Creator, brings universal abundance. This knowledge of the supreme creative principle came to Nachiketas as a result of the fast of the psychological personality. From the external, you go to the inward, and then to the universal.

The external world has become your friend. Now the inner world also becomes your friend. Wonderful is this experience. Sometimes, this inner experience of the universal is mistaken for the ultimate realisation itself. But it is not the ultimate, really. There is one more step, which was the point of the third question of Nachiketas, which comes later on, about which Yama was very reluctant to speak—and so rightly.

The second boon represents the cosmical identification of the individual psychological unit. You become cosmically aware of things. While in the first stage of your union with the physical forces of nature—the result of the first tapas, the first fast, the effect of your attunement with the physical universe—you become abundant in material possession, rich in every sense of the term, now, in the second stage, you become rich in knowledge, also. A yogi is rich physically, and also psychologically. A yogi is not a poor person. He has everything with him. Even the richest man of the world cannot be equal to the yogi in the wealth of possession. He can command everything in the world. H. H. Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to say, in a humorous way, that a sannyasin has no bank balance, but he can operate upon the bank balance of every person. A sannyasin has no motor car, but he can travel in anybody’s car. Well, in this humour he gave out a great truth. The yogi lacks nothing, even materially. Do not think that when a yogi aspires for only moksha, he is poverty-stricken in the world. Not so. He is rich even materially, physically. He is alive to every value in life. He is not dead to anything. The first fast of Nachiketas through the control of the senses, made him physically, visibly, healthy and rich in every sense of the term. Now, the second fast of the psychological organs makes him rich in the wisdom of cosmic existence. Both material prosperity and the prosperity of knowledge are bestowed upon the individual. You have everything visible, as also invisible. Lakshmi and Saraswati are under your control, as it were. Lakshmi represents material prosperity, and Saraswati the prosperity of wisdom, knowledge, learning, scholarship— omniscience itself. So a yogin becomes a master of the physical forces. All abundance is poured upon the yogin from all sides of the cosmos, and he begins to know all things. Knowledge and power are the immediate results of the practice of yoga. You become abundant in knowledge and wisdom, and abundant in power and control over the nature of things. A yogin is immensely powerful and immensely wise.

So, the first two stages of the experience in the practice of yoga are thus described as physical mastery and psychological mastery, attunement of the physical and the attunement of the psychological. Now comes the spiritual. This is the most difficult part to understand. To some extent you may appreciate what is told to you up to this time, but what is going to be told in future is hard for the mind to stomach. That is why the great master, Yama, said that even the gods cannot understand it properly.

devair atrāpi vicikitsitam purā
na hi suvijñeyam, aṇur eṣa dharmaḥ.

“Nachiketas! Subtle is this thing that you are asking for. The whole universe can be under you and all the knowledge of the world, omniscience itself, can be bestowed upon you; but the other thing that you are asking for—what happens to the soul after it leaves this body and attains to universality—this is something which even the celestials cannot explain and, therefore, I request you not to insist upon the answer to this question of yours. But you are not leaving me. All right! I shall tell you something about it, but difficult it is to understand.” Not even the best of yogins of the world can realise what it means. We have many yogins in this world, but how many have really absorbed the import of this teaching, it is difficult to say. Well! Such a great aspirant as Nachiketas is shooed off by Yama; but we say, “Oh! I will tell you, come, come!” We want more and more disciples. International yoga organisations are plenty. Wonderful! This yoga will take us nowhere. We should not become a laughing stock. The forces of nature will laugh at us when we practise this hypocritical yoga of advertisement and publicity. Yoga is not publicity. Nachiketas himself must have known it much better than we do. He said, “No. Thank God. You take it back.” Suppose we are told, “All the three worlds are yours, take them,” we would naturally not allow this ‘yoga’ to bother us then. Three worlds! It is unthinkable! Even such a thing as that, Nachiketas did not wish. We are every day praying to God, “Please bestow long life on my child!” You want five years increase in your life! But Nachiketas said, “The longest life, I do not want. One may live as long as the universe lasts; I am not interested. What does it matter to me?”

The third asking of Nachiketas is a wondrous asking. Wonderful is the asker of this question! Wonderful is the answer to this question! The answer was given to Nachiketas finally, because Nachiketas was made of such a stern stuff within him. He rejected all the tempting objects of the world. Even universal knowledge was not sufficient to Nachiketas. The Vaishvanara-Agni-Vidya was not adequate. And what is this question of Nachiketas, the third question?

ye-yam prete vicikitsā manuṣye ystī-tyeke nāyam astīti caike;

“Does the soul exist, or does the soul not exist? What is it? Is it, or is it not? What do you mean by the soul?” The question whether the soul exists or not can be answered only when we know what the soul is. Without knowing what it is, how can we say if it is or not? The science of the soul is the science of the Upanishad. We have also a concept of soul. We speak of it almost every day, and our notion of the soul is one of a child, an untutored baby speaking of a soul as if it is a spark of vital activity within our individual body. There are some people who call it elan vital, a vital energy that is urging us to act from within us. The soul is generally taken to be an existence within us. We say the Atman is within, the soul is within. This word ‘within’ is hammered upon us again and again. Why do we say that the soul is within, is one question. And what does it actually mean when we say that the soul exists within the body? What is the soul? All this has been explained in this Upanishad in a symbolic manner, though not pointedly and explicitly. Yama does not give a clear-cut answer to the question of Nachiketas, though indirectly he comes to the point. As a matter of fact, you will never find a clear answer to this question anywhere in the Katha Upanishad. The teaching goes round and round, beating about the bush, as it were, finally not telling anything clearly in respect of this last question of Nachiketas. But the secret is hidden between the lines of these sonorous mantras of the text, if we study them with a philosophical inquisitiveness of insight. The more elaborate answers are to be found in the other Upanishads, like the Brihadaranyaka and to some extent the Chhandogya. If you want to know the entire implications of the teachings of the Katha Upanishad as an answer to the third question of Nachiketas, you may have to read the Brihadaranyaka and the Chhandogya Upanishads, because you cannot clearly understand as to what was the meaning of this last question of Nachiketas. What did he mean by asking about the character of the soul when it goes to the ‘Beyond’? ‘Mahati samparaye’ is the word used by Nachiketas. Samparaya is the ‘hereafter’. That which is ‘beyond’ this visible world is the samparaya. It is not merely the ‘after death’ of the physical body. He is not asking what happens to the soul after physical death, though many commentators seem to interpret it in this manner. A wise person like Nachiketas must have known what happens to the soul after physical death, but that was not the issue. He had added a qualification, mahati to samparaye, meaning the Great Beyond and not the ordinary beyond. The ordinary beyond is that which immediately follows the physical death of the personality, but the Great Beyond is the condition of the soul which transcends the universe. What happens to the soul, ultimately? Where does it exist? There was a teacher, perhaps a clergyman, who told before an audience: “God created the heaven and the earth,” in a biblical fashion. One of the listeners stood up: “Sir; where does God exist?” The clergyman said: “God is in heaven.” “Who created heaven?” “God created even heaven.” “But where did God exist before He created heaven? God is in heaven, and if He created heaven, He must have existed even before heaven was created. Where, then, did He exist? Where does God exist before He creates the world? You say God is everywhere, which means to say, everywhere in the world. But if the world itself was not there before creation, where did He exist, then?” The answer to this question cannot be given easily. You cannot say that God is all-pervading, because that implies the world. You cannot say God is all-knowing, for that implies the world. You cannot say God is all-powerful— that, again, implies the world. What is God, when the world is not there? This is the question of Nachiketas, when it is boiled down to its quintessence.