The Secret of the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse No. 4

The grand destination, this wondrous structure of the Universe, the goal of life is not easy of approach. The Upanishad cautions us:

uttiṣṭhata jāgrata;
prāpya varān nibodhata.

Do not be under the notion that you can get this blissful experience in a trice. Awake! Arise! Stop not till the goal is reached! Seek refuge with men of wisdom. Know it, then, by surrender to them.

kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā;
durgam pathas tat kavayo vadanti.

Subtle is this path, difficult is this way, hard it is to enter the citadel of this mysterious yoga. It is invisible, and hence hard in every sense of the term. If you can see the path, you can walk on it, but you cannot see the path of yoga. So, how will you tread it? This way of the Spirit is sometimes compared to the track of birds in the sky or of fish in water. You cannot see the track of birds in the sky, though they have a track of their own. You cannot see a beaten path struck in open space for birds to move on, nor can you see the track of fish in water. So is the path of knowledge. It cannot be seen, though it is there. It is difficult to know where one is being led to—there is no way to it. The Supreme Purusha who is beyond the Avyakta and the Mahat is not to be reached as we reach a city or a physical destination in this world. Inasmuch as there is no reaching or attaining to it in the physical sense, there is also no movement towards it; therefore there is no path leading to it. Thus, the whole of the difficulty is placed before us. When there is no way to it, how will we attain it?

This problem of finding a means to the realisation of the goal becomes especially intense when we are not morally purified. It is the morally torpid mind that sees difficulties on the way. On this point, the Upanishad tells us,

naiṣā tarkeṇa matir āpaneyā.

By intellect or mere intelligence this goal cannot be reached. By mere human effort it is not to be attained. Sometimes it looks that the whole thing is absolutely impossible. Such a great Master as Dattatreya is supposed to have said in the very beginning of his Avadhuta-Gita,

Ishvaranugrahad eva pumsam advaita-vasana.

“By God’s grace alone is the tendency towards the Absolute explicable.” The great Acharya, Shankara, did not give a clear answer to the question, “How does this knowledge arise in the Jiva?” He merely said, “It is Ishvara’s Sankalpa—grace of God.” We have nothing else to say. The difficulty, the problem, the intensity of the hardship of the way is such that the less we say anything about it, the better it is for us. The turbid emotion cannot take to this path. Evil traits cannot approach this terrible mystery. One who is accustomed to unwanted ways in the world cannot take to the path of yoga. One who is a half-boiled personality from within, restless to the core, disturbed every moment even by the least occurrence outside, cannot take to this path. Any disturbance of any kind in any part of the personality of an individual will be a disqualification for this path. Any type of agitation is to be avoided. We have agitations of various kinds in our personality. There is bodily disturbance, pranic disturbance, sensory, mental and intellectual disturbance. All these urges have to be subdued. This is described in a single word, 'self-control'. The Upanishad will tell us later on what self-control is.

nāvirato duścaritān nāśānto nāsamāhitaḥ
nāśānta-mānaso vāpi prajñānenainam āpnuyāt.

A mind which is not composed cannot hope to touch even the lowest pedestal of this practice. Here you have a very important point to consider. Are we fit to practise yoga? Each one has to answer this question for oneself. There is no use gaining entry into institutions of yoga by filling up a form and remitting five rupees of admission fee. Are you fit? How do you judge your fitness? The fitness does not consist merely in thinking that you have to gain admission into an ashram. The fitness does not consist in a feeling of defeatism, frustration and grief at home. Sorrows are not necessarily the only qualification for aspiring after the goal of yoga. Yoga is the most positive of truths. Any negative pre-condition cannot become a qualification for its practice. Quarrels at home, demotions in office, loss of property, death of children, cannot become qualifications for yoga. But most people are qualified only in this way. That is the reason why they have no peace of mind even though they sit before a great saint. They come with an internal disturbance, sit before holy audiences with a disturbed mind, and also sit with no clear notion as to the goal. A composed personality is the qualified aspirant for the yoga of the Upanishad, or any kind of yoga, for the matter of that. The composure of personality consists in many forms of our conduct and behaviour. Self-assertion of any kind becomes a disqualification. None of us is free from this ailment called self-affirmation. We stick to our guns in every kind of argument and discussion. We always agree to differ. There is a pleasure felt within when we disagree with others, when we assert that the opinions that we hold are real and right. May it be pointed out that no point of view can be called absolutely correct. It is therefore futile and foolish on the part of any person to stick to one’s own opinion wholly and unconditionally, without giving any credit to the opinions or feelings of others. If others may be untrue, you yourself are no better. All points of view are expressions of aspects of the manifestation of truth. Every expression of it is true in its own way. The disturbances within our personalities are mostly due to our disagreement with the circumstances outside. We hate conditions now prevailing in the world. We hate persons who do not think as we think. We have a thorough resentment in respect of every event that takes place, which is not conducive to the pleasure of our physical personality.

This resentment is sometimes expressed in speech and action, but oftentimes it is hidden in the mind itself. We are always in a state of resentment. We have a mood of our own, which is not compatible with inner satisfaction, not conducive also to the pleasure or the good of other people. We put on what Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to call a castor oil face, always. We are not pleased. We are never pleased with anything. There is always a complaint regarding every thing that happens anywhere in the world. If it rains, we complain, “Oh, it is raining!” If it burns hot, we say, “Oh, the hell, how hot it is!” You cannot go forward, you cannot go backward, you cannot speak low, you cannot speak loud. Whatever you do is subject to criticism. This is a subtle mischief which the personality plays to defeat our purposes, so that we may remain where we are. It is said in a biblical context that Satan asked God, “Father, when will I have salvation?” Because Satan was damned to hell, it appears that God’s reply was, “When people will resist your temptations, you shall have freedom.” So it is said that Satan weeps whenever we fall into his temptations. “Oh, I have no hope, because people have fallen into the temptations which I have spread before them.” Satan’s work is to spread the net of temptation all around us, and his salvation seems to consist in our resisting it by knowing it, by being vigilant about it. But it is unfortunate that the world as a whole is a temptation before us, and this field of temptation that we call the world is itself also a field of training for us, because temptations are also lessons. And this Satan’s force does not work only from outside. It has a place in our intellects. The central stronghold or fortress of the activity of Satan is the intellect of the human individual. Your rise or fall depends upon how you understand things. In the Mahabharata we have a passage:

na devā yaṣṭim ādāya rakṣanti paśupālavat,
yaṁ tu rakṣitum icchanti buddhyā saṁvibhajanti tam.

“If the gods want to help us, they do not stand by us with a stick in their hands like a shepherd protecting his sheep. The blessings from the heavens come to us when our intellects are rightly directed.” And, a curse is nothing but a misdirection of the understanding. When we cannot think rightly, that is the worst thing that can befall us. The assumptions of our personality may be regarded as the main obstacle to yoga. Our whole life is one of pre-conceived ideas. We are not and we cannot be free from these weaknesses, irrespective of our learning and our pedigree, etc. because this defect is ingrained in the very root of our personality. We are born with it. Perhaps this is what they call the original sin which is born with us, that with which we are born into this world and which is the limitation of our very being itself. ‘Likes’ and ‘dislikes’ are the common terms used to describe this defect in us. Misconception, wrong understanding, not knowing the truth of things before us is designated as ajnana, which is supposed to breed aviveka or the mistaking of one thing for another thing. Aviveka gives rise to ahamkara or egoism, the sense of importance of one’s own self. Due to ahamkara there is the rise of raga and dvesha, or love and hatred. This pair, love and hate, like and dislike, breeds action, karma, of a selfish character, to gain what is wanted and to avoid what is not wanted. This karma, this selfish action, gives rise to future births and deaths in a series of transmigratory lives. This is the sorrow of life. This is called the chain or the linkage of the bondage of the individual.

The subdual of these impulses from within, leading us the wrong way, is called self-control. This is symbolically and picturesquely described in a passage of the Katha Upanishad. Here we have a presentation of the entire process of self-control, the pre-condition to the higher practices of yoga.

Our soul within may be compared to the Lord seated in a chariot. This body of ours, this individuality, this personality, may be regarded as a chariot in which is seated the soul- consciousness. The chariot is driven by a charioteer, a driver. The intellect in us is the charioteer. The reins are the operations of the mind. The horses which pull or drag this chariot are the senses—the eyes, ears, etc. The roads along which this chariot is driven by the charioteer with the help of the horses are the objects of the senses. All this is made possible by a joint activity of the Atman, the senses and the mind. This is a very concise and beautiful description, symbolic, dramatic, full of meaning and profundity. This chariot is to be driven right to the Abode of Vishnu—tad vishnoh paramam padam. If the horses are restive, if they are tired, if they are unwilling, if they cannot see the road properly, they may dash down the chariot into a ditch. Sometimes, we see horses dragging tongas and going backwards! They will not go forward. Then the tongawalla gets down and catches hold of the reins. Either the horses are exhausted, or they are annoyed. Sometimes, these horses of our senses behave in this manner.

The chariot is also to be made of good material; otherwise it may get disintegrated by wear and tear of movement. The charioteer plays the most important part in this entire activity of the locomotion of the chariot. You know the role Sri Krishna played in driving the chariot of Arjuna. Everything was dependent on him. The driver of a car, even in your own case, is very important. You sit in the car comfortably, and doze there, but what is the responsibility of the driver? Your life is in his hands. If he also starts dozing, what will happen? So, the charioteer, the intellect, the understanding, the rationality in us is the primeval faculty which determines the extent of our progress in this effort, called the practice of yoga. Look at the various aspects of this movement of the chariot described in this passage. The roads are the objects of sense. The senses are the horses. The intellect is the charioteer. The rider is the soul. The body is the chariot. Everything is very essential. There is no unimportant part in this description.

The chariot may be considered first and foremost. What should be the nature of the chariot? It should be strongly built—na ayam atma balahinena labhyah. A weakling cannot attain to this Atman. Now, the strength or the bala that is demanded of the aspirant is not an elephantine strength of the muscles and the bones merely; otherwise, elephants would be the best seekers of yoga. What is required of a seeker is the strength of integrity and character. You should be sufficiently tough in your physical build also, though you need not be a sandow. Strength of the body is different from bulkiness of personality or the heaviness of the body. It is the capacity to endure hardship—that is called strength. To what extent can you bear the pairs of opposites? From that you can know the strength of your personality. Now, the personality is not merely the body. This body that is described as the chariot in the Upanishad is not simply the physical body, but the entire vesture of the personality, the pancha-koshas—annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, and anandamaya. All this is the chariot described in the Upanishad. These layers have to be kept in unison and should be made of very hard timber. Also, the parts of the chariot should be well and harmoniously adjusted. Suppose one wheel moves this way and the other wheel moves that way, they are loosely connected; then, there would be no proper motion of the chariot. It should not be shaky. It should be systematically built, harmoniously constructed, strong in its make and fit to bear the wear and tear of the motion towards the ultimate goal of life. For this purpose, we have to observe what we call the golden mean of conduct, which is beautifully described in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavadgita. Moderation in our conduct, balance in our behaviour, harmony in our activity, is a pre-condition to yoga.

Extreme of any kind is opposed to yoga. Yoga is the course via media, the madhyama-marga in every type of engagement, physically, verbally as well as mentally. In our behaviour we must be moderate. We should not be excessive in our behaviour with others or with our own selves. When we talk, we should not talk the head off a person, as if the lid is open—go on talking until the man is tired and wants to get away. This is a weakness. Speak what is necessary. Speak in proper terms. Speak in the proper mood, and speak at the proper time, in a proper manner. Then you will succeed in your aims. You should not tell the wrong thing, at a wrong time, in a wrong manner. Nor should you be in an agitated mood when you speak, with curled lips and red eyes. Let not the mind be agitated when you express yourself in action or speech. All this is a part of the composure of personality. It is only in this composed nature that we can say the right charioteer is seated. The chariot of Arjuna was very peculiarly made. It was protected by Hanuman on the top, Krishna in the front as well as the blessing of the Lord of Fire, Agnideva, who presented Arjuna with the Gandiva bow. It had blessings of various kinds. If you read the Mahabharata, you will know it. On such a chariot was Arjuna seated, the best of archers, with the best of charioteers endowed with the highest wisdom and power. This is described to some extent in the Katha Upanishad itself, in certain other contexts as well.

The objects of sense are regarded as the roads along which the chariot is driven. This is something very curious. How are we to drive this chariot along the objects of sense? Can you say that the objects are the way to the goal of our life? Yes. The world is the field of training in yoga. The objects have to become aids in our practice rather than oppositions to our effort. In one particular school of yoga, called tantra, there is a strange principle followed; the principle being that the things by which you fall, by those very things you shall rise—yair eva patanam dravyaih siddhis taireva. That which can kill you can also make you alive if it is properly administered. This is something like the homeopathic system of medicine. The yoga of the Upanishad is a very healthy way of approach to the objects of sense and the world as a whole. You know the hymns of the Samhitas of the Vedas look upon the world as a manifestation of God’s glory and abundance. The rise of the sun in the east, the fall of rain from the skies, the luminosity of the moon, the dawn, the sunset—all these were objects of praise for the rishis of the Vedas. They were manifestations of God’s majesty. Positive was the approach of the Vedic seers. They had nothing of the negative in their approach to God. The Upanishads, being the concluding portions of these exquisite outpourings of the Vedas, give us the quintessence of the positive approach to life. If you read all the major Upanishads attentively, you will see that their approach is marvellous. They take you from one state of joy to another state of joy, from ananda to ananda. Every level of experience is a state of delight for the Upanishads. There is no sorrow, grief or negativity there. The objects of sense appear as impediments on account of our wrong approach to them. Your own son can become your enemy if you do not properly behave with him. Your own husband or wife can be your opponent if there is maladjustment with him or her. We have no friends, even as we have no enemies in this world. Whether one is a friend or an enemy depends on how we conduct ourselves with others. There is no such thing as an intrinsic friend or an intrinsic enemy. Such things do not exist. We can create a friend or an enemy, if we like, according to our predilections. Even in our own families, in our own blood-relations, we can have friends as well as foes. Father and son fight cases in courts because of an erroneous adjustment between themselves, psychologically. The objects of sense are our enemies when we conduct ourselves wrongly with them. They become friends when our understanding of them is perfect. Even snakes are charmed and controlled by snake-charmers. Even lions are tamed. What to say of other objects in the world!

The yoga of the Katha Upanishad, which regards objects of sense as roads along which the chariot of the personality has to be driven holds the world as an aid in the practice of yoga. Forces of nature are friends of the practicant. They also become temptations in the earlier stages. The various grand manifestations which come to distract the attention of the practicant of yoga, which we hear of in the Puranas and Epics—Rambha, Urvasi, Indra and such other persons coming and obstructing the path—all these are the reactions set up by the forces of nature, forming also the ingredients of our own personalities. The world outside and the body within are made up of the same stuff. There is a similarity of character and quality between both. This is the reason why we are unable to avoid the perception of the world. It is ingrained within us, being a part of our life. It is with us, and in us. But the world can be an obstacle even as, as mentioned in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, God Himself can be an obstacle to us when we do not obey His laws or do not understand Him. The Atman is regarded both as a friend and a foe.

ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ.

The Atman is your friend. The Atman also is your enemy. How could Atman be an enemy? But so says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. All law is a terror when we do not want to obey it. But law is a protector when we participate in its requirements. The world is the law of God. The principle of Reality, as Rita, manifests itself as this creation. God speaks to us through the various things of the world. He smiles at us through all things. He also frowns at us when occasion demands. The myriad objects, colours and sounds that we see in the world are the various ways in which we confront God in our daily life. These are the lessons God imparts to us through his Virat-Svarupa—Cosmic Form. When we gaze, we gaze at the face of God. There are no objects of sense. They do not exist. When the senses behave in a manner of their own, when the Spirit within us gets externalised through the activity of the senses, it appears as objects. The objects are nothing but Spirit, projected in space and time. God sensualised is the world. The Absolute spatialised and temporalised is this creation. There is no separate world. There is no separate creation. There are no separate objects of sense. They are only names that we have given to the very same truths that we are going to realise ultimately through the practice of yoga. We detest the world as we hang a dog by calling it a bad name. We curse the world because we see it differently from what it is. The objects of sense, according to this Upanishad, are the roads for our movement towards Godhood, which means to say that we have neither to be repelled by them nor to be attracted by them. The world should neither tempt us nor reject us. Neither should we shun the world nor should the world shun us. This point is emphasised in the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, also. Very difficult, indeed, is this attitude to be developed. You should not shrink away from things, and you should also not conduct yourself in such a way that the world shrinks away from you. This itself is yoga, and this is possible only when the goal is clear before our eyes. Many of us, seekers, aspirants, have not the goal of our life clearly pictured before our minds. We do not know whether we have to realise God first, or serve the world first, to give you only one instance of our quandary and problem. Many seekers think that service of humanity is to come first, and realisation of God afterwards. Sometimes we think that mankind itself is God, and service of man is service of God, and so we begin to identify the goal of our life with the activities of our daily life. This is a wonderful peculiarity of our attitude by which the goal can be interpreted in a dexterous fashion, so that we appear to be pursuing the goal while we are actually pursuing what is pleasant to the deeper needs of this bodily and ego-ridden personality. No one, ordinarily speaking, can aspire for God wholly. It is impossible to truly aspire for God from the entirety of our being. Though we may all regard ourselves as aspirants after God, it is impossible to wholly think of God or love God, because there are other presentations before us which can take the place of God and make us mistake them for God, interpret them as God, put the cart before the horse, and define our conduct and behaviour in a way that appeals to mankind and the world. Many a time we judge our progress from the admirations that we receive from people. If the whole world proclaims you as great, you think that you are progressing in the path of yoga. If all the newspapers publicise you as the leader of mankind, you have a feeling, perhaps, that you are on the right path. Otherwise, why should all people adulate you? “The world regards me, loves me, adores me, publicises me; this means God is blessing me; God’s grace is upon me.” You can think like that, but to understand what God is and what love of God is, God’s grace alone is necessary. The Guru has to bless you. It requires much effort.

The concept of God, the notion of the goal of life before us, is the ultimate determining factor in the success of our practice of yoga, and the Kathopanishad, in this passage on self-control—atmanam rathinam viddhi, etc.—makes it clear that this chariot of the body can go hither and thither if the charioteer lets loose the reins and allows the horses to move according to their whims and fancies. Our intellect can be blurred and clouded by the force exerted upon it by the senses. The senses are very powerful and their power is such that their activities can produce an impact on the mind and the intellect to such an extent that the mind can think and the intellect can understand things only in terms of the senses. The Upanishad warns us against this fall. The Atman, the mind and the senses should be in unison— atmendriyamanoyukta. They should not work in their own way, independently. That is, the activity of the senses, the thoughts of the mind and the needs of the Spirit should be in conformity with one another. They should not be at variance with each other. How is this possible? This is precisely the practice involved in yoga. Yoga is nothing but the conformity of the Spirit, the mind and the senses, together. The perceptions of the senses, the thoughts of the mind and the characteristics of the Spirit should coincide. What are the characteristics of the Spirit? Indivisibility of substance, universality of character, non-objectivity of nature, intelligence and subjectivity as different from externality or objectivity are the essential features of the supreme Spirit, which should influence the thoughts of the mind and the activities of the senses. This is the foundation of the karma yoga of the Bhagavad-Gita. Karma yoga or spiritualised activity is that conduct of life externally, which is guided by the nature of the Atman within and not directed by the desires of the senses.

The Atman wants nothing. It has known everything. Therefore to desire anything through our actions will be contrary to the requirements of the Atman. While there is nothing wrong with action as such, there is something seriously wrong with action done with a motive behind it, because the Atman has no motive. So, if the Atman is to be the basis of our actions, the goal of our deeds and works, naturally, they should not be directed to an ulterior purpose other than the Atman itself. Though the actions are directed outwardly, their aim is the inward realisation of the Atman. Wonderful is this yoga! The movement is outward through action, but the goal is inward which is the Self. Though you are running outward, you are actually moving inward. That is karma yoga. It looks as if you are working in a spatial world, externally directed towards other persons and things, but you are really converging to the point of the Atman that is present hiddenly in the objects. The Atman is not merely within. It is also without. The Atman has, really, no within and without. When it is said that the Atman is also without, and it is this Atman without that is pursued by the activities through karma yoga, what we mean is that whether you run forward, backward, inward or outward into the world of objects, you are directed to the same point. Extremes meet at the same focus. Geometricians tell us that parallel lines also can meet at infinity. Parallel lines, generally, do not meet, but it is said that they can meet if they are stretched to infinitude. The expert performance of karma yoga is identical with the expert meditation on the Absolute. But it should be expert. This is the crucial issue about it. This is the condition to be underlined. When you move to the Infinite outwardly, you reach also the Infinite which is inward. This yoga of the Katha Upanishad is not jnana yoga; it is not bhakti yoga; it is not karma yoga; it is not any kind of known yoga. It is the yoga of the Infinite, the secret way, of which these are aspects. The so-called yogas known as karma, bhakti, jnana, etc. are ramifications of this mysterious technique which Yama describes to Nachiketas.