The Secret of the Katha Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse No. 7

The problem of the Katha Upanishad may be regarded as what pertains to the enigma of life and death. The great question of life is also the great question of death. While life is a great mystery before us, death stares at us as a still greater mystery. Both these sides of the same coin of experience stand before us as an eternal query which sages and saints from time immemorial have been trying to confront and solve to the satisfaction of each individual seeker.

The Katha Upanishad is given to us by the Lord of Death in the context of the aspiration of Nachiketas who sought for eternal life. It is death that leads to life, as it were. ‘Die to live’, is the main theme of one of the songs of His Holiness Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. Unless you die to the self, you cannot live the life eternal. Unless you be reborn and be as children, you cannot enter the gates of heaven, said the Christ. All great men think alike. The Upanishad, which is given by Yama, the Lord of Death, is an attempt at the solution of a central mystery which is before us on one side as life in this world and on the other side as life hereafter. We make a distinction between the here and the hereafter. We are accustomed to differentiate between life and death. For us they are two different things altogether, without similarity of character. That is why we love life and dread death. The worst punishment that can be meted out to a person is to hang him, execute him or kill him. Nothing can be more miserable than the contemplation of impending death. Horror identified with experience is death itself, while life, we believe, is a flow of nectarine experience. Why is it that we fear death and love life? Because we neither know life nor death. Children’s love for toys has no rationality behind it, though there is a good psychology which explains it. Our loves and hatreds are childish reactions to immediate stimuli from outside, and we need not take too seriously what our untutored mind speaks in the language of its own poor experience. The Upanishad is not here before us to pamper our urges in terms of sensory gratification. The Upanishad is the secret of life. The very word ‘Upanishad’ means a secret teaching of the innermost essence of existence. We hear that the Upanishad is the quintessence of the Vedas. While the Veda is knowledge, the Upanishad is the essence of knowledge. While knowledge may pertain to an object, the wisdom of the Upanishad is that which pertains to the eternal Subject, the ultimate Reality behind things. Such being the context and the content of the Upanishads in general, and of the Katha Upanishad in particular, it would do well for us to examine for a while the meaning that seems to be implied in the question of Nachiketas and the answer of the Lord of Death, Yama. What was it that Nachiketas wanted or asked for, and what was it that Yama bestowed upon him? What was the question and what was the answer? The question, evidently, was a very comprehensive encounter of human experience. It related to all levels of human knowledge—sensory, psychological and spiritual. The three fasts, the three questions, the three boons may be said to be relevant to the three kinds or levels of experience through which we pass as souls or individuals. Sense, reason and intuition; perception, cognition and experience; the senses, the mind and the Spirit, are the fundamental stages of experience. The questions of Nachiketas pertain to these levels of the quest of the human soul; and the answers given by Yama, the boons bestowed upon Nachiketas, are precisely the counterpart of these questions, the Universal answering the individual, God speaking to man, the Absolute entering into the relative, to solve the problems and the questions of life and death.

What is death? To us humans, mortal beings tethered to the experience of the body and the senses, death is the annihilation of all values. That is why we fear death. It is a negation of everything we hold as dear and near. All our pleasures are cut off. Our existence itself seems to be denied. It appears as if we are not going to be recognised any more. Everything is done for. All things are over. It is finished. That is death for us. But death itself is here the Teacher. If death were a negation of all things, you would learn no lesson from it. The greatest teacher of life is death itself. Life is the student, death is the tutor. We have a beautiful incident narrated by Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa. There was a king called Aja, the father of Dasaratha. He had a very dear consort called Indumati. She died mysteriously by an accident, which was a death-like shock to the mind of king Aja. He wept and beat his breast, and cried before his Guru, Vasishtha. “Mighty sage! What a calamity has befallen me!” Vasishtha speaks very few words, and in the answer he gives to Aja, he says, “What is natural is death; it is life that is unnatural.” That we are alive is a mystery. That we die is not a marvel. That we are able to breathe is a wonder by itself. That we are subject to death is the naturalness of our personality. The whole of the Universe is death manifest, says Buddha, the great seer of our own historical times. The universe is death, as it were, because it is a procession of transitions, a movement, a perpetual transformation of constituents. Do you call it life?

Death becomes the teacher when we get awakened to the fact of this procession of the transitoriness of everything. The question of Nachiketas was not concerning the quest of the personality of the human being. He was not so ignorant as to put the simple question: what happens to the individual soul after the shedding of the physical body. We have already made reference to the fact that the death which Nachiketas referred to in his question was of a different kind altogether. Empirically speaking, death and life have no ultimate dissimilarity between themselves. There is a continuity between life and death and between death and life. While experience passes into a different structure of its own constitution, the structural distinction between the previous experience and the subsequent one causes an oblivion in the consciousness of the empirical ego in respect of the past experience, and the connection of this very same consciousness with the subsequent experience makes it feel that it is born into a world and a new type of life, while nothing essentially different has happened to it. It has only forgotten a past experience and become alive to a new type of experience. Death is a forgetfulness which overpowers the individual under a given set of circumstances—these circumstances being, as pointed out, the structural difference between one set of experiences and another set that immediately follows it. This is why we do not remember our past lives. We are completely ignorant of what we were before we are born to this physical world and to this physical body. This forgetfulness is due to the fact that consciousness gets tied down to the structure of a particular bodily individuality, to a certain extent of intensity, that it is severed from the previous set of experiences and the bodily individuality to which it was connected earlier, and the very same thing will happen once again. The experiences will repeat themselves when this body will be shed. The shedding of the body is to our individual consciousness a negation of itself, as it were. The consciousness of our body is our consciousness as far as our practical experience is concerned, and when the body is cast off there is a shock injected into our nerves. The body, the nerves and the mind are connected to one another. Death becomes a shock on account of the unexpectedness of the experience and one’s unpreparedness for it. Everything that is unexpected comes to us as a surprise. If it is expected, it would not be so painful. If we are to know that there is an earthquake going to take place in a few minutes and we are going to die just now, and if the intimation is given to us a few minutes before, we would not be so much unhappy about it as when it comes suddenly and takes us unawares. We never expect death. We know that it will come to us any time; yet there is a mist hanging before our consciousness. On account of this illusion the consciousness gets fastened to the bodily individuality, conforms itself to the bodily experiences alone, forgets the past and becomes unconcerned about the future. We are not bothered about what will happen to us after death. We are not aware of what happened to us in the past. We are concerned only with what this body is at present, what relations there are with this body at this moment of time, in this present life of ours. This is the worst type of ignorance in which one can be shrouded.

But death and life are not fundamentally isolated experiences. When memory persists, we call it sleep. When memory vanishes, we call it death; or, from another point of view, we call it death which is an experience of a new form of bodily individuality, all this being brought about by the desires of the mind of the individual, the desires being endless. We die because of desires, and we are reborn on account of desires. Desires are propulsions of our individual nature towards certain types of experience. These propulsions, which we call desires, demand contact with certain groups of physical objects. All this dramatic effort on the part of the mind to come in contact with certain sets of physical objects goes by the name of life; and the type of the physical body into which one is born, and the kind of relationship of society with which one is connected in this life—all these are determined by the particular set or group of desires with which one is born, this set being called the prarabdha-karma. That which we usually call the prarabdha is nothing but the power or the force of those kinds of desires which have not been fulfilled in our previous lives, but which have to be fulfilled in this present empirical life of the bodily individuality. When these desires are exhausted by experience through this particular given bodily individuality, the body is shed.

Death is, therefore, due to the exhaustion of the momentum of that set of desires which we call the prarabdha, and which cannot anymore work out their function through this particular body. When a particular part is played by a dramatic personality, and the enactment is over, there is an exit of that personality. Because its function is over, one is no more concerned with that personality, and the screen drops. The body that is given to us, our present individuality with which we are born, is a vehicle for experience by the mind in terms of those groups of desires which have not been fulfilled in the past but which can be fulfilled only in this empirical condition of the body. When the experience is over, when this set of desires gets exhausted by experiences, the body is dropped. So, death is a natural course of events in the process of evolution. Life and death mean one and the same thing, in fact, and the question of Nachiketas, and the answer of Yama in connection with this question, are not aspects standing apart, but form the obverse and the reverse of the same coin. What was the answer which Yama gave to Nachiketas? First, Nachiketas may return to the world of the mortals and shall be recognised and treated well by the people of the world when he goes back, which means to say that there can be life after death; otherwise, there could be no point in anyone’s going back to the world. Second, rebirth need not necessarily be in this world. That is the answer concerning the Vaishvanara-Agni-Vidya, the experience of Hiranyagarbha, an experience of a higher world, rebirth into a realm which need not necessarily be of this physical world. While the first boon pertains to a possibility of the return of the soul to this very same world, the second one relates to rebirth in a higher world. Rebirth is unavoidable, but it need not mean that one will be reborn only in this physical planet. Experiences are endless. The universe is not exhausted by the earthly experience alone. We are told that there are lokas, planes of existence or various possibilities of permutation and combination of the space-time-causal nexus. Fortunately for us, all that is corroborated by the modern physical theory of relativity, and the mathematics of modern times has merged itself in the philosophy of the Upanishads. That is wonderful. When we reach the apex of knowledge, we come to the same point. The relativity of experience is an explanation of the inner connection between life and death, but the ultimate meaning of death as well as of life, which is the meaning of the entire evolutionary process, is the Self-realisation of the cosmos. We live and die not because we want to live and die, merely. The purpose of life and death is not itself. It is a means to an end. The ultimate destination of the processes of life, as also of death, is the Self-recognition of all things. There is at present a self-alienation, as it were, of cosmical experience. The Self has become the ‘other’. This is called creation. The creation of the Universe is nothing but the apparent alienation of Self-consciousness into an object. It is as if God becomes an object to his own Self. He sees Himself, as it were, in a mirror. He cognises Himself as an ‘other’. The Subject becomes the object. Consciousness becomes matter, as the Absolute enters into the space-time-cause relation. The turning back of the effect into the cause, or the realisation of God as God, the return of consciousness to its own Self, which is the ultimate naturality of things, is the purpose of the Universe. If the trees grow, the rivers flow and the sun shines; if we breathe, if the ant crawls, and the butterfly flies; if anything is what it is, it is because there is an urge from within each and every one to move towards a Universal Self-recognition.

So, life and death are a continuous process. They are not ends in themselves. And the three questions of Nachiketas, as well as the boons bestowed on him by Yama, pertain to the evolutionary process of the cosmos from sense to mind, from mind to Spirit; from objects to the internal conditioning factors of perception, and finally to the Absolute. Sense, mind and Spirit are the stages of the Katha Upanishad exposition. That is why we have here an explanation of the world of experience through the senses, as well as the world of pure thought, ending with the exposition of the nature of the Spirit. And the Spirit is the death of all things—mrityur yasyo-pasechanam. The Nasadiya Sukta of the Veda says that both death and immortality are shadows of the Eternal. Even immortality is a reflection cast by it. Life and death are relativistic counterparts of each other and they become a mystery, an enigma before us when we try to understand them with our intellect working in terms of sensory perception. The Spirit is the absorber of all things. It is the explanation of everything. There is a vidya in the Chhandogya Upanishad, called Samvarga-vidya, which means the ‘Knowledge of the absorber of everything’. Objects are absorbed into the All-mind, which, again, is absorbed into the Supreme Spirit. This is the philosophical and spiritual secret behind the sublime knowledge given to us in the Katha Upanishad.