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Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 9: The Katha Upanishad

Anyac chreyo anyad utaiva preyaste ubhe nanarthe purusam sinitah: tayoh sreya adadanasya sadhu bhavati, hiyate'rthad ya u preyo vrinite. sreyas ca preyas ca manusyam etas tau samparitya vivinakti dhirah (Katha 1.2.1-2). These are the sentences which Lord Yama, the great master, spoke to Nachiketas, the great student whose story occurs in the Katha Upanishad. I mentioned earlier the incidents that led to the ascent of the student Nachiketas to the abode of the Lord of Death, Yama, and how he could not meet the Lord when he went there and for three days he had to stand at the gates of Yama's palace without food or sleep. After three days the great master returned and asked for pardon.

“My dear boy, you are an atithi, a guest come to my place. Unfortunately I had to make you stand here, without eating and sleeping, for three days and nights. As a recompense for this pain that I had unwittingly caused you, I ask you to choose three boons from me,” said Yama.

The boy Nachiketas replied, “I am glad that you have offered to give me three boons.”

“Yes, please ask,” said Yama.

Nachiketas said, “Now I shall ask for the first boon. When I return to the world from your abode, may I be received with affection by my father, by the world, by everyone.”

I mentioned to you casually, in this context, that this boon has also a special mystical significance, though the words of the Upanishads are couched in some sort of an epic, mythological style. The borderland of Universal knowledge is the death of the human personality. The great Lord Yama here, in the context of the Upanishadic teaching, may be regarded as the lord over the borderland between the empirical and the transcendental realms. Death is the greatest teacher. Ordinarily, even the very notion of death shakes our personality, and we learn the wisdom of life only when we are on the verge of dying. Until that time, we are mostly ignoramuses. When we are drowning in water and there is no hope of surviving, when death is imminent and there are only a few minutes left, or we have lost everything that we considered as our own, at that time we learn the wisdom of life. When everything is gone and nothing is remaining—even the very ground under our feet is shaking—at that time, we know what life is made of, what the wisdom of life is.

When Nachiketas asked for this boon as a student of the highest mysticism conceivable, we may understand from his request that when we return to the world after the attainment of the wisdom of life, the world becomes a friend. At present, the world is not our friend; it stands outside us as a glaring, staring reality, of which we have very little knowledge. The world is very heavily sitting on us; too much is this world for us, many a time. We dread it. We cannot consider anything in the world as our real friend, because it has its own laws and regulations that we are obliged to obey. It compels us to obey its dictates and mandates, but it suddenly changes its colour and becomes part and parcel of our personal life. The jivanmukta is the name that we give to the transmuted personality of the spiritual seeker. Nachiketas may be regarded as a jivanmukta, especially having contacted the great master of Knowledge, Yama himself.

“When I return to the world after having seen you—the abode of wisdom—may the world receive me with affection. May there be nothing dissonant, incongruent, disharmonious in this world, and may there be a communion of spirits and purposes between me and the world,” said Nachiketas.

This boon was granted at one stroke. “Yes,” replied Yama. “It is a simple thing for me; you shall have what you have asked for. Now ask for the second boon.”

The second boon was something more complicated. It was deeper than the first one.

“I have heard,” said Nachiketas, “that there is a mystery called Vaisvanara, having known which one becomes allknowing, omniscient. May I be blessed with this boon.”

“Yes, I shall initiate you into this mystery of the supreme wisdom of the Vaisvanara, the Universal Reality,” replied Yama. The necessary initiation process was carried out.

“Now ask for the third boon,” said Yama.

Nachiketas raised a crucial issue when he asked for the third boon. He asked, “What happens to the soul after death? After the death of this body, or it may be after the death of the individuality itself—in either case, what happens to the soul?”

While Lord Yama was very eager and quick in responding to the earlier two questions of Nachiketas, in the case of the third question he was not willing to say anything.

Yama replied, “You should not ask this question. Nobody can understand what it is. The gods themselves have doubts about this matter. Therefore, a young boy like you should not raise a question of this kind. Ask for better things—gold and silver, health, the emperorship of the whole world and long life, as long as this world lasts. All the wealth of the world, all the glory, all the majesty and the magnificence of an emperor of the world, I shall grant you. Don't ask this question.”

Nachiketas said, “What good is this? What is the use of this long life? What do you mean by ‘long life'? How long will it be? One day it has to end. So, anything that has to end is to be considered as short. It may be long from one point of view, but it has to end one day. Even if it is millions of years, after that it stops. Then, why do you call it long life? It is short. Api sarvam jivitam alpam eva (Katha 1.1.26). All the life put together is puerile and petty. I do not want a long life. And what is the good of all the glory, the majesty and the beauty of the enjoyments to which you have made reference? What is enjoyment to the person whose sense organs have been worn out? As long as the sense organs are vigorous, things look beautiful, tasty and worthwhile; when the senses wither away, who will enjoy the world? So, why do you tempt me with these offerings? ‘Ask for better things,' you said. What can be better than the knowledge of this mystery of the soul after the departure from this body, this tabernacle?”

When Yama was cornered like this from all sides, he found that there was an impossible student in front of him. Yama may have even been testing him, testing the mettle of the student. Whatever be the case, it is also an indication as to the difficulty in knowing what the soul is.

The answer, however, does not come abruptly from Yama, though he finally agrees to give the answer. What he says is, “There are two ways available for every person in this world: the way of the good and the way of the pleasant.”

The good is called sreyas; the pleasant is called preyas. There are two roads you can tread; you can choose what is good or you can choose what is pleasant. It is proper for a person to choose the good. It is improper for any person to choose the pleasant, because the good does not always look pleasant and the pleasant is certainly not always good. That which is pleasant is nothing but the reaction of the sense organs in respect of objects outside. The pleasantness is only in the sensations. If you scratch your body, there is a little sensation of pleasure, but the itching is necessary in order that the sensation of scratching may be pleasant. Unless there is itching, there is no satisfaction in scratching. If you are not hungry, no lunch can be delicious. If you are not healthy, the world looks stupid and meaningless. If the senses are not vigorous, nothing looks beautiful; everything appears to be ugly and dark. So, what is meant by pleasant experiences?

There is no such thing as a pleasant experience as such, by itself. It is only a relative condition created under the circumstances of an action and reaction process taking place between the sense organs, the mind and the objects outside. Would anybody pursue this path which is utter foolishness? He who pursues the path of the pleasant will fall short of his aim. Sreya adadanasya sadhu bhavati, hiyate'rthad ya u preyo vrinite (Katha 1.2.1). It is good that we follow the good, while we understand, to some extent, that the pleasant is actually not something existent in the objects outside; it is only a sensation, a reaction of the sense organs and, therefore, unreliable to the hilt.

Take an old person in a dying condition—does that person have any pleasant experience of anything in this world? The sensations are dying completely; there is no appetite of any kind. If pleasant things are really pleasant, they should be pleasant even at the last moment of your departure. Where is the pleasantness at that time? The condition of your body, mind and sense organs determines what you call pleasant. Also, what is pleasant to you need not be pleasant to another person. If there is real pleasantness in things, there should be pleasantness for all people equally; why should it be attractive to you and not attractive to another person? Why is it that what you like is not liked by somebody else? This shows that there is no such thing as pleasantness in anything. The pursuit of the pleasant, therefore, is a folly on the part of an individual.

The good is the proper path. What is the good? While you know something about this pleasant, what is the good? “Ok, I will not follow the path of the pleasant; I shall follow the way of the good, but I should understand what is good, isn't it?” This also is a little difficult question. The ultimately good is to be considered as really good. He who will help you at the time of the death of your body is a real friend. That which will come with you when you are departing from this world is your real comrade; anything else is not your friend. That which appears to be good now and is bitter tomorrow may not be considered as good. It should be always good. As they say, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” So also is the case with the good. The good should be always good, like a well-meaning mother.

Nothing in this world, as far as the objectivity of the things in the world is concerned, can be regarded as always good. There is nothing in this world which can be considered as always good. It appears to be good for some time only, for some reason. You have covered yourself with a blanket now because it is cold; it is good to have a blanket over your body. But will it be good always? All the 12 months, all the 365 days of the year will you cover yourself with blankets and woollen shawls? No; it is relatively good—under certain conditions only. Under other conditions it is not. All appetites, all needs, all requirements, anything that you consider as necessary—all these are relative to conditions, circumstances prevailing within you as well as without you. Therefore, nothing in this world can be regarded as finally good.

Yet there is something that is finally good, which is the good of the soul of an individual. That which is permanent can be regarded as good. As things in the world are transient and passing, they cannot also be regarded as finally good. We also pass away, as far as our body is concerned, but the soul will not pass away. Therefore, that which is commensurate with the needs of the soul of a person may be regarded as really good. And, there is nothing in this world which can feed our soul. The world can feed our sensations: our mind, intellect and ego can be fed by the diet of this world, but the soul is suffering. Our soul is hungry; its appetite cannot be properly met by anything in this world, because the impermanent cannot satisfy that which is permanent. Na hy adhruvaih prapyate hi dhruvam tat (Katha 1.2.10). “The permanent cannot be attained through that which is impermanent.” The impermanent cannot satisfy what is permanent —that is, that which is relatively good cannot be set in tune with the soul, which is the ultimate good.

“So, Nachiketas, one has to follow the path of the good,” said Yama. Now, here the good does not necessarily mean an ethical instruction that Nachiketas was being given. “Here is a good person.” When we make a statement like this, we mean that in conduct, in character, in behaviour, the person is socially adaptable to conditions; therefore, we say, “Here is a good person.” But the goodness that we are referring to here, in the context of the Upanishadic teaching, is a spiritual good; it is not a conditioned good. Conditioned good means that under certain circumstances one has to behave in this way, and under other circumstances one may have to behave in another way. If this is the mandate of ethics and morality, all the ethical and moral instructions stand relative to circumstances. But the metaphysical good, the spiritual good, the ultimate transcendental good is that which is good for the soul. It is not good for some time only, or for some people only, or for certain conditions only. For all conditions, for all times and for all individuals, it is good.

This is the soul, and Nachiketas was asking what happens to the soul. A vague answer to this question comes forth in the Katha Upanishad. A complete, satisfying answer has to be found in some other Upanishads, like the Chhandogya and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. Tentatively Yama tells Nachiketas that when the body is shed, one takes rebirth. One can become anything, according to the thoughts and the feelings entertained by the person during the tenure of this life. Your thoughts and feelings will congeal into a solid substance, as it were, of the personality which you will assume in the next incarnation. The process of incarnation is actually the process of the evolution of things. As I mentioned to you sometime earlier, the evolutionary process is the process of the cessation of one condition to bring about the birth of the subsequent condition. Something has to die in order that something may be born. If nothing dies, nothing will be born. There will be no transformation and improvement of any kind if death does not take place. So many parts of the body have died in order that we could become this adult personality that we are now. If evolution is something worthwhile, death also is worthwhile. Unless some previous condition dies, the new condition cannot be born. So, everyone will be reborn because of the fact that the birth of a body, such as this body of ours which is now with us, is the instrument manufactured by this psychological organ within us for the fulfilment of its needs, desires and wants.

Our desires have no end. You cannot count your desires. Though today, at this moment, you may feel that your desires are half a dozen, when these half-a-dozen desires are fulfilled, you will find that another half a dozen will project themselves forth, and there will never be an end of this. Infinite are the desires of man because of the infinitude that is hidden in the recesses of the being of man. Inasmuch as longings and desires and needs of the mind are infinite, a finite body cannot be a suitable instrument for the fulfilment of all these desires. An infinite series of incarnations may be necessary in order that infinite desires may be fulfilled through the instrumentality of these instruments. What are the instruments? This body. What kind of body will you assume in the next birth? It will be exactly commensurate with the thoughts and desires that you entertain at this moment.

Yam yam vapi smaran bhavam tyajatyante kalevaram, tam tam evaiti (Gita 8.6) is the famous doctrine, the teaching of the Bhagavadgita. Whatever thought enters your mind at the moment of departure, at the time of death, that will concretise itself and will be extracted out of your personality, like butter being sucked out of milk. Are you entertaining a hope that, “At the last moment I will entertain a suitable thought so now I can think whatever I like”? No; the last thought is the fruit of the tree of the life you have lived in this world. You cannot have one kind of tree and another kind of fruit. Whatever kind of life you have lived through this body in the sojourn of your existence in this world, that will become solid substance of the thought that will occur to your mind at the time of departure from this body. So, do not be foolish enough to imagine that, “Now I can be living a merry life. There is no need of bothering as to what will happen to me, because the time for passing has not come. Many years are there for me. I shall think a good thought at the time of going.”

Two mistakes are committed in this kind of imagination. Firstly, it is not true that many years are there, ahead of us. No one can say that. So, no one should entertain the idea that, “After fifty years only I shall have the need to think a good thought, because it is said that the last thought determines my future.” Who tells you that you will be living for another fifty years? It may be another fifty minutes, or even less.

The second mistake is regarding this idea that, “I shall think a good thought at the time of going.” The last thought is nothing but the essence of all the thoughts entertained in this life. So, a person cannot be a good person at the time of dying and a bad person before. Whatever goodness you entertain in your thoughts and feelings will congeal itself, and whatever was in the milk, that alone will come out as butter. You cannot have butter from somewhere when the milk was another thing altogether. So Yama, in one sentence, in one place, says that, ordinarily speaking, everybody will take birth, if Self-realisation does not take place before passing. If you realise the Self before the end of this life, no birth will take place. Why? Because the need for birth will not arise.

Why do you take birth? It is because you have a necessity to fulfil the desires that you could not fulfil through this tabernacle. The desires were many and the body was feeble and finite, and an infinite number of desires cannot be fulfilled through a finite body, which is a feeble instrument. So, another body, another series of bodies have to be undergone. But in the realisation of the Self, which is universal in Its nature, desires get extinguished. This is the Nirvana that people speak of. Brahma nirvanam ricchati (Bhagavata 4.11.14): “Nirvana is the extinguishing of the flame of life.” This flame, which is the transitory movement of the succession of human desire, vanishes, extinguished completely. This is Nirvana that is taking place. If there is even a single desire, rebirth is unavoidable for the fulfilment of that desire. If you have fulfilled all your desires in this birth itself and nothing more is left, that would be good for you.

Paryapta-kamasya kritatmanas tu ihaiva sarve praviliyanti kamah (Mundaka 3.2.2), says the Mundaka Upanishad. “All your desires melt here, in the light of the Self.” No desire can stand before the blaze of the knowledge of the Self. As the cloud of mist cannot stand before the blaze of the sun, this muddle of the cloud of desires cannot stand before the light of the Self, which is the Atman. Therefore, “What happens to the soul after death?” is the question raised by Nachiketas. “Ordinarily, rebirth takes place” is the answer. And most people in the world are ordinary people only, because everyone has a desire of some kind or the other. Everyone is filled with egoism, a self-assertive nature; therefore, everyone will be reborn. Even if we are reborn, it is good to be born in more advanced circumstances. If you live like a tree, you may become a tree; if you live like an animal, you may become an animal; if you are humanitarian, you will be reborn as a very good human being. But why should you not live like an angel? You can live like a veritable god in this world and you will be reborn as an angel, a divinity in heaven. You will enter heaven, you will go to Brahma-loka. But no entry of any kind will be there if the Self is realised.

Athakamayamanah, yo'kamo niskama apta-kama atmakamah, na tasya prana utkramanti, brahmaiva san brahmapyeti (Brihad. 4.4.6), says Sage Yajnavalkya to King Janaka in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In the context of the transmigration of the soul, Yajnavalkya again mentions here that whatever your wish is, that will be fulfilled. Remember very well that every wish of yours, even the pettiest, has to be fulfilled. If you think that you want something, it shall come to you. If it is a very strong desire, it may be fulfilled in this life itself. If it is a mild desire, you may have to take time for the fulfilment of that wish. It may be the next birth, or after two or three births.

What happens to the person who has no desires? Now, I shall tell you about the man, the person who has no desires. Athakamayamanah yo'kamo: who has no desire of any kind; niskama: who is bereft of any desires; apta-kama: who has fulfilled all desires; atma-kama: who loves only the Self. Only he who has love for the Universal Self can be said to have fulfilled all desires; every other person has some extraneous desire. What happens to such a person when he departs from the body? Na tasya prana utkramanti: He will not depart. We generally say the soul departs. In the case of a Self-realised soul, no departure takes place. It sinks then and there into the Absolute, like a bubble in the ocean. When the bubble in the ocean bursts, it does not travel some distance; it dissolves itself into the bosom of the sea there and then. Na tasya prana utkramanti: There is no space and time movement for the soul of that great soul. Atraiva samviliyante: They become one with the very Existence, then and there, here and now. They neither have to go to heaven, nor to Brahma-loka, nor to the Garden of Eden. The question of going arises only because of the concept of space and time. A timeless Eternity, which is the true essence of the soul of a person, does not travel to any place. It melts here itself into Pure Existence. Atraiva samviliyante brahmaiva san brahmapyeti: The Soul is the Absolute and, therefore, it enters the Absolute. This is what we gather from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. So much detail cannot be found in the Katha Upanishad answer of Yama, but many other things are casually mentioned by way of a tentative elucidation of the answer expected by Nachiketas from Yama.

The Katha Upanishad is a most beautiful Upanishad. It is worth committing to memory, if possible. There are some ashrams in India where the residents are expected to recite it the whole day. It is, first of all, a very fitting introduction to spiritual life. The very first chapter of the Katha Upanishad is something like the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita. It places before us the conditions preceding the quest of the Spirit, as we have in the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita. The second chapter of the Katha Upanishad begins with similar circumstances to those in the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita. And as the Bhagavadgita goes on, so the Katha Upanishad also goes on. There is some similarity, people think, between the Bhagavadgita's approach to things and the approach of the Katha Upanishad. Literally also, from the point of view of the Sanskrit language, it is melodious and artistic; lyrical beauty is there. Very fine, mellifluous style is the passage of the Katha Upanishad. Inasmuch as it touches our soul and it is relevant to our own predicament at the present moment, we seem to be something like Nachiketas. And perhaps we are searching for an answer of the same kind as the three types of boons that Nachiketas expected, and perhaps we are also expecting the same thing in some way, in some measure. So the Katha Upanishad is the best introduction even to the Bhagavadgita and all the Upanishads. With these words, the major point that is raised in the Katha Upanishad may be said to be complete.