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The Essence of Life - Katha Upanishad


Today, we take a look at the Katha Upanishad (Kathopanishad) of the Krishna Yajur Veda, which begins with the story of Vājasravasa. Put simply, he conducted a grand yagna (a ritual sacrifice), and to mark the end of this yagna, he had to give all of his possessions away, as an offering, with the hope of a heavenly reward from the gods.


Vājasravasa had a son called Nachiketa who saw the offerings his father was giving away, and questioned what his father hoped to obtain from them. Nachiketa noticed that everything that his father intended to offer had already been used to exhaustion – they no longer held any real value. The cows, for example, were so old that they could no longer provide milk. Nachiketa believed that, if his father really wanted to hold firm to his vow of giving away all of his possessions, then he must also gift his son, otherwise the sacrifice would remain incomplete.

So, Nachiketa asked Vājasravasa:

“Father, to whom will you give me away?”

His father ignored his questions initially, but when Nachiketa consistently asked the same question, Vājasravasa burst out:

“I give you to Death!”

Nachiketa smiled and accepted his father’s wish of gifting him to Death. The story goes on to share that Nachiketa made his way to the abode of Yama – the god of death – but he was out-of-office. The Katha Upanishad states that Nachiketa waited for Yama (Yamrāja) to return, as a guest for three nights without any food or water, and eventually when Yamrāja arrived and was informed of Nachiketa's wait, he was apologetic for the dishonour towards his guest, and he offered Nachiketa three wishes.

For his third and final wish, Nachiketa asked Yamrāja to share the secret of death:

When a person dies, there arises this doubt: “He still exists”, say some; “he does not,” say others. I want you to teach me the truth.

Yamrāja attempted to deflect the question and asked Nachiketa to ask for something else, but Nachiketa did not budge. He insisted that there is no wish greater than the truth of death. Yamrāja pleaded to Nachiketa to ask for anything – wealth, women, kingdoms, any of the pleasures of life that he could imagine – anything other than the truth about death. Even then, Nachiketa refused. He said that pleasures are fleeting and they wear out the powers of life. We cannot be happy with wealth knowing that we will eventually grow old and die and that everything we love will one day disappear. Nachiketa instead insisted on knowing the true nature of the ātmā (soul) and stayed firm to his original question:

Dispel this doubt of mine, O king of death: Does a person live after death or does he not?

Yamrāja, now knowing that Nachiketa had already renounced the material world when he left home and was in search of truth, began to teach the nature of ātmā. He began by explaining how we each have a choice between everlasting joy and fleeting pleasure – ‘one leads to the imperishable spiritual realm; the other to the perishable physical realm’. If one chooses to indulge in the pleasures of the senses, he will forget the true goal of life, and that is to realise and understand Brahma (synonymous to Akshar or Aksharbrahma[n]), the second-highest eternal entity, and not to be confused with the deity Brahmā.

Akshar is the first and last cause. Akshar is the source that sets everything in motion. It is that in which everything exists, which is of the highest value, which permeates every living being, and is beyond description. Those who know Brahma (or Akshar), which is ultimately the aim of human life, do not fear pain or sorrow or even death, because the true essence of existence – the ātmā – exists beyond the cycle of death and rebirth:

If the slayer believes that he can kill. Or the slain believes that he can be killed. Neither knows the truth. The eternal Self slays not, nor is ever slain. - Katha Upanishad 1.2.19

It is here in the Katha Upanishad that we see the analogy known as the Ratha Kalpānā (Chariot Analogy) that explains the distinct relationships between the true Self and the perceived Self. It is a popular analogy that has been adopted by many cultures, including the Greeks. The Self is the master of the chariot, the body is the chariot itself, the intellect is the charioteer, the mind is the reins, the senses are the horses, and selfish desires and eluding pleasures are the roads that we travel. When we confuse the Self with our senses or even the mind for that matter, we lose ourselves in the illusion of māyā (material nature – the creative power of the Supreme). Māyā also means that which exists but is constantly changing and thus is spiritually unreal. Those of us with little control over our own thoughts and senses spend time and time wandering from life to death and death to life, from one fleeting moment to another, constantly in search of eternal bliss and freedom from the bondage of māyā. Those who live morally (according to dharma), who keep a strong, stable, and peaceful mind, he who is able to master the intellect and abstain from the senses, and who realises that he is not the body and that he belongs to something much greater — only these higher people can truly realise Brahma.

The highest state of man, as told by the Katha Upanishad, is when each of the senses of perception become still, together with the mind, and the intellect is undisturbed. This mastery of the senses is what is known as Moksha, Brahmarūp-stithī, or Yoga. In order to reach this state of union with the supreme entity Parabrahma, one must first distinguish oneself from all of the physical and mental chaos that surrounds us. One must learn to remain detached from the external world and withdraw his senses from the desirable.

In the final verses of this part of the Katha Upanishad, it declares that one cannot attain knowledge of Brahma through logic or instruction alone, nor from studying the ancient scriptures.


So then how does one attain this knowledge and begin to realise this ultimate state and composure? I think that is a conversation that we will be having another day...

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