Upanishads in English
‘Upanishads’ is a scripture of Hindu religion consisting of spiritual instructions given by varied characters in the form of poems. Katha Upanishad is the most sought-after of all the Upanishads. This is because it answers the most burning question that men and women of every age ask. And that question is: ‘Does a person live after death or does he not?’
It narrates the story of a teenager ‘Nachiketa’ asking the King of Death ‘Yama’ to reveal the secret behind death.
As a response to this, King Yama clarifies Nachiketa how the Self never dies, even after death. He propounds that ignorant are those who believe that a person dies when his body dies. Further, he guides Nachiketa on how he can become immortal through adopting the path to ‘Self-Realization’.
Thus, Katha Upanishad, like other Upanishads, explains the concept of the Self or Self Realization or pure consciousness. Besides this, it deals with some of the other basic themes of spiritual life. These include:
- Need of a spiritual teacher to achieve pure consciousness,
- Senses bringing just passing pleasures and not perennial joy,
- The Self never dies but the body dies,
- Meditation and the word Om help one in realizing the Self etc.
Thus, in this article, we will try to understand the various spiritual teachings that Katha Upanishad brings to the forefront. And these teachings are in the form of a dialogue between Nachiketa and King Yama.
Katha Upanishad Summary
Sage Vajasravasa gave away all his possessions including cows to gain some religious merit. He had a son named Nachiketa who was quite spiritual and had immense faith in scriptures. Seeing his father giving away his possessions just to gain some religious benefit, Nachiketa got really upset.
He inquired his father how could he gain any religious benefit by offering cows too old to give milk? To clarify further, Nachiketa questioned his father over and over again. He said to his father “If you are offering your possessions to gain a religious benefit, whom would you offer me to?
Thus, hearing all this repeatedly intimidated Vajasravasa. So, he told Nachiketa that he would offer him to the King of Death, that is, King Yama. As a result of this argument, Nachiketa decides to meet King Yama.
On reaching King Yama’s abode, Nachiketa gets to know that he would have to wait for three days. This was because King Yama was not there. After three days, King Yama returns. Thus, he tells Nachiketa to ask for three boons. This was because Nachiketa had spent three inhospitable nights in his abode.
Nachiketa agrees to this. In his first Boon, he tells King Yama that his father’s anger must be pacified. Further, he said that his father should start loving him the way he used to do previously.
King Yama grants Nachiketa the first boon. Furthermore, he assures Nachiketa that his father will love him the same way as he did in the past. This will happen as soon as Nachiketa gets released from the clutches of death.
Then, Nachiketa puts forth his second boon. In his second boon, he asks King Yama to teach him the fire sacrifice that would take Nachiketa to heaven. So, Nachiketa wanted to go to heaven as everyone in heaven rejoices. This is because there is no death, old age, hunger, thirst, and pain there.
King Yama agrees to grant him the second boon as well. He teaches Nachiketa how to perform the fire sacrifice that would lead Nachiketa to heaven. Then, Nachiketa performs the fire sacrifice as per King Yama’s instructions. Thus, the King was pleased with Nachiketa. As a result, he tells him that the fire sacrifice would be called by Nachiketa’s name from now on.
Further, he explains to Nachiketa the very essence of the fire sacrifice. He clarifies that a person finds himself in unity with Father, Mother, and Teacher. Provided such a person performs the fire sacrifice three times with absolute consciousness.
Conclusion of the Second Boon
Thus, a person performing the fire sacrifice realizes that everything in the universe is born out of the Supreme Godhead. This includes himself, natural elements like fire, and living beings in the name and form of father, mother, and teacher.
And all these creatures and living beings have the same core personality called the ‘Self’. Accordingly, the personality of ‘Self’ is same in everyone. Furthermore, the personality of ‘Self’ is separate from the individual personality of each living being.
Once a person becomes aware of this unity of the ‘Self’, he realizes his core duties as a living being. These duties include reading scriptures, performing ritual worship and helping those in need.
Thus, King Yama concludes that a person surpasses death, experiences perennial joy and becomes immortal. This happens only when he realizes that the fire is also born out of the Supreme Godhead. Furthermore, such a person performs his core duties as a living being consciously and not falsely after realization.
After fulfilling Nachiketa’s second boon, King Yama tells Nachiketa to ask for the third boon. So as a third boon, Nachiketa requests King Yama to clarify his doubt about death. His doubt was ‘Does a person live after death or does he not?’
Thus, King Yama warns Nachiketa that this doubt haunted even the Gods and is really hard to understand. He requests Nachiketa to ask for some other boon and release him from the promise.
But Nachiketa compels Yama to reveal the secret behind death. He believes that there could be no better teacher than the King of Death himself. This was because only the King of Death could answer the question that has haunted even the Gods of old.
Nachiketa repeats his request to the King. But, King Yama suggests that he could ask for worldly pleasures. Further, the King questions Nachiketa as to why he wants to know about the secret of death? However, Nachiketa tells Yama that worldly pleasures are short-lived. Furthermore, such pleasures exhaust the vital powers of a living being.
Why Nachiketa Does Not Want To Change His Third Boon?
Furthermore, Nachiketa proclaims that these worldly pleasures cannot make mortals happy and joyful. This is especially when one’s death is waiting in the corner. Besides this, he questions “how can a living get happiness in a long life through the pleasures that the senses demand?” He exclaims that how can a living being desire wealth especially when he faces death or is close to death?
After saying all this, Nachiketa compels Yama that he wants no other boon. He only wants the immortal King of Death to reveal the truth behind the greatest mystery of all time.
Seeing the determined seriousness of the lad, King Yama eventually agrees and gives the following spiritual instructions to Nachiketa.
Lessons From Katha Upanishad
Seek Perennial Happiness Over Passing Pleasures
King Yama explains Nachiketa that the Perennial joy a living being has been ever seeking does not come his way by pacifying the desires of his senses. Satisfying the desires of one’s senses brings temporary happiness only and not perennial joy. Perennial joy comes through realizing the ‘Self’ or pure consciousness.
What is Consciousness?
Pure consciousness is a state in which one withdraws awareness of his body, mind and personal identity and focuses attention on the inner ‘Self’. This inner ‘Self’, as defined in Isha Upanishad, is created from the same energy (primeval atom) by the single underlying power called Brahman or Supreme Godhead and hence is the essence of every living creature. Further, this ‘Self’ that pervades and reflects in every living creature is in unison with the power that created and sustains the universe. Thus, persons who realize the ‘Self’ see themselves in all and all in themselves.
This is because when a person is in deep consciousness, his body and mind are free from all the conditioning and unbounded by the limitations of time, space and causality. None of the elements of mind including fear, passion, egotism and desire can overwhelm a person in this state of consciousness. In fact, such a person consolidates all human desires and directs them like a beam of a laser towards realizing the ‘Self’. It is because in realizing the ‘Self’ all human desires get fulfilled.
The desire to know who we are, what the universe is and what is the significance life and death is a part of our evolutionary heritage and is the very purpose for which a person is born. We cannot live without meaning or purpose.
Thus, King Yama tells Nachiketa that those who realize the ‘Self’ discover the meaning or purpose of their life and hence get perennial happiness. Whereas, those who live life through sensory impressions seek pleasures that are short-lived and hence move far away from realizing the very goal of their life.
Self Realization Opens The Way To Immortality
King Yama explains Nachiketa that the only way to seek immortality or the eternal is through ‘Self Realization’. People who seek to realize the ‘Self’ see all in themselves and themselves in all. Thus, such individuals are wise and they know that they are neither their body nor their mind.
Rather, they are that undifferentiated consciousness that pervades in all and that which is created by the single underlying power, Supreme Godhead or Brahman. In other words, the wise understand that the pure consciousness is separate from individual personality which is governed by its own set of desires, passions, ego and fear. They realize that the ‘Self’ also called as ‘Atman’ is the same as the divine power who created the universe and everything that resides in it.
The one who realizes the ‘Atman’ or the Self lives a life of self-restraint. He seeks such a life by restraining all the worldly pleasures emanating through the senses and consolidating them in realizing the core personality which is the very essence of a living being. It is in this realization of the ‘Self’ or the ‘Atman’ or the pure consciousness that all the desires of a living being get fulfilled.
Why Self Never Dies?
Now, this ‘Atman’ or the ‘Self’ is the one that never born nor dies. It is eternal and immutable. So when the body dies, this ‘Atman’ or ‘Self’ does not die. If a slayer believes that he can kill or the slain believes that he can be killed, then none out of them know the truth. The eternal ‘Self’ cannot slaughter nor can be slaughtered.
Thus, this Self resides in the hearts of all the living creatures. Those who renounce self-will and realize this ‘Self’ are liberated from all the sorrows and enter into the realm of perennial happiness. This is because in the state of pure consciousness they are free from all the bondages and limitations of time, space and causality.
Therefore, those who seek the ‘Self’ or pure consciousness, they lead themselves to the path of immortality. But the question is how to realize this ‘Self’. The ‘Self’ cannot be realized by reading scriptures, through intellect or by hearing discourses about ‘Self-Realization. Further, it cannot be realized by the one who does not control his senses, does not abandon unrighteous ways and does not stop his mind from wandering.
‘Self’ can only be realized by the one whose greatness surpasses the bravery of a warrior, the ceremonies practiced by a priest and the fear of death.
Self is Different From Mind, Body and Senses
The ‘Self’ or pure consciousness is separate from mind, body, and senses. To understand this, the sages explored pure consciousness in various states. They called these states waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. These states of consciousness represent different layers of awareness that are lying at different levels in the conscious as well as the unconscious mind.
1. Dreaming State
When one dreams, he leaves one reality and enters another reality. And the only thing that remains common in both waking and dreaming experience is neither the body nor the mind but the observing self. The common thing cannot be body because while dreaming, the observing self detaches itself from the body and senses and creates its own experiences. These experiences are as real as the ones in the waking life in terms of physiological reactions.
2. The Dreamless Sleep State
Then in the dreamless sleep, the same observing self detaches itself not only from the body but also from the mind. It means that in dreamless sleep, the mind, like the body settles down to rest. This state of dreamless sleep is the universal layer of the unconscious mind and is present in the deepest depths of the mind.
3. Waking State
Upanishads preach that one should wake up in the state of dreamless sleep, that is, where the observing self withdraws itself from the body, mind and the senses. It is in this state that a person is free from all the the darker ranges of the mind including fear, passion, egotism and desire.
How The Self is Different Form Body, Mind, Senses, and Ego?
Thus, King Yama tells Nachiketa that deep inside the cave of our hearts, both the ‘Self’ and the ‘Ego’ reside. The ‘Self’ lives in light whereas the ‘Ego’ lives in darkness. This is because the ‘Self’ embraces both the good and evil whereas the ‘Ego’ only welcomes sweet and not anything bitter.
Therefore, one should not confuse ‘Self’ with body, mind, senses and ego. King Yama explains Nachiketa how all of them are separate from the ‘Self’ by drawing the following analogy.
King Yama tells Nachiketa that he should consider the ‘Self’ as the Lord of the chariot, body as the chariot itself, intellect as the charioteer, the mind as the reins, senses as the horses and the selfish desires as the roads that they travel.
Now, when a person confuses the ‘Self’ with the body, mind and the senses, he seems to enjoy the worldly pleasures and hence suffer sorrow. But the one who burns out the ego, he leaves leaves behind all the fears as he enters a realm which is full of fearlessness.
Thus, King Yama tells Nachiketa that it is very important to understand that body, mind and senses are separate from the ‘Self’. A person who is not able to discriminate between the ‘Self’ and body, mind and the senses, is not at peace and his senses run here and there like wild horses.
That is, such a person does not have control over his thoughts and therefore is not able to realize pure consciousness. Consequently, this person has to wander death to death and keeps on moving far away from immortality.
However, a person who understands that the ‘Self’ is separate from the body, mind and the senses has full control over his mind and senses and directs all his desires in attaining the ‘Self’. Since this person attains the supreme goal of life with controlled mind and senses, he does not fall in the clutches of death.
So, King Yama clarifies Nachiketa that only those who keep their minds focused in achieving the ultimate desire are able to realize the ‘Self’ that is hidden in everyone. Furthermore, meditation can help them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness and then to the world of wisdom.
Though, traversing the path of realizing the ‘Self’ is difficult, but an illumined teacher can give proper guidance in realizing the supreme ‘Self’ that is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, is inexhaustible, is beyond time, space and causality.
Self is Supreme
King Yama explains Nachiketa that it is because of the ‘Self’ and not the senses that we enjoy form, taste, smell, sound, touch and sexual union. Further, it is because of the ‘Self’ that a person enjoys the states of waking and sleeping.
This means that everything one enjoys is through the ‘Self’ and not through the senses. Therefore, the wise always seek the ‘Self’. They attain the ‘Self’ by withdrawing their senses from the world of change as they understand that it is impossible to achieve the ‘Self’ in the world that is constantly changing.
Also, those who realize the ‘Self’ understand that senses are just the instruments that derive perception from the objects of sense. The ultimate enjoyer of all that one can touch, see, feel, taste, smell and hear is the ‘Self’.
This ‘Self’ is present in everyone and it goes beyond fear. Further, this ‘Self’ is supreme as it is present in everyone in the form of Brahma – the creator; Aditi – the Goddess of Energy; Agni – the God of Fire and the power that is the source of energy for the sun and every other power in the cosmos. This supreme ‘Self’ resides in all the living creatures, natural elements, gods, animals, plants and all the water bodies. It is the one that is left after the dweller of the body liberates himself from the bonds of flesh.
But the question is:
Who can realize the Self?
The one whose mind is focused just to attain the pure consciousness can achieve the ‘Self’. This ‘Self’ is that state of unity where one sees himself in all and all in himself.
Whereas those whose mind wanders here and there and who see others as separate from oneself, are not able to see or realize the indivisible ‘Self’. Such persons have to wander from one death to the other till they seek to realize the ultimate purpose of a living being’s life, that is, the ‘Self’.
Thus, it is important to understand that it is the supreme ‘Self’ that is responsible for the breath flowing in and out of our body. It is the supreme ‘Self’ that drive the senses to perceive the objects in the physical world. The ‘Self’ is the one that is wide awake even when we sleep. It is the ‘Self’ that gives form to all the objects that we dream about.
This supreme ‘Self’ is free from all the bondages of bodily pleasures. It is the Brahman that resides in all and the one that cannot be tainted by any evil. Therefore, the one who realizes this ‘Self’ or pure consciousness gets eternal joy and peace.
Self Can Be Realized Through Meditation and Yoga
Finally, Nachiketa asks King Yama “how can one realize that supreme ‘Self’? Is he the light or does he reflect light?” King Yama tells Nachiketa that this supreme ‘Self’ can be realized only by reaching a state where one is free from the bondages of body and the senses.
In such a state, the senses and the mind are calmed down and one reaches a stage where he is in unison with the ‘Self’ or the Brahman that resides in everyone. However, if one does not become well rooted in this state, this unitive state would persist only for temporary period of time.
Thus, the ‘Self’ cannot be realized through words, thoughts or the senses. It can be attained only with the help of a spiritual teacher who himself has realized the ‘Self; and is well established in such a state.
Thus, when one rises above ego, one realizes the ‘Self’ or the Atman. When one renounces all the worldly pleasures and consolidates all the desires of the heart to realize the goal of attaining the ‘Self’, one sets on the path of immortality.
So, King Yama tells Nachiketa that the only way to realize this ‘Self’ is through meditation, yoga and restraining the senses.