Kathā Upaniṣad

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By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Katha Upanisad, KathA UpaniSad, Kathaa Upanishad


The Kathā Upaniṣad belongs to the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. It is also referred as Kāthaka Upaniṣad, as it is included in the Kāthaka recension of the Veda. It has been quite popular from all the standpoints. The philosophical concepts and the practical modes of sādhanā described here are reminiscent of the popular scripture, the Bhagavadgītā.

This Upaniṣad describes the ancient story of Naciketas and Yama[1] in detail. The story finds a mention in:

  • The Ṛgveda[2]
  • The Taittiriya Brāhmana[3]

The whole work of Upanisad is in the form of a dialogue between Naciketas and Yama. It is spread over six vallis or sections. The total number of verses is 119.

First valli

It is of 29 verses. Vājaśravasa was also known as Auddālaki Āruṇi. He was performing the Viśvajit sacrifice. As per the rules of the sacrifice, he had to give away all his wealth. But he had arranged to donate decrepit, that is useless cows as sacrificial gifts. This was observed by Naciketas, his young son in early boyhood. He sensed his father’s motive in doing so. Wishing to draw his attention to this lacuna, Naciketa asked his father as to whom he was being gifted away. The father shot back saying that he would be given to Mṛtyu.[4], incensed by the repeated questioning. Though he repented for his intemperate reaction, he allowed Naciketa to go to the Yamaloka, the abode of Yama.

When the boy reached there, Yama was not in his house. So he patiently awaited the god’s return spending three days and three nights without accepting any hospitality. When Yama returned and learnt about the young guest, he regretted the inconvenience caused to him and offered him three boons to compensate for the same. He asked for the following three boons:

  1. As the first boon, he asked that his father regain his mental peace and balance and also recognize him after returning from the abode of death.
  2. As the second boon, he requested Yama to teach him the sacrifice by which one could go to svargaloka (heaven). Yama obliged and taught the process in detail. He even tested Naciketa at the end to know whether he had grasped all the intricacies of the ritual. Naciketa’s reply pleased him so much that he granted him (Naciketas) an additional boon in the form of a beautiful necklace. He also christened the fire-ritual as ‘Nāciketāgni’.
  3. As the third boon, Naciketa asked Yama whether a human being can exist even after the death of the physical body or not. Since this question related to ātmajñāna or a knowledge of the divine Self was extremely subtle and difficult to comprehend, Yama wanted to test the boy thoroughly before imparting the same. Acquisition of ātmajñāna has to be preceded by an intense spirit of renunciation and total dedication to its pursuit. Hence Yama tried to dissuade him by describing it as extremely difficult to comprehend and offered exceedingly attractive alternatives like immense wealth, intense pleasures and unimaginably long life. Naciketas was quite adamant and rejected them all with disdain and insisted upon his original boon.

Second Valli

This section comprises of 25 verses. Yama does not directly answer the question of Naciketa but begins his long discourse by introducing some basic concepts as a background and are described briefly in the points below :

  • Human beings generally have two alternatives in life:
  1. The śreyas - what is really good in the ultimate analysis
  2. The preyas - what is momentarily attractive and pleasant, but ultimately disastrous

The wise ones with an intuitive insight choose the first option while the dull-witted persons lacking in even elementary sense of discrimination, fall for the second one. Having accomplished the pleasantries, the latter ones consider themselves as very intelligent and clever. Not only that, they even mislead the innocent persons. It is like the blind leading the other blind ones. Thus they get into the grip of the lord of death through repeated trans-migrations.

  • Those who choose the path of śreyas will realize the ātman, the true self of all.
  • Ātman is beyond logic and reasoning. It is difficult for the ordinary run of mankind to comprehend Ātman. But it can be understood if taught by a person who has realized his identity with it. It is hidden deep within oneself and can be attained by adhyātmayoga, yoga of inner contemplation.
  • Yama then expounds the art of meditation on the ātman/Brahman with the help of Praṇava or Om. Om is the best symbol for Brahman and also the best means for attaining that Brahman.
  • Ātman/Brahman is smaller than the smallest and greater than the greatest. It is also established in the hearts of all. It can be realized by the pure, calm and controlled mind. One who realizes it goes beyond death and rebirth.
  • The study of the scriptures, encyclopedic knowledge and the retentive power of memory only cannot help in attaining the ātman. The seeker can succeed in his efforts only with an intense desire to know it.
  • Yama also stresses on the importance of a clean moral life and of self-control in this endeavor.

Third Valli

This portion has 17 verses. The teachings of this section can be described as follows:

  • The most important teaching of this section is the allegory of the chariot to describe the jīvātman, the individual soul enmeshed in the body-mind complex. The body is the chariot. The senses are the horses. The mind is the reins. The intellect is the charioteer. The Self is the master of the chariot. The objects of the senses are the road by which the chariot moves.
  • If the horses are controlled by an expert charioteer, he can take the chariot to the right destination. An inefficient charioteer and restive horses will lead the chariot astray into a ditch and endanger the life of its owner.
  • A person in control of his senses through a disciplined mind will reach the final goal of his life, viz., the abode of Viṣṇu (i.e., liberation). A person of impure mind and uncontrolled senses will end up in sansāra or transmigration.
  • The ātman or the Self, also called as ‘puruṣa’ (divine being), is deeply hidden in one’s heart.
  • It can be seen or realized by a person of refined and subtle mind through concentration.
  • To obtain this, one has to awaken to this reality and approach the great spiritual teachers to learn from them.
  • The path that leads to ātman is extremely difficult to tread.

Fourth Valli

This section consists of 15 verses. The points covered in this portion can be briefed as belows:

  • It begins with a fact that our senses always tend to go outwards and consequently we are interested in the outside world.
  • However, some wise persons discover that worth knowing in life is the pratyagātman, the Self within.
  • Hence he turns the gaze of the senses and the mind inwards and realizes himself there.
  • The ignorant and childish persons continue to revel in the outside world of sense-objects and get into the bondage of transmigration.
  • Yama declares that it is possible to realize the ātman through the pure and refined mind.
  • He describes the ātman residing in all the hearts.
  • It is the size of the thumb, since the heart is of that size.
  • He is the lord of the past, present and future because in the ultimate analysis he is Brahman.
  • Once a person realizes this ātman, he becomes united with him just as one pure water mixed with another pure water becomes identical with it.

Fifth Valli

It is the shortest section of whole upaniṣad. It comprises of 15 verses. The preachings of this section can be described as belows:

  • It begins by description of the human body as a pura or city in which the ātman lives.
  • Meditation on ātman delivers one from the bondage of transmigration.
  • It moves every where.
  • It is the sun and the moon.
  • It exists in every object of the universe.
  • It manages the biological functions of the body from inside.
  • It's residence in the body makes it full of life and consciousness.
  • Then there is a description of the transmigration of the un-redeemed souls.
  • Their next lives are determined by their karma, good or bad.
  • If some are reborn as living beings of the higher or the lower type, others may even enter inert objects.
  • Quoting the examples of fire, air and the sun, section describes the Brahman as the inner Self (anta- rātman) of all beings.
  • It seems to appear in different forms, identifies with those forms and also simultaneously exists in his own, outside them.
  • Just as the sun while shining on all the objects, pure and impure, himself remains untainted, Brahman also remains untainted for ever.
  • Only those who realize this ātman/ Brahman, succeed in attaining everlasting peace and not the others.

Sixth Valli

This part has 18 verses. The teachings of this section can be briefed as belows:

  • It sets out with the description of the sansāra vṛkṣa, the tree of the world, in a poetical language.
  • It is an inverted tree with the root above and the branches below.
  • The root of this tree is Brahman.
  • Brahman, also called Prāṇa here, is the origin and power of sustenance of the whole creation.
  • It is so terrific that it strikes fear in all the hearts, functioning as a part of this universe.
  • The sun shines, the fire burns and the wind blows out of his fear.
  • While Indra discharges his duties, Mṛtyu or the god of death just runs away.
  • It urges all the human beings to realize this ātman/Brahman before the fall of the body.
  • It also declares the superiority of the ātman over all the other aspects of the body and mind.
  • It gives a brief account of yoga as self-control and concentration by which the ātman is realized.
  • For this, it is necessary to conquer and destroy all the desires in the mind.
  • Once this is done, man becomes immortal.
  • The realized soul leaves by the nāḍī[5] in the crown of the head, which is connected with the arcirādimārga[6] and goes to Brahmaloka, the Abode of Brahman, never to return again to the mundane existence.
  • For this realization, one must know the art of separating the Self from the body just as the stalk of the muñja grass is drawn out of its sheath.
  • This can be done by a direct experience of the inner Self, the ātman, through the knowledge that he is pure and deathless, immortal.
  • The last verse gives us encouragement and hope and also instills confidence in us.
  • Brahmavidyā and mokṣa or amrtattva[7] were not the special prerogatives of only Naciketas or persons like him who had the courage and conviction to go to the world of Yama and return alive.
  • These qualities are there in all of us, provided we also know the path from competent persons and practice adhyātmayoga properly.


From all the standpoints this Upaniṣad has been quite popular. The philosophical concepts and the practical modes of sādhanā described here are reminiscent of the popular scripture, the Bhagavadgītā.

References

  1. Yama is the god of death.
  2. Ṛgveda 10.135
  3. Taittiriya Brāhmana 3.1.8
  4. Yama, the god of death.
  5. Nāḍī is the subtle tubular structure.
  6. Arcirādimārga is the bright path or the path of light.
  7. Amrtattva is the liberation and immortality.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore