By Swami Harshananda
The Kena Upaniṣad is considered ancient and second most important Upaniṣad among the ten most important Upaniṣads. It derives its name from the first word, ‘kena’ with which it begins. Since it belongs to the Talavakāra Brāhmana of the Sāmaveda, it is also known as the Talavakāra Upanisad. The talavakāra-s were those who could sing the Sāmans with tāla or keep time with regular beats of hand.
It has four khaṇḍas or sections. The first two section are in poetry and the last two are in prose. The total number of verses is 35.
The Upaniṣad starts with a question by an inquiring disciple, whether there is any entity behind the sense-organs like the ear or the organ of speech or even the mind that impels them to work. The teacher replies that there is entity behind it. That entity is the eye of the eye, the ear of the ear, the speech of the speech and the mind of the mind. They are able to function because of his presence and power. They do not know him whereas he knows them all. He is Brahman. It is almost impossible to impart the knowledge concerning him to others since his characteristics are beyond the comprehension of the senses and the mind.
Since Brahman is the ātman in us and our very Self, he is the real knower of all that is known through the senses and the mind. It itself is not an object of knowledge which one can never say that one has known him nor not known him. Awareness of Brahman is felt at every moment of our life. It is only the direct experience of this ātman that gives us real strength and immortality. If one misses the grand opportunity given through the human birth for getting that experience and immortality through it, it is a terrible loss. This is the gist of the teaching of the second section.
The third section teaches through an interesting story that Brahman is supreme. Even the gods in heaven, like Indra and Agni could win their battles against the asuras or demons only because of the power imparted to them by him. They were taught this bitter lesson after being humiliated by Brahman disguised as a yakṣa, a demigod, which was far inferior to them.
The fourth section is a continuation of the teachings of the third segment. Goddess Umā Haimavati teaches Indra, the king of the gods in this section. Brahman who appeared before Indra just for a moment like lightning is also the ātman, the Self in every one of us. One has to meditate upon him as ‘tadvana,’ ‘the one who is highly desirable’. This is understandable since ‘he’ is really ‘me’. One who realizes him will therefore be liked by all beings.
The Upaniṣad ends with the declaration of the means of attaining Brahman. The means of attaining Brahman are:
- Tapas - austerity
- Dama - self- control
- Karma - works and duties ordained by the scriptures
The study of the Vedas and their subsidiary sciences and satya or truth is described in details. One who realizes Brahman by these means gets rid of his sins and is established in ‘svargaloka’.
- Kena means ‘by whom’.
- Svargaloka is the world of Brahman.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore