The Self Is the Knower of Our Experience of the Outer World

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: First Chapter, Verse 3:  “By the Self one knows form and taste and smell, by the Self one knows sound and touch and the joy of man with woman: what is there left in this world of which the Self not knows? This is That thou seekest.”

This verse explores who the “Knower” is in the process of knowing.  We experience the outer world through the perceptions of the senses which convert the impressions into nervous impulses which are received by the brain.  This is all physical instrumentation and process of action, but does not tell us “who knows” what has been experienced.  Western philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, explored this process and determined “I think, therefore I am.”  They thereby considered the ego-consciousness and the mind to be the “knower”.  The sages of the Upanishads took this process further.  They recognized that there must be something beyond the action of the mind and the ego that is essential to the ability to “know”, as these are secondary tools, not primary, in the larger creation.  Where do the mind and the ego come from?  Where do they get their powers?  How are they born?  How do they exist?  What happens when they dissolve with the death of the individual?  Is there something that survives the death of the body?  It is this type of questions that led the sages to go further.

The existence of a Soul, Self, or Atman has been explored by seekers, through spiritual and religious experience and through deep internal self-examination throughout the ages.  Sages such as Ramana Maharshi posed the question “Who am I?”  When we eliminate the body; when we eliminate the life force; when we eliminate the mind; when we eliminate the ego-consciousness, what remains and knows?  The Upanishads speak of the two birds on a common tree, or as in this verse, the Knower who experiences all the sensory stimuli of the world.  The seeking of the Self and identification with the Self occurs when the individual turns his attention inward, away from the outer world, to identify who really exists and knows.  Eventually the Self is identified with the universal Knower:  “The spirit who is here in man, and the spirit who is there in the sun, it is one spirit and there is no other.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129


Distinguishing the Outer Life from the Inner Life of the Soul

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: First Chapter, Verses 1-2: “Yama speaks: ‘The Self-born has set the doors of the body to face outwards, therefore the soul of man gazes outward and not at the Self within: hardly a wise man here and there, desiring immortality, turns his eyes inward and sees the Self within him.  The rest childishly follow after desire and pleasure and walk into the snare of Death that gapes wide for them.  But calm souls having learned of immortality seek not for permanence in the things of this world that pass and are not.”

From the moment a child is born, he is subjected to sensory impressions from the outer world.  As he grows and develops, socialization within the family, the school, the community and the religious institutions encourages him to focus on achieving results in the outer world, fulfilling desires and ambitions, and living a life of outward success.  Very little focus is provided, other perhaps than through religious instruction, on any significance to his life that varies from the markers of outer success.  And while religious instruction may counsel tempering the fulfillment of desires with prudence, accepted norms of action and the potential impact of cause and effect on the results of this lifetime and potential future existence, it does not necessarily involve any real introspection or examination of any deeper purpose or significance to life.  It can get to the point where many will accept the “materialist denial” and say that there is no deeper significance to life, and that we should “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

None of this, however, addresses any deeper significance of purpose for our existence and once in a while, an individual wakes up to this fact, and begins to turn his gaze inward, responding to promptings that let him know that fulfillment of desires and ambition, and focus solely on the objects perceived by the senses, are not the entire meaning of life.  Then the individual goes on a vision quest, seeks out sages, practices inner contemplation and meditation, takes up religious practices of various sorts in order to gain an understanding of both his own inner psychological being and the greater meaning of the universal creation.  Sometimes, like the Buddha, they abandon their worldly wealth and life to take up a life of contemplation and recognize that life as ordinarily lived is tied to birth, disease, old age and death, all of them inclusive of suffering.  The Upanishads show us, similarly, that there is another level of awareness available to the seeker, one that transcends the worldly life of desire and sense-perception, and that provides real meaning and significance to life.

The Upanishads remind us that “day” for the ordinary existence is “night” for the seeker of the Truth of existence.  The seeker sees and acts from a different standpoint and reaches the spiritual truth that creates, upholds and transcends the world, and that exists eternally in a silence, awareness and bliss that is not subject to the suffering of worldly life.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The Successive Levels of Realisation Through the Process of Meditation

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 13-15:  “Let the wise man restrain speech in his mind and mind in Self, and knowledge in the Great-Self, and that again let him restrain in the Self that is at peace.  Arise, awake, find out the great ones and learn of them: for sharp as a razor’s edge, hard to traverse, difficult of going is that path, say the sages.  That in which sound is not, nor touch, nor shape, nor diminution, nor taste, nor smell, that which is eternal, and It is without end or beginning, higher than the Great-Self, the Stable, that having seen, from the mouth of death there is deliverance.

Meditation is a practice that withdraws attention from the objects of senses and brings about the silencing of the mental process, not through dullness, but through concentrated awareness.  The normal circumstance for human beings is to have a dialogue going on in the mind, thoughts running through like a “sound-track”.  Bringing this sound-track under control is the first stage and brings quiet to the mind.  This allows the being to become aware of the Soul or Atman, the Self within.  This brings about the awareness of the level of “knowledge” but this too must be quieted into the awareness of the “Great-Self”, the Kshara Purusha, the being in manifestation.  The next stage is to quiet even this level in the Akshara Purusha, the immutable Being that is at peace, uninvolved in the activities of the world.

All the sense perceptions, sight, sound, smell, touch and taste must be brought to a state of quiescence.  The universal manifestation is also left behind in this status.  There is only a sense of endless and infinite peace and unmoving awareness.

It is not easy to achieve these levels of conscious awareness and an individual attempting to do it on his own will face many wrong-turns, inaccurate interpretations, misplaced focus, as well as distractions and temptations.  This is where the benefit of an experienced enlightened sage can be of inestimable value to the seeker.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The Ladder of Awareness

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 10-12:  “Than the senses the objects of sense are higher: and higher than the objects of sense is the Mind: and higher than the Mind is the faculty of knowledge: and than that the Great-Self is higher.  And higher than the Great-Self is the Unmanifest and higher than the Unmanifest is the Purusha: than the Purusha there is none higher: He is the culmination, He is the highest goal of the journey.  He is the secret Self in all existences and does not manifest Himself to the vision: yet is He seen by the seers of the subtle by a subtle and perfect understanding.”

Most people, trained to look upon the subjectivity of our ego-consciousness as higher than the objects in the outer world in terms of awareness, would reverse the order noted here that the “objects of senses” are higher than the senses themselves.  Those who see the outer world as an illusion, certainly have a difficulty in assigning a higher place to the objects of the senses than to the senses.  Even those in the West, who believe in material culture, however, tend to place a higher value on the subjective experience, as we see with philosophers such as Rene Descartes indicating “I think, therefore I am.”  The senses are important instruments of the mental action, and thus, rank higher than what they perceive, from this viewpoint.

Looked at from another viewpoint, however, this order makes sense.  The senses are specifically related to the individual human being, providing a connection between that individual form and the universal manifestation.  From the perspective of the divine, however, the universal manifestation and its forms would be higher than any individual’s perception of it.  Mind, which is not limited by the individual form, but represents a universal awareness, is then higher than the objects of the senses, and from there the power of Reason, the “faculty of knowledge” is higher.  The Great Self is the universal consciousness in manifestation, the Kshara Purusha and beyond this is the unmanifest, the Akshara Purusha.  Beyond both the manifest and the unmanifest is what the Gita calls the Purushottama, the Supreme consciousness that embodies, and transcends both the manifest and the unmanifest.

As long as we turn our focus on the gross manifestations of the world, relying on the senses to observe and experience the objects of the senses, we are unable to experience consciously this ultimate transcendent consciousness.  As we quiet the mind and withdraw the senses, the possibility of experiencing the transcendent awareness that creates, maintains, permeates and upholds all arises.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The Chariot and the Charioteer

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 3-9:  “Know the body for a chariot and the soul for the master of the chariot: know Reason for the charioteer and the mind for the reins only.  The senses they speak of as the steeds and the objects of sense as the paths in which they move; and One yoked with Self and the mind and the senses is the enjoyer, say the thinkers.  Now he that is without knowledge with his mind ever unapplied, his senses are to him as wild horses and will not obey their driver of the chariot.  But he that has knowledge with his mind ever applied, his senses are to him as noble steeds and they obey the driver.  Yea, he that is without knowledge and is unmindful and is ever unclean, reaches not that goal, but wanders in the cycle of phenomena.  But he that has knowledge and is mindful and pure always, reaches that goal whence he is not born again.  That man who uses the mind for reins and the knowledge for the driver, reaches the end of his road, that highest seat of Vishnu.”

The imagery of the chariot and the charioteer to describe the relationship of the soul to the mind and the senses is a famous one that appears in both the texts of India and in the West.   The verses here are very clear and straightforward and speak for themselves.  It is important to note that the One is described as “yoked” with the Self and is the “enjoyer”.  This underlines the Upanishadic view that there is one Spirit in the universe that is present both in the human being and in the rest of the manifested universe.  The application of the powers of Reason, mind and the senses in furtherance of a dedicated life that eventually overcomes the bonds of death is highlighted as well.  Those who are not heedful and who are constantly in a state of distraction are doomed to wander in the ever-changing landscape of the world of illusion, called variously maya or samsara.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The Unity of the Atman and the Supreme Being Through the Action of the Fires of Sacrifice

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 1-2: “Yama speaks: ‘There are two that drink deep of the truth in the world of work well-accomplished: they are lodged in the secret plane of being and in the highest kingdom of the most High is their dwelling: as of light and shade the knowers of the Brahman speak of them, and those of the five fires and those who kindle thrice the fire of Nachiketas.  May we have strength to kindle Agni Nachiketas, for he is the bridge of those who do sacrifice and he is Brahman supreme and imperishable, and the far shore of security to those who would cross this ocean.’ ”

There is little doubt that these verses speak to esoteric concepts that have their origin in the Veda, and that required considerable background and orientation for the seeker to get to the true sense being communicated.  We can however hopefully find the right direction for understanding this material.  The two that are basically joined in the world of manifestation are referenced elsewhere as two birds on a common tree, and represent the individual Atman, or soul, and the universal Divine, or the Kshara and Akshara Purushas, the manifest and the unmanifest.  The light and shade are references to what other Upanishads may call the higher and the lower knowledge, which provide knowledge of the Brahman as well as knowledge of the outer world of manifestation.

The five fires is a reference to what is called the “Pancha Agni” sacrifice, which commentators for the most part identify as being about creation, focused on the earth, mid-world (vital world) and the heaven, bhur, bhuva, swar, matter, life and mind, as well as man and woman.  Sacrifice has not only an outer sense of a ritual in the vedic tradition, but as Sri Aurobindo has shown, carries an esoteric meaning of the inner aspiration, the fire of concentrated energy, tapasya.

The three fires of Nachiketas are generally recognized to represent the aspiration or concentrated energy at the level of the physical, vital and mental planes of activity.  To achieve the transition to the divine standpoint from the human egoistic standpoint, all aspects of our human existence need to be taken up and need to respond to the change.  Through the integral aspiration at all levels of the being, the transition from the ego to the divine viewpoint takes place, and at that point, the individual and the Supreme are unified.

There are alternative readings to these verses due to the ancient language and references, but the general sense seems to prevail across the different specific interpretations.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Preparing the Being for the Knowledge of Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Chapter, Second Cycle, Verses 23-25:  “The Self is not to be won by eloquent teaching, nor by brain power, nor by much learning: but only he whom this Being chooses can win Him; for to him this Self bares His body.  None who has not ceased from doing evil, or who is not calm, or not concentrated in his being, or whose mind has not been tranquillised, can by wisdom attain to Him.  He to whom the sages are as meat and heroes as food for his eating and Death is an ingredient of His banquet, how thus shall one know of Him where He abides?”

It is important to recognize that instead of simply answer Nachiketas’ request for his third boon, Yama has engaged in a lengthy discussion of the process of knowing, and the methodology required to know Brahman, which differs from the process of sense perception and analysis used by the mind to understand the manifested world around us.  The Upanishad makes clear that the usual tools and processes of knowledge we use in examining and responding to the outer world are not going to succeed in knowing Brahman; yet it also makes clear that knowing Brahman is indeed possible.  This implies a different type of knowing, a knowledge by identity rather than an intellectual understanding or marshaling of details and facts in an organized format suitable for the application of logic and reason.  It is also implied, therefore, that the answer to the third boon requires a different type of knowing and preparation by the seeker.  It is not going to be a mental understanding.

The Upanishad also makes clear that the Brahman is not to be won by human effort.  When the psyche becomes tranquil, focused and receptive, a shift that brings about an identity with the Brahman can occur.  A desire-filled vital being, a clamoring physical body, or an ambitious mind creates too many “waves” in the “mind-stuff” (chitta), so that there is no chance of a clear reflection.  These create interference in the ability of the being to shift to a different standpoint.  Many commentators try to make this into a moral commentary about not doing evil, but the intention is not so much one of following a specific set of moral rules (which vary from culture to culture) as in eliminating movements that “stir up” the mind-stuff and create turbulence in the being.  The sages recognized that the action of desire is disruptive, so that the path of true knowledge lies in preparing the entire being to receive and reflect without the perturbations caused through interference by the promptings of body, life and mind.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Consciousness Pervades and Transcends All the Forms of Existence

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad First Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 20-22:  “Finer than the fine, huger than the huge the Self hides in the secret heart of the creature: when a man strips himself of will and is weaned from sorrow, then he beholds Him; purified from the mental elements he sees the greatness of the Self-being.  Seated He journeys far off, lying down He goes everywhere.  Who other than I is fit to know God, even Him who is rapture and the transcendence of rapture?  Realising the Bodiless in bodies, the Established in things unsettled, the Great and Omnipresent Self, the wise and steadfast soul grieves no longer.”

Modern-day scientists have struggled with the application of Quantum theory, which govens sub-atomic particles, to real life events in the outer world.  Some years ago, however, a breakthrough was reported.  It seems that scientists could not determine how things could happen unless there was a “mechanism” for it to happen.  That mechanism would have to involve the transmission, not just of energy but also of information.  The development of the concept of the Quantum Hologram, and the experiments that supported these concepts, showed that information was delivered along with the packets of energy.

This opened the door to the next step beyond the conversion of matter and energy, as set forth by Einstein.  This opened up the idea that the energy is conscious.  Consciousness is One and universal, consciousness pervades all that exists in the universe, each physical form partakes of consciousness.  There is a dual-track of information.  The forms and forces we see with our senses of perception are the gross manifestation.  There is a subtle communication of consciousness that pervades and is perceived, not by the outer senses, but by the inner being, “in the secret heart of the creature” as the Upanishad aptly explains it.

The scientists also determined that consciousness is not restricted to one particular being or form, but pervades everything.  This implies that information moves without regard to limits of time or space, and that if an individual is “receptive” and has “tuned” to the wave of information, he can know things that are not obvious to the outer senses.  The explanation provided by the Katha Upanishad in these verses fits what these scientists have now discovered through their attempt to understand quantum theory on a universal basis.

The practices of the Rishis and Sages were intended to hone in on the pervasive consciousness of existence, that also transcends all the forms and forces that manifest.  Science is now catching up and recognizing there is a real truth to the Upanishadic descriptions.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Not Born, Neither Does He Die

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 18-19:  “The Wise One is not born, neither does He die: He came not from anywhere, neither is He anyone: He is unborn, He is everlasting, He is ancient and sempiternal: He is not slain in the slaying of the body.  If the slayer things that he slays, if the slain thinks that he is slain, both of these have not the knowledge.  This slays not, neither is He slain.”

Yama’s response to Nachiketas’ request for his third boon has thus far taken a circuitous route through practices we would call Yoga and meditation, the preparation of the body, life and mind for a shift of standpoint from the ego to the divine.  It continues now with a series of statements about the characteristics of the Divine which show the inability of the mental consciousness to grasp the Eternal and Absolute.  It becomes clear that a mental intellectual explanation is not going to provide the answer Nachiketas is seeking.  The only path forward for him is to actually make the shift of consciousness, and Yama is providing the guidance.  It is only from this new standpoint that the truth about life and death and what happens after death of the body can be fully appreciated and understood.

From the human perspective, we experience birth and death.  We can observe the death of the human body and the dissolution of the elements.  We see the life force leave the body, we see the mental capacity disappear with the dissolution of the physical body and the life energy.  These verses open up the question of what survives the death of the body, and what our lives are all about.  Certainly the egoistic viewpoint cannot make the statements here.  Birth, life and death are all very real from that standpoint.

The sages provide examples to help move the understanding to the correct standpoint.  If one fills a glass with water and then submerges the glass in a bucket of water, we see that water is inside and outside the glass.  the water flows in and out of the glass and is indistinguishable from the water outside the glass.  if the glass is broken, the water remains one and unaffected by the “death” of the glass.

One can go further however than just addressing the continuity and all-inclusiveness of the life force.  We experience conscious awareness.  The divine standpoint indicates that the universe itself is the manifestation of a consciousness that is aware, intelligent and self-manifesting.  The Atman, or soul, in the individual is one with the divine Spirit.  “The Spirit who is here in man, and the Spirit who is there in the sun, is one Spirit and there is no other.” (Taittiriya Upanishad)

Whether or not the container, the mind, life and body, of an individual lives or dies, the Spirit remains one and unified.  It does not die with the death of the body.  It is not born with the birth of a body.  It takes on these forms to carry out the manifestation of the universal creation, and it changes these forms constantly without losing its continuity or its oneness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

OM: The Mystic Sound of the Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle: Second Chapter, Verses 15-17:  “Yama speaks: ‘The seat and goal that all the Vedas glorify and which all austerities declare, for the desire of which men practice holy living, of That will I tell thee in brief compass.  OM is that goal, O Nachiketas.  For this Syllable is Brahman, this Syllable is the Most High: this Syllable if one know, whatsoever one shall desire, it is his.  This support is the best, this support is the highest, knowing this support one grows great in the world of the Brahman.’ ”

The Katha Upanishad, in 3 verses, takes up the significance of the mystic syllable OM.  This is a very abbreviated treatment compared to the more extensive one in the Mandukya Upanishad.

OM, or AUM is declared to be Brahman.  Some commentators note that it is the “sound of the universe”, the combined sound that all creation makes.  The physical senses and the mind work to separate and distinguish individual sounds and in so doing, they do not attend to the harmony of the combined sound and vibratory impulse of the entire created universe.  Recitation of OM brings about a state of quiescence of the mind that allows a wider and deeper knowledge to take root and grow in the being.

It is more than a symbol of the Brahman, it is the “sound-body” of the Brahman.  By meditating on the syllable OM, one aligns oneself with the Brahman and with the creation.  The letters A U M are said to relate to the 3 states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep consciousness, and combined together to Turiya, the transcendent consciousness that encompasses all.  The three states  represent the awareness of the soul, not simply states of the physical being.

When the seeker recites this Mantra, the being is brought to a state of peaceful yet concentrated awareness in alignment with the consciousness of Brahman, leading to a state of “knowledge by identity”.  This is the underlying meaning of the term Brahmacharya, action that aligns with the consciousness of the Brahman.  It implies the absence of egoistic desire.  It is in the state of pure conscious awareness manifesting the entire universal creation, yet not seeking any specific individual fruit or result, that is created by and represented by the syllable OM.  When one absorbs the vibration of OM in one’s awareness, one approaches and eventually one becomes one with the Brahman.

An experiment using kirlian photography some years ago showed “before and after” effects of chanting OM.  The energy radiating out of the fingertips of the subject was dramatically enhanced through chanting of this Mantra compared to the “before” images.  The energy alignment the seeker experiences can be clearly recorded by external instrumentation.  Peace, harmony and balance result from chanting OM.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129