Introduction to the Katha Upanishad: Death, Life and the Meaning of Existence

The Katha Upanishad addresses some of the questions that most perplex humanity, questions surrounding the meaning of death, the purpose of life, whether anything survives death, and if so, what that is and how the process functions.  The mystery of birth, life and death has been at the center of human speculation about existence since mankind began to reflect on life.  Different religious traditions have posed a vast array of answers, from the idea of bodily resurrection in some future life, to the idea that there is nothing of the individual that survives and that body, life and mind simply dissolve into their universal elements, and virtually every possible explanation between these two extremes.  Philosophies have been developed, and life strategies have evolved based on how an individual resolves these questions internally.  Those who do not accept the reality of an after-life or rebirth may take the approach of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”.  Others strive to live according to certain principles in order to attain a heavenly reward.  While still others seek to understand a mechanism of rebirth that is directed by the focus of the soul and its instruments during life and through the process of death.  There remains, however, always the doubt about what lies “beyond”.

The Katha Upanishad wades into these questions by directly confronting Yama, the Lord of Death (and the Law of Life) to seek the answers.  There is both an outer response, and an inner, esoteric significance to the Upanishad.  Sri Aurobindo translated the Katha Upanishad but did not provide a commentary.  Sri T.V. Kapali Sastry, a noted disciple of Vasishta Ganapati Muni and Sri Aurobindo, however, wrote a significant commentary which will be highly beneficial to our review.

The Katha Upanishad adopts the story of Nachiketas entering the abode of death and being granted 3 boons by Yama as the mechanism for addressing these various questions.  The story did not originate with the Katha Upanishad, although it built up this aspect significantly.  Kapaly Sastry defines the significance of the 3 boons as, first, “connection between this life and the life beyond”; second, “knowledge of the divine being presiding over the cosmos”; and third, “death, survival, immortality.”  The story line can be understood as a parable of the soul and the outer being.  The outer being is focused on achieving results, the fruits of its efforts, either here in this world, or in another world after death.  The soul aspires to a deeper understanding that is not fixated on earthly or heavenly rewards.

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