The Katha Upanishad Propounds the Science of God-Realisation and Yoga Practice

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verse 18:  “Thus did Nachiketas with Death for his teacher win the God-knowledge: he learned likewise the whole ordinance of Yoga: thereafter he obtained God and became void of stain and void of death.  So shall another be who comes likewise to the Science of the Spirit.”

The Katha Upanishad declares itself as a teaching for knowledge of God and the practice of Yoga.  After obtaining this teaching, the seeker, Nachiketas was able to attain God-realisation and thereby overcome the control of death, through oneness with the Divine consciousness.  This teaching is not limited to this particular individual, but is open to anyone who puts the teaching into practice.  This is considered to be a “science” and thereby to be reproducible under similar conditions.

Death is indicated as the “teacher”.  Anyone undertaking the spiritual quest eventually has to confront the significance of death.  Wisdom traditions around the world take seekers through various ceremonies, rituals or practices that involve their putting themselves into a status of confronting death.  The outer symbolic meaning of these rites translates to the inner realisation that the seeker must be able to face death.

It is also a reality for practitioners of Yoga that as they move inwards, abandoning the awareness of the outer world and entering into a state of Samadhi, or trance, that they have to abandon the ego-consciousness, which tends to react with fear of death.  In some cases, this causes the seeker to draw back and return awareness to the outer consciousness.  It is only after overcoming this fear, and giving up the attachment to the ego, and the desire-soul of the ego, that the link to other states of consciousness can be effected.

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

The Spirit Within, Seated In the Heart of Creatures

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verse 17:  “The Purusha, the Spirit within, who is no larger than the finger of a man is seated for ever in the heart of creatures: one must separate Him with patience from one’s own body as one separates from a blade of grass its main fibre.  Thou shalt know Him for the Bright Immortal, yea, for the Bright Immortal.”

The divine Spirit inhabits the entire universe, including each living being.  Human beings are distracted by the apparently separate forms of the outer world and fail to recognize the divine presence either within themselves or in the world.  This verse provides a meditation technique to aid the seeker in recognizing the divine Presence.  It is not intended to be a literal statement of “size” but rather as an aid to focusing the concentration.

The seat of the aspiration is in what the scriptural texts call the “secret cave” behind the heart.  They are not describing the physical heart, but the general locale where the concentrated focus of the meditation can most easily recognize the divine Spirit in man.  All outer distractions are removed, the concentration focuses away from the impinging impressions of the senses, and all thought is withdrawn.  The concentration and aspiration are in the heart region, and as the seeker goes ever inwards, he can experience the Presence.  This is not necessarily an easy process, as the seeker must distinguish between the external being and its desires, emotions, impressions and thoughts and this inner divine Spirit, that is one with the Divine manifesting the entire universal creation.  It is likened to separating the main fibre from a blade of grass.

When the seeker eventually is able to identify with and experience this Presence, the overwhelming experience is one of Light, and there is a sense of changeless existence, of Immortality.

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

The Paths of Rebirth

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verse 16:  “A hundred and one are the nerves of the heart, and of all these only one issues out through the head of a man: by this his soul mounts up to its immortal home, but the rest lead him to all sorts and conditions of births in his passing.”

Esoteric yoga psychology identifies numerous channels, called nadis, which act as the carriers of prana in the body.  Prana in this sense is not the “breath” but the energy that enlivens the being and carries out mental action, life and physical activity.  These are subtle channels, separate from the physical nerves and blood vessels.  These subtle channels are connected to the various chakras which are subtle centers where energies are received, sent and distributed throughout the being.  Each chakra has its own characteristic ability to receive and transmit specific types of energies.  When a chakra is “open”, the specific energy associated with that chakra flows, using the nadis as the channels of movement.

Yoga texts speak of innumerable nadis (hundreds of thousands in some cases), but generally focus on a much smaller number of prominent nadis.  The Katha Upanishad, as well as the Prashna Upanishad, refer to 101 of these channels, while yoga practitioners focus on three, the ida, pingala and sushumna.  The sushumna nadi is said to run from the base of the spine up through the top of the head, and remains closed for most people.  Through its activation, the practitioner receives enlightenment, and, as noted in the Upanishad, it is the flow of the prana out of the body at the time of death through the sushumna and the 1000-petaled chakra at the top of the head, that leads to immortality, that is, the unification of the Atman in the individual with the Divine.

If, at the time of death, the life-energy departs through any of the other nadis, the rebirth follows the energy carried by that nadi, related to the corresponding chakra, and rebirth will take place consistent with the energy and direction of that energy.  Thus, someone attached to the sense of power may find his life-essence departing through a nadi associated with the navel chakra and take a suitable birth to follow up and work out that karmic destiny.  Someone attached to sexual energy will similarly find that the next birth continues the process of working out that destiny, with the energy departing through a nadi that carries that energy.  Those who open up the heart chakra and live a life of compassion and caring may similarly find that the life energy departs therefrom and they are reborn in an environment that suits such an energetic direction.  Generally the complex, mixed nature of human life leads to a birth that encompasses a variety of motives and fixations to be addressed.  While the primary chakras are seven in number, there are 101 prominent nadis among potentially hundreds of thousands of nadis in total, creating the ability of a complex action taking into account multiple energetic directions in the path to rebirth.

Thus, the nature, direction and intensity of the prana that acts within a being will determine, at the time of death, the outflow and subsequent result of taking birth in a form that is mixed to one degree or another, unless the flow is directed out through the sushumna and the 1000-petaled chakra at the top of the head, which leads directly to the divine consciousness, and thus, immortality.

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

The Mortal Becomes Immortal

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 14-15:  “When every desire that finds lodging in the heart of man, has been loosened from its moorings, then this mortal puts on immortality: even here he tastes God, in this human body.  Yea, when all the strings of the heart are rent asunder, even here, in this human birth, then the mortal becomes immortal.  This is the whole teaching of the Scriptures.”

When we consider the term “immortality”, it becomes clear that there is considerable confusion in our minds.  Some people equate the idea of immortality with “living forever” and by that, they mean in the body and personality that they currently identify with.  They do not reflect on what this might mean, or how it might be brought about.  They would obviously not expect to stay the same for all time, for if it occurred as a child, or as an aged person, they would not be happy with the result.  Rather, they imagine immortality to mean a human being, in the prime of life, remaining that way continuously throughout time, living for years without end.  The breakdown of the body is not anticipated.  What if we lived forever in a body wracked with pain and suffering?  No one would want to contemplate immortality that way!

Others conceive of immortality as something that occurs as a reward for their religious faith.  They die and eventually will be resurrected, rejoined in their bodily life with their family, and live forever in heaven.  Once again, they conceive of this as something that occurs to an identifable and specific personality with specific relationships.  The mechanism has to be taken “on faith” as we may see the disintegration of the physical bodies in the earth and still believe that somehow the body will be brought back into its prime of life form upon the success of the resurrection.

Still others conceive of immortality differently and consider the physical life in the body to be something like a suit of clothes one puts on, and when it is worn or no longer useful, put off and exchanged for another.  These individuals treat immortality as conscious serial births into new bodies, with a consistent individuality that experiences the changes.

What then do the sages of the Upanishads have to say about immortality.  They equate immortality with overcoming the force of desire and abandoning attachment to the things of the world.  For them, immortality is achieved in this human body through these methods.  The sense is that it is the ego-consciousness that experiences birth, suffering, old age and death and a sense of mortality.  When one has discovered the divine Self within, one is united in Oneness with the Eternal, and thereby participates in the universal manifestation from the divine standpoint, which does not concern itself with any individual personality and its perpetuation.  Immortality is of the soul, not the body.  There is a continuous stream of developing energy in the universe, the manifestation of the Divine, and to the extent the seeker identifies with this, not the individual ego, he experiences the true consciousness of the Divine which is immortal.

When we reflect on the various approaches to the aspiration of humanity for immortality, it becomes clear that the practical people of the world are unable to conceptualize it, while the Rishis and Sages, with their deep reflection and spiritual experience, have found a deep, true and essential meaning that fulfills the human aspiration for immortality.  As the Isha Upanishad proclaims:  “All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion.  By that renounced, thou shouldst enjoy; lust not after any man’s possession.”

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

Perceiving God as the One Existent

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 12-13:  “Not with the mind has man the power to get God, no, nor through speech, nor by the eye.  Unless one says ‘He is’, how can one become sensible of Him?  One must apprehend God in the Concept ‘He is’ and also in His essential: but when he has grasped Him as the ‘Is’, then the essential of God dawns upon a man.”

The Upanishads repeatedly remind us that God cannot be apprehended by the senses, through words, or the action of the mind.  All of these are powers of the external world, and by nature see and categorize everything in a fragmented manner as separate forms, beings, forces and events.  It is easy to find focus on all the differences and pay attention to the interaction of these separate entities when one bases one’s perception and understanding on these outer tools of knowing and acting.

It takes a different type of understanding, a different perception to see and know God.  It is not through a focus on the outer forms that we recognize the reality of the Divine Spirit.  That is why the Upanishads remind us of “neti, neti” (not this, not that) so that we do not get lost in the forms and miss the “forest for the trees” as we might see in our modern language.

It is just this sense of the “forest” consisting of innumerable trees of different size, shape and type, that provides us an example for true understanding.  The trees do not exist without a cause, without a purpose and without a basis.  God is that cause, God is that purpose, God is that basis!  When we shift our view away from the fragmented view of the mind, the senses and the linear expressions of speech, toward the unifying factor that pervades, contains, creates, and is the constituent basis of all that exists, then only can we perceive God as all, in all and beyond each and every specific manifestation.

All this is the Brahman, but if we try to grasp any particular thing, we limit the Divine.  One without a second is true, and does not thereby negate the existence of the innumerable forms and forces we see around us.  When we understand that the mental power is unable to encompass God’s reality, then we can begin to experience the “the Truth, the Right, the Vast” that is God’s reality.

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

The State of Awareness Called Yoga

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 10-11:  “When the five senses cease and are at rest and the mind rests with them and the higher mind ceases from its workings, that is the highest state, say thinkers.  The state unperturbed when the senses are imprisoned in the mind, of this they say ‘It is Yoga.’  Then man becomes very vigilant, for Yoga is the birth of things and their ending. (Shankara interprets, ‘as Yoga has a beginning (birth) so has it an ending’.  But this is not what the Sruti says.)

Particularly in the West, the concept of Yoga is associated with physical exercises of various sorts, called Asanas.  In India, however, this branch of the science, called Hatha Yoga, is a preliminary step toward the actual deeper practice of bringing the mind and awareness to a state of stillness and luminous receptivity so that the consciousness can link up, or join (Yoga means union or joining) the universal, divine consciousness.  The first step is to bring stillness to the body as otherwise it is sending nervous impulses to the brain that impede the calm, quiet status of the mind.  At a certain stage, between physical stillness and an indrawn focused awareness, a “concentration of conscious force” as Sri Aurobindo has elsewhere described the concept of “tapas” or “tapasya”, the “mind stuff” becomes calm and is able to reflect a higher luminous awareness without distortions.  This is called, in Raja Yoga, as explained by Swami Vivekananda, “Pratyahara”, He notes: “He who has succeeded in attaching or detaching his mind to or from the centres at will has succeeded in Pratyahara, which means, ‘gathering towards’, checking the outgoing powers of the mind, freeing it from the thraldom of the senses.” (Swami Vivekananda, Raja Yoga, pg. 73)

The state of “yoga” is not one of dullness but one of a heightened state of concentrated awareness.  The status of calming the “mind-stuff” (chitta) allows the awareness to move beyond the limitations of mental process and the distractions of nervous impulses from the sense organs.  Yogins call the ultimate state of hyper-aware inner-directed consciousness “samadhi” and it is from that state that they realise their Oneness with the divine consciousness and are able to see existence from this other viewpoint.

The final statement here “Yoga is the birth of things and their ending” has provided difficulty for traditional commentators such as Shankara who modified the sense to fit his notion.  Sri Aurobindo points out that Shankara’s interpretation does not hold up.  So let us look at the literal translation of the passage as translated by Sri Aurobindo.  When we recognise that Yoga is the union with the divine consciousness, we realise that the standpoint of the person in a state of Yoga is one that encompasses all of creation and transcends creation.  Thus, literally, from that status, the birth and death of all things in the world is encompassed.

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

Stages for Apprehending God

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verse 9:  “God has not set His body within the ken of seeing, neither does any man with the eye behold Him, but to the heart and the mind and the super-mind He is manifest.  Who know Him are the immortals.”

The physical senses perceive external forms.  We fixate on the form and not the essence or content implied behind or within the form.  The eye stops with the form and cannot therefore see the inner reality that exists.  It is a tool of receiving impulses, not a tool of understanding the implications of what it experiences.

The Upanishad therefore indicates that it is not the physical senses that can recognize God, but to the interpretive and understanding parts of the being that receive the sense perceptions and can add knowledge or understanding to the raw impulse reception, as well as gain knowledge directly through faculties and standpoints not directly reliant on the sense organs.  Thus, the “heart” is referenced.  Spiritual experience as declared in the Upanishads repeatedly has the seat of the Atman, the soul, behind the heart.  The “heart” provides relationship and a directness of understanding.  The “heart” can know the reality through a sense of identity and oneness that it brings to the interaction, as the soul is the being of the Divine consciousness manifested in the individual.

The mind can go beyond the raw sense impressions as well, although it has its own limitations.  The super-mind is the next level or power of knowing beyond the mind and it is able to both see the external forms and their purpose, as well as the inner reality that causes and is embodied through those forms.  Each successive level of attainment moves the being away from external forms of knowing reliant on sense impressions and the interpretation of those impressions, toward “knowledge by identity” which cuts through the impressions of the outer forms.  The highest form of knowing comes through this knowledge by identity, which is the status of those who are called “Immortals” because they have shifted from the ego-based consciousness of the individual focused on outer forms to the divine standpoint where they no longer are troubled by birth, life and death as traumatic events of an individual, but experience the process through the universal manifestation and the transcendence of Time-based experience.

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

The Hierarchy of Awareness

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 6-8: “The calm soul having comprehended the separateness of the senses and the rising of them and their setting and their separate emergence, puts from him pain and sorrow.  The mind is higher than the senses, and higher than the mind is the genius, and above the genius is the Mighty Spirit, and higher than the Mighty One is the Unmanifested.  But highest above the Unmanifested is the Purusha who pervades all and alone has no sign nor feature.  Mortal man knowing Him is released into immortality.”

A number of Upanishads make the points raised here, albeit with slightly different wording.  The senses constantly send impulses to the brain for processing and attention.  For most people, this means they are constantly reacting to outer things and external events.  Their minds are turned outwards based on attending to the senses.  The “calm soul”, the individual who is centered within, does not allow the senses to dominate his perception of existence.  There are numerous methods for bringing about the change from sense-dominated to inner-centered awareness, which are discussed in the spiritual and psycho-spiritual literature from all around the world.  Patanjali discussed this issue at length in his Yoga Sutras.  Swami Vivekananda in his lectures on Raja Yoga delved deeply into this issue.  Once the linkage between the outer sense impressions and the calm mind has been dissolved, the impressions no longer have the power to create “pain and sorrow”.

The second verse here sets forth a hierarchy of awareness.  People will generally agree that the mind is higher than the senses, as it incorporates all of the input from the senses, which after all, are not independent actors nor decision-making elements, while it coordinates, analyzes, categorizes and responds.  Where the Upanishad goes beyond the mind, however, we are dealing with experiential levels that many people have not consciously experienced, or if experienced, understood.  This is where the Upanishads provide real insight into levels of consciousness that represent the internal shift from the ego-centered individual relying on the mind and the senses, to the divine-based awareness that transcends the ego-consciousness.

The first step beyond is what Sri Aurobindo translates as “the genius”.  This is a translation of the terminology “sattvam uttamam”, which could also be literally translated as supreme clarity or light.  Other Upanishads use terminology such as “vijnana” for this next stage of awareness, which generally can be translated to mean, “Knowledge Consciousness” or Reasoning Intelligence.  Beyond this stage is the “Mighty Spirit” which is a translation of the term “mahat” .  In this case, the awareness goes beyond the individual to a wide, and vast consciousness that encompasses the universal creation, and in which, when the attention is turned in a particular direction, anything can be known, not through sense perception or analytical function of the mind, but directly.  Beyond this stage is the “Unmanifest” the Akshara Purusha, which is the goal of those who renounce all commerce with the life of the world and the action of the senses.  Beyond this is the Supreme Purusha, which the Bhagavad Gita calls the “Purushottama”, which encompasses both the unmanifest and the manifest within its one, omnipresent, reality.

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

States of Apprehending the Divine

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 4-5:  “If in this world of men and before thy body fall from thee, thou wert able to apprehend it, then thou availest for embodiment in the worlds that He creates.  In the self one sees God as in a mirror, but as in a dream; in the world of the Fathers: and as in water one sees the surface of an object, so one sees Him in the world of the Gandharvas.  But He is seen as light and shade in the heaven of the Spirit.”

Verse 4 focuses on the result of a shift to the divine standpoint while embodied in this world.  This shift makes it possible for the soul to take birth in any world or plane of existence in the entire manifestation, as the soul is then consciously united with the Divine and thus, shares the same capacity of manifestation.  The divine standpoint provides the ultimate freedom to the soul in the creation.

Verse 5 describes the mode of perception of God in various states of existence.  For those whose gaze is directed outwards, they do not perceive God in the external forms generally.  If they turn their gaze inwards to the inner self, they quiet the mind-stuff, quell the perceptions of the senses, and they can then reflect the apprehension of God as in a mirror.  The world of the fathers, the ancestors if you will, is one that honors the working of karma through the chain of cause and effect, as the ancestors and their actions in the past cause our current existence and the actions of the present.  The perception of God in this realm therefore is as in a dream, as it flows and changes and does not take on a definitive form, thus impossible to grasp solidly.  The Gandharvas are heavenly beings who live in a space beyond the physical world, what we may call a vital or astral plane of existence.  The vision of God in this realm is as seeing an object in water, which can be either extremely clear in calm water, or distorted and broken up into facets in moving or disturbed water.  In the “heaven of the Spirit” God is perceived as light and shade.  Light is the constant symbol of the Divine throughout the world and the ability to perceive the distinction between light and darkness implies a clearer vision of the distinction between the Divine in its true form and the darkness of our outer state of fragmentation and separation from the source.

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

The Terror of the Consciousness of Separateness

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, Second Cycle: Third Chapter, Verses 2-3:  “All this universe of motion moves in the Prana and from the Prana also it proceeded: a mighty terror is He, yea, a thunderbolt uplifted.  Who know Him, are the immortals.  For fear of Him the Fire burns: for fear of Him the Sun gives heat: for fear of Him Indra and Vayu and Death hasten in their courses.”

The Prana referred to here is not the individual Prana, or breath, but the universal Prana, the cosmic breath, the cosmic motion that vibrates in the ether and brings forth the forms and dissolves them.  The process of the manifestation involves the action of Prakriti, what is called elsewhere Para-Prakriti, the supreme Nature.

The Upanishads distinguish between the “knowers of Brahman” who are considered to be the “immortals” and the various separative forms and forces, including the universal forces such as fire, sun, wind and the action of death.  The Kena Upanishad shows that the universal forces do not recognise the One, but attribute their power to themselves.  The Taittiriya Upanishad emphasizes that recognizing even the slightest difference from the One is a cause for terror.  The “immortals”, the “knowers of Brahman” do not have this fear as they see Oneness, but until that realisation is achieved, there is fear.  Fear motivates movement or action, and thus, in the diversified forms of the universal creation, it is a power of putting the processes into motion.

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