Katha Upanishad

Kaṭha Upaniṣad

by Swami Nirvikarananda | 119,635 words

The first chapter contains the story of Naciketas and Yama; the second chapter teaches the path to liberation; the third chapter relates to Jivatma and the Paramatma; the fourth to sixth chapters contain the conclusion and verses on rebirth. The Katha Upanishad is one of the mukhya (primary) Upanishads and is also notable for first introducing th...

In the previous canto we left Yama and Nachiketa facing each other, Nachiketa expecting the answer from Yama to his question about the truth about the Hereafter. Yama had tested Nachiketa variously and had found him unwavering in his passion for truth. We have seen the beautiful verses describing the severe testing of the student by the teacher, the firm rejection by the student of all the alluring alternatives offered to him by way of profit, pleasure, power, and long life, and his sticking to his original boon of being granted the light of truth.

The first chapter, as we saw, concluded with this firm resolve on the part of Nachiketa:

नान्यं तस्मान्नचिकेता वृणीते

nānyaṃ tasmānnaciketā vṛṇīte

No other boon, therefore, than this shall Nachiketa choose.

Nachiketa never wavered even once. He illustrates in its highest and purest form what the Gita (II.41) calls vyavasāyatmikā buddhi, one-pointed determination. He illustrates the type of character that is emphasized in Vedanta. This discloses a mind that seeks truth and nothing but the truth: it is prepared to face suffering, privation, and even death itself in the bargain. It found expression in a later age in Buddha’s resolve on his meditation seat on the eve of his enlightenment, as vividly described by the Lalitavistara (XIX. 57):

इहासने शुष्यतु मे शरीरम्
त्वगस्थिमांसं विलयं च यातु ।
अप्राप्य बोधिं बहुकल्पदुर्लभाम्
नैवासनात् कायामतः चलिष्यते ॥

ihāsane śuṣyatu me śarīram
tvagasthimāṃsaṃ vilayaṃ ca yātu |
aprāpya bodhiṃ bahukalpadurlabhām
naivāsanāt kāyāmataḥ caliṣyate ||

Let my body wither away on this seat,
let, skin, bone, and flesh get dissolved;
Without getting enlightenment,
difficult to achieve in many aeons,
Never shall this body move from this seat.

This, too, is the spiritual earnestness which Jesus upholds when he says (Matthew vii, 7 and 8):

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.


The Paths of Shreya and Preya

Yama is highly pleased with Nachiketa; he finds in him a fit student of Atmavidya, the science of the Self. With the second Chapter of the Katha Upanishad, in to the study of which we now enter, we are introduced to a fascinating exposition of this science, which is the science of all sciences, an exposition given by Yama to Nachiketa and by both to humanity at large. Yama begins his exposition with a pointed reference to the good life as the ethical precondition to spiritual striving and realization:

अन्यच्छ्रेयोऽन्यदुतैव प्रेय-
स्ते उभे नानार्थे पुरुषं सिनीतः ।
तयोः श्रेय आददानस्य साधु-
र्भवति हीयतेऽर्थाद्य उ प्रेयो वृणीते ॥

anyacchreyo'nyadutaiva preya-
ste ubhe nānārthe puruṣaṃ sinītaḥ |
tayoḥ śreya ādadānasya sādhu-
rbhavati hīyate'rthādya u preyo vṛṇīte ||

(Katha Upanishad, 1st Mantra, Canto 2)

One thing is shreya (the good) and (quite) different is preya (the pleasant). Leading to different ends as they do, they both bind man. The good befalls him who accepts the good, but falls away from the goal who chooses the pleasant.

The term preya means that which is pleasant, immediately attractive; the term shreya means that which conduces to true welfare, which is ultimately beneficial. Ethics and religion divide all objects and experiences in to these two categories.

Even a purely materialistic ethics, which believes only in pleasure and self-interest, makes a distinction, analogous to the distinction between preya and shreya made here, between pure self-interest and enlightened self-interest, between short-sighted selfishness and far sighted selfishness. But it is only in systems of spiritual ethics and philosophy, which believe in a non-physical spiritual reality in man, that this distinction between shreya and preya becomes significant. To all such, catering merely to the sensate man is preya, and what helps the manifestation of the spiritual man is shreya.

Preya is happiness arising from organic satisfactions, arising from the titillations of the senses. If man considers this as be-all and end-all of life, his life will be lived at a very low level, very near the animal level; when Man abandons himself to a round of sensory stimulations, he loses his independence and even surrenders his self-hood in which alone consists his humanness. This is what the Upanishad means when it says:

हीयतेऽर्थाद्य उ प्रेयो वृणीते

hīyate'rthādya u preyo vṛṇīte

But he falls away from the goal who chooses the pleasant.


Getting stuck in a round of pleasures, man falls away from his evolutionary direction, which is greater awareness and life fulfillment. He remains a biological organism misses his spiritual direction and goal. Preya is therefore below ethics. Ethics begins with parting from preya and entering the path of shreya; from then on, man ascends from organic to the mental, and thence to the spiritual dimensions of his being, liberating the value of humanness in the process, to rise, in the end, step by step, to the full stature of his true selfhood. In the preya path, therefore, the self of man is submerged in the darkness of avidyā, ignorance, spiritual blindness, as the text verse will tell us; and this darkness will begin to lift as he enters the shreya path, which will be designated, therefore, as the path of vidya, knowledge, spiritual awareness. Preya demands freedom of the senses; shreya on the other hand, demands freedom from the senses. All law and morality mean limitation of the sense-bound man in order to liberate the true self of him. They involve a distinction between man’s lower self and his higher self.

Referring to the condition of man under the influence of the preya idea, Plato says (Republic, ix, The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. II, pp. 459-60; Jowett’s Edition):

Those then who know not wisdom and virtue, and are always busy with gluttony and sensuality, are carried down and up again as far as they mean; and in this region they move at random throughout life; but they never pass beyond into the true upper world; thither they neither look, nor do they ever find their way, neither are they truly filled with true being, nor do they taste of pure and abiding pleasure. Like cattle, with their eyes always looking down and their heads stooping to the earth, that is, to the dining table, they fatten and feed and breed, and, in order to obtain the chief share of these delights, they kick and butt at one another with horns and hoofs which are made of iron; and they kill one another by reason of their insatiable lust; for they fill themselves with that which is not real, and the part of themselves which they fill is also neither real nor retentive.

Shreya has two levels, namely, dharma, the good life, and amrta, the divine immortal life. The good life is not an ultimate, not an end in itself; it must lead to the realization of the Atman, the true Self of man, the birthless and deathless spiritual reality in him and the universe. This is the achievement of amrta, the second and highest level of shreya. This is again and again emphasized in Vedanta and in all the higher religions. Though ethics is not end in itself, nor the highest end yet, without ethics, one cannot achieve that highest end; and Vedanta terms it nishreyasa, the ultimate shreya or good.


Abhyudaya and Nishreyasa

The first stage in man’s spiritual evolution is ethics, which Vedanta terms abhyudaya, welfare in the social context. At this stage, man is a producer of wealth and social welfare and enjoyer of the delights of social existence, in association with his fellow men. At the ethical level man takes into account not only himself but also others. Society is the venue of his ethical education; ethics has no meaning without this social reference. This social reference of the individual’s effort and struggle, of his delights and satisfactions, is known as dharma in Vedanta. This is shreya in what, in modern times, has come to be known as the secular context. This shreya has reference to man as conditioned by time. This is the highest reach of Graeco-Roman thought, as well as modern Western thought. It finds expression in a continuous effort to manipulate the economic and socio-political conditions of human life in order to ensure the good life for man.

But this is insufficient, says Vedanta. If carried too far, as in the modern concepts of social security and the welfare state, it will defeat its own purpose. Vedanta holds that the good life will also become the true life, only if man is approached from the within, over and above the approach to him from the without, this approach from within helps to release the energies of his innate spiritual nature and manifest his immortal divine Self within.

When his life does not rise to this second level, when he does not seek to express his deathless dimension, man becomes a problem to himself in spite of all the security and welfare built up from the outside. This is the essential spiritual message of the great world religions. It is the central theme of the Upanishads. Jesus expressed it when he said, My kingdom is not of this world. This truth is thus expressed in St John (i. 17)

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

The sense-bound man with his time-bound life is not the highest excellence that the man is capable of. In religion man seeks and finds something beyond the world of conditioned existence. After experiencing the pleasure, power, and knowledge available in his sense-bound existence, man reaches after the super sensual. That is the line of his further evolution; if he does not proceed in that line, it will not be growth and evolution but stagnation and death for him; it will be an endless repetition of his time-bound experience of the sense world. This is called samsāra, the repetitive experiences of worldliness, in the technical language of Vedanta. But if he dares to break through this bondage of samsara, he will achieve a timeless existence characterized by naturalness, spontaneity, and fullness of being. This is the plentitude of shreya, paramam shreya, which Vedanta calls nishshreyasa, or moksha, the highest freedom of the spirit. This very Upanishad in its last chapter will tell us later (VI. 14):

यदा सर्वे प्रमुच्यन्ते कामा येऽस्य हृदि श्रिताः ।
अथ मर्त्योऽमृतो भवत्यत्र ब्रह्म समश्नुते ॥-

yadā sarve pramucyante kāmā ye'sya hṛdi śritāḥ |
atha martyo'mṛto bhavatyatra brahma samaśnute ||-

When all the desires that cling to one’s heart will fall away, then this very mortal man will become immortal and experience Brahman here (in this world).

Thus dharma and amrta—the achievement of social ethics and the experience of immortality—form the two levels of shreya. And religion as understood in Vedanta or Sanātana Dharma comprehends both. It comprehends Rājadharma, ethics of the State and Mokshadharma, ethics of spiritual emancipation. It thus constitutes a comprehensive philosophy of life for man. Krshna characterizes his message in the Gita (XII. 20) as both dharmya and amrta, conducive to social welfare and spiritual emancipation Swami Vivekananda similarly defines his message as

आत्मनो मोक्षार्थं जगद्धिताय च

ātmano mokṣārthaṃ jagaddhitāya ca

For the spiritual liberation of oneself and the welfare of the world.


Every human being is bound, sinītah, by shreya and preya, says the opening verse of this second chapter of Upanishad. This bondage arises from the impelling force of desire within man which makes him resort to the one or the other, according to constitution of his mind. They lead to different ends so that if he chooses one of them he is far away from the other. The unbridled pursuit of sensate satisfactions is not the way to the realization of one’s spiritual nature. By pursuing his spiritual nature man becomes sadhu, good; he becomes ethically perfect and spiritually illumined. All moral evolution is the fruit of spiritual awareness; whereas, mere physical awareness makes for self-centeredness, competition, and exploitation. Those who resort to preya, says the verse, miss the goal, the achievement of true freedom through the realization of the Atman, the eternal ever-pure Self. Such a person, says Shankara in his comment on this verse, is adūradarshī, short-sighted, and vimūdha, utterly foolish.


The Yogakshema Mood

Amplifying this idea, Yama says in the next verse, verse two:

श्रेयश्च प्रेयश्च मनुष्यमेतः
तौ सम्परीत्य विविनक्ति धीरः ।
श्रेयो हि धीरोऽभि प्रेयसो वृणीते
प्रेयो मन्दो योगक्षेमाद्वृणीते ॥

śreyaśca preyaśca manuṣyametaḥ
tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ |
śreyo hi dhīro'bhi preyaso vṛṇīte
preyo mando yogakṣemādvṛṇīte ||

(Katha Upanishad, 2nd Mantra, Canto 2)

Both shreya and preya approach man; the dhira (wise man), examining the two (well), discriminates between them. The wise man verily prefers shreya to preya; but the foolish man chooses preya through love of gain and attachment.

Man is free to choose shreya or preya; the Upanishad picturesquely expresses the idea by saying that each of them approaches man and tries to capture his attention and interest. Of the two, preya, which conduces to immediate profit and pleasure, is outwardly more attractive; but its inside is hollow, which time alone will reveal. Shreya on the other hand although it involves some initial privation, conduces to man’s abiding welfare; its attractions are in the solid worth hidden in its depths, not on the surface. A little diving is necessary to reach the attractive depths. The shining shells float on the surface of the sea, says Shri Ramakrishna, but the pearls lie in its depths; the fool in his infatuation and laziness just stretches out his hands and takes the shells; but the wise man fortified by discrimination and unafraid of the depths, dives down and secures the pearls. The wise man, exercising his discrimination, carefully examines the two by turning them upside down, tau samparītya, going round them, as the Upanishad puts it. Outward appearance maybe deceptive; he wants to be assured that what appears is also what is; and he has the patience to wait; his hunger for truth can silence all his hunger for lesser things. He therefore chooses shreya. But the fool or dull witted man chooses preya. Why does he do so? Because he has no power of discrimination nor the patience to wait; he does not need these either; he wants results immediately He is not in search of truth. What then does he seek? Yogakshema, says the Upanishad; this term literally means yoga, acquisition and kshema, preservation, technically it is used to express the entire range of man’s worldly propensities, of which the two basic ones are greed and attachment. The yogakshema mood, in its pronounced unbridled form, is the oppressive worldly mood in which, as poignantly expressed by Goethe in his Faust:

From desire I stumble to possession,
And in possession languish from desire.

When, however, this yogakshema mood functions within the framework of the ethical urge, it remains healthy and creative. But when it gets loose from its ethical moorings and becomes oppressive, it has come under tyranny of the immediate present; all distant horizons of true well-being are then shut out. Pleasure and profit become the ruling motives; ethical and spiritual motives fade away.

If man is free to choose shreya or preya, why do the generality of people choose preya? Asks Shankara in his commentary on this verse, and answers:


सत्यं स्वायत्त तथापि साधनतः फलतश्च मन्दबुद्धीनाम् दुर्विवेकरूपे सती व्यामिश्रीभूते इव मनुष्यमेतं पुरुषमेतः प्राप्नुतः श्रेयश्च प्रेयश्च ।

satyaṃ svāyatta tathāpi sādhanataḥ phalataśca mandabuddhīnām durvivekarūpe satī vyāmiśrībhūte iva manuṣyametaṃ puruṣametaḥ prāpnutaḥ śreyaśca preyaśca |


But those who do so discriminate, rejects preya as trivial and choose shreya; they are prepared to pay the price of such a choice, the price having chosen a path which is like ‘walking on the edge of a razor’. As Yama will tell us later on. In a such a choice is found blended high intelligence and great courage, a rare combination in the human character. This the verse denotes by the term dhira, a term which the Upanishad use again and again. Yama now eulogizes Nachiketa in verse three for possessing such a character:

स त्वं प्रियान्प्रियरूपांश्च कामान्
अभिध्यायन्नचिकेतोऽत्यस्राक्षीः ।
नैतां सृङ्कां वित्तमयीमवाप्तो
यस्यां मज्जन्ति बहवो मनुष्याः ॥

sa tvaṃ priyānpriyarūpāṃśca kāmān
abhidhyāyannaciketo'tyasrākṣīḥ |
naitāṃ sṛṅkāṃ vittamayīmavāpto
yasyāṃ majjanti bahavo manuṣyāḥ ||

(Katha Upanishad, 3rd Mantra, Canto 2)

Thou hast, O Nachiketa, renounced, after due deliberation, all those dear and attractive objects of desire which were within your reach. Thou has not gone into this way of (infatuation for) wealth in which many men get drowned.

‘Thou has renounced, atyasrākshi, after due deliberation, abhidhyāyan’, says Yama. Nachiketa’s renunciation is not the product of any temporary emotional upsurge produced by life’s sorrows and defeats. It is the product of knowledge, fortified by deep deliberation, such as that which the world saw again in a later age in Buddha. To the discriminating mind, the world conjured up by the senses is a world of constant flux, riddled with contradictions; it is the same also with the perceiving ego. The heart that seeks after Reality, abiding and changeless, will be dissatisfied with the world of change and death, provided that the seeking is whole-souled and not merely intellectual and academic. Herein lies the whole difference between Vedanta and all academic philosophies. Vedanta insists that if the search for the eternal and the changeless is to come to fruition in spiritual realization, it must be backed by renunciation of the finite and the changeful. Man shall not seek God and mammon at same time.

The way of wealth is the way of profit and pleasure. It is a mighty current in which many a bark of life, many a ship of civilization has sunk. He who can withstand this current must be extraordinarily intelligent and strong; it is a superior type of intelligence and strength, quite unlike the intelligence and strength, which ensures success in worldly life or domination over others. Yama is struck by this intelligence and strength in Nachiketa –

अहो बुद्धिमत्ता तव

aho buddhimattā tava

– ‘wonder of wonders, what fine intelligence is yours’, exclaims Yama, as elucidated by Shankara. The Gita also sings of such intelligence (V.23.):


शक्नोतीहैव यः सोढुं प्राक्शरीरविमोक्षणात् ।
कामक्रोधोद्भवं वेगं स युक्तः स सुखी नरः ॥

śaknotīhaiva yaḥ soḍhuṃ prākśarīravimokṣaṇāt |
kāmakrodhodbhavaṃ vegaṃ sa yuktaḥ sa sukhī naraḥ ||

He who can withstand in this very life, before the fall of the body, the flood-tide arising from lust and anger, is the spiritually integrated one; he is a happy man.

Yama now contrasts, in verse four, this spiritual intelligence, vidyā with spiritual unintelligence, avidyā:

दूरमेते विपरीते विषूची
अविद्या या च विद्येति ज्ञाता ।
विद्याभीप्सिनं नचिकेतसं मन्ये
न त्वा कामा बहवोऽलोलुपन्त ॥

dūramete viparīte viṣūcī
avidyā yā ca vidyeti jñātā |
vidyābhīpsinaṃ naciketasaṃ manye
na tvā kāmā bahavo'lolupanta ||

(Katha Upanishad, 4th Mantra, Canto 2)

Wide apart and leading to different ends are these two, ignorance and what is known as knowledge. I consider thee, Nachiketa, an aspirant for knowledge, (since) the prospect of so much pleasure could not shake thee.

Yama now identifies shreya with vidyā, knowledge, and preya with avidyā, ignorance. This ignorance is not the ordinary ignorance of facts and formulae but it means spiritual blindness. It is unintelligence, because it fails to take note of the most primary datum of all experience, namely the Self. Materialism commits this blunder; it sub-merges man in the not-Self. Even great scientists have protested against this materialistic folly. Says the astrophysicist R.A. Millikan (Autobiography, last chapter):

To me purely materialistic philosophy is the height of unintelligence.

T.H.Huxley, the eminent scientific thinker of the nineteenth century and collaborator of Darwin, strongly repudiated materialism as a philosophy of life (Methods and Results, pp. 164-65):

If we find that the ascertainment of the order of nature is facilitated by using one terminology, or one set of symbols, rather than another, it is our clear duty to use the former; and no harm can accrue, so long as we bear in mind that we are dealing with merely with terms and symbols….

But the man of science, who forgetting the limits of philosophical inquiry, slides from this formulae and symbols in to what is commonly understood by materialism, seems to me to place himself on a level with the mathematician who should mistake the x’s and y’s, with which he works his problems, for real entities—and with this further disadvantage, as compared with the mathematician, that the blunders of the latter are of no practical consequence, while the errors of systematic materialism may paralyze the energies and destroy the beauty of a life. (italics not authors)

Materialism confines man to the world of sensate realities and values. It is the world of darkness or unawareness, the world of finitude, change, and death —

असुर्या नाम ते लोका अन्धेन तमसावृता

asuryā nāma te lokā andhena tamasāvṛtā

— as the Isha Upanishad tells us. The path of preya is the path which takes man away from light and life. The path of shreya, on the other hand, is the path that leads to light and life, to the infinite and he eternal. Says Shankara in his Vivekachudamani (Verse 160):


देहोऽहमित्येव जडस्य बुद्धिः
देहे च जीवे विदुष्त्वहं धीः ।
विवेकविज्ञानवतो महात्मनो
ब्रह्मामित्येव मतिः सदात्मनि ॥

deho'hamityeva jaḍasya buddhiḥ
dehe ca jīve viduṣtvahaṃ dhīḥ |
vivekavijñānavato mahātmano
brahmāmityeva matiḥ sadātmani ||

“ I am the body”, thinks the dull-witted man; whereas the knowing man has his idea of selfhood in the soul within the body; but the mahatman (the great-souled one), possessed of discrimination and realization, looks upon the eternal Atman as his self, and thinks, “I am Brahman”.


Yama’s Eulogy of Nachiketa

Yama considered Nachiketa as a fit aspirant for vidyā because he chose shreya, because he could not be shaken by the allurements of preya.

विद्याभीप्सिनं नचिकेतसं मन्ये

vidyābhīpsinaṃ naciketasaṃ manye

I consider you Nachiketa, an aspirant of vidyā, says Yama. Nachiketa is a vidyābhipsī or vidyārthī, a lover, a seeker of vidya.


The ordinary meaning of vidyābhīpsī or vidyārthī is student, one who has enrolled himself in some school or college in search of what Shri Ramakrishna characterized as ‘a mere bread-winning education’. Nachiketa is not such a humdrum student, however. He is a seeker of knowledge in every sense of the term; not a ‘milker’ of worldly advantages from the ‘cow’ of knowledge. And the knowledge he seeks is parā vidyā, the highest knowledge, by which



that imperishable Reality is realized, as the Mundaka Upanishad (I. i. 5) expresses it. Yama eulogizes this one-pointed love of truth in Nachiketa:

न त्वा कामा बहवोऽलोलुपन्त

na tvā kāmā bahavo'lolupanta

many an object of pleasure did not shake you. This is an elevating idea of education, where what is sought is knowledge and life excellence. Even in ordinary secular education, a student gets the best result when he aims at the silent acquisition of knowledge in a spirit of intellectual austerity and dedication. No education can achieve results if the student spends more hours in the canteen than in the laboratory or the library.


Within the brief period of his stay in a college or university he has to take in whatever the world of knowledge has to give him, and discipline himself thoroughly so as to make that knowledge grow with his life, and flower into character and vision. Education may start with the apara aspect of vidyā or knowledge, knowledge relating to the not-Self, to the changing and perishable world of experience; but it should not stop there, but lead the student on the parā aspect of vidyā, which is adhyātmavidyā, knowledge of the Self, the changeless and immortal reality in man and the universe. If education stops short of this higher dimension it defeats its very purpose. Such vidyā or knowledge is nothing else but avidyā or nescience, because it does not achieve liberation of the human spirit. Yama refers to this in the next two verses, verses five and six of this second chapter.


The Vedantic Concept of Education

The Upanishad thereafter gave us an exposition of vidyā and avidyā. Avidyā means ignorance in the sense of spiritual blindness; vidyā means knowledge in the sense of spiritual illumination. Vidyā does not mean mere secular knowledge or scholarship; nor does avidyā mean mere illiteracy or gathering of information. Vedanta does include in vidyā literacy and gathering of information, and all forms of training of the mind for creative acquisition of knowledge—what is usually termed education, but it holds that if this education fails to advance the spiritual growth and development of man, if it fails to raise him above the sensual level, it sheds its vidyā quality and becomes avidyā; for vidyā is that which liberates the human spirit from the thralldom to the senses —

या विद्या सा विमुक्तये

yā vidyā sā vimuktaye

— and where it fails do this it becomes avidyā, in spite of all the intellectual knowledge and sharpness of mind gained from that education.


The sensate man, guided by a self-sufficient hedonistic ideology, refuses to grow into the spiritually-aware man, in spite of his high intellectual knowledge and discipline. In spite of all the energy and movement manifested in his life and work, the life force has become stagnant in him; he blindly, because unaware of the divine within, and foolishly goes round and round in very limited arena of the sensate world —

दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढाः

dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mūḍhāḥ

— as verse five of this chapter of the Upanishad will presently tell us. He is content to stay in this dark valley and is afraid to march up to the sunlit heights; by thus refusing to move forward he makes his vidyā turn into avidyā.


By stepping aside from the main stream of evolution which leads to increasing awareness and fulfillment, he chooses a path leading nowhere, like some of the biological species, the insects for instance, which reached a dead end in organic evolution.

The Upanishad therefore does not condemn secular education in itself; but it expects education to be a continuing process. The building up of the sensate man and his ego is but the first step; it must lead to the transcendence of this trivial finite man and the emergence of the spiritual man endowed with clear vision, ever-widening sympathy, and a firm grip on the evolutionary process. Like the chick breaking the shell or the butterfly coming out of his cocoon into the wide world of light and opportunity, man has to breakthrough the shell of his sensate world which had nourished him so long, and continue his march to self-fulfillment in the infinite expanse of the trans-sensuous world. That is the opening of his third eye; that is the second birth. He then becomes a dvija, twice-born, in the language of Vedanta.

Thus vidyā is not education in the sense of mere equipment for bread-winning or world-gaining; it is this but also something vastly more; it is illumination. The English word ‘education’ can stand for the Vedantic word vidyā if it includes both the aparā and parā aspects of vidyā. But then it will cease to be mere book learning, mere gathering of information, mere control and manipulation of the external world; it will mean setting man on the road to spiritual growth, development, and realization by an ever-increasing discipline and control of the given sense-bound man.

Referring to the scientific approach of India to this spiritual education of man, Swami Vivekananda said in his famous speech at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 (Complete Works, Vol. 1. Eleventh Edition, p. 13):

The Hindu does not want to live upon words and theories. If there are existences beyond the ordinary sensuous existence, he wants to come face to face with them. If there is a soul in him which is not matter, if there is an all-merciful universal Soul, he will go to Him direct. He must see Him, and that alone can destroy all doubts. So the best proof of a Hindu sage gives about the soul, about God, is “I have seen the soul; I have seen God.” And that is the only condition of perfection. The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing—not in believing, but in being and becoming.


The Blind Leading The Blind

The self-sufficient sensate man under the control of the preya idea moves in the valley of avidyā; he is blissfully unaware of his higher spiritual dimension. In the limited sensate world in which he lives and moves he naturally thinks too much of himself, of is power and possessions. In the next two verses, five and six, which we shall now study, Yama tells Nachiketa about this avidyā and its bitter fruits.

अविद्यायामन्तरे वर्तमानाः
स्वयं धीराः पण्डितंमन्यमानाः ।
दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढा
अन्धेनैव नीयमाना यथान्धाः ॥

avidyāyāmantare vartamānāḥ
svayaṃ dhīrāḥ paṇḍitaṃmanyamānāḥ |
dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mūḍhā
andhenaiva nīyamānā yathāndhāḥ ||

(Katha Upanishad, 5th Mantra, Canto 2)

Fools, dwelling in the very midst of ignorance but fancying themselves as wise and learned, go round and round staggering to and fro, like the blind led by the blind.

न साम्परायः प्रतिभाति बालं
प्रमाद्यन्तं वित्तमोहेन मूढम् ।
अयं लोको नास्ति पर इति मानी
पुनः पुनर्वशमापद्यते मे ॥

na sāmparāyaḥ pratibhāti bālaṃ
pramādyantaṃ vittamohena mūḍham |
ayaṃ loko nāsti para iti mānī
punaḥ punarvaśamāpadyate me ||

(Katha Upanishad, 6th Mantra, Canto 2)

The truth of the hereafter does not shine before that child (childish person) who is inattentive, and befooled by the delusion of wealth. “This world (seen by the senses) is and there is no other”—thinking thus, he falls into my (death’s) clutches again and again.

Avidyā or spiritual blindness is characterized is by absence of discrimination, with or without learning or scholarship. If it is learning, it becomes a greater tragedy. For learning without inner illumination makes for greater pride and vanity, resulting in increased spiritual blindness. This is childish foolishness, says Yama; it is learned ignorance. Living in the midst of such ignorance, man yet considers himself learned and wise; he is full of life and movement; but it is staggering movement, with mind clouded and steps unsteady. And compares his wisdom and his movement; to a blind man leading another blind man—with both falling into the ditch!


The delusion of Wealth

The finite sense-world has become a prison to him instead of a field in which to cultivate spiritual awareness. So imprisoned, he does not see anything beyond; nor does he care to see either, for he has much at stake in that sense-world; its wealth, power, and pleasure hold him in thrall. Conditioned by time as he is, and also b the world which possesses by him, and, fully satisfied with his state, he does not get even a glimpse of the unconditioned and timeless dimension of his being. He has wealth which can purchase the pleasures of the sense-world; and starting with possessing wealth and pleasure, he ends up in being possessed by them; and the power of wealth deludes him into thinking that whatever can not be purchased with it is not worthwhile or true. He firmly believes that pursuits other than profit, power, and pleasure are illusory. But he is a deluded child, says Yama; absorbed I his attractive toys of variegated colours and various types, he does not seek anything else. Worldliness has entered into him and filled him, like water filling a boat; his spiritual freedom and free movement are lost, just like the free mobility of that boat, and it spells his spiritual death.

Shri Ramakrishna tells the parable of the frog to illustrate the delusion arising from wealth:

A frog lived in a hole by the way-side. One day he came across a shining silver rupee on the road; he was fascinated by it and took it to his hole. With the possession of the rupee, he became a different frog. One day, an elephant chanced to pass by his hole. The frog became furious and thought to himself how impudent it was of the elephant to pass by his hole. He quickly came out of the hole and gave vent to his anger with a few kicks at the back of the elephant’s leg. Having thus demonstrated his importance, he went back to his hole and gazed at his rupee. All the while, the elephant was blissfully unaware of the very existence of the frog.


The tyranny of the Sensate

This tyranny of the sensate may over-power a whole civilization, and not merely individual men and women. It is particularly evident in modern western civilization, to which Yama’s sentiments in this verse aptly apply. Its inner spiritual quality and strength are smothered by its sensate Weltanschauung or world-view. In the words of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (Eastern Religions and Western Thought. 383):

The world of nations seems to be like a nursery full of perverse, bumptious, ill-tempered children, nagging one another and making a display of their toys of earthly possessions, thrilled by mere size.

Without overcoming this foolish delusion arising from the possession of material wealth, man will not taste immortality; he will only inflate his ego and increase his tension and sorrow; he will only experience death again and again:

पुनः पुनर्वशमापद्यते मे

punaḥ punarvaśamāpadyate me

they come into my clutches again and again, says Yama, the god of death. The death of the body is not the only form of death; nor is it so serious for a being so high in the scale of evolution as man; but spiritual death is a more serious matter. Absence of spiritual awareness while living in the body leads to the body becoming not an instrument of evolution but a tomb. This is great tragedy indeed!



True Humanness

The self of man is separate from his body. This is the foundation of all moral and spiritual life; this truth is proclaimed by every step that man takes in the discipline and control of his body and its appetites. The animal identifies itself fully with the body; it therefore cannot control its appetites. But with man begins the process of disengaging the self from this wrong identification as new dimension of self-awareness lights up his horizon of experience; experience which, in the animal, had been confined only to the world of not-self. The body, in fact the entire psychophysical organism, slowly reveals itself to human consciousness not as the self, but as the instrument of the self, the finest instrument that nature has designed to help in the manifestation of the true self—brahmāvalokadhishanam—as the Bhagavatam (XI. ix. 28) puts it. But in the early stages of man’s development this destination is not very clear because of the pressure of the animal legacy, because of the influence of the ‘primeval slime’ of his early evolutionary origins. But man soon begins gradually to overcome this legacy; and in and through that struggle, he achieves true humanness. Says Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on ‘The Atman’ (Complete Works, Vol. II, p.250):

No books, no scriptures, no science can ever imagine the glory of the Self that appears as man, the most glorious God that ever was, the only God that ever existed, exists, or ever will exist.


Lower Self and Higher Self

This struggle to achieve true humanness brings to light in man, for the first time in evolution, an outer physical one and an inner spiritual one; and, correspondingly, it also brings to light two selves in him, a lower self consisting of his psychophysical organism identified with outer nature, and a higher self stripped of all non-spiritual elements.

Reality is constituted of these two natures—the not-self which is he lower nature, and the self which is the higher nature. Says God as Krshna in the Gita (VII. 4-6):

भूमिरापोऽनलो वायुः खं मनो बुद्धिरेव च ।
अहंकार इतीयं मे भिन्ना प्रकृतिरष्टधा ॥

bhūmirāpo'nalo vāyuḥ khaṃ mano buddhireva ca |
ahaṃkāra itīyaṃ me bhinnā prakṛtiraṣṭadhā ||

Earth, water, fire, air, space, mind intellect and the ego—these diverse eightfold forms constitute My natute.

अपरेयमितस्त्वन्यां प्रकृतिं विद्धि मे पराम् ।
जीवभूतां महाबाहो ययेदं धार्यते जगत् ॥

apareyamitastvanyāṃ prakṛtiṃ viddhi me parām |
jīvabhūtāṃ mahābāho yayedaṃ dhāryate jagat ||

This is the lower one; apart from this, know My higher nature consisting of the Self by which this entire universe is sustained.

एतद्योनीनि भूतानि सर्वाणीत्युपधारय ।
अहं कृत्स्नस्य जगतः प्रभवः प्रलयस्तथा ॥

etadyonīni bhūtāni sarvāṇītyupadhāraya |
ahaṃ kṛtsnasya jagataḥ prabhavaḥ pralayastathā ||

Know that all beings and entities have these (two) as their sources; I am the origin and dissolution of the entire changeful universe.


प्रकृतिद्वयद्वारेण सर्वज्ञ ईश्वरः जगतः कारणम्

prakṛtidvayadvāreṇa sarvajña īśvaraḥ jagataḥ kāraṇam

The Supreme all-knowing Lord, in his twofold nature, is the cause of the universe, comments Shankara on the last of the above verses.



The Vedantic View of Evolution

This parā prakrti, higher Nature, in the form of indwelling Self, is submerged in the aparā prakrti, lower nature, in the form of the material world. Evolution, says Vedanta, is the progressive manifestation of the Self through the transformation it effects in the material mass around. The whole process becomes self-aware only in man, that too only in the thinking man endowed with moral awareness. From now on evolution becomes, according to Sir Julian Huxley, less and less organic and more and more and cultural. Evolution now on becomes a spiritual pilgrimage.

It is at this stage that man becomes dimly aware of something within him which is not essentially affected by the fortunes of his physical instrument, the body, or its physical environment, outer nature. But he body is affected by ‘the sixfold waves of change’ as Vedanta expresses it, namely, birth, existence, growth, transformation, decay, and destruction; this is also true of the entire world of outer nature. These belong to the category of the changeful; they are under the realm of ‘death’ a realm which extends not only to the body of man but also to his mind and ego within, as also to the entire range of celestial entities outside. They are conditioned by time because they are subject to causality; they are hetuprabhava, within the chain of cause and effect, as Buddha describes them. The changeless and the immortal cannot be sought there. Yama will tell us later on, in the fourth chapter:

ध्रुवमध्रुवेष्विह न प्रार्थयन्ते

dhruvamadhruveṣviha na prārthayante

the wise do not seek the eternal in this world of the non-eternal. If there is an eternal dimension to reality, it has primarily to be sought in the ‘within’ and not in the ‘without’. Organic evolution has disclosed the faint glimmerings of such a mystery in the inner world of man; not merely disclosed the mystery but also provided the psycho-physical equipment capable of solving that mystery. The fourth chapter of this very Upanishad will tell us in clear and firm language the nature of this mystery and the technical know-how of its solution.


Says Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on ‘The necessity of religion’ delivered in London (Complete Works, Vol. II, P.65)

Man is man so long he is struggling to rise above nature, and this nature is both internal and external. Not only does it comprise the laws that govern the particles of matter outside us and in our bodies, but also the more subtle nature within, which is in fact, the motive power governing the external. It is good and very grand to conquer external nature, but grander still to conquer our internal nature. It is grand and good to know the laws that govern the stars and planets; it is infinitely grander and better to know the laws that govern the passions the feelings, the will, of mankind. This conquering of the inner man, understanding the secrets of the subtle workings that are within the human mind, and knowing its wonderful secrets, belong entirely to religion.


The Self of Man is Indestructible

If the body is but an instrument of the self, its destruction or dissolution does not mean the destruction of the self. This truth does not shine in the heart of the thoughtless man who is deluded by his wealth, says Yama:

न साम्परायः प्रतिभाति बालं

na sāmparāyaḥ pratibhāti bālaṃ

. Samparaya refers to the self of man being essentially independent of his gross physical body. The term ‘body’ includes in Vedanta not only the gross physical body, the sthūlasharīra, but also the subtle mental body, the sūkshma sharīra or lingasharīra, which is equivalent to the ‘soul’ in western thought, and the still more subtle causal body, the kāranasharīra. Death means only the shuffling off of the physical body.


The inadequacies of aparā vidyā, lower knowledge, knowledge of the environing world of change and death, led the Indian mind to the search after parā vidyā, higher knowledge of the imperishable and the immortal Self. The inadequacy of aparā vidyā is inherent in its relativity and inconclusiveness; this inadequacy reveals itself also in its capacity for restricting and destroying the spiritual freedom of man and for increasing tension and sorrow in him.


‘All Expansion Is Life; All Contraction Is Death’

The ignorant man eats well, digests well, and sleeps peacefully. He goes to school and college, acquires knowledge of the world and becomes a civilized knowing man; he feels a sense of expansion coming over him and greater freedom within. He now settles down to enjoy his civilized existence; he stifles his longing to continue the evolutionary march; the creative fires die out in him. The spiritual heights remain untrod and unconquered. He becomes stagnant at the sensate level.

Then begins his life of tension and sorrow. His digestion suffers and his sleep is impaired. He becomes a prey to many ailments whose origins lie in the non-physical part of his being, in his spiritual malnutrition, in the damning of life current. He becomes a problem to himself, in the words of Schopenhauer, and a problem to others. His knowledge fails to deal with his problem. This makes him cast a longing glance at the bliss of the ignorant man. This nostalgia for the care-free primitive state is a recurring phenomenon in high civilizations of a frankly secular character. Absence of purpose, ennui, and frustration, which are the Weltanschauung of that civilization. The Roman civilization experienced it in ancient times, and modern western civilization is experiencing it today. Says Bertrand Russell of the latter (Impact of Science on Society, p. 121):

Unless men increase in wisdom as much in knowledge, increase of knowledge will be increase of sorrow.

The Upanishads knew of this malady of man, of this malady of the increase of knowledge of the aparā vidyā kind leading to much sorrow and tension.

Bertrand Russell’s remark sounds so akin in language and sentiment to the remark of truth-seeking Nārada to sage Sanatkumāra (Chhandogya Upanishad, VII. I. 3). Nārada’s dissatisfaction with aparā vidyā and its fruits led him to an earnest search for parā vidyā, which is one theme of all the Upanishads. Therein was achieved the flowering of knowledge into wisdom and the resolution of all actual and possible tension and sorrow into the peace and bliss of the Atman, the immortal Self of man. The Brhadaranyka Upanishad (II.iv.2) speaks of Maitreyi spurning wealth when Yājnavalkya, her husband, tells her unequivocally that wealth can never be the means to immortality —

अमृतत्वस्य तु नाशाऽस्ति वित्तेन

amṛtatvasya tu nāśā'sti vittena

— but that it is the means to ensure for man only social security and welfare. Maitreyi, whose heart was set on the eternal and immortal, spurned the offer of wealth and asked her husband for education in parā vidyā.



Modern Knowledge and Shri Ramakrishna’s Wisdom

This limitation of aparā vidyā, this inadequacy of positivistic knowledge, and the search for wisdom in parā vidyā, is the deep felt urge in the heart of man in the modern age. This is what invests the life of Shri Ramakrishna with compelling fascination to thinking minds in the West and East. For Shri Ramakrishna was the very embodiment of this parā vidyā; and he went directly without going through apara vidya. He did not go to school, nor he did he acquire book-learning. Yet from the young age of nineteen he subjected himself for seventeen years to an education so thorough and complete, and the remaining thirteen years of is life to the untiring dissemination of his wisdom among seeking men and women, that his life became a blazing example of parā vidyā, and a demonstration of the Upanishadic truth that parā vidyā is the consummation and fulfillment of all forms of aparā vidyā, that brahmavidyā is sarvavidyāpratishthā. In his lecture on the Sages of India delivered in Madras in 1897, Swami Vivekananda referred in moving words to this challenging uniqueness of his Master, Shri Ramakrishna (Complete Works, Vol. III, pp.267-68):

The time was ripe for one to be born who in one body would have the brilliant intellect of Shankara and wonderfully expansive heart of Chaitanya; one who would see in every sect the same spirit working, the same God; one who would see God in every being, one whose heart would weep for the poor, for the weak, for the outcast, for the downtrodden, for everyone in this world, inside India or outside India; and at the same time whose grand brilliant intellect would conceive of such noble thoughts as would harmonize all conflicting sects, not only in India but outside of India, and bring a marvelous harmony the universal religion of head and heart, into existence. Such a man was born, and I had the good fortune to sit at his feet for years. The time was ripe, it was necessary that such a man should be born, and he came; and the most wonderful part of it was that his life’s work was just a near a city which was full of western thought, a city which had run mad after these occidental ideas, a city which had become more Europeanized than any other city in India. There he lived, without any book-learning whatsoever; this great intellect never learnt ever to write his own name, but the most brilliant graduates of our university found in him an intellectual giant. He was a strange man this Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

M, the author of monumental work The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna (Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1947, p.2) mentions in his book his amazement at hearing, during his first visit to Shri Ramakrishna, that the Master had no book-learning whatsoever.

When they (M. and his friend Sidhu) reached Shri Ramakrishna’s door again, they found it shut, and Brinde, the maid, standing outside. M., who had been trained in English manners and would not enter a room without permission, asked her. “Is the holy man in?” Brinde replied, “Yes, he is in the room.”

M: “How long has he lived here?

Brinde: “Oh, he has been here a long time.”

M: “Does he read many books?”

Brinde: “ Books? Oh, dear no! They’re all on his tongue.”

M. had just finished his studies in college. It amazed him to hear that Shri Ramakrishna read no books…

On his way home, M. began to wonder: “Who is this serene looking man who is drawing me back to him? Is it possible for a man to be great without being a scholar? How wonderful it is. I should like to see him again.”


Wisdom versus Scholarship

Thus neither wealth nor secular education by themselves can lead man to fulfillment. Without spiritual discipline in the light of parā vidyā man will ever remain incomplete and divided, and a prey to inner and outer tensions.


आत्मज्ञानविहीना मूढास्ते पच्यन्ते नरकनिगूढाः

ātmajñānavihīnā mūḍhāste pacyante narakanigūḍhāḥ

Fools are they who are bereft of the knowledge of the divine Self within; they pass through hellish experiences of diverse sorts, sings Shankara in his Mohamudgara. The following parable, which was dear to Shri Ramakrishna, brings out the inadequacy of mere scholarship and the significance of this fundamental spiritual education of man (The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna, p.341):


Once several men were crossing the Ganges in a boat. One of them a pundit (scholar), was making a great display of his erudition, saying that he had studied various books—the Vedas, The Vedanta, and the six systems of philosophy. He asked a fellow passenger, “ Do you know the Vedanta? “ No revered Sir.” Have you read no philosophy whatever?” “ No, Revered Sir” The pundit was talking in this vain way and the passenger sitting in silence, when a great storm arose and the boat was about to sink. The passenger said to the pundit, “ Sir, can you swim?” “No,” replied the pundit. The passenger said, “ I don’t know the Samkhya or the Patanjala, but I can swim”.

Spiritual knowledge helps us to swim across the sea of the world; those who are bereft of this knowledge and are deluded by wealth, they die, not knowing how to swim across the sea of the world. ‘They fall again and again into my clutches’ says Yama, the god of death. This tragedy can be averted by man continuing his education from apara to parā vidyā, from the knowledge of the perishable not-Self to the realization of the imperishable Self. And Yama introduces this theme of the Self in the verses to follow.

The Upanishad told us that the view of man as revealed by sense knowledge is highly limited, and that such a view betokens an immature mind. Men of childish intellect cannot fathom the transcendent depths that lie behind the visible man, the deep mystery within him that is suggested even by his eyes. The sensate man is in the grip of death; as we peer into him, we begin to get what Wordsworth termed ‘intimations of immortality.’ This peering behind the physically-conditioned personality is what this Upanishad is engaged in, for which Nachiketa’s question to Yama in the first chapter provided a starting point: ‘When this (visible) man dies there is this doubt among men: some say that he exists; some (others) say that he does not exist; this I should like to know, being taught by you. Of the boons this is my third boon.’


Science and the Non-physical Aspects of Experience

In verse six of Canto II, Yama introduced us to the truth of survival of the human personality at the physical death; this truth is not given to man by the physical sciences with their very limited fields of investigation. But when this science is shifted to non-physical aspects of experience, science comes across this truth of survival which is the counterpart of the truth of the conservation of energy in the physical world. Science itself knows no limitation of fields of study. To quote Eddington (The Philosophy of Physical Science, p. 187)

If science is the study of the rational correlation of experience, the endeavour of the scientific philosopher must be to extend this rational correlation from a limited field of experience to the whole of experience. His task is to provide a general philosophy which can accept without throwing over his scientific beliefs.

When this extension is made, the scientific philosopher will not be called upon to throw over scientific beliefs; but he will be certainly be required to throw over his unscientific prejudices; and materialism is one such prejudice. When this is shed, man is revealed in his true form. That man is nothing but a body is the view of him from the ‘without’ of things; but when viewed from the within of things, he is revealed as soul, as a spiritual entity, which uses the physical body as its instrument for self-fulfillment. Death of the body therefore need not involve death for the soul. The soul which was conditioned by he physical body during life, becomes released from that body at death.

This subject of the survival of the soul at death is engaging the serious attention of modern thought. What was still treated as a physical product, as an epiphenomenona, is being recognized as a spiritual principle. The study of man underwent a similar significant revolution in ancient India also. The Vaishesika and Nyaya schools of Indian thought had viewed the soul as a substance among other material substances. The Samkhya school broke away from this limited materialistic view, and taught for the first time, the spiritual character of the soul and its essentially detached nature. And the Samkhya accordingly became the pioneer in the field of the science of the soul and through this, the pioneer of also of the science of religion, both of which later flowered in Vedanta. The modern West is experiencing a similar revolution in thought today as result of the casting off the unscientific and rigid materialistic and mechanistic framework of nineteenth century science. The result is a keen interest in a dispassionate study of phenomena proceeding from the ‘within’ of nature as revealed in man—phenomena which till now had been treated as unimportant and brushed aside as inconvenient. A new science is slowly immerging based on the data furnished by the inner nature of man. Existentialism, from the side of philosophy, and the compulsions of paranormal phenomena or extrasensory perceptions, from he side of psychology, are helping to reveal the deeper dimensions of the human personality.


The Fruits of such a Study

The study of the soul or the spiritual self of man has, in this context, yielded three ideals regarding its nature, namely, survival, reincarnation, and immortality. Modern thought has already become impressed with the vast mass of evidence for survival, and to lesser extent, for reincarnation, arising from investigations in to extra sensory experiences. These point to the independence of the mind of the physical organism, to mind acting on mind outside the normal channels of sense communication. If this is true, what is the nature of man so revealed? Is it proper to equate him with the body and its fortunes? Does it not establish him as essentially independent of the physical environment, including the body, which also forms part of that environment? Man lives in two environments—one, the external world, of which is body forms a part, and the other, the inner spiritual world whose study is fraught with great consequences for man and his life fulfillment today. Here we enter into the depth of experience, a craving to go beyond the limited prosaic world revealed by the five senses, and enter the deeper world within the world of meaning and value. The craving for values is universal today; and it is being increasingly recognized that values do not form part of the physical world. Says Bertrand Russell (The Impact of Science on Society, p.77):

The Machine as an object of adoration is the modern form of Satan, and its worship is the modern diabolism…. Whatever else may be mechanical, values are not, and this something which no political philosopher must forget.

If values are not physical or mechanical and do not arise from the outside, they must be spiritual; and they have to be sought not outside but within; and we have to be sought not outside but within; and we have to experience them and thereby enrich our personality; this is done only by cultivating our inner life. This is the central mood and passion of religion; and this central passion of religion is stirring in the heart of modern man, beneath his prevailing mood of materialism and worldliness.

The first fruit of this enquiry into the inner world is the truth of survival; the second fruit is reincarnation – the inner self or soul or jīva taking up body after body to gain experience and knowledge and achieve fulfillment; and the highest fruit is immortality— the self as the Atman, essentially pure and perfect; deathless, and therefore birthless; infinite, and therefore non-dual. The whole subject is deep and profound, and its comprehension, says Vedanta, calls for a high degree of purity and detachment of mind. Man has to outgrow his childish immaturity arising from attachment to the body, which equates the self with what is only its outermost physical sheath and which sees the extinction of the self at the extinction of the physical body at death. Vedanta calls this body sthūla sharīra, gross body. The self is also clothed with a finer body— the sūkshma sharīra or subtle body— which constitutes the entire inner world of thoughts and feelings, memory and impressions, and the ego sense.

It is this finer body or shukshma sharira that is equivalent of ‘soul’ in the English language, and that forms the subject of survival and reincarnation. It is the object of study for psychology, and epistemology, and the field of enquiry and discipline for ethics and religion. It was an insight into the nature of this finer body that gave man the truths of survival and reincarnation; that these truths have been widely held by an impressive cross-section of humanity in ancient and modern times is revealed to us by a book, Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology compiled by Joseph Head and S.L. Cranston, and published by the Julian Press, Inc., New York. The Announcement on the cover flap reads:

Reincarnation is frequently regarded as an Oriental concept incompatible with western thinking and traditional belief. The present encyclopedic compilation of quotations from eminent philosophers, theologians, poets, scientists, etc. of every period of western culture, and the thoroughly documented survey of Reincarnation in world religions, will serve to correct this error in thinking.

This anthology deals with a subject which many philosophers have called the central issue of our time—the questions of man’s immortality.

The announcement ends with the following comments of James Freeman Clarke:

It would be curious if we should find science and philosophy taking up again the old theory of metempsychosis, remodelling it to suit our present modes of religious and scientific thought, and launching it again on the wide ocean of human belief. But stranger things have happened in the history of human opinion.

In the Preface to the book the compiler states:

Although a surprising number of distinguished thinkers of every period of history have either championed or on occasion favourably considered the idea of repeated existences upon earth, as this Anthology attests, such testimony hardly establishes reincarnation as a fact. It does suggest however, that an idea that has occupied so many exceptional minds cannot be lightly dismissed, but is worthy of questioning, study and investigation.


The Main Theme of Vedanta : The Immortal Self of Man

The main theme of the Katha Upanishad or of Vedanta as a whole is not survival or reincarnation; these form only suggestive clues to what the all the Upanishads seek, namely, immortality. The thinkers of the Upanishads realized that to be deathless also involved being birthless and deathless cannot be finite, and, further, that the infinite cannot be two, but must be non-dual. The sages of the Upanishads realized this infinite non-dual Self, the Atman, as the true self of Man wherein the values of subtlety, inwardness, and infinitude reach their consummation in supreme universality. It is this vision of man that Yama is endeavouring to communicate to humanity through a highly competent disciple, Nachiketa. And in verse seven of Canto two, which we shall study now, Yama refers to the profundity and consequent difficulty of comprehension of this subject of the Atman:

श्रवणायापि बहुभिर्यो न लभ्यः
शृण्वन्तोऽपि बहवो यं न विद्युः ।
आश्चर्यो वक्ता कुशलोऽस्य लब्धा
आश्चर्यो ज्ञाता कुशलानुशिष्टः ॥

śravaṇāyāpi bahubhiryo na labhyaḥ
śṛṇvanto'pi bahavo yaṃ na vidyuḥ |
āścaryo vaktā kuśalo'sya labdhā
āścaryo jñātā kuśalānuśiṣṭaḥ ||

(Katha Upanishad, 7th Mantra, Canto 2)

Even to hear of It is not available to many; many having heard of It cannot yet comprehend. Wonderful is Its teacher and (equally) talented is Its pupil. Wonderful indeed is he who comprehends It taught by a talented preceptor.

In the next verse, verse eight, Yama tells us further that:

न नरेणावरेण प्रोक्त एष
सुविज्ञेयो बहुधा चिन्त्यमानः ।
अनन्यप्रोक्ते गतिरत्र नास्ति
अणीयान् ह्यतर्क्यमणुप्रमाणात् ॥

na nareṇāvareṇa prokta eṣa
suvijñeyo bahudhā cintyamānaḥ |
ananyaprokte gatiratra nāsti
aṇīyān hyatarkyamaṇupramāṇāt ||

(Katha Upanishad, 8th Mantra, Canto 2)

This (Atman) can never be well comprehended if taught by an inferior person, even though variously pondered upon. Unless taught by another (who has realized his oneness with It), there is no way (to comprehend It). Subtler than the subtlest is It, and beyond tarka or logical reason.

That the Atman is beyond logical reason is emphasized further in the next verse, verse nine:

नैषा तर्केण मतिरापनेया
प्रोक्तान्येनैव सुज्ञानाय प्रेष्ठ ।
यां त्वमापः सत्यधृतिर्बतासि
त्वादृङ्नो भूयान्नचिकेतः प्रष्टा ॥

naiṣā tarkeṇa matirāpaneyā
proktānyenaiva sujñānāya preṣṭha |
yāṃ tvamāpaḥ satyadhṛtirbatāsi
tvādṛṅno bhūyānnaciketaḥ praṣṭā ||

(Katha Upanishad, 9th Mantra, Canto 2)

This (spiritual) understanding which thou hast obtained, O Nachiketa, cannot be attained by logical reason; it becomes easy of comprehension, O dearest one, when taught by another. Indeed thou hast thy will yoked to truth. May we have questioners like thee!


Limitations of Logical Reason

In these three verses the Upanishad emphasizes the uniqueness of the knowledge relating to the Atman. It is not the product of intellectual subtlety or cleverness; it is the product of spiritual illumination; it calls for high moral qualities such as truthfulness, purity, detachment, and devotion. Absorbed in the activities and pleasures of life, many do not get the opportunity even to hear of the Atman, to hear that in the heart of their hearts dwells the divine, which is an infinite mine of knowledge and bliss. Bereft of this knowledge, they go through life not as masters but as slaves; their activities proceed from their inner restlessness, their zest and pleasures are a measure of their inner emptiness. Says Emerson:

The men and women that we see in ourselves do not bear the impress of men and women; we are dragged through the world, we are harried, wrinkled, anxious, we all seem but the hacks of some invisible riders. How seldom do we behold tranquility!

Some do get the opportunity to hear of the Atman; but they have not got the requisite moral and spiritual capacity to grasp the significance of what they hear. About such Jesus says (Matthew xiii. 14-15):

By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
For these people's hearts are waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have closed.

Missing the meaning, they get lost in the words. Says Shankara about such people (Vivekachudamani, Verse 60):

शब्दजालं महारण्यं चित्तभ्रमणकारणम् ।

śabdajālaṃ mahāraṇyaṃ cittabhramaṇakāraṇam |

The mighty array of words (of scriptures) is a dense forest in which the mind gets deluded and lost.


Wonderful the Teacher

The teacher of the science of the Self should be a wonderful person—

आश्चर्यो वक्ता

āścaryo vaktā

, and the student highly talented—

कुशलोऽस्य लब्धा

kuśalo'sya labdhā

, says Yama. Shankara indicates the qualifications of such a teacher (Vivekachudamani, Verse 33):


श्रोत्रियोऽवृजिनोऽकामहतो यो ब्रह्मवित्तमः ।
ब्रह्मण्युपरतः शान्तो निरिन्धन इवानलः ।
अहेतुकदयासिन्धुर्बन्धुरानमतां सताम् ॥

śrotriyo'vṛjino'kāmahato yo brahmavittamaḥ |
brahmaṇyuparataḥ śānto nirindhana ivānalaḥ |
ahetukadayāsindhurbandhurānamatāṃ satām ||

The teacher is one who knows the spirit of the scriptures, sinless, unsmitten by desire, and best among the knowers of Brahman, is calm like fire that has consumed its fuel, who is boundless ocean of motiveless mercy, and friend of all good people who humbly approach him.


Extraordinary the Student

The student should be talented—kushala; this talent does not refer to capacity to master books and secure high marks in examinations or conduct worldly affairs successfully. Intelligence of high degree is certainly called for in all these worldly fields; but in the spiritual field, that intelligence must be creative as well; and it must be reinforced by high moral and spiritual qualities. Teachers of Vedanta expect the student of this science of the Self to possess certain qualifications generally referred to as sadhanachatustaya, the fourfold discipline; Shankara defines them thus (Vivekachudamani, Verses 18-19):

साधनान्यत्र चत्वारि कथितानि मनीषिभिः ।
येषु सत्स्वेव सन्निष्ठा यदभावे न सिध्यति ॥

sādhanānyatra catvāri kathitāni manīṣibhiḥ |
yeṣu satsveva sanniṣṭhā yadabhāve na sidhyati ||

Regarding this, sages have spoken of four sadhanas, disciplines, in the presence of which alone the devotion to ultimate Truth (Brahman) succeeds, and in the absence of which it fails.

आदौ नित्यानित्यवस्तुविवेकः परिगण्यते ।
इहामुत्रफलभोगविरागस्तदनन्तरम् ।
शमादिषट्कसम्पत्तिर्मुमुक्षुत्वमिति स्फुटम् ॥

ādau nityānityavastuvivekaḥ parigaṇyate |
ihāmutraphalabhogavirāgastadanantaram |
śamādiṣaṭkasampattirmumukṣutvamiti sphuṭam ||

First is enumerated the discrimination between the eternal and the ephemeral; next comes the renunciation of enjoyment of fruits (of one’s actions) here in this world and hereafter (in heaven); (next is) the sixfold wealth, beginning with shama (namely, shama, calmness of the mind; dama, control of the sense organs; uparati, the indrawn state of mind; titikshā, calm endurance of the pairs of opposites; shraddhā, faith in truth; and samādhāna, inward concentration) and (last is) obviously mumukshutvam, the yearning for liberation.

These virtues impart purity and a penetrating power to the mind and make it capable of diving deep into experience. The sense-organs control and guide the minds of men, including scholars; such a mind can come in touch with only sense-bound truths; but the truths of religion lie beyond the sense level and are to be sought there. Hence the need for ‘fourfold discipline’ mentioned above. Spirituality is achieved only by the elimination of sensuality. A spiritually sensitive student is compared by Shri Ramakrishna to a dry matchstick; a single rubbing produces the fire of illumination. But a student who, though learned, has not his senses under control is compared by him to a damp matchstick; all the rubbing will be lost even on a whole box of such sticks; no fire of illumination will result from the labour.


The Aim of Teacher-Student Communion: Illumination

Thus the teacher must be āscharya, wonderful, and the student also must be kushala, talented, if their contact is to result in illumination. For illumination is the end sought for in religion. A talented student in contact with an ordinary teacher is compared by Shri Ramakrishna to a bullfrog in grip of a water-snake; the snake cannot swallow the frog and suffers agony while inflicting greater agony on the frog. If it were a cobra, Shri Ramakrishna humorously adds, the frog would have been silenced in a single gulp with the minimum of agony for the both. Hence the further emphasis is in verse eight on the need for a competent teacher. If taught by an inferior person,

नरेणावरेण प्रोक्त

nareṇāvareṇa prokta

, this Atman is not easy of comprehension,

एष न सुविज्ञेयः

eṣa na suvijñeyaḥ

; and the Upanishad adds, even if variously pondered upon,

बहुधा चिन्त्यमानः

bahudhā cintyamānaḥ

. All such exercises of intellect are compared by another Upanishad, the Chhandogya (VI. 14. 1-2) to the restless movements and shoutings of a blindfold man:



यथा सोम्य पुरुषं गन्धारेभ्योऽभिनद्धाक्ष मानीय तं ततोऽतिजने विसृजेत्स यथा तत्र प्राङ्वोदङ्वाधराङ्वा प्रत्यङ्वा प्रध्मायीताभिनद्धाक्ष आनीतोऽभिनद्धाक्षो विसृष्टः ॥

yathā somya puruṣaṃ gandhārebhyo'bhinaddhākṣa mānīya taṃ tato'tijane visṛjetsa yathā tatra prāṅvodaṅvādharāṅvā pratyaṅvā pradhmāyītābhinaddhākṣa ānīto'bhinaddhākṣo visṛṣṭaḥ ||



तस्य यथाभिनहनं प्रमुच्य प्रब्रूयादेतां दिशं गन्धारा एतां दिशं व्रजेति स ग्रामाद् ग्रामं पृच्छन्पण्डितो मेधावी गन्धारानेवोपसंपद्यतैवमेहाचार्यवान्पुरुषो वेद तस्य तावदेव चिरं यावन्न विमोक्षेऽथ संपत्स्य इति ॥

tasya yathābhinahanaṃ pramucya prabrūyādetāṃ diśaṃ gandhārā etāṃ diśaṃ vrajeti sa grāmād grāmaṃ pṛcchanpaṇḍito medhāvī gandhārānevopasaṃpadyataivamehācāryavānpuruṣo veda tasya tāvadeva ciraṃ yāvanna vimokṣe'tha saṃpatsya iti ||


Just as, my dear, (some robber), bringing a man from the Gandhāra region (north-west frontier of present Pakistan) with his eyes bandaged, might leave him in a lonely place, and just as that man (losing all sense of direction), would shout towards the east or towards the north or towards the south or towards the west (wailing), “ I have been brought here with my eyes bandaged, I have been left here with my eyes bandaged”

And as someone might remove his bandage and tell him thus: “In this direction is the Gandhāra region, in this direction proceed”; and as he asking his way from village to village, and getting instructed, and endowed with judgment, would reach Gandhāra, even so, in this world, a person who has teacher (to guide him) will know (the Atman); for him, only so long is the delay as he is not freed from (attachment to) the body; the (along with the destruction of attachment to the body) he attains realization.


The Unfathomable Nature of Spiritual Illumination

The guru or teacher must be himself illumined; otherwise it will be like the blind leading the blind, as verse five of this chapter told us earlier. One who is helpless because his own eyes are bandaged can neither remove the bandage from another’s eyes nor show him the way home. But the guidance from one who has realized the Atman is sure and unerring, as is said in verse eight ananyaprokte gatiratra nasti. The way of the Atman is described by the Vedantic sages as a trackless path; the rest of humanity cannot comprehend with their finite minds the infinite dimension of the one who has realized the Atman, the Self of all. Says the Mandukya Karika (IV. 95):

अजे साम्ये तु ये केचिद्भविष्यन्ति सुनिश्चिताः ।
ते हि लोके महाज्ञानास्तच्च लोको न गाहते ॥

aje sāmye tu ye kecidbhaviṣyanti suniścitāḥ |
te hi loke mahājñānāstacca loko na gāhate ||

They alone are said to be mahājnanas— endowed with the highest wisdom— who are firm in their conviction of the Self, birthless and the same-in-all. This, ordinary men cannot understand.

Commenting on this verse Shankara says:

That this knowledge of the supreme Reality is incapable of being understood by the narrow-minded, by the unwise, that is by persons of small intellect who are outside the knowledge of Vedanta, is thus explained in this verse. Those few, even though they be women or others, who are firm in their conviction of the nature of the ultimate Reality, unborn and undivided, are alone possessors of the highest wisdom. They alone know the essence of Reality. Others, that is, persons of ordinary intellect cannot understand their ways, that is to say, the supreme Reality realized by the wise. It is said in the Smrti: “Even the gods feel puzzled while trying to follow in the footsteps of those who leave no track behind, of those who realize themselves in all beings, and who are always devoted to the welfare of all. They leave no tracks behind like the birds flying through sky.”

The unfathomable nature of an illumined sage is brought out in a conversation between Gautama Buddha and the monk Vacchagotta (Sutta Pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 72; adapted from J. G. Jenning’s The Vedantic Buddhism of the Buddha, pp. 509-11):

‘O Gotama, whither does the monk with minds thus liberated proceed?’ ‘The phrase “he proceeds” indeed, Vaccha, does not apply.’ ‘Then, indeed, O Gotama, he does not proceed.' ‘The phrase “he does not proceed”, Vaccha does not apply.’ ‘Then indeed, O Gotama, he both proceeds and does not proceed.’ ‘Then indeed, O Gotama, he both proceeds and does not proceed.’ ‘The phrase, “he both proceeds and does not proceed”, Vaccha, does not apply.’ ‘Then indeed, O Gotama he neither proceeds nor does he not proceed.’ ‘The phrase, “he neither proceeds nor does he not proceed.” Vaccha, does not apply’…. ‘In this matter, O Gotama, I have arrived at ignorance and confusion.’

‘There is enough (cause), Vaccha, for ignorance and confusion in thee. Deep indeed, Vaccha, is this dhamma (truth), difficult to see, hard to understand, peaceful, exalted, not in the sphere of logical reasoning (atakkavacharo), subtle, to be experienced by the wise; it is difficult to be understood by thee who follow a different view…Therefore indeed, Vachha, I shall question thee now, and do thou answer as it may please thee.’

‘What thinkest thou, Vaccha? If a fire burn in front of thee, wouldst thou be aware that it was burning in front of thee?’ ‘I should be aware that the fire was burning in front of me.’ ‘But if, Vaccha, one should ask thee, “On what depends this fire which burns in front of thee?” What wouldst thou answer?’ ‘I would answer thus: “ this fire which burns before me depends on fuel of grass or wood.” ‘But if …. the fire should become extinguished, wouldst thou be aware that it was extinguished?’…‘I should be aware that it was extinguished.’ ‘But if, Vaccha, one should ask thee…to what region, east or west or north or south has the fire gone hence, what wouldst thou answer?’ ‘This does not apply, O Gotama, for the fire burnt depending on fuel of grass or wood, and when this has been consumed and no other fuel is obtained, on being without nutriment it is reckoned as extinct.’

‘So indeed, Vaccha, the material of Tathāgata (Buddha) by one might distinguish him, being rejected, being cut off at root, rendered like an up-torn palm tree, deprived of separate existence, not able to proceed (to a new existence) in the future, and the Tathāgata, indeed, Vaccha, thus liberated from material form, being profound, immeasurable, unfathomable, even as the great ocean, the phrase “he proceeds” does not apply, the phrase “he does not proceed” does not apply.’


The Transcendence of Logical Reason

The illumination is accordingly described by verse eight as

अणीयान् ह्यतर्क्यमणुप्रमाणात्

aṇīyān hyatarkyamaṇupramāṇāt

— ‘not a subject to be grasped by tarka (logical reason) because it is subtler than the subtlest.’ Verse nine clarifies this still further:

नैषा तर्केण मतिरापनेया

naiṣā tarkeṇa matirāpaneyā

— ‘this spiritual understanding cannot be attained by tarka.’ We have seen already that Buddha also refers to this realization as beyond the reach of logical reason. Logical reason has been judged to be inconclusive by every religious system; but what these systems offer as a substitute is revelation as contained in their respective scriptures. Other philosophical thinkers offer intuition as such a substitute. Vedanta, including Buddha, accepts the position that the highest spiritual experience is beyond the reach of logical reason; but it adds the proviso that neither revelation nor intuition should contradict logical reason. This limitation of logical reason is also admitted by scientists and rationalists today. So that the Upanishdic statement that ‘this (spiritual) understanding cannot be attained by tarka, logical reason, deductive or inductive, receives more general recognition today than it did in the nineteenth century. There is, however, no unanimity among scientists, philosophers, and religious thinkers as to the nature of that limitation; and its approach to its subject deserves careful consideration by all modern thinkers, be they religious men, philosophers, or scientists; for Vedanta all along upheld reason — logical and scientific — and has also declared that what lies above reason should not contradict reason.


Says Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, Vol. 1. p.181):

The field of reason, or of the conscious workings of the mind, is narrow and limited. There is a little circle within which human reason must move. It cannot go beyond. Every attempt to go beyond is impossible, yet it is beyond this circle of reason that there lies all that holds most dear. All these questions, whether there is an immortal soul, whether there is a God, whether there is any supreme intelligence guiding this universe or not, are beyond the field of reason. Reason can never answer these questions. What does reason say? It says,” I am an agnostic; I do not know either yea or nay”. Yet these questions are so important to us. Without a proper answer to them, human life will be purposeless. All our ethical theories, all our moral attitudes, all that is good and great in human nature, have been moulded upon answers that have come from beyond the circle.

And further (ibid., pp. 184-85):

To get any reason out of the mass of incongruity we call human life, we have to transcend our reason, but we must do it scientifically, slowly, by regular practice, and we must cast off all superstition. We must take up the study of the superconscious state just as any other science. On reason we must have to lay our foundation, we must follow reason as far as it leads, and when reason fails, reason itself will show us the way to the highest plane. When you hear a man say, “I am inspired”, and then talk irrationally, reject it. Why? Because these three states — instinct, reason, and superconsciousness, or unconscious, conscious, and superconscious states — belong to one and the same mind. There are not three minds in one man, but one state of it develops into the others. Instinct develops into reason, and reason into transcendental consciousness; therefore, not one of the states contradicts the others. Real inspiration never contradicts reason, but fulfills it.


Logical Reason versus Philosophical Reason

Vedanta upholds logical reason in dealing with the outer world of the not-Self; in this field of experience, knowledge expresses itself through the category of relation. But logical reason discovers its own limitations when it tries to get a knowledge of the relationless Absolute. The absolute of logical reason turns out to be only a correlative of the relative, besides being a mere logical abstraction. The Vedantic reason discovered that if there is an absolute Reality embedded in experience, it must be sought for in experience itself, and not in the categories of thought. But this search is not to be confined to the field of sense-experience, which is the world of the not-Self, where relativity reigns supreme, but must rise to the supersensual field of the Self, which is the world of fact and the world of value in one. Hence Vedanta turned its attention to this inner world and, with the help of buddhi, philosophical Reason, stripped the self of all not-Self elements, and discovered the true Self as Brahman, the non-dual Absolute, deathless and birthless. This is the Atman of the Vedanta; and as subject of all experience, it cannot be brought into the terms of any logical relation because, as the subject, It is the everpresent witness of every logical judgment, and of all experiences in the waking, dream, and dreamless states. The Atman is thus beyond the grasp of the senses and sense-bound logical intellect or reason, but it is revealed by buddhi, philosophical reason. The Gita (VI.21) accordingly refers to this highest experience as buddhigrāhyam, grasped by the buddhi, but atīndriyam, beyond the reach of the senses. Any attempt to bring the Atman or self within the fold of logical judgment or relation, which is what man does when he says: I am happy, unhappy, ignorant, or learned, finite, infinite, alive, dead, and so on, is immediately a failure, because the true Self, which is the subject, ever remains perceiver of all such judgments and relations. It is the unseen but ever present factor in every act of perception and knowledge. Says the Ashtavakra Gita (XII.7):

अचिन्त्यं चिन्त्यमानोऽपि चिन्तारूपं भजत्यसौ ।

acintyaṃ cintyamāno'pi cintārūpaṃ bhajatyasau |

Thinking on the unthinkable One, one betakes oneself only to a form of thought.

Spiritual discipline in Vedanta is meant to purify and transform the sense-bound intellect or logical reason into buddhi or philosophical Reason. Spiritual truths and life’s mysteries are penetrated and laid bare by this buddhi alone, the glories of which are sung in the Gita and other Vedantic works. In this connection we can recall that Siddhartha, Gautama, when he attained the Absolute was named Gautama the ‘Buddha’, that is buddhiswarupa.


Nachiketa’s will to Truth

Nachiketa had achieved this buddhi; and Yama therefore tells him:

नैषा तर्केण मतिरापनेया…यां त्वमापः

naiṣā tarkeṇa matirāpaneyā…yāṃ tvamāpaḥ

The (spiritual) understanding which thou hast obtained cannot be attained through tarka or logical reason. How does man achieve this buddhi? By acquiring the spiritual strength that comes from one-pointed devotion to truth; for as Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. III, pp. 224-25):


And here is the test of truth — any thing that makes you weak physically, intellectually, and spiritually, reject as poison; there is no life in it, it cannot be true. Truth is strengthening. Truth is purity. Truth is all knowledge.

Yama finds in Nachiketa this one pointed devotion to truth. He tells him:



indeed thou hast thy will yoked to truth, and exclaims in high appreciation:

त्वादृङ्नो भूयान्नचिकेतः प्रष्टा

tvādṛṅno bhūyānnaciketaḥ praṣṭā

may we have, Nachiketa, a student like thee.


‘To yoke the will to truth’ is the greatest thing that man can do with his will. This is the beginning, middle, and the end of all moral training. The will yoked to worldly profit and pleasures make it a slave to man’s lower nature. It then becomes a force for evil, by tending to destroy other peoples happiness. When moral discipline turns it in the direction of the divine within, it achieves its redemption; and every step onward becomes a march to grater purity, energy, and illumination. The fusion of pure will, pure intelligence, and pure feeling is buddhi or Vedantic Reason, which signifies the consummation of education in character and illumination. In praise of this will, Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. III, Eighth Edition, p.224):

The will is stronger than anything else. Everything must go down before the will, for that comes from God and God Himself; a pure and a strong will is omnipotent.


The Extraordinary Nature of
Vivekananda’s Disciplineship under Ramakrishna

Nachiketa was the talented student of atmavidya the science of the Self, kushalo asya labdha, under Yama, the wonderful teacher, ascharyo vakta. The coming together of two such gifted minds resulted in lasting benefit to humanity at large in the shape of the immortal inspiration contained in the Katha Upanishad. History is illumined with instances of communion of producing results of far-reaching consequence in different fields of endeavour. Here in we see the very soul of all true education. This communion of minds helps to turn every human relationship into a dynamic educational process, be it student-teacher relationship in education, or man-woman relationship in marriage. Where such communion of mind is absent, human relationship becomes shorn of all spiritual value. The modern age saw an extraordinary instance of such a human relationship in education in the disciplineship of Vivekananda under Ramakrishna.

The Upanishdic description of

आश्चर्यो वक्ता

āścaryo vaktā


कुशलोऽस्य लब्धा

kuśalo'sya labdhā

fits Ramakrishna and Vivekananda most aptly and well. For in the wonderful drama of spiritual communion between these two extraordinary minds, which was enacted for five years in the precincts of the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar near Calcutta, the modern world witnessed the gathering up and energizing of the scattered spiritual forces of humanity. That redemptive energy could not be contained within the precincts of the temple nor even of the Indian continent, but soon traveled to the four corners of the world with an impact which promises to be both pervasive and lasting. Swami Vivekananda concludes his lecture on My Master, delivered in New York in 1896, with this exposition of the immortal legacy of Shri Ramakrishna to all humanity (Complete Works, Vol. IV, Eighth Edition, p. 187):


This is the message of Shri Ramakrishna to the modern world: “Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas, or sects, or churches or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality: and the more this is developed in a man, the powerful is he for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words, or names, or sects, but that it means spiritual realization. Only those can understand who have felt. Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of mankind. They alone are powers of light.”

The more such men are produced in a country, the more that country will be raised; and that country where such men absolutely do not exist is simply doomed, nothing can save it. Therefore my Master’s message to mankind is: “Be spiritual and realize truth for yourself.” He would have you give up for the sake of your fellow beings. He would have you cease talking about love for your brother, and set to work to prove your words. The time has come for renunciation, for realization; and then you will see there is no need for any quarrel. And then only will you be ready to help humanity. To proclaim and make clear the fundamental unity underlying all religions was the mission of my Master. Other teachers have taught special religions which bear their names, but this great teacher of the nineteenth century made no claim for himself. He left every religion undisturbed because he has realized that, in reality, they are all part and parcel of the one eternal religion.

In fact, as we have seen, logical reason, which is the instrument of logic and scientific method, feels baffled even by the mystery of the external world, the not-Self, as admitted by scientists themselves. Logical reason is inconclusive: tarka apratishthānāt, as the Vedanta Sutra of Badarayana cryptically expresses it: this is found echoed in the writings of many modern scientific thinkers. The following passage from James Jeans (The New Background of Science, p.68) which has been quoted earlier may be relevantly referred to here:

Physical science set out to study a world of matter and radiation, and finds that it cannot describe or picture the nature of either, even to itself. Photons, electrons, and protons have become about as meaningless to the physicist as x, y, z are to a child on its first day of learning algebra. The most we hope for at the moment is to discover ways of manipulating x, y, z without knowing what they are, with the result that the advance of knowledge is at present reduced to what Einstein has described as extracting one incomprehensible from another incomprehensible

We have discussed briefly this subject of the limitations of logical and scientific reason as viewed in Vedanta. The supreme importance of the subject demands fuller treatment, and this therefore, we propose to give further.


Limitations of Logical Reason: How and Why?

Reason is a precious value thrown up by evolution and the source of much human progress in culture and civilization. The discovery of its inadequacy is itself the fruits of man’s insatiable love of truth, and his passion to push forward in its search; such a discovery is not, and should not be allowed to become, a signal to revert to unreason or less reason. If logical and scientific reason is found to be inadequate, it has to be developed into a more adequate instrument for seeking truth. This is what Vedanta achieved in its buddhi or philosophical reason. This is conveyed in the lucid utterance of Swami Vivekananda which, though quoted before, bears reproduction in this context:

On reason we must have to lay our foundation, we must follow reason as far as it leads, when reason fails, reason itself will show us the way to the highest plane.

What is the chief basis of this drawback of logical and scientific reason? Vedanta finds it in its dependence on sense-experience. Within the field of sense-experience, logical and scientific reason is the most wonderful instrument of knowledge and truth. Man has, by slow degrees, developed this instrument along with its most important tool, language, in precision and range in order to deal with the baffling and confused mass of data pouring in upon him from his external world. It has functioned as the luminous point of his inner self, which is otherwise dark and unplumbed; and with its help he has wrested from nature truth after truth and gained greater and greater control over her forces. This has enabled him to outstrip the rest of the animal world in the race of evolution and establish his hegemony over external nature.

It has also helped him to establish by stages, through the transmission of knowledge and experience, an ordered society, growing steadily, a milieu for his restless onward march. Besides these practical achievements, it has also given him a measure of satisfaction in his quest for truth, in his search for knowledge, in his desire to unravel the mystery of existence.

With these great achievements to its credit how, then, anyone speak of the limitations of human reason? Have we not seen reason’s limitations being overcome by reason itself in the brief course of human history? What a distance has reason travelled, from an uncertain tool in the hands of primitive man to an efficient instrument in the hands of the twentyfirst-century scientist! Can we not therefore expect that whatever limitations have come to view in human reason will be overcome in due course, and that it will be developed into a perfect instrument to unravel completely the mystery of existence and establish peace and happiness in the whole world?


Vedanta Upholds Reason

The answer of Vedanta to these doubts and questions is bold and clear. And behind its answer lies an impressive record of human endeavour to develop human reason and human language into their maximum possible perfection as instruments to secure for man’s satisfaction in his insatiable hunger for knowledge for its own sake and, to a lesser measure in his search for general happiness and welfare. Vedanta holds that reason is man’s most precious possession and that it should be kept bright and pure, and that nothing should be indulged in which weakens or destroys it. The Sanskrit word for reason, in its brightest and purest form, is buddhi, which means philosophical Reason, of which logical and scientific reason is but a limited expression. The English word ‘intellect’ stands for buddhi in this limited sense. In search for knowledge in any field, reason is the final court of appeal. This primacy of reason is upheld in many passages in the Upanishads and in the Gita, the Mahabharata and Bhagavata.

Here are a few passages from the Gita:

‘Seek refuge in Reason’ (II. 49);
‘Reason helps man to cross beyond the taint of delusion or ignorance’ (II. 52);
‘By ruin of Reason man is utterly lost’ (III. 63);
‘No man should be unsettled or confounded in his Reason’ (III. 26);
‘Reason is supreme among man’s faculties’ (III. 42):
‘It is Reason that grasps the infinite joy of the ultimate Reality’ (VI. 21);
‘Through absence of Reason man fails to know the immutable nature of the highest Reality’ (VII. 24);
‘God blesses man by endowing him with Reason’(X.10);
‘When man’s Reason is impure he fails to realize the Self as it is’ (XVIII. 16);
‘It is purified Reason that helps man to know right and wrong, fear and fearlessness, bondage and liberation’ (XVIII. 30);
‘It is by resorting to yoga of Reason that man attains supreme Reality’ (XVIII. 57).

Here are two passages, among many, from the Upanishads:

‘The Atman is realized by subtle seers endowed with the keenest Reason’ (Katha Upanishad, III. 12);
‘May the Supreme endow us with clear Reason’ (Shvetashvatara Upanishad, III. 4).


Reason in Classical Physics

Logical and scientific reason is man’s only guide in his search for truth in the external world. In this field reason seeks unity in the midst of multiplicity; and every advance in knowledge is an advance towards unity. In this search reason takes certain principles as its basic assumptions—principles like uniformity, non-contradiction, and causality; it does not question the truth of these assumptions; neither does it seek ultimate Truth: but something in him urges man to question all assumptions, and also to seek ultimate Truth. The rigid framework of logical and scientific reason thus feels the impact of higher force within. When this reason becomes critical of itself and discovers its own limitations, it takes the first step in evolving into philosophical Reason. But this first step must be followed by further steps if it is not to end up in futility as a high critique of mere sense-experience. This is what happened to Kant whose Critique of Pure Reason, ended in agnosticism, needing another critique, Critique of Practical Reason, to restore faith in moral values.

These further steps are necessitated by reason being confronted in formal logic is under the most rigid framework, and has very little to do with experience; this explains its static and formal nature. Reason achieves a direct confrontation with experience in the logic of scientific method. It was this discipline of experience that enabled scientific reason from the seventeenth to nineteenth century to achieve its great successes in unravelling the mystery of external nature. But by the end of the nineteenth century, reason began to feel the erstwhile scientific framework of classical physics too rigid for its expansive mood. Says physicist Heisenberg (Physics and Philosophy, p.169):

……the nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people. This frame was supported by the fundamental concepts of classical physics, space, time, matter and causality; the concept of reality applied to the things or events that we could perceive by our senses or that could be observed by means of the refined tools that technical science had provided. Matter was the primary reality. The progress of science was pictured as a crusade of conquest into the material world. Utility was the watchword of the time… this frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concepts of mind, of the human soul, or of life.


Reason in Twenty-first-Century Physics

The breakdown of this rigid framework of classical physics became inevitable at the end of the nineteenth century with the discovery of a mass of new facts regarding the physical world, more especially the sub-atomic world. The development of quantum and relativity theories accelerated this process through the early decades of the twentieth century until the framework became utterly untenable. The most revolutionary aspect of this change lay in repudiating the exclusively ‘objective’ character of the so-called objective world studied by science, and the consequent change in its concept of reality. Pointing out the significance of the quantum theory, Heisenberg says (ibid., p. 33):

…it is in quantum theory that the most fundamental changes with respect to the concept of reality have taken place, and in quantum theory in its final form the new ideas of atomic physics are concentrated and crystallized….But the change in the concept of reality manifesting itself in quantum theory is not simply a continuation of the past; it seems to be a real break in the structure of modern science.

And dealing with its revolutionary impact, he continues (ibid., pp. 54-55):

To what extent, then, have we finally come to an objective description of the world, especially of the atomic world? In classical physics science started from the belief — or should one say from the illusion? — that we could describe the world or at least parts of world without any reference to ourselves. This is actually possible to a large extent. We know that the city of London exists whether we see or not. It may be said that classical physics is just that idealization in which we can speak about parts of the world without any reference to ourselves. Its success has led to the general ideal of an objective description of the world. Objectivity has become the first criterion for the value of any scientific result…One may perhaps say that quantum theory corresponds to this ideal as far as possible… But it starts from the division of the world into the ‘object’ and the rest of the world we use the classical concepts in our description. This division is arbitrary and historically a direct consequence of our scientific method; the use of the classical concepts is finally a consequence of the general human way of thinking. But this is already a reference to ourselves and in so far our description is not completely objective.

The same is emphasized also by Sir James Jeans in his significantly titled book The New Background of Science (pp. 2-6):

Thus is the history of physical science in the twentieth century is one of the progressive emancipation from the purely human angle of vision.

The physicist who can discard his human spectacles, and can see clearly in the strange new light which then assails his eyes, finds himself living in an unfamiliar world, which even his immediate predecessors would probably fail to recognize.

Again (ibid, pp. 287-88):

The old science which pictured nature as a crowd of blindly wandering atoms, claimed that it was depicting a completely objective universe, entirely outside of, and detached from, the mind which perceived it. Modern science makes no such claim, frankly admitting that its subject of study is primarily our observation of nature, and not nature itself. The new picture of nature must then inevitably involve mind as well as matter which is perceived—so must be more mental in character than the fallacious picture which preceded it.

Yet the essence of the present situation I physics is not that something mental has come into the new picture of nature, so much as that nothing non-mental has survived from the old picture. As we have watched the gradual metamorphosis of the old picture into the new, we have not seen the addition the addition of mind to matter so much as the complete disappearance of matter, at least of the kind out of which the older physics constructed its objective universe.


Reason in Modern Science
Reason in Western Philosophy

The history of science reveals the distance travelled by reason from the sterility of formal logic, through the fruitful though rigid framework of classical science, to the revolutionary and expansive heights of modern science. Every advance in reason’s clarity and effectiveness has been the product of increase in detachment, in subtlety, and in the range of facts. The reason of formal logic rose beyond its own limitations by developing into the reason of classical science with its stress on induction and verification; the reason of classical science similarly transcended its own limitation by growing into the reason of twentyfirst-century science. In this latest development, reason has achieved an evaluation of experience and a criticism of itself far surpassing anything that was achieved in the whole range of western thought, scientific or philosophical. This is clearly revealed in an estimate of the fundamental position of Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason made by physicist Heisenberg from the standpoint of modern physics (Physics and Philosophy, pp.80-82):

With regard to physics Kant took as a priori, besides space and time, the law of causality and the concept of substance. In a later stage of his work he tried to include the law of conservation of matter, the equality of ‘action and reaction’ and even the law of gravitation. The physicist would be willing to follow Kant here, if the term ‘a priori’ is used in the absolute sense that was given to it by Kant….

Coming now to the comparison of Kant’s doctrines with modern physics, it looks in the finest moment as though his central concept of the ‘synthetic judgements a priori’ had been completely annihilated by the discoveries of our century. The theory of relativity has changed our views on space and time, of which nothing is seen in Kant’s priori forms of pure intuition. The law of causality is no longer applied in quantum theory and the law of conservation of matter is no longer true for the elementary particles. Obviously Kant could not have foreseen the new discoveries, but since he was convinced that his concepts would be the ‘the basis of any future metaphysics that can be called science’ it is interesting to see where his arguments were wrong.

As example we take the law of causality…

Is this true in atomic physics? Let us consider a radium atom which can emit an a-particle. The time for the emission of the a-particle cannot be predicted. We can only say that in the average the emission will take place in about two thousand years. Therefore, when we observe the emission we do not actually look for a foregoing event from which the emission must according to a rule follow. Logically it would be quite possible to look for a foregoing event, and we need not be discouraged by the fact that hitherto none has been found. But why has the scientific method actually changed in this very fundamental question since Kant?

Two possible answers can be given to that question. The one is: We have been convinced by experience that the laws of quantum theory are correct and, if they are, we know that a foregoing event as cause for the emission at a given time cannot be found. The other answer is: We know the foregoing event, but not quite accurately. We know the forces in the atomic nucleus that are responsible for the emission of the a-particle. But this knowledge contains the uncertainty which is brought about by the interaction between the nucleus and the rest of the world. If we wanted to know why the a-particle was emitted at that particular time we would have to know the microscopic structure of the whole world including ourselves, and that is impossible. Therefore, Kant’s arguments for the priori character of the law of causality no longer apply.

The priori concepts which Kant considered an undisputable truth are no longer contained in the scientific system of modern physics.

What Kant had not foreseen was that these a priori concepts can be conditions for science and at the same time can have only a limited range of applicability…It was the fundamental paradox of quantum theory that could not be foreseen by Kant. Modern Physics has changed Kant’s statement about the possibility of synthetic judgements a priori from a metaphysical one into a practical one. The synthetic judgements a priori thereby have the character of a relative truth.


Modern Scientific Reason versus VedanticReason

The reason employed by modern science in its twenty-first century form in the above critique of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason reveals a sweep and depth unachieved till then in the West by its scientific and philosophical reason. This new dimension of reason has possibilities within it of developing into the buddhi or philosophical Reason of Vedanta which derives its sweep and depth from a dispassionate and penetrating study of experience in its totality—experience revealed in the three states of waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. Vedanta adopts therefore the avasthātraya prakriyā, the methodology of the three states, which is scientific method amplified and developed for the study of experience as a whole with a view to arriving at ultimate Truth.

Neither the reason of formal logic nor the reason of classical science, can arrive at ultimate Truth. Their limitations proceed from what Jeans calls their ‘purely human angle of vision.’ Vedanta expresses the same idea by saying that their limitations proceed from their confining themselves to the data of the waking state only. Reason in modern science has, through revolutionary advances not only in physics but also in other branches of modern thought like biology and psychology, broken through this rigid framework of the waking state with its static sense-data and the ego, its synthetic a priori concepts, its limited ideas of subject and object, its notion of substantiality as criterion of reality, and copy, correspondence, and coherence etc. as criteria of truth. It has thus released reason from its sensate tether, or from its waking-state tether, in the Vedantic language, and set it on the road of high adventure into the mystery of the unknown in man and nature.

By admitting, in the words of Jeans, that ‘the new picture of nature must then inevitably involve mind as well as matter—the mind which perceives and the matter which is perceived’, modern science has enormously enlarged the field of data for its study, and correspondingly enlarged the scope of its reason as well. In Vedantic language, this means that modern science has gone beyond the exclusive study of the waking state to a study of the waking and dream states in correlation. The reality that confronts modern science is not objects in space and times but events in the space-time continuum, in which the subjects and objects of the waking state becomes just configurations of space-time. It is this dimension of experience that is revealed in the dream state. If science finds that mind as subject enters into its knowledge as the world as object, if the purely objective is nowhere to be found, then it will be only true to itself if it enters into an investigation of the world of the subject, the world of mind, with a view to arriving at the reality underlying all phenomena. Says M.K. Bradby (The Logic of the unconscious Mind, Introduction, x-xi):

The human mind is somewhere on the way to perfection, moving along the now familiar lines of organic growth, lines of ‘differentiation and integration’. At its advancing stage some element is made explicit which before was implicit, some content of mind brought out, defined emphasized, which already existed in embryo.

But if reason be the highest faculty yet known, there are thinkers who looks for its successor, and belittle reason in their longing for that power which shall transcend it; a power, they hope less arduous and exacting in its demands upon the will.

The power transcending reason may, however, best be served by those who develop reason itself to the height of its capacity, for analogy suggests that the new is soonest reached through developing the old.


Scientific Reason verses the Prejudices of Scientists

Science cannot rest content on the way; its nature is to continue to pose questions, to experience, objective or subjective, till the mystery of experience is cleared; and reason is its luminous instrument in this adventure into the unknown; the development and sharpening of reason has to keep pace with the enlargement of the field of investigation. This is achieved through greater and greater intellectual detachment and moral purity by continuous liberation of reason, according to Vedanta, from the thraldom of man’s sensate nature. The logic of the conscious and the logic of the unconscious, the logic of the waking state and the logic of the dream state, become fused into what Vedanta calls the logic of all drshyam or the totality of all precepts and concepts. Modern scientific reason is already on the road to this development. If its progress is low and halting it is only because of the unscientific attitude adopted by some scientists in refusing to face inconvenient facts due to their attachment to older theories. That love of scientific dogma can stifle love of truth and retard the progress of science, has often been demonstrated in the history of modern science. Says John Langdon-Davies in his book Man: The Known and Unknown (p. 27):

When people fail to understand the nature of the scientific law, they may easily be deceived into denying a new fact because it does not fit into some law which has hitherto been a law simply because all previous facts did fit into it. There are many facts about human nature which are still denied because they are thought to destroy some scientific law.

There are scientists, for example, who deny that telepathy can exist. This is how they argue: information cannot pass from one person to another without some sort of energy-exchange: as physics knows it, therefore telepathy does not exist and anyone who says it does is either self-deceived or a plain liar. That is an example of arguing from law to fact, as if scientific law could not annihilate a single fact. It is not a scientific way of arguing.

John Langdon-Davies adds (ibid., p. 29):

If we look at the history of science we are astonished at the fools which even great scientists have made of themselves by not coming to terms with their will-to-disbelieve.

We laugh at the priests who refused to look at Galileo’s telescope, but were they more foolish than the great Lavoisier, the father of modern chemical science and industry, when he wrote a paper to the French academy proving that meteoric stones could not fall from the sky because there were no stones in the sky to fall?

John Langdon-Davies gives two other examples: First, Baumé, the leading French chemist, who refused to accept Lavoisier’s announcement of air being composed chiefly of two separate gases; second, a leading member of the French Academy of Sciences, M. Bouillard, who refused to believe Edison’s demonstration of the phonograph in 1878 and who, seizing the demonstrator by the collar, called him a ventriloquist. Giving Baumé’s objections John Langdon-Davies continues (ibid., p.30):

“It is not to be imagined,” wrote Baumé, “that these elements regarded as such for 2,000 years are now to be placed among the number of compound substances, or that the results of experiments to decompose air and water can be looked upon as certain truth or that reasoning on the subject, to say the least, can be anything but absurd. The recognized properties in the elements are related to all the physical and chemical knowledge we have yet obtained. Thus far they have served as our basis for an infinite number of discoveries and support brilliant theories. Are we now expected to surrender our belief in fire, water, earth and air? Are these no longer to be recognized as elements, that is, primary substances?”


Reason in Twenty-first Century Biology

From these and other similar illustrations, it is clear that scientific reason becomes truly scientific only when it accepts the challenge of new facts. The advance of science continually poses this challenge to reason. We have already seen how the reason of classical science received a jolt from twenty-first century physics. It received a second jolt from twenty-first century biology where scientific reason is well in the way to liberating itself from the limitations from the waking point of view which dominated nineteenth century biology. It is relevant to quote the late paleobotanist and thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin again here (The Phenomenon of Man, p. 55):

In the eyes of the physicist, nothing exists legitimately, at least up to now, except the without of things. The same intellectual attitude is still permissible in the bacteriologist, whose cultures (apart from some substantial difficulties) are treated as laboratory reagents. But it is still more difficult in the realm of plants. It tends to become a gamble in the case of a biologist studying the behaviour of insects or coelenterates. It seems merely futile with regard to the vertebrates. Finally it breaks down completely with man, in whom the existence of within can no longer be evaded, because it is the object of a direct intuition and the substance of all knowledge.

Dealing with the irrationality involved in the hesitation of science in recognizing this within of nature, de Chardin continues (ibid.):

The apparent restriction of the phenomenon of consciousness to the higher forms of life has long served science as an excuse for eliminating it from its models of the universe. A queer exception, an aberrant function, an epiphenomenon—thought was classed under one or other of these heads in order to get rid of it. But what would have happened to modern physics if radium had been classified as an ‘abnormal substance’ without further ado? Clearly, the activity of radium had not been neglected, and could not be neglected, because, being measurable, it forced its way into the external web of matter—whereas consciousness, in order to be integrated into a world-system, necessitates consideration of the existence of new aspect or dimension in the stuff of the universe. We shrink from the attempt, but which of us does not constantly see identical problems facing research workers, which have to be solved by the same method, namely, to discover the universal-hidden beneath the exceptional?

And applying the above scientific method to the phenomenon of consciousness, de Chardin concludes (ibid.)

It is impossible to deny that, deep within ourselves, an “interior” appears at the heart of beings, as it were seen through a rent. This is enough to ensure that, in one degree or another, this “interior” should obtrude itself as existing everywhere in nature from all time. Since the stuff of the universe has an inner aspect at one point of itself, there is necessarily a double aspect to its structure, that is to say in every region of space and time—in the same way, for instance, as it is granular: coexistence with their Without, there is a within to things.


Reason in Modern Depth Psychology

We shall now consider how the reason of classical science and rationalism and enlightenment it had upheld and sworn by, received a more serious challenge from modern psychology. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and its primacy over the conscious revealed human reason as a fugitive value ever at the mercy of man’s more powerful irrational and blind drives and forces. This discovery demonstrated the utter shallowness of the rationalism and enlightenment of the nineteenth century.

The study of human nature in the light of physics and psychology in the nineteenth century had yielded the psychology of behaviourism. That was human psyche viewed from the outside. Through the study of dreams, initiated by Freud and his school, the study of human nature in its depths began to be undertaken, blazing the trail for a study of psyche from the inside. The first impact of this penetration into the unconscious through the study of dreams was, however, unfortunate, from the point of view of the growth of reason. For it resulted in the submergence of reason in unreason and the presentation of human nature in the darkest colours. The unconscious was presented by Freud as shot through with sex, and by Adler with love of power. The outlook and temper so generated infected literature and art, politics and social life for several decades. The apotheosis of the irrational man led to the lowering of morals due to the weakening of the will to check innate impulses and drives. The unconscious received more wholesome treatment from Jung who protested vigorously against its lurid presentation by Freud and Adler. Says Carl Jung (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pp. 12-13):

The view that dreams are merely imaginary fulfilments of suppressed wishes has long ago been superseded. It is certainly true that there are dreams which embody suppressed wishes and fears, but what is there which the dream cannot on occasion embody? Dreams may give expression to ineluctable truths, to philosophical pronouncements, illusions wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions and heaven knows what besides. One thing we ought never to forget: almost the half of our lives is passed in a more or less unconscious state. The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious.

Pleading for the recognition of the presence of something higher than mere instincts in the unconscious, Jung says (ibid., pp. 136-37):

I do not doubt that the natural instincts or drives are forces of propulsion in human life, whether we call them sexuality or the will to power; but I also do not doubt that these instincts come into collision with the spirit, for they are continually colliding with something, and why should not this something, be called spirit? I am far from knowing what spirit is in itself, and equally far from what instincts are. The one is as mysterious to me as the of the other, yet I am unable to dismiss the one by explaining it in terms of the other…. They are terms that we allow to stand for powerful forces whose nature we do not know.

And protesting against Freud’s views of the sexuality of the human psyche, Jung says (ibid., pp. 138-41):

I hold that psychic energy involves the play of opposites in much the same way as physical energy involves a difference of potential… What I seek is to set bounds to the rampant terminology of sex which threatens to vitiate all discussion of the human psyche; I wish to put sexuality itself in its proper place. Common-sense will always return to the fact that sexuality is only one of the life-instincts—only one of the psycho-physical function— though one that is without doubt very far-reaching and important.

… There is nothing that can free us from this bond except that opposite urge of life, the spirit. It is not the children of the flesh, but the “children of God” who know freedom ….That is what Freud would never learn, and what all those who share his outlook forbid themselves to learn. At least never find the key to this knowledge….

We moderns are faced with the necessity of rediscovering the life of spirit; we must experience it anew for ourselves. It is the only way in which we can break the spell that binds us to the cycle of biological events.

…As for Freud’s idea of the “super-ego” it is a furtive attempt to smuggle in his time-honoured image of Jehovah in the dress of psychological theory. When one does things like that, it is better to say so openly.

Explaining the proper scientific approach to the study of the human psyche, Jung continues (ibid., p. 141):

It is permissible for science to divide its field of enquiry and to set up limited hypotheses, for science must work in that way; but the human psyche may not be parcelled out. It is a whole which embraces consciousness, and is the mother of consciousness. Scientific thought, being only one of its functions, can never exhaust all the possibilities of life. The psychotherapist must not allow his vision to be coloured by the glasses of pathology; he must never allow himself to forget that the ailing mind is a human mind, and that for all its ailments, it shares in the whole of the psychic life of man.

One of the limitations of reason of classical science was its incapacity to understand the phenomenon of religious consciousness. It is true that the recurring conflicts of science and religion during the post-renaissance centuries owed not a little to the narrowness and irrationality of the prevailing western religious mood and outlook. Religion became equated with irrational dogmas and frozen creeds buttressed by the authority of church and state. All rational investigations into the claims of religion were frowned upon. Both religion and science in the West held this view of religion. Reason which is the very life-breath of science was treated as the death-knell of religion. Neither western science nor western religion was acquainted with the rational and scientific approach to religion cultivated in India from the time of the Upanishads. India has always upheld experience as the touchstone of religion. And in the science of religion this experience refers to what lies beyond the sensory or waking consciousness, which latter, Indian thought holds, is exclusively the province of the physical sciences. And India therefore found no conflict between science and religion. Says Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on the ‘The Sages of India’ (Complete Works, Vol. III, p. 253):

Beyond (waking) consciousness is where the bold search. Consciousness is bound by the senses. Beyond that, beyond the senses, men must go, in order to arrive at truths of the spiritual world, and there are even now persons who succeed in going beyond the bounds of the senses. These are called rshis (seers of thought), because they come face to face with spiritual truths.

India accordingly saw three levels in the mind, the subconscious, the conscious, and the superconscious. India had never upheld any concept of the supernatural, nor believed that it was essential for religion. The supernatural is believed only by those who have a very limited view of nature. India had a comprehensive view of nature—more comprehensive in some respects than what is found in twenty-first century science—in which was included not only the physical universe, but also the biological and the mental. The modern West is slowly widening its conception of nature, as evidenced by such books as de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man and by enlarging of the scope of scientific investigation from the waking to the dream state.


The New Dimensions of Scientific Reason

The scientific study of the unconscious, and dreams in which it finds free expression, gave a new dimension to reason. Baffled in its efforts to penetrate to the noumenon at the heart of external world, reason turned on itself; it turned from the study of the not-self to a study of its own matrix, the mind, to penetrate into the world of subject, the self. This led to the initiation of the scientific study of human nature in its depths and consequent enlargement of the bounds of reason. This study was until now motivated by clinical considerations; and this pragmatic approach has produced valuable results of a practical nature; but so far as revealing the truth of human nature is concerned, it has only scratched the surface. But a vast array of new facts about human possibilities have been discovered, including those revealed by parapsychology, which refused to be enclosed in the rigid frameworks of the current theories about man and his mind; the inadequacies of these theories proceed from their being the product of a reason which is under the dominance of classical physics and the waking state. And science is struggling to frame new concepts and theories adequate to the new facts, enlarging in the process the range and scope of scientific reason as well.


The Development of Scientific Reason into Philosophical Reason

Scientific reason, so enlarged and developed, emerges as what Vedanta terms buddhi or philosophical reason which, in its search for the ultimate reality, discovers the insufficiency of all drshyam or the world of objects, of all precepts and concepts of the waking and dream states. It gets the call to penetrate into the within of things as revealed in the fact of consciousness. It finds the need to search for the drk, the seer, the observer, or the subject of all experience. Even scientific reason in the twenty-first century form had felt this need at the farthest reaches of its study of the without of nature; but it was not insistent then. But now, with the enlargement of the field of enquiry to the totality of drshyam, an enquiry into the nature of the drk, the subject or self becomes inescapable. The answer to the question, What is the ‘known’? cannot be found until the answer to the question, what is the ‘knower’? is found. Both the waking and dream states reveal the presence of the subject-object relation. The first fruit of this inquiry is the relative character of the subjects or egos revealed in the waking and dream states. The subject of each state is a correlative of the objects of that state, and exclusive to that state that alone.

Scientific reason had already established the relative character of all objects experienced in the waking state, as also of its ideas of time, space and causality. As configurations of the space-time continuum, these had been interpreted by relativity physics as possessing some reality which in their separate forms was denied to them. The study of dreams similarly revealed the unreality of the separate dream presentations and the reality of the mind-stuff. It is this study that opens the way to develop scientific reason into philosophical Reason.

Philosophical reason not only discovers the relativity, finitude, and changeability of all drshyam, including the egos of the waking and the dream states, but it also asks the fundamental philosophical question whether there is a changeless reality imbedded in experience, and if there is, what is its nature and what is its relation to the world of drshyam? Knowledge and memory demand the unity and unchangeability of the subject; but the egos of the dream and waking states are changeable and mutually exclusive.

Does experience disclose a changeless subject beyond the egos of the two states? On seeking an answer to this question philosophical reason finds it necessary to study the significance of sushupti or dreamless sleep where the entire world of objects and subjects experienced in the waking and dream states disappears. Where does the world of objects and subjects disappear to then? Certainly, into the subject itself, whence it reappears again in the next dream and waking states. What then, is the nature of this subject? Philosophical reason reveals the subject as of the nature of consciousness or awareness. All objects or presentations in the waking or dream states are also therefore of the nature of consciousness or awareness, being only configurations of the subject or self. When stripped of its last and most persisting attachment, namely, the causal notion of the waking state, a notion which even in the waking state has been found to be untrue and objectively invalid by scientific reason, philosophical reason achieves the highest purity, detachment and penetrating power. It then realizes the subject of all self as pure consciousness—eternal and changeless, non-dual and absolute—and the world of objects also as spiritual through and through. It is this non-dual Self that manifests itself as the multitudes of ego centers, and as the ‘I’ consciousness of the three states.

Says the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger (What is Life?, Epilogue, pp.90-91):

Consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular…consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is one thing and that, what seems to be a plurality, is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception (the Indian Maya).

In two of the states, namely waking and dream, this ‘I’ consciousness is accompanied by the ‘not-I’ or object consciousness; while in the third or dreamless sleep state it is objectless. The buddhi or philosophical reason, as developed in Vedanta, realized the unity of all experience in the non-dual Atman or Self, which is described as of the nature of Sat-Chit-Ānanda, pure Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss. Some of its profound utterances convey the summit of this realization or illumination:

सर्वं ह्येतत् ब्रह्म

sarvaṃ hyetat brahma

All this, verily, is this Brahman, the Absolute Reality:

अयमात्मा ब्रह्म

ayamātmā brahma

This Atman is the Brahman, the Absolute Reality.



The Function of Philosophical Reason as understood in Vedanta

Philosophical Reason thus realizes the fundamental unity of all experience which is the aim of all knowledge, and the goal of every activity of logical and scientific reason, a goal which scientific reason, however, realizes only in limited fields of experience. It is this limited reference of scientific reason that makes religious faith and artistic inspiration appear to stand in opposition to it. This sundering of experience into scientific, religious and artistic is permissible as a provisional approach for purposes of study and analysis, but it results in the distortion of reality when pushed further and treated as final. It is the supreme function of philosophical Reason, say the Upanishads, to synthesize the results of the various disciplines, and study experience in its totality. Brahmavidyā, Philosophy, they say, is sarvavidyāpratishthā, the basis of every vidyā, or science.

In investigating the nature of knowledge or of truth or of reality, logical and scientific reason confines itself to the field of the ‘known’; it ignores the ‘knower’ the subject, or the self; this explains the limitations of the knowledge, the partial character of the truths it finds, and the relative character of the reality it reveals. It confesses its limitation in its statements that ultimate Truth or the ultimate Reality is not its concern. It is justified in this in so far as it confines itself to the ‘known.’ But reason itself is not necessarily so tied; it is not barred from going beyond the known to the ‘knower’. When reason dares to do this, it sheds the straight-jacket of logical and scientific reason and develops into unfettered philosophical Reason. It is then that reason becomes capable not only of seeking for ultimate Truth and ultimate Reality, but also of finding It. It is then that reason rises from the world of fact to the world of meaning and value. It achieves this elevation by purifying itself through the elimination of attachment to the limited sense-world and cultivation for a passion for truth for its own sake. In developing into philosophical Reason, reason does not throw overboard its earlier conclusions arrived at by the scientific reason; on the other hand, these conclusions remain valid, but only for the world of the ‘known’; for philosophical Reason does not contradict scientific reason but only fulfils it.

As in the province of scientific reason itself, the conclusions of classical science do not really contradict those of twentyfirst-century science; the laws of classical physics are but limiting cases of the more all-embracing laws of relativity-physics. In the same way, the truths revealed by modern scientific reason become limiting cases of the truths revealed by philosophical Reason. Says Swami Vivekananda in his paper on Hinduism read at the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893 (Complete Works, Vol. 1, p.17):

To the Hindu, man is not travelling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth.

Buddhi or philosophical Reason reveals the ultimate truth of the unity of Ātman and Brahman, in the unity the within and the without of nature. It signifies the complete annexation of the subconscious and unconscious by Reason. It signifies according to Vedanta, The complete and true waking state, the ever-awake and ever-free state of the Ātman. Herein reason achieves perfection in illumination by becoming co-extensive with infinite knowledge and awareness. This vision of unity is the meeting ground of faith and reason, love and knowledge, poetry and philosophy, science and art. Referring to this philosophical Reason in Advaita Vedanta as presented by Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita (Miss Margaret Noble) writes (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Introduction, pp. xiii-xiv):

To him, there is no difference between service of man and worship of God, between manliness and faith, between true righteousness and spirituality. All his words, from one point of view, read as a commentary upon this central conviction. “Art, Science, and Religion,” he said once, “are but three different ways of expressing a single truth. But in order to understand this we must have the theory of Advaita (non-duality).”

Says Shri Ramakrishna (The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna, p.802):

Ātman (Self) cannot be realized through this mind: Ātman is realized through Ātman alone. Pure mind, pure buddhi (Reason) Pure Ātman—all these are one and the same.

Verse nine of chapter two of the Katha Upanishad told us not only of the inability of logical and scientific reason to comprehend the Ātman, but also that Nachiketa had acquired the mati which means buddhi or philosophical Reason, capable of comprehending the truth of the Ātman. A mati such as this denotes the human mind in its highest state of purity and luminosity. Philosophy which seeks to give man the vision of the ultimate Truth can ask for no higher blessing than this. It is blessing never conferred, however, on philosophy of merely speculative type based only on the waking state. It is no wonder therefore that Yama, the teacher, exclaimed in joy:

त्वादृङ्नो भूयान्नचिकेतः प्रष्टा

tvādṛṅno bhūyānnaciketaḥ praṣṭā

May we have questioners of your calibre, O Nachiketa.


Thus we have discussed the subject of the limitations of logical and scientific reason and the Vedantic view of its development into philosophical Reason. Verse nine of the second chapter of this Upanishad told us about Yama’s praise for possessing philosophical Reason as a fruit of this yoking his will to truth: satyadhrtirbatāsi. ‘Let me have more questioning students like you’. Yama has said in high appreciation of his gifted student. Such a questing and questioning mind is very life breath of science and philosophy. And Nachiketa is in search of the changeless and the eternal, hidden in the world of change and death. The knowledge of the changeless is the only key to the knowledge of the changeful, which, otherwise will remain a mystery. This is Philosophy, parāvidyā (Supreme Knowledge).


The Resolute Spiritual Will of Nachiketa

Having praised Nachiketa for his one-pointed love of truth, Yama now proceeds to say something about himself in the two succeeding verses, ten and eleven, which we shall now take up for study:

जानाम्यहं शेवधिरित्यनित्यं
न ह्यध्रुवैः प्राप्यते हि ध्रुवं तत् ।
ततो मया नाचिकेतश्चितोऽग्निः
अनित्यैर्द्रव्यैः प्राप्तवानस्मि नित्यम् ॥

jānāmyahaṃ śevadhirityanityaṃ
na hyadhruvaiḥ prāpyate hi dhruvaṃ tat |
tato mayā nāciketaścito'gniḥ
anityairdravyaiḥ prāptavānasmi nityam ||

(Katha Upanishad, 10th Mantra, Canto 2)

I know that (all) wealth is transient; and verily the eternal is never attained by the transient; yet by me has been performed the Nachiketa sacrifice with the transient objects and (through that) have I attained the eternal.

कामस्याप्तिं जगतः प्रतिष्ठां
क्रतोरानन्त्यमभयस्य पारम् ।
स्तोममहदुरुगायं प्रतिष्ठां दृष्ट्वा
धृत्या धीरो नचिकेतोऽत्यस्राक्षीः ॥

kāmasyāptiṃ jagataḥ pratiṣṭhāṃ
kratorānantyamabhayasya pāram |
stomamahadurugāyaṃ pratiṣṭhāṃ dṛṣṭvā
dhṛtyā dhīro naciketo'tyasrākṣīḥ ||

(Katha Upanishad, 11th Mantra, Canto 2)

Having seen that which is the complete fulfilment of all desires, the mainstay of the universe, the endless fruit of all sacred rites, the shore of fearlessness, the most adorable and great, the exalted resort, and the support of life, thou hast, O Nachiketa, being intelligent and brave, rejected it with firm resolve.

Comparing himself with young Nachiketa, Yama feels that he is not up to the mark in his satyadhrti — will to truth. With a touch of humility, therefore Yama tells Nachiketā, wherein he, Nachiketa, is superior to him. On one side is the one-pointed search for truth, and on the other side is the love of shevadhi — treasure of wealth. Wealth here signifies not only material wealth, which is the worldly pleasure and power, but also the store of the fruits of meritorious actions, which becomes the source of pleasure and power in the world beyond the grave. Philosophical inquiry in the Upanishads had already discovered that wealth in both this senses was finite and perishable. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (IV. V. 3), we have the unequivocal reply of Yājñavalkya to the question of his wife Maitreyī whether the wealth which he proposed to make over to her as her share of his property would help her to achieve the one quest of her life, namely immortality.


नेति होवाच याज्ञवल्क्यो यथैवोपकरणतां जीवितं तथैव ते जीवितं स्याद् । अमृतत्वस्य तु नाऽशाऽस्ति वित्तेनेति ॥

neti hovāca yājñavalkyo yathaivopakaraṇatāṃ jīvitaṃ tathaiva te jīvitaṃ syād | amṛtatvasya tu nā'śā'sti vitteneti ||


No, said Yājñavalkya; (with wealth) your life will be just like the life of those who have plenty of material means; there is no hope however, of immortality (being gained) through wealth.

Yama had known this conclusion of philosophy and the logic behind it, which he now states himself:

न ह्यध्रुवैः प्राप्यते हि ध्रुवं तत्

na hyadhruvaiḥ prāpyate hi dhruvaṃ tat

The eternal, verily cannot be attained by that which is known to be transient. The infinite cannot be attained through a multiplication of the finite; the timeless cannot be reached by an endless extension of time; and the unconditioned cannot be had by an indefinite stretching of the conditioned.



Worldly Achievements versus Spirituality

Yama confesses that, in spite of this knowledge, his love of truth had been diluted with a love of external achievement, and was in response to this that he performed the Nāchiketa sacrifice:

ततो मया नाचिकेतश्चितोऽग्निः

tato mayā nāciketaścito'gniḥ

. And with means so transient as a sacrifice, with its little accessories, he has achieved the comparatively permanent status of Yama, the god of death;

अनित्यैर्द्रव्यैः प्राप्तवानस्मि नित्यम्

anityairdravyaiḥ prāptavānasmi nityam

. The status of a god is nityam, eternal, not in the absolute sense, but only in a relative sense. Compared to the short span of human life below, the aeon long life of a god is long enough to be classed as eternal according to the common idea of the ‘eternal’. It is only at the touch of philosophy that its inherent relativity and transiency become exposed. And philosophy, as understood in the Upanishads, is a tireless search for Brahman, the infinite and the eternal, given in experience as the Atman or Self; Says Shankara in his commentary on the Vedānta-Sūtra (I. i. 2):


Because the knowledge of Brahman culminates in the experience (of Brahman) and because it (such knowledge) has an already existing entity for its object.

Thus philosophy is not a struggle for external advancement, or a search after an at-present-non-existing status or position. Knowledge of the Ātman does not depend upon any particular status or position. Man in any status or position can achieve it. When the heart is set on this knowledge, it finds no special interest in the pursuit of external advancement. It is only after one’s external circumstances have become somewhat stabilized that the heart becomes set on the pursuit of the Ātman. Every step in the progress of evolution is marked by a stabilization of the external circumstances of the organism, followed by its forging ahead to a higher state; behind every significant biological advance is found the achievement of a condition known as homeostasis. This is also illustrated in human cultural history.

Spiritual awareness is the criterion of progress at the human stage of evolution. This is measured by a measure of stability at the preya level, followed by a forging ahead to the shreya level, as indicated by the opening verse of the Second chapter of this Upanishad. An endless pursuit of the preya idea makes for stagnation of the life-energy. Vedanta terms this samsāra, which means continuous movement with no progress. All worldly achievements and heavenly delights are the product of impulsions of this preya idea. Within the limitation of this preya idea, man has established a hierarchy of lower and higher achievements. He has conceived of a heaven, with its higher and lower grades, where every thing is pleasant, and placed higher than earthly life and its joys; within earthly life itself the preya idea impels him to seek higher and higher positions of power and pleasure.


The journey Onward and the Journey Inward

The preya quest is the quest for wealth, power, and pleasure; but the quest of shreya is different; it is the quest for spirituality; it is the quest for that energy which will digest all wealth, power, and pleasure. Without this spiritual digestion, wealth power and pleasure will corrode the human soul and make man small in stature and trivial. Referring to this triviality, Shakespeare says in his Measure for Measure (II. ii. 119-124):

… but man, proud man,
Dress’d in a brief authority—
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence—like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.

Spirituality alone is strength; and it is inherent in everyone, says Vedanta. Accordingly, its search is an inward journey, if journey it can be called. It certainly does not consist in an endless quest of external achievements. Says Shankara in his commentary on verse eleven of chapter three of this Upanishad:


सर्वस्य प्रत्यगात्मत्वादवगतिरेव गतिरित्युपचर्यते । प्रत्यगात्मत्वञ्च दर्शितमिन्द्रियमनोबुद्धिपरत्वेन । यो हि गन्ता सोऽगतमप्रत्यग्रूपं गच्छत्यनात्मभूतन्न विन्दति स्वरूपेण ॥

sarvasya pratyagātmatvādavagatireva gatirityupacaryate | pratyagātmatvañca darśitamindriyamanobuddhiparatvena | yo hi gantā so'gatamapratyagrūpaṃ gacchatyanātmabhūtanna vindati svarūpeṇa ||


Since the Atman is the inner Self of all, avagati (knowledge or realization) is spoken of figuratively as gati (a going or journeying). That the Ātman is the inner Self is shown by its description (in the previous verse) as beyond the sense-organs, manas (mind), and buddhi (intellect). He who is a goer is one who goes away from his inner Self, and towards the not-Self: and (he is one who) never realizes himself in his true nature.

This is a profound observation in Vedanta. When we say that a man goes, what does it mean?

स प्रत्यग्रूपं गच्छति

sa pratyagrūpaṃ gacchati

he goes away from his own Self; one cannot possibly go to one’s Self. Physically speaking, it is like a man leaving his own house and going to a neighbour’s house. Feeling an inner vacuum, and wishing to overcome it, he decides to go on a visit to his neighbour’s house. All such going, physical or mental, is from the self to the not-self —



This is what people generally do. But the result of that going forth is that, by that alone we never experience our true nature —

न विन्दति स्वरूपेण

na vindati svarūpeṇa

. We may scatter ourselves everywhere, hoping thus to be happy and fulfilled; but by doing this, we only become fractionalised and recede further and further from our objective of fulfillment. Our going out of ourselves may take us from our neighbourhood to the highest of heavens, but it will be a journey in ignorance, in spiritual blindness, say the Upanishads; it will not help us to achieve our own swarūpa, real nature. This other journey to the Self, is only figuratively a journey, since it is only a matter of awareness, realization. Says Shankara (Vivekachudamani : verses 531-32):


अयमात्मा नित्यसिद्धः प्रमाणे सति भासते ।
न देशं नापि कालं न शुद्धिं वाप्यपेक्षते ॥

ayamātmā nityasiddhaḥ pramāṇe sati bhāsate |
na deśaṃ nāpi kālaṃ na śuddhiṃ vāpyapekṣate ||

This Ātman, which is an ever-present reality, manifests Itself as soon as the right means of knowledge are present, and does not depend upon either place, or time, or (ceremonial) purity.

देवदत्तोऽहमोत्येतद्विज्ञानं निरपेक्षकम् ।
तद्वद्ब्रह्मविदोऽप्यस्य ब्रह्माहमिति वेदनम् ॥

devadatto'hamotyetadvijñānaṃ nirapekṣakam |
tadvadbrahmavido'pyasya brahmāhamiti vedanam ||

The awareness “I am Mr. Devadatta” is independent of external circumstances; similar is the case with the realization of a knower of Brahman that he is Brahman.

All this movement up and down is movement in samsāra, relatively, proceeding from ignorance of one’s true nature as the infinite and unconditioned Brahman. There is no difference between here and thee; to one who knows the truth, everything is here, now. ‘Here, here, is knowledge; there, there, is ignorance’ says Shri Ramakrishna. This very Upanishad will tell us in a later chapter (IV. 10):

यदेवेह तदमुत्र यदमुत्र तदन्विह ।
मृत्योः स मृत्युमाप्नोति य इह नानेव पश्यति ॥

yadeveha tadamutra yadamutra tadanviha |
mṛtyoḥ sa mṛtyumāpnoti ya iha nāneva paśyati ||

Whatever is here, that also is there, that is here also; he goes from death to death who sees, as it were, the slightest difference here.

Says the Siva Gita (XIII. 32):

मोक्षाय न हि वासोऽस्ति न ग्रामान्तरमेव वा ।
अज्ञानहृदयग्रन्थिनाशो मोक्ष इति स्मृतः ॥

mokṣāya na hi vāso'sti na grāmāntarameva vā |
ajñānahṛdayagranthināśo mokṣa iti smṛtaḥ ||

Moksha (spiritual freedom) is not in a particular place, nor has one to go to some other village to obtain it; the destruction of ignorance, (spiritual blindness) which is the knot of the heart, is known as moksha.

Says the Bhagavat-Gita (V.26):

अभितो ब्रह्मनिर्वाणं वर्तते विदितात्मनाम् ॥

abhito brahmanirvāṇaṃ vartate viditātmanām ||

To the knowers of the Ātman, there is Brahmanirvānam, spiritual freedom in its absolute form, wherever they may be.

Man goes out of himself because he finds that all is not quite right within himself; he goes on searching here and there, trying to achieve security, happiness, welfare, and fulfilment. At the end of all these rounds of movement, he finds himself far from fulfilment; examining the situation critically and with calm detachment, the knowledge dawns him that he has been searching for something which has been all the time nearest to him, within him, his own infinite Self.

Says Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on ‘The Real Nature of Man’ (Complete Works, Vol. II, Ninth Edition, pp. 81-82):

No perfection is going to be attained. You are already free and perfect. What are these ideas of religion and God and searching for the hereafter? Why does man look for a God? Why does man in every nation, in every state of society, want a perfect ideal somewhere, either in man, in God, or elsewhere? Because that idea is within you. It was your own heart beating and you did not know, you were mistaking it for something external. It is the God within your own self that is propelling you to seek for Him. After long searches here and there, in temples and in churches, in earths and in heavens, at last you come back, completing the circle from where you started, to your own soul and find that He, for whom you have been seeking all over the world, for whom you have been weeping and praying in churches and temples, on whom you were looking as the mystery of all mysteries shrouded in the clouds, is nearest of the near, is your own Self, the reality of your life, body, and soul. That is your own nature.

As the New Testament puts it (Luke xvii. 20-21):

And when he was demanded by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Now this knowledge is extremely difficult to come by. The mind has a tendency to go outside of itself all the time. That its nature. This Upanishad will refer to it in the opening verse of its fourth chapter. The result is that it always tries to find truth and happiness and welfare outside of itself. The whole story of man as a seeker of knowledge, social delights, and physical satisfactions is the story of his journey outside of himself in search of complete fulfillment. Having gone to the farthest extent in space and time, and being baffled in his attempts, wisdom dawns on him sustained by a spirit of mature renunciation; and on the wings of both he quickly finds within himself the infinite ocean of existence, knowledge and bliss. This is beautifully expressed by the Mundaka Upanishad (I.ii.12):

परीक्ष्य लोकान् कर्मचितान् ब्रह्मणो
निर्वेदमायान्नास्त्यकृतः कृतेन ।

parīkṣya lokān karmacitān brahmaṇo
nirvedamāyānnāstyakṛtaḥ kṛtena |

Examining all the worlds which can be gained through action, the wise one develops the spirit of renunciation (proceeding from the conviction) that the uncaused can not be had through caused.


The spiritual Utility of the Outward Journey

And yet all these goings about are not meaningless; they are necessary; for they form the integral elements of man’s spiritual education. A father’s mature wisdom cannot just be transferred to the child. The child has to pass through experiences and arrive at the wisdom afresh. Man’s movements in the world of the not-Self achieve for him, in this very life, physical health and material wealth, scientific knowledge and aesthetic experiences, political society and ethical vision, the delights of civilization, and the joys of social relationships. In this struggle to attain these, he is undergoing the first phase of his spiritual education leading to the achievement of what Vivikananda called ‘manliness’ .


Achievement versus Personality

The success of this education, however, is to be measured not merely in terms of the power and position and pleasure experienced, but in terms of the spiritual awareness achieved; this is a gentle process, in and through life and action, in which manliness is put on the road to flowering into godliness. For the attainment of this spiritual awareness is the end and aim of human life, according to the Upanishads. Therein is alone is true freedom for man. ‘What are you?’ is a deeper and more meaningful question than ‘What have you done or achieved?’ But in life and its educational processes the former comes after the latter. Jung calls the former ‘personality’ or ‘culture’, and the latter ‘achievement.’ In all healthy living, according to him, if the early part is devoted to achievement, the later must be devoted to personality or culture. Says he (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pp.118-20):

Achievement, usefulness, and so forth are the ideals which appear to guide us out of the confusion of crowding problems (in the second stage of life, i.e., from puberty to middle life). They may be our lode-stars in the adventure of extending and solidifying our psychic existences—they may help us in striking our roots in the world; but they cannot guide us in the development of that wider consciousness to which we give the name of culture. In the period of youth, at any rate, this course is the normal one and in all circumstances preferable to merely tossing about in the welter of problems….

he nearer we approach to the middle of life, and the better we have succeeded in the entrenching ourselves in our personal standpoints, the more it appears as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and principles of behaviour. For this reason we suppose them to be eternally valid, and make a virtue of unchangeably clinging to them. We wholly overlook the essential fact that the achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of a diminution of personality.

Pleading for an important place in life for the culture of the personality, or the spiritual enrichment of the individual, Jung further says (pp.125-26):

The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind, and the care of our children. This is the obvious purpose of nature. But when this purpose has been attained—shall the earning of money, the extension of conquests, and the expansion of life go steadily on beyond the bounds of all reason and sense? Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning—that is, the aims of nature—must pay for doing damage to his soul just as surely as a growing youth who tries to salvage his childish egoism must pay for his mistake with social failure. Money-making, social existence, family, and posterity are nothing but plain nature—not culture. Culture lies beyond the purpose of nature. Could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of the life?

According to Vedanta, there is no gulf between the first and second halves of life. The spiritual education commencing in the first, with stress on achievement, is to be carried over more intensely into the second with a greater stress on personality and a more direct approach to self-realization.


The Way of the Spiritually Gifted

There are some rare souls who are so spiritually equipped as to stand in no need of the spiritual education arising from the pursuit of achievement, but who, in the very first half of life, enter directly into the struggle for self-realization. Yama considers Nachiketa as belonging to this rare type who, like Mary, in the words of Jesus, had ‘chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.’ Yama also had achieved knowledge of the Ātman; but he had striven also for external advancement and attained the high status of god of death. Possession of the power associated with such a high status did not, however, harm Yama spiritually in virtue of his spiritual knowledge which enabled him to digest all such power and position, and shine forth as the very perfection of justice, dharma, and a master of self-discipline, as his very name, Yama indicates. He was also the teacher of brahmavidya, the science of Brahman, the universal Self. The philosophy that helped him to keep himself spiritually steady in the midst of the multifarious demands of high his office was Practical Vedanta, which is the great theme of Gita (IV. 1) Krshna refers to his having taught this immortal philosophy, in one of his previous incarnations, to Vivasvān the father of Yama, and through him, to other philosopher kings.


Nachiketa’s Spirit of Renunciation

In verse eleven of the second chapter of this Upanishad, we saw Yama praising Nachiketa for his renunciation and spiritual maturity at so young on age. As the second boon, he had offered him the highest heaven, the highest in the scale of achievement—that in which all the out-going desires of man reach their consummation, kāmasyāptim; this is abhayasya pāram, the achievement of freedom from fear, urugāyam, expansive existence, and pratishthām unshaken security. In spite of this tremendous temptation, Nachiketa had remained steady in his quest for spiritual knowledge and realization.

दृष्ट्वा धृत्या धीरो नचिकेतोऽत्यस्राक्षीः

dṛṣṭvā dhṛtyā dhīro naciketo'tyasrākṣīḥ

Intelligent and brave as you are, you have, O Nachiketa, with open eyes, rejected it with firm resolve.

This renunciation is the homeostatic prelude to the search for the immortal in experience. In the first chapter of the Katha Upanishad we saw Nachiketa telling Yama:

श्वोभावा मर्त्यस्य यदन्तकैतत्
सर्वेन्द्रियाणां जरयन्ति तेजः ।
अपि सर्वं जीवितमल्पमेव
तवैव वाहास्तव नृत्यगीते ॥

śvobhāvā martyasya yadantakaitat
sarvendriyāṇāṃ jarayanti tejaḥ |
api sarvaṃ jīvitamalpameva
tavaiva vāhāstava nṛtyagīte ||

(Katha Upanishad, 26th Mantra, Canto 1)

(All the pleasures you have enumerated) are transient, O Death; they (also) wear out the vigour of all sense-organs of mortal man. Moreover, all life (long or short) is only short (from the point of view of eternity). Let the chariots, dance, and song remain with thee only.

न वित्तेन तर्पणीयो मनुष्यो ।

na vittena tarpaṇīyo manuṣyo |

Man is never satisfied with wealth.

जीर्यन्मर्त्यः क्वधःस्थः प्रजानन् ।
अभिध्यायन् वर्णरतिप्रमोदान्
अतिदीर्घे जीविते को रमेत ॥

jīryanmartyaḥ kvadhaḥsthaḥ prajānan |
abhidhyāyan varṇaratipramodān
atidīrghe jīvite ko rameta ||

(Katha Upanishad, 28th Mantra, Canto 1)

Having come to the ageless and immortal ones, and knowing (the more worthy boons to be had from them), what man, living on the earth below, and himself subject to aging and death, can exult in a life of very long duration, after closely scrutinizing the enjoyments of dancing and singing?

And so, finally Nachiketa had declared:

नान्यं तस्मान्नचिकेता वृणीते ।

nānyaṃ tasmānnaciketā vṛṇīte |

Nachiketa shall not, therefore, choose any other boon than this (knowledge of the immortal Self).


The Soul Is Ready for the Seed

Nachiketa has chosen the hard road; for the path of the Atman, the immortal in experience, is like walking on the edge of a razor, as Yama will indicate in the next chapter. And is by now fully convinced that the young boy before him is made of stern spiritual stuff. He therefore decides to tarry no more with side issues, but go straight to the theme dear to the young seeker’s heart; this forms the subject of the verses which follow, and these we shall take up next.

We saw Yama eulogizing, in a mood of humility, the superior spiritual calibre of his student, Nachiketa, which led him to spurn all worldly attachments and go straight to the quest of spiritual perfection; whereas Yama himself could not resist the temptation of external advancements. Yama saw in young Nachiketa a dhīra, a youth of heroic mould, in whom spiritually oriented intelligence and will had been wedded to courage and strength. Such an intelligence and will alone can hope to penetrate the mystery of the Self, Yama, therefore, in verses twelve and thirteen which we shall see now, sings the glory of this science of the Self, and announces Nachiketa’s fitness to enter the abode of this truth of all truths and the mystery of all mysteries:

तं दुर्दर्श गूढमनुप्रविष्टं
गुहाहितं गह्वरेष्ठं पुराणम् ।
अध्यात्मयोगाधिगमेन देवं
मत्वा धीरो हर्षशोकौ जहाति ॥

taṃ durdarśa gūḍhamanupraviṣṭaṃ
guhāhitaṃ gahvareṣṭhaṃ purāṇam |
adhyātmayogādhigamena devaṃ
matvā dhīro harṣaśokau jahāti ||

(Katha Upanishad, 12th Mantra, Canto 2)

The dhīra (wise man) relinquishes both joy and sorrow when he realizes through meditation on the inner Self, that ancient effulgent One, hard to be seen, profound, hidden in experience, established in the cavity of the heart, and residing within the body.

एतच्छ्रुत्वा सम्परिगृह्य मर्त्यः
प्रवृह्य धर्म्यमणुमेतमाप्य ।
स मोदते मोदनीयं हि लब्ध्वा
विवृतं सद्म नचिकेतसं मन्ये ॥

etacchrutvā samparigṛhya martyaḥ
pravṛhya dharmyamaṇumetamāpya |
sa modate modanīyaṃ hi labdhvā
vivṛtaṃ sadma naciketasaṃ manye ||

(Katha Upanishad, 13th Mantra, Canto 2)

Mortal man rejoices, having heard and comprehended well this subtle truth, the soul of dharma, realized it after proper discrimination, and having attained what is verily the blissful. I consider that the house (of Truth) is wide open for Nachiketa.


The Characteristics of the Self

Some of the significant characteristics of the Atman are given in verse twelve. It is described as



difficult to be seen or known. Why?



because it is extremely subtle, says Shankara in his commentary on this verse; it is not unknown and unknowable, as viewed in all the speculative philosophies. It is unknown only to the senses, and to reason which is under the thraldom of the senses; but it is known to philosophical Reason, as we have seen earlier. The Atman is never the unknowable: for as the eternal Subject or the Self, it is the basis and presupposition of all knowledge; as the principle of pure awareness it is more than known and knowable; for it is in and through the Atman that all objects, entities, and events are known. In every act of knowledge, and perception, and judgement is the Atman present:



, as the Kena Upanishad (II. 4) has expressed it.


Speaking in London in 1896 on the subject of The Absolute and Manifestation, Swami Vivekananda dealt with the Upanishadic teaching about God being unknown and unknowable in these words (Complete Works Vol. II):

You must not go home with the idea that God is unknowable in the sense in which agonistics put it….. The expression is not used in the sense in which it may be said that some questions are unknown and unknowable. God is more than known. This chair is known. But God is intensely more than that, because in and through Him we have to know this chair itself. He is the Witness, the eternal witness of all knowledge. Whatever we know we have to know in and through Him. He is the essence of our own self. He is the essence of this ego, this I,…. And we cannot know anything excepting in through that I…. To know the chair you have to know it in through that God. Thus infinitely nearer to us than the chair, but yet He is infinitely higher. Neither known, nor unknown, but something infinitely higher than either. He is your Self.

In spite of its ever-present nature the Self is hardly noticed; and the verse gives the reason for this: it is



subtle, profound;



hidden in the depth of experience;

प्रकृतविषयविकारविज्ञानैः प्रच्छन्नम्

prakṛtaviṣayavikāravijñānaiḥ pracchannam

hidden by the process of ordinary sense-bound knowledge, comments Shankara; and yet it is



established in the guhā, cavity, i.e. buddhi or reason; it is ever-present in the innermost depths of that intelligence itself;

तत्र उपलभ्यमानत्वात्

tatra upalabhyamānatvāt

because it is realized there, remarks Shankara. But that realization is difficult because it is



present within the body but inaccessible:

विषमे अनेकानर्थसंकटे तिष्ठति

viṣame anekānarthasaṃkaṭe tiṣṭhati

located in a difficult region, painful and hard to reach, comments Shankara.


This explains the difficulty of the spiritual journey which will be characterized in the next chapter of this Upanishad as walking on a razor's edge. A beautiful flower growing at the top of a steep and craggy mountain is a tempting bait to a lover of beauty, but the price to be paid for its possession is heavy; the path to it is hard, risky, and dangerous. It drives away all lovers of beauty who are timid and faint hearted. But such a challenge steels the heart of the courageous, whom no hardship or risk, not even death itself, can hold back. Such is the lure of truth for all lovers of truth. This truth of the Ātman is




निरवयवत्वात् पुरापि नव वेति पुराणः

niravayavatvāt purāpi nava veti purāṇaḥ

because it has no parts, it is the most ancient and yet the most modern, as Shankara says, defining the word in his commentary on the Gita (II.20).



The Quest of the Self

How do these heroic lovers set about this adventure, the quest of the Atman? The verse answers this in a brief but pregnant statement:



through meditation on the inner Self. Bringing out the meaning of the crisp phrase, Shankara says:


विषयेभ्य प्रतिसंहृत्य चेतसा आत्मनि समाधानम्

viṣayebhya pratisaṃhṛtya cetasā ātmani samādhānam

Withdrawing the mind from sense-objects and fixing it in tranquillity in the Ātman.

This is the supreme technique of the spiritual life. By moral and spiritual discipline the mind sheds it finitude and merges in the expanse of the Self, which is described in the verse as devam, self-luminous. This realization is the attainment of infinite existence, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss: and hence the verse adds:

मत्वा धीरो हर्षशोकौ जहाति

matvā dhīro harṣaśokau jahāti

the wise one, on realizing this, relinquishes both joy and sorrow. The joy and sorrows ordinarily experienced by man belong to the sensate level of his life: these appear utterly to the man of spiritual realization. At the sensate level, man is at the mercy of circumstances; his joys and sorrows have their sources outside; a little praise or a little blame, a little success or a little failure, throws him into small or large waves of happiness or misery. This is bondage, says Vedanta; the animal is satisfied with this natural state; but man, though in it, and often helpless, yearns for freedom, and rebels against circumstances that press him down. Thereby he expresses the spiritual quality of his life: thereby reveals its tragic beauty and charm. The infinite in man, struggling to emerge through finite moulds of body, the senses and the sensate mind, and other finite moulds of sects and creeds and political systems, is the glorious vision of man that science and philosophy, history and literature, art and religion, reveal.



The Imagery of the Two Birds

The Mundaka Upanishad paints this spiritual journey of man from helplessness to fulfilment in a passage of surpassing poetic and spiritual charm (III. i. 1-3):

द्वा सुपर्णा सयुजा सखाया
समानं वृक्षं परिषस्वजाते ।
तयोरन्यः पिप्पलं स्वादत्त्य-
नश्नन्नन्यो अभिचाकशीति ॥

dvā suparṇā sayujā sakhāyā
samānaṃ vṛkṣaṃ pariṣasvajāte |
tayoranyaḥ pippalaṃ svādattya-
naśnannanyo abhicākaśīti ||

Two birds of beautiful plumage, knit in bonds of lasting friendship, live on the selfsame tree. One of them eats the tasteful fruits of the tree, while the other, not eating, immersed in its own glory.

समाने वृक्षे निमग्नोऽनिशया शोचति मुह्यमानः ।
जुष्टं यदा पश्यत्यन्यमीशमस्य
महिमानमिति वीतशोकः ॥

samāne vṛkṣe nimagno'niśayā śocati muhyamānaḥ |
juṣṭaṃ yadā paśyatyanyamīśamasya
mahimānamiti vītaśokaḥ ||

On the self-same tree (of life) is man immersed, helpless, he grieves, bound in delusion’s net; But when he perceives the other, the adorable, the Lord, all grief he casts off, knowing himself to be only the glory of this One.

यदा पश्यः पश्यते रुक्मवर्णं
कर्तारमीशं पुरुषं ब्रह्मयोनिम् ।
तदा विद्वान् पुण्यपापे विधूय
निरञ्जनः परमं साम्यमुपैति ॥

yadā paśyaḥ paśyate rukmavarṇaṃ
kartāramīśaṃ puruṣaṃ brahmayonim |
tadā vidvān puṇyapāpe vidhūya
nirañjanaḥ paramaṃ sāmyamupaiti ||

When the wise seeker realizes the effulgent Self, the Creator, the Lord, the source of all Nature, he then becomes stainless, cleansed of merit and demerit. He then achieves Supreme Oneness (with the Self of all).

Expatiating on the message of these three verses, Swami Vivekananda says in his lecture on ‘Vedanta in Its Application to Indian Life’ (Complete Works, Vol. III, Eighth Edition, pp. 235-36):

This is the picture of human soul. Man is eating the sweet and bitter fruits of this life, pursuing gold, pursuing his senses, pursuing the vanities of life—hopelessly, madly careering he goes. In other places the Upanishads have compared the human soul to the charioteer, and senses to the mad horses, unrestrained. Such is the career of men pursuing the vanities of life, children dreaming golden dreams only to find that they are but vain, and old men chewing the cud of their past deeds, and yet not knowing how to get out of this network. This is the world. Yet in the life of everyone there comes golden moments; in the midst of the deepest sorrows, nay, of the deepest joys, there come moments; there come moments when a part of the cloud that hides the sunlight moves away, as it were, we catch a glimpse, in spite of ourselves, of something beyond—away, away, beyond the life of the senses; away, away, beyond its vanities, its joys, and its, sorrows; away, away, beyond nature, or our imaginations of happiness here and hereafter; away beyond all thirst for gold, or for fame, or for name, or for posterity. Man stops for a moment at this glimpse, and sees the other bird calm and majestic, eating neither sweet nor bitter fruits, but immersed in its own glory, self content, self satisfied…. Man catches a glimpse, then again he forgets and goes on eating sweet and bitter fruits of life; perhaps after a time he catches another glimpse, then again he forgets and goes on eating the sweet and bitter fruits of life; perhaps after a time he catches another glimpse, and the lower bird goes nearer and nearer to the higher bird as blows after blows are received. If he be fortunate to receive hard knocks, then he comes nearer and nearer to his companion, the other bird, his life, his friend; and as he approaches him, he finds that the light from the higher bird is playing round his own plumage; and as he comes nearer and nearer to his companion, lo! the transformation is going on. The nearer and nearer he comes, he finds himself melting away, as it were, until he has entirely disappeared. He did not really exist; it was but the reflection of the other bird, who was there calm and majestic amidst the moving leaves. It was all his glory, that upper bird’s. He becomes fearless, perfectly satisfied, calmly serene.

To hear about this truth, to grasp it through understanding and finally to realize it in life—this is the supreme objective of human life, says Yama in verse thirteen. First comes hearing —



; how few have heard about the eternal glory of the Ātman, which is their true and inalienable nature. Man is aware from birth of his helplessness, his dependence; he need not be taught it. This helplessness makes him grief-stricken; and both are the fruits of delusion only:

अनिमग्नोऽनिशया शोचति मुह्यमानः

animagno'niśayā śocati muhyamānaḥ

, as the Mundaka Upanishad verse given above picturesquely puts it. The word ‘gospel’ means good news. The good news brought to man by religion in general, and Vedanta in particular, that he is essentially divine; he is by nature immortal, holy, and perfect; sin and weakness, finitude and death, and the pettiness and meanness, fear and grief, arising therefrom, are not his true form; they are like passing clouds before the sun. When man under such clouds hears this good news, he looks up and becomes cheerful; hope springs up within him.


But mere hearing is not enough; its good effect will not last unless it is followed up by further steps; and this, verse thirteen indicates:



, having well comprehended;

प्रवृह्य धर्म्यमणुम्

pravṛhya dharmyamaṇum

, discriminating properly this subtle truth which is ever associated with dharma; dharma is social ethics; it is the integrating principle between man and man in society; and



, realizing this (Atman). After hearing comes understanding, comprehension; this helped by discrimination—discrimination between the real and the unreal, the eternal and the transient. The real and the eternal is ever at the back of dharma, that which is ethically good; the way to spiritual realization is through ethical goodness is a value which man acquires in the social context, and which sustains the social order. The Mahabharata (8.49.50, Bhandarkar Edition) therefore defines dharma as that which sustains society, holding its members together in a unity:


धारणाद्धर्ममित्याहुर्धर्मो धारयति प्रजाः ।

dhāraṇāddharmamityāhurdharmo dhārayati prajāḥ |


Dharma and Amrta

Dharma and amrta are two key words in Sanskrit which convey the whole range of values sought after by man; of these, dharma represents the values which he seeks in association with his fellows. These values, which proceed from the motivations of profit and pleasure, are collectively known as abhyudaya, which in modern language, means social security and welfare; and it is only through dharma, social ethics, that man can achieve this. A high measure of social security and welfare accordingly indicates a correspondingly high level of dhārmic or socio-ethical sense in the community.

But the range of human possibilities and values is not exhausted by the achievement of abhyudaya, which is but an achievement in the world of time, in the sphere of change and death. This achievement tends to generate tensions within itself, which is an indication that man’s inherent urge to go beyond himself, to surpass himself, has been stifled. When the life force is thus stifled, external security turns into inner insecurity, and social welfare into spiritual emptiness. It leaves life’s deepest mysteries unresolved, the mystery of the soul and the mystery of the God, which embody man’s hunger to reach out to his timeless and infinite dimension. This constitutes another dimension of life, another field of human endeavour—the field of inner life of man. And the key word that conveys the entire gamut of values in this field of search is amrta, immortality.

The spiritual message of every religion is the message of immortality. If God is immortal, man also is immortal, he being a child of God, or a spark of God. The Upanishads speak of the Self of man is Brahman, the infinite and immortal:



That thou art, as the Chandogya Upanishad (VI.viii.7) expresses it. Conditioned by the body and the senses, man appears finite and limited; but in his true nature he is unconditioned, infinite, and free. God enchained is man; man unchained is God (পাশবদ্ধ জীব পাশমুক্ত শিব), says Shri Ramakrishna and adds: পঞ্চভূতের ফাঁদে ব্রহ্ম পড়ে কাঁদে —Caught in the net of the five elements, Brahman weeps (as man). The search for the Atman is therefore is search for the Brahman ever present in man, the infinite and the unconditioned behind the finite and the conditioned. It is the search for the amrta—the immortal, and this search is always inward; hence its description is in verses twelve as



attained through the yoga of meditation on the inner Self. Meditation is the technique of the royal path to immortality; and in meditation, man ceases to be gregarious; he goes beyond his erstwhile state in which he was defined as a social animal; and he has the strength to digest this loneliness and spirituality benefits from it. And he owes this strength to his earlier discipline in dharma or social ethics.



The Marvelous Touch of the Soul

Religion in its spiritual manifestation can therefore be defined as ‘a flight of the alone to the Alone’, in the words of Plotinus (The Enneads, VI. lx. 11). It need not however, always involve a physical flight. Meditation leading to spiritual experience is the condition in which man realizes his spiritual nature in its fullness. Wordsworth refers to this, in his poem entitled ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, as being ‘laid asleep in body and become a living soul’:

That serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body and become a living soul:
While with an eye made by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

In his lecture on ‘Hints on practical spirituality’ delivered at the Home of Truth, Los Angeles, in 1900, Swami Vivekananda Spoke on meditation in these words (Complete Works, Vol. II, Ninth Edition, p.37):

The greatest help to spiritual life is meditation. In meditation we divest ourselves of all material conditions and feel our divine nature. We do not depend upon any external help in meditation.

The touch of the soul can paint the brightest colour even in the dingiest places; it cast a fragrance over the vilest things; it can make the wicked divine—and all enmity, all selflessness is effaced. The less the thought of the body, the better. For it is the body that drags us down. It is attachment, identification, which makes us miserable. That is the secret: To think that I am the spirit and not the body, and that the whole of this universe with all its relations, with all its good and all its evil, is but a series of paintings— scenes on a canvas—of which I am the witness.

Again in another lecture on ‘Sadhanās or Preparations for the higher Life’— he said (ibid., Vol. V, Seventh Edition, p.253):

Meditation is one thing. Meditate! The greatest thing is meditation. It is the nearest approach to spiritual life— the mind meditating. It is the one moment in our daily life that we are not at all material— the Soul thinking of Itself, free from all matter— this marvelous touch of the Soul!

We shall meet with this subject of meditation when we reach the subsequent chapters of the Katha Upanishad. But in the present context a verse from Shankara’s Vivekachūdāmani (verse 368) will be found illuminating:

एकान्तस्थितिरिन्द्रियोपरमणे हेतुर्दमश्चेतसः
संरोधे करणं शमेन विलयं यायादहंवासना ।
तेनानन्दरसानुभूतिरचला ब्राह्मी सदा योगिनः
तस्माच्चित्तनिरोध एव सततं कार्यः प्रयत्नो मुनेः ॥

ekāntasthitirindriyoparamaṇe heturdamaścetasaḥ
saṃrodhe karaṇaṃ śamena vilayaṃ yāyādahaṃvāsanā |
tenānandarasānubhūtiracalā brāhmī sadā yoginaḥ
tasmāccittanirodha eva satataṃ kāryaḥ prayatno muneḥ ||

The state of aloneness serves to control the sense-organ; control of the sense-organs helps to control of the mind; through control of the mind the ego sense is destroyed; and this again gives the yogī the joy of the unbroken realization of the bliss of Brahman; therefore the only endeavour that the muni (thoughtful man) has to do is to strive constantly to discipline the mind.


Positivism versus Religion

A positivistic attitude to life may question the very necessity of religion; it may question the very validity of this search for the immortal and its technique of meditation. Modern positivism and humanism uphold the ideals of this–worldly excellence achieved through science and socio-political action and look askance at all ideas of inwardness and transcendence. Discussing this validity of religion, Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. III, p. 4):

Now comes the question, can religion accomplish any thing? It can. It brings to man eternal life. It has made man what he is, and make this human animal a god. That is what religion can do. Take religion from human society and what will remain? Nothing but a forest of brutes. Sense-happiness is not the goal of humanity. Wisdom (jnānam) is the goal of all life. We find that man enjoys his intellect more than an animal enjoys its senses; and we see man enjoys his spiritual nature even more than his rational nature. So the highest wisdom must be this spiritual knowledge. With this knowledge will come bliss. All these things of this world are but the shadows, the manifestations in the third or fourth degree, of the Real knowledge and Bliss.


Man in Quest of Bliss

Illumination and the bliss flowing from it are the two fruits of the realization of the Ātman. So verse thirteen of the second chapter of the Katha Upanishad says:

स मोदते मोदनीयं हि लब्ध्वा

sa modate modanīyaṃ hi labdhvā

he rejoices, having attained what is verily the blissful. What really is the blissful? Animal experience bliss through organic satisfactions. Man also seeks organic satisfactions to satisfy his craving for bliss. But in the case of man this is but the starting point. If any man is content with this and refuses to move forward, he has in effect bowed down to nature and become its bond-slave. For organic satisfactions are just plain nature; by coming under their sway man forfeits the glory of his spiritual status and freedom. Verse three of the Isha Upanishad, we have already seen, characterizes such a man as ātmahana, a self-killer, one commits suicide. How?

अविद्यादोषेण विद्यमानस्याऽत्मनः तिरस्करणात्

avidyādoṣeṇa vidyamānasyā'tmanaḥ tiraskaraṇāt

because of the denial of the ever-present Self through spiritual blindness — as further elucidated by Shankara in his commentary on that verse.


The specifically human joys are mental and not physical. But religions insist that there is a joy higher even than the mental; and this joy proceeds from divine and immortal core of the human personality, Physical and mental joys have their sources without, but this one has its source entirely within. This is the bliss of the Ātman or Brahman, the bliss of God. It is the purest form of joy, because it is entirely spiritual. Mental joys, which fall immediate between the physical and the spiritual, partake of both in varying degrees of combination, and or pure or otherwise in corresponding measure. Shri Ramakrishna speaks of three types of human joy: vishayānanda or joy arising from sense objects; bhajānanda or joy arising from bhajana or worship of God and singing his name and glories. It may also mean pure joys of the mind arising from intellectual, artistic, and moral sources; and brahmānanda or joy arising from God-vision. The last one is what Yama refers to in verse thirteen as

स मोदते मोदनीयं हि लब्ध्वा

sa modate modanīyaṃ hi labdhvā

. Of these, the first, namely, the joy arising from organic satisfactions appears trivial and childish to one who has tasted divine bliss. Says the Gita (V. 21-22):


बाह्यस्पर्शेष्वसक्तात्मा विन्दत्यात्मनि यत्सुखम् ।
स ब्रह्मयोगयुक्तात्मा सुखमक्षयमश्नुते ॥

bāhyasparśeṣvasaktātmā vindatyātmani yatsukham |
sa brahmayogayuktātmā sukhamakṣayamaśnute ||

He whose heart is unattached to external objects realizes the joy that is in the Self; he who is established in the awareness of Brahman attains happiness that is undecaying.

ये हि संस्पर्शजा भोगा दुःखयोनय एव ते ।
आद्यन्तवन्तः कौन्तेय न तेषु रमते बुधः ॥

ye hi saṃsparśajā bhogā duḥkhayonaya eva te |
ādyantavantaḥ kaunteya na teṣu ramate budhaḥ ||

Since enjoyments that are born of contact (of the senses of the sense objects) are the source of misery alone, (characterized) as they are with a beginning and an end, a wise man, O son of Kunti, does not take delight in them.


The House of Truth Is Wide Open for Nachiketa

God is Sat-Chit-Ananda—Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. Nachiketa is in search of this Truth. And Yama considers him far advanced on the path; hence he says to himself:

विवृतं सद्म नचिकेतसं मन्ये

vivṛtaṃ sadma naciketasaṃ manye

methinks the house (of Truth) is wide open for Nachiketā.


Yama, the teacher, is fully satisfied with Nachiketa, the student. But the student is not satisfied with the way the teacher is dodging so far. He will not stand any more the side-tracking of the main question on the part of his teacher. He will tell him straight to instruct him in Brahman; and this forms the theme of the verses that follow, which we shall study next.

Yama concluding his eulogy of the knowledge of Brahman with high praise for his student, Nachiketa:

विवृतं सद्म नचिकेतसं मन्ये

vivṛtaṃ sadma naciketasaṃ manye

methinks the house (of Truth) is wide open for Nachiketā. Nachiketā, as we saw when studying verse two of the first chapter, was endowed with shraddhā, faith in himself, faith in the ultimate meaningfulness of experience. This shraddhā deepened as a result of the confidence in him expressed as a result of the confidence in him expressed by his teacher through his eulogistic words. Both the student and the teacher are en rapport with the spirit of truth. The student, on his part, is impatient, expectant!


Ever since he met Yama and put him the question formulated in his third boon, relating to the problem of the survival of the soul at death, Nachiketa had been receiving intense philosophical education from the words of his teacher: this had clarified his ideas and widened the scope of his question. The simple theological problem had slowly assumed philosophical proportions. It was no more a personal problem on the plane of the emotions. It had become an impersonal and rational enquiry into the fundamental nature of man and universe; a penetrating study of experience to find out whether there is a changeless reality behind the world of change, an unconditioned behind the conditioned, a unity behind the diversity revealed by the senses.

With these thought-developments behind him, we find Nachiketa, in verse fourteen of chapter two, reformulating his problem in the precise language of philosophy. He asks Yama:

अन्यत्र धर्मादन्यत्राधर्मादन्यत्रास्मात्कृताकृतात् ।
अन्यत्र भूताच्च भव्याच्च यत्तत्पश्यसि तद्वद ॥

anyatra dharmādanyatrādharmādanyatrāsmātkṛtākṛtāt |
anyatra bhūtācca bhavyācca yattatpaśyasi tadvada ||

(Katha Upanishad, 14th Mantra Canto 2)

That which is other than dharma (virtue) and adharma (vice), other than effect and cause, other than time, past and future (as also present), that (Truth) thou beholdest; please tell (me) that.

In these simple words, Nachiketa has formulated the central quest of philosophy and religion in India. It is the search for a reality which is beyond the determinism of cause and effect, beyond the relativity of virtue and vice and of time and space. In that alone is true life, freedom and happiness. The finite, the relative, and the conditioned cannot be the man’s search for knowledge and happiness. In the earnest words of Sanatkumara in Chhandogya Upanishad (VII. xxiii. 1):

यो वै भूमा तत्सुखं नाल्पे सुखमस्ति
भूमैव सुखं भूमा त्वेव विजिज्ञासितव्य इति ।

yo vai bhūmā tatsukhaṃ nālpe sukhamasti
bhūmaiva sukhaṃ bhūmā tveva vijijñāsitavya iti |

That which is Infinite is verily happiness; there is no happiness in the finite; the Infinite alone is happiness. One should therefore seek to know the Infinite alone.

In his search for knowledge, man may get at the relative only; but his real search is for the absolute; when he finds that what he has attained is of the relative, he leaves it behind, modifies his method of approach, and continues his search for the absolute.


Māyā a Fact of Existence

Indian thought discovered ages ago that whatever is conditioned by space, time, and causality belongs to the category of the relative. This conclusion is now corroborated by modern scientific thought. Thus the entire world of sense perception, thought, and even the ego, all belong to the category of the relative. They fall within the field of time and the network of cause-and-effect relation. This is the sphere what Vedanta terms Māyā; all our activities and relationships, all our worldly desires, ethical strivings, and religious aspirations lie within this net of Māyā. Vedanta declares that whatever is within the range of speech and thought falls within the category of Māyā, within the net of relativity.

Says Swami Vivekananda on the nature of Māyā in his lecture on ‘Maya and Illusion’ (Complete Works, Vol. II, ninth Edition p. 97):

Māyā is not a theory for the explanation of the world: it is simply a statement of facts as they exist, that the very basis of our being is contradiction, that wherever there is good, there must also be evil, and wherever there is evil, there must be some good, wherever there is life, death must follow as its shadow, and everyone who smiles will have to weep, and vice-versa.

This net of relativity enfolds us and binds us on every side, without and within. The Swami says again in his lecture on ‘Maya and the Evolution of the Conception of God' (ibid., p. 112):

This eternal play of light and darkness, indiscriminate, indistinguishable, inseparable, is always there. A fact, yet, at the same time, not a fact; awake, and the same time asleep. This is a statement of facts, and this is what is called Māyā. We are born in the Māyā, we live in it, we think in it, we dream in it. We are philosophers in it, we are spiritual men in it, nay, we are devils in this Māyā, and we are gods in this Māyā. Stretch your ideas as far as you can, make them higher and higher, call them infinite, or by any other name you please, even these ideas are within this Māyā. It cannot be otherwise, and the human knowledge is generalization of this Māyā, trying to know it as it appears to be.

This is a great knowledge in itself; but it is not great enough for Vedanta. It wants to peer beyond even that. It seeks to realize the absolute behind the relative and go beyond time to eternity. This cannot be done at the conceptual level, for the absolute at that level is only a logical absolute; it is only a correlative of the relative.

But the modern positivistic may ask: why should we seek to realize the absolute when we know that it is unattainable, since it is beyond speech and thought? Why not be content with the relative? Dealing with the inadequacy of this positivistic position, Swami Vivekananda says (‘Maya and Illusion’, ibid., p. 102):

If this is the state of things, what we shall do? Why not become agnostics? The modern agnostics also know there is no solution of this problem, no getting out of this evil of Māyā, as we say in our language; therefore they tell us to be satisfied and enjoy life. Here, again, is a mistake, a tremendous mistake, and most illogical mistake. And it is this. What do you mean by life? Do you mean only the life of the senses? In this, every one of us differs only slightly from the brutes. I am sure that no one is present here whose life is only in the senses. Then, this present life means something more than that. Our feelings, thoughts, and aspirations are all part and parcel of our life; and is not the struggle towards the great ideal, towards perfection, one of the important components of what we call life? According to the agnostics, we must enjoy life as it is. But this life means, above all, this search after the ideal; the essence of life is going towards perfection. We must have that, and, therefore, we cannot be agnostics, or take the world as it appears. The agnostic position takes this life, minus the ideal component, to be all that exists; and this, the agnostic claims, cannot be reached, therefore he must give up the search. This is what is called Māyā, this nature, this universe.


Beyond Māyā

The search for what is beyond Māyā is the urge behind all the ethics and the search after religion. To quote Swami Vivekananda again (ibid., pp. 103-4)

All religions are more or less attempts to get beyond nature — the crudest or the most developed, expressed through mythology or symbology, stories of gods, angels or demons, or through stories of saints or seers, great men or prophets, or through the abstraction of philosophy—all have that one object, all are trying to get beyond these limitations. In one word, they are all struggling towards freedom…. The way is not with Māyā but against it. This is another fact to learn….The whole history of humanity is a continuous fight against the so-called laws of nature, and man gains in the end. Coming to the internal world, there, too, the same fight is going on, this fight between the animal man and the spiritual man, between light and darkness; and here, too, man becomes victorious. He, as it were, cuts his way out of nature to freedom.

Thus beyond this Māyā Vedanta finds something which is not bound by Māyā, and getting there, man is released from the shackles of Māyā, and becomes truly free. From this point onwards, all conceptual thought and ethical endeavour become luminous with a new resolve—the spiritual resolve to realize freedom, and further resolve to renounce sense life, the life in Māyā. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad in one of its oft-quoted verses sings of this Reality beyond Māyā (IV. 10):

मायां तु प्रकृतिं विद्यान्मायिनं च महेश्वरम् ।
तस्यवयवभूतैस्तु व्याप्तं सर्वमिदं जगत् ॥

māyāṃ tu prakṛtiṃ vidyānmāyinaṃ ca maheśvaram |
tasyavayavabhūtaistu vyāptaṃ sarvamidaṃ jagat ||

Know nature to be Māyā, and the great God to be lord of Māyā. This whole universe is pervaded by Him through beings which form His parts.

The knowledge of the world as Māyā, and the further knowledge of what lies beyond Māyā constitute the realization of Buddha under the bodhi tree. Apart from Buddha’s own utterances on this subject, we have clear presentation of the substance in his realization in a brief statement of one of the first five of his own disciples, Assāji. It is a fascinating episode in which we obtain this statement, and which also reveals the phenomenon of man’s dissatisfaction with mere living on words and concepts, the nature of his spiritual quest, and the help he receives in this from a qualified spiritual teacher.

Buddha was camping with his disciples in the city of Rājagrha, the capital of Magadha (modern Bihar). His disciple, Thera (i.e. Elder) Assāji, was on his morning round for alms. Sāriputta and Moggallāna were two prominent members of another group of spiritual seekers under a sceptic teacher by name Sanjaya; this group was also camping near Rājagrha at the time. Both were outstanding men and great scholars, but they were deeply dissatisfied inwardly and were yearning for spiritual realization. They were in search of the ‘Deathless’, the ‘Immortal’—Amatam, as the Buddhistic Pali scriptures put it. The two had made an agreement between themselves: He who first realizes the Deathless shall instruct the other.

Sāriputta came across Assāji when the latter was on his way back from his round for alms. Impressed by the serenity of Assāji, Sāriputta drew close to him and asked:

‘Thy senses, friend, are clear; the colour of thy skin is bright and pure. On whose account, friend, hast thou renounced the sense life. He, the Blessed One, is my teacher. I profess to follow the way taught by him.’

Sāriputta again asked:

‘Venerable sir, what does thy teacher declare?’

Assāji replied with characteristic humility:

‘I am, friend, but newly ordained; I have come but recently to this way and discipline. I cannot expound these in full; but I shall tell thee briefly what they mean.’

Saying this, Assāji in a brief statement announced the essence of what Buddha had realized for himself and was teaching to others:

ये धर्मा हेतुप्रभवा तेषां हेतुं तथागतो ह्यवदत् ।
तेषाञ्च निरोधो एवं वादी हि महाश्रमणः ॥

ye dharmā hetuprabhavā teṣāṃ hetuṃ tathāgato hyavadat |
teṣāñca nirodho evaṃ vādī hi mahāśramaṇaḥ ||

The tathāgata (Buddha) has verily explained the origin of those things which are subject to causality. Their cessation too (he has explained). This, verily, is the doctrine of the great shramana (monk).

The immense popularity of this brief statement of Buddha’s teaching is evident from the fact that it finds frequent occurrence in Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist books: it also occurs in innumerable inscriptions scattered in several countries of Asia.

Hearing of this brief summary of Buddha’s teaching, Sāriputta became deeply inspired; the truth of this message shone in his heart: Everything that is subject to the cause-and-effect relation is necessarily impermanent; by negation of this entire range of changeful phenomena one realizes the Changeless, the Deathless. Filled with joy, he went to his friend Moggallāna who, impressed by the serenity of his look, asked: ‘Have you attained the Deathless?’ He replied in the affirmative. Moggallāna then said to his friend: ‘Let us go to where the Blessed One (Buddha) is. He shall be our teacher.’ When their leader Sanjaya heard about it, he with all of his followers also decided to accompany the two. Buddha received them. He recognized the spiritually advanced state of the two friends and expressed his joy in having as his disciples ‘this excellent pair’—Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

‘The One remains, the many change and pass’, sang Shelly. The heart of spiritual realization is not the knowledge of the changeful aspects of existence, but the knowledge of the eternal Reality behind the world of change. The Upanishads term the latter parā vidyā, higher knowledge, and the former aparā vidyā, lower knowledge.

Parā vidyā is the search for that which is beyond the relativity of good and evil—

अन्यत्र धर्मादन्यत्राधर्मात्

anyatra dharmādanyatrādharmāt

, above the range of all causal determinisms—



, and unlimited by time—

अन्यत्र भूताच्च भव्याच्च.

anyatra bhūtācca bhavyācca.

Such a reality can only be the Self of man, the eternal subject, the witness of the three states of waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. Being beyond time and causality, it is infinite and non-dual,




सत्यं ज्ञानमनन्तम्

satyaṃ jñānamanantam

, as Vedanta expresses it. Buddha realized not only the cessation of all conditioned existence, but also the deathless and unconditioned Reality. Says Buddha (Udāna, VIII. 1 and 3):


There is, O monks, an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, an uncompounded; if, monks, there were not here this unborn, unbecome, unmade, uncompounded, there would not here be an escape from the born, the become, the made, the compounded. But because there is an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, an uncompounded, therefore, there is an escape from the born, the become, the made, the compounded.

In all religions, God is conceived as eternal and changeless. But while all dualistic religions place that God outside nature, outside experience, Vedanta finds Him in experience, as the inner Self of all, and proclaims the unity of Atman, the Self of man, with Brahman, the Self of the universe. It is only the light of this truth that we can understand the strange reply of Jesus to the question of the Jews (John, 8:57-58) :

Then said the Jews unto Him, ‘Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?’

Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you; before Abraham was, I am.’

The question asked by Nachiketa in verse fourteen thus relates to the central theme of all spiritual philosophy. Yama had hinted to Nachiketa his having realized this truth of all truths. Nachiketa therefore requests Yama to communicate it to him. as Shankara in his commentary on verse fourteen of chapter two says:

यदीदृशं वस्तु सर्वव्यवहारगोचरातीतं पश्यति जानासि तद्वद मह्यम् ।

yadīdṛśaṃ vastu sarvavyavahāragocarātītaṃ paśyati jānāsi tadvada mahyam |

If you see, if you know, the reality of this description, which is beyond the grasp of relative experience, then please tell it to me.


Om: the Symbol of Total Reality

To this pointed question, Yama gave a reply which, commencing with verse fifteen of this chapter, occupies the rest of the Upanishad. We shall now take up the fifteenth and the subsequent two verses, sixteenth and seventeenth, for our study:

सर्वे वेदा यत्पदमामनन्ति
तपांसि सर्वाणि च यद्वदन्ति ।
यदिच्छन्तो ब्रह्मचर्यं चरन्ति
तत्ते पदं संग्रहेण ब्रवीम्योमित्येतत् ॥

sarve vedā yatpadamāmananti
tapāṃsi sarvāṇi ca yadvadanti |
yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti
tatte padaṃ saṃgraheṇa bravīmyomityetat ||

(Katha Upanishad, 15th Mantra Canto 2)

The goal which all Vedas proclaim, which all tapas (penances) declare, and desiring which they lead the life of brahmacharya—that goal I tell thee in brief; it is Om.

एतद्ध्येवाक्षरं ब्रह्म एतद्ध्येवाक्षरं परम् ।
एतद्ध्येवाक्षरं ज्ञात्वा यो यदिच्छति तस्य तत् ॥

etaddhyevākṣaraṃ brahma etaddhyevākṣaraṃ param |
etaddhyevākṣaraṃ jñātvā yo yadicchati tasya tat ||

(Katha Upanishad, 16th Mantra Canto 2)

This syllable is verily Brahman; this syllable is verily the highest. Having known this syllable, one gets whatever one desires.

एतदालम्बनं श्रेष्ठमेतदालम्बनं परम् ।
एतदालम्बनं ज्ञात्वा ब्रह्मलोके महीयते ॥

etadālambanaṃ śreṣṭhametadālambanaṃ param |
etadālambanaṃ jñātvā brahmaloke mahīyate ||

(Katha Upanishad, 17th Mantra Canto 2)

This support is the best; this support is the supreme; knowing this support, one is glorified in the world of Brahman.

It may appear strange that to the serious question of Nachiketa regarding the ultimate unconditioned Reality, Yama gave the answer that it is Om. But we shall see presently that it is not a mere name or word that is presented here. As explained by Shankara in his comments on this verse:

ॐ शब्दवाच्यम् ॐ शब्दप्रतीकञ्च ।

oṃ śabdavācyam oṃ śabdapratīkañca |

It is That which is meant by the sound Om, and That which has for its symbol the sound Om.

A word and its meaning are inseparable,

वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ

vāgarthāviva saṃpṛktau

, as said by the poet Kalidāsa. History has shown that human knowledge in various fields has been greatly advanced by the invention and use of symbols. Language itself is a collection of symbols. Quantities and numbers become simplified when expressed through symbols. When ancient Indian scientific thought invented the numerals, including the zero sign, the algebraic symbols, and the decimal system, it helped immensely to simplify mathematics and its handling of immense physical quantities. When the Indian sages realized the Absolute and the Unconditioned in the unity of Brahman and Atman, they felt the need for an adequate symbol to communicate so incommunicable a truth. No single personal God of the various religions, nor any physical symbol much less, could serve as a symbol for a Reality which is at once personal and impersonal, immanent and transcendent. In their search, they came across the sound symbol Om, which, as the Taittirīya Upanishad (I.8) informs us, had already established its usefulness for the communication of particular moods and ideas.


In the meantime, their philosophic investigation had resolved the whole universe of matter and energy, including physical energy—akāsha and prāna—into sphota or sound, which they had also divided into the two main groups of the manifest and the unmanifest. No particular sound of the alphabet, either as consonant or a vowel, could serve as an adequate symbol of Brahman, unity of all existence. The universal cannot be expressed adequately through any one particular. It can be expressed only through something which possesses the characteristics of the universal. They analyzed this sound Om and discovered that, of all sounds, it possessed this quality of universality. It is composed of the sounds of the three letters akāra, ukāra, and makāra, of Sanskrit vocabulary corresponding to a, u, and m of the English vocabulary. A, pronounced as the letter ‘o’ in the word ‘come’, is the first vowel and the letter in the Sanskrit alphabet; as the first of the guttural sounds, it is the very first sound that man can utter, as the labial sounds which involves the closing of the lips, M is the last sound that can be pronounced by man; and U, as pronounced in the ‘uvula’, is the sound produced by rolling the breath over the whole of the tongue. Hence the combination of these three sounds into Om is also a combination of all sounds that man can possibly utter. Though a particular, Om, is thus universal in its sweep. As such, it is fit to be a symbol of Brahman in its immanent aspect.

Om in its uttered form finally merges into its unuttered form; all uttered sound merges into the silence of the soundless. This soundless or amātra aspect of Om is the symbol of Brahman in its transcendental aspect, beyond time, space, and causality. This amātra aspect is indicated by the bindu or dot in the crescent over the syllable Om as written in Sanskrit:


This Om, as the unity of all sounds to which all matter and energy are reduced in their primordial form, is a fit symbol for Ātman or Brahman, which is the unity of all existence. These, and possibly other, considerations let the Vedic sages to accord to Om the highest divine reverence and worship, treat it as the holiest pratīka, symbol of divinity; they called it nāda brahman or shabda brahman, Brahman in the form of sound. It is the holiest word for all the religions emanating from India—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Its nearest equivalent in the West is the Logos or the Word. As St. John’s Gospel majestically expounds it (I.I):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Mandūkya Upanishad, which is the briefest of the Upanishads with only twelve verses, reveals the truth of the Ātman through a penetrating study of experience as revealed in the three states of jāgrat (waking), svapna (dream), and sushupti (dream-less sleep). It identifies each of the three letters of Om with the Ātman as revealed in each of the three states, and the soundless aspects of Om with the Ātman revealed in the turīya or the transcendental state. The entire universe of experience is comprehended in the three states, and the pure subject or experience in the turīya. The Atman as the unity of the experiencer and the experienced is the totality of all existence, and Om is its total symbol. Mandūkya Upanishad proclaims this truth in its two opening verses and in its eighth verse:

ॐ इत्येदक्षरमिदं सर्वं तस्योपव्याख्यानं
भूतं भवद् भविष्यदिति सर्वमोंकार एव ।
यच्चान्यत् त्रिकालातीतं तदप्योंकार एव ॥

oṃ ityedakṣaramidaṃ sarvaṃ tasyopavyākhyānaṃ
bhūtaṃ bhavad bhaviṣyaditi sarvamoṃkāra eva |
yaccānyat trikālātītaṃ tadapyoṃkāra eva ||

Om; this syllable is all this (universe); a clear exposition (is thus): All that is past, present, and future is, indeed, Om ; and whatever else there is beyond the three division of time, that also is verily Om.

सर्वं ह्येतद् ब्रह्मायमात्मा ब्रह्म सोऽयमात्मा चतुष्पात् ॥

sarvaṃ hyetad brahmāyamātmā brahma so'yamātmā catuṣpāt ||

All this (existence), verily, is Brahman; this Ātman is Brahman; this same Ātman has four quarters (places of manifestation, namely, jāgrat, svapna, sushupti, and turīya).

सोऽयमात्माऽध्यक्षरमोंकरोऽधिमात्रं पादा
मात्रा मात्राश्च पादा अकार उकारो मकार इति ॥

so'yamātmā'dhyakṣaramoṃkaro'dhimātraṃ pādā
mātrā mātrāśca pādā akāra ukāro makāra iti ||

This same Ātman is now described in relation to the syllable Om. Om, too, divided into (four) parts, is described in relation to its letters. The quarters of the Ātman (the Self as manifested in each of the three states of waking, dream, and dreamless sleep) are identical with the letters of Om , which are a, u, and m.

The Upanishad further describes the fourth state or turīya in its last verse, verse twelve:

अमात्रश्चतुर्थोऽव्यवहार्यः प्रपञ्चोपशमः शिवोऽद्वैत
एवमोंकार आत्मैव संविशत्यात्मनाऽत्मनं य एवं वेद ॥

amātraścaturtho'vyavahāryaḥ prapañcopaśamaḥ śivo'dvaita
evamoṃkāra ātmaiva saṃviśatyātmanā'tmanaṃ ya evaṃ veda ||

The fourth (turīya) is without sound (or parts) and is beyond relativity; it is the cessation of all phenomena. It is the Good, the non-dual. This Om is verily the Atman. He who knows this merges himself in the Ātman.

This is the thought-background of Yama’s eulogy of Om as the symbol of Atman in verses fifteen to seventeen of the second chapter of the Katha Upanishad. The eulogy is meant for both Om and Ātman, since we have seen that what fits one fits also the other. Explaining the significance of Om as the highest symbol of God, Swami Vivekananda says (‘Bhakti Yoga’ Complete Works, Vol. III, Eighth Edition, pp. 57-58):

All this expressed sensible universe is the form, behind which stands the eternal inexpressible sphota, the essential eternal material of all universe. Nay, the Lord first becomes conditioned as the sphota, and then evolves Himself out as the yet more concrete sensible universe. This sphota has one word as its only possible symbol, and this is the Om. And as by no possible means of analysis can we separate the word from the idea, this Om and the eternal sphota are inseparable; and therefore it is out of this holiest of all holy words, the mother of all name and forms, the eternal Om, that the whole universe may be supposed to have been created…. The sphota is the material of all words, yet it is not any definite word in its fully formed state. That is to say, if all the peculiarities which distinguish one word from another be removed, then what remains will be the sphota; therefore this sphota is called the nāda-brahman, the Sound-Brahman….

If properly pronounced, this Om will represent the whole phenomena of sound production, and no other word can do this; and this, therefore, is the fittest symbol of the sphota, which is the real meaning of the Om. And as the symbol can never be separated from the thing signified, the Om and the sphota are one. And as the sphota, being the finer side of the universe, is nearer to God, and is indeed the first manifestation of divine wisdom, this Om is truly symbolic of God.


सर्वे वेदा यत्पदमामनन्ति

sarve vedā yatpadamāmananti

the state which all Vedas proclaim, says Yama; padam in Sanskrit means state as well as word, and it also means ‘goal’. The Atman and its symbol Om are central theme of all the Vedas.


I have a personal idea; I came to know that there is a theorem in Mathematics known as The Fourier’s Theorem. In short Sir James Jeans Says Fourier’s theorem tells us that every curve, no matter what its nature may be, or in what way it was originally obtained, can be exactly reproduced by superimposing a sufficient number of simple harmonic curves — in brief, every curve can be built up by piling waves (The Fourier Theorem).

Now any word is a sound which can be shown as a graph. And any graph or curve is a component of sine curve (curve of the simple harmonic motion) according to Fourier’s Theorem. In other way the curve of the simple harmonic motion is the generalized form of all the curves. Now as we know the vibration of the arms of a tuning fork is of the nature of simple harmonic motion. And the sound of the tuning fork resembles the sound of Om as described in the Indian Scriptures. Or any sound emanating from the simple harmonic motion, that is to say the sound of the syllable Om is the generalized sound of all the sounds.


The Power of Tapas


तपांसि सर्वाणि च यद्वदन्ति

tapāṃsi sarvāṇi ca yadvadanti

— and which is proclaimed by all tapas (penances). The word tapas meaning heat, indicates effort and endeavour, which has the tendency to heat up any system, physical or organic. Its nearest equivalent in English are self-discipline, austerity, or penance, without, however, taking in the ideas of sin and penitence associated with the last two. The idea expressed by tapas find, in some form or other, a place in the practical part of every religion; they find a place even in political life or scientific research. In fact, they have a place in every field where man strives for higher values. Tapas involves the voluntary and cheerful experiencing of a privation with a view to attaining a higher value.


By fasting, which is the commonest form of tapas in religion, by voluntarily giving up food, man hopes to achieve self control and inner purity. What is given up is always a lower value and what is sought is always a higher value. If food is the highest value, there is no meaning in giving it up. It is the same with the entire gamut of sense pleasures. Lust emerges as love through the tapas of marriage. A seeker of knowledge gladly welcomes privation in the field of sense pleasures. A patriot seeking the liberation of his country from political slavery cheerfully faces physical privations and even death itself. The ethical man cheerfully undergoes physical and mental privations at the call of duty.

Throwing away an advantage already gained in order to achieve a greater advantage has been a characteristic of organic as well as cultural evolution. This is the only safeguard against stagnation and death. Life’s command is ‘move on’. This is what the Ishā Upanishad proclaims in its memorable opening verse as we saw in our study of that Upanishad:

तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा

tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā

enjoy life through tyāga, renunciation. The animal has its life entirely in the senses, man, though living in the body and plane of the senses, feels the urge to move on; through control of his nervous impulses, he develops his mental life. Disciplining the workings of his mind, he achieves morality and culture, science and art, philosophy and religion. Tapas thus plays a vital part in human evolution. It unites the citizen and the saint, the scientist and the artist in a common discipline and quest, thus bridging the gulf between the secular and the sacred.


By tapas, therefore, the Upanishads, or, for that matter, the Gita, Buddha, or Jesus, never mean mere penance, austerity, or senseless mortification. By it they mean this creative impulse at the back of the evolutionary process, be it organic or mental, moral or spiritual. The Upanishads are particularly concerned with its contribution in the fields of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth of man. For that is the specific field of human evolution. In the words of Sir Julian Huxley in his lecture on ‘The Evolutionary Vision’, (Evolution after Darwin, Vol. III, and p.251):

Man’s evolution is not biological but psychosocial; it operates by the mechanism of cultural tradition, which involves the cumulative self-reproduction and self-variation of mental activities and their products. Accordingly, major steps in the human phase of evolution are achieved by break-throughs to new dominant patterns of mental organization, of knowledge, ideas, and beliefs—ideological instead of physiological or biological organization.

The Upanishads maintain that tapas is the technique by which such ‘break-throughs’ are initiated and stabilized. Hence the supreme importance given by them to tapas. If the higher is the end, then tapas is the means, say the Upanishads; and they equate the means and the end by declaring that tapas is the higher life. Thus the Taittirīya Upanishad sings in praise of tapas in one of its famous passages dealing with the knowledge of Brahman in majestic statement by Varuna, the father and teacher, to Bhrgu, his son and disciple. (III. 1)

यतो वा इमानि भूतानि जायन्ते । येन जातानि जीवन्ति ।
यत्प्रयन्त्यभिसंविशन्ति । तद्विजिज्ञासस्व । तद् ब्रह्मेति ।

yato vā imāni bhūtāni jāyante | yena jātāni jīvanti |
yatprayantyabhisaṃviśanti | tadvijijñāsasva | tad brahmeti |

That from all these beings and entities are born; That in which, being born, they abide; and That into which, at death, they fully enter—desire to know That; That is Brahman.

What did the disciple do on hearing this truth?


स तपोऽतप्यत

sa tapo'tapyata

he performed tapas, says the Upanishad. Explaining the word tapas in his commentary on this verse Shankara says:



सर्वेषां हि नियतसाध्यविषयाणां साधनानां तप व साधकतमं साधनमिति हि प्रसिद्धं लोके । तस्मात् पित्रा अनुपदिष्टमपि ब्रह्मविज्ञानसाधनत्वेन तपः प्रतिपेदे भृगुः । तच्च तपो बाह्यान्तःकरणसमाधानम्, तद्द्वारकत्वाद्ब्रह्मप्रतिपत्तेः ।
‘मनसश्चेन्द्रियाणां च ह्यैकाग्र्यं परमं तपः । तज्ज्यायः सर्वधर्मेभ्यः स धर्मः पर उच्यते’ इति स्मृतेः ।

sarveṣāṃ hi niyatasādhyaviṣayāṇāṃ sādhanānāṃ tapa va sādhakatamaṃ sādhanamiti hi prasiddhaṃ loke | tasmāt pitrā anupadiṣṭamapi brahmavijñānasādhanatvena tapaḥ pratipede bhṛguḥ | tacca tapo bāhyāntaḥkaraṇasamādhānam, taddvārakatvādbrahmapratipatteḥ |
‘manasaścendriyāṇāṃ ca hyaikāgryaṃ paramaṃ tapaḥ | tajjyāyaḥ sarvadharmebhyaḥ sa dharmaḥ para ucyate’ iti smṛteḥ |


It is well known in the world that of all aids to the attainment of objects which can be achieved by resort to means, tapas is the most excellent aid. Therefore Bhrgu resorted to tapas as being the means to the knowledge of Brahman, though his father did not say anything about tapas. And such tapas is the tranquillization of the outer and inner sense organs (the senses and the mind), because that is the means to the attainment of Brahman.
‘The concentrations of the (energies of the mind) of the mind and the senses is supreme tapas; it is greater than all virtues (dharmas); it is (in fact) the supreme virtue’, as the (Yājñavalkya) Smrti puts it.

And in the very next passage, we find the teacher exhorting the disciple, who asks him to impart to him the knowledge of Brahman, to practice tapas (III. 2):



तपसा ब्रह्म विजिज्ञासस्व । तपो ब्रह्मेति ।

tapasā brahma vijijñāsasva | tapo brahmeti |


Desire to know Brahman by tapas; tapas is Brahman.

The Puranic literature tells us that this word tapa was the first sound that Brahmā, the cosmic Mind who projected this universe out of Himself, heard when He was puzzled as to how to create the universe of name and form. He alone existed the time. Looking about for the source of the sound, He realized that it was the message to Him from the divine Self within himself. Accordingly, as the Bhagavata beautifully describes it (II. ix. 8):


He, who is the greatest performer of all tapas, with perfect concentration, that he acquired the knowledge and capacity to create the universe.

The universe is the fruit of the tapas of the Creator, a tapas consisting of knowledge.

यस्य ज्ञानमयं तपः

yasya jñānamayaṃ tapaḥ

whose tapas consists of knowledge or thought says the Mundaka Upanishad (I.i.9). Commenting on this Shankara says:



Whose tapas consists of thought; it is just a form of His knowledge, which is of the nature of omniscience; it is a tapas characterized by effortlessness or spontaneity.

Tapas is thus at the very root of creation; it is also at the root of every creative act or achievement of man, be it literary or artistic, scientific or spiritual.

This concentration of organic and psychic energy achieved by tapas is the means to advance evolution to the highest summit of spiritual realization. Modern neurologists tell us that animals that acquired a capacity for thermostasis in their bodies won not only survival in the struggle for existence, but also evolutionary advance. Says W. Grey Walter (The Living Brain, p.16):

The acquisition of internal temperature control, thermostasis, was a supreme event in neural, indeed in all natural history. It made possible the survival of mammals on a cooling globe. That was its general importance in evolution. Its particular importance was that it completed, in one section of the brain, an automatic system of stabilization for the vital functions of the organism—a condition known as homeostasis. With this arrangement, other parts of the brain are left free for functions not immediately related to the vital engine or the senses, for functions surpassing the wonders of homeostasis itself.

Tracing the kinship of this physical principle of homeostasis with the spiritual evolution of man, Grey Walter continues (ibid., p. 19):

The experience of homeostasis, the perfect mechanical calm which it allows the brain, has been known for two or three thousand years under various appellations. It is the physiological aspect of the perfectionists’ faiths—nirvana, the abstraction of the yogi, the peace that passeth understanding, the derided ‘Happiness that lies within’; it is a state of grace in which disorder and disease are mechanical slips and errors.

Tapas thus is a value which creative life proclaims from every side, And tapas itself, says Yama to Nachiketa, proclaims the glory of That which is the value of all values, the supreme end-value, namely, Atman or Brahman:

तपांसि सर्वाणि च यद्वदन्ति ।

tapāṃsi sarvāṇi ca yadvadanti |


Yama says further:

यदिच्छन्तो ब्रह्मचर्यं चरन्ति

yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti

desiring which they lead the life of brahmacharya.


Brahmacharya means voluntary self-control; it is especially associated with the discipline and control of sex-impulse. It is a form of tapas; it is in fact, the most vital aspect of tapas according to Indian spiritual thought. There is no book on spirituality in India which does not proclaim the glory of brahmacharya. In its widest sense, it means the life spiritual; this is the sense in which it is used here; it is the sense in which Buddha used it in his discourses. Mahatma Gandhi gives its root meaning as that conduct which puts one in touch with God. These two values—tapas and brahmacharya—form two vital elements of Indian culture; they have imparted to its unique features of a spiritual motive and a spiritual direction.

In verse fifteen Yama describes the goal of the spiritual quest briefly as Om. He sings the glory of this symbol of the Divine in verses sixteen and seventeen.


After speaking about the symbol in these three verses, Yama proceeds to speak, in the remaining eight verses of the chapter more directly about the reality signified by the symbol about which Nachiketa had eagerly asked.

In verses eighteen to twenty-five comprising the rest of the chapter, we have Yama expounding the subject more directly, as directly as a subject such as this will permit. Verses eighteen and nineteen read:



न जायते म्रियते वा विपश्चिन्नायं कुतश्चिन्न बभूव कश्चित् ।
अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे ॥

na jāyate mriyate vā vipaścinnāyaṃ kutaścinna babhūva kaścit |
ajo nityaḥ śāśvato'yaṃ purāṇo na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre ||


(Katha Upanishad, 18th Mantra Canto 2)

The discerning man (knows that he) is not born nor does he die; he has not come into being from anything; nor has anything come into being from him. This (Self of man) is unborn, eternal, everlasting, and ancient; It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.



हन्ता चेन्मन्यते हन्तुं हतश्चेन्मन्यते हतम् ।
उभौ तौ न विजानीतो नायं हन्ति न हन्यते ॥

hantā cenmanyate hantuṃ hataścenmanyate hatam |
ubhau tau na vijānīto nāyaṃ hanti na hanyate ||


(Katha Upanishad, 19th Mantra Canto 2)

If the killer thinks that he is killing, and the killed thinks that he is killed, both of them do not know that It (the Self) kills not nor is it killed.


In these two verses, Yama has revealed man in his depth. As a physical entity, man is one among the innumerable physical realities of the universe. This is man viewed from the outside, through the senses. Like the innumerable physical entities of nature, man also is acted upon and moulded by forces outside of himself; his body and mind, intellect and ego are all subject to the law of causation. Caught up in the coils of the iron law of determinism, all these entities, including man, are subject to the ‘sixfold waves of change’, as Vedanta terms it, namely, birth, coming into the category of the existent, growth (through addition of particles or elements), transformation, decline (through detachment of particles or elements), and, finally, destruction or death. The sensate view of man treats him as machine, wound up and wound down by the hand of time. But is this the whole of man? The sense of inwardness which man—even the sensate man— experiences is what makes him as a self as different from the not-self. This Selfhood is the special prerogative of man. The term ‘self’ and its Sanskrit equivalent, ātman, carry the reflexive meaning of inwardness. The sensate view of man completely overlooks the importance of this significant value of inwardness.

Depth psychology in the West endeavours to view him from the inside, and identifies his self with his subtle body, the sukshma sharira, apart from and beyond his gross physical body and still within the grip of cause-and-effect determinism like the physical body and its environing world.


A Message of Hope

This is still the view of man from the outside; it is accordingly a surface view. In failing to the justice to the unplumbed depths of his personality, it also twists and distorts, it makes human life denuded of intrinsic value and significance. The human heart and reason have always protested against this situation. This protest voice by ethics and religion finds most poignant expression in words spoken by Swami Vivekananda in the course of his address to the Chicago Parliament of Religions (Complete Works, Vol. I, p.10):

Is a man a tiny boat in a tempest, raised one moment on the foamy crest of a billow and dashed down into a yawning chasm the next, rolling to and fro at the mercy of good and bad actions—a powerless, helpless wretch in an ever-raging, ever-rushing, uncompromising current of cause and effect; a little moth placed under the wheel of causation, which rolls on crushing everything in its way and waits not for the widow’s tears or the orphan’s cry? The heart sinks at the idea, yet this is the law of Nature.

The discovery by the Indian sages that the true Self man is free, that is untrammeled by the cause-and-effect relation and beyond the network of relativity was a great discovery in the history of man’s search for truth. Refering to this momentous event, Swami Vivekananda continues (ibid., pp. 10-11):

Is there no hope? Is there no escape?—was the cry that went up from heart of the bottom of the despair. It reached the throne of mercy, and words of hope and consolation came down and inspired a Vedic Sage, and he stood up before the world and in trumpet voice, proclaimed the glad tidings:

“Hear ye children of immortal bliss! even ye that reside in higher spheres! I have found that ancient One who is beyond all darkness, all delusion: knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again.”

“Children of immortal bliss”—what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name—heirs of immortal bliss—yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy, and perfect beings…. You are the souls immortal, spirits free, blest, and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.

Discussing the import of this teaching for man and his destiny, Swami Vivekananda concludes (ibid., p.11):

Thus it is that the Vedas proclaim not a dreadful combination of unforgiving laws, not an endless prison of cause and effect, but that at the head of all these laws, in and through every particle of matter and force, stands One “by whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the cloud rain, and death stalks upon the earth”.

The Self of man is eternal, immortal; hence it is beyond the cause-and-effect determinism. This is known to the discerning— vipashchit —says Yama in verse eighteen; he knows that the death of the body, be it gross or subtle, does not involve the death of the Self. It is only the dull-witted that ascribe to the Self the happenings that fall to the body, which is clearly the not-Self. Says Shankara (Vivekachudamani, verse 160):

देहोऽहमित्येव जडस्य बुद्धिः
देहे च जीवे विदुषस्त्वहं धीः ।
विवेकविज्ञानवतो महात्मनो
ब्रह्माहमित्येव मतिः सदात्मनि ॥

deho'hamityeva jaḍasya buddhiḥ
dehe ca jīve viduṣastvahaṃ dhīḥ |
vivekavijñānavato mahātmano
brahmāhamityeva matiḥ sadātmani ||

The dull-witted man thinks “I am the body”; the learned man identifies himself with the individual soul within the body; while the great-souled man, possessed of discrimination and realization, identifies himself with the eternal Atman, and knows “I am Brahman”.


The Nature of the Ātman

Verse eighteen and nineteen of the second chapter of the Katha Upanishad occur in the second chapter of the Gita as verses twenty and nineteen with slight modifications. The free rendering of the latter verse by Emerson in his poem on Brahma is well known:

If the red slayer thinks he slays
Or the slain thinks he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep and pass and turn again.

Yama now proceeds to give Nachiketa a closer view of the truth of the Ātman in the next three verses, beginning with the verse twenty which combines musical charm with philosophical depth:

अणोरणीयानमहतो महीया-
नात्माऽस्य जन्तोर्निहितो गुहायाम् ।
तमक्रतुः पश्यति वीतशोको
धातुप्रसादान्महिमानमात्मनः ॥

aṇoraṇīyānamahato mahīyā-
nātmā'sya jantornihito guhāyām |
tamakratuḥ paśyati vītaśoko
dhātuprasādānmahimānamātmanaḥ ||

(Katha Upanishad, 20th Mantra Canto 2)

The Ātman, smaller than the atom and greater than the cosmos, is ever present in the heart of this creature. One who is free from (the thralldom of) desire realizes the glory of the Ātman through purity and transparency of the senses and the mind, and (thereby becomes) free from grief.

आसीनो दूरं व्रजति शयानो याति सर्वतः ।
कस्तं मदामदं देवं मदन्यो ज्ञातुमर्हति ॥

āsīno dūraṃ vrajati śayāno yāti sarvataḥ |
kastaṃ madāmadaṃ devaṃ madanyo jñātumarhati ||

(Katha Upanishad, 21st Mantra Canto 2)

Though sitting still; He travels far: though lying down, He goes everywhere. Who, other than myself, can know that luminous Reality, which rejoices and rejoices not?

अशरीरं शरीरेष्वनवस्थेष्वस्थितम् ।
महान्तं विभुमात्मानं मत्वा धीरो न शोचति ॥

aśarīraṃ śarīreṣvanavastheṣvasthitam |
mahāntaṃ vibhumātmānaṃ matvā dhīro na śocati ||

(Katha Upanishad, 22nd Mantra Canto 2)

Realizing the Ātman as the bodiless in the embodied, the changeless in the changeful entities, infinite and all-pervading, the wise one does not grieve.

Yama has expressed profound ideas through these three verses. We came across these ideas earlier in our study of the Isha Upanishad, verses four and five. Small and big physical conceptions arising from spatial determinations. A physical entity is either big or small; it can be never be both except relatively. But this limitation does not apply to subtle realities even of the physical world. A photon is described by modern science as big enough to spread across the universe and small enough to pass through a small hole. What to speak of the inapplicability of these limitations to non physical realities like mind and Self? Anu means atom or, more appropriately, the smallest particle of matter; the Ātman is smaller than that. Mahat is the cosmic totality; the Ātman is greater than this. It is only consciousness, pure and unconditioned, that can answer to this paradoxical description; and that is the nature of the Ātman, the true Self of man. The German poet Angelus Silesius sings:

Dear me, how great is God! Dear me how God is small!
Small as the smallest thing, great as the troubles of all!

Says Shankara in his comment on this Upanishadic verse:

Whatever entities exist in the world, small or big, they all derive their being from this eternal Ātman; divorced from the Ātman, they become reduced to unreality.

As the innermost essence of everything in the universe, this Atman is naturally present in every being:

आत्माऽस्य जन्तोर्निहितो गुहायाम्

ātmā'sya jantornihito guhāyām

. But they do not know this fact: because it is

निहितो गुहायाम्

nihito guhāyām

hidden in the guha, cavity, in the innermost core of their being, as the eternal witness of the changing states of waking, dream, and sleep. Though thus hidden, It has not failed to leave its footprints on the sands of daily experience;



It ever sends out Its intimations through every act of seeing, hearing, thinking, and knowing, comments Shankara. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad in a moving passage sings the glory of the Ātman as the eternal ‘thread of Being’ (III. 7.15):



यः सर्वेषु भूतेषु तिष्ठन्सर्वेभ्यो भूतेभ्योऽन्तरो, यः सर्वाणि भूतानि न विदुर्यस्य सर्वाणि भूतानि शरीरं, यः सर्वाणि भूतान्यन्तरो यमयत्येष ते आत्माऽन्तर्यम्यमृतः ।

yaḥ sarveṣu bhūteṣu tiṣṭhansarvebhyo bhūtebhyo'ntaro, yaḥ sarvāṇi bhūtāni na viduryasya sarvāṇi bhūtāni śarīraṃ, yaḥ sarvāṇi bhūtānyantaro yamayatyeṣa te ātmā'ntaryamyamṛtaḥ |


He who exists in all beings, who is their innermost core, whom all beings do not know, whose body are all beings, who, remaining within, controls all beings, this your Ātman, the antaryāmī (inner controller), the Immortal.


The True Glory of Man

Says William Blake, The English poet (Poems and Prophesies):

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

When the senses and the mind become pure through control of desire, through checking the out-going tendencies of the mind, man realizes the infinite dimension of his true being:



the glory of the Ātman. What is this glory?:

कर्मनिमित्तवृद्धिक्षयरहितं पश्यत्ययमहमस्मीति

karmanimittavṛddhikṣayarahitaṃ paśyatyayamahamasmīti

He realizes the Atman as not subject to increase or decrease as a result of action; he realizes It as “I am He”, comments Shankara. The one theme of all the Upanishads as this unique glory of man.


All culture and civilization proclaim only this glory of man in varying measures. But it is only the science of spirituality that this glory is fully grasped. This realization puts an end to all grief, says the verse. The Upanishads hold that all grief, which indicates helplessness,

अनीशया शोचति

anīśayā śocati

, proceeds from the attainment of only the fleeting and the finite by one who is born heir to the immortal and the infinite. Grief disappears in the peace and joy of the immortal and infinite Ātman. This is the state in which Buddhas and Christs normally live and move.


The nature of the infinite will entail descriptions often contradictory and enigmatic. It is ‘smaller than the atom and bigger than the cosmos’; this is one such description. Verse twenty-one adds three more:

आसीनो दूरं व्रजति

āsīno dūraṃ vrajati

though sitting still, He travels far; and



It rejoices and rejoices notcommenting on these apparently contradictory descriptions of the Ātman, Shankara says:



स्थितिगतिनित्यानित्यादिविरुद्धानेकधर्मोपाधिकत्वाद्विरुद्धधर्मवत्त्वाद्विश्वरूप इव चिन्तामणिवदवभाषते ।

sthitigatinityānityādiviruddhānekadharmopādhikatvādviruddhadharmavattvādviśvarūpa iva cintāmaṇivadavabhāṣate |


Viewed through the limiting adjuncts which possess such various and contradictory attributes such as fixity and motion, eternity and ephemerality, etc. the Ātman appears to some as if possessing many contradictory attributes, multiformed like the chintāmani (a mythical gem which appears according to the fancy of the viewer).

The universe has come from the Ātman; the inorganic and the organic constitute two features of the universe. The inorganic has no experience, neither joy nor sorrow; hence it is described as amada. The organic has such experience; hence it is described as mada. A reality with such contradictory features is difficult to grasp:

कस्तं मदामदं देवं मदन्यो ज्ञातुमर्हति

kastaṃ madāmadaṃ devaṃ madanyo jñātumarhati

who but I (and men like me) can know It? exclaims Yama. There are only a few who have realized this Ātman and Yama is one of them.



The Self-revelation of the Atman

The Atman is in all things and entities which have shape and form, because it itself bodiless — asharīram. These bodies are all subject to change; the Ātman is in them as their changeless essence:



. And

अविभक्तं च भूतेषु विभक्तमिव च स्थितम्

avibhaktaṃ ca bhūteṣu vibhaktamiva ca sthitam

(The Ātman) exists undivided in things apparently divided. says the Gita (XIII. 16). Realizing the Ātman as It truly is — mahāntam and vibhum, great and infinite—man becomes a dhīra; he surpasses himself and grieves no more. He completes the long and arduous evolutionary journey from wretchedness to blessedness.


In the next verse, verse twenty-three, Yama speaks of the unique nature of this journey and its goal:

नायमात्मा प्रवचनेन लभ्यो
न मेधया न बहुना श्रुतेन ।
यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्यः
तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूं स्वाम् ॥

nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo
na medhayā na bahunā śrutena |
yamevaiṣa vṛṇute tena labhyaḥ
tasyaiṣa ātmā vivṛṇute tanūṃ svām ||

(Katha Upanishad, 23rd Mantra Canto 2)

This Ātman cannot be attained by study of scriptures, nor by sharp intellect, nor by much hearing; by Him is it attained whom It chooses—to him this Ātman reveals Its own (true) form.

Pravachana literally means teaching; here it means study which is prior to teaching. In a narrow sense, this study refers to the study of the Vedas; in it’s widest however it means the study of sacred books in general. The Ātman cannot be attained by the study of the sacred books, says Yama, and adds: nor by medhas — sharp intelligence, nor

बहुना श्रुतेन

bahunā śrutena

— by much hearing. It is remarkable that the Vedas themselves, in several passages say that the Ātman cannot be attained through a mere study of them. Few scriptures in the world have the boldness to say this of themselves; for that boldness is the product of a deep passion for spirituality and not for a dogma or creed; and it is sustained by the spirit of detachment and objectivity. Sacred books, says Shri Ramakrishna, do not contain God, but only information about God, like the Hindu almanac which forecasts the rainfall of the year, but which will not yield a single drop of water if one squeezes it! The Vedas themselves speak of further steps, besides study and hearing (shravana), for the realization of the Ātman: these are manana, rational understanding, nidhidhyāsana, deep meditation. We need scriptural study which enlightens us with the experiences and teaching of those who have traversed the path to God; we need sharp intelligence to grasp correctly what we study and observe; we need to hear about the Ātman and the higher life. But these are not enough; we need to apply our reason to sift what we have gathered from study and hearing; and finally, we have to concentrate on the truth of the Ātman and dwell on it in deep meditation.


It is generally held that these varied processes constitute man’s spiritual journey leading to realization of the Ātman. But says Yama, they do not constitute the whole truth of the matter. The Ātman is not an object among objects, an item of the world of the not-self, to be discovered by carefully worked out means. It is the very Self of the seeker.

As the spiritual infinite, it is not the sum of finite entities; as the Absolute, it is not the end product of the causal determination of means and ends:

नास्त्यकृतः कृतेन

nāstyakṛtaḥ kṛtena

the unconditioned cannot be had through the conditioned, as the Mundaka Upanishad expresses it (I. 2.12.), commenting on which Shankara says:



इह संसारे नास्ति कश्चिदपि अकृतः पदार्थः । सर्वैव हि लोकाः कर्मचिताः कर्मकृतत्त्वाच्चानित्याः । . . . अहं च नित्येनामृतेनाभयेन कूटस्थेनाचलेन ध्रुवेणार्थेनार्थी, न तद्विपरीतेन ।

iha saṃsāre nāsti kaścidapi akṛtaḥ padārthaḥ | sarvaiva hi lokāḥ karmacitāḥ karmakṛtattvāccānityāḥ | . . . ahaṃ ca nityenāmṛtenābhayena kūṭasthenācalena dhruveṇārthenārthī, na tadviparītena |


In this world, there is no entity which is not subject to cause, all the worlds (terrestrial or celestial) are the products of action (of forces); and because they are products of action, they are non-eternal….What I seek however, is the eternal, the immortal, the fearless, the changeless, the immovable, and the constant; and not what is contrary to these.

If so much meditation, or so much other spiritual practices become the cause of the realization of the Ātman, then the Ātman becomes reduced to being an effect—relative and finite—and therefore non-eternal. Can a finite lamp of knowledge or awareness illumine the infinite light of knowledge or awareness? Can a torch, however big in size and however powerful, help to illumine the sun? On the contrary, it is the sun that illumines and overwhelms the torch itself; the light of the torch is but a finite expression of the comparatively infinite light of the sun. Similarly, far from the mind in meditation, however deep and profound it may be, illumining or revealing the Ātman, it is the Ātman that overpowers the puny light of the mind and illumines it through and through. For the Atman, according to the Upanishads, is of the nature of pure Awareness, infinite and undecaying. All the Upanishads ecstatically sing in chorus this characteristic of the Ātman. In this very Katha Upanishad, We have in verse fifteen of Canto five, which we shall study in due course, such a sublime piece of music:

न तत्र सूर्यो भाति न चन्द्रतारकं
नेमा विद्युतो भान्ति कुतोऽयमग्निः ।
तमेव भान्तमनुभाति सर्वं
तस्य भासा सर्वमिदं विभाति ॥

na tatra sūryo bhāti na candratārakaṃ
nemā vidyuto bhānti kuto'yamagniḥ |
tameva bhāntamanubhāti sarvaṃ
tasya bhāsā sarvamidaṃ vibhāti ||

There (in the Ātman) the sun does not shine, nor the moon nor the stars, nor these lightnings; much less this (terrestrial) fire. When that shines, everything shines after That. By its light, all this universe is lighted.

If such is the nature of Ātman, it is preposterous for the human mind to hold that its realization is effected through a series of spiritual practices. After saying this, Yama therefore adds:

यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्य तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूं स्वाम्

yamevaiṣa vṛṇute tena labhya tasyaiṣa ātmā vivṛṇute tanūṃ svām

by him it is attained whom It chooses—to him this Ātman reveals Its own (true) form.


This truth of self-revelation of the Ātman becomes clear when we bear in mind two facts, namely, the nature of the Ātman as pure Awareness, infinite and non-dual, and its being our very Self and not an external object or an extra-cosmic deity. An extra-cosmic entity, however vast and lofty, can be known by our mind. But the Self, of the nature of awareness, cannot be known by the mind, because It is that in and through which the mind itself knows and functions. We shall see, in our study of the Kena Upanishad, that this subject forms the central theme of that Upanishad; in its verse six of chapter one:

यन्मनसा न मनुते येनाहुर्मनो मतम् ।
तदेव ब्रह्म त्वं विद्धि नेदं यदिदमुपासते ॥

yanmanasā na manute yenāhurmano matam |
tadeva brahma tvaṃ viddhi nedaṃ yadidamupāsate ||

That which is not grasped by the mind, but which comprehends the mind itself, know that alone as Brahman, and not this which they worship here (as something objective).

Clarifying this Shankara says in his commentary on this verse:


अन्तस्थेन चैतन्यज्योतिषाऽवभासितस्य मनसो मननसामर्थ्यम् । … तस्मात्तदेव मनसः आत्मानं प्रत्यक्चेतायितारं ब्रह्म विद्धि ॥

antasthena caitanyajyotiṣā'vabhāsitasya manaso mananasāmarthyam | … tasmāttadeva manasaḥ ātmānaṃ pratyakcetāyitāraṃ brahma viddhi ||


The mind gets the power to think and know when it is illumined by the light of Consciousness or Awareness which is within itself… . Therefore, know That alone to be Brahman which, as the source of consciousness within, is the Self of the mind.


Grace versus Personal Effort

The Upanishadic statement of the self-revelation of the Ātman is spiritually identical with the idea of divine grace upheld by religions centered in a personal God. Grace is unconditioned, where as law and justice belong to the world of relativity. As the New-Testament puts it (John, 1. 17):

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

The subject of divine self-revelation or grace versus personal effort is a standing problem in spiritual thought. It is an unresolved problem only in its intellectual formulation, as many such problems are; but it is resolved by spiritual life itself. Formulated by logic, it is an unresolvable contradiction like several others in the dictionary of philosophy. But the wisdom of life resolves every day many an unresolvable logical contradiction. The wisdom of lived spiritual life similarly resolves this contradiction between grace and personal effort. This wisdom finds embodiment in some of the luminous sayings of Shri Ramakrishna on the subject (Sayings of Shri Ramakrishna, p. 209):

The wind of God’s grace is incessantly blowing. Lazy sailors on the sea of life do not take advantage of it. But the active and the strong always keep the sails of their minds unfurled to catch the favourable wind and thus reach their destination very soon.

You may try thousands of times, but nothing can be achieved without God’s grace. One cannot see God without his grace. Is it an easy thing to receive the grace of God? One must altogether renounce egotism; One cannot see God as long as one feels, “I am the doer.” Suppose in a family a man has taken charge of the store-room; then if someone asks the master, “Sir, will you yourself kindly give me something from the store-room?” the master says to him: “There is already someone in the store-room. What can I do there?”

God doesn’t easily appear in the heart of a man who feels himself to be his own master. But God can be seen the moment His grace descends. He is the Sun of knowledge. That is how we are able to see one another and acquire varied knowledge. One can see God only if he turns His light towards His own face.

The police sergeant goes his rounds in the dark of night with a lantern in his hand. No one sees his face; but with the help of that light the sergeant sees everybody’s face, and others can see one another. If you want to see the sergeant, however, you must pray to him: “Sir, please the turn the light on your own face. Let me see you.” In the same way, one must pray to God: “O Lord, be gracious and turn the light of knowledge on Thyself that I may see Thy face.”

The idea of self-revelation of God is a recurring theme in the several mystics of the East and the West. Says John of Ruysbroeck (Selected Works of Jan Van Ruysbroeck, John Watkins Edition, 1912, p. 48):

God in the depths of us receives God who comes to us; it is God contemplating God.

Jalal-ud-din Rumi conveys in a song the message which God sent to a devotee who began to doubt His existence, because he did not receive a clear answer to his prayers:

Thy call ‘Oh God’ is my call “I am here’,
Thy pain and praying, message mine so clear;
And all thy strives to reach the ear of mine,
That I am drawing thee, it is sign.
Thy love-woes my grace. Why dost thou cry?
Thy call ‘Oh God’ means hundred ‘Here am I’.

Says Meister Eckhart:

Suppose man in hiding and he stirs, he shows his whereabouts thereby; and God does the same. No one could ever found God; He gives Himself away.

Sings a Sufi mystic (Mantiqu’t-Tair, tr. by Fitzgerald):

All you have been, and seen, and done, and thought,
Not you, but I have seen and been and wrought…
Pilgrim, Pilgrimage and Road,
Was but Myself towards Myself, and your
Arrival but Myself at my own Door….
Come, you lost Atoms, to your Centre draw….
Rays that have wandered into Darkness and wide,
Return, and back into your Sun subside.


Man’s Struggle to Become God-worthy

Man may not realize God by his unaided efforts; but he has to struggle to become God-worthy. The final word may be grace; but he also has to do something from his side. This is essential, if he is to appreciate the ever-blowing wind of grace. Yama now proceeds to indicate in the next verse, verse twenty-four, what the aspirant has to do to become God-worthy:

नाविरतो दुश्चरितान्नाशान्तो नासमाहितः ।
नाशान्तमानसो वाऽपि प्रज्ञानेनैनमाप्नुयात् ॥

nāvirato duścaritānnāśānto nāsamāhitaḥ |
nāśāntamānaso vā'pi prajñānenainamāpnuyāt ||

(Katha Upanishad, 24th Mantra Canto 2)

No one who has not given up evil conduct, who is not self-restrained, who is not meditative, nor one who is unpacified in mind can attain This (Ātman), even though he has knowledge.

A total discipline of the inner life, beginning with moral purity, is demanded of the student who is not content to know the Ātman intellectually, but seeks to realize it spiritually. Moral purity and discipline of the senses help to lead man into the stream of spirituality leading to the ocean of spiritual realization. All religions insist on inner purity as essential to God-realization. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God, says Jesus (Matthew 5. 8). Discipline of the senses helps to calm the mind and heart. Removal of the source of this distraction results in meditation, in which the mind, like the bee that has, after flying hither and thither, settled down on a flower and commenced to suck its honey, settles down on the Ātman and enjoys the bliss thereof. The mind is distracted not only by the clamour of the senses, but also by the clamour of the mind itself to enjoy the fruits of its calmness, says the verse:



whose mind is not at rest.

समाहित चित्तोऽपि सन्समाधानफलार्थिवात्

samāhita citto'pi sansamādhānaphalārthivāt

because his mind, though collected, is engaged in looking forward to the fruits of being so collected, comments Shankara pointing out a subtle pitfall of the spiritual life, and adds, giving the positive trend of the verse:



यस्तु दुश्चरिताद्विरत इन्द्रियलौल्याच्च समाहितचित्तः समाधानफलादप्युपशन्तमानसश्चाचार्यवान्प्रज्ञानेन यथोक्तमात्मानं प्राप्नोतीत्यर्थः ।

yastu duścaritādvirata indriyalaulyācca samāhitacittaḥ samādhānaphalādapyupaśantamānasaścācāryavānprajñānena yathoktamātmānaṃ prāpnotītyarthaḥ |


The meaning is that he alone who has turned away from evil conduct, who has controlled the vagaries of his senses, who is of tranquil mind, whose mind is even undisturbed even by the fruits of calmness, and who has a teacher (as guide), will attain the Ātman above described, through prajnāna or knowledge.


The Fruit of Spirituality is Fearlessness

Yama now refers, in verse-twenty-five which concludes this second Canto, to the infinite expansion of consciousness that comes from the realization of the Atman preceded by a total discipline of the inner life:

यस्य ब्रह्म च क्षत्रं च उभे भवत ओदनः ।
मृत्युर्यस्योपसेचनं क इत्था वेद यत्र सः ॥

yasya brahma ca kṣatraṃ ca ubhe bhavata odanaḥ |
mṛtyuryasyopasecanaṃ ka itthā veda yatra saḥ ||

(Katha Upanishad, 25th Mantra Canto 2)

Of whom, the brahma and kshatra are the food, and death but the pickle to (supplement it), His whereabout who, (being) thus can, know?

How can the worldly man bereft of inner purity know the Ātman? He will not know even where to search for it, for infinite is the dimension of the Ātman. The verse expresses this idea through a homely illustration: brahma and kshatra mean the spiritual and secular powers of the world, The Church and the State in modern terminology. Both together constitute a formidable force, from the human point of view. At their best, they educate and discipline man and lead him to portals of Self-realization; at their worst, they suppress his spirit and twist and torture his personality. This is the anatomy of what the world calls power; the world bows to it, seeks benefits from it, dislikes it, fears it. But the world blinded by the worldliness, does not cannot, know that this power points to a power greater than itself, namely the power of God, of God in the heart of all men, nay of all beings. This truth, however is known to the unworldly, to the man of spiritual realization, in virtue of which he sheds all fear. The formidable force of Church and State cannot fail to recognize in him the manifestation of power greater and more irresistible than themselves. This higher power is one that imparts strength to man and installs him in his true dignity and worth, unlike worldly power which tends to reduce into weakness and impotence. Illustrating this truth by an episode from ancient history (cf. R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India, pp. 444-46), Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol. III, Eighth Edition, pp. 237-38):

Strength, strength is what the Upanishads preach to me from every page. This is one great thing to remember; it has been the one great lesson I have been taught in my life; strength it says O man, be not weak. Are there no human weaknesses?— says man. There are, say the Upanishads, but will more weakness heal them, would you try to wash dirt with dirt? Will sin cure sin, weakness cure weakness? Strength, O man, strength, say the Upanishads, stand up be strong. Ay, it is the only literature in the world where you find the word abhī, “fearless”, used again and again; in no other scripture in the world is this adjective applied either to God or to man. Abhī, fearless!

And in mind rises from the past the vision of The great Emperor of the West, Alexander the Great, and I see, as it were in a picture, the great monarch standing on the banks of the Indus, talking to one of our sannyāsins (monks) in the forest; the old man he was talking to, perhaps naked, stark naked, sitting upon a block of stone, and the Emperor, astonished at his wisdom, tempting with gold and honour to come over to Greece. And this man smiles at his temptations and refuses; and then the Emperor standing on his authority as an Emperor says, “I will kill you if you do not come”’ and the man bursts in to laugh, and says: “You never told such a falsehood in your life, as you tell just now. Who can kill me? Me, you kill, Emperor of the material world! Never! For I am spirit unborn and undecaying; never was I born and never do I die; I am the infinite, The Omnipresent, the Omniscient; and you kill me, child that you are!” That is strength!

How to make man fearless is the one concern of the Upanishads—how to make him cease quaking before Church and State and the powers of nature, how to make these his servants and not his masters. Referring to this redemptive message of the Upanishads to all humanity, Swami Vivekananda continues (ibid., p. 238):

And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. There in lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable, and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds and all sects, to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom, physical freedom, mental freedom, and spiritual freedom are watchwords of the Upanishads.

The power of God is the power of love. Love is more potent than hatred or fear; the spirit is more powerful than the sword. This admission from a consummate wielder of the power of Church and State is what we get in Napoleon’s reflections in St. Helena:

There are in the world two powers—the sword and the spirit. The spirit has always vanquished the sword.

Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I founded great empires. But upon what did the creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded his empire upon love, and to this very day millions would die for him.

The idea of the supreme Reality as Shakti, Power, occurs often in Vendantic and other literatures of India. In this very Upanishad, Yama will be referring to it in the sixth chapter, the second and the third verses of which read:

यदिदं किं च जगत् सर्वं प्राण एजति निःसृतम् ।
महद्भयं वज्रमुद्यतं य एतद्विदुरमृतास्ते भवन्ति ॥

yadidaṃ kiṃ ca jagat sarvaṃ prāṇa ejati niḥsṛtam |
mahadbhayaṃ vajramudyataṃ ya etadviduramṛtāste bhavanti ||

Whatever there in this whole manifested universe (is the product of and) vibrates within Prāna. Like raised thunder bolt (is Brahman), a great terror. Those who know It become immortal.

भयादस्याग्निस्तपति भयात्तपति सूर्यः ।
भयादिन्द्रश्च वायुश्च मृत्युर्धावति पञ्चमः ॥

bhayādasyāgnistapati bhayāttapati sūryaḥ |
bhayādindraśca vāyuśca mṛtyurdhāvati pañcamaḥ ||

From fear of Him the fire burns; from fear of Him shines the sun; from fear (of Him) Indra and Vayu, and Death, the fifth, hasten (to perform their allotted functions).

Here is presented Brahman as cosmic law, which not only the terrestrial but also the celestial powers obey without transgression.

We have also a reference to this aspect of the glory of Brahman in the Mahanirvana Tantra. In one of its majestic hymns to Brahman, we read (III. 61):

भयानां भयं भीषणं भीषणानाम् ।
गतिः प्राणीनां पावनं पावनानाम् ।
परेशां परं रक्षकं रक्षकानाम् ॥

bhayānāṃ bhayaṃ bhīṣaṇaṃ bhīṣaṇānām |
gatiḥ prāṇīnāṃ pāvanaṃ pāvanānām |
pareśāṃ paraṃ rakṣakaṃ rakṣakānām ||

(Thou art) the fear of all fears, the terror of all terrors, the refuge of all beings, the purifier of the purifiers; Thou alone art the controller of those in high places; (Thou art) the highest of the high, the protector of all protectors.

Man is subject to all sorts of fears. They subdue him and crush him; he is helpless against them. No worldly knowledge can ultimately save him from fear; when, with its help, he overcomes one fear, ten other fears arise in its place. Only spiritual knowledge can render him absolutely fearless. Ordinary man does not know this; he does not know that in him is a power which is the power of all powers, his own Self, the infinite and immortal Ātman. It is



the insurance against all fear, and

यद् बिभेति स्वयं भयम्

yad bibheti svayaṃ bhayam

It is the fear of fear itself As the Bhagavata aptly puts it (I. 1. 14).


This fearlessness is the fruit of the infinite expansion of consciousness. Then alone will death cease when we are one with existence itself. Then alone will ignorance cease when we are one with knowledge itself. Then alone will sorrows cease when we are one with bliss itself. The self of man is infinite existence, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss, according to Vedānta. Yama therefore rightly says, using a homely illustration, that brahma and kshatra are but the ‘food’ of the Ātman; the Ātman ‘eats’ them and digests them; and death, which is the terror of all, is only is pickle, adding to His zest in ‘eating’ the other two; so, it, i.e. death, is ‘insufficient even as food’ —



, comments Shankara. Death, which eats up the whole universe, is but the sauce of the Ātman, enlivening His manifestation as the Universe. Sings the Rg-Veda (X. 121. 2):


य आत्मदा बलदा यस्य विश्व उपासते प्रशिषं यस्य देवाः ।
यस्य छायामृतं यस्य मृत्युः कस्मै देवाय हविषा विधेम ॥

ya ātmadā baladā yasya viśva upāsate praśiṣaṃ yasya devāḥ |
yasya chāyāmṛtaṃ yasya mṛtyuḥ kasmai devāya haviṣā vidhema ||

Unto Him who gives us our individuality, who gives us strength, whose commands all beings, together with gods, obey, whose shadow is immortality as well as death, we offer our oblations.

How can the puny mind of a worldly man understand even the whereabouts of the Ātman, his own infinite Self? How can he, much less, realize this Reality which ‘eats’ and ‘digests’ the whole world of phenomena? asks Yama. His teaching in Canto III which follows, and which we shall study next, is meant to lead man to this understanding and realization.

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