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 fifth canto, of the Katha Upanishad in to the study of which we shall enter now, Yama continues to dwell on this vision and its implication for human life and destiny. In the course of the exposition of this blessed theme, The Upanishad rises to heights of spiritual beauty and sublimity, as we shall presently see.

In the first and second verses of the chapter, Yama again reverts to the truth of one immortal divine Self within man and in universe outside. Being the central theme of all the Upanishads, and in view of the extreme difficulty of its comprehension by the human mind, this truth finds repetitive mention in the Upanishads, each time from the different approach. Too much repetition of the same idea has been acknowledged as a fault in literature. But what is a fault in other literature is not a fault in spiritual literature, precisely for the reason that the subject is not only difficult of comprehension, being outside the pale of normal human experience, but is also of vast concern to him and his experience. In view of this, the ancient Mīmāmsaka (



) thinkers of India propounded the following dictum which Shankara refers to in his comment on verse four of the Isha Upanishad :

न मन्त्राणां जामितास्तीति ।

na mantrāṇāṃ jāmitāstīti |

Repetition is not a fault with respect to mantras (statements of spiritual truth).


The City of the Unborn

Introducing the opening verse of the fifth canto of the Katha Upanishad Shankara accordingly says in his comment:

पुनरपि प्रकारान्तरेण ब्रह्मतत्वनिर्धारणार्थोऽयामारम्भो दुर्विज्ञेयत्वाद्ब्रह्मणः ।

punarapi prakārāntareṇa brahmatatvanirdhāraṇārtho'yāmārambho durvijñeyatvādbrahmaṇaḥ |

Again, this (chapter) is commenced to elucidate the truth of Brahman from a different approach, Brahman being difficult of comprehension.

The chapter opens with the verse:

पुरमेकादशद्वारमजस्यावक्रचेतसः ।
अनुष्ठाय न शोचति विमुक्तश्च विमुच्यते ।
एतद्वै तत् ॥

puramekādaśadvāramajasyāvakracetasaḥ |
anuṣṭhāya na śocati vimuktaśca vimucyate |
etadvai tat ||

(Katha Upanishad, 1st Mantra, Canto 5)

The city of the unborn (Ātman), of undimmed intelligence, is of eleven gates. Having meditated upon Him (and realizing Him), one grieves no more. Liberated (from all bonds of ignorance), one becomes free (from relativity and finitude). This is verily That.

To the question, where shall we primarily seek for Brahman or God? Vedānta gives the answer: here, in man himself. This follows from its definition of Brahman as given in the Taittirīya Upanishad (III. 1) as

That from which the universe of entities and beings arises, That in which it rests, and That unto which it returns in the end.

The universe includes man. In fact, in the search for the truth of the universe and the meaning of existence, man is the most significant item for study in all nature, being the finest product of its evolution. Hence Vedānta chose to peek into the depths of man in its search for the truth and meaning of existence. The Upanishads record the high reward obtained by that venture.

This is what Yama introduces us to in the opening verse where he compares the psycho-physical energy system, which is the body of man, to a city of eleven gates or openings:



. Ten of these are well known: the seven apertures in the head, the navel as the eighth, and the two lower ones. Indian thought speaks of an eleventh aperture called brahma-randhra situated at the top of the head,

यत्रासौ केशान्तो विवर्तते

yatrāsau keśānto vivartate

where the parting of the hair divides. (Taittirīya Upanishad, I. 6), which remains ordinarily closed. The common enumeration is nine in the Gīta (V.13), which eliminates navel and the brahma-randhra.

The Chāndogya Upanishad (VIII. 1. 1.) refers to the human body as



, ‘city of God’.

A city is constituted of its multitude of dwellings and dwellers, on the one side, and the ruler or the central authority, on the other. The central unifying principle in the case of eleven-gated city of the body is the Ātman, which Yama refers to as aja, unborn, and avakrachetasa, of undimmed intelligence; avakra literally means ‘not crooked’. As explained by Yama earlier, in the opening verse of chapter four, this is the great truth lying in wait for any heroic seeker daring to peep into the depths of man. And what is the fruit of that discovery?

अनुष्ठाय न शोचति विमुक्तश्च विमुच्यते

anuṣṭhāya na śocati vimuktaśca vimucyate

, answers Yama. It is freedom from all delusion and sorrow, and the destruction of all bonds; and this arises from meditation on, and realization of, that which informs and sustains everything in the universe. ‘This is verily That’—the immortal divine Ātman.

Says Shankara in his comment on the verse of the Taittirīya Upanishad (III. 1)

अन्नं शरीरं तदभ्यन्तरं च प्राणं, उपलब्धिसाधनानि चक्षु श्रोत्रं मनो वाचं इत्येतानि ब्रह्मोपलब्धौ द्वारानुक्तवान् .....उत्पत्तिस्थितिलयकालेषु यदात्मतां न जहाति भूतानि, तदेतत् ब्रह्मणो लक्षणं ....यदेवं लक्षणं ब्रह्म तदन्नादिद्वारेण प्रतिपद्यस्य इत्यर्थ ।

annaṃ śarīraṃ tadabhyantaraṃ ca prāṇaṃ, upalabdhisādhanāni cakṣu śrotraṃ mano vācaṃ ityetāni brahmopalabdhau dvārānuktavān .....utpattisthitilayakāleṣu yadātmatāṃ na jahāti bhūtāni, tadetat brahmaṇo lakṣaṇaṃ ....yadevaṃ lakṣaṇaṃ brahma tadannādidvāreṇa pratipadyasya ityartha |

Food (which here means) the body, and the vital energy within it, which as eye, ear, mind, (and) speech—these, it was said, are the doorways for the knowledge of Brahman. This Brahman has been defined as that from which the universe of entities and beings is never found seperated in its states of origination, sustenance, and disolution. Brahman so defined is to be known through (the already known entities) such as food etc.


The Uniqueness of Man

The importance of man as the sole doorway to the mystery of existence has been stressed in the Vedāntic literature.

The Aitareya Aranyaka, after proclaiming the glory of man as the abode of Brahman:

अयं पुरुषो ब्रह्मणो लोकः

ayaṃ puruṣo brahmaṇo lokaḥ

(II. 1. 3), proceeds to elucidate the same in what is perhaps, even from the point of view of modern thought, the most comprehensive utterance on the uniqueness of man, and in words remarkable for their scientific precision and philosophic insight (II. 3. 2-3):

तस्य य आत्मानमाविस्तराम् वेद अश्नुते हाविर्भूयः, ओषधिवनस्पतयो यच्च किञ्च प्राणभृत् स आत्मनमाविस्तरां वेद; ओषधिवनस्पतिषु हि रसो दृश्यते, चित्तं प्राणभृत्सु ; प्राणभृत्सु त्वेव आविस्तरामात्मा, स हि प्रज्ञानेन सम्पन्नतमो विज्ञातं वदति विज्ञातं पश्यति, वेद श्वस्तनं वेद लोकालोकौ, मर्त्येन अमृतमीप्सति, एवं सम्पन्नः ; अथेतरेषां पशूनामशानापिपासे एवाभिविज्ञानं, न विज्ञातं वदन्ति, न विज्ञातं पश्यन्ति, न विदुः श्वस्तनं, न लोकालोकौ, त एतावन्तो भवन्ति । यथा प्रज्ञानं हि सम्भवः ।

tasya ya ātmānamāvistarām veda aśnute hāvirbhūyaḥ, oṣadhivanaspatayo yacca kiñca prāṇabhṛt sa ātmanamāvistarāṃ veda; oṣadhivanaspatiṣu hi raso dṛśyate, cittaṃ prāṇabhṛtsu ; prāṇabhṛtsu tveva āvistarāmātmā, sa hi prajñānena sampannatamo vijñātaṃ vadati vijñātaṃ paśyati, veda śvastanaṃ veda lokālokau, martyena amṛtamīpsati, evaṃ sampannaḥ ; athetareṣāṃ paśūnāmaśānāpipāse evābhivijñānaṃ, na vijñātaṃ vadanti, na vijñātaṃ paśyanti, na viduḥ śvastanaṃ, na lokālokau, ta etāvanto bhavanti | yathā prajñānaṃ hi sambhavaḥ |

स एष पुरुषः समुद्रः सर्वं लोकमति । यद्ध किञ्चाश्नुतेऽत्येनम् मन्यते—

sa eṣa puruṣaḥ samudraḥ sarvaṃ lokamati | yaddha kiñcāśnute'tyenam manyate—

He who knows more and more clearly the self, obtains fuller being. There are plants and trees and animals, and he knows the self more and more clearly (in them). In plants and trees, verily, sap only is seen, in animal consciousness. In animals the self becomes more and more clear, because in them sap also is seen, while thought is not seen in others (in some animals). The self is more and more clear in man. For he is most endowed with intelligence, he says what he has known he sees what he has known, he knows tomorrow, he knows the world and what is not the world. By the mortal he desires the immortal, being thus endowed. As for the others, (namely,) animals, hunger and thirst comprise their power of knowledge. They say not what they have known, they see not what they have known. They know not tomorrow, they know not the world and what is not the world. They go so far. The experiences of beings are according to the measure of their intelligence.

This man is the sea (a reservoir of unsatisfied desires); he is above all the world. Whatever he reaches, he desires to be beyond it.

(Adapted from A. Berriedale Keith’s translation).

Shri Krishna the teacher of the Gītā, whom the Hindus regard as the greatest incarnation of God, says, in what is considered to be his last message, conveyed to man through his teaching to his disciple Uddhava in the Bhagavatam (XI.7.22-23):

एकद्वित्रिचतुष्पादो बहुपादस्तथापदः ।
बह्व्यः सन्ति पुराः सृष्टास्तासाम् मे पौरुषी प्रिया ॥

Many are the “cities” (bodies) projected by Me, one-footed, two-footed, three-footed, four-footed, many-footed, and also without any feet; among these, the human (city) is very dear to Me.

अत्र मां मृगयन्त्यद्धा युक्ता हेतुभिरीश्वरम ।
गृह्यमाणैर्गुणैर्लिगैरग्राह्यनुमानतः ॥

Here (in this human body), yogīs seek and realize clearly, through the clues which reason finds in normal human experience, Me, who am the Lord (of all) and beyond the grasp of (mere) logical inference.

In the words of Shri Ramakrishna (Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Fourth Impression, p.52):

Seekest thou God? Then seek Him in man. His divinity is manifest more in man than in any other object.

The same teaching is found in Islam. In the words of Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, Vol. I, Eleventh Edition, p. 142):

This human body is the greatest body in the universe, and a human being is the greatest being. Man is higher than all animals, than all angels, none is greater than man. Even the devas (gods) will have to come down again and attain to salvation through a human body. Man alone attains to perfection, not even the devas. According to Jews and Mohammedans, God created man after creating the angels and everything else; and after creating man, He asked the angels to come and salute him; and all did so except Iblis; so God cursed him and he became Satan. Behind this allegory is the great truth that this human birth is the greatest birth we can have.

Introducing the next verse, verse two, Shankara says in his comment:

स तु नैकशरीरपुरवर्ती एव आत्मा ; किम् तर्हि ? सर्वपुरवर्ती ।

sa tu naikaśarīrapuravartī eva ātmā ; kim tarhi ? sarvapuravartī |

Atman verily, is not the indweller of the ‘city’ of one body (only); what then? He is the indweller of all ‘cities’.

Verse two reads :

हंसः शुचिषद्वसुरन्तरिक्षसद्धोता वेदिषदतिथिथिर्दुरोणसत् ।
नृषद्वरसदृतसद्व्योमसदब्जा गोजा ऋतजा अद्रिजा ऋतं बृहत् ॥

haṃsaḥ śuciṣadvasurantarikṣasaddhotā vediṣadatithithirduroṇasat |
nṛṣadvarasadṛtasadvyomasadabjā gojā ṛtajā adrijā ṛtaṃ bṛhat ||

(Katha Upanishad, 2nd Mantra, Canto 5)

(He, theAtman is) the swan dwelling in the heaven (in the form of the sun), the air filling the atmosphere, the fire dwelliing in the altar, the holy guest in the house; (He is) in man, in gods, in the sacrifice, in the sky; (He is born in water, born on earth, born as (the fruit of) sacrifice, born of mountains; (He is) the True; (He is) the Great.

This is a famous hymn occuring originally in the Rg-Veda with the last word ommited (IV.40.5), and repeated more than once in subsequent Vedic literature. Like some other Rg-Vedic hymns which have also been repeated in the later Vedic literature, this hymn appears in this Upanishad in the context, and in the service, of the highest point of development of Vedic philosophy and spirituality.

The Atman is in the sun, air and fire; He is in man, in gods, and in the sacrifice. He is in the sky; He is born as the aquatic creatures; He is born as the insects, reptiles, and mammals of the earth; He is born as fruits of sacrifice; He is the rivers flowing from the mountains. He is rtam, the True, and He is mahat, the Great. He is the abiding one in the changing phantasmagoria of existence. He is the infinite one in whom the immensities of time and space become reduced to mere trifles.

Giving the gist of the verse, Shankara says in his comment:

सर्वव्यापी एक एव आत्मा जगतो, न आत्मभेद इति मन्त्रार्थः

sarvavyāpī eka eva ātmā jagato, na ātmabheda iti mantrārthaḥ

The meaning of the verse is that the entire universe has only one Ātman; there is no possibility of plural in the Ātman.

Though quoted earlier, the words of the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger bears reproduction in the present context (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 only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a dception (the Indian māyā ).

The Ātman is ‘smaller than the atom and bigger than the cosmos’, as Yama had earlier told us in verse twenty of chapter two of this Upanishad. The universe becomes transfigured in the light of this vision. Says the Bhāgavatam (XI.2.41):

खं वायुमग्निं सलिलं महीं च ज्योतींषि सत्त्वानि दिशो द्रुमादीन् ।
सरित्समुद्रांश्च हरेः शरीरं यत्किं च भूतं प्रणमेदनन्यः ॥

The sky, air, fire, water, and earth, the luminous constellations, creatures, the quarters, trees etc., rivers and oceans—whatever entities and beings there be, are to be honoured as non-separate from oneself, knowing them to be the body of Hari (the indwelling God).

The above vision of the Vedic sages has found responsive echoes in the literature of all peoples. Often ignorantly caricatured as pagan and pantheistic in the West, it has not failed to move the hearts and minds of men powerfully. The moving lines of Wordsworth in his Tintern Abbey are typical of such passages in other literatures of the world:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.


The Ātman the Integrating principle in Man

The ‘city’ of the human body reveals the presence of the Atman through its vital and physical processes. This is emphasized by Yama in the next three verses, verses three to five:

ऊर्ध्वं प्राणमुन्नयत्यपानं प्रत्यगस्यति।
मध्ये वामनमासीनं विश्वे देवा उपासते ॥

ūrdhvaṃ prāṇamunnayatyapānaṃ pratyagasyati|
madhye vāmanamāsīnaṃ viśve devā upāsate ||

(Katha Upanishad, 3rd Mantra, Canto 5)

(He) sends the prana (one aspect of vital energies) upward and throws the apana (another aspect of the vital energies) downward. All the devas (sense-organs) serve the adorable one seated in the centre (of the personality).

अस्य विस्रंसमानस्य शरीरस्थस्य देहिनः ।
देहाद्विमुच्यमानस्य किमत्र परिशिष्यते ।
एतद्वै तत् ॥

asya visraṃsamānasya śarīrasthasya dehinaḥ |
dehādvimucyamānasya kimatra pariśiṣyate |
etadvai tat ||

(Katha Upanishad, 4th Mantra, Canto 5)

When freed from the body (at the time of death), what else remains here (in the body) of that owner of the body, of Him who dwells within it? This is verily That.

न प्राणेन न अपानेन मर्त्यो जीवन्ति कश्चन ।
इतरेण तु जीवन्ति यस्मिन्नेतवुपाश्रितौ ॥

na prāṇena na apānena martyo jīvanti kaścana |
itareṇa tu jīvanti yasminnetavupāśritau ||

(Katha Upanishad, 5th Mantra, Canto 5)

Mortal man never lives by prāna or apāna (alone) mortal men live something else on which these two depend.

The mention of prāna and apāna is only illustrative. All the vital energies in the system are subordinate to a reality behind them and above them, a reality which is spiritual in nature and truly independent. This is Ātman. These vital energies are held together by a force apart from themselves. Positive sciences will be driven more and more by the compelling logic of facts, to recognize a non-material, spiritual reality behind all vital forces. Even then, apart from hinting at such possibility, these sciences, limited as they are by their methods, cannot hope to unravel its mystery. The phenomenon of aging and death cannot be fully explained in terms of physical and vital energies and their processes. Yama asks in verse four: when the spiritual force is withdrawn from the body at death, does anything of it remain in the body —

किमत्र परिशिष्यते

kimatra pariśiṣyate

? It is a question containing its own negative answer. No; nothing of it is left in the body. Why? Because , the body begins to disintegrate soon after. And so Yama concludes in verse five that man lives not by prāna or apāna, or any of the vital energies , but by something else on which they all depend. This is the Ātman, the true Self of man.

The body with its pshycho-physical energies is what Vedanta calls a samhata (sanghāta by Buddhism), an aggregate of parts. A samhata, being non-intelligent in itself, Vedānta further says, can never be a self-explanatory and self-sufficient reality; it always points to a self-subsisting intelligent principle beyond itself as the source of its meaning and significance. Shankara often refers to this dictum of the Sankhya philosophers (Sānkhya Darshanam, I. 66):

संहतपरार्थत्वात्, पुरुषस्य

saṃhataparārthatvāt, puruṣasya

All aggregates imply an intelligent principle (which is non-aggregate) for which they are meant.

All things of utility are subordinate to things without utility, Reffering to this truth with respect to prāna and other vital energies in man, Shankara says in his comment on verse five:

न हि एषां परार्थानाम् संहत्यकारित्वात् जीवनहेतुत्वम् उपपद्यते । स्वार्थेन असंहतेन परेण केनचिदप्रयुक्तं संहतानाम् अवस्थानम न दृष्टं, यथा गृहादिनाम् लोके ; तथा प्राणादिनाम् अपि संहतत्वात् भवितुम् अर्हति ।

na hi eṣāṃ parārthānām saṃhatyakāritvāt jīvanahetutvam upapadyate | svārthena asaṃhatena pareṇa kenacidaprayuktaṃ saṃhatānām avasthānama na dṛṣṭaṃ, yathā gṛhādinām loke ; tathā prāṇādinām api saṃhatatvāt bhavitum arhati |

Because they are aggregates, these (prāna etc.) which serve the purposes of entities other than themselves, cannot be considered as the life principle. Experience does not disclose the existence of any aggregate which is not energized by a something which is a self–subsisting non-aggregate superior (to it); just as house in the world. Similar is the case also with entities like prāna etc., they being aggregates.


Immortal Ātman and Mortal Man

Yama now tells us in the next three verses, verses six to eight, about the infinite Brahman above causality, and the finite human soul caught up in the causal net:

हन्त त इदं प्रवक्ष्यामि गुह्यं ब्रह्म सनातनम् ।
यथा च मरणं प्राप्य आत्मा भवति गौतम ॥

hanta ta idaṃ pravakṣyāmi guhyaṃ brahma sanātanam |
yathā ca maraṇaṃ prāpya ātmā bhavati gautama ||

(Katha Upanishad, 6th Mantra, Canto 5)

Well then, I shall tell thee this, O Gautama, the profound (truth of) Brahman, the eternal ,and also what happens to the soul of man after meeting death.

योनिमन्ये प्रपद्यन्ते शरीरत्याय देहिनः।
स्थाणुमन्येऽनुसंयन्ति यथाकर्म यथाश्रुतम् ॥

yonimanye prapadyante śarīratyāya dehinaḥ|
sthāṇumanye'nusaṃyanti yathākarma yathāśrutam ||

(Katha Upanishad, 7th Mantra, Canto 5)

Some souls enter the womb to get embodied, others go to the plants—according to (their) action and according to (their) knowledge.

य एष सुप्तेषु जागर्ति कामं कामं पुरुषो निर्मिमाणः ।
तदेव शुक्रं तद् ब्रह्म तदेवामृतमुच्यते ।
तस्मिँल्लोकाः श्रिताः सर्वे तदु नात्येति कश्चन ।
एतद्वै तत् ॥

ya eṣa supteṣu jāgarti kāmaṃ kāmaṃ puruṣo nirmimāṇaḥ |
tadeva śukraṃ tad brahma tadevāmṛtamucyate |
tasmiṃllokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tadu nātyeti kaścana |
etadvai tat ||

(Katha Upanishad, 8th Mantra, Canto 5)

This Self who remains awake creating (all sorts of objeccts of) desires even while (the man is) asleep—That verily is the Pure, That is Brahman: That alone is called the Immortal; all the worlds are established in That. This is verily That.

We may recall that Yama’s discourse to Nachiketa in this Upanishad began with the latter’s searching question to the former, conveyed in verse twenty of chapteer one, as to whether man survives bodily death: ‘When a man dies, there is this doubt: 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.’ This question about death on the part of an earnest seeker of truth is the surrest indication that the search of truth has turned from the world of external nature to the world of internal nature. It is the necessary prelude to an understanding of the life in depth and, through that, to a total philosophy of life.

This spiritual depth is the special contribution of the Upanishads to Indian culture and thought. In this ancient Greek thought and culture, great and glorious though it was, stands in sharp contrast. Its Mystery-Religions, and even its great Platonic thought, unlike its socio-political religious cults, never got integrated with the distinctively Greek outlook and thought. Its gifted thinkers did not experience the urge to that rational investigation which they so diligently and passionately applied to social and political phenomena, and in which their contributions were to become unique and lasting. What the ancient Greeks neglected became on the other hand, the ruling passion of the ancient Indians. In the words of Lowes Dickinson (The Greek View of Life, p. 68).

The more completely the Greeks felt himself to be at home in the world, the more happily and freely he abandoned himself to the exercise of his powers, the more intensely and vividly he lived in action and in passion, the more alien, and bitter, and incomprehensible did he find the phenomena of age and depth. On this problem, so far as we can judge, he received from his religion but little light and still less consolation. The music of his brief life closed with a discord unresolved; and even before reason had brought her criticism to bear upon his creed, its deficiency was forced upon him by his feeling.

We have seen Yama reacted to the occasion of Nachiketa’s question in the truly philosophical way by utilizing it to expound to his highly gifted student, and through him, to humanity at large, the ever fascinating subject of Ātmavidya, the science of the Self, which is the basis and presupposition of all other sciences, namely, the sciences of the not-Self.


Karma and Rebirth

Vedānta teaches the truth of the survival of the soul at death and its rebirth as a part of its total philosophy of the Self. Hence this aspect of the question put by Nachiketa in the verse twenty of the first chapter receives a direct answer from Yama—and a brief answer at that—only in the fifth chapter in its verse eight.

If man is primarily a physical body, with its apparently non-physical traits arising from the physical body as its by-products or epiphenomena, then there can be no question of survival or rebirth. But if man is essentially a non-physical reality which manufactures the physical body for its own self-manifestation, then survival and rebirth follow as matter of course. In the words of Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, Vol. IV, Eighth Edition, p. 12):

In Western countries, as a rule, people lay more stress on the body aspect of man; those philosophers who wrote on bhakti (love of God) in India laid stress on the spiritual side of man; and the difference seems to be typical of the Oriental and Occidental nations. It is so even in common language. In England, when speaking of death, it is said a man gave up his ghost; in India, a man gave up his body. The one idea is that man is a body and has a soul; the other that man is a soul and has a body.

Materialistic thought accepts man’s capacity to control external sense-objects; moral experience reveals man’s capacity to control the internal sense-organs as well. All such control involves the independence of the controlling subject of the controlled object; the independence of the self of the not-self. All moral phenomena thus disclose the essentially spiritual nature of man and its domination in varying degrees over his body and sense-organs. This says Vedānta, is the promise of his spiritual redemption, which becomes fully realized when he realizes himself as the Ātman, ever free, ever pure, ever perfect, and immortal. Rebirth ceases to have any relevance for such a man. But till one attains such realization, one is under the pull of the body and the sense-organs, and it is this pull—the

यथाकर्म यथाश्रुतम्

yathākarma yathāśrutam

of the verse—that gravitates the soul to new physical formation, to work out its karma, in the phraseology of Vedānta to fire in which all seeds of future births are burnt: but seeds not so burnt cannot escape the succession of sowings and harvestings.

The experience of the soul’s detachment from the physical body is the beginning of man’s moral and spiritual life. This experience gets deepened as one progresses in his spiritual life; it becomes complete in spiritual realization. Death in the case of such a man has been compared by the Vedāntic sages to the casting-off of its slough by a snake (Vivekachūdamani 549). The worldly man, in whom body consciousness is predominant, is compared by Shri Ramakrishna to a green coconut in which the kernel involves scooping a bit of the shell as well. He compares a spiritually realized man to a ripe coconut in which there is a complete separation of the kernel from the shell. Such people are dead to the body while they are physically alive, and their knowledge of their own deathless Self takes away all sting from physical death. In the words of Socrates (The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. I, B. Jowett’s Edition, p. 414):

For I deem that the true votary of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that of his own accord he is always engaged in the pursuit of dying and death; and if this be so, and he has had the desire of death all his life long, why when his time comes should he repine at that which he has been always pursuing and desiring?

And further (ibid., p. 418):

And the true philosophers and they only, are ever seeking to release the soul. Is not the separation and release of the soul from the body their especial study?

The body is like a pillow-case, in the words of Shri Ramakrishna, with the pillow standing for the real man. The Gīta (II. 22) compares rebirth to man’s changing of his worn-out clothes to new ones.

The soul—the sūkshma sharīra or subtle body, in the stricter scientific terminology of Vedānta—does survive physical death and manufacture new physical bodies for itself, says Yama in verse eight of this chapter. The impelling force for this is provided by the actions it had done and the knowledge it had gained in its previous life:

यथाकर्म यथाश्रुतम् ।

yathākarma yathāśrutam |

This impelling force is also known as vāsanā or samskāra, innate tendency or disposition, which may be said to constitute the subconscious and the unconscious of the modern psychology. This is what gives meaning to Plato’s dictum that ‘our learning is simply recollection’ which, ‘if true, also necessarily implies a previous time in which we now recollect’ (The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. I, B. Jowett’s Edition, p.425).

Shrutam literally means what is heard. Here, however, it means the state of a man’s awareness resulting from the deposits of life’s experiences, the level at which his consciousness functions. Karma means action. Every action produces a change in the ratio of forces not only in the world of external nature, but also in the inner world of the doer. The latter reveals action as educative force, as a character forming force. Such education, says Vedānta, may be wholesome or unwholesome depending upon the shrutam, knowledge or awareness generated. It is wholesome if it tends to the spiritual liberation of man, if it helps to manifest the infinite and immortal Self behind the finite and mortal dimension of the human personality. It is unwholesome if it binds tighter the bonds of finitude and mortality on man, if it thickens the veil that hides the infinite and immortal dimension of his personality. The human body is the kshetra or field in which we sow the seeds of our desires and reap the harvest of our lives; the harvest is according to the seed sown and care bestowed thereafter; and both this sowing and harvesting constitute an unending chain of cause and effect, the chain of samsāra, in the technical language of Vedānta; the gentle but steady erosion of this chain is what is achieved by spiritual education, and its complete destruction by spiritual realization. Slow as this erosion is, it needs for its operation not one but many physical manifestations. This is what the verse refers to in the statement:

योनिमन्ये प्रपद्यन्ते शरीरत्याय ।

yonimanye prapadyante śarīratyāya |

The verse further says that such remanifestation may be not only in human and animal bodies, but also in plants and trees;

स्थाणुमन्येऽनुसंयन्ति ।

sthāṇumanye'nusaṃyanti |

This is too much for some modern people, even for some among them who otherwise accept rebirth. Much of the objection, however, arises not from rational but sentimental considerations. Some minds, humanly prejudiced, react: How can rational man be reduced to plants and trees or even animals? Other minds, still more sentimental and sectionally prejudiced protest against the requirement of a high caste brāhmana being born as a shūdra, or a white man being born as a black man. Vedānta, however, did not view this subject from the angle of racial or social prejudices. If we uphold causal determinism in the field of moral life, as we uphold it in all fields of physical and biological phenomena, we have also to accept its consequences without being deflected by our human prejudices. The theory does not demand that a rational human being should be born in the lower order; it only says that if the effects of a man’s actions and his state of awareness be such as to need a animal or plant body of their appropriate manifestation or working out and not a human body, no prejudice or protest can stall it.

The causal determinism affects only the sūkshma sharīra, the subtle body of man, which is itself a complex, causally determined entity. As it has been said earlier, this is the equivalent of the English word ‘soul’. But this is only the vijnānamaya ātman, the conditioned self, but not the paramātman, the true Self of man. His true Self is ever pure, ever free, beyond the causal network, beyond birth and hence beyond death, and therefore infinite. This is the Ātman or Brahman. Swami Vivekananda proclaims the glory of this Self of man in one of the verses of his famous philosophical poem, ‘The Song of the Sannyasin’ (Complete Works, Vol. IV, Eighth Edition, p.393):

‘Who sows must reap’, they say, ‘and cause must bring
The sure effect; good, good; bad, bad; and none
Escape the law. But who so wears a form
Must wear the chain.’ Too true; but far beyond
Both name and form is Atman, ever free.
Know thou art That, sannyasin bold! Say—

‘Om Tat Sat, Om!’


Brahman Revealed in Experience

The Upanishads, as we have seen before, approach this highest reality in man through an investigation into experience which occurs in three planes, namely, waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. It is difficult to grasp the Ātman in the waking state, because in this state it is far too inextricably mixed up with the not-self elements of experience. Yet man does get intimations of this reality even in the waking state, more especially in its moments of calmness and introspection. But it discloses itself a little more distinctively in the dream and sleep states. Hence Vedānta considered an inquiry into the data of these states as indispensible to the full knowledge of the Self. In the dream state, the Self is truly the creator and the created, as well as the perceiver of both. In the dreamless sleep state, It is merely the seer or witness, without projecting objects of perception. When the data of the three states are co-ordinated and philosophically investigated, says Vedānta, the true Self of man stands revealed as infinite and immortal, being beyond the cause and effect determinism, and as the one unchanging basis of all the changing phenomena of experience.

This is what Yama conveys in verse eight:

तदेव शुक्रं तद् ब्रह्म तदेवामृतमुच्यते

tadeva śukraṃ tad brahma tadevāmṛtamucyate

That, verily, is the pure; That is Brahman; That alone is called the immortal. The infinite dimension of the Self so revealed is emphasized;

तस्मिँल्लोकाः श्रिताः सर्वे तदु नात्येति कश्चन

tasmiṃllokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tadu nātyeti kaścana

all the worlds are established in That; nothing ever transcends That. And, to focus attention on the truth that the phenomenon of the finite man itself reveals the infinite Brahman, adds the refrain:

एतद्वै तत्

etadvai tat

This is verily That.


Unity in Diversity

Having revealed Brahman through finite human experience, the Upanishad now proceeds, in the remaining seven verses of this chapter, verses nine to fifteen, to sing the glory of Brahman as the One behind the many, the Eternal among the non-eternals and as the light of pure consciousness lighting up the whole universe.

Introducing this group of verses, and explaining why the Upanishads repeats itself in projecting, again and again, its vision of the unity of the Self, Shankara says in his comment:

अनेकतार्किककुबुद्धिविचालितान्तःकरणानाम् प्रमाणोपपनम् अपि आत्मैकत्वविज्ञानम्, असकृदुच्यमानम् अपि, अनृजुबुद्धिनाम् ब्राह्मणानाम् चेतसि नाधीयता इति, तत् प्रतिपादना आदरवती पुनः पुनः आह श्रुतिः ।

anekatārkikakubuddhivicālitāntaḥkaraṇānām pramāṇopapanam api ātmaikatvavijñānam, asakṛducyamānam api, anṛjubuddhinām brāhmaṇānām cetasi nādhīyatā iti, tat pratipādanā ādaravatī punaḥ punaḥ āha śrutiḥ |

Though based on the canons of right knowledge, the realization of (the truth of) the unity of the Self does not, in spite of constant reiteration, dawn on the minds of (those) brāhmanas (truth seekers) whose buddhi (reason) is not straightforward (is not drawn to truth alone), whose mind is distracted by many false reasonings of logicians; accordingly the Upanishad, deeply imbued with a concern of man, communicates this (truth) again and again.

Says Yama in verses nine and ten:

अग्निर्यथैको भुवनं प्रविष्टो
रूपं रूपं प्रतिरूपो बभूव ।
एकस्तथा सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा
रूपं रूपं प्रतिरूपो बहिश्च ॥

agniryathaiko bhuvanaṃ praviṣṭo
rūpaṃ rūpaṃ pratirūpo babhūva |
ekastathā sarvabhūtāntarātmā
rūpaṃ rūpaṃ pratirūpo bahiśca ||

(Katha Upanishad, 9th Mantra, Canto 5)

As one fire, having entered the world, assumes various forms according to the different objects (through which it manifests), so the one inner Self of all beings (appears) in various forms according to the different objects (through which it manifests), and exists also outside (these, forms in Its transcendent aspects).

वायुर्यथैको भुवनं प्रविष्टो
रूपं रूपं प्रतिरूपो बभूव ।
एकस्तथा सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा
रूपं रूपं प्रतिरूपो बहिश्च ॥

vāyuryathaiko bhuvanaṃ praviṣṭo
rūpaṃ rūpaṃ pratirūpo babhūva |
ekastathā sarvabhūtāntarātmā
rūpaṃ rūpaṃ pratirūpo bahiśca ||

(Katha Upanishad, 10th Mantra, Canto 5)

As one air, having entered the world, assumes various forms according to the different objects (through which it manifests), so the one inner Self of all beings (appears) in various forms according to the different objects (through which it manifests), and exists also outside (these, forms in Its transcendent aspects).

Though manifesting itself in various forms in the diverse phenomena of nature, air or fire is just one principle only; and it is not exhausted in any one of its manifestations taken together. Apart from its immanent forms, it has also a transcended form. The same is the case with Ātman. This truth is expressed by the one word



occuring at the end of two verses. The Ātman is both immanent and transcendent. This at once shows how wrong is the interpretation of those Western scholars who equate Vedānta with panthesim; behind such interpretation is ignorance of the deeper meaning of the texts and often, theological prejudice.

In the next verse, verse eleven, Yama explains, through an illustration, how the Ātman is unaffected by the limitations of the forms through which It finds manifestation:

सूर्यो यथा सर्वलोकस्य चक्षु
र्न लिप्यते चाक्षुषैर्बाह्यदोषैः ।
एकस्तथा सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा
न लिप्यते लोकदुःखेन बाह्य ॥

sūryo yathā sarvalokasya cakṣu
rna lipyate cākṣuṣairbāhyadoṣaiḥ |
ekastathā sarvabhūtāntarātmā
na lipyate lokaduḥkhena bāhya ||

(Katha Upanishad, 11th Mantra, Canto 5)

Just as the sun, the eye of the whole world, is never sullied by the external faults of the eyes (of creatures), so the one inner Self of all beings is never sullied by the mysries of the world, as It (in Its own form) is also transcendent.

The problem posed in this verse is common to Vedānta and modern science, in fact, to all systems of thought which uphold a non-dual reality behind all existence. To the confirmed dulaists, all evil belongs to a devil and all good to a god, and the twain shall never meet. The verse gives an apt illustration: the sun, the source of almost all the energies in tthe solar system which penetrate every pore of that system, is not affected by the evils in that system; it is not affected by the defects in the eyes of creatures, eyes whose very existence and functioning depend on the sun itself. The Ātman stands in the same relation to the manifested universe. Evil in the light of this thought, is not an absolute but only a relative value.

In the beautiful words of Socrates on the subject of the other pair of opposoites, namely, pleasure and pain (The Dialogues of Plato, pp. 409-10):

How singular is the thing mankind call pleasure, and curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the oppositie of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues and gets either is generally compelled to get the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by single head.

The Ātman is not affected by the misery or other evils, or even by the happiness or other good values in the manifested uiverse. They are the manifestations of the Ātman in limited universe of discourse. They cannot exist apart from the Atman; but Atman is independent of all of them. Evil in the created is not evil in the creator; the poison in the fangs of snake is evil from the point of view of the snake’s victims, but from the point of view of snake itself, it just a part and parcel of its physical constitution. This very poison can be extracted and used also to save the life of man in certain forms of sickness. Human ignorance and misery do not tarnish the perfection of the divine reality behind man, says the verse.



In the next two verses, verses twelve and thirteen, Yama brings this Ātman close to us and exhorts us to find our peace in the Ātman:

एको वशी सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा
एकं रूपं बहुधा यः करोति ।
तमात्मस्थं येऽनुपश्यन्ति धीरा-
स्तेषां सुखं शास्वतं नेतरेषाम् ॥

eko vaśī sarvabhūtāntarātmā
ekaṃ rūpaṃ bahudhā yaḥ karoti |
tamātmasthaṃ ye'nupaśyanti dhīrā-
steṣāṃ sukhaṃ śāsvataṃ netareṣām ||

(Katha Upanishad, 12th Mantra, Canto 5)

The one (supreme) controller (of all), the inner Self of all beings, who makes his one form manifold—those dhīras (Wise men) who realize Him as existing in their own self, to them belongs eternal happiness and to none else.

नित्योऽनित्यानां चेतनश्चेतनाना-
मेको बहूनां यो विदधाति कामान् ।
तमात्मस्थं येऽनुपश्यन्ति धीरा-
स्तेषां शान्तिः शाश्वती नेतरेषाम् ॥

nityo'nityānāṃ cetanaścetanānā-
meko bahūnāṃ yo vidadhāti kāmān |
tamātmasthaṃ ye'nupaśyanti dhīrā-
steṣāṃ śāntiḥ śāśvatī netareṣām ||

(Katha Upanishad, 13th Mantra, Canto 5)

The Eternal among the non-eternals, the Intelligence among the intelligent, who, though one, fulfils the desires of many—those dhiras who perceive Him as existing within their own self, to them belong eternal peace and to none else.

Eternal happiness and eternal peace belong to that dhira or heroic soul who realizes the Ātman; the verse describes the Ātman in a few significant phrases:

एको वशी सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा, नित्योऽनित्यानां चेतनश्चेतनानाम्

eko vaśī sarvabhūtāntarātmā, nityo'nityānāṃ cetanaścetanānām


एको बहूनां यो विदधाति कामान्

eko bahūnāṃ yo vidadhāti kāmān

the one (supreme) Controller (of all),the inner Self of all beings, the Eternal among the non-eternals, the Intelligent among the intelligent, and who, though one, fulfils the desires of the many. The Ātma is the one supreme Controller; but not in the anthropomorphic sense, like a mighty sovereign whose subjects we are. Like autocratic rulers on earth, such a god cannot escape and not escaped rebellion and dethronement by the subjects. All serious atheism is rebellion not against god, but against the concept of this extra-cosmic, autocratic, personal god, which is entirely the product of man’s fears and hopes; The Upanishads have nothing to do with such a god. So Yama adds to eko vashī the significant additional feature:



the inner Self of all beings. God is not extra-cosmic and autocratic; He is the Self of all; He is not an outsider with whom our relations may be anything from submission to rebellion. He is our very inner Self, the one immutable and immortal Consciousness in a world of perishing entities and objects, all estrangement from whom, on the part of the mortal man, leads but to darkness and sorrow, and all communion to light and peace. It is only about a god so understood that the words of the prayer can properly apply; Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee; or one of the Psalms of the Old Testament (‘Psalms’, 42. 1-2):

As the heart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: When shall I come and appear before God?

Vedānta proclaims the eternal glory of the Self of man. Referring to this truth in the course of his speech on ‘The Ātman’ delivered in the United States of America, Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, Vol, II, Ninth Edition, 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 existed, exists, or ever will exist.

Again speaking on ‘The Real and the Apparent Man’, the Swami says (ibid., p.279):

In worshipping God, we have been always worshipping our own hidden Self.

It is this fact that makes possible the realization of God and not mere belief in His existence. The two verses emphasize this:

तमात्मस्थं येऽनुपश्यन्ति धीराः

tamātmasthaṃ ye'nupaśyanti dhīrāḥ

those dhīrahs who realize Him existing in their own self. And the fruits of such realization are:

सुखं शास्वतम्

sukhaṃ śāsvatam


शान्तिः शाश्वती

śāntiḥ śāśvatī

eternal happiness and eternal peace; eternal, because it is



identical with one’s own Self, in the words of Shankara.

Verse thirteen also adds:

एको बहूनां यो विदधाति कामान्

eko bahūnāṃ yo vidadhāti kāmān

though one, He fulfils the desires of many. Being the infinite Self of all, the Ātman can be ‘all things to all men’. This alone justifies the sentiments of Abraham Lincoln expressed in the course of his teaching farewell speech to the fellow citizens of his native town: ‘commending you to all to the care of Him who can go with me and abide with you.’


The Light of All Lights

Yama now refers in the next verse, verse fourteen, to the profundity and incommunicability of the realization:

तदेतदिति मन्यन्तेऽनिर्देश्यं परमं सुखम् ।
कथं नु तद्विजानीयां किमु भाति विभाति वा ॥

tadetaditi manyante'nirdeśyaṃ paramaṃ sukham |
kathaṃ nu tadvijānīyāṃ kimu bhāti vibhāti vā ||

(Katha Upanishad, 14th Mantra, Canto 5)

(Sages) realize that indefinable supreme happiness as ‘That is This’! How can I know That? Does it shine (in Its own light), or does it shine (in reflection)?

To the pure heart, It is a living presence. They do not and need not try to know it; knowledge is objectification. The Atman being the very Self of the seeker, to objectify It means to limit It. In the words of Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, Vol. II, Ninth Edition, p. 134):

All attempts of language, calling Him father, or brother, our dearest friend, are attempts to objectify God which cannot be done. He is the eternal subject of everything. I am the subject of the chair; I see the chair; so God is the eternal subject of my soul. How can you objectify Him, the Essence of your souls, the Reality of everything? Thus, I would repeat to you once more, God is neither knowable nor unknowable, but something infinitely higher either. He is one with us; and that which one with us is neither knowable nor unknowable….You cannot know your own self; you cannot move it out and make it an object to look at, because you are that, and cannot separate yourself from it. Neither is it unknowable, for what is better known than yourself? It is really the centre of our knowledge. In exactly the same sense God is neither unknowable nor known, but infinitely higher than both; for He is our real Self.

The above words help to put in proper perspective the question posed by Yama:

किमु भाति विभाति वा

kimu bhāti vibhāti vā

Does the Ātman shine in Its own light or is It revealed by some other light? If It shines in Its own light, It becomes the infinite light of knowledge, one and non-dual; but if It is revealed by some other light, It becomes reduced to a finite substance, endowed, may be with the value of being or existence, but essentially bereft of the two other values of knowledge and bliss. This question gets an answer from Yama in the next verse, verse fifteen, which is the closing verse of this chapter, which occurs also in another Upanishad, the Mundaka, and which is one of the most sublime passages in all the Upanishads:

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 ||

(Katha Upanishad, 15th Mantra, Canto 5)

There (in the Ātman) the sun does not illumine, nor the moon and the stars; nor do this lightings illumine (there); and much less this (domestic) fire. When That shines, everything shines after That. By Its light, all this (manifested universe) is lighted.


The Vision Sublime

To grasp the deep significance of this verse, and its philosophic background, we can do no better than to listen to its exposition by another sage, Swami Vivekananda. Says he in his lecture on ‘Vedanta and Indian Life’ (Complete Works. Vol. III, English Edition, pp.234-35):

Apart from all its merits as the greatest philosophy, apart from its wonderful merit as theology, as showing the path of salvation to mankind, the Upanishadic literature is the most wonderful painting of sublimity that the world has. Here comes out in full force that individuality of the human mind, that introspective, intuitive Hindu mind. We have paintings of sublimity elsewhere in all nations, but almost without exception you will find that their ideal is to grasp sublime in the muscles. Take for instance, Milton, Dante, Homer, or any of the Western poets. There are wonderfully sublime passages in them; but there, it is always a grasping at infinity through the senses, the muscles, getting the ideal of infinite expansion, the infinite of space. We find the same attempts made in the (pre-Upanishadic) Samhitā portion. You know some of those wonderful rks (hymns of the Rg-Veda) where creation is described; the very heights of expression of the sublime in expansion and the infinite in space are attained.

But they found out very soon that the infinite cannot be reached in that way, that even infinite space, and expansion, and infinite external nature could not express the ideas that were struggling to find expression in their minds; and so they fell back upon other explanations. The language became new in the Upanishads; it is almost negative, it is sometime chaotic, sometimes taking you beyond the senses, pointing out to you something which you cannot sense, and at the same time you feel certain that it is there. What passage in the world can compare with this:

न तत्र सूर्यो भाति न चन्द्रतारकं नेमा विद्युतो भान्ति कुतोऽयमग्निः

na tatra sūryo bhāti na candratārakaṃ nemā vidyuto bhānti kuto'yamagniḥ

— “There the sun cannot illumine, nor the moon, nor the stars, the flash of lightning cannot illumine the place, what to speak of this mortal fire?”

In the opening verse of the present chapter we heard the Upanishad describing the human body as the city of the immortal Brahman. Earlier in its third chapter, the Upanishad had compared life to a journey in a chariot. And in the next chapter, the sixth and the last, the Upanishad will, be communicating to us the Vedāntic vision of the Tree of Existence in its opening, and the assurance of universal redemption in its closing, verses.

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