Kathopanishad (Madhva commentary)

by Srisa Chandra Vasu | 1909 | 21,449 words | ISBN-13: 9789332869165

The English translation of the Kathopanishad (Katha-upanishad) including the commentary of Madhva called the Bhasya. It is an important text associated with the Krishna Yajurveda and discusses topics such as the nature of Atman, karma, rebirth and the soul The Kathopanishad is also known as: Kaṭhopaniṣad (कठोपनिषद्, kathopanisad), Kaṭha-paniṣad (क...

Introduction to the Kathopanishad

Regarding this Upaniṣad Max Muller writes:—

One of the best known among the Upaniṣads is the Kaṭha Upaniṣad. it was first introduced to the knowledge of European scholars by Ram Mohan Roy, one of the most enlightened benefactors of his own country, and, it may still turn out, one of the most enlightened benefactors of mankind. It has since been frequently translated and discussed, and it certainly deserves the most careful consideration of all who are interested in the growth of religious and philosophical ideas. It does not seem likely that we possess it in its original form, for there are clear traces of later additions in it. There is in fact the same story told in the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, III, 11, 8, only with this difference that in the Brāhmaṇa freedom from death and birth is obtained by a peculiar performance of a sacrifice, while in the Upanishad it is obtained by knowledge only.

The Upaniṣad consists of a dialogue between a young child, called Naciketas, and Yama, the ruler of departed spirits. The father of Naciketas had offered what is called an All-sacrifice, which requires a man to give away all that he possesses. His son, hearing of his father’s vow, asks him, whether he does or does not mean to fulfil his vow without reserve. At first the father hesitates; at last, becoming angry, he says: “Yes, I shall give thee also unto death.”

The father, having once said so, was bound to fulfil his vow, to sacrifice his son to death. The son was quite willing to go, in order to redeem his father’s rash promise.

“I go,” he says, “as the first, at the head of many (who have still to die); I go in the midst of many (who are now dying). What Yama (the ruler of the departed) has to do, that he will do unto me to-day.

“Look back, how it was with those who came before; look forward how it will be with those who come hereafter. A mortal ripens like corn like corn they spring up again.”

When Naciketas, entered the abode of the departed, their ruler, Yama, was absent, and his new guest was left for three days without receiving due hospitality.

In order to make up for this neglect, Yama, when he returns, grants him three boons to choose.

The first boon which Naciketas chooses is, that his father may not be angry with him any more.

The second boon is, that Yama may teach him some peculiar form of sacrifice.

Then comes the third boon:

Naciketas says: “There is that doubt, when man is dead, some saying that he is, others that he is not: this I should like to know, taught by thee. This is the third of my boons.”

It has been taken implicitly by all translators, that the third boon asked by Naciketas was regarding what is now-a-days called the survival of human personality after death. Whether man lias a soul, and whether it survives death are no doubt questions of primary importance: and all religions (except perhaps Judaism) give a decided answer in the affirmative to these questions. As regards the Jews, it is said that the immortality of the soul was not revealed to them, Be that as it may, in India, however, the existence of the soul, its pre-existence and survival of death were taken as axiomatic truths: and no doubts seem to have been ever raised on these points. It is not, therefore, likely that Naciketas should have asked, as his highest boon, the answer to the question whether the soul of man was immortal or not. The unknown author of this Upaniṣad could not have meant that, for the following reasons:—

Firstly.—Naciketas is shown to be a boy filled with Holy Spirit, (Śraddhā) and admonishes his father thus:—

“Unblessed, surely are the worlds to which a man goes by giving (as his promised present at a sacrifice) cows which have drunk water, eaten hay, given their milk and are barren.” (1-1.3)

Thus in the very third verse Naciketas speaks of the worlds of the unblessed, the regions of pain and sorrow, in after life, to which a man goes after death, who cheats the officiating priest by giving him poor and worthless presents. Naciketas, who believed in regions of the unblessed, could not have asked a truism like the survival of the soul after death. Naciketas knew well the law of rebirth also and believed in it, for he says (1.6) “A mortal ripens like a corn, like corn he springs up again.”

Secondly.—The story says that Naciketas was sent, to the region of Yama—the abode of the dead. He had left his physical body and was talking with Yama all the same. From his own personal experience, he could not have entertained any doubt, as to the existence of the soul after death. Madhva, therefore, very pertinently remarks:—“na ca mṛtvā yamaṃ prāptasya nadhiketaso ‘mṛt'sti na vā’ iti saṃśayā yujyate”:—“To Naciketas, who had died and was (consciously still) present before Yama, the doubt whether the dead exist or not would be inappropriate,” (his own present experience being a direct answer to his own question.) A person who is undergoing a particular experience, at, a particular time, would be the last man to ask whether such an experience exists or not.

Thirdly.—According to Śāṅkara the second boon, which Naciketas asks is regarding heaven, “Thou knowest, O Death, the fire-sacrifice which leads us to heaven; tell it to me, for I am full of faith. Those who live in the heaven-world reach immortality—this I ask as my second boon.”

Naciketas believed in a future state of recompense, where soul enjoyed the fruits of its good works. He believed in heaven. A person, who believes in Heaven, could not have any doubt, as to the existence of soul after death. Rānānuja, therefore, in his comment on the Vedānta Sūtra 1-2-12. in interpreting this Upaniṣad, rightly remarks “For his second boon, again, he chooses the knowledge of a sacrificial fire, which has a result to be experienced only by a soul that has departed from the body; and this choice also can be clearly made only by one who knows that the soul is something different from the body.”

Thus Naciketas, who is represented here as believing both in Heaven (Svarga-loka) and Hell (Ananda-loka) could not have asked the third question as popularly understood.

No doubt, to a mind like those of Myers and other scientific men, this appears to be the problem of problems: and answer to it is eagerly sought for, in seance rooms and from the apparitions of the living and the dead. To a materialist or a follower of Cārvaka this is a pertinent question. But it does not come with good grace from the mouth of a Naciketas, who admonishes his father with the terrors of Hell, and wants to learn from Yama the secret of getting into Heaven.

Fourthly.—The story of Naciketas lias another version in the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa of the Yajur Veda. There the third boon which Naciketas asks is not whether the soul survives physical death: but how to conquer re-death (punar-mṛtyu). In other words, Naciketas asks how to get Mukti or Release, so that there may be no necessity of re-birth (punar-janma) and a fortiori of re-death punar-mṛtyu).

This version we find in Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa III-11-8. Thus it reads:—

“tṛtīyaṃvṛṇīṣveti | punarmṛtyorme'pacitiṃ būhi iti hovāca |”—

“(Yama said): ask the third boon. (Naciketas replied) Tell me the method of vanquishing re-death.”

This also indicates that the Kaṭha version of this well-known legend could not have meant, by its third question, a simple point like the survival of soul after death.

Even according to the western interpretation of the Vedas, the scholars are unanimous in admitting, that the Vedic Ṛṣis, in spite of all their worship of the elemental forces of nature, had a firm conviction of Afterlife. The Upaniṣads which represent an advance on the Vedic age could not have, therefore, asked such a primary question. Nor do we find, in any other Upaniṣad this question asked. The interpretation, therefore, of Madhva and Ramanuja is more near the truth, i.e., that the third question does not relate to survival of soul after death, but to the far more transcendental question—the survival of individual consciousness in the state of Nirvāṇa or Mukti, and whether the Released are within the government of God or transcend that even.

The following extract from the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, III-11-8 as translated by Max Müller is given here to elucidate the points above urged:—

Vājasravasa, wishing for reward, sacrificed all his wealth. He had a son, called Naciketas. While he was still a boy, faith entered into him at the time when the cows that were to be given (by his father) as presents to the priest, were brought in. He said: “Father, to whom wilt thou give me?” He said so a second and third time. But father turned round and said to him “To Death I give thee,”

Then a voice said to young Gautama, as he stood up: “He (thy father) said “Go away to the house of Death, I give thee to Death.” “Go therefore to Death when he is not at home, and dwell in his house for three nights without eating. If he should ask thee “Boy, how many nights hast thou been here?” say, “Three.” When he asks thee, “What didst thou eat the first night?” say, “Thy off-spring." “What didst thou eat second night?” say, “Thy cattle.” “What didst thou eat the third night?” say, “Thy good works.”

He went to Death, while he was away from home, and he dwelt in his house for three nights without eating. When Death returned, he asked: “Boy, how many nights hast thou been here?” He answered: “Three.” “What didst thou eat the first night?” “Thy offspring.” “What didst thou eat the second night?” “Thy cattle," “What didst thou eat the third night?” “Thy good works.”

Then he said: “My respect to thee, O venerable sir’ Choose a boon.”

“May I return living to my father,” he said.

“Choose a second boon.”

“Tell me how my good works may never perish.”

Then he explained to him this Nāciketa lire (sacrifice), and hence his good works do not perish.

“Choose a third boon.”

“Tell me the conquest of re-death.”

Then he explained to him this (chief) Nāciketa fire (sacrifice), and hence he conquered re-death.

Extract from Ramānuja’s Śrī Bhāṣya on I.2.12:

[Extract from Ramānuja’s Śrī Bhāṣya on I.2.12 as translated in the S.B.E. Vol. XLVIII. p. 269, by Dr. G. Thibaut]

But a new objection is raised, the initial passage, I, 1, 20, ‘That doubt which there is when a man is dead—Some saying, he is; others, he is not; clearly asks a question as to the true nature of the individual soul, and we hence conclude that that soul forms the topic of the whole chapter.—Not so, we reply. That question does not spring from any doubt as to the existence or non-existence of the soul apart from the body; for if this were so, the two first boons chosen by Naciketas would be unsuitable. For the story runs as follows: When the sacrifice offered by the father of Naciketas—at which all the possessions of the sacrificer were to be given to the priests—is drawing towards its close, the boy, feeling afraid that some deficiency on the part of the gifts might render the sacrifice unavailing, and dutifully wishing to render his father’s sacrifice complete by giving his own person also, repeatedly asks his father, ‘And to whom will you give me’? The father, irritated by the boy’s persistent questioning, gives an angry reply, and in consequence of this the hoy goes to the palace of Yama, and Yama being absent, stays there for three days without eating. Yama on his return is alarmed at this neglect of hospitality, and wishing to make up for it allows him to choose three boons. Naciketas, thereupon, full of faith and piety, chooses as his first boon that his father should forgive him Now it is clear that conduct of this kind would not be possible in the case of one not convinced of the soul having an existence independent of the body. For his second boon, again, he chooses the knowledge of a sacrificial fire, which has a result to be experienced only by a soul that has departed from the body; and this choice also can clearly be made only by one who knows that the soul is something different from the body. When, therefore, he chooses for his third boon the clearing up of his doubt as to the existence of the soul after death (as stated in v. 20), it is evident that his question is prompted by the desire to acquire knowledge of the true nature of the highest Self—which knowledge has the form of meditation on the highest Self—and by means thereof, knowledge of the true nature of final Release which consists in obtaining the highest Brahman. The passage, therefore, is not concerned merely with the problem as to the separation of the soul from the body, but rather with the problem of the Self freeing itself from all bondage whatever—the same problem, in fact, with which another scriptural passage also is concerned, viz., ‘When he has departed there is no more knowledge’ (Bri Up. II, 4, 12). The Ml purport of Naciketas’ question, therefore, is as follows: When a man qualified for Release has died an d thus freed himself from all bondage, there arises a doubt as to his existence or non-existence—a doubt due to the disagreement of philosophers as to the true nature of Release; in order to clear up this doubt I wish to learn from thee the true nature of the state of Release.—Philosophers, indeed, hold many widely differing opinion as to what constitutes Release. Some hold that the Self is constituted by consciousness only, and that Release consists in the total destruction of this essential nature of the Self. Others, while holding the same opinion as to the nature of the Self, define release as the passing away of Nescience (avidyā). Others hold that the Self is in itself non-sentient, like a stone, but possesses, in the state of bondage, certain distinctive qualities, such as knowledge, and so on. Release then consists in the total removal of all these qualities, the Self remaining in a state of pure isolation (kaivalya). Others, again, who acknowledge a highest Self free from all imperfection, maintain that through connexion with limiting adjuncts that Self enters on the condition of an individual soul; Release then means the pure existence of the highest Self, consequent on the passing away of the limiting adjuncts. Those, however, who understand the Vedanta, teach as follows: There is a highest Brahman which is the sole cause of the entire universe, which is antagonistic to all evil, whose essential nature is infinite knowledge and blessedness, which comprises within itself numberless auspicious qualities of supreme excellence, which is different in nature from all other beings, and which constitutes the inner Self of all. Of this Brahman, the individual souls—whose true nature is unlimited knowledge, and whose only essential attribute is the intuition of the Supreme Self—are modes, in so far, namely, as they constitute its body. The true nature of these souls is, however, obscured by Nescience, i.e., the influence of the beginningless chain of works; and by release then we have to understand that intuition of the highest Self, which is the natural state of the individual souls, and which follows on the destruction of Nescience.—When Naciketas desires Yama graciously to teach him the true nature of Release and the means to attain it, Yama at first tests him by dwelling on the difficulty of comprehending Release, and by tempting him with various wordly enjoyments. But having in this way recognised the boy’s thorough fitness, he in the end instructs him as to the kind, of meditation on the highest Self which constitutes knowledge of the highest Reality, as to the nature of Release—which consists in reaching the abode of the highest Self,—and as to all the required details. This instruction begins at 1,2,12, “The Ancient one who is difficult to see, etc., and extends up to 1, 3, 9, and that is the highest place of Vishṇn.”

Extract from the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa III.11.8.

uśanha vai vājaśravasaḥ sarvavedasaṃ dadau | tasya ha naciketā nāma putra āsa | taṃ ha kumāraṃ santam | dakṣiṇāsu nīyamānāsu śraddhā''viveśa | sa hovāca | tata kasmai māṃ dāsyasīti | dvitīyaṃ tṛtīyam, iti || taṃ ha parīta uvāca | Mṛtyave tvā dadāmīti, iti | taṃ ha smotthitaṃ vāgabhivadati (1) |

gautama kumāramiti | sa hovāca | parehi mṛtyorgṛhān | mṛtyave vai tvā'dāmiti, iti | taṃ vai pravasantaṃ gantāsīti hovāca | tasya sma tisro rātrīranāśvāngṛhe vasatāt | sa yadi tvā pṛcchet | kumāra kati rātrīravātsīriti | tisra iti pratibrūtāt | kiṃ prathamāṃ rātrimāśnā iti (2) |

prajāṃ ta iti | kiṃ dvitīyāmiti | paśūṃsta iti | kiṃ tṛtīyāmiti | sādhukṛtyāṃ ta iti | taṃ vai pravasantaṃ jagāma | tasya ha tisro rātrīranāśvāngṛha uvāsa | tamāgatya papraccha | kumāra kati rātrīravātsīriti | tisra iti pratyuvāca (3) |

kiṃ prathamāṃ rātrimāśnā iti | prajāṃ ta iti | kiṃ dvitīyāmiti | paśūṃsta iti | kiṃ tṛtīyāmiti | sādhukṛtyāṃ ta iti | namaste astu bhagava iti hovāca | varaṃ vṛṇīṣveti | pitarameva jīvannayānīti, iti | dvitīyaṃ vṛṇīṣveti (4)

iṣṭāpūrtayorme'kṣitiṃ brūhīti hovāca | tasmai haitamagniṃ nāciketamuvāca | tato vai tasyeṣṭāpūrte nā kṣīyete | nāsyeṣṭāpūrte kṣīyete | yo'gniṃ nāciketaṃ cinute | ya u cainamevaṃ veda | tṛtīyaṃ vṛṇīṣveti | punarmṛtyorme'pajitiṃ brūhīti hovāca | tasmai haitamagniṃ nāciketamuvāca | tato vai so'pa punarmṛtyumajayat (5) |

apa punarmṛtyuṃ jayati | yo'gniṃ nāciketaṃ cinute | ya u cainamevaṃ veda, iti |

Prayag, September, 1909.

S. C. V.

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