Kena Upanishad with Shankara’s Commentary

by S. Sitarama Sastri | 1905 | 13,003 words

The Kena Upanishad is a collection of philosophical poems discussing the attributes of Brahman: the unchanging, infinite universal spirit. Brahman is further proposed as the cause for all the forces of nature, symbolized as Gods. This commentary by Shankara focuses on ‘Advaita Vedanta’, or non-dualism: one of the classical orthodox philosophies o...

Shri Shankara’s Introduction



This ninth chapter is begun for the purpose of publishing the Upanishad beginning with Keneshitam etc., and, treating of the Brahman. Before the beginning of the ninth chapter, all Karma has been explained and the different forms of worshipping Prana, the source of all activity, have been laid down and all about the Sarnaus (songs) preliminary to the rituals have been given. Next the Gayatra Saman has been explained and the genealogical list of preceptors and disciples has been given. All this Karma and Knowledge (of the deities) properly observed, as enjoined, tend to purify the mind of one who being-free from desires, longs for emancipation. In the case of one who cherishes desires and has no knowledge, Karma by itself as laid down by the Srutis and the Smritis secures for him the southern route and return to Samsara. Activity following natural impulses and repugnant to the Sasiras entails degradation into low births from beasts down to immovables.

The Sruti says:

“Travelling by neither of these two paths, these small creatures are constantly returning, of whom it may he said: ‘Be born and die.’ This is the third course.”

Another Sruti says

“The three kinds of living beings (going by neither of these two paths) reach this miserable state.”

The desire to know the Brahman springs only in the person whose mind is pure, who is free from desires and who, free from deeds done in this birth or in previous ones, becomes disgusted with the external, ephemeral medley of ends and means.

This Brahman is depicted in the Upanishad beginning with Keneshitam. etc., appearing in the form of questions and answers. Kataka says

“The self-existent has made the senses external in their activity and man therefore looks outward, not at the self within.”

Some wise man having turned his eyes inward and being desirous of immortality saw the inner self.

“Having examined the worlds reached by Karma, let the Brahmin grow disgusted (and learn to think that) nothing which is not made can be reached by Karma. In order to know that, let him, Samidh (sacrificial sticks) in hand, approach a preceptor, who is well read in the Vedas and who is centred in Brahman.”

Thus in the Atharvanopanishad. In this way, and not otherwise, a man free from desires becomes qualified to hear, contemplate and acquire knowledge of the inner self. By the knowledge of the inner self, ignorance, which, is the seed of bondage, and the cause of Karma performed for the realisation of desires, is entirely removed.

The Srutis say: 

“There is no grief or delusion to one who sees this unity.”

“He who knows the Atman overcomes grief.”

“When He. that is both high and low, is seen, the knot of the heart is cut, all doubts are resolved and all Karma is consumed.”

If it be urged that even by knowledge coupled with Karma this result is attained, we say no; for the Vajasaneyaka shows that that combination produces different results.

Beginning with “Let me have a wife,” the texts go on to say,

“by a son should this world be gained, not by any other means: by Karma, the abode of the manes (Pitris); and by Knowledge, the world of the deities;”

thus showing how the three worlds different from the Atman are reached. In the same place we find the following reason urged for one becoming a Sanyasin: “What shall we, to whom this world is not the Atman, do with offspring?” The meaning is this: What shall we do with offspring, Karma, and Knowledge combined with Karma, which are the means to secure the world of the mortals, the world of the manes, and the world of the Gods; and which do not help us in securing the world of the Atman? For, to us none of the three worlds, transitory and attainable by these means, is desirable. To us that world alone which is natural, unborn, undecaying, immortal, fearless and neither augmented nor diminished by Karma, and eternal, is covetable; and that being eternal cannot be secured by any other means than the removal of ignorance. Therefore, the renunciation of all desires preceded by the knowledge of the Brahman who is the inner Self should alone be practised by us. Another reason is that the knowledge of the inner Self is antagonistic to Karma and cannot therefore coexist with it. It is well known that the knowledge of the Self, the one Atman of all, which abhors all perception of difference, cannot possibly co-exist with Karma whose basis is the perception of the difference of agent, results, etc. As knowledge relating to the reality, the knowledge of the Brahman is independent of human efforts. Therefore, the desire of a person, who is disgusted with visible and invisible fruits achievable by external means, to know the Brahman which is connected with the inner Self, is indicated by the Sruti beginning with Keneshitam, etc. The elucidation of the Brahman in the form of a dialogue between the preceptor and the disciple is, considering the subtle nature of the theme, for the easy understanding thereof. It will also be clearly pointed out that this knowledge is not to be attained solely by logical discussion.

The Sratis say

“This state of mind cannot be obtained by logical discussion.”

“He knows who lias studied under a preceptor.”

“Such knowledge only as is acquired by studying under a preceptor does good.”

The Smriti lays down also “Learn That by prostration.”

It should be inferred that some one duly approached a preceptor centred in Brahman and finding no refuge except in bis inner Self and longing for that which is fearless, eternal, calm and unshakable, questioned the preceptor as expressed in ‘Keneshitam. etc.’

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