Kena Upanishad

Kena Upaniṣad

by Swami Nirvikarananda | 28,281 words

The very title of this Upanishad is philosophically significant. Kena in Sanskrit implies a question, and means by ‘by whom?’ Philosophy matures only when it becomes a critical estimate of experience and all its assumptions; otherwise it remains dogmatic and immature, or skeptical and over-mature. This Upanishad registers the appearance of critical...


We now commence the study of Kena Upanishad. In the traditional enumerations, this Upanishad is placed second, the first being the Isha Upanishad, the study of which we have completed earlier. This too is a short Upanishad; it has thirty five verses, divided into four chapters.

The very title of this Upanishad is philosophically significant. Kena in Sanskrit implies a question, and means by ‘by whom?’ Philosophy matures only when it becomes a critical estimate of experience and all its assumptions; otherwise it remains dogmatic and immature, or skeptical and over-mature. This Upanishad registers the appearance of critical philosophy in India at a very early period in her long history.

The aim of this approach is to evaluate all knowledge and experience. The Upanishad questions the truth and validity of our sense knowledge and of the knowledge gained by the logically and scientifically disciplined mind. It considers this knowledge as knowledge of the relative and not of the absolute. Even the knowledge of the disciplined mind, which is science, is knowledge about shadows and not substance, being derived from sense-data.

Is this the whole of knowledge, it asks, or is there something higher which is infinite and absolute? Ordinary philosophy can give no answer to this question. The Kena Upanishad, however, and other Upanishads also, give an answer. After assessing the nature and scope of human knowledge as revealed through the senses and the mind, the Kena Upanishad tells us that there is higher form of knowledge, a higher form of awareness, in which knowledge and experience become one, and which transcends the transient and relative. This is knowledge of the true Self of man which is also the Self of the universe. As such, the Absolute and Infinite need not remain a matter of mere surmise or belief or inference.

Realization of the infinite and immortal Self, the ‘Ātman’ or ‘Brahman’ as the Upanishads term it, requires however, discipline and training. This very mind that is now in thralldom to the senses, and as such is bound to the world of the finite and changing, can be disciplined and trained in order to equip it for the realization of the truth of Brahman. Indian philosophy therefore speaks of the mind in two aspects. In one aspect it is in thralldom to the senses and in other it is free. This idea occurs again and again in Indian spiritual literature. Says the Panchadasī (XI. 116):

मनो हि द्विविधं प्रोक्तं शुद्धं चाशुद्धमेव च ।
अशुद्धं कामसम्पर्कात् शुद्धं कामविवर्जितम् ॥

mano hi dvividhaṃ proktaṃ śuddhaṃ cāśuddhameva ca |
aśuddhaṃ kāmasamparkāt śuddhaṃ kāmavivarjitam ||

Mind is said to be of two types: the pure and the impure. It is impure when it is subject to the pressures of lust and pure when free from them.


The Pure Mind

The pure mind has the capacity to realize Brahman. Brahman is said to be buddhigrāhyam atīndriyam – ‘grasped by the buddhi but beyond the senses,’ including also the manas or the sense-bound mind. Pure manas is the same as pure buddhi which again is the same as pure Ātman says Sri Ramakrishna. This is the endeavour that converts philosophy from a mere intellectual and academic pursuit into a spiritual adventure, and religion from a socio-political discipline into a sādhanā for spiritual experience, uniting both religion and philosophy into a high spiritual adventure to realize truth and achieve the highest life excellence.

So then the question arises, how to make the mind pure? In every Indian spiritual treatise this subject is discussed: How to release the mind or awareness from its sense-bound finitude and restore it to its own true infinite expanse? The mind as it is now constituted is conditioned by various sense-impressions which make it function in a finite way, which make it express itself through finite moulds. In the Chandī or Devī Māhātmyam one of the sacred books of India, we read (1. 47):

ज्ञानमस्ति समस्तस्य जन्तोः विषयगोचरे

jñānamasti samastasya jantoḥ viṣayagocare

‘The jnāna or knowledge of all beings is conditioned by sense-moulds.’

Everyone, including the animals, has knowledge which comes through the doorways of the senses. This knowledge trickles, as it were, through little bits of sense experience; but whereas this knowledge is fragmentary and unorganized in animals, it is in some degree organized and coherent in scientific man. We make a serious mistake, however, when we think that this is the highest possible form of knowledge. All speculative philosophy commits this same mistake. Limiting itself to sense-data, to the data of the waking state only, it stultifies itself as philosophy by not taking all experience for its province of study.

The Upanishads did not allow Indian philosophy to commit this mistake. They broadened and deepened philosophy by taking for its data the all experience—the world of facts as well as the world of values, the world revealed in all the three states of waking, dream, and deep sleep—and by a critical examination of the human mind, its nature and possibilities. They discovered that this mind, when trained and disciplined, revealed its own higher dimensions and manifested newer powers of penetration. At a lower level, at the psyche level these are called extra-sensory perceptions, where human knowledge becomes freed from the limitations of the sensory apparatus. But even this is limited to the world of the phenomenal, the realm of appearances. Its highest penetrating power is manifested when it reveals the noumenon behind all phenomena, the imperishable reality behind the world of perishable forms. This is parā vidyā, philosophy in the true sense of term, according to the Upanishads (Mundaka Upanishad: 1.1.5.).


The Discipline of Mind in Science

In physics we are familiar with a similar physical phenomenon. Ordinary light is a radiation of very little penetrating capacity. But, by increasing the wave frequency of the radiation, science has developed radiation of greater penetrating capacities which can penetrate deeper still.

This phenomenon of the physical world we find repeated in the mental world. The average is untrained, undisciplined, and extremely dull in its operation; it stops at the very surface of experience. It cannot penetrate the surface and proceed to the depths of things. It cannot even raise the question whether there is anything behind the appearance. Such is the raw human mind. Yet the same mind can be trained and disciplined and penetrating in its power; this gives us the scientific mind which has disciplined itself in the systemic inquiry and investigation into the universe of sensory experience. As a result of this discipline the mind gets the power to exercise control over the sensory and motor apparatus of the human system which, formerly, was under the direction of the sense-impressions and instinctual impulses. The trained mind disciplines the imagination through reason and develops a capacity to check and evaluate those impressions and impulses, and find out what they mean and where they lead. As a result of this scientific training, the mind develops the ability to penetrate appearances and discover the truth behind, the laws that control the appearances. This is the discipline of human knowledge achieved in science.

If however, a scientist stops there and refuses to proceed further in the search for truth, it is because he has forsaken his scientific spirit and become sterile and dogmatic. Why should he stop there? If the mind can be trained to penetrate some appearances, by still greater discipline it can be trained to penetrate the whole crust of appearances that make up the universe of our daily experience, and penetrate to the noumenon behind all phenomena, the changeless One behind the changeful many. This is the most fascinating and intriguing, subject for the human mind; though baffled again and again, the mind will return to it again and again. One may try to drag the mind away from such fundamental questions; one may adopt philosophies of positivism and humanism and try to direct the mind either to living a good life or to doing good to the world in his own petty way; but it is only for a time.

Since the nineteenth century the philosophy of positivism has become popular as a reaction against the irrational dogmas of religion and the inconclusive conclusions of metaphysics. This philosophy registers the despair of the human mind arising from the feeling that man can never know the ultimate truth. All metaphysics is moonshine, says the positivism. Let us resort to the metaphysics, if we must, for the little exercise of the intellect that it gives; but let us, while doing so, work to make the world a little better, a little happier than it is. Why bother about the subject of the ultimate truth? The mind, in spite of its rigorous discipline in science, is so constituted that ultimate truth is beyond the grasp; so it is the part of wisdom not to waste time and energy on it.

This is the despair of the human mind that has gripped modern man. And yet man cannot continue to live in this despair, in this defeatist attitude. As in mountain climbing, where unclimbed peaks of a difficult mountain range pose a continuous challenge to the courage and tenacity of the human spirit, and the tougher spirits continue their unwearying assaults on the peaks until the last and highest peak is gained, so in the search for truth, the challenge and lure of the ultimate truth will make the courageous among seekers restless with longing to scale the highest peaks of knowledge and experience. Thus the human mind cannot be put off; it is intrigued by anything that is hidden, by anything that is mysterious. If one group of persons does not ask such questions, another will. If one scientist does not investigate them, another scientist will. We see this actually happening today in the world of science. There are some scientists today who would limit science merely to its positivistic approach. But there are other scientists who try to take science beyond this limit, lead it into the region of fundamental questions, such as nature of truth, the critique of causality, the nature of reality, and the nature and scope of human knowledge. These scientists may not achieve satisfactory answers to these questions, but they are bold enough to ask them; and in this they are in the true tradition of science and uphold its spirit of free and persistent inquiry into truth.  


The Discipline of Mind in Vedānta

These are two types of scientists in the modern world; and it is a happy augury that modern science, true to its spirit and tradition, is forging ahead in its fearless quest of truth, a virtue which it shares with Vedānta. Vedānta experienced the lure of unclimbed peaks of thought ages ago. It never admitted defeat, but marched on till the last peak was conquered. Referring to this aspect of Vedānta, Professor Max Müller says (Six Systems of Indian Philosophy, pp. 182-83):

It is surely astounding that such a system as the Vedānta should have been slowly elaborated by the indefatigable and intrepid thinkers of India thousands of years ago, a system that even now makes us feel giddy, as in mounting the last steps of the swaying spire of an ancient Gothic cathedral. None of our philosophers, not excepting Heraclitus, Plato, Kant, or Hegel ventured to erect such a spire, never frightened by storms or lightnings. Stone follows on stone in regular succession after once the first step has been made, after once it has been clearly seen that in the beginning there can have been but One, as there will be but One in the end, we call it Ātman or Brahman.

What was the driving force behind this bold venture of the Indian thinkers? A passion for truth and a passion for human happiness and welfare. says Professor Max Müller (Three Lectures on Vedānta Philosophy, pp. 39-40):

I believe much of the excellency of the Ancient Sanskrit philosophers is due to their having been undisturbed by the thought of there being a public to please or critics to appease. They thought of nothing but the work they had determined to do; their one idea was to make it as perfect as it could be made. There was no applause they valued unless it came from their equals or their betters; publishers, editors, and logrollers did not yet exist. Need we wonder then that their work was done as well as it could be done, and that it had lasted for thousands of years?

It is good for modern science to investigate the type of discipline that the Upanishadic thinkers gave to their minds by which they climbed the highest peaks of thought, by which they realized the changeless One behind the changing many. His single-minded love of truth, his intellectual discipline, and his moral purity, helped the Upanishadic thinker to evolve a new mind of high penetrating power out of his given mind. Freed from its thralldom to the senses, which is but the legacy of man’s animal ancestry, and rigorously disciplined in detachment and objectivity, which is the fruit of an all embracing renunciation, and stimulated by the love of truth viewed as a focus of both knowledge and value, the human mind, in the Upanishads, became the instrument of human enlightenment; pure manas became pure buddhi which in turn yielded bodhi, full illumination. This marks man’s achievement of Buddhahood.

How important for science is the need to protect and cherish this free and fearless pursuit of truth becomes clear when we consider the various forces that tend to deflect the scientific mind today from its main purpose of the purpose of truth.

First of all, there is the lure of pleasure which science offers through a highly efficient technical civilization; the fruit of science may smother the root of science.

Secondly, there is the tendency to forsake the path of objectivity due to the pulls of mutually hostile political ideologies.

Thirdly, there is the sheer laziness of the human mind which makes it rest on its oars, unwilling to continue an arduous journey. This gives birth to the dogmatic mood in science.

In earlier centuries science had occasionally to adjust with religious dogmas; now it has to adjust with political dogmas. And it has its own dogmas also to contend with. But no dogma can kill the spirit of science.

The need of science today is to free its spirit from dogmas of all kinds, whether religious or scientific, political or social. In this task modern science will receive the most helpful stimulus from Vedānta. For Vedānta is not committed to any dogma; it is committed to truth only and firmly believes in the power of truth to overcome half-truths and untruths.

सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं

satyameva jayate nānṛtaṃ

— ‘Truth alone triumphs, not untruth’, is the watchword of the Upanishads (Mundaka Upanishad: III. 1. 6)

This was the quest pursued by the great sages of India and they have left for posterity an imperishable legacy. Ages have passed since the Upanishads were composed, but they hold our attention and we study them even today when there is such an advancement of intelligence and learning unparalleled in earlier ages. This can be explained only on the basis of the Upanishads having plumbed the depths of experience and brought information of vital importance for man both as to his own nature and as to the nature of the universe. It is not merely the ideas that they convey to us that attract us but also the rigorous methods which they employ and the dispassionate spirit pervades them. The modern mind is at once attracted by the wonderfully critical approach adopted by the Upanishdic sages, by which they closely studied the mind and its structure, its functions, and its capacity, and fearlessly evaluated all knowledge and information conveyed by the mind. They were determined to find out whether this mind could be made into a fit instrument for their particular field of inquiry, the field of the knowledge of the Self, the field of the subject of all experience, as different from the objects of all experience which are studied by the positive sciences.  

In order to work in particular field, a workman fashions his tools according to his requirements. A scientist or a philosopher does the same, but his tool is thought itself. His mind and thought form the tool. When a student goes to a great scientist in order to learn science from him, the teacher subjects him to the discipline of science — discipline in truth, in detachment, in objectivity, and in precision. Varied and intricate is the training given to the science student to enable him to develop the ability to tackle the vast array of data before him and become an original scientific explorer himself.

Vedānta similarly, calls upon the spiritual seeker to subject himself to the type of discipline relevant to this field.

दृश्यते त्वग्र्यया बुद्ध्या सूक्ष्मया सूक्ष्मदर्शिभिः

dṛśyate tvagryayā buddhyā sūkṣmayā sūkṣmadarśibhiḥ

— ‘The Ātman is certainly realized by the one-pointed minds of those who are capable of seeing subtle truths, by minds which have been trained to grasp subtler and subtler facts,’ says the Katha Upanishad (III. 12). When we enter the field of spiritual quest, when we seek ultimate Reality, we need a still more discipline of the mind. If the training of the mind for science is rigorous, its training for spiritual realization is much more so, for says the Katha Upanishad (III. 14):

क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति

kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṃ pathastatkavayo vadanti

‘That path is like the sharp edge of a razor, difficult to tread and hard to cross, so say the sages.’

Therefore we require much more intensive training in moral purity, alertness, and concentration. Without this training our search for spiritual truth will be vain. The mind will be drawn away from the search by distractions, by desires, and by laziness. The desire for name and fame may come, various other desires also may come to distract the mind; but the spiritual seeker has to keep himself to the straight and narrow path, which is compared to the walking on the edge of a razor. ‘For straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to perfection,’ says Jesus Christ. This is the training that was undergone by the great Indian sages and this is the training that we must undergo if we wish to equip our minds for this spiritual field of investigation; by such training our minds will develop that penetrative power which alone can help us pierce the veil that hides the ultimate truth of Brahman from us.  


The Power of Discipline

In our daily life we see how things and forces acquire this penetrative power when subjected to certain conditions. Even the most flimsy things of the physical world can be given extraordinary strength or penetrative power if subjected to certain conditions. Air, for example is considered to be a very insubstantial thing; but when put under pressure, it will have high penetrative power; compressed air can cut into rocks. If air can be disciplined into such a powerful instrument, why not the mind of man? The mind may be very flimsy now; it may be weak and unstable; it may have no penetrating power; the slightest obstacle coming into its way may make it recoil and lose initiative. But it need not remain in this flimsy state. It can be strengthened by training. A single thread is so weak that it can be broken by a slight pull. But combine that thread with many threads, twist them together to make a rope, and it can control an elephant. This is the classical example given in the scriptures to remind us that the mind can be trained in strength and resilience, and given the capacity to penetrate into the heart of truth.

The most important requirement, then in the search for truth is this training and disciplining of the mind, of the whole mind. Part of this training lies in what we may call the secular field, the field of social and educational endeavour. Even in these fields it is discipline that gives the mind greater energy and power.

It is the greatest misfortune that large numbers of people have not realized the importance of self-discipline as an essential aspect of the educational and social progress. They think that they can achieve greatness by leaving the mind to follow its own whims or the dictates of the sense organs. The word ‘discipline’ is a bugbear to many people. It only shows that we have not fully grasped the meaning of freedom. It is the slave that resents all discipline; the free man welcomes all opportunities for self discipline. Indiscipline is the way to make the mind weaker and weaker and make it unfit either for life in the world or for life in God.

Greatness in any field is never achieved without tremendous inner discipline. Energy disciplined is energy increased; and in the spiritual field, such increase is both in quantity and quality. That is the nature of all energy, physical or non-physical. The psychic energy in the human system can be raised to the highest level in quality and quantity only through inner cultivation; there is no other way, say the Upanishads again and again. The sooner our people realize this truth, the sooner our young people grasp the meaning of this vital idea, the better for them and better for the nation. Self-discipline is the way to achieve strength of will, breadth of sympathy, loftiness of character, and consequent all-round social and spiritual efficiency. It is like raising bumper harvest through intensive farming with the help of scientific agriculture.


From Manliness to Godliness

This is the royal way to achieve greatness in the secular field, in the world of daily endeavour. The same discipline, carried one step farther, takes us into the world of spiritual aspiration and realization. We make a great blunder when we think that the mind that is unfit for the world can be made fit for God. And yet this is a very common mistake that we make. Again and again we find inefficiency masquerading as high piety. And in spite of the clear and bold teaching of the Gitā that godliness is the fruition of manliness and not its negation. Be a man first and then try to be saint, is the teaching that we received from Swami Vivekananda. Manliness comes first and then come godliness. Many of us, however, tried, and still try to be saints first. We put the cart before the horse and loose both manhood and sainthood in the bargain. This wrong method and its harmful fruits for the individual and the nation were pointed out to us by our great seer, Swami Vivekananda, who also opened up to us the purifying, strengthening, and unifying message of the Upanishads and the Gitā, he revealed to us the nature and scope of an education, based on the infinite Self within every man and woman which will lead to both manliness and godliness.

This great literature, the Upanishads and the Gitā — and the Gitā too is described as an Upanishad — forms a single core of inspiration to lead us to higher and higher of life expression and thus bring out the best in human life. And what is that best in human life? It is infinite truth itself; and not merely truth, but also infinite beauty and goodness and joy. The true Self in man is all these. And the Upanishads summon us to the joyous adventure of the quest for this truth a converging life-endeavour.

तदेव ब्रह्म त्वं विद्धि नेदं यदिदमुपासते

tadeva brahma tvaṃ viddhi nedaṃ yadidamupāsate

‘Know thou That to be Brahman (the infinite Self of All), and not what people worship here.’, as the Kena Upanishad will tell us in emphatic refrain (1. 5).

The mind is like a musical instrument which will produce good music only when properly tuned. If the strings are too loose or too tight the best music cannot be produced. The perfection of the human system, both mind and body, is to be sought for and struggled for; and when it is achieved the music that will come out of it will be the music of truth, knowledge, beauty, and bliss. This is the highest experience. Which is also the highest knowledge, and the Upanishads want to give man a taste of this, here in this very life, as the Kena Upanishad will tell us later (II, 5).

In order to understand the Upanishads and to profit from them it is necessary to reorient one’s ideas of life and religion. It is no post-mortem excellence that the Upanishads promise. Here and now, in this very body, with this very mind, man shall achieve the highest truth and the highest life excellence. Here and now shall man cross the shoreless ocean of delusion and grief, and after crossing it, he will bless his psycho-physical organism for the invaluable service rendered by it, just as a sailor blesses the boat that has carried him to a safe shore across the tumultuous ocean.

Thus we find that by appropriate training of body and mind we are able to achieve high levels of truth and excellence. With a trained mind man achieves the joys of health and character, knowledge and beauty, culture and civilization; with trained mind he can also rise above all relativity and achieve the delights of transcendental experience, the lokottara, as the Buddhism puts it, that which is beyond the world of the senses and sense-bound-mind.


The Search for the Highest

The Self is beyond the world of the senses; and yet it impinges upon us occasionally through sense-experiences. ‘Intimations of immortality’, Wordsworth called them. Perhaps we get an inkling of It, and at once it passes away. The intimation comes, but the next moment it vanishes. But we are intrigued by it, for it is as enough to convince us that a greater reality looms beyond the horizon of the senses and that we must carry our pursuit there. It is like a cloud covering the sun. During the rainy season here, or winter season in northern climates, we long to see the sun, but the clouds or fog hide it from our view. Suddenly the clouds or fog part and the sun shines. But a moment later the clouds or fog close in once again. But whether we see the sun or not, we know that it is there. Our search for truth is just like this. Sometimes truth gives us a glimpse of itself through our psycho-physical experience, through the daily events of our lives. Under the pressure of our life in the world we soon forget and ignore these little intimations from the beyond, but occasionally we stop and ask, Is it true? Is there a life beyond this everyday sense life, something better, purer?

And so the search begins, the search for ultimate truth and spiritual experience. All experience becomes subjected to scrutiny to discover a clue to the reality that lies beyond. It is at this stage that man becomes a pilgrim and his life becomes a quest that will lead him in due time to spiritual truth. He becomes a sādhaka. The true sādhaka is the spiritual aspirant whose heart genuinely hungers for the transcendental pure life of the spirit.

It is just this earnest mind, this spirit of seeking, that the Kena Upanishad expects of his students. When one is established in this he has set his sail in the right direction. He becomes what in Buddhism called shrotāpanna , one who has entered the current’. A boat, for example, is in the Ganges on its way to the sea. If it loses its way and enters the canals and ditches on the way, it may experience much movement but no progress. But once it attains the centre of the river and enters the main current, it has nothing more to fear. It will move steadily towards the sea. That is the position of a seeker who is shrotāpanna. Having attained the main current of spiritual life, he goes forward step by step and realizes the truth.

This sādhaka attitude must be pervasive of life itself. Whether we are at work, or in leisure, in whatever situation we may be, the one constant factor will be that our hearts are pursuing truth, that we are seeking the pure and deathless Self in and through all experience. All other things then become merely incidental, the means of our attainment, the fields of our training. The real quest is for none of these. The real quest is for the infinite Truth, for the infinitely purest and best.

भूमैव सुखं भूमा त्वेव विजिज्ञासितव्य

bhūmaiva sukhaṃ bhūmā tveva vijijñāsitavya

— ‘The infinite alone is happiness; the Infinite alone should be verily sought after,’ says the Chhāndogya Upanishad (VII.23.1). In happiness and in misery, in success and in failure, in every experience of life, we will then be in search of that which we feel is there hidden somewhere in experience. This is the greatest adventure of the human spirit. Entering on it, man becomes seized with a new zest in life, for a life lived for truth, and leaves far behind all possibilities of ennui and frustration characteristic of life at the sense level. He becomes seized with a new restlessness, creative and constructive, holy and pure.

All this the Upanishads express, and that in arresting language. What varied expressions do the Upanishads adopt to impress upon the sādhaka the greatness and might of the human spirit and its ability to rise to and stay in heights of spiritual experience and realize the empire of delight of which it is born heir! The song of man’s true glory which the Upanishads sing is incomparable in charm and power. Says Swami Vivekananda (Lecture on ‘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 now even persons who succeed in going beyond the bounds of the senses. These are called rshis (sages), because they come face to face with spiritual truths.’

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