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Kena Upaniṣad

Chapter 3

A Fascinating Story

This Vedantic idea is now sought to be amplified by means of a fascinating story in the last two chapters of the Upanishad—chapters three and four. The third chapter opens with a reference to a mythical battle between the forces of evil and the forces of good, between the forces of darkness and the forces of light—the asuras and the devas.

ब्रह्म ह देवेभ्यो विजिग्ये
तस्य ह ब्रह्मणो विजये देवा अमहीयन्त ।
त ऐक्षन्त अस्माकमेवायं विजयो
अस्माकमेवायं महिमेति ॥ १ ॥

brahma ha devebhyo vijigye
tasya ha brahmaṇo vijaye devā amahīyanta |
ta aikṣanta asmākamevāyaṃ vijayo
asmākamevāyaṃ mahimeti || 1 ||

‘The story goes that Brahman obtained a victory for the devas, though the victory was due to Brahman, the devas became elated by it and thought: this victory is due to us only; the glory belongs to us only.’

The devas, or gods, represent the forces of light, and the asuras, or demons, represent the forces of darkness, in Indian mythology; they are eternal enemies. When the forces of light are pressed hard by their enemies, Brahman the Light of lights intervenes to ensure the victory of light over darkness, the victory of the spiritual man over the sensuous man.

Earlier while studying the Isha Upanishad, we learned in its verse three that he who neglects Self-knowledge, and pursues only external things, falls into the dark world of the asuras, the world of ignorance and delusion. Though representing the forces of light, the devas are also not free from the clutches of ignorance and delusion. They take their separate egos to be their real Self; but this delusion lies less thick on them than on the asuras and so it can be lifted by a little spiritual help from outside. Among the gods, the more prominent ones, namely, Agni, Vāyu, and Indra, who were the leaders, felt the vanity of victory most. Comments Shankara on this verse (III. 1):

तत् आत्मसंस्थस्य प्रत्यगात्मनः ईश्वरस्य सर्वज्ञस्य सर्वक्रियाफलसंजोयितुः प्राणिनाम् सर्वशक्तेः जगतः स्थितिम् चिकीर्शोः अयम् जयो महिमा च इत्यजानन्तः ते देवा ऐक्षन्तः इक्षितोवन्तो, अग्न्यादिस्यरूपपरिच्छिन्नात्मकृतो, अस्माकमेवायम् विजयो अस्माकमेवायम् महिमा, अग्निवाय्विन्द्रात्वादि लक्षणो जयफलभूतो अस्माभिरनुभूयते, न अस्मात्प्रत्यगात्मभूत ईश्वरकृत इति ।

tat ātmasaṃsthasya pratyagātmanaḥ īśvarasya sarvajñasya sarvakriyāphalasaṃjoyituḥ prāṇinām sarvaśakteḥ jagataḥ sthitim cikīrśoḥ ayam jayo mahimā ca ityajānantaḥ te devā aikṣantaḥ ikṣitovanto, agnyādisyarūpaparicchinnātmakṛto, asmākamevāyam vijayo asmākamevāyam mahimā, agnivāyvindrātvādi lakṣaṇo jayaphalabhūto asmābhiranubhūyate, na asmātpratyagātmabhūta īśvarakṛta iti |

‘Not knowing that this victory and glory belonged to God, the Inner Self of their own selves, the all-knowing and all-powerful One who brings about for all beings the conjunctions of their actions with the results of those actions, and who is moved by the desire to ensure the welfare of the world, these devas thought, this victory and this glory belong to us— we who are conditioned by the forms such as Agni, etc—ours alone is this victory, ours alone is this glory; the fruit of victory is experienced by us, we who are characterized by the attributes of the Agni form, Vāyu form, and the like; and not by the God who is our inner Self.’

Man, in spite of his obvious limitations, thinks too much of his strength and glory, but all this ends in death. If only he knew the One, the source of all strength, glory, and excellence in men and nature, how blessed his life would be, and how fearless of death he would become! Life is trivial if it does not overcome death in the knowledge of the deathless Self, the one Self in all.

This is echoed by Shakespeare in his Measure for Measure (II. ii. 119-24)

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

In moments of deep thoughtfulness, man feels within himself the presence of a power greater than his given self. He then learns to feel humility and to experience an elevation of spirit in that humility. His ‘unripe’ ego becomes the ‘ripe’ ego, in the words of Shri Ramakishna; ‘I, but yet not I, but the Christ that liveth in me’ in the significant utterance of St. Paul. Man then ceases from his erstwhile habit of stealing the glory that belongs to God alone; he experiences the truth of the holy utterance: Gloria in excelsis.

Man’s passage from spiritual blindness to illumination, and the concern of God, who is the inner Self of all, to illumine the heart of man, form the theme of the eleven verses that follow, beginning with verse two to the end of this chapter, chapter three:

तद्धैषां विजज्ञौ तेभ्यो ह प्रादुर्बभूव ।
तन्न व्यजानत किमिदं यक्षमिति ॥ २ ॥

taddhaiṣāṃ vijajñau tebhyo ha prādurbabhūva |
tanna vyajānata kimidaṃ yakṣamiti || 2 ||

‘Brahman came to know this (their vanity); He verily appeared before them. But they did not understand who that yaksha (adorable Spirit) was.’

The three gods were puzzled and inwardly afraid; they desired keenly to know who was the yaksha confronting them. So they decided to depute one from among themselves to interview Him; they chose Agni for the mission:

तेऽग्निमब्रुवन् जातवेद एतद्विजानीहि किमेतत् यक्षमिति तथेति ॥ ३ ॥

te'gnimabruvan jātaveda etadvijānīhi kimetat yakṣamiti tatheti || 3 ||

‘They addressed Agni; “O Jātaveda, please find out who this yaksha is”; “Yes” said Agni.’

So saying, he proceeded on his mission.

तदभ्यद्रवत् तमभ्यवदत् कोऽसीति
अग्निर्वा अहमस्मीत्यब्रवीत् जातवेदा वा अहमस्मीति ॥ ४ ॥

tadabhyadravat tamabhyavadat ko'sīti
agnirvā ahamasmītyabravīt jātavedā vā ahamasmīti || 4 ||

‘He (Agni) hastened (to the yaksha). (The yaksha) asked him who he was; (Agni) replied: “I am verily, Agni; I am also known as Jātaveda (near omniscient)”.’

The undue stress on the ‘unripe’ ego is evident in the tone and content of Agni’s answer. He not merely gave his name but in order to impress the visitor with the extraordinary nature of his personality, he also mentioned his title—Jātaveda—by which he was well known in the world.

The yaksha does not seem to have been much impressed judging from his next question:

तस्मिंस्त्वयि किं वीर्यमिति अपीदं सर्वं
दहेयं यदिदं पृथिव्यामिति ॥ ५ ॥

tasmiṃstvayi kiṃ vīryamiti apīdaṃ sarvaṃ
daheyaṃ yadidaṃ pṛthivyāmiti || 5 ||

‘“What energy do you possess—you of such fame?” (asked the yaksha). I can burn everything, whatever there on this earth,” (replied Agni).’

तस्मै तृणं निदधौ एतद्दहेति ।
तदुपप्रेयाय सर्वजवेन तन्न शशाक दग्धुम् ।
स तत एव निववृते नैतदशकं विज्ञातुं यदेतद्यक्षमिति ॥६ ॥

tasmai tṛṇaṃ nidadhau etaddaheti |
tadupapreyāya sarvajavena tanna śaśāka dagdhum |
sa tata eva nivavṛte naitadaśakaṃ vijñātuṃ yadetadyakṣamiti ||6 ||

‘The yaksha placed a straw before him (and said): “Burn this!” (Agni) approached it with all speed; he was however, unable to burn it. So he withdrew from there (and returned to the gods), saying, “I could not ascertain who the yaksha was.”’

Agni was crestfallen. The gods, however, decided to continue the investigation of the strange phenomenon:

अथ वायुमब्रुवन् वायव एतद्विजानीहि
किमेतत् यक्षमिति तथेति ॥ ७ ॥

atha vāyumabruvan vāyava etadvijānīhi
kimetat yakṣamiti tatheti || 7 ||

‘Then they addressed Vāyu: “O Vāyu, please ascertain this, who this yaksha is.” “Yes”, said Vāyu.’

तदभ्यद्रवत् तमभ्यवदत् कोऽसीति वायुर्वा
अहमस्मीत्यब्रवीत् मातरिश्वा वा अहमस्मीति ॥ ८ ॥

tadabhyadravat tamabhyavadat ko'sīti vāyurvā
ahamasmītyabravīt mātariśvā vā ahamasmīti || 8 ||

‘(Vāyu) hastened (to the yaksha). (The yaksha) asked him who he was; Vāyu replied: “I am verily, Vāyu; I am also known as Mātarishvā (courser of the atmosphere)”.’

Vāyu did not lag behind Agni in self-esteem and self-importance. The yaksha however, was equally unimpressed by his tall claim:

तस्मिंस्त्वयि किं वीर्यमिति अपीदं
सर्वमाददीय यदिदं पृथिव्यामिति ॥ ९ ॥

tasmiṃstvayi kiṃ vīryamiti apīdaṃ
sarvamādadīya yadidaṃ pṛthivyāmiti || 9 ||

‘“What energy do you possess—you of such fame?” (asked the yaksha). I can verily blow away everything, whatever there on this earth,” replied Vāyu.’

तस्मै तृणं निदधौ एतदादत्स्वेति
तदुपप्रेयाय सर्वजवेन तन्न शशाकादातुं
स तत एव निववृते नैतदशकं विज्ञातुं यदेतद्यक्षमिति ॥१० ॥

tasmai tṛṇaṃ nidadhau etadādatsveti
tadupapreyāya sarvajavena tanna śaśākādātuṃ
sa tata eva nivavṛte naitadaśakaṃ vijñātuṃ yadetadyakṣamiti ||1० ||

‘The yaksha placed a straw before him and said; “blow this away!” Vāyu approached it with all speed; he was however, unable to blow it away. So he withdrew from there (and returned to the gods) saying, “I could not ascertain who the yaksha was,” ’

The gods now decided to ask their leader, Indra, to solve the mystery:

अथेन्द्रमब्रुवन् मघवन् एतद्विजानीहि किमेतत् यक्षमिति
तथेति तदभ्यद्रवत् तस्मात्तिरोदधे ॥ ११ ॥

athendramabruvan maghavan etadvijānīhi kimetat yakṣamiti
tatheti tadabhyadravat tasmāttirodadhe || 11 ||

‘Then the gods addressed Indra: “O Maghavan, please ascertain who this yaksha is.” “Yes,” said Indra, and hastened to the yaksha. But the yaksha disappeared from his view.’

Indra was baffled. But his perplexity turned into amazement a moment later, as the next and last verse, verse twelve, of this chapter tells us:

स तस्मिन्नेवाकाशे स्त्रियमाजगाम बहुशोभमानां उमां हैमवतीं ।
तां होवाच किमेतत् यक्षमिति ॥ १२ ॥

sa tasminnevākāśe striyamājagāma bahuśobhamānāṃ umāṃ haimavatīṃ |
tāṃ hovāca kimetat yakṣamiti || 12 ||

‘And in that very spot he (Indra) beheld a woman, the wondrously effulgent Umā, the daughter of the snow clad mountain, Himavat. And of her he asked, “Who could this yaksha be?”’


The Grace of Knowledge

The three gods were defeated in their common mission; of them, Indra had not even the privilege of conversing with the yaksha as Agni and Vāyu had. But all these had a spiritual catharsis through this experience; their self-esteem and sense of egoistic self-sufficiency received a jolt. In this they became the recipients of the grace of the one living God who dwells in the hearts of all as the Self of their selves. Shankara’s comment on verse 2 explains the motive that prompted Brahman to appear before the devas in the wondrous form of the yaksha:

सर्वेक्षित्र हि तत् सर्वभूतकरणप्रयोक्तृवात् देवानाम् च मिथ्याज्ञानम् उपलभ्य नैव असुरवत् देवा मिथ्याभिमानात् पराभयेयुः इति; तदनुकम्पया देवान् मिथ्याभिमानापनोदनेन, अनुगृह्णीयाम् इति, तेभ्यो देवेभ्यो ह किल अर्थाय प्रादुर्बभूव, स्वयोगमाहात्म्यनिर्मितेन अत्यद्भुतेन विस्मापनीयेन रूपेण, देवानाम् इन्द्रियगोचरे प्रादुर्बभूव ।

sarvekṣitra hi tat sarvabhūtakaraṇaprayoktṛvāt devānām ca mithyājñānam upalabhya naiva asuravat devā mithyābhimānāt parābhayeyuḥ iti; tadanukampayā devān mithyābhimānāpanodanena, anugṛhṇīyām iti, tebhyo devebhyo ha kila arthāya prādurbabhūva, svayogamāhātmyanirmitena atyadbhutena vismāpanīyena rūpeṇa, devānām indriyagocare prādurbabhūva |

‘Brahman, verily, is the Thinker of all thought; He is the power behind the senses and the mind of all beings. As such he knew the wrong notion in the minds of the devas. He did not like the idea that the devas, like the asuras, should through self-esteem proceeding from ignorance of their true Self, come to grief. And so desiring to bless the devas by removing their self-esteem born of ignorance, and moved by compassion and the desire to do some good to them, He, Brahman, appeared before them in a wondrous and awe-inspiring form produced by the glory of His yoga power.’

At the approach of Indra the yaksha vanished; Indra was baffled; he was exercising his mind to ascertain who the yaksha was. He was experiencing what in mysticism is called ‘the dark night of the soul.’ Unlike the other two gods, however, Indra did not accept defeat and withdraw. He persisted in his search for knowledge and illumination. Seeing this devotion to truth in the heart of Indra, spiritual Knowledge itself appeared before Indra in the form of the goddess Umā is described as bahushobhamānā, extraordinarily effulgent. Comments Shankara on this term (III. 12)

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