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...
‘Vidyā, spiritual knowledge, is the most luminous among all luminous things; it is thus only that the qualification bahushobhamānā, extraordinarily effulgent, becomes appropriate.’
This spiritual knowledge, personified as Umā Haimavati, now instructs Indra in the eternal truth behind all that is perishable, men and things; and this forms the theme of the following first six verses of the fourth and last chapter of this Upanishad:
सा ब्रह्मेति होवाच ब्रह्मणो वा एतद्विजये
महीयध्वमिति ततो हैव विदाञ्चकारो ब्रह्मेति ॥ १ ॥
sā brahmeti hovāca brahmaṇo vā etadvijaye
mahīyadhvamiti tato haiva vidāñcakāro brahmeti || 1 ||
‘“That yaksha was Brahman,” said She. “It was through the victory of Brahman, indeed, that you achieved this glory.” It was from that (from the words of Umā) that he (Indra) understood that the yaksha was Brahman.
Indra saw Brahman and realized the truth of Brahman through the grace of spiritual Knowledge in the form of Umā. The other two gods, Agni and Vāyu, also saw Brahman in the form of the yaksha, and also conversed with Him, but they could not recognize who He was. This they did later through their leader Indra:
तस्माद्वा एते देवा अतितरां इवान्यान्देवान् यदग्निर्वायुरिन्द्रः
ते ह्येनत् नेदिष्ठं पस्पर्शुः ते ह्येनत्प्रथमो विदाञ्चकार ब्रह्मेति ॥ २ ॥
tasmādvā ete devā atitarāṃ ivānyāndevān yadagnirvāyurindraḥ
te hyenat nediṣṭhaṃ pasparśuḥ te hyenatprathamo vidāñcakāra brahmeti || 2 ||
‘Therefore verily, these gods—Agni, Vāyu and Indra—excel the other gods; for they approached the yaksha nearest; they were the first to know Him as Brahman.’
तस्माद्वा इन्द्रोऽतितरां इवान्यान्देवान् स ह्येनन्नेदिष्ठं
पस्पर्श ते ह्येनत्प्रथमो विदाञ्चकार ब्रह्मेति ॥ ३ ॥
tasmādvā indro'titarāṃ ivānyāndevān sa hyenannediṣṭhaṃ
pasparśa te hyenatprathamo vidāñcakāra brahmeti || 3 ||
‘And therefore indeed, Indra excels the other gods; for he approached the yaksha nearest; He was the first to know Him as Brahman.’
Unity of Macrocosm and Microcosm
Indian thought conceived an intimate unity between the macrocosm of nature and the microcosm of the human body, between the ādhibhautika and the ādhyātmika aspects of nature; the latter is an epitome of the former. The gods thus represent not only the forces of external nature mythically conceived, but also the sensory and the thought forces within the body of man. The story in its ādhyātmika significance is an allegorical presentation of the journey of man to God, his own innermost Self. Indra, Agni, and Vāyu are personifications of the forces of nature. These forces, though appearing separate and self-sufficient, are yet only different forms of one single cosmic force. Within the human body, Agni represents the power of speech, Vāyu represents the power of thought, and Indra stands for the Jīva or the individual soul.
The life of every man is a battle-ground between the forces of good and evil, between the forces of light and darkness. The former tend to freedom of the soul, and the latter to its bondage. To the question ‘What is life?’ asked by the Maharaja of Khetri, Swami Vivekananda gave a significant answer (The Life of Swami Vivekananda, by his Eastern and Western Disciples, Fourth Edition, p. 220):
‘Life is the unfoldment and development of a being under circumstances tending to press it down.’
This unfoldment, at the human level, is a spiritual unfoldment, which is thwarted by the predominance of man’s animal nature, the darkness of non-awareness. Man is man so long as he struggles to overcome this nature and reach out from darkness to light. This struggle between his lower and higher natures, is mythically presented in the Upanishad as a war between devas and asuras, and projected to cosmic dimensions. This is an important theme of a vast branch of Indian religious literature, namely the Purānas. Knowledge of Brahman came to the devas only after they had achieved victory over the asuras. This emphasizes the truth that the edifice of spiritual effort and realization can be raised only on moral foundations. Moral life is itself the first manifestation of spiritual life.
The success of the devas over the asuras was due not to the devas themselves as separate limited cosmic forces, but to the one cosmic divine Force, Brahman, which informs and sustains them all. Without the power of Brahman, they are but empty shells. The gods in the story realized their emptiness and limitedness as individual separate entities and their fullness and unlimitedness as Brahman.
Hints and Suggestions
The Upanishad in its first and second chapters had told us one of the central truths of the Upanishads that speech and thought cannot grasp Brahman. The truth is allegorically explained by this story. Agni the god of speech, representing the all sense-organs, and Vāyu, the god of mind or thought, both failed to ascertain the identity of the yaksha. Verses four to eight of the first chapter of this Upanishad had presented Brahman as that which neither the sense-organs nor the mind can reveal but which reveals all the sense-organs and the mind. It is their innermost reality and the one source of their power. When speech and mind returned baffled, the Jīva, or soul, represented as Indra in the story, took up the challenge. But the yaksha vanished from his presence. This is of great significance; for Jīva and Brahman are not two different realities. Brahman is the true nature of the Jīva; but the Jīva is not aware of this ever-present truth. This awakening comes to it through the Grace of knowledge when the heart becomes pure; the transcendence of the ego is the index of this purity. Indra achieved this through the shock of the disappearance of the yaksha at his mere approach. The meekness and humility born of it intensified his passion for the knowledge of Truth; and the Truth soon dawned on his pure mind. The words of Jesus: ‘Blessed are pure in heart for they shall see God’ constitute an eternal spiritual truth. This dawning of the Grace of knowledge, in the pure heart of Indra is allegorically presented as the vision of the extraordinarily luminous Umā Haimavati and the instructions he received from Her. This goddess is the embodiment of knowledge, and more especially of the knowledge of God, according to Indian thought: Vidyāh samastāstava devi bhedāh — ‘All types of knowledge, O Goddess, are different forms of Thee,’ sings the Devī Māhātmyam (XI. 6). In the path of bhakti or devotion this Truth is represented as divine Grace through which alone, and not through any effort on the part of the individual, the highest spiritual realization is achieved.
Leaving the story aside, the Upanishad now proceeds to indicate the nature of Brahman through hints and suggestions which are extremely obscure due to brevity:
तस्यैष आदेशो यदेतत् विद्युतो व्यद्युतदा इति
इतीत् न्यमीमिषदा इत्यधिदैवतम् ॥ ४ ॥
tasyaiṣa ādeśo yadetat vidyuto vyadyutadā iti
itīt nyamīmiṣadā ityadhidaivatam || 4 ||
‘This is the teaching regarding That (Brahman): It is like a flash of lightning; it is like a wink of the eye; this is with reference to the ādihidaivatam (Its aspect as cosmic manifestation).’
The revelation of Brahman in nature is of a momentary character; man can get only a glimpse of Brahman by contemplating external nature; for external nature presents to the human mind mostly the perishable crust of names and forms. In deep moments of artistic or religious experience this crust is broken, revealing the beauty of the eternal spiritual truth behind. But these glimpses are often momentary. This verse compares them to the flash of lightning or the wink of an eye. Brahman’s appearance before the gods was also like a flash of lightning. The Upanishad now proceeds, in verse five of its fourth chapter, to describe Its manifestation in the inner world:
अथाध्यात्मं यदेतत् गच्छतीव च मनो अनेन
चैतदुपस्मरति अभीक्ष्णं सङ्कल्पः ॥ ५ ॥
athādhyātmaṃ yadetat gacchatīva ca mano anena
caitadupasmarati abhīkṣṇaṃ saṅkalpaḥ || 5 ||
‘Now Its description with reference to the adhyātma (Its aspect as manifested in man); mind proceeds to Brahman in all speed, as it were; by his mind also, this Brahman is remembered and imagined as always near.’
As verse five of chapter one of this Upanishad told us, Brahman is not revealed by the mind but by Brahman does the mind itself reveal objects. Though the mind cannot reveal Brahman, the mind has persistent desire to know Brahman; through thought, memory, and imagination, the mind ever tries to move towards Brahman though baffled again and again in the attempt. Through these acts of the mind, Brahman discloses in flashes Its presence as the innermost Self of the man. Earlier, verse four of chapter two of this Upanishad told us:
Pratibodhaviditam matam amrtatvam hi vindate — ‘Indeed, he attains immortality, who realizes It in and through every pulsation of mind and awareness.’ To this Shankara adds his comment: ‘And there is no other way to know Brahman.’ Brahman is manahpratyayasamakālābhivyaktidharmī — ‘Brahman has the characteristic of disclosing Itself simultaneously with every pulsation of the mind’, says Shankara in his comment on the present verse (IV, 5).
The Upanishad proceeds now to describe Brahman as the adorable One (IV. 6):
तद्ध तद्वनं नाम तद्वनमित्युपासितव्यं स य एतदेवं
वेद अभिहैनं सर्वाणि भूतानि संवाञ्छन्ति ॥ ६ ॥
taddha tadvanaṃ nāma tadvanamityupāsitavyaṃ sa ya etadevaṃ
veda abhihainaṃ sarvāṇi bhūtāni saṃvāñchanti || 6 ||
‘Brahman is well known by the name Tadvanam; so It is to be meditated upon as Tadvanam, All beings love Him who knows Brahman as such.’
Shankara explains Tadvanam as;
तस्य प्राणिजातस्य प्रत्यगात्मभूतत्वात् वननीयम् सम्भजनीयम्, अतः तद्वनं नाम प्रख्यातम् ब्रह्म ।
tasya prāṇijātasya pratyagātmabhūtatvāt vananīyam sambhajanīyam, ataḥ tadvanaṃ nāma prakhyātam brahma |
‘Brahman is well known by the name Tadvanam because It is the innermost Self of all beings and therefore the most adorable, the most worshipful.’
Realization of Brahman as the innermost Self of all beings transforms the individual man into the universal man; he becomes Brahman. Naturally he is then loved by all, just as Brahman is so loved.
Ethical Basis of Spirituality
A dialogue between the teacher and student ensues (IV. 7):
उपनिषदं भो ब्रूहीति उक्ता ते उपनिषद्
ब्राह्मीं वाव ते उपनिषदं अब्रूमेति ॥ ७ ॥
upaniṣadaṃ bho brūhīti uktā te upaniṣad
brāhmīṃ vāva te upaniṣadaṃ abrūmeti || 7 ||
‘“Sir teach me Upanishad.” “The Upanishad has been imparted to you; we have, verily, imparted to you the Upanishad relating to Brahman.”’
The student wants to know whether the whole subject of the knowledge of the Brahman has been imparted to him. And the teacher affirms that it has been imparted.
The teacher now imparts to the student knowledge of the moral values which are the indispensable means to the realization of Brahman. (IV. 8):
तस्यै तपो दमः कर्मेति प्रतिष्ठा वेदाः
सर्वाङ्गानि सत्यमायतनम् ॥ ८ ॥
tasyai tapo damaḥ karmeti pratiṣṭhā vedāḥ
sarvāṅgāni satyamāyatanam || 8 ||
‘Of the Upanishad, tapas (Concentration of the energies of the mind and the senses), damah (self-restraint), and karma (dedicated work) form the support; the Vedas (Knowledge) are its limbs; and Truth its abode.’
The Upanishad stresses the importance of moral character in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge, for spirituality is not mere scholarship; it is being and becoming, in the words of Swami Vivekananda; it is growth, development, realization. Spiritual knowledge unlike scholarship does not arise in the mind of man so long as it is morally impure. As the Prashna Upanishad expresses it (I. 16):
— ‘In whom there is no crookedness, no falsehood, and no deception.’
न येषु जिह्मं अनृतम् न माया चेति
na yeṣu jihmaṃ anṛtam na māyā ceti
The struggle to overcome the animal impulses, the effort to release the mind from its thralldom to the senses, the endeavour to forge a pure will possessed of the capacity to turn the energies of body and mind in the direction of the divine Self within, this is what makes spiritual life a heroic endeavour. The heroes of the Spirit are the greatest heroes of the history. In them, the long travel of evolution achieves its consummation. Man the brute becomes man the God.
An Infinite Personality
The Upanishad now concludes with an eulogy of this consummation (IV. 9):
यो वा एतामेवं वेद अपहत्य पाप्मानं अनन्ते स्वर्गे
लोके ज्येये प्रतितिष्ठति प्रतितिष्ठति ॥ ९ ॥
yo vā etāmevaṃ veda apahatya pāpmānaṃ anante svarge
loke jyeye pratitiṣṭhati pratitiṣṭhati || 9 ||
‘One who realizes It (knowledge of Brahman) thus, destroys sin and is well established in Brahman, the infinite, the blissful and the highest.’
Spiritual realization arises in the human heart when its sinful propensities are destroyed by persistent endeavour. Says the Mahābhārata (12. 197. 8, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Edition):
ज्ञानमुत्पद्यते पुंसं क्षयात् पापस्य कर्मनः ।
अथादर्शतल्प्रख्ये पश्यतात्मानमात्मनि ॥
jñānamutpadyate puṃsaṃ kṣayāt pāpasya karmanaḥ |
athādarśatalprakhye paśyatātmānamātmani ||
‘Spiritual realization arises in man when his sinful actions are exhausted; just as a man sees himself in a clean mirror so does he realize the Ātman in his own self.’
That the sin referred to by the Upanishad has none of the sinister aspects associated with it in the dogmatic Christianity is clear from the verse the Mahābhārata.
The Chhandogya Upanishad also, in its narration of Nārada’s spiritual education under the illumined teacher Sanatkumāra, majestically proclaims this fact (VII. xxvi. 2):
आहारशुद्धौ सत्वशुद्धिः; सत्वशुद्धौ ध्रुवा स्मृतिः;
स्मृतिलम्भे सर्वग्रन्थीनाम् विप्रमोक्षः ।
तस्मै मृदितकषायाय तमसः पारं दर्शयति भगवान् सनत् कुमारः . . .
āhāraśuddhau satvaśuddhiḥ; satvaśuddhau dhruvā smṛtiḥ;
smṛtilambhe sarvagranthīnām vipramokṣaḥ |
tasmai mṛditakaṣāyāya tamasaḥ pāraṃ darśayati bhagavān sanat kumāraḥ . . .
‘When the impressions gathered by the sense-organs are pure, the minds become pure; when the mind is pure, the memory (of one’s divine nature) becomes constant; when this memory is attained, one becomes completely freed from all bondages.
‘To him (Nārada), whose impurities had been completely destroyed, the blessed Sanatkumāra reveals (the Light) beyond the ocean of darkness (spiritual blindness).’
The attainment of Brahman is described in the last verse of the Kena Upaniahad as the attainment by man of an infinite personality, of the highest excellence, and of the fullness of bliss. No more hopeful message than this for man in the modern age, caught up as he is in the meshes of finitude and triviality, but hankering earnestly for the infinite and the universal.