This etext was produced by J.C. Byers (email@example.com)
This etext was produced by J. C. Byers.
Translated and Commentated
From the Original Sanskrit Text
This volume is reverently dedicated to all seekers of truth and
lovers of wisdom
The translator's idea of rendering the Upanishads into clear
simple English, accessible to Occidental readers, had its origin
in a visit paid to a Boston friend in 1909. The gentleman, then
battling with a fatal malady, took from his library shelf a
translation of the Upanishads and, opening it, expressed deep
regret that the obscure and unfamiliar form shut from him what he
felt to be profound and vital teaching.
The desire to unlock the closed doors of this ancient treasure
house, awakened at that time, led to a series of classes on the
Upanishads at The Vedanta Centre of Boston during its early days
in St. Botolph Street. The translation and commentary then given
were transcribed and, after studious revision, were published in
the Centre's monthly magazine, "The Message of the East," in 1913
and 1914.. Still further revision has brought it to its present
So far as was consistent with a faithful rendering of the
Sanskrit text, the Swami throughout his translation has sought to
eliminate all that might seem obscure and confusing to the modern
mind. While retaining in remarkable measure the rhythm and
archaic force of the lines, he has tried not to sacrifice
directness and simplicity of style. Where he has been obliged to
use the Sanskrit term for lack of an exact English equivalent, he
has invariably interpreted it by a familiar English word in
brackets; and everything has been done to remove the sense of
strangeness in order that the Occidental reader may not feel
himself an alien in the new regions of thought opened to him.
Even more has the Swami striven to keep the letter subordinate to
the spirit. Any Scripture is only secondarily an historical
document. To treat it as an object of mere intellectual curiosity
is to cheat the world of its deeper message. If mankind is to
derive the highest benefit from a study of it, its appeal must be
primarily to the spiritual consciousness; and one of the salient
merits of the present translation lies in this, that the
translator approaches his task not only with the grave concern of
the careful scholar, but also with the profound reverence and
fervor of the true devotee.
Boston, March, 1919
The Upanishads represent the loftiest heights of ancient
Indo-Aryan thought and culture. They form the wisdom portion or
Gnana-Kanda of the Vedas, as contrasted with the Karma-Kanda or
sacrificial portion. In each of the four great Vedas--known as
Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva--there is a large portion which
deals predominantly with rituals and ceremonials, and which has
for its aim to show man how by the path of right action he may
prepare himself for higher attainment. Following this in each
Veda is another portion called the Upanishad, which deals wholly
with the essentials of philosophic discrimination and ultimate
spiritual vision. For this reason the Upanishads are known as the
Vedanta, that is, the end or final goal of wisdom (Veda, wisdom;
The name Upanishad has been variously interpreted. Many claim
that it is a compound Sanskrit word Upa-ni-shad, signifying
"sitting at the feet or in the presence of a teacher"; while
according to other authorities it means "to shatter" or "to
destroy" the fetters of ignorance. Whatever may have been the
technical reason for selecting this name, it was chosen
undoubtedly to give a picture of aspiring seekers "approaching"
some wise Seer in the seclusion of an Himalayan forest, in order
to learn of him the profoundest truths regarding the cosmic
universe and God. Because these teachings were usually given in
the stillness of some distant retreat, where the noises of the
world could not disturb the tranquillity of the contemplative
life, they are known also as Aranyakas, Forest Books. Another
reason for this name may be found in the fact that they were
intended especially for the Vanaprasthas (those who, having
fulfilled all their duties in the world, had retired to the
forest to devote themselves to spiritual study).
The form which the teaching naturally assumed was that of
dialogue, a form later adopted by Plato and other Greek
philosophers. As nothing was written and all instruction was
transmitted orally, the Upanishads are called Srutis, "what is
heard." The term was also used in the sense of revealed, the
Upanishads being regarded as direct revelations of God; while the
Smritis, minor Scriptures "recorded through memory," were
traditional works of purely human origin. It is a significant
fact that nowhere in the Upanishads is mention made of any author
No date for the origin of the Upanishads can be fixed, because
the written text does not limit their antiquity. The word Sruti
makes that clear to us. The teaching probably existed ages before
it was set down in any written form. The text itself bears
evidence of this, because not infrequently in a dialogue between
teacher and disciple the teacher quotes from earlier Scriptures
now unknown to us. As Professor Max Mller states in his lectures
on the Vedanta Philosophy: "One feels certain that behind all
these lightning-flashes of religious and philosophic thought
there is a distant past, a dark background of which we shall
never know the beginning." Some scholars place the Vedic period
as far back as 4000 or 5000 B.C.; others from 2000 to 1400 B.C.
But even the most conservative admit that it antedates, by
several centuries at least, the Buddhistic period which begins in
the sixth century B.C.
The value of the Upanishads, however, does not rest upon their
antiquity, but upon the vital message they contain for all times
and all peoples. There is nothing peculiarly racial or local in
them. The ennobling lessons of these Scriptures are as practical
for the modern world as they were for the Indo-Aryans of the
earliest Vedic age. Their teachings are summed up in two
Maha-Vakyam or "great sayings":--Tat twam asi (That thou art) and
Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman). This oneness of Soul and God lies
at the very root of all Vedic thought, and it is this dominant
ideal of the unity of all life and the oneness of Truth which
makes the study of the Upanishads especially beneficial at the
One of the most eminent of European Orientalists writes: "If we
fix our attention upon it (this fundamental dogma of the Vedanta
system) in its philosophical simplicity as the identity of God
and the Soul, the Brahman and the Atman, it will be found to
possess a significance reaching far beyond the Upanishads, their
time and country; nay, we claim for it an inestimable value for
the whole race of mankind. .
Whatever new and unwonted paths the philosophy of the future may
strike out, this principle will remain permanently unshaken and
from it no deviation can possibly take place. If ever a general
solution is reached of the great riddle . . . the key can only be
found where alone the secret of nature lies open to us from
within, that is to say, in our innermost self. It was here that
for the first time the original thinkers of the Upanishads, to
their immortal honor, found it...."
The first introduction of the Upanishads to the Western world was
through a translation into Persian made in the seventeenth
century. More than a century later the distinguished French
scholar, Anquetil Duperron, brought a copy of the manuscript from
Persia to France and translated it into French and Latin.
Publishing only the Latin text. Despite the distortions which
must have resulted from transmission through two alien languages,
the light of the thought still shone with such brightness that it
drew from Schopenhauer the fervent words: "How entirely does the
Oupnekhat (Upanishad) breathe throughout the holy spirit of the
Vedas! How is every one, who by a diligent study of its Persian
Latin has become familiar with that incomparable book, stirred by
that spirit to the very depth of his Soul! From every sentence
deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is
pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit." Again he says:
"The access to (the Vedas) by means of the Upanishads is in my
eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818)
may claim before all previous centuries." This testimony is borne
out by the thoughtful American scholar, Thoreau, who writes:
"What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the
light of a higher and purer luminary which describes a loftier
course through a purer stratum free from particulars, simple,
The first English translation was made by a learned Hindu, Raja
Ram Mohun Roy (1775-1833). Since that time there have been
various European translations--French, German, Italian and
English. But a mere translation, however accurate and
sympathetic, is not sufficient to make the Upanishads accessible
to the Occidental mind. Professor Max Mller after a lifetime of
arduous labor in this field frankly confesses: "Modern words are
round, ancient words are square, and we may as well hope to solve
the quadrature of the circle, as to express adequately the
ancient thought of the Vedas in modern English."
Without a commentary it is practically impossible to understand
either the spirit or the meaning of the Upanishads. They were
never designed as popular Scriptures. They grew up essentially as
text books of God-knowledge and Self-knowledge, and like all text
books they need interpretation. Being transmitted orally from
teacher to disciple, the style was necessarily extremely
condensed and in the form of aphorisms. The language also was
often metaphorical and obscure. Yet if one has the perseverance
to penetrate beneath these mere surface difficulties, one is
repaid a hundredfold; for these ancient Sacred Books contain the
most precious gems of spiritual thought.
Every Upanishad begins with a Peace Chant (Shanti-patha) to
create the proper atmosphere of purity and serenity. To study
about God the whole nature must be prepared, so unitedly and with
loving hearts teacher and disciples prayed to the Supreme Being
for His grace and protection. It is not possible to comprehend
the subtle problems of life unless the thought is tranquil and
the energy concentrated. Until our mind is withdrawn from the
varied distractions and agitations of worldly affairs, we cannot
enter into the spirit of higher religious study. No study is of
avail so long as our inner being is not attuned. We must hold a
peaceful attitude towards all living things; and if it is
lacking, we must strive fervently to cultivate it through
suggestion by chanting or repeating some holy text. The same
lesson is taught by Jesus the Christ when He says: "If thou bring
thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath
aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar and go
thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and
offer thy gift."
Bearing this lofty ideal of peace in our minds, let us try to
make our hearts free from prejudice, doubt and intolerance, so
that from these sacred writings we may draw in abundance
inspiration, love and wisdom.
This Upanishad desires its title from the opening words
Isa-vasya, "God-covered." The use of Isa (Lord)--a more personal
name of the Supreme Being than Brahman, Atman or Self, the names
usually found in the Upanishads--constitutes one of its
peculiarities. It forms the closing chapter of the Yajur-Veda,
known as Shukla (White).
Oneness of the Soul and God, and the value of both faith and
works as means of ultimate attainment are the leading themes of
this Upanishad. The general teaching of the Upanishads is that
works alone, even the highest, can bring only temporary happiness
and must inevitably bind a man unless through them he gains
knowledge of his real Self. To help him acquire this knowledge
is the aim of this and all Upanishads.
OM! That (the Invisible-Absolute) is whole; whole is this (the
visible phenomenal); from the Invisible Whole comes forth the
visible whole. Though the visible whole has come out from that
Invisible Whole, yet the Whole remains unaltered.
OM! PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!
The indefinite term "That" is used in the Upanishads to designate the
Invisible-Absolute, because no word or name can fully define It. A finite
object, like a table or a tree, can be defined; but God, who is infinite and
unbounded, cannot be expressed by finite language. Therefore the Rishis or
Divine Seers, desirous not to limit the Unlimited, chose the indefinite term
"That" to designate the Absolute.
In the light of true wisdom the phenomenal and the Absolute are inseparable.
All existence is in the Absolute; and whatever exists, must exist in It; hence
all manifestation is merely a modification of the One Supreme Whole, and
neither increases nor diminishes It. The Whole therefore remains unaltered.
All this, whatsoever exists in the universe, should be covered by
the Lord. Having renounced (the unreal), enjoy (the Real). Do
not covet the wealth of any man.
We cover all things with the Lord by perceiving the Divine Presence
everywhere. When the consciousness is firmly fixed in God, the conception of
diversity naturally drops away; because the One Cosmic Existence shines
through all things. As we gain the light of wisdom, we cease to cling to the
unrealities of this world and we find all our joy in the realm of Reality.
The word "enjoy" is also interpreted by the great commentator Sankaracharya as
"protect," because knowledge of our true Self is the greatest protector and
sustainer. If we do not have this knowledge, we cannot be happy; because
nothing on this external plane of phenomena is permanent or dependable. He
who is rich in the knowledge of the Self does not covet external power or
If one should desire to live in this world a hundred years, one
should live performing Karma (righteous deeds). Thus thou mayest
live; there is no other way. By doing this, Karma (the fruits of
thy actions) will not defile thee.
If a man still clings to long life and earthly possessions, and
is therefore unable to follow the path of Self-knowledge
(Gnana-Nishta) as prescribed in the first Mantram (text), then he
may follow the path of right action (Karma-Nishta). Karma here
means actions performed without selfish motive, for the sake of
the Lord alone. When a man performs actions clinging blindly to
his lower desires, then his actions bind him to the plane of
ignorance or the plane of birth and death; but when the same
actions are performed with surrender to God, they purify and
After leaving their bodies, they who have killed the Self go to
the worlds of the Asuras, covered with blinding ignorance.
The idea of rising to bright regions as a reward for well-doers, and of
falling into realms of darkness as a punishment for evil-doers is common to
all great religions. But Vedanta claims that this condition of heaven and
hell is only temporary; because our actions, being finite, can produce only a
What does it mean "to kill the Self?" How can the immortal Soul ever be
destroyed? It cannot be destroyed, it can only be obscured. Those who hold
themselves under the sway of ignorance, who serve the flesh and neglect the
Atman or the real Self, are not able to perceive the effulgent and
indestructible nature of their Soul; hence they fall into the realm where the
Soul light does not shine. Here the Upanishad shows that the only hell is
absence of knowledge. As long as man is overpowered by the darkness of
ignorance, he is the slave of Nature and must accept whatever comes as the
fruit of his thoughts and deeds. When he strays into the path of unreality,
the Sages declare that he destroys himself; because he who clings to the
perishable body and regards it as his true Self must experience death many
That One, though motionless, is swifter than the mind. The
senses can never overtake It, for It ever goes before. Though
immovable, It travels faster than those who run. By It the
all-pervading air sustains all living beings.
This verse explains the character of the Atman or Self. A finite
object can be taken from one place and put in another, but it can
only occupy one space at a time. The Atman, however, is present
everywhere; hence, though one may run with the greatest swiftness
to overtake It, already It is there before him.
Even the all-pervading air must be supported by this Self, since
It is infinite; and as nothing can live without breathing air,
all living things must draw their life from the Cosmic Self.
It moves and It moves not. It is far and also It is near. It is
within and also It is without all this.
It is near to those who have the power to understand It, for It dwells in the
heart of every one; but It seems far to those whose mind is covered by the
clouds of sensuality and self-delusion. It is within, because It is the
innermost Soul of all creatures; and It is without as the essence of the whole
external universe, infilling it like the all-pervading ether.
He who sees all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings, he
never turns away from It (the Self).
He who perceives all beings as the Self' for him how can there be
delusion or grief, when he sees this oneness (everywhere) ?
He who perceives the Self everywhere never shrinks from anything, because
through his higher consciousness he feels united with all life. When a man
sees God in all beings and all beings in God, and also God dwelling in his own
Soul, how can he hate any living thing? Grief and delusion rest upon a belief
in diversity, which leads to competition and all forms of selfishness. With
the realization of oneness, the sense of diversity vanishes and the cause of
misery is removed.
He (the Self) is all-encircling, resplendent, bodiless, spotless,
without sinews, pure, untouched by sin, all-seeing, all-knowing,
transcendent, self-existent; He has disposed all things duly for
This text defines the real nature of the Self. When our mind is cleansed from
the dross of matter, then alone can we behold the vast, radiant, subtle,
ever-pure and spotless Self, the true basis of our existence.
They enter into blind darkness who worship Avidya (ignorance and
delusion); they fall, as it were, into greater darkness who
worship Vidya (knowledge).
By Vidya one end is attained; by Avidya, another. Thus we have
heard from the wise men who taught this.
He who knows at the same time both Vidya and Avidya, crosses over
death by Avidya and attains immortality through Vidya.
Those who follow or "worship" the path of selfishness and pleasure (Avidya),
without knowing anything higher, necessarily fall into darkness; but those who
worship or cherish Vidya (knowledge) for mere intellectual pride and
satisfaction, fall into greater darkness, because the opportunity which they
misuse is greater.
In the subsequent verses Vidya and Avidya are used in something the same sense
as "faith" and "works" in the Christian Bible; neither alone can lead to the
ultimate goal, but when taken together they carry one to the Highest. Work
done with unselfish motive purifies the mind and enables man to perceive his
undying nature. From this he gains inevitably a knowledge of God, because the
Soul and God are one and inseparable; and when he knows himself to be one with
the Supreme and Indestructible Whole, he realizes his immortality.
They fall into blind darkness who worship the Unmanifested and
they fall into greater darkness who worship the manifested.
By the worship of the Unmanifested one end is attained; by the
worship of the manifested, another. Thus we have heard from the
wise men who taught us this.
He who knows at the same time both the Unmanifested (the cause of
manifestation) and the destructible or manifested, he crosses
over death through knowledge of the destructible and attains
immortality through knowledge of the First Cause (Unmanifested).
This particular Upanishad deals chiefly with the Invisible Cause and the
visible manifestation, and the whole trend of its teaching is to show that
they are one and the same, one being the outcome of the other hence no perfect
knowledge is possible without simultaneous comprehension of both. The wise
men declare that he who worships in a one-sided way, whether the visible or
the invisible, does not reach the highest goal. Only he who has a
co-ordinated understanding of both the visible and the invisible, of matter
and spirit, of activity and that which is behind activity, conquers Nature and
thus overcomes death. By work, by making the mind steady and by following the
prescribed rules given in the Scriptures, a man gains wisdom. By the light of
that wisdom he is able to perceive the Invisible Cause in all visible forms.
Therefore the wise man sees Him in every manifested form. They who have a
true conception of God are never separated from Him. They exist in Him and He
The face of Truth is hidden by a golden disk. O Pushan
(Effulgent Being)! Uncover (Thy face) that I, the worshipper of
Truth, may behold Thee.
O Pushan! O Sun, sole traveller of the heavens, controller of
all, son of Prajapati, withdraw Thy rays and gather up Thy
burning effulgence. Now through Thy Grace I behold Thy blessed
and glorious form. The Purusha (Effulgent Being) who dwells
within Thee, I am He.
Here the sun, who is the giver of all light, is used as the symbol of the
Infinite, giver of all wisdom. The seeker after Truth prays to the Effulgent
One to control His dazzling rays, that his eyes, no longer blinded by them,
may behold the Truth. Having perceived It, he proclaims: "Now I see that that
Effulgent Being and I are one and the same, and my delusion is destroyed." By
the light of Truth he is able to discriminate between the real and the unreal,
and the knowledge thus gained convinces him that he is one with the Supreme;
that there is no difference between himself and the Supreme Truth; or as
Christ said, "I and my Father are one."
May my life-breath go to the all-pervading and immortal Prana,
and let this body be burned to ashes. Om! O mind, remember thy
deeds! O mind, remember, remember thy deeds! Remember!
Seek not fleeting results as the reward of thy actions, O mind! Strive only
for the Imperishable. This Mantram or text is often chanted at the hour of
death to remind one of the perishable nature of the body and the eternal
nature of the Soul. When the clear vision of the distinction between the
mortal body and the immortal Soul dawns in the heart, then all craving for
physical pleasure or material possession drops away; and one can say, let the
body be burned to ashes that the Soul may attain its freedom; for death is
nothing more than the casting-off of a worn-out garment.
O Agni (Bright Being)! Lead us to blessedness by the good path.
O Lord! Thou knowest all our deeds, remove all evil and delusion
from us. To Thee we offer our prostrations and supplications
again and again.
Here ends this Upanishad
This Upanishad is called Isa-Vasya-Upanishad, that which gives
Brahma-Vidya or knowledge of the All-pervading Deity. The
dominant thought running through it is that we cannot enjoy life
or realize true happiness unless we consciously "cover" all with
the Omnipresent Lord. If we are not fully conscious of that
which sustains our life, how can we live wisely and perform our
duties? Whatever we see, movable or immovable, good or bad, it is
all "That." We must not divide our conception of the universe;
for in dividing it, we have only fragmentary knowledge and we
thus limit ourselves.
He who sees all beings in his Self and his Self in all beings, he
never suffers; because when he sees all creatures within his true
Self, then jealousy, grief and hatred vanish. He alone can love.
That AH-pervading One is self- effulgent, birthless, deathless,
pure, untainted by sin and sorrow. Knowing this, he becomes free
from the bondage of matter and transcends death. Transcending
death means realizing the difference between body and Soul and
identifying oneself with the Soul. When we actually behold the
undecaying Soul within us and realize our true nature, we no
longer identify ourself with the body which dies and we do not
die with the body.
Self-knowledge has always been the theme of the Sages; and the
Upanishads deal especially with the knowledge of the Self and
also with the knowledge of God, because there is no difference
between the Self and God. They are one and the same. That which
comes out of the Infinite Whole must also be infinite; hence the
Self is infinite. That is the ocean, we are the drops. So long
as the drop remains separate from the ocean, it is small and
weak; but when it is one with the ocean, then it has all the
strength of the ocean. Similarly, so long as man believes
himself to be separate from the Whole, he is helpless; but when
he identifies himself with It, then he transcends all weakness
and partakes of Its omnipotent qualities.
The Katha-Upanishad is probably the most widely known of all the
Upanishads. It was early translated into Persian and through
this rendering first made its way into Europe. Later Raja Ram
Mohun Roy brought out an English version. It has since appeared
in various languages; and English, German and French writers are
all agreed in pronouncing it one of the most perfect expressions
of the religion and philosophy of the Vedas. Sir Edwin Arnold
popularized it by his metrical rendering under the name of "The
Secret of Death," and Ralph Waldo Emerson gives its story in
brief at the close of his essay on "Immortality."
There is no consensus of opinion regarding the place of this
Upanishad in Vedic literature. Some authorities declare it to
belong to the Yajur-Veda, others to the Sama-Veda, while a large
number put it down as a part of the Atharva-Veda. The story is
first suggested in the Rig-Veda; it is told more definitely in
the Yajur-Veda; and in the Katha-Upanishad it appears fully
elaborated and interwoven with the loftiest Vedic teaching.
There is nothing however, to indicate the special place of this
final version, nor has any meaning been found for the name Katha.
The text presents a dialogue between an aspiring disciple,
Nachiketas, and the Ruler of Death regarding the great Hereafter.
May He (the Supreme Being) protect us both, teacher and taught.
May He be pleased with us. May we acquire strength. May our
study bring us illumination. May there be no enmity among us.
OM! PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!
Vahasrava, being desirous of heavenly rewards (at the Viswajit
sacrifice), made a gift of all that he possessed. He had a son
by the name of Nachiketas.
When the offerings were being distributed, faith (Shraddha)
entered (the heart of)Nachiketas, who, though young, yet
These cows have drunk water, eaten grass and given milk for the
last time, and their senses have lost all vigour. He who gives
these undoubtedly goes to joyless realms.
In India the idea of sacrifice has always been to give freely for the joy of
giving, without asking anything in return; and the whole purpose and merit of
the sacrifice is lost, if the giver entertains the least thought of name, fame
or individual benefit. The special Viswajit sacrifice which Vajasrava was
making required of him to give away all that he possessed. When, however, the
gifts were brought forward to be offered, his son Nachiketas, although
probably a lad about twelve years of age, observed how worthless were the
animals which his father was offering. His heart at once became filled with
Shraddha. There is no one English word which can convey the meaning of this
Sanskrit term. It is more than mere faith. It also implies self-reliance, an
independent sense of right and wrong, and the courage of one's own conviction.
As a boy of tender age, Nachiketas had no right to question his father's
action; yet, impelled by the sudden awakening of his higher nature, he could
not but reflect: "By merely giving these useless cows, my father cannot gain
any merit. If he has vowed to give all his possessions, then he must also
give me. Otherwise his sacrifice will not be complete and fruitful."
Therefore, anxious for his father's welfare, he approached him gently and
He said to his father: Dear father, to whom wilt thou give me?
He said it a second time, then a third time. The father replied:
I shall give thee unto Death.
Nachiketas, being a dutiful son and eager to atone for his father's inadequate
sacrifice, tried to remind him thus indirectly that he had not fulfilled his
promise to give away all his possessions, since he had not yet offered his own
son, who would be a worthier gift than useless cattle. His father, conscious
that he was not making a true sacrifice, tried to ignore the boy's questions;
but irritated by his persistence, he at last impatiently made answer: "I give
thee to Yama, the Lord of Death." The fact that anger could so quickly rise
in his heart proved that he had not the proper attitude of a sacrificer, who
must always be tranquil, uplifted and free from egoism.
Nachiketas thought: Among many (of my father's pupils) I stand
first; among many (others) I stand in the middle (but never
last). What will be accomplished for my father by my going this
day to Yama?
It was not conceit which led Nachiketas to consider his own standing and
importance. He was weighing his value as a son and pupil in order to be able
to judge whether or not he had merit enough to prove a worthy gift. Although
he realized that his father's harsh reply was only the expression of a
momentary outburst of anger; yet he believed that greater harm might befall
his father, if his word was not kept. Therefore he sought to strengthen his
father's resolution by reminding him of the transitory condition of life. He
Look back to those who lived before and look to those who live
now. Like grain the mortal decays and like grain again springs
up (is reborn).
All things perish, Truth alone remains. Why then fear to sacrifice me also;
Thus Nachiketas convinced his father that he should remain true to his word
and send him to Yama, the Ruler of Death. Then Nachiketas went to the abode
of Death, but Yama was absent and the boy waited without food or drink for
three days. On Yama's return one of his household said to him:
Like fire a Brahmana guest enters into houses. That fire is
quenched by an offering. (Therefore) O Vaivaswata, bring water.
The foolish man in whose house a Brahmana guest remains without
food, all his hopes and expectations, all the merit gained by his
association with the holy, by his good words and deeds, all his
sons and cattle, are destroyed.
According to the ancient Vedic ideal a guest is the
representative of God and should be received with due reverence
and honor. Especially is this the case with a Brahmana or a
Sannyasin whose life is wholly consecrated to God. Any one who
fails to give proper care to a holy guest brings misfortune on
himself and his household. When Yama returned, therefore, one of
the members of his household anxiously informed him of
Nachiketas' presence and begged him to bring water to wash his
feet, this being always the first service to an arriving guest.
Yama said: O Brahmana! Revered guest! My salutations to thee.
As thou hast remained three nights in my house without food,
therefore choose three boons, O Brahmana.
Nachiketas said: May Gautama, my father, be free from anxious
thought (about me). May he lose all anger (towards me) and be
pacified in heart. May he know and welcome me when I am sent
back by thee. This, O Death, is the first of the three boons I
Yama replied: Through my will Auddalaki Aruni (thy father) will
know thee, and be again towards thee as before. He will sleep in
peace at night. He will be free from wrath when he sees thee
released from the mouth of death.
Nachiketas said: In the realm of heaven there is no fear, thou
(Death) art not there; nor is there fear of old age. Having
crossed beyond both hunger and thirst and being above grief,
(they) rejoice in heaven.
Thou knowest, O Death, the fire-sacrifice that leads to heaven.
Tell this to me, who am full of Shraddha (faith and yearning).
They who live in the realm of heaven enjoy freedom from death.
This I beg as my second boon.
Yama replied: I know well that fire which leads to the realm of
heaven. I shall tell it to thee. Listen to me. Know, O
Nachiketas, that this is the means of attaining endless worlds
and their support. It is hidden in the heart of all beings.
Yama then told him that fire-sacrifice, the beginning of all the
worlds; what bricks, how many and how laid for the altar.
Nachiketas repeated all as it was told to him. Then Death, being
pleased with him, again said:
The great-soured Yama, being well pleased, said to him
(Nachiketas): I give thee now another boon. This fire
(sacrifice) shall be named after thee. Take also this garland of
He who performs this Nachiketa fire-sacrifice three times, being
united with the three (mother, father and teacher), and who
fulfills the three-fold duty (study of the Vedas, sacrifice and
alms-giving) crosses over birth and death. Knowing this
worshipful shining fire, born of Brahman, and realizing Him, he
attains eternal peace.
He who knows the three-fold Nachiketa fire and performs the
Nachiketa fire-sacrifice with three-fold knowledge, having cast
off the fetters of death and being beyond grief, he rejoices in
the realm of heaven.
O Nachiketas, this is thy fire that leads to heaven, which thou
hast chosen as thy second boon. People will call this fire after
thy name. Ask the third boon, Nachiketas.
Fire is regarded as "the foundation of all the worlds," because
it is the revealer of creation. If there were no fire or light,
no manifested form would be visible. We read in the Semitic
Scriptures, "In the beginning the Lord said, 'Let there be
light."' Therefore, that which stands in the external universe
as one of the purest symbols of the Divine, also dwells in subtle
form in the heart of every living being as the vital energy, the
life-force or cause of existence.
Yama now tells Nachiketas how, by performing sacrifice with the
three-fold knowledge, he may transcend grief and death and reach
heaven. The three-fold knowledge referred to is regarding the
preparation of the altar and fire. Nachiketas being eager to
learn, listened with wholehearted attention and was able to
repeat all that was told him. This so pleased Yama that he
granted him the extra boon of naming the fire-sacrifice after him
and gave him a garland set with precious stones.
Verses XVI-XVIII are regarded by many as an interpolation, which
would account for certain obscurities and repetitions in them.
Nachiketas said: There is this doubt regarding what becomes of a
man after death. Some say he exists, others that he does not
exist. This knowledge I desire, being instructed by thee. Of
the boons this is the third boon.
Yama replied: Even the Devas (Bright Ones) of old doubted
regarding this. It is not easy to know; subtle indeed is this
subject. O Nachiketas, choose another boon. Do not press me.
Ask not this boon of me.
Nachiketas said: O Death, thou sayest that even the Devas had
doubts about this, and that it is not easy to know. Another
teacher like unto thee is not to be found. Therefore no other
boon can be equal to this one.
Yama said: Ask for sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred
years, many cattle, elephants, gold and horses. Ask for lands of
vast extent and live thyself as many autumns as thou desirest.
If thou thinkest of any other boon equal to this, ask for wealth
and long life; be ruler over the wide earth. O Nachiketas, I
shall make thee enjoyer of all desires.
Whatsoever objects of desire are difficult to obtain in the realm
of mortals, ask them all as thou desirest; these lovely maidens
with their chariots and musical instruments, such as are not
obtainable by mortals--be served by these whom I give to thee. O
Nachiketas, do not ask regarding death.
The third boon asked by Nachiketas concerning the great Hereafter was one
which could be granted only to those who were freed from all mortal desires
and limitations, therefore Yama first tested Nachiketas to see whether he was
ready to receive such knowledge. "Do not press me regarding this secret," he
said. "Even wise men cannot understand it and thou art a mere lad. Take,
rather, long life, wealth, whatever will give thee happiness on the mortal
plane." But the boy proved his strength and worthiness by remaining firm in
his resolution to know the great secret of life and death.
Nachiketas said: O Death, these are fleeting; they weaken the
vigour of all the senses in man. Even the longest life is short.
Keep thou thy chariots, dance and music.
Man cannot be satisfied by wealth. Shall we possess wealth when
we see thee (Death)? Shall we continue to live as long as thou
rulest? Therefore that boon alone is to be chosen by me.
What man dwelling on the decaying mortal plane, having approached
the undecaying immortal one, and having reflected upon the nature
of enjoyment through beauty and sense pleasure, would delight in
O Death, that regarding which there is doubt, of the great
Hereafter, tell us. Nachiketas asks for no other boon than that
which penetrates this hidden secret.
Yama said: The good is one thing and the pleasant another. These
two, having different ends, bind a man. It is well with him who
chooses the good. He who chooses the pleasant misses the true
The good and the pleasant approach man; the wise examines both
and discriminates between them; the wise prefers the good to the
pleasant, but the foolish man chooses the pleasant through love
of bodily pleasure.
O Nachiketas after wise reflection thou hast renounced the
pleasant and all pleasing forms. Thou hast not accepted this
garland of great value for which many mortals perish.
Wide apart are these two,--ignorance and what is known as wisdom,
leading in opposite directions. I believe Nachiketas to be one
who longs for wisdom, since many tempting objects have not turned
With this second part, the Ruler of Death begins his instructions regarding
the great Hereafter. There are two paths,--one leading Godward, the other
leading to worldly pleasure. He who follows one inevitably goes away from the
other; because, like light and darkness they conflict. One leads to the
imperishable spiritual realm; the other to the perishable physical realm.
Both confront a man at every step of life. The discerning man distinguishing
between the two, chooses the Real and Eternal, and he alone attains the
highest, while the ignorant man, preferring that which brings him immediate
and tangible results, misses the true purpose of his existence. Although Yama
put before Nachiketas many temptations to test his sincerity and earnestness,
he judging them at their real value, refused them all, saying "I have come
from the mortal realm, shall I ask for what is mortal? I desire only that
which is eternal." Then Death said to him: "I now see that thou art a sincere
desirer of Truth. I offered thee vast wealth, long life and every form of
pleasure which tempts and deludes men; but thou hast proved thy worthiness by
rejecting them all."
Fools dwelling in ignorance, yet imagining themselves wise and
learned, go round and round in crooked ways, like the blind led
by the blind.
The Hereafter never rises before the thoughtless child (the
ignorant), deluded by the glamour of wealth. "This world alone
is, there is none other": thinking thus, he falls under my sway
again and again.
There are many in the world, who, puffed up with intellectual conceit, believe
that they are capable of guiding others. But although they may possess a
certain amount of worldly wisdom, they are devoid of deeper understanding;
therefore all that they say merely increases doubt and confusion in the minds
of those who hear them. Hence they are likened to blind men leading the
The Hereafter does not shine before those who are lacking in the power of
discrimination and are easily carried away therefore by the charm of fleeting
objects. As children are tempted by toys, so they are tempted by pleasure,
power, name and fame. To them these seem the only realities. Being thus
attached to perishable things, they come many times under the dominion of
death. There is one part of us which must die; there is another part which
never dies. When a man can identify himself with his undying nature, which is
one with God, then he overcomes death.
He about whom many are not even able to hear, whom many cannot
comprehend even after hearing: wonderful is the teacher,
wonderful is he who can receive when taught by an able teacher.
Throughout the Vedic Scriptures it is declared that no one can impart
spiritual knowledge unless he has realization. What is meant by realization?
It means knowledge based on direct perception. In India often the best
teachers have no learning, but their character is so shining that every one
learns merely by coming in contact with them. In one of the Scriptures we
read: Under a banyan tree sat a youthful teacher and beside him an aged
disciple. The mind of the disciple was full of doubts and questions, but
although the teacher continued silent, gradually every doubt vanished from the
disciple's mind. This signifies that the conveying of spiritual teaching does
not depend upon words only. It is the life, the illumination, which counts.
Such God-enlightened men, however, cannot easily be found; but even with such
a teacher, the knowledge of the Self cannot be gained unless the heart of the
disciple is open and ready for the Truth. Hence Yama says both teacher and
taught must be wonderful.
When taught by a man of inferior understanding, this Atman cannot
be truly known, even though frequently thought upon. There is no
way (to know It) unless it is taught by another (an illumined
teacher), for it is subtler than the subtle and beyond argument.
O Dearest, this Atman cannot be attained by argument; It is truly
known only when taught by another (a wise teacher). O
Nachiketas, thou hast attained It. Thou art fixed in Truth. May
we ever, find a questioner like thee.
Knowledge of the Atman or Self cannot be attained when it is taught by those
who themselves lack in real understanding of It; and who therefore, having no
definite conviction of their own, differ among themselves as to its nature and
existence. Only he who has been able to perceive the Self directly, through
the unfoldment of his higher nature, can proclaim what It actually is; and his
words alone carry weight and bring illumination. It is too subtle to be
reached by argument. This secret regarding the Hereafter cannot be known
through reasoning or mere intellectual gymnastics. It is to be attained only
in a state of consciousness which transcends the boundary line of reason.
I know that (earthly) treasure is transitory, for the eternal can
never be attained by things which are non-eternal. Hence the
Nachiketa fire (sacrifice) has been performed by me with
perishable things and yet I have attained the eternal.
O Nachiketas, thou hast seen the fulfillment of all desires, the
basis of the universe, the endless fruit of sacrificial rites,
the other shore where there is no fear, that which is
praiseworthy, the great and wide support; yet, being wise, thou
hast rejected all with firm resolve.
The teacher, saying that the imperishable cannot be attained by the
perishable, shows that no amount of observance of rituals and ceremonies can
earn the imperishable and eternal. Although the Nachiketa fire-sacrifice may
bring results which seem eternal to mortals because of their long duration,
yet they too must come to an end; therefore this sacrifice cannot lead to the
final goal. Yama praises Nachiketas because, when all heavenly and earthly
pleasures, as well as knowledge of all realms and their enjoyments were
offered him, yet he cast them aside and remained firm in his desire for Truth
The wise, who by means of the highest meditation on the Self
knows the Ancient One, difficult to perceive, seated in the
innermost recess, hidden in the cave of the heart, dwelling in
the depth of inner being, (he who knows that One) as God, is
liberated from the fetters of joy and sorrow.
A mortal, having heard and fully grasped this, and having
realized through discrimination the subtle Self, rejoices,
because he has obtained that which is the source of all joy. I
think the abode (of Truth) is open to Nachiketas.
The Scriptures give three stages in all spiritual attainment. The aspirant
must first hear about the Truth from an enlightened teacher; next he must
reflect upon what he has heard; then by constant practice of discrimination
and meditation he realizes it; and with realization comes the fulfilment of
every desire, because it unites him with the source of all. Having beheld
this, a man learns that all sense pleasures are but fragmentary reflections of
that one supreme joy, which can be found in the true Self alone. Yama assures
Nachiketas that there is no doubt of his realizing the Truth, because he has
shown the highest discrimination as well as fixity of purpose.
Nachiketas said: That which thou seest, which is neither virtue
nor vice, neither cause nor effect, neither past nor future (but
beyond these), tell me That.
Yama replied: That goal which all the Vedas glorify, which all
austerities proclaim, desiring which (people) practice
Brahmacharya (a life of continence and service), that goal I tell
thee briefly--it is Aum.
What name can man give to God? How can the Infinite be bound by any finite
word? All that language can express must be finite, since it is itself
finite. Yet it is very difficult for mortals to think or speak of anything
without calling it by a definite name. Knowing this, the Sages gave to the
Supreme the name A-U-M which stands as the root of all language. The first
letter "A" is the mother-sound, being the natural sound uttered by every
creature when the throat is opened, and no sound can be made without opening
the throat. The last letter "M," spoken by closing the lips, terminates all
articulation. As one carries the sound from the throat to the lips, it passes
through the sound "U." These three sounds therefore cover the whole field of
possible articulate sound. Their combination is called the Akshara or the
imperishable word, the Sound-Brahman or the Word
God, because it is the most universal name which can be given to the Supreme.
Hence it must be the word which was "in the beginning" and corresponds to the
Logos of Christian theology. It is because of the all-embracing significance
of this name that it is used so universally in the Vedic Scriptures to
designate the Absolute.
This Word is indeed Brahman. This Word is indeed the Supreme.
He who knows this Word obtains whatever he desires.
This is the best Support, This is the highest Support; he who
knows this Support is glorified in the world of Brahman.
This sacred Word is the highest symbol of the Absolute. He who through
meditating on It grasps Its full significance, realizes the glory of God and
at once has all his desires satisfied, because God is the fulfilment of all
This Self is never born, nor does It die. It did not spring from
anything, nor did anything spring from It. This Ancient One is
unborn, eternal, everlasting. It is not slain even though the
body is slain.
If the slayer thinks that he slays, or if the slain thinks that
he is slain, both of these know not. For It neither slays nor is
The Self is subtler than the subtle, greater than the great; It
dwells in the heart of each living being. He who is free from
desire and free from grief, with mind and senses tranquil,
beholds the glory of the Atman.
Although this Atman dwells in the heart of every living being, yet It is not
perceived by ordinary mortals because of Its subtlety. It cannot be perceived
by the senses; a finer spiritual sight is required. The heart must be pure
and freed from every unworthy selfish desire; the thought must be indrawn from
all external objects; mind and body must be under control; when the whole
being thus becomes calm and serene, then it is possible to perceive that
effulgent Atman. It is subtler than the subtle, because It is the invisible
essence of every thing; and It is greater than the great because It is the
boundless, sustaining power of the whole universe; that upon which all
Though sitting, It travels far; though lying, It goes everywhere.
Who else save me is fit to know that God, who is (both) joyful
The Self is all-pervading, hence It is that which sits still and that which
travels, that which is active and that which is inactive. It is both
stationary and moving, and It is the basis of all forms of existence;
therefore whatever exists in the universe, whether joy or joylessness,
pleasure or pain, must spring from It. Who is better able to know God than I
myself, since He resides in my heart and is the very essence of my being?
Such should be the attitude of one who is seeking.
The wise who know the Self, bodiless, seated within perishable
bodies, great and all- pervading, grieve not.
Then a wise man through the practice of discrimination has seen clearly the
distinction between body and Soul, he knows that his true Self is not the
body, though It dwells in the body. Thus realizing the indestructible,
all-pervading nature of his real Self, he surmounts all fear of death or loss,
and is not moved even by the greatest
This Self cannot be attained by study of the Scriptures, nor by
intellectual perception, nor by frequent hearing (of It); He whom
the Self chooses, by him alone is It attained. To him the Self
reveals Its true nature.
We may imagine that by much study we can find out God; but merely hearing
about a thing and gaining an intellectual comprehension of it does not mean
attaining true knowledge of it. Knowledge only comes through direct
perception, and direct perception of God is possible for those alone who are
pure in heart and spiritually awakened. Although He is alike to all beings
and His mercy is on all, yet the impure and worldy-minded do not get the
blessing, because they do not know how to open their hearts to it. He who
longs for God, him the Lord chooses; because to him alone can He reveal His
He who has not turned away from evil conduct, whose senses are
uncontrolled, who is not tranquil, whose mind is not at rest, he
can never attain this Atman even by knowledge.
Yama having first described what the Atman is, now tells us how to attain It.
man must try to subdue his lower nature and gain control over the body and
senses. e must conquer the impure selfish desires which now disturb the
serenity of his mind, that it may grow calm and peaceful. In other words, he
must live the life and develop all spiritual qualities in order to perceive
Who then can know where is this mighty Self? He (that Self) to
whom the Brahmanas and Kshatriyas are but food and death itself a
This text proclaims the glory and majesty of the Supreme. The Brahmanas stand
for spiritual strength, the Kshatriyas for physical strength, yet both are
overpowered by His mightiness. Life and death alike are food for Him. As the
light of the great sun swallows up all the lesser lights of the universe,
similarly all worlds are lost in the effulgence of the Eternal Omnipresent
There are two who enjoy the fruits of their good deeds in the
world, having entered into the cave of the heart, seated (there)
on the highest summit. The knowers of Brahman call them shadow
and light. So also (they are called) by householders who perform
five fire- sacrifices or three Nachiketa fire-sacrifices.
Here the two signify the Higher Self and the lower self, dwelling in the
innermost cave of the heart. The Seers of Truth, as well as householders who
follow the path of rituals and outer forms with the hope of enjoying the
fruits of their good deeds, both proclaim that the Higher Self is like a light
and the lower self like a shadow. When the Truth shines clearly in the heart
of the knower, then he surmounts the apparent duality of his nature and
becomes convinced that there is but One, and that all outer manifestations are
nothing but reflections or projections of that One.
May we be able to learn that Nachiketa fire-sacrifice, which is a
bridge for those who perform sacrifice. May we also know the
One, who is the highest imperishable Brahman for those who desire
to cross over to the other shore which is beyond fear.
The significance of this text is May we acquire the knowledge of Brahman, the
Supreme, in both manifested and unmanifested form. He is manifested as the
Lord of sacrifice for those who follow the path of ritual He is the
unmanifested, eternal, universal Supreme Being for those who follow the path
of wisdom. The "other shore," being the realm of immortality, is said to be
beyond fear; because disease, death, and all that which mortals fear, cease to
exist there. It is believed by many that these two opening verses were a
Know the Atman (Self) as the lord of the chariot, and the body as
the chariot. Know also the intellect to be the driver and mind
The senses are called the horses; the sense objects are the
roads; when the Atman is united with body, senses and mind, then
the wise call Him the enjoyer.
In the third chapter Yama defines what part of our being dies and what part is
deathless, what is mortal and what is immortal. But the Atman, the Higher
Self, is so entirely beyond human conception that it is impossible to give a
direct definition of It. Only through similies can some idea of It be
conveyed. That is the reason why all the great Teachers of the world have so
often taught in the form of parables. So here the Ruler of Death represents
the Self as the lord of this chariot of the body. The intellect or
discriminative faculty is the driver, who controls these wild horses of the
senses by holding firmly the reins of the mind. The roads over which these
horses travel are made up of all the external objects which attract or repel
the senses:--the sense of smelling follows the path of sweet odours, the sense
of seeing the way of beautiful sights. Thus each sense, unless restrained by
the discriminative faculty, seeks to go out towards its special objects. When
the Self is joined with body, mind and senses, It is called the intelligent
enjoyer; because It is the one who wills, feels, perceives and does
He who is without discrimination and whose mind is always
uncontrolled, his senses are unmanageable, like the vicious
horses of a driver.
But he who is full of discrimination and whose mind is always
controlled, his senses are manageable, like the good horses of a
The man whose intellect is not discriminative and who fails to distinguish
right from wrong, the real from the unreal, is carried away by his sense
passions and desires, just as a driver is carried away by vicious horses over
which he has lost control. But he who clearly distinguishes what is good from
what is merely pleasant, and controls all his out-going forces from running
after apparent momentary pleasures, his senses obey and serve him as good
horses obey their driver.
He who does not possess discrimination, whose mind is
uncontrolled and always impure, he does not reach that goal, but
falls again into Samsara (realm of birth and death).
But he who possesses right discrimination, whose mind is under
control and always pure, he reaches that goal, from which he is
not born again.
The man who has a discriminative intellect for the driver, and a
controlled mind for the reins, reaches the end of the journey,
the highest place of Vishnu (the All-pervading and Unchangeable
A driver must possess first a thorough knowledge of the road; next he must
understand how to handle the reins and control his horses. Then will he drive
safely to his destination. Similarly in this journey of life, our mind and
senses must be wholly under the control of our higher discriminative faculty;
for only when all our forces work in unison can we hope to reach the goal--the
abode of Absolute Truth.
Beyond the senses are the objects, beyond the objects is the
mind, beyond the mind is the intellect, beyond the intellect is
the great Atman.
Beyond the great Atman is the Unmanifested; beyond the
Unmanifested is the Purusha (the Cosmic Soul); beyond the Purusha
there is nothing. That is the end, that is the final goal.
In these two verses the Teacher shows the process of discrimination, by which
one attains knowledge of the subtle Self. Beginning with the sense-organs, he
leads up to the less and less gross, until he reaches that which is subtlest
of all, the true Self of man. The senses are dependent on sense-objects,
because without these the senses would have no utility. Superior to
sense-objects is the mind, because unless these objects affect the mind, they
cannot influence the senses. Over the mind the determinative faculty
exercises power; this determinative faculty is governed by the individual
Self; beyond this Self is the undifferentiated creative energy known as
Avyaktam; and above this is the Purusha or Supreme Self. Than this there is
nothing higher. That is the goal, the Highest Abode of Peace and Bliss.
This Atman (Self), hidden in all beings, does not shine forth;
but It is seen by subtle seers through keen and subtle
If It dwells in all living beings, why do we not see It? Because the ordinary
man's vision is too dull and distracted. It is visible to those alone whose
intellect has been purified by constant thought on the Supreme, and whose
sight therefore has become refined and sharpened. This keenness of vision
comes only when all our forces have been made one-pointed through steadfast
practice of concentration and meditation.
A wise man should control speech by mind, mind by intellect,
intellect by the great Atman, and that by the Peaceful One (the
Paramatman or Supreme Self).
Here Yama gives the practical method to be followed if one wishes to realize
the Supreme. The word "speech" stands for all the senses. First, therefore,
a man must control his outgoing senses by the mind. Then the mind must be
brought under the control of the discriminative faculty; that is, it must be
withdrawn from all sense-objects and cease to waste its energies on
nonessential things. The discriminative faculty in turn must be controlled by
the higher individual intelligence and this must be governed wholly by the
A rise! Awake! Having reached the Great Ones (illumined
Teachers), gain understanding. The path is as sharp as a razor,
impassable and difficult to travel, so the wise declare.
This is the eternal call of the wise: Awake from the slumber of ignorance!
Arise and seek out those who know the Truth, because only those who have
direct vision of Truth are capable of teaching It. Invoke their blessing with
a humble spirit and seek to be instructed by them. The path is very difficult
to tread. No thoughtless or lethargic person can safely travel on it. One
must be strong, wakeful and persevering.
Knowing That which is soundless, touchless, formless, undecaying;
also tasteless, odorless, and eternal; beginningless, endless and
immutable; beyond the Unmanifested: (knowing That) man escapes
from the mouth of death.
The Ruler of Death defines here the innermost essence of our being. Because
of its extreme subtlety, it cannot be heard or felt or smelled or tasted like
any ordinary object. It never dies. It has no beginning or end. It is
unchangeable. Realizing this Supreme Reality, man escapes from death and
attains everlasting life. Thus the Teacher has gradually led Nachiketas to a
point where he can reveal to him the secret of death. The boy had thought
that there was a place where he could stay and become immortal. But Yama
shows him that immortality is a state of consciousness and is not gained so
long as man clings to name and form, or to perishable objects. What dies?
Form. Therefore the formful man dies; but not that which dwells within.
Although inconceivably subtle, the Sages have always made an effort through
similies and analogies to give some idea of this inner Self or the God within.
They have described It as beyond mind and speech; too subtle for ordinary
perception, but not beyond the range of purified vision.
The intelligent man, who has heard and repeated the ancient story
of Nachiketas, told by the Ruler of Death, is glorified in the
world of Brahman.
He who with devotion recites this highest secret of immortality
before an assembly of Brahmanas (pious men) or at the time of
Shraddha (funeral ceremonies), gains everlasting reward, he gains
The Self-existent created the senses out-going; for this reason
man sees the external, but not the inner Atman (Self). Some wise
man, however, desiring immortality, with eyes turned away (from
the external) sees the Atman within.
In the last chapter the Ruler of Death instructed Nachiketas regarding the
nature and glory of the Self. Now he shows the reason why the Self is not
seen by the majority. It is because man's mind is constantly drawn outward
through the channels of his senses, and this prevents his seeing the inner
Self (Pratyagatman); but now and then a seeker, wiser than others, goes within
and attains the vision of the undying Self.
Children (the ignorant) pursue external pleasures; (thus) they
fall into the wide- spread snare of death. But the wise, knowing
the nature of immortality, do not seek the permanent among
Those who are devoid of discrimination and fail to distinguish between real
and unreal, the fleeting and the permanent, set their hearts on the changeable
things of this world; hence they entangle themselves in the net of insatiable
desire, which leads inevitably to disappointment and suffering. To such, death
must seem a reality because they identify themselves with that which is born
and which dies. But the wise, who see deeper into the nature of things, are no
longer deluded by the charm of the phenomenal world and do not seek for
permanent happiness among its passing enjoyments.
That by which one knows form, taste, smell, sound, touch and
sense enjoyments, by That also one knows whatever remains (to be
known). This verily is That (which thou hast asked to know).
That by which a mortal perceives, both in dream and in waking, by
knowing that great all-pervading Atman the wise man grieves no
In these verses the teacher tries to make plain that all knowledge, as well as
all sense perception, in every state of consciousness--sleeping, dreaming or
waking--is possible only because the Self exists. There can be no knowledge or
perception independent of the Self. Wise men, aware of this, identify
themselves with their Higher Self and thus transcend the realm of grief.
He who knows this Atman, the honey-eater (perceiver and enjoyer
of objects), ever near, as the lord of the past and future, fears
no more. This verily is That.
He who sees Him seated in the five elements, born of Tapas (fire
of Brahman), born before water; who, having entered the cave of
the heart, abides therein --this verily is That.
This verse indicates that He, the Great Self, is the cause of all
created objects. According to the Vedas, His first manifestation
was Brahma, the Personal God or Creator, born of the fire of
wisdom. He existed before the evolution of the five elements--
earth, water, fire, air and ether; hence He was "born before
water." He is the Self dwelling in the hearts of all creatures.
He who knows Aditi, who rises with Prana (the Life Principle),
existent in all the Devas; who, having entered into the heart,
abides there; and who was born from the elements--this verily is
This verse is somewhat obscure and seems like an interpolated amplification of
the preceding verse.
Tje all-seeing fire which exists hidden in the two sticks, as the
foetus is well-guarded in the womb by the mother, (that fire) is
to be worshipped day after day by wakeful seekers (after wisdom),
as well as by sacrificers. This verily is That.
Fire is called all-seeing because its light makes everything
visible. In Vedic sacrifices the altar fire was always kindled
by rubbing together two sticks of a special kind of wood called
Arani. Because fire was regarded as one of the most perfect
symbols of Divine wisdom, it was to be worshipped by all seekers
after Truth, whether they followed the path of meditation or the
path of rituals.
From whence the sun rises, and whither it goes at setting, upon
That all the Devas depend. No one goes beyond That. This verily
What is here (in the visible world), that is there (in the
invisible); he who sees difference (between visible and
invisible) goes from death to death.
By mind alone this is to be realized. There is no difference
whatever (between visible and invisible). He who sees difference
here (between these) goes from death to death.
In the sight of true wisdom, there is no difference between the creator and
the created. Even physical science has come to recognize that cause and
effect are but two aspects of one manifestation of energy. He who fails to
see this, being engrossed in the visible only, goes from death to death;
because he clings to external forms which are perishable. Only the essence
which dwells within is unchangeable and imperishable. This knowledge of the
oneness of visible and invisible, however, cannot be acquired through
sense-perception. It can only be attained by the purified mind.
The Purusha (Self), of the size of a thumb, resides in the middle
of the body as the lord of the past and the future, (he who knows
Him) fears no more. This verily is That.
The seat of the Purusha is said to be the heart, hence It
"resides in the middle of the body." Although It is limitless and
all-pervading, yet in relation to Its abiding-place It is
represented as limited in extension, "the size of a thumb." This
refers really to the heart, which in shape may be likened to a
thumb. s light is everywhere, yet we see it focused in a lamp
and believe it to be there only; similarly, although the
life-current flows everywhere in the body, the heart is regarded
as peculiarly its seat.
That Purusha, of the size of a thumb, is like a light without
smoke, lord of the past and the future. He is the same today and
tomorrow. This verily is That.
In this verse the teacher defines the effulgent nature of the Soul, whose
light is pure like a flame without smoke. He also answers the question put by
Nachiketas as to what happens after death, by declaring that no real change
takes place, because the Soul is ever the same.
As rain water, (falling) on the mountain top, runs down over the
rocks on all sides; similarly, he who sees difference (between
visible forms) runs after them in various directions.
O Gautama (Nachiketas), as pure water poured into pure water
becomes one, so also is it with the Self of an illumined Knower
(he becomes one with the Supreme).
The city of the Unborn, whose knowledge is unchanging, has eleven
gates. Thinking on Him, man grieves no more; and being freed
(from ignorance), he attains liberation. This verily is That.
This human body is called a city with eleven gates, where the eternal unborn
Spirit dwells. These gates are the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the
mouth, the navel, the two lower apertures, and the imperceptible opening at
the top of the head. The Self or Atman holds the position of ruler in this
city; and being above the modifications of birth, death and all human
imperfections, It is not affected by the changes of the physical organism. As
the intelligent man through constant thought and meditation realizes the
splendour of this Supreme Spirit, he becomes free from that part of his nature
which grieves and suffers, and thus he attains liberation.
He is the sun dwelling in the bright heaven; He is the air
dwelling in space; He is the fire burning on the altar; He is the
guest dwelling in the house. He dwells in man. He dwells in
those greater than man. He dwells in sacrifice. He dwells in
the ether. He is (all that is) born in water, (all that) is born
in earth, (all that) is born in sacrifice, (all that) is born on
mountains. He is the True and the Great.
He it is who sends the (in-coming) Prana (life-breath) upward and
throws the (out-going) breath downward. Him all the senses
worship, the adorable Atman, seated in the centre (the heart).
When this Atman, which is seated in the body, goes out (from the
body), what remains then? This verily is That.
No mortal lives by the in-coming breath (Prana) or by the
out-going breath (Apana), but he lives by another on which these
O Gautama (Nachiketas), I shall declare unto thee the secret of
the eternal Brahman and what happens to the Self after death.
Some Jivas (individual Souls) enter wombs to be embodied; others
go into immovable forms, according to their deeds and knowledge.
This text shows the application of the law of cause and effect to all forms of
life. The thoughts and actions of the present life determine the future birth
The Being who remains awake while all sleep, who grants all
desires, That is pure, That is Brahman, That alone is said to be
immortal. On That all the worlds rest. None goes beyond That.
This verily is That.
As fire, though one, having entered the world, becomes various
according to what it burns, so does the Atman (Self) within all
living beings, though one, become various according to what it
enters. It also exists outside.
As air, though one, having entered the world, becomes various
according to what it enters, so does the Atman within all living
beings, though one, become various according to what it enters.
It also exists outside.
By using these similies of fire and air, the teacher tries to show Nachiketas
the subtle quality of the great Self, who, although one and formless like air
and fire, yet assumes different shapes according to the form in which It
dwells. But, being all-pervading and unlimited, It cannot be confined to
these forms; therefore it is said that It also exists outside all forms.
As the sun, the eye of the whole world, is not defiled by
external impurities seen by the eyes, thus the one inner Self of
all living beings is not defiled by the misery of the world,
being outside it.
The sun is called the eye of the world because it reveals all objects. As the
sun may shine on the most impure object, yet remain uncontaminated by it, so
the Divine Self within is not touched by the impurity or suffering of the
physical form in which it dwells, the Self being beyond all bodily
There is one ruler, the Self of all living beings, who makes the
one form manifold; the wise who perceive Him seated within their
Self, to them belongs eternal bliss, not to others.
Eternal among the changing, consciousness of the conscious, who,
though one, fulfils the desires of many: the wise who perceive
Him seated within their Self, to them belongs eternal peace, not
They (the wise) perceive that indescribable highest bliss,
saying, This is That. How am I to know It? Does It shine (by
Its own light) or does It shine (by reflected light)?
The sun does not shine there, nor the moon, nor the stars; nor do
these lightnings shine there, much less this fire. When He
shines, everything shines after Him; by His light all is lighted.
This ancient Aswattha tree has its root above and branches below.
That is pure, That is Brahman, That alone is called the Immortal.
All the worlds rest in That. None goes beyond That. This verily
This verse indicates the origin of the tree of creation (the Samsara-Vriksha),
which is rooted above in Brahman, the Supreme, and sends its branches downward
into the phenomenal world. Heat and cold, pleasure and pain, birth and death,
and all the shifting conditions of the mortal realm--these are the branches;
but the origin of the tree, the Brahman, is eternally pure, unchanging, free
and deathless. From the highest angelic form to the minutest atom, all
created things have their origin in Him. He is the foundation of the
universe. There is nothing beyond Him.
Whatever there is in the universe is evolved from Prana and
vibrates in Prana. That is a mighty terror, like an upraised
thunderbolt. They who know That become immortal.
From fear of Him the fire burns, from fear of Him the sun shines.
From fear of Him Indra and Vayu and Death, the fifth, speed
Just as the body cannot live or act without the Soul, similarly
nothing in the created world can exist independent of Brahman,
who is the basis of all existence. His position is like that of a
king whom all must obey; hence it is said that the gods of sun,
moon, wind, rain, do His bidding. He is likened to an upraised
thunderbolt, because of the impartial and inevitable nature of
His law, which all powers, great or small, must obey absolutely.
Ifa man is not able to know Him before the dissolution of the
body, then he becomes embodied again in the created worlds.
As soon as a man acquires knowledge of the Supreme, he is liberated; but if he
fails to attain such knowledge before his Soul is separated from the body,
then he must take other bodies and return again and again to this realm of
birth and death, until through varied experience he realizes the nature of the
Supreme and his relation to Him.
As in a mirror, so is He seen within oneself; as in a dream, so
(is He seen) in the world of the fathers (departed spirits); as
in water, so (is He seen) in the world of Gandharvas (the angelic
realm). As light and shadow, so (is He seen) in the world of
Brahma (the Creator).
When by means of a purified understanding one beholds God within, the image is
distinct as in a polished mirror; but one cannot have clear vision of the
Supreme by attaining to the various realms known as heavens, where one reaps
the fruit of his good deeds. It is only by developing one's highest
consciousness here in this life that perfect God-vision can be attained.
Knowing that the senses are distinct (from the Atman) and their
rising and setting separate (from the Atman), a wise man grieves
A wise man never confounds the Atman, which is birthless and deathless, with
that which has beginning and end. Therefore, when he sees his senses and his
physical organism waxing and waning, he knows that his real Self within can
never be affected by these outer changes, so he remains unmoved.
Higher than the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the
intellect, higher than the intellect is the great Atman, higher
than the Atman is the Unmanifested.
Beyond the Unmanifested is the all-pervading and imperceptible
Being (Purusha). By knowing Him, the mortal is liberated and
This division of the individual into senses, mind, intellect,
self-consciousness, undifferentiated creative energy and the Absolute Self is
explained in the commentary of verse XI, Part Third.
His form is not to be seen. No one can see Him with the eye. He
is perceived by the heart, by the intellect and by the mind.
They who know this become immortal.
The Supreme, being formless, cannot be discerned by the senses, hence all
knowledge of Him must be acquired by the subtler faculties of heart, intellect
and mind, which are developed only through the purifying practice of
When the five organs of perception become still, together with
the mind, and the intellect ceases to be active: that is called
the highest state.
The teacher now shows Nachiketas the process by which the transcendental
vision can be attained. he out-going senses,--seeing, hearing, smelling,
touching, tasting; the restless mind and the intellect: all must be indrawn
and quieted. The state of equilibrium thus attained is called the highest
state, because all the forces of one's being become united and focused; and
this inevitably leads to supersensuous vision.
This firm holding back of the senses is what is known as Yoga.
Then one should become watchful, for Yoga comes and goes.
Yoga literally means to join or to unite the lower self with the Higher Self,
the object with the subject, the worshipper with God. In order to gain this
union, however, one must first disunite oneself from all that scatters the
physical, mental and intellectual forces; so the outgoing perceptions must be
detached from the external world and indrawn. When this is accomplished
through constant practice of concentration and meditation, the union takes
place of its own accord. But it may be lost again, unless one is watchful.
He cannot be attained by speech, by mind, or by the eye. How can
That be realized except by him who says "He is"?
He should be realized as "He is" and also as the reality of both
(visible and invisible). He who knows Him as "He is," to him
alone His real nature is revealed.
This supersensuous vision cannot be gained through man's ordinary faculties.
By mind, eye, or speech the manifested attributes of the Divine can be
apprehended; but only one who has acquired the supersensuous sight can
directly perceive God's existence and declare definitely that "He is," that He
alone exists in both the visible and the invisible world.
When all desires dwelling in the heart cease, then the mortal
becomes immortal and attains Brahman here.
When all the ties of the heart are cut asunder here, then the
mortal becomes immortal. Such is the teaching.
There are a hundred and one nerves of the heart. One of them
penetrates the centre of the head. Going upward through it, one
attains immortality. The other (hundred nerve-courses) lead, in
departing, to different worlds.
The nervous system of the body provides the channels through
which the mind travels; the direction in which it moves is
determined by its desires and tendencies. When the mind becomes
pure and desireless, it takes the upward course and at the time
of departing passes out through the imperceptible opening at the
crown of the head; but as long as it remains full of desires, its
course is downward towards the realms where those desires can be
The Purusha, the inner Self, of the size of a thumb, is ever
seated in the heart of all living beings. With perseverance man
should draw Him out from his body as one draws the inner stalk
from a blade of grass. One should know Him as pure and
deathless, as pure and deathless.
As has been explained in Part Fourth, verse XII, the inner Self,
although unlimited, is described as "the size of a thumb" because
of its abiding-place in the heart, often likened to a lotus-bud
which is similar to a thumb in size and shape. Through the
process of steadfast discrimination, one should learn to
differentiate the Soul from the body, just as one separates the
pith from a reed.
Thus Nachiketas, having acquired this wisdom taught by the Ruler
of Death, together with all the rules of Yoga, became free from
impurity and death and attained Brahman (the Supreme). So also
will it be with another who likewise knows the nature of the
May He (the Supreme Being) protect us both. May He be pleased
with us. May we acquire strength. May our study bring us
illumination. May there be no enmity among us.
OM! PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!
Here ends this Upanishad
Like the Isavasya, this Upanishad derives its name from the
opening word of the text, Kena-ishitam, "by whom directed." It
is also known as the Talavakara-Upanishad because of its place as
a chapter in the Talavakara-Brahmana of the Sama-Veda.
Among the Upanishads it is one of the most analytical and
metaphysical, its purpose being to lead the mind from the gross
to the subtle, from effect to cause. By a series of profound
questions and answers, it seeks to locate the source of man's
being; and to expand his self-consciousness until it has become
identical with God-Consciousness.
May my limbs, speech, Prana (life-force), sight, hearing,
strength and all my senses, gain in vigor. All is the Brahman
(Supreme Lord) of the Upanishads. May I never deny the Brahman.
May the Brahman never deny me. May there be no denial of the
Brahman. May there be no separation from the Brahman. May all
the virtues declared in the sacred Upanishads be manifest in me,
who am devoted to the Atman (Higher Self). May they be manifest
OM! PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!
By whom commanded and directed does the mind go towards its
objects? Commanded by whom does the life-force, the first
(cause), move? At whose will do men utter speech? What power
directs the eye and the ear?
Thus the disciple approached the Master and inquired concerning the cause of
life and human activity. Having a sincere longing for Truth he desired to
know who really sees and hears, who actuates the apparent physical man. He
perceived all about him the phenomenal world, the existence of which he could
prove by his senses; but he sought to know the invisible causal world, of
which he was now only vaguely conscious. Is mind all-pervading and
all-powerful, or is it impelled by some other force, he asked. Who sends
forth the vital energy, without which nothing can exist? The teacher replies:
It is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech of the
speech, the life of the life, the eye of the eye. The wise,
freed (from the senses and from mortal desires), after leaving
this world, become immortal.
An ordinary man hears, sees, thinks, but he is satisfied to know only as much
as can be known through the senses; he does not analyze and try to find that
which stands behind the ear or eye or mind. He is completely identified with
his external nature. His conception does not go beyond the little circle of
his bodily life, which concerns the outer man only. He has no consciousness
of that which enables his senses and organs to perform their tasks.
There is a vast difference between the manifested form and That which is
manifested through the form. When we know That, we shall not die with the
body. One who clings to the senses and to things that are ephemeral, must die
many deaths, but that man who knows the eye of the eye, the ear of the ear,
having severed himself from his physical nature, becomes immortal.
Immortality is attained when man transcends his apparent nature and finds that
subtle, eternal and inexhaustible essence which is within him.
There the eye does not go, nor speech, nor mind. We do not know
That; we do not understand how It can be taught. It is distinct
from the known and also It is beyond the unknown. Thus we have
heard from the ancient (teachers) who told us about It.
These physical eyes are unable to perceive that subtle essence. Nor can it be
expressed by finite language or known by finite intelligence, because it is
infinite. Our conception of knowing finite things is to know their name and
form; but knowledge of God must be distinct from such knowledge. This is why
some declare God to be unknown and unknowable; because He is far more than eye
or mind or speech can perceive, comprehend or express. The Upanishad does not
say that He cannot be known. He is unknowable to man's finite nature. How
can a finite mortal apprehend the Infinite Whole? But He can be known by
man's God-like nature.
That which speech does not illumine, but which illumines speech:
know that alone to be the Brahman (the Supreme Being), not this
which people worship here.
That which cannot be thought by mind, but by which, they say,
mind is able to think: know that alone to be the Brahman, not
this which people worship here.
That which is not seen by the eye, but by which the eye is able
to see: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people
That which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the ear is
able to hear: know that alone to be Brahman, not this which
people worship here.
That which none breathes with the breath, but by which breath is
in-breathed: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which
people worship here.
Ordinarily we know three states of consciousness only,--waking, dreaming and
sleeping. There is, however, a fourth state, the superconscious, which
transcends these. In the first three states the mind is not clear enough to
save us from error; but in the fourth state it gains such purity of vision
that it can perceive the Divine. If God could be known by the limited mind
and senses, then God-knowledge would be like any other knowledge and spiritual
science like any physical science. He can be known, however, by the purified
mind only. Therefore to know God, man must purify himself. The mind
described in the Upanishads is the superconscious mind. According to the
Vedic Sages the mind in its ordinary state is only another sense organ. This
mind is limited, but when it becomes illumined by the light of the Cosmic
Intelligence, or the "mind of the mind," then it is able to apprehend the
First Cause or That which stands behind all external activities.
If thou thinkest "I know It well," then it is certain that thou
knowest but little of the Brahman (Absolute Truth), or in what
form He (resideth) in the Devas (minor aspects of Deity).
Therefore I think that what thou thinkest to be known is still to
be sought after.
Having given the definition of the real Self or Brahman, by which mortals are
able to see, hear, feel and think, the teacher was afraid that the disciple,
after merely hearing about It, might conclude that he knew It. So he said to
him: "You have heard about It, but that is not enough. You must experience It.
Mere intellectual recognition will not give you true knowledge of It. Neither
can It be taught to you. The teacher can only show the way. You must find It
Knowledge means union between subject and object. To gain this union one must
practice, theory cannot help us. The previous chapter has shown that the
knowledge of Brahman is beyond sense-perception: "There the eye does not go,
nor speech, nor mind." "That is distinct from known and also It is beyond the
unknown." Therefore it was necessary for the teacher to remind the disciple
that knowledge based on sense-perception or intellectual apprehension should
not be confounded with supersensuous knowledge. Although the disciple had
listened to the teacher with unquestioning mind and was intellectually
convinced of the truth of his words, it was now necessary for him to prove by
his own experience what he had heard. Guided by the teacher, he sought within
himself through meditation the meaning of Brahman; and having gained a new
vision, he approached the teacher once more.
The disciple said: I do not think I know It well, nor do I think
that I do not know It. He among us who knows It truly, knows
(what is meant by) "I know" and also what is meant by "I know It
This appears to be contradictory, but it is not. In the previous chapter we
learned that Brahman is "distinct from the known" and "beyond the unknown."
The disciple, realizing this, says: "So far as mortal conception is concerned,
I do not think I know, because I understand that It is beyond mind and speech;
yet from the higher point of view, I cannot say that I do not know; for the
very fact that I exist, that I can seek It, shows that I know; for It is the
source of my being. I do not know, however, in the sense of knowing the whole
Infinite Ocean of existence." The word knowledge is used ordinarily to
signify acquaintance with phenomena only, but man must transcend this relative
knowledge before he can have a clear conception of God. One who wishes to
attain Soul-consciousness must rise above matter.
The observation of material science being confined to the sense plane, it
ignores what is beyond. Therefore it must always be limited and subject to
change. It discovered atoms, then it went further and discovered electrons,
and when it had found the one, it had to drop the other; so this kind of
knowledge can never lead to the ultimate knowledge of the Infinite, because it
is exclusive and not inclusive. Spiritual science is not merely a question of
mind and brain, it depends on the awakening of our latent higher
He who thinks he knows It not, knows It. He who thinks he knows
It, knows It not. The true knowers think they can never know It
(because of Its infinitude), while the ignorant think they know
By this text the teacher confirms the idea that Brahman is unthinkable,
because unconditioned. Therefore he says: He who considers It beyond thought,
beyond sense-perception, beyond mind and speech, he alone has a true
understanding of Brahman. They who judge a living being from his external
form and sense faculties, know him not; because the real Self of man is not
manifested in his seeing, hearing, speaking. His real Self is that within by
which he hears and speaks and sees. In the same way he knows not Brahman who
thinks he knows It by name and form. The arrogant and foolish man thinks he
knows everything; but the true knower is humble. He says: "How can I know
Thee, who art Infinite and beyond mind and speech?" In the last portion of
the text, the teacher draws an impressive contrast between the attitude of the
wise man who knows, but thinks he does not know; and that of the ignorant who
does not know, but thinks he knows.
It (Brahman) is known, when It is known in every state of
consciousness. (Through such knowledge) one attains immortality.
By attaining this Self, man gains strength; and by Self-knowledge
immortality is attained.
We have learned from the previous text that the Brahman is
unknown to those whose knowledge is limited to sense experience;
but He is not unknown to those whose purified intelligence
perceives Him as the basis of all states of consciousness and the
essence of all things. By this higher knowledge a man attains
immortality, because he knows that although his body may decay
and die, the subtle essence of his being remains untouched. Such
an one also acquires unlimited strength, because he identifies
himself with the ultimate Source. The strength which comes from
one's own muscle and brain or from one's individual power must be
limited and mortal and therefore cannot lift one beyond death;
but through the strength which Atma-gnana or Self-knowledge
gives, immortality is reached. Whenever knowledge is based on
direct perception of this undying essence, one transcends all
fear of death and becomes immortal.
If one knows It here, that is Truth; if one knows It not here,
then great is his loss. The wise seeing the same Self in all
beings, being liberated from this world, become immortal.
The Brahman once won a victory for the Devas. Through that
victory of the Brahman, the Devas became elated. They thought,
"This victory is ours. This glory is ours."
Brahman here does not mean a personal Deity. There is a Brahma, the first
person of the Hindu Trinity; but Brahman is the Absolute, the One without a
second, the essence of all. There are different names and forms which
represent certain personal aspects of Divinity, such as Brahma the Creator,
Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Transformer; but no one of these can fully
represent the Whole. Brahman is the vast ocean of being, on which rise
numberless ripples and waves of manifestation. From the smallest atomic form
to a Deva or an angel, all spring from that limitless ocean of Brahman, the
inexhaustible Source of life. No manifested form of life can be independent
of its source, just as no wave, however mighty, can be independent of the
ocean. Nothing moves without that Power. He is the only Doer. But the Devas
thought: "This victory is ours, this glory is ours."
The Brahman perceived this and appeared before them. They did
not know what mysterious form it was.
They said to Fire: "O Jataveda (All-knowing)! Find out what
mysterious spirit this is." He said: "Yes."
He ran towards it and He (Brahman) said to him: "Who art thou?"
"I am Agni, I am Jataveda," he (the Fire-god) replied.
Brahman asked: "What power resides in thee?" Agni replied: "I can
burn up all whatsoever exists on earth."
Brahman placed a straw before him and said: "Burn this." He
(Agni) rushed towards it with all speed, but was not able to burn
it. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): "I was
not able to find out what this great mystery is."
Then they said to Vayu (the Air-god): "Vayu! Find out what this
mystery is." He said: "Yes."
He ran towards it and He (Brahman) said to him: "Who art thou?"
"I am Vayu, I am Matarisva (traveller of Heaven)," he (Vayu)
Then the Brahman said: "What power is in thee?" Vayu replied: "I
can blow away all whatsoever exists on earth."
Brahman placed a straw before him and said: "Blow this away." He
(Vayu) rushed towards it with all speed, but was not able to blow
it away. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): "I
was not able to find out what this great mystery is."
Then they said to Indra: "O Maghavan (Worshipful One)! Find out
what this mystery is." He said: "Yes"; and ran towards it, but
it disappeared before him.
Then he saw in that very space a woman beautifully adorned, Uma
of golden hue, daughter of Haimavat (Himalaya). He asked: "What
is this great mystery?"
Here we see how the Absolute assumes concrete form to give
knowledge of Himself to the earnest seeker. Brahman, the
impenetrable mystery, disappeared and in His place appeared a
personal form to represent Him. This is a subtle way of showing
the difference between the Absolute and the personal aspects of
Deity. The Absolute is declared to be unknowable and
unthinkable, but He assumes deified personal aspects to make
Himself known to His devotees. Thus Uma, daughter of the
Himalaya, represents that personal aspect as the offspring of the
Infinite Being; while the Himalaya stands as the symbol of the
Eternal, Unchangeable One.
She (Uma) said: "It is Brahman. It is through the victory of
Brahman that ye are victorious." Then from her words, he (Indra)
knew that it (that mysterious form) was Brahman.
Uma replied to Indra, "It is to Brahman that you owe your victory. It is
through His power that you live and act. He is the agent and you are all only
instruments in His hands. Therefore your idea that 'This victory is ours,
this glory is ours,' is based on ignorance." At once Indra saw their mistake.
The Devas, being puffed up with vanity, had thought they themselves had
achieved the victory, whereas it was Brahman; for not even a blade of grass
can move without His command.
Therefore these Devas,--Agni, Vayu and Indra--excel other Devas,
because they came nearer to Brahman. It was they who first knew
this spirit as Brahman.
Therefore Indra excels all other Devas, because he came nearest
to Brahman, and because he first (before all others) knew this
spirit as Brahman.
Agni, Vayu and Indra were superior to the other Devas because they gained a
closer vision; and they were able to do this because they were purer; while
Indra stands as the head of the Devas, because he realized the Truth directly,
he reached Brahman. The significance of this is that whoever comes in direct
touch with Brahman or the Supreme is glorified.
Thus the teaching of Brahman is here illustrated in regard to the
Devas. He dashed like lightning, and appeared and disappeared
just as the eye winks.
The teaching as regards the Devas was that Brahman is the only Doer. He had
appeared before them in a mysterious form; but the whole of the unfathomable
Brahman could not be seen in any definite form; so at the moment of vanishing,
He manifested more of His immeasurable glory and fleetness of action by a
sudden dazzling flash of light.
Next (the teaching) is regarding Adhyatman (the embodied Soul).
The mind seems to approach Him (Brahman). By this mind (the
seeker) again and again remembers and thinks about Brahman.
Only by the mind can the seeker after knowledge approach Brahman, whose nature
in glory and speed has been described as like unto a flash of lightning. Mind
alone can picture the indescribable Brahman; and mind alone, being swift in
its nature, can follow Him. It is through the help of this mind that we can
think and meditate on Brahman; and when by constant thought of Him the mind
becomes purified, then like a polished mirror it can reflect His Divine Glory.
That Brahman is called Tadvanam (object of adoration). He is to
be worshipped by the name Tadvanam. He who knows Brahman thus,
is loved by all beings.
Brahman is the object of adoration and the goal of all beings.
For this reason he should be worshipped and meditated upon as
Tadvanam. Whoever knows Him in this aspect becomes one with Him,
and serves as a clear channel through which the blessings of
Brahman flow out to others. The knower of God partakes of all
His lovable qualities and is therefore loved by all true
The disciple asked: O Master, teach me the Upanishad. (The
teacher replied:) The Upanishad has been taught thee. We have
certainly taught thee the Upanishad about Brahman.
The Upanishad is based on tapas (practice of the control of body,
mind and senses), dama (subjugation of the senses), karma (right
performance of prescribed actions). The Vedas are its limbs.
Truth is its support.
He who knows this (wisdom of the Upanishad), having been cleansed
of all sin, becomes established in the blissful, eternal and
highest abode of Brahman, in the highest abode of Brahman.
Here ends this Upanishad.
This Upanishad is called Kena, because it begins with the
inquiry: "By whom" (Kena) willed or directed does the mind go
towards its object? From whom comes life? What enables man to
speak, to hear and see? And the teacher in reply gives him the
definition of Brahman, the Source and Basis of existence. The
spirit of the Upanishads is always to show that no matter where
we look or what we see or feel in the visible world, it all
proceeds from one Source.
The prevailing note of all Vedic teaching is this: One tremendous
Whole becoming the world, and again the world merging in that
Whole. It also strives in various ways to define that Source,
knowing which all else is known and without which no knowledge
can be well established. So here the teacher replies: That which
is the eye of the eye, the ear of the ear, that is the
inexhaustible river of being which flows on eternally; while
bubbles of creation rise on the surface, live for a time, then
The teacher, however, warns the disciple that this eye, ear,
mind, can never perceive It; for It is that which illumines
speech and mind, which enables eye and ear and all
sense-faculties to perform their tasks. "It is distinct from the
known and also It is beyond the unknown." He who thinks he knows
It, knows It not; because It is never known by those who believe
that It can be grasped by the intellect or by the senses; but It
can be known by him who knows It as the basis of all
The knower of Truth says, "I know It not," because he realizes
the unbounded, infinite nature of the Supreme. "Thou art this
(the visible), Thou art That (the invisible), and Thou art all
that is beyond," he declares. The ordinary idea of knowledge is
that which is based on sense preceptions; but the knowledge of an
illumined Sage is not confined to his senses. He has all the
knowledge that comes from the senses and all that comes from
The special purpose of this Upanishad is to give us the knowledge
of the Real, that we may not come under the dominion of the ego
by identifying ourselves with our body, mind and senses. Mortals
become mortals because they fall under the sway of ego and depend
on their own limited physical and mental strength. The lesson of
the parable of the Devas and Brahman is that there is no real
power, no real doer except God. He is the eye of the eye, the
ear of the ear; and eyes, ears, and all our faculties have no
power independent of Him. When we thus realize Him as the
underlying Reality of our being, we transcend death and become
OM! PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!
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