Kathopanishad summary in English | Katha Upanishad| Conversation between Yamraj And Nachiketa | कथा उपनिषद/ कठोपनिषद / कठ उपनिषद | Dialogue with Lord of Death
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The Katha Upanishad (कठोपनिषद् or कठ उपनिषद्) (Kathopanishad) is one of the primary Upanishads, embedded in the last eight short sections of the Katha school of the Krishna Yajurveda. It is also known as Kathaka Upanishad, and is listed as number 3 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads.
The Katha Upanishad consists of two chapters (Adhyayas), each divided into three sections (Vallis). The first Adhyaya is considered to be of older origin than the second. The Upanishad is the legendary story of a little boy, Nachiketa – the son of Sage Vajasravasa, who meets Yama (the Hindu deity of death). Their conversation evolves to a discussion of the nature of man, knowledge, Atman (Self) and moksha (liberation).
Katha Upanishad asserts that “Atman (Self) exists”, teaches the precept “seek Self-knowledge which is Highest Bliss”.
It is among the most widely studied Upanishads.
Katha (कठ) literally means “distress”. Kath is also the name of a sage, credited as the founder of a branch of the Krishna Yajur-veda, as well as the term for a female pupil or follower of Kathas school of Yajurveda. Katha ( कथा) literally means “story, legend, conversation, speech, tale”.
Nachiketa, the boy and a central character in the Katha Upanishad legend. Na kṣhiti and Na akshiyete, which are word plays of and pronounced similar to Nachiketa, means “non-decay, or what does not decay”, a meaning that is relevant to second boon portion of the Nachiketa story. Similarly, Na jiti is another word play and means “that which cannot be vanquished”, which is contextually relevant to the Nachiketa’s third boon. Na-chiketa also means “I do not know, or he does not know”.
Each section of the Katha Upanishad is called a Valli (वल्ली), which literally means a medicinal vine-like climbing plant that grows independently yet is attached to a main tree.
The Katha Upanishad has two chapters, each with three sections (valli), thus a total of six sections. The first section has 29 verses, the second section 25 verses, and the third presents 17. The second chapter opens with the fourth section of the Katha Upanishad and has 15 verses, while the fifth valli also has 15 verses. The final section has 17 verses.
The son questions his father – First Valli
The Upanishad opens with the story of Vajasravasa, also called Aruni Auddalaki Gautam who gives away all his worldly possessions. However, his son Nachiketa (नचिकेता) sees the charitable sacrifice as a farce, because all those worldly things have already been used to exhaustion, and are of no value to the recipients. The cows given away, for example, were so old that they had ‘drank-their-last-water’ (पीतोदकाः), ‘eaten-their-last-grass’ (जग्धतृणाः), ‘don’t give milk’ (दुग्धदोहाः), ‘who are barren’ (निरिन्द्रियाः).
“Dear father, to whom will you give me away?”
He said it a second, and then a third time.
The father, seized by anger, replied:
“To Death, I give you away.”
Nachiketa does not die, but accepts his father’s gifting him to Death, by visiting the abode of Yama – the deity of death in the Indian pantheon of deities. Nachiketa arrives, but Yama is not in his abode. Nachiketa as guest goes hungry for three nights. Yama arrives and is apologetic for this dishonor to the guest, so he offers Nachiketa three wishes.
Nachiketa’ first wish is that Yama discharge him from the abode of death, back to his family, and that his father be calm, well-disposed, not resentful and same as he was before when he returns. Yama grants the first wish immediately.
For his second wish, Nachiketa prefaces his request with the statement that heaven is a place where there is no fear, no anxiety, no old age, no hunger, no thirst, no sorrow. He then asks Yama, the proper execution of fire ritual that enables a human being to secure heaven. Yama responds by detailing the fire ritual, including how the bricks should be arranged, and how the fire represents the building of the world. Nachiketa remembers what Yama tells him, repeats the ritual, a feat which pleases Yama, and he declares that this fire ritual will thereafter be called the “Nachiketa fires”. Yama adds that along with “three Nachiketa fires”, anyone who respects three bonds (with mother, father and teacher), does three kinds of karma (rituals, studies and charity), and understands the knowledge therein, becomes free of sorrow.
Nachiketa then asks for his third wish, asking Yama about the doubt that human beings have about “what happens after a person dies? Does he continue to exist in another form? or not?”
The remaining verse of first Valli of Katha Upanishad is expression of reluctance by Yama in giving a straight “yes or no” answer. Yama states that even gods doubt and are uncertain about that question, and urges Nachiketa to pick another wish. Nachiketa says that if gods doubt that, then he “Yama” as deity of death ought to be the only one who knows the answer. Yama offers him all sorts of worldly wealth and pleasures instead, but Nachiketa says human life is short, asks Yama to keep the worldly wealth and pleasures to himself, declares that pompous wealth, lust and pleasures are fleeting and vain, then insists on knowing the nature of Atman (Self) and sticks to his question, “what happens after death?”
The theory of good versus dear – Second Valli
Yama teaches Aatma vidya to Nachiketa
Yama begins his teaching by distinguishing between preya (प्रेय, प्रिय, dear, pleasant) and shreya (श्रेय, good, beneficial excellence).
Different is the good and different is the dear,
they both, having different aims, fetter you men;
He, who chooses for himself the good, comes to wellbeing,
he, who chooses the dear, loses the goal.
The good and the dear approach the man,
The wise man, pondering over both, distinguishes them;
The wise one chooses the good over the dear,
The fool, acquisitive and craving, chooses the dear.
Katha Upanishad then characterizes Knowledge/Wisdom as the pursuit of good, and Ignorance/Delusion as the pursuit of pleasant. It states Knowledge/Wisdom and the pursuit of good is difficult yet eternal, while Ignorance/Delusion and the pursuit of the pleasant is easy yet transient. Knowledge requires effort, and often not comprehended by man even when he reads it or hears it or by internal argument. The pursuit of Knowledge and the good, can be taught, learnt and thus realized.
Atman exists, the theory of Yoga and the essence of Vedas – Second Valli
Katha Upanishad asserts Atman – Self – exists, though it is invisible and full of mystery. It is ancient, and recognizable by Yoga (meditation on one’s self). This is one of the earliest mentions of Yoga in ancient Sanskrit literature, in the context of Self-development and meditation.
तं दुर्दर्शं गूढमनुप्रविष्टं
गुहाहितं गह्वरेष्ठं पुराणम् ।
मत्वा धीरो हर्षशोकौ जहाति ॥ १२ ॥
He (the Atman), difficult to be seen, full of mystery, the Ancient, primaeval one, concealed deep within,
He who, by yoga means of meditation on his self, comprehends Atman within him as God,
He leaves joy and sorrow far behind.
Katha Upanishad asserts that the essence of Veda is to make man liberated and free, look past what has happened and what has not happened, free from the past and the future, refocus his attention past Ignorance to Knowledge, to the means of blissful existence beyond joy and sorrow. This is achievable through realization of Atman-Brahman and this essence is reminded in the Vedas through the word Om (ॐ, Aum). That syllable, Aum, is in Brahman, means Brahman, means the Highest, means the Blissful within.
Yama is the spokesman in the second Valli of the Katha Upanishad. He asserts that man must not fear anyone or anything (not even death) as the true essence of man (Atman) is neither born nor dies; he is eternal, he is Brahman.
The seer (Atman, Self) is not born, nor does he die,
He does not originate from anybody, nor does he become anybody,
Eternal, ancient one, he remains eternal,
he is not killed, even though the body is killed.
If the killer thinks that he kills, if the killed thinks that he is killed, they do not understand; for this one does not kill, nor is that one killed.
The Self (Atman), smaller than small, greater than great, is hidden in the heart of each creature,
Free from avarice, free from grief, peaceful and content, he sees the supreme glory of Atman.
Katha Upanishad asserts that Atman-knowledge, or Self-realization, is not attained by instruction, not arguments nor reasoning from scriptures. It is comprehended by oneself through meditation and introspection. It is not attained by those who do not abstain from misconduct, not those who are restless nor composed, not those whose mind is not calm and tranquil, but only those who live ethically, are composed, tranquil, internally peaceful, search within and examine their own nature.
The parable of the chariot – Third Valli
The third Valli of Katha Upanishad presents the parable of the chariot, to highlight how Atman, body, mind, senses and empirical reality relate to a human being.
Know that the Atman is the rider in the chariot, and the body is the chariot,
Know that the Buddhi (intelligence, ability to reason) is the charioteer,and Manas (mind) is the reins.
The senses are called the horses, the objects of the senses are their paths,
Formed out of the union of the Atman, the senses and the mind, him they call the “enjoyer”.
The Katha Upanishad asserts that one who does not use his powers of reasoning, whose senses are unruly and mind unbridled, his life drifts in chaos and confusion, his existence entangled in samsara. Those who use their intelligence, have their senses calm and under reason, they live a life of bliss and liberation, which is the highest place of Vishnu.
The nature of Atman, need for ethics and the hierarchy of Reality – Third Valli
The Katha Upanishad presents a hierarchy of Reality from the perspective of a human being. It asserts that Artha (objects, means of life) are above Indriya (senses), that Manas (mind) is above Artha in this hierarchy, above the Manas is Buddhi (intellect, his ability to reason), above the Buddhi is Atman (his Self, great Self). Beyond the Atman is the Avyaktam (unmanifested Reality), and Purusha (cosmic Self) is beyond the Avyaktam, and beyond the Purush, there is nothing – for it is the goal, for it is the highest road. At the basic level of life, the interaction is between Arth and Indriya (sensory organs); while at the highest level, man becomes aware of and holistically realizes the entire hierarchy. The Self is hidden in all beings, it does not show itself, but its awareness is felt by seers with agrya sukshma (subtle, more self-evident conscious, keen thinkers).
Katha Upanishad states that Prajna (conscious man) should heed to the ethical precept of self-examination and self-restraint, restraining his speech and mind by the application of his Buddhi (power to reason). Man should holistically unify his tempered senses and mind with his intellect, all these with his Atman (Self), and unify his “great Self” with the Self of the rest, the tranquility of Oneness with the Avyaktam and “cosmic Self”. Self (Atman) is soundless, touchless, formless, tasteless, scentless, without beginning, without end, imperishable, beyond great, blissful, and when one reveres one’s own Self, he is liberated. Such Self-realization is not easy according to Katha Upanishad.
उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया
दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ १४ ॥
Having obtained these boons, understand them!
Like the Razor’s sharp edge is difficult to traverse,
The path to one’s Self is difficult.
Katha Upanishad is one of the earliest mentions of the elements of Yoga theory, and the recommendation of Yoga as a path to the highest goal of man, that is a life of spiritual freedom and liberation.
The theory of Atman, Oneness and Plurality – Fourth Valli
The fourth Valli starts by asserting that inner knowledge is that of unity, eternal calmness and spiritual Oneness, while the external knowledge is that of plurality, perishable “running around” and sensory objects. The Katha Upanishad explains what is Atman, how it can be known, the nature of Atman, and why it ought to be known.
किमत्र परिशिष्यते । एतद्वै तत् ॥ ४ ॥
What is left here? Truly, this is that (Atman).
Atman is the subject of Self-knowledge, the bearer of spiritual reality, that which is all-pervading, inside every being, which unifies all human beings as well as all creatures, the concealed, eternal, immortal, pure bliss. It exists and active when man is in awake-state, it exists and active when man is in dream-state. The empirical reality is the “honey” for the Atman with the honey metaphor repeating “fruit of numerous karma flowers in the valley of life” doctrine. To know Atman, look inward and introspect; to know objects, look outward and examine. Everything that changes is not Atman, that which was, is, will be and never changes is Atman. Just like a baby is concealed inside a mother’s womb when conceived, Atman is concealed inside every creature.
Self is the lord of the past, the lord of the now, and the lord of the future. Self is eternal, never born, never dies, part of that which existed before the universe was formed from “brooding heat”. Sun rests in it, gods rest in it, all nature rests in it, it is everywhere, it is in everything. To understand the eternal nature of one’s Self is to feel calmness, inner peace, patience and freedom regardless of the circumstances one is in, affections or threats one faces, praises or insults one is subjected to. Anyone who runs after sensory-impressions, gets lost among them just like water flows randomly after rainfall on mountains and those who know their Self and act according to its Dharma remain pure like pure water remains pure when poured into pure water.
There is no plurality and separateness between the essence (Atman) of I and others, between the essence of nature and spirit. The Self-driven individual ignores the superficial individuality of others, and accepts their essential identity. A nondualistic (Advaita) position, where both Purusha and Prakrti are only Atman.
Life is highest joy, and what happens after death – Fifth Valli
It begins by stating that human body is like a Pura (पुर, town, city) with eleven gates that connect him to the universe. The individual, who understands and reveres this town of eternal, non-changing spirit, is never crooked-minded, is always free. The Self dwells in swan, in atmosphere, in man, in Varasad (wide spaces), in eternal law, everywhere in the universe; it is born of water, it is born of kine, it is born of Ṛta (right, truth, ethics, morals, eternal law), it is born of stone (mountains) as the great Ṛta, as ought to be. This Self is worshipped by all the gods. Body dies, Self doesn’t.
***In the Vedic religion, Ṛta is the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. In the hymns of the Vedas, Ṛta is described as that which is ultimately responsible for the proper functioning of the natural, moral and sacrificial orders.
Katha Upanishad discusses what happens to the Self after death, stating a variant of the premise of Karma theory that underlies major Indian religions.
योनिमन्ये प्रपद्यन्ते शरीरत्वाय देहिनः ।
स्थाणुमन्येऽनुसंयन्ति यथाकर्म यथाश्रुतम् ॥ ७ ॥
Some of these Selfs enter into the womb, in order to embody again into organic beings, others assemble unto what is Sthanu (immovable things), according to their karma, according to their shrutam (श्रुतम्, knowledge, learning).
The Self is always awake and active, while one is asleep, shaping wishful dreams. It is one with Brahman. It is everywhere, within and without, it is immortal. This universal, oneness theme is explained by the Katha Upanishad by three similes. Just like one light exists and penetrates the cosmic space, enveloping and clinging to everything and every form individually, the “one inner Self” of beings exists and dwells in all beings, clings to every form and remains still without, states the Katha Upanishad. Just like one air exists and penetrates the world, enveloping and clinging to everything and every being individually, the “one inner Self” of beings exists and dwells in all beings, clings to every form and remains still without. Just like the Sun exists and its nature is not contaminated by the impurities seen by the eyes, the “one inner Self” of beings exists and its nature is pure, never contaminated by the sorrows and blemishes of the external world.
That individual is perennially happy, asserts Katha Upanishad, who realizes the Atman is within him, that he himself is the Master, that the inner Self of all beings and his own Self are “one form manifold”, and none other. Life is spirit, full of joy. Meaning is Atman, full of perennial peace. “Truly, this is that”, once deeply felt and understood by man, is inexpressible highest joy. It is he who realizes this who shines, his splendour shines everything with and by (Anu), the whole world shines by such joy unleashed, such splendour manifested.
The theory of Yoga – Sixth Valli
The sixth Valli continues the discussion of Karma and rebirth theory. The first five verses of the last section of the Upanishad assert that those who do not know or do not understand Atman return to the world of creation, and those who do are free, liberated. Some unaware of Brahman’s essence are naturally inclined to fear God and its manifestation such as nature (fire, lightning, sun). Those who are aware of Brahman’s essence, are awakened to the knowledge, fear no one and nothing, become immortal as with Brahman.
The Katha Upanishad recommends a path to Self-knowledge, and this path it calls Yoga.
यदा पञ्चावतिष्ठन्ते ज्ञानानि मनसा सह ।
बुद्धिश्च न विचेष्टते तामाहुः परमां गतिम् ॥ १० ॥
तां योगमिति मन्यन्ते स्थिरामिन्द्रियधारणाम् ।
अप्रमत्तस्तदा भवति योगो हि प्रभवाप्ययौ ॥ ११ ॥
Only when Manas (mind) with thoughts and the five senses stand still, and when Buddhi (intellect, power to reason) does not waver, that they call the highest path. That is what one calls Yoga, the stillness of the senses, concentration of the mind, It is not thoughtless heedless sluggishness, Yoga is creation and dissolution.
Realize you are perfect now and here – Sixth Valli
The Katha Upanishad concludes its philosophical presentation in sixth Valli. The state of perfection, according to the last section of the Upanishad, consists “not in the attainment of a future or yonder world, but it is already just now and here for one who is Self-realized, who knows his Self as Brahman (Cosmic Self)”.
Sixth Valli declares that the Upanishad concludes its teaching therein.
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