The origin of the Katha Upanisad is disputed. Scholars are undecided whether this Upanisad is associated with the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda or the Atharva-Veda. There is however, a story of Nichiketa (the protagonist of the Katha Upanisad) in the Brahamana of the Taittiriya Yajur-Veda, so it may be likely that the Upanisad is from the Yajur-Veda, but we do not really know(Nikhilananda 67). The Upanisad is composed in two chapters or adhyaya, each made up of three sections or vallis. It is disputed whether the first adhyaya was written well before the second, therefore negating the necessity of the second. The dispute is due to literary variances, such as metre, grammar, language, and thought (Muller, introduction xxiii). Muller goes on to say that “we know so little of the time and the circumstances when these half-prose and half-metrical Upanisads were first put together, that I should hesitate before expunging even the most modern-sounding lines from the original context of these Vedantic essays.” (Muller introduction xxiv).
The first valli of the Upanisad tells the story of a rsi named Vajasravasa who performs a sacrifice wherein he must sacrifice all of his possessions. His son, Nichiketa, points out that as he also is property of his father he too must be sacrificed. Vajasravasa becomes angry with Nichiketa, and perhaps out of fear of losing his son, he hesitates. Nichiketa has to prompt his father three times before Vajasravasa, in order to stay true to his word and complete the ritual fully, angrily declares he will sacrifice his son to Yama, the god of death. Nichiketa travels to the abode of Yama and after three days of solitude, Yama arrives. As compensation for his waiting, Yama offers Nichiketa three wishes. The first wish is to appease his father’s anger and to return joyfully to him, the second is lifelong morality (that he can live the rest of his life morally upright) (Deussen 270), and the third is to know if there is a part of the body (Atman) that is immortal and lives after death (Nikhilananda 68). The first wish is granted easily, Yama says Vajasravasa will sleep peacefully and be free from anger (Muller 4). Yama fulfills the second wish by teaching Nichiketa a fire sacrifice and then naming the sacrifice after the boy. It is said in verse 17 of the first valli, that when one learns this sacrifice and learns “all that is born of Brahman, which is venerable and divine, then he obtains everlasting peace.” (Muller 5). For the final wish, Nichiketa has to implore Yama who admits that even the gods have doubts about death. Yama tries to entice his guest to choose wealth, prosperity, women, land or the whole earth rather than ask about death. Nichiketa persists, stating that no amount of worldly possessions compare to knowing about the eternal soul. As the god of death, Yama knows that if Nichiketa achieves liberation (moksha) he will be out of his reach, whereas if Nichiketa succumbs to the temptations, he would die and be trapped by Yama (Kath. Up. II.6).
This is where the second valli starts, and Yama begins his teaching. He starts by differentiating between what is good and what is pleasant. Wise men pursue what is good, fools pursue what is pleasant. Evidently Nichiketa is a wise man for pursuing what is good and dismissing what is pleasant when offered. It turns out, Yama is pleased to have such a wise guest enquiring of him (Chakravarti 97). Yama articulates the existence of Atman in this single verse:
“He (the Atman), difficult to be seen, full of mystery, the ancient primeval one lying concealed deep in the cavern,- He who, with self surrender or devotion, comprehends that Atman in one’s own innermost self as God, leaves behind (goes beyond) joy and sorrow” (Deussen 283).
Atman or The Self is described as invisible and small. It is hard to obtain if taught by an “inferior man” (Muller 9). Since Nichiketa is being taught by Yama, the god of death, he is fortunate to have a skilled teacher and he successfully acquires this knowledge. The concept of ‘Om’ is then introduced by Yama. Described as meaning Brahman, and “[anyone] who knows that syllable, whatever he desires, is his.” (Muller 10). Atman is described according to its own essential nature (Deussen 272). It is eternal, uncreated, incorruptible, and immortal. One cannot attain it through the Veda, nor understanding, nor through learning. One must be chosen by the eternal Self in order to gain the eternal Self (Muller 11). There is a call to morality at the end of this valli. Yama states that in order to obtain the Self, one must turn from his wickedness, one must be tranquil, and subdued. Otherwise one cannot receive the Self even by knowledge. Action precedes reception.
The third valli emphasizes Atman in the physical body and returning out of it (Deussen 272). In verse 3 Atman is described as a rider in a chariot, the body as the chariot itself, and the senses as the horses of the chariot. The union of these three elements forms one into an ‘enjoyer’ (Deussen 287). Because this may take place inside of an individual (as stated in valli II, one must be chosen by the Self) this has ethical implications for that individual. One must be wise and use his intelligence properly, and if he fails to do so, he will remain trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth, (samsara). But if one is wise, and self-controlled, he will “reach the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of Visnu” (Muller 13). Yama then describes Purusa as the highest goal; there is nothing beyond him, he is the final goal (Deussen 288). All beings are indwelt with Atman, which is concealed from view, and can only be obtained by the upright. Yama then dismisses Nichiketa to pursue this highest goal. It is a difficult path that he must depart on but to get to the end “he becomes full of glory in the world of Brahman” (Deussen 290).
Atman as the subject of knowledge is the focus of the fourth valli. It denies that there are differences between beings, asserting that everything is part of Atman. Verse 10 states: “he who sees any difference here (between Brahman and the world), goes from death to death” (Muller 16). This denial of plurality must be central to achieving Atman, otherwise one will not escape samsara. Atman exists whether one is awake or asleep, it is great and all pervading, even the gods are connected to Atman. One who knows Purusa will not feel alarmed at anything, as rain falls down on a mountain and scatters down all sides, so does a man who does not know Purusa. However, pure water poured into pure water remains pure (Deussen 293). Again, asserting that one must be in a sense, righteous before one can understand or attain Atman.
The fifth valli continues to expound on the omnipresence of Atman.
“He (Brahman) is the swan (sun), dwelling in the bright heaven;he is the Vasu (air), dwelling in the sky; he is the sacrificer (fire), dwelling on the hearth; he is the guest (Soma), dwelling in the sacrificial jar; he dwells in men, in gods (vara), in the sacrifice (rita), in heaven; he is born in the water, on earth, in the sacrifice (rita), on the mountains; he is the True and the Great” (Muller 18).
This verse references the Rgveda 4.40.5, it is almost a direct quote, the original meaning of which was unknown, it is here applied to Atman (Deussen 293). Atman is described as the essence of life, even more important than the breaths humans take every second of every day (Kath. Up. V.5). After death, one’s fate is determined by his actions and knowledge. He may return as another human, or he may “migrate into plants” (Deussen 294). However, the presence of Atman is independent of one’s actions. Atman is always working, even if one does not know they possess Atman. Yama uses three similes to illustrate the omnipresence of Atman, and show that despite being present in all creatures, Atman also exists independently from all creatures. It is as light penetrates all space and clings to all the forms in that space. Or as air is all around us, and also within us, and as the sun exists, it is free from imperfections, so too is Atman. In the transcendent place where Atman dwells, nothing shines. Not the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars. “He alone shines; all else takes its splendour from him, the whole world shines by his splendour” (Deussen 296).
banyan tree is a famous tree that looks as though its roots are growing upwards
into the sky, and its branches downwards into the Earth. This is the way that
Yama describes Brahman in the sixth and final valli, as a transcendent tree that reaches its branches down from
the transcendent place to this world, and into all beings (Deussen 296). Yama
goes on to talk about fear of prana
(vital breath), which has been interpreted as analogous to ‘fear of God’ in
Christianity. However that is not entirely accurate, as ‘fear of God’ is a fear
of the divine that exists outside of oneself, whereas prana exists in all objects, animate and inanimate. To fear
Brahaman within oneself is to fear the only thing. Yama is saying that those
who fear the manifestations of Brahman; wind, water, fire, the sun, and even
death are those that are unaware of the existence of Brahman and will remain
trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth. (Deussen 296-297).Yama then emphasizes again how Brahaman cannot be sensed, but only
attained through devotion or yoga.
The valli ends with an assertion that
one who achieves unity with Brahman will gain immortality. After one has
relinquished all desires and fears, then he becomes liberated, then he becomes
part of the one. It is asserted that the remaining 3 verses in the Katha Upanisad are there as an appendix(Whitney 111). After his time spent
with the god of death, Nichiketa departs, having been enlightened, obtaining
Brahman, and likewise “another who is thus knowing as to the self” (Whitney
112). Yama concludes the final verse with a request for the two of them to
continue to be united with Brahman. As he said previously, even the gods are
part of Brahman, and now that Nichiketa is as well, and the boy is free from
death, perhaps the god now sees them as equals when he says “let us not be at
odds” (Whitney 112).
Bibliography and Further Recommended Reading
Deussen, Paul (1980) Sixty Upanishads of the Vedas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Chakravarti, Sures Chandra (1979) The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Delhi: NAG Publishers.
Muller, F. Max (1975) The Upanishads. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
(1963) The Upanishads. Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. New York: Harper & Row publishers.
Whitney, W. D. (1890) “Translation of the Katha Upanishad.” Transactions of the American Philological Association Vol. 21 88-112
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Article written by: Graham Jantz (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.