The Upanishads are philosophical and spiritual sermons, forming a part of the Vedas. Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Munda, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka are the ten most famous Upanishads.
The Katha or Kaathaka Upanishad of the Yajurved contains the philosophy of life in a dialogical form. The conversation is between an intelligent Nachiketa (नचिकेतस्) and Yama, the God of death. Nachiketa asks Yama about the secret of death. Yama declines to answer at first, but, has to comply before the clever kid. The Upanishad consists of two chapters, each of which has three sections called Vallis, thus, having total 6 parts.
The Katha Upanishad belongs to the Kathaka branch of the Taittiriya School of the Krishna Yajurved. Although no one knows definitely as to how the name ‘Katha’ came into being, it could have been derived from the name of the Kathaka branch to which the Upanishad belongs. Hence, it is also known as Kaathaka Upanishad.
Due to lack of adequate evidence for chronological orientation, the exact date of the composition of the Upanishads cannot be determined. The Upanishadic age has been placed somewhere between 1200 B.C. and 600 B.C. (R.D. Ranade “A constructive study of Upanishadic philosophy”). The chronological order of the Upanishads as estimated by R.D. Ranade is as follows-
- Chandogya, Bruhadaranyaka
- Isha, Kena
- Aitareya, Taittiriya
- Katha, Mundaka
Generally, it is regarded as a work during pre-Buddhistic period i.e. around the 600 century B.C., opinions regarding this, however, vary. On the other hand, tradition says that the Vedas have come from the mouth of the creator of the world- Lord Brahma at the beginning of the Satya Yuga (the Golden Age). According to this belief, the Vedas (including the Katha Upanishad) would be more than thirty-five lakh years old.
The Upanishads have a Shanti Pada or a peace invocation at the beginning of the verses. All the Upanishads belonging to one Veda have the same invocation. This invocation or prayer is to be recited prior to the study of the Upanishad. This is done with an intention to avert all the evils which may fall on the person reading it. The invocation of the Katha Upanishad is as follows-
ॐ सह नाववतु| सह नौ भुनक्तु|
सह वीर्यं करवावहै| तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु| मा विद्विषावहै|
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः|
Om. Saha naavavatu. Saha nau bhunaktu.
Saha veeryam karavaavahai.
Tejasvi naavadheetamastu Maa vidvishaavahai.
Om. Shaantih shaantih shaantih.
“May He protect us both (the preceptor and the disciple). May He be pleased with us both. May we work together with vigor. May our knowledge make us illumined. Let there be no animosity between us. Aum. Peace, peace, peace.”
The invocation of the Katha Upanishad is a prayer to Supreme God or the Brahman which requests that both the preceptor and the disciple stay together and perform their respective duties in harmony. In the Katha Upanishad, Yama is the preceptor while Nachiketa is his earnest disciple.
Philosophy of the Upanishad
The Upanishad begins with a story. A Brahmin by name Vaajashravas (वाजश्रवस्) performs a sacrifice and donates cows to the priests as an offering. His young son, Nachiketa, notices that his father is giving away old and feeble cows who could never give milk. Nachiketa knew that it was wrong on the part of his father to donate something that is worn out and old. He approached his father and offered himself to be donated to someone so that his father may gain merit (पुण्य), after giving away someone, who is healthy. When his father ignored him, Nachiketa persistently requested to be given away. Irritated, Vaajashravas said in a fit of rage, “I donate you to Yama (the God of death).”
Nachiketa, a dutiful son, went to Yama’s abode only to find out that Yama was not at home. He waited there for three days. When Yama returned, he saw Nachiketa and offered him three boons to compensate for making him wait for three days in his absence. In his first boon, Nachiketa demanded that his father be peaceful and become glad to have Nachiketa home after his return from Yama’s abode. In his second boon, Nachiketa asked to know the sacred fire-sacrifice which leads to heaven. Both the boons were readily fulfilled by Yama. Nachiketa, as his third boon, requested Yama, “After a man has died, some people claim that he has gone, while some believe that he is still there. Please enlighten me in this matter.” Nachiketa, thus, sought to find out the mystery of what comes after death.
It was this third boon which brought out the philosophy revealed in this Upanishad. Yama, desiring to test Nachiketa’s genuine thirst for the supreme knowledge, tried to lure him with material pleasures. He offered Nachiketa lot of cattle, elephants, horses and gold; life of hundred years; sovereignty of a large kingdom; nymphs (अप्सरा) with sweet voice and musical instruments for his entertainment. Nachiketa was wise enough to understand that all the pleasures offered by Yama were fleeting and temporary. He told Yama that all the pleasures would be futile for people when the death-god himself would approach them to take their life away. Yama was impressed with Nachiketa’s steadfastness to find out the answer to the question he posed; and the answer that Yama gave to Nachiketa is the doctrine of the Katha Upanishad.
There are always two alternatives for a man to choose in any situation- shreyas (श्रेयस्) i.e. right and preyas (प्रेयस्) i.e. pleasurable. An ignorant person chooses preyas and gets entangled in the short-lived mundane pleasures- money, gold, women, fame, luxuries, comforts etc. He believes that the fulfillment of his material desires is his only aim. Such a person is ensnared in the cycle of birth and death, and drowns in the ocean of worldly materialism. A wise man, on the other hand, prudently selects shreyas and tries to become free from all desires. He strives to reach the spiritual aim.
Brahman or the Self is the base of all that exists in the world. It is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. The Self cannot be perceived by the five senses. The Self cannot be revealed to all. Some have not even heard about the Self and hence, they are engrossed in seeking mundane pleasures for a long time. Only a knowledgeable and wise preceptor is capable of enlightening others about the Self. The Self cannot be understood by intellectual reasoning. Nor can it be comprehended by searching for it outwards. The Brahman can only be understood by turning inward, within one’s own person. The Self is never born, nor does it ever die. The Self does not spring from anything. Nothing ever comes out from the Self. The world we see around us is nothing but Self manifested in different forms. An ignoramus pursues the varied expressions of the Self, believing them to be many.
The Supreme Self resides within every individual in the form of individual self or soul. The individual self is not the body, intellect or the mind. It is situated in the middle of the body, near the heart. It is effulgent and stays there like a thumb sized flame. The individual self is not affected by the joys, sorrows, anger, envy and other feelings felt by the mind. It just acts as a witness to the activities of the mind, intellect and the body. Due to desires, emotions, ignorance and identification with the body, man forgets that his true identity is the soul and his aim is to break all the shackles of the mundane world and become one with the Supreme Self. The individual self, because it is the part of the Supreme self, is immortal. Even when the body dies, it does not perish. People, who believe that death is the end of the person, are ignorant. It is the body that dies or can be killed. The soul cannot be damaged nor can it be slain. A similar doctrine is also stated in the Bhagavad Gita.
Any human being on earth is a combination of physical body, mind and intellect which is kept alive by the individual soul. The individual soul is not limited to humans alone, but, even animals, trees and other non-living things like rocks have the individual soul in them in varying levels of consciousness. When a human being dies, the soul, accompanied by mind, gets separated from the body. Though the soul is unruffled, the mind still has the impressions of thoughts, actions and desires of the person. The soul, once again, gets a new body in conformity with those thoughts, actions and desires. Some souls enter the womb while some others enter the stationary objects. Unless the mind ceases to have desires, the soul will keep on taking birth in one body or the other. A wise man realizes that the desires have no end and tries to progress spiritually. When a person frees himself from all desires, he gets liberated from the cycle of birth and death to attain emancipation.
The Katha Upanishad is famous for its metaphor of a chariot. The human being is compared to a chariot. The human being, according to this Upanishad, is a psychophysical chariot. The Self is the person riding the chariot (the rider). The intellect is the charioteer. The mind is the reins in the hand of the charioteer. The five sense organs are the five horses that are on the other end of the reins. The sense objects are the grass around the path. The physical body is the chariot. The goal is to reach the Supreme Self. To achieve this goal, the chariot needs to run on the path for the sake of comfortable and easy travelling. The charioteer (intellect) controls the reins (mind) so that the horses (sense organs) won’t go astray hankering behind the grass (sense objects). If the charioteer (intellect) does not control the reins (mind) properly, the horses (sense organs) will wander off and the entire chariot will lose the way and will be destroyed. Just as the duty of the charioteer is to guide the horses by holding the reins tight in his hand, it is the duty of the intellect to guide the sense organs by controlling the mind. If the horses go astray, the entire chariot will break down and the rider will not be able to arrive at his destination. Similarly, if the sense organs overindulge on the sense objects, the soul will not be able to reach its destination- the supreme Self. In both the cases, it is very important that the horses and the sense organs do not waver from the right path. If the horses and the sense organs are properly controlled, the rider and the soul will reach their respective destinations very soon. If the chariot breaks or the body is destroyed by lack of control, the rider and the soul both will wander in the wilderness.
Thus, the Katha Upanishad puts forth the secret about the self within the human body. If a person wishes to attain everlasting bliss, he should understand the futility of the fleeting, transitory world and eventually give up on his endless desires to become one with the Supreme Self.
- A Constructive Survey Of Upanishadic Philosophy; Dr. R.D. Ranade
- The Principle Upanishads; S. Radhakrishnan
- Eight Upanishads (with the commentary of Shankaracharya); Swami Gambhirananda
- A glimpse On Sruthi; E.T. Sankaran Kutty