The Kathopanishad is considered as one of the major Upanishads, since Sankara Bhagavadpäda has commented on it. It belongs to the Kathaka-Säkhä of Krshna-Yajurveda. Although tradition considers Sruti as timeless, scholars place it belonging to the Sutra period of Vedic Sanskrit Literature. It is considered a middle Upanishad, since it contains passages that suggest contact with Buddhist ideas, so was likely composed after the fifth century BCE. It figures as third Upanishad in the list of 108 Upanishads in Muktikä Upanishad (Muk.Up.-30). It consists of two chapters (adhyāyas), each divided into three sections (vallis) that contain a total of 119 mantras. In volume, it comes third after Chändogya and Brhadäranyaka as can be seen below. Many mantras of Kathopanishad have been repeated in the Bhagavad-Gitä in verbatim/or adapted.
Katha may be the most widely known amongst all the Upanishads; its early Persian translations first found their way into Europe. Max Muller translated it 1879, Edwin Arnold rendered it in verse, as "The Secret of Death" and Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the central story at the end of his essay, Immortality. The Upanishad is based on the text is the story of Nachiketä, son of sage Väjasravasa, and his encounter with Lord Yama, the Hindu God of Death and Righteousness (Yama Dharmaräja).
Significance of Kathopanishad
In the tradition of teaching of Advaita Vedänta ‘Kathopanishad’ is taught first. I feel privileged to quote Swämi Dayänanda Saraswati’s (Founder of ‘Ärsha Vidyä’ paramparä) exact words, regarding the first Vedanta Corse conducted by him in Sandipani, Mumbai in 1972,
‘The first time I introduced Sankara-Bhäshyam to the students was when I was teaching Kathopanishad. The Kathopanishad-Bhäshyam is the easiest among all the Upanishads, because there is no Purvapakshah-Siddhäntah. If you want to get introduced to bhäshyam, you must study Kathopanishad. It is long enough, and you can stay with it for sometime. There is an äkhyäyikä, a story, and that is the best for an introduction. This Upanishad also talks about the qualifications necessary for the student. It can create certain fervour, through Naciketä; you can create a lot of fervour. I judged that the Kathopanishad-Bhäshyam was the right choice.’
- c.f. - ‘Swämi Dayänanda Saraswati – Traditional teacher of Brahmavidyä’, -
By Padmä Narasimhan
The seed of the story of Kathopanishad can be traced in Rgveda X.135, as well as in the Taittiriya Brähmana (III.1.8), and later the Mahäbhärata (Anusäsana Parva -106). Väjasravasa means son of Väjasravä. Väjasravä was the name of a sage, who was perhaps famous for his charity of giving grains, implying the great sage Aruna. Uddälaka Äaruni was the son of Aruna, and he performs the Visvajit sacrifice in which he was required to give away all his worldly possessions. His son Naciketä asks to whom was he given (since he too was a possession of the Rishi, and hence needed to be given away). The sage ignores him twice, but on third asking, the irritated sage said in anger, ‘Unto Yama, I give thee’. Naciketä goes to the abode of Yama, and, finding him absent, waits there for three days and nights. Yama on his return offers to grant him three boons. (1.1.9)
Visvajit sacrifice by Väjasravasa
Tr.- Once upon a time, Väjasravasa (also known as Uddälaka, of Gautama lineage) performed the Visvajit sacrifice desiring its result. He had a son named Naciketä. (I.1.1)
Naciketä’s thoughts, and dialogue between father and son
One is supposed to give away all possessions in the Visvajit ritual. Naciketä was watching everything being gifted away. Although young, thinking that a son is also his father’s property and hence must be given away, he approached his father and asked –
Tr. - ‘To whom are you giving me away?’ The father ignored the child’s question and did not respond. Naciketä kept on harping the question, a second and a third time. Irritated, the father blurted – ‘I give you away to Death.’ (I.1.2, 3, & 4)
Naciketä started wondering –
Tr. - I am considered to be best amongst many in many aspects, above average in some aspects. Of what use I can be to Lord Yama, which father desires to be done by me? (I.1.5)
What was uttered has to be executed. Naciketä consoled his father advising him to note –
Tr. - what has been done by his forefathers, and what is being done by people currently and requested him to send him to Lord Yama as per his words. (I.1.6).
The story moves fast in the Upanishad.
When Naciketä reached the abode of Lord Yama, he had gone out on errand. Naciketä waited for Yama’s return three nights without partaking food.
Tr. - When Lord Yama returned from his errand, his wives/ministers advised him to pacify the young Brahmin boy immediately, failing which all his good deeds will be washed away. (I.1.7 & 8)
Lord Yama approached Naciketä and apologised to him and said,
Tr. - Oh Brahmin! You have been waiting in my place since three nights without food. Please ask me for three boons for each of those nights waited. (I.1.9)
Summary of Naciketä’s three wishes, and Yama’s response
1. to be allowed to return to his father alive, and that his father not be angry with him (1.1.10);
2. to be instructed as to the proper performance of Vedic fire-sacrifice in order to gain immortality (1.1.12–13);
3. to be given knowledge about life after death (1.1.20).
Lord Yama grants the first wish immediately (1.1.11). In answer to Naciketä's second question, Yama expounds the performance of a special fire-sacrifice, which he states is to be named after Naciketä (1.1.14–19).
Before answering the third question, Yama tests Naciketä, offering him all sorts of worldly pleasures instead, but Naciketä insists on knowing the secret of life after death (1.1.21–29). The remainder of the text (Chapters I.2 to II.3) contains Yama's teaching concerning true immortality.
The first boon – pacifying his father
As the first boon, Naciketä asked that his father should become calm and recognise him on his return and talk to him affectionately. (I.1.10) This was immediately granted by Lord Yama. (I.1.11)
The second boon - Agnividyä
For the second boon, Naciketä asked for that Agnividyä, knowing and performing which, a person could go to heaven, where there is no fear, no old age and death, since Lord Yama is not there. (I.1.12 & 13)
Lord Yama taught him the Agnividyä with details of selection of bricks and fire. In fact, seeing the young boy’s memory and grasping ability, Lord Yama was so pleased that he gifted a jewelled-necklace to Naciketä and proclaimed that, the said Agnividyä, henceforth will be known as ‘Naciketägni’. (I.1.14, 15, & 16)
Lord Yama continued the praise of the Naciketägni (I.1.17-18), and finally asked Naciketä to seek the third boon. (I.1.19))
The third boon
Now, Naciketä asked for the third boon,
Tr. - There is indeed doubt about what happens after death. Some say it exists, some say it does not exist. I desire to know the truth from you clearly. This is my request for the third boon. (I.1.20)
Lord Yama was stunned to hear the request. He said,
Tr. - Child, this subtle mystery was not clear to the Devatäs earlier, since it is not easily comprehensible. Hence, you abandon the idea. Ask for some other boon. (I.1.21)
Naciketä used Lord Yama’s this reason to support his request and insisted on knowing the truth, since it was earlier not known to the Devatäs, and there is no better instructor of this knowledge other than Lord Yama himself. (I.1.22)
Lord Yama’s offer to Naciketä
Lord Yama tried to dissuade Naciketä by offering pleasures of the world,
Tr. - You may ask for progeny with long life, abundant cattle, horses, elephants, gold and huge empire on the earth and longevity as per his desire. (I.1.23)
He offered to give anything that is desired by Naciketä, and objects that are not available on the earth, and advised Naciketä not to pester the question – what happens after death. (I.1.24 & 25)
Hearing Lord Yama, Naciketä said that all the gifts offered by Lord Yama are transient, and in fact, they age a person. ‘May all your gifts remain with you.’ (I.1.26) ‘A person cannot be satisfied with wealth. In fact, having seen you will ensure wealth and long life, but the only boon worth asking is the knowledge of that tattva.’ (I.1.27) ‘Having come to heaven, in contact with immortals, who would care for long life in the earth!’ (I.1.28) ‘Therefore, please teach me that tattva about which people have doubts. Naciketä does not want any other boon.’ (I.1.28 & 29).
From now onwards, (Ch.-I.2), until the end of the text (Ch.-II.3) Lord Yama teaches the nitya-tattva – the secret of what happens after death.
1st Chapter – 2nd Valli
When Lord Yama was convinced that Naciketä is indeed qualified to receive the Brahmavidyä and is resolved on knowing the truth, He first imparted the significance of Brahmavidyä, before the actual teaching.
Sreyas & Preyas
He commenced with the introduction of Sreyas and Preyas, and how they are opposed to each other. The option between these two is available to a person. Examining the two, the wise person chooses Sreyas, while the unwise chooses the Preyas for the sake of protection and growth and falls without reaching the true goal. (I.2.1 & 2)
Tr. - However, you Naciketä did not opt for progeny, wealth and others knowing its uselessness, which in fact allures many and bring the seeker to grief. (I.2.3)
To explain why Sreyas brings auspiciousness to its seeker while Preyas brings grief, Lord Yama said -
(As with Sreyas and Preyas, so also) Tr. - That which is known as knowledge and that which is known as ignorance are also contradictory to each other and give opposite results. However, I see you Naciketä as the seeker of knowledge, because various objects of desire did not tempt you. (I.2.4)
Fate of the worldly people
Tr. - People live in ignorance; still consider themselves as intelligent and wise. However, they grapple without reaching the goal, just as the blind led by a blind person. (I.2.5)
Tr. - The means for the attainment of heaven is not available to the unwise person, who is blinded by the temptation of wealth. One who thinks that this is the only world, and there is nothing hereafter, comes under my sway (death) repeatedly. (I.2.6)
Praise of Ätmatattva
Tr. - This Ätmatattva is not available to many for listening, and many who listen do not understand. In fact, the teacher (of this Ätmatattva) is a wonder and the receiver is also a wonder. One who gets to know this under an adept teacher is indeed a wonder. (I.2.7)
Tr. - This Ätmatattva is not intelligible when spoken by an ordinary person. Only when it is taught by a wise person, who has identified oneself with this, it is known. This tattva is beyond logic, being subtler than the subtle. (I.2.8)
Tr. - This tattva is not known by argument. You are endowed with resolution. May we get more seeker of the Truth like you, O Naciketä! (I.2.9)
Transience of result of action
Giving his own example, Lord Yama said,
Tr. - I know the timeless cannot be attained by anything time-bound. Therefore, knowingly by performing Naciketägni, I have attained the time-bound position of mine, in the heaven. (I.2.10)
Praise of Naciketä’s dispassion
Tr. - O Naciketä! You out of your wisdom, have rejected all the time-bound objects having examined the highest reach of desire, the position of Hiranyagarbha, who is the support of the universe, the shore of fearlessness, and is the result of infinite meditation. (I.2.11)
Tr. - The wise person gives up happiness and sorrow by meditating on the Self that is inscrutable, that is available in the intellect. (I.2.12)
Tr. - After hearing this Ätmatattva, grasping it completely, separating it from the body-mind-sense complex, a person rejoices attaining this subtle tattva, for one indeed obtains the source of all happiness by knowing this. And I consider that the world of Brahman is wide open for you Naciketä! (I.2.13)
Naciketä’s question about that nitya-tattva
Hearing this, Naciketä immediately said,
Tr. - Please teach me that (nitya-tattva) – which is other than right and wrong, which is other than cause and effect, and which is other than past and future. (I.2.14)
The real teaching begins now
The teaching of Om-kära by Lord Yama
Approached thus, Lord Yama commences the teaching,
Tr. - I will briefly tell you about that goal, that is revealed by all the Vedas, is described by all the tapas, and desiring which the seekers practice celibacy. That tattva is Om. (I.2.15)
Tr. - This single syllable (Om) denotes the Apara-Brahman (Hiranyagarbha) as well as the Para-Brahman. Knowing this single syllable, one obtains either of the two. (I.2.16) In fact, this medium of Om is the best, meditating on which one rejoices in the Brahmaloka. (I.2.17)
The svarüpa of Ätmä
Lord Yama calls that tattva - Vipascit.
Tr. - This Ätmä is not born, nor dies. It did not originate from anything, neither it is a modification. It is unborn, timeless, un-decaying and ancient. Even with the death of the physical body, it does not die. (I.2.18)
Tr. - If the killer thinks (of It) in terms of killing, and the killed thinks (of It) as killed, both of them do not know the Truth. The Ätmä does not kill, nor can get killed by anything. (I.2.19)
How does then one gets to know the Ätmä?
Now Lord Yama describes the svarüpa of the Ätmä,
Tr. - This is subtler than the subtle, greater than the great, and exists inside every being. The glory of Ätmä can be seen only by a person devoid of any kind of desire, and with the grace of the sense organs, and seeing/knowing the Ätmä they become free from afflictions. (I.2.20)
Tr. - This Ätmä travels far while sitting, sleeping it goes everywhere. Who other than me (or a wise person) is capable of knowing this Ätmä that is joyful and joyless. (I.2.21)
Tr. - This Ätmä remains inside all the physical bodies, as the timeless inside the time-bound. It is great and all-pervasive, knowing which the wise does not grieve. (I.2.22)
Ätmä can be known only by its grace
Tr. - This Ätmä cannot be known through studying the Vedas, neither by intellect nor by much hearing. It reveals itself to that person who pleases It (meaning an adhikäri). (I.2.23)
(I.2.3 is often quoted by the other schools against study of scripture/s).
Adhikäri/anadhikäri for Ätmajnänam
Tr. - One who has not refrained from wrong deeds, whose senses have not calmed down, whose mind is not steady and is full of anxieties, cannot obtain this knowledge. (I.2.24)
Tr. - In fact, how can an ordinary person know this Ätmä, for whom the brähmana and kshatriya are no more than food, and death is a side-dish! (I.2.25)
Summary of 2nd Valli
In the 2nd valli, Lord Yama describes the svarüpa of Ätmatattva. He states its various names i.e. Om, Vipascit, Brahman, Parambrahman, Ätmä etc.
1st Chapter – 3rd Valli
In the previous valli the nature of knowledge and ignorance was presented elaborately along with the different results they give. (I.2.4 & 5)
Tr. - The wise people, and those who perform the five-fires, or the Naciketä-fire thrice, know the two enjoyers of the karmaphala that reside in the intellect, and know them to be of opposite nature like shade and light. (I.3.1)
Tr. - We know that the Naciketä-fire is the means for Brahmaloka. May we know that Parabrahma and Aparabrahma. (I.3.2)
Imagery of a Chariot
To simplify, Lord Yama tells the kind of life-style a person must lead to understand that Brahman. This has been explained by means of an imagery of a chariot and the charioteer, in as much as it leads to easy comprehension.
Tr. - The physical body of the human being has been compared with a chariot, and the person as its master. The intellect is the charioteer, the mind is the reins. (I.3.3) The senses are the horses and the sense-objects are the field. For a wise person, the body, mind and the senses are together. (I.3.4)
Helplessness of an indiscriminating person
Tr. - A person, who is not together and has a mind that is not calm, is devoid of viveka, his sense organs are not under control just as the wild horses do not follow the incompetent charioteer. (I.3.5)
Freedom of a discriminating person
Tr. - Whereas, for the wise person, who has his mind and the sense-organs under restraint, and is endowed with discrimination; the sense-organs are under control just as the trained horses obey the competent charioteer. (I.3.6)
Fate of an indiscriminating person
Tr. - The person with a non-discriminating intellect and unrestrained mind is impure, and continues his worldly existence without attaining the ultimate goal. (I.3.7)
Fate of a discriminating person
Tr. - Whereas the person with a discriminating intellect and restrained mind is pure, and attains that ultimate goal from which one is not born again. (I.3.8)
Tr. - Hence, the person who has a discriminating intellect as his charioteer, and who has the reins of the mind under his control, attains the end of the road; that is the highest abode of Vishnu (Brahman). (I.3.9)
Comparison of the senses
Tr. - The sense-objects are higher than the senses, the mind is higher than the sense-objects; the intellect still higher than the mind and the Mahat (Hiranyagarbha) is higher than the intellect. (1.3.10)
Who is That Mahat?
Lord Yama says - That Avyakta (unmanifest creation) is higher than the Mahat; and the Purusha (Consciousness) is higher than the Avyakta. There is nothing higher than the Purusha. He is the ultimate, the highest goal. (I.3.11)
The Ätmä is comprehensible to the subtle mind only
Tr. - This Ätmä in spite of being in all the beings, is not directly perceptible. It is perceptible only to those with subtle, pure and fine intellect. (I.3.12)
Tr. - To know this, the discriminating person should integrate the speech with the mind, and the mind with the intellect, the intellect with the Mahat, and the Mahat with the Ätmä. (I.3.13)
Inspiration by the Upanishad
Tr. - Arise, awake, and learn this by approaching the wise person. It is said the path to this goal is sharp like a razor’s edge, and is difficult to tread on. (I.3.14)
Svarüpa of the Ätmä
Lord Yama then describes the svarüpa of the Ätmä,
Tr. - That is not comprehensible by sound, touch, is form-less, un-decaying, tasteless, not subject to time, odourless, beginning less and without end. It is distinct from Mahat and is ever constant. Knowing this one becomes free from the jaws of death. (I.3.15)
Tr. - The wise person, who listens to this dialogue between Naciketä and Lord Yama about the Ätmatattva, rejoices in the Brahmaloka. (I.3.16)
Tr. - Any person who recites this dialogue in the assembly of the wise, or at the time of a sräddha ceremony, then the whole assembly obtain Brahmaloka. (I.3.17)