The Tree of knowledge
Kathopanishad: The Mystery of Death and the Meaning of Life
The three basic texts of Vedanta are the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutra. Together they are referred to as the Prasthana-traya, triple canon of Vedanta. The Upanishads constitute the revealed texts (sruti-prasthana); they mark the summits of the Veda which is Sruti (the heard, the revealed).
They are the pristine springs of Vedantic metaphysics. Vedanta is the name given to them because they are the end (aim as well as concluding parts) of the Veda (Veda + anta).
The Upanishads form the core of Indian philosophy. They are an amazing collection of writings from original oral transmissions, as “the supreme work of the Indian mind”. It is here that we find all the fundamental teachings that are central to Hinduism — the concepts of ‘karma’ (action), ‘samsara’ (reincarnation), ‘moksha’ (nirvana), the ‘atman’ (soul), and the ‘Brahman’ (Absolute Almighty). Historians and Indologists have put the date of composition of the Upanishads from around 800 – 400 BC.
Traditionally, there are 108 Upanishads (major). The authors of the Upanishads were many, but they were not solely from the priestly caste. They were poets prone to flashes of spiritual wisdom, and their aim was to guide a few chosen pupils to the point of liberation, which they themselves had attained. According to some scholars, the main figure in the Upanishads is Yajnavalkya, the great sage who propounded the doctrine of ‘neti-neti’, the view that “truth can be found only through the negation of all thoughts about it”. Other important Upanishadic sages are Uddalaka Aruni, Shwetaketu, Shandilya, Aitareya, Pippalada, Sanat Kumara. Many earlier Vedic teachers like Manu, Brihaspati, Ayasya and Narada are also found in the Upanishads.
The Kathopanishad – a scripture that unveils the mystery of death and the meaning of life. Of all the Upanishads, Kathopanishad is the most lucid and accessible on the knowledge of Atman here and hereafter. It clearly defines the alternatives confronting humanity concerning the purpose of life and the ultimate choices that have to be made. This Upanishad has become famous on account of its clarity and depth of imagination. Many of the thoughts expressed in it can be found in the Bhagavad Gita. Since it belongs to the Katha Saakha of the Krishna Yajur Veda School, it is called Kathopanishad.
Hope, expectation, company of good men, friendly discourse, sacrifices, pious gifts, sons and cattle — all these are destroyed in the case of the ignorant man, in whose house a Brahmin (wise or enlightened) guest stays without taking food.
The one who approaches the company of the wise and immortal will rejoice, after he has pondered over the nature of the pleasures by sports, of damsels, songs and dance, and by choosing the path of knowledge concerning the Soul.
O Wise, for the sake of the Truth you renounce the pleasures of sensual attractions, and your deepest desires (or that which is very dear to you), realizing their real value and that on this road many men have perished.
No man can be made truly happy by wealth. What use are these: wealth, long life and desires and objects of enjoyment? They wear out the vigour of all the senses and even the longest life is verily short.
These two, ignorance and knowledge, are wide apart and lead to different points or goals.
One is good while another is pleasant.
Blessed is he who, between them, chooses the good alone, but he who chooses the pleasant, loses the true end.
The good and the pleasant take hold of man. The wise man examines and distinguishes them. He prefers the good (Sreya) to the pleasant, but the ignorant man chooses the pleasant (Preya) for the sake of the body
The ignorant, who live in the midst of darkness but fancy themselves as wise and learned, go round and round deluded in many crooked ways as blind people led by the blind.
The way to the hereafter is not apparent to the ignorant man who is foolish, deluded by the delusion of wealth. “This is the world,” he thinks, “There is no other.” Thus he falls again and again under the sway of death.
The wise sage who, by means of meditation on his Self, recognises who is hidden in the cave of the heart, who is lodged in intelligence, indeed goes beyond joy and sorrow.
The Self being subtler than the subtle is not to be obtained by argument but is easy to understand when taught by a teacher who beholds no difference (who is established in unity consciousness or Brahman).
Many are not even able to hear of the Self. Many even when they hear of Him, do not comprehend.
Wonderful is a man, when found, who is able to teach the Self. Wonderful is he who comprehends the Self when taught by an able teacher.
The goal, which all the Vedas speak of (praise), which all penances proclaim and wishing for, that goal, I will briefly tell thee: It is Om.
This word is verily Brahman; this word verily is the highest. He who knows this word obtains whatever he desires.
The intelligent Atman is not born, nor does He die; He did not spring from anything, and nothing sprang from Him; unborn, eternal, everlasting, ancient. He is not slain although the body is slain.
If the slayer thinks “I slay” and if the slain thinks “I am slain” then both of them do not know. This slays not is slain.
This Atman, subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest, is seated in the heart of each living being.
When all desires that dwell in the heart of one cease, then the mortal becomes immortal and attains Brahman.
He who is free from desire, with his mind and the senses composed, beholds the majesty of the Self and becomes free from sorrow.
This Atman cannot be attained by study of the Vedas, nor by intelligence, nor by much hearing. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. To him this Arman reveals its true nature.
He who has no discrimination (viveka) and has not turned away from bad conduct, whose senses are not subdued, whose mind is not pacified, whose heart is not pure, can never obtain this Atman by knowledge.
But he who has discrimination (viveka), who has his mind always under control and who is pure, reaches that final goal whence he is not born again, and reaches the highest place of Vishnu (Brahman).
This Atman is hidden in all beings. His form is not to be seen. No one beholds Him with the eye. By controlling the mind by the intellect and by incessant meditation He is revealed and shines forth.
This (Atman or the Self) is the best support. This is the highest support. He who knows this support is worshiped (honoured) in the world of Brahman.
If here (in this life) one is able to comprehend Him (Brahman) before the death of the body, he will be liberated from the bondage of the world; if one is not able to comprehend Him, then he has to take a body again in the worlds of creation.
He, who has known That which is without sound, without touch, without form, without decay, without taste, ‘eternal, without smell, without beginning, without end, and unchanging is liberated.
He who knows That as the enjoyer, the Master of the past and the future, never fears.
The sun does not shine there, nor do the moon and the stars, nor do lights shine and much less fire. When He shines, everything shines after Him; by His light, all these shine.
Those who know “This” (Brahman) become immortal and attain Brahman.
Further readings: Sacred Journey by Swami Rama; Kathopanishad: The Science of the Inner Life by Swami Krishnananda; Katha Upanishad (Kathopanishad) – An Introduction, Vedanta Bheri
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