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The Kena Upanishad

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Chapter 6 from The Upanishads for Awakening

In the world we see a prime duality: cause and effect. Yet, we see no cause for the world itself. Inquiry into its cause naturally arises. Many insist there is no cause and pursue their exploitation of the world and its inhabitants. The wise and the worthy, however, seek to know the truth. Many are the theories set forth by profound thinkers. But those who have gone beyond thought into pure knowing have unanimously told us of the cause, and in that insight have also come to perfectly understand the effect: the world and all within it.

The Kena Upanishad opens with a question that is answered in the rest of the Upanishad:

By whom willed and directed does the mind light on its objects? By whom commanded does life the first, move? At whose will do [people] utter this speech? And what god is it that prompts the eye and the ear? (1.1)

This is one of the few philosophical questions that really matter, for if we come to the wrong conclusion it will cloud or even distort our understanding of life. For example, if we say God, or Nature or happenstance is the the answer, we will in essence be saying that we have nothing to do with our existence, that a force far beyond us is making all this occur to us, that we are like seaweed being carried along on the wave of the sea, able to yearn for situations and things but unable to bring anything about. If we believe that if we somehow do the needful in response God will give us what we want, still it will be his doing and beyond our capacity to accomplish or even hold on to once we have it. This view of ourselves as utterly helpless and therefore utterly insignificant in the vast universe will cripple and frustrate us, distorting us profoundly. You Are Nothing becomes the watchword of our life, a life which bears that maxim out. Hopeless and helpless we drift along, controlled by everything that is other than us. This is truly a living hell.

Into this darkness shines the realization embodied in the Upanishads, a realization that we will somehow recognize from deep within us, for that realization is ours on the inmost level of our existence. We do not learn the truth, we recognize it.

All right, then: who makes the mind think, the body live, the faculty of speech to manifest and causes the senses to operate?

Because it is that which is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech, indeed of the speech, the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye, the wise, giving up [wrong notions of their self-sufficiency] and departing from this world, become immortal. (1.2)

The ear, mind, speech, breath and eye are only instruments, only messengers. The one who causes them to function, the hearer of hearing, the witness of the mind and thought, the understander of speech, the source of the breath and the seer of seeing, is our own Atman, the Self. External experience may be illusory, but if we trace the illusion back to the perceiver of perception we will find the reality that is the Self. In a motion picture we see so many images, so many illusions, but when the picture stops we see the screen that was behind it all the time, without which no picture would have been possible. Such is the Self. Knowing the Self to be none other than Brahman, the Absolute, rebirth is no more.

Radhakrishnan has translated the word dhira as “the wise,” but in actuality dhira means those who are steadfast, in this instance those who are firmly established in the practice of yoga and in the realization arising from yoga.

Brahman is beyond all sensory perception or intellectual comprehension. Yet we can infer the existence of Brahman by that which It causes to occur, by the consciousness that perceives and comprehends. So in conclusion the Upanishad says this, which really needs little comment:

There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind; we know not, we understand not how one can teach this.
Other, indeed, is it than the known, and also it is above the unknown. Thus have we heard from the ancients who have explained it to us.
That which is not expressed through speech but that by which speech is expressed, that, verily, know, is Brahman, not what [people] here adore.
That which is not thought by the mind but by which, they say, the mind is thought (thinks); that, verily, know, is Brahman and not what [people] here adore.
That which is not seen by the eye but by which the eyes are seen (see), that, verily, know, is Brahman and not what [people] here adore.
That which is not heard by the ear but by which the ears are heard (hear), that, verily, know, is Brahman and not what [people] here adore.
That which is not breathed by life, but by which life breathes, that, verily, know, is Brahman and not what [people] here adore. (1.3-9)

When the Upanishad says that we do not know Brahman, it refers to intellectual knowledge. Therefore, as it continues, we cannot teach about Brahman as an intellectual subject.

When it says that Brahman is “other than the known” it is not speaking of Brahman’s unknowability, but rather that Brahman is not an unknown object that in time the intellect will come to know.

The most striking part of this passage is the statement that Brahman is not what is worshiped (“adored”) by human beings. This presents two significant points. First, that Brahman is not an object, but the Eternal Subject, and consequently cannot be worshipped as an object. Second, human beings cannot relate to Brahman at all, but those that have passed beyond all relative identity can experience Brahman as their own Self.

All classical commentators say that in this second part of the Kena Upanishad the first two verses are a dialogue between a teacher and a student, and the remaining three verses are an exposition of the discussion. First, the teacher says to the student:
If you think that you have understood Brahman well, you know it but slightly, whether it refers to you [the individual Self] or to the gods. So then is it to be investigated by you [the pupil] [even though] I think it is known. (2.1)

After having thought this over, the student responds:
I do not think that I know it well; nor do I think that I do not know it. He who among us knows it, knows it and he, too, does not know that he does not know. (2.2)

That may have only compounded the bewilderment, but we can untangle it with patience. These verses are excellent examples of the difficulty we have when we try to speak of the Unspeakable and explain the Unexplainable.

Brahman is not only everywhere, but actually is all things. This, too, we cannot exactly comprehend, and to express or understand it simplistically is to make things much worse. Because of this, it is easy for those who have experienced only a hint of Brahman to say: “Now I know Brahman.” But that would be like someone who has seen a cup of sea water saying: “Now I have seen the sea.”

If we do not know Brahman fully, we cannot truly say that we know Brahman at all. Yet, there is a knowing that is beyond the intellect and is both knowing and unknowing in an experiential sense. This is why a medieval mystical English text on the knowledge of God is called The Cloud of Unknowing. When we know Brahman we know that It cannot be known in the human sense of knowing. The same concept is held in Eastern Christianity, where it is said that God cannot be seen, but you must see God to realize that he cannot be seen.

Is all this said to confuse and mystify us? No; but it does have the purpose of our giving up the hopeless attempt to comprehend Brahman only intellectually.

So the teacher says that to think we know Brahman when we have just glimpsed a hint of Its existence is a mistake. The clever student, however, points out that we can dimly know something of Brahman. He then points out that when we come to truly know Brahman we will understand that we both know and do not know Brahman, that it is foolish to say either, “I know Brahman,” or “I do not know Brahman.” In wisdom, the two go together.

If you still do not get the idea, do not worry. The Upanishadic author assumed we might not, so he gives us this verse to clear things up:

To whomsoever it is not known, to him it is known: to whomsoever it is known, he does not know. It is not understood by those who understand it; it is understood by those who do not understand it. (2.3)

The knowledge of Brahman is not an intellectual matter, and neither is it incapacitating, despite the common misconception that mystical vision renders us unfit for practical life. So the next verse tells us:

When it is known through every state of cognition, it is rightly known, for [by such knowledge] one attains life eternal. Through one’s own Self one gains power and through wisdom one gains immortality. (2.4)

To live in unbroken consciousness of God is liberation. Liberation is possible even here in this world, while living in the body. For the Upanishad continues:

If here [a person] knows it, then there is truth, and if here he knows it not, there is great loss. Hence, seeing or [seeking] [the Real] in all beings, wise men become immortal on departing from this world. (2.5)

It is affirmed over and over in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita that perfect realization and liberation is possible even here in the world. This is one of the glories of their teaching. It does not hold out some vague “sweet bye and bye” hope to be realized only after death–a sure trait of fraudulent religion. The truth of the Eternal Religion (Sanatana Dharma), including Yoga, can be proven at every moment of our life, just as advances in science, especially in physics and astronomy, reveal the truths intuited by the sages of India thousands of years ago.

We need to hold firmly to the fact that we can overcome ignorance and bondage in this very lifetime, that we need not think it will take many incarnations to come to enlightenment. The Bhagavad Gita, particularly, emphasizes the immediacy of our spiritual potential. Blind faith, another requisite of ignorant religion, is not needed, either. (I was once taken to a vegetarian restaurant run by disciples of a yoga cult guru. It was most revealingly named Blind Faith.) Our practice of yoga and the resulting maturation of consciousness will enable us to see, experience and demonstrate the great truths of the Upanishads.

What about doubts? They mean nothing, any more than blind beliefs. In some instances, a negative rejection of truth on the subconscious level masquerades as doubts and can hinder our progress. But honest doubts cannot. I could cite for you many instances in which I not only doubted something, I denied its possibility, but still I came to see for myself the truth of what I had not believed. My practice of yoga kept pushing the frontiers of my insight into areas that I had ignorantly thought were superstition or silly. And my doubt and denial did not delay even for a moment my coming to understand the truth of what I had disbelieved.

This is why no scripture of India is considered to be the “word of God,” the supreme and final authority. Scriptures, like spiritual teachers, can only point the way, but they cannot definitively state the truth. Yet through interior development there is nothing that can elude the yogi in his quest for reality. This is why in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna speaks of Abhyasa Yoga, the Yoga of Practice, as the foundation for those who wish to really know.

If here he knows it not, there is great loss.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). Those who do not realize God suffer the greatest loss, for they lose both themselves and God. What, then, is left for them? Nothing. Desolate, they wander in the desert of their own barren minds and hearts. Shankara says that the mahati vinashtih, the great destruction, is interminable birth and death in the material world with all its attendant pains, sorrows and fears.

Hence, seeing or [seeking] [the Real] in all beings, wise men become immortal on departing from this world.

On the other hand, the wise whose consciousness is steadfastly fixed in God turn away from the world–or more exactly, from the bonds and blandishments of the world–and become immortal (amritam bhavanti) by entering forever into Immortal Brahman.

Blessed are those who live their lives in the perspective of this single verse. Realization and attainment shall be theirs. For them immortality shall be their assured and eternal future.

The Kena Upanishad is quite brief, and now concludes with a story and a short reflection on the story.
Brahman, it is said, conquered [once] for the gods, and the gods gloried in that conquest of Brahman. They thought, ours, indeed, is this victory and ours, indeed, is this greatness. (3.1)
[Brahman] indeed knew this [conceit of theirs]. He appeared before them. They did not know what spirit it was. They said to Agni, O Jata-vedas, find this out, what this spirit is. Yes [said he]. He hastened towards it and it said to him, Who are you? [Agni] replied, I am Agni indeed, I am Jata-vedas. He again asked, What power is there in you? Agni replied, I can burn everything whatever there is on earth. [He] placed [a blade of] grass before him saying, Burn this. He went towards it with all speed but could not burn it. He returned thence and said, I have not been able to find out what this spirit is.
Then they said to Vayu [Air], O Vayu, find this out–What this spirit is. Yes (said he). He hastened towards it, and it said to him, Who are you? Vayu replied, I am Vayu indeed, I am Matarisvan. [He asked Vayu] What power is there in you? [Vayu] replied, I can blow off everything whatever there is on earth. (3.9)He placed before him [a blade of] grass saying, Blow [this] off. Vayu went towards it with all speed but could not blow it off. He returned thence and said, I have not been able to find out what this spirit is. (3.10)
Then they said to Indra, O Maghavan, find this out–what this spirit is. Yes [said he]. He hastened towards it [but] it disappeared from before him. When in the same region of the sky, he [Indra] came across a lady, most beautiful, Uma, the daughter of Himavat, and said to her, What is this spirit? She replied, This is Brahman, to be sure, and in the victory of Brahman, indeed, do you glory thus. Then only did he [Indra] know that it was Brahman. (3.1-4.1)

This is a very straightforward account. The “gods” are mostly the intelligent faculties of the individual human being. The philosophical element is very simple: the senses and mind cannot comprehend Brahman, but Its truth can be revealed by the Divine Feminine aspect of God, Mahashakti or Adishakti, the Great, Primal Power that is the dynamic aspect of Brahman, the Prakriti, Divine Creative Energy, that is inseparable from Purusha, the Supreme Spirit. God the Father is Unmoving Consciousness, whereas God the Mother is Moving Consciousness. The entire field of creation is Mother, the Father being the Transcendental Witness of Her manifestations. The Mother is the Divine Ladder which we ascend to the knowledge of the Father.

Prakriti proceeds from Purusha, just as the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” according to the ancient Nicene Creed of Christianity.

The fundamental idea of the dance of the Creative Energy before the face of the Supreme Spirit is found in the book of Proverbs where she speaks of herself, saying: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: when he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.,” (Proverbs 8:22-31). The Divine Mother dances the dance of creation before the witnessing Lord.

“Uma, the daughter of Himavat,” was the daughter of King Himalaya, and so was called Himavati. She was considered a manifestation (avatara) of the Divine Mother aspect of God. Uma is a name often given the Divine Power. But Shankara in his commentary has a different and interesting interpretation of Himavati. He says it means “one who was as though attired in dress of gold.” This is most intriguing, because in the Bible we have similar imagery of the Divine Mother, the Queen (sometimes called “the King’s Daughter” because She emanates from the King) being dressed in gold. David sang: “Upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir” (Psalms 45:9). And a few verses later: “The king’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold” (Psalms 45:13). In the book of Revelation we find: “There appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun” (Revelation 12:1). In this instance the “gold” is the light of the sun.

Therefore, these gods, Agni, Vayu and Indra, surpass greatly other gods, for they, it was, that touched Brahman closest, for they, indeed, for the first time knew (it was) Brahman. (4.2)

As said above, in this Upanishadic story the gods are mostly the intelligent faculties of the individual human being. However, Agni, Vayu and Indra are representative of the primeval elements fire, air and ether. These are closer to the Self, to Brahman, than are the earth and water elements, whose faculties are smell and taste. The faculties of fire, air and ether respectively are sight, touch and sound. In meditation we see light of various colors, experience sensations that are the inner modes of touch, and in our japa hear the inner mental sound. These are three revealers of the presence of the Self/Brahman. However:

Therefore Indra surpasses greatly, as it were, other gods. He, indeed, has come into close contact with Brahman. He, indeed for the first time knew that [it was] Brahman. (4.3)

The etheric body is the nearest to the Self, and its faculty of sound is that which unites our consciousness with Brahman. Thus etheric sound is the supreme faculty by which we recognize (perceive) Spirit.

Brahman and Shakti (Power) are in reality one. Sri Ramakrishna often used the simile of fire and its power to burn. Fire is the Purusha and the burning power is the Prakriti. It is not amiss to say that Prakriti is the Effect of the presence of Brahman–is Brahman Itself. The Upanishad recapitulates this, saying:

Of this Brahman, there is this teaching: this is as it were, like the lightning which flashes forth or the winking of the eye. This teaching is concerning the gods.
Now the teaching concerning the Self. It is this toward which the mind appears to move; by the same [mind, one] remembers constantly; volition also likewise. (4.4-5)

Wherefore:
Brahman, the object of all desire, that, verily, is what is called the dearest of all. It is to be meditated upon as such [tadvanam]. Whoever knows it thus, him all beings seek. (4.6)

It is the presence of Brahman within it which draws us to seek after or value an object. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says:

“Verily, not for the sake of the husband is the husband dear, but a husband is dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of the wife is the wife dear, but a wife is dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of the sons are the sons dear, but the sons are dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of wealth is wealth dear, but wealth is dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of brahminhood is brahminhood dear, but brahminhood is dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of kshatriyahood is kshatriyahood dear, but kshatriyahood is dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of the worlds are the worlds dear, but the worlds are dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of the gods are the gods dear, but the gods are dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of the beings are the beings dear, but the beings are dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, not for the sake of all is all dear, but all is dear for the sake of the Self. Verily, O Maitreyi, it is the Self that should be seen, heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. Verily, by the seeing of, by the hearing of, by the thinking of, by the understanding of the Self, all this is known” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5).

The proof of this is the fact that when we successfully meditate on Brahman other sentient beings will sense the presence of Brahman in us and value us accordingly.

The teaching is wonderful, but it is not enough. The student of the Upanishadic sage intuits this, but comes to a wrong conclusion:
Sir, teach (me) the secret (Upanishad).

But the teacher responds:
The secret has been taught to you; we have taught you the secret relating to Brahman. (4.7)
Naturally, the student will assume, as would we, that the secret knowledge is the philosophy about Brahman, etc. Therefore the teacher continues:

Austerities, self-control and work are its support, the Vedas are all its units, truth is its abode. (4.8)

The importance of this perspective simply cannot be exaggerated. The Secret Knowledge is not philosophic formulations, it is practice: Abhyasa Yoga, the Yoga of Practice. The Vedas are only its adjuncts. Truth is at its heart to be realized by the practitioners. Tapasya, self-mastery and karma yoga form the body of the secret knowledge. There are no effects without a cause. These three enable the knowing of Brahman about which the sage concludes:

Whoever knows this, he, indeed, overcoming sin [papam], in the end, is firmly established in the Supreme world of heaven, yes, he is firmly established (4.9).

Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for AwakeningThe Katha Upanishad

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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