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The Chariot

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Section 31 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Perhaps the most perfect simile of our condition as we meander through the labyrinth of continual birth and death is that given in the Katha Upanishad, and it is worthy of careful analysis.

“Know that the Self is the rider, and the body the chariot; that the intellect is the charioteer, and the mind the reins” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:3). The first idea set forth in this verse is the completely inactive role of the individual Self (atman). The other “ingredients” in the list are actively involved in the process of living, but the atman is absolutely beyond any activity, and is merely the observer. This is because its nature is pure consciousness–and nothing else.


The body is the chariot, a conglomerate of parts without any consciousness or will of its own. (Did anyone else grow up hearing certain Fundamentalists say: “I don’t sin but my body sins”?) Yet, being pervaded by the intellect (buddhi) it does seem to have a mind of its own because it is an extension-expression of the mind and as such has great relevance to the spiritual aspirant. Sri Ramakrishna used to study the physical configuration of newcomers and thereby determine their spiritual qualifications. So we must not think of the body as an inert thing. It is alive, but alive through the indwelling spirit. We may not be the body, but the body is certainly an expression of our Self. The body is not only the vehicle of our accumulated karmas it is the embodiment of them. Our karmas are incarnated in the body much more than is the Self.


“The intellect is the charioteer.” Our movement through life is produced solely through the agency of the intellect, the buddhi. This is why Krishna speaks of Buddhi Yoga as the process of liberation. Yoga is solely under the supervision of the buddhi. Yoga takes place both through the buddhi and within the buddhi. This gives us a tremendous insight into the nature of liberation: it is totally a matter of intellect, of reconstruction of awareness. The wise certainly undertake many external, even physical, disciplines to assist in their practice of yoga, but all of these are intended to affect the buddhi in its striving towards enlightenment.

Since the buddhi is the charioteer, its quality determines everything in life. The cultivation of our buddhi, then, must be the focus of our sadhana. Any “humanimal” can be taught asanas and physical breathing exercises, but only the developed human can engage in real yoga. If you think this statement is extreme let me tell you something I learned early on in my “yoga life.”

In 1962 I was privileged to meet and listen to the venerable A. B. Purani, the administrator of the renowned Aurobindo Ashram. Sri Purani had been a fellow revolutionary with the (future) great master Sri Aurobindo Ghosh (who, incidentally, was a high school teacher and inspirer of Paramhansa Yogananda). Later he became Sri Aurobindo’s disciple and lived in the ashram for many years before the master’s passing.

During one of his brilliant discourses at the East-West Cultural Center in Hollywood, Sri Purani told of an experience he had while traveling to the United States. He had stopped over in Japan where he was invited to speak to a yoga group in Tokyo. This group taught and practiced only Hatha Yoga (asanas and pranayama). At the conclusion of his talk, Sri Purani asked them: “Would you agree that the greatest yogis of recent times were Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, and Sri Ramana Maharshi?” They expressed unanimous assent to this statement. “Yet,” he pointed out, “not one of them practiced Hatha Yoga. So why do you consider yourselves yogis when you only practice that which they never bothered with?”

No matter how many external assists we may use, yoga is essentially of the buddhi alone.


“And the mind the reins.” By mind (manas) is meant the sensory mind, the intermediary between the intellect and the body–and the entire world, as well. Through the mind the intellect sees whether the body should act or be still. For example, the mind conveys the sensation of a hand burning to the intellect, which then directs the body–again, through the mind–to pull the hand away from the fire.

The next element in the matter are the senses, without which the mind would have nothing to show the intellect. Therefore:


“The senses, say the wise, are the horses; the roads they travel are the mazes of desire” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:4)

It is the senses that drag the chariot of the body along according to their impulses. If the buddhi is weak or underdeveloped, the mind which is driven by pain-pleasure motivation alone takes complete charge and gives full rein to the senses. Having no intelligence they plunge onward, ever seeking fulfillment and, not finding it, hurtling even further on the paths of unreason and folly. For “the roads they travel are the mazes of desire” rather than intelligence. As a consequence the individual becomes hopelessly lost and mired in the morass of external sensation. Enslavement to body and senses is the only possible consequence.


“Who am I?” is the gate to real understanding, for it sets us seeking true knowledge. And the upanishadic verse continues: “The wise call the Self the enjoyer when he is united with the body, the senses, and the mind.” We certainly do not enjoy a great deal of our experiences in/through the body, so perhaps a better translation of bhokta is “experiencer” rather than enjoyer.

The major idea in this verse is that the Self is the actionless consciousness that experiences the intellect, mind, senses, and body. As a consequence we can understand that the Self is never the doer at any time. The Gita illumines this for us, saying: “Every action is really performed by the gunas [sensory energies]. Man, deluded by his egoism, thinks: ‘I am the doer.’ But he who has the true insight into the operations of the gunas and their various functions, knows that when senses attach themselves to objects, gunas are merely attaching themselves to gunas. Knowing this, he does not become attached to his actions” (Bhagavad Gita 3:27, 28). “You dream you are the doer” (Bhagavad Gita 5:14). “Let the wise man know these gunas alone as the doers of every action; let him learn to know That Which is beyond them, also” (Bhagavad Gita 14:19)

There is more material like this, but the sum is: “The truly admirable man controls his senses by the power of his will” (Bhagavad Gita 3:7). This is because: “The senses are said to be higher than the sense-objects. The mind is higher than the senses. The intelligent will is higher than the mind. What is higher than the intelligent will? The Atman Itself” (Bhagavad Gita 3:42)

The practical application

“When a man lacks discrimination and his mind is uncontrolled, his senses are unmanageable, like the restive horses of a charioteer. But when a man has discrimination and his mind is controlled, his senses, like the well-broken horses of a charioteer, lightly obey the rein” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:5, 6)

And more: “He who lacks discrimination, whose mind is unsteady and whose heart is impure, never reaches the goal, but is born again and again. But he who has discrimination, whose mind is steady and whose heart is pure, reaches the goal, and having reached it is born no more. The man who has a sound understanding for charioteer, a controlled mind for reins–he it is that reaches the end of the journey, the supreme abode of Vishnu, the all pervading” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:7-9)

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Chariot’s Journey

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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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