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Introduction to Vedanta, Part III
The Katha Upanishad, Continued


Lord Yama instructs Nachiketa, as related in the Katha Upanishad.

4,644 words

Part I here [2], Part II here [3], Part IV here [4]

In the last installment of this series, we saw that the Katha Upanishad tells the story of Nachiketa, a boy who is tutored by Yama, the god of death. The boy makes a request of Yama, which at first the god does not want to grant: “When a person dies, there arises this doubt: ‘he still exists,’ say some, ‘he does not’ say others. I want you to teach me the truth.” But Yama soon realizes that Nachiketa is a worthy student, and begins to teach.

Yama tells him that the ignorant believe “I am my body; when my body dies, I die.” This is because the ignorant have never heard of the Self (Atman). Only the body dies; the Self, the essence of our being, is immortal. Few are aware of the existence of the Self, Yama says; fewer still dedicate their lives to its “realization.”

So, how does one realize the Self? Not through “the intellect,” nor through “logic and scholarship,” but only through practice.

Now, Yama gives us a hint as to this practice when he says that “[t]he wise, realizing through meditation the timeless Self, beyond all perception, hidden in the cave of the heart, leave pain and pleasure far behind.” And he teaches Nachiketa the use of the mantra OM. This is a “word of power” that can effect real change in the practitioner, awakening him to the Self.  The effect of OM is to open “the cave of the heart,” and to disclose the Self.

As we have seen, this Self is something quite different – infinitely different, in fact – from what I normally think of as “myself.” Consider the terms Yama uses to describe it: “The all-knowing Self was never born, nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect, this Self is eternal and immutable. When the body dies, the Self does not die.” Then, he utters words which should remind us of the Bhagavad-Gita (the subject of a future essay): “If the slayer believes that he can kill or the slain believes that he can be killed, neither knows the truth. The eternal Self slays not, nor is ever slain.” This description makes the Self seem almost exactly like God – and yet probably everyone coming to this essay already knows that the teaching of the Upanishads is that “you are that!” (tat tvam asi); you are the Self, you are God.

Those who have read the earlier installments of this series will understand what a grave error it would be to feel any sense of pride in such a claim. I am truly the Self, but that identity subsists beneath all the layers of falsehood and limitation that constitute what I generally think that “I” am. And it is somewhere in these layers of falsehood and limitation that pride is felt. Truly, I am God – and yet I most certainly am not God. The part of “me” that can experience its identity with God is one I barely know at all.

This point has to continually be kept in mind – for several reasons, not just to avoid falling into a false pride that would only reinforce one’s ignorance of the Self. For instance, it is quite possible to read Vedanta as an atheist philosophy. If I am God, and everything else is God, then we might as well say that there is no God – or that the sense of “God” here is so completely different from how we normally use the word that some other word should be chosen. This was the reaction that many had to Spinoza’s philosophy. William Boulting may have famously referred to Spinoza as “God-intoxicated,” but the philosopher’s identification of God with nature led many to declare that he might as well be an atheist. And this response makes a great deal of sense: if God is declared to be the world itself, then we might as well say that we have dispensed with God entirely.

We want (or perhaps need) God to be something “external,” to which we can appeal. The teaching that we ourselves are the ultimate source of all can therefore seem more than a bit disappointing. The key to overcoming this “problem” with the teaching of Vedanta consists in really coming to grips with the mystery of my identity, of what or who I am. Truly, the Self is my essence, but it is still a mystery – as great a mystery as any “external” or transcendent God. Vedanta disappoints some of us in withdrawing the idea of such a God. But true understanding of its teaching leads to the paradoxical realization that immanent within me is something transcendent and God-like; that, in other words, inside me there is something outside me.

In the depths of my being – which are, in the end, unfathomable – lies the Self. We can say that the Self, therefore, is “inside me.” Yet it lies entirely outside my conscious awareness, and outside the sphere of what I identify as “me” or “I.” This Self is “me” in the sense that it is my true essence or true being, but it is just as remote and mysterious as the external God posited by conventional religion. Obviously, one key to reaching this level of understanding lies in continually and rigorously questioning the limits of myself, and where I draw the line between “me” and “not me,” and “inside me” and “outside me.”[1] [5] Near the end of the Katha Upanishad we are told, “There are two selves, the separate ego and the indivisible Atman. When one rises above I and me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self.” Once the conventional thought patterns are overcome, one will understand that coming to “realize” the Self within us is as serious and pious a matter as yearning for identity with a transcendent God. As Gustav Meyrink wrote, “If you want to pray, pray to your invisible Self: it is the only God who can answer your prayers.”[2] [6]

Of course, in the latter case (which is identical to what Evola classifies as “mysticism”) the aspirant never gets beyond the stage of what Hegel called the “unhappy consciousness”: perpetually yearning for the infinitely-distant divinity, never reaching it. Vedanta presents us with different prospects. As remote as the Self may seem, the truth is that we are already one with it. Thus, the path of enlightenment in Vedanta is not one of trying to get two distinct things together: the soul of the aspirant and the transcendent God/Self. Rather, the path consists in working to realize that one already is the Self. This is not an intellectual realization, as I have already pointed out. It is a realization in the sense of “making real.” The “theory” of Vedanta can be conveyed in one sentence: tat tvam asi. Yet simply to imbibe this sentence is not, truly, to understand.

“Hidden in the heart of every creature exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest,” Yama teaches Nachiketa. Here we learn that it is not just human beings that are identical with the Self, but all other creatures as well. What is the fundamental difference between us and those other creatures? Quite simply, it is that we have the potential to realize our identity with the Self, whereas other beings do not. Of course, in the vast majority of people this potential is not only very small, it goes entirely unactualized. This raises an interesting question: why is it that some choose this path, and others do not?

Of course, matters are even more complicated than this question would imply. Many who choose the path quit along the way, or never achieve their aim. And most of those who never try the path have also never even heard of it (and so cannot be faulted for not trying). What explains these individual differences? The answer given by the Katha Upanishad is something close to the Christian conception of divine grace. Yama tells us, “The Self can be attained only by those whom the Self chooses. Verily unto them does the Self reveal himself.”

The language of this passage should be understood as deliberately figurative. While it is easy to understand the Self as not unlike God, we must always be on guard against falling into the trap of thinking of the Self as a disembodied deity. In fact, the Self is always and everywhere embodied – expressing itself as this body and that. Some of these bodies, however, “wake up” and realize that they are the Self embodied. Yama tells us that these have been “chosen” by the Self, but I suspect that this is a poetic way of emphasizing that the reason why some wake up and others do not is ultimately an unfathomable mystery. This requires some explanation.

On one level, the insistence that the Self “chooses” is forced on the author of this Upanishad by a logic similar to that which led Christian theologians to insist that God created the universe as an unnecessitated act of grace. If the Self is All – equivalent to Brahman, the ultimate source (see the previous installment of this series) – then there is absolutely nothing else that could cause or necessitate the Self’s “actions.” Therefore, the author insists that when the Self “wakes up” in and through an individual, this is the Self’s “choice.” But a completely uncaused and unconditioned “choice” is basically no different from a miracle. In short, what the text really conveys is that the reason some manifestations of the Self wake up and others do not is a matter that is completely beyond understanding.

The passage just discussed is preceded by one which also has the effect of reinforcing the image of the Self as a Godlike being who acts in various ways. Yama says, “Though one sits in meditation in a particular place, the Self within can exercise his influence far away. Though still, he moves everything everywhere.” This passage immediately reminds us of Aristotle’s doctrine of God as “unmoved mover”: though God himself is entirely unmoved and uncaused, he moves all else. And, incidentally, he moves all else simply by being who he is: a purely self-aware mind, which all other beings strive to imitate (always unconsciously, save for the philosophers, who consciously strive to “awaken”).

This passage also calls us back to the topic of meditation, which Yama has taught us as a practice for the realization of the Self. When I meditate, my body is always, of course, confined to a particular place. But in meditation, employing the mantra OM, in theory I may “realize” (again, “make real”) my identity with the Self. In that state I am, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, awake to who I am. But what does the passage mean when it says that the Self can “exercise his influence far away”? I believe that this carries both a metaphysical meaning – and a magical one.

The metaphysical meaning is simply this: In meditation, achieving oneness with the Self, my true being, I simultaneously achieve oneness with all other things. This is because the Self, as we have seen, is not simply hidden in my heart, but is at the heart of all other beings. Thus, in achieving identity with the Self, I achieve identity with all else that exists. This is the case even though I remain in one place, and to an outside observer I am still physically confined to my body. At a metaphysical level – which always transcends the information available to us from sense experience – I am both present in the space in which I meditate, and present everywhere else at the same time, in the heart of all that exists.

The magical teaching hinted at in this passage is that the precondition for effecting magical change in the world is the achievement of unity with the Self. Once I have realized that identity, then it becomes theoretically possible to effect change in other things, even from a great distance, without any mundane physical medium acting as connector. Why? For the very simple (and yet not so simple) reason that in achieving oneness with the Self, I become the heart of all things. (A later passage asks, “Who is the One in all? Know One, know all.”) I may then be able to effect changes in those things “from within,” as it were. (Again, this is what we may say is theoretically possible.)

We are told, further, that when “the wise” realize the Self, they are “formless in the midst of forms, changeless in the midst of change, omnipresent and supreme, they go beyond sorrow.” Certainly, there is the suggestion here that in identity with the Self, our ability to exercise “influence far away” is due to the achievement of formlessness. All “forms” are manifestations of the Self, which is in itself formless. The Self “in-forms” itself as the various things in existence. Thus, in identity with the Self, the formless, we may form or reform ourselves and other things in various ways. This is at least offered as a possibility, which may be realized by only a very few.

It is important to note that the attainment of magical powers is not the purpose of the path offered by Vedanta. The traditional Indian teaching on this matter is that along the path one may (or may not) develop what are called siddhis, special powers. However, these pose a terrible danger. Some individuals will, on acquiring these abilities, conclude that they have arrived at enlightenment, and cease to work. Others, inevitably, will invest their egos in these siddhis, believing that their attainment means that they have become great and powerful men. They may even use these powers for material indulgence of various kinds (e.g., acquiring wealth, or seducing others). Thus, the attainment of siddhis can constitute an enormous trap – and a test. Such a development comes along at an advanced stage, when the aspirant believes (falsely) that he has transcended most forms of temptation. The history of “spirituality” is filled with examples of individuals who achieved some degree of awakening, and with it certain powers, and then immediately set themselves up as “gurus.” Their attainment, of course, was incomplete, and their influence on others usually baleful.

What can keep us on the path and help us to avoid falling into such traps? Yama tells Nachiketa, “The Self cannot be known by anyone who desists not from unrighteous ways, controls not the senses, stills not the mind, and practices not meditation.” Here we have a teaching very similar to the path offered by the Buddha. We are enjoined to follow a moral path – to desist from “unrighteous ways” – probably not as an end-in-itself, but because the unrighteous path encourages the attachment of the ego to ephemeral things.

Thus, keeping ourselves free of such sins as greed and envy promotes a state of detachment in which we may more easily identify ourselves with the Self rather than with the ego, which always covets this thing or that. In sum, the righteous path is offered as a way to live in the world – while simultaneously practicing the spiritual disciplines of controlling the senses, stilling the mind, and practicing meditation. Note that since meditation is offered as a third item, distinct from the other two, the clear message seems to be that we must practice control of the senses and of the mind as we go about our daily lives, and not just when we sit in meditation.

Only those men who follow this path of detachment, we are told, “can know the omnipresent Self, whose glory sweeps away the rituals of the priest and the prowess of the warrior and puts death itself to death.” This is a passage pregnant with significance. First, we find here yet another suggestion in this Upanishad of a critical appraisal of the ritualism of the Brahmins. We might think of this as the “Protestant” element in Vedanta, for we are very clearly being told that salvation (the putting of death itself to death) can be found only through the state of one’s own soul, not through the incense and mutterings and motions of the priests. The man who has attained unity with the Self, the passage makes clear, soars above the priestly caste – and above the Kshatriyas, the warriors, as well. Who is this man, then? He is, in a sense, an outcast. There is thus a curious commonality between the very lowest human element, and the highest. Both are outside caste. The one because he is less than truly human, the other because he is more. As Aristotle famously said, “Whoever does not partake of politics is either a beast or a god.”

The next section of the text deals specifically with the issue of control of the senses. It contains an image that is one of the most famous in the Upanishads, and must also remind us of Greek philosophy. The passage is worth quoting at length:

Know the Self as lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot itself, the discriminating intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as reins. The senses, say the wise, are the horses; selfish desires are the roads they travel. When the Self is confused with the body, mind, and senses, they point out, he seems to enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow. When a person lacks discrimination and his mind is undisciplined, the senses run hither and thither like wild horses. But they obey the rein like trained horses when one has discrimination and has made the mind one-pointed. Those who lack discrimination, with little control over their thoughts and far from pure, reach not the pure state of immortality but wander from death to death; but those who have discrimination, with a still mind and a pure heart, reach journey’s end, never again to fall into the jaws of death. With a discriminating intellect as charioteer and a trained mind as reins, they attain the supreme goal of life, to be united with the Lord of Love.

As many have recognized, this image is very similar to the analogy of the chariot employed by Plato in the Phaedrus (246a–254e). The difference is that Plato’s image is simpler: the charioteer represents intellect; one of the two horses, the light one, represents the spirited element (thumos); and the dark horse represents appetite or desire. The image from the Katha Upanishad is more complex, but the lesson it teaches is fairly simple. The key error the text warns us about is that of confusing the Self with the body. And the solution to this is the practice of discrimination (viveka).


The god Krishna acts as Prince Arjuna’s charioteer in the Battle of Kurukshetra.

While the passage seems to be focused entirely on the control of the senses, control of the mind is included here as well. In order to avoid falling into the error of confusing the Self with the body, one must continually discriminate between the two. But in order to do this, the mind itself must be disciplined; it must be “one-pointed.” This image suggests a mind directed on only one thing. And that one thing, of course, must be the Self. A later passage tells us, in the context of mentioning one-pointedness again: “There is no one but the Self. Who sees multiplicity but not the one indivisible Self must wander on and on from death to death.”

But how does one direct one’s mind in this way? One answer is through frequent study of the scriptures. But there is another teaching here as well, another kind of “one-pointedness.” This consists in disciplining the mind simply to see all that comes before it. One might assume that we are already doing this, but that is not the case. Normally, the senses pull us this way and that – as the horses in the image are pulled along the roads representing selfish desires. In other words, normally we are absorbed in being controlled by our senses and our desires, and do not see or register those senses and desires for what they are, and how they control us.

At a fundamental level, “discrimination” involves creating a division between a watching self, and all that which comes before it – whether that is the sensible objects around me, or my own body, or the thoughts in my mind. All must be seen. (A later passage states, “Those who know the Self as enjoyer of the honey from the flowers of the senses, ever present within, ruler of time, go beyond fear. For this Self is supreme!”) When this all-seeing is attained, when I see all and identify with nothing, then in fact I will have identified with the Self. (The Self, we are told later on, is “pure consciousness in all who are conscious.”) I will be living a meditation: all of reality plays before me, as if it were my dream. Indeed, it is my dream, but only when I am the Self.

Following this passage, we find the first occurrence of the word Brahman in the text:

Brahman is the First Cause and last refuge. Brahman, the hidden Self in everyone, does not shine forth. He is revealed only to those who keep their minds one-pointed on the Lord of Love and thus develop a superconscious manner of knowing. Meditation enables them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness, from the world of words to the world of thoughts, then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.

Again, there is much here of significance. First, the usual Vedantic identification of the Self (Atman) with Brahman appears: Brahman is “the hidden Self in everyone.” This hidden Self, we are being told, is identical with the source (the “First Cause”) of all being: in my innermost essence I am identical with the mysterious source of the universe itself, which is beyond the capacity of our senses to perceive, and beyond the capacity of words to define. Again, the virtues of meditation are extolled as a path to the realization of this identity. And we note – here and in the passage about the chariot – the use of the phrase “Lord of Love” to refer to the Self.

Why this particular choice of words? In all probability, this alludes to the traditional teaching that all love is, in fact, love of the infinite. In life we yearn for this object and that, always thinking that with the acquisition of the next we will finally be satisfied. And always we are disappointed. Our yearning, in fact, is infinite and can only be satisfied by an infinite object. The only “love” that may satisfy us is love of being itself; and only in identity with the whole of being can this love be consummated. It is in this sense that the Self is the “Lord of Love”: it is he who commands our love, and is the only one who can satisfy it (though most are completely unaware of this).

This passage is immediately followed by one of the most famous in all literature, East and West: “Get up! Wake up! Seek the guidance of an illumined teacher and realize the Self. Sharp like a razor’s edge, the sages say, is the path, difficult to traverse.” The author seems to cry aloud to us: “Get up!” (i.e., get off your lazy, ignorant, covetous rump); “Wake up!” It is as if the author is telling us, “Enough theory. Enough description of the path. Now you must act! Act now, or go on your way, for more discussion is useless.”

Here we reach the crucial juncture in all introductions to “spiritual paths”: at a certain point, talk must end, and the aspirant must begin the hard work of the path, which consists in something more than listening to pretty speeches. It is at this juncture, in fact, that many will be lost. Many are attracted by “spirituality.” They will listen to and feel uplifted by lectures on detachment and “mindfulness.” But the actual work of learning discrimination, in the sense described earlier, and of disciplining the mind and passions, demands a toughness and a dedication of which few are capable. Many are called, but few are chosen. This path is indeed like a razor’s edge. It requires delicate balance, and it will inflict pain.

Much of the rest of the Katha Upanishad is devoted to elaborating, in rapturous poetic language, on how the Self=Brahman is the source of all, even of the gods. (And thus, to achieve identity with the Self places one above the gods.[3] [8]) There is much repetition of themes already discussed, but this is typical of “mystical” texts, which often introduce multiple ways of speaking about that which cannot be spoken about; “talking around,” as it were, that which cannot be said. And the Katha Upanishad is a classic of this type of literature – indeed, a classic of world literature itself, on a par with any of the classical texts of ancient Western philosophy.

The Upanishad ends with some tantalizing, and obscure, suggestions regarding the physical application of its teaching. We are told that “When all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal. This sums up the teaching of the scriptures.” So far so good: we have here, it seems, another figurative use of “heart.” But in the very next passage we find language that must be taken literally: “From the heart there radiate a hundred and one vital tracks. One of them rises to the crown of the head. This way leads to immortality, the others to death.” This is an unmistakable reference to the doctrine of Kundalini yoga, in which a central channel or artery (shushumna) rises up the spine, through the heart center (or chakra) to the center at the crown of the head. The object of this yoga is to awaken the Kundalini energy at the base of the spine, and to cause it to rise up shushumna “through” the chakras, and to the chakra at the crown (sahasrara), which results in an experience of mystical ecstasy: the identification with the Source.

The next passage very curiously refers to the Self as “not larger than the thumb,” and concealed within the heart. We are enjoined to draw him “out of the physical sheath.” The clear suggestion is that not all the references to the Self as “hidden in the hearts of all” can be taken as figurative (as I suggested in the last installment). Indeed, we find here the traditional teaching that the center of one’s being is literally in the heart (or, at least in the region of the heart). The practice of meditation taught by the Katha Upanishad has as its goal to awaken the Self concealed in the heart. Somehow, this physical location is the passageway into another metaphysical reality: the reality of the Self. It is as if the heart is – quite literally – a secret passage into unity with the Source, and with all. One suspects that there is much that is not being said here; much that is being concealed.[4] [9]

Yama must have revealed some doctrines to Nachiketa that are not recorded here. In the end, all we are told is that “Nachiketa learned from the god of death the whole discipline of meditation. Freeing himself from all separateness, he won immortality in Brahman. So blessed is everyone who knows the Self.”



[1] [10] For more information on this problem, see my essay “On Being and Waking” in TYR, Vol. 5, forthcoming.

[2] [11] See Julius Evola and the UR Group, Introduction to Magic, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2001), p. 40.

[3] [12] “The only truly immortal being is the awakened man. Stars and gods disappear; he alone endures and can achieve anything he wants. There is no God above him.” See Introduction to Magic, p. 40.

[4] [13] For some treatment of this topic of work on the heart center, see Introduction to Magic, pp. 41-44.