The Kena Upanishad

One of the signs of mature thought is the urge to discover the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. If this urge arises in us and persists, it is usually linked to our recognition that the goals which most people pursue—or would pursue if they had the opportunity—are insufficient to cure the restlessness of the human heart.

When this philosophical mood invades us, our response might not always be positive. The undermining of our confidence in life’s conventional goals, such as wealth, glory, power and expertise, may lead to scepticism. To feel that nothing matters destroys our motivation for taking anything seriously. We may even seek to disillusion others with our dim assessment of life.

On the other hand, if we are not swayed by this negativity, and if we can open our mind to the possibility of a deeper understanding, we will find that countless individuals down the ages have detected in life a higher purpose. The scriptures of the world form a testimony to their insight. But even without this connection with religion, the truth about life’s purpose is so vital that it can shine through any mind, in any domain of life or learning. The one factor common to all expressions of truth is the assumption that, as human beings, we can guide our mind in such a way that our consciousness expands and deepens. Life becomes a creative adventure when we recognise that certain ideas do have the power, depth and purity to guide us to a higher mode of life.

One of the most effective forms of Truth-communication is the collection of teachings known as the Upanishads—originally passed on by word of mouth, and later organised into short books or writings. To call the Upanishads ‘writings’ is misleading. It suggests that their subject-matter can be adequately passed on by means of words. But what the Upanishads ultimately shed light on cannot be expressed in words. Their subject matter is the supreme reality that underlies and makes possible the transient appearances. The insufficiency of words to describe this reality is not because it is vague and mysterious, but because it is sublime and transcendent, and one only without a second. There is thus no way the Real can divide and analyse itself for purposes of discussion.

But the Upanishads have not been revealed to us in order to expose our limitations or to tell us about a goal that is beyond our reach. Their words serve a unique purpose. That purpose is to impart the awakening knowledge of absolute Reality—That which ever was, is and shall be. We are introduced to the search for the supreme Truth in our own being—as the reality of what we are. For infinite Reality is the very nature of our being.

The Upanishads also specify where the Reality is not to be found, namely, in any of the objective or ‘seen’ aspects of experience—‘seen’ as in the normal seeing of the eye, and also ‘seen’ in the sense of appearing before our inward awareness as an object of thought. Reality is the ultimate conscious principle to which all appears, whether that ‘all’ refers to the world or to the contents of the mind.

To know what we are, we have first to understand what we are not. Therefore, the reality of our being is spoken of in terms that are apparently negative. It is called the Immutable, meaning it is not caught up in changes. It is the Imperishable, that is, not subject to death. It is taintless, meaning not marred by any fault or defect. Each of these negations is a remover of obstacles to self-knowledge, with the negative words producing a positive effect. Each negation is the removal of a barrier, so that our inner being, when contemplated as free from change, destruction and taint, becomes unified and simplified. And this philosophical sifting opens the way for the unimpeded realisation of Truth Absolute as Self. The hidden heart of negation is affirmation.

This possibility of awakening to the deeper reality is evident in the short upanishad called ‘Kena’. The Sanskrit word ‘kena’ itself is a question, meaning ‘by whom?’ or ‘by what?’, and the enquiry it initiates shows the value of asking the right questions, and also warns against mistaking our partial intellectual grasp of the teachings, for actual realisation.

The Upanishad starts with a question that seeks to discover the Power at the source of all our experience. The question is put by an enquirer to an enlightened teacher, and runs:

Willed by whom (kena) does the directed mind go towards its object? Being directed by whom does the life force (the prana) keep up its activity—its functions in sustaining our body— keeping us alive? By whom is this speech willed that people utter? Who is the effulgent being who directs the eyes and the ears?

One fundamental question is posed in four different ways, and we can see that the question is, to some extent, self-answering. There is an implicit denial of the idea that our individuality is an independent centre of power and intelligence. We may, out of long-established and unchallenged habit, take our seeming independence for granted. But from a higher standpoint, the idea is rejected, in favour of an unseen Power which is one in all.

On the other hand, the nature of this Power is not obvious, and we may doubt its existence. Yet there are good reasons why our mind cannot discern this superior and ruling presence. For, in contrast to the movement and content of our mental life, of which we are aware and can discuss and classify, the innermost Power neither moves nor alters, nor does it display any qualities; it simply is, and its nature is to be the consciousness that, by its mere presence, imparts light and life to the mind and the senses. It is thus like a subject, to which the mind and senses (and the world they reveal) are objects. Yet unlike the limited subjectivity of the mind, which is ever reacting to the data that enters it through the senses, the power of consciousness, interior to the mind, can never be other than the ultimate principle of consciousness, limitless, unchanging, ever present, ever illumined.

The next verse continues to refer to this Power as if its existence and pivotal function in our life were unquestionable. For now it is directly declared to be the supreme principle, absolutely on a par with the ‘Inner Ruler’ (antaryamin) referred to in another upanishad, the Brihadaranyaka. This is how the Kena Upanishad phrases it in its second verse:

That is the Ear of the ear, the Mind of the mind,
the Speech of speech, the Life of life, and the Eye of the eye…

The verse goes on to suggest that one who is wise no longer cares to identify him- or herself with the transient and mortal aspects of self—the body, senses and mind. Instead, identity-feeling is withdrawn into the Power behind the mind. This will result in true independence, leading to conscious immortality.

However, this liberating adjustment is not straightforward, owing to the natural limitations under which the mind operates. And these limitations are the subject matter of verse three, which affirms not only the indescribable nature of the Power behind the mind, but also identifies problems that hinder the transmission of Truth from teacher to enquirer.

The eye does not go there, nor speech, nor mind. We do not know this Ultimate Reality (Brahman) to be associated with any limitations whatsoever. Hence we are not aware of any way to teach it.

If the teacher in the Upanishad is unaware of any method that will serve to awaken us to the true nature of reality, who else can help us? It now looks as if the teaching on the power behind the mind is itself being withdrawn for want of a method or process that can bring it to life. The solution comes in the next verse:

‘That (Brahman) is surely different from the known; and, again, It is above the unknown.’ Thus we heard from the ancient teachers who explained it to us.

What is here called ‘the known’ are the features of experience that appear before us, and the statement that the reality, Brahman, differs from the known, is another way of affirming the eternal difference between the ultimate subject, which is the pure and unchanging consciousness at the core of our being, and the realm of objects that it reveals and animates.

The sentence: ‘It is above the unknown’, is a challenge. For surely as regards knowledge, the entire phenomenal world may be viewed as comprising just two categories of experience: what we know, or know about; and what we don’t know, whether we are aware of our ignorance or not. (The unknown also includes the ‘unmanifest’ objects which as yet are potential and will be actualised and made ‘known’ in the course of time.)

But let us ask whether these two categories, known and unknown, really do exhaust the range of what can be experienced. Could there not be something like a third category of conscious experience, rooted in our own being? Such a principle would confirm the immediacy of pure consciousness as an obvious truth, and recognise its status as the ultimately real principle underlying and permitting everything. Its knowledge status might most suitably be characterised by the phrase: ‘more than known’.

Therefore, it is not a process of instruction that is needed to awaken us to Reality, for such a process would assume that the reality of our being-and-consciousness was right now under an eclipse and needed rectifying by means of active techniques. The awakening to Reality is the living appreciation and recognition of the simple fact that we have always known the ever-liberated, ever-achieved, non-dual, consciousness as our true Self because we are That.

It is the very nature of our inmost Self to know itself as eternal freedom. In the same way, it is the natural state of the Absolute (Brahman) to know itself as the reality in all, thus knowing itself as the all. And this Truth is at the heart of all the Upanishads:

that Atman (Self) is Brahman (the Absolute)
that Brahman (the Absolute) is Atman (the Self)
and this is not a pairing based on union,
but a oneness—a nonduality—based on identification.

If we insist on trying to know what we do not know, we will make what is immediate, remote; what is near, far; and what is simple and sublime, complex and grounded in distracting details. Conversely, if we try to know what we already know, we will confirm our identity with That Self, that Brahman, which is eternally more-than-known. In the words of the Kena Upanishad:

That which one does not comprehend with the mind, that by which, they say, the mind is encompassed, know That to be Brahman, and not what people worship as an object.


This article is from the Spring 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.