Kena Upanishad—Difficulties Resolved

The last of three short talks on this Upanishad by the Warden

The Kena Upanishad gives valuable hints about the path to self-realisation. At first sight it might seem that the opposite is the case. For we are told at the start that this is not a teaching that can be adequately expressed in words. This is because it draws our attention to a realm of being which surpasses and transcends the psychological need to form words and sentences. In fact this realm of being does not involve mental activity at all. So this is one great mystery about the teaching, and some may view this difficulty as a deterrent to further enquiry.

But another difficulty is to follow. The Upanishad gives us the example of a serious pupil who has studied the non-dual philosophy in depth, and who has a good understanding of the meaning of Brahman. (Brahman is the term used for the absolute reality—that which is eternally real in contrast to the universe and its living beings, which are subject to continuous change.) We may recall that this enquirer has reached a point in development whereby he or she feels emboldened to tell the teacher: ‘I have known Brahman well enough.’ But the teacher points out that to make such a statement proves that the reality, Brahman, is not rightly known, and the pupil is told to reflect more deeply if his or her aim in life is enlightenment.

Then why was the statement: ‘I have known Brahman well enough’ rejected by the teacher? Because it sprang not from realisation but from an ongoing dependence on habitual ways of thought and expression. That habit, the deepest habit of all in our psychology, sees experience as a split between self as subject and everything else as its object. It is not that we are frightened by the possibility of a new way of experiencing life and our self that will transcend individuality. It is just that the habits of observation and response based on duality are so deeply rooted that our imagination cannot picture a self-transcending oneness. Therefore we hold on to what we already know and how we know it.

We might go on to ask: ‘If the nature of realisation is so subtle, involving the recognition that one’s own Self is the Self of all, then why should one undertake such a challenging quest?’ The answer is given in a verse which says:

If one has realised here, then there is truth; if one has not realised here, then there is great destruction. The wise ones, having realised Brahman in all beings, and having turned away from this world, become immortal. (2:5)

The basic reason behind our striving for liberation is that it is the means to conscious immortality. But what can that mean? It was said in the first of these presentations that one who is wise no longer cares to identify 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.

Conscious immortality means the discovery in one’s own being of a principle that is not caught up in the processes of change, deterioration and eventually death of the physical body. These processes are unavoidable, but they do not affect the whole person. They do not affect the most fundamental aspect of a person, namely the consciousness and being that sustains and vitalizes the life of body and mind. What is not affected by death is the innermost principle of awareness before which all thoughts, and all names and forms, come and go. As ever-conscious awareness, it is sometimes called the witness consciousness, but as said before, it is not an active and reacting witness, which would make it just another dimension of mind. It is more like a constant light that permits mental activity but itself remains impersonal or super-personal, and being totally free from personal influences and qualities, it is not individualised at all, but one in all. As another verse tells us:

Brahman is really known when it is known as the Self of each state of consciousness, because to know this is to realise conscious immortality. (2:4)

So we have to recognise that our inner world is not just filled with mind, showing itself as continuous thinking; there is another, higher filling, so to say, made up of pure consciousness. This pure consciousness is that which was spoken of as the power behind the mind, and you remember the opening question of this Upanishad: ‘What is the inner power that enables the mind to function as it does.’ We also pointed out that this power is the same as that changeless, witnessing consciousness which is always there, always here as our true Self whether we sense it or not.

As explained, the realisation of the true nature of this power, the recognition of the transcendence and supremacy of pure consciousness, the identity of this pure consciousness with our true Self, our innermost Self, confers conscious immortality. This is because in that pure consciousness, in that peak of experience which ever abides and to which all else appears, in this consciousness there is no trace of division, change, taint or limitation of any kind. It is the infinite and to know Self truly is to know Self as that infinite consciousness—even if we cannot talk about it.

In the Kena Upanishad, the subtle and abstract metaphysical teachings are followed by a traditional story which, on reflection, confronts the same question with which this Upanishad opens: ‘By whose power does the directed mind go towards its object?’ And just as in that earlier chapter, the source of power is traced to the universal consciousness that underlies the mind, and not to our individual nature, so the story demonstrates that our seemingly personal power and aptitude has its source in the ultimate reality, and that we are nothing without that support. The story develops out of an earlier myth that tells of a primeval battle for the governance of the world between the forces of good, represented by the gods, and those of evil, led by the demons. The great battle was won by the gods, who emerged from it bloated with pride in their own prowess, and declaring: ‘Ours is the victory, ours the glory’. However, the supreme Reality, Brahman, who was the real source of triumph, wished to teach the gods a lesson. He appeared in their midst in a celestial form, and invited each of the gods in turn to show their strength. Actually his demand was minimal.

Confronted by the god of fire, he laid a mere straw before him, and invited Fire, who had boasted that he could destroy the worlds, to burn up the straw. But when Fire attempted this feat, he found he was quite helpless, for with all his efforts, the fire would not ignite. Similar tests were arranged to puncture the pretensions of the other gods, who were forced to recognise and admit that their strength was not really their own, that in themselves they were nothing, and that their glory depended on the extent to which they gave honour to that ultimate source of all.

The teachings transmitted through the verses of the Kena Upanishad thus shed light on that Reality (Brahman) which is inexpressible, yet the source of all expression, which is beyond the range of our knowledge, yet more than known. They help us to recognise the obstacles to true understanding, and if we do our best to remove these hindrances, we will realise our nature as the boundless, blissful, supreme Brahman.


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