Some Teachings from the Katha Upanishad

One thing that all human lives have in common is their unpredictability. There always seems to be something that escapes our control or eludes our knowledge. On the other hand, to apparently lose is to win if what happens to us prompts us to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life as a whole, and if this thirst for understanding leads us to enquire into the great wisdom traditions. Then our quest for deeper understanding and fulfilment can become clearly focused and progressive.

This is the situation of the pupil in the Katha Upanishad, who initially wants to know whether the self goes on existing after death—a question which develops into a need to realise conscious immortality through awakening to the knowledge of our ultimate Self as the sole reality of the universe. This liberating knowledge, and the inner transformation of our higher faculties, are the themes of the teaching that follows.

The higher aspect of our nature is expressed through the wise application of our intellect and our will. By intellect is meant our innate sensitivity to truth and falsehood. By will is meant our power to execute the decisions of the intellect that are in harmony with our higher purpose.

This composite faculty of intellect and will has the authority to free us from the pressure of emotional extremes, and it also has the power to guide our thoughts into enlightened channels. Thus this higher phase of our nature is essentially a ruling principle, and it is destined to play a far-reaching role in our self-training for transcendence. One of its Sanskrit names is ‘buddhi’, from the root ‘budh’, meaning to awaken.

The activities of the mind are known and evaluated at all times by the buddhi, which is subtle and inward. It is the buddhi which constantly surveys what we experience and says ‘this is true or not’ and ‘this is what should be done or not’. When impure, the buddhi asserts: ‘The world I see through the senses is real, and I am this individual mind and body, and my worldly interests are paramount.’ With wise training and guidance the buddhi begins to understand that Reality transcends the mind-world and that Self transcends individuality. And when purified, the buddhi, as the most inward and sensitive element of our psychology, may serve as a mirror in which is reflected the light of pure consciousness, and a way opens to realisation of that light as our ultimate Self and the true Being in all.

A purified buddhi is like a wise friend, ready and able to guide our steps on the path of true well-being. We need such guidance because life constantly confronts us with invitations to desire what is pleasant, as well as to follow a more selfless path involving service, collaboration and kindness. If we want to make progress in self-knowledge, we are advised to pursue the good rather than the merely pleasurable. It is the purified buddhi that will give us the insight and the strength to keep to the way of inner progress.

The non-dual teaching goes beyond psychology and imposed codes of conduct, identifying the innermost principle of our nature with the consciousness which lights up all experience. This is our true Self, which knows no limitations or divisions and is therefore the one Self in all. It is the buddhi that is most responsive to training and guidance on the path to transcendence, and where the buddhi leads, the rest of the personality will eventually follow.

What then is the true nature of the Self?

The intelligent Self is neither born nor does it die. It did not originate from anything, nor did anything originate from it. It is birthless, eternal, undecaying and ancient. It is not injured, even when the body is killed. (1.2.18)

The reason for this seemingly negative form of expression is that the Self transcends all limitations, and here too language reaches its limit and can only fall silent.

The Self is therefore different from anything experienced in the objective world and also in the realm of imagination. Speaking of it as ‘intelligent’, does not refer to the limited human intelligence, but the absolute intelligence of pure consciousness, which is the indispensable factor in all knowing.

Again it is said:

The Self that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great, is established in the heart of every creature. One who is not oppressed by desires sees that glory of the Self through inner serenity, and thereby becomes free from sorrow. (1.2.20)

Self, as the essential reality in all, is not separate from anything. It is not reason that can bring to light this truth, but inner serenity, which allows the aspirant to grasp intuitively the fact of unity that ever supports the apparent diversity.

How do we achieve this all-important quality of inner serenity?

The answer to this question is suggested by a simile which, though its terminology belongs to the ancient world, should prove meaningful to the modern enquirer.

The human body is compared to a chariot, and the real Self is like the owner of the chariot, who is not actively engaged in steering it. That work belongs to the charioteer, or driver, who stands for the intellect, or buddhi. The horses represent the senses, and like all horses, need to be trained and managed. This is done by means of the reins, which are held by the charioteer— the reins standing for the mind. The road or track is the world of the sense objects—the good or pleasant things that require our wise selection and pursuit.

The key idea is that everything depends on the quality of insight and control shown by the charioteer—the buddhi. If the driver has a good knowledge of the roads (the sense-objects), knows how to handle with skill the reins and horses (mind and senses) then there is an excellent chance of reaching one’s destination with safety. But if the reins are held carelessly and inattentively, an accident is likely to happen before the journey’s end.

One whose charioteer is a discriminating intellect, and who has under control the reins of the mind, attains the end of the road. (1.3.9)

The simile shows how a skilled application of the intellect and will leads to the uncovering of our higher potentialities. And let us remember that the discriminating intellect is not the end of the road, which is Self-realisation—direct experience of reality.

How are we to begin to identify our true Self with the Absolute? It is not by reaching upwards to some imagined location above and beyond the world. It begins with the choice between the greater good and the lesser good, the latter tempting us with promises of unimpaired joy. The more we take our stand on the greater good, the more our inner being will become peaceful and clear enough to be guided by an illumined understanding. Then, the process is one of progressively withdrawing the sense of selfhood from all that is experienced as an object.

So our inner development goes beyond personality and leads to the realisation that the highest truth is not manifest in any individualised condition, but is the universality of consciousness that underlies all particulars and is the one Self in all. This transference of our sense of identity is both radical and reasonable. It is radical because it undermines the totality of ideas and assumptions we have relied on throughout our time as seemingly separate individuals. The same identity-shift is also reasonable and normal, once we grasp the contradiction at the root of our individualised experience.

The weak point in the seemingly impregnable edifice of personhood can be exposed if we reflect on the nature of the subject-object relationship as it seems to manifest in our experience. The apparent position established by experience is that the subject is ‘I’, and the object is everything of which the ‘I’ is aware. Superficially it appears that the mind and its thoughts are part of our subjective nature, as they seem to be interior in relation to the outer objects. But actually, whatever arises in the mind, and the mind itself, is nothing more than an inner object, revealed by a more inward light which itself never appears as an object.

There is therefore a radical difference in nature between knower and known, subject and object. The objects, mental or physical, are ever-changing, whereas the subject reveals no changeability in itself whatsoever. The objects have no revealing power—they do not reveal themselves or one another; their ‘knowable’ nature is made possible solely by the light of the conscious Self. Hence subject and object differ as much as light and darkness. And yet, the usual concept of personhood is formed by a seeming amalgamation of these contradictories. We do not feel, ‘I am the unchanging light of consciousness’. Rather, the basis of our apparent personhood is identification with the changing mental states which are in truth no more than inner objects with no life or light of their own. The solution is to discriminate between the conscious Self, and the mental objects. This is the primary task of the trained and purified buddhi. It is buddhi that can analyse experience and understand in principle what is happening. And being most subtle and inward, it is the buddhi which, when purified, reflects the light of Self without distortion.

The Self (Atman) hidden in all beings is not revealed (to all) but is seen only by those who see what is subtle through their sharp and subtle buddhi. (1.3.12)

Looked at in this way, our problem might seem to be purely intellectual, and solved simply by familiarising ourselves and agreeing with the non-dual understanding of experience. But intellectual acumen, even when supported by balanced trust in the teachings, is not sufficient to give rise to recognition of the non-dual Self as the sole reality in the universe. The foundations of inner clarity and serenity have to be laid. The choice between the good and the pleasant has to be repeatedly made in favour of the good. The mind’s habitual thirst for sense pleasures has to be regarded as a potent obstacle to the serene and subtle inner atmosphere that prepares the way for realisation.

These teachings are often conveyed with the help of metaphors. For example, there is the ‘tree’ of the world [2.3.1] with its boughs, branches and twigs, suggestive of how our own life ramifies into innumerable details, twists and entanglements. As enquirers we are advised, through calm detachment, to loosen our ties with unnecessary worldly connections, for these steal away our precious time and energy. Again, the desires that cling to the heart and determine our emotional nature, are compared to knots. [2.3.15] These knots of desire are tightened by our urge to repeat pleasant experiences, but will loosen through lack of support and eventually lose their power over the personality—as long as our quest is sincere. Our mind will discover within itself a new peace and independence, as it frees itself from the obstacles to illumination.

Eternal peace is for those who are discriminating, and who realise in their hearts that reality which is eternal amid the passing, the source of all consciousness, the inner Ruler and the one Self of all. [2.2.13]

The Self stands apart from transient phenomena, supporting all through its light and being, but bound to none. Our search is for that which never changes, decays or perishes. Only such a principle may with justification be called real. All that changes is of a lesser status, and ultimately lacks all status. And so:

One endowed with discrimination should merge speech (vāk) into thought (manas), thought into intelligence (jñāne ātmani), intelligence into higher Self (mahati ātmani), higher Self into Absolute Self (śānte ātmani). [1.3.13]

This verse points the way to the summit of Self-knowledge. First, attention should be withdrawn from speech, including the words we use internally, so that what remains is the thought which words represent and express. Then attention is turned from thoughts to the intelligence that gives rise to thoughts. That intelligence is to be stilled so that what remains is consciousness alone, the higher Self. Then, if consciousness of any object remains, that is to be withdrawn into the one without a second, called here the Self of Peace (śānti) or Absolute Self. This last term is not different from the supreme reality, or brahman, and the peace it harbours is absolute and without taint.

Thus a study of the non-dual teachings, with their constant reference to the true self, the real ‘I’, will in the end help us to throw off the limited ideas based on wrong identification. If our mind is drawn to the following affirmation, and we make it our own, the indirect knowledge it transmits will be replaced by direct experience, and the truth of the Self will be realised as the eternal Fact. We will know beyond challenge, that:



This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.