More Light from the Kena Upanishad

The Upanishads are of interest because they throw light on the deepest aspect of human nature. Their enquiry does not end with the life of the mind, or with the store of experiences and tendencies that we feel is uniquely our own. Instead, it discerns that consciousness is essentially free from the colouring of our personality, is universal and identical in all of us—transcending such concepts as ‘all’ or ‘us’. The implication of this realisation is that humanity is essentially one, that differences are superficial, and that conflict is a wrong response to the problems that arise in personal, social and political life. Thus the upanishadic wisdom, by taking its stand on what unites humanity, not what apparently divides it, has the greatest relevance for our daily life, providing a true basis for our wellbeing. And the teachings are so practically effective because their insights apply to what is closest to us, our innermost self.

We may be convinced that such an enquiry is not necessary, because we know that our self is more or less identical with our personality. But is this really the case? If we go back to the origins of the word ‘personality’, we find that persona was the word for the face mask used in ancient Greek theatrical performances. This suggests that our personality, far from expressing our true nature, may actually help to conceal or ‘mask’ it. For we know only too well, that a person is not the mask, and in depth and value is infinitely greater than any mask.

In the same way, our true Self—the Self brought to our attention by the Upanishads—is inexpressibly greater than the mask of personality, however engaging or charismatic that personality might appear. But once we reflect on this question of our true identity, we also are forced to recognise that it is far from easy to separate the real Self from the personality, or even to realise that they are not the same thing. It is in the Upanishads that we find the question of our identity explored and clarified, so that we can lift our sense of identification from personality to Reality.

This particular aspect of our quest—the quest for self-knowledge—is pursued in partnership with a parallel investigation about the nature of reality in regard to the whole cosmos. Here, too, a kind of persona, or mask, is producing its effects, and these effects are surpassingly wonderful, for the ‘mask’ is nothing less than the entire world appearance.

The implication is that the spread of colour and movement, name and form, is an intricate web of appearances, which, being perishable and ever-changing, cannot be classed as the final, substantial reality. The reality is not the mask or the realm of appearances, but what those appearances hide or cover. This in turn is not a different set of appearances and a new range of qualities somehow superior to those brought about by the mask. Behind, or within, the superimposition of the world there is an ultimate principle which defies description and definition, yet is the all-in-all of the universe. It is not ‘nothing’, but on the contrary, it is nothing limited, nothing finite. The absence of qualities turns out to be the absence of limitations, and the apparent emptiness is a fullness that is nothing less than absolute. This is what is meant by Brahman, the Supreme, the All, the wholeness that is free from form, name and movement, and which is the substratum or ground of the phenomenal world.

Thus we now have two possible approaches whereby we can explore the true and ultimate character of experience. The first is the enquiry into Self, so that we detect the range and limits of our apparent personality and discern the reality of the Self that lies beyond it.

The second approach to Reality is when we contemplate the universe as a whole. Here we realise that the transient aspect of experience inner and outer, is a false superimposition and that the original Being is pure, infinite, immortal, free from qualities, and the Absolute fullness of existence-consciousness-bliss. In this fullness, there is no possibility of movement, being free from both interior and exterior.

So there are apparently two approaches to the enquiry into what is forever real in our experience and what is tentative, and therefore ultimately false. The first approach emphasizes self-knowledge, and the other approach involves an enquiry into the reality underlying the world appearance.

But actually these two approaches are two facets of a single enquiry, because both involve the same strategy. That strategy is the removal of the mask-like superimpositions and the uncovering of the one reality as it truly is: one without a second.

The aim of all the Upanishads is to impart the knowledge of Brahman, which is synonymous with knowledge of Truth or reality, and both in turn are synonymous with the higher Self-knowledge. But such knowledge is exceedingly subtle, and its abstract nature may make it unattractive, if we insist on the reality of our personality and of the world.

Even among seekers of truth, this knowledge is not available to anyone who insists that knowledge can only be gained by means of the subject-object division of experience, and who does not wish to envisage any other kind of knowledge. For the Reality transcends all divisions.

In the first verse of chapter two of the Kena Upanishad, it is the seeker of wisdom who is addressed—a serious seeker, but one who cannot imagine a form of knowledge in which the mind and its thoughts do not take first place. The verse makes the point that if we think to ourselves, ‘I have familiarised myself with these teachings—that my true nature is the Brahman nature, and now I know Brahman well enough,’—if we think like that, or speak in that way, we have not grasped the truth; and therefore we must continue with our enquiry. In other words, we have missed the point made before (in the last issue of this journal) that Brahman, the reality, is quite different from anything we know in the normal way.

Similarly, our characteristic way of knowing, which splits experience into one who knows, the object that is known, and the process of knowing, has no competence to fathom this mystery of the true nature of absolute reality. Or, to express it differently, if we think we can know Brahman in the way we know things in the world, where we are the knowing subject and what we know is the known object, then our so-called knowledge will be based on a misunderstanding created by our intellect and imagination, while the reality itself escapes our grasp. Therefore it is this habitual identification with the empirical way of knowing, that hides from us the light of true understanding.

But this does not mean that the reality is unknown to us even now. For there is a sense in which Brahman is more than known. This is because Brahman is the ultimate light of consciousness that is needed for any kind of knowledge.

So we find ourselves in the position of knowing, but without fully realising that we do know, and it has never been otherwise. For the fact is that we live in the light of the eternal consciousness at the core of our being. We do not recognise that we are living in the highest light all the time, and this oversight is sustained by our insistence that we are still a knowing subject apprehending known objects.

To gain the clarity to comprehend what we already know at the innermost shrine of our being, more reflection is needed. What does this lead to? Expressed in words, it leads to a different kind of self-assessment. Now the pupil says: ‘I do not think that I know Brahman well enough’, but goes on to say: ‘It is not that I do not know. I know, and I do not know as well.’ And the teacher accepts this statement as one that reflects or expresses the only way one’s comprehension can be put into words.

The Reality is not known because it is more than known. It is the light, the ultimate light, that makes all cognition possible. And yet it is the one unbroken absolute principle or reality, a knowledge that is so full that the mental activity we call knowing has no space for movement and interplay with objects. As the Upanishad goes on to say:

It is known to the one to whom it is unknown;
that seeker does not know to whom it is known.
It is unknown to those who know well;
and it is known to those who do not know.

It is the difference between knowing with the mind, based on the division between subject and object, and the infinite knowledge which is the true nature of the reality beyond the mind, which is known to itself perfectly, and hence can be said to be more than known.


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