The Wisdom of the Katha Upanishad

We enter this world as an unknowing baby, and even after a long and learned life-span, our knowledge is minute compared with what remains unknown to us. Given more time—‘life piled on life’—our store of knowledge may grow, but will always remain a fragment of the whole, and we have no idea of the extent of that whole! The great metaphysical questions about the meaning and purpose of existence, usually baffle our intellect, unless we accede to dogmas; otherwise we can only speculate about possibilities, or else ignore these profound matters and get on with life.

Is there a cure for this limitation of our knowing capacity, which grows more troublesome the more we think about it? Is there some great experience that banishes forever the feeling ‘I do not know’ and confers omniscience—complete knowledge which brings lasting fulfilment?

One of the meanings of the word Upanishad is ‘secret knowledge’. The implication is that these collections of teachings, formulated in ancient times, shed light on our potentiality for higher knowledge that is not revealed to us in the normal course of our secular, or even our religious life. The knowledge is also secret because it was intended only for those who were sincerely and persistently thirsting for it, willing to make it their main quest in life. As the Shvetashvatara Upanishad states: ‘It is not to be given to one who has no self-control... or to one who is not a disciple’. [6:22]

We may regard this caveat as outdated, now that the contents of the Upanishads are universally available. But the knowledge still remains ‘secret’ in the sense that, though the assemblage of words and sentences is available and widely studied, the living experience they refer to can only be grasped by one who has met the requirements of discipleship, prioritising the quest and making the necessary and progressive adjustments to the life of body, mind and speech. Many are those who are rich in book knowledge; fewer are those who wish to hold the precious teaching in their mind as ‘indirect knowledge’; rarest of all are those who strive to convert their intellectual wealth into the supreme peace and fulfilment of direct experience of ultimate reality. For that is what the Upanishads have to transmit to us.

In essence, the upanishadic wisdom relates to the deepest fact about human life: the nature of our real Self. This assumes that our conventional idea of self, as a fusion of body and mind, is inadequate. Such a view, though seemingly obvious and reasonable, condemns the self to transiency and obliteration. But the text of the Katha Upanishad states that its wisdom ‘leads to a great result’. The great result is the realisation that our innermost essence is one with the supreme and infinite power which pervades, reveals and supports the whole universe. From this standpoint, experience knows no limitation or divisions within itself. Our true nature, or innermost Self, is therefore one with the Self of all, completely and eternally beyond the sorrows that we normally associate with the human condition. This is the non-duality taught in the Upanishads, and is what is meant by ‘the highest Truth’.

One feature of the Katha Upanishad is that it attracts our interest in these teachings by suggesting their difficulty. One verse compares the path of higher knowledge to a walk on the edge of a razor:

Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones. The wise ones describe that path to be as impassable as a razor’s edge, which, when sharpened, is difficult to tread on. [1:3:14]

The path is thus presented as a challenge, which may deter the cautious. It confirms the seriousness of the endeavour, suggesting the deepening of a single interest, which may at first seem narrow and restrictive, but will prove expansive and universalising. It also suggests how easily we may be sidetracked and forget our purpose. Yet the image of the razor’s edge, though discomfitting, may strike a note of recognition at some deeper level of our being, and, because of that, exercise an attraction.

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This article is from the Spring 2017 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.