Kathopanishad – A Dialogue With Death

Genre – Spirituality, Philosophy

Author – Commentary by Swami Chinmayananda

Upanishads, written between 300 to 800 BCE (i.e. 2500 years ago), contain the heart of the Hinduism philosophy. They are also called Vedanta, literally the highest point of the Vedas (the religious text of Hindus). Most of the core messages are similar to hindu reformist movements like Buddhism and Jainism which also started around the same time.

Kathopanishad is one of the most popular of the series of 12 mukhya (Principal) upanishads. It is relatively short, just two chapters containing 3 sections each, and about 15-20 verses in each. Most of the teaching is in the first chapter and the second tends to elaborate and reinforce the learnings. It is the story of a young boy, Nachiketa, who meets Yama (the lord of death) to understand the mystery of death. In answering that, Yama also explains how we should be living. I resonated with 3 core learnings:

  • The wise discriminate between what is really good vs. what feels merely pleasant at that moment. Lot of temptations around us which give instant pleasure but harmful in the long run. We need to rein in our desires by discriminating between the ephemeral in this mortal world.
  • Beyond the body and even the mind, there is our true self. We need to come out of the ego of our external identity and contemplate the nature of this real us. That is meditation.
  • Our real self is one with God. God is not an external entity but within us. Man minus desire can be called God. Meditation is the way to join the inner self with the eternal reality. But this can’t be done just by reading religious texts. It needs a pure and tranquil mind.

Chapter I, Section I

When Nachiketa asks Yama what happens after death, Yama tries to dissuade him by offering tempting material boons like “wealth and longevity, be king of the earth, the enjoyer of all thy desires”. But Nachiketa is persistent: “Ephemeral these”, he says, “they tend to decay. Let thine alone be the chariots, the dance and music.” Having shunned the material, he is now ready for ved gyan (divine knowledge).

Chapter I, Section II

Yama first teaches the difference between Shreyas (the good) and Preyas (the pleasant):

Shreyascha preyascha manushyam eta…

Shreyo hi dhiro bhi preyaso vranite

Preyo mando yogshemaad vranite

Both Shreyas and Preyas approach the mortal man, the wise man prefers the good to the pleasant, but the ignorant man prefers short-term pleasures due to his bodily greed and attachment.

This resonates with the teaching of Bhagwan Gita too: things that give us momentary pleasures are often not good in the long run.

Yama then defines Atma (soul) or the real Self, subtler than the subtlest, cautioning us not to confuse our body or external identity with our real self.

Na jayate mriyte va vipaschit…

Na hanyate hanyamane sharire

The all knowing soul is neither born, nor dies…

It is not slain even when the body is destroyed.

Yoga (meaning “to join”… with the larger reality) or Meditation is defined, where thoughts are withdrawn from external objects, so we can contemplate on the nature of this real self:

Adhyatam-yoga-adhigamena devam

Matvo dhiro harsha-shokau jahati.

By means of meditation on the inner self

The wise man renounces joy and sorrow.

Yama also introduces the word Om, a sign of Brahman or the supreme reality. He says this is the most important word that all vedas teach.

But we cannot understand the atma or self by the study of vedas or just by intelligence, unless we are ready for it. The Supreme Soul only reveals itself to the purified, tranquil person:

Na virato dushcharityan na ashanto nasmaahit

Na ashant manaso vapi pragyanen naina mapruyat 

He who has not turned away from bad conduct, whose senses are not subdued

Whose mind is not concentrated, can never obtain this Self by knowledge

Chapter I, Section III

Often called The Parable of the Chariot (Plato had used this analogy too), it introduces our senses as horses moving on a road full of sense-objects and desires:

Yastava vigyanvana bhavati ayuktena mansa sada

Tasyen driyanya vasyani dushtaasva iva sarthe

One who is always of unrestrained mind and devoid of right understanding

His sense organs become uncontrollable like the vicious houses of a chariot.

Ergo, through yoga, we have to control our senses, so we can become free from all the vagaries of the mind.

Beyond the senses are the sense-objects, beyond these objects is the mind, beyond the mind is the intellect, and beyond intellect is the great self. Beyond that is the unmanifested reality. In pure ancient hinduism, god was not defined. To define god is to defile god.

Chapter II, Section IV

The theme of renunciation and controlling our senses continues. The ignorant pursue external pleasures and fall into the snares of widespread death. But the wise do not desire anything in this world, having known what is (truly) eternal in this world full of mortal things. They endeavour that their true self becomes one with the eternal spirit.

Yatho udakam shuddhe shuddham aasitam tadragev bhavati

Evam muner vijanat atma bhavati gautam

Just as pure water (man minus his ego and desires) poured into pure water, becomes that only.

So becomes the self of the man of the thinker who knows this.

Chapter II, Section V

Tam atma stham ye nupasyanti dhira

Teshan sukh sashvatam netaresham

That He exists within their own self, the wise men who perceive this

To them belong eternal happiness and to no one else

The knowledge of the oneness of our innermost self with the Ultimate reality is the path of knowledge. Our real self is no different than the eternal reality outside, often called God. This is the essence of Upanishads.

Chapter II, Section VI

Yada sarve pramuchanyante kama ye asya hridi shrita

atha martyo amrit bhavati atra brahman samashnute

When all the desires that dwell in the heart are destroyed

Then the mortal becomes immortal, and attains Brahman (the supreme reality) even here.

Man, in his pure form, can be called God. One of the four mahavakya (Great Truth) in our vedas is that Tat Tvam Asi or I (my true self) is the same as you (God). Man minus Desire is God.

Like any text, there are parts I disagree with. Soul that survives death is probably too fantastic a notion in this scientific era. But the oneness of our deepest self with all that is around us (remember the movie Avatar!) is spiritually very profound. Similarly, the concept of Yama needs to be understood as story telling and not as a literal god.

Why study it: If you remove religion out of it, kathopanishad offers at least 3 profound lessons. Shreyas and Preyas are everyone’s demons, when to yield to a temptation and when to withstand. Ditto the Parable of the Chariot, the need to rein in our horses! Most importantly, our pure self itself is God. He exists within us.