[Talk on Kaṭhopanishad delivered at the 3rd Sreemad Bhāgavata Tattva Sameeksha Satram on 26th December 2004]
Harih OM Tat Sat. Jai Guru.
We shall start with the śānti pāṭha. That will set the fundamental tone for today’s discussion, because the śānti pāṭha of Kaṭhopanishad has got some very significant elements. I would like all of you to repeat line after line as I chant.
Purity of Mind – The Goal
Kaṭhopanishad is one of the most brilliant Upanishads where sādhanā is emphasized right from the beginning to the end. We may think of Vedanta as a philosophy but Kaṭhopanishad is very emphatic in pointing out time and again that it is not a philosophy; it is to be practised and actualized in our life. The philosophy is rather secondary. The primary purpose of the Upanishad is sādhanā, the finale of which is the purity of the mind, śuddhacittatā.
Purity of mind is the goal of all the Upanishads, but Kaṭhopanishad specializes in focusing and illustrating it through a story. Time and again, through each śloka, it goes on hammering into our brain: “O seekers, you should not miss the goal. It is not pāṇḍitya (erudition), it is not philosophy, it is purity of your mind that has to be cared for, that has to be attended to. You have to purify your mind; otherwise all your learning, all your tapasyā, brahmacarya and what not, will become futile.”
Greatness of Guru-śishya Paramparā
In the śānti pāṭha itself, we find this emphasis. One speciality of this śānti pāṭha is the use of dvivacana (dual number) – Saha nau avatu, saha nau bhunaktu ... etc. Why suddenly dvivacana? Who are the two persons? We know that it is referring to the teacher and the student. “Let both of us, the teacher and the student, be protected and nourished.” All our Vedic invocations generally address in plural: “A no bhadrāḥ kratavo yantu viśvataḥ”, “Sarve bhavantu sukhinaḥ”.
Everywhere we are praying for the whole world, not even our country alone. Why then has Kaṭhopanishad been so constricted, restricting its benedictory invocation to only those who are studying the Upanishad?
We have to be deep in our understanding. Our Upanishads cannot be constricted. Upanishads’ sole aim is to make us universal. How can the invocatory mantra itself be constricted? When we think we find a great significance. A very special importance is given to the teacher and the student – not as just two persons, but as representing the Guru-śiṣya paramparā (the lineage of teachers and students) through which Brahmavidyā has lived in our society generation after generation, from time immemorial.
Because, the real Knowledge of Truth remains ablaze in the Knower who lives it, who has identified himself with it. The book is only like a picture of the real fire. Can we use the fire from the picture to cook our food, to burn dead bodies or to get warmth? The Knowers are the embodiment of the Upanishadic knowledge. Like a lamp lit by the flame of a burning lamp, the knowledge gets kindled in the śiṣya from the Guru. The śiṣya becomes a Guru and passes on the fire to the next generation. That is how the flame of Brahmavidyā lives through eternity. Without the Guru-śiṣya paramparā, this knowledge would not have been available today. So, truly it is a prayer for the perpetuation of Brahmavidyā for the highest benefit of the world; and not a constricted prayer for ourselves. There lies the greatness of the prayer.
The śānti mantra also says: nau adheetam tejasvi astu – let whatever we learn become tejasvi. It should not become an intellectual knowledge, a bookish knowledge. When we live the knowledge, it becomes tejasvi. Then it says: mā vidviṣāvahai – let us not be intolerant of each other. People may ask immediately: Where is the question of any intolerance or hatred between the Guru and the śiṣya? The Guru is always merciful towards the śiṣya and the śiṣya is always devoted to the Guru!
But, any real sādhaka will know that there is enough scope for intolerance because it is not like the knowledge given in an academic institution. This knowledge calls for complete transformation of our being, purification of our mind. Our ego at each step will hinder this purificatory process. The Guru has to point out where we need purification, where we need correction. And the ego will come up each time and say, “My Guru has not understood me, he is devaluing me. Again and again he is criticizing me for no fault of mine.” All these problems will come! So, for a sādhaka living in Guru-sannidhi, this prayer is very important.
The real Knowledge is carried by the Knower. The book is only secondary. That is why the Kaṭhopanishad exhorts: “Uttiṣṭhata, jāgrata, prāpya varān nibodhata” – Arise, awake, seek the best of the Acharyas; remain with him and try to actualize the Truth till the last bit of doubt is removed. Nibodhata – niṣkarṣeṇa bodhata – perceive the essence deeply and well until you become doubt-free.
Why? Because: “kṣurasya dhārā, niśitā duratyayā, durgaṃ pathastat, kavayoḥ vadanti – The path to this final auspicious goal of life is like the razor’s edge – it is difficult to cross, nay even difficult to tread on – the Kavis say.” Who are the Kavis? The Kavis are the Wise ones who have realized the Truth, who know how to get rid of the bondage of the world. They know the obstacles, pitfalls and allurements that hinder our journey on this path. So, at each step you need the guidance of the Wise Guru who will carefully, compassionately, lovingly, take you forward, take you across. First awake and arise to this need. Don’t be egoistic. Go to the Wise Guru and surrender. He will take you to the ultimate goal provided you have the readiness and humility to follow him.
Dawning of True Seeking
Here comes the sādhanā. Our spirituality starts from maybe listening to some lectures, reading some scriptures or chanting some ślokas. We go to various Acharyas, listen to various speakers. Whatever we like we accept; whatever we don’t like we reject. Although we are listening to the Mahatmas, the judgement in accepting or rejecting their words is made by our own intelligence. Does it not mean that we are giving our own intelligence the superior position than the Wise ones? As long as this phase continues, we are not wholesome seekers.
But, finally one day, we start feeling helpless that our intelligence is not able to find the Truth. The scriptures speak in so many contradictory statements, there are so many ways, so many pursuits; what am I to follow? How can I know what is the right path? That is the time – if we have śraddhā in the words of our Mahatmas and the śāstras, then – we remember that they speak about Guru or Acharya. They ask us to go to the Wise Acharya and enquire humbly. “Tad-viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā “ – the Bhagavadgeeta says. Humbly, because otherwise our ego will again take up the supreme position. We may go to an Acharya, prostrate before him, ask him certain questions but again we will judge his reply with our own intelligence.
Giving Guru The Supreme Position
What does humility mean? Humility means, I accept that the Vara, the realized Acharya, knows about me better than what I know about myself. He can tell me what I am supposed to do as sādhanā, where lie my impurities and insufficiencies, where do I need corrections and improvements, and which way lies my auspicious growth. Unless the Guru is given this superior position, we will not be able to walk confidently on this path.
Suppose we are walking in a desert and are thirsty. We don’t know where lies water. Nobody is there to tell us where we can find some water. Suddenly we find another person coming from the other direction and he looks quite satisfied and happy – not suffering from thirst. Then, will we not naturally think: “Being in the same desert he does not seem to be suffering from thirst! What is the mystery?” Should we not ask him: "Wherefrom did you get water?"
Like that, in the desert of our samsāra, we always see around us long faces, depressed faces. If we ever see anybody, who looks cheerful, peaceful and unaffected even in grave crisis, then should we not go and enquire where lies the key to his internal strength and happiness? Even when surrounded by death and calamity, that person does not seem to be affected by the world at all. When we are haunted by greed and competition, that person doesn’t seem to be attracted by the lucrative things of the world!
The person in the desert may assure us: “Yes, there is water! I cannot show you from here, but if you walk along this path you will see a palm tree standing far away. Go near the tree and look down – you will find a beautiful pond there. Go and quench your thirst. It is sweet water, I have drunk from there.”
Wherefrom will we have faith in his words? The first judgement has to be made by us: this man does not look thirsty; he must have got water. Once we have faith that this man seems to have got water, we have to follow his words. After going half the distance, cross thoughts should not disturb us: “Oh, may be that person is misleading me; there is no water there. I will become all the more tired walking this way. Let me rather go my own way.”
We have to seek the Vara with our own knowledge and discrimination. But once we have found the Vara, we have to trust his words, his guidance, until we reach the palm tree and look down and see the pond ourselves. We have to see the pond. The Guru cannot see the pond for us. He can show us the way. We have to walk following his direction. There lies humility.
Uniqueness of Brahmavidyā
There is a fundamental difference between Brahmavidyā or Upanishadic knowledge and all other subjects. Because, all other subjects deal with the objective field while Brahmavidyā is the knowledge about our own Subject – the ‘I’ in us. No purity of the mind or sublimation of the being is required for mastering any other subject. A great scientist or an economist need not be a very pure hearted person. He might be haunted by so many desires of the world. That will not hinder him from achieving mastery in his field. But, in spirituality it is not so. Our scriptures do not talk about jñāna only as a philosophy. Otherwise, all the teachers who teach Vedanta in the University would have been Knowers or Gurus. Our scriptures do not accept the theoretical knowledge of Vedanta as ‘Knowledge’. We have to do the sādhanā ourselves with our own mind and intelligence and match our experience with the knowledge revealed in the scriptures.
The Spiritual Laboratory - Discovering the Subjective truths
Before my talk, Nigamananda Swamiji introduced that I was a scientist in my poorvāśrama. I was a physicist and at the same time, I had keen interest in spirituality – perhaps right from birth. I had been studying the scriptures right from childhood. I used to form my own concept about the Truth and its pursuit, according to my knowledge of science and knowledge of scriptural texts. Finally, when the depth and urgency grew, I found that I was not able to go beyond some contradictions. It was not possible to resolve the contradictions with my own understanding.
That was the time I thought of Baba. I had heard about him from our Poojya Swamiji, Swami Bhoomananda Tirthaji Maharaj. I went to Baba and expressed what I understood about spiritual sādhanā and the ultimate Truth. I even had the audacity to explain the Truth and the sādhanā according to two models, confessing that I did not know which model was to be followed. “Baba, I cannot think any more. You have to tell me what I am supposed to do,” I submitted.
Baba patiently listened to all that I said. He kept quiet for some time and then said, “My dear son, in your study of Physics, you might have learnt the theories from the books and teachers, you might have learnt various laws and models, but until you did the experiments yourself in the laboratory, did you have a consolidated knowledge of what the theories meant?
“What you have learnt so far from the scriptures and other writings or talks – it is all theory. What you have to do now is to enter the laboratory and start doing the experiment yourself.” I understood the meaning of deekṣā. Baba said, “Putting you in the laboratory of spiritual experiments, is called deekṣā or Initiation.”
Now, this experiment is not like the other experiments of science. In science, we experiment with the objects. In this spiritual laboratory, the experiment is with our ‘Subject’. The experimental object is our own being – our own mind and intelligence. The experimental results are the findings from the life and sādhanā of each sādhaka. From time immemorial, so many sādhakas have recorded their experiences. They have recorded their discoveries, the pitfalls, cautions and the guidelines. They have recorded all these for the benefit of the posterity. That is how the śāstras have evolved. So, in the spiritual field, each life of sādhanā is an experiment and the results have to be compared with the words of the Guru and the śāstras.
Nachiketa - The Model Seeker
I have digressed a lot. Starting with the śānti mantra, I have not even begun the story of Kaṭhopanishad, though I have been discussing the essence of the Kaṭhopanishad. The author takes the help of a simple story. The imagery in the story may make us think: “O, these are all mythological, and not facts.” Well, the story might be mythological, but our focus has to be on the lessons, on the points of sādhanā illustrated through the characters. We have to try to understand what the Saint author wants to point out through the story.
The Kaṭhopanishad speaks of a small boy, Nachiketa, as its model seeker. In the beginning, it also speaks about his father, Vājaśravas, as a contrast. The author beautifully contrasts the attitude and behaviour of the father and the son to exemplify what makes a seeker fit for receiving Brahmavidyā. The father, a learned ritualist, is performing one of the greatest Yāgas (sacrifices), Viśvajit Yāga, which, according to the Vedas, will take him to heaven after death. And the son, a seven or eight-year-old boy, is just in the beginning of his Brahmacharya life. He might not have learnt various scriptures or done any Yāga, but he is observing keenly what his father is doing.
The scene depicts the concluding part of the Yāga in which Dāna (gifting) constitutes the most important event. The Yajamāna (the person performing the Yāga) is supposed to gift to the priests and other recipients the best and the most useful things liberally. But, Nachiketa’s father is gifting to the priests all the useless cows from his cowshed – old cows who cannot even eat well, cows with defective organs and who will not calve any more. And to whom is he giving? To the priests who have performed the great Yāga for him to go to the heaven!
Now, the Vedas have said that if you are desirous of heaven you perform these Yāgas. But, they have also enjoined what you should do or should not do during and after the Yāga. About gifting they have prescribed: śraddhayā deyam, śriyā deyam, hriyā deyam, etc. Any gift should be offered with honour, grace and modesty. The purpose of the Dāna is to expand and purify our mind. Attracted by the heaven we will perform the Yāgas. But, if we follow all the prescriptions of the Yāgas, then the performance will make us liberal and pure. Unless we follow these prescriptions the purpose of the ritual will not be fulfilled. Out of desire for heaven, Vājaśravas is doing the Yāga. But, because of his greed and possessiveness for the properties of this world he is violating the injunctions of the very same Vedas. Will he then be taken to heaven or hell?
Young Nachiketa, seeing his father gifting all the useless items to the priests – the Upanishad says, śraddhā āviveśa – śraddhā dawned in Nachiketa’s mind. This one word śraddhā, we can meditate on throughout our life. We will get more and more jewels from it. That is why Bhagavadgeeta says: "śraddhāmayo’yaṃ puruṣaḥ yo yacchraddhaḥ sa eva saḥ." We are made of our śraddhā, our attention. Our life will be moulded according to that which is given the supreme place in our mind.
What is the śraddhā of a seeker? It is the value and attention he gives to the words of the Wise and the scriptures. Whatever Nachiketa had learnt about the sayings of the Acharyas and the scriptures, he had faith in that. He thought, “Why is my father not abiding by the wise injunctions? I am sure he will be taken to hell! I have to somehow save him from this dire consequence.”
The Upanishad starts with the word Uśan, which means “desirous of”. Desirous of heaven, Vājaśravas was performing the great Yāga. His mind was smitten with desire for heavenly attainment as well as worldly possessions. We can easily understand where lies the emphasis. And at the end, the Upanishad says:
When all the desires clinging to the heart fall off, the mortal man becomes immortal; he realises the Brahman here itself. He does not have to wait till the body falls.
So, seven year old Nachiketa could understand the grave wrong his father was doing. How could he understand? Because of the purity of his mind – his mind was not clouded by desires. Because of his humility and śraddhā that failed to grace his father’s mind. Not that Vājaśravas did not know that what he was doing was wrong. His inner voice must have been there; but he was refusing to heed it because of his uncontrolled desire for the worldly objects as well as the heavenly attainments.
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