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Kaṭha (कठ) Upaniṣad is the fourth in the series of eleven Principal Upaniṣads that we have taken up for rational review. This Upaniṣad is unique in content, since it deals with, in detail, the question of what happens after death. Apparently to add authenticity to the assertions made, the Upaniṣad supposes that the issue is explained by the Lord of Death himself.
The subject-matter is presented as a dialogue between Lord of Death called Mṛtyu and a young boy by name Nachiketas. (The word mṛtyu – मृत्यु in Sanskrit means death; in the study of this Upaniṣad we use this word with the initial letter ‘M’ in capital to refer to the Lord of Death). Before going to this dialogue, let us recall the position we have assumed in the study of the previous three Upaniṣads. It is this: ours is an independent effort, far removed from the conventional theological interpretation of the Upaniṣadic literature and is made with the aim of bringing out the rational thoughts underlying the mystically presented texts in Upaniṣads. This may be borne in mind when we move forward.
This Upaniṣad is part of Kaṭha Brāhmaṇa of Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. It contains six parts, each known as a Vallī (वल्ली) and these six parts are presented in two chapters of three Vallīs each. Vallīs are numbered from one to three in each chapter. To refer to a verse, both Vallī number and chapter number are often given; for example, 1.2.3 indicates the third verse of the second Vallī in the first chapter. Another method is to omit the chapter number and give the Vallī numbers continuously from 1 to 6; then, the first verse of the fifth Vallī is indicated as 5.1. Here, we follow the latter method.
Nachiketas was the son of one Vājaśravasaḥ (वाजश्रवसः) presumably belonging to the clan of Gautama. Vājaśravasaḥ was performing a sacrifice in which all his wealth had to be given away in charity. Seeing that very old and weak cows of no use were being distributed, Nachiketas thought that no good would accrue to his father from this sacrifice. As if suggesting himself as a better gift, he asked his father, “To whom will you give me?” The father didn’t say anything. Nachiketas repeated the question again and again. Getting annoyed at this, the father, in a fit of anger, told him that he would give him to Mṛtyu. The innocent boy on hearing the angry words of his father began to think how he could be useful to Mṛtyu. Without any clue therefor, he reached the abode of Mṛtyu, but had to wait there for three nights to have a meeting with Mṛtyu. As a recompense for this 3-night delay, Mṛtyu allowed Nachiketas to ask three boons from him…. This much is the background story narrated in the Upaniṣad, regarding how Nachiketas happened to meet Mṛtyu and had a discussion with him.
The first boon Nachiketas asked was that his father be pacified and no longer be angry with him; the second was for obtaining a ‘fire’ of the gods, which is capable of leading one to heaven and immortality; Mṛtyu readily gave him these boons. Then Nachiketas asked the third boon:
येयं प्रेते विचिकित्सा मनुष्येഽस्तीत्येके नायमस्तीति चैके
एतद्विद्यामनुशिष्टस्त्वयाहं वराणामेष वरस्तृतीयः || 1.20 ||
yeyaṃ prete vicikitsā manuṣyestītyeke nāyamastīti caike
etadvidyāmanuśiṣṭastvayāhaṃ varāṇāmeṣa varastṛtīyaḥ (1.20)
Meaning: ‘This is my third boon: On the question of a dead person, some say that he continues to exist, whereas others say that he ceases to exist (at death); I wish to be taught by you on this issue.’
The issue raised here is undoubtedly very important. Though being the most authoritative person to discourse on this topic, Mṛtyu did not respond positively in the beginning. We see in the next nine verses (from 21 to 29), the attempts of Mṛtyu, on one side, to dissuade Nachiketas from seeking the answer and the determination of Nachiketas, on the other, for getting it.
Mṛtyu says, “This is a very subtle issue; even the gods (deva) had this doubt in the past. It is not easy to know; ask for any other boon. Do not compel me”.
Nachiketas replies, “If even the gods had doubts, I see none other than you to tell me about this secret knowledge. So, I am not going for an alternative boon” (verses 1.21 and 1.22).
Following this, Mṛtyu tried to entice Nachiketas with offers of all kinds of worldly pleasures and possessions like wealth, horses, elephants, cattle, gold, longevity, sons, grandsons, etc. He also promised to fulfil all the desires of Nachiketas and asked him to desist from pressing the question. But Nachiketas spurned all these offers, saying that they were all ephemeral and therefore had no attraction for him; he remained firm in his resolve to know the secret of death. Seeing the unflagging determination of Nachiketas in pursuing the path of knowledge against the lures of worldly pleasures, Mṛtyu finally became pleased to impart the knowledge asked for. But, he did not go directly for answering the question. Instead, he discoursed at length on death and immortality and at the end came out with a brief answer in a single verse. He was actually following a well-designed scheme that culminates in delivering the intended answer. Let us see what his scheme and his answer were.
At first, Mṛtyu appreciates Nachiketas for his choosing the path of knowledge against the path of ignorance. In his opinion two mutually opposing options are open for man; one is śreyas (श्रेयस्) and the other is preyas (प्रेयस्). Out of these, śreyas is that which brings about inner enrichment and preyas is that which ruins the person by entangling him in worldly entailments. Only the wise men choose śreyas; Nachiketas did the same, rejecting all the trappings of preyas. This is what earned him the commendation of Mṛtyu and an opportunity to receive the desired instruction. Only men like Nachiketas can prefer śreyas to preyas. What about others? Mṛtyu says about them thus:
अविद्यायामन्तरे वर्तमानाः स्वयं धीराः पण्डितं मन्यमानाः
दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढा अन्धेनैव नीयमाना यथान्धाः || 2.5 ||
avidyāyāmantare vartamānāḥ svayaṃ dhīrāḥ paṇḍitaṃ manyamānāḥ
dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mūḍhā andhenaiva nīyamānā yathāndhāḥ (2.5)
Meaning: ‘The foolish ones, thinking themselves to be intelligent and learned, despite being totally immersed in ignorance, wander around, going from one thing to another, like the blind being led by the blind’.
This verse implies that if one opts for the path of preyas, he is actually foolish, though he may think himself to be wise and learned. Being already ignorant, he is led by ignorance too; the phrase ‘blind led by the blind’ emphasises this fact, blindness being a reference to ignorance. (This verse appears in Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad also – verse 1.2.8 – with a single-word replacement).
In the next verse, 2.6, this idea about the ignorant is further developed and the idea of death is introduced ingeniously. Mṛtyu says,
‘न सांपरायः प्रतिभाति बालं प्रमाद्यन्तं वित्तमोहेन मूढम्
अयं लोको नास्ति पर इति मानी पुनः पुनर्वशमापद्यते मे || 2.6 ||
na sāṃparāyaḥ pratibhāti bālaṃ pramādyantaṃ vittamohena mūḍham
ayaṃ loko nāsti para iti mānī punaḥ punarvaśamāpadyate me (2.6)
Meaning: ‘Such inferior minds are intrinsically negligent and are stupefied by attachment to wealth; pursuit of that which is transcendent will never occur to them. To them there is nothing beyond the world of physical experience; such people come into my clutch again and again’.
Actually, in this verse Mṛtyu begins preparation of the ground for answering the question. His scheme of answering is a very indirect one; he first imparts what death is and then, what immortality is. In this verse Mṛtyu says about those who meet with death again and again; they are the ignorant ones who crave for worldly pleasures. This declaration about death is very important. It defines death as the state of being subjugated by desires for worldly pleasures (preyas). We have already come across this idea of death in our study of Bṛhadāraṇyaka (1.2.1) and Chāndogya (8.6.6) Upaniṣads. The same idea can be seen in Gīta 2.62 & 2.63. We saw it in more detail when we studied verse 8 of Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad.
The consistency of Upaniṣadic thoughts regarding the concept of death is evident from the above references; it cannot be otherwise for a philosophy which upholds the central idea that the whole universe is an appearance of the non-material, eternal, ultimate principle called Ātmā. Any other understanding of death as a total destruction of the physical form, retaining the individual identity of the person for further births is therefore invalid.
Having thus taught about the true import of death, Mṛtyu now moves on to the second part of his scheme; he introduces the concept of immortality. According to Upaniṣadic philosophy, immortality is not freedom from loss of physical body; it is dispossession of Kāma from inside, attained by realising the Ātmā. In order to introduce this concept of immortality Mṛtyu begins by drawing attention of Nachiketas to the entity of Ātmā which is very difficult to attain to; he says that many have not even heard of it and many of those who heard of it, do not know it. Those who know it and attain to it become happy; but, very rare are those who discourse on it and understand it (2.7). Since this subtle entity is variously thought by men with inferior intellect, it cannot be understood properly, if taught by them (2.8). So, the teacher must be properly qualified to impart the knowledge about this entity; so also the disciple should be duly qualified to receive it. Mṛtyu considers himself to be well conversant with the knowledge of Ātmā and further, he sees Nachiketas to be well qualified to receive the instruction. So he is happy to have a disciple like Nachiketas.
In the following verse Mṛtyu further eulogises the knowledge about that entity:
तं दुर्दर्शं गूढमनुप्रविष्ठं गुहाहितं गह्वरेष्ठं पुराणम्
अध्यात्मयोगाधिगमेन देवं मत्वा धीरो हर्षशोकौ जहाति || 2.12 ||
taṃ durdarśaṃ gūḍhamanupraviṣṭhaṃ guhāhitaṃ gahvareṣṭhaṃ purāṇam
adhyātmayogādhigamena devaṃ matvā dhīro harṣaśokau jahāti (2.12)
Meaning: ‘By inner meditation upon that unseen, secret, immanent, primal divinity which is seated in the innermost part of the heart, the enlightened man gets rid of the duality of pleasure-pain’.
Mṛtyu further adds in the next verse (2.13) that by attaining to that divinity, one enjoys bliss. Hearing the inducing words of these two verses, Nachiketas desires to know that divinity which is beyond dualities like virtue and vice, good and bad, and past and future (2.14). Mṛtyu replies:
सर्वे वेदा यत्पदमामनन्ति तपांसि सर्वाणि च यद्वदन्ति
यदिच्छन्तो ब्रह्मचर्यं चरन्ति तत्ते पदं सङ्ग्रहेण ब्रवीम्योमित्येतत् || 2.15 ||
sarve vedā yatpadamāmananti tapāṃsi sarvāṇi ca yadvadanti
yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti tatte padaṃ saṅgraheṇa bravīmyomityetat (2.15)
Meaning: I shall tell you about that, it is ‘Om’, the sound which all the Vedas extol, all deep meditations declare and the study of Vedas seeks to attain to.
Thus, the ultimate immortal entity is declared as ‘Om’, which sound symbolises Ātmā (vide verse 12 of Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad). Further, we have seen in verses 2.23.2 and 2.23.3 of Chāndogya that ‘Om’ was revealed on successive deep meditations on the worlds and the Vyāhṛti, which implies that ‘Om’ is the essence of phenomenal existence.
In the next ten verses Mṛtyu discourses on the nature of this ultimate principle. In 2.16, it is stated that this is the imperishable, supreme Brahma; if a person knows this, whatever he wishes for, would be his. This, however, does not mean that such a knowing person can command to his possession anything that he wishes for; it only implies that such a person will have nothing to wish for, since a feeling of oneness with everything will be generated in him by that knowledge, resulting in a state wherein nothing external will be there for him to wish for. This is the lesson we have learnt from verses 6 and 7 of Īśāvāsya and 4.4.12 of Bṛhadāraṇyaka. These verses underline the fact that a person who has attained to Ātmā, there would be nothing to wish for or aspire to.
Mṛtyu says in verse 2.17 that Ātmā is the support of all; he declares in verse 2.18 that Ātmā is immortal and eternal:
न जायते म्रियते वा विपश्चित् नायं कुतश्चित् न बभूव कश्चित् |
अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोयं पुराणो न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे || 2.18 ||
na jāyate mriyate vā vipaścit nāyaṃ kutaścit na babhūva kaścit
ajo nityaḥ śāśvatoyaṃ purāṇo na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre (2.18)
Meaning: ‘This omniscient Ātmā is neither born, nor does he die; he has not originated from anywhere or anything. He is unborn, eternal, everlasting and ancient; he is not destroyed even when the body is destroyed.
We find the same verse in Gīta 2.20, with a one-word change. Again, Gīta verse 2.19 and Kaṭha verse 2.19 are identical, both saying that those, who consider Ātmā as killing or being killed, do not know the truth. In this connection, please also recall verse 8.1.5 of Chāndogya.
Mṛtyu says in verse 2.20 that Ātmā is subtler than the subtle and grosser than the gross and is seated in the heart of all beings. A desire-free person, with composed senses and mind, perceives his glory and gets freed from grief. We have learned about the subtlety and the seat of Ātmā in Chāndogya 3.14.3. Regarding the seat of Ātmā we had a detailed discussion while appreciating verse 8.1.5 of Chāndogya; please refer to that for further clarification. There are a number of verses in other Upaniṣads also highlighting the seating of Ātmā; we will see them all, in due course. Gīta verses 13.17, 15.15 and 18.61 also say about the seat of Ātmā.
Mṛtyu continues his discourse on Ātmā in verses 2.21 and 2.22. Wise men get rid of grief by knowing the great, bodiless, all-pervading Ātmā seated in perishable bodies (2.22). However, Ātmā cannot be known by oral instructions or by mere intelligence or by much hearing about it; it is known by him who is fully dedicated to it. To such a person Ātmā reveals its true nature (2.23).
Thus, in this Vallī we have been introduced to the concepts of death and immortality; we are also told about the entity, on knowing which one may attain immortality. In the next Vallī (3rd) the same line of thinking is pursued further. In verses 3.3 and 3.4, Ātmā is depicted as the lord of a chariot driven by Buddhi (the reasoning faculty), wherein the chariot is the body and the rein is Manas (mind). (Buddhi and Manas are two of the four antaḥkaraṇas – अन्तःकरण – organs of internal organs. The other two Antaḥkaraṇa are Chitta and Ahaṃkāra; the English equivalent of Antaḥkaraṇa is Psyche). The sense organs are the horses of the chariot. Where do they proceed to? They chase their respective objects (object of ears is the sound, that of eyes is the sight and so on). Ātmā, the senses and the Manas together are known as the enjoyer (3.3 and 3.4). These two verses are very famous and are therefore quoted below:
आत्मानं रथिनं विद्धि शरीरं रथमेव तु
बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव च || 3.3 ||
ātmānaṃ rathinaṃ viddhi śarīraṃ rathameva tu
buddhiṃ tu sārathiṃ viddhi manaḥ pragrahameva ca (3.3)
इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुः विषयांस्तेषु गोचरान्
आत्मेन्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीषिणः || 3.4 ||
indriyāṇi hayānāhuḥ viṣayāṃsteṣu gocarān
ātmendriyamanoyuktaṃ bhoktetyāhurmanīṣiṇaḥ (3.4)
The idea sought to be presented here is the Ātmā-body relationship. It is same as we have already found in the first verse of Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad, “īśāvāsyamidaṃ sarvaṃ ….” It also furthers the concept that Ātmā is seated in the heart. It is the duty of Buddhi to guide the chariot by harnessing the horses of the sense organs, using the rein of Manas. The goal obviously is what the master directs. Since the master, the Ātmā, is the origin of everything, he attracts everything to himself; everything is attached to him just as the beads of a rosary (Gīta 7.7). So the final destination of the chariot is Ātmā himself (vide verse 3.11 mentioned below). It goes without saying, that if the rein or the horse is bad, or if the driver is negligent, the goal will not be attained (Verses 5 to 9).
The Ātmā-body relationship is further explored in verses 3.10 and 3.11. Verse 3.10 declares that sense-objects (such as sound, touch, etc.) are superior to (subtler than) senses; Manas is superior to the sense-objects; Buddhi is superior to Manas; that which is superior to Buddhi is ‘Mahān Ātmā’.
What is this Mahān Ātmā? It is the expanding state of Ātmā; mahat indicates that which expands. How is this expanding state like? As a prelude to manifestation of the physical world, Ātmā invokes Prakṛti which is its inalienable power to appear in different forms. With the Prakṛti invoked, Ātmā is known as Puruṣa. This Puruṣa- Prakṛti combine is called Brahma and it is the Brahma that expands and differentiates into various names and forms constituting the universe. Before this expansion starts, the state of Brahma is known as Avyakta (undifferentiated). When the differentiation is in process, it is called ‘Mahān Ātmā’.
From the above explanation, it is evident that Avyakta is superior to Mahān Ātmā (or Mahat) and Puruṣa is superior to Avyakta. Since Puruṣa is Ātmā himself, nothing is superior to Puruṣa. This is the position declared in verse 3.11. This comparison appears again in verses 6.7 and 6.8. Verse 3.11 also declares that this Puruṣa is the ultimate goal. What should one do to achieve that goal? Mṛtyu gives the answer in verse 3.14:
उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान् निबोधत
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत् कवयो वदन्ति || 3.14 ||
uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varān nibodhata
kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṃ pathastat kavayo vadanti (3.14)
Meaning: Be awake and be active; approach the learned and get enlightened.
The wise say that the path is very difficult to tread, like the sharp edge of a razor.
‘Be awake and be active’ means that one should first discipline his inner faculties and then strive for getting the necessary instructions. The rest is self-explanatory.
The goal to be achieved is once more highlighted in the next verse. It is a very important verse, as it asserts that, by attaining to Ātmā, one is freed from the mouth of death. See the verse below:
अशब्दमस्पर्शमरूपमव्ययं तथारसं नित्यमगन्धवच्च यत्
अनाद्यनन्तं महतः परं ध्रुवं निचाय्य तंमृत्युमुखात् प्रमुच्यते || 3.15 ||
aśabdamasparśamarūpamavyayaṃ tathārasaṃ nityamagandhavacca yat
anādyanantaṃ mahataḥ paraṃ dhruvaṃ nicāyya taṃmṛtyumukhāt pramucyate (3.15)
Meaning: By attaining to that which is without sound, touch, form, taste and smell, that which is imperishable, eternal, without beginning and end, and that which is superior to Mahat, one escapes from the prowl of death.
The implication is that one who has attained to Ātmā remains untouched by death; he never dies. Attaining to Ātmā means shedding all dualities which are essential features of physical existence; for, Ātmā is without any attributes as clarified in this verse. Even for a person who has attained to Ātmā in this way, the physical body is subject to decay and disintegration, which in common parlance is death. So, what is the justification for the declaration that he escapes death? The inference is therefore that what we consider as death is not the death which Mṛtyu intends here. The verse says that freedom from physical dualities is freedom from death. Conversely, capitulation to dualities is death. This capitulation takes place through the wandering senses to satisfy the Kāma within; Kāma is defined as reinforced attachment (vide Gīta 2.62). Thus, capitulation to dualities becomes capitulation to Kāma. This is the philosophical definition of death and Mṛtyu follows this definition in clarifying the doubt of Nachiketas. These new concepts of death and immortality are continued further in Vallī 4.
In verse 4.1 Mṛtyu declares that senses are intrinsically oriented outwardly and therefore they cognise the physical appearance only, not the inner principle; but, in order to attain to immortality, inward cognition is essential. We find a further clarification in the next verse; please see it here:
पराचः कामाननुयन्ति बालाः ते मृत्योर्यन्ति विततस्य पाशम्
अथ धीरा अमृतत्वं विदित्वा ध्रुवमध्रुवेष्विह न प्रार्थयन्ते || 4.2 ||
parācaḥ kāmānanuyanti bālāḥ te mṛtyoryanti vitatasya pāśam
atha dhīrā amṛtatvaṃ viditvā dhruvamadhruveṣviha na prārthayante (4.2)
Meaning: ‘Inferior minds pursue desires for external objects and get caught up in the wide-spread snare of death; but, the wise recognizing the eternal immortality underlying such ephemeral objects, do not harbour any desires’.
With this declaration, the position that death is capitulation to Kāma has become a settled one; it is also settled that immortality is the opposite of such death and that it is gained by renouncing Kāma. Evidently, Mṛtyu is going forward slowly with his scheme designed for clearing Nachiketas’ doubt.
How can we attain to the said eternal immortality? Is there any special tool for that? No, there is no special tool other than what we already possess. The tool with which the senses cognise the sense objects is verily the tool for cognising immortality also. Obviously, the tool is pure consciousness; this consciousness is capable of taking us beyond the sense objects to the ultimate and immortal entity. (4.3).
Here comes the final, concluding assertion on what constitutes death. See how Mṛtyu does it, in verse 4.10:
यदेवेह तदमुत्र यदमुत्र तदन्विह
मृत्योः स मृत्युमाप्नोति य इह नानेव पश्यति || 4.10 ||
yadeveha tadamutra yadamutra tadanviha
mṛtyoḥ sa mṛtyumāpnoti ya iha nāneva paśyati (4.10)
Meaning: ‘What is here is the same as what is there and vice versa. (That means, everywhere the same thing exists). He who sees differently meets with death again and again’.
The implied meaning is a re-assertion of what we are by now very familiar with. We know that Kāma overtakes us, if only we see something different from us and desire for it; if we perceive everything as a part of us, everything as belonging to us, then there will not be anything to aspire for; then there will not be any space for Kāma. In other words, when we see things other than us, we covet them, enabling Kāma to strike root in us. This will culminate in our death (death in the philosophical sense mentioned above). So long as we fail to see the unity of existence and continue to see things as separate from us, death occurs to us repeatedly; we go from death to death.
It has been declared above that only the same thing exists everywhere. What is that thing? Mṛtyu answers this question in verses 4.12 and 4.13; that thing is the Puruṣa who rules over both past and future; he is seated in the central part of the body and is only thumb-sized (4.12 and 4.13). The same idea is repeated in verse 6.17 also. The ‘central part’ is a reference to the heart, which we have seen previously as ‘Thalamus’ in modern parlance; ‘thumb-size’ indicates the size of Thalamus. The implications of this seating have been discussed in detail already in 8.1.1 of ‘The Science of Chāndogya Upaniṣad’.
The last verse (15) of this Vallī describes the transformation that happens to the person who gets enlightened; he becomes the Ātmā himself, just as when pure water is poured into pure water, both become identified with each other. That means, he attains immortality; for, Ātmā is immortal. See the verse below:
यथोदकं शुधे शुधमासिक्तं तादृगेव भवति
एवं मुनेर्विजानत आत्मा भवति गौतम || 4.15 ||
yathodakaṃ śudhe śudhamāsiktaṃ tādṛgeva bhavati
evaṃ munervijānata ātmā bhavati gautama (4.15)
Now we enter into the most important Vallī of the Upaniṣad, the Vallī in which the crucial question is finally answered. However, prior to answering the question, the Upaniṣad explores the essential constitution of living beings, in view of the fact that death occurs to such beings only. It is stated that living beings consist of the physical body that is inherently prone to degeneration and Ātmā which supports the body and the life therein; they owe their existence to Ātmā. We see these declarations in verses 5.4 and 5.5, extracted below.
अस्य विस्रंसमानस्य शरीरस्थस्य देहिनः
देहाद्विमुच्यमानस्य किमत्र परिशिष्यत एतद्वै तत् || 5.4 ||
asya visraṃsamānasya śarīrasthasya dehinaḥ
dehādvimucyamānasya kimatra pariśiṣyata etadvai tat (5.4)
न प्राणेन नापानेन मर्त्यो जीवति कश्चन
इतरेण तु जीवन्ति यस्मिन्नेतावुपाश्रितौ || 5.5 ||
na prāṇena nāpānena martyo jīvati kaścana
itareṇa tu jīvanti yasminnetāvupāśritau (5.5)
Meaning: 5.4 : Dehin (देहिन्) means that which possesses a deha or body; it is obviously Puruṣa. The verse says thus: that which remains to a Dehin when the body is separated, is ‘that’ (Ātmā). The implication is that living beings consist of a physical body and the Ātmā supporting life from within, pervading the entire body. We have seen this idea already, in Bṛhadāraṇyaka 3.7.3 to 3.7.23.
5.5: This verse says that man lives, not because of Prāṇa or Apāna (two functional divisions of the vital energy – breath – which we will study in detail in Praśna Upaniṣad), but because of something else on which these two are dependent. The implication is this: man is ultimately dependent on the power of Ātmā.
Mṛtyu now takes up the question, offering to tell Nachiketas about the eternal Brahma as well as how Ātmā exists when death occurs. He says:
हन्त ते इदं प्रवक्ष्यामि गुह्यं ब्रह्म सनातनम्
यथा च मरणं प्राप्य आत्मा भवति गौतम || 5.6 ||
hanta te idaṃ pravakṣyāmi guhyaṃ brahma sanātanam
yathā ca maraṇaṃ prāpya ātmā bhavati gautama (5.6)
In the next verse, his long overdue answer comes. It may be noted that 72 verses have passed since the question was put to him; the Upaniṣad has only a total of 119 verses. In all the verses so far passed, the subject matter was how and why one meets with death and also how and when he can make an escape from death and attain immortality. In all these instructions we have seen that death is perceived as not what we conventionally understand; disintegration of body is not total annihilation, since disintegration is only a change of form and name; that which exists can never cease to exist. That which exists will always be there, only the appearance may change, just as different ornaments successively made of the same ingot of gold. We have also seen that immortality is not the absence of disintegration of physical body. So, it is very important that we should receive the instruction, which Mṛtyu is now going to give, with all this background awareness. Actually, Mṛtyu was enriching the awareness level of Nachiketas through all these 72 verses of instruction so as to make him eligible for receiving the final reply in a higher plane of enlightenment. It is therefore incumbent upon us that we should also receive the ensuing instruction with the same enlightenment which Mṛtyu expected of Nachiketas while instructing him so far. And, what was the reply? Here it is:
योनिमन्ये प्रपद्यन्ते शरीरत्वाय देहिनः
स्थाणुमन्ये ഽनुसंयन्ति यथा कर्म यथा श्रुतम् || 5.7 ||
yonimanye prapadyante śarīratvāya dehinaḥ
sthāṇumanyeഽnusaṃyanti yathā karma yathā śrutam (5.7)
Meaning: yoni = origin (beginning); anye = another; prapadyante = assume, attain; śarīratva = the state of having a body; śarīratvāya = for the sake of body; dehinaḥ = dehins; sthāṇu = immovable, unchangeable; anusaṃyanti = go towards; yathā karma = according to karma (deed); yathā śrutam = according to what is heard (learnt).
So, the meaning of the verse is this: ‘(After death), some Dehins assume another beginning for the sake of body, while others go towards the unchangeable, in accordance with each one’s karma and knowledge’. We have seen that death is capitulation to Kāma; inferior minds follow the senses under the influence of Kāma and meet with death (verse 4.2). So, in this death, the body is not lost and the Dehin continues to be as such. If, in the light of his acquired knowledge, Dehin learns, from his fall, any lesson regarding the danger of Kāma, he tries to keep away from Kāma and, as a result, gains stability of mind; this would finally take him to the changeless entity, which is Ātmā. This is what is said here as going ‘towards the unchangeable’. Contrarily, if he does not learn any lesson and is not able to defy the calls of bodily pleasures, he opts for another beginning in the same line, finally landing in death’s trap again and again as stated in 4.2. This situation is depicted here as ‘assuming another beginning for the sake of body’.
This is the true meaning which is in conformity with the rational thinking consistently seen in all the Principal Upaniṣads; we have by now had first-hand knowledge on it. As against this rational position, the conventional interpretation of the verse is quite calamitous to the universally acknowledged concept of Ātmā; that interpretation is rather mythological, not in level with the superior wisdom of Upaniṣads. The advocates of this interpretation give the meaning of this verse thus: ‘some Dehins go to wombs for new bodies; others become immovables like trees, according to their karma and knowledge’. It is unfortunate that they ignore even the meaning of the word ‘Dehin’. When the Deha is gone, what is left is Ātmā only; then, we cannot call it Dehin (see 5.4). Since Ātmā is all-pervasive there is no question of it going from some place to another in search of womb; moreover, by the same reason, there cannot be a womb without Ātmā and waiting for it to come. Further, they commit a grave mistake in assuming that ‘sthāṇu’ in the verse is ‘immovable beings like trees’. The word ‘sthāṇu’ means that which is without change; it is Ātmā. In Gīta verse 2.24 Ātmā is described as sthāṇu; does it mean that Ātmā is only something like a tree? Above all, if it is to give this simple, trite, silly answer, Mṛtyu could have given it at the outset itself. Instead, he gave all these instructions on snares of death and on attaining to immortality in long 72 verses. He dissuaded Nachiketas by saying that even the gods do not know the answer and also by offering many enticing gifts. Moreover, it is a well-established principle that Ātmā never gets attached or smeared by anything. We will see this in verse 5.11 below; we see this fact in Gīta verse 13.32. The import of Gīta verses 2.23 and 2.24 is also the same. If Ātmā cannot be smeared by anything, it cannot be affected by the Karma and knowledge of the Dehin. All these make the conventional interpretation unrealistic and untenable.
The doubt raised by Nachiketas is now cleared. But Mṛtyu has in verse 5.6 offered to reveal what the eternal Brahma is. In the next verse he does it.
य एष सुप्तेषु जागर्ति कामं कामं पुरुषो निर्मिमाणः
तदेव शुक्रं तद्ब्रह्म तदेवामृतमुच्यते
तस्मिंल्लोकाः श्रिताः सर्वे तदु नात्येति कश्चन एतद्वै तत् || 5.8 ||
ya eṣa supteṣu jāgarti kāmaṃ kāmaṃ puruṣo nirmimāṇaḥ
tadeva śukraṃ tadbrahma tadevāmṛtamucyate
tasmiṃllokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tadu nātyeti kaścana etadvai tat (5.8)
Meaning: supta= sleeping, inactive; jāgarti= be awake; kāma= desire, wish; nirmimāṇaḥ= making, projecting; śukraṃ= resplendent; śritāḥ= dependent; atyeti= surpass, pass beyond. The verse says: “In the sleeping, inactive thing (Prakṛti), the Puruṣa remains awake and active; he projects thereupon all the objects of desire. This, the Puruṣa and the Prakṛti together, is the resplendent, immortal Brahma. The worlds are dependent on it and nothing surpasses it”. In this connection, please recall the discussion in the previous articles, regarding Brahma and see the convergence of thoughts.
In the next two verses (5.9 and 5.10), Mṛtyu explains how the one and only one Ātmā reflects different forms in different objects. It is just like fire or air acquiring shapes with reference to the objects within which they exist; when air is trapped in a container, its shape is that of the container and, likewise, when fire burns on a small object, it is small in size. In the same manner, the reflection of Ātmā in bodies is limited by their physical periphery. If Ātmā pervades all, what is the meaning in claiming that its reflection in bodies is limited by their physical periphery? The limitation of reflection consists in the peculiar attributes of the respective bodies. For example, in a piece of gold, the reflection pertains to the expression of the various features and qualities of gold; similarly in other things. Verse 5.11 says, as mentioned above, that Ātmā is not smeared by worldly experiences.
Mṛtyu asserts thus in verses 5.12 and 5.13: ‘those who realise that the same Ātmā shines in them and in all others, attain to eternal bliss and peace’. In the next two verses, he declares that Ātmā cannot be pointed out in the manner, “That is this”. It is the one that shines (exists) by itself and others shine (exist) because of it. See how verse 15, the last one of the fifth Vallī elaborates this idea:
न तत्र सूर्यो भाति न चन्द्रतारकं नेमा विद्युतो भान्ति कुतोഽयमग्निः
तमेव भान्तमनुभाति सर्वं तस्य भासा सर्वमिदं विभाति || 5.15 ||
na tatra sūryo bhāti na candratārakaṃ nemā vidyuto bhānti kutoഽyamagniḥ
tameva bhāntamanubhāti sarvaṃ tasya bhāsā sarvamidaṃ vibhāti (5.15)
Meaning: ‘No sun, no moon, no stars, no lightning and no fire shine there; it shines on its own and all others shine because of it’. (We see the same verse in 2.2.10 of Muṇḍaka and 6.14 of Śvetāśvatara also).
The next Vallī is the last one of this Upaniṣad. It opens with a depiction of Brahma in a slightly different way compared to what we have seen above in verse 5.8. See the verse below:
ऊर्ध्वमूलोഽवाक्शाख एषोഽश्वत्थः सनातनः
तदेव शुक्रं तद्ब्रह्म तदेवामृतमुच्यते
तस्मिंल्लोकाः श्रिताः सर्वे तदु नात्येति कश्चन एतद्वै तत् || 6.1 ||
ūrdhvamūloഽvākśākha eṣoഽśvatthaḥ sanātanaḥ
tadeva śukraṃ tadbrahma tadevāmṛtamucyate
tasmiṃllokāḥ śritāḥ sarve tadu nātyeti kaścana etadvai tat (6.1)
Meaning: aśvatthaḥ= holy fig tree. In this verse, Brahma is equated to an Aśvatthaḥ tree whose roots are above and branches are below; this tree is eternal. The rest is same as we have seen in verse 5.8 above. Gīta also says about this tree in verse 15.1 to 15.4 in greater detail. Look at this tree. The mention that its roots are above, gives an indication of the location of its source of strength and support; ‘above’ indicates transcendence. The all-transcendent entity is verily Ātmā; therefore, the tree has its source and support in Ātmā. Branches of a tree subsist due to the roots. Here the root is Ātmā and branches represent Prakṛti. The root and the branches together represent the Brahma as stated in verse 5.8. Gīta 15.2 explains further that the branches of this tree spread upwards also and the roots extend to bottom.
In the remaining verses, Mṛtyu repeats the concept of immortality and discusses aspects of attaining it. Those who realise this all-pervading Ātmā attain immortality (verse 6.2). Everything in this universe is under the control of Ātmā and follows its rules (6.3). Ātmā is the ultimate of all and is beyond the grasp of the senses; those who know it become immortal (6.7 to 6.9, 6.12, 6.13 and 6.18). Since Ātmā is not within the reach of senses, seekers have to rely on other means. They must refrain from going after the senses; instead, they have to control their activities; this control of senses is called yoga. This will take them to realisation of the ever-existing Ātmā (6.11). When one gets rid of all the Kāma within (through this control of the wandering senses) he will become immortal (6.14 and 6.15). Mentioning about the different types of nerves in the ‘Heart,’ verse 6.16 points out the particular nerve that lays down the path to immortality; we have already seen this in detail when we studied verse 8.6.6 of Chāndogya Upaniṣad.
With this, Mṛtyu concludes his discourses. He takes the concepts of death and immortality to a higher, rational plane, befitting the Upaniṣadic tradition.
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Prior articles in this series:
The Science of the Upanishads – Introduction
The Science of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Science of Chandogya Upanishad
The Science of Ishavasya Upanishad
The Science of Katha Upanishad
The Science of Kena Upanishad
The Science of Mandukya Upanishad
The Science of Mundaka Upanishad
The Science of Prashna Upanishad
The Science of Taittiriya Upanishad
The Science of Aitareya Upanishad
The Science of Shvetashvatara Upanishad
The Science of Upanishads – Conclusion