In this article, which is the fifth in the series ‘The Science of Upaniṣads’, we propose to study Kena (केन) Upaniṣad. This is very small in size, but, content-wise amazingly terse and succinct. Also called Talavakāra Upaniṣad, it belongs to Talavakāra Brāhmaṇa and contains four parts, of which we concentrate on the first two parts, since it is in them the rational thoughts on the nature of Brahman are expounded.

The other two parts are fable-like in nature depicting the already stated ideas in mythological terms with some elucidation on the modes of meditation upon Brahman. Verses in the Upaniṣad are identified by part number and verse number; accordingly, the second verse of part 1 is indicated by the figure ‘1.2’.


The Upaniṣad draws its name from its opening word ‘kena’, which means ‘by whom’ or ‘by what’. Obviously, the first verse is a question; the whole Upaniṣad rests on that question. We may therefore study the first verse in detail; we shall study the other verses also in depth, considering their terse nature as mentioned above. Now let us see the first verse, below:

केनेषितं पतति प्रेषितं मनः केन प्राणः प्रथमः प्रैति युक्तः
केनेषितां वाचमिमां वदन्ति चक्षुः श्रोत्रं क उ देवो युनक्ति || 1.1 ||

keneṣitaṃ patati preṣitaṃ manaḥ kena prāṇaḥ prathamaḥ praiti yuktaḥ
keneṣitāṃ vācamimāṃ vadanti cakṣuḥ śrotraṃ ka u devo yunakti (1.1)

Word meaning: kena= by whom; iṣitaṃ= tossed, animated; patati= alight on, come down on; preṣitaṃ= urged, commanded, ordered, impelled; manaḥ= manas, mind; prāṇaḥ= vital force, Prāṇa; prathamaḥ= chief, first; praiti= arrive at, come forth; yukta= connected established; vācamimāṃ vadanti= (men) utter this voice; cakṣuḥ= eyes; śrotraṃ= ears; ka= who; u= indeed; devaḥ= the effulgent one; yunakti= enjoins, directs, sets to work, brings together.

Verse meaning: Who urges and animates the mind to alight on (objects)? Who causes (urges and animates) the Prāṇa to come forth and get established (in the body) for the first time? Who causes (men) to utter this voice? Which effulgent one directs the eyes and ears (to work)?

The question is prima facie oriented towards the principle that sustains the phenomenal world. It recognises the view that material world is dependent on something beyond it. What is that ‘something’? This precisely is the enquiry here. Is the enquiry being made for a non-existent thing, as the materialists would allege? No, not at all; the world experience suggests that matter cannot exist on its own. All material substances disintegrate in due course into their original substance; they behave in accordance with some pre-set pattern and rule and have no escape therefrom. They are unable to control or dictate mental activities; had it been otherwise, the same material circumstances would have created the same thoughts and opinion in all people alike; conversely, all people would have drawn the same lesson from same experience. But, we know that this is not the case. Therefore, matter does not dictate, but is dictated. Who dictates matter? Theologians say that God created all and He controls everything. It is this claim which attracts the aversion of materialists; no person with a rational mind can adjust to this claim. The Upaniṣads come up with a rational way out, from these divergent claims; they synthesise these two views in an amazingly logical way and reveal the ultimate postulations on existence. The ceaseless changes in the material world constitute becoming and unbecoming of material objects; these objects are once projected from some fundamental substances and then after elapse of certain span of time, merge back into the same substances. These fundamental substances are atoms which are only energy drops. We know that energy can neither be produced, nor be destroyed. So, it should come from an eternal source. But, energy is not all; there is life and consciousness in the world. Material energy cannot produce these two; a conglomeration of atoms cannot induce life and consciousness; they too should, therefore, come from an existing source, since nothing can be produced from where it does not exist. The Upaniṣadic synthesis takes place here; it unifies these two sources in a single entity called Ātmā. If these were entirely different and totally unrelated between each other, any attempt to establish a connection between the two would have ended in infinite regression; for, if we introduce a third one for the purpose, another would have been necessary to connect this third to the existing other two, and so on.

So, the question asked is a valid and sustainable one. Further, both the above-said streams are incorporated therein; this is evident from the simultaneous use of the two verbs, namely, ‘urge’ and ‘animate’. Puruṣa is the agent of urging and Prakṛti is the agent of animating; together they are known as Brahma. Puruṣa is Ātmā itself and Prakṛti or Māyā (illusion) is his power and instrument for varied appearance. (Puruṣa is always mentioned in masculine gender and Prakṛti in feminine; Brahma takes neuter gender, being neither masculine nor feminine; Ātmā is genderless, but is mentioned in either masculine or neuter for convenience). The question asked in the verse is evidently an enquiry into the nature of Brahma, though it does not use the word Brahma. It only seeks to know the entity which inspires the mind to think, causes Prāṇa to enter the body for the first time, makes speech possible and makes the eyes and ears function. In the answer we find that the energy behind all these is Brahma; we also find therein a detailed discussion about the true nature of Brahma. Let us move on to the answer.

श्रोत्रस्य श्रोत्रं मनसो मनो यत्
वाचोह वाचं स उ प्राणस्य प्राणः
चक्षुषश्चक्षुरतिमुच्य धीराः
प्रेत्यास्माल्लोकादमृता भवन्ति || 1.2 ||

śrotrasya śrotraṃ manaso mano yat
vācoha vācaṃ sa u prāṇasya prāṇaḥ
cakṣuratimucya dhīrāḥ
pretyāsmāllokādamṛtā bhavanti (1.2)

Word meaning: śrotrasya śrotraṃ= ear of the ear; manaso mano= mind of the mind; yat= which; vācoha vācaṃ= speech of the speech; sa= he (here Brahma is considered a Deva, hence the masculine gender); prāṇasya prāṇaḥ= prāṇa of the prāṇa; cakṣuṣaścakṣuḥ= eye of the eyes; atimucya= having given up, having transcended; dhīrāḥ= the wise; pretya= departed; asmāt lokāt= from this world; amṛtā= immortal; bhavanti= become.

Verse meaning: ‘It is he who is the ear of the ear, mind of the mind, speech of the speech, Prāṇa of the Prāṇa and eye of the eyes; having transcended the senses, the wise get departed from this world and become immortal’.

The ‘ear of the ear, mind of the mind,’ etc indicates the energy that enables the ear to hear, enables the mind to think, etc. We have seen in ‘The Science of Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad’ (verse 3.7.23) that ‘Ātmā is not seen, heard, thought or known; but he is the seer, hearer, thinker and knower; there is no other seer, hearer, thinker or knower. He is the immortal inner controller’. The same idea is expressed here. Similarly in ‘The Science of Kaṭha Upanishad’ (verse 3.15), we have seen that by realising Ātmā which is beyond ear, speech, etc one becomes immortal. In order to be immortal, one should cease to be carried away by sensory experiences. The expression ‘get departed from the world’ precisely means this. It does not mean ‘after he leaves the body’; for, after leaving the body, everyone is Ātmā only and therefore immortal. We have already discussed this idea in the previous articles.

In the next six verses the nature of Brahma is discussed. Verse 1.3 says that Brahma is beyond the reach of eyes, speech and mind; we don’t know it; we don’t know how to teach about it, either. Brahma is different from what is known by the senses and also beyond what remains to be known by them. Excerpts from verse 1.3 may be seen below:

‘न तत्र चक्षुर्गच्छति न वाग्गच्छति नो मनो, न विद्मो न विजानीमो यथैतदनुशिष्यात्
अन्यदेव तद्विदितात् अथो अविदितादधि …… || 1.3 ||

na tatra cakṣurgacchati na vāggacchati no mano na vidmo na vijānīmo yathaitadanuśiṣyāt anyadeva tadviditāt atho aviditādadhi …… (1.3)

In verses 1.4 to 1.8, this idea is further expanded. All these verses speak of the same idea, successively changing the object of comparison, the objects being speech, mind, eyes, ears and Prāṇa. Being a representative verse, 1.4 is quoted below:

यद्वाचानभ्युदितं येन वागभ्युद्यते
तदेव ब्रह्म त्वं विद्धि नेदं यदिदमुपासते || 1.4 ||

yadvācānabhyuditaṃ yena vāgabhyudyate
tadeva brahma tvaṃ viddhi nedaṃ yadidamupāsate (1.4)

Word meaning: yat= what, which; vācā= by speech; anabhyuditaṃ= cannot be expressed; yena= by which; vāk= speech; abhyudyade= is expressed; tat= that; eva= alone, only; tvaṃ= you; viddhi= know; nedaṃ – na idaṃ=not this; yat= which; idaṃ= here; upāsate= worship.

Verse meaning: ‘That, which cannot be expressed by speech, but, that by which speech is expressed — that alone is Brahma, you know. Brahma is not the entity which the people worship here (for favours)’

From verses 1.5 to 1.8 we see thus: ‘Brahma is that which cannot be comprehended by Manas, but, by which Manas comprehends; it is that which cannot be seen by eyes, but, by which eyes see; it is that which cannot be heard by ears, but, by which ears hear; it is that which cannot be smelt by breath, but, by which breath smells. It is definitely not that which people worship here’. The idea of unreachability by senses is present in many other Upaniṣads also, like Bṛhadāraṇyaka 3.7.23, Kaṭha 6.9, Īśa 4, etc.

Further, please note the assertion that the Ruler of this world is not what the people worship here. It is stated that this Ruler is beyond the reach of our senses and those who get relieved from the infatuation of sensual experiences, enter a state of immortality. As against this, the people usually worship certain entities that are visible to them and pray for sensual pleasures and worldly gains; by this practice they are actually going away from the real Ruler. Since, only the Ruler can grant wishes, the prayers to entities other than Ruler are futile. Life is not to be wasted on such futile exercises; it is for moving closer to the real Ruler and ultimately embracing his principle of purity of existence, by elimination of all Kāma within. This is the message here, and with this the first part comes to an end.

In the second part, the ideas introduced in the first part are further pursued into definite conclusions. What is asserted in the first part is that the ruling principle in all is beyond the senses; the second part follows it up by declaring that, those who claim it as easily known, do know only its physical aspect. See the first verse of the second part:

यदि मन्यसे सुवेदेति दभ्रमेवापि
नूनं त्वं वेत्थ ब्रह्मणो रूपम्
यदस्य त्वं यदस्य देवेष्वथ नु
मीमांस्यमेव ते मन्ये विदितम् || 2.1 ||

yadi manyase suvedeti dabhramevāpi
nūnaṃ tvaṃ vettha brahmaṇo rūpam
yadasya tvaṃ yadasya deveṣvatha nu
mīmāṃsyameva te manye viditam (2.1)

Word meaning: yadi= if; manyase= you think; suvedeti – suveda + iti= that it is easily known; dabhramevāpi – debhram + eva + api = though a little, the least; nūnaṃ= surely; tvaṃ= you; vettha= know; brahmaṇo= of Brahma; rūpam= form; yat= what; asya= of it; tvam= you; deveṣu= in devas (in senses – deva here means sense); atha= now; nu= surely; mīmāṃsyam eva = has to be reflected upon; te= they; manye= I think; viditam= understood.

Verse meaning: ‘If you think the least that Brahma is easily known, you know only its form. What of it (the real Brahma) are you? What of it is (perceived) in the senses? These are now to be surely reflected upon; I think, you have understood (what I now said)’.

In verse 2.3.1 of Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad it is declared that Brahma has two forms, namely, mortal and immortal, perceptible and imperceptible, etc. Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad declares that those who know Brahma become Brahma (3.2.9). Similar declarations are there in Taittirīya (2.1) and Kaṭha (4.15) Upaniṣads also. In 4.4.7 of Bṛhadāraṇyaka and 6.14 of Kaṭha it is stated that Brahma is attained by those who eliminate all the Kāma from heart; eliminating Kāma is obviously a very difficult thing to accomplish, which indicates the difficulty in knowing the immortal Brahma. That which can be easily known is only its perceptible, mortal form which is physical in nature. It is these facts that the assertion in the first line of the verse brings to light.

The reference to ‘form’ in this verse is to be understood as physical form. This physical form is conveyed to us by the senses. Knowing Brahma does not consist in this alone; the immortal and imperceptible form also has to be known. Then only we realise our real essence (ahaṃ brahmāsmi – Bṛhadāraṇyaka – 1.4.10). The question ‘what of it are you?’ refers to this fact. The phrase ‘mīmāṃsyameva te’ means that these two, the physical part and the imperceptible essence, are to be reflected upon.

Since the scriptural position is that the one who knows Brahma becomes the very Brahma, the statement “I know Brahma” cannot exist; for, in this statement there is an implication that the knower and the known are separate. So, those who really know Brahma do not utter such a statement. That is why verse 2.1 observes that a person making such a claim knows only the (physical) form of Brahma.

In the next two verses, 2.2 and 2.3, the difficulty in knowing the ultimate cause is further explained. It is asserted that this is neither easily known, nor perceived (by the senses). See verse 2.2 below:

Verse 2.2:

नाहं मन्ये सुवेदेति नो न वेदेति वेद च
यो नस्तद्वेद तद्वेद नो न वेदेति वेद च || 2.2 ||

nāhaṃ manye suvedeti no na vedeti veda ca
yo nastadveda tadveda no na vedeti veda ca (2.2)

Word meaning: na= not; ahaṃ= I; no – naḥ= to us, among us; veda= know, perceive; yo= yaḥ= who; tat= that. (For meaning of other words, see verse 2.1 above).

Verse meaning: I don’t think (nāhaṃ manye) that it is easily known (suvedeti); further, I know this too (veda ca) that we don’t perceive it (no na vedeti). Whoever among us knows it (yo nastadveda), knows also that it is not easily known (the second ‘tadveda’ in the second line indicates the expression ‘na suveda iti’ of the first line); he also knows that we don’t perceive it (no na vedeti veda ca).

In this verse, the word ‘veda’ is used in two senses, namely ‘know’ and ‘perceive’. To understand the purport of the verse, we have to distinguish between these two senses with reference to the philosophical context obtainable from the Upaniṣadic declarations on Ultimate Principle, consistently appearing elsewhere also. These declarations unanimously uphold that the Ultimate Principle is not easily known and is not perceived by the senses. What we find here is precisely a reaffirmation of these declarations.

Now we shall see the next verse:

Verse 2.3:

यस्यामतं तस्य मतं मतं यस्य न वेद सः
अविज्ञातं विजानतां विज्ञातं अविजानताम् || 2.3 ||

yasyāmataṃ tasya mataṃ mataṃ yasya na veda saḥ
avijñātaṃ vijānatāṃ vijñātaṃ avijānatām (2.3)

Word meaning: yasya= to whom; amatam= imperceptible; tasya= to him; matam= known; veda= know; avijñātaṃ= not known; vijānatāṃ= to those who think to apprehend it; vijñātaṃ= known; avijānatām= to those who do not think to apprehend it.

Verse meaning: ‘To whom it is imperceptible, to him it is known. To whom it is perceptible, he does not know it. (Further,) it is not known to those who think it to be apprehended and is known to those who do not think so’. The implication is that those who consider this ultimate principle to be perceivable by the senses do not know it; it is those others who actually know it.

The next verse says about how the ultimate principle is actually known. In Māṇḍūkya (माण्डूक्य) Upaniṣad, it is declared that this principle has a four-pronged projection, namely, the waking, dreaming, sleeping and transcendent states of consciousness. In the waking state, our senses are active in the process of cognition; in the dreaming state, the senses are shut down and the Manas builds up cognition through a process of jigsaw puzzle, using whatever information is already available in the Chitta; in the sleeping state (ie. deep sleep state) there is no cognition about any specific thing, but only the consciousness of ‘I am’. In the transcendent state, there is no differentiation of any kind and all cognitions merge into pure consciousness; only unqualified bliss is the experience at this state; this state is the ultimate principle called Ātmā. If one is able to discern the Ātmā in all these four states of consciousness, he is said to really know Ātmā.Gīta verses 6.29, 6.30 and 6.31 describe this vision of unity, wherein the principle of Ātmā alone is cognised among the vast diversity of phenomenal expression. Such a visionary is not subdued by dualities like pleasure-pain, hate-love, etc. (Īśa 6 and 7). This is the idea we find in the next verse; let us see how the verse delivers it:

प्रतिबोधविदितं मतं अमृतत्वं हि विन्दते
आत्मना विन्दते वीर्यं विद्यया विन्दतेഽमृतम् || 2.4 ||

pratibodhaviditaṃ mataṃ amṛtatvaṃ hi vindate
ātmanā vindate vīryaṃ vidyayā vindateഽmṛtam (2.4)

Word meaning: pratibodha= in each state of consciousness (bodha – consciousness); vidita= known; matam= known, understood; amṛtatvaṃ= immortality; hi= indeed, surely; vindate= knows, attains, acquires; ātmanā= by own being; vīryaṃ= strength, power; vidyayā= by knowledge; amṛtam= immortality.

Verse meaning: The ultimate principle is known (viditam) in each state of consciousness (pratibodha). When it is known (matam) thus, immortality is surely attained (amṛtatvaṃ hi vindate). Strength (vīryaṃ) (for knowing it) is acquired (vindate) by own being (ātmanā). On knowing it (vidyayā) immortality (amṛtam) is attained (vindate).

We have seen above what the phrase ‘pratibodha viditam’ implies. What is left to be explained is ‘ātmanā vindate vīryaṃ’. Its explanation is already given in the verse as ‘strength is acquired by own being’. In our study of the ‘Science of Kaṭha Upaniṣad’ we saw that one can attain immortality when all the Kāma within are eliminated (Kaṭha 6.14, 6.15). The same idea can be seen in Bṛhadāraṇyaka 4.4.7. How can this be done? First, by restraining the mind and the senses from pursuing the objects of desires, which is a strenuous process called Yoga expounded by the Great Ṛṣi Patañjali in his Yogasūtra (this Yoga has only a very little connection with what we now practise as Yogāsana); secondly, by performance of Karma in the light of such restraint. So, this is how the strength for attaining immortality is acquired; the entire process is dependent on the body and mind of the person. The phrase ‘own being’ in this verse indicates exactly the combine of body and mind instrumental in gaining the strength in this manner. Together with thus gaining strength, the person acquires knowledge also, uplifting himself to the ultimate goal of attaining immortality. The processes of gaining strength and acquiring knowledge proceed simultaneously; they are mentioned here separately for the purpose of differentiating their distinct identities.

Cumulatively, this verse stresses the importance of ‘vision of unity in diversity’, as the path leading to immortality; to develop such a vision, the physical body is prescribed as a tool.

Next is the last verse of Part 2. It says that by knowing Brahma one becomes Satyam; if not, he is ruined. It also says that by recognising Brahma in every being, one transcends this world and attains immortality. The verse reads thus:

इह चेदवेदीत् अथ सत्यमस्ति न चेदिहावेदीत् महती विनष्टिः
भूतेषु भूतेषु विचित्य धीराः प्रेत्यास्माल्लोकादमृता भवन्ति || 2.5 ||

iha cedavedīt atha satyamasti na cedihāvedīt mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ
bhūteṣu bhūteṣu vicitya dhīrāḥ pretyāsmāllokādamṛtā bhavanti (2.5)

Word meaning: iha= here; cet= if; avedīt= knows; satyam= satyam (it is not ‘truth’ as conventionally understood; it has got definite philosophical meaning); na= not; mahatī= grave; vinaṣṭiḥ= ruin, loss; bhūteṣu= in beings; vicitya= having discerned; dhīrāḥ= the wise; pretya= having departed, getting detached; asmāt lokāt= from this world; amṛtā= immortal; bhavanti= become

Verse meaning: ‘If one knows (that ultimate principle) here itself, he becomes ‘satyam’; if not, he faces grave ruin. Having discerned (the principle) in every being, the wise get detached from this world and become immortal’.

The meaning is very clear, except a little clarification wanting on the word ‘satyam’. In the study of Bṛhadāraṇyaka (5.5.1) and Chāndogya (8.3.5) Upaniṣads we have discussed in detail about ‘Satyam’. It is ‘Asat’ supported by ‘Sat’. Brahma is ‘Satyam’ (Chāndogya 8.3.4). Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad says in verse 3.2.9 that one who knows Brahma becomes Brahma itself; that means he becomes ‘Satyam’. This very fact is stated here also, in ‘cedavedīt atha satyamasti’. Further, Bṛhadāraṇyaka verse 3.8.10 says that one who fails to know the Imperishable Entity becomes a Kṛpaṇa (worthless person). This degeneration is what is stated here as grave ruin.

Again, verse 7 of Īśa Upaniṣad says that one who sees Ātmā in all beings gets rid of all pain and grief. And, Gīta verse 6.30 declares that the one, who sees Ātmā in all and all in Ātmā, becomes immortal. The implication of the second line of the above verse is the same.

Parts 3 and 4 of this Upaniṣad are, as already stated, only mythological illustrations of the contents of the other parts. So, we leave them without any discussion.

Before winding up our discussion, let us have a recount of the message that the Upaniṣad has given us. It has revealed that there exists a transcendent entity that urges and activates the senses in their functions and also sustains life; those who transcend the limits of the senses attain immortality. This entity is known as Brahma which is not reached by the senses. Brahma is very difficult to be attained. It is attainable through the consciousness within; those who so attain it become ‘Satyam’ and others are ruined. This, in short, is the message of Kena Upaniṣad.

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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