Saturday, June 5, 2021

My key takeaways from Katha Upanishad

Investigating the “illusion of time” hypothesis is an important part of the mindfulness process and I explore it in chapter 7 of my mindfulness book. In Sanskrit and in many Indian languages the word kaal (काल) means both time and death. Hence, Katha Upanishad (or Kathopanishad) which contains a dialogue between Nachiketa, an inquisitive boy and Yama, the God of death has been of interest to me. I had read the English translations a few times. Last year, I tried to read it in Sanskrit. I used the Sanskrit online dictionaries and also listened to 30 of 47 discourses by Swami Tejomayananda of Chinmay Mission last year. Here are my key takeaways from what I have read so far and what my understanding is of these verses. I am sure, like any art form, I might find new meanings and nuances when I read it again.

1.      What is the state of the world?

Verse: 1.2.5

अविद्यायामन्तरे वर्तमानाः स्वयं धीराः पण्डितं मन्यमानाः ।
दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढा अन्धेनैव नीयमाना यथान्धाः ॥ ५ ॥ 
avidyāyāmantare vartamānāḥ svayaṃ dhīrāḥ paṇḍitaṃ manyamānāḥ |
dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mūḍhā andhenaiva nīyamānā yathāndhāḥ || 5 ||

Living in the middle of ignorance and regarding themselves as intelligent and learned, the ignorant go round and round, in many crooked ways, like the blind led by the blind.


2.      Why is the world like this?

पराञ्चि खानि पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् । (part of verse 2.1.1)
parāñci khāni parāṅpaśyati nāntarātman |

Sense organs are out-going. Therefore, one sees outside and not the atman within.

And the first line of the next verse (verse 2.1.2) 

पराचः कामाननुयन्ति बालास्ते मृत्योर्यन्ति विततस्य पाशं ।
parācaḥ kāmānanuyanti bālāste mṛtyoryanti vitatasya pāśaṃ | (verse 2.1.2) 

The ignorant pursue external objects of desire; they get into the meshes of widespread death.


3.      What is futile?

Part of the verse 2.1.2 tells what is futile:
ध्रुवमध्रुवेष्विह न प्रार्थयन्ते

dhruvamadhruveṣviha na prārthayante 

(Wise) do not wish for permanence from that which is impermanent.


4.      What to do? (1)


आवृत्तचक्षुः (āvṛttacakśuh)i.e. Turn eyes (attention) inwards (Part of verse 2.1.1)

And observe that (verse 1.3.10)

इन्द्रियेभ्यः परा ह्यर्था अर्थेभ्यश्च परं मनः ।
मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिर्बुद्धेरात्मा महान्परः ॥ १० ॥

indriyebhyaḥ parā hyarthā arthebhyaśca paraṃ manaḥ |
manasastu parā buddhirbuddherātmā mahānparaḥ || 10 ||

Meaning is superior to the sense organs, underlying tendencies or beliefs are superior to the meaning, discerning intelligence (vivek-buddhi) is superior to the beliefs and underlying essence (atman) is superior to the intelligence.

5.      What to do? (2) 

Verse 1.3.14

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ १४ ॥
uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varānnibodhata |
kśurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṃ pathastatkavayo vadanti || 14 ||

Arise, awake; having reached the great, learn; the edge of a razor is sharp and impassable; that path, the wise say, is hard to go by. 

My summary: Wake up, are you pursuing only external objects? Are you leading a meaningless life? Are you wishing permanence in impermanent? Turn your attention inwards and watch the subtle movement of thought. Are you reactive all the time? Is there any discernment i.e. questioning of beliefs? Be alert and watch.

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  1. The Akshardham temple used to do a laser show in its open air theatre on the Yama - Nachiketa dialogue. The subject matter is the most well kept secret - Yama had not explained to anybody before or after this incident. Though we all know that everybody dies someday, our curiosity about what is death, what happens after death etc is quite low. But Nachiketa was super curious - event though Yama offered many other gifts, N said that he wants answers for his questions and nothing else.It is this kind of intense curiosity to know about death that triggered young Ramana Maharishi to simulate death and observe what happens.

  2. What will wake youn up is the key point in the whole story. I am generally lost in my illusionsn and ignnorance, living my routine life with pleasure and pain. And man has been living with these illusions and
    ignorance for centuries after centuries in spite of such scriptures and enlightened Rishis like Raman Maharshi and others. Why?

    1. Good question, Baba. I can only look at myself and learn to turn attention inwards. Learn to recognize wasteful thinking and self-deception. What else?

    2. Baba, I feel the reason proposed by Kathopanishad on why the world is like this and not learning is pretty good. The sense organs are outward facing and hence turning attention inward is not natural. Once one sees that perception is largely coming from internal model (beliefs), question of why is the world like this subsides.

  3. From the evolutionary biology stand point , any organ has evolved for the betterment of the species. It provokes a thought "what if", there is evolved internal sense organ which would have immensely helped the species to navigate the life

    1. Excellent question, Srinivas. Looks like attention has the capacity to turn inward and watch the movement of thought. Neuroscientists like Catherine Kerr and Neuropsychiatrists like Iain McGilchrist (book: The Master and his emissary) say that the thought process grabs all the attention and in fact inhibits signals from body as well as outside. McGilchrist says that the ability to sense the wholeness is in the right hemisphere (RH) and over a period the connections between the LH to RH have shrunk and become primarily inhibitory. That is, LH tells RH, "I know it, don't interfere". LH begins to treat the map as the territory. As Katha Upanishad says, turning the attention inward is important.

  4. This is another interesting found of yours Vinay..


    Thanks for sharing