Question and Answer
Q. I have a copy of the Katha Upanishad. It is my favorite, and yet, I am missing a whole lot from it.
I understand that Death is talking to a young boy and teaching him how to be immortal, the secret of immortality.
One sees that anything in this world is not worth striving for, because it is constantly
changing and impermanent, and that the Self is the only thing worth having/knowing.
But the actual discourse, from Death, is just a bunch of words to me, a bunch of concepts. It seems hard to actually put any of it into practice. Is it just philosophy, or is there a key to putting this into practice?
The end of this Upanishad seems to suggest if you put into practice what was taught in it, you will be united with Brahman and know your innermost Self.
When you studied this Upanishad, how do you go about it? Do you take it verse by verse and discuss it? Does it all make sense to you now? Are you able to put it into practice?
Anything you want to share about your studying of this Upanishad would be most appreciated.
A. One of your questions above seems to be how does an Upanishad work as a means of Self-knowledge.
All of the Upanishads work in the same way. Not only do all Upanishads work in this way, but all of the supporting texts, (such as texts written by Shankara and other teachers in the tradition) work this way as well.
You say you can't make sense out of what Lord Yama (the Lord of Death) said to Naciketas (the young boy he was teaching).
That isn't surprising. You aren't really supposed to make sense out of the words on your own.
It's a case of needing a teacher to expand and explain what the words mean, and to use the words to point out certain things to you, which pointing out will help you to gain Self-knowledge.
When any text is taught within the tradition of Advaita/Vedanta, here's how the steps go:
The teacher reads and chants the verse in Sanskrit.
The student responds by chanting the same verse in Sanskrit.
And then the teacher may translate each word, or take entire phrases and translate them.
Then the teacher goes on and explains the meaning of the verse.
This is followed by a question and answer session at the end of the class, which is called satsang.
When explaining the meaning of the verse, the teacher usually refers to a commentary written on the verse. The commentary for Katha Upanishad and other Upanishads used in this tradition were generally written by Shankara.
So the teacher uses the commentary to explain the meaning of the verse as well.
But what is of paramount importance in the whole process is that the teacher knows how the words are meant to be used as a means of Self-knowledge.
It is for this reason that Vedanta can actually be taught without using a text and without using any Sanskrit at all, because the important thing is the 'method,� of teaching.
The teacher needs to know how to use the words of the text (if he or she is using a text) as a method.
If we just translate the words (even accurately), still that won't help, without knowing how to use those words as pointers in a methodical way.
So, Vedanta is actually a step-by-step methodology of teaching, which guides the mind of the student to the direct recognition of the truth.
Here is an illustration of the way the words work as a means of Self-knowledge.
The classic example often given is a person at dusk being guided by another to see the small sliver of a crescent moon rising at the horizon.
The one doing the guiding starts out by saying, 'See that tree over there? Now follow with your eyes up the trunk of the tree.
'See that first branch on the right? Follow with your eyes to the end of that branch.
'Now see the little V shape formed by the two twigs at the end of the branch? Right in the middle of those two twigs, in the middle of the V shape, you will see the moon.'
The teacher, who knows how to use the words of the Upanishads, as a direct pointer to the Self, is guiding the mind of the student just as directly as in the illustration above, to recognize the truth that who that student really is, is the Self.
And along the way the student may get a little confused, and may ask, 'Which branch? Is it that one, or this one?'
And the teacher will say, 'Not that one. This one,' and so on.
Eventually the student will see the moon.
Why? Because it's there to be seen.
You are here to be known. You already know your Self, but you take your Self to be other than what you actually are.
So a good teacher, who knows how to use the words of the Upanishads as a method (and
the method is in there - there is a progression in the verses); that teacher will use those
verses and words, in a logical step-by-step way, until the student directly sees, as in cognizes, what is being pointed out.
So, it isn't a matter of being 'united with Brahman,' as you said above, because you already are Brahman.
It's a matter of recognizing that you are already Brahman, that you are not in reality the individual body/mind, sense-organs complex, which your mind takes your Self to be.
Therefore, you don't need to 'practice' what the words of the Upanishads are pointing out. You already are what they are pointing to. You need to recognize it.
Lord Yama is not teaching Naciketas 'how to become immortal,' as you said above. Lord Yama is teaching Nackiketas how to recognize that his true nature is already immortal. The 'secret' is that you are already immortal, but you don't know it.
What does the word immortal mean? It means not subject to death, obviously. But what is it that is not subject to death?
Is there anything about you, about me, about Naciketas that is not subject to death? There is.
That which is not subject to death is that which never changes. It is that which never goes into or out of being. It is that which is not subject to time, or place, or being one thing versus another. It is that which always is. And what always is, is your Self.
It seems as if everything is always changing, but there is something about you which is not.
You can recognize that here and now, because that is the truth of your being here and now.
You just need to have this pointed out to you in such a way that you see it. And that's what the methodology of Vedanta does.
Another word for your true nature, which is immortal, which never changes, which is your Self is Brahman. (And that's what Lord Yama is talking about.)
There are lots of 'practices' one can do in order to help one gain this recognition, and not one of these practices will make you Brahman, because you already are Brahman. But what they can do is help your mind focus, and gain a certain degree of calmness and clarity, so that when the teacher is using the words of the Upanishads as pointers, your mind can follow along.
As in the tree and moon illustration, if someone is trying to guide you to see the moon, but your mind is totally engrossed in thinking about a conversation you had with your friend, or wondering what you are going to have for dinner, are you going to be able to follow what the teacher is saying? You are not.
Thus all practices are aimed at helping your mind gain clarity and focus. And then, the other more direct practices are listening to the teacher and asking questions to clear doubts, and finally after one has recognized that your very own Self is Brahman unchanging, sitting and focusing on that recognition for some time.
Hope that helps.
There are many beautiful verses in the Katha Upanishad, and some of them are quoted in other texts as well, such as the Bhagavad Gita, but in order to fully comprehend what the verses mean, one needs a teacher to help one understand them.
Then once you understand them, once you understand what they are pointing out, then you can read the verses to your heart's content, and it will be like gazing with love and admiration at your beautiful face in a mirror.
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