A postcard from the Katha Upanishad

Via Mid Walsh
on Sep 25, 2011
get elephant's newsletter
Upanishadic manuscript (www.indicstudies.us/Archives/Upanishads.html)


I’ve just driven by the ruins of an ancient and sacred place. I had never been there before, and they are so beautiful that I’d like to show you a picture of them.

This isn’t a physical place, but a shard of words. It is the most revered of the Upanishads, the Katha, which contains the first known mentions of yoga as spiritual tool.

Here is my first sketch of these, one of the deepest of the stones in the foundation of yoga.

Approaching the ruins

To arrive at an understanding of the Upanishads, one first flies over the surrounding territory. These are the Vedas, a jungle of thousands of years’ worth of fragmentary writings before the Upanishads.  As unsystematic as a vast tangle of leaves and vines, the Vedas express the singular desire to curry material favors from the gods. The Indian ancient expected good things in return for observing the Vedas: good weather, healthy children, abundant cows…

The Upanishads appear like the rubble of an old monastery near the edge of  the jungle of the Vedas.  Their words stand against the materialistic religiosity of the earlier Vedas, directing the power of Vedic ritual toward a new goal.

Like the earlier Vedas, the Upanishads are full of ritual instructions impenetrable to moderns.  They are disjoint and unsystematic like the Vedas. But they express a brilliant intention of the spirit that is not present in the Vedas. They promote spiritual transformation, not material gain.  Their diction is fresh and different, their metaphors striking and often beautiful.

Among this landscape of jungle ruins, the Katha Upanishad stands tallest, one of the most accessible spiritual, and beloved.

It’s an easy stroll through; only a couple of hours’ read once you’re there. Here’s what you’ll see.

Entering the Katha Upanishad

Approaching the Katha for the first time, we experience a remarkably simple architecture, which consists of only four structural members:

  • The story: A man ritually sacrifices all of his worldly possessions to the gods. Seeing this, his young son asks if he, too, will be sacrificed.  In a moment of irritation, the father tells his son to go ask Death.  The son dutifully does as he is told. Through fate and his own cleverness, the young man then compels Death to answer three questions.
  • The big question: The son asks two warm-up questions, putting Death and the reader on alert that here is a young man of extraordinary depth. His third question lays bare the age-old existential uncertainty: after someone dies, does any part of him still exist?
  • Death’s pronouncement: First Death avoids the question. Then he extols the man who like this young man favors the spiritual life.  Then he then begs off again, claiming the question is nearly impossible to answer. The young man persists, but Death says it’s too subtle. When the young man refines his question once more and asks again, Death finally relents.  His answer is one paradoxical word: “Om”.
  • A hymn: The rest of the Katha Upanishad celebrates the Self in lyrical and exuberant language.  At the end it declares the disciplines of yoga as a tool for revealing the Self.

Runes from the ruins

Of the 119 verses of the Katha Upanishads, three of them capture what is for me the most essential beauty of the text.  They all come from what I’ve called the  “hymn” section.

Yoga is the way to discover the Self…

…when the senses
are firmly reined in, that is yoga;
and yoga is the coming-into-being
as well as the ceasing-to-be.

 and the Self is a prize beyond value…

When a man perceives close at hand
this living, honey-eating self,
the lord of what was and what will be,
it does not seek to hide from him…

one sees it hiding there –
the Self who was born before heat,
who before the waters was born,
who has seen through living things.*

The story, and Death’s “om” are also stunningly beautiful to me, but I haven’t pasted them here.  You have to see them in situ; the magic evaporates when they are taken out of context.

(* This is from  from Patrick Olivelle’s translation.  The explanatory words in italics are my own.)

Why bother to go there?

I myself visited the Upanishads out of curiosity.  I had heard about them as a teenager and caught a whiff again when I first read Emerson and Thoreau in college.  Decades later when I began to learn yoga, I knew the Upanishads were hovering in the background. So I read and attended a series of workshops on them to see what (or who) was there.

My first visit to the Katha Upanishad feels like more than casual tourism; it feels like I’m returning home.  These are elemental, honest, no-nonsense words from inventive men attempting to describe the indescribable.  When I read them, a part of my own experience comes to life – to use their beautiful image, when I read these words something moves in the cave of my heart.

They come from a language I don’t understand, written on a continent across the Earth from me, in a alien culture, by men who died thousands of years ago…

And yet they resonate in me as though they had issued from my own chest.

So I’ve written you this postcard to encourage you to visit if you haven’t already.  Perhaps you’ll like the place too. Maybe it will wake something up in your heart, as it did in mine.

Unlike archeological ruins, these texts (and all of us) grow even more lustrous and strong when more people visit them…


P.S. Thanks to Professor Edwin Bryant of Rutgers University for being the tour guide for my first visit, during a retreat this summer.  Any errors in the above are certainly mine and not his…


About Mid Walsh

Mid Walsh is a yoga teacher, poet, sculler, educational publishing professional, and co-owner of Dancing Crow Yoga. He lives with his wife and their enchanted cat Carmen in a house near the ocean in Massachusetts.


11 Responses to “A postcard from the Katha Upanishad”

  1. I'm so glad someone is writing about the Upanishads on Elephant. I hope this spawns more Upanishads articles.

    The Yoga Sutra is great, and all, but let's get more going on the Upanishads and Gita, too!

    Highly recommended version of the Upanishads http://amzn.to/pNFAgR

    See the closely related Yoga Demystified.

    Thank you, Mid. Hope this is the first of many.

    Bob W. Editor
    Facebook / Twitter

  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:


    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  3. chiara_ghiron says:

    As there can be no water without the sea, no touch without the skin, no smell without the nose, no taste without the tongue, no form without the eye, no sound without the ear, no thought without the mind, no wisdom wothout the heart, no work without hands, no walking without feet, no scriptures without the word, so there can be nothing without the Self.
    As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when the physical identification dissolves, there san be no more separate self. This is what I want to tell you, beloved.
    Brihadaranuaka Upanishad 4.11-4.12

  4. midwalsh says:

    Inspired and beautiful words, aren't they? And the "beloveds" are some of the sweetest words in it. Thanks for sharing, chiara. …Mid

  5. Will Price says:

    So glad you wrote this piece, Bob. Now we're cooking.

  6. chiara_ghiron says:

    yes… that Upanishad is beautiful. Actually my favourite favourite is the caterpillar stanza about death and its true sense "like a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches out for the next, so the Self, having come to the end of one life and dispelled all ignorance, gathers in his faculties and reaches out from the old body to a new". I like to use this stanza to help me through changes when you move from one 'life' to another. But there are so many more worth recalling!

  7. midwalsh says:

    Kumbhaka indeed, Will. I'm glad you enjoyed my piece. Thanks for commenting.

  8. midwalsh says:

    Yes, what a beautiful metaphor for reaching from this life to the next one. And I love your observation about moving from this life to *this* one! I hadn't thought of it that way; it causes the image to resonate even more deeply for me. Thanks so much, chiara!

  9. Thank you for posting this. Beautiful writing. "When I read them, a part of my own experience comes to life." That is what I experienced when I read this post. It spoke to me on multiple levels.

  10. […] striving for enlightenment. In bhakti, we believe based on the teaching of the Bhagavad-gita, the Upanishads and the Bhagavata Purana that every aspect of yoga is steps leading toward prema, or estatic love […]

  11. […] been an important part of the yogic practice. Dating back as far as 6000 to 8000 years ago, the Upanishads (Hindu philosophical texts) emphasized tolerance as one of the ten yamas (personal restraints). Likewise, the Pali Canon […]