September 26, 2011

A postcard from the Katha Upanishad

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…

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