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Introduction to Vedanta, Part II
The Katha Upanishad

Yama, the Vedic god of death

4,058 words

Part I here, Part III here, Part IV here

The Katha Upanishad tells the story of a boy named Nachiketa whose father, Vajasravasa, decides to curry the favor of the gods by giving away his possessions. However, it seems that he was rather selective in what he gave up, only parting with things that were now useless to him. Nachiketa, who is quite pious, sees through his father’s insincerity: “What merit is there,” the boy asks, “in giving away cows that are too old to give milk?” This question, from a mere child, wounds Vajasravasa’s pride. Foolishly, Nachiketa persists: “To whom will you offer me?” he asks. Vajasravasa ignores the question at first, but when Nachiketa repeats it his father answers angrily, “To death I give you!” 

In most traditional stories we find that words have real consequences and cannot easily be taken back. Thus, Nachiketa has now literally been offered up to Yama, the god of death. He leaves home and journeys to Yama, as all must go to meet death: “Like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again.” Needless to say, this journey puts Nachiketa in distress, and “distress” is the meaning of katha. As we will see, however, the boy’s greater distress is in not knowing the true meaning of death – a distress we all suffer. When Nachiketa arrives at death’s abode, he finds that Yama is away on business (as death frequently is). So, the boy remains in the land of the dead for three days, awaiting the god’s return. When Yama finally arrives, he offers Nachiketa three wishes for each day he waited.

First, Nachiketa asks that his father’s anger be appeased. Then, he asks for instruction in “the fire sacrifice.” Yama teaches him this, and we are told that this sacrifice (to Agni, the fire god) is an act of worshipping “the fire from which the universe evolves.” This is, of course, a perennial symbol, which we find in the West in the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who described the cosmos as “an ever-living fire.” Fire is the energy that is simultaneously creative and destructive; from this energy, all things arise, and pass away.

Yama tells Nachiketa that those who perform the fire sacrifice, and also discharge the “triple duties” of studying scripture, practicing ritual worship, and giving aid to the poor, will “shake off the dread noose of death and transcend sorrow to enjoy the world of heaven.” Of course, in the context of Hinduism, “death” actually means rebirth, or reincarnation. Death means being born again in another body, subject to another round of sorrows. He who “shakes off the dread noose of death” will escape the wheel of rebirth, and achieve a state of transcendent, eternal bliss.

Julius Evola has theorized that reincarnation is merely a myth or “exoteric doctrine,” and not a part of esoteric Hinduism. I think we should be skeptical of this: the texts generally accepted as the “esoteric” doctrines of Hinduism abound in claims regarding reincarnation. Evola is inclined to dismiss these claims as insincere, apparently since he himself cannot believe in reincarnation. My own sentiments are not unlike Evola’s: I am unpersuaded that reincarnation is a reality. However, even if the texts are entirely sincere in their commitment to a theory of the transmigration of souls, and even if we are not persuaded by that theory, this need not be an impediment to our profiting from Vedanta. This is because the Upanishads offer a path of self-overcoming, which has the power to alter the soul of the practitioner while he still lives. The promise of escape from rebirth, once this body expires, may be regarded as, in effect, a bonus. And we may treat it as if it is a myth, or a noble lie – even if the authors of the Upanishads did not intend it as such.

Tibetan representation of Yama

In any case, note that when Yama assures Nachiketa that the performance of these duties will allow him to “shake off the dread noose of death,” the god is actually teaching Nachiketa a way to escape his power. There is a catch, however: Yama tells the boy that those who carry out the “triple duty” must be “conscious of its full meaning” in order to win release. Here the text rejects, in effect, the empty ritualism practiced by Nachiketa’s father, and countless others: one cannot attain salvation merely by going through the motions. Ritual is only valuable when performed with understanding. Such understanding is, of course, the province of the few – and thus so is salvation.

Now Nachiketa asks Yama for his third gift: “When a person dies, there arises this doubt: ‘he still exists,’ say some, ‘he does not’ say others. I want you to teach me the truth.” This is an odd request, for it reveals that in spite of Nachiketa’s piety, he still harbors fundamental doubts. Yama’s reaction to this request is surprising: he begs Nachiketa to take back his wish! Ask for anything, money, power, love – but not this. Here we encounter a traditional Indian teaching: the gods resist giving up the truth. They resist the one who wishes to know. Wisdom must usually be attained by force – but, in this case, it is available through the benevolence of the god. For Nachiketa responds to Yama’s suggestion that he choose some more earthly satisfaction by saying, “These pleasures last but until tomorrow.” And so Yama realizes that the boy is a worthy student, and begins to teach.

Wisdom, Yama tells him, leads to “Self-realization.” Ignorance estranges a man from his “real Self.” Readers will recall from my commentary on the Isha Upanishad, that “Self” is a translation of Atman, and that here we are encountering the concept of a truer or higher Self that exists beyond the mundane self or ego, which I normally think of as “me.” I do not know this Self, and coming to know it is the way that is taught by Vedanta. This Self is not just my own inner essence, for it is identical with the “supreme reality.” These ideas are approached in the Isha Upanishad, but not by any means fully explored. We must see if the Katha Upanishad offers us more.

Yama teaches that the ignorant believe “I am my body; when my body dies, I die.” This is because the ignorant have never heard of the Self. Here we find that Yama has, in effect, already offered an answer to Nachiketa: yes, we do live after death. Only the body dies; the Self is immortal. Of course, such an answer is deceptively simple. As I have mentioned, this Self is me, my true Self – and yet it is very clearly not me; not the me I know. In a sense the answer to Nachiketa’s question is yes and no. No, because normally when people ask “do I live on after death?” they are referring to their finite and familiar self, with all its idiosyncrasies. This self does not live on; the Self does. Depending on how you look at it, this is a disappointing answer – or it is an uplifting one. Truly, it offers hope not just in the afterlife, but in this life – but only if somehow we can transmute the leaden weight that is the finite self into the gold that is the Self.

Few are aware of the existence of the Self, Yama says; fewer still dedicate their lives to its “realization.” Here one sees immediately that this teaching does not merely provide information about what happens after death; it does not merely reassure us that we have some kind of Self or soul that will live on. No, it offers a path to the realization of this Self while one still exists in this body. Clearly, if everyone lived on after death as “the Self,” such a path would be unnecessary. But the truth is that immortality, as the Self, is not guaranteed. It must be won, and won in this lifetime. Again, one almost suspects that the teaching of survival after death is a myth, intended to spur one on to follow the path of Self-realization in this life.

So, how does one “realize” the Self? Immediately, our lone wolf followers of the Left-Hand Path are in for disappointment. “Blessed are they who, through an illumined teacher, attain to Self-realization,” Yama says. This is another traditional Indian doctrine: the necessity of a guru, or teacher. Those who wish to walk the path must find one who has made his way further along it. Such a teacher can help the student stay on the path, for there are many distractions and wrong turns – uncountably many. For example, there is both wrong theory and wrong practice. Without the help of a qualified teacher, the aspirant may waste years and never attain his aim. Worse yet, there are positive dangers along the path, and the one who proceeds without a guide may fall prey to them.

“Those who see themselves in all and all in themselves,” says Yama (in language that recalls the Isha Upanishad) can help others to Self-realization. You cannot get there through “the intellect,” he teaches Nachiketa. For the mind and its categories are preoccupied with duality: things are this, and not that, the mind says. It is the function of the intellect to pigeonhole. And the supreme duality the intellect respects is the divide between subject and object. But the Self is beyond subject and object. (We expect it to be the subject, or “true subject,” for after all it is the Self – but we will learn that it is neither subject nor object, perhaps because it is both.)

Nor can we get to the Self through “logic and scholarship”; through book-learning and reasoning. Thus, the way to the Self is not through texts and theories and inferences about them. And this applies to the Upanishads as well! So why should we not set this book down, or why should you not simply stop reading this article immediately? The reason is that presumably you do not have a teacher to provide you with a practice. It is in practice that we find the way to the Self. Until you have something like this in your life, texts such as the Upanishads, or this commentary, can be useful in pointing the way to the path. They can also be useful for one walking the path, as a reminder of why he walks it.

Now, Yama gives us a hint as to this practice when he says that “The wise, realizing through meditation the timeless Self, beyond all perception, hidden in the cave of the heart, leave pain and pleasure far behind.” As Guénon points out, the “cave of the heart” is a traditional expression, and essentially it refers to the center. When we are told that the Self is “hidden in the cave of the heart,” we are to understand that it is at the very center of our being – indeed, it is the center of our being. This identification of the Self with the heart is not merely symbolic, however. There is an esoteric science that locates the center of consciousness in the heart (or in the region of the heart), and esoteric practices for shifting one’s sense of personal identity from the head to the heart.[1]

Yama now introduces Nachketa to one such practice:

I will give you the Word all the scriptures glorify, all spiritual disciplines express, to attain which aspirants lead a life of sense-restraint and self-naughting. It is OM. This symbol of the Godhead is the highest. Realizing it one finds complete fulfillment of all one’s longings. It is of the greatest support to all seekers. When OM reverberates unceasingly within the heart, that one is indeed blessed and deeply loved as one who is the Self.

Now, this word “OM” is exactly the sound which the reader may have heard yogis sometimes repeatedly intone in their meditations: “OM! OM! OM!” Throughout the whole of the Indian tradition, this word has enormous significance, and multiple meanings. Let us note, first of all, that it is called a mantra. This word is supposed to derive from the root man-, “mind” or “to think,” and –tra, meaning “a tool.” “Tool of the mind” is the meaning suggested. And this seems to support the standard Western understanding of a mantra as a “meditation device”: a meaningless sound used as an aid for meditation; for somehow focusing the mind, or altering one’s state of consciousness. We should be cautious about such a “mentalistic” understanding, however, for “mantra” can also have the sense of “magic word” or “magic formula” (one finds the term used this way, for example, in episodes of the Mahabharata).

Thus, we must be open to the possibility that OM may also be a “word of power” that can effect real change (not just change in one’s temporary “state of mind”). It is sometimes said that OM is the sound that the universe makes. This is of a piece with the Indian theory that the universe is composed of “vibrations” (a theory that is particularly developed in Kashmir Shaivism). To experience the vibratory power of OM one must actually have the experience of pronouncing it – and I advise the reader to set this essay aside for a moment and take up this practice, at least briefly, following the instructions offered in the next paragraph.

Although OM seems like a monosyllabic word, in the Indian tradition it is analyzed into three syllables: A-U-M (thus “OM” is sometimes written as “AUM”). OM should be pronounced as a very long sound (requiring a great intake of breath). It begins at the back of the throat as a long “A” (rhymes with “thaw”). Slowly, one narrows the opening of the mouth so that this “A” becomes a deep “U” (an “oo” sound). As the lips close, the sound becomes “MMMM.” One then stops, and the sound that follows is the silence with which OM ends. If OM has been performed correctly, this silence will be striking. After a brief pause, one intones OM again – and again. As we will see in a moment, these teachings invest the three syllables of OM, and the silence that surrounds OM, with a complex meaning.

When OM is repeatedly intoned (usually in a relaxed position, with the eyes closed, and in a quiet place), the practitioner will experience an altered state of consciousness – this much is guaranteed. How the practitioner interprets this state will, of course, depend upon the person. However, even a skeptic who pronounces the word properly will experience some noticeable change, which he may simply interpret as “calm,” or “relaxation.” He will probably also notice a cessation of thoughts while pronouncing the word, and a temporary increase in sensitivity to sensory stimuli once the practice is completed. A particularly sensitive person may report that during the practice there is a diminishment in the sense of personal identity, and of the distinction between the self and the sound of the mantra: it is as if, for a time, one simply becomes the sound.

Now, recall the Self that is “hidden in the cave of the heart.” The effect of OM is to open this cave, and to disclose the Self. As the text says, “When OM reverberates unceasingly within the heart, that one is indeed blessed and deeply loved as one who is the Self.” The vibration of OM “awakens” the Self in its hiding place, and the result is the “identification” of oneself with the Self. The reason I have placed “identification” in quotes is that we must avoid at all costs the error of imagining that oneself and the Self are two distinct things. The image of the Self “awakening” is closer to the mark: deep within the core of one’s being (the “cave of the heart”) the Self stirs and a “shift” in identity takes place; one becomes the Self. At least for a moment or two. This metaphysical transformation can be endlessly analyzed, and multiple images and analogies used to try and communicate the theory. Up to a point, all such attempts are useful. Ultimately, however, the only true realization arises from the practice just discussed. And the results of this practice cannot be fully communicated as theory.

I have mentioned that one must avoid the error of imagining that oneself and the Self are two separate things, and there are other errors one must avoid also. I said earlier that OM is the sound the universe makes: the vibration that is the universe in its continual manifestation. But how does this square with the idea that OM discloses the Self, hidden in the cave of the heart? Surely, we might say, the Self and the Being of the universe are two distinct things. In fact, Vedanta teaches precisely that this is not the case. Here we must introduce a major concept, not mentioned so far: Brahman. We may gloss this as “Being itself”; “Ultimate Reality.”

My readers may be surprised that I have only now introduced this term, for they might have heard that Vedanta in a nutshell is “Atman = Brahman.” But if this equation holds, then it does not matter with which term we begin. Confusion regarding this equation almost always arises from covertly or unconsciously treating Atman and Brahman as distinct things that must somehow be “got together.” In fact, these are two names for the same thing. Thus, OM discloses the Self, which is “Being itself” / “Ultimate Reality.” “Brahman” comes from a root, brh-, meaning “to grow, expand, swell.” Brahman is the continual manifestation – the be-ing – of the universe, growing, expanding swelling. It is thus traditionally understood as the transcendent, inexpressible source from which all comes. Yet, here again we may open ourselves to error.

We must not consider Brahman “one thing,” and the universe “another.” The universe is the expression of Brahman – its manifestation. Now, there is a certain interpretation of Vedanta which suggests that the universe, as manifestation of Brahman, is “unreal.” This is a mistake: the universe is most certainly there, and one has to wonder why anyone would think that Brahman would manifest the false (where the unreal is the false). It would be truer to say that, as the underlying reality of the universe, Brahman is in some sense a more fundamental being. Even this, however, is problematic. If Brahman is unmanifest Being, then in a sense we must understand it as inchoate and potential. Brahman’s actualization is precisely in manifesting itself as the universe – as every single thing that is. Thus, while it makes sense to distinguish between the universe and its inexhaustible source, it is equally sensible to say that the universe is Brahman: it is Brahman manifesting itself – unfolding what it is.

Now let us circle back to OM, and take stock of where we have been. When we pronounce “OM” we open the center of our being, the cave of the heart, and shift our sense of identity away from the finite self or ego, which dances around the periphery, and toward our essential being. This essential being, this Self (Atman), is stirred and awakened in the saying of “OM.” This Self, our own essence, is the essential Being of the universe itself, of the very source of all: it is what all things are. Thus, in the saying of “OM” we awaken and identify with our own essential being, and simultaneously the Being of all that exists.

But here is the crucial point: this saying of “OM” is not the utterance of a “formula,” or a “thought,” or a definable “word.” Instead, this saying is the expression of Brahman-Atman itself. It is not “symbolic” of Brahman-Atman, in the way that other words are symbolic or “refer” to things. Instead, OM is this growing, expanding, swelling vibratory Being of the universe itself. This is the root reason why OM is a “magic word.” It is a “word of power” because, again, this “word” does not “refer to” Being; when it is said, Being speaks.

However, as I have already mentioned, OM is a “word” with multiple meanings. So that, in addition, to its function of speaking Being directly, and its power to transform the identity of the practitioner (in a practice that must be performed repeatedly), it has also been invested with symbolic significance. Essentially, we are informed by the sacred texts that OM is both a practice and a teaching: a ritual and a lesson. Recall that those who perform a ritual “must be conscious of its full meaning.” In saying “OM,” and performing the practice already described, we may simultaneously be intellectually aware of its metaphysical significance. And we should be – for the path to awakening must engage all levels of our being: the intellectual, feeling, and bodily centers.

Specifically, it is the syllables of OM, referred to earlier, which are understood to impart a teaching. This information, however, is not present in the Katha Upanishad. Instead, one must look to the Mandukya Upanishad and other texts. In brief: the syllable “A” signifies waking consciousness, aware of and captivated by gross bodily forms. “U” signifies the consciousness we possess in dreams. In dreaming, we are in one sense “unconscious,” and in another perfectly “conscious.” When I dream, I am unaware of, or unconscious of the world “out there.” However, I am quite conscious of the dream world. But what is that? Within the dream, I take the content of the dream as “other.” Indeed (except in the rare case of so-called “lucid dreams”) I take it as “real.” In truth, however, the subject-object duality I experience in dreams is an illusion: the dream is actually a product of my own mind. One part of me creates a dream and presents it to another part, who unwittingly takes it as “other.” The truth, however, is that I and the dream are one.

The “M” of OM signifies dreamless sleep. In this state I may also speak of myself as in some sense “conscious”: my consciousness, my subjectivity, my mind (whatever term we use) goes on – because indeed my life goes on, and in a real sense life (of whatever kind) is consciousness, subjectivity, mind. And yet the state of dreamless sleep is seemingly unique in that it is consciousness without an object; consciousness without an other.

We may sum up the whole point of Vedanta and Yoga in term of this scheme of A-U-M. The point is to bring A into M: to go through waking consciousness, waking life, with the experience that there is no other. What must be realized is that the dream state is a symbol of the true nature of life: in effect, the phenomenon of dreaming is a nightly discourse on the true meaning of our existence. But few have the wits to see this.

As it is in the dream, so it is in life. I imagine that I am experiencing an other, but the other is in fact my own creation. I and the dream are one. Typically, the ego fails to realize that its other is itself. And, indeed, “the ego” as such cannot realize this. What is required is a teaching and a practice that shift us radically beyond ego, and to the “realization” (which is, again, not an intellectual theorizing) that the Self is my being, and that all that exists is its creation. The entire universe is the manifestation of this Self. Therefore, the universe is “my” manifestation; the universe is “me.” I and the universe are one. (At this point the reader should understand that “my” and “me” are placed in quotes because we are not talking about the familiar, finite, idiosyncratic self that usually utters “my” and “me.”)

All of this, furthermore – this expression of the Self, this universe that plays before me as an “other” but is not really an other – arises from an unfathomable ground, an inexhaustible source that transcends manifestation. This is what is signified by the “fourth syllable” of OM: the silence that surround “Aaaaa-uuuuu-mmmmm.”

In the next installment of this series, I will continue my discussion of the Katha Upanishad.


[1] For some hints, see Julius Evola, Introduction to Magic (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2001), 42-43, with special attention to footnote 16 on p. 43.

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