The kaThopaniShat - (A study based on the commentary of shrI shaMkarAchArya)
The kaThopaniShat is one of the ten principal upaniShad-s to which AchArya shaMkara has written commentaries. This upaniShad gives the teaching of Atma vidyA, the self-knowledge, through a dialogue between the guru, Yama, and the disciple, Nachiketas. At the beginning of the commentary, shaMkarAchArya pays obeisance to the guru and the disciple. This upaniShad itself has a mantra (1.2.7) where the upaniShad-ic teaching, the teacher and the disciple are glorified. These deserve the highest praise as it is the rarest of the rare that can teach this vidyA, the one that succeeds in realizing the teaching is also a very rare aspirant. And the vidyA itself is the highest one that confers upon the aspirant the greatest attainment possible by anyone: mokSha, liberation.
ओं नमो भगवते वैवस्वताय मृत्यवे ब्रह्मविद्याचार्याय नचिकेतसे च ।
Salutation to bhagavan Yama (Death), son of the Sun and the imparter of the knowledge of brahman, and salutation to Nachiketas.
The upaniShad has a peace-invocatory prayer, called ‘shAnti mantraH’:
ओं सह नाववतु । सह नौ भुनक्तु । सह वीर्यं करवावहै । तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु । मा विद्विषावहै ।
Om. May brahman protect us both! May brahman bestow upon us both the fruit of knowledge! May we both obtain the energy to acquire knowledge! May what we both study reveal the truth! May we cherish no ill feeling toward each other!
Om. Peace! Peace! Peace!
The shAnti mantra is chanted at the beginning of an upaniShad-ic study. It is aimed at invoking divine protection for warding off obstacles that might arise in the course of the study and sAdhanA. Obstacles could be in the form of disease and incapacity to the body, difficulty in comprehending the message of the upaniShad, practicing mananam and contemplation, etc. The shAnti pATha aims at seeking divine grace for the assimilation of the knowledge coming from the upaniShad-ic study. Grace is required for the well-being of the student as well as the teacher. It is only a combination of the efforts of the student-teacher pair that results in the successful transmission of the knowledge.
shaMkarAchArya commences the commentary with a note on the meaning of the word ‘upaniShad’. The word is split into three parts: ‘upa’, ‘ni’ and ‘sad’. Let us take the last one first: ‘sad’ is the Sanskrit root verb that has these three senses: ‘to destroy’, ‘go/reach/attain’ and ‘weaken/loosen’. Now, how do these help us get a clear meaning of the word ‘upaniShad’? It is in this way:
The word ‘upaniShad’ also means the knowledge, the ‘vidyA’ that is intended to be established. There is another meaning too for the word:
Those desirous of attaining to the supreme knowledge and thereby liberation discover that the world does not hold much value to them. They systematically turn away from the snares of the world and approach (‘upa’) the proper means to acquire the upaniShad-ic knowledge. They strive with determination (‘ni’) towards this end. As a result of all this, they are finally rewarded with the knowledge that destroys (‘sad’) the very seed that causes samsara, transmigratory existence. They are thereby freed from the bonds of samsara.
Since the aspirants, qualified by the above stated dispassion and a thirst for knowledge, are lead (‘gati’) to the goal, brahman, this knowledge is called upaniShad.
Here is yet another sense in which the word ‘upaniShad’ is meaningful: In the kaThopaniShad, there is a meditation called ‘agni-vidyA’, involving a fire-ritual. This is given out in view of the second boon to Nachiketas, the disciple. This ritual-meditation enables the person to go to heaven where the problems related to worldly life, birth, disease, ageing and death are not there. These problems are ‘weakened’ as though by attaining to heaven through the agni-vidyA. In this way, even this agni-vidyA attains to the name of ‘upaniShad’ through the root word ‘sad’ whose meaning we saw in the beginning is ‘to weaken’.
Also, since the upaniShad gives out the vidyA that liberates the aspirant once and for all, even the book that serves to give out this vidyA is called ‘upaniShad’. In this manner, the knowledge qualifies for the primary meaning of the word upaniShad and the book, secondarily.
Who is fit to take up the upaniShad-ic study?
We have seen in the foregoing that it is the aspirant who is endowed with immense dispassion that can benefit most from the study of the upaniShad. Such an aspirant is called an ‘adhikArI’, a fit person, eligible to take up the sAdhanA-oriented study of the upaniShad. For him the study becomes a means for liberation and not a means to satisfy his curiosity.
What is the subject-matter, ‘viShaya’, of the upaniShad? It is the supreme brahman which is none other than the Atman of everyone. The entire teaching of the upaniShad is focused on the nature of brahman, its non-difference from the Atman, the means to attain the knowledge of brahman, etc.
What constitutes the avowed purpose, ‘prayojanam’, of such a study? It is the complete freedom from the cycle of transmigratory life, saMsAra. This is none other than attainment of one’s identity with brahman through the knowledge thereof.
What kind of a connection, ‘saMbandha’, established between the upaniShad and the purpose, prayojanam? It is of the type of ‘sAdhya-sAdhana’ (end-means) where the freedom from saMsAra is the ‘end’ and the upaniShad is the means. It is customary to specify the ‘anubandha chatuShTayam’, the foursome that we have enumerated above with a brief explanation: adhikArI, viShaya, prayojanam and saMbandha.
With this brief introduction we shall enter the upaniShad-ic content proper. The kaThopaniShad is divided into two Chapters called ‘adhyAyaH’, each chapter consisting of three sections called ‘vallee’. Thus there are six sections spanning over the two chapters. All the sections contain the teaching in the form of mantras. The entire teaching of the upaniShad originates from an event that forms the genesis of the core upaniShad-ic teaching. We shall delve upon each mantra on the basis of shaMkarAchArya’s commentary, the BhAShya.
Chapter One, Section One
Mantra 1: ओं उशन्ह desiring rewards वै verily वाजश्रवसः vAjasravas (name of the sacrificer) सर्ववेदसं all his property ददौ gave away । तस्य ह of him नचिकेता नाम named Nachiketa पुत्र a son आस was॥
vAjasravas, desiring rewards, performed the Visvajit sacrifice, in which he gave away all his property. He had a son named Nachiketa.
The event is the Viswajit sacrifice, a yAga that involves the gifting away of one’s property in its entirety. vAjasravas is the householder that is performing this yAga with a desire to obtain material benefits that the scripture specifies for such a sacrifice. These benefits accrue to the sacrificer in a later birth in a different loka, world. He had given away all his belongings to the commissioned persons. Nachiketas was the son of this yajamAna, the sacrificer.
Mantras 2, 3: तँ who कुमारँ a small boy सन्तं was, दक्षिणासु gifts / fees नीयमानासु being
distributed श्रद्धा faith आविवेश entered सोऽमन्यत he thought to himself ।
पीतोदका drunk water जग्धतृणा eaten grass दुग्धदोहा having given milk निरिन्द्रियाः become sterile.। अनन्दा नाम Joyless लोकाः worlds तान् स them he गच्छति goes/reaches ता ददत् giving away (as gifts) ॥
When the gifts were being distributed, faith entered into the heart of nachiketa, who was still a boy. He said to himself: Joyless, surely, are the worlds to which he goes who gives away cows no longer able to drink, to eat, to give milk, or to calve.
Nachiketas was a boy of about seven or eight years. shaMkara says in the commentary for the word ‘kumAram’ (a young lad): one who has not attained the age of procreation. This boy was watching the ceremonies going on at the yAgashAla. The commissioned priests were being awarded the gifts. As part of the gifts were cows. Seeing the condition of these cows that were being given away as gifts, Nachiketas was struck with a gushing of shraddhA, faith, in the vedic teaching. He thought to himself: ‘My father who is giving such worthless cows to priests as gifts is certain to reach those worlds where there is going to be none other than suffering.’ The boy is a member of a family that is rooted in vedic tradition. He has acquired deep knowledge of various things through study and observation. He has genuine faith in the vedic teaching that comes naturally to someone who is exposed to such a traditional living. Why was Nachiketas so concerned? The condition of the cows was pathetic. They were in such bad shape that the one who receives them as gift will have no benefit from them. The cows had drunk water, eaten what grass they could and whatever milk could be had from them was already milked. And what is more, they had passed their stage of reproducing, they had become sterile. Nachiketas was concerned that the donor of such miserable cows would only reach hellish worlds. His concern for his father’s welfare, both here and in the hereafter, is a reflection of how a mature, dutiful son would behave. Even though so young in age, Nachiketas displayed great ripeness the like of which will be seen again when he seeks Yama’s blessings for his father’s peace and welfare. Torn by thoughts of his father’s imminent discomfiture, Nachiketas approached his father.
Mantra 4: स होवाच पितरं He said to his father तत कस्मै मां दास्यसीति Father! To whom will you give me? । द्वितीयं तृतीयं (He said this) a second and a third time तँ होवाच मृत्यवे त्वा ददामीति Then his father replied: Unto death I will give you.
He said to his father: 'Father! To whom will you give me? He said this a second and a third time. Then his father replied: Unto death I will give you.'
These were the thoughts that occupied Nachiktas’ mind: The yAga my father is conducting will not fructify if such worthless gifts are made. On the other hand, he will only have to face the undesirable consequences of giving away such cows. So, I must do what is required of a dutiful son. And that will entail my offering myself as a gift to be given away. By doing so, the misfortune that will befall my father will be avoided.
With this resolve Nachiketas asked his father: To whom are you planning to give me? His father ignored the boy’s question. Nachiketas was unrelenting. He asked for the second and the third time. As is usual, such pestering is not welcome at any time, much less when the yaga was attaining the final stages. The father, disturbed, and angered that this is not the way a small boy should be interrupting an event, replied: I will be giving you to MRtyu, the God of Death.
Thus snubbed and dismissed, Nachiketas entered a soliloquy.