Into the Depths of the Katha Upanishad

At the end of each year, I often dive into a kind of self reflection and assessment of what the past year was like and what I hope to accomplish or uncover in the coming year. This process of reflection has taken me down some very interesting roads and sometimes revealed the complexity of my ego mind in rationalizing my life and choices.

This December, I began the process again using a tool supplied by the folks at Monk Manual. This approach to planning has been helpful and I’ve taken it step by step, gradually answering a series of questions and plumbing the depths of my mind.

In this process of self-reflection, I turned to the Katha Upanishad and the Upanishad translations by Eknath Easwaran. I really have enjoyed his writing style and his translation/interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita is remarkable. The Katha Upanishad is one of the great works of spirituality and religion, and taking on Easwaran’s translation has been eye opening and valuable in examining the whole notion of the “self”.

In my effort to unpack my deluded mind I live with everyday, I found my way into the Katha Upanishad, taking it slowly this time, walking through the concepts and information that is the heart of this spiritual teaching. Written centuries before most Buddhist works, this text offers a fascinating insight into the nature of the “self.” The self, according to the teaching, is immutable, unchanging, and eternal. The very notion of the Self or Atman is a powerful force in spirituality as so many of us hope and wish for some kind of continuation after our physical deaths. The Katha Upanishad offers a way forward, a way into knowing what the Self is and how it can be known.

With pen in hand and journal opened, I forced open the pages of my journal and began the effort of putting into words the ideas I learned about MY self and the Hindu concept of Self. This path has taken me, so far, into the depths of philosophical questions about Self and finding the synergy between this Hindu Self and the Buddhist notion of true nature or Rigpa. Funny. That’s A LOT of work for someone just reflecting on their past and immediate future! Ha!

As I understand it, the Katha Upanishad tells us an ancient truth: that something within us continues after our physical bodies die. (Easwaran 78) This so-called “truth” is, of course, disputed by science. We have no analytical evidence of a continuation of some form of life after death, unless you consider the life our bodies give to bacteria and microorganisms as we decompose. Still, the “truth” of a eternal Self is considered established by many cultures and societies. A recent series of articles on the topic, including this National Geographic essay, offer insights into what happens after death. While these kinds of ancedotal experiences are interesting, the Katha Upanishad offers a relatively clear message as to what happens to our being. It is THIS Self that I am exploring as I wonder about my recent past and future.

The concept of a Self existing beyond the realm of death is fascinating in and of itself, but what really intrigues me and the things that drove me to reopen the Katha Upanishad and examine the concept of the Self is the whole idea of a Self. Is there, in fact, an eternal Self? What do I mean by a Self? Something that is akin to who I am right now in this existence? Or is Self something other than a collection of thoughts and emotions floating for lifetimes in an ocean of samsara? Am I “me” for eternity?

The Katha Upanishad reveals that the Self, as referenced here, is “immutable” and exists without the limits of the physical contact of the body. The text states, “The supreme self is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible…” (Easwaran 82) Even more fascinating here is that the Upanishad says that Brahma, Aditi, and Agni are “the self indeed” making the connection between Self and gods. That one connection, that one idea bridges the distance between what gets called the Self with what Buddhism refers to as true nature or Rigpa.

Here’s my thought; in Buddhism, I’ve read repeatedly how Buddhist philosophy denies the existence of an eternal “self” as mentioned in the Upanishads and elsewhere in the world. That our understanding of the self is not based on what really is eternal. What is eternal, in essence, is a true nature that is ONE with Buddha or buddha nature. This immutable Rigpa is the thing that continues from lifetime to lifetime. What hit me hard when I was rereading the Katha Upanishad was that the Self, an independent existing entity, is, in fact, not what the story is about. The Self is, in fact, comprised of these various god qualities. The Self, then, is not this unique, untethered being. The Self is the connection to gods or god. It is unity with the ultimate nature of the universe.

OK, yea, that stuff I said above has all been said before, but reading it, in this way, this time, opened my mind in such a way that it redefines my understanding of Self. Too, the Katha Upanishad offers that the way to understanding this Self is through meditation and those who “abandon unrighteous ways” and who “still the mind.” The connection to Buddhism and Buddhist thought and practice, then, becomes clear and self evident. Establishing a meditation practice and allowing for the non-dual understanding of everything becomes the key to unlocking the path to Nirvana, Enlightenment and etc. Again, yea, I knew that and after reading these passages, I know it.

In the next couple of posts, my plan is to dig a bit deeper into the Katha Upanishad and consider some of the other paths offered in the reading. If YOU haven’t read the Katha Upanishad and want to have a go at it, it is so worth it and helps to reveal some of those ideas that linger in our waking minds.

May you be happy, may you be well!