Katha Upanishad

Katha Upanishad

The Katha Upanishad (Devanagari: कठ उपनिषद्) (Kaṭhopaniṣad, also Kāṭhaka), also titled "Death as Teacher", is one of the mukhya ("primary") Upanishads commented upon by Shankara. It is associated with the Cāraka-Kaṭha school of the Black Yajurveda, and is grouped with the Sutra period of Vedic Sanskrit. It is a middle Upanishad. It contains passages that suggest contact with Buddhist ideas, so was likely composed after the fifth century BCE.[1][2] It figures as number 3 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. It consists of two chapters (adhyāyas), each divided into three sections (vallis) that contain between 15 and 29 verses (ślokas) apiece. The Katha has some passages in common with the Gita. According to modern scholars, it propounds a dualistic philosophy.[3]

Katha may be the most widely known amongst all the Upanishads; its early Persian translations first found their way into Europe. Max Müller translated it 1879, Edwin Arnold rendered it in verse, as "The Secret of Death" and Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the central story at the end of his essay, Immortality. Central to the text is the story of Nachiketa, son of sage Vajasravasa, and his encounter with Yama, Hindu God of death [4]


The story

The Upanishad uses as its base the story of Vajashravasa वाजश्रवसः, which was first mentioned in the Rigveda (10. 135), and also in the Taittiriya Brahmana (3.1.8), and later the Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva 106).[5][6] vAja-shravasaH वाजश्रवसः means descendant of vAja-shravA वाजश्रवा. vAja-shravA was the name of a sage, as well as means 'one who is famous (-shravA) for his charity of giving grains (vAja-)', implying the great sage arUNa अरुण . uddAlaka उद्दालक was the son of aruNa, and he performs a sacrifice in which he was required to give away all his worldly possessions. His son Nachiketa नचिकेता saw that the cows given were all who had 'drank-their-last-water' (पीतोदकाः), 'eaten-their-last-grass' (जग्धतृणाः), 'milched-for-last' (दुग्धदोहाः), 'whose senses had been diminished' (by old age) (निरिन्द्रियाः). Such charity was not going to give his father any merits. Feeling disturbed by the inappropriateness of his father's observance of the sacrifice, Nachiketa asks to whom was he given (since he too was a possession of the Rishi and hence needed to be given away). The sage ignores him twice, but on third asking, the irritated sage said in anger, "Unto Yama, I give thee.", whereupon Naciketas goes to the abode of Yama, and, finding him absent, waits there for three days and nights. Yama on his return, offers to grant him three wishes. (1.1.9) Naciketas wishes the following:

  1. to be allowed to return to his father alive, and that his father not be angry with him (1.1.10);
  2. to be instructed as to the proper performance of Vedic fire-sacrifice in order to gain immortality (1.1.12–13);
  3. to be given knowledge about life after death (1.1.20).

Yama grants the first wish immediately (1.1.11). In answer to Naciketa's second question, Yama expounds the performance of a special fire-sacrifice, which he states is to be named after Naciketa (1.1.15–19).

"He who knows the three-fold Naciketa-fire and performs the Naciketa fire-sacrifice with three-fold knowledge, having cast off the fetters of death and being beyond grief, he rejoices in the realm of heaven." (1.1.19, trans. Paramananda)

Before answering the third question, Yama tests Nachiketa, offering him all sorts of worldly pleasures instead, but Naciketas insists (1.1.21–29). The remainder of the text (parts 1.2 to 2.3) contains Yama's teaching concerning true immortality.

Yama's teaching

Yama begins his teaching by distinguishing between preya, "what is pleasant", and shreya, "what is beneficial."[7] A similar distinction between the pleasant and the beneficial was made in ancient Greek philosophy by Plato.[8]

Yama's teaching also notably includes the parable of the chariot (1.3.3–4), not unlike (and roughly contemporary to) the one found in Parmenides, or the one in Plato's Phaedrus. Yama's parable consists of the following equations:

  • atman, the "Self" is the chariot's passenger
  • the body is the chariot itself
  • consciousness (buddhi) is the chariot driver
  • the mind (manas) is the reins
  • the five senses (indriya) are the chariot horses
  • the objects perceived by the senses are the chariot's path

The Katha Upanishad is also notable for first introducing the term yoga (lit. "yoking, harnessing") for spiritual exercise:

"When the five organs of perception become still, together with the mind, and the intellect ceases to be active: that is called the highest state. This firm holding back of the senses is what is known as Yoga." (2.3.10–11, trans. Paramananda)

Notable verses

श्रेयश्च प्रेयश्च मनुष्यमेतः
तौ सम्परीत्य विविनक्ति धीरः ।
श्रेयो हि धीरोऽभि प्रेयसो वृणीते
प्रेयो मन्दो योगक्षेमाद्वृणीते ॥ ॥ कठ उपनिषद् – 1.2.2 ॥


The preferable and the pleasurable approach man.
The intelligent one examines both and separates them.
Yea, the intelligent one prefers the preferable to the pleasurable,
(whereas) the ignorant one selects the pleasurable
for the sake of yoga (attainment of that which is not already possessed)
and kshema (the preservation of that which is already in possession). – Katha Upanishad – 1.2.2 [9]

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत
प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया
दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ कठ उपनिषद् – 1.3.14 ॥


Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones,
for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to go by, say the wise. Katha Upanishad – 1.3.14 [9]

In popular culture

A verse in the Upanishad inspired the title and the epigraph of W. Somerset Maugham's 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, later adapted, twice, into films of the same title (see articles on 1946 and 1984 films). The epigraph reads, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." taken from a verse in the Katha-Upanishad – 1.3.14. Maugham had visited India in 1938 and met Ramana Maharishi at his ashram in Tamil Nadu.[9][10]

See also


  1. ^ Richard King, Early Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism: the Mahāyāna context of the Gauḍapādīya-kārikā. SUNY Press, 1995, ISBN 9780791425138 (page 52).
  2. ^ A.L. Basham in Paul Williams, ed., Buddhism: Buddhist origins and the early history of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. Taylor & Francis, 2005, ISBN 9780415332279 (page 61).
  3. ^ Ariel Glucklich, The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press US, 2008, ISBN 9780195314052 (page 70): "The Upanishadic age was also characterized by a pluralism of worldviews. While some Upanishads have been deemed 'monistic', others, including the Katha Upanishad, are dualistic. Monism holds that reality is one – Brahman – and that all multiplicity (matter, individual souls) is ultimately reducible to that one reality. The Katha Upanishad, a relatively late text of the Black Yajurveda, is more complex. It teaches Brahman, like other Upanishads, but it also states that above the 'unmanifest' (Brahman) stands Purusha, or 'Person'. This claim originated in Samkhya (analysis) philosophy, which split all of reality into two coeternal principles: spirit (purusha) and primordial matrix (prakriti)."
  4. ^ Swami Paramananda, p. 27
  5. ^ Radhakrishnan, S. (1994). The Principal Upanishads. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India. ISBN 817223124-5 p. 593.
  6. ^ The Mahabharata, Book 13, Anusanana Parva sacred-texts.com.
  7. ^ p. 42, Easwaran (2009), Essence of the Upanishads (see article). Easwaran writes that "these alternatives have precise Sanskrit names that have no English equivalent: preya and shreya. Preya is what is pleasant; shreya, what is beneficial. Preya is that which pleases us, that which tickles the ego. Shreya, on the other hand, has no reference to pleasing or displeasing. It simply means what benefits us" (p. 42).
  8. ^ Radhakrishnan (1994/1953), The Principal Upanishads (see article), in discussing this verse, offers a quote from Plato's Phaedrus for comparison: "In every one of us there are two ruling and directing principles, whose guidance we follow wherever they may lead; the one being an innate device of pleasure, the other an acquired judgment which aspires after excellence. Now these two principles at one time maintain harmony, while at another they are at feud within us, and now one and now the other obtains mastery" (p. 608).
  9. ^ a b c Katha Upanishad, 1.3.14.
  10. ^ Razors Edge: The Katha Upanishad by Nancy Cantwell. Timequotidian.com, January 29, 2010.


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