Kena Upanishad Part I

Kena Upanishad Verse 1

The student asks:

What makes my mind think?
What gives life to my body?
What makes me able to speak?
What is it that sees through my eyes
And hears through my ears?

Kensitam patati presitam manah
Kena pranah prathamah praiti yuktah
Kenesitam vacamimam vadanti
Caksuh srotram ka u devo yunakti.

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

Now the student asks the rishi the first question. He asks kena, “By whom or by what?” So, each question begins with kena, “by what?” That is why this Upanishad is called Kena  Upanishad.

The student says, “All right, you say everything is the Brahman. You say, all our faculties are also expressions of that Brahman or the real, so please tell me what is or who is the force that directs the mind towards it’s object, how is it that the mind reaches its object accurately and precisely for thinking? How does the mind proceed towards its object accurately and specifically? Who or what wills it, what directs it?”

This vital force, the prana, how does it also reach out and receive the vitality from the cosmos? How do the eyes reach their objects? The eyes do not reach the sound and the ears do not reach the form. The eyes see the form as the object and the ears hear the sound. This relationship between the organs and their respective objects is so precise, so accurate, who or what directs them, what guides them?

It is a very significant question. Does the aggregate of all faculties or each of the faculties separately have a separate intelligence by which they reach out towards their objects? Or is there an intelligence separate from the faculties that directs them?

The rishi has said, Sarvam Brahmam – all is Brahman. But the student sees the way he lives or she lives and the student has observed that the eyes are related to the form and the object and the colour. The ears are related and co-ordinated with various sounds, their tones, the undertones, overtones, vibrations. And there is this vital force moving in the body with the breath. It is the vital force that goes, receives the vital force, the prana from outside and gets it in. So the inhaling and exhaling that rhythmic movement is going on. How does it go on? He is asking the teacher, “What controls it?”

Whose is the motivation? Has every sense organ a separate motivation? Or is there some principle that has a basic motivation which spreads into the organs and directs them? So, he is asking the question, “How do the ears hear, how do the eyes see, how does the vital force move around and how does the mind think?”

That is the question asked. So the rishi, very gently tries to give the answer. The answer is an indication only. The answer is an indication for the purpose of stimulating recognition by the student. It is the rishi’s intention to stimulate, to awaken, to activate the enquiry and the creative energy in the student so that the student makes effort on his or her own and then the personal discovery becomes the content of his or her own consciousness. You see, when we only receive information and feed it into our memory that becomes shelved or unutilized knowledge. That does not become the discovery of truth.

Kena Upanishad Verse 2

The rishi replies:

It is that which is the ear of the ear.
It is that which is the eye of the eye.
It is that which is the mind of the mind.
It is that which is the sound of sound.
It is that which is the movement of movement.
Yet it is other than each of these.  

Srotrasya srotram manaso mano yad
Vaco ha vacam sa u pranasya pranah
Caksusas caksuratimucya dhirah
Pretyasmallokadamrta bhavanti.

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

He says, “Look, the ear that you see and you say hears is only an organ. The auditory energy is not contained in the organ itself.” The vital force of the prana is very subtle. The rishi is trying to help the student to discriminate between the dynamic organ as a vehicle of functioning and the essential energy which permeates the organ. If that energy does not flow through the organ, the eyes, the ears, the mind etc. then the organs by themselves will not be able to hear or see or think or move. He says that there is some subtle energy behind it.

So the rishi is discriminating between the organ equipped for its purpose and the energy that moves it. He is talking about a fundamental energy which is different from the organic, muscular, neurological and the chemical composition of the body.

We feel that we hear through the ears and see through the eyes. The eyes are seeing. The teacher says, “No, the eyes are caused to see and are helped to see because inside there is an energy that wills to see, that wants to see, that wants to hear, that wants to think.” So, all the limbs and all the sense organs, though they are equipped for functioning, they are not equipped with the motivation which is the principle of intelligence, the perceptive intelligence.

It is separate and these organs are separate. That is why when that energy departs from the body, the most beautiful eyes cannot see and the most sensitive ears cannot hear. The body lies there and you say it is dead. What does death mean? That fundamental intelligence, that essential energy is no more there. It is no longer permeating this whole magnificent organism that we call the human body.

So the rishi says, “Look, you must learn to discriminate. Watch how the organ functions and how the intelligence is separate from the functioning of the organ.” The intelligence is something of a different order. It is contained in the physical and yet it is different. So, the human body has been made sensitive enough to contain that cosmic intelligence, that universal intelligence and yet it is really in a way only a container.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, the rishi Uddalaka asks his son to bring a tiny seed from the banyan tree. He says, “Did you see the banyan tree?”
And the student says, “Yes, it’s a huge tree. This seed contains that tree.”
The rishi says, “Bring me the seed.”
And the student brings the seed and the teacher says, “How very stupid! Do you mean to say this is the seed of that gigantic tree? This seed contains that tree?”
And the student says, “Of course sir, this is the seed. When planted it sprouts and it grows into that tree.”
Asks the rishi, “Do you mean to say that the whole tree is contained in this?”
“Yes,” says the student.
So the rishi says, “My son, it is in the same way that the universal intelligence contains the power to express itself as this magnificent cosmos.”

The seed of the gigantic banyan tree need not be a big one. It is a tiny thing. In the same way, in the human body the source of all energy, motivation and intelligence need not be seen as a faculty or as an organ. It is not a sensory organ. Mind is an organ. As the brain can be conditioned, the mind can be conditioned by patterns of behaviour. The brain can be conditioned by languages and by academic sciences, theoretical sciences, philosophy, sociology, economics, physics, biology, chemistry and so on. So the rishi says, “Please learn to discriminate.” The will, the directive force, the intelligence is a different energy than the energy of these faculties.”

And the student says, “Oh well, that’s very interesting. If it is so, I thought if it is contained in the speech, the mind, the prana, the ears etc. it will be easy for me to deal with these organs and discover that. But you say it is different. It is contained and yet it is different.”

The student says, “Now tell me then, how do I reach that source? I can train the body. I can even educate my speech. I can discipline my eyes, my ears, my audition, but how do I reach that source if it is separate from the organs? How do I discover it? How do I reach it? How do I perceive that?”

Kena Upanishad Verse 3

The rishi continues:

The eyes can’t see it.
The words can’t touch it.
The mind can’t grasp it.
Your senses cannot reach it.
It is beyond expression,
And there is no method by which it can be reached.

Na tatra caksur gacchati na vag gacchati no manah
Na vidmo na vijanimo yathaitadanusisyat.

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

And so the rishis says, “My son, no words can reach it. It is the source of speech but speech cannot reach there, just as you cannot climb on your own shoulders. You have your feet and you have your shoulders but you cannot climb on your shoulders. In the same way speech cannot reach there. My son, don’t think that you will be able to reach there with the help of speech, with the help of words, with the help of thinking or all that knowledge contained in books.”

The student then says, “All right, if the speech cannot reach there, I will think it out with my mind. I will conceive it. I will imagine it. I will experience it using my mind.”

So, then the rishi says, “My son, that won’t help you. The mind also cannot reach there. Why? Because the mind cannot think without thoughts or words. Whether it is an emotion, whether it is a thought, an idea, a wish, every mental movement requires the help of a word. The very movement of thinking involves the movement of words. So, if the speech, the verbalization does not reach there, naturally the mind also cannot reach there. Words can’t reach there.”

Why can’t the words reach there? Let me also go into it a little bit. What is a word or a thought? It is manipulated sound energy. Can there be a word without sound? There is sound contained in you, contained in us, contained in animals, contained in trees, contained in. water. It is given to the human beings to engineer and make use of that sound energy. All those who coined words and organized languages were great and marvellous engineers. So they manipulated and engineered the modulations with the sound energy.

Sound is the primal principle out of which all of creation comes. You can make curd out of milk but once you make the curd, the curd cannot create milk. Curd cannot be converted back into milk. You may take butter out of the curds but then you cannot put the butter back and convert it back into curds. It is the source. The milk is the source of curds. Curds are the source of butter. Once they are produced, they have their own identity. So, the word as verbalization has its own identity. It has its own beauty. It is like a sign post. It gives you some meaning. It conveys but the word cannot be converted back into sound. So words cannot reach the sound principle.

How is sound born? Sound is born of silence. Sound is an extension or derivation of silence. It is born of silence. So, it is not the word, it is not the sound but if one puts oneself voluntarily into the state of silence, maybe, that primal energy, maybe that primal intelligence which is dormant, permeating everything gets activated and then even your limbs feel the touch of it. Every sense organ feels the presence of it. They can feel the presence but they cannot discover, they cannot go back to the source.

All your strength and energy cannot reach there and capture it. It is not something that can be captured in the forms of sensation. Our sense organs, our limbs which are equipped with sensitivity reach out towards the object and bring back a sensation. A sense organ is meant to bring back the sensation. As soon as the sensation reaches this organism, this organism coverts the sensation into an electric impulse. That impulse reaches the brain and then the interpretation takes place. Now, what we are talking about is not a sensation. Silence is not a sensation. So, neither the word can reach there nor the mind whose movement requires words, can reach there. Nor can your senses reach there.

That is why it is only between inhaling and exhaling, when you retain the breath either inside or outside, either  in antar-kumbhaka or the bahir-kumbhak, either you retain the breath outside or inside, it is in that interval that the dimension of silence can be felt. So the person who goes on extending the duration of that kumbhaka whether antar-kumbhaka or bahir-kumbhaka, is able to feel the presence of that energy.

This silence is to be found essentially in the interval between two thoughts. Similarly it is in interval between two breaths. It is this interval, this betweenness which contains the perfume of eternity in it. It is that interval which has the perfume of the source of life and beingness contained in it.

So the rishi says that the eyes cannot see it. The eyes can see an object which is entirely separate from itself. There is a separation, there is a division. So the eyes become the subject and perceive an object. But the subject-object relationship between the real and ourselves is not possible. That division is impossible because that, or the real as Brahman is our nature. That is our essence, the real, the Chaitanya, the Atman, the Iswara, the Paramatman whatever you wish to call it. The divinity as Brahman is our nature. It is our existential essence.

And therefore, the person who has realized or recognized – dheerah – is the person who has understood or cognized that the subject – object relationship created by the eyes, the ears, the mind, the prana, is irrelevant here. What we are talking about is the fact of the illusion and the impossibility of actual division. The dheerah is the person who has recognized this. He is the person who has understood this and who has deeply cognized this with the essence of his being. He is called a dheerah.  

Dheera means literally one who has tremendous patience. We are impatient. We like the tension of the division between subject and object. We like the movement of reaching out and running after and then capturing sensation. Then one can say, “I have done it. I have achieved. I have seen. I have experienced.”

So, this non-divided existence that comes about in the moments of silence is just not very interesting for people. It is not even noticed. It is ignored. They like the tension of division. And that tension gives them a feeling of being alive. The sensation of doing something gives them a feeling that they are alive, that they are doing something and something is happening to them. But for something to happen there needs to be division. There needs to be the  separation of subject and object and the rishi wants to bring that out to the student.

So the rishi explains that the dheerah is one who has recognized the truth that the divided, the separated dualistic life is related only to the sense organs and the body, but the essence inside is never divided or separated from the wholeness. It is in the wholeness though. It is also at the same time an expression of the wholeness.

Take a look at a tree. Is not a tree a part of the earth? It contains the earth within it, otherwise the trunk of the tree would not have solidity. It contains water in it, otherwise there would be no colours. It contains sunshine in it, it contains fire, water, air, and earth and yet it is a tree. It is an expression of the wholeness of life. It is if you like, condensed wholeness. It is a condensed cosmic expression of wholeness.

In the same way, those who have recognized this have tremendous patience. Because of the understanding of truth they are not fascinated, are not influenced by the outgoing movement of all the faculties and organs and the experiences that they promise to bring in. They feel contented, they feel satisfied to remain with the source of that energy.

In the second chapter of the Gita, it is explained that one who is contented, satisfied in one’s own being, is not impatient for becoming and is not impatient for doing. He does things without craving for doing them. He goes through the process of becoming which is inevitable for social life but that is not the aspiration of life. Becoming is an inevitability through which the person goes. However he remains completely satisfied with the beingness and remains with the essence of his being.

In the same way here in the Upanishads, the rishi says, “My son, the way to reach that nectar of eternity and timelessness requires patience. It is awakened by the realization that the sense organs and the experiences they bring in ultimately have a different source of energy which animates everything. This is the life-force. The body and the faculties of sense do not move by themselves. Those who recognize this have patience. They get to that nectar of eternity through this understanding.”

So now we come to the last line of this verse. The student had asked the question, “How do we reach that fundamental source of energy which animates the faculties and the senses?” The rishi says, na vidmo, na vijanimo atha etat anusisyat, “There is no methodology by which it can be reached.” So, after having said that the ears, the eyes, the mind and the speech cannot reach it, the rishi has the humility to say, “Look, there’s no method. I don’t know how to teach it.”

Why does the rishi say that? You can teach something where the movement of some kind is involved. Where for example there is physical movement or there is some mental movement. The movement of words, ideas, concepts and theories, these are also kinds of movement. But if the mind cannot reach there, it means no conception, no idea, no thought can help and the perception through the eyes, the perception through the ears and the description based on that perception also is irrelevant. Therefore, that which is not an object of sensual experience, that which is not an object of verbal utterance, that which is not an object of mental experience, how can a teacher explain it to a student? So he says, “I don’t know how to teach it.”

That is a very interesting communication. It is an admission by the rishi that truth cannot be taught. So, here the rishi says that those types of movements, the rites, the rituals, the sacrifices, the mantras, the tantras, the concentrations and whatever, all that does not yield the discovery of the truth. He is saying that those things may yield powers, may generate experiences, may give you beautiful lovely sensations and even ecstasies but that is not it.  That is not the freedom, the emancipation or the union with the truth or the Real. So, here the rishi is acknowledging that he cannot teach it because there is no method.

He says that the eyes cannot reach it or perceive it. The speech cannot express it. The mind cannot conceive it or experience it and hence we do not know what it is. ‘It’ refers to the ultimate truth – the nature of oneself, the nature of the real. So we are not aware of any way of teaching it to you. If the truth about oneself or life can be an object of perception, then one may instruct the student to purify or clarify the means of perception and perceive it. But it is not an object that can be reached through the eyes or the sight contained in the eyes. If it were an object of verbalization, if the truth could be captured in the structure of words, then there could be instruction by way of transmission of knowledge. The books and the scriptures could enlighten you about it. But words cannot reach it. If it were something experienceable – that which could be captured in the framework of thought, in the framework of an experience, then we would have shown you the ways of experiencing it. Through sharpening your senses, through sensitising your sense organs we could have instructed you. But that truth, that essence of life, that essence of your own being is neither perceptible nor conceivable. It is neither experienceable nor knowable.

The ancient rishis of India were full of humility. So, instead of saying that the truth is not a knowable object, the rishi says, “I do not know.” So the student grasps the truth that the real is not a knowable object. It is not an experienceable something. So, no technique, no formula, no method, can reveal it.

Kena Upanishad Verse 4

The real is neither the known
Nor the unknown.
This is what we have heard
From the illumined.

Anyadeva tat viditadatho aviditadadhi
iti susruma purvesam ye nastad vyacacaksire.

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

These teachings of the Upanishads are not teachings of theories or dogmas. They are a transmission of truth through the activity of dialogue. They are giving an opportunity to that unknowable, non-experiencable, inexpressible truth to unfold itself to reveal itself, in the interaction between the questions and the response, the student and the rishi. So, anticipating the question of the student, the rishi says, iti susruma purvebhyam this is what we have heard from our teachers from those who explained to us the mysteries of life, those who helped us to understand the secret of life, those who revealed the secret to us, from them this is what we have heard. And what have we heard?

We have heard that truth, the ultimate reality, the essence of our being is different from all the known and the knowledge.

Vidita in Sanskrit has a double meaning. It means the known and therefore knowledge. It refers to all the knowledge in the world. Whatever has been known and described, defined, explained and put into words. Our teachers had helped us to understand that knowledge cannot reveal the truth. It can give an indication about it just as a sketch of a horse shows the likeness of the form, but it is not the horse.

Suppose you have seen my sketch of the horse; that does not enable you to feel the life in the horse and how to relate to the horse – its movement, its trotting, its galloping and its dancing. You have to be directly in contact with it, to experience it. Then a kind of harmony between you and the horse can come about. I am just giving an example. In the same way the word god or a sacred image does not introduce us to the reality of the divine. The word ‘God’ is not the divinity.

The rishi says that the essence, that truth, is entirely independent of, not only separate from, not only different from, but it is independent of all knowledge. It is independent of the known. So may we call it the unknown then? No says the rishi, it is different and independent also of the unknown, because what we call unknown is nothing but unmanifested ignorance. When we talk about knowledge it is manifested. When we refer to the unknown, it only means that our ignorance about something is unmanifested. So, the teacher is saying that the truth is independent of and different from the known, which is the knowledge put into words and also it is independent of the unknown. If you aspire to widening the horizons of your knowledge, your academic and theoretical knowledge, you will still not reach there because it is unknowable and immeasurable. It cannot be captured in any descriptions or words, however sacred the people might consider them to be.

The Indians consider the Vedas to be sacred. The Christians consider the Bible to be sacred. The Muslims consider the Quran to be sacred. The Buddhists consider their scriptures to be sacred. Even to question the validity of them is looked upon as a blasphemy.

So, here the rishi says, anyadeva viditad anyadeva aviditad, it is absolutely different from and independent of the known and the unknown. It is unknowable.

Now, if the student has the flame of enquiry within him or her, if the quest for the truth is genuine and not half-hearted, what happens? Firstly the desire to reach the truth through an activity of knowing will come to an end. Please understand, the rishi is not saying that the truth does not exist. The existence of the real is not questioned. The rishi only says that it is unknowable and unnameable.

If the enquiry is genuine, if the quest is authentic then the desire to discover the truth through the movement of knowing, through the movement of thinking, through the movement of experiencing, that desire ends there and then. It subsides completely because if it is unknowable and unnameable, what is the use of struggling with the brain with new words and new ideas, new dogmas and new rules of living and new methods and new techniques and so on?

So, generally, when we begin our enquiry, when we begin our spiritual journey, we are under the illusion that if we read the scriptures and the sayings of the so-called liberated ones, we will “get it”. We believe that if we find out techniques and formulas, then through those techniques and developing the powers of our sense organs we might reach there.

But here in the Kena Upanishad, in the dialogue, the rishi knocks this on the head. He doesn’t say, “stop it” or “don’t do it” but through his way of dialogue, he is pointing something out.

That ongoing desire to acquire, to obtain, to attain, to achieve the truth or the real or freedom through sensual experiences, through cerebral knowing, through chemical experiencing, he is helping them to see that none of this works. And if this is understood then these mistaken desires will eventually subside. It’s the beauty of the Upanishads that they never say do this or don’t do that. There are no musts or must nots in these texts.