Kena Upanishad Part III
Kena Upanishad Verse 1
The deities defeated the asuras in battle.
And though Brahman was behind their success
They boasted loudly of their achievement.
Brahma ha devebhyo vijigye, tasya ha brahmano
vijaye deva amahiyanta
Ta aiksantasmakamevayam vijayo
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Before we look at the verses in this section it’s necessary to appreciate the approach of the Vedas and Upanishads to life. The fundamental point to understand is that between the cosmos as the macrocosm and the individual as the microcosm there is an interaction of energies. We are fields of energy. The deities refer to the different energies of the cosmos. If the energies contained in the microcosm and the macrocosm are utilized properly that is to say that they are used to manifest harmony then the result is what you call the good or the forces of good. There is no abstract good or goodness apart from the proper use of the energies at our disposal in our body and at our disposal in the cosmos surrounding us. When the energies are misused not for manifesting the inherent harmony, reciprocity or mutuality, when they are distorted, misused or abused, that wrong use generates what is called evil or unnatural forces. The Upanishads do not recognize an independent existence of evil forces. They do not recognize any dichotomy between the good and the evil. It is only the distortion of energies, the maladjustment and ignorance concerning the proper use of energies that generates unnatural forces.
Turning now to the verse, the literal meaning is that the Brahman as the ultimate reality, won a victory on behalf of the deities against the evil or negative forces mobilized in the cosmos. The word cosmos is used. We are involved in it. We are part of it. Brahman won the victory on behalf of the deities. The deities became elated when they saw the victory. But it was the Brahman who had earned the victory for them. However the deities felt that they had won, and that the victory was their own glory. They forgot that the Brahman had earned the success on their behalf for them. Well, Brahman being omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent taddhaisam vijajnau, instantaneously realized that the deities out of self-conceit had attributed the victory to themselves. They had forgotten the presence of the Brahman within them. They had forgotten the source of their energies and power.
Kena Upanishad Verse 2
Seeing their pride
Brahman decided to make an appearance
But they didn’t recognize him.
Taddhaisam vijajnau tebhyo ha pradurbabhuva
Tanna vyajanata kimdam yaksamiti.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Seeing their foolish pride, the Brahman felt it necessary to manifest its presence. In a mysterious way it manifested its presence to the deities. na vyajanata kimidam yaksamiti – but the deities could not recognize the real. They were so much engrossed in the sense of elation. They were so much entangled in the self-conceit attributing the victory to their own powers, they could not identify Brahman as the mysterious ground of existence. They had never properly considered what the source of their energies was. The energies that were contained in those deities or the principles were not actually owned by them. The source of the energies contained in them was invisible and intangible. And so they managed to forget it.
Kena Upanishad Verse 3
So they asked Agni,
“What is this mysterious presence?”
And Agni replied,
“Leave it to me. I’ll find out.”
Te gnimabruvan jataveda etad vijanihi kimetad
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
So when the mysterious source which was Brahman made its presence felt to them, they could not identify or recognize what it was. Now who should they ask? So they turned to the principle or deity of fire – Agni. They said to Agni, “Please, will you find out on our behalf what is this mysterious presence which we are feeling now? We had never seen it, we had never heard of it, never thought of it and suddenly there is something which we cannot identify, recognize or understand. Will you please find out?”
Now, you might ask why did they ask Agni to find out? Let me explain to you the theory of cosmogenesis as contained in the Vedas. According to the Vedas, from the divinity, from the eternity, from the source of life there emerged space or akash. The most comprehensive, extensive, all permeating principle is space or the emptiness, which is called akash. From the emptiness of space arose the principle of sound which is nada. According to the ancient cosmogenesis, the primal principle behind creation is sound which contains fire. Sound contains fire. Fire contains water. Water contains earth.
So fire emerges from the space or the akash. Fire can reach everywhere. Agni has perceptive capacity, consuming capacity and the property of assimilation. So that’s why the deities turned to that all powerful nearly omniscient deity Agni and said, “You, who seem to know everything, you who have the energy of knowing as your characteristic, will you please find out on our behalf what this mysterious being is?” And Agni replied, “Yes alright, I will find out.”
Kena Upanishad Verse 4
So Agni approached the mysterious presence
and the mysterious presence asked,
“Who are you?”
Replied Agni, “I am Agni. Everybody knows me.”
Said the mysterious presence,
“You say you’re Agni but I’ve never heard of you.
What power do you have?”
Tadabhyadravat, tamabhyavadat ko’asiti, agnirva
ahamasmityabravit Jataveda va aham asmiti.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
So Agni went near that mysterious presence. It is only Agni that can go there because the water and the earth they come afterwards, they have more solidity. Fire has the mobility which is not obstructed by space.
It is the principle of fire which has perception and the capacity to assimilate and to articulate. Speech as articulation is possible when there is the principle of fire or Agni or heat in your body. Perception through the eyes is possible only as long as there is the principle of Agni in the body. So Agni went up to that mysterious being and that mysterious being said to the deity of fire, “Who are you?”
So Agni was taken aback that the mysterious being did not even recognize him or know who he was. So with his chest puffed out with pride Agni the deity of fire said, “I am Agni, don’t you know who I am? I am all-pervading and all-permeating, I have heat, energy and power. I have light and you say you don’t know me? What is not surprising is that we don’t know who you are, but you should definitely have heard of me.”
Agni was affronted that he was not recognized so he said, “I am the all-knowing, all-perceiving and all-reaching principle.”
“Oh really!” said the mysterious being, “Tell me what powers do you have?” You are so self-assured and self-important but what powers do you have?”
Kena Upanishad Verse 5
“I can consume anything.”
Tasminstvayi kim Viryamityapidam sarvam
daheyam yadidam prthivyamiti.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Sarvam daheyam yadidam prithiyamiti, “Whatever there is on this planet, I can burn it. I can perceive it. I can consume it. I can assimilate it,” says Agni. So Agni in a very self-assured way went on describing his own powers.
Kena Upanishad Verse 6
The mysterious presence
Placed a blade of grass in front of Agni
And said, “Consume this!”
Agni tried but the grass would not ignite.
Crestfallen, Agni returned to the deities and said,
“I don’t know what the mysterious presence is.”
Tasmai trnam nidadhavetad daheti, tadupapreyaya
sarvajavena tanna sasaka dagdhum, sa tata eva nivavrte,
naitadasakam vijnatum yadetad yaksamiti.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Tasmai trnam nidadhavetad daheti. So then the mysterious being in a very gentle way put a blade of grass in front of Agni and said, “Will you please burn this? Will you convert it to ashes?”
Tadupapreyaya sarvajavena tanna sasaka dagdhum. The deity of fire Agni, went with all force towards the blade of grass but unfortunately he could not burn the blade of grass.
Na sasaka dagdhum.That blade of grass would not ignite. He could not burn it. He could not reduce it to ashes.
Tata eva nivavrte. Hurt very much by the humiliation that he could not even burn and reduce a blade of grass to ashes, he retired. He went back to the other deities crestfallen.
Aham na sasaka. He goes back to the others and tells the sad humiliating story and says, “I am sorry I could not recognize what that Yaksa or mysterious being is. I don’t know what that presence is.”
In the second part of the Kena Upanishad the rishi had taken the students as far as he could go towards Brahman. So here the rishi is expressing the same thing, the mystery, the invincibility and the inscrutability of the Brahman in terms of a story. He is communicating the same thing in a figurative way.
In our daily life we rely upon our perceptions using the sight-energy contained in the eyes. We even are prone to believe that only that which can be perceived by us through the eyes, the ears, the nose and the mind exists. And if our senses cannot give the evidence of the existence of something, we in our self-conceit are inclined to say that it doesn’t exist at all.
We can smell because we have the element of prithvi or earth in us. We can hear because there is the inner space or akasha in us. Thinking, that is conceiving, imagining, ideating, all these are functionalities of the mind that exist due to the presence of Brahman or the supreme energy of intelligence. Intellect is only the reflection of intelligence. So we forget that our hearing, knowing, thinking, speaking etc. are due to the principles of energy contained in us.
These energies are functioning in our body but we cannot own them. We are not the owners. We are not the directors and we are not the creators of these energies. We are users of these energies and whatever happens due to the exercise of the energy is not our doing. These energies are not our possession. They are the interaction between the energies inside and outside and therefore they are the magnificence of life itself. They are not our possessions. They are the magnificence of life manifested through us. But we think and act as if they are our possessions and magnificence and we feel that whatever cannot be seen does not exist. We think that whatever cannot be heard does not exist. We believe that whatever cannot be reached through the word and its articulation does not exist.
So the rishi is trying to bring across the fundamental truth to his students that you and your deities (energies) within you and outside of you, are not the source of the life that is expressed through them. The light, the life, the energy, the power and the intelligence is really contained in the Brahman. It is the Brahman that is the unique source of all existence.
Though the real or Brahman is beyond the reach of your sense organs and your sense energies or your energies of the brain and consciousness, it does exist and you function because of its existence. You are the conditioned expressions of the unconditioned reality.
What about the energies existing in the cosmos? In the last couple of centuries or so, the human race has been very busy exploring the energies contained in the cosmos and has tried to capture them and utilize them. There is nothing wrong if they are used in a harmonious way for the benefit of the species inhabiting the planet. But mankind has become conceited so that we have been attributing those powers to ourselves.
Life is an organic wholeness according to the Upanishads. It is non-fragmentable and non-divisible. It is an organic wholeness in which the human race can co-operate with the cosmic forces to express that music of harmony whilst retaining our own identity.
So the Kena Upanishad says, let us have the humility to realize that the energies contained in us are limited and conditioned by our humanness. It is a beautiful conditioning, the humanness with all its complexity and its beauty is the vehicle for the divine to express itself. It is so eloquent with energies. Other species have energies but the power to be eloquent, to have speech, to form languages, to have music and arts or fine arts are exclusively human abilities. That has been conferred upon the human race.
So the human being is an eloquent vehicle, eloquent in all senses of the term, magnificently suited for unfolding the contents of divinity. We have yet to learn to be human beings. We have yet to learn to relate even amongst ourselves in a humane way. We have yet to learn to relate to the energies contained in us without distorting them through either suppression or repression. We have to learn first to be properly human.
We have to learn quite a lot and living is learning. So the wholeness of life is not limited to what is perceived by us through any of the senses or the aggregate of the senses. It is not limited to the words that have been spoken before us and that are being spoken today. The wholeness cannot be equated to the scriptures, even the Vedas and Upanishads or whatever else you may hold sacred, the Dhammapada, the Bible, the Quran and so on. Even if you put all the scriptures together, what they describe or define cannot do justice to that which is defined or described. So let us realize the independence of the existence of truth or reality.
It is independent of our sense perception. It is independent of our articulation. It is vibrating and pulsating in every expression. But it is not only the deity Agni that failed in identifying and understanding the Brahman as the mysterious being or presence that we feel amongst ourselves.
You may well say, ‘I’, referring to the ego as the doer and experiencer and yet there is some presence behind the ‘I’ which allows us to feel, to function, to think, to speak, and to act.
So that presence may be felt by us in the moments of love or in the moments of silence or peace. Also sometimes in the moment when we are visited by some terrible tragedy or sorrow we might become aware of it. But we forget that and we become self-conceited. We say I have done this. I have acquired. I know. I experience. The teaching of the Kena Upanishad is aimed at helping us to see that the fun of life, the joy of life, the beauty of life is in letting the experience of living flow through us without attributing ultimate knowership or ownership to ourselves.
So let the actions flow through the essence of your being like water through a riverbed. Let the actions flow through all the sense organs through the brain and through the conditioned consciousness without creating a thinker and experiencer and without attributing the experiencing to ourselves. If we can be rooted in awareness, then the mysterious being as the presence of the mysterious Brahman being the divinity in us will be felt by us. It may not be cognized at the cerebral level. It may not be experienced on the emotional level. Yet the whole of our being may become charged with that presence. This is the message of the Kena Upanishad.