The Upanishads are ancient scriptures which form the final part of the Vedas. They number more than one hundred, contain both verse and prose texts, and vary in length. They were written in Sanskrit, from c.800-300 B.C.
The Vedas include collections of hymns, chants, and instructions for rituals, dating from c.1500-800 B.C. There are four Vedas: the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda.
Each of the Vedas consists of four parts: the Mantras (sacred formulas), Brahmanas (instructions for rituals), Aranyakas (‘forest texts’), and Upanishads (philosophical scriptures). The term “Veda” (meaning “knowledge”) usually refers mainly to the Mantras and Brahmanas.
The Rig Veda is the oldest Veda, and consists of hymns to the gods. The hymns are collected in ten books (or mandalas). The Sama Veda consists of songs and chants. The Yajur Veda includes instructions for rituals. The Atharva Veda includes magical spells and incantations.
The Upanishads are philosophical scriptures which are known as the Vedanta, meaning "the end of the Vedas.”
The Upanishads belonging to the Rig Veda include: the Aitareya, and the Kaushitaki. The Upanishads belonging to the Sama Veda include: the Chandogya, and the Kena. The Upanishads belonging to the Yajur Veda include: the Brihadaranyaka, the Isha, the Taittiriya, the Shvetashvatara, and the Katha. The Upanishads belonging to the Atharva Veda include: the Mundaka, the Mandukya, and the Prasna.1
The Katha Upanishad derives its name from the Sanskrit term katha, which means ‘narration,’ referring to a narrative tale, fable, or parable. The term Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘upa’ (near), ‘ni’ (down), and ‘sad’ (to sit), meaning ‘to sit down near to’ e.g. a teacher or guru to learn an important teaching.
The Katha Upanishad is written in verse, divided into two chapters, each of which has three sections. The text describes the spiritual journey of a young boy to discover the nature of ultimate reality.
In the Katha Upanishad, Vajashrava is the father of Nachiketas. Vajashrava has performed a ceremony in which his cows have been sacrificed, but Nachiketas says that a sacrificial offering must be truly difficult and demanding if it is to be a worthy gift to the gods. Vajashrava considers this observation by Nachiketas to be a reflection on the sincerity of Vajashrava's devotion to the gods, and he therefore decides to offer his young son to Yama, the God of Death.
When Nachiketas arrives at the Realm of Death, Yama is absent for three days and three nights. When Yama returns, the God of Death decides that, because he has been absent, and because this has been a breach of hospitality, he will make amends by offering to grant the boy three wishes.
Nachiketas’ first wish is to return to his father, and to be accepted and welcomed by him. Yama grants this wish.
Nachiketas’ second wish is to learn the secret of the sacred fire which leads to heaven. Yama also grants this wish.
Nachiketas’ third wish is to know whether or not the Spirit continues to exist after death. Yama tells him that there are two paths, a path of wisdom and a path of ignorance. The path of wisdom leads to the Self, to Atman. The path of ignorance leads to the pursuit of only worldly pleasures.
Yama says that the Self, Atman, is the inner being of all beings. Atman is the individual Self, Brahman is the universal Self.
Yama tells Nachiketas that the Self is indescribable and indefinable. The pure consciousness which is the Self is eternal and all-knowing. The Self dwells in the mind and the body, but does not begin with birth or end with death. The Self is beginningless and endless. The Self is changeless, and omnipresent.
The syllable Om is the symbol of the Self, of Brahman, of ultimate reality. Brahman is present in all being. It is the One in the many.
Knowledge of the world is not to be confused with knowledge of ultimate reality. Knowledge of the plurality of phenomena in the world is not to be confused with knowledge of the unity of Brahman.
Yama likens Atman to the Lord of a chariot. According to this metaphor, Atman rides in the back of the chariot, Awareness or Intellect (buddhi) is the driver of the chariot, the Mind is the reins which the driver holds, the Body is the chariot itself, the Senses are the horses of the chariot, and the World is the road along which the chariot is traveling. If Awareness grasps the Mind firmly, the Mind can guide the Senses along the road to the end of the journey.
Yama likens Brahman to a Tree of Eternity. The tree’s roots are in heaven, and its branches are reaching to the earth. The tree, and its roots and branches, represent Brahman as it is manifested in the world. Brahman is pure Spirit from which the universe has emerged. The World Tree is rooted in Brahman.
The path of yoga is the path to the Self, to Atman. This is the path that leads beyond life and death.
Atman is the eternal in the midst of the temporary, the invisible within the visible, the light concealed in all beings.
Through Yama’s teaching, Nachiketas is able to know the Self, and reaches immortality. The final verse concludes that this is possible for anyone who follows the path to the Self.
The Katha Upanishad is a work of mystical beauty and radiant imagination. It is an inspiring and meaningful document of faith that provides spiritual wisdom as well as psychological insight. It is a timeless story of a journey to the inner Self and to the meaning of spiritual reality.
1Kurt Friedrichs, The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, (Boston: Shambala, 1989), p. 392.
Katha Upanishad. Translated by Swami Ambikananda Saraswati. New York: Viking Studio, 2001.
The Upanishads. Translated by Juan Mascaró. London: Penguin Books, 1965.
The Principal Upanisads. Edited by S. Radhakrishnan. New York: Harper & Brown, (1953), pp. 593-648.
The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Kurt Friedrichs. Boston: Shambala, (1989), p. 392.
The Hindu World. Volume II. Benjamin Walker. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, (1968), pp. 530-5, 556-60.