Katha upanishhad verse I.2.23

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Thu Mar 27 16:50:26 CST 1997

On Thu, 27 Mar 1997, Gummuluru Murthy wrote:

> I am presently going through Katha upanishhhad and the verse I.2.23
> fascinates me.
> The verse says:
> naayam aatmaa pravacanena labhyo na medhayaa, na bahunaa shrutena
> yamevaishha vR^Nute, tena labhyas tasyiashha aatmaa vivR^Nute tanu svaam
> S. Radhakrishnan's translation (The principal upanishhads) is the
> following:
> This Self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power,
> nor even through much hearing.  It is to be attained only by the one whom
> the Self chooses. To such a person, the Self reveals its own nature.
> This verse is fascinating to me because it says (as I understand it):
> However much we seek realization, we will not attain it. However much we
> read the vedas does not make a difference. It is up to Atman to reveal
> itself to the individual it chooses.
> So, it is fallacious to hope that our studying scriptures would lead us
> to realizing Atman. However, the converse may be the case. Our studying
> scriptures and keeping satsangh may be a symptom of Atman choosing to
> reveal itself. I read somewhere (cannot quote the source) that it is only
> through Atman's (God's) grace that we happen to fall into advaitic
> thinking.
> I trust my thinking above is not wrong.

Yes, there has to be daiva-anugraha, but then, so long as one seeks
realization as some object to be achieved, outside of oneself, one will
not reach it. When the Atman reveals itself to the individual, there are
no two beings there. There is only the Atman, the real essence of the
individual. The individual as individual is no more.

As for scriptures, the point of the upanishad is that the Atman is not an
object that can be imparted through instruction or through reasoning. But
that is not an excuse to say that the scriptures need not be studied, or
that one's reasoning should not be exercised.

The crucial portion of the verse is not brought out well by the
translation. It is, "tasyaishha aatmaa viv.rNute tanu svaam". The
word "tasya" is extremely important here. Instead of "to such a person,
the Self reveals its own nature," I would translate this as "The Atman
reveals its nature as his own self."

> On the other hand,
> Radhakrishnan gives Shri Shankara's interpretation also in one sentence:
> " 'Him alone whom he chooses by that same self is his own self
> obtainable.' The self reveals its true character to one that seeks it
> exclusively."
> I read it as the following: It means that if someone seeks it exclusively,
> the Self reveals its true character. It means, revealing of the Self
> depends on the individual's effort and exclusivity of seeking. That is,
> the onus is shifted to the seeker.

In the ultimate analysis, the seeker is himself the Atman. If you read
Sankara carefully, you will note that he emphatically maintains that
revealing the Self is not dependent on any effort whatsoever. The
exclusivity of seeking refers to the one-pointed concentration that is
necessary. There are many things in the world that will distract one's
attention. Unless we disregard all distractions, and embark on the road
to self-enquiry, we will never truly know the Atman. In the context of the
Katha upanishad, Naciketa's thirst for knowledge is a model example. In
the absence of such a thirst for knowledge and single-minded
determination, Naciketa would never have asked his father the crucial
question, and he would have never had the opportunity to meet and learn
from Yama. (For background, in the Katha upanishad, Naciketa's father is
giving away his old and diseased cattle during a sacrifice. Naciketa
observes this, and asks him, "to whom will you give me away?" When he
repeats his question, the exasperated father replies, "I give you to
death." Immediately, Naciketa goes to the world of Yama, the God of Death,
but he finds that he had to wait for three days for Yama to arrive. When
Yama arrives, he grants Naciketa three boons, but Naciketa does not
care for them. He only wants to know the secret of the Self. The rest of
the upanishad is a narrative of Yama's teaching to Naciketa.)

Rather than shifting the onus on the seeker, Sankara's words are an
assurance that the Atman will be known to the self that chooses to know
itself. There is an apparent contradiction between the translation of the
upanishad and Sankaracharya's commentary, but only so long as the self and
the Atman are considered to be two different beings. The minute you
consider that the self that searches is really the same Self that is
found, the logical contradiction vanishes.


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