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The Katha Upanishad (Kaṭhopaniṣad, also Kāṭhaka), also entitled "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 propounds a dualistic philosophy. It figures as number 3 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. It consists of six parts (or two chapters with three sections each). It has some passages in common with the Gita.
The Upanishad uses as its base the story of Vajasravasa (alluded to in Rigveda 10. 135), a poor and pious Brahmin who performs a sacrifice and gives as reward to the priests a few old and feeble cows. His son, Naciketas, feeling disturbed by the inappropriateness of his father's observance of the sacrifice, proposes that he himself may be offered as payment. As he insisted, his father 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. (I.9) Naciketas wishes the following:
- to be allowed to return to his father alive (I.10);
- to be instructed as to the proper performance of Vedic fire-sacrifice in order to gain immortality (I.12-13);
- to be given knowledge about life after death (I.20).
Yama grants the first wish immediately (I.11). In answer to Naciketas' second question, Yama expounds the performnce of a special fire-sacrifice, which he states is to be named after Naciketas (I.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." (I.19, trans. Paramananda)
Yama tries to avoid answering the third question and offers all sorts of worldly pleasures instead, but Naciketas insists (I.21-29). The remainder of the text (parts II to VI) contains Yama's teaching concerning true immortality. It notably includes the parable of the chariot (III.3-4), not unlike (and roughly contemporary to) the one found in Parmenides. 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 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." (VI.10-11, trans. Paramananda)
- Ariel Glucklich, The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press US, 2008, 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 later 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)."
- Deutsch, Eliot & Rohit Dalvi (Editors) (2004). The Essential Vedānta: A New Source Book of Advaita Vedānta. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: World Wisdom, Inc. ISBN 0-941532-52-6