The Central Message of the Upanishads

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  • Topic: Upanishads, Yoga, Katha Upanishad
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UGED 1400/CURE 1123 World Religions
Essay: The Central Message of the Upanishad
Lee Gordon (SID: 1155003686)


“The king of Ayodhya is childless, but makes a sacrifice from which are born three sons, each to a different wife.”[1]

The above is an excerpt from one of Hinduism oldest epic stories called the Ramayana. It illustrates how the ancient Indian people fulfill or satisfy their desires by the practice of rituals. Yet, as many traditions went in the past, after a long time of development, the practice of rituals was formalized and people started to question its significance. People started to search for the way to transcend worldly matters and recover the real cosmological truth. New practices emerged in response to the trend. New discoveries and practices were passed from time to time, and eventually this led to the compilation of different thoughts following the Vedic traditions into the Upanishads. This marked the beginning of the Sharmanical movement in the India where knowledge(jñāna) replaced sacrifice as the means to the highest goal[2].

New goals, new practices, new sects and even new religions emerged during the Sharmanical period. In order not to confuse you, this essay will base only on Katha Upanishad, one of the best written and consistent Upanishads to see how a new path, namely jñāna mārga, was developed under this Upanishad.

First, let’s see the new interpretation of the cosmology in the Katha Upanishad (Katha).

The formation of the world
The Rig Veda (RV) suggested many different possibilities for how the world is formed.[3] The one suggested by the Katha Upanishad is probably developed from one of them. It is suggested that Viśvakarman (means the ‘All-maker’) established all things[4]. In RV 10. 120. I, 2, the Creation Hymn, ‘There was then neither being nor non-being…Without breath breathed by its own power That One.[5]’ These are seemingly closest to the cosmology of the Katha Upanishad. The Katha also suggested that there is a Supreme Being, corresponding to the Viśvakarman, manifested all things in the world. In Katha 5. 9, As fire though one, takes new forms in all things that burn, the Spirit, though one, takes new forms in all things that live[6]. In Katha 5. 12, There is one rule, the Spirit that is in all things, who transforms his own form into many[7]. The Spirit in both verses refers to the Supreme Being, which is seemingly the same as That One. The only difference here is that the Supreme Being in RV creates things, yet the one in Katha manifests in different form.

The reality of the world – Non-duality (Advaita)
Since the one manifests all things, there are no beings or even matters other than the Supreme Being. Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), Jal (Water), Prithvi (Earth) and Akasha (Space) are only manifestations of the Supreme Being, they do not exist as the basic elements that form the world. In this sense, polytheism suggested by the Vedas is objected in Katha. Nachiketas, the son of a Brahmin, asks Yama, the god of death what is beyond right and wrong, done and not done as well as past and future. Yama answered him that is the word Om[8]. This implies that Katha also denies dualism as right and wrong, done and not done or past and future are all relative in nature. Transcending them means going beyond the relativism or dualism suggested by them. Yama further says: That Word (Om) is the everlasting Brahman: that word is the highest end[9]. This means that the true nature of the world is monism for there is only one being called the Brahman exists in this world. In Katha 4. 11, there are not many but one[10]. This concludes that the world is non-dual, not-plural, but one.

Then, if the world is one, why do we see different objects and even a separate self? A great Indian philosopher, Adi Shankara suggested that there is a māyā (literally means illusion) that takes effect to...
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