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Who moves everything? Insights from the Kena Upanishad

In these series of articles we summarise select works including chapters of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads for the benefit of beginners on the path.


"Kena" is a Sanskrit word that means "by whom" or "by what." In the context of the Kena Upanishad, it refers to the opening questions of the text, which inquire about the ultimate source and director of the mind, senses, and life force. The Upanishad begins with questions like "By whom willed and directed does the mind light on its subjects?" These questions set the stage for the exploration of Brahman, the ultimate reality.


Part 1

The first part of the Kena Upanishad explores the fundamental questions about the nature of the mind, prana (life force), speech, and sensory perceptions. It seeks to understand the source and director of these faculties. The key points are:


Inquiry into the Source: The chapter begins with a series of questions asking what directs the mind, prana, speech, and sensory perceptions such as sight and hearing.


Brahman as the Ultimate Cause: It introduces the concept that there is a deeper intelligence or reality, Brahman, which is the cause behind these faculties. Brahman is described as the "ear of the ear," "mind of the mind," "tongue of the tongue," and so forth, indicating that it is the essential power enabling these functions.


Transcendence of Brahman: The text emphasizes that Brahman is beyond ordinary perception and comprehension. It is distinct from what can be seen, heard, or thought by the mind. It is something beyond both the known and the unknown, transcending conventional understanding.


Recognition of Brahman: The wise who realize the nature of Brahman attain immortality. Brahman is recognized not through direct sensory experience or mental activity, but as that which enables these experiences and activities.


Instruction on Brahman: The chapter concludes by stressing that Brahman is not what people typically worship as gods or deities. Instead, it is the underlying reality that makes all perception and thought possible.


The first part of the Kena Upanishad thus serves to guide seekers toward understanding Brahman as the ultimate, ineffable reality that underlies all existence and perception


Part 2

The second part of the Kena Upanishad delves deeper into the understanding and realization of Brahman.

Partial Knowledge: The text begins by challenging the notion of knowing Brahman fully. If one thinks they know Brahman well, they have only understood a small part of its vastness. True knowledge of Brahman extends beyond the forms seen in the Devas (gods).


Paradox of Knowing: It introduces a paradoxical statement: those who believe they know Brahman do not truly know it, while those who recognize that Brahman is beyond their full comprehension have a better understanding of it. This highlights the ineffable and transcendent nature of Brahman.


Witness of Consciousness: Brahman is best understood as the witness of all states of consciousness. Knowing Brahman in this way leads to immortality. It emphasizes that through self-realization and knowledge, one attains both strength and immortality.


Significance of Realization: Realizing Brahman in this life is crucial. If one does not understand Brahman here, they face a great loss. The wise, seeing the one Atman (soul) in all beings, turn away from the transient world and achieve immortality.


The second part emphasizes the elusive nature of Brahman and the importance of realizing it as the ultimate witness of all consciousness, leading to strength, immortality, and the profound understanding that unifies all existence.


Part 3

The third chapter of the Kena Upanishad narrates an allegorical story to illustrate the nature and power of Brahman.

Victory of the Devas: The Devas (gods) won a victory and attained glory. They mistakenly believed that the victory and glory were due to their own prowess. Brahman, perceiving their pride, appeared before them in an unknown form. The Devas did not recognize this Great power.

Agni's Attempt: The Devas sent Agni (the fire god) to find out who this Great Spirit was. Agni boasted of his power to burn everything on earth. However, when Brahman placed a straw before him, Agni could not burn it and returned humbled.


Vayu's Attempt: Next, the Devas sent Vayu (the wind god) to identify the Great Spirit. Vayu claimed he could blow away everything on earth. When Brahman placed a straw before him, Vayu could not move it and returned without an answer.


Indra's Encounter: Finally, the Devas sent Indra, the king of gods. As Indra approached, Brahman disappeared. In the same spot, Indra saw a beautiful woman, Uma, daughter of Himavat. Indra asked her about the Brahman.


The third part emphasizes the limitations of the gods' powers and their inability to comprehend Brahman through their own might. It underscores the need for humility and the recognition that Brahman is the ultimate source of all power and victory.


Part 4

The fourth chapter of the Kena Upanishad continues the exploration of Brahman and provides additional insights and teachings.

Uma's Revelation: Uma reveals to Indra that the mysterious Great Spirit is indeed Brahman. Through her words, Indra learns the true identity of Brahman.


Excellence of Agni, Vayu, and Indra: Agni (fire god), Vayu (wind god), and Indra (king of gods) are considered superior among the Devas because they came closest to understanding and encountering Brahman. Indra, in particular, excels because he was the first to know the Spirit as Brahman.


Illustrations of Brahman: The text uses illustrations to describe Brahman. It compares Brahman's manifestation to a flash of lightning or the quick blink of an eye, emphasizing its transient and elusive nature. Another illustration compares the speed of the mind's thoughts to the swiftness of realizing Brahman.


Worship of Brahman: Brahman should be worshipped as "Tadvana," meaning the object of all devotion. Those who understand and worship Brahman in this manner are loved by all living beings.


Teaching the Upanishad: The disciple asks the preceptor to teach the Upanishad. The preceptor responds that they have already taught the Upanishad about Brahman, highlighting that devotion, self-control, karma (actions), the Vedas, and truth form the foundation of this knowledge.


Attaining Brahman: The part concludes by stating that those who understand this teaching, rid themselves of sin, and live a life of truth, devotion, and self-control, will firmly reside in the endless, blissful, and highest Brahman.


The fourth chapter emphasizes the supreme nature of Brahman, the importance of understanding and worshipping it, and the virtues required to attain this ultimate knowledge and state of being.


The Kena Upanishad explores the nature of Brahman, the ultimate reality, and its relationship to the mind, senses, and deities. It emphasizes that Brahman is beyond ordinary perception and comprehension, and can only be realized through deep contemplation and humility. The text uses allegorical stories and illustrations to convey the elusive and transcendent nature of Brahman, highlighting the importance of devotion, self-control, and truth in attaining this profound knowledge.

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