Childish are those who, deluded by the charms and temptations of the world, fail to comprehend the higher truth. For them this world is the sum total of reality: beyond this, nothing exists. One who holds this false belief falls into my trap—the snare of death and rebirth—again and again.
—Katha Upanishad 1.2.6, translated by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
We see what we know how to see, and what we focus on shapes our understanding. Children focus on their own little worlds, where a lost toy is devastating and an ice cream cone pure ecstasy. A child’s immediate world is all he knows and all he cares to know. Within this little domain his attention centers on “me” and “mine.” It’s my turn. This truck is mine. He isn’t your daddy, he’s MY daddy.
As we grow up, we put away this childish preoccupation. Or do we? The adult world also turns on the axis of “me” and “mine.” Much of our time and attention goes into acquiring possessions and keeping them for ourselves. We go about chasing worldly objects and attributes as though our lives depend on obtaining them. But the more we strive, the more our happiness and sense of self-worth come to hinge on those possessions and attributes we have accumulated. Our toys become more elaborate and costly, but from Yamaraja’s point of view, rather than maturing, we just become overgrown children.
The more we strive, the more our happiness and sense of self-worth come to hinge on those possessions and attributes we have accumulated.
When we’re deeply entangled in alluring objects and experiences, the belief grows that ayam lokah—the realm of sense perception is the sum total of reality. This leads to a pernicious form of blindness, which traps us into believing na asti parah—nothing exists beyond the material realm. Once that conviction becomes firm, escape is impossible. Why bother to investigate something that doesn’t exist? The world, bound by the senses, becomes our only reality, and we recreate it over and over again, tying ourselves to an endless round of death and rebirth.
The Katha Upanishad offers the assurance that when we reflect on the transient nature of material wealth and worldly attainments and begin to wonder if there’s anything beyond the cycle of growth and decay, Yamaraja’s snare loosens. As we broaden our vision and employ self-reflection, contemplation, and meditation to look beyond the realm of “me” and “mine,” we’ll find we’re on the road to freedom.
The world, bound by the senses, becomes our only reality, and we recreate it over and over again, tying ourselves to an endless round of death and rebirth.
Setting the Stage
The Katha Upanishad is a dialogue between an accomplished master, Yamaraja, and his well-prepared student, Nachitketa. In recognition of Nachitketa’s stellar qualities, Yamaraja has granted him three boons and has fulfilled the first boon (the assurance that his father will recognize and welcome Nachitketa when he returns home) and the second (knowledge of the means by which heaven is attained). Yamaraja is now beginning to grant the third boon: unraveling the mystery of where the individual soul goes when liberation has been attained. Having explained that ignorant people, blinded by the delusion that they are wise and balanced, stagger around leading each other in endless, pointless circles, Yamaraja is explaining the cause of their blindness.