Kena Upaniṣad

Translation by Dr. Radhakrishnan

Prepared by Veeraswamy Krishnaraj


The Upaniṣad derives its name from the first word Kena, by whom, and belongs to the Sāma Veda. It is also known as the Talavakāra, the name of the Brāhmaṇa of the Sāma Veda to which the Upaniṣad belongs. It has four sections, the first two in verse and the other two in prose The metrical portion deals with the Supreme Unqualified Brahman, the absolute principle underlying the world of phenomena and the prose part of the Upaniṣad deals with the Supreme as God, Īśvara. The knowledge of the Absolute, para vidyā, which secures immediate liberation (sadyo-mukti) is possible only for those who are able to withdraw their thoughts from worldly objects and concentrate on the ultimate fact of the universe. The knowledge of Īśvara, aparā vidyā, puts one on the pathway that leads to deliverance eventually (krama-mukti). The worshipping soul gradually acquires the higher wisdom which results m the consciousness of the identity with the Supreme.



I. May my limbs grow vigorous, my speech, breath, eye, ear as also my strength and all my senses

2. All is the Brahman of the Upaniṣads. May I never discard Brahman. May the Brahman never discard me. May there be no discarding. May there be no discarding of me.

3. Let those truths which are (set forth) in the Upaniṣads have in me dedicated to the self Aum, peace, peace, peace.


Section I




1.1. By whom willed and directed does the mind light on its objects? By whom commanded does life the first, move? At whose will do (people) utter this speech? And what god is it that prompts the eye and the ear?


The questions put in this verse by the pupil imply that the passing things of experience are not all and they depend on a permanent reality. The necessity of a ground for the existence of finite beings is assumed here. The questions assume that there is a relation between reality and these phenomena, that the real governs the phenomenal.




1.2. Because it is that which is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech, indeed of the speech, the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye, the wise, giving up (wrong notions of their self-sufficiency) and departing from this world, become immortal.


This verse contains the answers to the questions raised in the first verse.

ear of the ear: it means that the self directs the ear.

There is the Eternal Reality behind the mind, life and the senses, the mind of the mind, the life of the life. Brahman is not an object to subject to mind, speech and the senses. He who knows it will gain life eternal and not the partial satisfactions of the earthly life. Here in the world of space and time we are always seeking the Beyond which is above space and time. There, we possess the consciousness that is beyond space and time.


1.3. There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind; we know not, we understand not how one can teach this.


The Supreme is not dependent on mind, life and senses for its being.

'Knowledge of a thing arises through the senses or the mind and since Brahman is not reached by either of these, we do not know of what nature it is. We are therefore unable to understand how anyone can explain that Brahman to a disciple. Whatever is perceivable by the senses, that it is possible to indicate to others, by genus, quality, function or relationship, Jāti-gua-kriyā-viśeaaih. Brahman does not possess any of these differentiating characters. Hence the difficulty in explaining its nature to disciples. S


1.4. Other, indeed, is it than the known, and also it is above the unknown. Thus have we heard from the ancients who have explained it to us.


It is above the known and the unknown, but it is not unknowable.

Verse 6 says, tad eva brahma tvaṁ viddhi, 'that, verily, is Brahman, know thou,' implies that the Brahman is not beyond our apprehension. The writer suggests that this teaching has been transmuted by tradition. We cannot know it by logic brahma caitanyam ācāryopadeśa paramparayaivādhigantavyam, na tarkata S.


'Those who know do not speak; Those who speak do not know. 'Tao Te'Ching. 56 A. Waley's English translation The Way and the Power.


1.5. That which is not expressed through speech but that by which speech is expressed, that, verily, know thou, is Brahman, not what (people) here adore.

S argues that the author lays stress on the distinction between the Absolute Brahman who is one with the deepest self in us and Īśvara who is the object of worship.


Īśvara as the indwelling spirit and not as an object who is external to us is what the Real is. God must cease to be a conceived and apprehended God but become the inward power by which we lived. But this inward experience of God is felt only by the advanced spirits. The simple, unreflective child-mind seeks God who is above and not within. The prayer of Solomon, 'Hear thou in Heaven thy dwelling-place ' (I Kings, VIII.30)

not what people here adore: The pure Godhead which is beyond all conceptual determinations and differentiations, when viewed conceptually and concretely becomes, as Eckhart says, an 'idol,' 'Had I a God whom I could understand, I would no longer hold him for God.' (Rudolph Otto: Mysticism; East and West (1932), P.25.


Spirit cannot be objectified. The revelation of Spirit is in the depths of one's life and not in the objective world. However high our conception may be, so long as it is an objective attitude, it is a form of idolatry. When we are in bondage to the objective world, we look upon God as a great external force, a supernatural power who demands to be appeased. God is life and can be revealed only in spiritual life. The relation to the Supreme is an inward one revealing itself in the depths of spiritual life. Spirit is freedom, life, the opposite of necessity, passivity, death. This and the following verses affirm that Spirit must free itself from the yoke of necessity. The more completely we have in the divine the less do we reflect on him.


Cp. Eckhart: When the soul beholds God purely, it takes all its being and its life and whatever it is from the depth of God, yet it knows no knowing, no loving, or anything else whatsoever. It rests utterly and completely within the being of God, and knows nothing but only to be with God. So soon as it becomes conscious that it sees and loves and knows God, that is in itself a departure. (Rudolph Otto: Mysticism; East and West (1932), P.134.


1.6. That which is not thought by the mind but by which, they say, the mind is thought (thinks); that, verily, know thou, is Brahman and not what (people) here adore.


Brahman is the pure subject and should not be confused with any object, however exalted.


1.7. That which is not seen by the eye but by which the eyes are seen (see), that, verily, know thou, is Brahman and not what (people) here adore.

1.8. That which is not heard by the ear but by which the ears are heard (hear), that, verily, know thou, is Brahman and not what (people) here adore.

1.9. That which is not breathed by life, but by which life breathes, that, verily, know thou, is Brahman and not what (people) here adore.


Section 2





2.I. If you think that you have understood Brahman well, you know it but slightly, whether it refers to you (the individual self) or to the gods. So then is it to be investigated by you (the pupil) (even though) I think it is known.


dabhram, another reading is daharam. Both mean alpam or small. Whatever is human or divine is limited by adjuncts and is thus not different from smallness or finitude. The Brahman which is free from adjuncts is not an object of knowledge. The disciple is asked to ponder over this truth and he, through reasoning and intuitive experience, comes to a decision and approaches the teacher and says, 'I think that Brahman is now understood by me.'


2.2. I do not think that I know it well; nor do I think that I do not know it. He who among us knows it, knows it and he, too, does not know that he does not know.


'It is neither that I know him not, nor is it that I know him' is also an admissible rendering.


There is the knowledge that we obtain through philosophical processes but there is also another kind of knowledge The founder and model of Egyptian monachism, St. Antony, according to Cassian (Coll. IX. 31), delivered this judgment about prayer.' That prayer is not perfect in which the monk understands himself or his own prayer.' (See Encyclopedia. of Religions and Ethics, article on Roman Catholic.)


Cp Dionysius: 'There is that most divine knowledge of God which takes place through ignorance, in the union which is above intelligence, when the intellect quitting all things that are, and then leaving itself also, is united to the superlucent rays, being illuminated thence and therein by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.' Divine Names VII. 3. Louis of Blois observes: 'The soul, having entered the vast solitude of the Godhead, happily loses itself; and enlightened by the brightness of the most lucid darkness, becomes through knowledge as if without knowledge, and dwells in a sort of wise ignorance.' Spiritual Mirror, Ch. XI.



2.3. To whomsoever it is not known, to him it is known: to whomsoever it is known, he does not know. It is not understood by those who understand it; it is understood by those who do not understand it.


This verse brings out how we struggle with the difficulties of human expression, how we confess to ourselves the insufficiency of mental utterance.


The Supreme is not an object of ordinary knowledge but of intuitive realization. If we think that we know Brahman and we can describe Him as an object perceived in nature or as the cause inferred from nature, we do not, in reality, know Him. Those who feel that they do not and cannot know Him in this manner do have a knowledge of Him. Brahman cannot be comprehended as as an object knowledge. He can be realized as the subject in all knowledge. S says that the true knowIedge is intaitive experience, samyag-darśanam. The process of abstraction employed by employed by philosophers gives us an abstract idea, but the intuitive apprehension by which the soul is carried away above all intelligence into a direct union with God is different from intellectual abstraction and negation.

Vajracchedika Sūtra f.38.XXVI: 'Those who see me in any form or think of me in words, their way of thinking is false, they do not see me at all. The Beneficient ones are to be seen in the law, theirs is Lawbody; the Buddha is rightly to be understood as being of the nature of the Law, he cannot be understood by any means.'

Plotinus: 'in other words, they have seen god and they do not remember? Ah, no: it is tat they see God still and always, and that as long as they see, they cannot tell themselves they have had the vision, such reminiscence is for souls that have lost it.' Enneads IV 4 6 Nicolas of Cusa, De Vis. Dei, Ch XVI: 'What satisfies the intellect is not what it understands.'


Cp. Dionysius, the Areopagite: 'God is invisible from excess of light. He who perceives God is himself in darkness. God's all-pervading darkness is hidden from every light and veils all recognition. And if anyone who sees God recognizes and understands what he sees, then he himself hath not seen Him. '




2.4. When it is known through every state of cognition, it is rightly known, for (by such knowledge) one attains life eternal Through one's own self one gains power and through wisdom one gains immortality.


pratibodha-viditam: through every state of cognition. bodham bodham prati viditam. S. The self is the witness of all states. To know it as such is right knowledge. It is the absolute a priori, the certain foundation of all knowledge. If pratibodha-viditam is interpreted as leading to an inferential apprehension of the self, then self becomes a substance possessing the faculty of knowing and not knowledge itself. Knowledge appears and disappears. When knowledge appears, the self is inferred; when knowledge disappears, the self becomes a mere unintelligent substance. The self is subject to changes.


If pratibodha-viditam means knowledge of self by self, the object known is the conditioned Brahman and not the unconditioned Reality. 'Pure spirituality is bound only to interior recollection and mental converse with God. So although (one) may make use of (these interventions) this will be only for a time, his spirit will at once come to rest in God and he will forget all things of sense. (St John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk III, Ch. XXXI.)


'Of all forms and manners of knowledge the soul must strip and void itself so that there may be left in it no kind of impression of knowledge, nor trace of aught soever, but rather the soul must remain barren and bare, as if these forms had never passed through it, and in total oblivion and suspension.' (St John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk III, Ch.II.)


2.5. If here (a person) knows it, then there is truth, and if here he knows it not, there is great loss. Hence, seeing or (seeking) (the Real) in all beings, wise men become immortal on departing from this world.


vicintya = vijāya, sākṣātktya. Ś. V. vicitya.


The wise man sees the same Brahman in every creature.


Here = If here on earth, in this physical body, we arrive at our true existence, and are no longer bound down to the process, to the becoming, we are saved. If we do not find the truth, our loss is great, for we, then, are lost m the life of mind and body and do not rise above it to our supramental existence.


Section 3





3.I Brahman; it is said, conquered (once) for the gods, and the gods gloried in that conquest of Brahman. They thought ours, indeed, is this victory and ours, indeed, is this greatness.


The incomprehensible Supreme is higher than all gods, and is the source of victory for the gods and defeat, for the demons Brahman as the Supreme Īśvara vanquishes the enemies of the world and restores stability to it.

We see in this allegory the supplanting of the Vedic gods by the one Supreme Brahman.

See B.U. I.3. 1-7.


3.2. (Brahman) indeed knew this (conceit of theirs). He appeared before them. They did not know what spirit it was


yakam: spirit pūjyam mahad bhūtam iti. S.

The Supreme by His power appeared before the devas.


3.3 They said to Agni, 'O Jāta-vedas, find this out, what this spirit is.' 'Yes' (said he) '


Jāta-vedas is said to be omniscient sarvaja-kalpam: Ś. Jāta sarva vetti iti Jāta-vedāḥ. It is the name given to Agni in the R V.


3.4. He hastened towards it and it said to him, 'Who art thou?' (Agni) replied, 'I am Agni indeed, I am Jāta-vedas.'


3.5. He again asked, 'What power is there in thee?' Agni replied, 'I can burn everything whatever there is on earth.'


3.6. (He) placed (a blade of) grass before him saying, 'Burn this.' He went towards it with all speed but could not bum it. He returned thence and said 'I have not been able to find out what this spirit is.'


sarva-Javena = with all speed.


3.7. Then they said to Vāyu (Air), 'O Vāyu, find this out―What this spirit is ' 'Yes' (said he).


3.8. He hastened towards it, and it said to bun, 'Who art thou?' Vāyu replied, 'I am Vāyu indeed, I am Mātariśvan.'


3.9. (He asked Vāyu) 'What power is there in thee?' (Vāyu} replied, 'I can blow off everything whatever there is on earth.


3.10. He placed before him (a blade of) grass saying, 'Blow off.' Vāyu went towards it with all speed but could not blow it off. He returned thence and said, 'I have not been able to find out what this spirit is.'


3.11. Then they said to Indra, 'O Maghavan, find this out what this spirit is.' 'Yes' (said he). He hastened towards it (but) it disappeared from before him.


3.12. When in the same region of the sky, he (Indra) came across a lady, most beautiful, Uma, the daughter of Himavat, and said to her, 'What is this spirit?'


l Bahu-śobhamānām umām: most beautiful. Umā is wisdom personified.

Umā the name is said to be derived from u mā, do not practice austerities which is the exclamation addressed to Pārvatī by her mother.

l This legend that Umā, the daughter of the Himālayas revealed the mystic idealism of the Upaniṣads to the gods is an imaginative expression of the truth that the thought of the Upaniṣads was developed by the forest dwellers in the mountain fastnesses of the Himālayas. fastness = a secure or fortified place; stronghold, as in mountain fastness.)

l haimavatīm the daughter of Himavat. Holy men live there and pilgrims go there as for many centuries the striving of the human spirit has been directed towards these mountain ranges.

l Wisdom is the most beautiful of all beautiful things.

l Beauty is the expression of inward purity. Sins leave a scar on the soul or otherwise disfigure it. Umā is the 'wisdom that dispels Indra's ignorance. Mere knowledge untouched by divine grace will not do. In the lives of saints we find that the sight of an angel or the hearing of its voice floods the seer with a new power and imparts illumination.

In the Devī Saptaśatī it is said that the Mother of the universe will descend to earth or assume incarnations whenever disturbances are caused by beings of a demoniacal nature.

l Durga: sometimes worshipped as Kātyāyanī, is represented to be divine wisdom, brahma-vidyā. 0 Goddess, Thou

art Wisdom, the supreme goddess worshipped by the seekers of liberation, by the sages, in whom all passions have subsided, Durgāsaptaśatī.

l Cp. Peter Abailard: 'However long you exert yourself in dialectic, you will consume your labour in vain, unless grace from heaven makes your mind capable of so great a mystery. Daily practice, can, indeed, furnish any mind with knowledge of the other science, but philosophy is to be attributed to divine grace alone, and, if this grace does not prepare your mind inwardly, your philosophy merely flogs the air outside to no avail." G.Sikes: Peter Abailard (1932) PP.58-59.


Section 4



4.1. She replied, 'This is Brahman, to be sure, and in the victory of Brahman, indeed, do you glory thus: Then only did

he (Indra) know that it was Brahman.

The object of the story is to illustrate the superiority of Brahman to all the manifestations including the divine ones. Brahman here is Īśvara or personal God who governs the Universe.

Cp.: 'All things cry out to Thee, pass on, I am not God.'-Eckhart.


4.2. Therefore, these gods, Agni, Vāyu and Indra, surpass greatly other gods, for they, it was, that touched Brahman

closest, for they, indeed, for the first time knew (it was) Brahman.


4.3. Therefore, Indra surpasses greatly, as it were, other gods. He, indeed, has come into close contact with Brahman. He, indeed, for the first time knew that (it was) Brahman.

Of the three Agni, Vāyu and Indra, Indra obtained the knowledge that it was Brahman through the grace of Umā. Brahman is the .

supreme being through whose power alone the gods enjoy greatness. See Katha VI. 3.




4.4. Of this Brahman, there is this teaching: this is as it were, like the lightning which flashes forth or the winking of the eye.

This teaching is concerning the gods.


l 'like sudden lightning' = The illustration of lightning is used to indicate the instantaneous enlightenment pro duced by the union of the individual soul with the transcendental principle of universal wisdom. Like lightning Brahman showed Himself to the gods once and disappeared. There is a sudden enlarging of the mind, a flash of light enlightening the intellect, an inpouring of the spirit causing fervor and joy ineffable.

l The masters of spiritual life tell us that the hidden word comes to them all on a sudden for one brief moment, when all things are

hushed in a deep stillness.

l Cp. The Cloud of Unknowing: 'There will He sometimes peradventure send out a beam of ghostly light, piercing this cloud of

unknowing that is betwixt thee and Him; and shew thee some of his privity, the which man may not nor cannot speak.' Chapter

XXVI. Peradventure n. 1. chance, doubt, or uncertainty.2. surmise.

l Cp, Augustine quoted by Eckhart: 'In this first flash when thou art as if struck by lightning, when thou hearest inwardly the affirma

tion "Truth" there remain if thou canst.'-Rudolf Otto: Mysticism: East and West (I932), p. 34.

l The two illustrations of the flash of lightning and the twinkling of the eye suggest the sudden glimpse, sakṛd-vijānam, into Reality

which has to be transformed into permanent realization. Ultimate truth can only be taught by examples.


4.5. Now the teaching concerning the self. It is this toward which the mind appears to move; by the same (mind, one)

remembers constantly; volition also likewise.


The mental processes by which we remember, think and will presuppose Brahman. There is a general view that there is an

analogy between the divine spirit, the cosmic world and the individual soul. In several passages, as here, it is said, 'So with regard to the divine; now with regard to the soul.'


4.6. Brahman, the object of all desire, that, verily, is what is called the dearest of all. It is to be meditated upon as such (tadvanam). Whoever knows it thus, him, all beings seek.


tad-vanam = dearest of all.

Vāchanti = seek, yearn, Prārthayanti. S.


4.7. (The pupil) 'Sir, teach (me) the secret (Upaniṣad).' (The teacher): 'The secret has been taught to thee; we have taught thee the secret relating to Brahman.'


4.8. Austerities, self-control and work are its support, the Vedas are all its units, truth is its abode.


tapah = austerity. It is derived from the root tap to bum. It signifies warmth. The saints are represented as undergoing austerities for years to attain supernatural powers. The Supreme is said to have endured austerities in order to create.


Tapas is training in spiritual life. Negatively, it is cleansing our soul of all that is sinful and imperfect. positively, it is building up of all that is good and holy In the history of religion, the practice of bodily austerities has been looked upon as the chief means for attaining spiritual ends. The privations of food and drink, of sleep and clothing, of exposure to heat and cold are labors undertaken to wear down the body. In the story of asceticism, Hindu or Christian, excesses of bodily suffering play a large part such as the use of chainlets, spikes and pricks and scourgings.


4.9. Whoever knows this, he, indeed, overcoming sin, in the end, is firmly established in the Supreme world of heaven, yes, he is firmly established.


ante. in the end. v anante, infinite, which is taken to qualify svarga or heaven. In that case svarga is not paradise but infinite bliss from which there is no return to earthly embodiments.

End Kena Upaniad December 12, 2013