Kena Upanishad – Chapter 1 & 2

Why the Kena Upanishad?

The Kena upanishad asks a set of questions that resonates with “What is the truth?” and sets the context and clearly shows the character of “truth” and why it is difficult to understand it. It is important then to understand that before starting to delve deeper, hence Kena Upanishad.


(For those interested, I here is the word to word translation that leads to this translation)

Chapter 1

By what thought began the thoughts in this mind? How did the breath come forth to be in control? By what thought began this speech that we speak? What thought controls the the eye or the ears?

It is said by ear we hear, by mind we think, by speech we speak, by eyes we see and by breath there is spirit. Then, embracing what in this world thereafter imperishable exists steadily?

Images cannot capture it, words cannot express it, mind cannot grasp it nor can wisdom understand it. Then how or with what can it be studied?

It is some other therefore certainly unknown to get. Those who previously have sort it cannot explain or talk about it at the end.

With speech you cannot express it, but that, by which speech is expressed, know that to be the truth, not that which you have imagined.

That of which the mind cannot think, but that which is the mind, know that to be the truth and not that which you have imagined.

That which is not visible to the eye but that to which the eye is visible, know that to be the truth, not that which you have imagined.

Chapter 2

If with manas you imagine a form for truth, to you not even little will be known, if you reflect truly upon the guards of your thoughts then to you, your mind will be known

It cannot be known by your mind, either by having knowledge or by removing knowledge of it

It is not known by ending thought of it. It can be unknown to the intelligent and known to the ignorant

Only because the self recognises the existence of energy, the thought of knowing imperishable exists and perception of imperishable truth exists

After steadily isolating existing thoughts the numerous existing thoughts disappear, this, if known then, thereafter imperishable truth exists, else if this is not known will exist in this world

My thoughts

It is strange that before translating this upanishad, it had never occurred to me to question, what is the first thought that occurred to me because of which “I am what I am”? I am not even sure we need to look too much further into the beginning of the world. Even as foetus within the womb, when did the first thought occur and what is it? We have people with eidetic memory. Do they remember the first thought that occurred to them? Or, is the first thought that occurs, the one that makes a child cry when it comes out of the womb? Or do thoughts occur when it is still within the womb? A still more intriguing thought is “What will be my last thought after which I will cease to exist?”

So, it seems so valid, while we all have thought how did the universe start, theorise on big bang and all physical aspects of it, we have never ever thought to ask what happened because of which we are able to see, what happened because of which we are able to hear? What happened, that we are able to sense? What is truth and can I sense the truth in any manner at all using any of the senses that I have for my aid?


The first concept to delve deeper into here is the concept of “manas”. The standard translation of manas is mind. But what is the mind? Is it just brain or is it thoughts or is it the seat of thoughts? What is the difference? There are a number of types of thoughts. We find that there are logical thoughts which is purely solving a problem which is devoid of any human interaction, there are emotional thoughts that involve us getting angry, sad or happy when a thought occurs, there are expectation thoughts which gets us hyped, excited or rushed to do some action. These are those that we can recognise and the most common ones, there are those that are reflexes still thoughts that are a result of analysis which is done without conscious effort that comes naturally to us under certain conditions, for eg., scratching an itch, blinking the eye. The set of subtle thoughts that happen without us realising it. While it can be argued that all these are a result of some reaction / action in the brain, these involve the whole body and organs in the body to form the thought. Hence my take is that manas is really a combination of the reactions of three vital organs in the body.

Learning from this upanishad

While all the verses of this and all upanishads make us to stop and think, the last verse of chapter 2 of this upanishad seems to say how we can go the next level in our search for the truth. It is very strange that we do not stop to think about the very things that are important in life and are taken in by trying to achieve and be something in this world and impress others in this world that we are better than them, trying to get power in this world, trying to cheat in this world. Yet, what we achieve in this world after death does not come of use to us. Sure, it may or may not be of use to the people of this world, yet “what have I achieved for myself by living in this world?” Have I learnt? Sure, I have, but it is lost when I am dead. Have I lived in luxury? Sure, but it is lost and I have to start afresh once I am dead. So, when the perspective for all things I do is changed from the world around me to that which forms the me, anything that I do here in this world starts losing meaning.

The question then becomes, what, if I do in this world, will it retain and be able to take me to the next level in finding truth? This is exactly what is asked in the second verse of chapter 1. “embracing what in this world thereafter imperishable exists steadily?”

The underlying question is what is this “I” which gets retained even after death? Why? Let’s look at it in this manner, if the “I” got defined as this body, this mind and all those that make me in this world, then obviously that is going to be destroyed once I am gone from this world. So, what is it of me that is retained which can be transformed in this world so that inside or outside of this physical world that transformation stays? That is one of the many questions to which we need to find an answer to.

How can we find it? If what this Upanishad says is true, then that “I” has been masked because of the thoughts and emotions we have due to the various  senses that is sensed by that truth or the mind and heart clearly prevents us from seeing the truth. There is a very good verse that is a part of the Ashtavakra samhita which bring this out very well:

acintyam cintyamāno'pi cintārūpam bhajatyasau |
tyaktvā tadbhāvanam tasmāt evamevāham āsthitaḥ ||

Thinking of the unthinkable only forms a thought of the unthinkable. Hence give up that thought knowing it will not last.

This brings it out very correctly that if we started thinking about the truth, the only thing that we all end up doing is imagining a set of characteristics of the truth instead of knowing the truth. So, what does knowing really mean? Say someone talked to you about jasmine flower, what is the first thing that comes to the mind? It’s scent, it is a white flower, small flower. So, we find that the jasmine flower is known only via the senses which has helped the brain form an opinion of it which pops up when the word is mentioned. Now, the problem is that truth as such cannot be sensed. So, how can we know it with our brains?

Segregating thoughts

This being the case, that we always have thoughts formed for anything, how do we come out of thoughts to know the truth. This is what is brought out in the last verse of this Upanishad. By persistently segregating the thoughts that occur, we are able to prevent them from forming. How do we segregate the thoughts? There are so many ways to do this. What will be the best segregation that will take us further towards the goal. This is what had me thinking for a long time. For eg., thoughts can be segregated in the horizontal manner. We have thoughts that pertain to a third person, a second person and the first person that is us. Or we can segregate it based on characteristics, such as those that are due to the senses, those that are judgemental, those that are opinions, those that are formed due to a conclusion that we reach based on various factors. Yet I realised, none of these took me any further.

So, instead let’s see it for what it is. I find, segregation of thoughts themselves in any form is just classification of thoughts and this leads us nowhere. What we need to find is a segregation where the trigger for those thoughts are different factors. So, given that we are talking about finding the truth that is not sense-able to me, we need to find those thoughts that are triggered by that truth.

Thoughts triggered by outside world (Gross thoughts)

Now if we start segregating it in this manner, the first in this is thoughts that are triggered by the outside world. I see a vehicle on the road, I am driving beside it, the car suddenly comes into my path, I curse, thought driven by the external world. I can draw a circle and find that all of my thoughts are these. Now, what is the outside world should also be defined very carefully. For eg., I eat roadside food, I have a tummy ache, and I am cursing myself for eating that roadside food, is this an outside thought or an inside and I find it is outside. What is outside is then defined as anything that is in this physical world we see and sense around us. Thoughts that make this life around us.

Thoughts that do not manifest (Mental Thoughts)

Next comes the inside world. What is the inside world. Another of those intriguing questions. If we look at the physical matter we tend to term that which happens inside our body as the inside world. Yet, why would these just not be outside thoughts, because all that is inside the body is also outside world? But, let’s look at thoughts that occur to us because of sensing various physical parameters, yet these get stored into a memory and these memory trigger thoughts when we are not doing anything. For eg., worrying. We look at the factors that are happening around us, we analyse them based on our experience and form opinions and judgement calls. When these opinions and judgement calls do not portend good for us we start worrying thinking of various situations that have not yet happened. For all we know they may never come to be. So, these are those analytical thoughts in us that impel us do things. Just like the Karpura guavam sloka explained before, these are those thoughts that have not yet come to pass, thoughts that are in the process of becoming to be, the un-manifested thoughts. A world where just thoughts prevail and no crossing over from the thought to the outside real world. A huge number of our thoughts never happen in real life. We just a ensnared by them imagining a lot of things. This becomes then the second level of thoughts. These thoughts forms a world of their own, which when goes berserk makes us go insane yet when under control helps us innovate. When this mental world meets the physical world we have a society formed and a sustaining environment for life.

Thoughts with no trigger (Survival thoughts)

The third level is where things start changing. Now, what are those thoughts in me which have no trigger in the outside physical world or the inside mental world? How do I find those thoughts. Yet, they had to have been only then the self-existence would have come about. Hence there must be those thoughts in me that are pure survival instincts. Those that prevent me from being dead and urge me on to live. Those that are preventing me from going out of existence. These definitely not involuntary actions like reflex actions which are again physical. These are the underlying core of our being that prevents us from stopping to think and just dying. I have always wondered is it possible that we just give up each and every thought and we are dead. Those core thoughts that prevent me from dying is still present. Hence there must be the third type of thoughts which cannot be expressed in any form of words and has to be present and can only be inferred based on certain reactions we see in ourselves. For e.g.., people in coma, what are the instincts or thoughts that force them to go on and live? Or we have met time and again really aged people who have nothing to live for really, all strength of the body to do something is gone, wishes are gone, all achieved, yet they stick on to that one thought of living which keeps them going. The third level of thought.

So, if I can start segregating the various thoughts in this fashion, first, those thoughts that drive this world around me, make me aware of the world around me, make me act in this world around me, those that are mentally driven, those that are formed by analysis. Second, those that drive my inner being. if I am able to forget the world around me, the people around me and see inside me and see the thoughts that are formed and thoughts that fade away because of various factors such as either memory, the will power, the goal oriented ness any of these factors that drive my inner being. Third those thoughts that force me to live. Those that prevents me from seeing anything other than this outer and inner world. If I am able to regularly segregate the thoughts into this fashion and keep getting myself to always see those thoughts that prevent me from seeing anything other than this world, is it possible that I can look away and see something other than this world? This is what the last verse of chapter 2 seems to be saying.

Yet, another way of classifying the thoughts which I have realised could be a very good starting point is based on time. If we start looking at our thoughts we find they are driven by two things primarily. The first that which has already occurred and is stored as memory and those that are formed in the nature of what we think is going to happen or the fear of the future. Never do we see what is present and form a thought. Even if we did it is for what will happen in the future. So, if we keep segregating the thoughts as those that are of the past and those that are of the future, we will find all our thoughts only fall within these two categories. Hence the idea of living in the present. If we can see those thoughts which becomes none at all which are of the present, we will find we have found that state of mind which is thoughtless and formless and we can move forward to seeing the truth.

As is evident in the above rambling, the Kena Upanishad definitely poses some very good questions that if we can delve deeper possibly can give us some insights into the truth?


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