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Introduction

 

The Upanishads are a collection of teachings passed down from teacher to the student in a series.  They are all written in Classical Sanskrit and hence were written down only after the development of Classical Sanskrit, which is, dated as the second half of the Christian era.  These are definitely post Vedic, post Buddhist and post Jainism and are called Vedanta or the end of the Vedas.   They form the core of Vedanta and Samkhya philosophies.  Since they are carried from teacher to Student they are considered as revealed truths (Sruti heard truths) concerning the nature of ultimate reality (Brahman) and describing the character and form of human salvation (moksha). The Upanishads are  later than the  Brahmanas  and  Aranyakas.  The Brahmanas are glosses on the mythology, philosophy and rituals of the Vedas. "Aranyaka" (āraṇyaka)  ("belonging to the wilderness" (araṇya)) contain Brahmanic style discussion of priestly rituals associated with the Vedic rituals. Though it is claimed that Upanishads  have been orally transmitted from generations to generations even before the Christian Era there is no way we can ascertain their origin.  It is certain that they were written down as we have to day only after the second century AD.  Earliest documented Sanskrit occurs only by 150 AD. The classical period of Sanskrit literature dates to the Gupta period and the successive pre-Islamic Middle kingdoms of India, spanning roughly the 3rd to 8th centuries CE.  

 "The oldest of these, the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, were  assigned the period during the pre-Buddhist era of India, while the Taittiriya, Aitareya and Kausitaki, which show Buddhist influence, must have been composed after the development of Buddhism The remainder of the mukhya Upanishads are by common consensus dated to the first two centuries of the Common Era. The new Upanishads were composed in the medieval and early modern period: discoveries of newer Upanishads were being reported as late as 1926. One, the Muktikā Upanishad, predates 1656 and contains a list of 108 canonical Upanishads, including itself as the last. However, several texts under the title of "Upanishads" originated right up to the first half of the 20th century, some of which did not deal with subjects of Vedic philosophy. The newer Upanishads are known to be imitations of the mukhya Upanishads...

 

The Upanishads have been attributed to several authors: Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka Aruni feature prominently in the early Upanishads.  Other important writers include Shwetaketu, Shandilya, Aitreya, Pippalada and Sanat Kumara. Important women authors include Yajnavalkya's wife Maitreyi, and Gargi. Dara Shikoh, son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, translated 50 Upanishads into Persian in 1657. The first written English translation came in 1804 from Max MŁller, who was aware of 170 Upanishads. Sadhale's catalog from 1985, the Upaniṣad-vākya-mahā-kośa, lists 223 Upanishads. The Upanishads are mostly the concluding part of the Brahmanas, and the transition from the latter to the former is identified as the Aranyakas."

(as quoted from https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Upanishad.html)

 

More than 200 Upanishads are known, of which the first dozen or so are the oldest and most important and are referred to as the principal or main (mukhya) Upanishads.  New Upanishads continues to be written at least to the 20th century. Like Brahmanas, and Aranyakas, the Upanishads, Puranas and Sutras were associated with some Veda arbitrarily for claiming authority.

The Katha Upanishad  (Kaṭhopaniṣad, also Kāṭhaka), also titled "Death as Teacher",  is one of the mukhya  ("primary") Upanishads commented upon by Shankara and Madhva. 

"The Upanishads were translated from Sanskrit into Persian by, or, it may be, for D‚r‚ Shukoh,(1615-1659 AD) the eldest son of Sh‚h Jeh‚n."

 

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"The Upanishads were translated from Sanskrit into Persian by, or, it may be, for D‚r‚ Shukoh,(1615-1659 AD) the eldest son of Sh‚h Jeh‚n, an enlightened prince, who openly professed the liberal religious tenets of the great Emperor Akbar, and even wrote a book intended to reconcile the religious doctrines of Hindus and Mohammedans. He seems first to have heard of the Upanishads during his stay in Kashmir in 1640. He afterwards invited several Pandits from Benares to Delhi, who were to assist him in the work of translation. The translation was finished in 1657. Three years after the accomplishment of this work, in 1659, the prince was put to death by his brother Aurangzib , in reality, no doubt, because he was the eldest son and legitimate successor of Sh‚h Jeh‚n, but under the pretext that he was an infidel, and dangerous to the established religion of the empire...." (Max Muller)

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A page from Majma-ul-Bahrain (a book on comparative religion by Muhammad Dara Sikoh ("The Confluence of the Two Seas")) in the manuscripts collection at the Portrait Gallery of Victoria memorial, Calcutta.

 

Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shahejahan, was born of his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal, of the Taj Mahal fame. He was born in Ajmer and it is said that he was born with the  blessings of Khwaja Muinuddin Hassan Chishti Ajmeri, on 19 Safar 1024 A.H. - 20th day of March, 1615 A.D. His grandfather Emperor Jehangir named him Dara Shukoh - King of Glory.

When Shahjahan fell seriously ill in 1675 A.D. he passed orders that Dara Shukoh succeeded him as Emperor of Delhi and desired that all officials of the State obeyed him. Dara Shukoh was Tassawwuf (which means the path of the Sufis - the woollen-clothed ones; the mystic Gnostic group of Islam), and  maintained association with Hindu yogis and sanyasis. On this pretext Aurangzeb accused him as a heretic and unsuitable for the Islamic Throne.   in a fierce battle at Samugarh, at a distance of eight miles from Delhi, on the 29th day of May, 1658 A.D. Dara Shukoh was defeated in the ensuing was of Samugarth eight miles away from Delhi and Aurangzeb, his younger brother was declared the Emperor of  Mughal empire of India.

Dara Shukoh fled to the Punjab, on way to Iran, to seek succor from Shah Abbas II but was betrayed by Afghan Bulooch Sardar Malik Jiwan, whose life Dara had saved once at Bolan Pass. Dara Shukoh, along with his son Sipar Shukoh and two daughters, was handed over to commander Bahadur Khan who conveyed them to Delhi on the 23rd day of August, 1659 A.D.

At Delhi he was presented before the Sharia Court and was executed for apostasy on the 30th day of August, 1659 A.D. He was buried in the compound of Humayun's maqbara - in an unknown tomb.

Dara Shikoh is widely renowned as an enlightened paragon of the harmonious coexistence of heterodox traditions on the Indian subcontinent. He was an erudite champion of mystical religious speculation and a poetic diviner of syncretic cultural interaction among people of all faiths. This made him a heretic in the eyes of his orthodox brother and a suspect eccentric in the view of many of the worldly power brokers swarming around the Mughal throne. Dara was a follower of the Persian "perennialist" mystic Sarmad Kashani, as well as Lahore's famous Qadiri Sufi saint Hazrat Mian Mir, whom he was introduced to by Mullah Shah Badakhshi (Mian Mir's spiritual disciple and successor) and who was so widely respected among all communities that he was invited to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Sikhs.

Dara subsequently developed a friendship with the seventh Sikh Guru, Guru Har Rai. Dara devoted much effort towards finding a common mystical language between Islam and Hinduism. Towards this goal he completed the translation of 50 Upanishads from its original Sanskrit into Persian in 1657 so Muslim scholars could read it. His translation is often called Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Mystery), where he states boldly, in the Introduction, his speculative hypothesis that the work referred to in the Qur'an as the "Kitab al-maknun" or the hidden book, is none other than the Upanishads. His most famous work, Majma-ul-Bahrain ("The Confluence of the Two Seas"), was also devoted to a revelation of the mystical and pluralistic affinities between Sufic and Vedantic speculation.

The library established by Dara Shikoh still exists on the grounds of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Kashmiri Gate, Delhi, and is now run as a museum by Archeological Survey of India after being renovated. Under Akbar's reign (1556-1586) similar translations had been prepared "

Dara Shukoh wrote many books, most of these are in Persian:  

In 'Majmaa-ul-Bahreen', ' (Mingling of Two Oceans) Dara compares the teachings of the Upanishads in the context of Sufic understanding of God. In Sirr-e-Akbar -  The secret of secrets - Dara speaks of the    depth of understanding of the Upanishads. In its foreword Dara Shikoh writes that, "I had collected a large number of Hindu pundits and sanyasis from Benaras, the center of the Hindu lore and wisdom, with whose help I completed this work within six months in Delhi", i.e. by the 28th of June, 1675 A.D. He was 42 years of age then.

Anquietil Duperron, a French scholar translated the Persian texts into French, and later into Latin, in  1801-1802 A.D.

Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708 A.D.), Tenth Guru of the Sikh faith, builder of the Khalsa  Singhs (1699 A.D.) is believed to have ordered the translation of the Persian book  Sirr-e-Akhar into Punjabi

(Gurmukhi).

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Later Raja Ram Mohun Roy   translated the Upanishads into Bengali, Hindi, and English. He rejected the Puranas and all its mythological stories.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) is known as the 'Maker of Modern India'. He was the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, one of the first Indian socio-religious reform movements. He played a major role in abolishing the role of Sati. Raja Rammohan Roy was a great scholar and an independent thinker. Founded Atmiya Sabha and Brahma Samaj.  The Brahmo Samaj, established in 1828, aimed to reform Hinduism by banishing the caste system, idolatry, and other features of Indian life. The Samaj including Roy, Devendranath Tagore (1817Ė1905), and Keshub Chunder Sen (1838Ė1884) ó were theists who stressed the worship of one God, omniscient and omnipotent. All truth is from God, and the prophets of all religions were to be respected. It has since appeared in various languages; and English, German and French .

Max MŁller (1823 -1900) translated it 1879.

Prof. Muller's introduction to his translation gives much insight into the development of the Upanishad.  Hence I am giving it here:

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The Katha Upanishad

Translated by F. Max MŁller

Translator's Introduction

THE KATHA-UPANISHAD is probably more widely known than any other Upanishad. It formed part of the Persian translation, was rendered into English by R‚mmohun Roy, and has since been frequently quoted by English, French, and German writers as one of the most perfect specimens of the mystic philosophy and poetry of the ancient Hindus.

It was in the year 1845 that I first copied at Berlin the text of this Upanishad, the commentary of Sankara (MS. 127 Chambers1. MS. 133 is a mere copy of MS. 127.), and the gloss of Gop‚layogin (MS. 224 Chambers). Dr. Roer in the Bibliotheca Indica, with translation and notes, has since edited the text and commentary of Sankara and the gloss of ¬nandagiri. There are other translations, more or less perfect, by R‚mmohun Roy, Windischmann, Poley, Weber, Muir, Regnaud, Gough, and others. But there still remained many difficult and obscure portions, and I hope that in some at least of the passages where I differ from my predecessors, not excepting Sankara, I may have succeeded in rendering the original meaning of the author more intelligible than it has hitherto been.

The text of the Katha-upanishad is in some MSS. ascribed to the Yagur-veda. In the Chambers MS. of the commentary also it is said to belong to that Veda [2 Yagurvede KathavallÓbh‚shyam.] and in the Muktikopanisbad it stands first among the Upanishads of the Black Yagur-veda. According to Colebrooke (Miscellaneous Essays, 1, 96, note) it is referred to the S‚ma-veda also. Generally, however, it is counted as one of the ¬tharvana Upanishads.

The reason why it is ascribed to the Yagur-veda, is probably because the legend of Nakiketas occurs in the Br‚hmana of the TaittirÓya Yagur-veda. Here we read (III, 1, 8):

V‚gasravasa, wishing for rewards, sacrificed all his wealth. He had a son, called Nakiketas. While he was still a boy, faith entered into him at the time when the cows that were to be given (by his father) as presents to the priests, were brought in. He said: 'Father, to whom wilt thou give me?' He said so a second and third time. The father turned round and said to him: 'To Death, I give thee.'

Then a voice said to the young Gautama, as he stood up: 'He (thy father) said, Go away to the house of Death, I give thee to Death.' Go therefore to Death when he is not at home, and dwell in his house for three nights without eating. If he should ask thee, 'Boy, how many nights hast thou been here?' say, 'Three.' When he asks thee, 'What didst thou eat the first night?' say, 'Thy offspring.' 'What didst thou eat the second night?' say, 'Thy cattle.' 'What didst thou eat the third night?' say, 'Thy good works.'

He went to Death, while he was away from home, and lie dwelt in his house for three nights without eating. When Death returned, he asked: 'Boy, how many nights hast thou been here?' He answered: I Three.' 'What didst thou eat the first night?' 'Thy offspring.', 'What didst thou eat the second night?' 'Thy cattle.' 'What didst thou eat the third night?' 'Thy good works.'

Then he said: 'My respect to thee, O venerable sir! Choose a boon.'

'May I return living to my father,' he said.

'Choose a second boon.'

'Tell me how my good works may never perish.'

Then he explained to him this N‚kiketa fire (sacrifice), and hence his good works do not perish.

'Choose a third boon.'

'Tell me the conquest of death again.'

Then he explained to him this (chief) N‚kiketa fire (sacrifice), and hence he conquered death again [The commentator explains punar-mrityu as the death that follows after the present inevitable death.]

This story, which in the Br‚hmana is told in order to explain the name of a certain sacrificial ceremony called N‚kiketa, was used as a peg on which to hang the doctrines of the Upanishad. In its original form it may have constituted one Adhy‚ya only, and the very fact of its division into two Adhy‚yas may show that the compilers of the Upanishad were still aware of its gradual origin. We have no means, however, of determining its original form, nor should we even be justified in maintaining that the first Adhy‚ya ever existed by itself, and that the second was added at a much later time. Whatever its component elements may have been before it was an Upanishad, when it was an Upanishad it consisted of six VallÓs, neither more nor less.

The name of vallÓ, lit. creeper, as a subdivision of a Vedic work, is important. It occurs again in the TaittirÓya Upanishads. Professor Weber thinks that vallÓ, creeper, in the sense of chapter, is based on a modern metaphor, and was primarily intended for a creeper, attached to the sikh‚s or branches of the Veda [History of Indian Literature, p. 93, note; p. 157.]. More likely, however, it was used in the same sense as parvan, a joint, a shoot, and a branch, i.e. a division.

Various attempts have been made to distinguish the more modern from the more ancient portions of our Upanishad [Though it would be unfair to hold Professor Weber responsible for his remarks on this and other questions connected with the Upanishads published many years ago (Indische Studien, 1853, p. 197), and though I have hardly ever thought it necessary to criticize them, some of his remarks are not without their value even now]. No doubt there are peculiarities of meter, grammar, language, and thought, which indicate the more primitive, or the more modern character of certain verses. There are repetitions, which offend us, and there are several passages, which are clearly taken over from other Upanishads, where they seem to have had their original place. Thirty-five years ago, when I first worked at this Upanishad, I saw no difficulty in re-establishing what I thought the original text of the Upanishad must have been. I now feel that we know so little of the time and the circumstances when these half-prose and half-metrical Upanishads were first put together, that I should hesitate before expunging even the most modern-sounding lines from the original context of these Ved‚ntic essays [See Regnaud, Le Pessimisme Brahmanique, Annales du Musťe Guimet, 1880; tom. i, p. 101.]

The mention of Dh‚tri, creator, for instance (Kath. Up. II, 20), is certainly startling, and seems to have given rise to a very early conjectural emendation. But dh‚tri and vidh‚tri occur in the hymns of the Rig-veda (X, 82, 2), and in the Upanishads (Maitr. Up. VI, 8); and Dh‚tri, as almost a personal deity, is invoked with Prag‚pati in Rig-veda X, 184, I. Deva, in the sense of God (Kath. Up. II, 12), is equally strange, but occurs in other Upanishads also (Maitr. Up. VI, 23; Svet‚sv. Up. I, 3). Much might be said about setu, bridge (Kath. Up. III, 2; Mund. Up. II, 2, 5), ‚darsa, mirror (Kath. Up.VI, 5), as being characteristic of a later age. But setu is not a bridge, in our sense of the word, but rather a wall, a bank, a barrier, and occurs frequently in other Upanishads (Maitr. Up. VII. 7; Kh‚nd. Up. VIII, 4; Brih. Up. IV, 4, 22, &c.), while ‚darsas, or mirrors, are mentioned in the Brihad‚ranyaka and the Srauta-sŻtras. Till we know something more about the date of the first and the last composition or compilation of the Upanishads, how are we to tell what subjects and what ideas the first author or the last collector was familiar with? To attempt the impossible may seem courageous, but it is hardly scholarlike.

With regard to faulty or irregular readings, we can never know whether they are due to the original composers, the compilers, the repeaters, or lastly the writers of the Upanishads. It is easy to say that adresya (Mund. Up. I, 1, 6) ought to be adrisya; but who would venture to correct that form? Whenever that verse is quoted, it is quoted with adresya, not adrisya. The commentators themselves tell us sometimes that certain forms are either Vedic or due to carelessness (pram‚dap‚tha); but that very fact shows that such a form, for instance, as samÓy‚ta (Kh‚nd. Up. I, 12, 3) rests on an old authority.

No doubt, if we have the original text of an author, and can prove that his text was corrupted by later compilers or copyists or printers, we have a right to remove those later alterations, whether they be improvements or corruptions. But where, as in our case, we can never hope to gain access to original documents, and where we can only hope, by pointing out what is clearly more modem than the rest or, it may be, faulty, to gain an approximate conception of what the original composer may have had in his mind, before handing his composition over to the safe keeping of oral tradition, it is almost a duty to discourage, as much as lies in our power, the work of reconstructing an old text by so-called conjectural emendations or critical omissions.

I have little doubt, for instance, that the three verses 16-18 in the first VallÓ of the Katha-upanishad are later additions, but I should not therefore venture to remove them. Death had granted three boons to Nakiketas, and no more. In a later portion, however, of the Upanishad (II, 3), the expression srink‚ vittamayÓ occurs, which I have translated by 'the road which leads to wealth.' As it is said that Nakiketas did not choose that srink‚, some reader must have supposed that a srink‚ was offered him by Death. Srink‚, however, meant commonly a string or necklace, and hence arose the idea that Death must have offered a necklace as an additional gift to Nakiketas. Besides this, there was another honour done to Nakiketas by Mrityu, namely, his allowing the sacrifice which he had taught him, to be called by his name. This also, it was supposed, ought to have been distinctly mentioned before, and hence the insertion of the three verses 16-18. They are clumsily put in, for after punar ev‚ha, 'he said again,' verse 16 ought not to have commenced by tam abravÓt, 'he said to him.' They contain nothing new, for the fact that the sacrifice is to be called after Nakiketas was sufficiently indicated by verse 19, 'This, O Nakiketas, is thy fire which leads to heaven, which thou hast chosen as thy second boon.' But so anxious was the interpolator to impress upon his hearers the fact that the sacrifice should in future go by that name, that, in spite of the metre, he inserted tavaiva, 'of thee alone,' in verse 19.

Ralph Waldo Emerson ca1857 retouched.jpg

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 Ė 1882) gave the central story at the end of his essay, Immortality.   Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.

Edwin Arnold (1857-1936) rendered it in verse, as "The Secret of Death"

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, First President of India has translated and commented on this upanishad.  His introduction is given below:

KAṬHA UPANISAD‎

Translation: Dr. Radhakrishnan

Kaṭha Upaniṣad, also called Kāṭhakopaniṣad, which belongs to the Taittirīya School of the Yajur Veda, uses the setting of a story found in ancient Sanskrit literature.( Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa III. I 8, see also M B Anuśāsana Parva 106. The first mention of the story is in the R.V. (X.135) where we read how Naciketas was sent by his father to Yama (Death), but was allowed to get back on account of his great faith, śraddhā.).

A poor and pious Brāhmaṇa, Vājaśravas, performs a sacrifice and gives as presents to the priests a few old and feeble cows His son, Naciketas, feeling disturbed by the unreality of his father's observance of the sacrifice, proposes that he himself may be offered as offering (dakṣiṇa) to a priest. When he persisted m his request, his father in rage said, 'Unto Yama, I give thee' Naciketas goes to the abode of Yama and finding him absent, waits there for three days and nights unfed Yama, on his return, offers three gifts in recompense for the delay and discomfort caused to Naciketas. For the first, Naciketas asked, 'Let me return alive to my father.' For the second, 'Tell me how my good works (iṣṭā-pūrta) may not be exhausted'; and for the third, 'Tell me the way to conquer re-death (punar mṛtyu).

In the Upaniṣad, the third request is one for enlightenment on the 'great transition' which is called death.

The Upaniṣad consists of two chapters, each of which has three Vallis or sections.

There are some passages common to the Gītā and the Kaṭha Upanishad.

There is no consensus of opinion regarding the place of this Upanishad in Vedic literature. Some authorities declare it to belong to the Yajur-Veda, others to the Sama-Veda, while a large number put it down as a part of the Atharva-Veda. The story is first suggested in the Rig-Veda; it is told more definitely in the Yajur-Veda. It is here associated with the Cāraka-Kaṭha school of the Black (Krishna) Yajurveda, and is grouped with the Sutra period of Vedic Sanskrit. There is nothing however, to indicate the special place of this final version, nor has any meaning been found for the name Katha.  The only reason to associate it with the middle period is that it contains passages that are influenced by the  Buddhist ideas.  Hence it is usually dated to the fifth century BC in some Persian or Pali form.  In its present form we have to assume that it was recast in Classical Sanskrit in later period well within the Christian Era.

The subject dealt in this Upanishad viz., the Naciketa Upaagyaana also finds place in the Taittriya Braahmana.

This Upanishad consists of two main parts divided further into six chapters. The division into two parts is rather assumed since at the end of the third chapter one finds the usual concluding notes of a Upanishad. It is thus felt that originally, this Upanishad  consisted of only one part and the others were added later.  Such layers are found routinely in all Upanishads. Sankaracharya  has written commentary on Katho Upanishad in the Eighth century AD and he had both the parts which gives us a dating of the Upanishad as certainly earlier than that.

This Upanishad also finds a place in the Atharvana Veda. There, the two parts of this Upanishad are presented as  two different Upanishads. The Upanishad uses as its base the story of Vajashravasah. The story is first  mentioned in the Rigveda (10. 135),  and is also found in the Taittiriya Brahmana (3.1.8),  and later in the Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva 106)

Kaṭha Upaniṣad, also called Kāṭhakopaniṣad which belongs to the Taittirīya school of the Yajur Veda, uses the setting of a story found in ancient Sanskrit literature.1 A poor and pious Brāhmaṇa, Vājaśravas, performs a sacrifice and gives as presents to the priests a few old and feeble cows His son, Naciketas, feeling disturbed by the unreality of his father's observance of the sacrifice, proposes that he himself may be offered as offering (dakṣiṇa) to a priest. When he persisted m his request, his father in rage said, 'Unto Yama, I give thee' Naciketas goes to the abode of Yama and finding him absent, waits there for three days and nights unfed Yama, on his return, offers three gifts in recompense for the delay and discomfort caused to Naciketas. For the first, Naciketas asked, 'Let me return alive to my father.' For the second, 'Tell me how my good works (iṣṭā-pūrta) may not be exhausted'; and for the third, 'Tell me the way to conquer re-death (punar mṛtyu).

Ariel Glucklich, The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press US, 2008, ISBN 978-0-19-531405-2 (page 70) states: "The Upanishadic age was also characterized by a pluralism of worldviews. While some Upanishads have been deemed 'monistic', others, including the Katha Upanishad, are dualistic. Monism holds that reality is one Ė Brahman Ė and that all multiplicity (matter, individual souls) is ultimately reducible to that one reality. The Katha Upanishad, a relatively late text of the Black Yajurveda, is more complex. It teaches Brahman, like other Upanishads, but it also states that above the 'unmanifest' (Brahman) stands Purusha, or 'Person'. This claim originated inSamkhya (analysis) philosophy, which split all of reality into two coeternal principles: spirit (purusha) and primordial matrix (prakriti).

The problem of the one and the many in metaphysics and theology is insoluble: The history of philosophy in India as well as in Europe has been one long illustration of the inability of the human mind to solve the mystery of the relation of God to the world. We have the universe of individuals which is not self-sufficient and in some sense rests on Brahman, but the exact nature of the relation between them is a mystery. (Radhakrishnan)

Charles Johnston between wife Vera and H. S. Olcott, with H. P. Blavatsky and her sister Vera in front.
Image from TSA Archives.

Charles Johnston (1867-1931) was an Orientalist, translator, writer and early Theosophist.

After 1885 he also joined the Theosophical Society, and co-founded in April/June 1886 the Theosophical Lodge in Dublin. (Later when the Theosophical Society split in 1895, he followed the direction of William Quan Judge and was a member of the Theosophical Society in America (TGinA).) On 14 October 1888 he married Vera Vladimirovna de Zhelihovsky (1864-1923) the niece of Madam Helena Blavatsky.

He also entered the Indian Civil Service the same year, and later served in the British Bengal Service.  He had a natural inclination for Oriental studies and Sanskrit, for which he wrote a grammar, and made his later living as a writer and translator in many books and publications. He was the "pundit" for Sanskrit translations in William Judge's Oriental Department Papers, 1893-97. 

At some point he was also involved in the Russian Mission of the Orthodox Church, living in Russia as an English teacher. He met Tolstoy there.

He translated several works from Sanskrit and Russian. As an author, he devoted himself primarily to philosophical and theosophical topics. He was president of the Irish Literary Society.

His books include

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Book of the Spiritual Man

The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom and other writings of Śankar‚ch‚rya (published in Covina, CA by the Theosophical University Press in 1946)

In the Five Upanishads and Misc Works - Charles Johnston present totally new perspective which assumes that the whole story is an allegorical presentation of how God the Father send his Son to overcome death for all humanity as a Christian parable.  We will try to present this theme in parallel with other interpretations. 

'Theosophical Quarterly' article  'In the House of Death' he interprets the Katha Upanishad in this way:

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"The central symbol is this:

The Father sends his Son into the realm of Death. After dwelling three days in the House of Death, the Son rises again and returns to his Father.

It needs no emphasis to make clear that the theme of this ancient Upanishad is the central theme of Christianity.

Avatar

But it is also of the deepest interest that the Western Avatar again and again uses one or another variation of the same symbolic story in the Parables of the Kingdom, which are the most characteristic part oi his teaching.

Take, for example, the parable of the man who planted a vineyard, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country. After he had in vain sent servants to receive the fruit of the vineyard, having one sort, well behaved, he sent him also, saying, They will reverence my son. But those husbartdmen said among themselves, this is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.  Here, the  Father sends  the  Son  to the  husbandmen,  and  the  Son is  put  to  death.  And  the  context  makes  it  quite  clear  that  the  Western  Avatar is,  in  this  parable,  speaking  of his  own mission.

The  first  three  Gospels  record  this  parable.  The  fourth  does  not. Yet  the  fourth  gospel  conveys  exactly  the  same  thought,  expressed directly and  without  parable :

"For God  so  loved  the  world,  that  he  gave  his  only  begotten  Son, that  whosoever  believeth  in  him  should  not  perish,  but  have  everlasting life."

All  four  Gospels  thus  make  it  dear  that  the  Father  sending  the Son,  with  the  death  of  the  Son,  is,  among  other  things,  an  accepted  symbol  of the  mission  of the Avatar; and that the Western Avatar thus used  this  symbol.

But he  uses  the symbol  of  the  Father and  the Son  in another way, also,  in  what  is,  perhaps,  the  greatest  and  most  beautiful  of  all  the parables : the story  of  the  Prodigal.

Here, it is  not the Son of man, but man  himself, who is  symbolized; man  himself, who goes  to the place  of penitence,  and  returns  thence  to his  Father.

Using the  phrase  in  one of  the texts  that  bear  the  name  of  Shankaracharya,  we  may  say  that  the  Father is  the  supreme  Self,  Parama-atma,  who  sends  the  Son,  the  personal  self,  Jiva-atma,  into  the world.

The personal self dwells there three days.  And these three days represent "three times,"  past,  present,  future;  for  the  personal  self,  entering  the world,  falls  under  the  dominion  of  threefold  time.  Only  when,  over-coming  the world, he reaches liberation,  does  he "pass beyond  the  three times," as another Upanishad puts it.

In one sense, then, the  Son  whom  the  Father sends into  the world represents the human soul suffering the universal fate.  In another sense, the Son is  the Avatar.

But there is no contradiction, since the Avatar of set purpose subjects himself to the universal fate; he takes our nature upon him, and is  in all points tempted  like  as we  are,  becoming  subject to death,  in  order that he may show the way  of  resurrection.  As the profoundly philosophical Epistle to  the  Hebrews puts  it:  In that he  himself hath suffered being tempted,  he  is  also  able  to succor  them  that are tempted.

The whole of the second chapter of this Epistle sheds a flood  of light on  the  purpose  with  which  an  Avatar  incarnates,  thus  making  himself subject  to death;  that through death he might  bring  to  naught him  that had the power of death.

This last sentence might serve as a  superscription for the Upanishad which  we  are considering.  It represents  the victory  over  death,  gained through  the teaching of  Death.

The Avatar, the Master, subjects himself to the power of death; he takes upon himself  the general  fate  of mankind, and lives  a  life  which, at  every  point,  shall  be  representative  of  that  universal  fate;  all  this, in  order that he may  show  mankind  the way to overcome  the common fate,  to  gain  the  victory  over  death.  He  creates  situation  after  situation,  performs  act  after  act,  in  order  that,  as  Christ  expressed  it,  the scripture  might  be  fulfilled;  in  order  that  his  life  might  be  perfectly symbolic of the journey of the soul through death to liberation.

As  has  been  said  before  in  these  comments,  it  would  seem  that,  on its  way toward  liberation, the soul  of  the disciple  passes  through definite ceremonies, the frame for which is  set by those who have already attained, those  who  have  been  spoken  of  as  Masters;  and  that these  ceremonies not only represent the upward journey of the  soul, but also give the soul vital  help  and  inspiration  on  that  journey.

It  would  appear  that  this  Upanishad  is  the  dramatized  record  of such  a  ceremony  of  initiation; 

that  it  records  not  only  the  fate  of Nachiketas,  son  of  Vajashravasa,  who  descended  into  the  House  of Death,  but  also  a  ceremony actually  passed  through  by  disciples  who,  in such  an  initiation,  die  to  the  outer  world  and  awake  to  the  world  of immortality.

And,  curiously  enough,  there  is  still  evidence  of  this  character of the  Upanishad as the  record  of  a  ceremony of  initiation,  in  the  Sanskrit text itself.  For,  toward  the  end  of  the  first  half,  which  completes  the story  of  Nachiketas,  there  occur  these  words:  "Arise yel  Awake  yel Having  obtained  your  wishes,  understand  ye !" -all  three  verbs  being in  the  plural  imperative,  and  therefore  obviously  not  addressed  to Nachiketas  alone;  exactly  the  words  that  might  be  expected  to  close  a ceremony  of  initiation.

This,  then,  is  an outline of  the  symbolism  of  the  whole  Upanishad. It  represents  the  journey  of  the  soul,  descending  into  the  House  of Death,  the  world  of  our  mortality;  dwelling  there  three  days,  which represent the "three times," threefold time, perceived as  past, present and future; and finally  rising again  from  the  House of Death, and returning to  the  Father.  And  at  the  same  time  this  symbolism represents  the initiation of a  disciple,  which  initiation is  a  representation and  summing up of the soul's journey to its divine consummation. "

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M.M.Ninan

The Four Spiritual Laws

as given by

The First Man who died

to

The Simple Minded

(A dramatized version)

auṁ sa ha nāv avatu,

saha nau bhunaktu,

saha vīryam karavāvahai,

tejasvi nav adhītam astu:

mā vidviṣāvahai;

auṁ śāntih, śāntih, śāntih.

 

OM! May He protect us both.

May He cause us both to enjoy the bliss of Mukti.

May we both exert to find out the true meaning of the scriptures.

May our studies be fruitful.

May we never quarrel with each other.