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  CLASSICS
 

The Katha Upanishad
Translated by F. Max Müller


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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 Râmmohun 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 Chambers), and the gloss of Gopâlayogin (MS. 224 Chambers). The text and commentary of Sankara and the gloss of Ânandagiri have since been edited by Dr. Roer in the Bibliotheca Indica, with translation and notes. There are other translations, more or less perfect, by Râmmohun 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], 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 Sâma-veda also. Generally, however, it is counted as one of the Âtharvana Upanishads.

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

Vâgasravasa, wishing for rewards, sacrificed all his

[1. MS. 133 is a mere copy of MS. 127.

2 Yagurvede Kathavallîbhâshyam.]

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 Nâkiketa 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) Nâkiketa fire (sacrifice), and hence he conquered death again [1].

This story, which in the Brâhmana is told in order to explain the name of a certain sacrificial ceremony called

[1. The commentator explains punar-mrityu as the death that follows after the present inevitable death.]

Nâkiketa, was used as a peg on which to hang the doctrines of the Upanishad. In its original form it mayhave constituted one Adhyâya only, and the very fact of its division into two Adhyâyas 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 Adhyâya 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 Vallîs, neither more nor less.

The name of vallî, lit. creeper, as a subdivision of a Vedic work, is important. It occurs again in the Taittirîya Upanishads. Professor Weber thinks that vallî, creeper, in the sense of chapter, is based on a modern metaphor, and was primarily intended for a creeper, attached to the sikhâs or branches of the Veda[1]. More likely, however, it was used in the same sense as parvan, a joint, a shoot, a branch, i.e. a division.

Various attempts have been made to distinguish the more modern from the more ancient portions of our Upanishad[2]. No doubt there are peculiarities of metre, 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

[1. History of Indian Literature, p. 93, note; p. 157.

2. 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 criticise them, some of his remarks are not without their value even now.]

before expunging even the most modern-sounding lines from the original context of these Vedântic essays[1].

The mention of Dhâtri, creator, for instance (Kath. Up. II, 20), is certainly startling, and seems to have given rise to a very early conjectural emendation. But dhâtri and vidhâtri occur in the hymns of the Rig-veda (X, 82, 2), and in the Upanishads (Maitr. Up. VI, 8); and Dhâtri, as almost a personal deity, is invoked with Pragâpati 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; Svetâsv. Up. I, 3). Much might be said about setu, bridge (Kath. Up. III, 2; Mund. Up. II, 2, 5), âdarsa, 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; Khând. Up. VIII, 4; Brih. Up. IV, 4, 22, &c.), while âdarsas, or mirrors, are mentioned in the Brihadâranyaka and the Srauta-sûtras. 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 (pramâdapâtha); but that very fact shows that such a form, for instance, as samîyâta (Khând. 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

[1. See Regnaud, Le Pessimisme Brahmanique, Annales du Musée Guimet, 1880; tom. i, p. 101.]

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 Vallî 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 srinkâ vittamayî occurs, which I have translated by 'the road which leads to wealth.' As it is said that Nakiketas did not choose that srinkâ, some reader must have supposed that a srinkâ was offered him by Death. Srinkâ, 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 evâha, 'he said again,' verse 16 ought not to have commenced by tam abravît, '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.

 

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This page was published on Realization.org on May 18, 2000.


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