Part III of the Kena Upanishad contains a simple narrative. The puranic literature adopted the same method with many mystical stories describing god. It is primarily meant for exercising the intellect to comprehend the subtle truth ingrained in them.
The narrative speaks of a battle between the gods and the demons. The gods were losing the battle. So they sought the help of the Supreme God, Brahman. Through Brahman’s help they emerged victorious. But they were vainful of their glory. They celebrated the victory as their own. Amidst their jubilance they ignored the vital part played by Brahman. Brahman noticed their vanity, ingratitude. And wanted to expose their frailty.
Thus Brahman appeared in the sky as a Yaksa apparition, Spirit. The gods saw the form of the Spirit. They were baffled. Did not know what the yaksa was. And were terrified at the thought of the enemy still lurking. So they approached Agni meaning Fire-god and requested him to find out what that Yaksa was. He agreed to do so.
Agni hastened to that spot. And drew near the Spirit. The Spirit softly asked him, “Who are you?” He replied he was Agni, also known as Jatavedha, meaning, All-Knower. The Spirit enquired, “What power do you possess?” He replied, “I burn everything on earth.” The Spirit then placed a straw before him and asked him to burn it. Agni tried and failed. He promptly returned to the gods and admitted he could not ascertain what the Spirit was.
The gods then approached Vayu meaning Wind-god with the same request. Vayu too agreed to find out what that Spirit was. He hastened to the spot. The Spirit asked him the same questions, “Who are you? What power do you possess?” Vayu answered, “I am Vayu, also known as Matarisva meaning Mover-in-sky. I can blow away everything on earth.” The Spirit placed a straw and asked him to blow it away. Vayu could not do so. He also rushed back and admitted he could not ascertain what that Spirit was.
The gods by now panicked. They approached Indra, the ruler of gods also known as Meghavan meaning Worshipful-one. They requested Indra to investigate the mystery of the Spirit. He agreed and hastened to the spot. As Indra approached, the apparition disappeared. But Indra continued his quest without returning unlike the other two gods. At the very space an extremely beautiful woman appeared. She was Uma, daughter of Himavan, the personification of the Himalaya mountain. Indra asked Uma, What was that apparition which disappeared?”
Part Three of the Kena Upanisad ends with this question. Uma answers the question in the first mantra of Part Four. “Brahman”, she exclaimed, “through Brahman alone you have gained this victory and glory.” Then alone Indra realized the apparition was none other than Brahman, the supreme God.
It appears odd that the story was not completed in Part Three itself. Stranger still that the question and answer are placed in different parts of the Upanisad. It would seem appropriate to have ended Part Three with Uma’s answer. The reason for the split will be covered in the interpretation of the episode which follows.
The narrative has a deep allegorical significance. The Yaksa in the sky represents the supreme God, Brahman, Atman, which is above human perception, emotion or conception. The gods represents human virtues. And demons, represent vices. The apparition appeared after the gods gained victory over the demons. It signifies that the spiritual enquiry starts after virtue prevails over the vice.
When this happens the seeker initially adopts the simple form of spiritual practice using his gross body. He takes to mechanical, ritualistic worship. This is subtly indicated by the Fire-god approaching the Spirit. Fire-god Agni in the context represents the organs of action. Fire signifies speech. Speech is associated with Fire. Typical examples of this association being: “He gave a fiery speech”, “The boss fired him”, “Hot words were exchanged between them”, He took the generation aflame with his oratory”. Etcetera. And speech is used to mean collectively all organs of action. That covers mechanical worship with the gross body. Such physical practices provide hardly any spiritual satisfaction. And the practitioner remains far from spiritual enlightenment.
In the encounter with the Spirit, the Fire-god had two significant experiences:
(i) He could not ascertain what Spirit was
(ii) He lost the power he possessed. He could not burn the blade of grass.
In the first experience indicates that no seeker can contact the supreme God, Atman, the Self through the gross body. The organs of action cannot embrace the Atman, Self.
The second experience indicates that the organs of action are enlivened by the Atman, Self. Without the support of the Self, the organs of action become in effectual. They cease to function.
The repetition of this episode with Vayu Wind-god signifies the relationship between Atman, Self and the organs of perception. Wind-god here represents pranas vital-air sheath. And pranas cover the organs of perception. Therefore, Vayu’s identical experiences with Brahman establishes the same two truths:
(i) The organs of perception cannot perceive Atman, Self.
(ii) Without the support of the Self, the organs of perception become ineffectual. They cease to function.
The third episode with Indra, the ruler of gods, has a variation from the other two gods. Indra’s effort to find out the apparition was not a total failure. Indra did obtain the knowledge of Brahman indirectly through the help of Uma.
Indira represents the mind and intellect, the subtle body. The apparition disappearing from Indira indicates that the mind cannot feel God, nor the intellect comprehend God. However, when the mind surrenders to God in devotion with humility and the intellect probes the Reality with the help of the sastras scripture one can ultimately attain spiritual enlightenment. Symbolised by Indra finally gaining the knowledge of Brahman.
Uma represents scripture. Being the daughter of the Himalayas indicates that the supreme knowledge of Reality emanated from the galaxy of sages and saints in the Himalayan ranges. The dazzling beauty of Uma speaks of the brilliant literature in which that knowledge has been presented.
The idea of separating Indira’s question from Uma’s answer deftly suggests the meditative pause that precedes spiritual Enlightenment. After acquiring the knowledge of the scripture and exhausting the bulk of vasanas, desires, the seeker has to practice concentration and meditation. And wait in silence for the ultimate Experience. In the moment of absolute silence the seeker gains Enlightenment. The last stage of silent pause is beautifully indicated by the deliberate gap between the question and the answer, between effort and Enlightenment.
Further, the above story reveals the following ideas –
1) It is meaningless to be arrogant over one’s power.
2) Brahman is existent.
3) Brahman cannot be known by the senses (gods) and the mind and intellect (Indra).
4) Knowledge of Brahman cannot come without qualifications like humility and devotion.
5) Knowledge of Brahman is the noblest of all.
Source: 1) Excerpt from the Book ‘CHOICE OF UPANISAHDS” by A. Parthasarathy.
2) Kena Upanisad commentaries by Swamy Paramarthananda.