Keno Upanishad is a small Upanishad belonging to the Sama Veda. It contains four chapters each known as Kanda or Adhyaya, with a total of 35 verses (mantras). Though small, this Upanisahad contains a highly potent teaching. The Upanishad gets the name Keno Upanishad as the first word begins with Kena.
Like all other Upanishads, this also begins with a Shanthi Pata through which the student is seeking four boons from the Lord: (1) Let the physical and subtle bodies (mind and intellect) be fit for spiritual pursuit. (2) Lord’s grace. (3) Self effort, commitment and a sense of priority. (4) Qualifications for eligibility for scriptural enquiry. The shanthi Patha concludes with a prayer for removal of the three types of obstacles – (1) the cosmic - Adi Daivikam (2) external - Adi Boutikam and (3) internal - Adyatmika.
The first chapter contains nine verses. In the first part, which is introductory, the student approaches the Guru and asks for the teaching. This highlights the need for a guru and the student has to be humble enough to approach him and seek the teaching with faith and sincerity.
In tradition, teaching was given only to the interested seeker who approached the guru. Such a quest for the teaching is known as pariprasana. Though the Upanishad does not give the names of the guru and the student, we should note that the teaching is in the form of a dialogue between the student and the teacher.
In the second part, nature of Self is revealed. The student’s question itself is based on considerable maturity on the part of the student. He is aware that the body is a bundle of chemicals and as such is made up of matter which is inert.
How Is Body Alive?
The student, therefore, wants to know how the inert body is sentient and alive, evidenced by his own experience. He, therefore, asks the teacher by which invisible organs are alive and functioning. This lender of consciousness and life is indicated by the student as Deva. Who is the Deva, who lends life to the body?
The teacher points out that this Deva is none other than consciousness. The teacher also conveys that consciousness is an independent principle totally different from the body. However, it is intensely associated with, and activates, the body. It is not visible either. How does one know it is there? The normally inert body is active and we, therefore, infer that the consciousness must be there.
The teacher conveys the idea in a peculiar fashion. Every organ owes its status to consciousness as it cannot perform its function without the consciousness. The teacher thus says that the consciousness it the ear of the ear, eye of the eye, speech of the speech, mind of the mind, etc., It pervades the organ, is independent of the organ, and makes the organ function.
The consciousness is, thus, not an adjective but the very noun.
The second definition clarifying the first one is then given by the teacher. Our normal tendency will be to try to find out consciousness and look for it as any other object. This is impossible as consciousness is not an object to be looked for. Therefore, the teacher says that you can never ‘know’ consciousness as an object.
No Need for Proof
Objective experimentation is impossible in respect of consciousness. If it is not an object how do you prove its existence? The answer is that it does not require a proof, as it is the only thing which is evident without having to be proved. It happens to be the very subject ‘I’ who am aware of all the objects (knower/experience). Subject is never available for objectification. Every knowledge or perception is proof for consciousness, the subject (verse 4). As it is never a knowable object, it does not come under: (i) Known object or (ii) an unknown object. The Upanisahad, therefore, suggests that we drop all attempts to “know” Atma.
When I say, “I am the Atma, the consciousness”, I must be careful to eschew every object including my own body-mind complex. The problem is that the instrument is an object intimately associated with the subject and thus it is often mistaken as an integral part of the subject, like the spectacles, we wear.
I am thus the consciousness other than the body, mind, sense organs, etc., and I am behind all this and experiencing the entire world. I am never available to be known by any organ as I am behind each one of them.
Nature of Self-knowledge
This chapter contains five verses which beautifully present the nature of Self-knowledge (Atma). Since the Atma is never an object of knowledge, no wise person can say he “knows” Atma or he “does not know” Atma, as both these statements imply that the Atma is an object of knowledge or experience. We can only say “I am Atma.” One who says he knows Atma does not really know. Thus, Self-knowledge is n the form of “I am Atma.”
Atma the Witness
Self- knowledge can never take place in the form of particular experience. Atma is the consciousness because of which everything is known or experienced. Thus, it is in the presence of consciousness that all the experiences are taking place. Every experience, therefore, pre-supposes the presence of consciousness, which is the medium in which all experiences take place.
Consciousness must, therefore, be available in and through all experiences. We, therefore, do not need a particular experience to recognize Atma or consciousness. However, a Self-knowledge is only turning your attention to or focusing the ever available consciousness (cognition that consciousness is always experienced).
Nature of Consciousness
The third chapter contains 12 verses containing a story symbolically presenting the nature of consciousness.
Moral of Yaksha Story
The narrative speaks of a battle between the gods and demons. The gods were losing the battle. So they sought the help of the supreme God, Brahman. Though 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 Yaksha, apparition, spirit. The gods saw the form of the Spirit. They were baffled. Did not know what the Yaksha was. And were terrified at the thought of the enemy still lurking. So they approached Agni, Fire-god and Vayu (wind-god) and requested them to find out what that Yaksha was. They agreed to do so. The Fire-God and Wind-God came one after another and faced the Yaksha and failed in the test given by Yaksha, who asked them to move a small blade of grass. Not only do they fail in their mission, but they also discover that are powerless in front of Yaksha. Later Indira fails event to get a contact with the Yaksha. Finally, Indra came and in all humility offered a prayer to the Lord, when Goddess Parvati appeared and explained that the Yaksha was none other than Atma which blesses all the success of the devas.
The following, are the lessons which flow from the above story:
1) We should be humble and not claim and glory to ourselves. It is meaningless to be arrogant over one’s power.
2) Brahman is existent.
3) Brahman or Consciousness cannot be known by the senses (gods) and the mind (Indra).
4) The yaksha could not be known by the devas and had to be known only through Parvati Devi. Similarly, Atma (consciousness) can be known only through a guru.
5) Knowledge of Brahman is the noblest of all.
The fourth chapter has nine mantras and contains some sadhanas (spiritual practices). Indra gains the knowledge from Goddess Parvti Devi. Later, Agni, and Vayu gain the knowledge. They are glorified for this. Then the Upanisahd gives four upasanas as sadhanas. Since Brahman appeared as Yaksha and vanished before long, Brahman is meditated upon as the lightning or the wink of the eyes. Brahman is meditated upon the mind. (Thoughts in the mind also flash and shine like the Yaksha). The next is meditation on Brahman as the adorable Atma of all (i.e., the heat in the fire, the power in the wind, etc.,).
Besides the upanasanas, the Upanisahad recommends karma-yoga and values. Austerity, restraint and truthfulness are highlighted along with karma (action). One who follows this and ultimately recognizes the Atma attains the highest, limitless Brahman.
Source: Excerpts from the Book on The Upanishad by Swamy Paramarthananda.