A Survey of the Kenopaniṣad

By Sadhu Aksharananddas

The Kenopaniṣad is located within the Tavalakāra Brāhmaṇa of the Jaiminīya recension of the Sāmaveda. Specifically, within the Tavalakāra Brāhmaṇa’s twelve anuvākas, the Kenopaniṣad is found as the tenth anuvāka of the fourth adhyāya.1 Like the Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, its title is derived from the first word of the Upaniṣad: ‘kena.’ The Upaniṣad is divided into a total of four khaṇḍas, with the first khaṇḍa consisting of nine mantras; the second, five mantras; the third, twelve mantras; and the fourth consisting of nine mantras; totaling to thirty-five mantras.

This Upaniṣad focuses on revealing the immense glory of Parabrahman and one’s limited ability to realize this glory. The Upaniṣad teaches a lesson on humility by presenting a narrative of the devas’ victory and their humbling encounter with Puruṣottama. This Upaniṣad also reveals that (1) to truly realize Paramātman, who is described as possessing boundless divine qualities and powers and identified as the master of Akṣara (Akṣarabrahman), and (2) to attain Akṣaradhāman, the divine abode of Parabrahman, it is necessary to (1) seek refuge of the present Akṣarabrahman guru; (2) listen (śravaṇa), contemplate (manana), and repeatedly implement (nididhyāsana) his divine teachings (upadeśa), and (3) mold one’s life according to these teachings. By elaborating on these topics, this Upaniṣad is primarily focused on revealing the nature of brahmavidyā—the knowledge of Akṣarabrahman and Puruṣottama. So that its revelations may be easily understood, the Upaniṣad presents its elaborations of brahmavidyā in the form of a dialogue between a guru and his disciple.

Khaṇḍa 1

The first khaṇḍa begins with a disciple asking his guru: “What impels the mind to seek out its desires; what urges the prāṇas to act accordingly; what compels speech to be articulated; and what deity directs sight, sound, and the other senses?”2

To this, the guru responds by revealing that Paramātman, the bestower of the power of hearing (śravaṇa-śaktipradātā), [compels] hearing; the bestower of the power of thought (manana-śaktipradātā), [compels] the mind; the bestower of the power of articulation (uccāraṇa-śaktipradātā), [compels] the sense of speech; the bestower of the power of bearing a body and life (śarīradhāraṇādijīvana-śaktipradātā), [compels] the prāṇa; and the bestower of the power of vision (darśana-śaktipradātā), [compels] the sense of sight. The resolute, who is resolved in the state of brahman (sthitaprajña brahmarūpa), upon becoming free from the present world, attains immortality—Parabrahman’s divine abode, Akṣaradhāman.3 Sight is unable to perceive, words are unable to describe, and the mind is unable to comprehend that Paramātman’s form (svarūpa) or his [innumerable divine] qualities. He is unknowable by any worldly means; despite the diversity of beings within the world, he is unknowable, since nothing [of the world] resembles him.4 Paramātman is unlike things of the world; he is also unlike the inconceivable (logically or metaphysically inconsistent objects). These characteristics we have heard from teachers (ācāryas) of the past. They have described Paramātman’s form (svarūpa) to us in this way.5 He is unknowable by both worldly speech and Vedic diction; yet speech is endowed by him. He (the bestower of speech) is brahman (Parabrahman); know him, regarding whom it is impossible to completely know that this, the world, is him.6

The proceeding four mantras repeat the previous sentiments in reference to the mind (manas), the faculty of sight (cakṣuṣ), the faculty of hearing (śrotra), and prāṇa.7 

Khaṇḍa 2

The guru further reinforces the divinity and glory of Paramātman within the second khaṇḍa. He reveals: Do not believe that you have completely realized Parabrahman’s form; and also, do not believe that you do not know his form; but believe that you do know it.8 Among us, one who believes they have realized Paramātman’s form completely, they do not know it; whereas one who believes that they do not know it completely, knows it.9 The jīvātmans and īśvarātmans who believe they know Paramātman’s form completely do not know it; whereas those who believe that they do not know it realize it.10

The guru then reveals the means for understanding Paramātman’s form within the fourth mantra. He states: One comes to realize Paramātman’s form through the teachings of the brahmasvarūpa guru and by doing so, surely attains liberation. Through the present Akṣarabrahman guru one attains strength (bala)—the strength to overcome māyā by realizing the present Paramātman’s form upon qualitatively identifying the self (ātman) with Akṣarabrahman. Through this brahmavidyā one attains liberation.11

The guru then concludes the second khaṇḍa by explaining: 

It is good to realize the present form of Parabrahman here in this world; however, it is a great misfortune, if one does not. Realizing Paramātman in all beings, the brahmarūpa devotee attains Akṣaradhāman (videhamukti—liberation attained upon one’s death) upon leaving this world.12

Khaṇḍa 3

The third khaṇḍa depicts the first act of a narrative in which Parabrahman teaches a lesson on humility to the devas (deities). The narrative progresses as follows: Once Parabrahman obtained victory for the devas [over the dānavas (demons)]. Although their victory was due to Parabrahman[‘s intervention], the devas became elated and full of false pride. They thought: “This victory belongs only to us; this glory is only our own.”13 Aware of their vanity, Parabrahman appeared before them; however, the devas did not recognize who he, the yakṣa, was.14 They (the devas) said to Agni, the deity of fire, “O Agni (Jātaveda)! Find out who this yakṣa is.” Agni replied, “Yes, of course!”15 [Agni] hastened to him (the yakṣa). [When he did] the yakṣa asked, “Who are you?” Agni responded, “I am Agni, well-known as Jātaveda.”16 The yakṣa then asked, “What powers do you possess?” Agni replied, “I can burn everything on this earth.”17 [The yakṣa] then placed [a piece of] straw before him and requested, “Burn this.” Having approached it, Agni [attempted to burn it] with all of his might; [however, he] was unable to do so. Thereafter, he returned [to the devas] and said, “I was unable to know who that yakṣa was.”18

Mantras seven to ten repeat the events of mantras three to six, but with Vayu (the deity of wind) in place of Agni.19

Thereafter, [the devas] said to Indra, “O Indra (Maghavan) Find out who this yakṣa is.” Indra replied, “Yes, of course!” [Indra] hastened to him (the yakṣa), but [the yakṣa] disappeared from him.20 He (Indra) in that very location saw a woman—the wonderful Umā, the daughter of Himavān, approach. Then, [he] asked her, “Who was [that] yakṣa?”21

Khaṇḍa 4

The fourth khaṇḍa concludes the narrative of the previous khaṇḍa.

(Umā) reveals: “[It was] brahman (Parabrahman). You attained glory because of Parabrahman’s victory.” Thereafter, Indra realized that [the yakṣa] was Parabrahman.22 

The guru continues explaining:

By that [realization] these devas, Agni, Vayu, and Indra, surpassed the other devas. They approached him (Parabrahman) and conversed with him. They were the first to know him as Parabrahman.23 For this reason, Indra surpassed the other devas; for he approached Parabrahman and perceived him; he was the first to know him (the yakṣa) as Parabrahman.24 This is a description of Parabrahman: He shone forth like lightning and disappeared in the blink of an eye. This is Parabrahman’s dominion—he rules over all, the minuscule and the immense; in this manner [he instructed] the devas.25 Now, with regards to Paramātman within the body (ādhyātma), the mind (antaḥkaraṇa) approaches [its various objects] [according to his commands]. It (the mind) recalls [different objects] and frequently forms resolutions (saṅkalpa) because of Parabrahman.26 He (Parabrahman) is worshipped by the name vana. He (Parabrahman) should be worshiped as vana. One (a devotee) who knows him (Parabrahman) in this way, all beings desire him (such a devotee).27

Having listened to the guru extoll the glory of Paramātman, the disciple asked: “Gurudeva! Reveal to me the Upaniṣad.” 

The guru then states:

The Upaniṣad of brahmavidyā has been revealed to you. We have imparted the Upaniṣad to you.28 Austerity (tapas), restraint [of the senses] (dama), and action (karma) according to the guru’s commands are its (brahmavidyā’s) foundations. The Vedas, all of the vedāṅgas (śikṣā, kalpa, vyākaraṇa, nirukta, chanda, and jyotiṣa), and truthfulness [to one’s guru and others] are its causes.29 Truly, one who has realized this (brahmavidyā) in this way, upon destroying [all] papa (wrongdoing), attains Akṣaradhāman, the limitless and supreme realm.30

In this way, the Kenopaniṣad conveys the essence of brahmavidyā—the means for realizing Akṣarabrahman and Parabrahman—through a dialogue between a disciple and his guru. 


Kena : Kenopaniṣad

Works Cited

Sādhu, Bhadreśadāsa. Īśādyaṣṭopaniṣatsvāminārāyaṇabhāṣyam. Swaminarayan Aksharpith, 2009.

You might also like