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Razors Edge

The Katha Upanishad

Recitation by Christopher Isherwood

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.
—Katha-Upanishad, 3.14

So begins Somerset Maugham’s bestselling twentieth century novel The Razor’s Edge (1944),  whose main character gives up a life of privilege in search of spiritual Enlightenment. Maugham himself visited Ramana ashram where he had a direct interaction with Ramana Maharshi in Tamil Nadu, India in 1938. But, it is said that Maugham received his inspiration and direct translation for this epigraph from Christopher Isherwood, with whom he had become acquainted through The Vedanta Society’s Hollywood Hills center. This reading by Isherwood of the Katha Upanishad is of special note. It is translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester. From the CD liner notes: “We used to listen to Chris read this scripture in the early morning in the temple of the Vedanta Society on Vivekananda’s birthday. Needless to say, this translation is our favorite.”

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The Katha Upanishad and Yoga.
The Upanishads represent a shift from the early Vedic texts, whose thinkers focused on rituals formulas, prayer and song, sacrifice and ceremony and those connections to the cosmic spheres. By placing its emphasis on the physiological make up of man, esoteric knowledge, and ontological inquiries into cosmic realities, the Upanishads and in particular the Katha Upanishad set the stage for the self-transformative alchemy that becomes the practice of Yoga.

The Katha Upanishad (commonly assigned to the forth or fifth century B.C.E.) is the first instance when we see a recognizable tradition of Yoga emerge. Within this poetic text there lies the first descriptions of the fundamentals of a yoga practice; the preparation of the body and the cultivation of stability in the mind that steel the aspirant for the discoveries of consciousness. The story unfolds as a conversation between a young, but spiritually endowed Naciketas and Yama the God of Death. Seeking the knowledge of the mysteries of life after death, Naciketas is initiated by the God Yama onto the path of emancipation. He is instructed in the practice of involution, the climbing of consciousness to ever higher levels of being, the transcendental self and the psychospiritual work that prepares the yogi for the event of grace. Reminiscent of the Baghavada Gita’s (500-200 B.C.E.) classic dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna that occurs in a chariot, so the poetic metaphor of the charioteer is used by Yama to instruct Naciketas of man’s relationship to the Higher Self.

blue_chakra_2Chapter 3, 3-9
Know the self a rider in a chariot,
an the body, as simply the chariot.
Know the intellect (buddhi) as the charioteer,
and the mind (manas), as simply the reins.

The senses, they say, are the horses,
and the sense objects are their pastures;
He who is linked to the body (atman), senses, and mind,
the wise proclaim as the one who enjoys (bhoktri).

When a man lacks understanding,
and his mind is never controlled;
His senses do not obey him,
as bad horses, a charioteer.

But when a man has understanding,
and his mind is ever controlled;
His senses do obey him,
as good horses, a charioteer.

When a man lacks understanding,
is unmindful (amanaska) and always impure;
He does not reach that final step,
but gets on the round of rebirth.

But when a man has understanding,
is mindful and always pure;
He does reach that final step,
from which he is not reborn again.

When a man’s mind is his reins,
intellect, his charioteer;
He reaches the end of the road,
that highest step of Vsihnu.

And here exactly we find the first instance of the word Yoga used in context with its definition. A precise mapping for the explorer on the path to enlightenment.

Chapter 6.10-11,
When the five perceptions are stilled,
Together with the mind.
And not even reason bestirs itself;
they call it the highest state.

When the senses are firmly reined in (dharana),
that is Yoga, so people think.
From distractions a man is then free (apramatta),
for Yoga is the coming-into-being,
as well as the ceasing-to-be.

Comments

  1. Shrikrishna s.Ranade says:

    Greetings,
    I have been deeply touched and admired present
    interest and awareness of Upanishadic Texts after
    reading Ms nancy Cantwell column reproduced from
    Time.
    After many decades of sciewntific career I find it very
    rewarding to check notes of ones experience with enlightened
    westerners whose perception admittedly deeper than one
    imagined. Thanks to internet andTimes Quotidian,
    S S Ranade

  2. Shrikrishna S.Ranade says:

    Greetings
    I have very much admired the Nancy Cantwell
    page confirming continued interest in serious Upanishadic
    Quotation I have been benefitted in having a better perception of the Book title and an author who influenced me, many like mein fifties of past century
    S S Ranade

  3. Kathleen-Marie says:

    One desires in life to uncover the highest truth and one’s mind is not really satisfied until that knowledge is gained. From experience comes forth knowledge and from knowledge enlightenment – so say the wise. Once the seat of the wise is obtained, all else flows from the Being into the finest and then most gross levels of creation. To read of truth has an uplifting quality and enriches experience as our paths unfold and entwine.

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