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.”
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.