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Kenopanishad - The Quest for 'The God'

Updated on January 5, 2018

The Quest For God

Who created the Man, and the Universe? Who guides the function of the Universe? Ancient Indian Spirituality and Philosophies were based on such questions. The quest for self-realisation starts with a question “Who am I?” and proceeds to “Who controls me?”

Though the name Vedas was universally known to be the ancient Indian texts on spirituality, in fact it is in Upanishads, the finer details are explained. One of them is Kena-Upanishad. Kena means by what, how and why – seeking the reason.

“The Brahman” is designated word for the Supreme Being who is responsible for anything and everything in this Universe. Sometimes Atman is used to denote the Brahman, as Atman means “the Supreme Soul – from where all souls come from and all souls go back.

The discussion is to know who that Supreme Being or The Brahman or simply The God is.

Adi Sankara as the Teacher explaining about The Brahman to his disciples

Adi Sankara with Disciples
Adi Sankara with Disciples

Who created the Man, and the Universe? Who guides the function of the Universe? Ancient Indian Spirituality and Philosophies were based on such questions. The quest for self-realisation starts with a question “Who am I?” and proceeds to “Who controls me?”

Though the name Vedas was universally known to be the ancient Indian texts on spirituality, in fact it is in Upanishads, the finer details are explained. One of them is Kena-Upanishad. Kena means by what, how and why – seeking the reason.

“The Brahman” is designated word for the Supreme Being who is responsible for anything and everything in this Universe. Sometimes Atman is used to denote the Brahman, as Atman means “the Supreme Soul – from where all souls come from and all souls go back.

The disciple asks:

Who directs the mind to do what it does?

What causes the life to function the way it does?

On whose command we speak what we speak?

Who is the God that directs the eyes and ears?


The Teacher answers:

It is the Brahman is the one who is mind of mind, life of life, tongue of tongue, eye of the eye and ear of the ear. What we feel through all these senses is the illusion and so whoever overcome these illusions would overcome this life that is controlled by senses and becomes immortal. Immortal here doesn’t mean ‘not dying for ever’ but overcoming the fear of death and so being able to view this life from a neutral and unattached perspective. In other words, they enter a state of bliss.

The God is not felt by these physical senses as he is beyond comprehension even to imagine using these physical senses. The knowledge of how to teach about the God is also not known. [Perhaps, this statement is to explain the ‘integrity’ of the teacher, who accepts that it is beyond his reach to teach the student about Brahman. Realising Brahman was always by oneself. The need of Guru/Teacher is to learn other worldly things but the Guru cannot help one to know about the Brahman. The limitation of known scientific theories in explaining the Brahman is so stated here. So, till the time we know to define the God in scientific terms using pure reasoning, the God would be beyond reason.]

The Brahman is not like any known things and beyond the unknown ones. This was what we were told and I can tell you. Indian philosophy was never based on ‘religion’ but on ‘spirituality’. It is the question of realising what the ‘eternal spirit’ that Brahman is and how it is related to the individual self – one’s own Atman. Here the discussion enters a metaphorical world where no known science has gone. When the seekers of latest generation speak about the futility of modern science in explaining spirituality, what we forget is it is essential to know the modern science, which is a basic to carry forward the discussion about the ‘self-realisation’ that is a macro version. So, one shall never ever criticise the modern science that is the ‘fundamental knowledge’.

Now, the teacher starts describes the Brahman, who cannot be described according to himself! We shall see how the undescribed is being described.

The Brahman is not what is expressed by words, but expresses words. And not the one that is being worshipped by the People.

The Brahman is one that the mind cannot even think about, but makes the mind to think of everything else. And not the one that is being worshipped by the People

The Brahman is the one that cannot be seen by the eyes but the one that makes the eyes to see. And not the one that is being worshipped by the People

The Brahman is the one that cannot be heard by the ears but the one that makes the ears to hear. And not the one that is being worshipped by the People

The Brahman is the one that cannot be smelt by the breath, but the one that reveals the smell to the breath. And not the one that is being worshipped by the People

In fact the ‘theory of elimination’ is used here to describe the ‘indescribable’ Supreme being. One thing consistent in the argument is negating the belief that ‘the Brahman is what is being worshipped by the People’. If put in a simple way and is taken in by the written words, this is a classic case of Atheism. But, taking the written word is against the spirit of the argument itself. The basis and intention of the argument is to churn the mind and propel it towards self-realisation. Moreover, in the theory of elimination as it is not proven that there is no Brahman, till that time it is considered that the assumption that ‘the Brahman is there’ is correct. To prove the Brahman doesn’t exist, one shall be able to explain and prove how the world sustains itself – in a scientific way. While proving scientific formulae and theories, often assumptions are made to define the unknown. Here, the unknown is defined as ‘the Brahman’. Till the time it is not proven in a scientific way, the assumption holds good. Exactly for this reason, many great physicists never became Atheists, but remained theists. When Einstein said ‘The God doesn’t throw dice’, he knew that he doesn’t know who the God is or anything about the God. All he was telling was the limitation of his knowledge in explaining the ‘happenings’.

The God being worshipped becomes a passing but continuous reference in the entire discussion. The God that is being worshipped is a reality as far as the people who are controlled by the senses. If one intends to go above this mass practices and try to find the truth, let him think of it and be ready to enter the other realm. Else, one remains bound by the customs and practices and rituals.

The Teacher continues:

If you think you have understood the Brahman, then you need to realise how little what you knew of it for your realisation was based on what you have sensed. All you could sense in living and non-living entities is limited and so you need to learn further.

The student responds:

I don’t think I know of it in totality. I neither think I don’t know of it. Someone amongst us who knows the Brahman knows that the Brahman is neither known nor unknown. (This was based on the teacher’s earlier explanation)

Teacher explains further.

Those who think they don’t know of the Brahman only know about it. Those who think they know of the Brahman doesn’t know of it. It is like having knowledge that he doesn’t have the knowledge about Brahman. If one feels his he has knowledge about the Brahman it exhibits the lack of knowledge about Brahman. Trying to explain Brahman only exhibits the person did not understand the Brahman. Those who understands even a little of the Brahman would remain silent, for it is beyond expressions.

The one who realises it through knowledge becomes immortal. The knowledge about the Atman (self) results in increased vigour and enhances his capability to understand the Brahman and when he understands the Brahman, he becomes immortal. Here immortal doesn’t mean living forever, but just being indifferent to the life and so overcoming the life and its peculiarities that affect the human. (This is further explained in next verse)

If one realises the Brahman that is the only truth. If one does not, it is a loss. The wise who can see one Atman in all beings would be free of the worldly illusions and move beyond the life.


Now, we shall discuss about the Brahman within the body. It is because of the Brahman that the mind learns about the Brahman, whom it imagines and remembers.

The Brahman is known as Tadvanam (Tadva = likewise, anam = Brahman, who does not salute others, the Supreme Being meaning the crux of all energy in the Universe)

The student further requests the teacher to teach him Upanishad. Teacher replies ‘Upanishad of Brahman was already imparted to you’.

Tapas (asceticism), Dama (Self-Control) and Karma (action/work) are the foundations of the Brahma, with Vedas (knowledge) as its body and it resides in Satya (Truth).

He who knows the Brahman like that would be free of sins (This doesn’t mean one get rids of past sins, but one that has such knowledge is incapable of commit sins) and be in the blissful state of happiness that eternal Brahma is.

The discussion in Kenopanishad is about realising self, realising the Brahman and realising that these two are one and the same. This Upanishad disregards the ritualistic worship of gods and tries to push the student of spirituality towards the finality of all truths.

The Brahman who is thus defined as an undefined one, who is beyond senses would demand human to come out of the invisible bonds of senses. Like Sankara said in the “Bhaja Govindam”, at the end it is the knowing of ‘Govinda’ (again a personification of the Brahman) only matters and not all the grammar (and scriptures using such an eloquent grammar). So is the word ‘Nirveda’, which translates into ‘Lack of Knowledge’ is used to denote ‘indifference’ also. It is the state when one attains when one is beyond the worldly attractions.

Then, why idol worship existed and continued, even after Kenopanishad? And that too with many forms of idols and gods?

The answer again lies in the Upanishad. The Brahman is for those who realised him or her or it. For others, who are still in the clutches of worldly attractions that are illusory (Maya), the rituals are a means to get some solace in the otherwise difficult world. The idols or symbols are simply a means to concentrate the mind so that the mind can understand what the mind is.

When one realises that knowledge is to value not the physical comforts but being able to live comfortably without them. When humans start departing with everything they have, they first get themselves rid of things that value least. Only when one gives up everything and frees himself from the worldly things, can one concentrate of nothing. It is to represent the physical world that the person values, one worships the idol.

Does it mean, those who worship no idol are wise? The answer lies in giving away all rituals and any particular places and directions and practices. When one can pray to god without doing anything without feeling neither sacred nor defiled – only then, he is said to be realised the Brahman. Till then, it remains only a pretence. Maybe that is the reason why it is said children are like gods, for they are blissful without worrying about anything including themselves.

शान्तिः।शान्तिः।शान्तिः।

© 2018 Kannan

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    • rkpthegod profile imageAUTHOR

      Kannan 

      7 months ago from Mumbai

      Good. I too do it sometimes in a casual way, as I find when I try to read it in a serious manner- to learn something, it just look as simple text.

      Whenever I try to read those old texts, I see it from a new perspective.

      The most difficult part is separating the 'story' portion from the actual hypothesis.

      Even in Kenopanishad, there is a story that is attached in later chapters. Might have been a later addition because, it simply reduces the intellectual level. Or, they might have written it to cater to various classes of people and let everyone to understand to the best of their abilities.

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      7 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      I think I may begin to read the Upanishads again. :)

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