[Published in International Journal of Yoga, Human Movements and Sports Sciences]

From the point of view of yogic psychology Kena Upanishad is one of the most important vedantic classics which requires detailed study.   In  this Upanishad  we  find  a truly scientific and psychological  approach  to  the spiritual  path.  This Vedanthic classic begins its enquiry with a momentous question.   “By whom missioned falls the mind shot to its mark.  By whom impelled is this word that men speak?  What God set eye and ear to their workings?” 1.And  the  Upanishad sets  out  to answer these question in a few pregnant and luminous  verses  which form  one of the most profound expositions of the deeper spiritual  psychology of man.This article is a brief review of the psychological insights revealed in this ancient text.

That Which Truly knows
Before coming to the core of this Vedantic classic, we must keep in mind that most of the Upanishads, especially the Kena, is given to seekers who are farely advanced on the spiritual path and not to the novice who knows nothing of the path.   So it is assumed that the student or seeker knows that the ordinary psychological being of man- made of his mind, speech, life-forces and the senses- is not the whole of man.  The seeker to whom the Kena is  addressing is  someone  who  has  passed  through  the  initial  stages  of  intellectual preparation  and  discipline  and arrived at some form  of  a  settled  mental insight  into a higher Reality beyond the ordinary conscious mentality.  With such  a seeker  in  front, the Sage of the Kena Upanishad proceeds  to  enlighten  him further  on  the relation of his ordinary conscious mentality to  the  unknown Reality  beyond  and the discipline by which this knowledge can  be  converted into  a  realisation.   And the sage begins his teaching by answering the original question, , in the following verses:

That  which is hearing of our hearing, mind of our mind, speech  of  our speech, that too is life of our life-breath and sight of our sight.  The wise are released beyond and they pass from this world and become immortal.”

“There  sight travels not, nor speech, nor the mind.  We know it not  nor can distinguish how one should teach it: for It is other than the known; It is there above the unknown.  It is so we have heard from men of old who declared to that to our understanding”.2

There is something beyond and inaccessible to our mind, life and senses but which is at the same time the source and the light and energy and the truth of them.  This is the Spirit and Self, the Atman of the Vedanta.  This Atman is the supreme subject; it is the light and energy by which the eyes see and ear hear, the speech utter, the life-force move, flow and circulate and the mind think.  These psychological faculties of man cannot comprehend the Spirit.  But the Spirit comprehends them all because it is the inmost subjective Self of them.  Life comprehends Matter but matter does not comprehend life; mind comprehends both life and matter but matter and life do not comprehend mind; and the Spirit comprehends matter, life and mind but matter, life and mind do not comprehend the Spirit.  And  the  Upanishad stresses  that the Spirit is not only beyond the known world  comprehended  by mind  and  senses  of the conscious self of man but  also  beyond  the  subtle unknown worlds beyond or behind the known, which the ordinary psychological faculties  of  man do not comprehend.  But these subtle worlds can be known through subtler faculties of the inner subliminal being of man.  These are the world we sometime enter into during our dreams.  And those who have developed  the inner life can enter into these worlds consciously and can know sense and study these worlds as objectively as a scientist study the material word.  Our subliminal being has an inner sense by which these subtler worlds unknown to the ordinary consciousness becomes perceptible to the adept who has developed these higher faculties.  These are the worlds of the mystic, occultist and the psychic who see and hear unearthly visions and sounds.  But the Kena Upanishad says that the Atman or Self is beyond even these subtle worlds beyond the  worlds known by the senses.

The Indian (and eastern) spiritual tradition in general did not give much importance to seeing visions and hearing sounds.  For anything which can be seen objectively by the inner or outer vision cannot be the highest Self or God who is the ultimate and inmost point and ground of our subjectivity.   The self is the supreme Light which sees through our visionary organs, gross or subtle and therefore cannot be something which can be  seen.   The highest spiritual illumination is a experiential and not a visionary knowledge.  It is an  inner  revealing  Luminosity which is felt rather than seen  in  the  very essence  of our being and which brings increasing clarity,  understanding  and self-awareness and consciousness to every part of our being.

The  second  idea  conveyed by the Upanishad is  that  the  psychological faculties  of man – his life-force, senses, speech and mind – are the  limited and  partial expression of some corresponding powers of the divine Self.   The Self is not a powerless and bodiless nude abstraction but a living conscious Being containing within itself the highest truth and law of all that we are and all that is in the Universe.

The Power Behind our Powers

Our  mind  is  a partial and limited  expression  of  the  superconscious creative self-awareness of the Spirit; our life-force is a partial and limited self-expression  of the super life or the super conscious Force of  the  Spirit; Our  senses are a partial and limited self-expression of a super sense  of  the Spirit;  Our Speech is a limited and partial self-expression of  the  creative super word of the Spirit.  Each of the psychological faculties in man derive their light and energy and the truth and law of their functioning from the corresponding powers of the super conscious Self, Atman.

Our  human  Mind,  in  the  vedantic conception  is  not  the  source  of knowledge.   Mind can only reflect analyse, organise knowledge but does not possess or create knowledge.  True knowledge belongs to a consciousness beyond Mind, which is the plane of Vignana or supermind where the truth of self and world are self-revealed to the Spirit by identity.  Human mind is only a partial, limited and delegated operation of the Super mind.   Mind doesn’t possess knowledge but tries to arrive at some constructed form of knowledge by thought,  emotion, imagination or intuition.  But super mind possess knowledge in its inherent essence by an integral identity-or in other words by becoming one with the essence and truth as well as the outer process and form of things – and reveals or brings out and expresses this knowledge by various means.

Similarly  the life-force or the Prana is not the source of life;  it  is not  an  independent and self-directed force; it is guided and directed  by  a force greater than itself and of which it is a limited and partial  expression in the human being This greater force behind Prana  is  the  Chit-shakthi  of  the  Tanthras  or  Devathmasakthi  of   the Upanishads, the consciousness – force of the divine Being.  This eternal Force inherent  in the Self-existent swayambu, vibrates in the original ether of  its being and breathes out the eternal word which gives birth to the worlds.  This blissful vibration flowing in space and time is the essence and sap of life.  And the speech we utter is only the grossest outer form of this creative Word, OM.

In  a  similar way our outer senses by which we comprehend the  world  is only  the expression of a supramental Sense of the Spirit by which the  divine being possesses and enjoys his own creative play, his leela.

These  psychological  faculties  of  the eternal  Being  of  man  do  not comprehend or express the innermost Reality, Atman, of his being but the  Atman comprehends or expresses through them something of itself.  This is the truth which is conveyed in the following verses of the Kena Upanishads:

That  which  is  unexpressed  by the word, that by  which  the  word  is expressed,  know  that to be the Brahman and not this which men  follow  after here.

That which thinks not by the mind, that by which the mind  is  thought, know that to the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.

That  which  sees  not  with the eye that by which  one  sees  the  eye’s seeing, know that to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.

That which hears not with the ear that by which the ear’s hearing is heard, know that be Brahman and not this which men follow after here.3

That which breathes not with the breath that by which the life-breath is led forward in its path, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here”.

The central message here is that there is an inner being behind the external surface personality made of the mind, life-force and the senses.  The external being does not know this inner being but the inner being knows the outer being.  It is by the light and power of the inner being the faculties of the outer persona function and do their work.  The sage of the Kena Upanishad counsels men to live in the consciousness of the inner being and not in  the outer  personality which follows after the objects of desire.  But as we  have said already there are two layers of the inner being, the subliminal self just behind  the  surface  self  and inmost spiritual  self  behind  or  above  the subliminal.   The subliminal has all the faculties of the outer self but they are subtler and freer with a greater capacity for knowledge, feeling and action.   But the inner being which Kena Upanishad describes is not this subliminal self but the inmost spiritual Self which is the ultimate source and light of our psychological being.

In the inward movement in yoga the seeker may have to pass through the subtle and subliminal worlds.  The Tanthric Yoga makes a  systematic  effort to  explore  these  subliminal self and the inner  worlds  and  harness  their faculties  and  powers for self-perfection.  But the vedantic tradition in general gave much less importance to this “occult” dimensions of Yoga and emphasised on an exclusive concentration on the highest Self.


  1. Kena Upanishad, I-1 From Sri Aurobindo‘s translations in Upanishads, Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.12, Pg.237.
  2. Ibid ,Kena Upanishad, I – 2
  3. Ibid ,Kena Upanishad, I – 3-8
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