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One of the shortest of the Upanishads, the Kena is also sometimes known as the Talavakra Upanishad. Kena simply means "By whom" in Sanskrit, and is the text's first word.

The Kena deals with the knowledge of Brahman, and delivers a summary of the great lesson given in other Upanishads, namely, neti, neti: Brahman is not this, not that; Brahman is not any of the things you can say or think or perceive. Also, and importantly, Brahman is self-existing, not imaginary, and not to be attained by mere human effort and decision. In his commentary on the Kena Upanishad, the sage Shankara says:

Knowledge of Brahman depends entirely upon the reality of Brahman Itself, and not upon the will of the knower.

However, this is an idea which seems to have been elaborated on in previous Upanishads, and the Kena does not really read as the words of a truly enlightened master, but rather as those of someone who has studied the older Upanishads and summarized them for a more modern audience. This impression (which is a personal reaction, not based on an in-depth study of the origins of this text) is strengthened by the inclusion of the line:

thus we have heard from those of old, who taught us this

Both the first section, in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil, and the second section, in the form of a fable about a contest between the gods, emphasize the fact that Brahman, not the individual human being or god, is the true actor, knower, thinker and perceiver. In other words, 'I' cannot know Brahman, because Brahman is, itself, the Knower.

Kena Upanishad

Translation by Max Muller (1884) - The Sacred Books of the East

FIRST KHANDA

1. The Pupil asks: 'At whose wish does the mind sent forth proceed on its errand? At whose command does the first breath go forth? At whose wish do we utter this speech? What god directs the eye, or the ear?'

2. The Teacher replies: 'It is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech of speech, the breath of breath, and the eye of the eye. When freed (from the senses) the wise, on departing from this world, become immortal.

3. 'The eye does not go thither, nor speech, nor mind. We do not know, we do not understand, how any one can teach it.

4. 'It is different from the known, it is also above the unknown, thus we have heard from those of old, who taught us this.

5. 'That which is not expressed by speech and by which speech is expressed, that alone know as Brahman, not that which people here adore.

6. 'That which does not think by mind, and by which, they say, mind is thought, that alone know as Brahman, not that which people here adore.

7. 'That which does not see by the eye, and by which one sees (the work of) the eyes, that alone know as Brahman, not that which people here adore.

8. 'That which does not hear by the ear, and by which the ear is heard, that alone know as Brahman, not that which people here adore.

9. 'That which does not breathe by breath, and by which breath is drawn, that alone know as Brahman, not that which people here adore.'

SECOND KHANDA

1. The Teacher says: 'If thou thinkest I know it well, then thou knowest surely but little, what is that form of Brahman known, it may be, to thee?'

2. The Pupil says: 'I do not think I know it well, nor do I know that I do not know it. He among us who knows this, he knows it, nor does he know that he does not know it.

3. 'He by whom it (Brahman) is not thought, by him it is thought; he by whom it is thought, knows it not. It is not understood by those who understand it, it is understood by those who do not understand it.

4. 'It is thought to be known (as if) by awakening, and (then) we obtain immortality indeed. By the Self we obtain strength, by knowledge we obtain immortality.

5. 'If a man know this here, that is the true (end of life); if he does not know this here, then there is great destruction (new births). The wise who have thought on all things (and recognized the Self in them) become immortal, when they have departed from this world.'

THIRD KHANDA

1. Brahman obtained the victory for the Devas. The Devas became elated by the victory of Brahman, and they thought, this victory is ours only, this greatness is ours only.

2. Brahman perceived this and appeared to them. But they did not know it, and said: 'What sprite (yaksha or yakshya) is this ?'

3. They said to Agni (fire): 'O Gatavedas, find out what sprite this is.' 'Yes,' he said.

4. He ran toward it, and Brahman said to him: 'Who are you?' He replied: 'I am Agni, I am Gatavedas.'

5. Brahman said: 'What power is in you?' Agni replied: 'I could burn all whatever there is on earth.'

6. Brahman put a straw before him, saying: 'Burn this.' He went towards it with all his might, but he could not burn it. Then he returned thence and said: 'I could not find out what sprite this is.' 7. Then they said to Vayu (air): 'O Vayu, find out what sprite this is.' 'Yes,'he said.

8. He ran toward it, and Brahman said to him: 'Who are you?' He replied: 'I am V'ayu, I am Matarisvan.'

9. Brahman said: 'What power is in you?' Vayu replied: 'I could take up all whatever there is on earth.'

10. Brahman put a straw before him, saying: 'Take it up.' He went towards it with all his might, but he could not take it up. Then he returned thence and said: 'I could not find out what sprite this is.'

11. Then they said to Indra: 'O Maghavan, find out what sprite this is.' He went towards it, but it disappeared from before him.

12. Then in the same space (ether) he came towards a woman, highly adorned: it was Uma, the daughter of Himavat. He said to her: 'Who is that sprite?'

FOURTH KHANDA.

1. She replied: 'It is Brahman. It is through the victory of Brahman that you have thus become great.' After that he knew that it was Brahman.

2. Therefore these Devas, viz. Agni, Vayu, and Indra, are, as it were, above the other gods, for they touched it (the Brahman) nearest.

3. And therefore Indra is, as it were, above the other gods, for he touched it nearest, he first knew it.

4. This is the teaching of Brahman, with regard to the gods (mythological): It is that which now flashes forth in the lightning, and now vanishes again.

5. And this is the teaching of Brahman, with regard to the body (psychological): It is that which seems to move as mind, and by it imagination remembers again and again.

6. That Brahman is called Tadvana, by the name of Tadvana it is to be meditated on. All beings have a desire for him who knows this.

7. The Teacher: 'As you have asked me to tell you the Upanishad, the Upanishad has now been told you. We have told you the Brahmi Upanishad.

8. 'The feet on which that Upanishad stands are penance, restraint, sacrifice; the Vedas are all its limbs, the True is its abode.

9. 'He who knows this Upanishad, and has shaken off all evil, stands in the endless, unconquerable world of heaven, yea, in the world of heaven.'


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