The Katha Upanishad and the Great Initiation
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1919
Many Scriptures have been inspired by the Great Initiation; with these are to be counted the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus and the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. In many is embodied the wisdom gained in the Great Initiation; were it not so, they would not be true Scriptures. There appears to be but one, known in the world today, which has taken the Great Initiation as its central theme: the Katha Upanishad, translated under the title In the House of Death.
The Hymns of the Rig Veda, which were simply rearranged to make up the Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda, belong pre-eminently to the Brahmans, the white race that entered India by the Hindu Kush passes, descending from Central Asia where they had dwelt for ages, in close contact with the ancestors of the Chinese and Babylonians. The Upanishads have their origin in quite another source: they were handed down among the red Rajputs, as an immemorial teaching, of which Krishna speaks thus in the Bhagavad Gita:
“This imperishable teaching of union I declared to the Solar lord. The Solar lord imparted it to Manu, and Manu told it to Ikshvaku. Thus the Rajanya sages knew it, handed down from Master to disciple. This teaching of union has been lost in the world through long lapse of time, O consumer of the foe. This same immemorial teaching of union I have declared to thee to-day; for thou art my beloved, my companion; and this secret doctrine is the most excellent treasure.”
The stock of the red Rajputs was not Asiatic but Egyptian. From Egypt, they came to Western India, bringing with them the holy knowledge of the occult schools which, as a Master of the Egyptian Lodge has said, “were the secret splendour of Egypt.” This very truth is contained in the sentences quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, for the Solar lord is Ra, the Logos, the Sun God of Egypt. Manu is the genius of the older Egyptian race, the race which came from Atlantis, in the period of its submergence, and for this reason Manu is the central figure of the Indian tradition of the Deluge. Ikshvaku is the leader and founder of the Rajanya race in India, through whom, as King Initiate, the occult wisdom was handed down.
In this way was founded the Lodge of Masters in India, which, therefore, drew its occult knowledge from Egypt. It is true that the White Brahmans, who entered India from the Central Asian tableland (whither they had fled from Atlantis ages earlier), were in possession of secret wisdom, embodied in the mantras which were afterwards collected in the ten Circles of the Rig Veda. But, while they had the casket, they had lost the key. This key was restored to them by the red Rajanya sages, who had brought it with them from the occult schools of Egypt.
The secret wisdom of Egypt, thus brought to India by the Rajanya or Rajput race, had two forms; or, perhaps, it would be truer to say that it had a living soul and an outer vesture. The living soul was the actual process of the Great Initiation, with the complete practical training leading up to it; the vesture was the ritual of Initiation, the form of that august ceremony, together with the body of teachings of the Lesser Mysteries. Both were perpetuated in the Indian Lodge, which the red race from Egypt then formed. And while the soul of this Indian occult school was withdrawn, after the lapse of millenniums, to the heart of the Himalaya mountains, the outer vesture remains in India today.
“The Upanishads contain all wisdom,” a Master has said, as recorded in The Secret Doctrine, “they no longer reveal it.” The Upanishads are, in fact, in their most vital part, the very ritual of Initiation brought from Egypt, and later translated into Sanskrit. They embody both the Greater and the Lesser Mysteries, and much of their substance is cast in the form of dialogues between Guru and Chela, between Master and disciple, or disciples. Such are, for example, Prashna Upanishad (“A Vedic Master”), the episode of Chhandogya Upanishad containing the teaching “That thou art,” and the superb section of the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad which has been translated under the title The Song of Life, a title borrowed from that supremely occult book, Light on the Path. While the dialogues in the great Upanishads lead up to the Great Initiation, one only, Katha Upanishad, gives the actual substance of the Great Initiation. It is, therefore, in a sense, the highest of all occult scriptures; and one is struck, at the outset, with the likeness of its plan to that of another document of very different character, the Apostles’ Creed.
“He descended into Hell and rose again the third day,” may stand as a description of the progress of Nachiketas, the candidate for the Great Initiation in Katha Upanishad, the type of all Initiates. Nachiketas is the son of Uddalaka Aruni. His father has offered a sacrifice of cattle, an ineffectual sacrifice. He at last determines to sacrifice his son. Exactly the same idea is expressed by St. Paul, who speaks of the sacrifices of the Temple, likewise sacrifices of cattle, as being superseded by the sacrifice of the Son, whom the Father sent into the world. The same thought is contained in the parables, where the King, after he has sent his servants, sends his son, who is put to death.
There are two meanings contained in this symbol; indeed, many meanings, among which two stand out. The first is the universal, macrocosmic: the creative Logos is the Father. The Logos, having sent the lesser creatures into incarnation, sees that this is an ineffectual offering. “Nature unaided fails.” Then the Logos sends the divine soul, which is, in truth, the Logos himself. This is the incarnation of the Solar Pitris, the Manasa Putras, spiritual man. The soul descends into the House of Death: into incarnation; and dwells there “three nights.” These are the “three times,” past, present, future; the three facets of the great Illusion of Time. When this illusion is conquered, the soul rises again to the immortal world, and enters into the Great Beyond.
There is also the individual meaning, the personal history of the Candidate for Initiation. Here, the cattle first offered have their symbolic meaning. They are the senses, the bodily powers, which graze in the pastures of the natural world, the fields of sense activity. An austere ascetic may offer the sacrifice of the senses in the fire of self-control. But he may thereby merely strengthen his self-will, his wilfulness, as many ascetics have done. This is true of the class called in India Hatha Yogis, or Yogis of the market-place; and this is the reason why certain extreme forms of penance are forbidden by the Bhagavad Gita.
The disciple must sacrifice, not his senses, but himself. He must offer up the lower self in the fire of perfect self-denial, self-abnegation, to the Higher Self. In this sense, the Higher Self, as Father, sends the personal self, the son, into the world; and the son must willingly submit himself to crucifixion. He must enter of his own will, which has for this purpose become one with the will of his Father, into the House of Death. He must descend into hell, to rise again the third day.
There are preliminary trials. These are dramatically represented, in those dialogues of the Lesser Mysteries in the Upanishads, already described; the Initiator offers the candidate three wishes. These are exactly the same, both in substance and in purpose, as Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. It seems certain that that great Initiate himself enumerated these temptations to his disciples; casting them, as is the invariable method in all records of the Mysteries, into the form of a dialogue between himself and the tempter.
In the Katha Upanishad, the tempter is one with the Initiator, the Master who tries and tests his disciple. The name given to the Initiator is Yama, Death, Son of the Sun. Yama, according to the tradition of India, was the divine King of the first human race which was fated to taste death; the earlier human races, the first and second and the earlier third, having had no death in our sense, since they lacked the dense material vesture which is subject to the throes of dissolution. King Yama, therefore, when the time came for men to die, himself accepted the first ordeal, and first descended into the house of night, where he has ever since reigned as King.
He passed the trial first himself, as every Master does; in the most literal sense going through the whole experience in his own person, and thus, if the metaphor may be allowed, pre-digesting it for his disciples. This is true in general of the whole of the disciple’s training. It is supremely true of his Initiation, which is the goal and climax of that training. Therefore Yama, who first offered himself and passed through the pains of death, is the forerunner and type of every subsequent faster, the Lodge as a whole passing in advance through all the experiences which are pre-ordained for humanity for ages to come, up to the culmination of Nirvana.
The order of certain parts of the Katha Upanishad appears to have been purposely confused. What are really the preliminary trials—sons and grandsons, long life, wealth, the gifts of beauty—now stand after the passages which record the ceremony of Initiation. That ceremony begins with the first wish of Nachiketas. He asks for reconciliation with his Father. This includes two things: first, the Father stands for the sum of his past Karma, an account which must be balanced and closed before the Great Initiation can be entered; second, the Father stands for the Higher Self; the son, the personal life, must be at-one with his Father, the Higher Self. This is the true etymological meaning of at-one-ment, or atonement.
The second wish concerns the heavenly world. The Initiator reveals the heavenly world to Nachiketas, in all its majesty and splendour. This is, in the deepest sense, the critical point in the Great Initiation, far more vital and decisive than the earlier trials. For that heavenly world is no less than Nirvana. The new Initiate has fairly won it, and is, in a sense, fully entitled to enter in, to dwell in immeasurable bliss for measureless time.
Yet if the new Initiate accepts that right and elects to enter into Nirvana, the Initiation has, in a certain high sense, failed; and he, the Nirvanee, has also failed. But he succeeds in the supreme spiritual sense, if he refuses all the splendours of Nirvana, and elects instead to return to earth, to take up of free will his part of the heavy burden of the world’s bad Karma, which is the sum of mankind’s wilful disobediences, with all the penalties that they entail. Then he joins the active ranks of the world’s Saviours, who suffer that enduring pain of which Prometheus speaks.
The third wish of Nachiketas, to know “what is in the Great Beyond,” is thereon granted. For the Great Beyond is the mysterious life, of terrible toil yet of great and ever increasing delight, which the Master enters when he has passed beyond Nirvana; when he has renounced and laid aside his right and title to that supreme and fully earned reward. Little remains to be said concerning the Katha Upanishad. The whole heart of the theme is contained in these three wishes, with the symbolic narrative leading up to them. But much remains to be done. Those who would tread that path must read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the teaching. They will find there faithfully represented their own trials and temptations; the abnegation and sacrifice which are demanded of them; and some foreshadowing of the surpassing reward: the goal which those seek who offer sacrifice.