Kena Upanishad (Kenopaniṣat) – Knowledge of Self as Brahman

Author: Manvitha Singamsetty (University of Ottawa)

TheKena Upanishad or Kenopaniṣat(also known as the Talavakara Upanishad) elucidates the concept ofnirguna(qualityless) Brahman(absolute or ultimate reality) and establishes the oneness of Atman(Self) and Brahman. Kenaliterally means “by whom?”, “from what cause?”, or “whence?”. The word Upanishadis derived from upameaning near, ni, meaning down, and sad, which means to sit. The idea communicated here is that a student (or group of students) sit near a teacher to receive knowledge and instruction about Truth which overcomes all illusion and ignorance.

The Kena Upanishadbegins with the questions of a student who is perplexed about the real cause of existence of the world, and how one might acquire this knowledge about the cause of the world. The teacher responds by establishing Brahman as ultimate reality, and clarifying that Brahman is understood by some as saguna Brahman and by others as nirgunaBrahman. Saguna Brahman is absolute reality when it is identified with the qualities of being a creator (and sometimes also the sustainer and destroyer) of all existence. On this view, absolute reality is believed to have a form, and is usually referred to and worshipped as God or Isvara. The Upanishadgoes on to clarify that the real cause of all existence is nirgunaBrahman– a cause that is itself uncaused, has no form, and is only knowable by transcending all categorical and conceptual knowledge and experience.

In theKena Upanishad,Brahman is presented as both knowing and what is known. It is a kind of pure knowledge without any content, in which the subject/object distinction is dissolved, unknowable and inexpressible through ordinary cognition. Brahman is initially understood to be the only worthy goal of all true knowledge, and then the Upanishad states that Nirguna Brahman can only be completely known when one is able to overcome all forms of categorization. The Upanishadgoes on to state that knowledge of nirgunaBrahmanis the state in which Atman, the self and Brahman,become one. (This idea of oneness between Atmanand Brahman forms the foundation of the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy).

TheKena Upanishad concludes by elaborating on the state of mokshaand emphasizes that all human beings can come to know their Self as Brahman. This knowledge will lead the Self to immortality by uniting with Brahman, thereby eliminating all illusion and culminating all thought in pure knowledge.

Unlike other Upanishads, theKena Upanishadconsists of both poetry and prose. It is divided into four sections, and consists of 13 verses and 21 prose paragraphs in total. Given its unique structure when compared to other Upanishads, Paul Deussen views it as a ‘bridge’ between the early prose and later poetry style Upanishads (Deussen, 1966)

The full text of theKena Upanishadin Sanskrit can be found here.


Recommended Translations
Secondary Literature
Compare with/relate to

Recommended Translations

The Early Upanishads, Annotated Text & Translation Patrick Olivelle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 363-371

The Upanishads Abridged Edition, Translation and Introduction by Swami Nikhilananda (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1964), pp. 97-102

The Principal Upanishads, Edited with Introduction, Text, Translation and Notes by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen and Uniwin Ltd) pp. 579-592

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Secondary Literature (with annotated bibliography)

Kena Upanishad with the Commentary of Sankaracharya, Translated by Swami Gambhirananda, (Kolkatta: Advaita Ashrama Press, 1957)

Widely used and easily accessible commentary on Kenopinsat by Adi Shankaracharya. This is a good source for connecting Upanishadic teachings with Advaita Vedanta.

“Kena Upanishad – By Whom?” in The Mukhya Upanishads: Books of Hidden Wisdom”, Translation and Commentary by Charles Johnston, (Kshetra Books, 1921), pp. 225-232

A discussion focusing on the complexities of nirguna Brahmanas it is portrayed in Kenopinast. Reading can be accessed online

The Principal Upanishads,Edited with Introduction, Text, Translation and Notes by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen and Uniwin Ltd, 1969), pp. 48-103

A historical and philosophical introduction to the Upanishads, and a detailed overview of the concepts of Brahman, Atman, the Brahman-Atman identity, and the status of the world in relation to ultimate reality.

“The Essential Brahman”, Chapter 4 in The Philosophy of the Upanishads, by Paul Deussen, Translated by A S Geden (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), pp. 126-157.

A detailed discussion of nirguna Brahmanincluding sat-chit-ananda(existence-consciousness-bliss) and ‘unknowableness’ of nirguna Brahmanas discussed in the Upanishads.

Woodburne, A. S., ‘The Idea of God in Hinduism’, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jan., 1925), pp. 52-66

Part I is a discussion of saguna BrahmanorIsvara, and a comparison is made with Christian and Islamic notions of God.

Puligandla, R., Immanence and Transcendence in the Upanishadic Teaching, Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion, Vol. 1, 1996, pp. 86-103.

Drawing from several of the principle Upanishads, this article provides a detailed discussion of nirguna Brahmanas immanent and transcendent reality.

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Compare with/relate to:

Advaita Vedanta
Plotinus (the One),
Spinoza (monism)
Meister Eckhart (unitive experience)
negative (apophatic) theology

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