Kena Upanishad on the Limits of Knowledge

Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Jayaram V

There is an interesting, and rather cryptic verse in the second chapter of the Kena Upanishad, which goes like this.

3. yasyamatam tasya matam matam yasya na veda sah; avijnatam vijanatam vijnatam avijanatam.

To whomsoever it is unknown, to him it is known. To whomsoever it is known, he does not know. It is unknown to those who know it and known to those who do not know.

What does this mean? How can you know something you do not know and how can you do not know what you know? This is the paradox of knowing the Self, not knowing the known and knowing the unknown. The reference here is to the Self (Atman) or the Supreme Self (Brahman), which is perceptually and intellectually the unknowable. The verse alludes to the difficulty in understanding transcendental states of existence. The Self cannot be experienced by the mind. Hence, mentally you cannot know or be aware of the Self. Yet, you can experience the Self as Self and become aware of it, by being one with the Self, in a state of non-duality. However, since you do not keep that state when you are awake, you will never be aware of it in a wakeful state.

Let us take the analogy of an ant and a human being. For the ant you do not exist, even though you exist. It is because the ant cannot comprehend the immensity of you. Even if you stand before it, it cannot fathom your existence entirely. It may have a vague feeling of something big standing near by, but it does not know you as other people know you. To know anything, you need knowledge, matching intelligence and the ability to comprehend and identify what has been perceived. With the Self, none of these is possible mentally, the instrument upon which we depend normally to experience things and make sense of them.

This verse presents that difficulty and the near impossibility of knowing something which you are not in your waking physical state. We cannot say that we do no know our inner Selves at all. Everyday, when we fall asleep and enter into a dreamless state, we experience the Self. In that non-dual state we know the Self, but when we wake up do not know or remember what happened in our deep sleep. Therefore, as this verse rightly declares, although we think we do not know the Self, we know it unconsciously.

The Self is also experienced in a state of self-absorption, in deeper states of samyama (an advanced state of concentrated meditation), when there is no duality and distinction between the knower and the known and when our minds and senses are fully withdrawn. Thus, when, there is an awareness of the knower it is unknown and when the knower is absent it is known. Hence, it is unknown to those whose mind and senses are active and who experience duality; but it is known to those whose mind and senses are asleep and who enter into a state of unity without the distinction between the knower and the known.

In short, we are speaking here about knowing the unknown or even the unknowable. Since we oscillate between wakefulness and deep sleep on a regular basis, in our wakeful state we are consciously unconscious of the Self, but in deep sleep we are unconsciously conscious of it. Yet we are never sure whether we know it at all, because our experience of the transcendental Self is always indeterminate and beyond our minds and senses.

An alternate interpretation

The translation presented above is the standard translation. However, it does not adequately convey the hidden meaning of the verse. The same verse can also be translated in the following manner.

Whoever thinks he knows Brahman does not know. Whoever does not think that he knows Brahman may probably know Him. Brahman is not known by knowing. He is known by not knowing.

What this means is that Brahman is not known by intellectual means. If you have opinions about Brahman, you are probably wrong. Therefore, you should silence your mind and keep it free from mental constructs about Brahman. When your mind is free from ideas, opinions and mental constructs about Brahman, in that giving up, you open your mind to higher knowledge. The second part of the verse reconfirms the same idea. Knowing implies effort motivated by either egoism or deisre or both. You cannot know Brahman by making a conscious and willful effort. You have to give up that effort and let go of the desire to know. It is because, the stateof Brahman is known in complete silence. When you make an effort to know Brahman, He eludes you, but when you renounce the desire to know Him and do not make a conscious effort, in that silent resignation you have a better chance of knowing Him. Thus, Brahman cannot be known with desire-ridden effort but in a state of complete renunciation characterized by silence and absence of intentions and expectations.

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