The title of this Upanishad, Kena (“by whom”), is simply the first word of the text. The Kena Upanishad is also sometimes called the Talavakara Upanishad because it forms the ninth chapter of the Talavakara Brahmana of the Sama Veda.
This UPANISHAD is about knowing Brahman. More exactly, it’s about the paradoxical nature of that knowledge. It stresses the idea that when we consider ourselves to be performers of actions, we are unable to recognize Brahman (God) because Brahman is the real actor.
Among the Upanishads, it is one of the most analytical and metaphysical, its purpose is to lead the mind from the gross to the subtle, from effect to cause. By a series of profound questions and answers, it seeks to locate the source of man’s being; and to expand his self–consciousness until it has become identical with God–Consciousness.
The KENA UPANISHAD falls into two halves. The first half, consisting of two khandas or chapters, records a dialogue in verse between a student and teacher.
The second half, in prose, tells a fable in which the gods fail to recognize Brahman because they imagine they are responsible for a victory that was in fact won by him.
The Gods stand for the psychic forces that control the sense-organs. Indra, or I-consciousness, is their ruler. The demons [who were overcome in battle by Brahman] represent a man’s evil passions. Now and then the senses are able to overcome a passion and get a sudden glimpse of Atman. Then they proudly feel that they can understand Atman’s whole nature. The organ of speech (Agni, or Fire) thinks it can know the whole of Brahman. Prana, the vital force (Vayu, or Wind), thinks it alone controls man’s activity. They soon realize, however, the futility of their power and beat a retreat. Then the ego, or the individual soul (Indra), chastened and humbled, steps forward, and the vision of Atman vanish. There appears before him Grace (Uma, the consort of the Lord), who is the Power of Brahman (Sakti) and also the Wisdom of the Vedas (Brahmavidya). She destroys the wrong notion of the ego and the senses and ultimately reveals the truth of Brahman.
I The Brahman once won a victory for the Devas. Through that victory of the Brahman, the Devas became elated. They thought, “This victory is ours. This glory is ours.” Brahman here does not mean a personal Deity. There is a Brahma, the first person of the Hindu Trinity; but Brahman is the Absolute, the One without a second, and the essence of all. There are different names and forms which represent certain personal aspects of Divinity, such as Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Transformer; but no one of these can fully represent the Whole. Brahman is the vast ocean of being, on which rise numberless ripples and waves of manifestation. From the smallest atomic form to a Deva or an angel, all spring from that limitless ocean of Brahman, the inexhaustible Source of life. No manifested form of life can be independent of its source, just as no wave, however mighty; can be independent of the ocean. Nothing moves without that Power. He is the only Doer. But the Devas thought: “This victory is ours, this glory is ours.”
II The Brahman perceived this and appeared before them. They did not know what mysterious form it was.
III They said to Fire: “O Jataveda (All–knowing)! Find out what mysterious spirit this is.” He said: “Yes.”
IV He ran towards it and He (Brahman) said to him: “Who art thou?” “I am Agni, I am Jataveda,” he (the Fire–god) replied.
V Brahman asked: “What power resides in thee?” Agni replied: “I can burn up all whatsoever exists on earth.”
VI Brahman placed a straw before him and said: “Burn this.” He (Agni) rushed towards it with all speed but was not able to burn it. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): “I was not able to find out what this great mystery is.”
VII Then they said to Vayu (the Air–god): “Vayu! Find out what this mystery is.” He said: “Yes.”
VIII He ran towards it and He (Brahman) said to him: “Who art thou?” “I am Vayu, I am Matarisva ( the traveler of Heaven),” he (Vayu) said.
IX Then the Brahman said: “What power is in thee?” Vayu replied: “I can blow away all whatsoever exists on earth.”
X Brahman placed a straw before him and said: “Blow this away.” He (Vayu) rushed towards it with all speed but was not able to blow it away. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): “I was not able to find out what this great mystery is.”
XI Then they said to Indra: “O Maghavan (Worshipful One)! Find out what this mystery is.” He said: “Yes”; and ran towards it, but it disappeared before him.
XII, Then he saw in that very space a woman beautifully adorned, Uma of golden hue, daughter of Haimavat (Himalaya). He asked: “What is this great mystery?” Here we see how the Absolute assumes concrete form to give knowledge of Himself to the earnest seeker. Brahman, the impenetrable mystery, disappeared and in His place appeared a personal form to represent Him. This is a subtle way of showing the difference between the Absolute and the personal aspects of Deity. The Absolute is declared to be unknowable and unthinkable, but He assumes deified personal aspects to make Himself known to His devotees. Thus Uma, daughter of the Himalaya, represents that personal aspect as the offspring of the Infinite Being; while the Himalaya stands as the symbol of the Eternal, Unchangeable One.
Thus the aspirant attains the supreme knowledge. It should be noted that one cannot even have a glimpse of the indwelling Atman unless the evil passions are subdued.
“A person begins with dissatisfaction. Not content with the world he seeks satisfaction of desires by prayers to God; his mind is purified; he longs to know God more than to satisfy his carnal desires. Then God’s Grace begins to manifest. God takes the form of a Guru and appears to the devotee; teaches him the Truth; purifies the mind by his teachings and contact; the mind gains strength, is able to turn inward; with meditation, it is purified yet further, and eventually remains still without the least ripple.
That stillness is the Self. The Guru is both exterior and interior. From the exterior he gives a push to the mind to turn inward; from the interior, he pulls the mind towards the Self and helps the mind to achieve quietness. That is Grace.
Hence there is no difference between God, Guru, and Self.