Knowing that is Ignorance, and Unknowing That is Knowing
At the beginning
All classical commentators say that in this second part of the Kena Upanishad the first two verses are a dialogue between a teacher and a student, and the remaining three verses are an exposition of the discussion.
First, the teacher says to the student: “If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods–that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn” (Kena Upanishad 2:1).
The student responds: “I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know him not. He among us knows him best who understands the spirit of the words: “Nor do I know that I know him not” (Kena Upanishad 2:2).
To help us in this, here is the translation of Swami Gambhirananda:
“[Teacher:] If you think, ‘I have known Brahman well enough,’ then you have known only the very little expression that It has in the human body and the little expression that It has among the gods. Therefore Brahman is still to be deliberated on by you.
“Student:] ‘I think [Brahman] is known. I do not think, “I know [Brahman] well enough;” [i.e. I consider] “Not that I do not know: I know and I do not know as well.” He among us who understands that utterance, “Not that I do not know. I Know and I do not know as well,” knows that [Brahman].’”
That may have only compounded the bewilderment, but we can untangle it with patience. These verses are excellent examples of the difficulty we have when we try to speak the Unspeakable and explain the Unexplainable.
An easy mistake
Brahman is not only everywhere, but actually is all things. (This, too, we cannot exactly comprehend, and to express it simplistically is to make things much worse.) Because of this, it is easy for those who have experienced only a hint of Brahman–even a hint of Which is tremendous–to say: “Now I know Brahman.” But that would be like someone who has seen a cup of sea water saying: “Now I have seen the sea.” If we do not know Brahman fully, we cannot truly say that we know Brahman at all. Yet, there is a knowing that is beyond the intellect and is both knowing and unknowing in an experiential sense. This is why a medieval mystical English text on the knowledge of God is called The Cloud of Unknowing. When we know Brahman we know that It cannot known in the human sense of knowing. The same concept is held in Eastern Christianity, where it is said that God cannot be seen, but you must see God to realize that He cannot be seen.
Is all this said to confuse and mystify us? No; but it does have the purpose of our giving up the hopeless attempt to comprehend Brahman intellectually.
So the teacher says that to think we know Brahman when we have just glimpsed a hint of Its existence is a mistake. The clever student, however, points out that we can dimly know something of Brahman. He then points out that when come to truly know Brahman we will understand that we both know and do not know Brahman, that it is foolish to say either, “I know Brahman,” or “I do not know Brahman.” In wisdom, the two go together.
If you still do not get the idea, do not worry. The upanishadic author assumed we might not, so he gives us this verse to clear things up: “He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge; he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge” (Kena Upanishad 2:3).
The knowledge of Brahman is not an intellectual matter, and neither is it incapacitating, despite the common misconception that mystical vision renders us unfit for practical life. So the next verse tells us: “He who realizes the existence of Brahman behind every activity of his being whether sensing, perceiving, or thinking–he alone gains immortality. Through knowledge of Brahman comes power [virya: strength]. Through knowledge of Brahman comes victory over death [amritatvam: immortality]” (Kena Upanishad 2:4).
To live in unbroken consciousness of God is liberation. Liberation is possible even here in this world, while living in the body. For the upanishad continues: “Blessed is the man who while he yet lives realizes Brahman. The man who realizes him not suffers his greatest loss. When they depart this life, the wise, who have realized Brahman as the Self in all beings, become immortal” (Kena Upanishad 2:5).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Blessed
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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