Q: There are so many Upanishads. Which one is the best?
A: The Kaivalya Upanishad, although it is but one of many excellent Upanishads, is a good choice if you are looking for a small Upanishad that packs a big punch.
Unlike many of the Upanishads—which are often laden with esoteric upasanas (meditations) and beautiful, but difficult to comprehend poetic expressions—the Kaivalya Upanishad is rather straightforward in its presentation of the Vedantic teachings.
Though still quite poetic, the direct style of the Upanishad makes its mantras less susceptible to conflicting interpretations, which, in turn, makes it easier for the potential student to understand. This, coupled with the fact that the Upanishad gives an overview of all of the major ideas of Vedanta, make it a valuable tool for “acquiring” the self-knowledge (brahma-vidya) that leads to liberation. The name of the Upanishad itself, which means “aloneness,” is both a synonym for moksha and an indication of the non-dual nature of Brahman, which is, by default, “alone,” seeing as it does not admit of the existence of anything other than Itself.
And how is this liberating self-knowledge “obtained”? The first mantra of the Upanishad says: “Find a teacher.”
Kai. U. Verse 1.1: “Then, Ashvalayana approached Lord Paremeshti and said: ‘Teach me Bhagavan, the noblest and most secret knowledge of Brahman, by which the wise destroy all evils and attain that Purusha (person/self/Brahman) which is higher than the highest.’”
Then, the Upanishad states the sadhana (spiritual practice) that supports this quest for the highest knowledge of Brahman:
Kai. U. Verse 1.2: “The Grandsire (Paremesthi) duly replied, ‘May you know that [Brahman] by resorting to faith, devotion and meditation.’”
Subsequently, the Upanishad praises renunciation as an adjunct to the pursuit of brahma-vidya and decries the efficacy of several common human pursuits that do not lead to liberation:
Kai. U. Verse 1.3: “It is through renunciation that a few seekers have attained immortality—not through ritual (karma), not through progeny, not through wealth. Renunciates (those who eschew worldly and religious pursuits as a means to liberation) attain that which shines beyond heaven and that which resides in the heart.”
Kai. U. Verse 1.4: “Through renunciation, the pure-minded have ascertained the object of Vedantic knowledge. Having become one with Brahman [lit. “paramrita”] while living, they resolve completely into Brahman at the time of their death.”
Then, the Upanishad describes how to meditate on Brahman, imagining it to exist within one’s own heart. “Heart” here does not refer to the physical organ. Instead, it is a metaphor that indicates Brahman as the “innermost” essence of the meditator.
Kai. U Verse 1.6: “Having turned one’s attention to the steady, pure, clear and pleasant lotus-like heart, one should meditate on Brahman, which is the source of all, incomprehensible, unmanifest, of many forms, auspicious, tranquil, immortal, beginningless, middleless, endless, non-dual, all-pervasive, consciousness, bliss, formless and wonderful.”
The following verse (1.7) then provides a way to contemplate on Brahman, using the symbolism of Shiva.
But, to avoid the literal interpretation that Brahman is Shiva—or any god in particular, for that matter—the Upanishad makes the following statements, clearly demonstrating the non-sectarian stance of Vedanta, as well as its insistence that knowledge of Brahman is the only legitimate path to liberation:
Kai. U. 1.8–1.11: “He (Brahman) is Brahma (Paremesthi, the Creator). He is Shiva. He is Indra. He is the supreme imperishable, self-effulgent one. He himself is Vishnu. He is prana. He is time. He is fire. He is the moon. He alone is that which was in the past, that which is in the present and that which will be in the future. Having known that eternal one, the seeker transcends mortality. There is no other means for liberation. Clearly seeing one’s self in all beings, and all beings in one’s self, one attains the supreme Brahman; not by any other means.”
Often times, people rightly suggest that the Mandukya Upanishad is potentially the “best” Upanishad, seeing as it propounds a key Vedantic teaching—the analysis of the Three States of Experience (waking; dream; deep sleep). But this teaching also occurs in a more direct, accessible way in the Kaivalya Upanishad, without the cryptic descriptions of the various “limbs” and “mouths” of the waking, dream, and deep sleep state entities presented in Mandukya Upanishad, descriptions that even traditional commentators have difficulty explaining.
The gist of the analysis of the Three States of Experience is this: The three states of experience (waking, dream and sleep) all arise from, and resolve in, Brahman. But Brahman, one’s self, transcends them all.
Kai. U. Verse 14: “That being who sports in the three cities (of waking, dream and sleep)—from Him has sprung up the diversity of the universe. He is the substratum, the bliss, the indivisible consciousness in whom the three cities resolve.”
Kai. U. Verse 15: “From this being springs up prana, mind, the organs (of knowledge and action), space, air, fire, water and earth, which is the supporter of all.”
Kai. U. Verse 16: “You are indeed the supreme Brahman which the self of all; which is the abode of all; which is the most subtle.”
From here, I will simply quote the remaining verses of this profound, powerhouse of an Upanishad, which are rather self-explanatory (no pun intended), as least as far as Upanishads go. They are both first-person statements of one who has “acquired” self-knowledge, as well as a potential meditations for those seeking to become “established” in self-knowledge.
So, enjoy! And if you feel compelled to get a better understanding of this Upanishad, please seek your friendly neighborhood Vedanta teacher for a more comprehensive explanation. (It doesn’t have to be me, but as the Upanishad says, you’ve got to have a teacher).
Kai. U. Verse 17: “I am that Brahman that illumines the worlds of waking, dream and sleep. Having known thus, one is liberated from all bonds.”
Kai. U. Verse 18: “I am distinct from all those (states) of experience, as well as the instruments of experience in those three states. I am the witness that is ever-auspicious, pure consciousness.”
Kai. U. Verse 19: “Everything is born in me alone; everything is based on me alone; everything resolves in me alone. I am that non-dual Brahman.”
Kai. U. Verse 20: “I am more subtle than subtly itself. I am equally vast. I am the manifold universe. I am the ancient one. I am the all-pervasive one. I am the lord. I am the purusha (person). I am the effulgent one. Verily, my nature is auspiciousness.”
Kai. U. Verse 21: “I am without hands and legs; yet, I am endowed with incomprehensible power. I see without eyes. I hear without ears. Endowed with a distinct nature, I know (all beings). But there is no one who is a knower of me. I am pure consciousness.”
Kai. U. Verse 22: “I alone am to be known through the Vedas. I am the initiator of the teachings of Vedanta. I alone am the knower of the Vedas. Merit (punyam) and demerit (papam) do not belong to me. There is no death for me. Birth, body, sense organs, and intellect do not belong to me. The elements (earth; water; fire; air; space) do not belong to me.”
Kai. U. Verse 23: “Thus, having known the nature of the supreme self, which resides in the “heart,” which is partless, non-dual, the witness of all, without cause and effect, and ever-pure, one attains the nature of the supreme self.”