Will and Capacity.jpg

Vet turned Yogi

Get After It



Katha Upanishad, Aristotle and the Chariot: On Desire




            The Upanishads have been described as “the heart” of Hinduism with the Katha Upanishad being perhaps the been known works. The word Upanishad derives from the root ‘upa’ meaning to sit down and combined with two prepositions ‘ni’ meaning ‘down’ and ‘upa’ meaning ‘near’. Author T.W. Rhys Davids wrote the Upanishadsliterally means séanes, ‘sitting down near another,’ but had very early acquired the connotation of the secret imparting of a deep mystery, more especially to a pupil seated in awe-struck attention by his teacher” (71). The Upanishads, flowing from the Vedanta philosophy system (scholars note its connection to Vedic thought is somewhat obscure) concerns itself with the inner life and advances a philosophy of Self in relationship to Brahman. Paraphrasing Ernest Hume, he says the Upanishads are nothing short of the first recorded attempts at codifying or arranging Hindu philosophy into a unified, holistic system. He notes the treaties takes place over centuries, the development of thought is not linear and the later philosophers had no hesitation to strike at early assertions that prove false in hindsight. In this regard, the Upanishads are quite practical, non-dogmatic and willingly change when fresh wisdom was discovered. Nearly all Indian philosophy systems that came on the heels of the Upanishads point to the treaties in support of its assertions whether dualist or non-dualist for example.  Even more exciting is the parallels in some schools of philosophy that were developing in the west concomitant with the Upanishads. One example is Plato’s Phaedrus, and his use of the chariot vis-à-vis the chariot imagery used in the Katha Upanishad. In this paper I place side-by-side, both the Katha Upanishads use of the chariot and Plato’s Phaedrus for commentary. I discuss Aristotelian ethics and especially the Greek philosophy of eudaimonia in contrast with the Katha Upanishad second valli’s notion of “the good versus the dear.” The later section delves deeper into the topic of desire in the Katha Upanishad, the Bhagavad Gita and Aristotelian ethics to tease out commonality and points of departure.

The Katha Upanishad is a dialogue between a young boy named Nachiketas and Yama, the “God of Death.” At the outset begins a struggle between a father and a son about the nature of ritual. The father Vājasravasa, becomes angry when Nachiketas, his son, questions the motivations and the efficacy behind his father's sacrifice of his worldly possessions. Nachiketas highlights that his possessions are tired and worthless and his charity is a sham. Booming with anger Vājasravas says, “To Death, I give you!” (Hume). What follows is a deep philosophical conversation between Yama and the boy Nachiketas. Their interaction is reminiscent of the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā in that teachings are transmitted via dialogue between two individuals. This narrative as argument style continues with Yama and Naciketas’s discourse which “evolves to a discussion of the nature of man, knowledge, Atman (Soul, Self) and moksha (liberation)” (Deussen).

On Desire

            In the first moments of conversation between Yama and Nachiketa, we can see how Yama tests the little boy who demonstrates an unusual level of self-discipline by rejecting Yama’s offer of a path of earthly hedonism. Nachiketas deepest wish is to secure a spot in heaven and asks Yama the path. Nachiketas says, “In the heavenly world is no fear whatsoever. Not there art thou. Not from old age does one fear. Over both having crossed--hunger, and thirst too--Gone beyond sorrow, one rejoices in the heaven world” (Hume 343). The boy wants to understand the mystery of death. Yama is doubtful of Nachiketas mindset for such an undertaking and is reluctant, he replies, “Even the gods had doubt, indeed as to this, and thou O Death, sayest that it is not easily to be understood and another declarer of it the like of thee is not to be obtained. No other boon the equal of it is there at all” (Hume 345). Nachiketas proves to have a wellspring of termity and is a devoted seeker, he keeps badgering Yama. Yama continues his misdirection by offering Nachiketas worldly wealth, he says,  “choose wealth and long life! A great one on earth, O Nachiketas, be thou . The enjoyer of thy desires I make thee” (Hume 345). Nachiketas is not enticed by the offerings of earthly bliss and remains disciplined in his seeking answers to deeper questions.

The Theory of good versus dear- Second Valli

            In this section of the Katha Upanishad, “the good versus the dear” takes on the flavor of universal ethical traditions counseling discernment on what pursuits in life are of a higher order. The God of Death says, “Both the better and the pleasanter come to a man. Going all around the two, the wise man discriminates. The wise man chooses the better, indeed, rather than the pleasanter” (Hume, 346). This emphasis on the good over the dear is rooted in vidyā (knowledge) over avidyā (ignorance). “Those abiding in the midst of ignorance, Self-wise, thinking themselves learned, running hither and thither, go around deluded, Like blind men led by one who is himself blind” (Hume 346). Aristotle wrote extensively on the ethical questions regarding worthy life pursuits and what it means to be self-wise. Both the Katha Upanishad and Aristotle wholeheartedly agree that the pursuit of what is “right” and “good” can be difficult and unclear. Both philosophies are congruent in that chasing pleasure is a direct path to misery. Aristotle was unequivocal in his assertion that a life of pure pleasure landed one in the category of a beast.  In this section I describe Aristotle’s ethics in an effort to shine some light on the cohesive nature of the two systems, highlight where they stray, noting that they spring from vastly different cultural contexts.

            In is worth mentioning that Aristotle sat at the feet of his guru, Plato for some 20 years before Plato’s passing. And Plato studied under Socrates, theoretically his guru. Out of respect for his Plato, Aristotle abstained from “testing” Plato’s philosophy until Plato’s death when Aristotle vigorously rejected Plato’s Theory of Forms. This teacher student construct is similar to the Katha Upanishad which states, “The need for a competent teacher of the soul” (Hume 347).  Verse 2.17 of the Katha Upanishad furthers this notion by saying, “He who by many is not obtainable even to hear of, He whom many, even when hearing, know not---Wonderful is the declarer, proficient the obtainer of Him! Wonderful the knower, proficiently taught!” (Hume 347).

To fully grasp Aristotle ethics vis-à-vis the Katha Upanishad the reader needs to understand that Aristotle’s ethical foundation flow from his writings on metaphysics, natural science and especially his thoughts on the Soul. The general thrust is the central concept of what the Greeks call eudaimonia. This word has been best described as a human flourishing. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle developed his philosophy of what a flourishing human is by figuring out actions steps based upon character and virtue, all steering toward what he’d say is the “chief and final good.” John Vella writes, “Aristotle argues that we can achieve success in our lives not by following any rules or moral laws, but rather by cultivating a set of virtues of character and virtues of intellect” (117). Intellectual virtue figures heavily in this metric just as the Katha Upanishad asserts knowledge and wisdom are a crucial ingredient in discerning the good from the dear. Verses 1.2.7 through 1.2.11 in the Katha Upanishad deal specifically with the mechanics of knowledge and wisdom with the pursuit of the good being an enormous undertaking.

Returning to Aristotle’s pursuit of the “chief and final good,” he says what we are “seeking is therefore something desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. This means that we never pursue the chief and final good as a means to some other good” (Vella, 127).  Eudaimonia is broken out into two parts. One part is the flourishing life is achieved by action. This is reminiscent of Karma yoga as articulated in the Bhagavad Gītā, “Therefore, constantly unattached, Perform that action which is your duty. Indeed, by performing action while unattached, Man attains the Supreme” (Sargeant 176). Notice the altruistic ring to the above passage. Aristotelian philosophy at first blush can be viewed as selfish, whereas the Bhagavad Gītā’s Karma yoga is decoupled from outcomes completely. Although ultimately Aristotle’s philosophy is selfless to the extent that the intention is the cultivation of  individualized virtue and character which lifts up society versus someone with constant problems creates societal drag. A philosophical flanking move where altruism is achieved via selfishness. Aristotle’s overarching principle or his “Supreme” in terms of his ethics is love and friendship. “Aristotle concludes that the chief and final good for human beings is a rational activity of the soul in conformity with excellence (arěte). This is what is meant by success, happiness or flourishing” (Vella,128). The second part of eudaimonia is Aristotle’s conception of the human soul articulated in his work called On the Soul.

To achieve flourishing, the best life is one of contemplation according to Aristotle. While the first element of eudaimonia is outwardly directed, the second element of eudaimoniafocuses exclusively upon fulfilling the highest element in the soul: the rational” (Vella 131). Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is one of austerity with minimal needs other than the basics, emphasis on the life of mind. Pure contemplation is tantamount to consideration of pure consciousness or dhyana as discussed in The Gheranda Samhita. The text says “I have described the gross dhyana. Hear from me the luminous dhyana, by which Yoga is perfected and the soul is directly perceived” (116). Aristotle would say this type of meditation is “a thing apart” from our composite nature. In effect, Aristotle is arguing for a philosophy of mind that says the mind and body are separate. This is not a theological duality but an issue of philosophy.  The philosopher would consider this level of contemplation on par to a sages life. The beauty of Aristotle’s eudaimonia is it leaves room for the practical side of life, for the ‘working joe’ to gain success, albeit a secondary type success, but also provides a path to an Aristotelian version of Atman-Brahman. In essence Aristotle is practicing yoga. This squares nicely with the Upanishads whose thrust is a path to operating in this life as well as Atman-Brahman.

In the second valli of the Katha Upanishad discussion of a meditation on one’s self can be compared to the Aristotelian notion of contemplation of the Self. The Upanishads assert that it is recognizable as yoga. Verse 1.1.12 states, “Him who is hard to see, entered into the hidden, set the secret place [of the heart], dwelling in the depth, primeval----By considering him as God, through the Yoga-study of what pertains to self, The wise man leaves joy and sorrow behind” (Hume 348). While process between what Aristotle proposes and what the Katha Upanishads asserts have starting (beginning process) similarities, the outcomes have some divergence. Aristotle would not argue for letting go of joy as this is a component of freedom.  The Veda’s are absolutely concerned with freedom as the liberated person is free. I think this is something Aristotle could get behind.  Another commonality is that both works have a beginning intellectual component as foundational, both philosophies create illumination via introspection, and contemplation as meditation. A key difference is Aristotle retains the power of reasoning as crucial, and does not invoke God. Whereas the Upanishads view reason as a hindrance.

The Parable of the Chariot- Third Valli

            The Katha Upanishads as well as western philosophy are driven toward figuring what the best type of life is, whether this concern is for the current life, or what cause and effect activities are creating betterment in the next phase or the hereafter. I think it truly remarkable that two separate civilizations, the Greeks and those who theorized in the Upanishads, both used the metaphor of the chariot and charioteer to drive similar points. This metaphor is powerful at demonstrating the complexity of the interplay between, the mind, body, intellect, soul, senses and how desire interferes with all of these component parts.

            I largely analyze these two conceptions of the chariot from Elizabeth A. Schiltz paper entitled Two Chariots: The Justification of the Best Life in the Katha Upanishad and Plato’s Phaedrus. Central to these two scenarios is desire and its capacity to ensnare a person. Someone without a philosophical underpinning to modulate desire will find themselves unhinged at some point. In the Katha Upanishad the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketas begins with Nachiketas intent to find out the status of the Soul in death. Yama uses the chariot and charioteer metaphor as a tool to illustrate his point. The body is the chariot, the intellect is the charioteer, the reins are connected to the mind, the senses are the powerful horses and the road is the objects of the senses. The interplay determines the seekers outcome. Yama says, “But whoever is wise with the mind always applied, has the senses subdued like good horses of the charioteer…..[T]he man, whose charioteer is wise, the reins of whose mind are well applied, obtains the goal of the road, the highest place of Vishnu” (Schiltz 451).

The “striking corollary” between Plato’s Phaedrus and the Katha Upanishad can’t be denied. In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates (character in Phaedrus) “describes the soul as a winged chariot in which a charioteer drives a team of two steed” (451). Considering the two horses, the first has black eyes, with his character tight and in tack, aims at balance in all things, and is loyal to the charioteer. The second horse has behavioral issues. It has gray eyes, is of poor breeding, needs the whip to stay in line at best and “he is a massive jumble of a creature” (451). This horse is the opposite of moderate, seeking sensual desires, choked with pride, is quick to anger and even the whip doesn’t tame the beast sometimes. The charioteer is the soul and it guides the chariot “aloft to the region where the gods dwell, where the soul may reach wisdom” (451).

In Plato’s work a conversation develops to unpack arguments to guide the seeker to the best course of action in similar fashion to the Katha Upanishad. A vigorous debate between Socrates and Callicles unfolds. Socrates “account of the best life as one in which the virtues control the desires is vehemently and passionately challenged by Callicles” (452). Callicles asserts that natural law dictates one’s dharma which should be focused on satisfying and growing the appetites. He goes as far as to say “moderation of desires is for simpletons” (452). While the setup of the chariot metaphor in the respective works is quite different, in essence Callicles belief in an unchecked hedonism is similar to what Yama is offering to the young Nachiketas in lieu of his pesky question about the hereafter.  Shilitz points out Yama goes much further than what Callicles proposes. She writes, “it involves not only the unlimited growth of the appetites, but also the effortless and guaranteed satisfaction of these desire”(452). I believe ultimately that Yama and Nachiketas are on the same philosophic page where as the same cannot be said of the characters in Phaedrus

Synthesis of the Two Chariot Positions

            The Katha Upanishad asserts to understand the Self, it is necessary to reject the desires by withdrawing the senses thereby eliminating desire. This Indian philosophy goes even further by claiming when the Self is discovered we find Braham or the universality of self. “This knowledge of course have very real benefits for the individual: The wise who behold [Brahman] as dwelling in their own selves, obtain eternal bliss, not others” (460). In Plato’s Phaedrus we find a utility for sensual desires in that in propels the seeker to cultivate a desire for wisdom as long as the chariot has Sthira and Sukha or balanced action. When analyzing the specifics of each parable, any divergence or symmetry becomes quite clear. In Phaedrus, our human ability to reason yokes the energies of the horses “to contemplate the objects they identify, so that the whole chariot-soul may ascend to forms”(461). In the Katha Upanishad the prime concern is the “royal passenger, the higher self” who pilots the chariot with the intellect which restrains the horses and “utterly rejects their objectives as valueless” (461).  The parallels between these two works are intellectually beautiful driving toward what I believe may be the worthiest of causes, to ascertain what is the best life, which is crucial in this life and those lives proceeding forward. Schlitz states “in case, the works explores a means of responding to the challenge of a life spent in pursuit of the satisfaction of bodily desires in favor of the life spent in pursuit of wisdom” (462).

            If  I can point to one theme that seems to be universal to all religious and philosophical thought, that is the truly thorny issue of desire. I return to this topic again and draw in the Bhagavad Gītā as an example of another masterpiece that takes on desire. In verse 2.55 the Bhagavad Gītā says, “When one renounces all desires born of the mind and rejoices by himself on his own Self, he is considered a sthita-prajña” (Tirtha 132). The Katha Upanishad also states in verse 1.3.13 that the prajña (the learned, wise, intellectual or conscious man) should be in a state of self-inquiry, disciplined in mind and speech, harnessing the intellect in order to unify his “great self.” In invoking sthita-prajña Krishna brings to light two points. “All the desires have to be renounced. After so renouncing, the seeker must be able to take his repose on his own Self within” (Tirtha 132). Krishna’s point is leaving behind first all desires, clears the path for the inward journey. Inwardly focused the seeker will rejoice in delight, find what has been missing and eliminate desirous needs as all is being satisfied.

            The Bhagavad Gītā emphasizes the sowing and nurturing Samatvam. In the Gītā samatvam “means inner poise, balanced indifference, equality, sameness and equanimity” (Gupta 387). The concept of samatvam is a self-mastery structure, and forms the basis for the three yogas in the Gītā, karma yoga, jñāna yoga, and bhakti yoga.  These three yogic disciplines are mentioned again and again in the Gītā and are interlaced together to form a structure as a bulwark against desires constant press. “A person who has cultivated samatvam follows the mean between two extremes of asceticism and self-indulgence” (Gupta 389). Or the yogi finds the balance between action and non-action. Invoking Aristotle’s Golden Mean, he asserts that the middle way is the best place to be. Courage seen as virtue should not be excessive becoming rash. The other end of the spectrum is flat out cowardice. “In Aristotelian fashion, the Gītā repeatedly exhorts people to cultivate virtues such as charity, humility, non-anger, courage and so on” (Gupta 390). By practicing the three yogas in the Gītā or samatvam constantly, equanimity becomes subconscious, similar to Aristotle’s notions of a balance point in controlling emotions and desires, similar to both chariot metaphors in Phaedrus and the Katha Upanishad.

            In conclusion, the similarities between the ancient Indian philosophy text and Aristotelian philosophy is truly beautiful, especially considering the timing and cultural contexts. We are shown a path to liberating ourselves from the desirous chains that bind us down. The power of narrative and storytelling is highlighted in the telling of the parable of the chariot in both the Katha Upanishad and Plato’s Phaedrus.


Works Cited


  1. Sargeant, Winthrop. The Bhagavad Gītā. Albany. State University of New York Press. 2009.
  2. Mallinson, James. The Gheranda Samhita. The Original Sanskrit and An English Translation. Woodstock New York. YogaVidya.com. 2004.
  3. Paul Deussen. Sixty Upanishads of the Veda. Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-8120814684. pages 269-273
  4. Whicher, Ian. "The Liberating Role of Saṃskāra in Classical Yoga." Journal of Indian Philosophy 33, no. 5/6 (2005): 601-30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23497010.
  5. Davids, Rhys T.W. “The Theory of ‘Soul’ in the Upanishads” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. January 1899, pp 71-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25208067.
  6. Gupta, Bina. “Bhagavad Gītā as Duty and Virtue Ethics: Some Reflections” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol 34, No. 3. Sep 2006, pp 373-395.
  7. Schiltz, Elizabeth. “Two Chariots: The Justification of the Best Life in the Katha Upanishad and Plato’s Phaedrus” Philosophy East & West, Vol 56, Number 3. July 2006, pp 451-468.
  8. Vella, John. Aristotle: A Guide to the Perplexed. New York. Continuum International Publishing Group. 2008.
  9. Hume, Robert Earnest. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads.