The Kaṭha-Upaniṣad is a Sanskrit text that was composed about two thousand years ago in northern South Asia. It has gained fame as one of the earliest texts teaching a path of salvation called “yoga.” Similar to the Bhagavad-Gītā, with which it even shares some stanzas, the Kaṭha-Upaniṣad is today considered one of the most popular mystical texts of Hinduism. At its center is the question of the nature of man after death. In an introductory story, we learn that it is Death himself who gives an answer to this question to a young, inquisitive Brahmin named Naciketas. Death has previously proved to be a poor host and must now grant Naciketas three wishes in compensation: (1.) a reunion with his father, (2.) the knowledge of how to build a fire altar that makes a person immortal, and (3.) the teaching about the afterlife and the immortal essence of man. This teaching takes the form of a collection of stanzas that was composed by anonymous authors and put together over centuries into a very diverse compilation.

Due to its heterogeneity, the philologists of the 19th and 20th centuries repeatedly ascribed incoherence and contradiction to the Kaṭha-Upaniṣad, a text that has already been translated and studied many times. In particular, the Vedic fire ritual mentioned in it could not, in their eyes, be reconciled with the doctrine referred to as “yoga”, which aims at the realization of the immortal core of humans. They therefore assumed that there was once a coherent original text, which however was “corrupted” by the additions of later editors – and thus lost its inner coherence. On the basis of this assumption, several highly speculative attempts at reconstructing the text were made (e.g., Otto 1936, Weller 1953).

Owing to the fixation on the ur-form of the text, (supposedly) later components were explained away rather than analyzed as parts of a meaningful whole. The Kaṭha-Upaniṣad was studied as a heterogeneous composite, but not as a consciously designed composition. Many questions have remained unanswered. What motivated the producers of the text to expand it with ever new components? What principles did they follow in shaping the text? What function(s) was the “Kaṭha-Upaniṣad project” meant to fulfil?

The present research project pursues two objectives: First, a new translation of the Kaṭha-Upaniṣad is prepared, based on the only version that has been preserved (according to the current state of research). Since the few known manuscript variants of this version (see Poley 1849, Röer 1850, Weber 1853, Āpṭe 1935) have been largely ignored in available editions, they are recorded in the annotation to the original text, which is presented in parallel with the translation. The translation is accompanied by an introduction and extensive commentary based on recent research (e.g., Alsdorf 1950, Bodewitz 1985, Bhattacharya 2016, Haas 2019, Witzel 2020/I–II, Cohen 2022). This commentary makes the contents of the text accessible by contextualizing them against the religious and cultural background and providing philological and linguistic analyses. Second, the coherence and composition of the text is examined from a text-linguistic perspective (Brinker et al. 2000, Linke et al. 2004, Adamzik 2016). The project will demonstrate that the discipline of text linguistics offers theoretical concepts that can be used as a hermeneutical “toolbox” that helps to explain the structure, concept, and production process of texts such as the Kaṭha-Upaniṣad.