By Swami Rama
Nachiketa’s story in the Kathopanishad begins when his wealthy father, Vajashravas, is to perform a special sacrifice. The sacrifice required Vajashravas to give all his wealth, all his possessions, and distribute them to the great seers and Brahmins. It was a rare sacrifice performed only by the most highly advanced aspirants. One who could give up all transitory things would have the knowledge of Brahman, the knowledge of Reality.
The story is not unlike the New Testament meeting of Jesus with the rich, young ruler who asks what it will take to have eternal life. After the rich man assures Jesus that he has obeyed the commandments against murder, stealing, adultery, and lying all his life, and has honored his mother and father, and loved his neighbor, Jesus gives him a single instruction. He tells the rich man he must give away all that he has to the poor, and come with him.
The rich man cannot. Although virtuous in every respect, he is too attached to his worldly possessions and wealth. The scriptures tell us that the rich man went away sorrowful.
Nachiketa’s father also could not part with his wealth, despite the assurance that the knowledge of Brahman would follow the sacrifice.
The Kathopanishad tells us he brought cows for giving away as part of the sacrifice, but only those cows that were old, dry, blind, diseased, and of little or no use to anybody. Vajashravas kept the good cows for himself.
Nachiketa saw the old and useless cows his father brought for the sacrifice and knew such an unworthy gift would bring misery to his father. Eager to help his father, Nachiketa reminded his father that as his son he was also his property and should be included in the sacrifice for distribution.
“Father, to whom will you give me?” asked Nachiketa.
Vajashravas, haunted by the knowledge of his halfhearted sacrifice, focused his negative emotion on his son and chose to interpret Nachiketa’s offer as impudence.
Three times Nachiketa asked his father to whom he would be given. After the third time, Vajashravas angrily retorted. “You I shall give to the Ruler of Death, Yama.”
Nachiketa, with a pure heart and an abundance of faith, cheerfully took his father at his word.
“There is nothing in death,” said Nachiketa. “All beings flourish like grain and die again. Now I shall be the first one to discover truth and reveal the mystery of death.”
When Nachiketa went to Yama’s abode, the Ruler of Death was not at home. Three nights passed before Yama returned. To make amends for not being there to welcome his guest, Yama gave Nachiketa three boons, one for each night he had waited alone without proper hospitality.
Nachiketa’s first boon, demonstrating again the respect he had for his father, asked Yama to soothe Vajashravas’ heart, to allay his father’s anger, and to remove any worry Vajashravas might have because Nachiketa was now away from home.
Yama granted the wish and said, “Oh, Nachi-keta, your father will happily recognize you and treat you with the greatest love and kindness. “For his second boon, Nachiketa asked Yama to show him the fire sacrifice and all the rituals and ceremonies that went with it.
“In heaven,” said Nachiketa in his request for the second boon, “there is neither fear nor death, neither age nor decay, neither hunger nor thirst, neither pain nor suffering. There is perpetual bliss. Ruler of Death, you alone know how, by performing sacrifice, mortals can attain this blissful heaven. This is my second boon that I ask. I want to know the nature of the sacrifice which leads a mortal to heaven.”
Yama granted it, and taught Nachiketa the fire sacrifice. Yama then told Nachiketa to choose his third boon. After going within himself and quieting himself, Nachiketa said to Yama:
“There is a belief that after a man departs from the world he is gone forever. There is another viewpoint that he is born again, that even after death man does not die in the real sense but remains on a subtle plane with his subtle body, and only the outer physical garment is discarded; and that is called death. There is yet another belief that one who dies, lives. Which of these is true? What exists after death? Explain it to me. This is my third request—the truth relating to the mystery of death.”
Yama did not want to explain the mystery of death to Nachiketa without testing the eagerness and sincerity of his young disciple. Yama told Nachiketa that even the gods had difficulty understanding this mystery.
“It is very difficult for anyone to grasp,” said Yama. “Ask any other boon and I shall grant it to you with great pleasure.”
Nachiketa was steadfast. He told Yama that even though the gods were once puzzled by the mystery of death, and even though the subject was difficult to understand, there was no better teacher than Yama to explain it.
“Oh King of Death,” said Nachiketa, “I shall not make any other request. There is no boon equal to this and I must know the secret.”
Yama tried another route and tested Nachiketa with the temptations all human beings face, the choice between God and mammon, between passing material pleasures and eternal joy, between illusion and reality.
Yama offered Nachiketa a life span of as many years as he might wish, with all the pleasures there are in heaven. Yama said he would grant Nachiketa children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, fine horses and elephants, gold, jewels, and rare gems. He said he would give Nachiketa the kingdom of earth to rule. He did not want to grant the third boon requested by Nachiketa.
“Take all of this wealth and power instead of the third boon that is asked for,” said Yama to Nachiketa. “I shall fulfill all your desires,” Yama continued, “except this, for it is the greatest secret of life. All the maidens in the celestial regions, such as cannot be had by ordinary mortals, shall be yours if you want them. Do not ask me that question again. I do not wish to divulge the secret of life and death.”
Nachiketa then showed the depth of his faith and resolve to know the purpose of life and the relationship between life and death. He was not interested in the temptations Yama offered him. He did not hesitate in answering Yama. He told the Ruler of Death.
“What shall I do with all these transitory and perishable objects? Everything that is perceived by the senses is momentary, and life on this plane is subject to change by death and decay. Even life in heaven is not worth living without acquiring the knowledge of liberation. All your dancing maidens and worldly attractions are merely sensual pleasures. Oh King of Death, keep them with you. No one can acquire happiness by worldly wealth. All the material enjoyments of this world and even heavenly life are subject to change. After knowing the fleeting nature of this world, who will long for mere longevity? I don’t care to live for a thousand years. What shall I do with such a long life if I cannot acquire the highest wisdom and attain the supreme knowledge?”
When Yama saw the clarity and determination of Nachiketa, he gladly offered to grant the third boon.
Now the Kathopanishad begins in earnest to reveal the secret of immortality, the meaning of death and life.
Worldly, transitory life, with all of its charms, is not the purpose of human existence. The world is full of objects and temptations. People want them, choose them, and organize their lives around getting them, lifetime after lifetime.
Today a person develops a pattern of identifying with the world, with its objects, and with the emotions that go with having those objects or with the possibility of losing them. He begins to think that joy will come with having glamorous possessions, a new car, a new suit, or a new spouse. With each new acquisition there is a flash of satisfaction followed by a prolonged sense of dissatisfaction.
A person identifies with the emotions that go with the objects and relationships. He thinks he loves someone, that he must have her to be happy. When he has her, so often the relationship settles into something else that is not very loving. He may hurt the person he said he needed. Then he says he is sorry. A month passes and he does the same hurtful thing again. Finally, they separate. So he finds another person he thinks he needs for his happiness, and the process begins all over again.
There are many variations of this theme. The point is that a human being becomes attached to things and relationships, and the thoughts and emotions attendant to the attachments. That creates suffering because none of those things or relationships lasts. Nonetheless, human beings keep trying to find peace in this way, lifetime after lifetime.
“Those who are dwelling in the darkness of ignorance and are deluded by wealth and possessions are like children playing with toys,” says Yama to Nachiketa. “Such foolish children are caught in the snares of death and come again and again under my sway. They remain in the snares of death. They cannot get beyond the limits of the dark realm. They travel back and forth.”
Fortunately, this condition is not permanent. Eventually a time comes when the desire for all of those objects—what the nineteenth century Bengali saint Ramakrishna repeatedly referred to as lust and greed—begins to appear as empty and pointless.
Growth and expansion are the nature of the soul, so inevitably what happens is: a person comes to recognize the pattern that behind every pleasure is pain, behind every expectation is disappointment, and following every fulfilled desire is yet another desire. For all the world’s charms, the bottom line and the sum of it all adds up to an inordinate amount of suffering, loneliness, and emptiness.
That arithmetic is instructive. The bottom line awakens the human soul. Suffering teaches and trains a person in the necessary art of discrimination.
The Kathopanishad outlines a pure, unequivocal choice. Yama tells Nachiketa that there are two alternative paths before us in the world. One is good and the other is pleasant. One, though difficult, leads to the knowledge of the highest Truth. The other, though appearing very pleasant, is ephemeral and when an apparently pleasurable experience passes, as it inevitably will, there is pain. The wise choose that which is good, and the ignorant rely on that which is pleasant.
That is the nature of life. The purpose of life is to grow, expand, and completely realize one’s own true identity. If the path toward that goal is not taken, then the world will bring one around toward it. Blow after blow, one misfortune will follow another, one disappointment, then another, until the person begins to understand. The choice between good and pleasant becomes clear.
The theme of Kathopanishad is that the treasure of human life, the real Self, is to be found within. Within is immortality. Within is where Atman or Reality resides. The journey to the discovery of the real Self is the goal or the purpose of life. One who has realized one’s own real Self can then realize the cosmic Self who encompasses the entire universe.
The dualists believe that the individual, the universe, and the cosmic Self are entirely separate units, having their independent existence. According to this belief, by knowing one’s own Self one acquires only a partial knowledge. A wide gulf separates this school of thought from Vedanta. The most valuable and elevating contribution of Vedantic literature is that the Self, or God, is not separate or far away from us, but dwells within the inner chamber of our being. This is the central tenet in the philosophy of Vedanta.
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