Nachiketas, an example to emulate for every spiritual seeker, appears in Katha Upanishad. The little boy is the epitome of all the qualities every aspirant must possess to embark on this inward journey of Self-realization. Nachiketas evokes such a powerful stature that Swami Vivekananda’s1 following quote captures the supremacy of such sterling qualities in real world.
If I get ten or twelve boys with the faith of Nachiketa, I can turn the thoughts and pursuits of this country in a new channel.
Vajasravas (Gautama) was performing a sacrifice or Yajna called Sarvavedas or Sarvadakshina, one where everything has to be offered without exception. This was in preparation as the last step in spiritual life. However, he was not ready to part with his prized possessions. He gave away only things that were of no use to anyone, like cows that are said to have taken their last drop of water and last food. Seeing the hypocrisy of his father, Nachiketas, his young boy (age, I was unable to ascertain, have heard from seven to twelve, but for all practical purposes was a boy of tender age) was worried. The purpose of the sacrifice was to get to the higher regions of the heaven, but the actions and attitude of his father made him worry if he will be sent to the joyless regions.
We are not sure what prompted the boy to ask his father thrice, repeatedly, “To whom are you going to give me:. Gautama angrily said, “To death I give you!”, more like “Go to Hell”. There is a clear dichotomy of thoughts; Gautama is more focused on the external ritual whereas Nachiketas is focused on inner spiritual. Nachiketas is not afraid of facing death, but is worried only for his father’s well-being. The next thing the Upanishad says he is at the Abode of the Lord of Death – Yama. He is unable to meet the Lord for three days and nights. He is starving at the gates for three days and Yama is shocked to see a Brahmana (read it as aspirant) athithi (uninvited guest). As a recompense for this suffering caused unwittingly, Yama declares that Nachiketas may seek three boons. Here is a caution for the skeptics. This allegory is on the metaphysical plane, in all probability. So asking, what was Yama doing three days, how does he take care of the affairs of the world if he is taking a three day vacation, are not relevant. Swami Venkatesananda suggests interpreting it as being on death’s door. This is very similar to the spiritual experiences one comes across Ramana Maharishi, when he had this vision of being dead and watching his own dead body.
Death is a powerful teacher. Till we are confronting death, we believe in frivolous things, but wisdom of life dawns only when death is shaking our personality. This leads to Mukthi when alive. This is called JivanMukthi. Nachiketas was a blessed soul to have Death as his teacher. Nachiketas is thankful for the boons. For his first boon, he seeks that he should be received with affection by his father, by the world and everyone.
Indirectly Nachiketas gets more results in his favor with his first boon. He ensured his safe passage back. He ensures that the world he comes back to will be harmonious and will be treating him pleasantly. He captures the essence of the following Bhagavad Gita quote;
यस्मान्नोद्विजते लोको लोकान्नोद्विजते च यः |
हर्षामर्षभयोद्वेगैर्मुक्तो यः स च मे प्रियः ||१२- १५||
हर्षामर्षभयोद्वेगैर्मुक्तो यः स च मे प्रियः ||१२- १५||
yasman nodvijate loko lokan nodvijate ca yah |
harsamarsa-bhayodvegair mukto yah sa ca me priyah || (12.15)
harsamarsa-bhayodvegair mukto yah sa ca me priyah || (12.15)
He, by whom the world is not troubled, and who is not troubled by the world; who is freed from joy, envy, fear and anxiety - he is dear to Me.
Yama grants his first wish and prompts him to ask his second one. Nachiketas asks him to teach about the mystery called Vaishvanara and a fire ritual associated with it. Yama not only grants that, but also names the ritual after his name.
Yama, eager to grant his third boon to dispose him off is totally unprepared when he prods him to ask for the third benediction. Nachiketas asks, “What happens to the soul after death (of the body)?” Yama suggests him not to ask this question as this is too complex topic even Gods have doubts. He suggests Nachiketas can ask for health, wealth, all sorts of pleasures like Lordship over the world forever.
Nachiketas responds no matter how long is long, it is short and finite. All pleasures are a factor of sense organs’ ability to enjoy them. If they get impaired, there is no pleasure. He is not swayed by the long list of pleasures which Yama dangles to change his mind. Yama offers songs, grandsons, gold, horses, dominion, wealth, long life, fair damsels, chariots etc. He displays extreme Viveka and Vairagya at the carrots being dangled. Yama’s biggest persuasions are met with maturity and sharp intellect far beyond years. Yama’s insistence to ask for better things is met with a defiant Nachiketas stubborn refusal to accept any other boon but this knowledge.
Yama, eventually acknowledges the steadfastness of Nachiketas in his resolve to get knowledge and not some material trinkets or objects of pleasure. He launches into glorifying the qualities of such an amazing student, before responding to giving the answer.
The essence of Katha Upanishad is felt throughout the Bhagavad Gita. Though the purpose here is not recount the entire teaching of Katha Upanishad, the synopsis is as follows:
There are two paths – Shreyas and Preyas, the good and the pleasant respectively. What is good need not be pleasant and vice versa. Clear distinction of the two is a factor of Viveka and sticking to that path of Shreyas is called Vairagya. It must be noted very carefully, the good spoken here is not an ethical, moral good, but one of SPIRITUAL GOOD. So one can be the best morally perfect person but gain no spiritual progress. That which is good, is good at all times.
Katha Upanishad gives a passing insight into the question of what happens to the soul. A deeper satisfying response will involve reading other Upanishads like Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka. Yama indicates when the body is shed, one takes rebirth. This is conditioned by the thoughts and feelings entertained by the person during the tenure of this life. Since we have endless desires, we are also forcing nature to take exhaust that vasana pressure built in the form of need for newer bodies. Yama indicates that only Self-realization will break this perpetual cycle desire > vasanas > Need for new body to exhaust the vasanas > Vasana pressure exerting new desire creation, creating newer vasanas > New body needed to exhaust this vasana pressure. The state when desires are extinguished (note they are not exhausted) is called Nirvana.
Yama’s instructions to Nachiketas is beautifully captured in Swami Sivananda’s2 summary:
Lord Yama found out that the boy was a qualified student for the attainment of Jnana or wisdom of the Soul. He told him how man might escape from the hands of Death. He said: “O Nachiketas! Just listen to me with rapt attention. I shall tell you the way to attain Immortality. Man is bound by desires. The desires are born of the senses. These bind him to the wheel of birth and death. He must destroy the desires and subjugate the mind and the senses. This is the first step to be taken. The body is like a chariot, the senses are the horses, the mind is the reins and the intellect is the driver. The Atman or the Self is the Lord of the chariot. The sensual objects are the roads. The horses gallop after the objects of senses and carry the chariot with them. They must be guided along the right path. He who has no discrimination and whose mind is always uncontrolled, his senses (horses) are not controlled like the turbulent horses of a driver. He does not reach the goal, but enters into the round of births and deaths. But, he, who has understanding and whose mind is always controlled, his senses are under control like the good trained horses of a driver. He reaches that goal whence he is not born again. He reaches the end of his journey, that highest place of Vishnu.
“Meditate on the One, the Eternal, the Atman, which dwells in the cavity of the heart. Fix your mind on the Supreme Self. When all the desires of the senses are destroyed, when the three knots of ignorance are broken, then you will attain Immortality or Self-realisation or Brahma-Jnana. Thus you may conquer Death. O Nachiketas! This is the secret of Death.
“This Atman cannot be found by the sensual or the weak. It cannot be attained by arguments or discourse or study. The Self reveals Itself to him alone whom It chooses. The choice of the Self is determined by the purity and unselfishness of the life of the aspirant.
“Arise! Awake! Having reached the great Teachers, learn and realise that wonderful Atman. Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, difficult to cross and hard to tread—thus the wise say.”
Nachiketas understands that ordinarily rebirth takes place for most people as they are shaped by desire of one kind or another. If it is true that such a cycle happens, why not atleast be born in conditions favorable for spiritual progress, rather than go retro. But as easily understandable such a condition, though beneficial is not the real goal or panacea to this conundrum. Breaking this perennial cycle is the only way out. Only waking up from the nightmare is the best solution for all the ailments of the dream.
- · Nachiketas story provides too many insights to be grasped in one go. Despite his tender age, he is acutely aware of the importance of the inner journey rather than the external rituals. He was not afraid to properly confront an authority like his father.
- · He epitomizes the combination of Viveka-Vairagya. He is not swayed by the numerous distractions offered to replace the mere response to a question as a boon. In life, never compromise higher ideals though lots of interesting cheaper alternatives may be readily available. Prod through.
- · Nachiketas has a step by step increment for his boons. This is a technique we can apply in our struggle for success in anything. Building on success. Psychologists opine that once we get a couple of Yeses, then environment for amicable give and take is created. Nachiketas demonstrates this principle very effectively. Everyday, in our daily interactions with people, let us set the tone by getting a couple of simple Yeses before asking tougher requests.
- · उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत
uttishthata jagrata prapya varan nibodhata
Arise, awake, having reached the wise become enlightened
This was the famous sloka which Swami Vivekananda, adapted to thunder “Arise, Awake, Stop not till the goal is reached”. But if one were to dissect each word, there is a wealth of hidden wisdom. Before we reach to the wise (Varan) we must arise and be awake. Yoga-Vashishta tells one of the four assured ways to self-realization as association with the wise. Here wise are the ones who have knowledge of the Self (Atman). This sloka also lends more credence to Swami Venkatesananda’s interpretation that Nachiketas had this entire information during a meditative spell. The death’s door is the subtle boundary where one overcomes the I-ness or ahamkara (ego).
Nachiketas has permanently raised the entry level of all spiritual sadaks, aspirants, to a very higher plane. Vedantic study and also self-realization through Jnana require four pre-requisites like Viveka (Discrimination), Vairagya(Dispassion), Shat-Sampatti [Sama, (calmness of mind), Dama (restraint of the senses), Uparati (satiety), Titiksha (power of endurance), Sraddha (faith) and Samadhana (one-pointedness of mind)] and Mumukshutva (intense longing for liberation). May we follow Yama’s teachings and Nachiketas’ example and realize ourselves in this very birth.
Om Tat Sat