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The Story of Nachiketa – Katha Upanishad (Yajur Veda)

Introduction:
The Katha Upanishad (कठोपनिषद् or कठ उपनिषद्) is one of the mukhya (primary) Upanishads,
embedded in the last short eight sections of the Kaṭha school of the Krishna Yajurveda. The
Katha Upanishad consists of two chapters (Adhyāyas), each divided into three sections (Vallis).
The first Adhyaya is considered to be of older origin than the second. The Upanishad is the
legendary story of a little boy, Nachiketa - the son of Sage Vajashravas, who meets Yama, the
God of Death. Their conversation evolves to a discussion of the nature of man, knowledge,
Atman (Soul, Self) and moksha (liberation). It asserts that "Atman (Soul, Self) exists", teaches
the precept "seek Self-knowledge which is highest bliss," and expounds on this premise like the
other primary Upanishads.

It is among the most widely studied Upanishads. Katha Upanishad was translated into Persian in
17th century, copies of which were then translated into Latin and distributed in Europe. Max
Muller and many others have translated it. Other philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer
praised it, Edwin Arnold rendered it in verse as "The Secret of Death", and Ralph Waldo
Emerson credited Katha Upanishad for the central story at the end of his essay Immortality, as
well as his poem "Brahma".

The Story:
Once upon a time, there was a brahmin named Vajashravas (whose name means “famous for
charity”), who had a young son named Nachiketa (whose name means “Fire of the spirit”).
Nachiketa was an intelligent and loyal boy with an incredibly strong spirit full of faith that
nobody could shake! Though only a boy or 10 or 12 years, he was wise beyond his years.

Vajashravas decided one day to perform the Visvajit Yagna in which all possessions are given
away so that one may attain a place in heaven. At the end of the yagna/sacrifice, Vajashravas
started giving away all his possessions, including a large herd of cattle. Nachiketa who was
standing next to his father, observed his father gifting away the cows one by one. He was
surprised to see his father gifting old cows which could not walk properly or give milk.

Nachiketa thought, “Oh no, this is cheating! True charity means giving away things that are good
and useful, not old and useless! Such faulty charity will not earn my father a spot in heaven for
sure!"

Then he thought to himself, "What if I get my father to give me away for charity? I am young,
strong and useful! I too am my father’s as are the cattle. Surely, giving me away will balance out
my father’s mistake!”

Nachiketa thus says, “Father, you are not giving away all your possessions! Am I not your
possession?” Nachiketa asked his father “Dear Father, to whom will you give me away?”
Vajashravas was busy and did not heed him. Thereupon, Nachiketa asked the same question
again and yet again, until finally, his father lost patience and became angry.

His father became angry and replied, “I give you to Yama, the God of death.”

Vajashravas immediately regretted his outburst, as he certainly did not mean what he said. He
tried to stop Nachiketa. Nachiketa loved his father and did not want to disobey him. But at the
same time he was very firm. Folding his hands he told his father that their ancestors never went
back on their words and he would like to follow the same tradition. Nachiketa knew that all the
things in this world are temporary and he was not afraid of death. He understood that following
the path of truth is the gateway to true liberation. Nachiketa consoled his father, saying, “Like
the crops, mortal man ripens, withers and then is born again. So, in this transitory life, man
should not waver from goodness and engage in wrong actions. Do not be sad, father. Honor your
word now and allow me to go to Yama, the Lord of Death.”

When he heard these words from his son, Vajashravas became very sad, but feeling Nachiketa’s
dedication to truth, he allowed him to go to Yama. Nachiketa thus set off for the house of Lord
Yama.

Now as it turned out, Lord Yama was not home when Nachiketa arrived. So, Nachiketa waited
outside Lord Yama’s home for three days and three nights, without food or water, awaiting his
return. When Lord Yama finally returned, he was horrified to see this young boy standing
outside in such a state! He immediately took him inside, gave him water and food, and begged
his forgiveness. To make up for the hardship suffered, Lord Yama offered Nachiketa three
boons, one for each night that he had waited.
What would a normal boy his age ask if he were given three boons? Riches? Good food? Toys?
Friends? Music? Fun?

But no, Nachiketa was a special child indeed. He joined his hands and requested Lord Yama,
“Oh Yama! As the first of the three wishes, I ask that my father may become peaceful, joyous
and free from sorrow and anger, and that he may recognize me and receive me lovingly as his
son when I return to him.”

“You are indeed clever!” Yama beamed. “No one returns from the gates of Death but I grant you
that. Ask for the second boon.

Having had his first wish granted, Nachiketa said, “Oh Lord, in the heavenly realm (the realm of
true liberation) there is no fear. Even you, Death, are not there. There, none are afraid of old age.
Those living in heaven are beyond hunger and thirst. Free from all suffering, they are in bliss.”

“Oh, Lord of Death, you know the inner fire which is the path to heaven. So, tell me, a sincere
seeker, the science of the inner fire, the science by which those who are in heaven attain to the
deathless. This is my second wish.”

Yama said, “Oh, Nachiketa, I know the science of the inner fire which bestows heaven. I will tell
it to you so that you may understand it completely. Know that this science will give boundless
heavenly joy. This fire is hidden in the innermost sanctum of your heart.”

Yama then explained the science of the inner fire to Nachiketa, the science which bestows
heaven. He explained in detail all the processes involved.

Yama said, “One who ignites this inner fire three times and without desires practices the fire
ritual, practices sharing and practices austerity in accordance with the three Vedas, will become
free from birth and death. By knowing this sacred fire and by choosing it with sincerity, he will
attain to eternal peace, the peace which I know.”

Yama continued, “One who ignites and attains to this inner fire will cut the snares of death while
still in the body. He will go beyond sorrow. He will experience the joys of heaven.”

Having understood it Nachiketa repeated the details back to Yama perfectly.

Seeing Nachiketa’s extraordinary intelligence, Yama was very pleased. He said, “Now I will
grant you an additional honor – that the science of the inner fire be known by your name, the
Nachiketa Yagna.”

“Now, what is your third wish?”

Nachiketa looked Yama in the eye and said, “I want to know what happens when a person
dies. Some say he continues to exist, some say not. Tell me what is the truth. That is my third
wish.”
Lord Yama was truly shocked. “This subject is too difficult for even great Gods! The secret of
Death is indeed not easy to understand; so subtle is this truth! Choose another boon, O
Nachiketa. Do not press me; give up this boon and choose another.”

But the brave Nachiketa was not swayed. He did not waver. He had a mature head on his young
shoulders. He said “If even the Gods had their doubts, this subject is not ordinary and must have
great significance. If it is also difficult to understand, so be it. No teacher other than you could
teach me on this subject, and I should not miss this opportunity. I cannot think of any better boon
better than this.”

Yama said, “Choose sons and grandsons that shall live a hundred years, cattle in plenty,
elephants, gold and horses. Choose vast expanses of land and life for yourself as many years as
you will. Choose wealth and long life. O Nachiketa, prosper on this vast earth. I will make you
the enjoyer of your desires. Whatever desires are hard to attain in this world of mortals, ask for
all those desires at your will. Here are noble maidens with chariots and musical instruments: the
like of them cannot be won by men. Be served by these whom I give to you. O Nachiketa, please
ask not about death.”

Nachiketa knew that even the greatest pleasures in heaven and earth could not be compared with
the smallest amount of the bliss that comes through enlightenment. He laughed and says to
Yama, “O Yama, ephemeral are all these, and they waste away the sensitivity and sharpness of
all the senses that a person has. All life, without exception, is short indeed. Of what use are your
chariots, music and dance to me? How can I rejoice in any of it when I know death awaits me as
it does every mortal. I know these will not last forever! They are but passing joys. Man's greed
can never be satisfied by wealth. And the longest life is too short to enjoy everything there is in
the world. A lifespan, howsoever long it may be, is brief: it will end sooner or later. The
celestial women, the chariots, those songs and dances – I don’t want them. Keep them to
yourself! Let me live as long as you wish. The only wish that is worth asking for is the one that I
have already asked: the knowledge of the soul. Asking for anything else is meaningless for
Nachiketa; he asks for no other boon."

“Oh, what a brave, steadfast boy! TO SCOLD THE LORD OF DEATH HIMSELF!” thought
Yama.

Having tested Nachiketa, Yama found him worthy of instruction. Bowing to Nachiketa, with
deep respect, he replied “I offered you everything a man could desire and you have wisely turned
it down, so listen….

“There are two paths in life – Shreyas (the Good) and Preyas (the Pleasant). Of these two, it is
well for one who takes hold of the good; but one who chooses the pleasant, loses the very object
of human life. The wise choose the good in preference to the pleasant. The simple-minded, for
the sake of material wellbeing, prefer the pleasant. You, O Nachiketa, after pondering all
pleasures that are or seem delightful, have rejected them all. You have not gone onto the road
that leads to wealth, in which many mortals have perished. The road of pleasure is the one of
ignorance (avidhya), while the one of good is the one of wisdom (vidhya). I know you, O
Nachiketa, to be eager for wisdom for none of the many desirable pleasures distracted you.”
“Abiding in the midst of ignorance, wise in their own esteem, thinking themselves to be learned,
fools wander painfully about like blind led by the blind. What lies beyond death is not apparent
to the blundering simple-minded being deluded by the glamour of wealth. Thinking this world
alone exists, there being no other, he falls again and again under my sway.”

“Contemplating on the very subtle and unseen Eternal Self dwelling within the heart, the wise
are freed from the limitation of joy and sorrow. The mortal who listens well and understands
through discrimination, gains the Self and verily rejoices. Nachiketa, the gates to the Self are
now open for you.”

Nachiketa asked again, "O Yama, please reveal to me the Self which is beyond dharma and
adharma, cause and effect, past or future"

Yama responded “That goal which all the Vedas declare, which all the disciplines proclaim,
desiring which people live the religious life…I shall describe it by a single word — AUM. This
syllable is, verily, the individual Self. This syllable, indeed, is the highest Self; knowing this very
syllable, whatever anyone desires will, indeed, be his. Meditating on Om is the highest and best
method for knowing the Self, for enlightenment; it is the way to become truly blissful and
liberated.”

“The Atman is never born; nor does it die at any time. It did not originate from anything and
nothing originates from it. It is unborn, eternal, abiding and primeval. It is not slain when the
body is slain. If the slayer thinks that he slays or if the slain think that he is slain, both of them
do not understand the Atman — It neither slays nor is it slain. Hidden in the heart of every
creature is the same Self. Subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest. Formless in the
midst of form, changeless in the midst of change. Omnipresent and supreme. And the wise know
that the Self was never born nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect, the Self is eternal and
unchangeable. Meditating upon the Supreme Self, freeing oneself of desires, the wise become
free from sorrow.”

“The knowledge of Brahman cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor
even through much hearing. It is to be attained only by the one whom Brahman chooses. To such
a one Brahman reveals His own nature.”

“One who has not desisted from bad conduct, who is not restrained, nor one without
concentration, nor even one whose mind is not still, can know Brahman, even though he may be
learned beyond compare.”

“There are two selves within. One is the ego and the other is the indivisible Atman. When a
person rises above, I, me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self.”

“Know the Self as the lord of the chariot and the body as the chariot. Know the intellect as the
charioteer and the mind as the reins. The senses are the horses; the objects of enjoyment the
paths they range over. The senses of one who has no insight, whose mind is always unrestrained,
are out of control, as unruly horses are for a charioteer. However, one who has insight, whose
mind is always restrained; his senses are under control, as good horses are for a charioteer.
One, who has no insight, who has no control over the mind, and is ever impure, reaches not That
goal, but returns to samsara (the cycle of life and death). One, however, who has insight, who
has controlled the mind and is ever pure, reaches that goal from which one is not born again.”

“Beyond the sense-organs are the objects and beyond the objects is the mind; beyond the mind is
the understanding and beyond the understanding is the Great Self. Beyond the Great Self is the
Unmanifest; beyond the Unmanifest is the Purusha (that which fills the universe). Beyond that
Purusha there is nothing higher. That is the end (of the journey); that is the final goal.”

“The Self, though hidden in all beings, is not apparent, but can be conceived by those subtle
seers, through their sharp and subtle intelligence. One endowed with intuitive wisdom should
restrain speech in mind; the mind should be merged into the intellect. The intellect should be
merged into the Collective Self. That, one should then merge into the Tranquil Self.”

“Arise! Awake! having obtained your boons, realise them; know thyself. Sharp as the edge of a
razor and hard to cross, difficult to tread, is that path. So the sages declare.”

“One is freed from the mouth of death by discerning That which is devoid of sound, beyond
touch and without form, undecaying, as a flame without smoke, which is likewise, tasteless,
eternal, odorless, without beginning & without end, distinct from the intellect/mind, ever
constant.”

“Our senses are so created that they only look outward but not within. That is why we know
much about the world outside and so little about ourselves. The childish pursue outward
pleasures. They become entangled in the snare of ever-present death. The wise, however, aware
of immortality, do not seek permanence in things which are impermanent.”

“What remains of us, when separated and freed from the body after death? Etad Vai Tat – This is
That. It remains awake even while we sleep. Verily it is the immortal Brahman. In it rest all the
worlds, and nothing transcends it. Through it alone we come to know light, taste, smell, sound,
touch. What is there unknowable to it in this world? It pervading all; it perceives all; - in dream
as well as in waking. It pervades the smallest and the biggest. Of the size of a thumb it dwells
within the body. As the Limitless, it is the source of the rising and setting sun. What is here is
there; what is there is here. He who sees it as different, meets with death again and again.”

“By contemplation alone is It recognized, and then there is no difference seen. From death to
death he goes who presupposes difference. As one fire enters the world and appears as many; so
the One Self appears in many different forms. It is the sun dwelling in the heavens, the air
dwelling in the sky, the fire dwelling in the ritual. It is born in water, earth, and mountains. It sits
still, yet moves far. Lying down, it goes everywhere.”

As pure water poured into pure water remains the very same, so the Self of the meditator who
has understanding becomes one with the Supreme.
There are 101 subtle psychic channels (nadis) that are centered in the heart. One of them leads
up to the crown of the head. Going upward through that channel (the Sushumuna), one becomes
immortal. The other channels that branch out in different directions lead to repeated birth/death.

And so Nachiketa having learned the truth from the King of Death, freed himself from all
separateness and became one with the eternal. Nachiketa became enlightened. He then went
back to his father, and after many, many years of a life on earth, he was freed from the cycle of
birth and death. He knew Brahman.

Key Points:
 The sound Om is Brahman
 The Atman, whose symbol is Om is the same as Brahman. Smaller than the smallest and
larger than the largest, the Soul is formless and all-pervading.
 The goal of the wise is to know this Atman/Brahman.
 The Atman is like a rider; the horses are the senses, which he guides through the maze of
desires.
 After death, it is the Atman that remains; the Atman is immortal. The body perishes.
 Mere reading of the scriptures or intellectual learning will not lead one to realize the
Atman.
 Inability to realize Brahman results in one being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths.
Understanding the Self leads to moksha

Symbolism:
Nachiketa represents the soul/atman of man, sent by his Father, Brahman, into the world to take
form; there, he gains, through the long series of births, a harvest of wisdom and sacrifice and
power, ultimately to return to Brahman. Yamalok or the house of Death into which he descends
represents this present world, which is manifested in three times, the past, present and future.
Through the desire for liberation, he has earned three boons/wishes. The wishes he is granted
represent the three times: the first wish corresponds to the past, his father also representing his
past karmas and the desire for reconciliation with him. The second wish corresponds with the
work that will be required in the present to free himself from the past (activating the inner fire
through discipline and steadfast faith to burn through the past bondages and starting rising in
consciousness). The final wish corresponds with the future, namely that once the past karmas
have been exhausted and the work of the inner fire perfected, the goal of immortality (through
knowledge of death/life) will be reached.

The story also symbolizes the death experience. At death, it is said that there is a chance for
liberation from the cycle of birth and death. One must be able to consciously approach one’s
death, without fear, as did Nachiketa. If one can stay aware of one’s true nature, remaining
conscious and detached from the past or from temptations/desires, the final goal of release from
the cycle of birth and death can be achieved at the time of death.
Know that the Atman (Soul) is the master of the chariot,
and the body is the chariot.
Know that the Buddhi (intellect, ability to reason) is the charioteer,
and the Manas (mind) is the reins.
The senses are the horses,
and the objects of the senses are the paths/roads.

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत Rise, awake!


प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत । Having obtained these boons, understand them!
क्षु रस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया Like the Razor's sharp edge is difficult to traverse
दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ १४ ॥ The path to one's Self is difficult.