Nachiketa and the Secret of Death

The young Nachiketa approaches Yama as directed by his father and is granted three wishes for his bravery.

Nachiketa and the Secret of Death

Nachiketa is one of the many child prodigies in Hindu itihaas along with Prahlad, Dhruv, Eklavya and Shravan Kumar. His story appears in the Katha Upanishad and carries its theme message, the secret of death. The story goes like this: In the Lineage of Rishi Vajshrava, there was a sage named Uddalaka who performed various sacrifices as did his ancestors. His eight-year-old son Nachiketa studied in a gurukul. Nachiketa had an inquisitive mind and grazed his teacher’s cattle as fees for his education.

Nachiketa observes that the cattle became weak and aged after some years and eventually died. He often asked his teacher questions regarding the nature of death. What caused death? What differentiated the living from the dead? His friends also mentioned heaven and hell but when Nachiketa asked where they were, nobody knew. He asked his teacher the secret of death and the teacher jokingly told him, “Oh Nachiketa only Yama the God of death can answer your queries satisfactorily!”

Once Uddalaka performed a sacrifice in which he was required to give away all his worldly possessions. Nachiketa was home, he saw that the cows being given away were all old and sick- incapable of giving milk. He felt that such futile charity was not going to earn his father any merits. He was upset by the inappropriate way his father observed the sacrifice.

Nachiketa approached his father and asked to whom was he (Nachiketa) being given (since he too was a possession of the Rishi and hence needed to be given away). The sage in his own guilt felt his son mocked him. He ignored Nachiketa twice, but when persistent Nachiketa asked the third time, the irritated sage said in anger, “Unto Yama, I give thee.” I give you to the God of death. Just like all parents who blurt our nasty things to their children in a fit of rage, Uddalaka also had said the words unwittingly. He regretted his mistake but the young boy was very impressionable. To him his father’s words were absolute. He left his father’s ashram for Yama’s abode.

After a long journey, Nachiketa reached Yama’s residence, the gates were shut. Yama was away. Nachiketa waited at the gate for three days and nights. Yama returned astride his buffalo holding a mace and noose. He was very surprised to see a young boy waiting for him. While everyone in the world feared him and got petrified on his approach, to find someone waiting before his time to die was unique. The young boy was not scared of him either. So impressed was Yama that he felt guilty to have made the boy wait without hospitality for three whole days and offered to grant him three wishes. Nachiketa chose the following wishes:

1. To be allowed to return to his father alive, and that his father should no longer be angry with him.

2. To be taught the proper performance of a Vedic fire-sacrifice in order to gain a seat in heaven.

3. To be given knowledge about life after death.

Yama granted the first wish immediately. In answer to Nachiketa’s second question, Yama expounded the performance of a special fire-sacrifice, which he stated would be named after Nachiketa.

“He who knows and performs the Nachiketa fire-sacrifice with three-fold knowledge, having cast off the fetters of death and being beyond grief, he rejoices in the realm of heaven.”

After asking for happiness for his father and a way to achieve heaven on earth, Nachiketa expressed his desire to know the secret of death. Yamraj was perplexed, as he did not expect the question from such a young boy. Before answering the third question, Yama tested Nachiketa, offering him all sorts of worldly pleasures instead, but Nachiketa was firm. Yama implored that even the sages with deep realization did not know the secret of death with certainty. Nachiketa could take land, gold, cattle or a life full of pleasure, freedom from disease and misfortune, but not this.

Nachiketa further surprised Yama when he refused to be dissuaded by the offers capable of tempting kings and Devas. He was firm and greed free. Yama was forced to think that only Nachiketa who was fearless, righteous and free from temptation, was the right subject to bestow the knowledge of the cycle of birth and death – the ‘Moksha rehasya’.

Yama began his teaching by distinguishing between preya, “what is pleasant”, and shreya, “what is beneficial.” Yama’s teaching also notably included the Ratha Kalpana (parable of the chariot). Yama’s parable consisted of the following equations:

• Atman, the “Self” is the chariot’s passenger.
• The body is the chariot.
• Consciousness (buddhi) is the chariot driver
• The mind (manas) is the reign.
• The five senses (indriya) are the chariot horses.
• The objects perceived by the senses are the chariot’s path.
• The Self, whose symbol is Om, is the same as the omnipresent Brahman.
• The goal of the wise is to know this Self.
• The Self is like a rider; the horses are the senses, which he guides through the maze of desires.
• After death, it is the Self that remains. The Self is immortal.
• One must discriminate the self from the body, which is the seat of desire.
• Inability to realize Brahman results in one being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths. Understanding the Self leads to Moksha.

The body was like a chariot or a vehicle, soul the master of this chariot. Consciousness was the charioteer, using the bridle of mind to control the five horses of sense organs. Our vision lured us to beauty, smelling to fragrance, ears to melodies, tongue to delicious food and finally skin to temperature, pleasure and avoiding pain. The soul can determine how the consciousness would guide the mind and the senses and lead them where to go.

Just as a person changes clothes, the soul changes the body once it gets old. We are born, we grow, we are adults, we age and we die to be reborn again. It is cyclic. Each life carries a balance of karma, good or bad that decides the quality of life in the next birth. Only in the living state, can we strive to break this cycle by making the balance zero. If that happens, we attain moksha and are liberated forever.

When all desires are mastered and karma is balanced, with no good or bad deeds left, the soul is liberated from the cycle of birth and death. It gains immortality or Moksha. After gaining this knowledge Nachiketa was blessed by Yama and sent to complete his life to gain liberation and show others the path to it. True to his word, Nachiketa taught his disciples what he learnt from Yamraj.

The Katha has some passages in common with the Gita. It was the favourite Upanishad of Swami Vivekananda. His most famous lines have been borrowed from this book.

उित्तष्ठत जाग्रत
प्राप्य वरािन्नबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा िनिशता दुरत्यया
दुगर्ं पथस्तत्कवयो वदिन्त I
॥ कठ उपिनषद् – 1.3.14 ॥

Arise, awake, and learn from the exalted one,

For that path is sharp as a razor’s edge,

impassable, and hard to go by- as say the wise.

About Author: Rakhi Jain

Rakhi is a fulltime mother, part time blogger who has written for various medical journals and magazines. She has an interest in writing mythological stories and relaying them into modern life.

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