Katho Upanishad or Katha Upanishad is a major Shruti (What is heard) of Sanatan Dharma. Katho Upanishad – Story of Nachiketa and Yama is the story about a pious boy named Nachiketa and his conversation with Yama, the god of death.
Vishwajit Yagna by Gautama, father of Nachiketa
Gautama, father of Nachiketa was a Vajasrava (one who is known for distribution of food and gifts in charity), decided to perform a Yagna called Vishwajit. This Yagna was being done by him to gain the power to go to heaven and enjoy the pleasures there.
Vajasrava had asked many learned priests to help him perform the Yagna. The Yagna was performed flawlessly by these priests. Once the Yagna was completed, it was time for Vajasrava to donate all of his possessions.
Vajasrava started donating cows to the priests who had helped him perform the Yagna. Nachiketa saw that his father was donating cows which were very old, pale and not in a position to produce any more calves or give milk.
Nachiketa thought that his father would lose all the benefits of the yagna, if the priests who performed the yagna are unhappy with their gifts. He believed that his father had performed the yagna in an improper way.
Young Nachiketa assumed that he could salvage the situation if he could ask his father to donate him. He wanted to convey to his father that gifting old and useless cows was worse than not giving anything.
With this in mind he went to his father and said, “Father, as your son, I am also your possession. I should also be given as a gift to the priests. To whom will you give me?”
Vajasrava did not reply at first and ignored what Nachiketa was asking. Nachiketa asked his father a second time and then again a third time when he did not get a response from his father.
Vajasrava became very irritated and angry. In a fit of rage, he replied, “I give you to Yama, the God of Death”. As soon as Vajasrava uttered these words, he realized his mistake. However, it was too late.
On hearing this, Nachiketa said to his father. Our forefathers lived a moral life. My grandfather was well-known for charity. By not giving the correct gifts, the right thing was not done during the Vishwajit yagna.
Vajasrava was very sad and asked Nachiketa not to go. However, Nachiketa had made up his mind and started to think of his trip to Yama’s abode. He philosophized how insignificant life is on earth. He thought of man as a corn. How Man decays and dies like one. This world is not permanent where human life is even more fragile.
Nachiketa’s trip to the abode of Yama – god of death
Nachiketa prepares for his journey to Yama Loka, the abode of Yama – god of death.
On reaching Yama’s abode, he finds that Yama is not there. Yama’s housekeepers tell him to go and come back later. However, Nachiketa waits for three days and nights, refusing to eat anything that is offered to him by Yama’s wife or the housekeepers. On Yama’s return, he is informed about Nachiketa.
He is sorry to see that a Brahman (one who has pure thoughts i.e. no ill will against any living being, is noble, and has righteous conduct) guest is waiting for three days and nights without food and water.
He tells his wife and housekeepers that a visit from a Brahmana is like the entry of fire in the house. It has to be satisfied or it will burn the house down. Yama further states, there are serious penalties if there is negligence in welcoming guests as laid down in the scriptures.
To compensate, Yama tells Nachiketa, “You waited for me outside my house without food for three days and nights, ask three boons from me, one for each day.”
Three Boons from Yama
Nachiketa, being the pious boy he was, first thought of his father. He thought about the emotional pain and turmoil he was in when his father had uttered the words, “I give you to Yama, the God of Death”. He also recollected how his father later regretted his words and wanted him not to go to Yama’s abode.
For the first boon, Nachiketa says “Kindly restore my relationship with my father. When I go back, let him recognize me and not be angry with me anymore”. This is the first boon I ask.
Yama readily agrees and says “When I release you and you go back to meet your father, he will greet you with love and affection like before. He will be free of anger towards you and will have nights of peaceful sleep. He will be overjoyed seeing that you have been freed”.
For the second boon, Nachiketa says, “In heaven, there is no fear, not even old age as you are not there, everyone is free from grief and do not need to work to feed themselves. They have all the worldly pleasures. O Yama, the God of death, you know the Fire Yagna that leads one to heaven. Kindly teach me that, for me to help pious humans desirous of going to heaven”.
Yama agrees and replies “You are right Nachiketa; I have knowledge of this Fire Yagna and am well versed with it. It is used to lead one to heaven. I will teach you”. He then explains the rituals for the Yagna, how to build the Yagna Kund, and how many bricks are to be used to build it, how they have to be placed and other details to complete the rituals.
Yama is happy with Nachiketa’s desire to learn and gain knowledge. He gives him a necklace which is unimaginably beautiful and says that henceforth, this Fire yagna will be known by your name. One who performs this fire yagna three times will overcome the cycle of Birth and Death.
Nachiketa is happy about getting the two boons. Yama then tells him to ask for his third boon.
For the third boon, Nachiketa says, “I have this doubt about what happens after death, some say that there is life after death, some say there is no life after death. I want to know about this from you. This is what I ask of you as my third boon”.
Yama replies “Even the gods have entertained this doubt throughout history till now. Even the gods cannot comprehend it fully. It is very difficult to understand. Kindly ask me for some other boon. Do not force me on this”.
I agree, says Nachiketa. “The gods could not have understood it, as they might have not had a teacher like you. You being the god of death are the right teacher for me. I do not want to miss this golden opportunity. There can be no boon equal to this”.
Yama tries to tempt Nachiketa with worldly pleasures. He says, “Choose for children and grandchildren, who would live a long life. Ask for Gold, any number of Horses and herds of Elephants and Cattle. Choose land or even a kingdom; choose a long life for yourself”.
Seeing that the materialistic offers made by him are not making an impact on Nachiket, Yama tempts Nachiketa further, “Ask for all the heavenly pleasures that mortals can only dream of. I will give it to you, but do not ask for the boon you have put forth”.
Nachiketa replies “Material things are temporary; I have no interest in those. I am interested in knowing that which cannot be known by a mortal when alive. This is the only boon I desire”.
Who is the Supreme Being
Hearing this, Yama says – Most people think that they are learned and Intelligent. They believe that they know everything and lead others to think that the path they follow and the thought they have are superior.
However, they are ignorant. They only think about materialistic things, they do not want to learn and understand the true self and fall into the trap of Life and Death.
Many people are not able to hear of the Paramatma (the supreme self), Many of them who hear of it are not able to understand; It is very rare to find someone to teach about the Paramatma, and equally rare to find a disciple who can comprehend the supreme self.
This Paramatma cannot be easily known or understood when a person with inferior intellect tries to teach about him. But, when it is taught by a teacher, who is one with the Paramatma, there is no hesitation regarding understanding it.
This knowledge that you seek, cannot be got by way of arguments. It can be taught by a teacher, who is one with the Paramatma. Then only, can the concept of the supreme self, get firmly rooted in the student as sound knowledge. You have the hunger and wisdom for acquiring this knowledge.
The supreme self is difficult to see and resides in the cave of the heart which is unreachable. One who meditates on the self, i.e. the soul, recognizes the Paramatma and renounces joy and sorrow.
After hearing this, Nachiketa says – Please explain about the Paramatma in detail and not just an overview. The one whom you see as different from past and the future, different from cause and effect, and different from virtue and vice, Tell me, the way you see it.
Yama replies – There is only one goal which the Vedas speak of; people desirous of it practice brahmacharya and do all kinds of penances and acts of austerity. That is “OM”.
Om is Brahman (Supreme Self). Om and Brahman are inseparable. Om is a substitute for both Saguna (with attributes) and Nirguna (without attributes) Brahman. The one who meditates on Om with Saguna bhava (mindful intent) he or she will attain the manifested or Saguna Brahman; and the one who meditates on Om with Nirguna Bhava he will attain the Nirguna Brahman.
Om has the supreme status. It is the best and highest symbol worth knowing. One who meditates on Om is revered by all who are familiar with it.
Brahman is neither born nor does it die. It does not originate from anything nor does anything originate from it. It has always existed and will always exist. It is eternal and un-decaying.
Brahman cannot be known through study, intellect, or through hearing. It can be known through the Self alone that the seeker prays to, this Self of that seeker reveals its true nature.
Thus having learned the wisdom of the Brahman from Yama, Nachiketa was freed from the cycle of birth and death and returned back to his father.