When Vajasrabasa heard the reproof of his virtuous sin, Nachiketa, he uttered the curse: “Thee I give to Death!”
Nachiketa was no ordinary son. He was an accomplished yogi, one who could penetrate into the unseen worlds, and in keeping with his unjust father’s unjust words he went to the realm presided over by Yamaraja, the King of Death. Yama welcomed him with great respect and told Nachiketa to ask three favors from him. Being a worthy son of an unworthy father, his first request was that his father should suffer no anxiety about his fate, but that his anger should be appeased so that when Nachiketa returned home his father would recognize and welcome him. Yama agreed.
Next Nachiketa asked to learn the sacrificial rite that leads to heaven. Yama agreed to that also and taught him. Then Yama asked him to make his third request. The upanishadic text continues:
“And then Nachiketa considered within himself, and said:
“‘When a man dies, there is this doubt: Some say, he is; others say, he is not. Taught by thee, I would know the truth. This is my third wish.’
“‘Nay,’ replied Death, ‘even the gods were once puzzled by this mystery. Subtle indeed is the truth regarding it, not easy to understand. Choose thou some other boon, O Nachiketa.’
“But Nachiketa would not be denied.
“‘Thou sayest, O Death, that even the gods were once puzzled by this mystery, and that it is not easy to understand. Surely there is no teacher better able to explain it than thou–and there is no other boon equal to this.’
“To which, trying Nachiketa again, the god replied:
“‘Ask for sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years. Ask for cattle, elephants, horses, gold. Choose for thyself a mighty kingdom. Or if thou canst imagine aught better, ask for that–not for sweet pleasures only but for the power, beyond all thought, to taste their sweetness. Yea, verily, the supreme enjoyer will I make thee of every good thing. Celestial maidens, beautiful to behold, such indeed as were not meant for mortals–even these, together with their bright chariots and their musical instruments, will I give unto thee, to serve thee. But for the secret of death, O Nachiketa, do not ask!’
“But Nachiketa stood fast, and said: ‘These things endure only till the morrow, O Destroyer of Life, and the pleasures they give wear out the senses. Keep thou therefore horses and chariots, keep dance and song, for thyself. How shall he desire wealth, O Death, who once has seen thy face? Nay, only the boon that I have chosen–that only do I ask. Having found out the society of the imperishable and the immortal, as in knowing thee I have done, how shall I, subject to decay and death, and knowing well the vanity of the flesh–how shall I wish for long life?
“‘Tell me, O King, the supreme secret regarding which men doubt. No other boon will I ask.’
“Whereupon the King of Death, well pleased at heart, began to teach Nachiketa the secret of immortality” (Katha Upanishad 1:1:20-29).
As Yama told Nachiketa, even those powerful beings that control the forces of the cosmos have been puzzled by the mystery of whether those who have gone beyond death can be said to exist or not to exist. Reflective human beings have agonized over the same problem. When they came to Buddha with the question he refused to give any answer, saying that whichever he told them they would misunderstand and distort his words. So he said nothing. Consequently, to say that Buddha taught the non-existence of an immortal Self and individual immortality is perhaps an even worse distortion than that which he sought to avoid through silence.
Yama, however, was not talking to word-juggling ignoramuses, but to an eminently qualified inquirer. Yet, testing the strength of Nachiketa’s interest in such a profound matter, he attempted to dissuade him from pressing the question. When that failed, he resorted to that which has effectively deflected seekers through the history of humanity. He offered him long-lived and prosperous progeny, vast material wealth and possessions, unlimited pleasure and unlimited power, and finally, dominion over even the subtle worlds and all that is therein. Throughout countless ages the mere promise or prospect of such acquisitions have turned awakening consciousnesses from the path of immortality and led them further into the morass of mortal life. But Nachiketa could not be moved from his original resolve to learn the truth regarding immortality.
The Katha Upanishad cannot have been unknown to Jesus when he lived and studied in India, and it can be speculated that it was in the context of the teachings of this upanishad that he asked his disciples: “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). I have to admit that when as a primary grade-schooler I first heard this verse read out in church, I immediately thought: “No. The real question is: ‘What will a man take in exchange for his soul?’”
Through the years I kept questioning as to whether things were a blessing for life or a bribe to embrace inner death. This, too, we see so often. From those early years and even till now I have seen so many bribes offered and taken, all of them cheap and paltry compared to what the seekers would have gained if they had turned away from the offers. And as I have pointed out, in every instance the promise was withdrawn unfulfilled or the supposed gain was ruthlessly wrested from their grasp and they were left broken and empty.
People do not need to die to become lost souls. The suffering may not be eternal, but it is no less terrible for that. I can truthfully say that throughout my life the most desolate souls I have met were those that said to me with sad nostalgia: “I used to be…,” and then mentioned some abandoned spiritual calling or involvement. The wheels of life were grinding them down and tormenting them with the bitter memory of their loss along with the impossibility of their regaining that which they had so carelessly and foolishly tossed aside for supposed “life” long ago.
Let us attend!
In Eastern Christian worship the exclamation “Let us attend!” is usually uttered before some special reading or prayer is about to be intoned. We should indeed attend to the words of Nachiketa when he replied to Yama’s offer: “These things endure only till the morrow, O Destroyer of Life, and the pleasures they give wear out the senses. Keep thou therefore horses and chariots, keep dance and song, for thyself. How shall he desire wealth, O Death, who once has seen thy face? Nay, only the boon that I have chosen–that only do I ask. Having found out the society of the imperishable and the immortal, as in knowing thee I have done, how shall I, subject to decay and death, and knowing well the vanity of the flesh–how shall I wish for long life? Tell me, O King, the supreme secret regarding which men doubt. No other boon will I ask.”
In Christianity and Buddhism a great deal of emphasis is placed on the memory of death as a universal principle and the particular mortality of each one of us. In the West this is superficially shrugged off as unhealthy morbidity, but it can be salutary indeed. It was only sensible that Nachiketa, having come face-to-face with Death, should disregard all that which the human race has been madly seeking throughout its existence. For in the East (including Eastern Christianity) only that which lasts forever without any change is considered Real. Everything else is unreal, illusory. Therefore that which can change and pass away is even now essentially nothing. Who, then, would value any such? There is no need for a lengthy philosophical analysis of psychic niceties or suchlike. The fact of their evanescent nature turns all desired objects to mere fantasies in the consciousness of the wise.
“Whereupon the King of Death, well pleased at heart, began to teach Nachiketa the secret of immortality.”
In sum: renunciation is the key to the secret of immortality.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Good and the Pleasant
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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