Kathopanishad: Boons from the King of Death

The Upanishads summarise the intellectual and moral authority of the Vedas through anthologies. The inward journey to the non-temporal self is described in these stories. In the Kathopanishad, a little boy named Nachiketa approaches Yama, the King of Death, and asks for three boons, one of which was the impossible request.
King Yama and Nachiketa. Image Source: Medium.com

King Yama and Nachiketa. Image Source: Medium.com

Brahmana Vajashrava's goal was to attain the heavenly body, and in order to do so, he gave up all his possessions. From money to cattle to even his own son Nachiketa.

As a mature child beyond his tender age, his son repeatedly questioned his father, "Father, to whom shall I be given?" Irritated, his father replied, "I shall send you to Yama!" and quickly regretted what he said. He had to be true to his word since achieving a celestial body requires that all of one's utterances be absolutely true. How could he send his own son to where the dead live? How could he live now with the regret of what he said?

His son said with an expression of acceptance and understanding, “I will go like the head of the line of all those yet to die, and in the midst of all those who are dying right now. What will be the work of the Ruler Yama which today he has to do unto me? Mortals are like corn that grows and ripens and sprouts new stalks, like those who came before and those who will come after.”

Thus, he descends to the kingdom of the ruler of the deceased, but no one was there to receive him. For three nights Nachiketa stayed without food and water at Yama’s abode; not receiving food, water or hospitality, his hopes and expectations got destroyed, he felt weary. After Yama’s return, he said, “O venerable guest who hast dwelt in my house for three nights without eating, three boons I grant unto thee. Hail to thee, and welfare to me!”

Nachiketa made his first request without hesitation. He prayed for his father, Vajashrava, to be free of his grief and guilt over what he had said to his son, and for him to find peace and tranquillity. After leaving Yama's house, Nachiketas hoped to be greeted by him with fatherly tenderness. Yama agreed and said, “Your father is now granted peace, and will be relieved from the tension after knowing that his son has been freed from the mouth of death.” Thus, Nachiketa escaped death.

As his second blessing, he wanted to learn about the fire rite that leads to heaven, where there is no hunger or thirst, no fear or grief, and just bliss. Immortality awaits those who call heaven home. Yama agreed. He gave him a thorough explanation of the fire yajna, which Nachiketas was able to grasp swiftly. Impressed with his potential, he decided to name the ritual Nachiketa rites after him. Anyone who performs it three times unites with the guru, mother and father, and who has performed the three duties of sacrifice, study and almsgiving will overcome the cycle of birth and death.

The third boon was impossible for King Yama to fulfil. He implored Nachiketas to ask something else. He wanted to know the answer to the enigma of what happens after we die! Yama was reluctant to answer this question, he said, “O Nachiketa, do not press me, and let me off that boon." It was too subtle to explain to Nachiketa, even the gods have had doubts about it, for time immemorial. “I can offer you all the riches, innumerable sons and daughters, cattle, elephants, gold, and horses! I can make you king, with fair maidens, chariots  and instruments. I can give you all that which mortals find difficult to obtain but do not ask me about dying.” But Nachiketa knew that only knowledge would liberate him that was true happiness, and fame and material possessions are short-lived. Even the whole of a man’s life is short in relation to the ultimate. Nachiketa said, “O Death, keep this wealth as your possessions.” Mortals will live as long as Yama rules his empire, and those who come to his abode will inevitably meet with these riches.

Nachiketa, now that he had been released from the grip of death and gained knowledge of a ritual that could take him to heaven, was determined that he would not leave until Yama chose to teach him about death and the nature of death, as well as about what is beyond death and beyond life. His curiosity burned like a silent yet persistent ember that Yama could not avoid.


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