Katha Upanishad

OM! May Brahman protect us (the Guru and Sishya) both! May he give us both (enough) to enjoy! Efficiency may we both attain! Effective may our study prove! May we not hate (each other) at all!

Om Shanti ! Shanti ! Shanti !


Having desired to attain the highest results (of spiritual enlightenment), (the man by name) Vaajasravas conducted a yaaga (a Hindu ritual where oblations are made to different forms of God through sacrifices to the fire and by gifting certain specified things to others) called “Viswajith” as specified in the Veda Saastras. This was a very well known fact. He had a son by the name of “Naciketas”.

During the conduct of the yaaga, the young boy Naciketas, by reason of his sincerity (in the ritual and other dharmaas), seeing the ritual being performed, got anxious. He thought as under:

“These cows (which were being gifted to others as part of the rite) have drunk the water, have eaten the grass, have been milked and have lost all their vigil and virility. Whoever gifts these (old, by all means of no use to the receiver or the donee) cows will certainly go to those worlds (after his death) which are in blinding dark and which are deprived of joy and happiness”.

Having thought of this, he went to his father and asked him this: “O father! To whom are you going to gift me?” (The father did not answer since he was fully busy in the performance of the rituals. However, Naciketas continuously disturbed him with the same question for another two times.) Becoming flustered with his son, he said “I shall gift thee to Yama (the Controller / God of Death)”.

Naciketas thought: “Among the disciples, I will either go first; or in the middle; what is there that I can do to Yama; what would have my father planned for me to do to Yama?”

“One has to consider the way of life which his forefathers had adopted and understand the guiding principles; and should try to follow them in his life. Man dies like a shrub and comes back to the earth like the shrub again.”

Naciketas told his father the above and obtained his approval to leave for the world of Yama. He eventually reached there only to find that Yama was not available in his residence. So he waited outside Yama’s House for three full days without a grain of food. When Yama came back, he was shocked to see Naciketas waiting for him for three days without consuming any food. In olden days, it was considered a crime to make a guest wait in someone’s place without giving him adequate food and shelter. More so for a Brahmin and for a young Brahmachari (celibates, established in the pursuit of Dharma).

Yama was advised by his people as under: “A Brahmin Guest enters your house as the Fire (representing the Fire-God) itself. He is pacified by the wise who provide him with all sorts of respects and treating him with enough food and water. O Yama! Go immediately and bring some water (to perform some respect to the Guest)”.

“That fool who allows a Brahmin to stay in his house without taking any food will suffer from heavy loss since all his desires, determination, association with wise men, good deeds, good words, penance, service to the society, servants, cattle etc are all destroyed by him (the Brahmin) who is in the form of Fire (representing the Fire God).

Yama, on hearing all this, appeals to Naciketas: “ O Brahmana! Since you, my respectable guest, have stayed at my home without consuming anything for three long days, I hereby pray to you to have that sin removed. I should be completely cleansed of this sin and continue getting good results. For these to happen, I hereby agree to grant you three boons. (One for each day of his stay). Tell me what do you want now.”

Naciketas replies: “ O Yama! My father, Gowthama, is very upset and filled with sorrow on thinking about me. He is deeply disturbed about my coming here. Let him forget all his anger, sorrow and confusion and let him become quite happy and contented. Let him receive me (when released by you again) with pleasure and bless me. I request thou to grant me this as the first boon.”

Yama: “ Your father (by reason of my grant) will get rid of all his anger and sorrow and will receive you with great pleasure. He will be able to sleep peacefully all nights and will also take care of you quite well.”

Naciketas: “There is no fear in the Heaven. You are also not there. There is no fear of agedness. Nor do we have the problems of hunger and thirst. Thus, the man who has attained Heaven remains there with all happiness.”

“You know the fire-related Homa practice that can lead one to Heaven. O Yama! I request you to kindly teach me that art and I assure that I will attend to it with all sincerity. As the second boon, I request you to grant me that knowledge which those who have attained the Heaven possess.”

Yama: “O Naciketas! As I know that Homa practice fully well, I shall also teach you that art which takes leads one to the path of Heaven. Understand this clearly and carefully. This instrument, which is ideal to attaining Heaven, is hidden in the cave of intelligence (buddhih) in the man. Identify and understand this.”

Yama then taught Naciketas this agni vidya (Homa Practice), which is the means for attaining Heaven and also about the structure of the Homa place, the components to be used, the stones to be used in constructing the sacrificial stage etc. Naciketas immediately grasped it and repeated it (for confirmation) to Yama. Yama was very happy with his sincerity and understanding power. Hence, as a satisfied Guru, he granted another boon to Naciketas and told him: “ Let this agni vidyaa become known to the world by your name itself. And I also present you with this necklace which consists of beautiful beads and precious stones (including diamonds) of various colors.”

“That one who has performed the Naciketas Sacrifice (the agni vidyaa will now be known by this name) thrice (after having learnt it, understood and followed) will be linked to Vedas, Smrutis and the sishtaacharam. He becomes eligible to perform the three duties of Homa or Yajna, Adhyayana and Daana (ritual sacrifice, study of the Vedas and the act of gifting or giving) and crosses the sea of births and deaths. He gets to identify Agni (the Fire-God who was born of the Supreme Being, the knower of all and the respectable one) as the Atma or the Soul. By this, he also attains immeasurable peace.”

“That one who knows these three-fold aspect of Naciketa agni and abides by these three things and properly performs the worship of Naciketa agni will destroy all the bindings placed on him by Yama in the form of adharma (doing those things that are not legal as per the Vedas or are strictly prohibited from being done), ignorance, anger and other inhuman behavior and related tendencies, even before his death and lives his life in Heaven with infinite joy and without a grain of sorrow.”

“O Naciketas! As the second boon, you have been taught what you wanted to learn – the agni vidyaa that leads one to Heaven. This practice of worship shall hereafter be known to the world by your name. O Naciketas! Go ahead and request your third boon now.”

Naciketas speaks: “When a man dies, his Atma or the Jivan leaves the physical body and starts out on an entourage. The questions as to where the Jivan goes, where is its destination, what is its status till the destination is reached etc (about death and the thereafter) remain the subject of great debate and interpretation. Some people (wise men) explain this in one way and others interpret the same subject in other ways that seem to be totally unrelated. Now as the third boon, I hereby request thou to explain to me the truth and clear explanatory answers to the above questions.”

To this Yama replies: “This has been the subject of great doubt and debate even among the Devas. This is not something that can be known very easily. This is a very complex, weird, uncanny and yet quite secretive subject. Ask me something else. Don’t pressurize me for this one.”

Naciketas: “O Yama! You have now accepted that this has been the subject of great doubt even among the Devas and also that this cannot be understood very easily. This being the case, there can be no other person who can explain and elaborate on this subject than you (who is the authority on this). There is no equal for this to be asked as the third boon.”

Yama: “You can request for sons and grandsons who will live for a long time (hundred years), for a massive herd of cattle, for elephants or horses, for pots of gold etc. I am ready to offer you all of these. You can even ask for a great portion of the earth to be under your ruling and control. Ask for a longer life for yourself. I can grant you all of these.”

“In line with the above, ask for anything else that can equal this much of wealth and life, if you desire that. O Naciketas! You can rule a huge portion of the world. I can materialize all of your desires.”

“Whatever other things are there in the world to be enjoyed by a human, ask for that from me and I shall grant you that. These women (now with me) are always found with only the Devas and with the court musicians. They (their beauty) cannot be even dreamt of by human beings. I shall send them with you for doing service to you. O Naciketas! I can grant you all of the above things. (Please) Do not ask me about death and the thereafter.”

Naciketas (addressing Yama): “O blind one! All those things that you have offered to grant me are subject to decay, if not today, by tomorrow at least. And all these things are directed at depriving and depreciating man of all his virility and strength of his limbs. Even if you grant me a longer life, that again is of no use (since I am going to die someday). At the end, all the vehicles, music, dance (all those offered by you to me) will again become yours (after death)”.

“Man can never be satisfied with material things. (Even if he is satisfied with worldly objects, it will last only for a short while. The next desire will start at the immediate moment.) Once I have had a vision of thou, we will certainly attain all the things that we desire. I need not even request for that as a boon. We will also live until such time you decide to come and take us back. Hence, the third boon that I requested for remains unaltered.”

“Having met with (and interacted with) wise men who are not subject to aging and death and still having to live the life on earth as a slave to both of them, which man of reasonable sense would like to live here for a long time having known the transitory and momentary nature of all the things that allow him to enjoy and please the sense organs.”

“O God of Death! Thou shall explain to us that heavenly matter about which all the people are having great doubts and which is not easily understandable and which is hidden beyond the reach of the normal human. Naciketas, (I) does not desire any other grant apart from this one.”

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