A commentary on the Katha Upanishad
Nolini Kanta Gupta
Vajasravas desired that he would give away all he had. He had a son named Nachiketas.
As the boy saw the gifts being given, his heart was filled with respect and devotion, and he pondered:
"The realm of undelight is his portion who makes a gift offering of kine that have drunk their last drop of water and eaten the last herb, have been sucked to the last drop of milk and have worn out their organs."
So the boy said to his father, "To whom are you going to give me, father?"
The father did not give an answer to the senseless question of his ignorant son. But the boy was insistent. He asked the same question again, and a third time. finally, the father gave an angry reply, "I shall give thee to Death!"
In the simplicity of his heart, the boy argued to himself thus: "Among many I occupy the first place, with others I come second, so I am not wholly worthless. Hence, what my father said must have a meaning, I must have some work to do with Yama, the Lord of Death."
The boy went on musing on the subject of death, "Look, what has happened to those who were there before, and to those also who came after. Mortal beings ripen like the grains in the field and are shed, they come to birth again like those grains."
This indeed is a mystery, a mystery to which the God Yama alone has a clue. That is why Nachiketas left for the abode of Yama and came and sat on the latter's doorstep.
There he lay in wait for three whole nights in the hope of getting a chance to meet Yama.
Even as the boys Dhruva and Prahlada had had a vision of God through their simple faith, so did the simple but stout-hearted Nachiketas too reach the abode of Yama and meet him.
The minions of Yama went and told him, "There has been a Brahmin lad waiting at our doorstep for three days in order to see you - a Brahmin and on top of that a guest; this is like playing with fire. You should go and greet him with all due ceremony. A Brahmin, as you know, arriving at somebody's house and left to starve, means the waning of all one's virtue and a grave risk to one's worldly state."
We should take the word "Brahmin" here in the sense given to it by the Gita: a Brahmin is one who is devoted to Brahman, the highest Reality, he is a seeker of the Spirit and serves It. A particular duty laid on the society of that age was to support and give due respect to this topmost class; for the true prestige and worth of a society depend not on its visible power or prosperity but on the richness of its inner growth.
Yama thereupon appeared, as if in a bit of a flurry. Or, perhaps he was putting Nachiketas sincerity to a little test. He offered Nachiketas a seat with all deference and , as if to atone for his earlier neglect, addressed him thus in a humble tone.
"You have been made to wait here for three days without food, a Brahmin and a guest. Accept my salutations, may all be well with me." This meant, in modern language, "Do be kind enough to pardon me." Yama meant to suggest through this eminently human attitude that he was, in spite of being Death, no uncultivated boor! He continued, "Nachiketas, since you have been waiting here for three nights, you should demand three boons from me." Nachiketas too accepted the apology with courtesy without another word, and asked for the first boon thus.
"My dear Father must be getting anxious on account of my disappearance, thinking that I have been gripped by death and would not return. You please give him peace of mind, remove the feeling of displeasure he has about me, and grant that when I return from your abode a free man, may he recognize me and receive me with joy. This, then, O Yama, will be the first boon I desire."
Yama said in reply, "It will be certainly as you say. You will get back from here, your father Auddalaka Aruni will be able to see you as before, he will have his peace of mind on seeing you freed from the jaws of death, his annoyance will go, he will have good sleep at night."
Nachiketas went on, "It is said: there is no fear in heaven, you too are not there, nor is there the dread of old age, people live in great joy when, after crossing beyond both hunger and thirst and passing to the other shore of sorrow, they come to heaven. O death, you know about that heavenly Fire, speak to me about It, I am listening with faith. The dwellers in heaven have gained immortality. Please tell me about this mystery. This is the second boon I desire."
The Lord of Death said in reply, "Nachiketas, listen then to the mystery of this Fire. I have knowledge of this Fire. The Fire takes one to the world of Infinity. The Fire is the basis of this universe. He is abiding in a cave, hidden within our secret being."
Yama explained to Nachiketas further, "The Fire is the beginning of creation." He also revealed the secret knowledge about the method of kindling this Fire, the number of bricks and their types needed in piling the altar. Nachiketas listened to all this with great attention, and repeated to the Lord of Death what he had thus learned.
Death was pleased and said to him again, "Nachiketas, I am much pleased with you, so I grant you another boon, namely, that the mystery of the Fire which I have revealed to you will be named after you; henceforth people will call it the Fire of Nachiketas. I also give this garland of many forms, take it." What this garland stood for was explained a little by Death, in the same language of symbols which he had used in revealing the mystery of the Fire. He said, "One who lights the three Fire is united with the Three, and goes on performing the three Works, passes beyond life and death. He then comes to know that adorable Deity who is born of the Supreme; knowing him he attains to the supreme Peace."
Yama went on dwelling on the same mystery, perhaps making it still more mysterious.
"One who has gained the three Fires of Nachiketas, one who has gained knowledge of the Three, one who has thus seen and known and mastered the Fire of Nachiketas has pushed away from in front all the bonds of death, passed beyond all sorrow, has enjoyed the bliss of heaven. This then is that heavenly Fire of Nachiketas which you choose as the second of your boons. Henceforth, all people will say, this is verily your Fire. Nachiketas, now you are free to choose your third boon."
Nachiketas answered, "Well, there rises a doubt as to the beings who depart from hence: some say they continue to exist , others say they do not. I want to know the truth of this matter, you please give me this knowledge. This is the third boon I ask." This seemed to create a little difficulty for Yama. He said, "You see, this debate has been going on even among the gods from times sempiternal. This is a very subtle point, this knowledge is not easy to get, nor easy to grasp. You had better ask for some other boon, do not press me further on this point, give up this quest."
But, as we have no doubt seen by now, Nachiketas was not to be putt off like that. He exclaimed, "But this is strange! Even the gods find it a matter for debate, you too are saying it is not easily grasped. But I am not going to have another like you to speak to me about this matter. And I do not consider any other boon worth having, as compared to this."
Death too on his part tried to cajole the boy into forgetting about it, perhaps taking him to be a mere child. He said, "Nachiketas, choose sons and grandsons living to hundred years, choose an abundance of cattle, horses and elephants, gold and jewels. Take as your portion vast stretches of land, live for as many years as you please. If, in addition, you consider any other boon equally worth having, ask for it; choose as much wealth as you like and life eternal. Or else, if you desire a whole kingdom, I shall fulfil your wish for all these desirable things."
Yama went on adding to the list of desirable things, in the hope that perhaps in the end the boy could be won over. "All the desirable things that are hard to get on this mortal earth, you can demand exactly as you please. Charming damsels with their chariots and song and dance, than whom there is nothing more acceptable to men - all this I shall give you for your enjoyment at will. But do not ask any more about death."
But Nachiketas was no mere boy or unripe youth. His reply was immediate, "All that you have named, O destroyer, lasts only till the morrow. There is no organ or sense that does not get blunt in course of time. And even if it lasts a whole life-time, that too is but little. Let yours, O Yama, be all those chariots and the damsels, yours the song and the dance. Man is not satisfied by riches, O Death. And here will be no dearth of wealth when I have looked upon you in person. I shall live as long as you like, but my choice is for that boon alone. You might yourself consider this. Once a mortal being dwelling here below in the grip of physical matter has felt the presence of the unaging Immortals, gained the true knowledge, has realized the true nature of beauty and passion and pleasure, what joy can he have in this transient life? Tell me, O Death, more about this endless debate on what is or is not after the great annihilation. The deep secret of the beyond, it is this that I want to understand. Nachiketas demands no other boon of you."
Yama did not find it possible to put him off any more. He went on expounding his secret knowledge to Nachiketas. He began with that secret Word which Nachiketas had already received and grasped all by himself.
Man has open before him two doors leading to two different paths: one is that of the good, the other of what is pleasant. The two lead in opposite directions. Nachiketas had renounced the pleasant and had chosen the good. On the basis of this choice depend, in the beginning and throughout at each step, the progress and upward evolution of man. He alone who can recognize and choose the good gains the Highest, the supreme Reality. Nachiketas too had made these gains, he had become foremost among spiritual men, brahmistha.
There is in this story an unsolved problem which in its turn might give rise to a "debate". I am going to take that as my theme in what follows.
Yama taught Nachiketas about the mystery of the Fire as the second boon. The fruit of this knowledge, the gain it brings has been described. It is the winning of the heavenly world where one enjoys immortality; it is a world of delight where death itself is not, nor old age and fear and sorrow, nor hunger and thirst.
And what is this Fire? Fire is the Origin of the worlds, the realms of infinity; in Its very nature Fire is the Beginning and the Infinite, Immortality and Delight. And where does It dwell? It lies hidden as in a cave. What cave this is will be discussed later. For the present, it will be well to remember that the Fire is a doer of the Triple Work, and It has knowledge of Him or what is born of the Supreme.
The problem is: does not all this amount to what the Gita describes as "a mixed word"? Nachiketas desired to know, as his third boon, which of the two opinions concerning the state of the embodied being on his departure from here after death, namely, that he continues to exist or ceases to be, is the real truth of the matter. But has not the mystery of what lies beyond death been already revealed by what has been said, in connection with the second question or boon, about attaining the heavenly world, enjoyment of immortality, the companionship of the gods and so on? Where then is the point in asking the same question again?
As an initial clue to the problem, we must keep in mind that the heavenly world can be attained even without the death of the body, "by pushing away from in front the bonds of death", as the text says, or as in the usual interpretation, before succumbing to death. Nachiketas himself had achieved this feat. The heavenly world has been conceived as just another neighborhood or abode, a world of delight where there is no old age, death, or sorrow and suffering. But it does not imply any victory gained in a battle with death, any mastery obtained over death. All that seems to happen here is that death has been pushed aside, or evaded perhaps. There is merely an absence of death here, it has not been brought under control. Death may not be present in this abode, but he is sitting in his lair and is free to go where he wills, even if it be within some limits. There has been no annihilation of death.
In his third boon, Nachiketas wants to know if there is beyond the physical death any surpassing of death. Granted that heaven is attained, but what happens after that, beyond the heavenly world? For, this too is sometimes said that the enjoyment of heaven is only for a time, no matter how long that time be; after the term is over, one has to come back to earth, death has to be encountered over again. In this view, if the soul of man be immortal, the immortality does not go beyond heaven, it is nothing more than the enjoyment of heaven.
In fact, the Upanishads speak of two kinds of immortality. One is temporal immortality, that is, living for ever, the other is beyond time, in the ultimate Reality or the supreme Truth; one is cosmic, the other transcendental.
There are likewise two kinds of eternity and infinity. One is in relation to time, with time as its basis and inseparable from the progress of time, what in the ordinary view is described as "lasting as long as the sun and the moon". The other is beyond all creation or manifestation, poised above it in the supreme Status.
What Nachiketas desired to know was this. The gods are temporal beings. However big and mighty they may be, they who endure for ever with a life eternal and have no death, cannot know the secret of death. They may live beyond the pale of death and death is foreign to them. But they are ignorant of the Truth that is beyond time, that has to be reached through death and by passing to the other shore of death. That is why Yama says that the gods are full of doubts and puzzled about this matter. But Yama himself is in possession of this knowledge, he is aware of the Truth that lies beyond him, on the other shore. Nachiketas says to Yama, "Since I have been able to find you, I am sure of gaining this knowledge; there is none other so wise who can speak about it."
The reason is that Yama has been called Vaisvasvata, he is born of Vivasvan, the Sun-god, Surya Savitri.
Surya Savitri stands for the highest Knowledge, He is the Supreme Consciousness from which comes the creation of the universe. Yama is the Life-Force, the Ordainer of the worlds with their rhythms of life. He is here in this manifestation of the play of life the representative of Savitri, and Fire is his vehicle, instrument or symbol. Just as Surya is Vivasvan, the Supreme Effulgent One, Yama is likewise the Cosmic Being, all cosmic power and universal force are his. Surya is supra-cosmic, belongs to the Beyond. Fire is cosmic, belongs to our worlds, Or, to put it more exactly, Surya is the point of transition from the Beyond to these worlds; Fire is such a point from the worlds to the Beyond.
The mystery of the Fire that was revealed to Nachiketas by Yama would give him the mundane realization, namely, the conquest over time past, present and future, the attainment of temporal immortality or heaven. The mastery thus obtained consists of a set of trios: it has three lines of fulfillment, it acts in three ways, in the three worlds, throughout the three divisions of time. The three worlds as we know them are mind, life and body; all endeavour and attainment here on earth are concerned with this trio. The altar of the Fire here is provided by mans's inner and outer frame; the bricks of this altar are his body, life and mind with all their activities; the multiform garland spoken of by Yama is this lower nature with its multiple forms. Fire is the symbol of the conscious power and energy lying concealed within the innermost depths of the mortal frame, it is the inner being's power of askesis.
By following the path of the triple Work, Nachiketas could achieve the temporal realization. What he needed now was the realization beyond time, this is what he demanded as his third boon: after the knowledge of the worlds the Knowledge of the Supreme, the transcendental realization after the cosmic.
Fire has been described as the Origin of the worlds, He is the Beginning of the worlds, their Source. He is also the primeval World, for the earth-principle, this earth of ours, this physical universe is the place of Agni, His own abode and field of action. Underlying the gross physical is the Subconscient, and within the Subconscient, this Fire or power of askesis and conscious force keeps Himself concealed. It is under that secret Impulse that the creation moves. It is this Fire that gives Nachiketas his ultimate realization. We may say, in the words of the Isha Upanishad, that first, by virtue of the second boon, he crosses beyond death by the knowledge of the Ignorance; next, by his third boon, he wins Immortality on mastering the supreme Knowledge. This is the fruit promised to him in the end.
Nachiketas gained this knowledge, the entire method of the Yoga as revealed to him in person by the Lord of Death.
Freed from all impurity and the possibility of death, he attained the supreme state. Anyone else who would follow his path would likewise obtain this realization of the Self, even as Nachiketas did.
All extracts and quotations from the written works of Nolini kant gupta are copyright Sri Aurobindo Trust, Pondicherry -605002 India