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Essence of Katha Upanishad: Part-1 of 4

Nachiketas at the door of Death!


  • The article is purely based on my studies, my thoughts, my concept, my beliefs, my experiences and self realization.
  • ☆I found some link between modern science(Quantum mechanics) and teachings of ancient sages as mentioned in Vedanta, regarding Universe, Supreme Consciousness or the Ultimate truth , the Ultimate Reality whatever we say.
  • ☆ The term “MAN” wherever used in this entire text is intended to consider as “HUMAN” irrespective of gender differences.
  • ♡ Having gone through the Vedanta/ancient texts, commentaries, translated by different writers, translators, publishers on the same topic, I have tried my best to share the subject matter as I understood and convinced too. My intention is to reach to you with the topic that I found very useful for human lives. I am not good in English literature. Please give your valuable suggestions for the improvement and valuable inputs to make the text beneficial for mankind. 
  • ☆ The Spiritual context is purely based on ancient sacred texts. Sanskrit slokas are taken from books and websites. There may be little variation in the translations and commentaries. I have shared my own views and explanations according to my concept gathered in the subject through experience and intuitions. There is no discrimination against any religion, race, cast or creed. 
  • Your feedback will be highly appreciated. I am sure that the subject matter is highly logical and does not bring any conflict. Hope you will enjoy reading. Regards. NAMASTE.

प्रथमाध्यायेप्रथमा वल्ली॥  Introduction:-

Katha Upanishad (Kathopanishad) is one among ten principal Upanishads and part of Krishna Yajurveda. Katha Upanishad consists of two Adhayas (Chapters). Each Chapter has three Vallis (sections). This is a legendary story of a little boy Nachiketas, barely ten years old, son of Sage Vajasravasa (also known as sage Gautama), who meets Yama (The Death God in Hindu philosophy). Through conversation, Yama reveals Supreme Knowledge to Nachiketas, the knowledge of the nature Atman and the path to gain WisdomMoksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). Vajasravasa wished to perform a sacrifice called Vishwajit (Sarva Dakshina), meaning victory over the whole universe. Through such sacrifice, the performer aims to gain the fruit of going to a higher world and enjoying the pleasures there. (Vajasrava means a Giver). The boy faced wrath of his father after completion of sacrificial fire , when he found there was fault in the part of his father. as such the boy was offered to Yama, by his father in anger. finally he got the desired knowledge from Yama when he exhibited Mumukshautva(intense desire to seek wisdom) and vairagya(dispassion for all worldly pleasures).

The Katha Upanishad: It provides the aspiring spiritualist with direct instruction.

        ॐ       ॥ अथ कठोपनिषद् ॥

Peace Invocation: –

ॐ सह नाववतु। सह नौभुनक्तु । सहवीर्यं करवावहै।
तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु। मा विद्विषावहै॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Dakshina gifts that are not worth the name

Desiring heavenly enjoyment, sage Gautama performed a sacrifice (the ritual part of karma kanda) called  “Sarva Dakshina” . After completion of Sacrifice, Nachiketas, son of Sage Gautama, noticed something not quite right about the gifts that were being presented to the priests.  Nachiketas thought:  ” These cows have drunk water for the last time, and eaten grass for the last time. They have yielded all their milk means can not yield more. They have lost their senses and can be treated as barren. They were totally useless. (1.1.3)

Nachiketas went to his father and asked, ” sa hovaca pitram taata, Kasmai maam daasyasi?” iti;” means ” To whom you have given me as sarva dakshina? Three times asked Nachiketa this question. His father was angry and replied, “Mrityave tvaa dadaami! iti.” means ” Unto death I offer you” (1.1.4)

“kimsvid yamasya kartavyam; yat mayaa adya karishyati” Nachiketas thought; ” Whether I die now or later hardly matters; but what would I like to know is what happens if Death gets me now ? (1.1.5) .

The Glory of upholding tradition:

” asyam iva martyah pachyate; sasyam iva aajaayate” Vajasrava would have taken back his words, but Nachiketas said: ” Think of those who went before and those who will come after; their words their bound. “Man dies and is born again like a blade of grass. This means seed grows only to fall and fall only to grow. This is the cycle of human life because birth and death are correlatives.” 1.1.6

Nachiketa then proceeded to Yama -loka. Upon reaching Lord Yama’s abode, he found Yama was out of his kingdom and he was on his usual duty to Martya Loka. Nachiketa waited for three days and nights and refused to accept food that was offered by the ministers of Yama. On Yama’s return, his ministers informed him that one atithih (guest) is waiting for him.

Lord Yama’s Instructions on Hospitality: 

वैश्वानरः प्रविशत्यतिथिर्ब्राह्मणोगृहान् ।तस्यैताँशान्तिं कुर्वन्ति हर वैवस्वतोदकम् ॥ ७

When a Brahmana (holy man) enters a house as a guest it is as if Fire has entered. The wise man cools him down. So please give him water. We should pacify guest, as is customary. A guest who comes of his own accord, an atithih -means the one who come without a particular tithih ( particular time or particular day) is regarded as God.(1.1.7)

आशाप्रतीक्षेसंगतँसूनृतां चेष्टापूर्ते पुत्रपशूँश्च सर्वान् ।एतद्वृङ्क्ते पुरुषस्याल्पमेधसो यस्यानश्नन्वसति ब्राह्मणोगृहे॥ ८

Of the person in whose house a guest starves, is not being given, even when asked for; of that person, the guest goes away taking all virtues and merits, and also lives of all children and cows; all these are destroyed.(1.1.8)

As such, Yama said to Nachiketas; ” you have dwelt three nights in my house; without food, O venerable Brahmana guest, I beg of you, O Brahmana, be good to me. Hence, in return, please choose three boons.”[1.1.9] And so, Nachiketas asked his boons one by one. 

शान्तसंकल्पः सुमना यथा स्याद्;वीतमन्युर्गौतमोमाऽभि मृत्यो।
त्वत्प्रसृष्टं माऽभिवदेत्प्रतीत;एतत् त्रयाणां प्रथमं वरं वृणे॥ १0 ॥

The First Boon: 

Nachiketas said: ” I will take as my first gift that I may be reconciled to my father, that he may be happy, that he may keep no grudge against me and when I am sent back to him by you, may he greet me and recognize me“.[1.1.10]     Yama grants the first boon! [1.1.11]

The Second Boon:

स्वर्गे लोके न भयं किंचनास्ति;न तत्र त्वं न जरया बिभेति ।
उभेतीर्त्वाऽशनायापिपासे;शोकातिगोमोदतेस्वर्गलोके ॥ १२ ॥

Nachiketas said: ” There is no fear in the kingdom of Heaven; because you are not there, nobody there is afraid of old age; man is beyond hunger, thirst and sorrow. being free from such grief, one rejoices there.” [1.1.12]Nachiketas continued: ” you know that fire sacrifice which leads to Heaven, O Yama; Explain that to me. I am full of faith. I pray for this knowledge as my second boon.” [ 1.1.13]. Yama grants the second boon! 

प्र तेब्रवीमि तदुमेनिबोध;स्वर्ग्यमग्निं नचिकेतः प्रजानन् ।
अनन्तलोकाप्तिमथोप्रतिष्ठां;विद्धि त्वमेतं निहितं गुहायाम् ॥ १४॥

Lord Yama says to Nachiketas: ” I will explain it, you must learn it well from me. The fire sacrifice that leads one to heaven- O Nachiketas, I am well versed in it. It is a means to attain eternal heaven( Hiranyagarbha Loka or Brahma Loka); and it is also the support of the Universe. You should know that knowledge to be seated in the hidden cave of the intellect.[1.1.14] ** Beyond Brahma loka, it is the unmanifest , causal state of the Universe when it goes into cosmic dissolution. Beyond even this is the unconditioned Absolute Brahman.  

Detailed Knowledge is Taught!

लोकादिमग्निं तमुवाच तस्मै;या इष्टका यावतीर्वा यथा वा । 
स चापि तत्प्रत्यवदद्यथोक्तं;अथास्य मृत्युः पुनरेवाह तुष्टः ॥ १५॥

The perfect sacrifice is explained by Yama. Out of fire arises all that exists in the Universe. Mastering this, one gains mastery over any field of human activity, and acquires whatever one desires in terms of worldly prosperity and power. However, it is all within the transitory realm; all gains here are impermanent. Nachiketas very attentively listened and was able to follow what was said. He repeated all that Yama explained. Being happy with Nachiketas, Yama encouraged and said ” I will give you another gift. This fire shall be called by your name.” And it is known as “Nachiketas Fire”. 

तमब्रवीत् प्रीयमाणोमहात्मा;वरं तवेहाद्य ददामि भूयः ।
तवैव नाम्ना भविताऽयमग्निः;सृङ्कां चेमामनेकरूपां गृहाण ॥ १६॥

त्रिणाचिकेतस्त्रिभिरेत्य सन्धिं;त्रिकर्मकृत्तरति जन्ममृत्यू।
ब्रह्मजज्ञं देवमीड्यं विदित्वा;निचाय्येमाँशान्तिमत्यन्तमेति ॥ १७॥

Yama explained: “Count the links of the chain. Worship “Trinachiketah” the triple Fire: Knowledge, meditation, practice, TribhihSandhim” :the triple process: evidence, inference, experience; “Trikarmakrit” :the triple duty: study, concentration, renunciation; understand  ” Brahmaja-jnam” that everything comes from Brahman, that Brahman alone is sought and found ;attain everlasting peace; mount beyond birth and death. When man understands himself, understands Universal Self, the union of the two, kindles the triple Fire, offers sacrifice; then shall he , though still on earth, break the bonds of death, beyond sorrow, mount into heaven”. [1.1.16 & 1.1.17]

Yama asks for choice of third Boon[1.1.19]

एष तेऽग्निर्नचिकेतः स्वर्ग्यो;यमवृणीथा द्वितीयेन वरेण ।
एतमग्निं तवैव प्रवक्ष्यन्ति जनासःतृतीयं वरं नचिकेतोवृणीष्व ॥ १९॥

The Third Boon:

येयं प्रेतेविचिकित्सा मनुष्येऽस्तीत्येके नायमस्तीति चैके ।
एतद्विद्यामनुशिष्टस्त्वयाऽहं;वराणामेष वरस्तृतीयः ॥ २०॥

Nachiketas said: ” Some say that when man dies he continues to exist, others that he does not. Please explain. This is my third boon”.[1.1.20]

Lord Yama’s response:

देवैरत्रापि विचिकित्सितं पुरा न हि सुविज्ञेयमणुरेष धर्मः ।
अन्यं वरं नचिकेतोवृणीष्व;मा मोपरोत्सीरति मा सृजैनम् ॥ २१॥

Lord Yama replied: ” This question has been discussed by the Devatas(gods), it is deep and difficult. choose another gift, Nachiketas! Do not be hard. Please do not compel me to explain.[1.1.21]

देवैरत्रापि विचिकित्सितं किल त्वं च मृत्योयन्न सुज्ञेयमात्थ ।
वक्ता चास्य त्वादृगन्यो न लभ्यो नान्यो वरस्तुल्य एतस्य कश्चित् ॥ २२॥

Nachiketas said: ” Indeed, on this matter, even by the gods doubt have been entertained! That it is so deep and difficult; what explanation can be as good as yours? No other boon equal to this can there be.[1.1.22]

शतायुषः पुत्रपौत्रान्वृणीष्वा; बहून्पशून् हस्तिहिरण्यमश्वान् ।
भूमेर्महदायतनं वृणीष्व;स्वयं च जीव शरदोयावदिच्छसि ॥ २३॥

Lord Yama starts tempting Nachiketas:

Yama says: ” Take  sons and grand sons, all long lived ( centenarians) , cattle and horses, elephants and gold, take a great kingdom. From this vast Earth (over which I rule), choose an estate of any size; and for yourself a long life consisting of as many autumns(years) as you like. [1.1.23]

एतत्तुल्यं यदि मन्यसेवरं;वृणीष्व वित्तं चिरजीविकां च ।
महाभूमौनचिकेतस्त्वमेधि;कामानां त्वा कामभाजं करोमि ॥ २४॥

येयेकामा दुर्लभा मर्त्यलोके;सर्वान् कामाँश्छन्दतः प्रार्थयस्व ।
इमा रामाः सरथाः सतूर्या;न हीदृशा लम्भनीया मनुष्यैः ।
आभिर्मत्प्रत्ताभिः परिचारयस्व;नचिकेतोमरणं माऽनुप्राक्षीः ॥ २५॥

Yama tempts Nachiketas a bit more: Includes Heavenly and Sexual Pleasures”[1.1.24-25]

Yama offers Heavenly & Sexual Pleasures. Says for pleasures beyond human reach, fine women with carriages, their musical instruments; mount beyond dreams, enjoy. But do not ask to know what lies beyond death. Finding that even these extreme pleasures are having no effect on the boy, Yama plays for an offer that has unfailingly worked on many. The most tantalizing and demoralizing, of all sensual objects is beautiful woman. Yama’s ultimate weapon is now MAYA.[1.1.24-25]

श्वोभावा मर्त्यस्य यदन्तकैतत्;सर्वेंद्रियाणां जरयन्ति तेजः ।
अपि सर्वं जीवितमल्पमेव;तवैव वाहास्तव नृत्यगीते॥ २६॥

न वित्तेन तर्पणीयोमनुष्यो;लप्स्यामहेवित्तमद्राक्ष्म चेत्त्वा ।
जीविष्यामोयावदीशिष्यसि त्वं;वरस्तुमेवरणीयः स एव ॥ २७॥

Nachiketas said: ” Destroyer of man! these things pass.  This is ephemeral world. The longest life is short here. Man with all the sense organs are subject to death and decay.  Keep those horses, keep singing and dancing, keep it all for yourself. Wealth can not satisfy a man. If he but please you, Master of all, he can live as long as he likes, get all that he likes. Hence, the boon that is worth praying for by me is THAT” alone. [1.1.26-27

अजीर्यताममृतानामुपेत्य;जीर्यन्मर्त्यः क्वधःस्थः प्रजानन् ।
अभिध्यायन् वर्णरतिप्रमोदान्;अतिदीर्घे जीवितेकोरमेत २८॥

यस्मिन्निदं विचिकित्सन्ति मृत्यो;यत्साम्परायेमहति ब्रूहि नस्तत् ।
योऽयं वरोगूढमनुप्रविष्टो;नान्यं तस्मान्नचिकेता वृणीते ॥ २९॥

Nachiketas chooses Wisdom over Folly and stick to his original boon.

Nachiketas said:” I have reached to the proximity of immortals. When I know being a perishable mortal self , why will I rejoice in wanting extended span of life? Please say where does man go after death?. 

Conclusion: Temptations are to be discarded through “Viveka”.

The story is nothing but an example of teaching of the Supreme Knowledge. Here Teacher is Lord of Death ” Yama” and the student is “Nachiketas”. In this “Valli” (first part, first section),the message to be taken away is : Beware of all temptations !!. Temptations only make us down fall. The temptation that was offered to Lord Buddha and in other stories in puranas are relevant here. When temptations come, one can not recognise them as temptations. They come as realities and it requires an extra ordinary intelligence to divert them. Always comes as an offer. If we can detect the root cause of those offers and reject those offers, we can easily overcome main handles in the progress of spiritual journey. Temptations are to be treated as “Tests” . Should not fall prey to those offers. Viveka (intellect) must always be active because Viveka acts as true guide, mentor, teacher, guru whatever you say. If we follow Viveka, Truth will be revealed at the earliest.

॥ इति काठकोपनिषदि प्रथमाध्यायेप्रथमा वल्ली

     ***End of First Valli of first Adhaya***

Recommended readings:

  1. Back to the Truth: 5000 years of ADVAITA by Dennis Waite.
  2. THE TEN PRINCIPAL UPANISHADS: Translated by Shree Purohit Swami and W.B.Yeats
  3. Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sankaracharya: Translated by Swami Gambhirananda.
  4. Commentary of Katha Upanishad By Swami Krishnananda.
  5. Katha Upanishad By Swami GuruBhaktananda.
  6. THE TAITTIRIYA UPANISHAD: SHIKSHAVALLI-ANANDAVALLI-BHRIGUVALLI with Sri Shankara’s Commentary By Sri Swami Satchidanandera Saraswati.
  7. Information available on internet.

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8 thoughts on “Essence of Katha Upanishad: Part-1 of 4”

  1. Did hard work in bringing this Blog. Received lots off positive comments from various groups in WhatsApp. I am thankful to my niece Koel for the drawing ” Nachiketas at the door of Yama”
    Wish readers will reply with more comments.

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