This is a great story, which tells us of a young student, who was very keen to know the truth. You might have heard this story earlier, but it is always good to hear this story again and again. This will always strengthen us in our aspiration to know the truth.
This story is to be found in one of the Upanishads called ‘Katha Upanishad’.
The story begins with an event in the house of one whose name was Vajashravasa.
In those ancient days, there used to be important events when sacrifices were performed.
A sacrifice was an occasion when gifts were distributed to a number of learned people.
Vajashravasa had a son named Nachiketas. He saw that his father was distributing gifts consisting of cattle. But he noticed that the cattle were old and their organs were worn out.
Nachiketas knew that one should not give gifts, which do not have much value. He knew that the gifts should have consisted of cattle which were young, able and energetic,- the cattle that could give a good deal of milk. What is the point of giving gifts, which would be a burden to those to whom gifts were being given? This question began to arise in his mind again and again.
As he was a boy with noble thoughts who was always ready for self-giving, he began to wonder as to why he should not be given away as a gift. He knew that he was young, very energetic and that he would be truly useful, if his father chose to give him away as a gift.
Nachiketas, therefore, said to his father:
“Me, O my father, to whom wilt thou give?”
The father did not appreciate this question. In fact, he was disturbed. He did not reply. But Nachiketas was very sincere and ready to be sacrificed. He really wanted his father’s sacrifice to be truly useful and fruitful. He, therefore, asked the same question again. But the father felt annoyed and still did not answer the question. Nachiketas asked the same question a third time.
The father was now angry, and in a fit of anger he said:
“To Death I give thee.”
As a result, Nachiketas was carried away by the messengers of Death; they were the attendants of Yama, who is known as the Lord of the realm of Death.
When Nachiketas reached the realm of Death, Yama was away, and could not be received. Hence, three nights passed and only then did Yama arrive. His attendants reported to Yama who, thus, spoke to Nachiketas:
“Because for three nights thou hast dwelt in my house, O Brahmin, a guest worthy of reverence, salutations to thee, O Brahmin.”
“May happiness be showered on me. Therefore you can choose three boons,- one for each night of waiting. Since you have waited for three nights, I give you three boons.”
Nachiketas was concerned about his father. He knew that his father was angry with him, and he wanted that he should no more remain angry with him. So he said:
“Tranquilised in his thoughts and serene of mind be the Gautama, my father. Let his passion over me pass away from him; assured in heart let him greet me when I am freed by Thee and when I return to my father; this boon I choose, the first of three boons.”
Yama replied, while granting him the boon:
“Even as before, assured in heart and by me released shall he be, Auddalaki Aruni, thy father; sweetly shall he sleep through the nights and his passion shall pass away from him, having seen thee from Death’s jaws delivered.”
Having received the first boon, Nachiketas asked for the second boon. He said:
“There is a higher world in which there is no fear, in which death cannot enter, and where one does not become old and one has no terrors of old age. It is said that such a heaven exists, and one can cross over to that heaven by crossing hunger and thirst, and one can overcome all sorrows. By entering into the heaven, one gains joy forever. But one cannot enter into that heaven if one has not conquered his earthly nature, and one can conquer his earthly nature only if one can kindle the heavenly Fire. It is said that this Fire is concealed in the unconscious part of our being. One has to learn, it is said, how to awaken this heavenly Fire, because only by that awakening of the Fire (Agni) and only by right practice of utilizing that fire in the nature of the body, life and mind that one can master one’s earthly nature. Hence, please explain to me what this Fire is and how one should awaken that Fire and how one should practise the austerities with regard to that Fire.
This, O Yama, is the second boon that I have chosen.”
“This fire is not the fire that we normally see in this physical world; this is not the fire that burns you when you touch it, although it is one of the forms of that heavenly Flame. That Flame is in possession of infinite existence and in possession of the foundation. That heavenly Flame can be experienced by you if and when you enter into your heart. Your inner heart is like a deep cave, and if you travel into that cave and continue to go deeper and deeper, you will find that it is hidden in the secret cave of our being.”
Yama then explained further and pointed out that that heavenly Flame has been placed in the great darkness that was wrapped in darkness when the world had just begun to be formed.
In the beginning of the world, when darkness was wrapped in darkness, it was found that only if the heavenly Flame, which had it’s home far away in the uppermost space of infinite energy and infinite being was brought down into the darkness, could dispel that darkness. That is why that heavenly Flame was planted in the darkness. It is by the working of the Flame that the physical world was built and then other worlds also came to be built. There is nothing in the world, which has not been produced by that Flame. That Flame, Agni, is thus called Jatavedas, - the one who knows all that is formed or born.
Yama explained to Nachiketas the secret of the method by which that heavenly Flame could rise from the darkness to Matter, from Matter to Life and from Life to Mind, and how it entered into the cave of the heart of everyone of us.
Nachiketas grasped this secret knowledge and repeated it correctly. On hearing this, Yama was pleased and said to him:
“On account of your having known this secret knowledge of this Flame, I give you one additional boon. Hence forward, this Fire will now be called by your name that is Nachiketas’ Fire. And then Yama gave him a necklace with many figures. The gift of the necklace is given only to the one who becomes the controller of the energies of Nature. Nature is called Prakriti, and the one who controls Prakriti is the Soul. Nachiketas had, thus, attained that high state of knowledge by which Prakriti can be controlled.”
Yama made a further comment to Nachiketas:
“The heavenly Flame which rises from matter to life and from life to mind and thus covers matter, life and mind is to be lighted in our own limited the body, life and mind. Whosoever lights this Fire on all the three planes of their own limited body, life and mind, comes to know the Divine Force, which is utilised to raise the triple being of man to divinity. Thereafter one makes an offering of the physical consciousness, vital consciousness and mental consciousness to the divine consciousness. Then one finds the Lord of our being whom we adore, and we are led to know the Brahman, which is even beyond the Lord whom we adore. Then one goes beyond birth and death, and on beholding the Brahman one attains to Supreme Peace.”
Let us repeat the exact words that Yama spoke to Nachiketas:
“Whoso lights the three fires of Nachiketas and comes to union with the three and does the triple works, beyond birth and death he crosses; for he finds the God of our adoration, the knower who is born from the Brahman, whom having beheld he attains to Surpassing Peace.”
Yama had promised three boons. He had now fulfilled two boons. So he said:
“The third boon choose, O Nachiketas.”
Now was the occasion for Nachiketas to ask a question which was perhaps most difficult. He said:
“This debate that there is over the man who has passed and some say ‘This he is not’ and some that he is, that, taught by thee, I would know; this is the third boon of the boons of my choosing.”
Let us try to understand what was really the question of Nachiketas.
First of all, he is asking about the man who has passed away or the man who has died.
Secondly, he has heard different views about the man who passes away. In fact, he knows that there is a debate. In the debate there are two views. According to some ‘man is not’ and according to others ‘man is’.
Thirdly, therefore, Nachiketas wanted to know as to which of these two views was correct.
We have already learnt that Nachiketas had received three boons. The first boon was granted readily. The second boon required Yama to explain to Nachiketas the nature of the Mystic Fire. We know the question that Nachiketas asks Yama with regard to the third boon. This question was extremely difficult and Yama tried to dissuade Nachiketas from asking it. But Nachiketas persisted, until Yama felt happy to answer it.
We shall first repeat that question and listen to the dialogue between Nachiketas and Yama until the point where Yama agrees to answer.
As the answer is as difficult as the question or even more difficult, we shall move rather slowly so that we may be able to understand that answer. It will be like climbing a hill, and as we rise higher and higher, we have to make greater and greater effort to climb. But we have decided to discover the truth, and therefore, we should be ready to climb and make our best effort to climb properly and to reach the summit.
The question that Nachiketas asked in regard to the third boon referred to a debate over a very important question, which concerned the man who has passed, and the two sides of the debate were:
Some say ‘This he is not.’
Some others say that ‘He is.’
Nachiketas wanted to know which of these two sides of the debate corresponded to the truth.
In answer, Yama said:
“This matter was debated even by the gods in olden times. It is not easy of knowledge, since very subtle is the law of it. O Nachiketas, choose another boon; do not ask me, do not urge me; give up this question.”
But Nachiketas answered:
“Sure, this was debated even by the gods, and thou thyself hast said that it is not easy of knowledge. For getting this knowledge never shall I find another like thee. There is no other boon equal to this.”
Yama, who was not prepared to answer this question offered to grant some other boon, which most other people would have ordinarily been happy to ask for. Therefore, Yama said:
Choose sons and grandsons who shall each live a hundred years, choose much cattle and elephants and gold and horses; choose a mighty reach of earth and thyself live for as many years as thou wouldst choose. If thee deemst this boon equal to that of thy asking, choose wealth and long living; possess thou, O Nachiketas, a mighty country; I give thee thy desire of all desirable things for thy portion. Indeed, all desires that are hard to win in this world of mortals, all demand at thy pleasure; these delightful women with their chariots and their bugles, whose likes are not to be won by men, these I will give thee, live with them for thy handmaidens. But do not ask the question about Death, O Nachiketas.”
But Nachiketas was not tempted. He remained firm and said:
“Mortal man has these things only for a short time; until the next day, O Yama, and the sharpness and glory of the senses by which he enjoys fades away; all life is temporary. Let these chariots and the dancing of these women and their singing remain with thee. Man is not to be satisfied by riches; moreover, since I have seen thee, I shall in any case have riches, and I shall be able to live as long as thou shalt be our lord. This boon alone and no other; I shall choose nothing else. Who can take pleasure in over long living, when a mortal man who grows old and lives upon this unhappy earth, and when he has come into the presence of the ageless Immortals and when he has experienced closely a beauty and enjoyment and pleasure? O Yama, this question which is debated, this question which is concerning the Great Path,- of this question I need thy answer. This boon takes us into the secret that is hidden from us,- no boon other than that boon is chosen by Nachiketas.”
Yama had felt happy with the persistence of Nachiketas; he had seen that when all pleasant things were offered to him, he had rejected them and he had remained firm in choosing that which was really good as distinguished from that which was pleasant. He, therefore, said:
“One thing is the good and quite another thing is the pleasant. Both the good and the pleasant come to a man, and both are understood with different meanings. Of these two, whoever chooses the good, he is truly benefited; but he who chooses the pleasant, he falls from the aim of life. The good and the pleasant come to a man and the thoughtful man deliberates upon them and distinguishes between the good and the pleasant. The wise chooses the good instead of the pleasant, but the dull soul chooses the pleasant rather than choosing the good, which is truly beneficial. And thou, O Nachiketas, hast looked close at the objects of desire, at those things that are pleasant and beautiful, and thou hast thrown them away from thee; thou hast not entered into the net of riches, in which many men sink into destruction.”
Yama continued and made a distinction between Ignorance and Knowledge, and he pointed out that Nachiketas had proved that he was truly desirous of the Knowledge, since he could not be tempted by so many desirable things. He said:
“For far apart are these, opposite, divergent, that which is known as the Ignorance and that another which is known as the Knowledge. But I have seen that Nachiketas is truly desirous of the Knowledge, since so many desirable things could not tempt him.”
Yama continued further and explained how people living in Ignorance think, behave and act. He said:
“They who dwell in Ignorance believe themselves to be very learned and they feel that they are very wise when they look at their own wit. But these men are bewildered; they wander about; they stumble round and round helplessly like blind men led by the blind.”
Yama further describes this man who dwells in the Ignorance:
Their wit is childish, they are bewildered and they are drunken with the illusion of riches; they cannot open their eyes to see the passage to the higher world. They think that the world in which they live is the only world and that there is no other world. They come again and again into the net of Death.”
Yama now comes to describe how rare it is to find someone who is keen to hear of that Truth, that Reality, that Supreme God who is immortal. He said:
“Not many find it easy to hear of Him; even among those who have heard of Him, there are not many who have come to know Him. The man who can speak of Him wisely or the man who is skillful to win Him is a miracle. But even if one such is found, it will be a miracle to find the listener who can know Him even when the teacher or knower teaches him.”
Yama then explains to Nachiketas why we need the very best to teach us of Him. The reason is that He is subtler than the most subtle, and He has many aspects, and therefore, an inferior man cannot truly expound the knowledge of Him. If he expounds, one will not be able to know Him. This is how Yama explains:
An inferior man cannot tell you of this; for thus told thou canst not truly know this since He is thought of in many aspects. Yet unless you are told of Him by another, you cannot find your way to Him; for He is subtler than subtlety and logic cannot reach him.”
Yama, therefore, describes the knowledge concerning this wisdom and points out that that wisdom cannot be obtained by mere thinking and that it has got to be learnt from another who has true knowledge, and who makes the listener as steadfast in truth as Nachiketas. He says:
“This wisdom is not to be obtained by reasoning, O beloved Nachiketas; only when told thee by another it brings real knowledge, - the wisdom that thou hast got. Truly thou art steadfast in the Truth! Even such a questioner as thou art, may I meet with always. For when thou hast been given the possibility of the possessions which men desire and when thou hadst the possibility of having firm foundation of this world and infinity of power and even the basis of security and great praise and fame, - even then thou didst cast these things from thee, as thou art wise and strong in steadfastness.”
Yama then began to speak of God who cannot be known by reasoning but by spiritual yoga and Yama tells Nachiketas that that God is one from whom all things have come out, and therefore, the oldest of all is to found in our own heart, in the deepest cave of our heart. He further explains that when somebody hears of Him, and when he has practiced yoga to separate Him from one’s body, then one finds that he is immortal and from Him we derive the delight of immortality. Yama finds that Nachiketas was truly worthy of attaining that knowledge of immortality, and thus he agrees to grant him the third boon. He said:
“When one realizes God through spiritual yoga, and when that Ancient of Days is realized as one who has entered deep into that which is hidden and is hard to see because he is established in our secret being and lodged in the deep heart of things, - then the wise and steadfast man casts away from him all that man calls joy and sorrow. When a mortal man has heard, when he has grasped, when he has with great effort separated That One who is Righteous from his body and when he wins that subtle Being, then he has the delight of one who is himself delightful, and then he has attained. O Nachiketas, truly, I found thee as a wide open house in which that delight can live.”
In the next part, we shall study the answer that Yama gives to Nachiketas to fulfill the third boon that he has now granted. What happens to man after he has passed away? Does he continue to exist? Does he cease to exist? Or, is there anything in him that continues to exist or is there nothing in him that continues to exist? Is there anything in him, which is so immortal that it can never cease to exist?
These are the questions that we shall try to explore and listen to the answers that Yama gives.
We have arrived at the most important part of the story, which aims at the discovery of the highest truth.
What happens to the one who passes away?
The answer to this question, which Yama gives, is not easy to understand. Hence, we shall first present this answer briefly and in our words.
Every human being has in him a soul. This soul can be discovered in the deepest cave of the heart. If one concentrates on the heart and tries to go deeper and deeper, one will find the soul like a flame burning in the depth of the heart. But, in the beginning, this flame will be seen as no larger than the thumb of a man. One can even describe that flame as a Dwarf that sits in the center. It will also be found that this Dwarf is adored even by great gods like Agni, Vayu, Indra and others. This flame is immortal and it always is. This flame grows bigger and bigger, but its growth takes a very long time. As it grows bigger and bigger it leaves one body when that body becomes dead and cannot breathe anymore. But that flame, after coming out of the dead body travels. Where does it travel to? The answer is that this travel follows a path, which is different for each individual. The path maybe smooth or difficult, it maybe slow-moving or it can be rapid. It all depends upon one important law. What were the thoughts of the man when he was in the body? What were his questions? What were his goals? What kind of efforts had he made? What was the nature of his actions?
Some one like Nachiketas, who had made a sacrifice for a noble goal may even have a possibility of having a dialogue with many gods, with many others or even with Yama. And that is what had happened to Nachiketas. He had sacrificed himself for the good of his father; he was sincere, he was steadfast; his goal was to make a search for the highest truth. He was able to travel to Yama from whom he could gain true knowledge of the truth. The travel after death would depend upon his aspirations, his deeds and his goals, which he was pursuing in the body when it was alive. But this travel is for a short or long time, and the time comes when he will need to have another body in order to reach the goal that he was trying to achieve in his previous body. He, therefore, enters a womb where a new body is formed, and he takes a new birth in the new body. Some others, like Nachiketas, can even enter into the previous body, if that body is not burnt away after it ceases to breathe. There are some others who do not need to enter into the same body or a new body, if they have pursued the path of yoga, and if the flame has grown to its fullness and realized that that flame can never be extinguished and that in that flame there is that Purusha who is as large as the universe and even beyond and who is immovable, eternal and immortal. Even then, one can enter into a new body, but one is not obliged to; one is free to take up a new body, if he so chooses. But that choice becomes imperative if he freely chooses to help others so that others also can rise up, and this can continue until a great harmony is established on the earth.
The knowledge of the Purusha we find in the flame is very difficult to attain. The question is as to how one can attain to that knowledge.
In the previous part, we read about the Purusha whom we find in the flame, who is eternal, immovable and immortal. How can we attain to the knowledge of that Purusha?
First of all one has to turn inwards.
Normally, we are all turned outwards. The reason is that all the doors of the body open outwards. These doors are our sense organs like the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the skin and the nose. This is the reason why we need to learn how to close our eyes and why we should go in a place where there is no noise or sound. This helps us to go within ourselves.
But that is not enough.
One has to watch what one experiences when the eyes are closed and the ears do not hear any sound. Then we find that there is a movement of a number of thoughts. These thoughts are of many kinds. Many of these thoughts are memories of what we have seen, what we have heard, and what we have experienced in the past. Some of our thoughts are concerning what we have to do during the day, including what we want to eat and when we want to go to sleep. Some other thoughts are concerning the people whom we have to meet and what we have to do to keep our promises. We are also filled with the thoughts of those whom we like and those whom we do not like, and we begin to think of what we want to do regarding them. It will be helpful if we can just watch our mind, our thoughts and our feelings. We shall find that our mind is like a market and there is not much order in it. We cannot stop our mind even for a minute. We feel that we are in a chariot, which is run by horses that we cannot control.
We shall find that when our mind is not fixed on one particular point, our senses run like wild horses that do not obey the driver. But we shall discover that apart from the senses and the mind, we have a faculty that we call Reason. This Reason thinks quietly, and it is able to connect ideas in a logical order; Reason can also classify the ideas and can even decide which ideas are correct and which ideas are incorrect. When we are able to allow the Reason to do its work, we shall find that our Reason is like a charioteer, who can control the wild horses of our senses and of the thoughts, which are running about without order.
When we have reached this stage, we shall find that our ideas, which were like wild horses, are like obedient horses. We shall then be able to think when we want to think, and we should be able to remain quiet when we want to remain quiet and do not want to think.
We have to remember that if we cannot control the wild horses, we can never reach our goal. But if we can control those wild horses, one is bound to reach the goal. It is true that the journey is long and our exercise of controlling the wild horses gives us fatigue. But if we do not tire ourselves and do our exercise only when we are fresh, then sooner or later, we are bound to reach the goal.
Now let us assume that we have begun to do the exercise and we are able to spend 20-30 minutes daily on it, we shall find some very interesting results. We shall be able to understand our friends better; we shall be able to understand our lessons better; we shall be able to solve math problems more easily, and we shall be able to write better and even explain better.
At a higher stage, we shall come to appreciate good lectures; good dramas and we shall be able to love even good essays and good poems.
At a still higher stage, we shall discover a greater kingdom of ideas, a greater kingdom of knowledge.
We shall begin to love all that is true and we shall not waste time in thinking that which is not true.
We shall be kind to others and we shall help others and try to become better human beings and help others to become better human beings. We shall ask ‘What is good?’ and ‘What is not good?’ We shall choose good and reject that which is not good. We shall become neat and clean in every way and we shall create beauty all around.
We shall become more and more serious and more and more sincere.
We shall then begin to experience in the depth of our heart, from time to time, deep joy, deep calm and deep warmth.
This will be the beginning of the discovery of the inner flame in our heart, which will be like a fire, which is not bigger than a thumb.
As we move forward, we shall become more and more calm and we shall find that there is something in ourselves which is unfolding. We begin to shape our personality. We begin to look into the future. Our inner flame remembers our past, it understands the present and it has the sense of destiny, there is something that is awaiting to happen to us. The inner flame is the leader, and it opens to our central being, which is called the Jiva. This Jiva is in its nature, extremely sweet; Jiva is also called “Eater of sweetness”; The Jiva is the lord of what was and what shall be. The inner flame represents the Jiva, and therefore it is also the lord of what was and what shall be.
At a much later stage, we shall begin to learn that the Jiva is the portion of the Supreme Lord, and the Jiva is the child of Aditi, who is his mother as she is also the mother of all that exists in the world. Aditi is also the mother of the gods.
When one comes in contact with the inner flame, he comes to know also that that flame is immortal, and even when man dies that inner flame remains unextinguished. When one comes to know the Jiva, one also comes to know that gods also are immortal.
Finally we find that everything in the world, all things, our inner flame and inner flames of all, the Jivas and gods and Aditi have all come from one highest being. That being is immortal. That being is called Brahman because he is the essence of everything; that Brahman is called Purusha because he originates every thing. And he is also called the Supreme Lord because he is not only the essence, not only the originator, but he is also the Controller and Ruler and Master of all that is in the universe.
Yama explained to Nachiketas all this, and told him that when one practices yoga and thus controls his mind, and one is able to give up all desires, and when one becomes noble and truthful and good to everyone, one will come to know the Supreme Lord who is immortal.
At the end of the story, it is said that Nachiketas looked upon Yama as his teacher and won from him the God-knowledge. Nachiketas also learnt the entire process of yoga. He practiced yoga and reached the stage of complete purity. He then came to know the immortality of the inner flame, of the Jiva, of the Gods, and of Aditi. And thereafter he obtained God and realized immortality.
This true story promises that anyone who finds a teacher as good as Yama and anyone who learns yoga and practices yoga will also have the same knowledge and status of immortality as Nachiketas had attained.