The Kathopanishad deals with the complex matter of life and death, dealt in the simple manner of a dialogue between the lord of death, Yama, and a little boy named Nachiketa. The story of Nachiketa is an inspiring one, and is what forms the basis of the entire Kathopanishad.
Nachiketa was the son of the rishi Uddalaka. Uddalaka was a great Rishi with great capability, but just one flaw – he was a miser. Once, he performed a great Yagna to please the gods. It is customary to donate cows, money, clothes and food to Brahmins during a yagna, but Uddalaka loathed spending precious money to make the donations. He sought an easy way out, donating old and weak cows past their milk-bearing stage, which no one would otherwise take, to the Brahmins who arrived for the yagna. Nachiketa was aware of this, and was deeply disturbed by the parsimony of his father.
He attempted to speak to his father, warning him of the effect of his wrongdoing, but Uddalaka turned a deaf ear to his wise son. Nachiketa did not give up, but instead asked his father, “I too am your property, a property which does not yield any returns. Whom will you donate me too?” This question annoyed Uddalaka so much that he finally lost his patience and shouted, “I shall donate you to Yama!” Yama was the lord of death, presiding over the nether regions called ‘Yama Puri’, and Nachiketa decided to go there, as commanded by his father.
As soon as Uddalaka realized what had happened, he repented for his anger as well his greed, and tried to persuade Nachiketa to stay back. However, Nachiketa was firm. He had been given to Yama in charity by the word of his father, and he would gladly go to the abode of death in fulfillment of his father’s command.
Nachiketa found his way to Yama Puri, only to find that the lord was out, and wouldn’t return for 3 days. The guards refused to let him enter the palace in the absence of their master, and the little boy spent the 3 days and nights outside the palace gates of Yama, without a morsel of food or a drop of water! What endurance! and that too for a boy barely 7 years old!
When Yama returned, he was stunned to see the child waiting for him at his doorstep, and was aghast when he learnt that no one had even offered him food or water for 3 days! He reprimanded his wife and servants, and ordered them to serve Nachiketa at once. He himself took the little boy inside and fed him with the choicest delicacies, and made him comfortable.
However, he still felt responsible for violating the rules for treatment of a guest, and, in an effort to make up for it, said, “Nachiketa, I have sinned by making a Brahmin child like you wait without food or water. Allow me to cleanse myself by offering you three boons. Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be yours!”
Nachiketa explained the situation to Yama and said that as per his father’s word, he was now a property of Yama, and that he would stay back in Yama Puri as his servant. But Yama pacified him, and assuring him that he was relieved from his bondage, and insisted that he ask for the 3 boons he wanted. Finally, Nachiketa replied, “Lord, thank you for welcoming me so warmly, setting me free of bondage, and offering me the boons. My first wish is that when I return home, my father should welcome me warmly, without any ill feeling.” Yama replied “Let it be so.” Nachiketa then said, “My second wish is that I acquire the knowledge through which I can attain immortality and go to heaven.” Yama was pleased and taught him the secrets of the sacred fire which unveiled the secrets of heaven and immortality. Nachiketa learnt this so fast and easily, that Yama further declared that this fire would henceforth be known by his name, as ‘Nachiketa Agni’.
It was time for the third and final boon. Nachiketa asked for the knowledge of self – Atma gnanam – which is also the secret of life after death. Yama was stunned that such a little boy could ask for such a profound knowledge, and tried to dissuade him, offering him wealth and heaven, instead. But Nachiketa was steadfast. He said to Yama, “you are the only one who can grant met this knowledge, and this is all I want from you. Please grant it to
” Finally, Yama realized that this little boy was a great soul, and was ready for this profound wisdom, and taught him the secret of ‘ me. OM’, which is the greatest knowledge of all.
Thus was Nachiketa enlightened, and when he returned, he was warmly welcomed by his father and the other rishis, and he grew up to become a great rishi himself before attained the heavens, free from death.
The story of Nachiketa inspires us to be kind to animals, generous with our fellow-men, respect our parents and be steadfast in our resolve.We also learn that Divine knowledge is more valuable than worldly luxuries.