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Introduction to Katha Upanishad

This valedictory prayer is uttered with a view to removing all faults incurred through lapses resulting from inadvertence during the course of acquiring or imparting the knowledge:

"May He protect us both together by revealing knowledge. May He protect us both by vouchsafing the results of knowledge. May we attain vigour together. Let what we study be invigorating. May we not cavil at each other."

All Upanishads are written in Sanskrit, and the commentary by Acharya Shankara is taken as the most authentic. Upanishads are based on the dialogue between a realized soul acting as the Teacher, Rishi, and a sincere seeker of Truth who approaches Him as a disciple. In Katha Upanishad the teacher is Yama - The Death Himself - and the student is a young Nachiketa in his teens. This Upanishad is one of the most popular Upanishads for its simplicity and clarity in making the subject matter regarding the Highest truth easily comprehensible. It consists altogether of 120 verses.

The Contents

As the story goes, Vajashrava, Nachiketa's father, decided to acquire fruits of sacrificial ritual -Viswajit Yajna in which the performer had to give away all his precious possessions. Cows were designated as valuable and special possessions in those very ancient days, and hence Vajashrava decided to donate all his cows to Brahmins.

Nachiketa was in his teens, and he was observing the sacrificial ritual with innocent interest. However, he was surprised to notice that his father was giving away only old and disabled cows, cows 'who had given their milk or the last time and who were not capable of bearing calves'.

This 'worldly cleverness' of his father produced unfathomable change in the heart of this young boy in whose heart now entered Shraddha - Faith. Nachiketa, in order to dissuade his father from engaging in further mean acts, asked, "O father, to whom have you decided to give me away?" (The purport was to bring to the notice of his father the fact that he has to give his everything and not just old cows.)

Initially, the father did not take any notice of this 'childish' question, but Nachiketa was insistent. He repeated the question thrice when the irritated father said, "All right, O Nachiketa, I give you to Death."

Thus ordained, young Nachiketa went to the kingdom of Yama - The Death - where he waited for the return of Death from his duties. On his return, Yama was told about the 'Brahmin boy waiting for him for there days without food or water'.

Yama praised sincerity of Nachiketa to wait for him, but also felt grieved that he was responsible for keeping a Brahmin boy waiting for him. Therefore, he granted three boons to Nachiketa one each for a day of waiting.

The Boons

"O Death, of the three boons you have offered me, I ask for the first to the effect that my father may become freed from anxiety about me and he may recognize me and talk to me when freed by you."

The boon was granted. As the next boon Nachiketa asked for granting him the knowledge of the means to attain higher life in the heaven and immortality. There is a dialogue between Yama and the boy about the primordial Fire and sacrificial rituals to attain to heavenly life. Yama tells him about the methods and ways of performing these Yajnas etc. Death tells him that it is the sharpened intellect of the enlightened one which qualifies that sadhaka to become fit to go to heaven. In heaven there is no fear, fear of old age, etc. having transcended both hunger and thirst, and crossed over sorrow, one rejoices in the heavenly world.

The Third Boon

Then comes the main subject matter of this Upanishad. As regards his third boon, Nachiketa wants to know:

"This doubt that arises, consequent on the death of a man - some saying 'It (The SELF) exists', and others saying 'It (The SELF) does not exist'. I would like to know this, under your instruction, O Death, what is the Truth." I. i. 20.

Nachiketa had asked for the ultimate knowledge. What is death, what is after death! What is Reality and what is Truth. Yama tries to dissuade the young boy from going into these subtle questions of immense intricacies for Death was not sure whether Nachiketa was qualified to receive this knowledge for which only an occasional and rare aspires.

Yama exhorts Nachiketa to ask for health, life, riches, jewels, and enjoyment. 'Ask for lasting kingdom and armies, ask for anything in this world or of heaven, I will grant you all this as your third boon, but do not force me to go into the secrets of life and death. Do not insist for ultimate knowledge.'

"Ask for sons and grandsons that will be centurions. Ask for many animals, elephants and gold, and horses, and vast expanse of the earth. And you yourself live for as many years as you like." I. i. 23.

"If you think some other boon to be equal to this, ask for that. Ask for wealth and long life. O Nachiketa, you become a ruler over a vast region. I make you fit for the enjoyment of all delectable things." I. i. 24.

"Whatever things there be that are desirable but difficult to get -- pray for all those cherished things according to your choice. Here are these women with chariots and musical instruments -- such are surely not to be had by mortals. With these, who are offered by me, you get yourself served. O Nachiketa do not inquire about death." I. i. 25.

But Nachiketa argues that all worldly treasures and heavenly pleasures come to an end sooner or later. If not day after, after hundred years. These are not permanent means of enjoyment. Nachiketa says, "O Death, ephemeral are these, and they waste away the vigour of all the organs that a man has. All life without exception, is short indeed. Let the vehicles be yours alone; let the dances and songs be yours." I. i. 26.
He insists to get the ultimate knowledge of Self, 'for, O Death, you have promised me the third boon'.

Seeing the determination, faith, sincerity, and perseverance of Nachiketa, seeing him to be the perfect disciple, Death agrees to tell him about the Ultimate Reality: Brahman or Atman.

Death says, "The preferable is different indeed; and so, indeed, is the pleasurable different. These two, serving divergent purposes, bind men. Good befalls him who accepts the preferable among these two. He who selects pleasurable over preferable falls from the true end." I. ii. 1.

"The preferable and pleasurable approach man. The man of intelligence, having considered them, separates the two. The intelligent one selects the electable in preference to the delectable; the non-intelligent one selects the delectable for the sake of growth and protection of the body, etc." I. ii. 2.

"O Nachiketa, you, such as you are, have discarded, after consideration all the desirable things that are themselves delightful or are the producers of delight. You have not accepted this path of wealth in which many a man comes to grief." I. ii. 3.

"Living in the midst of ignorance and considering themselves intelligent and enlightened, the senseless people go round and round, following crooked courses, just like the blind led by the blind." I. ii. 5.

"This wisdom that you have, O Nachiketa, which leads to sound knowledge when imparted only someone else, other than logician, by the wonderful expounder, is not to be attained through argumentation. You are, O compassionate one, endowed with true resolution. May our question be like you, O Nachiketa!" I. ii. 9.

And as Death goes on elaborating the subtlety and nuances of means and methods to achieve that transcendental state, consciousness of Nachiketa also is getting established in that altered state to experience those Truths.

"The intelligent man gives up happiness and sorrow by developing concentration of mind on the SELF and thereby meditating on the old Deity who is inscrutable, lodged inaccessibly, located in the intellect, and seated in the midst of misery." I. ii. 12.

"The intelligent SELF is neither born nor does It die. It did not originate from anything, nor did anything originate from It. It is birthless, eternal, undecaying, and ancient. It is not injured even when the is killed." I. ii. 18. "The SELF that is subtler than the subtle, and greater than the great, is lodged in the heart of every creature. A desireless man sees that glory of the SELF through the serenity of the organs and thereby he becomes free from sorrow." I. ii. 20.

And on and on goes the dialogue between the two great knowers of the Truth...

It is wonderful fact that if the Teacher and the taught are of highest qualifications, it is a matter of minutes to enter the state of samadhi. As the Teacher explains so does the disciple experiences the Truths spoken.

Nachiketa gets established into highest state of bliss where 'knowledge of Brahman becomes a fact of direct experience'. The same thing can be seen when Arjuna experiences the Cosmic form of Sri Krishna when the Lord is telling him the Gita!
More Articles on The Upanishads: | Tat Tvam Asi | Isha Upanishad |

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