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Nachiketa Story – The Young Boy in Katha Upanishad Who Wanted to know Mystery of Death from Yama

The story of Nachiketa is found in the Taittiriya Brahmana (III.2.8) and Katha Upanishad part of Krishna Yajur Veda. Nachiketa wanted to know the mystery of death and for this he chose the most apt person, Yama, the Hindu god of death and righteousness (Dharma).

Nachiketa is unhappy with the way in which his father conducts Vishwajit Yagna

Nachiketa is an ideal son and true seeker of knowledge. His father Vajasarva performed a ritual called Vishwajit, in which it was expect that he to give up all his possession and retire to an ashram.

But Vajasarva gave away cows that were too old to be of any use. Vajasarva was not ready to part away with his wealth and possessions.

Nachiketa who saw observed the Vishvajit yagna felt apprehensive that his father would go to hell.

The Young Boy in Katha Upanishad Who Wanted to know Mystery of Death from Yama

An Angry Father Gives Nachiketa to Yama

He therefore asked his father, “To whom will you give me away?”

His father first ignored the question and then attempted to put down his son’s question with anger. But the boy persisted with the query.

In anger, Vajasarva told the boy, “Unto death shall I give thee.

In order to fulfill his father’s words, Nachiketa went to the abode of Yama.

Fearless Nachiketa Waits for Yama in Yamlok

Yama was away and returned after three nights to Yamlok.

Nachiketa had waited for Yama without taking any food.

Yama came back to his abode and felt remorseful in keeping a guest waiting without offering food and water.

Nachiketa Gets Three Boons

As penance, Yama offered to grant him three boons.

By first boon Nachiketa asked that his father should restore his mental peace and be happy to see his dear son back alive.

For the second boon he asked for knowledge of agnichiti, the sacred fire, by which one attains heaven. Yama readily granted these boons to Nachiketa.

The Third Boon

When Yama asked Nachiketa to ask for the third boon, the latter asked him to impart the knowledge of the Supreme Self (Atmavidya) and the mystery of death.

But before granting the boon, Yama wanted to test whether Nachiketa deserved to be the able recipient of that knowledge.

Accordingly, he first described the difficulty of acquiring the knowledge of the Supreme Self (atmavidya), as it is too subtle to be realized and even demigods (Devas) are confused about this.

Yama advised him to seek any other boon than knowledge of atman.

Yama Attempts To Tempt Nachiketa With Worldly Pleasures

But Nachiketa remained steadfast in his resolve, and so Yama tried to divert him by asking him to seek boons such as having sons and grandsons who would live a hundred years, having unlimited numbers of cattle, elephants, horses, and gems, ruling over a very big kingdom or any other boon equal to those, or full enjoyment of worldly pleasures not available to a mortal being in this world.

Nachiketa, as a true lover of knowledge, refused to accept any of these, saying that all these things are transient.

Yama Finds an Ideal Student in Nachiketa

Yama appreciated the boy’s devotion and love for knowledge of atman and felt proud to have a disciple like Nachiketa.

The teaching of atmavidya which Yama imparted to Nachiketa forms the content of Katha Upanishad.

In last verse of Katha Upanishad, it is stated that having received the knowledge of atmavidya or brahmavidya, and all the techniques of Yoga from Yama, Nachiketa became a Brahmavid and attained Brahmatva, becoming free from the bondage of birth and death.

(Notes taken from Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume VII page 296 - 297)

Few verses from Katha Upanishad – the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa

Dwelling in the darkness of ignorance, the ignorant believe themselves to be wise and balanced. Like the blind led by the blind, they stagger round and round.

Childish are those who are deluded by the charms and temptations of the world, and consequently they fail to comprehend the higher truth. To them this world is the only reality, beyond this, nothing exists. One who is convinced of this false beliefs falls in my trap – the trap of birth and death – again and again.

The self-shining Divine Being is hard to see. Placed in the interior of the cave, it is hidden; it is most ancient and eternal. After knowing this Celestial Being through spiritual means, an aspirant is from both pleasure and pain.

If someone listens, comprehends, practices accordingly, and as a result, gains the experience of this subtle most truth, then he attains the joy of the highest delight. I consider you, O Nachiketa, an abode of learning, with a wide open door.

(Source - The Pursuit of Power and Freedom - by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait)