The story of Naciketas from the Katha Upanisad

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(Painting by Alessia Birri. Visit her website here.)

 

From the Katha Upanisad

Translation by Sri Krishna Prem (Ronald Nixon)

From his book The Yoga of the Katha Upanisad

 

(1) Once Vājaśravasa, desirous of heavenly reward, gave away all his

possessions. He had a son named Naciketas.

(2) Into him, boy as he was, faith entered, while the gifts (of cattle

for the priests) were being led away and he reflected.

(3) “To joyless realms goes he who gives such cows as these, cows

which have drunk their last water, eaten their last grass, have given

their last milk and who will breed no more.”

(4) Therefore he said to his father once, twice and thrice: “To whom

will you give me (who also am one of your possessions)?”  The father

replied, “To Death do I give thee.”

(5) Of many I go as the first (and yet) of many I am in the

midst. What is the task that Yama, Lord of Death, will accomplish on

my today?

(6) Bear in mind how went those who have gone before.  Note how in the

same way go others now.  Like grain a mortal ripens and like grain is

he born again.

(7) As a very fire, the brāhmaṇa guest enters into houses, therefore,

O Son of the Sun, bring water to assuage him.

(8) Hope and expectation, friendly intercourse, the merits gained by

sacrifice and charitable acts, offspring and cattle—for the foolish

man in whose house a brāhmaṇa (guest) has to fast all these things are

destroyed.

(9) "O Brāhmaṇa, you, a worshipful guest, have dwelt for three nights

food-less in my house.  Therefore, I offer you my reverence.  Choose in

return three boons (and) may it be well for me."

(10) "As the first of the three boons I choose that when sent back by

thee, O Death, my father Gautama, his sacrificial intent accomplished,

may recognize and welcome me with a mind peaceful and free from the

fiery turmoil of the heart.

 (11) “As aforetime will that son of ancient Sages behave towards thee.

Having seen thee liberated from the mouth of Death and recognizing

thee as one sent back by Me he will sleep happily of nights, his

turmoil stilled.”

(12) “In the Heaven World there is no fear.  Thou (death) art not there

nor does one fear old age.  Having passed beyond both of these, as

also beyond hunger and thirst, the Sorrowless Ones there in that

Heaven rejoice.

(13) Thou, O Death, knowest that Fire by which the Heaven Dwellers

attain immortality; teach it to me, therefore, who am full of faith.

This I choose as my second boon.”

(14) “Knowing that Heavenly Fire, I explain it to thee.  Do thou

therefore, O Naciketas, understand it well of me.  Know that that

Fire, the means of attainment of the unending being, the Support or

Basis of all the worlds is hidden in the Cave of the Heart.”

(15) Then He told him of that Fire which is the creative power that

builds the worlds, with what kind of bricks its altar is made, both

how many and how they are to be arranged.  And Naciketas repeated

whatever was told him by Death, so that the latter, satisfied with the

pupil, spoke again.

(16) Being pleased, the Mahātmā said: “Here and now I give to thee

another boon.  In thy own name shall this Fire be known in the

future.  Accept from me also this garland of many forms.”

 (17) “He who has thrice kindled the Naciketas Fire (or perhaps a triple

Naciketas Fire), has united with the Three, and performed the three

Acts, crosses over beyond birth and death.  Having known and

thoroughly realised that Shining Power, the Knower who is born of

Brahman and (who is the one) Power deserving of worship, one goes to

the everlasting Peace.

(18) “The wise man who having kindled the triple Naciketas Fire and

known this Triad, builds up that Fire in meditation, he having already

(that is, while still living) destroyed the bonds of death, gone

beyond sorrow, enjoys the bliss of the Heaven World.

(19) “This is thy Heavenly Fire, O Naciketas, which thou hast chosen as

thy second boon.  After thee in truth will this Fire be named by men.

Now choose thy third boon.”

(20) “There is this doubt about a man who has gone Beyond, some saying

that he exists, others saying that he exists no more. This I desire to

know as thy disciple (literally, being taught by thee).  This the

third of my boons. ”

Yama replies:

(21) “Even by the very Gods has {the answer to) this been doubted in

  former times. Nor is this very subtle subject one that is easy to

  understand, O Naciketas. Choose another boon, do not, O do not press

  me. Release me from this promise.”

Naciketas:

(22) “By the Gods indeed was this matter doubted and thou too, O

Death, tellest me that it is not easy to understand.  Another Teacher

like thyself is not to be found, nor is there any other boon that is

equal to this.”

Yama:

(23) “Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years; choose

many cattle, elephants, horses and gold; choose broad lands to dwell

in and for thyself to live as many autumns as thou wishest:

(24) “If thou thinkest of any boon that is equal to this then choose

it; wealth or longevity: be (ruler) of the great earth; I will make

  you an enjoyer of all desires.

(25) “Whatever desires are difficult of attainment in this mortal

  world; ask for all desires at thy will. See these desirable maidens,

  seated on chariots and with instruments of music—their like cannot

  be had by man—by them, as my gift, be waited on and served; O

  Naciketas, do not ask about (the Great) Dying.”

Naciketas replies:

(26) “Ender of all things; transient, ephemeral are all

these. Moreover, they wear out the brightness of such sense powers as

a mortal has. Even aeonic life is short (in comparison with that

  eternal state about which I have asked).  Keep for thyself the

  chariots: thine be the song and dance.

(27) “Not with wealth is man to be satisfied and if we

should desire it, having once seen Thee (face to face) we shall

surely obtain it. (As for life), so long as Thou rulest, so

long shall we surely live. That (Knowledge) alone is the boon

to be chosen by me.

(28) Having approached the Undecaying Immortal Ones, knowing (their

unchanging nature) and reflecting analytically on the pleasures of

lust and beauty, who is there among ageing mortals here below who

would delight in long living (under such conditions as rule here). Tell

me, O Death, of that Great Passing On, concerning which people have

such doubts.  That which is wrapped in such great mystery (literally,

that has entered into secrecy), that and no other boon shall

Naciketas ask.”