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The real glory of Nachiketa || On Advaita Vedanta (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
10 min
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Questioner: In Katha Upanishad , the young boy Nachiketa attained the highest wisdom and immortality by the virtue of dispassion and the firm resolve to know the Truth. Kindly speak on the virtues of determination and dispassion that Nachiketa had.

Acharya Prashant: Yes, obviously Nachiketa had determination and dispassion, but do not think of that as merely the stuff this boy exhibited in front of the death god. It is common for readers to say that Nachiketa’s fearlessness and glory lie in standing unperturbed in front of death. Not quite so.

The story of Nachiketa is more flesh and blood. The story of Nachiketa is more like our own story. And if it is more like our own story, then we have to keep the encounter with death god aside for a while and look at the more mortal aspects of Nachiketa’s story.

Nachiketa is a mere boy, dependent on his father. And he has the honesty and the guts to go to his father and say, “Of what use is all this that you are doing? Who will benefit from these old and sick and milkless cows?” I assure you, that was more difficult than facing Yamaraja.

We glorify Nachiketa’s encounter with Yamaraja and that keeps things safe for us. “Glory to Nachiketa who stood unflinching in front of Yamaraja!” Nice—because we very well know that this encounter is a myth. We very well know that we will never have the occasion in our own life to stand face to face with the death god, at least not in the way the Upanishad narrates. We all will die, in that sense we all will face the death god one day, but not in the way Nachiketa faced, not in the way of having a conversation in words and sentences.

So, nice and safe. Say, “Glory to the one who can stand unflinching, unflappable in front of Yamaraja!” I will put it differently: Glory to the one who is dependent on somebody close to him and yet has the guts to utter the truth and the guts to leave his home. That’s where Nachiketa’s glory really lies.

Yamaraja is fictitious. What danger is there in facing fiction? Nachiketa’s father is not fictitious. There is great danger in facing someone real, especially when you are dependent on that real person. And at first the father, who is an influential person, keeps dismissing the boy away, but Nachiketa keeps pestering him. Finally, annoyed by the boy’s pesky behavior, the father says, “I am giving you away to death.”

Obviously the father is just uttering some nonsense in a moment of rage. The boy has been annoying him; the boy has been questioning his moral authority. The father does not really want to put away the boy; the father just wants the boy to leave him alone and not irritate him. After all, it’s a big ceremony that is going on: thousands of cows are being given to Brahmins and the father is busy overseeing the arrangement. And the boy is chasing him, and the boy is saying, “Father! Hold! What the hell is going on? These are useless cows! You are donating them. What is the worth of such a donation?” Father is saying, “Stay away!”

Can you visualize all this? Oh, the Katha Upanishad does not explicitly tell of all this. That which I am narrating consists of a lot of my own construction. But this is how it would have happened. Nachiketa, barely a teenager, and he is chasing the father: “Father, what really is going on? Look at that cow! Look, look! Father, look—half dead!” So, the father says, “You keep shut!” The boy does not relent. Finally father says, “I am giving you away to death god!”

And now comes the moment of glory—real glory. Nachiketa says, “Fine. If you are giving me away to death god, then here I go away to death!” That’s dispassion. That’s determination. After that what happens is smooth and natural. Nachiketa has already cleared the big test. Facing Yamaraja is the smaller test. Having cleared the big test, obviously he will emerge with flying colors in the smaller one. The big test is to leave the home; the big test is to give up all dependency. And after that, obviously, you will be blessed with the Truth.

And look at Nachiketa. The first thing he asks Yamaraja is, “Let my father be alright. Please bless my father. Please don’t let him stay angry.” His father has done the unthinkable and Nachiketa still has no bitterness. He says, “God, first of all you bless my father.” About Truth he asks right in the end; that’s his final query. What does he ask? “Tell me that by which immortality is achieved. What really is immortality?” He doesn’t directly ask about death; he asks about immortality.

And Yamaraja says, “Boy, you can have expensive toys if you want. You can have the best of foods if you want, the latest gadgets if you so please. A brand new car for you along with the driving license—ah, doesn’t matter if you are underage. I am the death god, you see!” All that Nachiketa could be tempted with was tried. It failed on him. That’s the test.

All the knowledge that you find in the Upanishad is easy to get once you have overcome dependency, once you have stayed true to yourself, once you have won over the craving for security, stability, the confines of a comfortable palace, the comfort of a regular routine. Once you have been able to go beyond all this, then the Truth is obvious; that is not at all difficult. All the great and golden verses that you come across in the Katha Upanishad , they will spring up right from your heart; they will not be distant or difficult anymore.

Do you get this? Those verses are the easiest part. You start hearing those verses right in your breath. They are the easiest part. The more difficult part is right in the beginning. The more difficult part is when you ask your father for the Truth knowing fully well that he is not in the Truth. You say, “Nothing doing. Daddy, what is going?” Daddy says, “Kid, you very well know who provides your pocket money.” And kiddo says, “Doesn’t matter, papa. I am prepared to give up the pocket money. I am prepared to give up the comforts. But tell me, what is all this cow business?”

The trouble with most of us is that we do not cross the first hurdle. The death god did not chase Nachiketa; Yamaraja didn’t penetrate into Nachiketa’s home, his palace. Nachiketa had to take the decision to go beyond the confines and comforts of his home, and then was born an Upanishad.

To me, the Upanishad was seeded in the moment Nachiketa accosts his father. Even as Nachiketa is leaving the palace, I can see the father calling behind him: “Son, I was just joking! What the hell are you doing? I didn’t mean it!” Nachiketa is saying, “It’s done. Deal closed. Yours is not a palace of honesty; yours is not a palace where I’ll be able to break free and stay free of the false. I am quitting it.”

The father would have initially thought that the son is just kidding. Kids kid. But then he sees that he is actually walking away. And now the father is trembling, and the father is going behind the son and saying, “Kiddo, you can have anything that you want! You want me to stop this ceremony? I’ll stop it. Where are you going away? What will you do? What will you live on? You have no experience, you have no knowledge—what’s worse, you have no money!” Nachiketa is saying, “I’m going.”

Father says, “Alright, the sun is setting. Stay over for tonight, you can leave tomorrow morning.” And what is he hoping? The mood will change overnight. Nachiketa says, “No. Not one breath more in this place. Not that I hate this place, papa, I still love you. But I have to chart my own course. If I keep living on your bread, freedom is not for me.”

That’s the Upanishad—not the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa. That’s how Katha Upanishad is usually presented, right? They say Katha Upanishad is the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa. No, Katha Upanishad is the dialogue between Nachiketa and his father. After that, the dialogue that ensues, I say, is natural, it will happen. Because the bigger hurdle has been crossed, so the next thing will happen. First things first.

But the world does not want to put emphasis where it is really due. Emphasis has to be put on the first few verses of the Upanishad. Emphasis has to be put on the opening scene. That’s where the Upanishad is really contained. Here is someone who in spite of his raw age, inexperience and dependency and emotional attachment is still not prepared to come to a truce with the false. Once he has known that he will not get the Truth where he is, he just crosses over.

Crossing over, he meets death. It’s symbolic. Do you understand this? That which we call as life, we have defined it as being within the four walls of our house, right? We say, “I live in my house.” Don’t we say that? So, where is life? In the safety of the house. So, outside the house is death. That’s what Yamaraja represents—the discomfort, the insecurity that a dependent one encounters outside his house.

No Yamaraja factually exists. Nachiketa is a fact, a boy in flesh and blood. In the sense Nachiketa is a fact, Yamaraja is not a fact. No Yamaraja came to Nachiketa in flesh and blood. Yamaraja is a symbol—symbol of what? Symbol of the insecurity that awaits you when you leave your house. Inside the house you say is life, right? The house you sometimes refer to as a living space, a space where you live. So, outside the house is death for you, especially if you are weak and dependent.

So, outside is death. “Oh my God. Everything is unknown! Strangers are there! Who will feed me? What will happen to me?” That is Yamaraja. That fear is Yamaraja. Nachiketa leaves his home and encounters that fear. That is his dialogue with Yamaraja. Anybody who is Truthful will have to cross over. Once you cross over, obviously you will meet the one on the buffalo.

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