(4) The first chapter of this Upanishad provides the setting for the exposition of its philosophy in the rest of its chapters. Firstly, the story is told of how Nachiketaa asked Yam three questions, the last of which related to profound metaphysics and spirituality. Secondly, on the basis of this third question, the remaining five chapters expound a philosophy which conveys the essential spiritual message of all the Upanishads. The story of Yam and Nachiketaa is not told in this Upanishad alone. The story first comes in the Rig-Ved, in its 10th Mandal, which speaks of a boy who went to the abode of Yam at the express desire of his royal father.
The story appears in a more developed form in the Taittireeya Braahman of a later period, where Nachiketaa is granted three boons by Yam; the story in the Kath Upanishad corresponds in all essential particulars with that in the Taittireeya Braahman. The single point of difference lies in Yam's answer to the third boon by which Nachiketaa asked Yam to tell him as to how to conquer death. In the Braahman, the answer to this boon referred to the performance of a certain sacrifice; this was only a repetition of the answer to the second boon. But the answer to the third question given in the Kathopanishad lifts the subject from sacrifices and rituals to the highest level of moral striving and spiritual realization. This little difference in the approach makes all the difference between a heaven-centered theology and a spiritual character-building philosophy.
The Upanishad opens its first chapter of twenty-nine verses with a simple statement recalling an old legend. "Desirous of heavenly rewards, Vaajashravaa, it is said , gave away all his possessions (at the Vishwajeet sacrifice). He had a son, Nachiketaa by name. Nachiketaa, the young son was watching the proceedings intently. When the gifts were being brought (for distribution) , Nachiketaa, though still a child, was filled with Shraddhaa (the spirit of truth and faith) and he thought (within himself): "Joyless, verily, are those worlds to which he goes who gives such cows as these - cows that have finished drinking water, eating hay, giving milk, and that would feed calves no more".
(8) The first six stanzas acquainted us with the exemplary character of young Nachiketaa, with his passion for truth and his fearlessness of death. In the previous writings we saw how Nachiketaa comforted his father and persuaded him to act up to the high ideals in which his ancestors walked in the past.
Exhorted by Nachiketaa to adhere to truth and righteousness, his father Vaajashravaa, eventually reconciled himself to the prospect of his so's going to the abode of Yam. So Nachiketaa left his home and entered the Domain of Death and reached Yam's abode. Yam was not at home then, and Nachiketaa had to wait there without food for three days and three nights until Yam returned after three days. The Upanishad now proceeds to tell us in its seventh and eighth verses, what people in Yam's home told Yama on his return about the neglect of the visitor in his house; and to describe the results accruing from this sin: "A Braahman Guest enters a house like fire; The householders pacify (propitaite) him with this (water). O Vaivasvat (Death)! carry water (for him).". (Х. 1.i.7). A Braahman Guest, a noble cultured man of purity and righteousness and mental and intellectual powers, is considered in our Hindu Shaastra as fire (a double-edged weapon) in as much as in the Vaidik period worship of Fire was the most common method for gaining Punya.
At the same time, fire can burn down the houses and bring sorrow and disaster to the householder, if not properly tended, attended and propitiated. The Mundak Upanishad (1.ii.3) declares of evil consequences in case such a propitiation is not done. It is obligatory to offer water for washing feet, offering seat, offering drinking water for quenching thirst etc immediately when a Braahman guest visits a Grihasth. Since there was a lapse in this regard on the part of Yam's household, the above-mentioned words were uttered either by Yam's consorts or by his ministers.
The next Mantra describes the consequences more clearly. It says - "If in anyone's house, a Braahman guest happens to stay without taking food, that Braahman destroys hope and expectations, the results of association with holy men, Punya of sweet and beneficial speech or discourses, beneficial results of sacred sacrifices, charitable deeds and pious gifts, sons and cattle. (1.i.8)
Not only in the houses of the mortals do we see the working of Sanaatan Dharm, but even in the Palace of the Lord of Death they are followed. Shaastra were not being merely quoted but were also implicitly followed, unlike now when we spend more time in questioning, criticizing and condemning Shaastra than the time we spend in complying with them. Herein precisely, we find the consequences, one will have to live through as a result of one's deliberate insults to a man of knowledge and culture. Hope (for Heaven etc) and expectations (for material wealth, relationship etc) are blasted in the life of one who insults a saintly guest.
The Shruti calls a house-holder who ignores or insults a saintly guest
as an idiot (Alp Medhaa). In the language of the Shruti, we are all a
generation of idiots, if we ignore charity and hospitality. "Atithi Devo
Bhava", says Shruti - "Treat the guest as God". A guest is
an embodiment of God, holds Sanaatan Dharm. In fact, feeding the guest with
Naaraayan Bhaav is considered to be one of Five Great Yagya (Panch Mahaa-Yagya)
which a Grihasth has to perform daily for the purpose of his future growth
in the scales of his conscious evolution.
Here there is also an undercurrent of compliment paid by Yam to the Braahman boy. "May all be well with me" is a request to the Braahman boy. A true Braahman is always won over by humble prostrations and other reverences shown. He is not one to nourish a grudge for even an insult expressly shown. Still Yam offers prostrations to the young Braahman boy.
In response to Yama's offer for grant of three boons, Nachiketaa says," O
Death, of the three boons, I ask this one as the first, viz., that (my
father) Gautam may become cheerful, freed from anxiety, and freed from
anger towards me, and he may recognize me and welcome me when sent
away by you".
(9) We saw the details of the first boon that Nachiketaa, asked from Yam, the Lord of Death. The purport of the boon was to favor Nachiketaa in such a way that Nachiketaa's father may not avoid him thinking that his son has returned after becoming a ghost and that he is not to be looked at. Yam promptly agreed to the boon and stated, "Through my favor, Uddaalak Aaruni (thy father, Gautam) shall recognize thee when he sees you after being released from the jaws (mouth) of Death; and he shall be (possessed of affection) just as he had before; he shall also be sleep peacefully at night and be free from anger." (1.i.11)
We find here that Lord Death is blessing the boy with the fulfillment of all his demands in all their details. The sum and substance of verses 10 and 11 is that as the first boon, Nachiketaa wants the blessings of Yam to return to his father.
Having secured peace at home and his own return to the human world with his first boon, Nachiketaa's thoughts turned to Heaven. In order to ask the second boon promised by Yam, Nachiketaa starts glorifying the life in higher plane of consciousness, called the Heavens. He says," In Heaven, there is no fear - you are not there; nor is one (inhabitants) afraid of old age. Having transcended both hunger and thirst and overcome all sorrow, one rejoices in the heavenly-world." (1.i.12)
Nachiketaa adopts the method of comparing it with sorrows of the world. Heaven is comparatively without fears, since life in Heaven is longer, compared to the fleeting span of existence in this mortal plane. Man has five stages to live through in life: birth, childhood, youth, old age and death. But the gods have only the first three stages. And hence Nachiketaa says, "You are not there. Nor, do they fear old age or death, but also they have neither the agonies of hunger and thirst under which he ordinary mortals suffer through their span of existence here". Nachiketaa then proceeds to ask for his second boon in the next verse.
Sushma Gupta on 3/15/05
Updated on 07/31/12