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The Secret of Life After Death

Have you ever thought about the secret of life after death? One who does will be able to think more deeply about life. This is shown in the Katha Upanishad (Kathopanishad). This thought flashed to a young child, causing him to keenly desire to attain that secret. He then reached the doors of death. He patiently persevered to discover the secret of that which exists after death. In fact, Death himself had to reveal the secrets of life after death. And finally, only when that secret was revealed, was the boy satisfied. The story of this Upanishad is extremely captivating and whoever reads it starts to think: Truly! The Kathopanishad gives one an experience of liberation whilst still alive.

There is a shãkhã (branch) of the Krishna Yajurveda called ‘Katha’. This Upanishad is within that shãkhã, therefore it is called the ‘Katha Upanishad’. This Upanishad is spread across two chapters, called adhyãyas, each with three sub-chapters, called vallis. Thus, contained within the six vallis of the Katha Upanishad, we find clear and simple precepts on brahmavidya through the story of Nachiketa.

A rishi named Vajashravas performed a Vishwajit Yagna. At the conclusion of this yagna, one has to give one’s all in donation. Vajashravas started donating to the Brahmins accordingly. He began to donate his cows; weak cows as well as strong, healthy ones. Vajashravas’s son, Nachiketa, noticed this. Although young, he was mature in understanding, knowledge and faith. He knew that after a yagna cows should indeed be donated, and it would be wrong not to do so. But giving away things that are a burden to oneself is not donation. Instead the giver himself becomes misfortuned. The finest and dearest things should be donated. This donation of weak cows by my father is not proper: ‘पीतोदका जग्घतृणा दुग्घदोहा निरिन्द्रियाः। अनन्दा नाम ते लोकास्तान्‌ स गत्व्छति ता ददत्‌॥’ – ‘Pitodakã jagdhatrunã dugdhadohã nirindriyãhã. Anandã nãma te lokãstãn sa gachchhati tã dadat.’ – ‘One who donates cows that cannot even drink water, cannot eat grass, cannot even give milk and have aged, attains the loka (realm) named ‘Anandã’, i.e. ‘where there is no bliss’ (Katha Upanishad 1/1/3). Nachiketa thought that by giving such worthless donations, his father will also attain such a misery-filled loka. With such feelings, Nachiketa, who cared for his father, was pained deeply. To stop his father’s undesirable actions, he asked, ‘कस्मै मां दास्यसीति’ – ‘Kasmai mãm dãsyasi-iti’ – ‘O Father! I am also a part of your wealth. Whom will you give me to?’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/4.) His father did not reply. Nachiketa repeated the question, ‘Father! Whom will you give me to?’ His father stilled paid no attention.
When Nachiketa asked for the third time his father became angry and said, ‘मृत्यवे त्वा ददामीति’ – ‘Mrutyave tvã dadãmeeti.’ – ‘I give you to Death’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/4). This sentence was meant to convey the message, ‘Go away, don’t bother me right now.’ But Nachiketa was an ideal son and he thought that regardless of the fact that his father had said this in a fit of anger, his words should not go unobeyed. Hence, Nachiketa decided to go to the god of Death, Yama Raja. His father found out and tried to stop him. However, Nachiketa felt that his father was trying to stop him due to the fear of death. He dumbfounded his father with an eternal truth. He said, ‘अनुपश्य यथा पूर्वे प्रतिपश्य तथाऽपरे। सस्यमिव मर्त्यः पत्व्यते सस्यमिवाजायते पुनः॥’ – ‘Anupashya yathã purve pratipshya tathã’pare. Sassyamiva martyaha pachyate sassyamivãjãyate punaha.’ – ‘O father! Those before us have all died. Those present and those in the future will also die. Because we are mortals, like plants we grow and die. So don’t worry, think about the tendency of death and let me do as you said’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/6). His father gave him permission. Nachiketa set off towards the palace of Yama Raja.

Nachiketa reached the palace of Yama Raja only to find that Yama Raja was away. He waited for three days without any food or water for Yama Raja to return. On the day after the third night, Yama Raja arrived. His old servants informed him of the unique young guest and suggested that he provide him some hospitality. Yama Raja did so. He pleased the child with water to wash his feet, flowers, a meal, etc. He also made a request, ‘तिस्रो रात्रीर्यदवात्सीर्गृहे मेऽनश्नन्‌ ब्रह्मन्नतिथिर्नमस्यः। नमस्तेऽस्तु ब्रह्मन्‌ स्वस्ति मेऽस्तु तस्मात्प्रति त्रीन्वरान्वृणीष्व॥’ – ‘Tisro rãtriryadavãtsirgruhe me’nashnan brahmannatithirnamasyaha. Namaste’stu brahman svasti me’stu tasmãtprati trinvarãnvrunishva.’ – ‘O Brahmin child! You are worthy of being offered prostrations. You have come to my palace as a guest. I am pained that you had to spend three nights without any food or water. This was a grave mistake, since a guest should be well looked after. Therefore, O Brahmin! For my offence to be forgiven and that I may be liberated, I bow to you and request that you ask for three boons in return for the three nights you spent fasting’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/9).

Pleased with Yama Raja’s generosity, the young Brahmin, Nachiketa, asked for his first boon, ‘शान्तसंकल्पः सुमना यथा स्याद्‌ वीतमन्युर्गौतमो माऽभि मृत्यो। त्वत्प्रसृष्टम्‌ माऽभिवदेत्प्रतीत एतत्‌ त्रयाणां प्रथमं वरं वृणे॥’ – ‘Shãntasankalpaha sumanã yathã syãd veetamanyurgautamo mã’bhi mrutyo. Tvatprasrushtam mã’bhivadetprateeta etat trayãnãm prathamam varam vrune.’ – ‘O Death! Let all my father’s thoughts come to rest. Let him be pleased with me and free of anger towards me. When I leave you and go home, let him recognize me as “his son”. Let him talk to me with the same love and affection as he did before. This is the first of the three boons that I ask for’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/10).
What pure feelings the child has for his father! He had surrendered himself to death to stop his father’s liberation being ruined. He also understood the pain that his father must be feeling due to this incident. Therefore we see Nachiketa’s love for his father expressed here.
Hearing this, Yama was delighted, since at such a young age he had asked for something which even elders would not have thought of. Pleased, Yama Raja granted him his first wish.

Before asking for the second boon, the intelligent Nachiketa clarified, ‘स्वर्गे लोके न भयं किंचनास्ति न तत्र त्वं न जरया बिभेति। उभे तीर्त्वाऽशनायापिपासे शोकातिगो मोदते स्वर्गलोके॥’ – ‘Svarge loke na bhayam kinchanãsti na tatra tvam na jarayã bibheti. Ubhe teertvãshanãyãpipãse shokãtigo modate svargaloke.’ (The word svarge refers to the abode of Paramatma.) – ‘O Death! There is no fear in the abode of Paramatma. Even you, Death, are not there. Therefore there is no fear of things like old age. In Paramatma’s abode there are not even any bodily feelings like hunger and thirst. It is a place full of supreme bliss. Therefore, muktas (liberated jivas) who are above all misery experience bliss there’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/12). Hence, ‘स त्वमग्निं स्वर्ग्यमध्येषि मृत्यो प्रब्रूहि त्वँ श्रद्दघानाय मह्यम्‌।’ – ‘Sa tvamagnim svargyamadhyeshi mrutyo prabruhi tvam shraddhãnãya mahyam.’ – ‘O Yama Raja! You know agnividya by which one can attain that abode of Paramatma, teach it to me’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/13). ‘एतद्‌ द्वितीयेन वृणे वरेण’ – ‘Etad dviteeyena vrune varena.’ – ‘This is what I ask for as my second boon’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/13). Yama Raja readily agreed and became a teacher. He taught him agnividya. One is naturally attentive in matters for which one has keen interest. Therefore, Nachiketa repeated whatever he was taught. The teacher’s heart was won over! Yama Raja showed his pleasure by saying, ‘तवैव नाम्ना भवितायमग्निः सृङ्‌कां चेमामनेकरूपां गृहाण’ – ‘Tavaiva nãmnã bhavitãyamagnihi srunkãm chemãmanekaroopãm.’ – ‘From now on, this agnividya that I have taught you will be known by your name. And here, have this beautiful garland of coloured gems’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/16). This was an additional blessing. One who is nirlobhi (free from greed) gets such benefits without any endeavour. But Nachiketa merely showed his gratitude; he did not care for the garland of gems. Indeed, as a result of Yama Raja’s boon, this knowledge is known by the name ‘Nachiket Agnividya’.

Asking for the third boon, Nachiketa says, ‘येयं प्रेते विचिकित्सा मनुष्येऽस्तीत्येके नायमस्तीति चैके। एतद्विद्यामनुशिष्टस्त्वयाऽहं वराणामेष वरस्तृतीयः॥’ – ‘Yeyam prete vichikitsã manushhye’steetyeke nãyamasteeti chaike. Etadvidyãmanushishtastvayã’ham varãnãmesha varastruteeyaha.’ – ‘O Yama Raja! There is one discussion that arises time and time again in the world and that is regarding matters after death. Some say there is nothing after death. Some say that there is something after death. Please give me a clear decision on this matter. This is the third boon I ask for’ (Katha Upanishad: 1/1/20).
Before we proceed further it is worthy to note that Nachiketa did not ask this question because he doubted whether there was something after death or not. This is clearly reflected from his talks to Yama Raja in his previous boon. His reason for asking is that the common person is generally baffled on hearing contradictory things. Sometimes, so called intelligent people, due to their arrogance, mislead gullible people with false logic. They confuse people by creating doubts regarding accepted facts by claiming that they are blind faith, a matter of sentimentalism or false. Thus, Nachiketa requests, ‘Therefore, O Yama Raja! You are a wise and skilled orator. Whatever you approve will be accepted by all. The true principle will be revealed by your words. People will also recognize what is false. They will identify empty shows of words and webs of logic. People’s conviction in the truth will become stronger. Therefore, O Death! You yourself explain to me the secrets of life after death.’ This is Nachiketa’s noble and humble request.

Translated by: Sadhu Paramvivekdas

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