Death in Indic Thought – Part I: An Interpretation of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad
When Yama met Naciketā, who had come to offer himself to the Lord of Death at the bidding of his father, he was terrified at a child’s anticipated wrath. This was because Naciketā had to wait for three nights at Yama’s gates while he was away from his residence. Imagine how hospitable, gentle and indeed how refined a god he must have been – to become so anxious at the unintended troubles he had caused someone who was not even his guest, but a legitimate subject. He had all the powers over Naciketā, for Naciketā’s father Vājaśravā had uttered the words “I give you to Yama!” in anger and frustration at his son, who had repeatedly asked him who he was going to be offered to like everything else, thus pointing out the vanity and hypocrisy of his father’s “sacrifice” wherein he was giving away only those possessions of his which were no longer of use to him or anyone else. The utterance amounts to endowing Yama, the Lord of Death, with his son, who happened to be a rather coveted possession for Vājaśravā. But Yama did not treat Naciketā like a mere possession which came his way, even though he, a god, would have been perfectly within his rights had he done so. After all, Naciketā was a mortal, and he a god who presides over the office which takes care of mortals passing away. Giving someone to Yama is to accurse them to die, and Yama really had little to worry about pleasing Naciketā especially in view of the fact that this specific mortal did not simply die (in the event of which he would anyway be a rightful subject of Yama), but was specially offered to the Lord of Death during a Vedic sacrifice. And yet he was worried, like any good householder ought to be, when Naciketā had to spend three long nights at the gates of his abode, completely unattended. Here he was, the Lord of Death, the terrible, the god whom everybody fears, trying to do anything he could to recompense someone who had been bequeathed to him.
Question is: why would death itself be so frightful of a mortal person – a human child that it should have accepted in the first instance? After all, Naciketā was nothing more than a mere offering made to propitiate (however unwittingly) the Lord of Death, a prominent Vedic god, through duly performed Vedic sacrifices? Perhaps the answer lies partly in Yama’s gentleness owing to his godly character – totally unlike how the Vedic god of death is depicted in contemporary pop culture through films, TV serials and animations – and befitting his role as the highest upholder of Dharma (indeed he is Dharma deified). And perhaps it also lies partly in the fact that Naciketā had willingly undertaken the journey from his father’s house to the abode of death, a courageous act in itself which showed how unperturbed by the thought of death he really was. Any other mortal – let alone a child – would be frightened to death at the prospect of coming face to face with the Lord of Death himself, the dreaded taker of life. This might have moved the formidable god. On the other hand, Naciketā displays great respect for the spoken word uttered by a person under oath. In order to successfully perform a yajña, one has to have a definite purpose, which must be defined at the outset. This purpose, or saṅkalpa, once defined, automatically binds the performer to an oath of fulfilling the saṅkalpa. Naciketā was acutely mindful of this important aspect of the yajña, even when his father had callously given it up firstly by giving useless gifts in dāna and secondly by expressing his wish to cling on to his son even after bequeathing him to death. The yajña would generate no merit if the oath goes unfulfilled. Moreover, Naciketā’s father had indulged in wrong practices while performing the sacrifices, an act which had demeaned the sanctity of the sacred Vedic rites. And this brought conviction in the boy’s mind that he must set things straight, he must sacrifice himself so his father is absolved of the sins. So, without lodging a single protest against the terrible and unjust pronouncement made by his father, he set off on a journey wherein death is imminent at the end – or perhaps which commences in the death of the journeyer. Clearly Naciketā was not one who would be afraid of dying if dying is what it takes to do the right thing. He shows great character in facing the challenging situation that had suddenly presented itself to him, at such unripe age. In addition to that, Naciketa showed all the qualities of a person who is fit to receive transcendental knowledge. He had the power to discern his standing among many. And he did exercise that power to correctly judge whether he was indeed a worthy gift that can be given away to someone in the true spirit of giving that a yajña asks for. This was important for him to verify, because he did not want to end up being a useless gift that can be done away with, like those that his father had already given up during the yajña. When such sharp discernment is joined together with greatness of character, monumental conviction, and an iron will within a single person, mountains are moved, and sometimes even gods. Yama, the god of death, had definitely been moved by Naciketā’s character and the course of the action the young boy had taken. He readily agreed to grant three boons to Naciketā to atone for each of the three inhospitable nights the boy was forced to spend at death’s gates. The very first of these boons guaranteed that Naciketā will return safely back to his father’s house, unharmed, released from the “jaws of death”.
Naciketā came back from the House of Death to the house of his father in one piece, in addition he brought with him a sound understanding of what death is, what happens to men when they die, where they all go after death. He came to know and understand all that there was to know and understand about death, the inevitable, for his instructor in this lesson was none other than the Lord of Death himself. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad describes Naciketā’s state as having become virajaḥ (spotless) and vimṛtyuḥ (deathless) at the very end of the text. It ends with a promise: whosoever thus contemplates the vidyā taught by death becomes likewise.
Naciketā had transcended death by knowing death in its entirety. He became mṛtyuṅjaya.
How on earth could he, just a young boy, accomplish such a daunting feat? To understand this, let me go back a little and draw your attention to a phrase that I have already used in this piece: “and this brought conviction in the boy’s mind”. The exact word used by the Upanishad in this connection is ‘śraddhā’. This Sanskrit word is so thoroughly Indic in its character that no substitute from the English language can either glimpse or convey its whole sense – there really isn’t any single, precise English equivalent of it. It is conviction, plus will, plus faith in oneself or self-confidence, and probably much more – it causes an opening of the heart, an expansion of it – just like it happened in Naciketā’s case. By the end of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, it becomes clear to the reader (or the svādhyāyī, depending on the approach of study) that Naciketā was a boy of prodigious śraddhā. This matter is the crux of this whole episode described in the Upaniṣad, this very moment when śraddhā arises in Naciketā’s heart is the tipping point in his young life; it transforms him completely – effectively ending his boyhood and catapulting him into the life of a responsible, wise man, who will ultimately be rendered enlightened by Yama’s teaching. We call him wise because at that moment he finds the discernment with which he could see right from wrong. He could see that the offerings made by his father Vājaśravā were not done in good faith – that they were not in accordance with the true spirit of sacrifices as prescribed in the Vedas – that the innocence and willingness and honesty and joy in giving was missing. We call him responsible because he decides to take responsibility of the wrongs committed by his father, he decides to fulfill the yajña so his father’s attempt at it, though faulty, does not go in vain. By the time the text reaches its conclusion, Naciketā is completely metamorphosed – he is a renewed man. And the word śraddhā – it has got such a beautiful ringing sound to it – a non-translatable Sanskrit word, turns out to be the key to understanding the whole text of Kaṭha Upaniṣad – even others from the Vedantic canon.
Naciketā’s father Vājaśravā happened to have descended from Uddālaka and Āruṇi – figures who appear elsewhere in the Upanishadic canon and who too had strived and attained parā-vidyā, the transcendental knowledge – but he turned out to be totally unlike his son. He is desirous of heavenly rewards of the kind that Yama wishes to tempt and distract Naciketā with, thus attempting to dissuade him from pursuing the truth about what happens to men after death; and even in seeking such ephemeral rewards Vājaśravā indulges in corruption in his office as the performer of the Viśvajit yajña. Further, immediately after uttering the terrible words “I offer you to Yama”, when he realized what implication his utterance had, he got scared. He even pleaded with Naciketā not to go when the latter became resolute in undertaking his journey to the abode of death. In every sense Naciketā’s old man is a reversal of the attributes that are applicable on Naciketā. We may safely say that Naciketā is the archetype of the blameless, innocent, fearless man, while his father is the archetypal corrupt, limited, uncharitable man who is laden with the fear of losing his possessions – including his child. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad ironically depicts the lofty character as a child and the mean character as the father, reminding us of the contents in the seventh book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa where Prahlāda had played a similar (but much more dramatic) role vis-à-vis his father Hiraṇyakaśipu. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad gives several clues to the ancestry of Naciketā: he identifies his father as Gautama (probably a reference to the gotra), Yama refers to Naciketā and his father as Auddālaka and Āruṇi. This leaves Naciketā to be identified as a worthy inheritor of an illustrious line of Brahmajñānī-s.
What new stuff has the text in offer for us? First and foremost, it gives us a radically different portrayal of death: it humanizes death. Death, going by the accounts given in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, is not at all some terrible-looking mean monster lurking in the murky recesses of the future, waiting patiently until the right moment when it can swoop down on its prey. It is a friendly instructor – a teacher with compassion, but also one who uses considerable measures of caution. It doesn’t want to give away the best it has to offer just like that. It tries and tests the eager applicant, before granting him the coveted apprenticeship. And perhaps it is justified in taking those measures, because the secret knowledge of the human condition at and beyond death may backfire on those who are not fully prepared to accept/understand it yet. But once the pupil has proved himself to be a worthy receiver of the secrets, death gracefully takes on the role of a pedagogue, generously using all the didactic methods at its disposal to drive the truth home to the receiver. Here we see death without the arrogance that normally accrues from the formidable power it has over mortals. We get to see a very humane picture of this dreaded inevitability – so humane that it becomes rather difficult for us to distinguish death from life. No doubt both life and death have got cruel aspects to each of them, but they have the power to nourish, enlighten and renew too. Naciketā is, in a sense, an ideal mortal. The text chooses a boy and his father to represent the human condition: the boy representing innocence, the father’s character left blemished as a result of his corrupt practices in performing the yajña. Death gives its gift of ultimate wisdom to the unblemished child, the apāpabiddha Naciketā. Death in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is an intimate friend of the mortal. It helps man transcend his limitations, his imperfections, his conditions. Contemplating death in line with the Kaṭha Upaniṣad becomes a liberating exercise, because throughout it death shines as a beacon, a reminder of the fleeting nature of the world and the futility of the hankering that humans in general have for worldly pleasures. It is ready to offer proper direction to the mortal’s life on earth, if only the mortal is willing to stop avoiding the thought of death and consider what death really is. Spending an intimate time with death turned Naciketā from being a mere wise soul with strong conviction, something which he had become not-so-very-long-ago, into a liberated man with absolutely no cynicism left in him. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad evokes death and turns it on its head – it reveals the true nature of death as the greatest teacher that man can ask for. Thus, death becomes accessible for everyone who seeks wisdom and direction in this life. It becomes a veritable source of Ātma-vidyā, Self-Knowledge. But most of all, death no longer remains a morbid subject.
Kaṭha Upaniṣad, in original and Bengali translation by Swami Lokeshwarananda, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata.
Kaṭha Upaniṣad, English translation by Swami Paramananda (http://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/parama/katha.asp)
Kaṭha Upaniṣad, English translation by Eknath Easwaran (http://veda.wikidot.com/katha-upanishad-eknath)
The Meaning of Yajna, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2001/bmar01/yagmean.shtml)
Featured Image: Isha Sadhguru