1. EVERY Hindu knows the great Kurukshetra scene, which forms the prologue of the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior, stricken by remorse and doubt, throwing himself at the mercy of his divine charioteer for guidance. The Katha Upanishad has an equally sublime introductory scene, forming a noble background for the great teaching imparted in the Upanishad itself.
Vajasravasa Performed an elaborate sacrifice, which terminated with a parting of all his possessions as gifts to the guests, assembled. Vajasravasa’s son, Nachiketas, watched the proceedings and, as he saw the gifts being given, he was filled with the thought of the vanity of it all.
2. "Of what use is it," he said to himself "giving these toothless old cattle and cows past the age of bearing? Should not my father, if he is minded to give what is dear to him, give me away?" So he went to his father and said: "Father! To whom are you going to give me?" His father did not pay heed to the question, but went on with the routine of the great sacrifice.
Nachiketas repeated the question again and again till Vajasravasa, losing patience, exclaimed without meaning anything like what he said: "You? I shall give you to Yama. "Nothing could be uttered on such a solemn occasion but must be carried out. The father was aghast at his own exclamation. Nachiketas, how ever, decided to go to Yama.
3. "Many have gone before me and many yet must go after me. I go not alone to Death, and what can Yama do to me? Consider what has happened before this, and consider what is going to happen in the future. Countless are the mortals that have died before this and will die- hereafter.
The life of mortals, in deed, is like that of the corn which grows and ripens and is reaped, and like the grains that fall which spring again into life!" So Nachiketas went to Yama. Yama was not prepared for the voluntary visitor. He was not willing to receive anyone before time. Nachiketas had to wait for three days before Yama received him. A Brahamana could not thus be disregarded even by Yama.
4. So, to make up for the offence, Death offered to Nachiketas whatever boon he might demand. He offered many gifts length of days and all the possessions of the earth that one could desire, and Swarga thereafter. But the youth chose for a boon-instruction at Yama’s hands about the nature of the soul.
"There is no boon that I desire other than this knowledge," said Nachiketas, "and there can be no better instructor than you for imparting this knowledge. What use is length of days and what joy can possessions, or song or dance, or hones and chariots give, so long as you are there as an ever-present termination to it all?"
5. Yama pleaded with Nachiketas:
Even the gods have had doubts in the matter. The nature of it is so subtle that it is not possible to comprehend it satisfactorily. Choose some other boon, Nachiketas. Do not insist; release me from this.
But Nachiketas answered:
If even the gods had doubts in this matter and you say that it is not easily to be comprehended, who then could expound it as you can, O Death, and what other boon can equal this? None, indeed.
6. Ask for sons and grandsons who may live for a hundred years. Ask for numerous cows, elephants, and gold and horses. Ask for large tracts of land, and live as many autumns as you desire.
Or choose any boon that you can conceive equal to this, with wealth and long life. Be lord of wide dominions, O Nachiketas, I will make you the enjoyer of every desire.
Ask freely for every rare enjoyment in the world of mortals. Here are nymphs in chariots playing on lutes, such as men have never seen.
These will serve you at my command. But do not ask me about Death.
Nachiketas was unmoved. He said:
These ephemeral pleasures, O Death, consume the powers of the mortal’s senses. Even if they lasted all life, they are of little worth. You say you give me these gifts, but being all limited by the death of the enjoyer, they remain but yours though you appear to give them away, these chariots, and song and dance. 1
How can man be satisfied with wealth? Can we hold wealth when we see you? All wealth disappears on death. We live but as long as you command it to be. That boon alone, there fore, is worthy of being desired that I craved of you.