by Disciple
Kathopanishad’s protagonist is a young boy Nachiketa, who on account of being honest, proceeds to face his own death embodied as Yama. Curiously, Yama was missing at his abode, perhaps aware of the portending meeting with this prodigy. Having been made to wait for three nights without food (makes us wonder whether we see day/night and need food after death), Yama as a gesture of making it up to Nachiketa, agreed to grant three boons, one for each night that he had waited.

Nachiketa was either smart as he did not ask the boons in reverse order of what he had actually asked or he made spiritual progress very fast seeing through the true nature of things (so we were told). As first boon, which itself is an intelligent concatenation of multiple wishes, he made sure he will go back to his father alive who would be pacified and also recognize him.  As second boon, he wanted to know the method to attain heaven to enjoy happiness. Yama graciously gives two extra boons here: naming this method by the name Nachiketa besides granting a garland to him.

Now the third boon struck Yama as a thunderbolt as Nachiketa innocently asks what happens after death. Yama tempts Nachiketa with other objects that any ordinary person would love to possess: wealth, power, beautiful women or men (as the case maybe), long life etc. It is unclear why Nachiketa would fall for these as he had already covered most of these through his second boon. Yama was unwilling to lose control over Nachiketa (just as he had control over all the mortals) by revealing this knowledge to him. It could also be seen as Yama testing Nachiketa of how serious he was for this knowledge and what price he was willing to pay. Much to the dismay of Yama (or happiness if he was testing), Nachiketa views all these “enjoyable” things as trash, thereby establishing his credentials as the rightful recipient of this knowledge.

Yama then proceeds to teach Nachiketa what the real nature of man is, elucidating methods to realize it and what happens after its realization. Swami Yogatmanandaji, in his class in Rochester retreat, explained each verse in detail and at the end of a particular verse that mentions Atman as the cause of life-forces in a person, he anticipated questions galore, but unsurprisingly the plethora of questions that followed were about rebirth introduced in the subsequent verses. For some reason, Swamiji was in a combative mood with logicians and he used rank-bad examples with illogical conclusions to show “drawbacks” of logic itself amidst peals of laughter from the audience. However, later Swamiji addressed the issue of drawback of logic in a “logical” way stating that logic is built upon our mental framework and is therefore, limited by it.

The Upanishad concludes, like a happy ending in any story, with Nachiketa attaining immortality by knowing the true Self and it exhorts us to achieve the same by following this path.  Thus rendering Yama ineffective, Nachiketa became an embodiment of death to the Death itself! In the words of the Upanishad, Etad vai etat – (To Yama) this (Nachiketa) is verily that (Yama or death)!


  1. I like the how the progression is shown in three boons from earthly life to heavenly life to eternal life. Earthly enjoyment will not last forever. Even heavenly enjoyment will not last forever then what is there that will last forever? That question is answered in third boon that leads to eternal life ( Eternal Peace and Happiness as explained in Kaṭhopaniṣad)
    Jai Sri Ramakrishna

  2. The whole setting was wonderful. As the Upanishad says, "Even to hear of the Atman is not available to many; those having heard of It, cannot comprehend. Wonderful is Its teacher and equally wonderful must Its pupil be.”
    Perhaps both Yama and the disciple fit that role. We must all strive for the same.

    It somehow appears that Nachiketa was not very desperate to get this knowledge (c.f. the analogy that states that one needs to have a thirst for this knowledge equivalent to a person craving for a breath of air when submerged in water or for water when the head is on fire). Did it appear that Nachiketa was of that state of mind? Perhaps the first two boons sows some doubts about his mental preparation to us because normally we do not expect such a sharp transformation in a person in few minutes (from craving for mundane needs in one boon to rejecting the very same in the next boon). Nevertheless, the point of Upanishad is that the third boon is what we should all crave for and it should be the ONLY one to ask for.

    Regarding Swamiji's logic-bashing, here is an anecdote in a lighter vein: Swamiji in his lecture said, "White cows give white milk, so the color of milk from black cows would be …? Logic says it would be black!" There was lot of laughter at in the audience. After the retreat, while traveling back home, my mother saw grazing cows in ranches. These cows had black and white spots – so she said, "I wonder what the color of milk from these cows would be."

  3. Nachiketa appeared to be desperate to get what is the best.Katopanisad shows Nachiketa as a kid who wants the best,however doesn’t have full experience of the world like an adult. He lives with his parents in this world. Assuming there is permanent happiness in this world he asks for the worldly boon in his first attempt. He gets the best of this world, but that is not permanent. Once the first boon is answered he got full knowledge of the impermanence of worldly enjoyment. He understands that this is not what he was looking for. Earthly enjoyments are temporary. Next, he asks for second boon thinking heavenly enjoyments are permanent. Once his second boon is answered he gets complete knowledge of the impermanence of heavenly enjoyment. After realizing the limitation of earthly and heavenly enjoyment, he asks for the third boon "the knowledge of the Infinite." Yama tries to persuade him by showing many fancies and attractions. Now Nachiketa knows that whatever is being offered by Yama falls in the realm of impermanence. Now Nachiketa cannot be fooled because he has the experience that he got from his last two boons. He understands the evanescent nature of all the attractions. He remains firm and asks for the knowledge of Infinite. From beginning he is looking for eternal happiness and peace, first he thought it was in worldly enjoyment then in heavenly enjoyment, and at last he realized that knowing Self only he can get eternal happiness and peace. This step by step progression is shown in three boons.

  4. Good analysis. He was looking for everlasting happiness (desperate), but he quickly realized where it isn't available. The only astonishment is that his intellectual analysis (which we all have and can easily do) was enough to convince him about the evanescent nature of the earlier boons – perhaps for most of us, our intellectual understanding is not that strong so we are not convinced yet of the impermanence of the happiness from material objects.

    However, it is not clear how or why we should not view the third question that Nachiketa asked was out of simple curiosity. His question as third boon was,
    "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."

    Even though Nachiketa discards the temptations given by Yama as a substitute for answering this question, it is not explicit that Nachiketa knew that the answer to this mystery leads to everlasting happiness. It is only when seen in his arguments in rejecting the temptations being evanescent we can infer that he perhaps knew that the answer to this question will lead to everlasting happiness. Well I guess this story (if it was not an actual incident) is supposed to be an analogy and a lesson for us, so perhaps I am looking for answers that are not important in the context of the purpose of this story.

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