Advice from the Lord of Death, on how best to live (Katha Upanishad)

An ancient tale is as follows …

Some time ago a young spiritual seeker named Nachiketas ascended to the etheric realm to seek the advice of the Lord of Death, Yama. Raised by a pious family and schooled in the art of meditation, he had some burning questions about life and its ultimate purpose. He believed that Yama could provide some answers.

Having arrived at Yama’s gate he was made to wait three days for his audience with the Lord. When the gate finally opened and the Lord appeared, Yama granted him three wishes to make up for the inconvenience that he had caused.

Here is the story of the Katha Upanishad …

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NACHIKETAS AND HIS FATHER

Once, desirous of heaven, the son of Vajasrava (Gautama) gave (in a sacrifice) all that he possessed. He had a son Nachiketas by name.

When the presents were being distributed, filial anxiety (about the welfare of his father) entered into the heart of Nachiketas, who was still a boy, and he thought.

Joyless verily are those worlds to which a man goes by giving (presents in a sacrifice) cows which have drunk water, eaten grass, given their milk and are barren.

Nachiketas said to his father: O father, to whom wilt thou give me? He said this again and for the third time, the (enraged) father said: To Death I will give thee.

Nachiketas thought: Among many I go as the first; among many I go in the middle. What will be the work of Yama which today he has to do unto me?

Nachiketas: Remember how our forefathers acted; consider also how others now act. Like corn, the mortal decays and like corn he is born again. (Nachiketas entered into the abode of Yama Vaivasvata. There was no one to receive him. Yama had gone out.)

NACHIKETAS IN THE HOUSE OF DEATH

A Brahmin guest enters a house like fire. For him men give this peace offering (to quench the fire or quiet him). Bring water, O Vaivasvata (O son of Vivasvan, the Sun).

Hope, expectation, company with good men, friendly discourse, sacrifices, pious gifts, sons and cattle – all these are destroyed in the case of the ignorant man, in whose house a Brahmin guest stays without taking food.

The Lord of Death - Yama

YAMA’S ADDRESS TO NACHIKETAS

Yama: O Brahmin, as thou a venerable guest, hast dwelt in my house three nights without eating, therefore choose now three boons in return. O Brahmin, my prostrations unto thee. May good befall me.

1st WISH

Nachiketas: O Death! As the first of the three boons, I choose that Gautama, my father, be pacified, kind and free from anger towards me, and that he may know me and greet me, when I shall be sent away by thee.

Yama: Through my favor, Auddalaki, the son of Aruni, will recognize you as before. He will sleep peacefully at night and when he sees you released from the mouth of death, will lose his anger.

2nd WISH

Nachiketas: In the heaven there is no fear; thou art not there, O Death, and no one is afraid on account of old age. Having conquered both hunger and thirst, one rejoices in heaven, being above sorrow.

Nachiketas: O Death! Thou knowest the fire-sacrifice which leads us to heaven; explain it to me, for I am full of faith. Those who live in the world attain immortality—this I ask as my second boon.

Yama: I will tell thee well, learn it from me, O Nachiketas. I know the fire that leads to heaven; know the fire which leads to heaven (which is the cause of acquiring infinite worlds), and which again is the support of the universe and which is seated in the cavity (of the heart).

Yama then explained to him that fire sacrifice, the source of the worlds, what bricks are required for the altar, how many and how they are to be placed, and Nachiketas repeated all as explained. Then Yama, being pleased with him, said again.

Satisfied, magnanimous Death spoke to him: I give thee here this other boon, this fire-sacrifice shall be named after thee, and take thou this many-colored chain.

Whoever performs three times this sacrifice of Nachiketas fire and has been united with the three (father, mother and teacher) and has performed the three duties (study, sacrifice and alms-giving) overcomes birth and death. When he has understood this adorable bright, the omniscient fire born of Brahman and realized him, then he obtains everlasting peace.

He who knows the three Nachiketa fires, and propitiates the Nachiketa fire with this knowledge, throws off the chains of death, goes beyond sorrow

This, O Nachiketas, is thy fire which leads to heaven and which thou hast chosen as thy second boon; people will call this fire thine alone. Choose now, O Nachiketas, thy third boon.

3rd WISH

Nachiketas: There is that doubt when a man is dead, some say he is and some he is not this I should like to know, taught by thee. This is the third of my boons.

Yama: On this point even the gods of olden times had doubt. Verily it is not easy to understand it – subtle is its nature. O Nachiketas, choose another boon; do not press me on this; give this up for me.

Nachiketas: Thou sayest, O Death, that even the gods had doubts here and that this is not easy to know. Another teacher like thee is not to be found; surely, there is no other boon like this.

Yama: Choose sons and grandsons who may live a hundred years, herds of cattle, elephants, gold and horses. Choose the wide abode of the earth and live yourself as many years as you like.

Yama: If you can think of any boon equal to that, choose wealth and long life. Be a king, O Nachiketas, of the wide earth, I shall make thee the enjoyer of all desires.

Yama: Whatever desires are difficult to attain in the world of mortals, ask for them according to thy wish. These fair maidens with their chariots and musical instruments – such are indeed not enjoyable by mortals; be attended by them, I will give them to thee; but, O Nachiketas! Do not ask the question of the state of the Soul after death.

Nachiketas: These things last till tomorrow (ephemeral). O Death, they wear out the vigor of all the senses. Even the longest life is verily short. Keep thou thy chariots, the dance and music.

Nachiketas: No man can be made happy by wealth. If we should obtain wealth and behold thee, we would only live as long as thou shalt sway. Only that boon which I have chosen is fit to be longed by me.

Nachiketas: What decaying mortal living in the world below and possessed of knowledge, after having approached the company of the undecaying and the immortal, will rejoice in long life, after he has pondered over the nature of the pleasures produced by song and sport (beauty and love)?

Nachiketas: O Death! Tell us that in which men have this doubt, and which is about the great hereafter. Nachiketas does not choose any other boon but that (concerning the Soul) of which the knowledge is hidden.

THERE ARE TWO WAYS

Yama: One is good, while another is pleasant. These two having different objects chain a man. Blessed is he who, between them chooses the good alone, but he who chooses what is pleasant, loses the true end.

Yama: The good and the pleasant take hold of man; the wise man examines and distinguishes them. The wise man prefers the good (Sreya) to the pleasant, but the ignorant man chooses the pleasant (Preya) for the sake of the body.

Yama: O Nachiketas, thou hast renounced objects of desires (such as sons and grandsons) and desirable objects of pleasant shape (as the heavenly nymphs), judging them by their real value. Thou hast not chosen the road of wealth, in which many men perish.

Yama: These two, ignorance and knowledge, are wide apart and lead to different points or goals. I believe Nachiketas to be one who desires for Knowledge, for even many desires have not shaken thee.

Yama: The ignorant, who live in the midst of darkness but fancy themselves as wise and learned, go round and round deluded in many crooked ways, as blind people led by the blind.

Yama: The way to the hereafter is not apparent to the ignorant man who is foolish, deluded by the delusion of wealth. ‘This is the world,’ he thinks, ‘there is no other’ – thus he falls again and again under my sway.

Yama: He (the Self) of whom many are not even able to hear, whom many, even when they hear of him, do not comprehend; wonderful is a man, when found, who is able to teach the Self; wonderful is he who comprehends the Self, when taught by an able teacher.

Yama: That Self, when taught by a man of inferior intellect is not easy to be known, as it is to be thought of in various ways. But when it is taught by a preceptor who is one with Brahman (who beholds no difference), there is no doubt concerning it, the Self being subtler than the subtle, and is not to be obtained by arguing.

Yama: This knowledge is not to be obtained by argument, but it is easy to understand it, O dearest, when taught by a teacher who beholds no difference; thou hast obtained it now; thou art fixed in truth. May we have, O Nachiketas, an enquirer like thee!

THE SUPERIORITY OF WISDOM TO WEALTH, EARTHLY AS WELL AS HEAVENLY

Yama: I know that the treasure is transient, for that eternal is not obtained by things which are not eternal. Therefore, the Nachiketa fire has been propitiated by me with the perishable things and I have obtained the eternal.

Yama: The end of all desires, the foundation of the world, the endless rewards of sacrifice, the other shore where there is no fear, the praiseworthy, the great, the wide – extended sphere and the abode of the soul – all these thou hast seen, and being wise, O Nachiketas, thou hast with firm resolve rejected all.

Yama: The wise sage who, by means of meditation on his Self, recognizes the Ancient, who is difficult to be seen, who is unfathomable and concealed, who is hidden in the cave of the heart, who dwells in the abyss, who is lodged in intelligence, indeed renounces joy and sorrow.

Yama: Having heard and well grasped this (the Self), the mortal, abstracting the virtuous Atman, attaining this subtle Self, rejoices, because he has obtained what is cause for rejoicing. I think that the abode of Brahman is wide open for Nachiketas.

Nachiketas: That which thou seest as other than virtue and vice, other than cause and effect, other than the past and future, tell me that.

Yama: The goal (word) which all the Vedas speak of (praise), which all penances proclaim and wishing for which they lead the life of a Brahmacharin, that goal (word) I will briefly tell thee – It is Om.

Yama: This word is verily Brahman; this word is verily the highest; he who knows this word, obtains, verily, whatever he desires.

Yama: This is the best support. This is the highest support. He who knows this support is worshipped in the world of Brahman.

Yama: The intelligent Atman is not born, nor does He die; He did not spring from anything, and nothing sprang from Him; unborn, eternal, everlasting, ancient, He is not slain although the body is slain.

Yama: If the slayer thinks ‘I slay,’ if the slain thinks, ‘I am slain,’ then both of them do not know well. This slays not, nor is slain.

Yama: The Atman, subtler than the subtle, greater than the great, is seated in the heart of each living being. He who is free from desire, with his mind and the senses composed, beholds the majesty of the Self and becomes free from sorrow.

THE SUPREME

Yama: Sitting He goes far; lying He goes everywhere. Who else, therefore, save myself, is able to comprehend the God who rejoices and rejoices not?

Yama: The wise man, who knows the Atman as bodiless, seated firmly in perishable bodies, great and all pervading, does never grieve.

PREPARATION FOR BRAHMA-KNOWLEDGE

Yama: This Atman cannot be attained by study of the Vedas, nor by intelligence, nor by much hearing. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. To him this Atman reveals Its true nature.

Yama: But he who has not turned away from bad conduct, whose senses are not subdued, whose mind is not concentrated, whose mind is not pacified, can never obtain this Atman by knowledge.

Yama: Of whom, the Brahmana and the Kshatriya classes are (as it were) but food, and Death itself a condiment (or pickle), how can one thus know where that Atman is?

THE TWO

Yama: The two who enjoy the fruits of their good works being seated in the cavity of the seat of the Supreme, the knower’s of Brahman call them shadow and light, as also the performers of the fivefold fire and those who have propitiated three times the Nachiketa fire.

Yama: We are able to understand both, the Nachiketa fire which is the bridge of all sacrifices (to cross misery) and also the highest, indestructible Brahman, fearless and the refuge for those who wish to cross the ocean of Samsara.

THE PARABLE OF THE CHARIOT

Yama: Know the Atman as the Lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot; know the intellect as the charioteer and the mind again as the reins.

Yama: They say, the senses are the horses and their objects are the roads; the Atman, the senses and the mind united, the wise call the enjoyer.

Yama: He who has no discrimination and whose mind is always uncontrolled, his senses are not controllable like vicious horses of a driver.

Yama: But he who has understanding and whose mind is always controlled, his senses are under control like good horses of a driver.

Yama: But he, who has no discrimination, and whose mind is not under control, and who is always impure, does not reach that goal, but enters into the round of births and deaths.

Yama: But he, who has understanding, who has his mind always under control, and who is pure, reaches that goal whence he is not born again.

Yama: But he who has discerning intelligence as the driver and a well controlled mind as the reins, reaches the end of his journey, that highest place of Vishnu.

PROGRESSION TO THE SUPREME

Yama: Beyond the senses are the rudiments of objects, beyond these rudiments is the mind, beyond the mind is the intellect, beyond the intellect is the great Self.

Yama: Beyond the great (Mahat) is the unmanifested (Avyakta). Beyond the Avyakta is the Purusha, beyond the Purusha there is nothing, that is the end, that is the highest goal.

YOGA

Yama: This Atman is hidden in all beings and does not shine forth, but it is seen by subtle seers through their sharp and subtle intellect.

Yama: Let the wise sink his speech into the mind, the mind into the intellect and the intellect into the Great Atman and the Great Atman into the Peaceful Atman.

Yama: Arise, awake, having reached the great (teachers), learn (realize that Atman). Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, difficult to cross and hard to tread—thus the wise say.

Yama: He, who has known that which is without sound, without touch, without form, without decay, without taste, eternal, without smell, without beginning, without end, beyond the Mahat (great) and unchanging, is freed from the jaws of death.

Yama: A wise man who hears and repeats the ancient story of Nachiketas told by Yama, attains glory in the world of Brahman.

Yama: Whoever with devotion recites before an assembly of Brahmins or at the time of Sraddha of forefathers, this highest secret, obtains thereby immortality, obtains immortality.

THE SELF IS NOT TO BE SOUGHT THROUGH THE SENSES

Yama: (Yama said): The self-existent (Brahma) created the senses with outgoing tendencies; therefore man beholds the external universe and not the internal Self (Atman). But, some wise man with eyes averted from sensual objects (with his senses turned away), desirous of Immortality, sees the Atman within.

Yama: The ignorant run after external objects of desire and fall into the snares of widespread death, but wise men, knowing the nature of Immortality, do not covet the fleeting (unstable) things here.

Yama: To the Self by which one knows form, taste, smell, sound, touch and the sexual pleasure, nothing remains unknown. This verily is That (Brahman which thou hast asked for).

Yama: The wise, when he knows that by which he perceives all objects in dream or in waking is the great omnipresent Atman, grieves no more.

THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL IS ONE WITH THE COSMIC SOUL

Yama: He who knows this Atman, honey-eater, Soul, always near and the Lord of the past and the future henceforward fears no more. This is verily That.

Yama: Who beholds him seated within the five elements, him who was born of Tapas (of Brahman), who was created before the waters, who entered the cave of the heart and dwells there (he verily sees Brahman). This is verily That (Brahman which thou hast asked for).

Yama: Who is born along with Prana in the form of all Devatas, who, entering into the heart, abides therein, and who was born with the elements (he who knows Him, verily knows Brahman). This is indeed That.

Yama: The fire that is lodged within two pieces of wood, as the fetus is well preserved by the pregnant woman, is worshipped daily by men who are awake and those who offer oblations. This is indeed That.

Yama: And that whence the sun rises, and whither it sets, on that there all the Devatas depend and no one goes beyond. This is indeed That.

THE CAUSE OF REBIRTH

Yama: What is even here (visible in the world), the same is there (invisible in Brahman), and what is there, the same here. He proceeds from death to death who beholds here difference (between Brahman and the world).

Yama: By mind alone could this (Brahman) be obtained; then there is no difference here at all. He goes from death to death who sees any difference here.

THE ETERNAL LORD ABIDES IN ONE’S SELF

Yama: The person (Purusha) of the size of a thumb resides in the middle of the body, as Lord of the past and the future, and henceforward (after knowing Him) fears no more. This is indeed That.

Yama: That person, of the size of a thumb, is like a flame without smoke, Lord of the past and the future. He alone is even today, and will be verily tomorrow. This is verily That.

MULTIPLICITY AND UNITY

Yama: As water, when rained on a mountain-ridge, runs down the rocks scattered on all sides, so does he, who beholds the objects as different, run after them only on all sides.

Yama: As pure water poured into pure water becomes the same only, so the Atman of the thinker who knows this, becomes, O Gautama.

THE INDIVIDUAL SELF

Yama: The city of the unborn (Brahman) whose knowledge is permanent, has eleven gates. Adoring Him one does not grieve, and liberated (from all bonds of ignorance), he becomes free. This verily is That.

Yama: As Hamsa (sun) he dwells in heaven, as Vasu (air) he dwells in the sky, as fire he dwells on the earth, as guest he dwells in a house, he dwells in men, in gods, in truth, in ether. He is born in the waters, he is born in the earth, he is born in the sacrifice, he is born on the mountains, he is true and great.

Yama: He (Brahman) sends up the Prana and throws the Apana downwards, that adorable one seated in the centre, all Devas worship.

Yama: When this Atman who dwells in the body departs from the body, what remains then? This verily is That.

Yama: Not by Prana, not by Apana does any mortal live, but it is by some other on which these two depend that men live.

REBIRTH

Yama: Well then, O Gautama, I will explain the mysterious, ancient Brahman and also what happens to the Self after death.

Yama: Some Jivas enter the womb in order to have a body, others go into the inorganic matter according to their Karma and knowledge.

Yama: This Purusha who, building desire after desire, is awake when all sleep, is called certainly ‘the pure,’ is called Brahman, is called even immortal. Upon Him all the worlds are found: no one goes beyond that. This verily is That.

THE SELF, IMMANENT AND TRANSCENDENT

Yama: As the one fire, after it has entered the world, though one, takes different forms according to whatever it burns, so does the internal Atman of all living beings, though one, takes a form according to whatever He enters and is outside all forms.

Yama: As the one air, after it has entered the world, though one, takes different forms according to whatever it enters, so the internal Atman of all living beings, though one, assumes forms, according to whatever He enters and is outside all forms.

Yama: As the sun, the eye of the whole world, is not contaminated by the defects of the eye or of external things, so the one internal Atman of all living beings, is not contaminated by the misery of the world, being external to it.

Yama: He is One, the ruler, the internal Atman of all living beings, who makes manifold His one form – those wise men who realize Him in their hearts, to them belongs eternal happiness and not for others.

Yama: The wise who behold the Self as the eternal among the transient, as conscious among the conscious, who, though one, grants the desires of many, as dwelling in their own selves, to them belongs eternal peace, not to others.

Nachiketas: They (the sages) perceive that indescribable highest bliss as ‘This is That.’ How shall I know that? Does it shine (of itself) or does it shine by another light?

Yama: The sun does not shine there, nor do the moon and the stars, nor do lightning’s shine and much less this fire. When He shines, everything shines after Him; by His light, all these shine.

THE WORLD-TREE ROOTED IN BRAHMAN

Yama: There is that ancient Asvattha tree whose root is upwards and branches are down. That indeed is pure. That is Brahman and that alone is called Immortal. Upon that all the worlds depend and no one goes beyond that. This is verily That.

THE GREAT FEAR

Yama: This whole universe evolved from Brahman, moves in the Prana (in the highest Brahman). That Brahman is a great terror, like an uplifted thunderbolt. Those who know this become immortal.

Yama: From fear of Brahman fire burns, from fear the sun shines, from fear Indra and Vayu and Death, the fifth, run.

PERCEPTION OF THE SELF

Yama: If here (in this life) one is able to comprehend Him (Brahman) before the death of the body, he will be liberated from the bondage of the world; if one is not able to comprehend Him, then he has to take a body again in the worlds of creation.

Yama: As in a mirror, so (Brahman can be clearly seen) here within one’s self, as in dreams, so in the world of the forefathers; as in water, so in the world of Gandharvas; as in light and shade, so in the world of Brahman.

Yama: A wise man, having understood that the senses separately produced are distinct from the Atman and also their rising and setting, grieves no more.

Yama: Beyond the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the intellect, higher than the intellect is the great Atman, higher than the Mahat is Avyaktam (the unmanifested).

Yama: Beyond the Avyakta is Purusha, all-pervading and devoid of Linga (indicative sign). He who knows Him is liberated and obtains Immortality.

Yama: His form is not to be seen. No one beholds Him with the eye. By controlling the mind by the intellect and by incessant meditation He is revealed. Those who know this (Brahman) become immortal.

Yama: When the five organs of knowledge are at rest together with the mind, and when the intellect ceases functioning (becomes calm), that they call the highest state.

Yama: The firm control of the senses, they regard as Yoga. At that time one gets careful, for, Yoga is acquired and lost.

THE SELF AS EXISTENT

Yama: The Self cannot be reached by speech, by mind or by the eye. How can it be realized otherwise than from those who say, ‘He is?’

Yama: He should be known to exist and also as He really is. Of these two, to him who knows Him to exist, His true nature becomes manifest.

Yama: When all desires that dwell in the heart of one cease, then the mortal becomes immortal and here attains Brahman.

Yama: When all the knots of the heart are severed here on earth, then the mortal becomes immortal, so far is the instruction (of all Vedanta).

Yama: There are hundred and one nerves of the heart. One of them (Sushumna) penetrates the crown of the head, moving upwards by it one (at the time of death) attaining immortality, the other nerves are of various course.

Yama: The Purusha of the size of a thumb, the inner Self, is always seated in the heart of all living beings; one should draw him out from one’s own body with steadiness, as one draws the pith (stalk) from a reed; one should know him as pure and immortal; one should know him as pure and immortal.

Yama: Nachiketas then having acquired this knowledge imparted by Yama, and also the whole teaching about Yoga, attained Brahman, having become free from all impurities and death. Thus it will be with another also, who thus knows the nature of the Atman.

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This story contains wisdom and shows a path to enlightenment. I hope that the reading of this wonderful tale enliven the divine within you.

Brighter than the bright and fainter than the faint, the absolute is consciousness, existence and bliss. Beyond the realm of time and space it creates all properties (dimensions and universes) as a playground for development and expression of itself.

You are an intelligent manifestation of the divine, living an individual life on this Earth. Practice your meditation to transcend the field of thought and causation. We dream at night and awaken to the sights and sounds of our busy world. Arise even from this self imposed illusory dance (the waking state). Experience the SELF as eternal and free.

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