Inscrutability of Death - Demystified
The Katha Upanisha, also known as Katopanishad, is a part of Yajur Veda. This is a short one, and is in story form and narrates the dialogue between Nachiketa (also called Uddhalaka) and Yama the God of death, of everything and therefore, indicative of "Time", which destroys everything in the Universe. Like milk packets or medicines, that carry on their labels - a manufacturing date and a date of expiry - everything in nature carries an expiry date. While we living beings are enabled to know only the date of birth or, manufature, the expiry date remains indeterminate, therefore a mystery. This is the cental theme of the Upanishad.
Nachiketa is son of Rishi Vaajasrava, and 12 years old. They belonged to the Gowthama Gothra. The Rishi was performing a sacrifice, and giving away all his wealth to the participating priests, and the son was watching intently. Half way through, he noticed that the given-away cows were old, famished, unable to bring out milk or calves, even unable to drink water or eat grass. Being a curious and inquisitive twelve-year old, like children of his age, he asked his father who he would be given to. The father ignored the childish query, once, twice. When the boy repeated it a third time, the Rishi got enraged and said light-heartedly that he would be given away to the GOD OF DEATH.
Remember, that the Upanishad came into existence when the spoken word was as good as done. So, the boy starts his journey to Death. He was not at all rattled with this sudden development. Enroute, he thought within himself what inter-action he can have with a God like Yama. He did not aspire for anything from Yama, either. He knew that everything in Nature had dates of origin and death, like all vegetation has. Nevertheless, he continues the journey and arrives at Yama's palace. He would not be recognised by the gate-keepers - his name did not figure in the 'appointments list' of Yama, either. They ignored him and refused entry. Nachiketa waited outside the gate for three days, without being offered any food or water.
After three days being away, Yama and his wife return to the palace and are stunned to see a 12 year-old at the gate, waiting without food or, water for as many as 3 days. The wife points out to Yama that this is a breach of Dharma - not feeding a Brahmin guest for long, and asking him, immediately to make amends. Yama then washes the feet of the lad and makes him comfortable. He then says that as atonement for his sin, he would confer three boons on the lad, asked what he would need.
Nachiketa, then dares to asks Yama, that when he returns back to earth - remember that Yama had not said anything - his father should recognise him as his son, also ignore the anger and frustration caused to him by Nachiketa who had asked an embarrassing question of him. So confident was he of going back to his home and father, although Yama had given no such indication. This shows the need for daring and total self-confidence. By the second boon, he asks to be educated on the means to be adopted (such as sacrifices) for attaining heaven, and enjoying the pleasures available there. Yama was pleased with this request, and offered to give yet another boon in appreciation. He also removed a golden chain that he was wearing and put it around Nachiketa's neck.
For the third boon, Nachiketa wants to be informed on what happens to a dead man's soul, does it exist or not? For good measure, he adds that Yama being the God of Death, is the most competent and authoritative person to explain this. Yama is exasperated at this request of the boy - he failed to realise that a twelve-year old can ask the most embarrassing questions - and tries to placate him and away from this question. He offers him many alternatives as gifts, land, wealth, long, luxurious life, women etc as alternatives to dissuade him from his question. The boy rejects all these at one stroke and tells Yama, "Keep all these yourself. Answer my question if you can, and are inclined. It was a "NO DEAL" as far as the boy was concerned.
Then follows the question-answer session, Yama is so pleased with the boy's focussed approach to get what he wanted, his daring and level of self-confidence.
Now, you may read the Upanishad and enjoy it. To summarise it, Yama tells the boy that every one, every thing is born in his lap, and carries an expiry date. So, there is no point grieving over death, since what dies is born again, and the cycle must continue in Nature.