Upanishads through Bhartanayyam
I know this Upanishad, by heart, since I recite seven of the ten major Upanishads, everyday, for the past few years, in the after-noons.
It has two major streams of thought, only mundane, the other highly philosophical.
The first, Nachiketa is below twelve, waiting to be taken to Gurukula, after Upanayanam. He finds his father, Vajasrawas performing a sacrifice in which sumptuous gifts of cash, cows and other items were being given to a large number of Brahmins. Towards the end, the boy finds that the cows gifted were famished, aged, had no teeth or even the strength to drink water or eat grass. They would be of no use to the receipients. He wonders what merit any one can hope to earn by gifting these, and dares to ask his father.
The father was already exhausted - while performing a sacrifice, one forgoes all comforts, even food and refreshments, the whole thing is long-winding and tiresome - once, twice and thrice to which Heaven he aspires to go by gifting these worthless animals which can only be a liability on the recepients. The father is already irritated and, when the boy asks 'to whom do you intend gifting me', shouts 'TO YAMA, THE GOD OF DEATH'.
Those were days when the spoken word was acted on. Nachiketa realised what had happened and asks his father again: ' I am the best among the best, I am also the second best ', what favour can I confer on Yama by going to his abode?' The boy was totally fearless, utterly self-confident about his being the best in his group and competent even to do a favour to Yama.
Nachiketa proceeds to Yama's abode. Yama was away touring, and the Palace gate was closed. When he announced himself, the Warders kept him waiting outside, in undignified manner and without food or even water. Yama returns after three days and learns what had happened. His wife reminds him what a great misdemeanour this was, and how it was enough to destroy all their hopes, prosperity, reputation, in fact, everything. The guest, a Brahmin, had been kept out, unattended, and without being offered hospitality and food. She rushes and brings water and directs Yama to wash the boy's feet and revere him as a Brahmin. Yama realised the fault-line, made amends. He also offered three boons to the boy, for the three nights he had been kept outside and totally ignored. And now comes the best part.
Everyone knows that there can be no return from the abode of Yama. Yet, look at the way the boy reacts to Yama. He asks for his first boon: 'My father is very angry with me for my rude behaviour. He should now become calm in mind, sleep well, favourably disposed towards me, free from anger towards me, and WHEN I HAVE RETURNED RETURNED BACK HOME SAFELY, SHOULD RECEIVE AND ACCEPT ME LOVINGLY ! It should be noted that, even before Yama had indicated his mind, the boy assumes that he will go back home very safely and be with his father. He had not the slightest doubt about this at all. Yama is pleased with the boy's self-confidence and optimism. I will talk about the second and third boons in another letter.
The point to note about the first boon is the important lesson it has for our youth, i.e. that one should have total faith and confidence in oneself and be holistically optimistic. Any lurking doubt about oneself or the ability to progress will lead to disaster.
The Rishi has deliberately introduced a twelve-year old, since children at that age are not afraid of asking questions of any one, and of any kind. For instance, many children ask mothers to explain how they were born and Western mothers usually refer to the stork as the harbinger !
Nachiketa (Sanskrit:नचिकेत,Naciketa) is the child protagonist in an ancient Hindu fable about the nature of the soul and Brahman. The story is told in the Katha Upanishad (c. 5th century CE), though the name has several earlier references. He was taught Self-knowledge, the separation of the human soul (the supreme Self) from the body, by the god of Death, Yama. Nachiketa is noted for his rejection of material desires which are ephemeral, and for his single-minded pursuit of the path of realising Brahman / Moksha i.e. emancipation of the soul from rebirth.
The name Nachiketa, (nAchiketas, that which is unperceived) "refers to the quickening Spirit that lies within all things like fire, latent in wood, the spirit that gives, the unquenchable thirst for the unknown."  Nachiketa was a son of the sage Vājashravasa (वाजश्रवसः, famed for donations).
Vājashravasa, desiring a gift from the gods, started an offering to donate all his possessions. But Nachiketa noticed that he was donating only the cows that were old, barren, blind, or lame; not such as might buy the worshiper a place in Heaven. Nachiketa wanting the best for his father's rite, asked: "I too am yours, to which god will you offer me?". After being pestered thus, Vājashrava answered in a fit of anger, "I give you to Death (Yama)".
So Nachiket went to Death's home, but the god was out, and he waited three days. When Yama returned, he was sorry to see that a Brahman guest had been waiting so long. He told Nachiketa, "You have waited in my house for three days without hospitality, therefore ask three boons of me". Nachiket first asked for peace for his father and himself. Yama agreed. Next, Nachiketa wished to learn the sacred fire sacrifice, which also Yama elaborated. For his third boon, Nachiketa asked to learn the mystery of what comes after death.
Yama was reluctant on this question; he said that this had been a mystery even to the gods. He asked Nachiketa to ask for some other boon, and offered many material gains.
But Nachiketa replied that material things will last only till the morrow. He who has encountered Death personally, how can he desire wealth? No other boon would do. Yama was secretly pleased with this disciple, and elaborated on the nature of the true Self, which persists beyond death. The key of the realization is that this Self (within each person) is inseparable from Brahman, the supreme spirit, the vital force in the universe. Yama's explanation is a succinct explication of Hindu metaphysics, and focuses on the following points:
- The sound Om! is the syllable of the supreme Brahman
- The Self, whose symbol is Om is the same as the omnipresent Brahman. Smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest, the Self is formless and all-pervading.
- The goal of the wise is to know this Self.
- The Self is like a rider; the horses are the senses, which he guides through the maze of desires.
- After death, it is the Self that remains; the Self is immortal.
- Mere reading of the scriptures or intellectual learning cannot realize Self.
- One must discriminate the self from the body, which is the seat of desire.
- Inability to realize Brahman results in one being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths. Understanding the Self leads to moksha
Thus having learnt the wisdom of the Brahman from Yama, Nachiketa was freed from the cycle of births.