An Ancient Indian Tale: The Secret of Death
Far back in time, life may have been different in its outer aspects, but the inner quest was the same. So also with Nachiketas, a child of faith and simple sincerity. His father Vajashravas is holding a yajna (sacrifice) and as is symbolic of the worldly wise he chooses to offer the old and infirm, unyielding cattle and cows to the gods. It may be noted in passing that in the symbolism of the Vedic and the Upanishadic period, cows represented Light or all our upward striving for true knowledge. The gods are the powers of Light who bring down the gifts of true knowledge and other inner riches to man. The sacrifice spoken of here is therefore not an external ritual but an inner act. Here Vajashravas keeps his best things for himself and offers the worst and the useless for the cosmic good. It may be possible that in this ancient tale pregnant with significant symbols, Nachiketas, the child himself may be a representative of the inmost soul in man and Vajashravas, the king, our hard exterior ego-bound consciousness, pursuing all true things either mechanically or half-heartedly, a thing which our inmost soul despises and abhors. As is common to these tales, deeper truths are interwoven with some actual episode which is mostly an outer scaffolding, the husk hiding the kernel. Coming back to the story, the king’s brilliant son Nachiketas, unable to swallow this insincerity on the part of his father, questions his action. When ignored, he puts it in a most pointed way: “To whom do you give me, father.” The father angered at this rather disrespectful intrusion says: “I give you to Death.” The sensitive boy takes it to heart and waits for death without food or water for three days. Thereupon, Death moved by his sincerity appears before him but not with a view to take him away since obviously his hour has not yet come. Instead, the terrible god appears as a giver of boon and a knower of the secrets of Time and the subtle mysteries of life hidden from mortal sight. In an almost reversal image of death,
the great god is apologetic for having not responded to Nachiketas calling upon him for three days. Therefore, he grants him three boons. His first boon is peace of mind for his father, truly a noble gesture for a boy who is given away to death by an angry father. The second boon he asks for is to learn the secret of the heavenly, deathless fire. Who else but death himself to speak of the fire that it cannot slay? But it is the last boon which is the most enigmatic one. Nachiketas asks Death to disclose the truth of immortality. Death tries his utmost to dissuade Nachiketas, offering countless worldly riches instead — sons and grandsons with a long life, much cattle and elephants and gold and horses; a very long life as an emperor of any portion of the earth of his own choice, wealth and pleasure and women and chariots and anything else that he may desire. But wise Nachiketas counters him intelligently: “Will not all these wither away with time and thou take them away one day?” He insists upon his one aspiration, to know the secret of secrets, that over which even the wise men and gods debate. What follows as a colloquy between the god of death and the spirit of Nachiketas, forms the quintessence of ancient Indian thought on the subject. It is symbolic that even Death can be persuaded to yield, even its inflexible law can change and its secret revealed if we know how to persist and persevere against the dark denial.
Here are a few excerpts from the dialogue, selected from the ‘Katha Upanishad’:
अविद्यायामन्तरे वर्तमानाः स्वयं धीराः पण्डितंमन्यमानाः।
दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढा अन्धेनैव नीयमाना यथान्धाः॥५॥
They who dwell in the ignorance, within it, wise in their own wit and deeming themselves very learned, men bewildered are they who wander about stumbling round and round helplessly like blind men led by the blind.
न साम्परायः प्रतिभाति बालं प्रमाद्यन्तं वित्तमोहेन मूढम्।
अयं लोको नास्ति पर इति मानी पुनः पुनर्वशमापद्यते मे॥६॥
The childish wit bewildered and drunken with the illusion of riches cannot open its eyes to see the passage to heaven: for he that thinks this world is and there is no other, comes again and again into Death’s thraldom.
श्रवणायापि बहुभिर्यो न लभ्यः शृण्वन्तोऽपि बहवो यं न विद्युः।
आश्चर्यो वक्ता कुशलोऽस्य लब्धाश्चर्यो ज्ञाता कुशलानुशिष्टः॥७॥
He that is not easy to be heard of by many, and even of those that have heard, they are many who have not known Him, a miracle is the man that can speak of Him wisely or is skilful to win Him, and when one is found, a miracle is the listener who can know Him even when taught of Him by the knower.
न नरेणावरेण प्रोक्त एष सुविज्ञेयो बहुधा चिन्त्यमानः।
अनन्यप्रोक्ते गतिरत्र नास्त्यणीयान् ह्यतर्क्यमणुप्रमाणात्॥८॥
An inferior man cannot tell you of Him; for thus told thou canst not truly know Him, since He is thought of in many aspects. Yet unless told of Him by another thou canst not find thy way to Him; for He is subtler than subtlety and that which logic cannot reach.
न जायते म्रियते वा विपश्चिन्नायं कुतश्चिन्न बभूव कश्चित्।
अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे॥१८॥
The Wise One is not born, neither does he die: he came not from anywhere, neither is he anyone: he is unborn, he is everlasting, he is ancient and sempiternal: he is not slain in the slaying of the body.
हन्ता चेन्मन्यते हन्तुं हतश्चेन्मन्यते हतम्।
उभौ तौ न विजानीतो नायं हन्ति न हन्यते ॥१६॥
If the slayer think that he slays, if the slain think that he is slain, both of these have not the knowledge. This slays not, neither is He slain.
अणोरणीयान्महतो महीयानात्मास्य जन्तोर्निहितो गुहायाम्।
तमक्रतुः पश्यति वीतशोको धातुप्रसादान्महिमानमात्मनः॥२०॥
Finer than the fine, huger than the huge the self hides in the secret heart of the creature: when a man strips himself of will and is weaned from sorrow, then he beholds Him; purified from the mental elements he sees the greatness of the Self-being.
पराञ्चि खानि व्यतृणत्स्वयम्भूस्तस्मात्पराङ् पश्यति नान्तरात्मन्।
The Self-born has set the doors of the body to face outwards, therefore the soul of a man gazes outward and not at the Self within: hardly a wise man here and there, desiring immortality, turns his eyes inward and sees the Self within him.
पराचः कामाननुयन्ति बालास्ते मृत्योर्यन्ति विततस्य पाशम्।
अथ धीरा अमृतत्वं विदित्वा ध्रुवमध्रुवेष्विह न प्रार्थयन्ते॥२॥
The rest childishly follow after desire and pleasure and walk into the snare of Death that gapes wide for them. But calm souls, having learned of immortality, seek not for permanence in the things of this world that pass and are not.
अङ्गुष्ठमात्रः पुरुषो मध्य आत्मनि तिष्ठति।
ईशानो भूतभव्यस्य न ततो विजुगुप्सते। एतद्वै तत्॥१२॥
The Purusha who is seated in the midst of our self is no larger than the finger of a man; He is the Lord of what was and what shall be. Him having seen one shrinks not from aught, nor abhors any. This is That thou seekest.
अङ्गुष्ठमात्रः पुरुषो ज्योतिरिवाधूमकः।
ईशानो भूतभव्यस्य स एवाद्य स उ श्वः। एतद्वै तत्॥१३॥
The Purusha that is within us is no larger than the finger of a man: He is like a blazing fire that is without smoke, He is lord of His past and His future. He alone is today and He alone shall be tomorrow.
अस्य विस्त्रंसमानस्य शरीरस्थस्य देहिनः।
देहाद्विमुच्यमानस्य किमत्र परिशिष्यते। एतद्वै तत्॥४॥
When this encased Spirit that is in the body, falls away from it, when He is freed from its casing, what is there then that remains? This is That thou seekest.
न प्राणेन नापानेन मर्त्यो जीवति कश्चन।
इतरेण तु जीवन्ति यस्मिन्नेतावुपाश्रितौ॥५॥
Man that is mortal lives not by the breath, no, nor by the lower breath; but by something else we live in which both these have their being.
यदा सर्वे प्रमुच्यन्ते कामा येऽस्य हृदि श्रिताः।
अथ मर्त्योऽमृतो भवत्यत्र ब्रह्म समश्नुते॥१४॥
When every desire that finds lodging in the heart of man, has been loosened from its moorings, then this mortal puts on immortality: even here he tastes God, in this human body.
यदा सर्वे प्रभिद्यन्ते हृदयस्येह ग्रन्थयः।
अथ मर्त्योऽमृतो भवत्येतावद्ध्यनुशासनम्॥१५॥
Yea, when all the strings of the heart are rent asunder, even here, in this human birth, then the mortal becomes immortal. This is the whole teaching of the Scriptures.
शतं चैका च हृदयस्य नाड्यस्तासां मूर्धानमभिनिःसृतैका।
तयोर्ध्वमायन्नमृतत्वमेति विश्वङ्ङन्या उत्क्रमणे भवन्ति॥१६॥
A hundred and one are the nerves of the heart, and of all these only one issues out through the head of a man: by this his soul mounts up to its immortal home, but the rest lead him to all sorts and conditions of births in his passing.
अङ्गुष्ठमात्रः पुरुषोऽन्तरात्मा सदा जनानां हृदये सन्निविष्टः।
तं स्वाच्छरीरात्प्रवृहेन्मुञ्जादिवेषीकां धैर्येण।
तं विद्याच्छुक्रममृतं तं विद्याच्छुक्रममृतमिति॥१७॥
The Purusha, the Spirit within, who is no larger than the finger of a man is seated for ever in the heart of creatures: one must separate Him with patience from one’s own body as one separates from a blade of grass its main fibre. Thou shalt know Him for the Bright Immortal, yea, for the Bright Immortal.
Nachiketas’s Three Boons 
Nachiketas is the young aspiring human being still in the Ignorance — naciketa, meaning one without consciousness or knowledge. The three boons he asks for are in reference to the three fundamental models of being and consciousness that are at the very basis, forming, as it were, the ground-plan of the integral reality. They are:
- the individual,
- the universal or cosmic and
- the transcendental.
The first boon regards the individual, that is to say, the individual identity and integrity. It asks for the maintenance of that individuality so that it may be saved from the dissolution that Death brings about. Death, of course, means the dissolution of the body, but it represents also dissolution pure and simple. Indeed death is a process which does not stop with the physical phenomenon, but continues even after; for with the body gone, the other elements of the individual organism, the vital and the mental too gradually fall off, fade and dissolve. Nachiketas wishes to secure from Death the safety and preservation of the earthly personality, the particular organisation of mind and vital based upon a recognisable physical frame. That is the first necessity for the aspiring mortal — for, it is said, the body is the first instrument for the working out of one’s life’s ideal. But man’s true personality, the real individuality lies beyond, beyond the body, beyond the life, beyond the mind, beyond the triple region that Death lords it over. That is the divine world, the Heaven of the immortals, beyond death and beyond sorrow and grief. It is the hearth secreted in the inner heart where burns the Divine Fire, the God of Life Everlasting. And this is the nodus that binds together the threefold status of the manifested existence, the body, the life and the mind. The triplicity is the structure of name and form built out of the bricks of experience, the kiln, as it were, within which burns the Divine Agni, man’s true soul. This soul can be reached only when one exceeds the bounds and limitations of the triple cord and experiences one’s communion and identity with all souls and all existence. Agni is the secret divinity within, within the individual and within the world; he is the Immanent Divine, the cosmic godhead that holds together and marshals all the elements and components, all the principles that make up the manifest universe. He it is that has entered into the world and created facets of his own reality in multiple forms: and it is he that lies secret in the human being as the immortal soul through all its adventure of life and death in the series of incarnations in terrestrial evolution. The adoration and realisation of this Immanent Divinity, the worship of Agni taught by Yama in the second boon, consists in the triple sacrifice, the triple work, the triple union in the triple status of the physical, the vital and the mental consciousness, the mastery of which leads one to the other shore, the abode of perennial existence where the human soul enjoys its eternity and unending continuity in cosmic life. Therefore, Agni, the master of the psychic being, is called jatavedas, he who knows the births, all the transmigrations from life to life.
The third boon is the secret of secrets, for it is the knowledge and realisation of Transcendence that is sought here. Beyond the individual lies the universal; is there anything beyond the universal? The release of the individual into the cosmic existence gives him the griefless life eternal: can the cosmos be rolled up and flung into something beyond? What would be the nature of that thing? What is there outside creation, outside manifestation, outside Maya, to use a latter day term? Is there existence or non-existence (utter dissolution or extinction — death in his supreme and absolute status)? King Yama did not choose to answer immediately and even endeavoured to dissuade Nachiketas from pursuing the question over which people were confounded, as he said. Evidently it was a much discussed problem in those days. Buddha was asked the same question and he evaded it, saying that the pragmatic man should attend to practical and immediate realities and not waste time and energy in discussing things ultimate and beyond that have hardly any relation to the present and the actual.
But Yama did answer and unveil the mastery and impart the supreme secret knowledge — the knowledge of the Transcendent Brahman: it is out of the transcendent reality that the immanent deity takes his birth. Hence the Divine Fire, the Lord of creation and the Inner Master — sarvabhutantaratma, antaryami — is called brahmajam, born of the Brahman. Yama teaches the process of transcendence. Apart from the knowledge and experience first of the individual and then of the cosmic Brahman, there is a definite line along which the human consciousness (or unconsciousness, as it is at present) is to ascend and evolve. The first step is to learn to distinguish between the Good and the Pleasurable (sreya and preya). The line of pleasure leads to the external, the superficial, the false: while the other path leads towards the inner and the higher truth. So the second step is the gradual withdrawal of the consciousness from the physical and the sensual and even the mental preoccupation and focussing it upon what is certain and permanent. In the midst of the death-ridden consciousness — in the heart of all that is unstable and fleeting — one has to look for Agni, the eternal godhead, the Immortal in mortality, the Timeless in time through whom lies the passage to Immortality beyond Time.
Man has two souls corresponding to his double status. In the inferior, the soul looks downward and is involving in the current of Impermanence and Ignorance, it tastes of grief and sorrow and suffers death and dissolution: in the higher it looks upward and communes and joins with the Eternal (the cosmic) and then with the Absolute (the transcendent). The lower is a reflection of the higher, the higher comes down in a diminished and hence tarnished light. The message is that of deliverance, the deliverance and reintegration of the lower soul out of its bondage of worldly ignorant life into the freedom and immortality first of its higher and then of its highest status. It is true, however, that the Upanishad does not make a trenchant distinction between the cosmic and the transcendent and often it speaks of both in the same breath, as it were. For in fact they are realities involved in each other and interwoven. Indeed the triple status, including the Individual, forms one single totality and the three do not exclude or cancel each other; on the contrary, they combine and may be said to enhance each other’s reality. The Transcendence expresses or deploys itself in the cosmos — he goes abroad, sa paryagat: and the cosmic individualities, concretises itself in the particular and the personal. The one single spiritual reality holds itself, aspects itself in a threefold manner.
The teaching of Yama in brief may be said to be the gospel of immortality and it consists of the knowledge of triple immortality. And who else can be the best teacher of immortality than Death himself, as Nachiketas pointedly said? The first immortality is that of the physical existence and consciousness, the preservation of the personal identity, the individual name and form — this being in itself as expression and embodiment and instrument of the Inner Reality. This inner reality enshrines the second immortality — the eternity and continuity of the soul’s life through its incarnations in time, the divine Agni lit for ever and ever growing in flaming consciousness. And the third and final immortality is in the being and consciousness beyond time, beyond all relativities, the absolute and self-existent delight.