The Story of Nachiketa - KATHOPANISHAD 
- Self Knowledge as descSribed in the Katha Braahmana section of the Vedas


Nachiketaa is the little hero of the Katha Upanishad. The Yajur Veda has two sections or versions Shukla and Krishna or White and Black. Kathopanishad is a part of the KrishnaYajur Veda. 

The word Upanishad means 'Self-knowledge'. It can also mean - 'to approach and sit near the teacher'. Kathopanishad is the dialogue between Nachiketaa and Lord Yama wherein Self-knowledge is revealed.

Vaajashravaa was a rich man famed for his charity. His son Vaajashravasa alias Uddhaalaka wanted to earn merit like his father and performed the Viswajit. This was a Vedic ritual wherein one give away all his possessions as Dakshina. Uddhaalaka distributed everything except for a few unwanted cows. They were old, toothless, barren and had yeilded their last drop of milk. These too were being given away to complete the formalities, when Nachiketaa entered the scene. 

Child Thinking

As the presents were being carried (to the Brahmanas) faith took possession of him who was still a boy. He thought: He goes to those worlds that are known as joyless, who gives away the cows that have drunk water and eaten grass (for good), whose milk has been milked (for the last time), and which have lost their organs. He said to his father, "Father, to whom will you offer me?"

Nachiketaa watched with concern. He thought, "All valuable possessions are meant to be given away in the 'Viswajit'. Am I not a cherished possession of my father? Why does he not gift me away? I think he loves me too much and doesn't want to lose me. His love for me makes him blind, for he prefers to distribute these unwanted cows instead. Father will certainly earn sin and go to the dark worlds after death." Thinking thus, Nachiketaa approached his father. Far too involved in the ritual, Uddhaalaka ignored the little boy. Nachiketaa asked, "Father, unto whom will you gift me?" No reply. Nachiketaa asked again"Father, unto whom will you give me away?


He spoke to him a second time and a third time. To him (the father) said, " I offer you unto Death."

Uddhaalaka remained quiet, thinking, "This boy is too small to understand. Children are not possessions to be given away. Things are for giving away, not people." Nachiketaa persisted and asked for the third time. Uddhaalaka shouted in anger, "I give thee unto Yama, the Lord of Death". Probably equivalent of today's expression - 'go to hell'. 

Looking for purpose

Among many I rank as belonging to the highest; among many I rank as belonging to the middling. What purpose can there be of Death that my father will get achieved today through me?

Nachiketaa was struck dumb; this was unexpected. He thought over the matter and realized that father had only spoken in anger. "I have always been a good son and disciple, - never have I troubled father in any way. Father would never really think of giving me away to Death. But he has spoken; and I must honour his words. Not to fulfill them would be a great sin. I have no choice but to go to Yama" 

Word of Honour

Consider successively how your forefathers behaved, and consider how others behave (now). Man decays and dies like corn, and emerges again like corn.

Uddhaalaka, in distress on hearing Nachiketaa's decision, pleaded with him not to act in haste. Nachiketaa was unshaken and reminded Uddhaalaka, "See how your forefathers honoured their words. It does not befit us to act any differently. Our deeds alone will live on when everything else has perished. Death is not to be feared; - like the seasons, it is part of a cycle. All things born must die, and everyone that dies must take birth again." 


A Brahmana guest enters the houses like fire. For him they accomplish this kind of propitiation. O Death, carry water (for him). If in anyone's house a Brahmana guest abides without food, that Brahmana destroys hope and expectation, the results of holy association and sweet discourse, sacrifices and charities, sons and cattle – all these – of that man of little intelligence.

With Uddhaalaka's blessings, Nachiketaa departed to Yama's abode. Yama was out on his rounds and was not expected for some days. Yama's attendents offered him food and other comforts which Nachiketaa refused to touch. He would not eat or sleep until he had seen Yama. 

When Yama returned, the attendents informed him, "A Brahmin boy has been waiting at your doorstep without food and water for three days. His anger, if provoked, will burn like fire. Appease him or he will bring us misfortune. All your good deeds will come to nought if such a guest goes hungry and unattended." Yama apologised to Nachiketaa and entertained him as an honoured guest. 

Boons of appeasement

O Brahmana, since you have lived in my house for three nights without food, a guest and an adorable person as you are, let my salutations be to you, and let good accrue to me ( by averting the fault arising) from that (lapse). Ask for three boons – one in respect of each (night).

Hearing Nachiketaa's story he was impressed by the boy's courage and sense of duty. He said, "Respected One, you stayed at my house without food and water for three nights. Do not be angry with me. I offer you three boons instead. Please ask for anything you wish.

First Boon - Personal

Nachiketaa thought about the boons. His first thought was about father. He said "May my father, free from anxiety or anger, recognize and welcome me back when I return home released from death. This is my first boon." With this one master-stroke, Nachiketaa reversed the consequences of his father's unthinking words. Yama replied: "Released from the jaws of death, you will return to Uddhaalaka in your original form. Rejoicing at your return he will, free from anger, enjoy peaceful sleep. Now choose your second boon." 

O Death, of the three boons I ask this one as the first, viz that (my father) Gautama may become freed from anxiety, calm of mind, freed from anger towards me, and he may recognise me and talk to me when freed by you.

Having recognised (you), Auddalaki Aruni will be (possessed of affection) just as he had before. Seeing you freed from the jaws of Death, he will get over his anger and will, with my permission, sleep happily for many a nights.

Second Boon – Common Good

Nachiketaa said, "Oh Yama, I am told there is a sacred fire ritual that leads a person to heaven. It is known only to gods like you. In heaven there is no sorrow and one becomes immortal , free from fear of old age, hunger and thirst. Teach me this ritual as I have great belief in it." Yama was only too happy to teach Nachiketaa this ritual as it would benefit all humanity. He also showed Nachiketaa how to construct the vedi or alter, select the right type of bricks for it, kindle the fire going, etc. Nachiketaa learnt all the mantras and repeated it to Yama's satisfaction. 

Yama said, " I am delighted at your brilliance and I will name this fire ritual after you. People will call this ritual as Nachiketaa-Agni. More over, accept my pearl necklace also as an additional reward. "Whoever performs the Nachiketaa-Agni thrice, observes all the prescribed rules and meditates on the resplendent Agni, will break the chains of death in this very life. He will enjoy the heavenly world after death, free from pain and grief. Nachiketaa, choose now the third and last boon." 

Third Boon – Self Knowledge

Nachiketaa said, "I wish to know the Self about which people have this doubt - 'Some say it exists after death. Others say it does not. I would like to learn about it from no less a teacher than you." Yama hesitated. "Don't ask for such a boon, Nachiketaa. Even the gods in the past had their doubts about this. It is not easy to understand and is very subtle a subject. Ask for some other boon instead, and don't press me about the Self." Nachiketaa had a mature head on his young shoulders. He said "If even the Gods had their doubts, this subject is not ordinary and must have great significance. If it is also difficult to understand, so be it. You are the most ideal teacher and I should not miss this opportunity. I cannot think of any better boon better than this." 

Nachiketaa knew that performing the Nachiketaa Agni one goes to heaven after death. Which means he could have no doubts about his existence after death! Why should Nachiketaa need a third boon? Isn't heaven the highest achievement? Yama had said that Nachiketaa Agni would result in heaven and free one from death, pain and sorrow in heaven! Nachiketaa question was not merely about life after death. He realised that there is heaven is not ultimate,for even the gods in heaven wanted to know the Self. His real question was therefore about the existence of the Self that survives both life and afterlife, - i.e. life on earth and life in heaven. It was this Self about which mortals and gods had a doubt; -some saying it exists, others saying it does not exist."

This doubt that arises, consequent on the death of a man – some saying, it exists", and others saying, "It does not exist" – I would know this, under your instruction. Of all the boons, this one is the third boon.

With regard to this, even the gods entertained doubts in days of yore; for being subtle, this substance (the Self) is not easily comprehended. O Naciketa, ask for some other boon; do not press me; give up this (boon) that is demanded of me.

Even the gods entertained doubt with regard to this thing; and O Death, since you too say that It is not well comprehended and since any other instructor like you, of this thing, is not to be had, (therefore) there is no other boon comparable to this one.

Ask for sons and grandsons that will be centenarians. Ask for many animals, elephants and gold, and horses, and a vast expanse of the earth. And you yourself live for as many years as you like.

If you think some other boon to be equal to this, ask for that. Ask for wealth and long life. You become (a ruler) over a vast region. I make you fit for the enjoyment of (all) delectable things.

Whatever things there be that are desirable but difficult to get – pray for all those cherished things sccording to your choice. Here are these women with chariots and musical instruments – such are not surely to be had by mortals. With these, who are offered by me, you get yourself served. O Naciketa, do not inquire about death.

O Death, ephemeral are these, and they waste away the vigour of all the senses that a man has. All life without exception is short indeed. Let the vehicles be yours alone; let the dances and songs be yours.

Man is not to be satisfied with wealth. Now that we have met you, we shall get wealth. We shall live as long you will rule it. But the boon that is worth praying for by me is that alone.

Having reached the proximity of the undecaying immortals, what decaying mortal who dwells on this lower region, the earth, but knows of higher goals, will take delight in a long life while conscious of the worthlessness of music, disport, and the joy thereof?

O Death, tell us of that thing about which people entertain doubt in the context of the next world and whose knowledge leads to a great result. Apart from this boon, which relates to the inscrutable thing, Naciketa does not pray for any other.

Yama tested Nachiketaa further, "You don't know what you are losing, Nachiketaa. Ask for all the riches at my command - cattle,elephants, horses, and gold. Ask for long life and a kingdom on earth. Ask for children and grandchildren who will live hundred years. Ask for heavenly pleasures that are out of the world unavailable to humans. Ask for these beautiful Apsaras who ride in chariots and play musical instruments. All these I can give you . Change your third boon. Do not ask for Self-knowledge." 

What do you think Nachiketaa did? He laughed and said, " Yama, you have blessed me and will not send me empty-handed when I go back. Moreover I need not fear death as long as you rule. Asking for more would be greediness. Pleasure is fleeting and only tires a person if enjoyed to excess. Man's greed can never be satisfied by wealth. And the longest life is too short to enjoy everything there is in the world.

"Oh Yama,, I have reached the abode of Gods like you who know the secret of the Eternal Self. Having met you and known something higher in life, can I or any mortal settle for less? How can you even think of tempting me with dance and music? Pray, tell me about that Supreme-Self untouched by death, about which people have a doubt. Nachiketaa asks for no other boon." 

Story of Nachiketa.....continued 

"Contemplating on the very subtle and unseen Eternal Self dwelling within the heart, the wise are freed from the limitation of joy and sorrow. The mortal who listens well and understands through discrimination, gains the Self and verily rejoices. Nachiketaa, the gates to the Self are now open for you. 

Nachiketaa asked again, "O Yama, please reveal to me the Self which is beyond Dharma and Adharma, cause and effect, past or future" Yama answered, "The Truth revealed in the Vedas; the goal of all Tapas; the culmination of a life of Brahmacharya; It is called 'Om' . The syllable Om is Brahman, the Self. Om is the highest. Having known this, one fullfils all desires. 
"Our senses are so created that they only look outward but not within. That is why we know much about the world outside and so little about ourselves. It takes maturity to turn inward and see the real Self. The body is like a chariot in which we ride. The intellect is the charioteer. The mind is the rein. The sense-organs are horses. the roads are sense-objects. Through restrained mind and proper discrimination, we reach the destination - Om, our real nature. 

"Arise, awake, Know the Self by approaching the Teachers. For, like the razor's edge, this path is difficult to cross. The Self is not attained merely by study of the Vedas, intelligence, or vast learning. It reveals itself only to the one who chooses it. Hidden in all beings, it reveals itself not to all; only to the those possessed of discriminating intellect. The wise distinguish it from the body just as one separates the central stalk of the Munja grass from its outer covering. 

"What remains of us, when separated and freed from the body after death? That is verily the Self . It remains awake even while we sleep. Verily it is the immortal Brahman. In it rest all the worlds, and nothing transcends it. Through it alone we come to know light, taste, smell, sound, touch. What is there unknowable to it in this world? It pervading all; it perceives all; - in dream as well as in waking. It pervades the smallest and the biggest. Of the size of a thumb it dwells within the body. As the Limitless, it is the source of the rising and setting sun. What is here is there; what is there is here. He who sees it as different, meets with death again and again. 

"By mind alone is it recognized, and then there is no difference seen. From death to death he goes who presupposes difference. As one fire enters the world and appears as many; so the One Self appears in many different forms. It is the sun dwelling in the heavens, the air dwelling in the sky, the fire dwelling in the ritual. It is born in water, earth, and mountains. It sits still, yet moves far. Lying down, it goes everywhere. 

"Who else but knowers like me can understand this Self ? The sun, eye of the whole world, is not contaminated by the impurities in our eye. So does the Self of all beings remain untouched by the miseries of the world. Through fear of That, the fire burns, the sun shines, and the Gods Indra Vayu and Yama proceed with their respective functions. 

"The Self is not born, nor does it die. It has no cause, nor does it cause anything. Unborn, eternal, everlasting, ancient, it remains untouched when the body dies. The killer and the dying one are mistaken when they think they are killing or being killed. The self kills not, nor is it ever killed. Realizing Brahman in this very life, one becomes free from the bondage; else one takes birth again and again. 

"When all desires in the heart are resolved, the mortal becomes immortal; he attains Brahman in this very life. The wise perceive it as existing within themselves and enjoy all happiness. As pure water poured into pure water becomes the same, so too the wise through knowledge becomes the all-pervading Self." 

Nachiketaa thus instructed in Self-knowledge by Yama , became free from sorrow and death, and attained the Self, his true nature. 

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