Namaskaar. In this Part 5 of Kathopanishat commentary by Shri V. Subrahmanian, the boons of Naciketas are discussed between him and Lord Yama and the teachings now subtly veer towards the all important ultimate teachings of Vedanta – Atmavidya or Knowledge of one’s Self
The fruit of performing the ‘nAchiketAgni’ fire ritual is said in this mantra:
त्रिणाचिकेतः त्रयमेतद् विदित्वा
य एवं विद्वान् चिनुते नाचिकेतम् ।
स मृत्युपाशान् पुरतः प्रणोद्य
शोकातिगो मोदते स्वर्गलोके ॥
त्रिणाचिकेतः He who performs the nAchiketa sacrifice thrice त्रयमेतद् these three factors विदित्वा having known य he एवं thus विद्वान् knower चिनुते performs नाचिकेतम् the nAchiketa sacrifice स he मृत्युपाशान् the snares of Death पुरतः earlier प्रणोद्य casts off शोकातिगो crossing over sorrow मोदते rejoices स्वर्गलोके in heaven.
He who, having known the three, has performed three times the nAchiketa sacrifice, throws off, even here, the chains of death, overcomes grief and rejoices in Heaven.
The manner of performing the nAchiketa sacrifice was described by Yama while teaching it to Nachiketa (mantra 1.1.15). Therein these three factors were expounded : one. The class of bricks, two. The number of bricks and three. The manner of placing them for the sacrifice to be performed. The Fire, agni, will have to be known as oneself by the person engaging in this sacrifice. With this knowledge one will have to perform the yaj~na. Upon doing this he will cast off these snares of Death – unrighteousness, ignorance, attachment, hatred, etc. even before the fall of this body. Upon death, he will attain the heaven designated by the position of virAT, the waking individual in the cosmic scale verily as the virAT himself. In this specific heaven, he will remain rejoicing, freed from sorrow.
We will have to remind ourselves repeatedly that when the upaniShad says that one will ‘cross over the snares of death’, it is not one’s transcending transmigratory life, saMsAra. It is only a relatively freeing from repeated birth, disease, old age and death. The stay in heaven will be marked by experiencing joy, while partaking of the enjoyments there. Also, ‘freedom from sorrow’ will have to be seen as a relative relief from the concerns of the earthly world like hunger. It is to be noted that the stay in heaven is certainly a reprieve though not a permanent cessation of transmigration. The price one has to pay to get to such a heaven is also not small: there is certainly a good amount of effort involved in knowing the method of the sacrifice, the actual performing of it with the aid of several officiating priests and meditating upon the Fire god, agni devatA, and realizing this god as oneself.
The nAchiketa ritual is thus connected with the meditation of the virAT devatA:
‘The number of bricks (in the sacrifice) is 720; the days and nights in a year (identified with virAT prajApati) have also the same number. Because of this similarity of number the Fire (Year-prajApati) constituted by those days and nights, am I’ – meditating on the Fire (virAT) in this way as identified with oneself’. (Anandagiri’s gloss).
एष तेऽग्निः नचिकेतः स्वर्ग्यो
यं अवृणीथा द्वितीयेन वरेण ।
एतं अग्निं तवैव प्रवक्ष्यन्ति जनासः
तृतीयं वरं नचिकेतो वृणीष्व ॥
एष This ते for you अग्निः the fire ritual नचिकेतः O Nachiketa स्वर्ग्यो that leads to heaven यं that अवृणीथा which you asked द्वितीयेन through the second वरेण boon एतं this अग्निं fire तवैव as yours indeed प्रवक्ष्यन्ति speak जनासः people तृतीयं third वरं boon नचिकेतो O Nachiketa वृणीष्व ask for.
This, O Nachiketa, is your Fire-sacrifice, which leads to Heaven and which you have chosen as your second boon. People will call this Fire by your name. Now, O Nachiketa, choose the third boon.
Now, the second boon has been granted and Yama is concluding the episode related to the teaching of the fire ritual. Nachiketa has asked for this knowledge, the method involved in accomplishing the fire ritual as a means to attain heaven. The Lord of Death, Yama, has taught Nachiketa in detail all about this ritual and Nachiketa, too, has reproduced the method, indicating that he has learned it thoroughly. Yama, pleased by this boy’s grasping, retaining and reproducing power, offered him an extra boon, a presentation of an expensive jeweled ornament and also declared that this ritual will be known by Nachiketa’s name. Yama names this declaration as the fourth boon given by him to Nachiketa. Now, setting the stage for the third boon, Yama asks Nachiketa to spell out what he wants in encashment of the remaining boon. Yama is intent upon granting what Nachiketa wants in return for the third promised boon. In the absence of so granting Yama thinks he will remain indebted to Nachiketa.
With this mantra the kaThopaniShad is transiting to the central theme of the vedAnta, the teaching of Atma-vidyA. The coming portions of the upaniShad will be devoted to the in-depth delineation of spiritual Knowledge, the means and the end thereof. Shankaracharya, heralding the start of the Atma-vidyA, gives a succinct picture of the entire Vedic lore:
Whatever is contained in the foregoing compacted in the two boons is verily the vedapUrva, the earlier portions of the veda, which is concerned with the knowledge of injunctions and prohibitions, acquiring and following which man attains to the state of a noble, responsible, caring individual. By this much, however, the knowledge of the accurate nature of the Self, Atman, is not acquired. Therefore, with a view to teaching the true nature of Atman which is contrasted with the anAtman, not-Self, the upaniShad begins the discourse in the next mantra. And the contrast is expressed in these terms:
The vedic teaching of injunctions and prohibitions takes for granted the natural superimposition of the triad of action, means thereof and the result thereof in the Self. This triad is the characteristic of one’s natural ignorance, avidyA. Such ignorance is the seed for the perpetuation of saMsAra, transmigration. This situation, however, is undesirable for the jIva. The relief from transmigration is had by acquiring the true, superimposition-free knowledge of the Self. What is the nature of the Self?
It is being endowed with the knowledge of the identity of the Self with brahman which is devoid of the superimposition spoken of above, having the attainment of absolute freedom from saMsAra and characterized by total freedom called mokSha .
It is with the view to present the contrast between the not-Self, ignorance, and the Self, knowledge, the upaniShad embarks upon the specifying of the qualifications an aspirant after mokSha has. At the outset, the trait of this aspirant is known thus: Not being satisfied, contended even after accomplishing heaven, represented by the second boon in this story, one realizes that unless the knowledge of the Self, indicated by the third boon, is attained, the true sense of achievement in life is impossible. This is the message of the story part of the kaThopaniShat:
Whoever has developed dispassion for the goals achievable by action prescribed by the veda, involving means and ends, which are ephemeral becomes ideally eligible for pursuing seriously the path of Self Knowledge.
Now, with a view to decry the path of action as the one to be given up, Nachiketa is being tempted by being offered worldly objects like son. Having been told by Yama, Nachiketa is specifying what he wants from the third boon:
या इयं प्रेते विचिकित्सा मनुष्ये-ऽस्ति इति एके नायं अस्ति इति च एके ।
एतद् विद्यां अनुशिष्टः त्वया अहं वराणां एष वरः तृतीयः ॥
या इयं this प्रेते on the death विचिकित्सा doubt मनुष्ये- of man अस्ति ‘It exists” इति एके some say नायं ‘it does not’ अस्ति ‘exist’ इति च एके say the others. एतद् this विद्यां would like to know अनुशिष्टः being taught त्वया by you अहं I. वराणां among the boons एष this वरः boon तृतीयः is the third one.
Nachiketa said: There is this doubt about a man when he is dead: Some say that he exists; others, that he does not. This I should like to know, taught by you. This is the third of my boons.
Since things related to a situation obtaining after man’s death are beyond the ken of the senses and the mind, there is a doubt regarding the question of whether or not there exists, after death, the entity who has died. This question arises because we see a man alive and active. There happens something called death and no longer this man is seen alive and active. In the world there is the usage ‘he is gone’. Gone where? No answer comes forth for this question. It is only the scripture that is the authority in matters transcendental; those who have no introduction to scripture have no answer to this question. Even those who are versed with the scripture have different views regarding the nature of the soul that exists after death. In order to know the correct nature of the soul that transmigrates Nachiketa asks the question, framed in the above manner. Some say ‘after death the man exists and some others say ‘he does not exist.’ What is the qualification of such a soul? Here, the soul that has identification with the body that will obtain in another birth is asked about.
Why does Nachiketa consider this question very important? It is because the attainment of the highest puruShArtha, attainable goal, depends upon the correct knowledge of this entity. Therefore, says Nachiketa, ‘I shall learn this upon your teaching this to me. Among the boons that I have been offered, this shall be the third one.’
Even as life is most engaging, the question about what happens when one dies occupies one’s imagination and inquiry very deeply. Since there is the conviction that we continue forever without undergoing extinction, the curiosity to know what happens beyond death is very great.
To be continued ….
Pranaam from Kamal Kothari