Namaskaar. In this Part 8 of Kathopanishat commentary, we see how the young Nachiketas rejects ball of the temptations offered by Lord Yama to distract his attention away from the vital question that he is so seriously pursuing — what happens in the hereafter? Seeing Nachiketas’ determination and commitment, Lord Yama finally has to give in to the young spiritual aspirant and starts his teaching finally!

The Upanishad now in Section 2 starts with a profound statement about people like us not being able to discriminate between the ‘good’ and the ‘pleasant’; in other words likes and dislikes or immediate pleasures v/s long term benefits. Its a most useful teaching. Lets enter into it 🙂


In the previous section we saw how Nachiketa, the spiritual aspirant, spurned the allurements offered by Yama, the j~nAni-Guru. Nachiketa displays a very high degree of discrimination, viveka, and its natural effect, dispassion, vairAgyam. After having turned away from the sense objects offered, now Nachiketa refuses to be carried away by the offerings of wealth, adducing strong reasons therefore:

Mantra 27

न वित्तेन तर्पणीयो मनुष्यः
लप्स्यामहे वित्तम् अद्राक्ष्म चेत् त्वा ।
जीविष्यामो यावत् ईशिष्यसि त्वं
वरस्तु मे वरणीयः स एव ॥

न not वित्तेन by wealth तर्पणीयो satisfied मनुष्यः is man. लप्स्यामहे we shall acquire वित्तम् wealth अद्राक्ष्म having seen चेत्  त्वा now You. जीविष्यामो We shall live long यावत् as (long) as ईशिष्यसि  त्वं You will rule. वरस्तु But the boon मे worthy of my  वरणीयः seeking is स that एव alone.

Wealth can never make a man happy. Moreover, since I have beheld you, I shall certainly obtain wealth; I shall also live as long as you rule. Therefore no boon will be accepted by me but the one that I have asked.

It is common knowledge that there is no upper limit for a man to seek wealth. There is always the hankering for more and more wealth. The reason is that wealth is the means for fulfilling all other desires. There is no time man would conclude ‘this much is enough for me’. He might resolve to stop working for earning more wealth. Yet, the urge to increase, multiply, the existing savings through seeking higher interest rates, better means of investments that promise higher returns, etc. is not so easily got over. Nachiketa brings out this human tendency:  Man is never to be satisfied by any amount of wealth. Instead of wasting a boon to settle for a huge quantum of wealth to be given by Yama, Nachiketa cleverly sees the fact that the very meeting with a powerful Divine Being as Yama can leave one with enormous wealth. It is common practice that when we meet with an elder and take leave of him, there is a parting gift from the elder. So, without the asking, there is the prospect of being provided, blessed, with wealth, just due to the meeting and conversing with Yama. And the long life that Yama offered, even that Nachiketa recognizes is guaranteed by the mere blessing, AshIrvAda, from Yama. As long as Yama reigns over the position of the Lord of Death, I shall live so long. Indeed one can’t go short-lived and ill-wealthy having met up with You, O Death. In view of all this, O Death, my choice is none other than what I have determined to obtain from You: Self-knowledge.

Mantra 28

अजीर्यतां अमृतानां उपेत्य
जीर्यन् मर्त्यः क्वधःस्थः प्रजानन् ।
अभिध्यायन् वर्ण-रति-प्रमोदान्
अतिदीर्घे जीविते को रमेत ॥

अजीर्यतां undecaying अमृतानां immortals उपेत्य having reached the proximity जीर्यन् decaying मर्त्यः mortal क्वधःस्थः a dweller of the lower world प्रजानन् but is aware of the higher goals of life अभिध्यायन् having discriminated/deliberated on वर्ण-रति-प्रमोदान् the joys of mingling with sense objects/organs अतिदीर्घे in long जीविते life  को रमेत who indeed will delight? (None indeed will delight)

Who among decaying mortals here below, having approached the undecaying immortals and coming to know that his higher needs may be fulfilled by them, would exult in a long life, after he had pondered on the pleasures arising from beauty and song?

Nachiketa thinks up more reasons for staying away from a life given to sensual enjoyment. The gods inhabiting the heavenly regions are free from the problems of ageing and the consequent dying. One who secures the ability, the opportunity, to see them and converse with them and earn their grace knows clearly that there is some higher, loftier thing to be sought from them. He knows that he can and is obtaining the fulfillment of this higher objective through them. In such a situation, being oneself subject to ageing and death, being an occupant of this human world that is situated below the heavens, why and how indeed would one seek from those gods those things which undiscriminating humans would seek such as progeny, wealth, gold and the like that are ephemeral?

Everyone would normally naturally aim to rise higher and higher in life. Therefore I am not going to fall for the attractions You, Yama, are tempting me with. Further, having deliberated on the faults (such as their ephemeral nature) of the heavenly damsels, even though they can give one a variety of sensual pleasures, who indeed would love to live an extremely long life?  Nachiketa is looking critically even at the heavenly joys and the heavenly means thereof. He analyses thus:  Heavenly joys are available, enjoyable for very long. The means thereof namely the damsels and the pleasures they offer too are going to last very long. And the one who enjoys all these too is guaranteed of a very long life, and a healthy one at that. Yet, Nachiketa concludes these too will go away some day. That is the rule of the nature of things created in this universe. No object, event, person can escape this rule: once created their destruction is imminent. What is the point in having something, however pleasurable that might be, for however long a period, and settle for the prospect of losing all that some day?  This certainly is not the way of a discriminating person. I shall never yield to such a prospect.

Mantra 29

यस्मिन् इदं विचिकित्सन्ति मृत्यो
यत् साम्पराये महति ब्रूहि नः तत् ।
यः अयं वरो गूढं अनुप्रविष्टो
न अन्यं तस्मात् नचिकेतो वृणीते ॥

यस्मिन् in इदं the matter of which विचिकित्सन्ति doubt मृत्यो O Death! यत् regarding साम्पराये the next world महति the knowledge of which is lofty ब्रूहि teach नः us तत् that. यः That अयं this वरो boon  गूढं inscrutable अनुप्रविष्टो hidden न not अन्यं another तस्मात् other than this नचिकेतो Nachiketa वृणीते pray for.

Tell me, O Death, of that Great Hereafter about which a man has his doubts. This knowledge will lead to a great result. It is this boon that is very deeply hidden and Nachiketa will not settle for anything other than this knowledge.

Nachiketa wants to get down to business. He is impatient and cannot stand the test of allurements any longer. He knows where he stands and is so confident that nothing by way of attractions of this or other worlds will shake him away from his determined goal of acquiring Self-knowledge. He recalls his first question pertaining to this boon (1.1.20) about the doubt people have about the nature and status of the Self after death. Whether or not the individual who dies remains over and as what? – is the mystery people are unable to unravel. Hence such a serious quest has entered the deep recesses of a secret, as it were. The upaniShad butts in to say: Other than this knowledge Nachiketa the great dispassionate one will not seek any other thing that common people settle for instinctively.

The testing of the pupil having been completed the Guru takes up the teaching proper. At the outset Yama the Guru expresses praise for the highly discriminating and dispassionate aspirant who takes to this task of gaining Self-knowledge. Such an aspirant is extremely rare and is to be glorified and that is what the upaniShad is now doing through the words of Yama.

Now we enter the second vallI, section, of the first chapter.

Section II 
Knowing Nachiketa to be fit to receive this Atma-vidyA, Yama says:

Mantra 1

अन्यत् श्रेयः अन्यत् उत एव प्रेयः
ते उभे नानार्थे पुरुषं सिनीतः ।
तयोः श्रेय आददानस्य साधु
भवति हीयते अर्थात् य उ प्रेयो वृणीते ॥

अन्यत् different श्रेयः is the preferable अन्यत् different उत also एव indeed प्रेयः pleasurable. ते these उभे two नानार्थे being aimed at different ends पुरुषं man सिनीतः bind. तयोः among these two श्रेय preferable आददानस्य who chooses साधु good भवति comes about हीयते falls  अर्थात् from the noble goal य he  उ that प्रेयो pleasurable वृणीते chooses.

Yama said: The good is one thing; the pleasant, another. Both of these, serving different needs, bind a man. It goes well with him who, of the two, takes the good; but he who chooses the pleasant misses the end.

In Sanskrit the ‘good’ is called ‘hita’ and the pleasant goes by the name ‘priya’. The tendency of man is generally to look for the pleasant and take to it. This is because the pleasant is pleasurable now itself while the good will have to be reaped in a distant future. Even though one knows what is good for one in the long run, not being able patiently to put forth the effort to acquire it, one settles for the pleasant one as it is available now. The value of discrimination lies in the fact that one chooses to work for the good and wait to have it. However, it has to be noted that this choice is made even more difficult by the fact that one has to eschew from the pleasant if one has to work for the good. It is this condition that makes most people knowingly leave out the good and seek only what is pleasant.

The upaniShad says that both these goals ‘bind’ man. The idea is this: Whether one chooses the good or the pleasant, one has to work for that goal. And, most importantly, one has to be a fit candidate to work for the chosen goal. An unfit candidate is not likely to attain the goal chosen. In this sense it can be said that one is ‘bound’ by the goal one chooses since there is demanded a firm commitment from the candidate. Yama makes the position very clear: he who chooses the good attains the most desirable goal, the state of liberation, the most auspicious, shivam. And he who goes after the pleasant loses that lofty goal, falling from a fine chance to attain the highest. For owing to the lack of farsightedness he is swayed only by the pleasure that the immediate future holds for him.


To be continued ….
Pranaam from Kamal Kothari