Nachiketa – The Child Devotee


Yoga of devotion or Bhakti Yoga

The flight of a bird needs three things for its graceful movement namely two wings and a tail. The tail is used as a rudder as in a boat to keep its course and the wings help it to balance in the air. Similarly man requires knowledge, devotion and meditation as the three means to achieve success on the spiritual path.

Love is a creative force and one seeks joy and immortality through creation. Love based on physical attraction is called worldly love and is unsatisfactory, inadequate and shortlived because the material objects are limited and impermanent and are constantly changing. Love based on intellectual attraction is more enduring and impersonal but it is only Divine love that is said to be lasting, permanent and changeless because God identifies Himself with these attributes of eternity, permanence and changelessness. Just like the luminosity of a bigger star eclipses a smaller star and the brightness of the sun eclipses everything else, God is like the sun in front of whom all other kinds of love pale into insignificance.

Nothing else satisfies the yearning of the soul for the lover of God. It is said that Bhakti Yoga is the easiest of all spiritual disciplines as there is no demand for suppression of normal impulses like desire, anger, greed etc, only that it be directed towards God. Desire should be turned towards passionate communion with God, anger if one is not making adequate spiritual progress, greed for more spiritual experiences and so on. Through meditation on the chosen ideal or deity or Guru, one reaches a state of supreme love based on renunciation. All attachment to worldly objects drops off. Unlike worldly love, this love is sublime, it expects nothing in return, not even salvation, it is simply love for love’s sake. The devotee knows no fear, his love for God is not due to fear of punishment.

Intoxicated in love, the devotee beholds the Lord everywhere and in everything. He resigns himself to everything that comes his way in an attitude of self surrender. Misery, pain and death are no longer feared, as immersed in God’s protection he becomes absorbed in him. The mysteries of the Lord are unveiled to him and he attains immortality.

Such a devotee was Nachiketa, the child protagonist of the Katha Upanishad who rejected material desires which according to him were ephemeral and sought single mindedly the knowledge of Brahman.

Introduction

The story of Nachiketa is one of renunciation of all material objects which are transitory and ephemeral and one pointed pursuit of the Brahman which is eternal, changeless and permanent.

The story is similar to the one in the New Testament where a rich, young ruler wishes for eternal life and assures Jesus that as he has faithfully obeyed all commandments like not indulging in adultery, falsehood, cheating etc in his life, he felt he was entitled to it. Jesus then asked him to give away all his worldly possessions to the poor and come back to him. The ruler could not do it. Although he was virtuous in every respect, he was too attached to his material goods and wealth. Thus he went away sorrowful. Thus it is clear that Renunciation, one of the primary requisites in the spiritual path is a difficult virtue to practise.

Birth of Nachiketa

In ancient India there lived a sage named Uddalaka with his wife Vishwaradevi. Uddalaka was a very learned sage and belonging to a family of philanthropists he too was well known for his large heartedness. Hence he was called Vajashravas as he used to conduct many feeding programmes. It is said that he had only one defect which was a very bad temper. His wife was a very calm and serene lady. But they had no issue. Everyday she prayed that the Lord would grant her wish by blessing them with a child. Vajashravas then performed a sacrifice to propitiate the Gods and their prayers were answered and in due course a son was born. They named him Nachiketa meaning ‘that which cannot be perceived’ referring to the Immortal spirit. Nachiketa was an early riser. He would pluck flowers for his mother’s worship. He would then recite verses and offer his prayers to God. He was very diligent. By hearing the prayers that his father chanted he easily memorized all of them by heart. He had an amazing memory power. Just hearing the prayer once he could repeat them the next moment. Vajashravas owned a number of cows gifted to him by various Kings for whom he performed religious rites. In those days a person was considered wealthy according to the number of cows he possessed.

Nachiketa’s curiosity

Every morning Nachiketa would see his mother worship the cows. Being curious he asked her why she did so. His mother explained that cows were called ‘Go Matha’ as they gave milk and were considered sacred and revered. She said this would give them a lot of ‘punya’ or religious merit. Nachiketa was curious. He asked her what was the use of this punya. His mother explained that collecting a lot of punya would ensure one going to heaven which was the abode of Gods and Goddesses and where all one’s desires could be fulfilled. Immediately Nachiketa’s thoughts went to his friend Soma. Soma was the son of another sage but they were very poor. Troubled he asked his mother if they could gift atleast one old cow to Soma as he had no cows so that he could also attain heaven through Punya. His mother scolded him and said that it was a sin to gift an old cow especially if it did not yield any milk as it would be useless to them. Instead they would go to hell for such a sin committed.

Curiously Nachiketa asked if desires were not fulfilled in Hell. His mother explained that a sinner could never get his desires fulfilled. Instead the God of Death Yama punished all sinners. She then said that if he wished to know more, he should study well, gain knowledge and become a scholar.

Nachiketa decided that from now on he would seek knowledge. One day a neighbouring sage came to the hermitage. He had brought a mango fruit for Nachiketa along with him. Nachiketa humbly prostrated to the sage with reverence and when offered the fruit declined to take it. When the sage asked him the reason he said he did not want the fruit but wanted knowledge. The sage was surprised and asked him what kind of knowledge he required to which he replied that he wanted knowledge that gave him inner sight. Vajashravas who heard the conversation flared up in anger and asked him not to talk nonsense in the presence of elders and ordered him to go inside. Disappointed and crestfallen he went inside. The sage told Vajashravas that he should be proud to have such a son as he had seen the lustre on his face so instead of scolding him he should perform his Upanayana or thread ceremony and send him to a Gurukul for furthering his education. Vajashravas agreed and requested the sage to accept him as his pupil. The sage was very happy and agreed as he felt his fame would be enhanced for having taught such an exemplary pupil. His thread ceremony was duly performed and he set off to go to the hermitage of the sage for study. Before he left Vajashravas advised him to learn well and serve his Guru with humility and reverence and to never defy or anger him and to return after successful completion of his course. His mother too tearfully bid him farewell advising him to consider the Guru and his wife as his parents and serve them well.

His education

In the Guru’s ashram, Nachiketa was only concerned about three things-Ashram, teacher and studies. Unlike the other students Nachiketa had no other distractions. He was diligent and hardworking. His hunger for knowledge was so insatiable and his memory being superb, he could grasp everything in record time. It was a pleasure for the teacher to teach him. All the other students were stunned at his prowess.

Desire to see Yama

One day when Nachiketa was only 12 years old a sad event occurred. A black cow in the ashram which he was very fond of died and Nachiketa was plunged in grief. His Guru tried to console him by saying that all beings who are born have to die some day or the other. But Nachiketa kept repeating that he could see the physical body of the cow in front of him, so ‘what’ died. The Guru then told him about Yama the God of Death. He immediately expressed a desire to meet him. Smiling the Guru said that meeting him meant death. But Nachiketa was determined to meet him one day somehow.

Vishwajit Yajna

In the meantime, Vajashravas was making arrangements for a big sacrifice named Vishwajit yajna. On receiving the invitation, the Guru accompanied by Nachiketa and all the other pupils began their journey to attend the Yaga. On the way,Nachiketa began asking questions on the purpose of performing the Yaga, what items are to be gifted etc. The Guru replied that the purpose of the Yaga as the name suggested was to attain fame now and happiness in the next world and gifts had to be made of all that the Yaga holder held dear to him. Immediately Nachiketa asked if he too would be gifted away as he was very dear to his father. The Guru replied negatively. Vajashravas had to perform the yajna rigidly and the elderly sages had warned him to restrain anger as every word uttered would have to be translated into action. When cows were being gifted as part of the Yaga, Nachiketa found that they were old and useless cows.

Remembering his mother’s words, he was distressed as he did not want his father to go to hell for cheating. He thought deeply. He knew if he approached his father to warn him, he would only get inflamed with anger. At the same time he felt that maybe his father was retaining all the best things for his son’s sake since he was dearest to him. So if he gifted him away, he could atone for all the other misdeeds. Thinking in this way he approached his father and asked him to whom did he plan to gift his son. When he received no reply as Vajashravas felt it unfit to reply to such a silly question, he continued asking the same question. The third time he asked, his father in anger shouted at him to get away or else he would gift him to Yama, the God of Death. The elderly sages were all aghast and Vajashravas realised his mistake and began weeping. Nachiketa consoled him and started out in his quest to meet Yama leaving his parents heartbroken with guilt and fear.

Yama’s abode

Nachiketa set out for Yama’s abode but not knowing where it was, he sat in the lotus posture and began to pray with closed eyes fervently to Lord Yama. Soon he forgot the outside world and lost himself completely in meditation. Suddenly he felt someone calling him. Opening his eyes he found himself in front of a palace. Two ferocious looking guards refused to allow him to enter. They informed him that he was in front of the palace of Lord Yama in the city of Samyamani, to the South of the Sumeru mountain. Nachiketa was thrilled and bowing to them introduced himself and asked to be taken to meet the Lord. They informed him that the Lord was out of the kingdom and would return after three days. When the queen heard this she asked that he be brought inside and made comfortable but Nachiketa refused and sitting at the gate he began chanting the name of God. For three days and nights, he sat without moving chanting the name of the Lord. The Gods in heaven were wonderstruck at his penance.

The Three boons

When Yama returned he was very pleased with Nachiketa’s penance and took him inside and offered him all comforts. He then said that since he had endured so much for three days he would grant him three boons. Nachiketa said that he wanted only his blessings but when Lord Yama insisted, Nachiketa asked that his father should be relieved of his anger and retain the same affection for Nachiketa when he returned as he had earlier. Yama agreed and told him not to worry as the sacrifice would also be successfully completed. Nachiketa then asked for the knowledge of Fire or Agni Vidya as it is essential to attain Godhood. Yama was stunned and wondered whether Nachiketa would be able to memorise what he taught him but Nachiketa was too brilliant and immediately memorised it. Filled with admiration Yama then placed a garland of beautiful gems around Nachiketa’s neck.

Knowledge of the Self or Atma Vidya

Recollecting the death of the cow, Nachiketa asked Yama how to transcend the cycles of birth and death and prevent grief and asked for knowledge as his third boon. Yama was wonderstruck as he wondered how to explain such a deep subject to a child. So he offered him instead gifts of wealth, money, wealth, money, rulership etc. But Nachiketa was undaunted. He already had the knowledge of fire which granted him Godhood so he did not wish to hanker after mundane and transitory pleasures. Finally Yama had no choice but to agree to teach him. He taught him the concept of soul and Brahman, self realisation, discrimination, the secret of immortality and the meaning of death and life. He explained about attachment and desires being the cause of suffering and resulting in getting entangled in the cycle of birth and death. The purpose of human existence was to attain Brahman and to remove the darkness of ignorance. The two paths in front of man is the good and the pleasant. The path which is good leads to liberation but the path which is pleasant leads to the world of duality (Joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain etc).The treasure of human life is the Real Self and it is found within. This is the central philosophy of Vedanta. This teaching of Yama to Nachiketa is in the Upanishad called the Kathopanishad.

Hearing these teachings, Nachiketa became enlightened. His face shone with an inner effulgence. With gratitude and love he offered salutations to the Lord for his compassion and mercy in teaching these great secrets to a mere boy.

Blessing him Lord Yama asked him to go and spread the knowledge in the world and rejoin his parents. In a loud voice the Lord exhorted Mankind to arise and awake and follow the path of virtue shown by Enlightened Ones such as Nachiketa.

Return to Parents

The heavenly voice was heard in the skies and reached the sacrificial hall of Vajashravas. All the sages including Vajashravas saw a brilliant object landing near them and they beheld Nachiketa with a luminous countenance. With joy and happiness his parents embraced him and asked him about the jewels around his neck. Nachiketa narrated the whole story to the assembled personage and everyone praised him. The sages praised his parents who were fortunate to have been blessed with such a great son. Though he was just a boy he had already attained sainthood. They said that his place would always be in the annals of history and in the book of Vedas and he would be immortal. Thus tender Nachiketa became a great sage-a Maharishi.

Conclusion

Nachiketa carried Supreme knowledge from heaven to earth attaining sainthood at a very young age. He became a gem among scholars and is a shining beacon on the firmament of Hindu tradition. The Kathopanishad which gives the dialogue between Lord Yama and Nachiketa is read avidly till this day with great devotion. It has been translated into many major languages of the world. A number of treatises have been written about it. The shloka immortalised in the Kathopanishad is a fitting legacy of Nachiketa’s spiritual spendour. The story of a tender boy attaining the heights of liberation has captured the imagination of millions of truth seekers and Nachiketa will always hold a special place in the hearts of all spiritual seekers.

Shloka

Om Saha Naavavathu

Saha Nau Bhunakthu

Saha Veeryam Karavaavahai

Tejaswi NaavadheetamAstu

Maa Vidvishaavahai

Om Shantih Shantih Shantih

‘‘May God protect us together

May He nourish us together

Let us always be engaged in bold and purposeful activities

Let our noble study be full of lustre

Let there be no ill feelings towards others

Om Peace Peace Peace.’’