Author`s name Sheeba Rakesh

The Kathopnishad: A Commentary(Part I)

The Kathopnishad: A Commentary(Part I)

Dr. Sheeba Rakesh


"The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."

Once an ascetic by the name of Vajshravar , desired the absolute freedom of his soul from the cycle of birth and death. In order to attain this gift, he could think of no better way than the donation of whatever he had, to the others. This included all of his wealth, his cattle and also his own children. Of all his kids, there was one named Nachiketa, whom asked his father, as to whom would he be given to? His father replied, "I shall offer you to Death!"


Nachiketa thought of himself as an obedient and well behaved child. He could not understand the reason of his father's desire to donate him to Death, when he was good enough to be alive!? This thought was much the result of the fear of Death he harboured within himself. Of this fear, he thought to cure himself, by thinking deeply about the transience of human life. "In all truth, in fact", so he thought, "...human life is no better than a grain of rice...cultivated today, gone tomorrow!"

With such thoughts and more, he entered the abode of Yamacharya (Yam is the God of Death in the Vedic system of thought while the word Acarya means teacher), who grants him three boons for patiently waiting upon him, in his absence!(In the Indian culture, a guest is equivalent to God, so Yama was very sorry for having caused trouble to Nachiketa who had to wait upon him for three days.Before this dialogue is proceeded with, the readers must know that, Nachiketa means "One who is a seeker after knowledge", whereas, Death has been personified as the teacher who teaches the absolute truth of life.) The Rgveda says, "The Teacher is Death!"  So said, because indeed, the darkness of individuality or the ego of the learner is killed, when, in front of the one teacher, who bestows the light of knowledge. Also,  there is no better teacher in this world, than Death. In this sense, the teacher gives the disciple, the gift of a new birth....a new life!

For the first boon, Nachiketa asks Death for the appeasement of his father in the face of life i.e. when he returns to his father, alive after gaining all the knowledge from Death, his father shouldn't be angry with him. This boon is immediately granted by Death.

The second boon

For the second boon, Nachiketa  asks, "O Death! Tell me of the ways which lead to the doors of heaven, where it is said, there is no fear, neither you, nor hunger, nor thirst, nor old age, nor sadness....all that is there, is bliss! What "Fire" within is that, which leads us to this bliss!?"

The great teacher of Life, i.e. Death, told him of all the ways that lead to the heavens. He expatiated , at length about the "fire" that takes human life to the higher spheres and blessed  Nachiketa, that this fire would be known as the Tri- Nachiketa Agni (Where Agni is the Sanskrit word for Fire and Tri  is the Sanskrit word for three, here meaning threefold.)

Death told him, that this fire, does not comprise any form of ritualistic fiery oblations or sacrifices. Instead, this Tri Nachiketa Agni, propels the human soul towards the attainment of the ultimate bliss, resting in the Brahma Yagna( Where Brahma ,meaning great refers also to the source of all the power in the Universe; Yagna is the Sanskrit word for oblation)In other words, the one who makes all the efforts to be great, in terms of expanding his life and actions and does not allow his life to be overshadowed by mundane negativities, is the one who performs the Brahma Yagna.  The sacrificial fires that leap up in this Brahma Yagna consist  of the passing of the human being  through the three stages of social life, where each juncture signifies the coming together of two stages. The real test of a human being is in being able to successfully embrace, the change that each juncture embodies.

Juncture 1: The change from being a celibate to a married person.

Juncture 2: The shift from the role of being a married person to an advisory role, where everything is handed over to the new generation.

 Juncture 3: The change from being a family and social advisor to being a total renouncer.

(Thus, the Vedic system of thought, enunciates the four stages of human life  also a part of the Dharamasharam, calling upon a human being to follow the call of duty in all the different stages of life. Dharma means Duty. The four stages are: Brhmcharya i.e celibacy; Grahasth i.e married life; Vanprasth i.e. the advisory role in the family circle; Sanyas i.e. Total renunciation of the world and its cares.)

This system has been evolved to underline the importance of the process of gradual detachment in the life of a commoner, not immediately attracted to the thoughts of a higher universe or aspirations, thereof. (It is also to be noted here, that  it is basically , the concept of adherence to the call of duty, that lay behind the postulation of concepts like the Dharmasharma and the Varnasharama, the latter being loosely understood as the institution of caste, castigated by some people as being primarily responsible for the escalation of caste issues in the Indian society. To an extent , it has been grossly misunderstood.  Meriting a detailed discussion in future, also  please refer to an earlier article in this publication  entitled , "Caste and Karma: An India Perspective.")

Death teaches

Death teaches, Nachiketa, that when a human life has "ripened" by passing through all these junctures and the "fires" hidden in them, in the shape of the duties and roles that they entail; when he has understood the philosophy of life, of living for the others, through living for those, he calls his own, in this immediate when he comes to a certain level of detachment and then, the human soul shall easily be able to attain heavenly bliss.

{Note: This dialogue between Death and Nachiketa shall continue in the ensuing articles carrying my commentary on the Upanishads.}