kaThopaniShad Series Part – 4
The young boy Nachiketas has embarked upon asking for the knowledge of the fire-ritual which serves as a means for one to attain heaven, swarga. Addressing Yama, the Lord of Death, says Nachiketas:
स त्वं अग्निं स्वर्ग्यं अध्येषि मृत्यो
प्रब्रूहि त्वं श्रद्धधानाय मह्यम् ।
स्वर्गलोका अमृतत्वं भजन्ते
एतद् द्वितीयेन वृणे वरेण ॥
स त्वं you अग्निं the fire (ritual) स्वर्ग्यं the means to attain heaven अध्येषि (remember/recall) know मृत्यो O, Death! प्रब्रूहि speak त्वं you श्रद्धधानाय मह्यम् to me (who am) full of faith. स्वर्गलोका the dwellers of heaven अमृतत्वं immortality भजन्ते attain एतद् this द्वितीयेन by the second वृणे I seek वरेण boon.
You know, O Death, the Fire-sacrifice, which leads to Heaven. Explain it to me, for I am full of faith. The inhabitants of Heaven attain immortality. This I ask as my second boon.
Nachiketa wants to know how one desirous of ascending to heaven can accomplish the means. His sincere interest in knowing this is called ‘shraddhA, the faith in the words of the scripture and the Teacher, in this case, Yama, the Lord of Death. Why indeed would one desire to be a resident of heaven? It is because the aspirants who have performed the necessary rituals and gone there are assured of being gods. Nachiketa wants to exchange his second boon for this knowledge about the means to go to heaven.
The underlying idea is that the veda, the Scripture, is the repository of knowledge that caters to whatever one aspires after. If a seeker of worldly pleasures approaches the veda for means, he is given that. If a seeker of immortality, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, turns to the veda, the means to that end is granted. And the veda has a ‘hidden’ agenda. And that is someone who comes to the veda for satisfying his worldly needs and gets the means for the same and practices them will get certain noble samskAra-s, favorable mental make -up, due to the association with the veda, and most likely will eventually rise to the level of seeking the Supreme, mokSha. The ‘shraddhA’ of the aspirant will now be for the highest goal and its accomplishment.
Hearing Nachiketa ask for the means to go to heaven, Yama makes a statement on agni, the Fire, a ritual involving whom is what Nachiketa asked to be taught –
प्र ते ब्रवीमि तदु मे निबोध
स्वर्ग्यमग्निं नचिकेतः प्रजानन् ।
अनन्तलोकाप्तिं अथो प्रतिष्ठां
विद्धि त्वम् एतं निहितं गुहायाम् ॥
प्र ते to you ब्रवीमि shall I tell तदु of it (agni) मे from me निबोध understand with attention. स्वर्ग्यमग्निं the Fire that is conducive to lead one to heaven नचिकेतः O Nachiketa प्रजानन् (I) am well aware of the Fire ritual अनन्तलोकाप्तिं which is the means for the attainment of heaven अथो also प्रतिष्ठां the support of the world विद्धि know त्वम् you एतं this निहितं established in the गुहायाम् (cave of) the intellect.
‘I shall instruct you that which you have wanted to know. Listen with an attentive mind to that which I am well aware of – the Fire ritual that is conducive to the attainment of heaven.’ By such words Yama, the Teacher, is ensuring that the complete attention of the disciple Nachiketa is available for the discourse. Having said this, Yama extols the Fire: That Fire is the attainment of infinite world, that is, the means for the attainment of the result, heaven. Further, agni, Fire, is the support of the universe as the virAT, the Cosmic Person. What is the abode of this Fire? It is none other than the secret recess of the intellect of the knowledgeable ones.
This ritual is presided by the agni as the all-pervading Cosmic Person who is available in every intellect as the indwelling Ruler. By performing a ritual with devotion to this Indwelling Principle, one gains great merit. This merit results in the aspirant reaching higher worlds namely ‘swarga’. Since it is recognized by the intelligent ones as the one dwelling in the heart, this agni’s importance is very high.
After Yama said this, now the shruti, that is the upaniShad, reports that Yama conveyed the method involved in the agni-ritual to Nachiketa:
लोकादिं अग्निं तम् उवाच तस्मै
या इष्टका यवतीः वा यथा वा ।
स च अपि तत् प्रत्यवदत् यथोक्तं
अथ अस्य मृत्युः पुनरेव आह तुष्टः ॥
लोकादिं the source of the world अग्निं Fire तम् this उवाच told तस्मै him (nachiketa) या the class of इष्टका bricks यवतीः (and) their number वा यथा वा and also the manner of arranging them. स he (nachiketa) च अपि too तत् the method प्रत्यवदत् repeated verbatim यथोक्तं with understanding as taught अथ Then अस्य of hearing this मृत्युः Yama पुनरेव again आह said तुष्टः being satisfied.
Yama then told him about the Fire, which is the source of the worlds and what bricks were to be gathered for the altar and how many and how the sacrificial fire was to be lighted. Nachiketa, too, repeated all this as it had been told him. Then Yama, being pleased with him, spoke again.
Fire is referred to here as the first embodied being, ‘virAT‘. It is this Fire, a ritual connected to it, that is sought by nachiketa to be taught and Yama taught it to him. Further Yama gave the details regarding the preparation of the ritual namely the type of bricks to be got ready for the arrangement of the sacrificial pit. So also the number of bricks and the manner in which the fire has to be kindled also were taught. Nachiketa, a student endowed with a keen power of grasping and retaining the teaching given out by Yama, repeated, as he understood, just as it was taught. Yama was only too pleased to witness Nachiketa’s intellectual acumen. As such, Yama offers another boon, a bonus, besides the three already promised originally.
The power to comprehend and retain and reproduce when required is an invaluable asset to a student of any discipline including vedAnta. Such an aspirant will be able to walk the path of sAdhana quickly with the grace of the Guru and God and reach the goal of Self-realization. It is said in the vivekachUDAmaNi:
मेधावी पुरुषो विद्वान् ऊहापोह-विचक्षणः।
medhAvI puruSho vidvAn UhApoha-vichakShaNaH
An intelligent and learned man skilled in arguing in favor of the Scriptures and in refuting counter-arguments against them – one who has got the above characteristics is the fit recipient of the knowledge of the Atman.
Highly appreciative of Nachiketa’s intellectual prowess, Yama could not resist his desire to offer him another boon:
तमब्रवीत् प्रीयमाणो महात्मा
वरं तव इह अद्य ददामि भूयः ।
तवैव नाम्ना भवति इयम् अग्निः
सृङ्कां च इमाम् अनेकरूपां गृहाण ॥
तमब्रवीत् To Nachiketa said प्रीयमाणो feeling delighted महात्मा the high-souled Yama वरं boon तव for you इह now अद्य today ददामि shall grant you भूयः again, another one. तवैव by your own नाम्ना name भवति इयमग्निः this Fire (ritual) will be known सृङ्कां necklace च too इमाम् this अनेकरूपां multi-formed गृहाण accept.
The High-souled Lord of Death, being well pleased, said to Nachiketa: I will now give you another boon: this fire shall be named after you. Take also from me this many-coloured chain.
Delighted by Nachiketa’s fitness for receiving the teaching regarding the Self, the large-hearted Yama, with genuine joy, told Nachiketa, ‘ out of favour for you, now I offer you another, fourth, boon: The Fire that I have taught you now will become famous by your name indeed. Also, take from me this necklace that is multi-formed, resounding, embellished with a number of jewels.’ (Alternatively, the word ‘sRnkAm’ could mean ‘the fire ritual’ the rites that are not ignoble and full of variegated karma.) ‘Nachiketa, adopt this liefstyle.’ The idea is: ‘You also accept an additional knowledge pertaining to the various types of results that accrue to one by performing them.’
Once again action, that is, scripture-enjoined action, is eulogized:
त्रिकर्मकृत् तरति जन्ममृत्यू ।
ब्रह्मजज्ञं देवमीड्यं विदित्वा
निचाय्य इमां शान्तिमत्यन्तमेति ॥
त्रिणाचिकेतः One who piles up the nAchiketa-Fire thrice त्रिभिरेत्य attaining the three सन्धिं getting connected त्रिकर्मकृत् undertakes three kinds of work तरति crosses over जन्ममृत्यू birth and death. ब्रह्मजज्ञं one born of Brahma देवमीड्यं the praiseworthy deity विदित्वा knowing him निचाय्य इमां having realized Him शान्तिमत्यन्तमेति attains this peace totally.
He who has performed three times this ‘nAchiketa’ sacrifice, having been instructed by the three and also has performed his three duties, overcomes birth and death. Having known this Fire born of Brahman, omniscient, luminous and adorable and having realized it, he attains supreme peace.
A person becomes an eligible one to engage in any pursuit, worldly or spiritual, only by being nourished by the caring three – the mother, father and teacher. Only this kind of growth makes a man a worthy member of the society. The role of the mother, father and teacher cannot be overlooked or overemphasized. The role of the three in shaping a man’s personality is never to be underestimated. The means for right knowledge comes from the ‘samskAra‘ born of being connected with the three. The bRhadAraNyaka upaniShad (4.1.2) says ‘Let the one who has a mother, father and teacher instruct..’. Or, the ‘three’ in the mantra could be understood as the veda-s, the smRRti and noble people. The ‘three’ may also mean perception, inference (reason) and scripture. It is well within one’s experience that clarity, purity, is had from the application of these three. What are the three duties specified in the mantra? They are sacrifice, study of the scripture and charity. A person who performs these three goes beyond birth and death.
Further, he gets to know the all-knowing deity born of brahmA, hiraNyagarbha. This deity endowed with attributes of knowledge and the like and therefore splendrous and worthy of worship, is known through the scripture. And the deity is also realized to be oneself. When such a realization has occurred, the knower/performer of this fire-ritual experiences great peace. One attains to the state, position, of the ‘virAT‘ by combining knowledge (upAsana) and karma (action, the performance of the fire-ritual). In other words, the one who practices devotion to that deity called ‘virAT‘ by meditating upon him and also has carried out the nAchiketa-fire-ritual thrice attains to the very position of ‘virAT’.
A person who has known this ritual or he who has studied the method or he who has actually performed the ritual is spoken of in this mantra.
Now, the fruit of the knowing and performing the fire-ritual is spoken of in the next mantra.