kaThopaniShad Series Part – 6
Part 6 –
Nachiketa has asked that crucial question in exchange for the third boon from Yama, the Lord of Death. However, as this is a question that weighs very heavy from the point of view of spiritual teaching and learning, the Teacher, Yama, does not want to give the reply just like that. He wants to ascertain the total capability, the preparedness, of Nachiketa to receive this esoteric knowledge. Hence, Yama says, as if to dissuade Nachiketa from entering this territory:
देवैः अत्र अपि विचिकित्सितं पुरा
न हि विज्ञेयं अणुः एष धर्म: ।
अन्यं वरं नचिकेता वृणीष्व
मा मा उपरोत्सीः अति मा सृजैनम् ॥
देवैः gods अत्र with regard to this अपि even विचिकित्सितं entertained doubt पुरा in the past. न हि not truly विज्ञेयं comprehended अणुः being subtle एष this धर्म: substance (called the Self). अन्यं some other वरं boon नचिकेता O Nachiketa वृणीष्व ask for मा मा do not ever उपरोत्सीः press me इति मा सृज give up एनम् this boon (that you have demanded of me).
Yama said: On this subject even the gods formerly had their doubts. It is not easy to understand; the nature of Atman is subtle. Choose another boon, O Nachiketa! Do not press me. Release me from that boon.
The gods, deva-s, are also jIva-s alone but endowed with highly refined intellectual apparatus. They have performed extraordinary meditation and vedic rituals and obtained divine positions. Their capacity to accomplish tough tasks is very great in comparison to the humans. Hence, Yama is taking the case of deva-s to dissuade Nachiketa from embarking upon this stupendous task of knowing the Self. Even the deva-s have had the kind of doubt you have and attempted to know the Self. Therefore the nature of the Self is not easily known by ordinary mortals. Even if people hear about the Self one faces immense difficulty in gaining its knowledge since the Self is extremely subtle in nature. What do we mean by being very subtle? A gross object is easily identifiable, describable, perceptible to our senses and intellect as it possesses attributes like form, smell, color, taste and touch. With these attributes one easily grasps the nature of the objects that are gross. However, being devoid of any attributes the Self is specified as being extremely subtle and hence ordinary effort to know it does not bring success.
Yama explains the difficulty and asks Nachiketa to give up the effort to know the Self and choose some other thing that is free of any doubt as to its being this way or that. Hence he says ‘do not insist upon Me to give this knowledge on the grounds that I owe you a boon and you are entitled to get it encashed. Just as a man who is owed money by another holds him by force to settle the dues, O Nachiketa, do not press Me on this question. Give up this boon and ask for something else.’
देवैरत्रापि विचिकित्सितं किल
त्वं च मृत्यो यन्न सुज्ञेयमात्थ ।
वक्ता चास्य त्वादृगन्यो न लभ्यो
नान्यो वरस्तुल्य एतस्य कश्चित् ॥२२॥
देवैःby the gods अत्र this topic अपि even विचिकित्सितं doubted किल indeed त्वं You च too मृत्यो O Death! यत् that न not सुज्ञेयं well comprehended आत्थ said. वक्ता Teacher च too अस्य of this त्वादृक like You अन्यो any other न not लभ्यो obtainable न no अन्यो other वरः boon तुल्य equal एतस्य to this कश्चित् ever is there.
Nachiketa said: O Death, even the gods have their doubts about this subject; and you have declared it to be not easy to understand. But another teacher like you cannot be found and surely no other boon is comparable to this.
Nachiketa is determined to have the teaching on the Self given to him. He is not ready to take Yama’s tactic of dissuading him from this venture. The very argument Yama put forth to dissuade Nachiketa is turned by Nachiketa into the very reason why this Knowledge is definitely to be had. Since even the gods have attempted to know the Self and since it is extremely difficult of attainment, it is even more worthy of having it. And what is more, a teacher of the genre of Yama can’t be found and having got such a one ready at hand, Nachiketa does not want to let go the rarest of rare opportunities.
We are reminded of Arjuna’s words in the bhagavad gItA:
Faced with a doubt as to the future of an aspirant dying before attaining the goal of Self-realization, Arjuna asks Lord Krishna to clear this doubt:
(6.39) O KRRSNa, You should totally eradicate this doubt of mine. For, none other than Yourself can be the dispeller of this doubt!
Like the kaThopaniShad itself will be saying later, it is extremely rare to have a Self-realized one as the Guru. Knowledge obtained from a realized Guru is most efficacious. It unfailingly brings realization to the disciple.
Nachiketa says: Even the gods have deliberated on this topic of Self-knowledge, as I hear from none other than You. And You also say that this knowledge is most difficult to grasp. Therefore, since being most difficult of knowing even by the learned, one cannot find a teacher like Thou even upon searching, who can impart this Knowledge. However, this boon is the means that will take one to the highest goal, liberation. Hence, there is no other thing that I find attractive enough that can replace this boon. Everything else will fetch only impermanent fruits. This is the purport of Nachiketa’s reply to Yama.
Even though Nachiketa made his stand very clear that the boon has to address his question on Self Knowledge, Yama, being keen on ensuring the Knowledge reaches the right person and not someone who does not deserve it, made further enticements aimed at diverting Nachiketa’s one-pointed, steadfast goal to anything worldly. The idea is this: Self-knowledge, being extremely valuable and subtle, has to be given to only a deserving one and not someone who might receive it wrongly and be denied liberation and worse, would spread the wrong understanding in the society. Yama’s concern shows how careful one has to be while giving out the esoteric Knowledge.
शतायुषः पुत्रपौत्रान् वृणीष्व
बहून् पशून् हस्ति हिरण्यम् अश्वान् ।
भूमेः महदायतनं वृणीष्व
स्वयं च जीव शरदो यावत् इच्छसि ॥२३॥
शतायुषः centenarians पुत्र sons पौत्रान् grandsons वृणीष्व seek बहून् many पशून् animals हस्ति elephants हिरण्यम् gold अश्वान् horses भूमेः of earth महदायतनं vast expanse वृणीष्व ask for स्वयं you yourself च too जीव live शरदो years यावत् as many इच्छसि you like.
Yama said: Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years; choose elephants, horses, herds of cattle and gold. Choose a vast domain on earth; live here as many years as you desire.
Yama offers Nachiketa the usual things that worldly people long for and work for. However, while what humans can obtain owing to their own limitations, in the case of Nachiketa, Yama is offering these things setting no limits to their seeking; Nachiketa has the liberty to set the upper limit as chosen by him and not as dictated by Yama. When one obtains a son or grandson no doubt there is great joy but when the son or grandson was to depart due to death, the misery is untold. Yama caters to this and offers sons and grandsons of very long life; a hundred years. It goes without saying that these long years will be filled with health and not spent in disease. There is the choice to obtain any number of cattle wealth, elephants and horses that serve both as labour and as a status symbol. A man with a large number of elephants is no doubt extremely privileged as it is not easy to keep so many of these. What Yama offers is not just one kind of wealth but many like gold. And what would a man do when he cannot house these sons, grandsons, herds of cattle, elephants, etc. if he were to have not enough space? Yama is sensitive to this and includes in the list the choice for a vast expanse of space where Nachiketa and all that belongs to him can happily reside.
All this would be of no use if their possessor, Nachiketa, himself is short-lived. Yama gives Nachiketa immense scope to ask for a very long life with which he can enjoy all these gifts. And good health is a sine qua non if there has to be unhindered enjoyment of these possessions. Thus Yama ensures that Nachiketa has in his command all that is required for a happy worldly life, free of all trouble of disease, death and discomfiture. This offer of a bonanza is expected to take his mind away from seeking the highest, Self-knowledge.
Most people become satisfied, at least for the time being, when there is the prospect of attaining these things. It is not that Yama is the physical examiner here; it is man’s inner psyche that demands this test.