[Concluding part of the talk on Kathopanishad delivered on 26th December 2004 at the 3rd Sreemad Bhaagavata Tattva Sameeksha Satram.]
Seeing the useless cows being gifted to the priests, Nachiketa felt very sorry and anxious: “By this behaviour of my father, he will certainly be taken to hell.” He was a humble, pure-minded boy. His only concern was how to save his father. Finally he thought, “The most virtuous gift a person can offer is his son. If my father can give me as Dāna, then all his sin for offering the useless cows to the priests will be expiated.”
So, Nachiketa went to his father and asked, “O my dear Father! To whom will you gift me?” The father did not reply. Nachiketa asked once, twice, thrice. Finally the father burst out in anger: “mṛtyave tvāṃ dadāmīti – I shall give you to death.”
Cursing the son to death! Can there be a greater fall for a father? Such a ritualistic father who must have studied quite a lot of scriptures! The son too was exceptionally noble and had not done anything wrong – he only wanted to save his father from going to hell! Such a son Vaajaśravas was cursing to death!
The Upanishad is pointing out the level of degeneration desire and greed can take us to if they are not treated and purified at the right time by wisdom – by the words of the scriptures. Overpowered by greed for worldly objects or otherworldly attainments, when we flout the scriptural directions and injunctions, it can lead us to any inauspicious consequence. Vaajaśravas’ character shows us that one may read many scriptures or perform hundreds of rituals, but if the mind is not purified he will fall from the auspicious path.
From Constricted Identity to Universal Identity
In life, we start from the ignorant state, where we think ourselves to be small, limited by our body-mind personality. Whenever we refer to ‘I’, as our own self, we identify with our body-mind limited personality. But the Upanishads speak about the Ultimate Goal, which is Brahmātmaikatvabodha – Brahma - ātmā - ekatva - bodha. Brahman is the all-pervading consciousness on which the whole Universe appears to be. And ātmā is the Subject Consciousness within us. Generally the two are wide apart in our understanding. But the Upanishads exhort us to realize through the purification of our mind the identity of Brahman and ātmā– where my ‘I’, your ‘I’ and his ‘I’ will not be different; there will be only one Universal Consciousness or Brahman. That is called Brahmātmaikatvabodha.
So, our journey is from the constricted body-mind identity to the unlimited universal identity – from Dehātma bodha to Brahmātmaikatvabodha. And, what is the sādhanā for that? Whatever makes our mind expand, that alone can take us to the final universal expansion. That is the sādhanā. Whatever constricts our mind, surely takes us away from the goal. That is anti-sādhanā. All of us can find out looking into our own mind whether any action, word or thought is constricting our mind or expanding our mind.
Now, in the case of Vaajaśravas, we find that he was getting more and more constricted by his behaviour. Although he was performing Dāna, which should expand his mind, he was doing it in a manner that would constrict his mind further. The greed for futile worldly possessions was clouding his viveka – discrimination. Whereas young Nachiketa could understand that his father was not on the right path: “My father will get more and more constricted by his sinful behaviour and that constriction is the real hell.” Truly speaking, whatever constricts us is pāpa (sin) and whatever expands us is puṇya (virtue). When we understand our Brahmātmaikatva, we become universally expanded.
When Nachiketa asked his father to gift him to the priests, the father got angry and cursed him to death. But, Nachiketa still remained composed. Because he was pure-minded, he did not retort back immediately: “O Father, what you are doing is wrong. I wanted to correct you and you are cursing me to death!” No. He did not have such a narrow mind, egoistic mind. He was humble and impersonal. He thought, “Well, my father has said something. May be he has cursed me in anger. After all he is my father. What am I to do as a worthy son?”
Again, śraddhā was dominating his mind. He thought: “The Wise Ṛshis of the past and the present have always given Truth the highest pedestal. Whatever my father has uttered must come true. I must go to Yamaraja, the Lord of Death.” In Ramayana too, the pure-minded Rama felt the same way! When Daśaratha told Rama about his promise to Kaikeyi that he would send Rama to the forest, Rama did not think of justice or injustice. He was firm in his decision: “Be it fourteen years of forest-exile, my father’s words have to be kept.”
Vaajaśravas does not appear any more in the Upanishad. His character has been presented to point out that learning or performance of rituals does not make one a fit recipient of Knowledge if the mind is haunted by desires – worldly or otherworldly. In contrast, Nachiketa’s character exemplifies the qualities of a deserving seeker.
Qualities of a True Seeker
So, Nachiketa left for Yama’s palace. When he reached, Yamaraja was not there. Three days and three nights, without any food or drink, Nachiketa had to wait for Yamaraja to return. Now, why did the Author make Nachiketa wait for three days and three nights? We said that the Upanishad is sādhanā-oriented. We have to look for the hints given for a seeker of Truth – what qualities of Nachiketa are emphasized through this episode.
Nachiketa had gone to Yama’s palace for a certain purpose. Even when he did not find Yama there, he did not come back saying: “Oh, I have been waiting and waiting! Who knows where Yamaraja has gone! Let me go back.” – which most of us will do. He did not even go around looking for food or drink – remained there in Upavaasa (fasting), waiting for Yamaraja’s return. We should not miss the qualities of a seeker exemplified by the imaginary episode. In scriptural language it is called sādhanā-catuṣṭāyam (the four-fold pursuit) consisting of viveka (discrimination), vairāgya (dispassion), śamādi ṣaṭka-sampattiḥ (which is a combination of six virtues: śama, dama, titikṣā, uparati, śraddhā and samādhāna) and mumukṣutva (yearning for liberation).
When Yama came back and offered him three boons against the three nights he fasted at Yama’s door, the first boon Nachiketa asked for was: “My father must be very sorry after cursing me to death. His mind should become restful. He should also be rid of anger.” This is the quality of a seeker. The father who cursed him to death – his suffering filled Nachiketa’s mind. He did not have any worldly desire that he could think of fulfilling through the boons. Naturally, the father’s plight occupied his mind.
We may think that a seeker of Truth or a Sannyasin should not love or be considerate towards his father, mother or other relations. It is not at all so. A person who loves his family and friends, who loves the country and the society, alone can become a loving Sannyasin! A person who cannot love his near ones – can he love the whole Universe? Is it ever possible? Only when a person loves the people around, there is a possibility of expanding his love to embrace the whole world. That is what the Upanishad is pointing out through the behaviour of Nachiketa.
Now, against the second boon, Nachiketa wanted to learn Agnividyaa for the benefit of the people and in the process, proved his exceptional attention (śraddhaa) as a student. Finally as the third boon, the last boon, Nachiketa puts forward the deepest enquiry of his heart:
It is not that the Knower will tell me what happens after death and I will go away with the information. It is not so. Nachiketa knew that it is not so. He understood that the Knowledge of what happens after death or what is the Transcendental Existence in man that survives the fall of one’s body, cannot just be had by listening to the statements of anybody. He understood that he had to be disciplined and guided on this path by the Wise Teacher. Only then the Truth will be revealed in him. Otherwise the revelation will not take place. From this statement of Nachiketa we can easily discover his depth and maturity as a true seeker of Brahmavidyaa.
To test the deservingness of Nachiketa as a seeker of Truth, to ascertain the purity and one-pointedness of his mind, Yamaraja then goes on alluring him with all kinds of worldly and heavenly gifts: “Don’t ask me about death. Even Gods of the heaven are confused about it. Ask from me any bounty a man can think of. I shall also give you a long life span and the health to enjoy all these. Be the Emperor of the entire earth. But please don’t ask me what happens after death!”
Four Cardinal Observations
But, Nachiketa was not to be attracted by any of these. He remained firm in his enquiry. His viveka and vairaagya are beautifully exemplified through four cardinal statements and observations, which are like four jewels of Kaṭhopanishad. Mind you, they are not coming from Yamaraja, the Teacher; they are coming from the disciple Nachiketa. Nachiketa says:
“O Lord of Death, whatever enjoyable gifts you have offered me are all short-lived. They are all śvaḥ abhaavaḥ– they may not be there even tomorrow. Moreover, the result of all these sense-enjoyments is: sarvendriyāṇāmjarayanti tejaḥ– they will only deplete our organs of their brilliance and power! And O Yamaraja, you have offered me an unlimited span of life. But, I know: Apisarvaṃ jīviam-alpam-eva – whatever be the life span of a man, it is always alpam – insufficient – for him.” Why?
We find that a person who has lived for fifty years does not want to die. Even after living for hundred years one is not ready to die. Because, as long as our desire for worldly enjoyments lingers, we are not fulfilled in life, we are not ready to embrace death. So, by increasing the life span by any amount, no one is going to be satisfied, no one will be free of the fear of death. Even before the last breath one will crave to enjoy more. Is not life then insufficient for everybody, irrespective of the life span?
Am I clear? As long as the desires persist, the life remains insufficient. Only when the desires get attenuated, one becomes free of the fear of death; one becomes ready to leave any time.
Then comes Nachiketa’s fourth statement: “Navittenatarpaṇīyo manuṣyo” – man can never be satisfied by material possession. Therefore, he appealed, “O Yamaraja, please don’t try to lure me any more! I know that these material possessions are not going to fulfill me. I am not interested in them. So, tavaiva vāhās-tava nṛtya gīte – Let all these chariots, musicians and the danseuses and what not, remain with you. I am only interested in the knowledge of the Transcendental Truth. Teach me what survives when the body falls.”
One Goal – The Quintessence of All Śaastras
Finally Nachiketa proves that all the four qualities (saadhana-catushṭaya) needed of a seeker he has in ample measure. Yama not only agrees to impart to him Brahmavidyaa, he in fact expresses his overflowing joy in having a disciple like Nachiketa. After giving some initial guidelines and cautions, and also explaining why he considered Nachiketa to be a fit recipient of Brahmavidyaa, Yama starts his instruction with a beautiful synthesis and clarification:
He says: “The one Goal that all the Vedas expound and elucidate, aiming which all the austerities are performed, and aspiring which people pursue brahmacharya, I shall speak to you about the essence of that Goal. It is OM.”
Sometimes one portion of the Vedas apparently contradicts the other. So, for a seeker the statements may appear confusing. So many different kinds of austerities people resort to – some undertake fasting, some sit with five fires around, some meditate in a secluded cave, some practice celibacy. The seeker is likely to get confused seeing the diversity. Yama, in order to remove the doubts and confusions from Nachiketa’s mind, confirms that all these have the same final Goal that is represented by “Om.”
Om represents Brahmavidyaa, the realization of the Ultimate Truth. The path to this goal is basically one of purifying and expanding the mind, making it free of desires. Although the practices appear to be divergent, their sole purpose is to gradually make the mind one-pointed by taking it away from worldliness. So, if our pooja, rituals and whatever else we do in the name of religion or spirituality fail to take us forward on the path of purity and expansion, they lose their purpose.
Yama is saying: saṅgraheṇa bravīmi – I shall tell you in essence. Saṅgraha is samyak grahaṇa. It does not mean briefly. The Acharya or the Guru takes the quintessence of all the scriptures and passes it to the disciple. So, what Yama means is: “O Nachiketa, you don’t have to worry seeing the variety and the contradictions. You don’t have to read the thousands of Śaastras. I shall teach you the essential Truth expounded in the Śaastras, so that you can attain the ultimate Goal.”
There lies the contribution of the Guru. We may read thousands of Śaastras and get confused. But the Guru will never ask us to read all the texts. He will give us the quintessential sādhanā leading to the final attainment from which the Śaastras themselves have originated. He will guide our pursuit through which the mind will be purified and we will be led to the transcendental state, from where we can identify ourselves with all the statements of the Śaastras.
Fulfillment – Emotional & Intelligential
Actually to know the Truth, nobody has to die. Yamaraja reveals at the end: “If you have to realize the Transcendental Existence that survives death, you have to know It here and now!” There is no question of knowing it after the body falls. He categorically asserts: Atra brahma samaśnute.
“When all the desires clinging to one’s heart fall off, the mortal man becomes immortal and he attains Brahman here itself.” Desires are like knots in our mind and heart. They make the mind constricted, and the intelligence opaque and complicated. Muṇḍakopanishad also says:
“When the saadhaka realises the Self as abiding in both small and great, the knots of his heart get broken, his doubts dissolve and he becomes free of the bondage of doership.”
Brahmavidyaa promises two kinds of fulfillment for man: emotional fulfillment and intelligential fulfillment. Emotionally we always feel restricted, constricted, unsatisfied. Our mind is never fulfilled, because it is smitten with desires. The other lack of fulfillment is with the intelligence. The intelligence is never doubt-free and poised. It is never sure or confident about the true path or attainment. Spirituality as presented in the Upanishads, makes the human being fulfilled in both these aspects.
Emotional fulfillment results from the purification of the mind, the effacement of ego. Intelligential fulfillment comes from the dissolution of all doubts. Hṛdaya-granthiḥ refers to the ego – the emotional knots, and samśayāḥ (doubts) refer to the bondage of our intelligence. Both are caused by ignorance which gives rise to desires. The Upanishad started with the word ‘desire’ (The first word of Kaṭhopanishad is ‘uśan’ meaning ‘desirous of’) and concludes with the ‘removal of desire’. Desire is the fundamental point here the Upanishad urges us to attend to.
Indispensability of self-effort
We need not read many scriptures, many Upanishads. Even a single Upanishad is sufficient provided we understand the fundamental note and look within ourselves to see what is happening inside. In each thought, word and action, we have to watch: “Am I getting constricted or am I getting expanded?” It has to be practised every moment. The responsibility rests entirely with us.
Kaṭhopanishad categorically tells us in the second chapter: Don’t say, “It is all Destiny! The time has not come for me to practise spirituality.” The world comes to you with two options: śreyaḥ, the auspicious, and preyaḥ, the pleasurable. You have to decide which of the two you want. Śreyaḥ may not be immediately pleasurable but it will take you to the ultimate auspicious Goal. Preyaḥ is immediately pleasurable but will take you away from the auspicious goal. It is for you to discriminate and introspect every moment of life: “Am I looking for preyaḥ or am I looking for śreyaḥ? Am I always choosing śreyaḥ in preference to preyaḥ?” The responsibility of the choice rests fully on you. That is what Kaṭhopanishad emphasizes again and again.
Bhaagavatam – The Essence of Upanishads
I thought of relating the discussion to Bhaagavatam, but there is no time. In fact, I have not read Bhaagavatam at all. Our Swamiji and Ma Gurupriya read Bhaagavatam. Ma had been reading out portions from Bhaagavatam wherever they are touching and purifying. I have only been listening and shedding tears.
Neither I am a speaker, nor do I have the aptitude to speak to a large audience like this. But, when Vijaykumarji and finally our Swamiji asked me to speak on Kaṭhopanishad, I agreed because I already take a class on Kaṭhopanishad in our Ashram. And when this occasion came, I thought that this being a Bhaagavata Satram I must relate the discussion to Bhaagavatam.
I opened the last portion of Sreemad Bhaagavatam – the concluding verses of 12th skandha 13th chapter. And I found that whatever the Kaṭhopanishad or the other Upanishads say, it is simply that. There is no difference at all. And Bhaagavatam is spoken of as the sāra (essence) of the Upanishads. Verse 12.13.18, which was sung as our inaugural invocation, says:
Yasmin pāramahaṃsyam-ekam-amalaṃ jñānaṃ paraṃ gīyate – Sreemad Bhaagavatam sings the supreme Knowledge which is advaya (non-dual), which is pure and which is carried by the Paramahaṃsa's. Who is a Paramahaṃsa? Haṃsa is our ātmā. And a person who has realized that his ātmā itself is the Paramātmā, the one Brahman, is called a Paramahaṃsa. This is what the Upanishads call Brahmātmaikatva-bodha. Paramahaṃsas carry the knowledge. They are the living Truth. They are the living Upanishads.
“Tatra jñāna-virāga-bhakti-sahitaṃ naiṣkarmyam-āviṣkṛtaṃ.” Naiṣkarmyam-āviṣkṛtam – I was struck by the words. I thought about it, what is this āviṣkṛtam? Aaviḥ means light. The real light is our Consciousness. Aaviḥ kṛtam. It is not the external naiṣkarmya (non-activity) of the idlers, that I don’t do anything at all. Not at all! Through the assiduous practice of jñāna, vairāgya and bhakti, what happens is that we discover ‘Naiṣkarmya’ within us – that I am not the doer, I am not the enjoyer. The truth of Naiṣkarmyagets revealed and actualized in us. That is the real ‘Naiṣkarmya’. Naiṣkarmya is not sitting idle doing nothing.
The next verse (12.13.19) says:
“That ancient flame of spiritual Knowledge which has been transmitted by Brahman itself to Brahmaa, the Creator, and then the Brahman in the form of Brahmaa passed it on to Naarada, and then in the form of Naarada imparted it to Vyaasadeva, and in the form of Vyaasadeva bestowed it to Śuka, and finally in the form of Śuka imparted it to Pareekshit – that Supreme, pure and blissful Truth (satyam) we meditate upon.”
The Author is referring to Bhaagavatam – not the book Bhaagavatam, but the Knowledge presented in Bhaagavatam. The Knowledge is one and the same. Assuming the forms of different Knowers in different times it has been passed on from generation to generation since times immemorial.
Six verses before (in verse:12.13.12) I found: “Sarva-vedānta-sāraṃ yad-brahmaatmaikatva -lakṣaṇam” – Bhaagavatam is the essence of all Vedantic texts and its distinctive characteristic is the identity of the Self and the Brahman. So the word brahmaatmaikatva is also there!
Many thoughts are coming to my mind. But it is OK. The fundamental point has been covered more or less.
OM sa ha nāva va tu sa ha nau bhunaktu..….. śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ.
Harih OM Tat Sat. Jai Guru.
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