There was a famous king by the name of Uchaishravas. He was suddenly possessed by a desire to control the entire world and so he performed a Vaajapeya yaga – a fire offering that is done when one wants to rule the whole world. According to the rules of this offering, one has to give away as offering all valuable things that are of great attachment to them. Only then, one can get the position of the lord of the world.
Kings are always good business men. They have to be otherwise they cannot be kings and have control over such vast property. They will see what minimum they can give and what maximum they can get out of it.
This king started offering things such as cows that were at the fag end of their lives, that had given all the possible milk they could give for a lifetime, and that had given birth to as many calves as possible in their lifetime and ready to die. He was offering all such worthless things.
His son, Nachiketa, about 7 years of age, was watching what was happening. Nachiketa knew that his father was not doing the right things but he did not know how to tell him. You see, children are very sharp and intelligent. You can’t cheat them. Society has not yet corrupted and conditioned them.
He was watching his father carefully. He finally went up to him and said, “Father, you have to give away all your highly priced possessions. I am one of your highly priced possessions. To whom are you going to give me as an offering?”.
The king understood that his son was digging at him for what he was doing, but his ego didn’t allow him to give way. He continued with his worthless offerings.
Once more, the boy asked him the same questions and the king kept quiet.
The third time, the boy shook his father and asked him to whom he was planning to offer him.
The king got very angry and blurted out, “I will give you to Lord Yama. You go to Yama”.
An ordinary boy would have said “Why should I go? You have lived a full life, so you go!”.
But Nachiketa was a very sincere and committed boy. Commitment and honesty possessed him like a ghost. To respect his father’s words, he decided to go and meet Lord Yama.
Remember that the first and the last person on planet Earth to go and meet Yama was Nachiketa. Normally only Yama comes to meet people, but for the first time, Nachiketa went to meet Yama.
He reached the abode of Yama, but Yama was not there! He had gone out.
For three days Nachiketa waited.
Understand one thing here: A great truth is established at this point of the story. When we go in search of death or we have the courage to face death, death will not be there as we know it!
Anyhow, Yama returned after three days. His servants told him about the young boy who was waiting for him.
Yama rushed to see Nachiketa. He apologized for not being there to receive him. He further told him, “For having made you wait for three days, I grant you three boons. You may ask for any three boons, and I will grant them to you”.
For Nachiketa, death turned out to be God that granted him boons! He asked for three boons.
The first boon was, “My father should not be angry any longer. He should recognize me and receive me with love when I return”. Nachiketa asked for this boon out of the deep love for his father so that he does not suffer from the consequences of consigning his son to death.
Yama granted him the boon.
The second boon was, “Instruct me in the fire sacrifice that leads to heaven, for there is no fear in heaven, nor old age nor death”.
This boon was also granted and Yama led Nachiketa through the fire sacrifice, and then named it Nachiketa Agni. This was a fire which could raise one’s consciousness to a heavenly experience, and experience of pleasure.
The third boon was, “Please teach me the truth of Existence, of life and death. Do I exist after death or not. Please tell me this.”
Yama was shocked at Nachiketa’s question. He told him “Please do not ask me this question. You are asking the very secret of death which I cannot deliver to you. I will give you immeasurable wealth if you wish, but please don’t ask me this question”.
But Nachiketa was insistent.
He said, “Even if I take all this wealth from you, I will be a mere trustee to your wealth for about 100 years to 1000 years, that’s all. I still have to come to your abode once that period is over! It is not going to be of any use to me. So please tell me the secret of death instead”.
Yama saw the maturity and commitment of the boy to know the truth. He decided that he should give Nachiketa the truth. The experience he took the boy through became the experience of the soul for the boy and Nachiketa flowered and became enlightened.
This is a beautiful story from the Upanishad called Katopanishad. Don’t analyze whether this story is a fact or not. Don’t start looking for dates and history. It conveys the truth – that is enough. Use it as a ladder to reach the truth, instead of clinging onto the ladder and missing the truth.
Four things need to be understood from this wonderful story. The first thing is that when we go in search of death, when we face death, it will not be there as we thought it would be. This is symbolized by Yama being absent when Nachiketa goes to meet him. Secondly, even if death is there, it is not the terrifying thing that we think it is; it is loving and giving. This can be seen from the way Yama greeted and spoke to Nachiketa. The third thing is that death is our greatest teacher ever. That is why Yama taught Nachiketa many things. Lastly, death can give us the ultimate gift – enlightenment, which Yama did.