The Katopanishad graphically describes the power of authenticity and how it can impact life. Nachiketa, the wonder child, is the hero personifying the power of authenticity. Nachiketa, with an innocent curiosity, took part in all the activities performed by his father, King Vajasravas. His father was performing a sacrifice to please the gods, in which the person had to give away all his wealth. Nachiketa saw that the king started donating cows that had given milk and yielded many calves for years, which were old. They were of no more use, but were considered as the objects of donation by the king.
Though a child, Nachiketa could understand that his father was behaving inauthentically. He decided to take responsibility for his father’s inauthenticity. Since the king was supposed to be giving away the best things in his life, Nachiketa asked him where he would be giving him. The king’s ego was unable to handle his own inauthenticity being exposed, and in a fit of anger, he declared that he would be giving Nachiketa unto death. Yet, the boy was unperturbed. He was weighing his own significance in his father’s life, but not out of conceit. He was weighing his merit as a son and a pupil. Would he be a worthy gift to Yama, the lord of death? What would his going to Yama accomplish for his father?
Although he realized that his father’s harsh reply was only the expression of a momentary outburst of anger, he believed that a greater harm might befall his father if his word was not kept. Therefore, he sought to strengthen his father’s resolution by reminding him of the transitory condition of life. Nachiketa said, “Look back to those who have lived before you and look to those who live now. Look at grain; the mortal remains perish and new grain springs up. All things perish, truth alone remains. Why then, do you fear to sacrifice me?” Thus, Nachiketa convinced his father that he should remain true to his word and send him to Yama, the Lord of Death. Nachiketa proceeded to the abode of Yama, but when he reached there he found that Yama was absent. The boy waited without food or drink for three days. Just by his authentic declaration, Nachiketa broke the very pattern of eating, and even breathing. Just telling his body alone would not have been sufficient to accomplish this. It was the authenticity of his declaration which made it possible.
When Yama returned three days later, his assistant told him that a Brahmana had walked into their home with intensity like that of fire and if he was not offered something, it would harm them all greatly. This statement comes from the ancient Vedic ideal that a guest is the representative of God and should be received with due reverence and honor. On hearing this, Yama proceeded to greet Nachiketa. Because Nachiketa waited for three days without food at his doorstep, the lord of death showered him with three boons.
The first boon that Nachiketa asked for is that his father should be free of all anxieties and anger, and that he should welcome Nachiketa home with joy. This shows how Nachiketa was not giving up on his father, even though he sent him to death. His authenticity made him take up the responsibility to make his father also authentic. Yama agreed to grant this, healing Vajasravas’s anger, so much so that he could have a dreamless sleep. Only when one is completely free from inner conflicts, can one have a dreamless sleep.
For his second boon, Nachiketa asked, “Thou knowest, oh Death, the fire sacrifice that leads to heaven. Tell this to me, I am full of shraddha (authenticity). This I beg as my second boon.”
To this, Yama replied, “I know well the fire that leads to heaven. Listen to me, oh Nachiketa! This is the means of attaining endless worlds and their support it is hidden in the heart of all beings.”
By this, Yama was telling Nachiketa that there is a part of everyone that is non-perishable. He told him to become that part, and time will no longer have an effect on him. Time only has an effect on the gross parts of a person. So, the more subtle a person is, the lesser time affects them. Yama revealing this to Nachiketa is as good as a policeman teaching someone how to escape the law. Thus, Yama explained the process of the fire sacrifice that Nachiketa asked for. He said that this fire is the beginning of all worlds. Until Nachiketa understood the beginning, he would not understand the end, nor could he live an endless life. The fire altered a being to their next frequency of consciousness, through the mantras (chants) and offerings. Being pleased with his ability to learn well, Yama declared that the first fire sacrifice shall be named after Nachiketa.
Yama continued, “He who performs this Nachiketa fire sacrifice three times, being united with the three, that is mother, father and teacher, and who fulfills the threefold duty to study the Vedas, sacrifice and give alms, will cross over birth and death. Knowing this worshipful, shining fire, which is born of Brahman, the supreme soul, he attains eternal peace.” With this, Nachiketa’s boon was granted.
For his final boon, Nachiketa was intent on knowing the inner secret of life after death. Through this knowledge, he would help the world.
This was also granted, which Death as a Guru bestowed on him after testing his worth. Nachiketa with his shraddha became the enlightened ruler of humanity, leading the people on a path of aligning with the higher truths. He became a hero because of his powerful authenticity and quality of extreme sacrifice.
Adapted from Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s spiritual discourses on the Katopanishad