The Esoteric Significance of the Kathopanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: Nachiketas’ Third Boon

The first boon which was granted to Nachiketas was great enough, and to us almost incomprehensible. The second boon that was granted was greater still, and more difficult to comprehend. Yet they were granted. They were exceptional things which mortal minds cannot perceive, and such heavenly, or even super-heavenly boons were granted by the great Lord Yama to Nachiketas – boons people like us can neither imagine in our minds, nor understand. However, such supernatural benefits accrued to the little boy Nachiketas by his contact with the supreme master of yoga, Yama-Dharmaraja. “Yes, I have granted you the two boons. Ask for the third boon.”

Now the little boy took the great Master by surprise. He asked for something which the great Lord never expected him to ask, a question which no one will put because it will never occur to our minds. Such a mysterious query was raised by this little boy. What did he ask?

Yeyam prete vicikitsā manuṣye ‘stīty eke nāyam astīti caike; etat vidyām anuśiṣṭas tvayāham, varāṇām eṣa varas tṛtīyaḥ (Katha 1.1.20). “Here I am with a third request, which I beseech you to grant to me. They say that something is after the Great Beyond, and nothing is after the Great Beyond. What is, when the great passing takes place? I wish to have an answer to this question.”

We cannot understand the meaning of this question. The great Lord said, “What are you asking? Don’t speak like this. Such questions are not to be put. Small boy, dear lad, ask for long life, as long as this world lasts. Ask for wealth of the whole universe. I shall grant you longest life conceivable and the most glorious wealth which even the gods cannot expect to have. Have all these things. Go. Be happy. Ask not such questions.” Devair atrāpi vicikitsitam purā, na hi suvijñeyam, aṇur eṣa dharmaḥ (Katha 1.1.21): Even the gods will not be bold enough to raise questions of this kind. Even they cannot understand the mystery which you are referring to. Ask not such questions.

Well, Nachiketas was not an ordinary boy. He was an exceptionally gifted genius, a mature spirit, though he looked like a lad in his teens. “I shall not ask for any other boon. I shall press only for this gift from the great Master that you are. You are saying that no one can understand this. ‘Even the gods have been in great doubt as to the meaning of this great mystery.’ When you say this before me, I shall take it for granted that you know the answer to this question. Otherwise, you will not be speaking like this. Having been blessed with the opportunity of seeing you, the great one, face to face, when I am before you, the great Lord who knows the answer to this question, will I ask for another boon? Here is Nachiketas adamantly standing, and I shall not budge from this place until an answer comes to this question from no less a great man than you.”

“Press me not, my dear boy. I am sorry that I asked you to seek a third boon. Don’t compel me in this way. You should not expect an answer from me to this question. No one can answer this question, no one will raise such a question, and I ask you once again to seek another thing. Whatever you want in this world, anywhere in this creation, here I am ready to offer it to you. But don’t press me with this question,” replied Lord Yama.

“I shall not ask for anything else from you.” Nānyaṁ tasmān naciketā vṛṇīte (Katha 1.1.29). How many of us can even imagine that we shall have such spiritual guts to ask for nothing else than the knowledge of this mystery of the Great Beyond?

The word that is used in the Kathopanishad is deeply mystical, esoteric, eluding in its significance. Mahati sāmparāye is the word used in the Upanishad. Samparaya is life beyond, or we may simply say ‘the beyond’. Well, usually the word ‘life beyond’ is something with which many people are acquainted. It is a process of being reborn into some other form, incarnation; we may call it rebirth somewhere in some way. Was Nachiketas wanting to know how a person is reborn after death? This could not have been his question. One who has been granted this great boon of the mystery of Vaishvanara, which was the second gift given to him, would not be so ignorant as not to know what will happen to a person after death. He himself is one who is now finding himself in another realm, having left the mortal world.

Both answers, in a twofold manner, are to be provided by the Upanishad. What happens to the spirit when it is freed from this mortal life?

Now, rebirth is not freedom from mortality. Therefore, the question cannot mean what happens to the soul after death because whatever may happen to the soul after death, it may be reborn somewhere. Rebirth somewhere is not freedom from mortality. Mahati sāmparāye: The Great Beyond is evidently what is referred to in this great query, a beyond which is beyond mortal existence. To be reborn in a high heaven is not freedom from death. One day even the denizens in heaven will come to an end. When the whole empire ceases, the occupants of the empire also will cease to be in all the planes of existence, even the highest one: ā brahmabhuvanāl lokāḥ punarāvartinaḥ (Gita 8.16). Even if you reach the highest heaven, there may be a coming back to mortality.

The question was not this. Nachiketas was not made up of such poor stuff as to require an answer to the question as to what happens when a mortal individual is reborn into further mortality, though it may be in another encasement altogether. One may be born in any plane of existence, yet it is a mortal state. Anything that has a beginning and an end is mortal. If there is a commencement of something, it has also to end one day. If a situation is to occur at a particular time, it has also to end at some time. So if a superphysical enjoyment in a brilliant empire of heaven is to be the experience of a blessed soul that is reborn in high heaven after death, it has to come to an end. All the gods shall cease to be one day. The universe shall get absorbed into its cause. Therefore, the question is a very intriguing one. When everything is no more, what remains? When the soul is freed from the conditions which subject it to birth and death, what happens to it?

Yama said, “I am not prepared to give an answer to this question.” Again the great Lord said, “Ask not such questions. Turn away from me. Seek something else that is better for you. All the joys of the high heavens are with you, but not an answer to this question.”

“But I shall press forward for the answer to this question only,” said Nachiketas. A wonderful disciple before a wonderful teacher! We cannot find a disciple like this. Nor is it easy to find a teacher like this. Āścaryo vaktā kuśalo'sya labdhā (Katha 1.2.7). When the great teacher realised that here is a fit aspirant who cannot be tempted with the riches of the world or the glories of the high heavens, he felt here is an opportunity to grant this boon.

Great Masters do not initiate us into high mysteries unless we are tested and trained and disciplined in various ways. Anything that can detract our attention will be presented first, and then let us see what our reaction is in regard to these presentations. When Gauranga Mahaprabhu Krishna Chaitanya Deva went to the great saint and sage of the Madhva Sampradaya for initiation, he was not ready to initiate Gauranga Mahaprabhu without a test. We are told that he asked him to take a few grains of sugar and put them into his mouth. Generally if we put a few grains of sugar into the mouth, they will immediately melt into liquid. This young man, Gauranga, was asked take this morsel of sugar and put it in his mouth. The moment he placed it on his tongue, he was asked to spit the whole thing back. And Gauranga spat back the dry grains as they were, without their getting liquefied or even moistened, showing thereby that his senses were under perfect control and his tongue would not water so easily. When it was found that here is a person who could spit back dry grains of sugar even after they entered his mouth, he was initiated into the great mysteries of Sri Krishna Bhakti.

In a similar manner, in a larger measure, in a more intensive way, this lad was tested by Yama. “The wealth of the three worlds is here. Take it.” If any one of us is told that, what will we say? We will go mad in one second. We cannot imagine what is the wealth of the three worlds. Yet it was rejected by Nachiketas as inadequate to his purpose.

Śreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etas tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ (Katha 1.2.2). This is the initiation, and it began like this. There are two approaches of consciousness: the approach in the direction of what is good, and the other in the direction of what is pleasant – sreyas and preyas. Śreyo hi dhīro’bhipreyaso vṛṇīte, preyo mando yoga-kṣemād vṛṇīte. The wise one chooses the good rather than the pleasant; the foolish one chooses the pleasant and not the good, and falls short of his aim.

We are presented with two opportunities in our life: the good one and the pleasant one. We always choose the comfortable and the pleasant one, and not the good one if it is not pleasant and comfortable. The good one need not necessarily be comfortable because our idea of pleasantness and comfort is an acquiescing in what is in harmony with the requirements of our sense-ridden physical individuality. If the psychophysical structure of our personality is to be satisfied with a particular circumstance, that is what we shall grab at the very first opportunity. Whether it is good or bad, that is a different matter. A bitter medicine is not as comfortable and pleasant as a delicious sweet dish which we would like to swallow rather than a very unpalatable decoction from the apothecary. But we know the need for bitter medicine. It will do us good, and the sweet dishes may do us harm from the point of view of our health.

We ask for satisfaction, and not blessedness. We confuse the one with the other. If our ego is satisfied, we think the good has come. God is very great. If the body is satisfied and all its longings and demands through the senses are provided, we imagine that the good has come to us. We cannot actually understand with our little minds what good is. The world ‘good’ was used in a lofty sense for the first time by the great philosopher Plato many centuries before Christ. Plato said that the idea of the good is the only good in this world. Everything else that we see in this world is an object of opinion – what in the Kathopanishad is called preyas, or the satisfying but not actually the auspicious or the blessed.

The world is too substantially concrete and heavy before us to permit our higher operations through the reason and the understanding in terms of the idea of the good which Plato speaks of or the Pure Consciousness which Acharya Sankara does not tire of emphasising in his discourses, or the satchidananda-ghana-akhanda-ekarasa which the Upanishads proclaim.

Much worse, we cannot even distinguish between what is good and what is not. We have been educated in a wrong way, due to which reason we confuse the good with the pleasant, and vice versa, and we ask for immediate satisfactions, though in the long run they may bring us untold sorrow and suffering. We would not mind going to hell tomorrow if today our ego is to be scratched to its own satisfaction. Tomorrow will be hell, but it does not matter if today I am happy.

The great Master Yama initiated Nachiketas into the mystery of the discrimination between the real and the unreal, that is, the capacity to know what is and what is not. Actually, the question was: What is finally? Astīty eke nāyam astīti caike (Katha 1.1.20): Some say something is, some say nothing is. There are people who say something is. There are people who say nothing is. What is the truth? How can this question be answered?

This question was raised to Buddha by one of his disciples, and Buddha answered it in a different way altogether, not exactly as we find it in the Upanishad. Everything is. This is one opinion, said Buddha. Nothing is. This is another opinion. But truth is in the middle. The truth is not that everything is, and the truth is not that nothing is. Something is. That something is the great mystery of the Upanishad. It is not exactly what we are, and also not quite different from what we are. Such a thing is, and one has to develop that endowment to distinguish between this so-called something which really is and the other things which are not – the distinction between the true good and the opinionated sense objects.

We use the words ‘existence’, ‘being’, ‘that which is’, etc., as if things are very clear to us. Existence is the counterpart of non-existence. We cannot think of what is unless we are simultaneously thinking what is not. The moment we think of day, the idea of night also arises. When we think of the good, the bad also is there. Everything that we are capable of thinking in the mind appears to be relative to its own counterpart. That which is absolutely self-sufficient cannot become an object of our understanding or reason; hence, the reluctance of the great Lord to answer this question.

It is very difficult to express in words a reply to this query. Yet something has to be done in this mysterious context of some super-normal disciple standing before a super-normal Master. The Kathopanishad is a long gospel, and it has some similarities to the Bhagavadgita. Nachiketas may be compared to Arjuna in some respects, and the First Section of the Kathopanishad may in a way be compared with the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. And the commencement of the Second Section of the Kathopanishad may look like the commencement of the Second Chapter of the Bhagavadgita in some respects. Even the verses in the Kathopanishad, sometimes, though rarely, seem to be incorporated in the Bhagavadgita also.

The dramatic picture that is placed before us in the Kathopanishad is almost like the picture of the Mahabharata, the background of the Bhagavadgita. The problem of Arjuna was not an ordinary problem, not a human problem. It was a Universal question that arose in the mind of Arjuna, though its seed was sown in the context of a human situation. Likewise, though a question was put by a single person, a little boy, it was an outcome of a great need felt by the spirit in man – man as such, and not any particular human individual.

Without going further into this question, I expect you to exercise your mind a little bit in the direction of a solution to this great problem. Where is God? If we ask this question to anybody, he will say He is everywhere. This idea of everywhere arises on account of space. God is always, and everywhere. He is eternal, and infinite. This is considered to be the best definition of God. The idea of infinity is somehow connected with the idea of a large expanse in space. God is all-pervading, omnipresent. What else can we say about God? But this idea of omnipresence arises because of space. If space is not there, the question of indwelling, omnipresence, all-pervadingness, etc., does not arise. And what was God before space was created? Where was God? We say He is everywhere, but we should not say this because the question of everywhere is the question of connecting God with the creation – this world, this universe – which is an evolute, an effect which proceeded from a cause. We are asking another question altogether: What was the nature of God before He created the world? We should not define Him in terms of the effect that followed afterwards. Who is a human being? He is the father of a son. We should not say that because there may be human beings who are not fathers of sons, and a person is not necessarily only a father and nothing else. There is something in that person other than his fatherness. Likewise, eternity is also not a correct definition of God because eternity is connected with the concept of time. An endless duration is called eternity from our point of view, but time is an evolute. God is not endless, durationless existence because that would be to define Him in terms of what He created or manufactured; He is not omnipresent because that also would be a definition in terms of what He created afterwards. Who is God, and what was God doing? God was doing nothing. This idea of nothing is also a conditioned statement. Thus we cease to think completely, and no answer can be given to this question.

Where was God? A priest was discoursing on the nature of God, and one intelligent person from the audience got up. “Holy Sire, where is God?” he asked. “God is in heaven,” replied the priest. “But where was God before heaven was created?” When Brahmaloka was not there, Vaikunta was not there, Kailasa was not there, when the seven planes of existence were not there, when creation was not there, where was God?” Such a question seems to be the meaning behind what Nachiketas asked. How could Yama answer such a question?

There is no elaborate answer to this question recorded in the Kathopanishad. Either we do not have the whole of the Upanishad extant in the libraries of the world, or the Upanishad ends with an abrupt, elusive answer whose meaning we have to read between the lines. A similar difficulty was felt by Maitreyi, the consort of Sage Yajnavalkya, when something was told by Sage Yajnavalkya which was almost like an answer to this question. After the passing, there is no consciousness. Na pretya saṁjñāsti (Brihad. Up. 2.4.12), said Yajnavalkya. This is our difficulty also. We cannot understand what it is to be united with God. There cannot be a greater frightening situation than to be told this. I think many of us here, or perhaps everyone, may feel: What is the purpose of losing oneself in God-being or Universal Existence if the experience of oneself is not to be there? To be the sugar candy is not as worth the while as to eat the sugar candy. There is a taste of the sugar candy, but sugar candy itself does not know that it is sweet. Perhaps it does not know what it is.

So losing oneself is not a satisfaction; and we are after satisfaction only. Already it was said that we do not want the good, we want the pleasant only. It is a great joy to visualise God, to ask something from God, to derive strength from God and obtain every blessed thing from God, but to enter into His stomach and get digested by Him is not what we seek. We get frightened by the very thought of losing ourselves because the greatest joy is to exist, and the greatest sorrow is to get annihilated. The death sentence is the greatest punishment because it annihilates the very being of the person, and we cannot do anything worse than that. To imagine self-annihilation is itself an unimaginable position. Such a mysterious situation was trotted out as a suggestion behind the answer to this question of what happens when one crosses beyond mortality, the total involvement in creation itself.

“My dear boy, why are you troubling me? I made a mistake in asking you to choose a boon.” Mā moparotsīr ati mā sṛjainam (1.1.21): “Leave me. Do not press me like this,” said Lord Yama.

But Nachiketas would not leave him like that. In the various verses of the Kathopanishad and in certain other Upanishads, all which we have to take as one Veda-rasi, a single gospel, we have certain indications into these mysteries. When Yama himself was not prepared to answer this question, I am not supposed to speak to you as to what it is. [Laughter from the audience] None of us is equal to him. We cannot lift even his shoe.

I am only trying to place before you a great difficulty, and not trying to solve that problem. There cannot be a greater difficulty than God Himself; therefore, any kind of question concerning God is a great difficulty. Spiritual practice is a difficulty because it concerns God in some way. Sadhana is a difficulty. Nama japa is a difficulty. Concentration of mind is a difficulty. Sense control is a difficulty. All this is so because these attempts, these enterprises on our part are connected with God, Who is a mystery. We cannot say God is, we cannot say God is not, because to say ‘is’ would be to counterbalance Him with ‘is not’, and we cannot conceive anything as an emptiness unless there is a background of something that is.

However, the difficulty arises because we are trying to think God, to think an answer to a Universal question, and the Universal cannot be thought by the mind. This is the reason why we cannot get a humanly intelligible answer to this query. A Universal situation cannot be conceived by a particular mind. A particular person, a particular reasoning or logic can conceive a particular circumstance but not a Universal circumstance. Therefore, God cannot be thought by the mind, and we cannot know what moksha is. Moksha is entry into Universality; we may call it God, Ishvara, Brahman, the Absolute.

“But what happens to me when I go there?” asked Nachiketas. We will not be there, and a doubt may arise in our mind: “If you say that, thank God, I shall think thrice before going there.” We hesitate to get prepared for the ordeal that may be expected from God-being. We always go to God, temples, churches and godmen with a return ticket. Without that, we cannot go. That ticket is always in our pocket, and only then do we go to the Masters for solutions of mysteries of the whole world. But what about this reservation ticket? That pulls us back.

“Enough great Master, Lord. Come down. I cannot behold this any more,” said Arjuna. We cannot behold even God Himself for more than a second. No one can see God and be alive afterwards. This is what great Masters opine. Na sa punar āvartate (Chhand. Up. 8.15.1); yad gatvā na nivartante (Gita 15.6). Oh, greatest sorrow! After going there, we will not come back. Who would like to be told that we will go to God, and we will not come back?

We get fear-struck. What will happen to us? Where are we going? And what are we going to get there? We are going to get nothing because everything is going to be absorbed into that great menstruum of Universal Existence. There we cannot have anything like consciousness of something. Na pretya saṁjñāsti (Brihad. Up. 2.4.12). The word ‘pretya’ is used by Yajnavalkya almost as an answer, as it were, to the query of Nachiketas. Pretya is an existence after the extrication of consciousness from involvement in the body. Generally, we understand the word ‘pretya’ to mean a ghost. It does not mean a ghost in the way we are thinking of ghosts, devils, etc. In the Sanskrit language pretya simply is that which is discarnate, freed from the involvement of flesh, bones, body; we may say, in a very special sense, freed from mortality itself. In that condition of Universality, what happens to you, what happens to me, what happens to everybody? Where are our friends? Where is this world? When we enter God, what happens to this world?

We would rather like to wind up this whole subject and direct our attention to other occupations in life than delve into these mysteries. But we are not a boy like Nachiketas. We are businessmen, factory owners, children, with weaknesses of every kind. We are not fit aspirants of this Upanishad. Whatever be the nectar that is poured on a rock, the rock will not be able to absorb it because it is hard.

Here is a great problem before you, sincere sadhakas here in this sadhana shabira. Here is a great question before you: What will happen to you, what will happen to your family, what will happen to all your property, what will happen to this world when you merge into the Absolute? Think over this matter.