The Esoteric Significance of the Kathopanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Nachiketas’ First Two Boons

Spiritual practice, which is an adventure of the spirit, is the esoteric significance of the epic story of the Kathopanishad. Nachiketas, the aspiring intelligent lad, is face to face with the great Lord Yama who has sanctioned three boons as a sort of compensation, as it were, for the fast and vigil which the boy observed for three days. The boy could have asked for anything. It was a blank check presented before him; he could write anything on it. Very intelligently the boy chose the three boons step by step, perhaps with deep consideration.

The manner in which the boons were asked by Nachiketas, and the things that were asked, indicate the manner in which every spiritual seeker has to conduct himself in his disciplined career.

In our spiritual living we are expecting something. We are asking for a favour, and this is exactly the choosing of the boon. What for is this spiritual life? What is the outcome of religion? What is our intention? Why are we struggling so hard, running from temple to temple, from Guru to Guru, from library to library, from one place of pilgrimage to another? What is our objective, finally? What are we asking? We cannot ask for more than what Nachiketas asked, nor would it be wisdom on our part to ask for anything different from what he asked.

As I mentioned, the whole story is clothed in an epic language, and the ancient technique of instruction was that truths would not be revealed in naked form. They are always clothed as sugar-coated pills because the human mind cannot immediately absorb naked facts, inasmuch as we are ourselves not naked spirits. We are shrouded intelligences covered over by vestures, well decorated and dressed, hiding the fact of what we really are, for reasons we alone have to understand. This is the reason why the naked truth is not communicated by expert teachers. It is always communicated by means of an image, a colour, a picture, a narration, and an epic contour.

What was the first boon that Nachiketas wished to receive from the great Master? It was exactly what any one of us would expect at the very outset. “When I return, may my father receive me with respect and affection, and may he be blessed with vision to see things which he is unable to see now.” He was evidently a blind person – maybe blind physically as well as spiritually.

Thus, a highly altruistic boon was requested from the great Lord Yama. This is a picture before us of an expectation from our spiritual aspiration. When we achieve spiritual heights and are face to face with Masters and adepts in the cosmos, and when they ask us, “What do you want?” what will we expect?

The first thing that we aspire for is a very comfortable, happy reception by the world. We wish to be received by the world with gratitude, with a word of thanks, with affection and regard. We do not wish to be slighted by people, spat at, condemned or criticised, looked down upon or cowed down. The world has to receive us with respect and honour and love. This is a slightly nobler and more sublime interpretation of the way Nachiketas asked for his first boon from the great Master. “May I be well received by the world when I go back. Now I am in another world, in the land of the Lord of Death, which is other than the world of physical experience. When I return, may I be received honourably with love and affection by my father, and let his eyesight be granted.”

In an obvious and outline form, it is a request that the father may forget his annoyance, if at all he was angered at the importunities with which Nachiketas had pressed his question: “To whom will you offer me?”  

Nachiketas never asked anything for himself. When we become competent in our spiritual achievements in an appreciable measure, we come back to the world. Spiritual experience is not an abandonment of the world. It looks like a renunciation and a detachment from things in the earlier stages. It is a withdrawal for the sake of an entry back into the very thing from where we drew ourselves. We withdraw ourselves from the world for the sake of communing ourselves with the world once again in a better way than the manner in which we are encountering the world now.

We are at present not in communion with the world. We are not friends of the world. We are having a suspicious attitude towards people and things in general, so the world also looks upon us with some suspicion. We are not fully trusted by people. The world does not favour us one hundred percent because we do not trust it. Though we may have affection, love, regard for people, it is not true that we are trusting anyone one hundred percent. Always something is in reserve, even with a family member.

When we achieve a spiritual status by profound inner experience, we gain a greater knowledge of our relationship with the world, and we shall be once again in the world. When we wake up from dream, we do not go to a world which is outside dream. The dream world has not been abandoned by us, though it appears as if we have got over it. We are in the same place that we were while we were dreaming that particular world of apparitions. This waking condition is not a different place from the place where we were dreaming. In whatever sense we may define this location of one’s existence in waking and dream, they are not different places. They are only different space-time coordinates, a point that is insisted upon repeatedly in such scriptures as the Yoga Vasishtha. The so-called world is nothing but a space-time continuum, a word with which modern scientists are very familiar. The world is not made up of mountains, stones, trees, and the solar system. It is made up of space-time – nothing more, nothing less. Even the solid objects of the world are only configurations of the space-time continuum. From akasha came vayu, from vayu came agni, from agni came apas, from apas came pritvi, says the Upanishad. Space is the original cause, which projected space and air as its effect. From air came fire by friction, and by condensation it gave birth to water. Water solidified itself into the solid matter we call the earth principle.

In a reverse process, we can dissolve everything into space. Earth can become water, water can become fire, fire can become air, and air can become space. So space, which is apparent emptiness before us, is capable of containing within itself the entire physical cosmos. Therefore, space is not non-material. It is nothing but material substance. For one reason, it is an object of perception. We can see space. Anything that is visualised or capable of being contacted by any sense organ is physical, and space is such.

Hence, the final condition of the world seems to be only space-time. We are using two words, ‘space’ and ‘time’, for want of better expression. Actually, space and time are not two things. It is one peculiar, indescribable something which is, for want of better words, called a space-time complex. It is better to call it a compound because it is an indivisible something. We can call it only ‘something’ because we do not know what it is. Hence, the dream world, or the waking world, or any world for the matter of that, is a particular organisation of the space-time complex or continuum.

Thus, when we are in one realm, we are only in that realm as distinguished from another realm in a sense comparable to the distinction we draw between the space-time experience of dream and the space-time experience of waking. As we know very well, there is a tremendous difference between what we saw in dream and what we see in waking. There is no comparison whatsoever between the two. Yet they are in the same spot. For instance, we are sleeping on the bed. That very spot or location was the world of dream. That also is the world of waking. Yet, they are totally different realms. Thus, all worlds can be in the same place. We can have hell here in this hall; we can also have heaven here. In this little hall, this Samadhi Shrine, we have Vaikuntha, Kailasha, Brahmaloka, the Garden of Eden, and Patala; we have every country here, and all nationalities compressed in this little one cubic centimetre of space – because the world is non-spatial, finally. These are marvels which our mind cannot understand, and is not expected to understand. No man can understand what this mystery is because if we can gain an entry into this mystery we will suddenly be shaken up, and we will not see anything in front of us. Like a madman becoming sane, a blind man gaining sight, a sleeping man waking up, or a fool becoming a genius, such a difference will take place if this mystery can be understood. But we cannot understand it, for reasons we all know.

“When I return to this world, may I be received well,” said Nachiketas. The great geniuses of the spirit, jivanmuktas as they are sometimes called, who return from death and are reborn in the spirit, are received by the world once again in a different way altogether. The prophets and the incarnations are received by the world in a different manner from which we are received by shopkeepers, governmental officials, income tax officers, etc. The great geniuses and the incarnations are received as the soul of humanity, whereas we are received as external bodies, foreign elements, treated with suspicion and not with due regard and friendliness.

So when we return from the Lord of Death, when we return from this mortal world of destruction, this world of death, the land of Yama, we return from this world itself, which is mystically explained in the Kathopanishad as an encounter with a divinity. There is a deity presiding over every event and every realm of existence. The deity presiding over the phenomenon of destruction is called Yama, and the fact that it is another world altogether has to be understood in the way in which I explained as to what the other world means. That other world is here only. It is not to be calculated in miles or the kilometres, as we are accustomed to thinking. There is no kilometre in space because space-time is an indivisibility. It is not a measure of length, breadth and height; it is not three-dimensional. Scientists tell us it is non-three-dimensional. I do not want to call it four-dimensional because you will not know what it means. A non-three-dimensional existence is this world. It has no length, no breadth, no height. So no travelling is possible in this world, and how we travel, nobody knows. We travel in the same way as we travel in dream from Delhi to New York, though we are on the bed only. We can travel millions of miles by rocket to the moon or the other planets, but we are on the little sofa of our small room in spite of all the travels. No travel is taking place anywhere in the world. Distances do not exist because space does not exist. Space does not exist because space-time comes together in a continuum which is non-spatial and non-temporal, non-three-dimensional. Physicists today call it a four-dimensional, mysterious, intriguing something, which can make our heads go astray.

“When I return to the world, may I be received with honour. May I be communed with the world as a soul returning to its own body, and not one body among many other bodies,” said Nachiketas.

When we advance on the spiritual path, we are not going far away from the world. It is not that we become more and more distant from our relatives, friends, father, mother, property, etc., as we go near God. We are becoming nearer and nearer, rather than going farther and farther. How can we understand this mystery? Now we are away from the things we are considering as our properties. The things that we are related to in this world are not related to us really; therefore, there is bereavement always. We lose all things that we possess because they do not belong to us. They are not in communion with us. Even our best friend is not in communion with us. There is no such friend and relative in this world who is really communed in soul and spirit and being. There is only an artificial adjustment, and an adjustment cannot be called a communion, so we are ostracised by this world. We are in the world of destruction, ostracism, exile; therefore, we are perpetually in sorrow. We are not in communion with anything. We are bereft of the soul of this communion or the spirit of union.

“When I rise above this mortality, when I free myself from this encounter with the Lord of Death, Yama, may I be received properly,” said Nachiketas.

“Granted,” said Yama. This is the first state of advanced spiritual experience, in which none of us is at present. We have not taken even the initial step. We are struggling to rise from the lap of the mother.

This great experience is a highly advanced stage of communion with all things, where we are sarvabhūtahite ratāḥ (Gita 5.25). We are friends. We do not belong to parties. It is like the President of a country representing the whole nation. He is above the government, and is a super-departmental head. So a spiritual adept who returns to the world does not come as a man or a woman. He is not a human being coming back to the world of human beings. He will not be received as a human being; he will be received as a soul of all beings. He can shake the hearts of everyone. Though he may appear to be encased in a physical body like a great incarnation such as Krishna, Rama, or Christ or Buddha, he is not really encased, as money is not contained inside a coin or a little piece of paper, though it appears as if it is. Money is everywhere. It is a pervading principle, an economic strength, and it is not contained in a little scrap of paper we call the currency note or a metal piece we call the coin. Likewise, the incarnation or the prophet is not inside the body, though he appears to move through a body as money seems to move through a piece of paper or metal.

Our Guru is not a body. The incarnation is not a body. The spiritual genius is a pervading influence manifest from the point of view of the observers as a vehicle, like an official of the government moving. When an important official of the government moves, the government moves. But really, the government cannot move because it is a pervasive force. What moves is a body only. When the Cabinet Secretary of the government moves, we can say, in a sense, a high power of the government moves. But only Mr. X is moving, really speaking. He may be the son of some old mother, but he is not that when he manifests himself as a power that represents the whole nation.

So when I return to the world, I do not come like X,Y,Z, A,B,C,D. May I be received as I should be received. When I come as the Cabinet Secretary, do not call me Mr. so-and-so, son of so-and-so, etc. I may be that, but you should not receive me in that way. I am coming in a new form altogether, with a new spirit within me. This is the way in which Nachiketas will be received when he returns to the world. This is the way in which every one of us will be received when we extricate ourselves from the mortality of this body and enter into the spirit of the universe. W will be a friend of all, a well-wisher of all, a truely altruistic person. Swami Sivananda Maharaj was one such, at least from my angle of vision.

“Granted. I grant this boon. Be happy, my dear boy. Now ask for the second boon.”

“I have heard, great Master, that there is a thing called Vaishvanara, which comprehends everything. I am enamoured of this very name. I have heard that it is a great mystery. Initiate me into this mystery of the Vaishvanara.”

The Upanishad is very cryptic here. Either some passages are left out in the printed editions or the great Master did not speak in an elaborate manner. Maybe the editions are defective. Whatever the case may be, in the present editions of the Upanishad we have very little said about this matter except that everything was done. The necessary appurtenances for initiation into this mystery of the Vaishvanara were collected at once, and Nachiketas was initiated into the mystery of the Vaishvanara, the origin of all things.

We shall be staggered by hearing these things. We shall be giddy. We will not want our lunch, dinner, breakfast, or anything. We will not be tired of thinking this, and become mad with the unbearable joy that may be injected into our frail personality by the very idea of what this Vaishvanara can be. That we can go mad in one second is the only way I can put it – mad not as a morbid hospital patient but an inexpressible reservoir of unbounded delight. Into this mystery Nachiketas was initiated.

How many of us can be fit recipients of this mystery? This great Master Yama initiated Nachiketas into the mystery of Vaishvanara, about which something is said in other Upanishads, though not in the Katha where only a hint is given in a little passage. This is touched upon elaborately in the Fifth Section of the Chhandogya Upanishad, and a little bit is also mentioned here and there in some of the other Upanishads. Mention is made only with suggestive terms, without elaborate discussions. Nobody wants to say what this is. It is not safe to explain what it is, as it is not safe to allow a small baby to brandish a sharp sword. It is said that genius to madness is near alike; a thin partition divides them both. So in our aspiration for genius we may become mad because a thin partition, like a hair’s breadth, divides them both.

Asking for too much is very bad, but Nachiketas could contain this mystery and receive it. He was a well-baked pot, not a half-baked pot. Otherwise, we would misinterpret the whole thing like the half-baked disciple who heard from Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsadeva that all souls are immortal and immediately went to the Ganga and started fishing, saying that all souls are immortal so fishes can be killed. This was all he could understand from this immortality of the soul. You can kill anybody; that is the meaning of this great dictum that Atman is immortal.

If this is the way we receive the teachings of the great Masters, they have to be guarded in communicating this knowledge. Maybe even Yama, the great Master, must have had some reservations; anyhow, he communicated it. But it was not easily communicated to all people like that, even to well-trained persons, as we hear of in the Chhandogya Upanishad, for instance. Six great men, well grounded in meditation, in saguna upasana, were not able to come to a conclusion as to what this Vaishvanara is. They went to the great king of the country, Kaikeya Ashvapati, as it was not known to anyone except this king what Vaishvanara is. He was hesitant to communicate this knowledge because the ability of his administration depended on this knowledge. His kingdom was well governed, all which was due to the wisdom he had of Vaishvarana. However, to these great men that went there, Ashvapati Kaikeya, the king, gave this knowledge.

What is Vaishvarnara, into which mystery the great Master Yama initiated Nachiketas? It is the secret of cosmic comprehension, and without a knowledge of this secret we cannot become good karma yogins. Arjuna was never satisfied with anything Sri Krishna told him, until the Visvarupa was shown. He was going on arguing and putting questions and counter questions until the mystery was uncovered and revealed face to face, and after that vision was granted, things were clear: Now I understand how I have to conduct myself in this world.

Unless we know what this Vaishvanara is, we cannot be safe in this world. We cannot have security of any kind. We shall find ourselves in an insecure condition every moment if we depend on anything other than the Vaishvanara, because the Vaishvanara is the ruling government of the cosmos. It is the central ordinance of the Absolute. It is, in a way, the Creator of the universe. Sometimes people identify Vaishvanara with Hiranyagarbha, Brahma. The way in which we can grasp everything in a total spirit is the way into the mystery of Vaishvanara.

We know things piecemeal, bit by bit, little by little. We go from one shop to another shop. We cannot go to all shops at the same time and see everything at one stroke. We cannot even memorise all things at one stroke, and so we memorise them little by little. Even when we want things, we want things one after the other, not all things at one stroke. But there is a mystery by which we can know many things as one thing, just as we know this whole body as one object. I am sitting here as one person, you are seated there as another person. This body is made up of many parts. Each one knows that many parts constitute this body. There are eyes and ears and nose and what not. But we do not have to count these limbs in order to know that we are here. “Well, I have two eyes, two ears, a nose, ten fingers, legs. Yes, I am here.” This is not the way we say we are here. We need not go on counting the cells and limbs of the body in order to come to the conclusion this total body is here. We do not count the parts of the body as we count notes or objects of the world. It is a single grasp which is non-sensory. We call it intuitive. We know that we are a total body, a psychophysical organism, by a grasp which is not sensorily operated, but mystically apprehended at once.

Such an apprehension of the whole universe is possible. We need not travel from one place to another place to see things. In one grasp everything is known. We need not travel from place to place; things will travel to us. We need not ask for anything; they will come. We need not go to any place; all places will come to us. We need not have to travel to our leg; it is always with us. This is the mystery into which initiation was asked for by Nachiketas. I do not intend to explain to you what Yama must have told Nachiketas. Nobody is capable of explaining all these things, and our minds are perhaps not ready for them. Anyhow, I have given an indication as to how staggering it could be to be cosmically aware and cosmically competent to grasp the total structure of creation in a single comprehension, an intuitive perception, a vision of the spirit, and not perception by the senses.

‘Visva’ is the universe; ‘nara’ etymologically means man. Visvanara is the Cosmic Man. Vaishvanara is that which pertains to the cosmic personality. There is only One Person in the whole universe. Vaishna bhaktas especially who follow the madhurya rasa method contemplate God as the only male, and everybody is a gopi. We are all women. We are not men. We are playing the rasa dance around this nucleus of the one Purusha who is the Cosmic Person sung of in the Purusha Sukta of the Veda, glorified in the Vaishvanara Vidya of the Upanishad and spoken of in the Katha Upanishad, and this is what Nachiketas expected.

Thus, Vaishvanara is the knowledge of the Total Person, in whose body we are all ingrained like the cells in our own body. This body is made up of little organisms, millions and millions of living cells, all integrated into a single I, this so-called person here, this so-called person there. In a way, we are all connected to this Cosmic Person. The word ‘connected’ is a feeble apology to explain the real relation. We are organically, inextricably and integrally bound vitally, consciously, livingly, to this One Person so that when He thinks, we think, and when I think, He thinks. There cannot be two thoughts in the world. There also cannot be two actions. Only one action, only One Person does everything. This knowledge is Vaishvanara-vidya. Into this mystery, with elaborate techniques of initiation, Nachiketas was initiated.