Nachiketas and the Lord of Death

Nachiketas and the Lord of Death


Today we embark on a journey of learning how to accept life as it is. Not exactly a small task. This discussion will actually cover two podcasts, so it’s a mini-series of sorts. Part I, which we will dive into on this podcast, we’ll follow the story of Nachiketas and Yama from the Katha Upanishad, and explore a few key topics in the journey of accepting life as it is, in particular, our relationship with death. In Part II, which we will delve into in another podcast, we will explore a story of Shiva and the Beggar Lady, investigating what it means to surrender to what is.

As always, the stories are here to help bridge the gap between knowledge and understanding. To take information and allow it to be digested by the mind, body, and spirit.

Now, our first story is an interesting one, as it deals with a topic that’s quite estranged from our modern western culture, and that’s: death. In cultures like those found in India, death is often front and center. There is a certain intimacy with death. In a city like Varanasi, death is an integral part of the daily experience of life. There is a constant stream of dead bodies being carried to the cremation grounds and the Ganges river. Death is always on display.

One of the reasons Yogis, Tantric Yogis, practice in the cremation grounds and cemeteries is to remind them of the temporary nature of embodied living. The mortality of the body. The constant reminder of death.

In our culture, in western culture, we hide death. We hide those who remind us of death. We don’t talk about death if someone is sick or old. We even hide our old people way in old age homes. It’s typically a very uncomfortable topic in the western world. It’s uncomfortable because we never talk about it!

But a big reason why it’s such an important topic, is that our fear of death is an essential and primal aspect of our ego and mind. Most of our fears in life will in some way connect back to this primal fear. So you can address each of the minions of this essential fear, or you can go straight to the source.

As an example, let’s say you are afraid of heights and snakes. You might attempt to look at those separately and deal with your fear of heights in one context, and your fear of snakes in another. But if we dive deeply into these fears, we will likely notice that they are stemming from the primal fear of death. Falling can kill you. A deadly snake bite can kill you. So there is fear.

We can spend a lifetime addressing each separate fear, OR we can annihilate the source fear itself. You can play the ‘whack-a-mole- game’ with your fears, always striking a new fear as it pops up without ever touching the source… Or go to the source of where they pop up from.

And that’s why death is such an important topic to come to terms with. It also becomes the foundation for us accepting life as it is. If you are in fear, fear of death or one of its expressions, you won’t be able to accept life. You’re not accepting life at that point. There will be a resistance to what is. So we have to address this first.

Now, death is in many ways associated with Shiva. He is often connected to destruction and dissolution. The energy that must destroy and break down something, to make room for something else. He is a figure that represents an idea that we must address early on in our journey of awakening. Shiva represents concepts essential in our path of liberation and understanding. A story of his will actually be our story for part two of this mini-series journey we are on for accepting life as is.

As a quick footnote: I’m not saying you must worship some blue skinned diety from a culture different then your own (Although that’s fine if you want to). What’s important is realize what these characters, these archetypes, represent. They are symbols that point to greater truth. These concepts exist elsewhere in the world as well coming from different images, but diving into many of those is the work of comparative mythologists, and beyond our topic today. Ultimately, we are offering up these stories and characters as guideposts on our own journey.

I think this is a good time to come into our story of Nachiketas and Yama. Our story about our fears, death and liberation…

So once upon a time…

In India, sacrificial ceremonies were and are a really big deal. You want a good harvest, there is a ritual sacrifice for that, want to be married? Have kids? Want success? Want liberation? There are ceremonies for it all. And while there are ceremonies one can do one’s self, bigger ceremonies required the presence and participation of the Brahmins, of the priests.

And one day, a successful merchant named Vajasrawas (Vaja-shru-vu-suh) was to perform a very large fire ceremony, a ceremony reserved for serious spiritual aspirants. He was to give up all of his wealth and his possessions and distribute them to the Brahmins and sages. Because one who could give up all transitory things would then be free to realize the truth of reality, the truth of Brahama.

During the ceremony, he begins to offer up his sacrifices. And remember, the whole point is to you’re your cherished belongings up for the sacrifice. So ‘Vajashruvusuh’ starts offering grains, cows and other things, but as he is offering his sacrifices, his son, Nachiketas, starts to notice that his dad is skimping on his offerings. He’s giving up old, lame cows for sacrifice. Cows that no longer give milk. Sub par grains and offerings. And in the way that children do best, he confronts his father.

“You seem only willing to sacrifice that which you are ready to sacrifice. Isn’t the whole purpose of the sacrifice to offer up that which is most dear to you?” Nachiketas says. The purpose of the ritual is to give up one’s cherished belongings, but here is Vajashruvusuh holding back, unable to give it all up.

I think most parents can relate to this. We’re pressed on time, we got things going on, so maybe we skip corners? Maybe we don’t do the best job or the job we know we need to do, we’re just trying to get it done. And children, with their fresh innocent eyes see this much more clearly then we see ourselves.  The challenging part is that most of us know that we are doing something “less than”, that we aren’t giving it our best, and yet, strangely, it seems so easy to them get angry and defend what we are doing. And that’s what Vajasrawas (Vaja-shru-vu-suh) does. At first he kind of dismisses his son and his comments.

But Nachiketas keeps pressing him. “This isn’t a proper offering,” he tells his father. “Shouldn’t you give up what you care about? Aren’t you supposed to give up your belongs? Do I not belong to you Shouldn’t you give me up?”

And finally, Vajasrawas loses his temper and yells back, “Fine! You want me to give up my dearest possessions, then fine! I offer you to Lord Yama, the God of Death!”

Then there is that after effect moment. Like what just happened here. Vajashruvusuh just gave up his son to death.

Being a good son, recognizing his own part in it, and his duty to follow his father’s wishes… Nachiketas goes to the palace of death. But when he gets to the gates of the palace, no one is home.

Ya know… Yama, death, is a busy guy. He’s always off collecting souls. So Nachiketas sits and waits for three days.

Yama finally returns and see’s that Nachiketas has been waiting. The rules of hospitality are so strong in India that even the gods must obey. So upon finding out that his guest has been waiting for three days, Yama decides to offer Nachiketas three boons, three wishes, as a gift.

Yama kind of expects that Nachiketas’ first wish will be to get his life back. I think that would be the normal response from most people, right? You die, you get offered a wish, you wish to come back to life. I can see that…

But that’s not what happens. Nachiketas actually first thinks to his father. Vajashruvusuh was pretty devastated by what had happened. As a parent I can relate. Times when I’ve lost my temper, lost my center, and got frustrated with my daughter. Responding in ways that are less than my best self. And then feeling remorse afterwards.

So Nachiketas’ first wish is for the wealfare of his father, Vajashruvusuh, and for Yama to console him. To make sure his heart is at ease after what has happened. For what went down. The requests surprises Yama, but he happily agrees.

Yama expects, now, that Nachiketas will ask to be returned to the world of the living.

But no, Nachiketas now asks for the knowledge and understanding of the fire ceremony. For

Yama to spill the secrets, the inner workings, of the fire sacrifice. Which is a big deal, it’s like a getting a peak behind the certain. It’s like asking an illusionist, a magician, to tell the secrets of their craft. This ritual that is supposed to user in liberation and truth, Nachiketas wants to know its inner workings.

It’s a power to not only affect oneself, but the world.

It’s a big request, but Yama agrees.

For the last request, Yama expects that Nachiketas will finally ask to get his life back.

But again, Nachiketas surprises him. He asks Yama to explain death to him. He asks to know all about Yama and the secret of death.

Yama is taken a back. He tries to convince Nachiketas to ask for something else.

“No no no, you don’t want that, wish for gold, or children or rule over the kingdom of earth, something that most people ask for. Don’t ask for the truth behind death,” Yama says. “Death…ya know, it’s not something easy to understand. Even the gods have trouble with it.” But Nachiketas keeps pressing. That’s his wish: to know the secret of death.

“What am I to do with these transitory things? All the things you offer, will perish. Money, women, gold, family, kingdom, they will all fade away. What good are they to me? What good are possessions if I don’t know truth?”

Finally, seeing the young boy’s clarity and determination, Yama agrees to teach Nachiketas all the secrets of death:

Possessions are not the purpose of life. In this transitory world, people attempt to find happiness in things that inevitably fade and perish. Therefore their happiness in continuous flux. They identify with the world, its objects and emotions, and they think that is who they are.

I am angry. If I’m angry often enough, I’ll start to think of myself as an angry person.

People keep treating me like crap, I might start to think that I’m crap.

Or perhaps I do some nice deeds. Help some people out. Do some good in the world. Then I start thinking well, hey, I’m a good person, so I stop paying attention to my habits of destruction, my habits that perhaps are not doing good in the world. I’m still identifying with something that is not truly me.

I wear a certain style of clothes… I identify with those. Who am I without them?

Who am I without my car? My iPhone? My stuff?

You see, most people spend their whole life identifying with objects. Objects in the world or objects in the mind. And because these things inevitably change form, we are caught, constantly confused about who we are. If we don’t know who we are, how can we find happiness? Yet the typical path is to try to find happiness out there in the world with things.

“Those who are deluded by possessions and wealth and like children playing with toys,” Yama says. “They are bound to get caught in the snares of death, and come back to me again and again.”

Caught by death, and never free to go beyond it.

And let’s allow, for a moment, to understand death beyond just the death of the physical body. For me to make a change in life, a part of me has to die. But I must go beyond it to make that change. For a new way of thinking to occur, my old ways of thinking must die.

But, you see, if I’m attached to my thoughts, my mental stuff, then I’m bound to get caught by death. That is to say, I’ll never get passed it. I’ll never get passes my stuff, through death, and find liberation. Find, in this case, new ways of thinking, new ways of operating in the world.

And while this can be lofty stuff, it ties back into our original ideas about fear and the fear of death. Fear of death can also mean fear of losing our identity. Our ways of doing things. Our thoughts. We fear to make changes. What will people think? What will they say? What will I DO? This is the way I’ve known the world, this is how I’ve acted, who would I be if not me?

It’s this basic fear that has us gripping onto life, and interestingly, being ensnared by death.  Never free of it.

Yama, the Lord of Death, explains two possible paths. One path he calls a good path, and the other a pleasure path. One path is going to be difficult, but it will lead you to the knowledge of the highest truth. The other, even though it seems enjoyable, pleasurable, is ephemeral. It’s temporary. When a pleasurable experience passes, and of course it will eventually, then it leaves pain. This is the very nature of the apparent duality of our embodied experience.

We see two spots, one desirable, one not, and we try desperately to hold onto the desirable, and not fall into the undesirable. What we fail to see is that they are ends of the same pole.  They are eternally and inevitably linked. The hope here, is that eventually, life will continue to give you this lesson until you figure it out. So hey, you’re still caught on the hamster wheel? Don’t worry, eventually life will get through to you.

But man… wouldn’t it be better to simply make the right choices now? To realize now?

The wise choose the good. The ignorant choose the pleasurable.

What the overall theme of the Katha Upanishad is offering is to understand that the real treasure of human life, of all life, the true Self… is to be found within. That truth, that which frees us from the snares of death is not to be found outside of ourselves in the world of things, but inside. The atman, the soul, resides within.

And once we uncover that truth, then there is no fear of death. There is no concern about the ephemeral outside world. That doesn’t mean that you no longer engage it, that you stop living in the world. It instead gives you permission to be in the world. Liberated from your fears. Immersed in truth.

And that’s the goal of life. To realize that truth. And then your life becomes an expression of that truth. It becomes a radical life. Look at all the great saints and sages, they are all radical. Even the ones most like us, are radical because they live without this fear.

Living from this fear will lead you to seek out the pleasurable. To constantly be grasping for that next peak of the wave. That next high. Which inevitably leads to the valley, to the low.

Instead. Look inward. Realize truth. And live from that truth. That’s what this story ultimately wants to tell us.

Listen to the story here: