Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 23-25: “Yama speaks: ‘Choose sons and grandsons who shall live each a hundred years, choose much cattle and elephants and gold and horses; choose a mighty reach of earth and thyself live for as many years as thou listest. This boon if thou deemest equal to that of thy asking, choose wealth and long living; possess thou, O Nachiketas, a mighty country; I give thee thy desire of all desirable things for thy portion. Yea, all desires that are hard to win in the world of mortals, all demand at thy pleasure; lo, these delectable women with their chariots and their bugles, whose like are not to be won by men, these I will give thee, live with them for thy handmaidens. But of death question not, O Nachiketas.’ ”
The concentration required to achieve the results of the yogic practice can bring about results both spiritual and material. Success in the outer world is considered to be a temptation or distraction for the spiritual seeker. The solution has generally been to choose between them. Those who choose worldly success would be unable to attain to the ultimate spiritual realisations. There are countless stories from various traditions that speak to this point. Jesus in the desert offered the dominion over the world is one such example. The Buddha abandoning his life of ease and comfort as a prince of a kingdom to find the solution to human suffering is another. The tradition of sannyasa in India as the basis for a true spiritual seeking embodies this idea. Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras describes the various powers that arise as the practice of yoga takes hold, with an implication that focus on these powers of action in the outer world will divert the seeker from the attainment of the highest spiritual truths.
The question of integrating the life of the world with the spiritual realisation has been puzzling to seekers from time immemorial, and the usual solution is to force the seeker to make a definitive choice. Those who are sincere and devoted, and have ultimate faith in the spiritual goal will choose the spiritual realization; those who still have any kind of desire or attachment to the outer world and worldly success will focus in that direction. It is not the attempt of this Upanishad, at this stage of human development, to propose an integration that yields the fruits of both in an omnipresent Reality through a shift of the standpoint from the desire-based human view to the divine view of the manifestation of the Supreme in all things. The only true solution recognized is what Sri Aurobindo calls “the refusal of the ascetic” if the seeker wants to achieve the ultimate spiritual realisation.
The Upanishads remind us that day for those focused on the things of the world is night for the seeker, and vice versa. Here the power of his faith and his dedication is being put to the test before the ultimate realisations can be achieved. He can have the utmost success in the human world, or he can continue his isolated seeking of truths that take him beyond human satisfaction of desire or any kind of achievement in the world of man. It is time for Nachiketas to decide.
Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp. 104-129