The Results of Actualizing the Second Boon of Nachiketas

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 17-19:  “Whose lights the three fires (3) of Nachiketas and comes to the union with the Three (4) and does the triple works, (5) beyond birth and death he crosses; for he finds the God of our adoration, the Knower (1) who is born from the Brahman, whom having beheld he attains to surpassing peace.”

“When a man has the three flames of Nachiketas and knows this that is Triple, when so knowing he beholds the Flame of Nachiketas, then he thrusts from in front of him the meshes of the snare of death; leaving sorrow behind him he in heaven rejoices.”

“This is the heavenly Flame, O Nachiketas, which thou hast chosen for the second boon; of this Flame the peoples shall speak that it is thine indeed.  A third boon choose, O Nachiketas.”

(3) “Probably, the Divine Force utilised to raise to divinity the triple being of man.”

(4) “Possibly, the three Purushas, soul-states or Personalities of the Divine Being, indicated by the three letters A U M.  The highest Brahman is beyond the three letters of the mystic syllable.”

(5)  “The sacrifice of the lower existence to the divine, consummated on the three planes of man’s physical, vital and mental consciousness.”

(1)  “The Purusha or Divine Being, Knower of the Field, who dwells within all and for whose pleasure Prakriti fulfils the cosmic play.”

The obscurity of the references here are illustrated by the footnotes of Sri Aurobindo.  Other references in the Upanishads give us some clues that the three fires are the  force within body, life and mind.  The three karmas seem to relate to the action on these three levels that represent the human being in the manifested world, actions gross, subtle and causal.  The supreme Brahman is beyond the limits of the manifested universe while containing and constituting that universe.  Unification with Brahman brings knowledge and peace as the pressure of individual desire and attachment to the results of efforts is relieved.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129


The Second Boon of Nachiketas: the Teaching of the Celestial Fire

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 14-16:  “Yama speaks: ‘Hearken to me and understand, O Nachiketas; I declare to thee that heavenly Flame, for I know it.  Know this to be the possession of infinite existence and the foundation and the thing hidden in the secret cave of our being.  Of the Flame that is the world’s beginning (1) he told him and what are the bricks to him and how many and the way of their setting; and Nachiketas too repeated it even as it was told; then Death was pleased and said to him yet farther; Yea, the Great Soul was gratified and said to him, ‘Yet a farther boon today I give them; for even by thy name shall this Fire be called; this necklace also take unto thee, a necklace (2) of many figures.’ ”

(1) “The Divine Force concealed in the subconscient is that which has originated and built up the worlds.  At the other end in the superconscient it reveals itself as the Divine Being, Lord and Knower who has manifested Himself out of the Brahman.”

(2) “The necklace of many figures is Prakriti, creative Nature which comes under the control of the soul that has attained to the divine existence.”

Sri Kapaly Sastry notes:  “{Yama} expounds to him the nature of the Celestial Fire, for he knows it.  He describes it as the possession of infinite existence, the foundation of all things and the thing concealed in the secret cave of our being.”  “{The significance} lies in the fact that the soul which has gained the initial release from the net of the physical consciousness and earth-bound life and has maintained contact with the God, the higher Power administering the Cosmic Law, could through it gain the further knowledge of the Divine Being that presides over the Cosmic constitution of the Universe which begins with Heaven above and rests on Earth at this end.  That Divine Being is called here the celestial Fire …, the source and foundation of world existence.  He is not the Brahman beyond, but born of Brahman, he is the Divine Being Omniscient, resides in Heaven, rules over the Cosmos.  High above and therefore superconscient to us he transcends the earthly nature.  But here, within the mortal human being he is concealed in the secret cave, in the subliminal parts.  By kindling him, by lighting that Fire, hidden in the subconscience and by the proper arrangement of teh various parts and building him in right order in tune with the Cosmic law, he is revealed as the Divine manifested out of the Brahman.  At his revelation the soul attains to a surpassing peace.  Once he is intensely realised, in the three Soul-states, on the three levels (or on the three world-planes of the Vedic order), effecting points of contact in the triple being unified with him (tri-nachiketas), one crosses beyond birth and death.  Therefore when a man has gained access to this triple Nachiketas, the cords of mortality are loosened and drop altogether.”

“To such a soul as attained to the Divine existence the power of Prakriti, creative Nature, comes unasked and falls under its control.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Nachiketas Requests His Second Boon: Knowledge of the Celestial Fire

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 12 and 13:  “Nachiketas speaks: ‘In heaven fear is not at all, in heaven, O Death, thou art not, nor old age and its terrors; crossing over hunger and thirst as over two rivers, leaving sorrow behind the soul in heaven rejoices.  Therefore that heavenly Flame (1) which thou, O Death, studiest, expound unto me, for I believe.  They who win their world of heaven, have immortality for their portion.  This for the second boon I have chosen.’ ”

(1) “The celestial force concealed subconsciently in man’s mortality by the kindling of which and its right ordering man transcends his earthly nature; not the physical flame of the external sacrifice to which these profound phrases are inapplicable.”

The first boon established the connection between the physical life in the world and the spiritual realms of existence, and provided the seeker the power to cross the barrier and then return with the knowledge to be obtained there.  The next step, therefore, is for the seeker to understand the celestial fire, svargya agni.   Agni is called the “knower of all things born”, so knowledge of this fire and its action in the universe brings right knowledge of the manifestation and the human being’s role in it.  This knowledge is not obtained with a skeptical mind, and thus, there is the precondition of faith, as Nachiketas affirms “for I believe”.  The knowledge of this fire conveys a true understanding of immortality, passing beyond death, and transcendence over hunger, thirst and sorrow, old age and death.

The Buddha formulated the four noble truths and sought for the solution to escape the grasp of sorrow, sickness, old age and death.  This Upanishad indicates that it is the knowledge of this celestial fire that will be the key that the Buddha sought to overcome these causes of suffering.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

The First Boon: Integration of the Bodily Life and the Spiritual Realisation

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 10 and 11:  “Nachiketas speaks: ‘Tranquillised in his thought and serene of mind be the Gautama, my father, let his passion over me pass away from him; assured in heart let him greet me from thy grasp delivered; this boon I choose, the first of three.’  Yama speaks:  “Even as before assured in heart and by me released shall he be, Auddalaki Aruni, thy father; sweetly shall he sleep through the nights and his passion shall pass away from him, having seen thee from death’s jaws delivered.’ ”

Yama (the restrainer) represents the law of life as well as death.  He sets the limits.  We observe that physical life is followed by physical death.  It is obviously not the normal process of the law for someone to be physically dead for three days and then return to life.  The meaning of this first boon lies in the spiritual realisation that requires the ego to release its hold so that the soul can pass beyond the golden barrier that limits the awareness of the outer personality and prevents the shift to the universal, divine standpoint that signals the spiritual awakening.

Sri T.V. Kapaly Sastry notes:  “the real nature of the first boon that Yama bestows upon Nachiketas — the boon, a capacity by which he can come back from the higher plane to the physical with the connection between this and the life beyond established, maintaining the thread of consciousness, for the opening is already made and the passage clear, to use the Vedic phrase.  We may note in passing that the Sanskrit phrase sutratma meant to refer to the soul in the subtle body (linga deha), very well answers to the description of soul retaining the thread of the personal consciousness in its journey to the other side of Life and discovering the exit passage to return to the Earth-life.  This, then, is the first boon, the initial gain of Nachiketas, which every soul aspiring to relive a fuller life has to win; this is done by completely dying first in order to emerge into the Kingdom of the Keeper of the Law by which the Cosmic existence is preserved, through which one has to ascend the heights of existence above the cycle of life and death to the Eternal Life, Freedom, Immortality.”

There are certain experiences that a seeker may undergo where the ego-personality is confronted with a barrier.  The flame of the soul’s aspiration is pushing to pass that barrier to the larger truth of existence.  A fear of death rises up at that moment where the ego-personality feels like it is about to die if it goes any further.  If it turns back at this moment, the transition does not occur at that time and must await a further opportunity.  If it passes the barrier, the attachment to the ego and the life of the world passes away.  It is possible to return across the barrier to the world of life, and resume one’s role in the world, changed by the knowledge acquired in the process.  This experience matches up precisely with the nature of the first boon granted to Nachiketas, the flame of the soul.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Nachiketas Waits Three Nights in the House of Death and Receives Three Boons

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 7 to 9:  “His attendants say to Yama: ‘Fire is the Brahmin who enters as a guest the houses of men; him thus they appease.  Bring, O son of Vivasvan, (Yama, lord of death, is also the master of the Law in the world, and he is therefore the child of the Sun, luminous Master of Truth from which the Law is born.) the water of the guest-rite.  That man of little understanding in whose house a Brahmin dwells fasting, all his hope and his expectation and all he has gained and the good and truth that he has spoken and the wells he has dug and the sacrifices he has offered and all his sons and his cattle are torn from him by that guest unhonoured.’  Yama speaks:  ‘Because for three nights thou hast dwelt in my house, O Brahmin, a guest worthy of reverence, — salutation to thee, O Brahmin, on me let there be the weal, — therefore three boons do thou choose, for each night a boon.’ ”

The interaction between Nachiketas and Yama the Lord of Death and the law of life, is clearly symbolic and esoteric.  These verses bring in the traditional prescriptions for householders to treat the unexpected guest as god, and to care for and feed that guest with all due reverence.  Such a prescription placed upon human beings does not translate to the Lord of Death when people enter his abode.  It is meant however to convey specific information to the seeker and to provide a transition to bring about the 3 questions and the 3 boons which are the substance of this Upanishad.

We see in occult traditions that death involves the dissolution of the elements of the body, life force and the mind, step by step, as the ego, acting as the lynch-pin, lets go of these elements.  Here we are dealing with the spiritual experience of death, which involves the release of the ego consciousness and the corresponding psychological elements of the attachment to the chain of cause and effect (karma) and the action of desire (kama).

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the passage from life into death and back into rebirth involves a process of physical time in the external world.  It is not simply a matter that all the elements dissolve immediately upon death of the body.  Even the process of transitioning to the new standpoint inwardly is not something that is completed immediately.  The bonds of desire and attachment have to fall away, the ego has to lose its control over the consciousness and a shift has to occur to the new psychological experience.  Fasting for three days is a traditional action used to undertake the release of desire and attachment to karmic action, and thus, bringing this element in helps the seeker to understand what is required to truly confront the law of life and death and gain the deeper understanding that the Upanishad intends to convey.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Katha Upanishad: The Sacrifice and the Aspiration, Part 2

Nachiketas is identified with the fire of aspiration, the soul’s flame.  We can read this dialogue to be between the outer being who functions in the world, and the inner being who is the spiritual Person who aspires to spiritual realisation.  He asks three times to represent the aspiration and dedication of body, life and mind.  The father replied that he would give Nachiketas to “Death”.  All human beings are subject to death, and this involves the dissolution of the body, the life and the mind.  On an esoteric level, the death of the ego-consciousness is one of the stages of spiritual progress, as noted in the mystery traditions throughout the world, where the spiritual aspirant undergoes a ritual death in order to become an initiate.  On a yogic level, there is a stage in experience where one reaches the point where the ego recognises it is going to “die” and if it draws back in fear, it does not cross over into the new standpoint.  Eventually one must go through the experience of death in the consciousness to move the standpoint from the ego to the spirit.

Some commentators indicate that the father made this statement in a pique of anger, but that is not a necessary reading if we look at this as a parable for the aspiration of the soul shaking off the domination of the outer, worldly life to achieve spiritual realisation.  It would then be more simply a recognition of the state of human beings living in the world, subject to death and thus, shifting the focus to the spiritual life and aspiration to understand the true significance of existence.  This reading fits easily into what follows as Nachiketas, the flame of Agni Jataveda (knower of all things born) explores the deeper meaning behind the outer worldly existence of body, life and mind.  Of course, there might be an outburst of anger as the outer being realises that death lies in its future, and it does not fully accept or comprehend what is to follow.

It is significant that this flame of aspiration, Nachiketas, takes the exclamation as an action that carries out a larger purpose of the divine Law, as Yama, the Lord of Death, is also the Lord of the Law of existence.  He evidences here a shift from the egoistic standpoint of being the “actor” to the soul’s view of carrying out a divine intention.  The soul knows that death is part of a larger process in the divine manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129

Katha Upanishad: The Sacrifice and the Aspiration, Part 1

Sri Aurobindo translates Katha Upanishad, First Cycle, First Chapter, Verses 1 through 6:  “Vajashravasa, desiring, gave all he had.  Now Vajashravasa had a son named Nachiketas.  As the gifts were led past, faith took possession of him who was yet a boy unwed and he pondered: ‘Cattle that have drunk their water, eaten their grass, yielded their milk, worn out their organs, of undelight are the worlds which he reaches who gives such as these.’  He said to his father, ‘Me, O my father, to whom wilt thou give?’  A second time and a third he said it, and he replied, ‘To Death I give them.’  ‘Among many I walk the first, among many I walk the midmost; something Death means to do which today by me he will accomplish.  Look back and see, even as were the men of old, — look round! — even so are they that have come after.  Mortal man withers like fruits of the field and like the fruits of the field he is born again.’ ”

The father, Vajashravasa undertook a sacrifice which involved giving away all his possessions {sarva dakshina}   He was desirous of obtaining access to one of the heavenly realms.  He was ready to move into the next phase of life preliminary to his own death and his possessions obviously had been used and enjoyed during his life.  His son, Nachiketas, recognised the fact that the items being given away were well used and of little value for the recipients.   Some commentators state that he withheld possessions and only gave the old and worn out ones, but the clear text indicates that he “gave all he had”.  Thus, the indication that this is preparatory to departing the worldly life and entering the next phase of life.  Nachiketas saw the intention of his father to achieve a future benefit from this sacrifice.  With this context, he intervened and asked his father to whom he, Nachiketas, was to be given.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad, pp. 213-241, and Kapali Sastry, Lights on the Upanishads, pp.  104-129