The Katha Upanishads

Posted June 26th, 2012 by Erin under Student Writings, Yoga Philosophy.

Karuna hosts a free discussion group every Thursday from 5-5:30. For the past month the group has been reading and discussing the Katha Upanishads, also known as “Death as Teacher”. The Katha Upanishads is a series of verses in the ancient Vedic scripture on Death and the Hereafter. The verses are a conversation between Nachiketa, son of the sage Vajasravasa, and Yama, the Hindu lord of death. In the story Vajasravasa has performed a sacrifice to the Gods in which he is required to give away all his worldly possessions. Among these possessions is his son Nachiketa.

Susan Yard Harris, a teacher and student at Karuna, wrote this summary of the verses:

When Vajasravasa gave away his cows to gain religious merit, his son Nachiketa
questioned the wisdom of his father’s actions. Repeatedly, he asked his father, “To whom do you
offer me?”

Naciketa’s father got angry with his son’s insubordination and banished him to Yama,
the Lord of Death.

Nachiketa went to Yama’s abode and waited three days until Yama returned. Because
it was inhospitable to keep a spiritual guest waiting for so long, Yama granted Nachiketa three
boons, or wishes, one for each night he was kept waiting.

Nachiketa’s first request was reconciliation with his father, and Yama granted that easily.

His second wish was to learn how to perform the fire sacrifice. Yama explained that the
fire sacrifice leads to heaven and sustains the world, and that this knowledge is concealed in the
heart. Yama explained how to perform the fire sacrifice and how to erect the altar for
worshipping the fire, from which the universe evolves. Nachiketa learned this lesson well,
and Yama was pleased, and named the fire sacrifice after Nachiketa.

For his third boon, Nachiketa asked Yama to answer his question: What happens to a
person after he dies– does he perish or live on?

Yama did not want to answer this question and said, “The secret of death is hard to
know.” Instead, he offered Nachiketa long life, long-lived sons, power to rule a kingdom,
capacity to enjoy the pleasures of women and riding chariots, and skill in music.

Nachiketa refused Yama’s offer. He answered the Lord of Death that the pleasures of this
world are transitory, as is life on earth. He asked, how can a mortal desire wealth when he knows
he will die? Nachiketa told the Lord of Death that the the only boon he wanted was to understand
the mystery of life after death.

Yama decided that Nachiketa was worthy of his instruction.Yama explained that when
people think that the body is all there is to life, they are subject to repeated reincarnations. Only a
few people, he said, dedicate their lives to realization of the eternal, non-dying Self. You are
wise, Yama told Nachiketa, because you seek the eternal Self, which is hidden in the cave of the

heart and is the divine principle of existence and source of all joy.

Teach me, Nachiketa said.

And so Yama taught Nachiketa that OM is the symbol of God. When OM reverberates
unceasingly in the heart, one is blessed and deeply loved, Yama said. “The all-knowing Self was
never born, nor will it die…[it] is eternal and immutable.” A seeker can behold the “glory of the
Self through the grace of the Lord of Love.” “When the wise realize the Self, formless in the
midst of forms, changeless in the midst of change, omnipresent and supreme, they go beyond all

Yama told Nachiketa that only one who controls the senses, stills the mind, and practices
meditation can know Brahman, the hidden Self that is present in everyone. But the Self can be
attained only by those whom the Self chooses. Those who have discrimination (Viveka), a still
mind, and pure heart “are forever free from the jaws of death.”

Yama explained further that Brahma is in the heart of all creatures, that thumb-sized
being enshrined in the heart. The Self exists in the multiplicity of life–the sun, the wind, fish,
plants, water. “…the one multiplies…oneness into many” and “cannot be tainted by the evils of
the world.” Those who see the Self in their hearts have eternal joy and eternal peace.

Nachiketa asked, “How can I know that blissful Self?”

Yama replied, “The Self is the light reflected by all” and that “ Brahman can be seen as
in a mirror in a pure heart.”

Yama explained that when the senses, mind, and intellect are stilled in yoga, one enters
the state of unity, never to be separate again. If one is not established in the state of unity, the
sense of oneness will come and go. When all desires and “the knots that strangle the heart are
loosened, the mortal becomes immortal.”

As Nachiketa learned the discipline of meditation from the Lord of Death, freed himself
from separateness, and achieved immortal life, so can everyone who knows the Self.

Susan teaches the Wise Yoga, a class specially designed for practitioners age 50 and up on Mondays from 4-5pm  at Karuna.

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