Naciketas (from kaṭhopaniṣat)
Naciketas was the son of the ṛṣi Vājaśravas who belong to the Gautama gotra. Though a child, he was scholarly; contemplative. His father was a karmaṭha (following the karma school involving yajñas) and hence was always conducting or officiating some yajña. Once he undertook the viśvajit yāga. As a part of the yāga one has to give away all his possessions as dāna. In such dāna given by Vājaśravas, there were some old cows. They were not even able to go around. It looked as though their days on earth were numbered! Would they be able to give milk?
Seeing this, the young Naciketas thought, “Alas! What use would it serve to give such barren cows? The one who gives would attain the world named “ānanda” which actually is full of misery.”, a thought crosses his mind, “I’m also my father’s property. Let him give me to someone and acquire some puṇya.”. He approached his father and said, “Give me as dāna. Tell me father, whom would you give me to?” Vājaśravas ignored his son’s innocent question. Naciketas persisted and repeatedly asked him the same. Vājaśravas finally snapped and said, “I’ll give you to mṛtyu (death)”. Seems like he was short tempered.
Naciketas thought, “My father has given me to Yama. His words can’t be false. But what use would Yama find in me? Everyday a lot of people die and go to Yama! I might be the first among the people who would go from now. But if I count the people who have already gone, I’d be a distant second (mediocre) . What would Yama gain from me?” Meanwhile Vājaśravas realized his mistake and repented for it. He became miserable thinking that he – in a fit of anger – said that he is giving his son to mṛtyu. Naciketas pacified him and said, “Father, don’t worry. Some or the other day all of us should go to Yama. Your father and ancestors have gone and likewise in future others also would go. Like a plant, a human just decays and dies. At the right time like the plant he again is born.” We can understand how wise Naciketas was.
Then Naciketas went to the abode of Yama. We don’t know how he does that. Maybe Vājaśravas used his tapobala to send him. Since he went with his mortal body, it should have been an exceptional event. Since he didn’t die, he escaped the yamadūtas (attendants of Yama) and landed right in the palace of Yama. Yama is not present. His attendants notice that a brāhmaṇa has arrived and they tried to welcome him as hosts. Naciketas refused their hospitality and fasted. After three days Yama arrived.
Seeing him his ministers said, “O Vaivasvata! There is a brāhmaṇa guest who has arrived. A guest is Vaiśvānara himself, and he has been on a fast for the past three days. Welcome him with arghya, pādya and all the relevant gestures.” Immediately Yama did so. Then he said, “O brāhmaṇa! Please bless me. I regret that you had to fast for three days. To compensate, I want to give you three varas. Ask whatever you want.”
Yama is the deity of death. But it is a misconception to think that he is a tyrant. He is indeed the deity and the upholder of dharma. It is his duty to punish the people who commit pāpa. He is also known as Dharmarājā. He is the one who punishes people who commit pāpa and by doing so he protects dharma. Moreover he is also a brahmajñānin. Śrī-śaṅkara respects him as brahmavidyācārya. Though an ātmajñānin like Vasiṣṭha, Nārada and others, as per the mandate of his position we should assume that he is just doing his duty.
Following is what Naciketas asked as the first vara– “ O Yamarājā, my father might be worried about my well being. Please provide him solace, let his mind be free of worries. If you have plans to send me back then let him be able to recognise me, welcome me with affection, let his short temper vanish. This is the first vara.” Yama replied, “So be it Naciketas. Your father Vājaśravas will find peace of mind and will be able to sleep without worries. His short temper will go. My plan is to send you back. When he sees you, he will definitely recognise you, he will welcome you with great love and affection. This is the first vara which I’ve fulfilled. Ask for the second.” knowing that his father is happy, Naciketas said, “O deity of death! I’ve heard that in svarga there is no fear of diseases. The residents aren’t tormented by old age. There is no fear of death. No hunger or thirst. None feels sad and they are always in the state of ānanda. You would know what yajña should be performed using what agni to attain svarga. You also know the way to become devatā. I’m curious to know the way. Please educate me. This is the second vara.”
Yama replied, “Naciketas, I’ll describe the method. Listen carefully. The agni who bestows upon you the svarga is the one who is the primordial being and is immense in form. That primordial being manifested as Agni, Vāyu, Āditya.” saying so he described the method which involves the required iṣṭaka (bricks), the way the homakuṇḍa is built, the way agnicayana is done, the āhutis are given, with the relevant mantras. To convince Yama that he has grasped everything correctly, Naciketas repeated everything in great detail. Yama was happy. He said, “Naciketas, I’ll give you a fourth vara without asking. This agni would become famous in the world as nāciketāgni! Someone who does agnicayana in the prescribed manner three times in three ways will be called “triṇāciketa”. He will not fear death. He would attain eternal śānti. He would realize the virāṭsvarūpa and would become a sarvajña and would find place in the vairāja-loka. Take this gem studded necklace. This is a vara which I’m giving on my own accord. Now ask the third vara.”
To be continued...
This is the third part of the multi-part translation of the Kannada book "Upanishattina Kathegalu" by Mahamahopadhyaya Vidwan Dr. N Ranganatha Sharma. Thanks to Dr. Sharada Chaitra for granting us permission to translate this wonderful work. Thanks to B. N. Shashikiran for timely and appropriate edits. The original in Kannada can be read here