Diwali and the Enchanting Story of Nachiketa

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Arindam retells a well-known story of Nachiketa, a little boy, who faced Death (Yama) fearlessly to realise the deeper mysteries of death and life. This story from Katha Upanishad predates the Puranas and our two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Nachiketa, sees light, is freed Avidya, and as a disciple of Yama, understands the deeper meanings of life and death. Let us bow in respect to the wisdom of a little boy. He brought light to our lives. This story is part of the special feature on Diwali, exclusively in Different Truths.

All Hindu festivals have many stories woven around them. One such mythical tale, from the Katha Upanishad (c. 5 th century BCE), the dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama, the Lord of Death, has always fascinated me. Could it be possibly because of the father-son contestations that springs up time and again in our scriptures – am not sure!

Before I narrate the well-known story, allow me to digress a bit. Mythical tales have been told and retold by countless people, down the ages. The oral traditions that kept our scriptures alive, before these were written and preserved as manuscripts, had undergone many changes. There have been interpolations. It’s often difficult to know the ‘correct or exact story’ – to me all are correct. The elders in my home told me that Nachiketa met Yama, the night before Diwali (celebrated as Chhoti Diwali in North India and the lighting of 14 pradeep/diyas in Bengal). My later research shows that it is associated with the Amavasya (New Moon) night of Diwali. Such a slender margin of error of an ancient tale, about 26 centuries ago, is negligible. Both are, therefore, true to me.

Yet another variation is in the age of the young lad, Nachiketa. While most versions state that he was 16-year- old when he left home to meet Yama, few others believe that he was just 14-year-old. Yet another version suggests that he was merely 5-year- old. Though I wish to believe that he was a teenager, I would allow you to accept any of the three ages that you prefer.

Let me retell the story to you.

Sage Vajashravas was performing a yagya, wherein he was to give away all his earthly wealth and possessions. The act of daan (giving away wealth in charity) epitomises detachment. Large number of sages and seers had come to that yagya. Nachiketa, Vajashravas’ son, was standing nearby. He was sad that his learned father was duping the holy men, in the name of charity. Vajashravas was picking out old, lame, one-eyed, blind and daan.

Nachiketa realised that his father was still caught in the trappings of maya and moha (illusions and delusions). The little boy understood that such a yagya was futile. This act of Vajashravas would bring dishonor to the entire clan.

He started pestering his father, “I am one of your dearest possessions. To which God will you offer me?” In a fit of rage, Vajashravas said, “I will give you to the Lord of Death.” There was a pall of shock and silence. How could a father say such a thing! The rishis left.

Meanwhile, Vajashravas realised his great folly. He sought Nachiketa’s forgiveness. Words that are uttered have been likened to the arrows that leave the quiver. Both, once released, cannot be withdrawn.

Nachiketa was polite, humble yet firm as a rock. Nothing could dissuade him. He left his father’s home, bidding his elders goodbye. He told his father that their ancestors never went back on their words. He too, thus, should allow him to go the gateway of the heavens. With a heavy heart, Sage Vajashravas, gave him to permission to follow his quest for Truth.

After an arduous journey, Nachiketa reached Yama’s abode. But, the Lord of Death was away. With single minded devotion, without food and water, Nachiketa waited patiently.

On his return, on Karthik Amavasya (New Moon of Diwali), Yama was touched by this little boy’s resolute devotion. He was sad that there was no one to welcome Nachiketa. He granted the lad three boons.

Nachiketa told Yama that his three boons would be thus. The first would be for his father and family. The second boon would be for all people and the last, for himself. Yama nodded in agreement.

His first wish was that his father be given wealth and prosperity and that he should be made the king. Yama granted it. His second wish was that how could people reach heaven when there is no sorrow, old age or death? Yama was pleased that the little boy did not ask anything for himself but had the welfare of people in mind. Yama talked of Karma and the various yagyas, the value of detachment that would help people to escape from the causal chain of rebirths – of many lives and many deaths.

The third and last question of Nachiketa surprised Yama. The little boy wanted to know the secret of death itself. Yama persuaded him to take back that question. The Lord of Death lured him with many gifts and temptations that are not within the ambit of human pleasure. But, Nachiketa was firm.

At one point, Yama said, “Even Gods do not know the answer to this question, how will you know?” Nachiketa reasoned even if Gods did not have an answer to the mystery of death, the Lord of Death certainly knew it. At last, Yama gave in to his single-minded devotion.

Nachiketa reasoned that the material world is transient and ephemeral. All wealth and boons are of no value to a dead person. He cannot take any of it with him. All these Yama had explained, in reply to his second question.

Pleasantly surprised and pleased with the little lad, Yama’s reply is the essence of the Upanishad, and therefore, Hinduism. He dwelled on the nature of the true Self (soul) that persisted beyond death. Self (soul) cannot be separated from the Brahman (mind or ‘Supreme Intelligence’ as Shree Aurobindo explains). The vital force of the Universe is the Supreme Spirit.

Yama, Nachiketa’s Guru (Great Master) elaborated and explained that ‘Om’ is not just few syllables or sound. It is the omnipresent Brahman (mind or Supreme Intelligence). Soul is formless – it is smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest – it’s all pervading. The Wise wish to know the meaning of the Soul. That’s the very goal of the wise one.

Yama then said that a Soul may be likened to a rider. The five senses are is horses. It is the Soul that guides the horses (senses). After death, it is the Soul that remains; the Soul is immortal.

The delusion of the intellectual is that by just reading and learning the scriptures, he cannot realise the Soul. He must be able to discriminate the Soul from the body that seeks nothing but desires. Lastly, Man’s inability to realise the Supreme Intelligence (Brahman) makes him get caught in the cycle of rebirths (cause of many sufferings). When one understands his true Self (soul) is he freed from the causality and the chains of rebirths. And that is true Moksha (salvation).

Nachiketa, sees light, is freed Avidya, and as a disciple of Yama, understands the deeper meanings of life and death. Let us bow in respect to the wisdom of a little boy. He brought light to our lives.

Without the knowledge of death, which is dark, one cannot light the lamp of Vidya in his Self (soul) and Brahman (mind). This, in essence, is the lesson of Diwali.

Let’s chant the mantra that leads us from darkness to light, from ignorance to wisdom, from sufferings and deaths to salvation (Amritam):

©Arindam Roy

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Arindam Roy has 37 years experience in various newsrooms. He was the Managing Editor of a reputed Gurgaon-based Citizen Journalist portal and has held senior positions in several publications. As Correspondent and Bureau Chief, he has written extensively for Associated Press, Times of India, Hindustan Times and multiple news outlets. He has contributed 13 chapters to various publications. Of these, seven chapters were published in two Coffee Table Books, published by the Times Group. He is a co-author of a novel, Rivers Run Back that he penned with Joyce Yarrow. The novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, on January 2015. He lives in Allahabad.