India and Indians have always been fascinated by the philosophy of death and the objective of life. Almost every ancient scripture to modern bollywood movies, death and the purpose of life is analysed consciously or sub-consciously. This fascination reflects the inquisitive nature of Indians and Indian philosophy, which is otherwise loosely termed as Hinduism. A separate blog is required to discuss the nature of Hinduism as a philosophy (or a way of life) rather than a religion. What I strive to discuss in this post is an ancient scripture called Katha Upanishad which in a beautiful story discusses death. Of the most profound philosophical works in Indian history, Vedas and Vedantas are the most ancient, most lucid and certainly the most authentic. Having strong religious basis, the philosophical under currents are of great interest to those uninterested in the religion. The Upanishads are the most developed of the Vedantas and is a sublime commentary on the Vedas engaging in philosophical speculation about the implications of the ancient invocations, mantras and rituals recorded in the Vedas. Initially there were over two hundred Upanishads, but the philosopher Shankara only considered fifteen or so to be primary. Of the fifteen, Katha Upanishad is the one that deals exclusively on the subject of Death. Presented as a conversation between a boy by the name of Naciketas and Yama, the god of death, much concerning the Inner Nature of Man and the secret of death is elaborated.
Nachiketa hassles his father on a particularly tiring day when his father has just completed a sacrifice and presented gifts to all. Nachiketa is curious as to whom his father will give him away as he has given away everything else. On being continually harassed by his son, the father (Gautama) says to Nachiketa in anger, “ To Death I give you”. The steadfast son that he is, he immediately embarks on a trip to meet Yama (the lord of death). Yama is not at his abode when Nachiketa arrives. The young boy spends three days and three nights at Yama’s doorstep without food or water. When Yama comes back, he sees a young Brahmin boy asleep at his footsteps and immediately envisions his dedication and resolve. Pleased Yama addresses the boy:
"Since you have stayed in my house as a sacred guestfor three nights without food, I salute you, priest.May it be well with me.Therefore in return choose three gifts."
A story has been set in the background as is the case in many Indian scriptures and it is time now for the philosophical discussion. Nachiketa’s first two gifts are relatively irrelevant to our discussion here. But it is his third wish that reflects the advanced philosophical thinking at around 1500 BC when the Upanishads was presumably written. As his third gift Nachiketa asks the following question:
"There is doubt concerning people who are deceased.Some say they exist, and others say they do not exist.Being taught by you, I would know this.Of the gifts, this is the third gift."
This jolts Yama, who does not expect a young boy to be interested in the meaning of Death which in Yama’s own words:
"Even the gods of old had doubt as to this.It is not easy to understand, so subtle is this law.Choose another gift, Nachiketas.Do not press me; release me from this one."
But Nachiketa is adamant. Yama tests the boy’s resolve by tempting him with
"Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a century,many cattle, elephants, gold, and horses.Choose a great estate of landand live as many years as you want.If you think this is an equal gift,choose wealth and long life.Nachiketas, be the ruler of a great country;I will make you the enjoyer of your desires.Whatever desires are hard to get in the mortal world,request all those desires at your pleasure.Here are lovely maidens with chariots and music;these are not to be attained by anyone.Be served by these whom I give you.Nachiketas, do not ask about death."
But Nachiketa refuses all the above with a profound logic confounding us today on how the author in 1500 BC could have such a sublime way of thought:
"Transient are the things of mortals, Ender,wearing away all the vigor of their senses.Even a full life is short.Yours be the chariots; yours be the dance and song.A person cannot be satisfied with wealth.Shall we enjoy wealth when we have seen you?Shall we live so long as you are in power?This is the gift to be chosen by me.Having approached undecaying immortality,what decaying mortal on this earth below that understands,that contemplates the pleasures of beauty and enjoyment,would delight in an over-long life?This about which they doubt, Death,what there is in the great passing-on---tell us that.This gift that penetrates the mystery,no other than that does Nachiketas choose."
Herein begins the conversation between Nachiketa and Yama. I would not delve deeper into the conversation for each man’s interpretation of the conversation would be different wherein lies the beauty of this scripture. Rather than saying that this is gods will, the Katha Upanishad goes on a complex logical route to explain the transient nature of everyday human happiness and desires and the permanence of human knowledge. It is for each of you to read and realise what I have from this great scripture. It is easy to dismiss this scripture as an ancient rambling on religion, but it is so much more than that. If we could ignore all that is irrelevant and pick the true words of wisdom we would realise the subtlety of ancient Indian philosophical works. It is essentially meant to be cloaked or disguised and left open to logical analysis. It is for each of us to find the answer and that’s what makes Indian writing and the religion (I would call it philosophy) so different. There is no one answer, one destination. There are however a few paths for us to choose. Whichever we choose it is imperitive that we travel well…
When I think of it, from time to time, you could find a new path for yourself as long as it is righteous…That’s the beauty of Indian philosophy and Katha Upanishad is a shining example of that beauty.