The Katha Upanishad

Omm Yogis, welcome back to the Living Wisdom blog. At the cusp twixt Summer and Autumn, it is time to go out into the fields of wisdom and harvest another crop, which has been lovingly cultivated and tended to by countless generations of Sages and Seekers. This time we must sharpen our scythes for the reaping, as the Grim Guru, Lord Yama (deity of death), dispels the darkness of our ignorance with His uncompromising truth and teachings.

We’ll be taking an enlightening journey through the Katha Upanishad over the coming months and this weeks blog is by way of introduction to this ancient fable which stands proud amongst the vedantic canon of India and which carries sapient weight across the ages and indeed across the continents.

So the set up in brief …

Nachiketa is our hero in this legendary story, a young boy and the son of a man of some wealth and public standing. His father is known for his charitable giving within the community and is something of a lauded figure amongst the local people. However Nachiketa, his son and heir, is a plain speaking and healthily sceptical early adolescent who does not blindly and blithely buy into the ‘generous’ persona promulgated by his old man; seeing as he does the artifice in his father’s  ‘charitable sacrifices’. In Nachiketa’s youthful, clear sighted, no-nonsense view his Dad’s alms are no more than a farce designed to look like selfless giving, when in fact the goods being donated have already been used to exhaustion, and are of no true value to the recipients. The example is given in the Upanishad of Nachiketa’s father giving away many head of cattle whose breeding and lactating days are well past and whose heads droop as they lack the vitality to even lift their chins.

This vulgar, ostentatious, display of wealth, dishonestly concealed in the garb of giving, to elicit public approval, is more than the sober youth, Nachiketa, can bear and he is moved to challenge the patriarch on his motives even calling into question his very integrity by dint of his forthright enquiry. This goes down none too well with his proud pater and father’s ire is piqued when Nachiketa probes “Dear father, to whom will you give me (an item of true value) away?”
The boy probes a second then a third time until, seized by anger, his father blurts, “To death I give you away!” In the modern vernacular we could interpret this furious response as  ‘Ah drop dead you irksome upstart!’ or similar hastily declared retort. To Nachiketa, his father’s readiness to ‘kill him’ with words is further evidence of the man’s moral bankruptcy and it comes as little shock to his young ears. But insult aside, the barb gives the lad some food for thought and before long his contemplations bring him to a profound inner enquiry. What if his father’s wish in that angry instant had been granted and he had sent him to death with his words, thoughts and feelings? What would being ‘given’ to death actually mean? How would it feel? These and a torrent of other questions inundate the boys mind and he becomes more and more absorbed by the premise of being given away to death. This absorption would have been a deep meditation, an internal journey in practice, but for the narrative format in the Upanishad it is rendered as an external odyssey by Nachiketa to the abode of Yama – the deity of death in Indian mythology.

Nachiketa arrives and Yama is not in his abode, but determined Nachiketa decides to wait. Three days and nights pass. In Indian custom it is the height of ill manners to leave a guest unattended in your home, and as such, Nachiketa is being dishonoured as a guest by Yama (albeit unknown to the host himself).
So when Yama arrives back home after three days to find the young boy waiting for him, he is apologetic for the dishonour and offers him three boons or wishes in recompense.

Nachiketa’s first wish is that Yama uses his omnipotence to restore parity, order and affection to his relationship with his father when he returns from death’s abode. He asks that his father be calm, well disposed and not resentful when he gets home, just as he was before the farcical charity brouhaha. Yama immediately sees this is done.

The boys second wish or boon is for Yama to instruct him as to the proper execution of a fire ritual. A ritual which will enable him, Nachiketa, to embody such a vitality in the system and such a state of expanded consciousness that he would abide in a perpetual state of joyful ecstasy. This state would be an internal heaven, wherein his nervous system was a conductor for all the most blissful and ecstatic energies in the Universe; freedom from sorrow and total immersion in joy. Yama immediately grants the wish and further adds a declaration that the fire ritual itself be known as the ‘Nachiketa fires’ from thereon in.

Nachiketa then asks for his third boon. He asks Yama to tell him the secret of immortality, to reveal what lies beyond the veil of death. The boy asks the deity of death to clarify what happens after a person dies and thus unlock the ultimate enigma of mortal men.

Yama hedges and fudges, he prevaricates and procrastinates, slipping and squirming away from a direct answer. Yama offers Nachiketa all the riches in the known world, he proffers unending life on earth, tempting him with anything he can imagine for himself, if he’ll only drop the last question about what happens after death. But not one to be deterred by evasiveness, the boy remains dogged in his appeal and persists in pressing home his will.

At this point Yama is torn between elation at finding such a vehement and resolute potential student as Nachiketa and a prudent sense of reservation learned from many brushes with fickle and flimsy human beings since time immemorial. However from this dissonance despite his reservations, the deity of death resolves that by denying all the worldly treasures offered to him, Nachiketa has proven himself worthy of receiving the highest of all teachings and being shown the workings behind the mystery of death and of life itself Yama pledges to take the unflinching Nachiketa as his student and to nurture him accordingly, instilling in the young lad a deep inner stillness and assuredness which can only come from true knowledge.

So Yogis, an enticing intro closes with us, the rapt audience, on genuine tenterhooks looking with real gusto ahead to the next instalment. But how does the tale of the three wishes pertain to us as Living Yogis? What is to be our specific and practical lesson from the first section of the Katha Upanishad? Well let’s draw the parallels between Nachiketa’s three boons and the three levels of training in the system of Living Yoga as taught by Steve at the Yoga Sanctuary …

Level One training offers a general ‘house cleaning’ for body and mind; students are encouraged to lead a more positive and meaningful life tidying up relationships and patterns or habits which left unattended could disrupt or obstruct a student’s Yogic progress, upliftment and reaching their full potential. Just as Nachiketa got his ‘house in order’ with his first wish by settling the unresolved disharmony with his father.

Level Two training invites practitioners to deepen their commitment and practice in order to address subtler tensions in the body and mind in preparation for the upgrade of the nervous system to one of ecstatic conductivity. This has the effect, long term, of endowing students with an inner ecstatic joy just as Nachiketa’s second wish, for knowledge of the fire ritual, did for him.

Level Three training involves advanced Yoga practices to cultivate the ecstatic nervous system and a profound and abiding inner stillness. This stillness can only be achieved with firm establishment in the Living Yoga Practices and their underpinning philosophy, accrued through time and effort and correct living in virtuous cycles. Nachiketa’s third boon brought the potential for stillness and inner certainty in much the same way by delving into some of the more deeply hidden truths of our very existence.

Omm Omm.

~ By Elliot Donnelly.


  1. I've been thinking on forgiveness, perhaps going off on a bit of a tangent away from the central messages of Nachiketa's tale, but it stuck with me probably because for some time I've been struggling to make sense of what forgiveness really means to me.

    As somebody who is highly sensitive (and only recently learning to embrace this), I'm aware I can be easily upset by others, and that it can be a struggle at times not to be overwhelmed by these feelings. It also means that empathy comes easily and so despite any hurt caused and the resulting anger/disappointment/frustration/upset/sense of injustice done, I usually find it easy to 'forgive' others. Or maybe I sometimes do this just to please others? Or because it's the 'right' thing do? Or the right thing to be seen by others to do? Or do I forgive others their actions because I eventually decide that I have no right to feel like I do because I'm being irrationally sensitive and emotional and just need to 'man up'. Over the years I've allowed myself, at least in part, to buy into the Western ideal of extroversion - that these are qualities to be valued and admired. Sensitivity, introvertedness and quietness on the other hand are things that need to be corrected and changed. All through my school years, at every parents evening and on every single report, year on year, I was told that I was doing well 'but....', there was always the 'but'. I needed to be more outspoken, more extrovert. Different to how I am basically. I think I began to judge myself as others had judged me.

    And so back to forgiveness. For me, forgiving others I think actually changes very little for me, likewise being forgiven by others. Mostly people aren't even aware they've upset me in the first place, and why should I assume anyway that my forgiveness would matter to them even if they were aware. And just because somebody forgives me for my mistakes doesn't mean that it automatically follows that I will forgive myself.

    And so in thinking more about forgiveness I'm thinking that I need to continue to try to be more forgiving of myself, exploring the hurt I feel when I feel I've been wronged by others or when I feel I've wronged somebody else, and what it says about the relationship I have with myself. Feelings around forgiveness start and end me, I am responsible for the ways in which I'm affected by them, they can't be resolved by anybody else outside of me. I think this is part of the yoga journey of course, and in honesty it's a painful one for me but the path feels right and so I carry on. I think it feels so painful because the senses are opened even further, and when you're highly sensitive they are already in a constant state of high arousal, hence it's all a bit overwhelming at times. And so, for me at least, everything becomes a trigger for further self-judgement. And so I come back again to self-forgiveness.

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  4. Your post above triggered me look at the difference between forgiveness and compassion. I tend to centre on compassion as opposed to forgiveness. Outcome was that with forgiveness feel there is a right or wrong in the picture but with compassion feels it brings you into feeling with other people recognising you all go through life's ups and downs. Although with compassion this does not mean letting people walk over you or sliding down into comfortable ego ride but taking firm yet loving action with your self or others. Also feel compassion is more in present and forgiveness is something in past.

    1. Yes compassion feels much better, thank you for pointing out the distinction. I think that's what I've been practicing in the main but maybe the idea of forgiveness was confusing and muddying it. Forgiveness doesn't seem to sit all that well with me, perhaps suggesting a sort of power imbalance, related to the right and wrong as you point out.

    2. Yes compassion feels much better, thank you for pointing out the distinction. I think that's what I've been practicing in the main but maybe the idea of forgiveness was confusing and muddying it. Forgiveness doesn't seem to sit all that well with me, perhaps suggesting a sort of power imbalance, related to the right and wrong as you point out.

  5. This first instalment hit the spot for me – especially the first two ‘boons’ Nachiketa asked for.

    The first - before I can seek God wholeheartedly, I must first work through my own attachments, relationships, the hurt I have caused others, the cravings I still hold. Until I can free myself of the Karma I have created and am still creating, how can I be free to open myself ? Such a quick reminder of a whole chapter of the Bhagavad Gita !

    The second – to allow God to express through the being that I am, I must prepare myself, open myself, cleanse myself. Make myself a fit vessel. Through the practice of yoga, spinal breathing, meditation. The practices which have been so generously shared with us.

    And then he is ready for the third boon, to ask what lies beyond.

    Can’t wait :-)

  6. Beautiful summary and perfectly translated analogy at the end with the different levels at The Sanctuary. Looking forward to further dialogue...


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