This story goes back to the times when Yadnya were performed regularly in Eternal Dharma.
There was a wealthy man named Vaaj-Shravas (वाजश्रवस) who performed the Vishwa-Jit Yadnya (विश्वजित यज्ञ) . This Yadnya requires the performer to give away all his wealth and material possessions after the Yadnya. This is why this Yadnya was rarely performed.
Vaaj-Shravas began giving away all his material possessions after performing the Yadnya. Soon, he had nothing left. Nachiketas (नचिकेतस) was his young son. Nachiketas thought that he was also his father’s possession. So he asked his father ” To whom will you give me away?” (तत कस्म्ये माम दास्यसि?).
Vaaj-Shravas did not answer. So Nachiketas asked him again and again. Vaaj-Sharavas lost his temper and said to Nachiketas “I give you to Death“ (मृत्यवे त्वां ददामि). Soon, the anger of Vaaj-Shravas cooled. He told his son Nachiketas that his words were uttered in anger and should not be taken seriously.
Nachiketas however reminded his father that none of their ancestors had ever broken a promise or gone back on their word. So Nachiketas decided to go the abode of Yam or Death. At that time, a sound arose from the sky that told Nachiketas how to get to the abode of Yam.
Yam was not present when Nachiketas reached his abode. So Nachiketas waited at the door for three nights. When Yam finally returned, he found Nachiketas waiting for him. Yam said to Nachiketas:
- Oh Brahman, you, a venerable guest, waited at my abode for three nights. I am pleased with you. Ask me three boons (त्रीन वरान वृस्नीव).
The first two boons of Nachiketas were simple. The first was that his father’s anger be appeased and that his father may greet him happily when he returned. With second boon, Nachiketas wanted to know the nature of Agni (Fire) which led those who performed Yadnya to heaven. These were granted immediately by Yam.
As his third boon, Nachiketas wanted to know what happens after death:
- There is this doubt about a man who is dead – some say he is, some say he isn’t. I would like you to teach me this. That is my third boon.
Yam was surprised and disturbed. He cautioned Nachiketas:
- Even the Gods have doubts about this. This is difficult and very deep. Please ask me another boon.
- Oh Death, you have declared this is not easy to understand. You say even the Gods have doubts about this. A teacher like you cannot be found again. There is no boon equal to this.
At this point, Yam offered many temptations to Nachiketas:
- Choose sons and grandsons who would live a hundred years. Choose many cattle, elephants, gold and horses. Chose sovereignty over earth. You yourself can live as many years as you wish. Whatever desires that are difficult to attain in the mortal world, ask for those. Here are lovely maidens with chariots and lutes. The likes of them are not to be attained by men. But I can bestow all that on you. But Nachiketas, do not ask about Death.
Nachiketas was firm. He said pleasures of the world are transient and fleeting. He then said:
- What is there in that great hereafter, tell me that. This boon which penetrates into the hidden, no other boon will Nachiketas choose.
Yam realized that Nachiketas was indeed worthy of His Teaching. So he began teaching Nachiketas. After learning what Yam had to teach him, Nachiketas returned to his father, endowed with knowledge. He had attained glory in the world of Brahman (ब्रह्म).
The above story forms the first section, the first 13 verses of the Katha-UpaNiSad or the Story-UpaNiSad.
The next sections and verses of Katha-UpaNiSad describe the teachings of Yam to Nachiketas. When we get to those, readers will be reminded of Chapter II of the Bhagwat Geeta.
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