Nachiketa - The Ultimate Inquisitor

  • This article is about a conversation between Nachiketa and Lord Yama and its deeper learnings.  

The consciousness within us is the reflection of the Supreme Reality that is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnificent. It ensures the ascendance of all of us to the level where the wisdom gains its sublimity. However, only a few of us reach to that level and become Self-Realized Atmans.


Among those few in our culture are some who have proved their prodigiousness at a very young age. These child prodigies have proved beyond doubt that wisdom is not linked to age. The culture which relies on seeking and exploring, has seen umpteen children deeply embedded with this spirit making progress by their sublime jnana for generations to come.


The first of a series of articles about these young spiritual seekers in the Indian Philosophical tradition is about Nachiketa, the protagonist of the Kathopanishad.


The Kathopanishad is about the profound discourse between a young lad Nachiketa and Yama, the Lord of Death in Sanatan tradition. In ancient India, there was a person called Vajasrawas, who performed Sarv Dakshina Yajna in which one is supposed to offer everything he has, without exception; a preparation for spiritual life.


Since Vajasrawas was not prepared for it, he donates only those assets which are useless and thus sacrifices the most barren and weak cows. However, he refrains from donating his young child. His son Nachiketa was thoughtful and pensive by nature. He objects to this action and makes his father aware of his fault. This angers Vajasrawas who upon the repeated query of Nachiketa, “O father, whom have you decided to give me away?” says, “Nachiketa, I give you to the God of Death.”


Nachiketa leaves as soon as he gets this direction from his father and moves on the path to the Kingdom of Lord Yama. This shows Nachiketa followed his fathers’ instructions fully, without any ifs and buts. A unique aspect of India’s tradition is that the child frankly objects to the wrong doing of his father but abides by his command at the same time. 


When he arrives at the gate he finds that Lord Yama is not present in his Kingdom. So he patiently waits for three days, without any food or water. Finally, Yama returns to his abode on the third day when he is informed about the arrival of a young child.  Yama says: “Please him. Let him not burn; give him water!”  Immediately Lord Yama comes out, meets Nachiketa, pays obeisance and offers him three boons. 


तिस्त्रो   रात्रीर्यदवात्सीर्गृहे मे अनश्नन् ब्रह्मन्नतिथिर्नमस्य: ।
नमस्ते अस्तु ब्रह्मन् स्वस्ति में अस्तु तस्मात् प्रति त्रीन् बरान् वृणीष्व ॥९॥

“O Brahmana, you have fasted in my house for three nights. I make obeisance to you! Ask from me three boons, for the three nights you starved here, so that I may be blessed and do not incur the sin of not giving to my guest.”


Nachiketa here epitomizes patience, endurance and perseverance, which is a prerequisite for those who aspire to uplift themselves spiritually and metaphysically. Nachiketa’s wait for three days is a symbol of his acquiring invincibility over avidya, kama and karma. His inquisitiveness make him an exceptional child. Further, his spiritual quest and perplexity to know about the secret of Death enable his conquest over ignorance, desire and action. The three days spent at the gates of the kingdom of Lord Yama, is a type of severe penance performed by him to achieve Ultimate Jnana.


Nachiketa asks for the first boon;

शान्तसकल्प: सुमना यथा स्याद्वीतमन्युगौर्तमों माभि मृत्यो ।
त्वत्प्रसृष्टं माभिवदेत्प्रतीत एतत्त्रयाणां प्रथमं वरं वृणे ॥१०॥.

“When I return, released by you to the world of my father, may he receive me with a calm mind, free from anger, recognizing me as I have been before; not thinking that I am dead and returning.”

Yama agrees, then offers him second Boon;


स्वर्गे लोक न भयं किञ्चनास्ति न तत्र त्वं न जरया बिभेति ।
उभे तीर्त्वाशनायापिपासे शेकातिगो मोदते स्वर्गलोके ॥१२॥

स त्वमग्नि स्वर्ग्यमध्येषि मृत्यों प्रब्रूहि तवं श्रद्दधानाय मह्यम ।
स्वर्गलोका अमृतत्वं भजन्त एतद् द्वितीयेन वृणे वरेण ॥१३॥

The boon is about a vidya regarding sacrifices and Yama grants the boon to him even associating his name with that sacrifice by calling it the Nachiketa Sacrifice.

But the core of Katha Upanishad begins with Nachiketa asking for the third boon which leaves Yama astonished and bewildered. He asks Yama about knowledge concerning death.

येयं प्रेते विचिकित्सा मनुष्येऽस्तीत्येके नायमस्तीति चैके ।
एतद्विद्यामनुशिष्टस्त्वयाहं वराणामेष वरस्तृतीय: ॥२०॥

          When a person dies, there arises this doubt:

"He still exists," say some; "he does not," Say others.

I want you to teach me the truth. This is my third boon.

Upon hearing this, Lord Yama induces Nachiketa to ask for some other boon. However, Nachiketa does not ask, remains determined and perseverant not to. Finding him unrelenting Yama decided to impart spiritual instructions to Nachiketa and thus begins the profoundest discourse between Nachiketa and the Lord of Death.


Yama defines the two ways or paths called SHREYAS and PREYAS. Preyas, though being tempting for the humans, leads to mortality whereas, Shreyas is chosen by the intelligent one which makes one immortal. Shreyas makes an individual a self-realized atman and Preyas leads one to deeply get embedded into ignorance.


That this subtle and sublime discussion is going on between Lord Yama and a small child of five years old is amazing!


This ethos of the Sanatan culture makes it a unique symbol of quintessential wisdom, which is rarely found anywhere. The quest for what is unknown begins with the Vedas and culminates in knowledge of the Upanishadas.


Besides, the Katha Upanishad is one of the classic signs of this seeking and exploring approach manifesting itself in the mind of a child. This phenomena is hence not new to our culture, as we have many saints treading on the path of Jnana since very early childhood. Those who get this enlightenment so early are definitely going to look at the world with the eyes of their wise and intellectual nuances.


The protagonist of the Katha Upanishad can be an icon for our present day children or youth.


Nachiketa embodies multifarious qualities beginning with extreme obedience to absolute discrimination and dispassion (Vivek and Vairagya). Abiding by the command of his father and moving towards the Kingdom of Yama and when on being lured by Yama to ask for best material assets, his act of denial makes Nachiketa the favorite of our greatest seer Swami Vivekananda.


Swamiji was so fond of him that he once said, “If I get ten or twelve boys with the faith of Nachiketa, I can turn the thoughts and pursuits of this country in a new channel.” This statement of Swami Vivekananda fits into the present Indian milieu as this search for Nachiketas is still going on. 


In order to replicate Nachiketa, our children must be as spiritually and philosophically zealous and passionate as he was. Unfortunately, the greed and lust for accumulation of material wealth and possessions has so much affected our thoughts and intellect that we forget to inculcate such transcendental values among our offspring. This is the biggest cause of our cultural decline.


Thus, we require such thoughtful and probing young minds who carry the enthusiasm of Nachiketa and act as a beacon light for our country’s youngsters. Hence, as dutiful citizens of this Bharat Bhoomi, we must all strive hard to make these names a topic of discourse in each and every household.



1. Commentary on the Katha Upanishad, Swami Krishnananda, The Divine Life Society Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh, India. Website:

2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Vivekanand, Volume 3, The Adhyaksha Adavita Ashram, Uttarakhand.

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