Nachiketa’s Greatest Boon: Going Beyond Death

The Katha Upanishad is remarkable for its poignancy, beauty, and clarity. Poignantly does it describe a dialogue between a teenager Nachiketa and Yama, the presider over death. Nachiketa, afraid of death and rightly so, asks how he might go beyond death.

What is clearly articulated are the whispers of a path. So:

When the five senses are stilled, when the mind / Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled, / That is called the highest state by the wise (Katha Upanishad 3:10-11, Easwaran translation)

In beautiful verse, the youth is urged to “go back the way he came” (to quote Maharshi). Therefore, he is to begin with the physical senses and accordingly withdraw both from sense objects and from the sense organs (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Next, he is to view the mind and, through practice, “look at the mind from outside of the mind” (Nisargadatta). Behind the intellect, as Maharshi has gone to great pains to show, is the ego, which is most purely witnessed in the form of the I-thought.

Elsewhere, the Katha Upanishad tells us that consciousness, which is universal but which has already tumbled forth into being, gives way to what is “prior to consciousness” (to quote Nisargadatta). And what is prior to consciousness but the True Self?

Beyond the physical senses, the mind, and consciousness, then, is the True Self, standing supreme, abiding as Itself. This is what Nachiketa seeks; in seeking This, he seeks Himself. And “That is called the highest state by the wise.”

This “highest state” is, in fact, a “no-state state” (Stephen Wolinsky) in the sense that it is timeless, spaceless, changeless, and more. States change, but only This remains.

Death applies to the physical and mental forms, but the Deathless, prior to all births and deaths yet also tumbling forth in countless temporary names and forms, reigns supreme. The simple formula, “Atman is Brahman,” reveals the highest truth: that who I essentially am is none other than the supreme, single, unborn, and deathless Reality. Whatever is temporal I am not; whatever is eternal That I am.

The poem ends:

Nachiketa learned from the king of death / The whole discipline of meditation [which was said to be necessary for Self-realization]. Freeing himself from all separateness [to wit, the belief and feeling that he is a separate self], / He won immortality in [and as] Brahman. / So blessed is everyone who knows the Self!