Nachiketa (Sanskrit: नचिकेत), also known as Nachiketā (Sanskrit: नचिकेता), or Nachiketas (Sanskrit: नचिकेतस्) or sometimes even Nachiketan (Sanskrit: नचिकेतन्) was the son of the sage Vājashravas (Sanskrit: वाजश्रवस्, lit. famous for donations). He is the child protagonist in an ancient Indian story about the nature of the atman (self). The story is told in the Katha Upanishad (c. 9th century BCE), though the name has several earlier references. He was taught self-knowledge, the knowledge about atman (self) and Brahman (ultimate reality), by the Lord Yama, the Dharmaraja. Nachiketa is noted for his rejection of material desires which are ephemeral, and for his single-minded pursuit of the path of realizing salvation/Moksha i.e. self-knowledge.
The masculine word Nachiketa(नचिकेत/नचिकेता/नचिकेतस्/नचिकेतन्) has various meanings which are interrelated with its other meanings. It is basically a combination of three words- न+चि+केतृ (IAST: na+ci+ketṛ). न (na) means negation, चि (chi) stands for चैतन्य (IAST: Chaitanya) i.e. unending spiritual energy and केत/केता/केतस्/केतन् (IAST: keta/ketā/ketas/Ketan) which is a short form of केतु (Ketu) means continuous revolving action. Therefore, literally, the name means the one who does not let his energy be lost in an endless loop.
However, there are other meanings of the name which are-
- That which is unperceived.
- The quickening Spirit that lies within all things like latent in wood, etc.
- The spirit that gives the unquenchable thirst for the unknown.
- Fire (in simple terms).
According to Hinduism, since fire is considered to be one of the holy & pure elements, Puranas name the first emerged fire as Nachiket.
The Rigveda 10.135 talks of Yama and a child, who may be a reference to Nachiketa. He is also mentioned in the Taittiriya Brahmana, 3.1.8 Later, in the Mahabharata, the name appears as one of the sages present in the Sabha (royal assembly) of King Yudhishthira (Sabha Parva, Section IV,) and also in the Anusasana Parva (106). However, the primary story, dealing with the dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama, comes from the later Katha Upanishad, which is summarized below.
Katha Upanishad: Nachiketa and Yama
Vājashravasa, desiring a gift from the gods, started an offering to donate all his possession which is called ' SARVA DAKSHINA'. But Nachiketa, his son, noticed that Vajashravasa was donating only the cows that were old, barren, blind, or lame; not such as might buy the worshiper a place in heaven. Nachiketa wanting the best for his father's rite, asked: "I too am yours, to which God will you offer me?". After being pestered thus, Vājashravasa answered in a fit of anger, "I give you unto Dharmaraja Himself!"
So Nachiketa went to Dharmaraja's home, but the god was out, and he waited three days without any food or water. When Yama returned, he was sorry to see that a Brahmin guest had been waiting so long without food and water. In Indian culture guests are believed to be equal to god and causing trouble to god is a great sin. To compensate for his mistake, Yama told Nachiketa, "You have waited in my house for three days without hospitality, therefore ask three boons from me". Nachiketa first asked for peace for his father and himself, when he returned to his father. Yama agreed. Next, Nachiketa wished to learn the sacred fire sacrifice, which also Yama elaborated. For his third boon, Nachiketa wanted to learn the mystery of what comes after the death of the body.
Yama was reluctant on this question. He said that this had been a mystery even to the gods. He asked Nachiketa to ask for some other boon and offered many material gains.
But Nachiketa replied that material things will last only ephemerally and would not confer immortality. So, no other boon would do. Yama was secretly pleased with this disciple and elaborated on the nature of the true Self, which persists beyond the death of the body. The key of the realization is that this Self is inseparable from Brahman, the supreme spirit, the vital force in the universe. Yama's explanation is a succinct explication of Hindu metaphysics, and focuses on the following points:
- The sound Om! is the syllabus of the supreme Brahman
- The Atma, whose symbol is Om is the same as the omnipresent Brahman. Smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest, the Soul is formless and all-pervading.
- The goal of the wise is to know this Atma.
- The Atma is like a rider; the horses are the senses, which he guides through the maze of desires.
- After death, it is the Atma that remains; the Atman is immortal.
- Mere reading of the scriptures or intellectual learning cannot realize Atma.
- One must discriminate the Atma from the body, which is the seat of desire.
- Inability to realize Brahman results in one being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths. Understanding the Self leads to moksha
Thus having learned the wisdom of the Brahman from Yama, Nachiketa returned to his father as a jivan-muktha.
Nachiketa has been one of the most influential characters in Hinduism. Indian monk Swami Vivekananda said: "If I get ten or twelve boys with the faith of Nachiketa, I can turn the thoughts and pursuits of this country into a new channel."
- Sri Krishna/16
- "The Rig Veda, Hymn 10.135". Free media library. 19 September 2005. Archived from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
- Radhakrishnan, S. (1994). The Principal Upanishads. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India. ISBN 81-7223-124-5 p. 593.
- Mahabharata, Book 2, Sabha Parva Mahabharata, Book 2, Section IV, sacred-texts.com. p. 7.
- Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, Breath of the Eternal http://www.atmajyoti.org/up_katha_upanishad_text.asp Archived 29 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- "Swami Vivekananda on Nachiketa". Swami Vivekananda Quotes. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
- Sister Nivedita & Ananda K.Coomaraswamy: Myths and Legends of the Hindus and Buddhists, Kolkata, 2001 ISBN 81-7505-197-3
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- The Mahabharata, Book 13, Anusanana Parva sacred-texts.com