Myths & Legends of India: When Death Speaks

Myths & Legends of India  

When Death Speaks – pp. 111 




A melancholy rishi called Aruni had a burning longing for spiritual wisdom and the certainty of heaven and had given away all his possessions in sacrificial offerings to the gods. But when he wanted to give away his cows too, he realized gloomily that they were too old to be of use to the gods. They had lost their appetite for grass or for water, and no longer yielded milk. 

His son Nachiketas – his last and most precious possession – saw his father’s gloom and thought of offering himself. ‘Let me be the sacrifice,’ he said.  

At first his father would not listen: the thought was unbearable to him. So Nachiketas said again, ‘Let me be the sacrifice.’ Again his father shook his head and refused to discuss such a thing. 

Then Nachiketas said a third time: ‘Let me be the sacrifice;’ – and this time his father flew into a rage. ‘You humiliate me by pointing out that I have nothing,’ he shouted, ‘nothing left but you, whom my heart tells me not to give away. You think you are rendering me a services, but in fact you torment me – tear me in two with my longing to give away all I possess, and the love that makes me want to keep you.’ 

Nachiketas had wisdom beyond his years, and said, ‘You think that by giving me away you will lose me; but a true gift given to the gods will be rewarded a hundredfold. Do not fear for me. Name the god whom you would give me to, and I will go to him.’ 

‘I will give you to Death,’ said Aruni bitterly. 

‘Why I should be afraid of that?’ said Nachiketas. ‘It is the fate of all to be given to Death, to the great god Yama who has claimed so many before me and will claim so many to come. I will go to him eagerly, for why put off what we cannot avoid? Besides, all men are like corn: they ripen and are harvested; but then they ripen again.’ 

So Nachiketas set off, with his father still too gloomy and angry to bid him any loving farewell. 

He journeyed down to the underworld, to Yama’s cold and dark abode. When he arrived there, Yama was absent: there was nothing but a great, icy emptiness. Nachiketas had to sit for three whole days and nights without food; but he sat without stirring, calmly patient. 

When Yama returned, his servants came to him and said, ‘A Brahmin guest has been here for three whole days and nights. He has sat without moving, calmly and patiently, unstired either by hunger, thirst, or cold. It is a sin not to offer hospitality to a Brahmin.’ 

If it is true what you say,’ said Yama, ‘that he has been patient and uncomplaining, then I shall offer him a reward.’ 

Then, calling Nachiketas to him, he said, ‘The anger of Brahmins when they arrive at a house, and are offered no hospitality, is well known. You had a right to be angry. But my servants tell me that you waited uncomplainingly. Choose three boons: anything that you desire.’ 


~Yama & Nachiketas~

Nachiketas bowed before Yama, and said, ‘the first boon that I ask of you is this. Let my father, who was so sad at having nothing but worn-out cows to offer to the gods, and yet was not pleased when I offered myself – indeed, was angry with me, and lashed out at me with better words – let him be appeased, so that when I return to him he will welcome me with love and joy. Let him understand that my offering of myself was an act of love. It was not done to torment and humiliate him.’ 

‘This boon is granted,’ said Yama. ‘When you return to your father, he will greet you and embrace you with all the love that you knew before he became so gloomy. He will be joyous with thanks that you have returned from my presence, and when he goes to bed he will sleep as sweetly as a child.’ 

“Thank you,’ said Nachiketas. ‘Now my second boon. My father performed his many sacrifices out of burning desire for heaven. Give me the sacred fire that will lead him to heaven. Tell me how to make the altar on which it will be lit, so that my father can achieve his goal.’ 

‘This boon is granted too,’ said Yama. ‘I give you the fire, and it will be known for ever afterwards by your name. It is the fire of Creation, of the beginning and the end of all worlds; its sacred source is in your own heart. I will teach you how to make the altar for the fire, which bricks to use and how to place them. You will pass this knowledge to your father, and he will achieve his goal. And many others after him will achieve that goal too, by following the sacred ritual of the fire-sacrifice. By lighting the fire three times, and by performing three prescribed actions, they shall know the god of fire, cast off the bonds of mortality, and gain everlasting joy.’ 

‘Thank you,’ said Nachiketas. ‘Now my third boon. I ask you for an answer to a question. When a man dies, what happens? Some sages say that there is something in him that still exists, even though his body is dead; other sages say that nothing of him exists. Which is the true answer?’ 

Yama fell silent for a while, when Nachiketas asked him this question. He sighed and seemed lost for words. Then he said, ‘This is a question that even the gods have often asked; even they do not know the answer. It is a hard question. I ask you to consider some other boon. Ask for anything you wish – immeasurable wealth, a hundred sons, vast estates of land, a long and healthy life: anything other than the answer to the hardest question of all. Ask for all the delights of heaven – the most beautiful nymphs, ravishing in their songs and dances; ask for any pleasure of luxury that you wish, instead of the answer to this question.’ 

‘Why should I want all of those?’ said Nachiketas. ‘None of these things can give me or any man lasting satisfaction, if our own days are numbered. Tell me what lasts, if anything lasts at all. Tell me what still exists, after the body dies. You have secured my father’s peace and happiness; you have given me the knowledge of the fire-sacrifice. Give me now, as my third promised boon, the only gift I want: that of knowing and understanding what happens after death.’

Yama sighed again, and then he spoke. He spoke the ineffable wisdom of the Katha Upanishad He spoke of man’s immortal soul: the Atman that he carries within him, and which cannot die, even if the body dies, even if the body is killed. He spoke of the all-inclusive, eternal sound OM (AUM), that contains all other sounds. He spoke of the release from life and death attained by those who grasp the truth of the OM (AUM); or the light and joy that floods into the consciousness of those who can perceive and know their inmost soul. He spoke of the love for all Creation felt by all who can attain the highest goal. This was the third boon, the most important of all; the supreme teaching that Nachiketas took with him when he returned from Yama’s abode.

And when his father saw him approach again, and rushed to embrace him, free of the gloom and bitterness that had so gripped his heart, it was the joy of the supreme teaching that above all his son was able to impart: the reward that Nachiketas knew his act of self-sacrifice would bring. 

‘You need not have feared, father,’ he said; ‘and there was no need for your anger and despair. I gave myself to Death – traveled to his dark abode. I’ve returned with the gift of Life.’

One thought on “Myths & Legends of India: When Death Speaks

  1. Pingback: Year 6 | Inside A Soul

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