This Upanishad belongs to the Taittiriya Shaakhaa of the Krishna Yajur Veda. It begins with a story and is in the form of a dialogue. According to this story. A poor and pious Brahmana, Vajasravasa, performs the Visvajit sacrifice and gives as presents to the priests a few old and feeble cows. His son, Naciketas, is disturbed by his father’s offerings and proposes that he himself may be offered as offering to a priest. His father declined to accept the proposal. When Naciketas persisted, his father in rage asked him to go to Yama (the God of death). Naciketas goes to the abode of Yama and there waits for him for three days and three nights without any food. On his return, Yama offers three gifts as compensation for the delay and discomfort caused to Naciketas. Nachiketas asked for three boons:
1) He be returned alive to his father and his father should not have any anger towards him.
2) He asked Yama to teach him the sacrifice, by the performance of which he can enter heaven and be freed from hunger, thirst, fear and sorrow. (Later on this sacrifice was renamed as the Nachiketaagni).
3) He wanted to know from Yama, what happens to man after he is dead.
The first two boons were readily granted by Yama. As regards the third boon, Yama tries to discourage Nachiketas from asking this question. Instead he tries to tempt Nachiketas by offering him wealth, progeny, kingship, etc. Nachiketas refused all these offers and insisted on knowing about life after death. The central theme of the Katha Upanishad is the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketas around the third boon.
Yama is very pleased with Nachiketas for not being tempted by worldly possessions and pleasures and makes the distinction between the Good and the Pleasant. Worldly interests such as power, wealth, family etc. constitute the pleasant. Spiritual values and interest in them constitute the good. The path of the ‘pleasant’ leads to ignorance and the path of the ‘good’ lead to Knowledge. Yama is happy that Nachiketas has chosen the good and so is qualified to receive Knowledge.
Yama goes on to say that ignorant people who are deluded by worldly pleasures, who are devoid of discrimination, who are heedless and who think that “this world alone exists, and there is no other” are caught in the cycle of birth and death, pleasure and pain. These people are not fit to receive knowledge.
Yama goes on to say that the wise man who not only discards the fulfillment of worldly desires but also the desire to enter heaven where there is no fear, sorrow or death, such a wise man by concentrating on the Self, realizes the Self.
It is further stated in this Upanishad that this God Knowledge or Self-realisation cannot be acquired by reasoning or by the study of the scriptures. For Self-realisation, one must be chosen by God. Then by God’s grace and with the help of an able teacher the person will be able to realize the Self. It is also explained how through Yoga methodology the breath and the senses can be controlled and the need for moral probity to lead a spiritual life.
A lot of importance is placed on the role of the teacher or Guru who helps one to realize the Self. This is well expressed through the following verses:
“A seeker cannot find his way to God unless he is told of God by another.”
“Arise! Awake! Approach the great and learn. Like the sharp edge of a razor is the path, so the wise say – hard to tread and difficult to cross.”
About the Guru, Sri Chinmoy expresses the following opinion:
“A seeker who studies the Upanishads and leads a life of self-enquiry and self-discipline is not and cannot be a mere player on the stage of life, but is rather a spiritual art director and a real divine producer. Further he has two broad shoulders and does not mind the burdens of the world. He feels that it is his obligation to assuage the bleeding heart of humanity. His life is the independence of thought and spirit. His heart’s dedicated service receives rich rewards from Above. He has mastered his own philosophy of life, which is to please Divinity in humanity.”
In some of the verses in this Upanishad, the unique nature of God or Brahman, often possessing contradictory attributes, are described. He is considered to be smaller than the smallest, and at the same time greater than the greatest, is still at the same time is moving, does not have a body yet resides in all living creatures. Brahman is birthless, eternal, everlasting and ancient. He is not killed when the body in which he resides is killed.
Brahman is also considered to be the syllable ‘AUM’. By meditating on ‘AUM’ one can attain Brahman. Whoever meditates successfully on this soundless sound ‘AUM’ realizes the Brahman.
A few metaphors like the chariot and the Asvattha tree are used to explain the relation between the Brahman and the souls and also to show that Brahman is the foundation and the basis of all.
In the metaphor of the chariot, the human body is identified with the chariot, the Atman to be the master of the chariot, the intellect to the charioteer, the mind to the reins, and the senses to the horses. If the mind is distracted then the buddhi or intellect related to the mind looses its discrimination and the senses become uncontrolled. In such a case the embodied soul or Atman never attains the goal, but enters into the round of births and deaths. On the other hand if the mind is restrained through discipline, then the buddhi possesses discrimination, the senses come under control and the embodied Atman attains that goal from which it is not born again.
In the metaphor of the Asvattha Tree, with its root above and branches below, the Brahman is identified with the root thus explaining that Brahman is Immortal, that all the worlds are contained in him and none can pass beOnd him. Sri Chinmoy explains this metaphor in the following manner:
“In the Upanishads we come across a tree called the asvattha tree. Unlike earthly trees, this tree has its roots above and its branches below. It has two types of branches. One type enters into the meshes of ignorance and then starts struggling, fighting and trying to come out again into the effulgence of Light. The other type of branch always tries to remain in the Light. Its movement is upward; its aspiration is upward.”