"Whenever you can, share. You never know who all will be able to see far away standing upon your shoulders!"
I write mainly on topics related to science and technology.
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This story is astonishing. Incomparable and incredible! And one of my favorites. But exactly why it is a favorite, I need to clarify that.
Though it's useless in general to even try to think what is true historically and what's not in such old stories. But, in my view, we can focus on the things that seem close to reality and ignore the ones which look like complete imagination. Of course, if you just want to read it as a work of fiction, then it's a different thing. But if there is the slightest intention of gaining some inspiration, we should be doing away with the obviously fictional parts.
What I feel is this - this does seem quite probable that the boy had asked, "To whom are you going to give me, father" (we'll come back to this), and this also seems likely that the father said, "I give yourself to 'death'", meaning "Go away, and die". But the subsequent events - that Nachiket found his way to Yam, and that Yam granted him wishes etc. - these are hard to swallow pills for me.
Nachiket's (aka Nachiketa) story is the story of Kathopnishad. Nachiket was the son of a sage/king called Vaajshravas in prehistoric times. He was a kid when Vajshravas started a fire-sacrifice ritual known as 'yagya' with a vow to donate everything he had. This particular yagya was appropriately called 'sarva-dakshina' or the 'all-sacrifice' yagya.
The yagya started and the donations began. This is when Nachiket caught attention of something. He found out that the cows which were being given away as part of the donations were moribund. They were blind, lame or infertile. He said to himself, "There is no point giving away such half-dead cows in the name of sacrifice. This is not right". So, he went and talked to his father. We can only guess what all arguments were exchanged between them, but it went to the point that Nachiket ended up asking this, "So, to whom are you going to give myself in this 'all-sacrifice' yagya, father?" Hearing this, clearly in anger, Vajshravas answered, "You? You'll be given to Yam (the lord of death)"!
Vajshravas must have intended only to intimidate the child, but this child stuck with his father's wish - he left home in search of 'death'. The story after it is a little weird and I've never been at ease with that. So, I'll narrate it quickly and hesitantly. Nachiket kept walking and he finally found himself at the doorsteps of Yamraj (aka Yam). Yamraj wasn't home. So, Nachiket waited for him at his door hungry and thirsty for three days. Finally when Yamraj came back, he was sorry for the kid, and he granted three boons to Nachiket in order to compensate for his three days of suffering. For the first boon, Nachiket asked him to pacify his father so that he would love him the way he used to, and that there should remain nothing for him to worry about. For the second one, he asked Yamraj to teach him the science and wisdom of fire (probably some rituals surrounding fire) that could help a person attain heaven and immortality. For the third boon, he asked regarding death itself - what happens after one dies, what remains and what does not - he showed his curiosity for knowing this.
Whatever Yamraj told Nachiket in answer to this question is basically the crux of Kathopnishad. Now, in all my understanding of Kathopnishad, it seems that though Yamraj did tell Nachiket "who" can get this knowledge and "how", but he held back exactly "what" this knowledge is. And whatever little he did tell, that too is not presented sufficiently logically or solidly. I can understand that it's not possible to impart such deep and esoteric knowledge to just anyone. One needs to come with preparation, some basic understanding of these things. But in totality, it doesn't seem to me that Yamraj answered Nachiket's question objectively and categorically.
But the story has interesting turns and events. And Nachiket's character is really inspiring for Vedantins.
My version of the story is this - after the father had said, "Go away, and die" - Nachiket left home. Then he (certainly in many years), strove and found out some of the deepest secrets of life and death. And then, as usually happened in the stories of those times - pieces were taken from different places and knit together. Let alone this, these scriptures were famously called "Shruti's", literally "heard (stuff)", as these were passed on to others and to the next generation just by oral recitations. Then it becomes so easy and probable for these stories to get garbled.
But the captivating part of the story is how the kid Nachiket was not able to bear seeing his father doing fraud. And fraud too, not in normal worldly affairs, but in deeds related to religion and spirituality. Every lover of truth must have had the same reaction. The Truth comes first, and then all the relations. If some unknown person does this, then maybe interrupting him is not the right call always, but if this kind of deed is done by somebody who is so close to oneself, like one's father, with whom one lives and eats, then one ought to speak up. And was it a small thing? You are giving away cows, that too cadaverous! Which can neither give milk nor offspring. Whom are you trying to fool, sir? All the people you are giving these things to is your subject, maybe that's why they are not objecting. Who knows, after the yagya their throats get slit. Or forget that, even during the yagya, what if they were made human-sacrifice! This is why everyone kept quiet.
Ideally, Nachiket should have also kept quiet, scared and intimated. India's son, and is not scared of his father? What will happen to Indian culture and civilization! Won't it collapse like a castle of sand? The Indian culture, where let alone a normal citizen, the most-reverent, the intelligent and the wise, Brahmin sages would show such despicable cunningness! But the followers of Vedanta are equally stubborn. Not easy to have a beef with them! Hence, Nachiket spoke. And spoke like fire, "Forget about cows, you tell me to whom are you going to donate me? You vowed to sacrifice everything, right? Then tell me whom am I being given to?" O dear Nachiket! You did the unbelievable! And then, the natural reaction came from the other side - "Ok, you are being given to death".
But again, Nachiket's reply was equal in intensity. Although it was clearly frightening, especially for a kid to hear this from his father's mouth, "Go away and die". But Nachiket held his ground, didn't flinch a bit and left home. That's it. Who will live in this abode of falsehood, with the leader of the liars? So he left in search of death. Every seeker of Truth will, for some time at least, will try to delve into the mystery of death as well. One of the universe's biggest and immovable truths is 'death'. One step on the way in knowing the Truth is knowing death as well.
What Nachiket learnt and understood after this, is less of a story and more of philosophy, so it should be discussed elsewhere. But this story, up to this point, has always been really enthralling for me.