Life after Death

A young boy asked death whether there is life after death.

The story of the Kathopanishad goes as follows (this is an outline of the story in my version):

Beginning of Kathopanishad

In India, during the Upanishad time, a person who had renounced everything used to receive the highest honor.  Powerful kings used to bow down to the Sadhus who had renounced everything.  Even now we see at many places in India similar honor given to the sadhus.

A Rishi Uddalaka decided to perform a Yajna in which he had to renounce everything he had.  He had a huge Ashram and many cows.  At that time the wealth was considered by the number of cows one has.   When the time came closer for the Yajna, he started worrying about the future of his young son named Nachiketa.  Then, he decided to give away old cows that were of no use and were about to die.  He kept good cows hidden.   Nachiketa saw this.  He thought that his father is doing wrong thing and this will not do good to him.  But, how can he tell this to his father?  An idea came to his mind.  If his father gives him away to someone, then he did not have to worry about him.

Nachiketa went to his father and asked him to whom he is giving away to.  Father did not like the question.  He ignored him.  Nachiketa asked him second and third time.  Now, father got mad and said that he is giving him to death.

Lord Yama and nachiketa

Nachiketa sat down in meditation to go to the Lord of Death, called Yama.  When Nachiketa went to Yama’s home, he found that Yama was away for his work.  Nachiketa waited for Yama outside his house for three days without food, water and sleep.  When Yama returned home he felt sorry for Nachiketa.  To reward him, Yama requested Nachiketa to ask three boons.

Nachiketa asked his first boon that when Yama will release him to go home his father will receive him with love and accept him as his son.  Yama granted that boon to him.

Nachiketa asked second boon to learn a Yajna which takes him to heaven.  Yama taught him the Yajna and being pleased with his capacity to learn said that this Yajna will be known as Nachiketa Yajna.

The third boon is the central theme of Kathopanishad.  This young boy Nachiketa asked Yama that among the two groups of people, one who believes that there is life after death and another who believes that there is no life after death, who is telling the truth.  Nachiketa wanted to know this from the Lord of Death who is the only one knows what happens after death.

Death is a mystery of life.  No dead person ever came back to tell us what happens after death.  Many do not want to talk about death.  But, we cannot avoid the fact by not talking about it.  Death makes life more important and valuable.  From the perspective of death we can decide what is important in life and what is not.

What was the Yama’s answer?  Instead of giving the answer, Yama offered Nachiketa wealth, long life and pleasures of life.  Yama said, “O Nachiketa! This is a subtle knowledge.  Even highly evolved souls like Devas want to know this.  You can ask me long life, children, grandchildren, kingdom, and all the pleasures of the world. Please do not ask this boon.”  Nachiketa said, “O Yama! Long life comes to an end.  Pleasures of the senses are short-lived and they wear out senses.  You are the only teacher who can answer my question.  Therefore, I am not asking any other boon.”

Lord Yama was greatly pleased with Nachiketa.  He said, “O Nachiketa!  Any human being would have been tempted by a fraction of the pleasures I offered to you.  I offered to you all the possible pleasures available on the earth, but your mind was not deviated by them.  You are worthy for such knowledge.  May I have students like you.”

Kathopanishad is enriched with wonderful and inspiring thoughts following which we can acquire the highest knowledge possible for a human being.  Here I will just state few of these thoughts along with the answer to the basic question:  Is there a life after death?

Few teachings of Yama (of Kathopanishad):

  •  Pleasurable and preferable choices come to every human being.  Pleasurable things give pleasures to the senses and mind which are short-lived and bring miseries as their consequences.  They also increase our ignorance of ourselves and others. Preferable things lead us to the highest knowledge which gives us deeper understanding and awareness of human life and other people.  Such things bring unlimited happiness, satisfaction, and unselfish love for all.  Wise people chose preferable things over the pleasurable things.  While people with short-sightedness chose pleasurable things and then suffer
  •  Behind our body, mind and intellect, there is Atman (Soul) which is our true identity.  Body, mind and intellect are constantly changing.  These changes can be realized because of having Atman in the background.  Our body, mind and intellect are material.  They are made out of five elements, namely space, air, fire, water, and earth.  Atman is not made out of anything.  Just as we remove body, mind and intellect from a human being Atman remains, similarly if we remove name and form from the universe, Brahman (God) remains.   Atman is pure.  Its nature is Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss absolute.  It is the center of our existence. When the atman leaves the body, the body becomes dead.  Without Atman body, mind and intellect are nothing but matter.  All knowledge and bliss comes from the Atman.  This Atman cannot be killed by any weapon, nor can it be burnt by the fire, nor can it be drowned by the water, and nor can it be blown away by the wind.
  • Atman and Brahman are same.  Imagine, a pot is floating in an ocean and there is ocean water inside the pot.  Just as the water of the ocean outside the pot is the same as water inside the pot, Atman in an individual is the same as Brahman outside the individual.  Also, what is in the macro (universe) is in the micro (atom).  All characteristics of a tree are in its seed.  Thus, all characteristics of Brahman are in the Atman.
  • In order to realize this Atman (our true identity) we have to focus our mind on the Atman through the help of our pure (unpolluted) intellect.  The realization of Atman is not an intellectual knowledge.  This realization does not come only from reasoning.  Since our senses drag our mind away from the Atman to the world of sense-objects, we have to control them.  A person having no control on the senses, mind and intellect cannot realize this Atman.  A beautiful analogy is given in the Kathopanishad:  “A chariot is going in the world.  The senses of a being are the horses, mind is the rein, intellect is the driver and the Atman is the master sitting inside the chariot.”  We have to control our senses by our mind, our mind by our intellect, and our intellect by the power of our Atman.  Only then we have a smooth ride in this world.
  • A person with bad character, a restless person, and a person without self-control cannot realize this Atman.
  • Only a person who has realized this Atman (our true identity) can have ever-lasting peace of mind.  No one else.
  • It is not easy to realize this Atman.  One has to take proper guidance from knowledgeable people and properly make efforts to realize It.  Realization of Atman is difficult, but not impossible.  Many people have realized this Atman and have blessed humanity with their knowledge, love, and guidance.  Kathopanishad says to all, “Arise!  Awake!  And stop not till this goal (realization of Atman) is reached.”
  • After getting proper guidance from Lord Yama, Nachiketa realized this Atman and acquire the highest knowledge, eternal bliss, and immortality.

Answer to the question: “is there a life after death?”

The answer is “Yes, there is life after death.  But, it is for those who have not realized this Atman.”  Those who have realized the Atman become one with Atman and remain in bliss until they chose to acquire a life.

Mother Nature is compassionate.  A human being cannot fulfill all the worldly desires in one life.  Many unfulfilled desires remain when a person dies.  So, Mother Nature or Atman or Brahman creates bodies to fulfill these desires.  I tell students that a human being cannot sleep for 10-12 hours every day or eat as much as one wants.  Human body and human environment are not fit for this.  Thus, a person who had cravings left to sleep many hours in a day, or eat ferociously, or have unlimited sense-pleasures, then in the next life Mother Nature gives a body of an alligator, or a bear, or a dog to fulfill these desires.  When one gets tired of these limited pleasures, a life of ignorance and miseries, then Mother Nature gives a human body which is fit to realize one’s true identity, Atman.

26 thoughts on “Life after Death

  1. Thanks Uncle. This is beautifully written article. Very precisely you have given important and practically applicable points of the whole upnishada.

  2. Thank you Uncle for this inspiring story, and the informative post!
    I personally love how you explained how Atman and Brahman are the same — using the pot with the ocean water inside and outside of it. It made me realize how we are all a small part of the universe, but all are the same from the inside.
    Although I read the story of Nachiketa and Lord Yama before, I never learned the meaning behind it. Thank you for enlightening me!

  3. Thank you Uncle for posting this story. I think it is important because it really summarizes the core values of Vedanta philosophy, something that we sometimes need to be reminded of.

  4. Thank you Uncle. I think that Nachiketa was really ahead of his years, seeking the answer to his question over the pleasures that Yama promised him. I liked his devotion as a student and his focus. I also like the pot metaphor because it reminds me that we (people) are all united by Atman.

  5. Dear Uncle,
    I’m excited to see you have taken up blogging and appreciate you sharing your wisdom digitally. I’m a bit confused by some of the morals of the Nachiketa story and could use some clarification.

    1. What is value of Nachiketa’s 2nd boon (the one that shows him the yagna to get to heaven). It would seem the concept of heaven would be dissonant with the conception of realizing the Atman. If the idea of heaven is place where you go after death, where “you” is a collection of intellect, experiences, and consciousness – i.e. an individual. If the Atman is a part of truth or God, individuals identities cease to matter or exist. If we take Tagore’s metaphor of moksha as being the salt doll dissolving into the ocean, where it becomes a part of God/Truth – the salt doll as an individual entity ceases to exist. So the concept of heaven, were individuals lives blissfully maintaing their individual identities seems just as illusory as that of human experience being maya.

    2. I’ve been struggling to understand why the realization of Atman is not nihilistic. The terms term bliss and peace of mind to are used to describe the realization of the Atman, but those are sensory terms. If the realization of the Atman is the dissolution of the subjective self, who is experiencing the bliss?

    1. Dear Neetai: Thanks for your comments and questions. If writing does not satisfy you, call me and we can discuss your questions on the phone. To answer briefly: (1) “Ego” means a separate identity of oneself from Atman. This separate identity is itself Maya (an illusion). It is actually the seed of all duality and delusion. A person with this ego is called “jiva.” If this jiva has desires to enjoy pleasures after death and it has done some good works for merits, then Mother Nature provides subtle pleasures to this jiva. The place where such pleasures are given is a heaven after death. When the merits get exhausted (just like spending all the money in a vacation resort) then one comes back to the earth and starts all over again to attain liberation. From the delusion point of view I can say that, “If life is a dream, then heaven is a sweet dream and hell is a nightmare.”
      I have heard the salt doll example from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The salt doll being dissolve in an ocean means merging of the “ego” in the Infinite Brahman. That means losing all the sense of separate identity. In that state one loses the consciousness of one’s body and mind. This happens in the state of Samadhi. People have witnessed this in Sri Ramakrishna’s life. In the state of samadhi he used to lose his body consciousness and the consciousness of space and time. (2) Realization of Atman is not nihilist. It is true that when one is merged with Atman, then there is no experience of bliss and peace since there is no one remains to experience them. The experience of bliss and peace comes after the state of samadhi when the mind comes back to the gross self and one remembers oneself as Mr. or Miss so and so.

  6. Thank you Uncle for clearing up the question of what happens after death. I am sure this is a question we all have! I really like the analogies used to clarify the teaching of of Yama such as, the seed containing the tree, the pot in the ocean and the chariot of the senses.

  7. Last week someone asked, “What is the Hindu concept of heaven and hell”. While I remembered excerpts of Kathopanishad from few other books. I could not recollect my thoughts in a coherent fashion and I said that I will get back to you next week.

    This article explains the concept very beautifully and in a concise manner so that everybody can understand it. I greatly appreciated reading this.

    Uncle, many Western philosophers believes that Nachiketa’s question of life after death was a major turning point in Hinduism as it was practiced. They believe that the religion gained a deeper philosophical dimension from this point in time. Your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

    1. I don’t know in what sense the Western philosophers say this is the turning point. It is true that Kathopanishad is one of the very important Upanishads and had a great impact on the philosophical and spiritual development of Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda loved it very much. He quoted it often. His entire lecture “Realization” is on Kathopanishda. You should read that lecture. It was given in London. Many thoughts of Kathopanishad are common with Shrimad Bhagavad Gita and other Upanishads. However, in Kathopanishad many thoughts were very poetically expressed. Swami Vivekananda’s most quoted phrase “Arise! Awake! and stop not till the goal is reached” came from this Upanishad. Thank you for your comments.

  8. Thank you uncle for this informative post! It was interesting and inspiring me to learn that we are a small part of the universe, so we should not be self centered. I think Nachiketha’s devotion and commitment is something to be learned from this story and I look forward to reading more posts.

  9. This blog was very informative and it emphasized the teachings found in the Vedanta which are important because we often forget them. I enjoyed reading this blog with the different comparisons as well.

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