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):
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.
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.