Chapter 1: Death Is the Master
We enter this Upanishad with the remembrance of the divine.truth, consciousness, bliss.
It is well known that Uddalaka, the son of Vajashrava, desiring to possess the fruits of vishvajit yagna, the fire ritual for world conquest, gave all his riches away to the brahmins. He had a son named Nachiketa.
When Uddalaka’s cows were being taken to be given to the brahmins as gifts, Nachiketa could see that they were very old. Their bodies were worn out, they had eaten their last, they had drunk their last water and given their last milk. Nachiketa was filled with trust and sincerity - he started thinking that to donate such useless cows was not right: “The person who donates these nearly dead cows will surely go to hell, the lower dimensions of existence, where there is no possibility for happiness or joy.” He thought, “I must discourage my father from doing such a thing.”
Nachiketa then asked his father, “And to whom will you give me as a gift?” Uddalaka remained silent.
When asked the same question a second and a third time, his father became angry and said, “I give you to death!”
Hearing this, Nachiketa started thinking within himself, “About most things, I have followed the highest conduct. About some things I may be a little remiss, but I have never fallen to any bad behavior. So why does my father say that he gives me to death? What could be the work of Yama, the Lord of Death, that my father wants to accomplish through me?”
Nachiketa said to his father, “Consider how your forefathers behaved and how other wise people now behave, then decide what is the right thing for you to do.
“Like the crops, mortal man ripens, withers and then is born again. So in this transitory life, man should not waver from goodness and engage in wrong actions. Do not be sad, father. Honor your word now and allow me to go to Yama, the Lord of Death.”
When he heard these words from his son, Uddalaka became very sad; but feeling Nachiketa’s dedication to truth, he allowed him to go to Yama.
When Nachiketa reached the abode of Yama he found that Yama was not at home, so he waited for him for three days without food or water.
When Yama returned home his wife said to him, “When a brahmin comes to a home as a guest, know that a divine being has come - so it is our duty to prepare for his rest, to give him our hospitality. The son of a brahmin has been sitting here; he has not eaten for three days. Go and receive him with reverence.”
Yama went to Nachiketa and said, “Oh brahmin! You are an honored athiti, an honored guest. You have stayed at my house for three days without food. Therefore, you can ask three wishes from me, one for each night.”