A Dialogue With Death

In both the Vedic and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the personification of death is known as Yamaraj, or simply, Yama. Not to be confused with the Grim Reaper, Death is quite a gentleman, actually… His minions? Eh, not so much.

Anyway, the following is a very old story which first appeared in the Rg Veda and later provided the basis for the Katha Upanisad. You may want to get yourself a nice, hot beverage for this one:

One day, a young brahmin boy named Nachiketa ran away from home and found his way to Death’s door, literally.

Yama wasn’t home and “Mrs. Yama” didn’t let him in, nor did she offer him any food or water, so the boy fasted.

Three days passed as he waited for Yama to return home.

When he finally returned, Yama was mortified to find the boy waiting and fasting at his door. Having kept the young brahmin boy waiting for three days, Yama offered him three boons.

Nachiketa’s father had been upset with him before he ran away, so the boy said, “My first request is this: When I return home, may my father welcome me lovingly.”

Tathastu, replied Yama, So be it.

“My second request is to be shown a yajna, or fire ceremony, by which I can attain the celestial realms.”

Tathastu, replied Yama, So be it.

Nachiketa continued, “What exists after death? Explain it to me. This is my third request—the truth relating to the mystery of death.”

Now Yama hesitated.

He didn’t want to explain the mystery of death to Nachiketa without testing the eagerness and sincerity of the boy, so he told Nachiketa that even the gods had difficulty understanding it.

“Ask any other boon and I shall grant it to you with great pleasure,” said Yama.

But Nachiketa was steadfast.

“Oh King of Death,” he said, “I shall not make any other request. There is no boon equal to this, and I must have it.”

Yama tried another route.

He offered Nachiketa a life span of as many years as he might wish –with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; fine horses and elephants, gold, jewels and all the pleasures of heaven.

He even offered Nachiketa the Kingdom of Earth.

But Nachiketa wasn’t interested in Yama’s temptations.

When Yama saw the clarity and determination of Nachiketa, he gladly offered to grant his third request and blessed him with knowledge of the immortal soul (atma-jnan).

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत
प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया
दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ कठ उपनिषद् – 1.3.14 ॥


Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones,
for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to go by, say the wise. ~Katha Upanishad 1.3.14


Yamaraj illustration courtesy of Vahini Art Gallery.

This entry was posted in Old Yoga Stories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Dialogue With Death

  1. I can’t say that I have any concrete thoughts on this just yet…it is something I want to take my time with, roll it about in my mind. Thank you for this. :)

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