Kaṭha Upaniṣad: The Secret Teachings of Death

“The great message of the universe is not that you survive. It is that you are awakened into a process in which nothing ultimately survives. Everything ultimately changes. Everything that rises also falls…the Law [is to become] a sacrifice, to yield one’s independent position.”

— Easy Death, Da Free John

The Wise Child

There’s something that you will never forget in your life. I know I haven’t. It’s the first time you see a dead body—the first time you meet Death. 

I was 12 when it happened to me. Our eighth grade had just returned from the annual class trip. We’d taken a luxury coach to Washington, D.C. and I sat next to a guy I knew from science class—Andy whom we all called “Sharky.” We spent the whole way chatting, munching, and snorting over jokes.

The next day we were told in school that Andy-aka-Sharky had died.   

Out of the blue. 

We were invited for the “viewing” and that’s when I saw it—the shell that used to contain my friend. Later my mother asked me what it was like, my first funeral. 

“He looked like wax,” I offered. There was no other way to describe the strange make-up the funeral home people had applied. There was no way to explain the absolute stillness he possessed, as if frozen in time. 

“His father was inconsolable,” I added. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more broken man—his only son taken so suddenly. And to this day, no one knows why. The autopsy showed “natural causes.” He just woke up and dropped dead for no apparent reason whatsoever. 

His father loomed over Andy’s body in the casket, wringing his hands and repeating the same thing over and over again, “How?”

All of us were asking the same thing, “How did it happen?” Such a young boy with a full life ahead of him taken by Death. One day sitting and laughing, the next day laid out in a metal box bound for a grave dug in dirt. 

Somehow we believed that only old people die, not young kids like us.

Once another teenager named Nachiketas (who was also sent to Death prematurely) questioned similarly, “Why are only old and useless things given as sacrifice?” He’d watched his father giving only cows who no longer gave milk to the sacrificial fire. It seemed odd to him. 

“Is it a real sacrifice if we only give what we no longer have a use for?” he questioned. 

Nachiketas wasn’t being cheeky. He genuinely wanted to learn. And he was wise enough to know that you can’t learn unless you’re aligned with the truth. His father was committing a hypocrisy and he pointed it out as children often do. How can you make a real sacrifice if you don’t want what you’re sacrificing to begin with?

The truth hurts. His father, Vājaśravasa, became irritated—which intensified after the next question. 

Nachiketas wondered to himself, “My father claims he’s a renunciate. Yet he still identifies me as his son, which he clearly has no more use for—like his old cows—now that he’s given up the world.” Then he asked, “Who would you give me to, Father?”

Now fully angry, Vājaśravasa, blurted out, “To Death. I give you to Death.” 

Of course he didn’t mean it, but being a brahmin meant his word was gold. Nachiketas went to Death. And his father grieved. Hard. 

There’s something about a child pre-deceasing his parents that upsets the natural order. It leaves us with a deep question mark—that’s unique among life’s questions. It’s more like a koan. It begs your attention and yet leaves you dissatisfied with the answers—until you come to a beautiful “I don’t know,” which is wonder.

The koan leads you to the end of knowledge, vedānta. Then you can know without knowing, like a wise child. 

In the Vedic tradition, a student is ready for the highest knowledge—the end of knowing—when such a question fills her mind. She can think of nothing else. 

It can happen in any context, but the most potent is in the presence of Death. Sharky’s father was a ripe candidate for knowledge. That question will roll around in his mind endlessly seeking an answer that never will come. “How did this happen?”

When the student is ready the teacher appears. The answer arises when the question drops.

It’s said that when Nachiketas witnessed his father’s hypocritical sacrifices, śraddhā entered his heart. In Sanskrit, śraddhā means “faith.” It’s the faith of an expectant mother. Both, birth into this world and the passage into death requires this kind of faith. It’s what arises when you’ve exhausted the koan.

Śraddhā is real surrender, not like Vājaśravasa’s feigned sacrifice. Śraddhā is a complete unknowing of how it will turn out, but a willingness to accept the outcome. Otherwise we grieve.

Nachiketas was ripe for knowledge because he’d reached its end. He was innocent. He was a wise child. He accepted his fate because he wanted to learn what happens when we die. He was willing to go before his father, so he could meet Death for the answer. 

Death responded with the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, “the teachings that dispel (kaṭha) grief.” 

Above: Circle of Life by Chelsea Rushton

In the House of Death

A brahmin enters a house like fire. That’s why you have to immediately offer him a drink of water, lest he burn down the place. But upon reaching Death’s door, Nachiketas sat for three days without food or water. 

Finally Death as Yama, the “Restrainer,” appeared to find his neglected guest. To make up for his lack of hospitality, Yama granted Nachiketas three wishes. 

Numerologically “three” has potent meanings in the Vedic tradition. It summarizes the operative laws in the universe: creation, maintenance, and transformation. It’s death, birth, and rebirth. It’s waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Ultimately, it’s the three syllables that make up the mantra Oṁ (AUM) which reverberate as the vibration of the unified field, making up all things as their inner essence.

It’s also symbolic of the central context of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad—reincarnation. “Three” connotes a wheel—an unending cycle that keeps us passing from life to life. 

Already in the Vedas the doctrine of rebirth was firmly established. The Śatapatha Brāhmana describes the human body at death—how it dissolves back into nature and will return again: 

“The eye goes to the sun, the breath to the wind. The speech dissolves in fire, mind in the moon. The ears become one with the quarters of heaven, the body to the earth. The soul merges with ether. Hair becomes plants and trees and blood and seed return to the waters.” (S.B. I.5.3.4; X.3.3.8)

Waiting for three “nights,” Nachiketas reminds us of the Buddha’s “Three Watches of the Night” in which he witnessed his past and future births before entering enlightenment. At Death’s door, Nachiketas is witness to the passing of “three,” a symbolic reference to the law of reincarnation. 

Nachiketas’ three wishes teach us about the three paths of the soul at death, which the later haṭha yoga tradition identifies as the three naḍis, the three pranic pathways that carry the current of our attention either toward liberation or bondage. 

The First Wish

Once the mother of a five-year-old boy came to me for a Vedic Astrology consultation. He was having trouble adjusting to pre-school because he was convinced he was a soldier fighting in World War II. Scaring the other children with descriptive battle scenes, his teacher requested he be removed from the school. His obsession with war scenes became too much.

Sheryl, the boy’s mother, arrived in my office nervously. She looked like she hadn’t slept in some time. And her eyes had a mist of fear about them. I think she was scared about what I was going to say to her.

“So we’re here to discuss your son’s natal chart,” I began. “Do you have any questions or issues you’re concerned about that you’d like me to address in the reading?”

Breathing out a long sigh, Sheryl explained the reason for her visit with me.

“Yes, there’s something I’m worried about with my son, Cody. He’s obsessed with World War II. Neither my husband nor I have any idea why. We’ve never discussed the war, nor has he seen any movies or anything else that would explain the detail with which he describes scenes from the battlefields. Now his pre-school teacher thinks we need to have him psychologically evaluated because it’s all he talks about. On top of it, he insists on being called ‘Joe.’”

She reached for a tissue. “I’m afraid he’s not normal. I mean—this isn’t normal, right?”

I looked to Cody’s Vedic Astrological chart for an answer. I noticed immediately he was born under the influence of Ketu—the south node of the Moon—which in Vedic astrology signifies previous birth impressions.

“Was there a person in your family named ‘Joe’ who’s no longer with us?” I asked.

Looking up at the ceiling, Sheryl thought for moment. And then she let her gaze drop directly into mine. “Do you think he could be my Grandpa Joe come back again?”

The thought seemed likely to me based on the indications in his chart. “Was your grandfather a WWII veteran?”

“Yes, he served in the war and was part of the Normandy invasion. But he never talked about it. He went to his grave without ever sharing what really happened to him. He had a lot of post-traumatic stress,” she concluded.

Throughout our conversation, Sheryl was troubled by the idea of reincarnation. Raised Mormon, it had never been part of her belief system. 

But it seemed a better idea than a diagnosis of mental illness or autism that the school psychologist had suggested. That her son might be her reincarnated grandfather made sense to her. She relaxed at the thought of it. 

According to Vedic philosophy, a soul reincarnates within the same family, the same ancestral lineage again and again. We reenact the same relationships to resolve the grief we inherit thinking we’ve lost someone. 

Nachiketas’ first wish was in alignment with this belief. He wanted to return to his father to ease his grief. We all do. We come back again and again to work out the unresolved issues in our relationships. 

In the Vedas, the soul is on an evolutionary journey that’s based on the law of cause and effect, or karma. Karma is so complicated it takes place over many lifetimes—with Death in between. It’s a repetitive wheel that’s supposed to carry us up the rungs of evolution. The more we come back, the less attached we become to what once held us captive. We no longer crave the human sensory experience. Each round delivers greater wisdom. Eventually we no longer require a gross human birth.

Yet when we reincarnate we forget the causes that have brought our current experience. This “forgetting” (smṛti brahmasa) is the source of our grief, as Krishna reveals in the Bhagavad Gītā. 

Nachiketas requests Death, “that Gautama (my father) with allayed anxiety, with anger gone, may be gracious to me, O Death, and recognizing me, greet me, and when set free by you and this, I choose as the first gift of the three.” (K.U. I.I.10)

The Sanskrit word for “recognizing” here is pratīta. The prefix “pra” is repeated thrice in this line alluding to the “southern” path of the sun on its annual course, pra-dakṣināyaṇa. “Pra” indicates the “right” way, the right hand—the conventional way. It’s the path of ancestral return. We keep coming back into the same families of souls due to unresolved karma. 

Since we forget who we are and where we came from, we suffer grief. Nachiketas’ first wish is that his father recognize him and remember that he was once his son. In triggering his father’s memory he’d realize that nothing is ever lost and he would gain relief from his pain—the cause of karma. Nachiketas could then fulfill the path of his ancestors and move up the evolutionary ladder. 

If we could remember the causes for our relational karma we’d be free from it. We could then follow the “northern” path of the sun, uttarāyaṇa (the path of fire) upon death.

The Second Wish

I have a dear friend who’s worked as a hospice nurse for over thirty years. I’m always fascinated to learn from her about the death process. What’s it like for most people? 

She recalled one death in particular that struck her. It was the passing of a Zen monk. She said he knew when the moment to leave the body arrived. He’d been resting, asleep, when he suddenly woke and sat upright. 

Then she watched him consciously leave his body before dying. 

“It was as if he entered some kind of fire,” she remarked. “Most people seem to follow a repetitive thought, what’s central in their mind—either a concept about God or longing to meet departed family members. Or they’re just plain afraid—too attached to everything to let go. But he just dissolved.

Nachiketas’ second wish was to learn the secret of transcending the fear of death caused by attachment to the body and its lineage. He wanted to know how to become free of the instinctual responses caused by the senses, of which fear is the greatest recoil. If he could overcome his sensory attachments that appear as repetitive thought, he could enter immortality—and not have to reincarnate as a human body again. 

So he asked Yama to teach him about letting go. 

Death then describes a path of surrender in which all attachments are offered into fire. The most powerful offering is the mind itself given in surrender to the nihitam guhāyām, “the secret cave of the heart.” 

Upon entering this “thumb-size” portal upon death, the soul passes through the path of fire, the northern course of the sun, and becomes immortal. 

The Third Wish

ThenNachiketas observed, “If the soul either follows the “southern” course at death and reincarnates or the “northern” course and is liberated, both will eventually turn back again. What follows the southern direction will turn toward the north and back again.”

Death agreed. There are two paths of the soul—the good and the pleasant. A wise person chooses the good in preference to the pleasant and attains the “northern” path. “Good” choices are made in surrender to sensory attachments. The ordinary person chooses the pleasant. Unable to detach from the bonds of the body, mind and senses, she finds herself back in the family she was born in before. 

“But who chooses?” asked Nachiketas. “This is my third wish. I’d like to know who dies.”

Death tried to discourage this wish. He offered Nachiketas any worldly desire imaginable. His temptations remind us of the eve of the Buddha’s enlightenment when Death (then known as Mara) tries to entice him similarly. This is clearly not a wish granted to one who still wants something. 

Yet like the Buddha, Nachiketas was unmoved. He’d already experienced both the “good” and the “pleasant.” He wanted to know if there was any escaping the wheel of time. 

Finally Death relents and reveals the secret of secrets and the rarest of fates upon passing from this world—enlightenment. 

“The first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist,” Death explains. “There never was a person to whom any experience happened or will happen. You were never born.”

That made sense to Nachiketas. If you were never born, you can never die.

Death then describes the eternal self, ātman, that resides in the heart of all beings. He compared it to the driver of a chariot; it alone is the primal cause and center. 

But there’s a catch. You can’t realize the eternal, unborn witness to the wheel of life, death, and rebirth. It chooses you. It’s an evolutionary accomplishment when this happens. The self reveals itself to itself. There then is no “you” to reincarnate or enter immortality. 

The self is also completely unknowable through the senses that give us knowledge of the world. It stands apart—silently watching at the source of all things. It’s both unity and diversity, experienced as the individual soul that realizes eventually through conscious surrender (śraddhā) that it was never an individual to begin with.

Through lifetimes of choosing the “good” and the “pleasant” the soul exhausts the wheel. It becomes like a fish in water—inseparably separable. “Failure to comprehend the inseparable unity of Being,” concluded Death, “is the cause for rebirth.”

Nachiketas passed the test. He never left Death’s house, because he never arrived there.