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Nachiketa Story
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Continued from: Recurrent Crossroads on Life’s Highway 

May I now in this second installment of the piece tell the second story that answers many a question I’ve raised in the previous article. And the new generation has a great deal to learn from them.

There was, once upon a time, a great sage of ancient India. His name was Vajashravasa. He performed once a sacrifice in which he was required to give away all his worldly possessions. His young son Nachiketa saw that the cows given away were all who had, 'eaten-their-last-grass' and would hardly be of any use to who received them as gifts. He perceived sheer hypocrisy in such a charity. Feeling disturbed by the inappropriateness of his father's actions, Nachiketa asks to whom was the great saint giving him away since he too was a ‘possession’ of Vajashravasa and hence, needed to be given away. The sage ignores him twice, but on third asking, the irritated sage said in a burst of anger, "Unto Yama, the God of Death I'll give thee."
Taking this to be a command of his father, Nachiketa goes to the abode of Yama on his own. The Lord was absent—away on an errand. So, the young boy waited there for three days and three nights without food and drink.

On his return from his trip, Yama offers to grant Nachiketa three wishes as a compensation for continuing to wait for him. Nachiketa asked the following three:

  1. to be allowed to return to his father alive, and that his father not be angry with him
  2. to be instructed as to the proper performance of Vedic fire-sacrifice in order to gain immortality
  3. and most importantly, to be given knowledge about life after death, a knowledge that he Yama, alone, as the God of Death, can endow.

Yama grants the first wish immediately. In answer to Nachiketa's second question, Yama expounds in detail the performance of the special fire-sacrifice, which he graciously chose to be called henceforth after Naciketa.

Before answering the third question, Yama tests Nachiketa, offering him all sorts of worldly temptations instead. But Nachiketa replied that material things will last only till the morrow. He who has encountered Death personally, how can he desire wealth? No other boon would do. Yama was secretly pleased with this disciple, and elaborated on the nature of the true Self, which persists beyond death. The key of the realization is that this Self (within each person) is inseparable from Brahman, the supreme spirit, the vital force, the supreme consciousness, in the universe.

Yama's explanation is a succinct explication of Hindu metaphysics, and focuses on the following points:

  • The sound Om! is the syllable of the supreme Brahman
  • The Self, whose symbol is Om is the same as the omnipresent Brahman. Smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest, the Self is formless and all-pervading.
  • The goal of the wise is to know this Self.
  • The Self is like a rider; the horses are the senses, which he guides through the maze of desires.
  • After death, it is the Self that remains; the Self is immortal.
  • Mere reading of the scriptures or intellectual learning cannot realize Self.
  • One must discriminate the self from the body, which is the seat of desire.
  • Inability to realize Brahman results in one being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths. Understanding the Self leads to moksha- salvation from the cycle of rebirths.

Thus having learnt the wisdom of the Brahman from Yama, Nachiketa was freed from the cycle of births and rebirths.
This immortal tale from Katha Upanishad, I believe, should be prescribed as a compulsory text and widely debated in every school and College curriculum. (Unfortunately, secular India’s educationists won’t let their children learn from their great heritage. They must study all that only Lord Macaulay deemed fit for Indians and Jawaharlal and his descendants too readily endorsed.)

The Paths of Sreyas and Preyas:

The quintessence of Kathopanishad is following Sanskrit verse—a great treasure of mankind (1.2.2.).

"Sreyascha preyascha manushyamethah thou sampareethya
vivinookthi dheerah.
Sreyo hi dheeroabhi preyaso vruneethe preyo mandho
yoga kshmad vruneethe.

"Both good and pleasant present themselves (all the time) to a man. The calm soul (always) examines them well (very carefully) and discriminates. He prefers the good to the pleasant; but the fool (invariably) chooses the pleasant out of greed and avarice (and may later repent)."

What inestimable wisdom and how extremely relevant to our day and time.
Sreyas means acquiring possessions by Dharmic or rightful means for spiritual development. The real prosperity an individual enjoys is when all around him also prosper. This is good and preferable.
Preyas, on the other hand, means acquiring possessions by rightful means for worldly enjoyment (pleasure) which is materialistic.
The distinction between Sreyas and Preyas is universally valid for each and every being and for each walk of life.
Take the case of India’s industrial development. It is well-documented how the House of Tata played a precedent-setting, pioneering role in that. Jamsetji Tata who laid this foundation had set for his descendents a strong code of corporate ethics, distinguishing Sreyas from Preyas which the House has scrupulously adhered to all through its history. (What an impact Vivekanada-Jamsetji meeting left behind.) Decades later emerged Dhirubhai Ambani who without going to Harvard and Wharton –later his children were sent there—knew all the tricks of trade—damn-the means-just-get-success - for building the sprawling Reliance Empire.
JRD Tata was once asked in his last years if he had resorted to all the techniques of Dhirubhai where would the Tata Group would have reached. Without blinking an eye-lid he replied: “I’ve sometimes thought over this issue. Had I followed in Dhirubhai’s footsteps the growth of the Tatas would perhaps have been at least ten-to-fifteen-fold more. I didn’t.” “But”, he poignantly added, “I’ve no regrets.”
At the end of the century Tatas will be still around doing India proud. Can you predict the same for the already divided, bickering Reliance Group?
Even an entirely materialistic ethics, which believes only in pleasure and self-interest, makes a distinction between human experiences—a distinction analogous to the difference between preya and sreya made in this verse i.e., between pure self-interest and enlightened Self-interest, between short-sighted selfishness and far-sighted Selfishness. But it is only in systems of spiritual ethics and philosophy, which believe in a non-physical spiritual reality in man, that this distinction between sreya and preya assumes real significance. All that caters only to what is the sensate man is preya, and what helps the manifestation of the spiritual in man is sreya.
Preya is happiness arising from organic satisfactions, arising from the titillation of the senses. If man considers this as the be-all and end-all of life, his life will be lived at a very low level, very near the animal level. When man abandons himself to a round of sensory stimulations, he loses his independence and meekly surrenders his self-hood which alone constitute his humanness. This is what the Death God is referring to when it says: hiyate arthat ya u preyo vrnite—‘But he falls away from the goal who chooses the pleasant.’

Getting stuck in a round of pleasures, man falls away from his evolutionary direction, which is greater awareness and life and the purpose thereof. He remains a mere biological organism and misses his spiritual attributes and a goal higher than mere survival. Preya therefore exists at a level lower than ethics. Ethics begins with parting with preya and entering the realm of sreya; from then on, man ascends from the organic to the mental, and thence to the spiritual, dimensions of his being, liberating the inherent value of humanness in the process, to rise, in the end, step by step, to the full stature of his true selfhood. In the preya path, therefore, the self of man is submerged in the darkness of what the Upanishads call avidya i.e., ignorance or spiritual blindness. The very next verse tell us that this darkness will begin to lift as man enters the path of sreya which indeed is of vidya, i.e., knowledge or spiritual awareness. Preya demands freedom of the senses to do what they feel like; sreya, on the other hand, demands freedom from the senses. All law and morality mean limitation of the sense-bound man in order to liberate the true self of him. They involve a distinction between man’s lower self and his higher self—a distinction all religions insist on.
This profound issue has exercised all great minds of the world. You may recall how this subject is dealt with by Plato in Republic:

Those then who know not wisdom and virtue, and are always busy with gluttony and sensuality are carried down and up again as far as the mean; and in this region they move at random throughout life; but they never pass beyond into the true upper world; thither they neither look, nor do they ever find their way, neither are they truly filled with true being nor do they taste of pure and abiding pleasure. Like cattle, with their eyes always looking down and their heads stooping to the earth, that is, to the dining table, they fatten and feed and breed, and, in order to obtain the chief share of these delights, they kick and butt at one another with horns and hoofs which are made of iron; and they kill one another by reason of their insatiable lust; for they fill themselves with that which is not real, and the part of themselves which they fill is also neither real nor retentive.

If and when you turn your mind away from this problem that has confronted man ever since he attained consciousness on his self, you’re condemned to live life at animal level.
Sreya, in turn, obtains at two levels, namely, what Hindu Shastras describe as – that indefinable term - dharma, the good life, and amrta, the divine immortal life. The good life is not an ultimate, not an end in itself; it must lead to the realization of the true Self of man called Atman, the birthless and deathless spiritual reality in him and the universe. And this leads on to amrta, the second and highest level of sreya. This is again and again emphasized in Vedanta. This is the consummation of spiritual life which Vedanta calls nihsreyasa, the ultimate sreya or good.

Abhyudaya and Nihsreyasa

This first stage in man’s spiritual evolution is ethics, which Vedanta terms abhyudaya, - welfare, in the social context. At this stage, man is a producer of wealth and social welfare and an enjoyer of the delights of social existence, in association with his fellow men. At the ethical level man takes into account not only himself but also others. Society is the venue of his ethical education; ethics has no meaning without this social reference. This social reference of the individual’s effort and struggle, of his delights and satisfactions, is known as dharma in Vedanta. This is sreya in what, in modern times, has come to be known as the secular context. This sreya has reference to man as conditioned by time. This is the highest reach of Graeco-Roman thought, as well as of modern western thought. It finds expression in a continuous effort to manipulate the economic and socio-political conditions of human life in order to ensure the good life for man.
But this is insufficient, says Vedanta. If carried too far, as in the modern concepts of social security and the welfare state, it will defeat its own purpose. Vedanta holds that the good life will also become the true life, only if man is approached from the within, over and above the approach to him from the without. This approach from within helps to release the energies of his innate spiritual nature and manifest his immortal divine Self within.
When his life does not rise to this second level, when he does not seek to express his deathless dimension, man becomes a problem to himself in spite of all the security and welfare built up from the outside. This is the essential spiritual message of the great world religions. It is the central theme of the Upanisads. Jesus expressed it when he said, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world.’ This truth is thus expressed in St. John (I, 17): ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.’
The sense-bound man with his time-bound life is not the highest excellence that man is capable of. In religion man seeks and finds something beyond the world of conditioned existence. After experiencing the pleasure, power, and knowledge available in his sense-bound existence, man reaches after the super-sensual. That is the line of his further evolution; if he does not proceed in that line, it will not be growth and evolution but stagnation and death for him; it will just be an endless repetition of his time-bound experiences of the sense world.

Reckoning with Challenges

History is witness to a few associations of minds that immeasurably enriched human thought. The Marx-Engels association was one such example. Another was the short-lived Edison-Tesla collaboration which changed the horizons of the twentieth century with the generation of electric power on present scale. Yet another has been when a wandering monk later known as Vivekananda met Raja Ajit Singh, the then ruler of the princely state of Khetri in the erstwhile Rajputana.
In one of their stimulating encounters in June 1891, the Raja asked his friend straightforwardly the all-important question that you and I have often wondered about: (All said and done) “What is life?”
Spontaneously, Ramakrishna’s disciple answered: “Life is the unfoldment and development of a being under circumstances tending to press it down.” Few philosophical statements are as profound as this simple sounding definition of life.
Circumstances, in which all of us live our lives, are hardly conducive to real growth (other than mere physical). Human nature is only too amenable to absorbing and assimilating perverse elements from our environment. How then to ensure life’s “unfoldment and development” That is only by asserting Sreyas over Preyas. Or as the Gita exhorts—vi. 5—“A man should uplift himself by his own self”. He very easily can do the opposite as often we are tempted to do.

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Comments on this Article

Comment this is very interesting that with my name i'm reading a story about nachiketa and yama

G.Nachiketh patel
08/12/2015 09:10 AM

Comment Does your article has any subscription

Aneesh Aby Mamen
03/07/2015 10:06 AM

Comment Hi
Actually I have read the story of Nachiketa in my class 7th or 8th textbook. It left a deep impression on me. :)

11/05/2012 12:24 PM

Comment Can Preyas and Sreyas be equivalent to present day understanding as hardware and software of human. Hardware as basic human and software is his intelligence. Did Rajat Gupta used his great inteligence in the wrong ways ignorantly cannot be accepted. He considered that under consititutional amendmend 3 of USA on freedom of speach, he will never be caught. Hence his greed encouraged him. Surely if there are warnings - like on roads, will help reduce greed crossing limits significantly. No doubt greed (within limits) drives the person.

11/03/2012 02:37 AM

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