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Today we celebrate Guru Poornima, full moon night of the guru, the teacher.

In the Hindu tradition, the guru is above all. He or she is said to be the very incarnation of the divine. And gurus come in all shapes and forms. Our parents, teachers, friends and at times even our enemies can be our gurus depending on how willing and open we are to learning from them.

Nothing illustrates the tradition of the guru better than the Upanishad, that sparkling stream of wisdom which flows through the Vedas.

The Upanishads are not sermons but stories, a compilation of dialogues between various students and the unlikeliest of teachers – the wife who questions her husband on the true nature of love, the king who quizzes a sage about the true nature of the Self or the young boy who seeks out Death so that he may learn from it the secrets that lie beyond life and death. This is the story of that brave boy Nachiketa.

    The story of Nachiketa.

The Story of Nachiketa

Nachiketa meets Yama the King of Death

Once upon a time, there was a very powerful King Vajaravasa who wowed to give away his earthly possessions to the poor and needy so that he may secure his place in heaven. He had a son called Nachiketa, who though only a boy was wise beyond his years.

Seeing his father giving away only the things that were useless and of little value, while he kept all that was dear to him, Nachiketa thought, what can be gained by giving away cows that are too old to give milk?

So he went up to his father and asked him, ‘To whom will you give me ?’

The father annoyed at being questioned, replied ‘ To Death I give you.’

As soon as he had uttered these words, the King was filled with regret and tried to stop Nachiketa.

But Nachiketa did not wait to hear another word and left. Fine, he thought to himself, I will go, the first of many who will die, in the midst of those who are dying, on a mission to Yama, the King of Death. And, I will find out, how it was with those who came before and what will become of those who are still living.

After a difficult and perilous journey, Nachiketa found himself at Yama’s abode but the King of Death was not in. So the guards asked Nachiketa to wait outside. For three days and nights, Nachiketa slept outside the palace gates.

When Yama returned he was surprised to see a visitor, that too a young boy, who had come of his own accord, seeking him.

‘O spiritual guest, I apologise and grant you three boons,’ he said, ‘to atone for the three inhospitable nights you have spent at my abode.’

Nachiketa, thought for a moment and said, ‘O King, as the first of these boons grant that my father’s anger be appeased and that he may recognise me when I return.’

‘You are in deed clever!’ Yama beamed. ‘No one returns from the gates of Death but I grant you that. Ask for the second boon.’

‘I ask that you show me the secret of the fire sacrifice, the passage to heaven,’ Nachiketa continued. ‘For there is no fear in Heaven as there is neither death nor old age there. Nor hunger, nor thirst and pain.’

And so the King of Death taught Nachiketa how to perform the fire sacrifice, how to erect the altar for worshiping the fire from which the universe evolves. ‘I have given you now the secret of fire, and it shall have your name.’

‘Now ask for your third and last boon,’ Yama voice boomed

Nachiketa looked Yama in the eye and said, ‘I want to know what happens when a person dies. Some say he continues to exist, some say not. Tell me what is the truth. That is my third wish.’

Yama was shocked. ‘This question has haunted even the gods of old. The secret of Death is hard to know. Please ask for something else.I will give you all the riches in the world and fulfill your every worldly desire. I will give you the power to dominate the world; powers beyond the confines of time and space and the ability to live a thousand years.’

Nachiketa did not waver. ‘All of this is but passing joy. How can I rejoice in any of it when I know death awaits me as it does every mortal, ‘he replied. ‘Dispel this doubt oh great King, does a person live after death or does he not?

Having tested Nachiketa, Yama found him worthy of such instruction. ‘I offered you everything a man could desire and you have wisely turned it down, so listen….

The wise men know that true Self is eternal.

There are two selves within. One is the ego and the other is the indivisible Atman. When a person rises above, I, me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self.

‘However, the Self cannot be known through study of the scriptures, nor through the intellect, nor through hearing learned discourses. It must be experienced,’ Yama answered.

‘The wise men know that the Self is revealed to those who keep their mind one-pointed in meditation when the senses are stilled, the mind is stilled and the intellect is stilled. They say yoga is this state of complete stillness in which one experiences complete unity with the universe. Never to become seperate again.
And so I give you the Word, Om, the symbol of the formless, changeless and omnipresent Self. Those in whose hearts Om reverberates, know the Self. They see the one indivisible Self in all.’

‘What do you mean by the One lives in all?’ Asked Nachiketa.

Yama paused and then continued, ‘Hidden in the heart of every creature is the same Self. Subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest. Formless in the midst of form, changeless in the midst of change. Omnipresent and supreme.

And the wise know that the Self was never born nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect, the Self is eternal, unchangeable. The eternal Self slays not, nor is it ever slain.

We live not by the breath that flows in flows out but by the one who causes the breath to flow in and out.’

‘Know that Self,’ said Yama.’ Your pure and immortal Self.’

And so Nachiketa having learned the truth from the King of Death, freed himself from all seperatness became one with the eternal.

Adapted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran