It is common knowledge that anything valuable can only be acquired through perseverance and sincere yearning or ardor. When this is the case with common materialistic pursuits, it is all the more so with the acquisition of Divine Wisdom. The Kaṭopaniṣad relates the anecdote of Naciketā to explicate how ardor and perseverance can result in redeeming knowledge of the Self.
There was once a brāhmaṇa by name Vājaśravasa who gave away his possessions with the desire to acquire merit (puṇya). His young son, Naciketā, a precocious child, noticed his father giving away a wealth of cows that no longer yielded milk. Recognizing no merit can accrue from the donation of unproductive cows, the boy importuned his father repeatedly, ‘Whom will you give me away to, father?’ Irate with the boy the father exclaimed, ‘Unto Death I give you!’ Naciketā left for the abode of Yama resolutely, with the following words – ‘Like corns mortals ripen and fall; like corn they rise again.’
Reaching Yama’s abode, Naciketā waited for three days and nights before the Lord of death returned. Even as he entered, a voice resounded in the background, ‘When a spiritual guest enters the house like a bright flame, he must be well received. Those inhospitable to such guests lose all merit (puṇya).’ The Lord of death recognized the inadvertent folly of not welcoming Naciketā as was customary. Yama granted three boons to Naciketā as atonement; a boon for each inhospitable night he had to stand in wait, expecting Yama to return. Naciketā sought with the first boon, that his father’s anger be appeased and that his father receives him with love upon his return to earth. After being granted the boon, Naciketā sought with the second, to learn from Yama, the fire sacrifice that bestows heaven upon the performer. Yama taught the sacrifice to Naciketā as requested. Pleased with the lad’s repetition of the sacred hymns taught to him, the Lord of death conferred a special boon on the boy. He stated, ‘the fire sacrifice shall now be known by your name, child.’
Urged by Yama to lay claim to his third boon, Naciketā stated, ‘When a person dies, some state he still exists while others claim he doesn’t. I wish to know the truth behind death – the secret of death.’ Yama responded, ‘The secret of death is one that has baffled even the celestials of yore. Seek of me anything else.’ Naciketā persisted, ‘The secret baffles even the celestials for it is hard to know. I see no boon worthier of having, and no teacher wiser than yourself.’
Hesitant to unravel the mystery behind death, Yama endeavored to entice Naciketā with several other boons. He stated, ‘Seek stupendous wealth; seek to be an emperor; seek every pleasure the earth can offer; seek women of unmatched beauty; seek to live as long as you desire; seek sons and grandsons who live a hundred years; seek anything else you desire. Seek not the mystery behind death.’
Naciketā responded, ‘Pleasures of the senses are fleeting, as is life upon earth. What good does stupendous wealth do me when I know I will face you sooner or later? It is the mystery of death I desire to have unraveled. I seek no other boon.’ Immensely pleased with the lad’s ardor and perseverance, the Lord of death proceeds to enlighten Naciketā. He said, ‘I spread before you, the fulfillment of all worldly desires; the power to dominate the earth; delights beyond imagination; you parry these with determination. I see the gates of bliss opening for you, Naciketā.’ The Lord of death then proceeded to reveal the mystery behind the phenomenon called death. He elaborated, ‘hidden in the heart of every creature lies the omniscient Self that is never born, nor will ever die. The Self is eternal and immutable. It is beyond name and form; beyond the senses and time. Those who realize the Self are eternally freed from the jaws of death. Awaken; seek the guidance of an illumined Guru and realize the Self.’
Thus, with ardor and perseverance Naciketā received wisdom from Yama; wisdom that had baffled even the celestials for ages. Though the Lord of death tempted the lad with many an enticing materialistic pleasure, Naciketā’s resolve was unflappable. With determination he achieved what he had set his heart upon.
रत्नैर्महार्हैस्तुतुषुर्न देवाः न भेजिरे भीमविषेण भीतिम्।
सुधां विना न प्राप्नुयुर्विरामं न निश्चितार्थाद्विरमन्ति धीराः॥
ratnairmahārhaistutuṣurna devāḥ na bhejire bhīmaviṣeṇa bhītim|
sudhāṁ vinā na prāpnuyurvirāmaṁ na niścitārthādviramanti dhīrāḥ||
The celestials were neither jubilant by the precious stones the (churning of the milky ocean offered them), nor were they daunted by emergence of the exceptionally venemous hālāhala (upon churning the ocean). They rested not until ambrosia was theirs, for the resolute do not give up on the object they have set their minds on.