The Upanishads take us straight to the heart of the metaphysical problem connected with death. By means of lively dialogue, the Katha Upanishad brings us step by step to the disclosure of the mystery of death. The dialogue is between Yama, Lord of Death and a young brahmin, Naciketas by name. The parable of Naciketas belongs to an already highly developed stage in human consciousness. It combines the symbolism of Yama with elements of the earlier story of the Taittiriya Brahmana, thus weaving together in one artistic fabric the different threads of the Vedic tradition. Naciketas represents Man at his noblest, longing for enlightenment and realization, haunted by the problem of death. He asks Lord Yama the crucial question: "Does Man–the life principle in a Man–continue to exist or not after death?" Or, more tersely and more vividly: "Is he or is he not?"
Naciketas: The doubt that exists about a man when he is dead–for some say "he is " and others, "he is not "–about that I would clearly know, instructed by you. This is my third and final favor.
Yama: The hard-to-perceive and wrapped in mystery, set in the cave and hidden in the depth–he who, wise indeed, realizes this as God, by means of an awareness centered on the Self, leaves far behind both joy and sorrow. The man who has understood and grasped this well, who, stripping off all else, has plumbed this mystery, will rejoice, having obtained what merits rejoicing. For you, I think, the house is wide open, Naciketas!
Naciketas: Declare to me then what you deem to be beyond what is righteous and what is unrighteous, beyond what is done and what is undone, beyond what was and what shall be.
Yama: The Inspired Self is not born nor does he die; he springs from nothing and becomes nothing. Unborn, permanent, unchanging, primordial, he is not destroyed when the body is destroyed. Smaller than the small, greater than the great, the atman is hidden in the core of every creature. One free from desire and thus free from grief sees the greatness of the atman by grace of the Ordainer.
Beyond the senses are their objects, beyond the objects is the mind, beyond the mind is the intellect, beyond the intellect is the great atman. Beyond the Great is the Unmanifest, beyond the Unmanifest is the Person, beyond the Person there is nothing: it is the end, the highest state.
Arise! Awake! Seek to understand the favors you have won. The sharpened edge of a razor is hard to cross–thus the sages declare the intricacies of the path. When one has realized that which is soundless, intangible, formless, unchanging, tasteless, odorless, unwavering, beginningless and endless, that which is infinite and perfectly stable, then one is freed from the jaws of death.
Now I will teach you concerning this mysterious everlasting Brahman and also what becomes of the atman when death arrives, O Gautama. Some go into a womb to receive once again a body; others enter inert things, according to their works and knowledge. This is "that "–thus they recognize the supreme ineffable happiness. How will I then discern "it "? Does it shine or does it reflect light? There the sun does not shine, or moon or stars, lightnings do not shine there, much less this fire. All things shine as reflections of his shining and this whole world is bright with his light.
This everlasting fig tree, whose roots are on high and whose branches are below, is the Pure, is Brahman, what is called the Immortal. In that all worlds are established and nothing passes beyond. This, in truth, is that! This whole world–whatever exists–both springs from that and moves by His breath. Herein is great fear as in a brandished thunderbolt. Those who know that become immortal.
From fear of that burns the Fire, from fear of that blazes the Sun, from fear of that both Indra and Vayu and Death, to name a fifth, speed on their ways. Once freed of all desires that lie in the heart, then a mortal man becomes immortal. Even in this life he attains to Brahman. Once all the knots of the heart are cut, then a mortal man becomes immortal. This is the end of the instruction.
A hundred and one are the channels of the heart; one of them leads to the crown of the head. By this channel, proceeding upward, one goes to immortality. The Person of a thumb's size, the atman within, ever dwells in the heart of beings. One should draw him out of one's body with care just as an inner stem is drawn from its sheath. Him you should know, the Pure, the Immortal; Him you should know, the Pure, the Immortal.
Then Naciketas, instructed by Death, having embraced this knowledge and the whole yoga discipline, passed over to Brahman and became free from stain and exempt from death; and so, too, is he who possesses this knowledge of the Self within him.
KATHA UPANISHAD I.20-21, 29; II.12-14, 18, 20; III.10-11, 1-15; V.6-7, 14-15; IV.1-3, 14-18 Translation by Raimundo Pannikar
Raimundo Panikkar, 83, holds doctorates in science, philosophy and theology. His anthology, The Vedic Experience, excerpted above, is the result of ten years in Banaras translating with the help of Vedic scholars.
The Vedas are the divinely revealed and most revered scriptures, sruti, of Hinduism, likened to the Torah (1,200 bce), Bible New Testament (100 ce), Koran (630 ce) or Zend Avesta (600 bce). Four in number, Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, the Vedas include over 100,000 verses. Oldest portions may date back as far as 6,000 bce.