Nachiketa and the art of dying

When we are confronted with the mystery of death, at once our existence seems unreal. Who am I? Where does this life lead me? Is everything transitory?

Nachiketa and the art of dying

If we were to define one event in which we experience a definite separation, it would have to be the moment of death. This is what the boy Nachiketa asks himself in the Upanishads. His search finally leads him to Reality.

All at once our existence seems unreal when we are confronted with the mystery of death. Can we call a life real that is so much subjected to change? Oh certainly, you experience yourself and your life as real, but these experiences are themselves within a content that is relative. It is an existence in which the fear of death has its basis in a fear that everything we know in this relative existence will cease to be. When we perceive this from a deeper perspective – from our Essential Being, which is non-relative – and realize this relative existence is in fact an illusion, what then is the connection between these two?


Is death something like a demarcation line?

Hermes puts it like this: “In this world there has never been, nor shall there ever be, something that has known death. The Father has willed that the World shall be living as long as it exists. That is why the World must necessarily be God.”

What significance does our dying have, seen from this hermetic perspective? Jan van Rijckenborgh explains: “Life is in all and everything. It is one living ocean of atoms. Thus every body is part of this Life. And all life therefore also possesses a consciousness. And every consciousness possesses a boundless inner divine Force. For an atom is life. And life can only be explained from the primeval Source. Since your bodily existence, your personality, is an assembly of atoms, so necessarily the most fundamental essence of your being must be God. God revealed in the flesh.”

The classical definition of clinical death by Bouchot in 1864 read as: “One is dead when one’s heart is no longer beating.” At present the rule also includes that blood circulation must have stopped for at least five minutes. But because of many new techniques, doctors no longer know anymore precisely when death is definite. Some doctors tentatively follow the thought that one is dead when one’s personality is no longer present and there can no longer be any conscious thought. But even in periods of unconsciousness minimal brain activity can be perceived. Only when no brain activity is monitored in the skull one is considered to be dead.

But what to think of the situation when the heart is still able to beat autonomously while there is no respiration anymore and there is total brain death, even of the brainstem? This situation goes beyond a coma and still the system may go on functioning for a week or more. The quandary becomes even more baffling with regard to our genes, as many of these will continue living or can even be brought back to life.

In short: from a biological standpoint it is impossible to define the moment of death and thus the medical world now speaks of a series of mini-death moments. In other words: we die bit by bit. And furthermore, what you regard as the moment of death is also governed by your philosophical or religious views. Actually it is not a one-time occurrence but more a process, and that is why it becomes a pressing question as to the right moment for an organ removal in case of an organ transplant. Moreover, shouldn’t we actually also give the deceased anaesthetics or painkillers?


A sequence of death moments

For someone whose focus is on the more esoteric-spiritual side of things it will be no surprise that there is actually a sequence of death moments because our physical, etheric, astral and mental bodies all have different compositions.

J. van Rijckenborgh regards the process from a still higher perspective when he writes in The Egyptian Arch-Gnosis: “The human being of which the universal doctrine and the holy language speak is a totally different being than the bodily man, who is mistakenly seen as the ultimate. We are in fact dual beings. Within us the true human yearns for liberation – the true human being who is held captive by the nature-born being. If you keep this thought uppermost in your daily life you will do yourself a very great service. The true man, imprisoned within the nature-born man, is Life and Light. He is God.”

We also find this particular perspective in the Upanishads when we read: “The Self-existent God created the sense organs (including the mind) with an out-going disposition; therefore man perceives things outwardly but not the inward Self. A few wise men, desirous of immortality, turned their senses (including the mind) inward and realized the inner Self. “

All the systems of liberation suggest that we are to die with regard to this relative and illusionary existence while we are still living, which means without waiting for physical death. For that reason we are taught to direct our attention to our core being and realize that, in our existence of relativity, we ourselves are not the movers of things and events. The energy to direct our attention to the core being emanates from this core being itself!



In the Upanishads we find the story of Nachiketa who, already at a young age, was fascinated by the mystery of life and death. “Who am I? Where does this life lead me? Is everything transitory or is there something within me that lives forever?’” Nachiketa’s father, so the story goes, made sacrifices to the gods because “he longed for bounty from heaven.” But what he sacrificed were mostly old cows that could no longer eat, drink, calve or give milk. And Nachiketa was sad because of the parsimony of these gifts. Therefore one day he asked his father: What is the value in this?”

His father was annoyed by his son’s critical question. “How dare you question me”, he exclaimed, but Nachiketa, undaunted, followed up with the question: “Father, to whom will you give me away?” And he asked him this again. And again. After the third time his father answered him crossly: “I shall give you to Yama, the God of death.” So Nachiketa departed to the dwelling of Yama, the lord of death.

When we realize that this story is really about ourselves we may see the father as an aspect of the traditional man within us, the one who respects the outward forms but has lost contact with the source of spiritual inspiration. The outer being can only offer “old cows” from which true Life has gone. In his conditioned state of life, ruled by his senses and disoriented by all the quantitative and qualitative variances of his time-spatial life, he is unable to observe the inner spiritual world. In this context it is striking that the name Nachiketa means: “that which is not perceived.”


Nachiketa as a symbol for the spiritual being within us

When a human being can hear the call of the inner spiritual Self, that is to say when he responds to the threefold impulse, it is like the birth of an inner Son through whom the knowledge of life and death is imparted.

And so the story unfolds how the son arrives in the residence of Yama, the god of death, who was not present at that moment. Thus he had to wait for three days, without food or water.

When Yama finally came home, he felt guilty and called out to him “O Brahman, because as a revered guest you have waited in my house for three nights without food, you may ask of me three wishes, one for each night.”

Symbolically: Nachiketa abstained from his conditioned impulses for three days just as Jesus did during his temptation in the desert. The three impulses from the inner spiritual world become manifest in him as: ideation – meditation – realization. Yama had no trouble whatsoever with Nachiketa’s first wish. He wished that his father, once calmed down, would gladly welcome him back on his return. Thus the earthly man is touched from within, opens himself for the inner impulses and acknowledges the inner world. This process takes place without the involvement of the egoic consciousness.

The second wish: being shown the path to heaven and how to kindle the sacred fire, Yama could also grant him without any hesitation for it is a path of devotion and self-surrender by which old age and death can be overcome. It is the conscious connection with the Light of the core Being. “This is what I really am” he realizes again and again in his life. This enlightened insight is not enough however to cross the border.
That is why Nachiketa then asked his third question: “There exists great doubt among people about what happens when the visible man dies. Some say that he still exists elsewhere. Others say that he has ceased to exist. Tell me: What is in the hereafter?
This I would dearly desire to know. It is my third wish!”

In fact here Nachiketa asks the key question of all questions: he asks whether there is something present in man that is permanent, eternal. Or is man only a temporary phenomenon of which nothing will remain? He desires knowledge about his essential Being, beyond life and death and therefore even beyond Yama’s influence.

And so Yama begged him:
“Of old, even the gods have been in doubt in this regard for this is surely not easily understood but very obscure.
Choose another question, Nachiketa, I beg of you and do not insist on an answer.
Release me from this last question!”

The relative state is about to be relinquished and the scripts of life and of death are now clear.


All sorts of joys

Yama offered him all sorts of worldly joys and pleasures, all wealth and as many years on earth as he wished, if only he would not have to answer this one question.

“Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years.

Choose elephants, horses, herds of cattle and gold. Choose a vast domain on earth and live there as many years as you desire.

Choose wealth and a long life. Be the king, o Nachiketa, of the wide earth. I will make you the enjoyer of all desires.

Whatever desires are difficult to satisfy in this world of mortals, choose them as you wish: these fair maidens, with their chariots and musical instruments – men cannot obtain them. I give them to you and they shall wait upon you. But do not ask me about death.”

But nothing, absolutely nothing could deter Nachiketa from his deepest question: “Reveal to me the mystery of immortality!”

“For,” Nachiketa stated, “everything you propose, O Yama, are enjoyments that will be gone tomorrow.
They exhaust the vigour of all the sensory organs.
Even the longest life is short indeed.
You can keep your horses, dances and sons for yourself. Wealth can never make a man happy.
Once we have beheld you, we possess nothing.

We live only as long as you allow.
The wish I want to see fulfilled remains the same.
This wish, this deeply hidden desire and no other, will be chosen by Nachiketa.”

When Nachiketa had spoken his third wish three times, the lord of death had to give in.

He admired the purposeful dedication to the truth by this curious young man. But he wanted to make extra sure that he was honest and sincere and that his question was not a display of courage or the result of something learned through knowledge.

Now that he felt reassured that Nachiketa was sufficiently ready to receive this knowledge, he addressed him: “O Nachiketa, after contemplating all this well and truly, you renounce all these precious and attractive objects of desire that lie within your reach.

You do not follow the silly pathways that abound in wealth, and on which many people drown. Oh, may there always be inquirers like you.”


The unmanifested

And then … then he finally instructs Nachiketa with the words:

“The wise man who, through self-contemplation, knows God as the One, difficult to be seen and experienced, the Unmanifested who is hidden and who dwells in the spirit and rests in the body – this man indeed leaves sorrow and joy far behind.
Smaller than the small, greater than the great is the divine Essence hidden in the heart of all living creatures.

He who is free from desires beholds the majesty of the Self through the tranquility of the senses and the mind and is free from grief.”

Yes, Yama was forced to reveal to Nachiketa the highest Knowledge with the words:
“This immortal Self is not found by study or merely thinking deeply,
nor by talking, listening or hearing.

To him who knows nothing other than the desire for Self, the Divine Self will reveal itself in Its exalted state.

To find this Self requires an absolute devotion from the seeker for Truth and total dedication to the One Goal.

He who, in one-pointedness, gives himself completely, knows with absolute certainty that the Immortal Self is living deep inside of him.
He who discovers the divine Self in his own heart, finds within himself the peace and quiet he seeks. He sees the highest self in all that lives and moves.
This Servant of the Self becomes one with the divine All.”

The goal is the Self, the inner Being that cannot be known by the personality.


When the heart of a human being comes to rest

The Being can find itself unhindered by the personality that is part of the relativity. It cannot be otherwise, for an arrow and its target are not separated. And so, after a profound development of the consciousness of the pupil, the Lord of death turns out to be the great sage, a touchstone, but at the same time a friend on the path to awakening.

He is the Creator and the Destroyer, the wise man and the knowing one.

The principles of creation and destruction point us to the fact that in the world spoken of by Hermes in the earlier citation, everything is ever new, which is certainly not the case in our own existence. We are as it were crystalized incidents in the eternal solubility, which is the reason why the microcosm, because of these destroying and renewing forces, is able to provide the inner spiritual Being with a new opportunity again and again for the great process of transfiguration.

“Death”, says Hermes, “refers to doom and destruction, but none of what exists in the universe will be destroyed!”

Only that which is composite will fall away into parts that are whole and complete in themselves. Our true being is not composite but lies beyond life and death and is ever new.

When we return to our physical death the question could arise:

Does this mean that we are no longer allowed to feel any sorrow when someone that we dearly love passes away? Of course there will be pain and sorrow when there has been love and affection. The energy connection between ourselves and the deceased has been severed and time is needed to adjust. This severed tie is like a wound and needs time to heal. Loving something or someone and grief for the loss of something or someone are real-time processes taking place within this relative world. Our inner Being however is outside and beyond the relative and composite state of things. It views with love all that appears and disappears again. The soul knows that “the great sense of loss cannot be filled by another but by the Other”, the non-relative core-being. This discovery is totally healing and life-giving.

The story of Yama and Nachiketa in the Upanishads ends with the words:

The Other one within us is like fire without smoke.
It lives hidden in every human being, deep in the cavity of the heart.
It is the ultimate ruler over time. It rules over present, future and past.
It is unchanging, ever the same, and all that is, is This.

Through his not-knowing and his willingness and readiness to ‘die’, Nachiketa found the One, Brahma, within himself and so was freed from passions and death.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this article

Article info

Date: October 9, 2017
Author: Joehl (Netherlands)
Photo: Alfred Bast

Featured image: