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This belongs to Taittiriiya Shaakhaa of the Krishna Yajur Veda and is in the form of a dialogue between Yama and Nachiketas.
The Upanishad explains that God regulates the souls even after death and Liberation. Though the Kena also states that God regulates all the souls, the question whether He does so during Transmigration or even after Liberation is not specifically raised. In the KaThaka, it is answered in the affirmative.
Yama offers Nachiketas three boons as a compensation for having kept him waiting for three days at his door. Nachiketas asks for the following three boons:
Three Boons Asked by Nachiketas:
1. Let my father be freed from anger towards me, let his calm be restored and let him recognize me when I return.
2. Teach me the nature of the Supreme God Hari, also bearing the name of Agni (Agninaamaka Paramaatma), who can bestow the immortal world to those who worship Him by performing the Nachiketas sacrifice.
3. Teach me the nature of the Supreme God, who controls the souls after death and Liberation.
The first boon was simple and readily granted by Yama. He also granted the second boon being pleased with Nachiketa's wisdom and devotion and also taught Nachiketas the practice of sacrifice through Nachiketaagni. In fact, this Agni, earlier known as svargya agni (Agni who leads the soul to the immortal world) was renamed on account of Yama's boon. Even the Sacrifice was renamed after Nachiketas.
The discussion around the third and most important boon granted by Yama is the central theme of this Upanishad. Yama tries at first to dissuade Nachiketas from asking this question, by offering him many temptations such as wealth, progeny, kingship, etc. Nachiketas steadfastly refused all these offers and insisted on knowing whether God regulates the souls even after death and Liberation.
Nature Of The Third Boon
Some commentators have interpreted the third question of Nachiketas as: Is there a soul after death? This interpretation in obviously incorrect. Nachiketas, having already died and arrived at the doors of the god of death, cannot have a doubt whether a soul exists after death, when his own experience is available. Though there can be a doubt in this context whether Nachiketas reached Yamaloka dead or alive, it is clearly stated in the Taittiriiya BraahmaNa, where the full story is given, that he was dead and reached Yamaloka. Other circumstances such as Nachiketas father performing Visvajid yaaga to attain heaven, etc., also show that continuity of the soul after death is not being questioned here. Even the second boon of Nachiketas leading to the renaming of Svargya Agni confirms the same belief. Therefore, the third question cannot be "Is there a soul after death," but "Are the souls regulated by God after death and Liberation?"
This question is specially relevant for the period after Liberation, as some systems do not accept even the separate existence of souls after Liberation, while some accept equality of the souls with God after it.
shreyas and preyas
Yama congratulates Nachiketas on his steadfastness in obtaining sacred knowledge and sets the distinction between shreyas and preyas -- the Good and the Pleasant. Normal worldly interests such as family, property, etc., constitute the second category, while interest in God is the first. Yama expresses his happiness that Nachiketas has chosen shreyas.
Theism Of The Upanishad
Yama makes it clear that God knowledge cannot be obtained only by logic or learning the scriptures. It is God who chooses the deserving and gives them His vision. The statement yameva eshha vR^iNute, embodying this principle of God choosing His devotee for revealing Himself, is the cornerstone of Theism and Bhakti. It is clear from this that the Upanishads do not profess Absolutism, but support Theism. The reference to prasaada (grace) in the expression prasiidati may be noted in this connection.
The rest of the Upanishad is an excellent exposition of the nature of God, the fact of His being a regulator after death and Liberation, necessity of controlling the senses and the methodology of Yoga.
Nature Of God
God's unique nature is aptly explained -- anyatra dharmAt.h anyatra adharmAt.h, etc. The verses asino dUraM vrajati and aNoraNiiyan.h mahato mahiiyAn.h bring out His nature of possessing simultaneous attributes like Movement without moving, Atomicity and being Bigger than the biggest, etc., which are contradictory to each other. ashabdaM asparshaM, etc., brings out His special nature of not possessing prAk.rta attributes and of His being beyond the reach of the Senses like the Eye, Ear, etc. nityo nityAnAM, brings out that He is eternal, and chetanaH chetanAnAM shows that He is the only independent Chetana (Svatantra Chetana). R^itaM pibantau, etc., mentions that He is in the heart of all living creatures in two forms -- AtmA and AntarAtmA, and accepts the fruits of auspicious deeds -- shubha karmaphala. There is no difference between the Muula (original) and Avatara (incarnation) rUpa-s or forms of the Lord. His attributes are not different in essence from Him.
God Regulates Souls At All States
svapnAntaM jagaritantaM, etc., states that He regulates the souls during waking and deep sleep. yathA cha maraNaM prApya states that bhayadasya agniH tApati, etc., shows that the Sun, Moon, Wind, Fire, etc., all function under His direction. UrdhvaM prANaM unnayati, etc., states that He regulates our breathing. He is resident in our hearts with the dimension of an angushhTha (thumb) and regulates us always -- past, present and future.
He is called Hamsa as He is free from all defects and is the essence of every thing. His presence in Mukhya PraaNa is special, for various reasons. He is present in all men, prak.rti, Sky, antariksha, in the senses and everywhere. He regulates all these entities in all states.
Metaphor Of Ashwattha Tree, Fire And Spark, Chariot
The beautiful metaphor of the Ashwattha tree is used to show that God is the foundation of all. The metaphors of the Fire and Sparks, the Wind and its various manifestations are used to show the Bimba-pratibimba (Object and Image) relation between God and the souls. This emphasizes the total dependence of the soul on God, like an image on the object, but does not preach identity between the two. The metaphor of the Charioteer, Chariot and Horses is employed to stress the need for regulating the senses.
Devataa Taaratamya, Yoga, And Moral Purity
Devataa Taaratamya or the Hierarchy of gods is explained to bring out the supremacy (Sarvottamatva) of the Lord. The Yoga methodology of controlling the breath and the senses is explained. The importance of securing the teaching from a good teacher is also stressed. The KaThaka also particularly stresses the need for moral probity for spiritual pursuits in the verse navirato dushcharitAt.h, etc.
A number of adhikaraNa-s in the Brahma Suutra such as guhAdhikaraNa, vAmanAdhikaraNa, etc., derive their name and subject matter from KaThakopanishhad. A number of passages from this Upanishad are referred to in the Suutra-s. These are shown in the khaNDaartha of Shri Raghavendra Swami in the respective places.
The main teachings of the KaThakopanishhad may be summed up as follows:
1. A full exposition of the concept of God.
2. God is the regulator of all even after death or Liberation.
3. The distinction between shreyas and preyas.
4. The importance of moral purity, controlling of senses and certain details of Yoga methodology.