Nachiketa (नचिकेताः)

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Nachiketa (appears variously in Samskrit : नाचिकेत, नचिकेतस्, नाचिकेतः, नचिकेता, नचिकेतः नसिकेत) is a young boy who travels to Yamapuri to know the secrets of Mrityu, and his legend is one of the oldest in Vedic literature. Nachiketa is also mentioned in the Kataka Brahman, which is now part of Taittriya Brahmana. The Kathopanishad describes the adhyatmik significance of Nachiketa and Yama's Samvada.

व्युत्पत्तिः || Etymology

There are many versions of the name Nachiketa, as seen in different texts

According to Shabdakalpadruma

  • नाचिकेतः means अग्निः Agni synonymous to Nachiketagnividya.

According to Vachaspatyam, definitions as follows are given

  • नचिकेतस् पु० वाजश्रवसः पुत्रे १ ऋषिमेदे २ अग्नौ च । “यएवं विद्वांश्चिनुते नचिकेतस्” कठोप० । स्वार्थे अण् नाचिकेतोऽप्युक्तार्थे... || nacikētas pu0 vājaśravasaḥ putrē 1 r̥ṣimēdē 2 agnau ca । "yaēvaṁ vidvāṁścinutē nacikētas" kaṭhōpa0 । svārthē aṇ nācikētō'pyuktārthē...

Nachiketas is the son of Vajasravas, also known as Rishi Medha and synonymous to Agni. Kathopanishad mentions him as Nachiketas.. नाचिकेतः (derived using the अण् pratyaya) is also of appropriate sense. [1]

  • नाचिकेत पु० नचिकेतशब्दार्थे १ अनले २ ऋषिभेदे ३ तदुपाख्याने च । Naachiketa is used in the meaning of नचिकेतः word, synonymous with Fire and Rishi Bheda, in the respective sections. [2]

According to Kathopanishad, Taittriya Brahmana (3.11) and in Brahmasutras (1.4)

  • नचिकेता is given.

According to Mahabharata, नाचिकेतश्च उद्दालकर्षेः पुत्रः (Mahabharata Anushasana Parva)

  • नाचिकेतः is given.

Family and Lineage

Nachiketa's father is वाजश्रवसः || Vaajasravas (Samskrit : वाजश्रवाः, वाजश्रवसः)[1] who was also called as औद्दालकिः || Auddalaki, अरुणिः || Aruni, and गौतमः|| Goutama.

वाजम् अन्नं तद्दानादिनिमित्तं श्रवः - यशः, यस्य सः वाजश्रवाः || vājam annaṁ taddānādinimittaṁ śravaḥ - yaśaḥ, yasya saḥ vājaśravāḥ || One who obtains fame by giving away Annam (grains or food) in charity is Vaajasrava[3][4][5].

The names औद्दालकिः || Auddalaki, अरुणिः || Aruni have been given to Vaajasrava based on the principle given in dharmasastras as द्वामुष्यायणः || Dvamushyaayana. Dvamushyaayana is referred to a male child who is born to a brotherless girl given in marriage to the groom with whom a previous arrangement has been made (during marriage by the girl's father) that "the son born to you and this kanya (my daughter) should perform the shraddha karma for us (me and my wife)"[3][6]. Vaajasrava also obtained the name Gautama as he is born in the lineage of Gautama rishi.

पाठान्तरम् ॥Pathaantara

While the story of Nachiketa as given in Kathopanishad is discussed and widely discoursed, this episode is also described much earlier in the Rig veda, which are the oldest available texts, where the name Nachiketa is not mentioned, but the rest of the events are described to be congruent with the version given in Kathopanishad.

ऋग्वेदस्थ मन्त्राणि ॥ Rig Veda

In Rig veda 10th Mandala 135th Sukta, mantras[7] (1 to 7) mention a story about a rishikumaara (unnamed),very similar to that of Nachiketa [8].

Once a rishi cursed his son to "visit Yama" and advised him the way to return back after visiting him. Even though kumara was at first anguished by his father's words, kumara comforted himself as his father's order to "tread in the path of his ancestors" to "stay with his ancestors", so he ascends to the abode of Yama[3]. In the conversation with Yama it is revealed that the world is the कर्मक्षेत्र ॥ karmakshetra (the ground for enacting the karma) and all living beings take birth, blame themselves and yet again be born based on their past actions. Paramatma is eternal and bears witness to all actions.

According to Sri. K. S. Narayanacharya[9], the Rig samhita gives a unique explanation about this episode. Nachiketa, while traveling to Yama's abode spoke to himself:

"What is wrong in going to that place where my ancestors have gone? What is the harm if i come to such a land? By having such a desire my father has not acted wrongly, despite his harsh words. Yes certainly for some time i was agitated because of anxiety, but once my anger subsided, i have myself chosen to follow the orders of my father as a duty and I have come here to Yamaloka" (Rig. Veda. 10.135 -1 and 2)

तैतिरीयब्राह्मणस्था आख्यायिका || Taittiriya Brahmana

Taittriya brahmana, 3rd Kanda, 11th Prapathaka[10][11] refers to the legend of Nachiketa under the heading नाचिकेताग्निचयनम् || Nachiketaagnichayanam. The process of Agnichayana is given in this brahmana mantras from 3.11.1 to 7 kandikas.

A slightly different version of the story is mentioned according to Taittriya Brahmana[3]. Upon hearing his father, Vaajasravas's curse, to give him to Mrityu, Nachiketa consoles himself that by his going to Yamapuri, his father's impropriety will be nullified. As he sets forth on his journey, अशरीरवाणी || Asareeravani, the unseen voice, directs him to go to Yamapuri when Yama is not present and thereafter fast for three days. Yama, on his return, will ask what he had eaten in the three days (Taitt. Brah. Asareeravaani advises Nachiketa to reply as follows

On the first day : प्रजां त इति I ate your people (family) (

On the second day: पशूँ स्त इति I ate your animals (

On the third day: साधुकृत्यां त इति । I ate up all the good deeds you did (

Nachiketa replies as advised and then Yama grants the three wishes namely ( and 46)

पितरमेव जीवन्नयानीति । bodily return to my father (house)

इष्टापूर्तयोर्मेऽक्षिति । perform all karmas that I wish to do

पुनर्मृत्योर्मेऽपजितिं । amritattvam (mrityunjayatvam)

Here eating is symbolic to consumption, meaning when a brahmana or atithi is not given proper welcome in a grihastha's house, his family, cattle and good deeds are lost.

कठोपनिषदि विषयाः ॥ Kathopanishad

The version of the legend given in Kathopanishad has been widely discussed and many critical editions have been given on this topic by different scholars. Under the heading Yama and Nachiketa Samvada, the dialogue according to Kathopanishad has been discussed in detail.

वराहपुराणे विषयाः ॥ Varahapuranam

Maharshi Vaisampayana relates this story of Nachiketa to King Janamejaya according to वराहपुराणम् ॥ Varaahapurana[3]. The story of Nachiketa starts in Adhyaya 193 of Varahapurana[12] with नचिकेतः प्रयाणवर्णनम् ।। Description of journey of Nachiketa (to Yamapuri). Janamejaya asks Vaisamapaya rishi as follows

भगवञ्जायते तीव्रं चिन्तयानस्य सुव्रत ।। कर्मपाकफलं यस्मिन्मानुषैरुपभुज्यते।।६।। bhagavañjāyatē tīvraṁ cintayānasya suvrata ।। karmapākaphalaṁ yasminmānuṣairupabhujyatē।।6।। (Vara. Pura. 193.6)

One thought that makes me greatly think is what are the fruits of karma that man consumes (what is the result of good or bad actions).

Vaisampayana rishi answering this question says Nachiketa is of one of the blessed people who visited Yamapuri and returned back from there.

महाभारतस्था आख्यायिका || Mahabharata

Shabdakalpadruma and Vachaspatyam (नाचिकेतोपाख्यानञ्च भा० अनु० ७१ अ० आदौ दृश्यम् ।) refer to Nachiketa's story in Mahabharata - Anushashana parva (13.71.2 to 21) [3][13][14] In the context of Yudhisthira's questioning Bhishma about the merits of making donations of cows, Bhishma recites Nachiketa's story. Similar to the version as given in Varahapurana, there are descriptions Yamapuri including the mansions, rivers and streams of milk and ghee for the enjoyment of righteous persons who have made the gifts of cows.

ऋषिरुद्दालकिर्दीक्षामुपगम्य ततः सुतम्। त्वं मामुपचरस्वेति नाचिकेतमभाषत॥ (13-71-3)

r̥ṣiruddālakirdīkṣāmupagamya tataḥ sutam। tvaṁ māmupacarasvēti nācikētamabhāṣata॥ (13-71-3)

यानं समारोप्य तु मां स देवो वाहैर्युक्तं सुप्रभं भानुमत्तत्। सन्दर्शयामास तदात्मलोकान्सर्वांस्तथा पुण्यकृतां द्विजेन्द्र॥ (13-71-21)

yānaṁ samārōpya tu māṁ sa dēvō vāhairyuktaṁ suprabhaṁ bhānumattat। sandarśayāmāsa tadātmalōkānsarvāṁstathā puṇyakr̥tāṁ dvijēndra॥ (13-71-21)

नचिकेतसः गुणवैशिष्टम् ॥Nachiketa's Qualities

Vaajasrava performed the Visvajit yaaga and gave away all that he had in charity. Nachiketa his son, a mere boy, was observing all those Brahmans who received the dana (दानम् । charity) especially of old, barren cows. He was filled with anxiety at the impropriety of the act, the knowledge of which at such a tender age is remarkable. He realized that the cows given in charity were old, barren and useless to the receiver, such an act would only lead the donor to the lands devoid of happiness. Here we bring out Nachiketa's thoughts, questions to Yama, his request for Jnana, which highlight the essential qualities of a brahmavidya sadhaka (साधकः).

Such qualities of Nachiketa[3] include Determination (निश्चितबुद्धिः) to remedy the improper act of his father, by himself being offered in charity; Knowledgeable (विज्ञः) about the shastras, being a Pitrubhakta (पितृभक्तिः | Affection for elders), and hence an ardent Pitrvakyaparipalaka (पितृवाक्यपालनम् | Treading the path of Truth) his Duradrshti (दूरदृष्टिः | Farsightedness) of where the consequences of an improper dana will lead to are the most required qualities in a Sadhaka.

Apart from these Nachiketa was endowed with Vakkoushala (वाक्कौशलम् | Expert orator) that endeared even the most feared Mrityudevata, which also showed his Inner Strength (शक्तिसंपन्नः | Strength) and courage even to face the dreaded. While talking to Yama, Nachiketa carefully introspected his words and actions, with Karyadakshata (कार्यदक्षता | Steadfastness) and determination he stood ground when Yama said his request for secrets about death could not be fulfilled. Yama tested his Sahanasheelata (सहनशीलता | Patience) while Nachiketa waited for Yama to yield to his request, overcoming Yama's Pralobha (Nachiketa showed प्रलोभराहित्यम् || Unallured nature) of sons, children and pleasures of the materialistic world. Nachiketa did not deter or waver from his goal of Paraloukika Jnana (पारलौकिकज्ञानार्थम् | Goals beyond worldly things) Brahmajnana which he later revealed for the Welfare of others (परार्थम्) after his return from Yamapuri was the ultimate Paramartha.

संवादः || Discussion


Many views are present whether Nachiketa was already initiated into formal education and had gone through upanayana ceremonies.

Some say Nachiketa must have either had or was ready for the उपनयन || upanayana (thread ceremony) and was about to be initiated into his formal education [9].

Journey to Yamaloka

How did Nachiketa reach Yamaloka? : is another much discussed aspect.

According to Shrimad Sankaraacharya bhasyam of Kathopanishad[5]

पितात्मनः सत्यतायै प्रेषयामास || the father himself sent him for veracity of truth to the abode of Yama. How and what was the means of travel to Yamapuri is not explicitly given. Taittiriya brahamana version also does not address this aspect.

Mahabharata Anushasana parva (106 Adhyaya) addresses this aspect as follows as given by Pt Shridhara Sastry[11]:

Nachiketa is asked by his father to do upachara while he is observing a deeksha. Agreeing to it, Nachiketa is ordered by his father to bring back his things (darbha, kamandalu) which he forgets on the banks of the river. On going there Nachiketa does not find them and returns to his father to inform the same. Angered his father curses saying " go see Yama".

तदा क्षमस्वेति प्रार्थयमानस्यैव तस्य नाचिकेतस्य देहो गतसत्वो भूमौ न्यपतत् | पतितं सुतं दृष्ट्वा पितापि किं मयानुष्ठितं पापेनेति ब्रुवन् भूमौ निपपात | tadā kṣamasvēti prārthayamānasyaiva tasya nācikētasya dēhō gatasatvō bhūmau nyapatat | patitaṁ sutaṁ dr̥ṣṭvā pitāpi kiṁ mayānuṣṭhitaṁ pāpēnēti bruvan bhūmau nipapāta |

As he was asking for forgiveness Nachiketa becomes senseless and falls on the ground. Seeing him so fallen down, his father with remorse utters - alas ! what a bad deed have I done and falls down. After a day and night passes, the father sees his son return in a divine chariot : अथ च प्रातर्दिव्यरथेन पुनः प्रत्यागतः सुतः ! Seeing him he says -

न दृष्यते मानुषं ते वपुः - I do not see your mortal body.

Rik samhita gives an interesting answer to these questions[7][9]

यं कुमार प्रावर्तयो रथं विप्रेभ्यस्परि । तं सामानु प्रावर्तत समितो नाव्याहितम् ॥४ yaṁ kumāra prāvartayō rathaṁ viprēbhyaspari । taṁ sāmānu prāvartata samitō nāvyāhitam ॥4 (Rig. Veda. 10.135.4)

Yama says, Nachiketa, you have flown over the Vipras (brahamans) in the sky through your wonderful chariot. I hope while traveling, the consoling words of your father are with you?

Verses and Meanings

In Rig veda 10th Mandala 135th Sukta mantras[7] (1 to 7) mention a story about a rishikumaara (unnamed),very similar to that of Nachiketa [8][15].

यस्मिन्वृक्षे सुपलाशे देवैः सम्पिबते यमः । अत्रा नो विश्पति: पिता पुराणाँ अनु वेनति ॥१

yasminvr̥kṣē supalāśē dēvaiḥ sampibatē yamaḥ । atrā nō viśpati: pitā purāṇām̐ anu vēnati ॥1

पुराणाँ अनुवेनन्तं चरन्तं पापयामुया । असूयन्नभ्यचाकशं तस्मा अस्पृहयं पुन: ॥२

purāṇām̐ anuvēnantaṁ carantaṁ pāpayāmuyā । asūyannabhyacākaśaṁ tasmā aspr̥hayaṁ puna: ॥2

यं कुमार नवं रथमचक्रं मनसाकृणोः । एकेषं विश्वत: प्राञ्चमपश्यन्नधि तिष्ठसि ॥३

yaṁ kumāra navaṁ rathamacakraṁ manasākr̥ṇōḥ । ēkēṣaṁ viśvata: prāñcamapaśyannadhi tiṣṭhasi ॥3

यं कुमार प्रावर्तयो रथं विप्रेभ्यस्परि । तं सामानु प्रावर्तत समितो नाव्याहितम् ॥४

yaṁ kumāra prāvartayō rathaṁ viprēbhyaspari । taṁ sāmānu prāvartata samitō nāvyāhitam ॥4

कः कुमारमजनयद्रथं को निरवर्तयत् । कः स्वित्तदद्य नो ब्रूयादनुदेयी यथाभवत् ॥५

kaḥ kumāramajanayadrathaṁ kō niravartayat । kaḥ svittadadya nō brūyādanudēyī yathābhavat ॥5

यथाभवदनुदेयी ततो अग्रमजायत । पुरस्ताद्बुध्न आततः पश्चान्निरयणं कृतम् ॥६

yathābhavadanudēyī tatō agramajāyata । purastādbudhna ātataḥ paścānnirayaṇaṁ kr̥tam ॥6

इदं यमस्य सादनं देवमानं यदुच्यते । इयमस्य धम्यते नाळीरयं गीर्भिः परिष्कृतः ॥७

idaṁ yamasya sādanaṁ dēvamānaṁ yaducyatē । iyamasya dhamyatē nāḻīrayaṁ gīrbhiḥ pariṣkr̥taḥ ॥7


  1. 1.0 1.1 Vachaspatyam (Nachiketas)
  2. Vachaspatyam (Naachiketa)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Kodandaramacharyulu. K. (2011) Kathopanishat - Samajikaamsamulu (Pages 78 to 92) from Upanishat Sudha Lahari, Hyderabad: Sahiti Samskritika Samstha
  4. Swami Gambhiranand, (1957) Eight Upanishads, With the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Vol 1. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama
  5. 5.0 5.1 Sitarama Sastry. S.(1923) Katha and Prasna Upanishads and Sri Sankara's Commentary. Madras: The India Printing Works
  6. Dvamushsyaayana context : See Page 121 referring to Vatsyayana smriti (17.18) in footnote
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Rig Veda (Mandala 10, Sukta 135) Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name ":1" defined multiple times with different content
  8. 8.0 8.1 Pt. Jayadevji Sharma, (2008) Rigveda Samhita, Part 7 Ajmer: Arya Sahitya Mandal Ltd (Page 609 of PDF) Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name ":2" defined multiple times with different content
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Narayanacharya, K. S. (2011). Veda Sanskritiya Parichaya, Part I. Hubli:​Sahitya Prakashana​.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pt. Shridhara Shastri, Pathak (1919) Kaathakopanishat with Shrimad Sankaraacharya Bhashyam Poona: Oriental Book Supplying Agency
  13. Mahabharata : Anushasana Parva 71 Adhyaya (Slokas 2 to 21)
  14. Ganguli, K. M. (English Translation) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Anushasana Parva (Adhyaya 71)
  15. Pt. Harisharana Siddhantalankar (2011) Rigvedabhashyam, Part 7 Rajasthan: Shri Dhoodmal Prahladkumar Arya Dharmarth Nyasa (Page No 557)