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This is one of the most popular of the Upanishads, being relatively brief and focused, and dealing comprehensibly with the highest and deepest mysteries. It takes the form of a dialogue with the Lord of Death (Yama), in which He grants a young Brahmin (Nakiketas) three wishes. Disdaining to wish for riches or power, Nakiketas asks Yama about the Self - after dying, does the Self exist or not? Yama tries to persuade him to ask something else, offering him unimaginable wealth, pleasure and worldy gain, but, showing the kind of bravery and stoicism that can make an Indian sadhu stand on one leg for three years in the hope of catching a glimpse of Shiva, he refuses.
Persuaded that Nakiketas is a true and worthy student, Yama proceeds to reveal to him the heart of the Upanishadic teaching: the existence of Brahman, the undying and immortal self, which both exists and does not exist, and can neither be attained nor lost. He reveals that, in truth, there is no death:
If the killer thinks that he kills, if the killed thinks that he is killed, they do not understand; for this one does not kill, nor is that one killed.
On hearing this teaching, Nakiketas realizes Brahman in himself, and is enlightened.
Translated by Max Muller (1884) - The Sacred Books of the East
1. Vagasravasa, desirous (of heavenly rewards), surrendered (at a sacrifice)
all that he possessed. He had a son of the name of Nakiketas.
2. When the (promised) presents were being given (to the priests), faith
entered into the heart of Nakiketas, who was still a boy, and he thought:
3. 'Unblessed, surely, are the worlds to which a man goes by giving (as his
promised present at a sacrifice) cows which have drunk water, eaten hay, given
their milk, and are barren.'
4. He (knowing that his father had promised to give up all that he possessed,
and therefore his son also) said to his father: 'Dear father, to whom wilt thou
He said it a second and a third time. Then the father replied (angrily):
'I shall give thee unto Death.'
(The father, having once said so, though in haste, had to be true to his word
and to sacrifice his son.)
5. The son said: 'I go as the first, at the head of many (who have still to
die); I go in the midst of many (who are now dying). What will be the work of
Yama (the ruler of the departed) which to-day he has to do unto Me?
6. 'Look back how it was with those who came before, look forward how it will
be with those who come hereafter. A mortal ripens like corn, like corn he
springs up again.'
(Nakiketas enters into the abode of Yama Vaivasvata, and there is no one to
receive him. Thereupon one of the attendants of Yama is supposed to say :)
7. 'Fire enters into the houses, when a Brahmana enters as a guest . That
fire is quenched by this peace-offering ;-bring water, O Vaivasvata!
8. 'A Brahmana that dwells in the house of a foolish man without receiving
food to eat, destroys his hopes and expectations, his possessions, his
righteousness, his sacred and his good deeds, and all his sons and cattle.'
(Yama, returning to his house after an absence of three nights, during which
time Nakiketas had received no hospitality from him, says:)
9. 'O Brahmana, as thou, a venerable guest, hast dwelt in my house three
nights without eating, therefore choose now three boons. Hail to thee! and
welfare to me!'
10. Nakiketas said: 'O Death, as the first of the three boons I choose that
Gautama, my father, be pacified, kind, and free from anger towards me; and that
he may know me and greet me, when I shall have been dismissed by thee.'
11. Yama said: 'Through my favour Auddalaki Aruni, thy father, will know
thee, and be again towards thee as he was before. He shall sleep peacefully
through the night, and free from anger, after having seen thee freed from the
mouth of death.'
12. Nakiketas said: 'In the heaven-world there is no fear; thou art not
there, O Death, and no one is afraid on account of old age. Leaving behind both
hunger and thirst, and out of the reach of sorrow, all rejoice in the world of
13. 'Thou knowest, O Death, the fire-sacrifice which leads us to heaven; tell
it to me, for I am full of faith. Those who live in the heaven-world reach
immortality,-this I ask as my second boon.'
14. Yama said: 'I tell it thee, learn it from me, and when thou understandest
that fire-sacrifice which leads to heaven, know, O Nakiketas, that it is the
attainment of the endless worlds, and their firm support, hidden in darkness.'
15. Yama then told him that fire-sacrifice, the beginning of all the worlds ,
and what bricks are required for the altar, and how many, and how they are to be
placed. And Nakiketas repeated all as it had been told to him. Then Mrityu,
being pleased with him, said again:
16. The generous, being satisfied, said to him:
I give thee now another boon; that fire-sacrifice shall be named after thee,
take also this many coloured chain.'
17. 'He who has three times performed this Nakiketa rite, and has been united
with the three (father, mother, and teacher), and has performed the three duties
(study, sacrifice, almsgiving) overcomes birth and death. When he has learnt and
understood this fire, which knows (or makes us know) all that is born of
Brahman, which is venerable and divine, then he obtains everlasting peace.'
18. 'He who knows the three Nakiketa fires, and knowing the three, piles up
the Nakiketa sacrifice, he, having first thrown off the chains of death,
rejoices in the world of heaven, beyond the reach of grief.'
19. 'This, O Nakiketas, is thy fire which leads to heaven, and which thou
hast chosen as thy second boon. That fire all men will proclaim . Choose now, O
Nakiketas, thy third boon.'
20. Nakiketas said: 'There is that doubt, when a man is dead,-some saying, he
is; others, he is not. This I should like to know, taught by thee; this is the
third of my boons.'
21. Death said: 'On this point even the gods have doubted formerly; it is not
easy to understand. That subject is subtle. Choose another boon, O Nakiketas, do
not press me, and let me off that boon.'
22. Nakiketas said: 'On this point even the gods have doubted indeed, and
thou, Death, hast declared it to be not easy to understand, and another teacher
like thee is not to be found:-surely no other boon is like unto this.'
23. Death said: 'Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years,
herds of cattle, elephants, gold, and horses. Choose the wide abode of the
earth, and live thyself as many harvests as thou desirest.'
24. 'If you can think of any boon equal to that, choose wealth, and long
life. Be (king), Nakiketas, on the wide earth'. I make thee the enjoyer of all
25. 'Whatever desires are difficult to attain among mortals, ask for them
according to thy wish;-these fair maidens with their chariots and musical
instruments,-such are indeed not to be obtained by men,-be waited on by them
whom I give to thee, but do not ask me about dying.'
26. Nakiketas said: 'These things last till tomorrow, O Death, for they wear
out this vigour of all the senses. Even the whole of life is short. Keep thou
thy horses, keep dance and song for thyself.'
2 7. 'No man can be made happy by wealth. Shall we possess wealth, when we
see thee? Shall we live, as long as thou rulest? Only that boon (which I have
chosen) is to be chosen by me.'
28. 'What mortal, slowly decaying here below, and knowing, after having
approached them, the freedom from decay enjoyed by the immortals, would delight
in a long life, after he has pondered on the pleasures which arise from beauty
29. 'No, that on which there is this doubt, O Death, tell us what there is in
that great Hereafter. Nakiketas does not choose another boon but that which
enters into the hidden world.'
1. Death said: 'The good is one thing, the pleasant another; these two,
having different objects, chain a man. It is well with him who clings to the
good; he who chooses the pleasant, misses his end.'
2. 'The good and the pleasant approach man: the wise goes round about them
and distinguishes them. Yea, the wise prefers the good to the pleasant, but the
fool chooses the pleasant through greed and avarice.'
3. 'Thou, O Nakiketas, after pondering all pleasures that are or seem
delightful, hast dismissed them all. Thou hast not gone into the road' that
leadeth to wealth, in which many men perish.'
4. 'Wide apart and leading to different points are these two, ignorance, and
what is known as wisdom. I believe Nakiketas to be one who desires knowledge,
for even many pleasures did not tear thee away.'
5. 'Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with
vain knowledge, go round and round, staggering to and fro, like blind men led by
6. 'The Hereafter never rises before the eyes of the careless child, deluded
by the delusion of wealth. "This is the world," he thinks," there
is no other; thus he falls again and again under my sway.'
7. 'He (the Self) of whom many are not even able to hear, whom many, even
when they hear of him, do not comprehend; wonderful is a man, when found, who is
able to teach him (the Self); wonderful is he who comprehends him, when taught
by an able teacher'.'
8. 'That (Self), when taught by an inferior man, is not easy to be known,
even though often thought upon; unless it be taught by another, there is no way
to it, for it is inconceivably smaller than what is small.'
9. 'That doctrine is not to be obtained by argument, but when it is declared
by another, then, O dearest, it is easy to understand. Thou hast obtained it
now; thou art truly a man of true resolve. May we have always an inquirer like
10. Nakiketas said: 'I know that what is called a treasure is transient, for
that eternal is not obtained by things which are not eternal. Hence the Nakiketa
fire(-sacrifice) has been laid by me (first); then, by means of transient
things, I have obtained what is not transient (the teaching of Yama)'.'
11. Yama said: 'Though thou hadst seen the fulfilment of all desires, the
foundation of the world, the endless rewards of good deeds, the shore where
there is no fear, that which is magnified by praise, the wide abode, the rest,
yet being wise thou hast with firm resolve dismissed it all.'
12. 'The wise who, by means of meditation on his Self, recognises the
Ancient, who is difficult to be seen, who has entered into the dark, who is
hidden in the cave, who dwells in the abyss, as God, he indeed leaves joy and
sorrow far behind.'
13. 'A mortal who has heard this and embraced it, who has separated from it
all qualities, and has thus reached the subtle Being, rejoices, because he has
obtained what is a cause for rejoicing. The house (of Brahman) is open, I
believe, O Nakiketas.'
14. Nakiketas said: 'That which thou seest as neither this nor that, as
neither effect nor cause, as neither past nor future, tell me that.'
15. Yama said: 'That word (or place) which all the Vedas record, which all
penances proclaim, which men desire when they live as religious students, that
word I tell thee briefly, it is OM.'
16. 'That (imperishable) syllable means Brahman, that syllable means the
highest (Brahman); he who knows that syllable, whatever he desires, is his.'
17. 'This is the best support, this is the highest support; he who knows that
support is magnified in the world of Brahma.'
18. 'The knowing (Selo is not born, it dies not; it sprang from nothing,
nothing sprang from it. The Ancient is unborn, eternal, everlasting; he is not
killed, though the body is killed.'
19. 'If the killer thinks that he kills, if the killed thinks that he is
killed, they do not understand; for this one does not kill, nor is that one
20. 'The Self, smaller than small, greater than great, is hidden in the heart
of that creature. A man who is free from desires and free from grief, sees the
majesty of the Self by the grace of the Creator .'
21. 'Though sitting still, he walks far; though lying down, he goes
everywhere. Who, save myself, is able to know that God who rejoices and rejoices
22. 'The wise who knows the Self as bodiless within the bodies, as unchanging
among changing things, as great and omnipresent, does never grieve.'
23. 'That Self, cannot be gained by the Veda, nor by understanding, nor by
much learning. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. The Self
chooses him (his body) as his own.'
24. 'But he who has not first turned away from his wickedness, who is not
tranquil, and subdued, or whose mind is not at rest, he can never obtain the
Self (even) by knowledge.'
25. 'Who then knows where He is, He to whom the Brahmans and Kshatriyas are
(as it were) but food , and death itself a condiment?'
1. 'There are the two, drinking their reward in the world of their own works,
entered into the cave (of the heart), dwelling on the highest summit (the ether
in the heart). Those who know Brahman call them shade and light; likewise, those
householders who perform the Trinakiketa sacrifice.'
2. 'May we be able to master that Nakiketa rite which is a bridge for
sacrificers; also that which is the highest, imperishable Brahman for those who
wish to cross over to the fearless shore.'
3. 'Know the Self to be sitting in the chariot, the body to be the chariot,
the intellect (buddhi) the charioteer, and the mind the reins.'
4. 'The senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses their roads.
When he (the Highest Self) is in union with the body, the senses, and the mind,
then wise people call him the Enjoyer.'
5. 'He who has no understanding and whose mind (the reins) is never firmly
held, his senses (horses) are unmanageable, like vicious horses of a
6. 'But he who has understanding and whose mind is always firmly held, his
senses are under control, like good horses of a charioteer.'
7. 'He who has no understanding, who is unmindful and always impure, never
reaches that place, but enters into the round of births.'
8. 'But he who has understanding, who is mindful and always pure, reaches
indeed that place, from whence he is not born again.'
9. 'But he who has understanding for his charioteer, and who holds the reins
of the mind, he reaches the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of
10. 'Beyond the senses there are the objects, beyond the objects there is the
mind, beyond the mind there is the intellect, the Great Self is beyond the
11. 'Beyond the Great there is the Undeveloped, beyond the Undeveloped there
is the Person (purusha). Beyond the Person there is nothing this is the goal,
the highest road.'
12. 'That Self is hidden in all beings and does not shine forth, but it is
seen by subtle seers through their sharp and subtle intellect.'
13. 'A wise man should keep down speech and mind; he should keep them within
the Self which is knowledge; he should keep knowledge within the Self which is
the Great; and he should keep that (the Great) within the Self which is the
14. 'Rise, awake! having obtained your boons', understand them! The sharp
edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path (to the
Self) is hard.'
15. 'He who has perceived that which is without sound, without touch, without
form, without decay, without taste, eternal, without smell, without beginning,
without end, beyond the Great, and unchangeable, is freed from the jaws of
16. 'A wise man who has repeated or heard the ancient story of Nakiketas told
by Death, is magnified in the world of Brahman.'
17. 'And he who repeats this greatest mystery in an assembly of Brahmans, or
full of devotion at the time of the Sraddha sacrifice, obtains thereby infinite
1. Death said: 'The Self-existent pierced the openings (of the senses) so
that they turn forward: therefore man looks forward, not backward into himself.
Some wise man, however,with his eyes closed and wishing for immortality, saw the
2. 'Children follow after outward pleasures, and fall into the snare of
wide-spread death. Wise men only, knowing the nature of what is immortal, do not
look for anything stable here among things unstable!
3. 'That by which we know form, taste, smell, sounds, and loving touches, by
that also we know what exists besides. This is that (which thou hast asked
4. 'The wise, when he knows that that by which he perceives all objects in
sleep or in waking is the great omnipresent Self, grieves no more.'
5. 'He who knows this living soul which eats honey (perceives objects) as
being the Self, always near, the Lord of the past and the future, henceforward
fears no more. This is that!
6. 'He who (knows) him' who was born first from the brooding heat, (for he
was born before the water), who, entering into the heart, abides therein, and
was perceived from the elements. This is that.'
7. '(He who knows) Aditi also, who is one with all deities, who arises with
Prana (breath or Hiranyagarbha), who, entering into the heart, abides therein,
and was born from the elements. This is that.'
8. 'There is Agni (fire), the all-seeing, hidden in the two fire-sticks,
well-guarded like a child (in the womb) by the mother, day after day to be
adored by men when they awake and bring oblations. This is that.'
9. 'And that whence the sun rises, and whither it goes to set, there all the
Devas are contained, and no one goes beyond. This is that.'
10. 'What is here (visible in the world), the same is there (invisible in
Brahman); and what is there, the same is here. He who sees any difference here
(between Brahman and the world), goes from death to death.'
11. 'Even by the mind this (Brahman) is to be obtained, and then there is no
difference whatsoever. He goes from death to death who sees any difference
12. 'The person (purusha), of the size of a thumb, stands in the middle of
the Self (body?), as lord of the past and the future, and henceforward fears no
more. This is that.'
13. 'That person, of the size of a thumb, is like a light without smoke, lord
of the past and the future, he is the same to-day and to-morrow. This is that.'
14. 'As rain-water that has fallen on a mountain ridge runs down the rocks on
all sides, thus does he, who sees a difference between qualities, run after them
on all sides.'
15. 'As pure water poured into pure water remains the same, thus, O Gautama,
is the Self of a thinker who knows.'
1. 'There is a town with eleven gates belonging to the Unborn (Brahman),
whose thoughts are never crooked. He who approaches it, grieves no more, and
liberated (from all bonds of ignorance) becomes free. This is that.'
2. 'He (Brahman) is the swan (sun), dwelling in the bright heaven; he is the
Vasu (air), dwelling in the sky; he is the sacrificer (fire), dwelling on the
hearth; he is the guest (Soma), dwelling in the sacrificial jar; he dwells in
men, in gods (vara), in the sacrifice (rita), in heaven; he is born in the
water, on earth, in the sacrifice (rita), on the mountains; he is the True and
3. 'He (Brahman) it is who sends up the breath (prana), and who throws back
the breath (apana). All the Devas (senses) worship him, the adorable (or the
dwarf), who sits in the centre.'
4. 'When that incorporated (Brahman), who dwells in the body, is torn away
and freed from the body, what remains then? This is that!
5. 'No mortal lives by the breath that goes up and by the breath that goes
down. We live by another, in whom these two repose.'
6. 'Well then, O Gautama, I shall tell thee this mystery, the old Brahman,
and what happens to the Self, after reaching death.'
7. 'Some enter the womb in order to have a body, as organic beings, others go
into inorganic matter, according to their work and according to their
8. 'He, the highest Person, who is awake in us while we are asleep, shaping
one lovely sight after another, that indeed is the Bright, that is Brahman, that
alone is called the Immortal. All worlds are contained in it, and no one goes
beyond. This is that.'
9. 'As the one fire, after it has entered the world, though one, becomes
different according to whatever it burns, thus the one Self within all things
becomes different, according to whatever it enters, and exists also without.'
10. 'As the one air, after it has entered the world, though one, becomes
different according to whatever it enters, thus the one Self within all things
becomes different, according to whatever it enters', and exists also without.'
11. 'As the sun, the eye of the whole world, is not contaminated by the
external impurities seen by the eyes, thus the one Self within all things is
never contaminated by the misery of the world, being himself without.'
12. 'There is one ruler, the Self within all things, who makes the one form
manifold. The wise who perceive him within their Self, to them belongs eternal
happiness, not to others.'
13. 'There is one eternal thinker, thinking non-eternal thoughts, who, though
one, fulfils the desires of many. The wise who perceive him within their Self,
to them belongs eternal peace, not to others.'
14. 'They perceive that highest indescribable pleasure, saying, This is that.
How then can I understand it? Has it its own light, or does it reflect light?'
15. 'The sun does not shine there, nor the moon and the stars, nor these
lightnings, and much less this fire. When he shines, everything shines after
him; by his light all this is lighted.'
1. 'There is that ancient tree, whose roots grow upward and whose branches
grow downward;-that indeed is called the Bright, that is called Brahman, that
alone is called the Immortal. All worlds are contained in it, and no one goes
beyond. This is that.'
2. 'Whatever there is, the whole world, when gone forth (from the Brahman),
trembles in its breath. That Brahman is a great terror, like a drawn sword.
Those who know it become immortal.'
3. 'From terror of Brahman fire burns, from terror the sun burns, from terror
Indra and Vayu, and Death, as the fifth, run away.'
4. 'If a man could not understand it before the falling asunder of his body,
then he has to take body again in the worlds of creation.'
5. 'As in a mirror, so (Brahman may be seen clearly) here in this body; as in
a dream, in the world of the Fathers; as in the water, he is seen about in the
world of the Gandharvas; as in light and shade, in the world of Brahma.'
6. 'Having understood that the senses are distinct (from the Atman), and that
their rising and setting (their waking and sleeping) belongs to them in their
distinct existence (and not to the Atman), a wise man grieves no more.'
7. 'Beyond the senses is the mind, beyond the mind is the highest (created)
Being, higher than that Being is the Great Self, higher than the Great, the
8. 'Beyond the Undeveloped is the Person, the all-pervading and entirely
imperceptible. Every creature that knows him is liberated, and obtains
9. 'His form is not to be seen, no one beholds him with the eye. He is
imagined by the heart, by wisdom, by the mind. Those who know this, are
10. 'When the five instruments of knowledge stand still together with the
mind, and when the intellect does not move, that is called the highest state.'
11. 'This, the firm holding back of the senses, is what is called Yoga. He
must be free from thoughtlessness then, for Yoga comes and goes.'
12. 'He (the Self) cannot be reached by speech, by mind, or by the eye. How
can it be apprehended except by him who says: "He is?"'
13. 'By the words "He is," is he to be apprehended, and by
(admitting) the reality of both (the invisible Brahman and the visible world, as
coming from Brahman). When he has been apprehended by the words "He
is," then his reality reveals itself.'
14. 'When all desires that dwell in his heart cease, then the mortal becomes
immortal, and obtains Brahman.'
15. 'When all the ties of the heart are severed here on earth, then the
mortal becomes immortal - here ends the teaching.'
16. 'There are a hundred and one arteries of the heart, one of them
penetrates the crown of the head. Moving upwards by it, a man (at his death)
reaches the Immortal; the other arteries serve for departing in different
17. 'The Person not larger than a thumb, the inner Self, is always settled in
the heart of men. Let a man draw that Self forth from his body with steadiness,
as one draws the pith from a reed. Let him know that Self as the Bright, as the
Immortal; yes, as the Bright, as the Immortal.'
18. Having received this knowledge taught by Death and the whole rule of Yoga
(meditation), Nakiketa became free from passion and death, and obtained Brahman.
Thus it will be with another also who knows thus what relates to the Self.
19. May He protect us both! May He enjoy us both! May we acquire strength
together! May our knowledge become bright! May we never quarrel! Om! Peace!
peace! peace! Harih, Om!
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