Kathopanishad attempts to grasp the principle of Brahman by exploring the nature of life
A principle comes to focus when it is denied. Eternal principles get polished only through violent debates that try to extinguish them. Here the denial of the principle of life is done by Usan, the conservative parent.
Usan ha vai vajasravasah sarvavedasam dadou
Tasya ha nachiketanamaputra asa
Usan is obsessed with holding onto the objects of desire. He also craves for the glory accompanying the performance of sacrifices. In the grand sacrifice of life where everything is to be given away Usan acts as a miser intent on absorbing all vital resources giving out as little as possible. The prana principle in him dominates over the apana principle.
A thesis gives life to its antithesis. Nachiketas is the son of Usan. Nachiketas is the fire of pure passion. When one has inhaled fully the inner urge to let out the breath becomes powerful. The relief of letting out the breath is as intense as the joy of taking it in. Usan, the conservative parent, lives in all of us. But so does Nachiketas the child.
Tam ha kumaram santam dakshinasu neeyamaanaasu shradha/avivesha
Peetodaka jagadhtruna dugdhadohanreendriyah
Anandaa naama te lokastan sa gachchati tadadat
As Nachiketas watch the miserly behavior of Usan the urge to give away all accumulations keeps growing. Just as Usan wants to be pure prana Nachiketas wants to be pure apana. Even though Nachiketas is a child he carefully observes the nature of the gifts being given away in the sacrifice being performed by his father. He says to himself: “These cows can not drink water. They refuse to eat the grass offered to them. They have stopped yielding milk. A person giving away only such cows ends up in the domain of unhappiness.”
The most sublime form of giving is giving someone a connection to the flux that converges to the central ideal that holds everyone together. But this type of giving can be done only by parting with some amount of personal power. A spiritually evolved person knows the art of giving. He will delegate everything and is fully prepared to remain without any feeling of personal power. The authoritarian parent, on the other hand wants to delegate only the vestigial processes that do not count. He wants to cling to the lifelines exclusively because he feels that giving out any of that will erode his personal power. Such authoritarian behavior takes one to a joyless existence.
Sa hovacha pitata taru kasmaimam dasyati iti
Dviteeyam truteeyam tam hovacha
Mrutyuve tvadadat iti
The childlike instinct in the seeker asserts itself through the words of Nachiketas to question the validity of the actions of his parental nature. Nachiketas asks his father: “To whom are you going to give me?” He repeated the question thrice. The three repetitions are addressed to the parental behavior in the domains of body, mind and intellect. A question when properly asked contains its answer. To his questions Nachiketas gets the answer: ‘You are being given away to death”.
Is this an act of exasperation on the part of Usan? No. It is an act of enlightenment. There is no exasperation anywhere in Upanishad. Every word, every nuance, in Upanishads is an instrument for enlightenment. The direct question of the uncompromising child, still in touch with divinity, is addressed to the body, mind and intellect of the worldly conservative parent. Nachiketas is challenging the reluctance to change that is the characteristic of a conservative. Death is only the extreme form of change where the magnitude of the transformation and the uncertainties of the hereafter are exemplified ad infinitum. The declaration of Usan that he gives up the acquisition closest to his heart, his son, to death is an act of consecration. He is now no more afraid of the phenomenon of change. It is this total acceptance of change that makes spiritual progress possible.
The dialogue Nachiketas has with death reveals the subtle principles of the phenomenon of life. This is the theme of Kathopanishad.