12 The Secret of the Hereafter
In the Katha Upanishad, there is an important piece of dialogue between the seeker of knowledge, Nachiketa, and Yama, the lord of death.
Nachiketa was the young son of Vajasarva. He was barely twelve years old when, as a witness to a sacrificial ceremony of his father, a disturbing thought entered his mind. He confronted his father and challenged him about the futility of sacrifice of old, unproductive, and useless cows. Nachiketa reminded his father to sacrifice something that is more important instead. On being repeatedly questioned by his son, Vajasarva announced in disgust, “I am sacrificing you, Nachiketa, to the lord of death, Yama!”
Nachiketa arrived at the home of Yama, the lord of death, and waited for three days, without eating any food or even drinking water. When Yama returned, he was told about this, and he was immediately struck by the supreme effort of the young boy. He then offered three boons to Nachiketa as reward for this austerity.
Life after death (reincarnation) has been one of the most important philosophical concepts in Hinduism. This phenomenon has kept the minds of Sages occupied for a very long time. Human life is regarded as the most precious, not just because of the development of mind and intellect, but also because human beings have the capability to develop higher levels of superior consciousness of divine merits of virtue and morality. Ordinary intellect often strives for material benefits known to bring pleasure. Instead, the sages prompted mankind to focus on living a life of spiritual value and virtue. The final destination of salvation (moksha) is achieved only when the individual completely surrenders the ego and unites with the Divine. Hindu sages envisaged human life as the final step on the ladder of evolution, after which the being would merge with the Supreme Divine (after many birth cycles) by performing the highest practices of sacrifices, austerities, and meditations. Such is the essential Hindu notion of birth cycle, samsara.
NOTE: Quotes in this chapter are adapted from Swami Parmanand The Upanishads. Cohasset, Mass.: Vedanta Center Publishers, 1981.