The story is a conversation between Nachiketa (a teenage boy) and Yama (Lord of death) from ''KATHOPANISHAD'' (5th Century BC).
Nachiketa was the son of the sage Vājashravas. He was performing a sacrifice named Viswajet Yajna. In this Yajna, the performer had to give away all his wealth. In ancient times, Cows were designated as valuable and special possessions and hence Vajashrava, desiring a gift from the gods, decided to donate all his cows to Brahmins.
Nachiketa was in his teens, and he was observing the sacrificial ritual with innocent interest. He was surprised to notice that his father was giving away only old and disabled cows unable to give milk.
Nachiketa was very intelligent & with pure heart. He said his father that he has heard in this Yajna, one has to give up all that one possesses. This being the case to whom will you give me?” Vajashravas did not give any reply. After some time Nachiketa asked again the same question, but in vain. He did not get any response from his father. Again for the third time, Nachiketa repeated the same question.
Vajashravas could not control his temper; he burst out saying to his own son, “I will give you Yama, the God of Death.” Nachiketa followed the words of his father and went to the kingdom of Death. However, during that time Yama was not present. None dared to admit Nachiketa. So he waited near the gate for three days and three nights without taking even a drop of water. When Yama returned and found Nachiketa at his doorstep he felt sad for keeping a Brahmin waiting for three days and three nights. He ordered his attendants to fetch holy water to invite and welcome Nachiketa. After the hospitality offered to Nachiketa, Yama told Nachiketa, “Dear child, I have not done good by keeping you waiting for three days. So I request you to ask for three boons.”
Nachiketa asked Yama:
1. First boon - O Lord, let my father not be anxious about me, and let his anger against me vanish. When I go back to earth, let him recognize me and receive me back gladly.” “Granted son,” said Yama.
2. Second boon - Teach me the proper ritual for the fire sacrifice. Yama agreed and taught Nachiketa the proper ritual for the fire sacrifice.
3. Third boon - Is there indeed a life beyond death. Yama said, “Boy, do not ask me about matters of life and death. Even the gods are not clear on all points. Ask me something else. I will grant all your wishes other than this.” Nachiketa persisted and said, “O Yama, I only wish to know about the mysteries of life and death, and nothing else.” Yama tries to offer Nachiketa worldly pleasures so that he may change the nature of his request for the third boon, but Nachiketa insists by stating that all the worldly pleasures are short-lived and do not render long lasting happiness. Nachiketa was bold enough saying that one can never reach the eternal through the worldly possessions. Therefore he has renounced all desires for worldly pleasures and has come here with the hope of winning the Eternal through the instructions of the God of Death. It was too difficult for Yama to change the mind of young Nachiketa. So finally, he agreed to tell Nachiketa about the mysteries of life and death. Yama told:
1. The Self is immortal. It was not born, nor does it die. It did not come out of anything, neither did anything came out of it. Even if this body is destroyed, the soul is not destroyed. Smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest, the Self is living in all beings. Mere reading of the scriptures or intellectual learning cannot realize Atma. One must discriminate the Atma from the body, which is the seat of desire. It reveals itself to the deserving one. The goal of the wise is to know this Atma.
2. This body is the chariot, intelligence the driver, the senses are the horses, conscience the rein and the Atma is the lord of the chariot. The Self is superior to body, mind and senses.
3. Greater than the individual soul is the enveloping super consciousness, the seed of everything in the universe, still greater is the Ultimate Person than whom there is nothing greater. He is the goal of our aspiration. Once That (Supreme Self) is realized, death loses all its terrors, and the one who has realized becomes immortal.
4. The path to realization is long and difficult. Inability to realize Brahman results in one is being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths. Understanding the Self leads to moksha.