Once upon a time there lived a braahmana named Vajashrava (Uddaalaka), who wished to accumulate punyam by performing a great yagnyam. The yagnyam was duly performed, but when the time for the daanams came, Vajashrava kept all the healthy cows for himself and gave away only those that were old and infirm. His son, Nachiketa, who was observing this, became very sad. He wanted his father to get the full phalitham for the yagnyam. He knew from shaastras that one must always give away things that are good, which will help others and the ones most liked by the donor. He went to his father and with great humility said thus: “O Father! Why are you donating only old cows that cannot give milk and cannot help the daana-grahitas? As you know, such an act is a great paapam. Your intent was to accumulate punyam. These gifts will have the opposite effect. Please donate your best of the cows”.
Vajashrava became angry. He said, “Son, You are not yet of an age when you can understand the ways of the world. If I donate all our good cattle, how will we live?” Nachiketa was silent for a while, for he had been brought up to give respect to his parents and elders. At last he said to his father, “O Father! The shaastras say that one’s child is the greatest wealth for him, hence give away me to somebody in order to fulfill the daanams in the yagnyam”. Vajashrava, who was busy with the yagnyam did not pay any attention to his son and on being repeatedly questioned by Nachiketa, out of sheer exasperation, Vajashrava shouted: “I hereby gift you to Yama”.
Nachiketa immediately started for Yamaloka, in order to make his father’s words true. He crossed the Vaitarani nadi, which even great aatmas who did a lot of punya also, find it difficult to cross! He reaches the dwaaras of Yamaloka and on knowing that Yamadharmaraaja was not in Yamaloka then, waited patiently for his arrival. The small boy waited near the dwaaram for three days without any food and water. Yamadharmaraaja returned on the fourth day and saw little Nachiketa at his doorstep. He felt pained for keeping an Atithi, that too a braahmana and that too a baalaka waiting without welcoming him, without food and water. Obviously Yamadharmaraaja knew that it was a great paapam not to welcome an atithi at the doorstep. Along with His wife, Yami, He rushed to serve Nachiketa. One went to fetch water and the other brought an aasanam for him. Yamadharmaraaja still did not feel completely satisfied in serving him. So he told Nachiketa, “Dear child, I have offended you by keeping you waiting for three days. To wash my paapam I request you to ask for three varaas”.
Nachiketa was very happy to recieve varaas from non other than the Yamadharmaraaja. Nachiketa said “My first wish is, when I return home may my father’s anger go away, may he conquer anger and always have prashaantata”. Yamadharmaraaja was very happy with nachiketa for his self-less wish. Nachiketa said “my second wish is to grant me the vignyaanam and my third and last wish is to grant me Aatmagnyaanam”. Yama granted the first two boons immediately and tried to convince Nachiketa to give up his third wish. Only a deserved person must be taught Aatmagnyaanam and hence Yamadharmaraaja tested Nachiketa by offering him gold, pearls, coins, horses elephants and even the happiness of Swarga instead. “No, I do not wish for anything else,” replied Nachiketa firmly. Finally, Yama granted him the third boon too, and Nachiketa was enlightened with the Aatmagnyaanam”.
Morals in the Story:
- Pitruvaakya paalanam is the foremost duty of every child. This is well displayed by Nachiketa. Even though he had to face difficulties because of it, in the end he learnt the Aatmagnyaanam, which is difficult for even great sages to obtain.
- The shaastra gnyaanam of Nachiketa helped him talk wisely both with his father and Yamadharmaraaja.
- Dhiraas never give up (see Bhagiratha’s story), they never move away from the goal. This quality is displayed by Nachiketa both while travelling to Yamaloka and being firm during Yamadharmaraaja’s test before giving Aatmagnyaanam.
- The importance of Atithi seva is well illustrated by Yamadharmaraaja.
- Always we must give away things we like, which are good and not the ones we hate and are useless (see Rantideva’s story too).