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Unveiling the Mystery of Death: Katha Upanishad

Each generation finds itself at a crossroads of progress and often considers itself to be at the pinnacle of human achievement, as well as the custodian of all previous achievement. The reality is that this experience of progress is incessantly pushed forward by the unstoppable flow of time and its intrinsic power of change (kala shakti). Propelled by the force of kala shakti, each successive generation discovers new expressions of human achievement and defines the experience of fulfillment in light of these achievements.

Keeping this reality in full view, the ancient yogis realized that the nature of fulfillment and freedom is far more subtle than what we are able to glean from our material achievements. This realization sparked their journey into their inner world—exploring the furthest reaches of their mind and the depths of their heart. The experience of our essential self-nature—our inner divinity—is the culmination of this journey and the most prized achievement of human life. This experience allowed the ancient yogis to transcend the desire for heaven, or the fear of hell, for it allowed them to experience paradise in life, here and hereafter.

The essence of life can only be experienced by unveiling the mystery of death.

The Katha Upanishad is the most essential and profound articulation of life’s purpose, and the means to achieve it by unveiling the mystery of death. Nachiketa, an embodiment of the seeker within us, yearns to achieve the purpose of his life. With this burning desire, he sits at the door of the Lord of Death, Yamaraja, who is also known as the highest embodiment of dharma—the eternal law of sustainability, which guides, protects, and nurtures all.

Nachiketa has already realized that the essence of life can only be experienced by unveiling the mystery of death, and that none other than Yamaraja, the embodiment of dharma, can grant this experience. When Nachiketa summons the full force of his tapas (intense practice), svadhyaya (inner wisdom coming from self-reflection), and Ishvara pranidhana (trustful surrender to inner divinity), Yamaraja sees Nachiketa’s actions as an expression of his highest dharma and grants Nachiketa three infallible boons.

At a practical level, Nachiketa is able to discern preya, that which is merely pleasant, from shreya, that which is truly good. This capacity comes from life-long sadhana (spiritual practice) culminating in trustful surrender to the Lord of Life. For yogis, a life inspired by the spiritual principles of tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana culminates in a perfect experience of dharma, which to laypeople is otherwise known as the mystery of death.

In his wisdom, Nachiketa resists the temptation to squander these boons on the short-lived pleasures of the world, and humbly but firmly insists that Yamaraja grant him the wisdom needed to fulfill his life’s purpose—to experience immortality here and now. In the tradition of the Himalayan Masters, this wisdom is known as brahma vidya, the knowledge of the highest truth.

The wisdom of the Katha Upanishad is thousands of years old, yet it is as vibrant and fresh today as it was when it was first experienced by Nachiketa, for this sacred text is vidya—living wisdom. The knowledge and practices contained in it have been kept alive by a living tradition, flowing through the minds and hearts of thousands of adepts who worked tirelessly to re-experience Nachiketa’s original experience, and then share its essence with the world.

The wisdom of the Katha Upanishad is vidya—living wisdom.

This sacred text is a prized treasure of the lineage of the sages, as a source of practical wisdom as well as esoteric practices centered around agni vidya—the science of sacred fire. As beneficiaries of a living tradition, we have the privilege of receiving this extraordinary source wisdom, so that we can live with purpose, finding fulfillment and freedom in this life and beyond.

Source: Foreword to The Pursuit of Power and Freedom: Katha Upanishad by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (German edition)

Further Reading

Pursuit of Power and Freedom

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

What is worth having? What is the nature of reality? Is there anything more to life? What happens after we die? Inspiring and practical, this translation and commentary on the Katha Upanishad is a gateway to deeper personal knowledge of the body, the breath, and the inner dimensions of life.

About the Teacher

Ishan Tigunait

Growing up at the Himalayan Institute, Ishan Tigunait received his first spiritual lessons from Swami Rama of the Himalayas, and has continued his spiritual education for the past 30 years under the guidance of his father, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. Ishan serves as Executive Director of the Himalayan Institute and Chairman of Yoga International, and has been a driving force for the Himalayan Institute’s humanitarian projects in Africa over the past 15 years. He also serves as Managing Director of Himalayan Institute India, and spearheaded the establishment of the Institute’s newest campus in Khajuraho, India. Ishan’s passion is sharing modern reflections on the ancient wisdom of the yogic and tantric traditions. As a Himalayan Institute faculty member, he is a key contributor to the Vishoka Meditation program and the Institute’s 500-hour yoga teacher training program, and also leads annual pilgrimages to India and the Himalayas. Holding a degree in computer engineering, Ishan worked for IBM before returning to the Himalayan Institute in 2006. Ishan is also co-founder of Moka Origins, a socially conscious bean-to-bar chocolate maker and specialty coffee roaster. He is an avid social entrepreneur, and is committed to sharing the transformational power of yoga to unleash our full potential.

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