Saturday, February 20, 2016

Nachiketa and the Kingdom of Death

The following is my adaptation and interpretations of an ancient Upanishads story. These original stories were written in Sanskrit likely somewhere between 400 and 200 BC and centralized its teachings on philosophy, moral conduct and the path to salvation. 

 Nachiketa and the Kingdom of Death

Nachiketa was a young woman who lived with her father in a small village along the rice fields of India. Her father was on a quest for spiritual bliss and had heard that if he gave away all his material possessions to the saints, sages, teachers and priests, this would fulfill his vow for spiritual attainment. 

Nachiketa discovered that her meager father was hiding all their finest possessions under the cushions and offered up only their useless property: lame cows that did not produce milk, broken furniture, and decaying fruit. 

Boldly, Nachiketa confronted her father on his insincere offerings in front of their fellow villagers: What you have done is not right. If you didn’t want to give away everything, why take the vow?” 

With the rage of shame and betrayal, the father shouted: 
You can go to hell, Nachiketa. I give you to Yama, the Lord of Death!” 

Nachiketa wrapped her garments around her body and set off willingly beyond the rice fields into the dark forest where Yama lived in the Kingdom of Death.

For days Nachiketa searched for death, but he didn’t come. Exhausted, lonely, and hungry in the frozen Kingdom she was greeted by Yama’s three assistants: Pestilence, Famine and War. They tortured Nachiketa and caused her more injury. When the Lord of Death finally arrived days later he was moved by the young woman’s resilience and determination. 

He offered her three wishes before he would take her life. 

Nachiketa uttered her first wish: “I want peace with my father. That all be forgiven.” 

Yama granted her wish and in just one pulse of her heart, Nachiketa felt pulled by a sudden and radical undefended openness. She felt a peace she had not known and an insight that she could not meet death if she was pushing her father, or anyone out of her heart. 

In that space and freedom of forgiveness, Nachiketa posed her second wish: “I want inner fire.

Yama didn’t understand so he asked her to explain. 

I want the courage to experience and commit fully to everything that happens, good or bad. Every moment.” 

Yama granted her this wish and gave her three days in the Kingdom of Death to live with her newly acquired power and then to report back. 

When they met again Nachiketa told him: 

My journey began with disenchantment and disillusionment. 
I have faced my horrors. I have been thrown out of my nest.
I’ve learned that everything goes away. Everything changes. We get sick and die. 
The ground we walk on is always shaking. 
What made us happy no longer applies. 
Life just doesn’t cooperate. Our own moods just happen. 
I have confronted impermanence.

Curious, Yama asked what were the markings of her inner fire, to which she replied: 

I make my choices and cultivate my creativity with sincerity, and from a place of innocence. It is not coming from duty or guilt, pretension, or one of the ‘shoulds’. I am wholly moved by a trust inside my belly.” 

Yama was impressed by Nachiketa’s insight and asked her to tell him her third wish so that he could grant it:

 “I want to know who is the real Me. What would be left of me after you take this body? I want to know the mystery of my true being without the shell and beyond the grave.” 

Yama was taken aback. 
Young woman, you could wish for anything you want! Why not wish for eternal beauty, riches, a beautiful baby to hold in your arms, your own land to roam free, perhaps?” He suggested. 

But Nachiketa was not easily swayed. She pointed out that all those suggestions were objects that would eventually die and end up in his Kingdom. 

Yama handed Nachiketa a mirror.

In fact, I do not have that wisdom. But you can look within yourself to find the answer.” 

Nachiketa spent three days in the Kingdom holding up the mirror, looking at her own nature in hopes of discovering the truth of who she was. Frustrated, she learned that self-knowledge was not necessarily good news. There were the stories she told herself about who she was. There was anxiety. There was chronic commentary. There was a pile of 'shoulds'. She was fixated on surface waves. She did not trust the depth and vastness of the ocean of her being, so she stayed skimming the surface.

Nachiketa asked her reflection: “How do I begin to relax and really see what’s here?” 

And then it dawned on her that this was the most important inquiry and the only thing she had ever wanted. 

Nachiketa sat down on the cold ground and quieted her mind a little. She didn’t fight thoughts, nor did she turn them off. She became mindful of her thoughts. She began noticing. Nachiketa learned that in that moment of noticing thoughts, she felt she was no longer hitched to them. She was floating above them. Which meant that she was no longer inside. She was free. 

Free from preoccupation, there was a space between thoughts. 
That space was pure, quiet, untainted. 
This is your true nature. 
This space is who you really are. 
Do you see her? There she is. That is you. 

Nachiketa stayed with it for days, with the days turning into months. Yama let her be, approaching her finally after an entire year. Nachiketa bowed before him. She thanked him for the gift of the capacity to look into her own being and find true love. 

And in that moment the landscape suddenly changed from the frozen Kingdom of Death into the rice fields of her beloved India. 

Nachiketa went home to embrace her father, who was now aging and near death. 

She started her new life; just as she was and dedicating herself to finding space.

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