The Katopanishad features a story found in the Rig Veda to bring to light subtle aspects of the search for the highest knowledge. Not all are capable of imbibing this knowledge. Nor can inference or direct perception help in this regard. It is to be gained only through the teaching of those to whom these profound truths are revealed. In this story, Yama and Nachiketas exemplify the qualifications and eligibilities of the preceptor and the true seeker, pointed out Sri N. Veezhinathan in a discourse.

Nachiketas is the son of Vajasravas, a pious Brahmana, who performs a sacrifice and gives away old cows as presents to priests. Nachiketas is disturbed as he realises that his father will be adversely affected by giving such worthless gifts. He asks his father, “To whom will you offer me as a gift?” The father initially ignores the question but when the son persists, he replies impatiently that he would offer him to Yama. Immediately, both father and son feel sad about the implications of this utterance. But Nachiketas decides to obey his father and goes to Yama’s abode. Finding that Yama is not there, he waits for three days. When Yama returns, he is apologetic for this lapse in hospitality and after due honours to the guest, wishes to recompense the boy by offering him three boons.

Nachiketas asks for the welfare of his father as he desires to return alive to the world as his first boon. He wishes that his father is freed of anxiety, and that he should remain calm in mind. This boon is granted.

For the second boon, Nachiketas wishes to know how people can gain access to heaven since it is believed that the dwellers in heaven are free of hunger, fear or old age and they gain immortality. Yama describes in detail the fire sacrifice and its procedure and grants an extra (fourth) boon — that this fire sacrifice will be known by the name of Nachiketas.

For the third boon, Nachiketas pitches for the knowledge of the self that transcends impermanent ends and which is gained by eliminating natural ignorance.