Perhaps the most famous story from the Upanishads is the story of Nachiketa, told in the Katha Upanishad of the Yajur Veda. Nachiketa was the young son of the sage Vajashravas (who may or may not be the same as the sage Uddalaka Aruni whom I discuss here. Once Vajashravas performed a Yagna where he was giving away all his possessions, so Nachiketa asked "Who will you give me away to?" Annoyed, Vajashravas said "I will give you to the god of death." Nachiketa took that seriouslh and immediately proceeded to Yama's palace, where he waited for three days for Yama to come. Now it's a sin to have a Brahmin wait in your house without inviting him in and providing him food, so Yama offered Nachiketa three boons to make up for it. This chapter of the Katha Upanishad describes what Nachiketa wished for:

Nakiketas said: 'O Death, as the first of the three boons I choose that Gautama, my father, be pacified, kind, and free from anger towards me; and that he may know me and greet me, when I shall have been dismissed by thee.' Yama said: 'Through my favour Auddâlaki Âruni, thy father, will know thee, and be again towards thee as he was before. He shall sleep peacefully through the night, and free from anger, after having seen thee freed from the mouth of death.'

Nakiketas said: 'In the heaven-world there is no fear; thou art not there, O Death, and no one is afraid on account of old age. Leaving behind both hunger and thirst, and out of the reach of sorrow, all rejoice in the world of heaven. Thou knowest, O Death, the fire-sacrifice which leads us to heaven; tell it to me, for I am full of faith. Those who live in the heaven-world reach immortality,--this I ask as my second boon.' Yama said: 'I tell it thee, learn it from me, and when thou understandest that fire-sacrifice which leads to heaven, know, O Nakiketas, that it is the attainment of the endless worlds, and their firm support, hidden in darkness.' Yama then told him that fire-sacrifice, the beginning of all the worlds, and what bricks are required for the altar, and how many, and how they are to be placed. And Nakiketas repeated all as it had been told to him.

Then Mrityu, being pleased with him, said again: The generous, being satisfied, said to him: 'I give thee now another boon; that fire-sacrifice shall be named after thee, take also this many-coloured chain. He who has three times performed this Nâkiketa rite, and has been united with the three (father, mother, and teacher), and has performed the three duties (study, sacrifice, almsgiving) overcomes birth and death. When he has learnt and understood this fire, which knows (or makes us know) all that is born of Brahman, which is venerable and divine, then he obtains everlasting peace. He who knows the three Nâkiketa fires, and knowing the three, piles up the Nâkiketa sacrifice, he, having first thrown off the chains of death, rejoices in the world of heaven, beyond the reach of grief. This, O Nakiketas, is thy fire which leads to heaven, and which thou hast chosen as thy second boon. That fire all men will proclaim. Choose now, O Nakiketas, thy third boon.'

Nakiketas said: 'There is that doubt, when a man is dead,--some saying, he is; others, he is not. This I should like to know, taught by thee; this is the third of my boons.'

Yama responds to the third boon in the form of a discourse that forms the bulk of the Katha Upanishad. But my question is about the second boon, in which Nachiketa receives the procedure for a ritual that is now known as the Nachiketa Yagna, described in this excerpt from the Taittiriya Brahmana of the Yajur Veda. Here is what the famous Sri Vaishnava Acharya Ramanujacharya says about it in the Sri Bhashya, his commentary on the Brahma Sutras:

Nakiketas desirous of Release having been allowed by Death to choose three boons, chooses for his first boon that his father should be well disposed towards him--without which he could not hope for spiritual welfare. For his second boon he chooses the knowledge of the Nakiketa-fire, which is a means towards final Release. 'Thou knowest, O Death, the fire-sacrifice which leads to heaven; tell it to me, full of faith. Those who live in the heaven-world reach Immortality--this I ask as my second boon.' The term 'heaven-world' here denotes the highest aim of man, i.e. Release, as appears from the declaration that those who live there enjoy freedom from old age and death; from the fact that further on (I, 1, 26) works leading to perishable results are disparaged; and from what Yama says in reply to the second demand 'He who thrice performs this Nâkiketa-rite overcomes birth and death.' As his third boon he, in the form of a question referring to final release, actually enquires about three things, viz. 'the nature of the end to be reached, i.e. Release; the nature of him who wishes to reach that end; and the nature of the means to reach it, i.e. of meditation assisted by certain works. Yama, having tested Nakiketas' fitness to receive the desired instruction, thereupon begins to teach him.

Now the Sri Vaishnava sect (of which I am a member) believes that there are two main paths to Moksha, Bhakti Yoga and Sharanagati. Bhakti Yoga involves devotional service to Vishnu, and it involves also doing Karma Yoga, i.e. doing your Dharma while giving up the fruit of your actions, and doing Jnana Yoga, i.e. meditating upon Brahman using the 32 Brahmavidyas found in the Upanishads. So it basically involves the complete set of teachings found in the Bhagavad Gita. Sharanagati involves a simple act of surrender to the lotus feet of Sri,an Narayana. It is performed using the Dvaya mantra which I discuss here, and the fact that it's guaranteed to give you Moksha is described in the Charama Shloka of the Bhagavad Gita which I discuss here. Sri Vaishnavas believe that Bhakti Yoga is a very difficult path to follow, especially given the diminished capacities of humans in the Kali Yuga, whereas Sharanagati gives easy and immediate results.

But Ramanujacharya says that the Nachiketa is a "means towards final Release", in contrast to other Yagnas which are "works leading to perishable results." So my question is, do Sri Vaishnavas believe that the Nachiketa Yagna is an independent means of attaining Moksha? That is to say, do Sri Vaishnavas believe that someone who does the Nachiketa Yagna, without ever meditating upon Brahman or surrendering to the lotus feet of Sriman Narayana, will get Moksha?

Could it be that the Nachiketa Yagna does not grant Moksha by itself, but rather it leads the person to Jnana of Brahman, and that Jnana leads them to attain Moksha? Or is Ramanujacharya just saying that if one does the Nachiketa Yagna in concert with Bhakti Yoga or Sharanagati then they will get Moksha, or what?

Does Ranga Ramanuja, the Sri Vaishnava commentator on the Upanishads, address this issue in his commentary on the Katha Upanishad? Are there any subcommentaries on the Sri Bhashya that shed light on this?

1 Answer 1


The key point here is that it is not possible to (meaningfully) perform the Nachiketa agni ritual without the Bhakti Yoga aspect. The Nachiketa yajna is not like other common yajnas; it's very definition requires the knowledge, contemplation and realization of the indwelling nature of the parabrahman in chit and achit. In other words, this is a bhakti-yoga-yajna as opposed to a kAmya yajna or a nityAnuShThAna yajna.

Sudarsana Suri points this out in his commentary (Srutaprakasika) on Ramanuja's words where he says even constructing the altar of the fire requires it to be done with the full realization of this relationship.

( dvitīyeneti ) ( mokṣopāya bhūtāmiti ) nāciketa agnividyāyāḥ mokṣopāyatvam aṅgidvārā bhavati , tacca tasyāḥ paramātmātmakasvātmānusandhānagarbhatvāt ,

The Nachiketa-Agni-Vidya's ability to be a means to salvation is because it is the bearer of the application of the proper knowledge of the Paramatma forming the indweller of the self (jIvAtmA).

tathāhi tadubhayaṃ śrūyate,

Thus we see both here (in the Kathopanisad):

"lokād imamagniṃ tamuvāca tasmai" ityupakramya "brahmajajñaṃ devamīḍyaṃ viditvā nicāyyemāṃ śāntimatyantameti, triṇāciketas trayametadviditvā ya evaṃ vidvām̐ścinute nāciketam । sa mṛtyupāśān purataḥ praṇodya śokātigo modate svargaloke" iti vākyena paramātmatadātmakasvātma-tadanusandhānagarbhāgnividyājñānapūrvakaṃ cinvānasya śokātigatvamuktam

In the Kathopanisad verses beginning from 1.15 to 1.18, it is said that one who piles the altar along with the application of the knowledge of the Agni Vidya that is fully pregnant with the knowledge of the Paramatma forming the indweller of the Jivatma, crosses over Sorrow.

"yo vā etāṃ brahmajajñātmabhūtāṃ citiṃ viditvā cinute nāciketam । sa eva bhūtvā brahmajajñātmabhūtaḥ karoti tadyena punarna jāyate" iti vākyena brahmātmakacetanadṛṣṭyā vā **tādṛśadevatādhiṣṭhitatvena vā'nusandhānapūrvakamagni cinvānasyā apunarbhavahetubhūta-brahmopāsanadvārā mokṣaprāptirhyuktā ;

In the verse 1.19 it is said that focusing on the Brahman being the indweller (of the Nachiketa fire altar) when performing the piling of the alter leads to the meditation of himself having Brahman as his self and ultimately leads to Moksha.

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