The problems of KaṭhU 1, 13–19 concern the stratification of the text, the interpretation of difficult and rare words1 and the analysis of the ritualistic and metaritualistic contents.
Yama’s three boons in the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa (3, 11, 8: a parallel and possible source) and in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad are the following. Naciketas asks that he may happily return home (i.e. that his father is no more angry), that he may learn the imperishableness of the merits of sacrificing and religious liberality (TB), respectively the Agni which gives entrance to heaven (KaṭhU), and as third wish that he may know the escape from renewed death after death in yonder world (punarmṛtyu, TB), respectively an answer to the question whether man lives on after death (KaṭhU).
The threefoldness of the boons is rather problematic. Actually it seems to be based on a general predilection for the number three.2 In the Brāhmaṇa Yama offers three varas, but he has to give only two, since the piling of the Nāciketa fire-altar fulfils both the second and the third wish. In the Upaniṣad Yama first refuses to grant the third boon. Eventually he seems to consent and the rest of the Upaniṣad after the first Vallī may form Yama’s answer.3 The third vara, as it is formulated by Naciketas, is rather unusual for a boon. It is not the wish to obtain something concrete, but an inquiring question.
The greatest confusion is caused by Naciketas himself with his third question in both passages, since it looks superfluous. In fact the imperishableness of the iṣṭāpūrta is identical with the escape from punarmṛtyu in the Brāhmaṇas. The third question in the Upaniṣad on life after death sounds strange after the second one which deals with the way of reaching heaven, i.e. with life after death. Perhaps we have to interpret it as referring to the exact nature of the escape from punarmṛtyu (the obsession of the Brāhmaṇas) and from punarjanman (the Upaniṣadic ideal); i.e. Naciketas asks whether one eternally lives on after death (the old Vedic ideal) or loses one’s identity by absorption into a highest principle or deity (the Upaniṣadic view).
The greatest agreement between both passages lies in the first boon, but there is even some relation between the second/third boon in both texts. The difference is caused by the changing outlook of these texts. The Brāhmaṇa only mentions the actual piling of the fire-altar (in connection with the second and third boon), whereas KaṭhU 1, 14–18 also gives the esoteric explanation of the rite in accordance with the advanced views of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and formulates these views in the even more advanced way of the Upaniṣads. This approach forms the starting point for doctrines in the other Vallīs of this Upaniṣad which have no more connection with the sacrifice. The Upaniṣad does not form a unity. We may compare the Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad, which, as Van Buitenen (1962) has shown, consists of ritualistic passages and later additions. The metaritualism of the MaiU especially concerns the piling of the fire-altar.4
Now the problem is that the verses 1, 15–18 have been regarded as interpolations. In the most elaborate treatment of the stratification of this text Weller (1953) discerned six layers (“Textschichten”) in the first Vallī. For Yama’s second boon the following layers are relevant: 8–14; 15 + 19; 16–18. Before discussing Weller’s argumentation I present the text5 with Hume’s translation:6
sa tvam agniṁ svargyam adhyeṣi mṛtyo prabrūhi tvaṁ7 śraddadhānāya mahyam /
svargalokā amṛtatvaṁ bhajanta etad dvitīyena vṛṇe vareṇa //
“Thyself, O Death, understandest the heavenly fire. Declare it to me who have faith (śraddadhāna). Heaven-world people partake of immortality. This I choose with boon the second.”
pra te bravīmi tad u me nibodha svargyam agniṁ naciketaḥ prajānan /
anantalokāptim atho pratiṣṭhāṁ viddhi tvam etaṁ nihitaṁ guhāyām //
“To thee I do declare, and do thou learn it of me—understanding about the heavenly fire, O Naciketas! The attainment of the infinite world, likewise too its establishment—know thou that as set down in the secret place [of the heart].”
lokādim agniṁ tam uvāca tasmai yā iṣṭakā yāvatīr vā yathā vā /
sa cāpi tat pratyavadad yathoktam athāsya mṛtyuḥ punar evāha8 tuṣṭaḥ //
“He told him of that fire as the beginning of the world, what bricks, and how many, and how [built]. And he too repeated that, as it was told. Then, pleased with him, Death said again—”
tam abravīt prīyamāṇo mahātmā varaṁ tavehādya dadāmi bhūyaḥ /
tavaiva nāmnā bhavitāyam agniḥ sṛṅkāṁ cemām anekarūpāṁ9 gṛhāṇa //
“Delighting, the great soul (mahātman) said to him: A further boon I give thee here today. By thy name indeed shall this fire be [known]. This multifold garland (sṛṅkā), too, accept.”
triṇāciketas tribhir etya sandhiṁ trikarmakṛt tarati janmamṛtyū /
brahmajajñaṁ devam īḍyaṁ viditvā nicāyyemāṁ śāntim atyantam eti //
“Having kindled a triple Naciketas-fire, having attained union with the three, performing the triple work, one crosses over birth and death. By knowing the knower of what is born from Brahma, the god to be praised, [and] by revering [him], one goes for ever to this peace (śānti).”
sa mṛtyupāśān purataḥ, praṇodya śokātigo modate svargaloke //
“Having kindled a triple Naciketas-fire, having known this triad, he who knowing thus, builds up the Naciketas-fire, he, having cast off in advance the bonds of death, with sorrow overpassed, rejoices in the heaven-world.”
eṣa te’gnir naciketaḥ svargyo yam avṛṇīthā dvitīyena vareṇa /
tam agniṁ tavaiva pravakṣyanti janāsas tṛtīyaṁ varaṁ naciketo vṛṇīṣva //12
“This, O Naciketas, is thy heavenly fire, which thou didst choose with the second boon. As thine, indeed, will folks proclaim this fire. The third boon, Naciketas, choose!”
The verses 16–18 have long been regarded as an insertion.13 Weller’s argumentation14 is not quite cogent. The additional boon at which Weller takes offence, does not contain anything really new. It is rather the explanation of the name of a particular piling of the altar and as such an extension of the second boon. The same may be observed with regard to the sṛṅkā, which will be discussed below. The repetition of the namegiving (16 and 19) is not a hard proof; Yama recapitulates before he continues with the third boon. Indeed one may condemn the sequence of athāsya mṛtyuḥ punar evāha tuṣṭaḥ (15) and tam abravīt prīyamāṇo … There seems to be a superfluous repetition (with some variations). However, again this is no hard proof.
Moreover one may ask why someone should have interpolated the verses under discussion, which do not introduce very modern additions. It might even be argued that without these verses the argumentation of the text loses its force. In 16–18 the metaritualism of the Agnicayana is expressed. If one leaves out these verses and connects 15 with 19, Yama only describes the actual piling of the altar without giving the doctrine. The esoteric interpretation condemned by Weller and other scholars lies (at least partly) in the sphere of the late Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads. KaṭhU 1, 15 without 1, 16–18 would form no progress in comparison with the version of the Brāhmaṇa and not suit an Upaniṣad like the Kaṭha.
Now Weller realizes the problematic position of verse 15, which hardly explains why the Nāciketa altar is svargya (cf. vs. 13), and therefore he regards 15 and 19 as belonging to one layer different from 12–14.15 The Agni in the guhā described in verse 14 and the piling of the altar in verse 15 do not agree according to Weller.16 However, he creates a pseudo-contrast between 14 and 15 by throwing out 16–18 and thereby removing the esoteric interpretation which should be applied to 15 and which forms the link with the Agni in the guhā of verse 14. Indeed, one does not actually pile bricks in the heart (guhā), but the ritual may have a counterpart inside man by interiorization.17 Weller’s greatest mistake seems to be his distinction made between Agni = fire and Agni = fire-altar. In the Agnicayana the word agni denotes the citi, the altar which is piled up. Weller, however, describes KaṭhU 1, 15 as the “eingeschobenen Vers i 15, in welchem gar nicht mehr von dem in der (Herz)höhle des Menschen ruhenden, zum Himmel führenden Feuer die Rede geht, sondern von einem auf dem Opferplatz mit Ziegeln zu schichtenden Opferfeuer” (p. 17) and he even states that this “Opferfeuer … anderen Ursprungs ist” (ibid.). His argumentation for this conclusion lacks every foundation: “Das neue Feuer in der Herzhöhle des Menschen, welches über den Wiedertod hinaus zur Unsterblichkeit führt, wird durch ein anderes neues Feuer ersetzt, das der Opfertechniker in vertrauter Art auf dem Opferplatze zu schichten vermag. Das Neue an diesem Feuer wird dadurch gewährleistet, daß man lehrt, wievieler Ziegel es im Unterschiede zu anderen bedarf, seinen Feueraltar zu schichten” (p. 20). It may be observed here that the newness of the particular Agniciti as well as the other newness, namely of the Ātmayajña or interiorized sacrifice, had lost its actuality already centuries before the composition of the rather late KaṭhU.18 The Ātmayajña, and the Agnicayana, far from forming an antithesis, belong together since the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa.19 Therefore Weller’s sketch of the rivalry between the ritualists and the philosophers (p. 20) has no connection with this Upaniṣad and is pure fiction.
In my view KaṭhU 1, 13–19 may be taken together as a uniform (be it carelessly composed or transmitted) treatment of Naciketas’ second boon. These verses deal with the piling of the altar and its esoteric aspects, which in the usual way are based on cosmic and microcosmic equations.
The essential idea behind the piling of the altar20 is that Prajāpati, unity before the creation and plurality after his creative act, becomes desintegrated by his emanation and should be reintegrated again by the sacrifice, especially by the Agnicayana in which the cosmic totality of space (the layers of the altar) and time (the ritual of one year and the number of bricks representing the year) is realized. This achievement has also implications for the Yajamāna, since reaching totality and identifying oneself with the cosmic totality of the universe or with the year means transcending the imperfectness of transitory existence. The esoteric meaning of the ritual is further based on a system of identifications in which the Yajamāna (or his ātman in the heart and the image-soul in his eye), the fire-altar (or Agni/Sun represented by something buried under the altar and the fire on the altar) and the cosmic Puruṣa, Prajāpati (or the visible aspect: the sun in heaven and the puruṣa in the sun), play a role.21
Returning to the KaṭhU we may observe that Naciketas asks from Death the piling of an altar which ultimately overcomes Death (in yonder world) and secures immortality in heaven, where there is no death or no fear of death (vs. 12). He asks for a svargya fire-altar (vs. 13). According to Yama this altar is nihita guhāyām (vs. 14). The word guhā has been differently interpreted.22 Weller seems to be right in taking it to mean “cavity of the heart,”23 but he failed to see that this interiorization concerned the Agnicayana (i.c. the Nāciketa piling). ŚB 7, 4, 1, 1 explicitly states ātmánn agníṁ gṛhṇīte ceṣyán in connection with the Agnicayana.24 This interiorization of the Agnicayana has also drawn the attention of another Yajurvedic Upaniṣad, the Maitrāyaṇīya.25 Three Black Yajurvedic Upaniṣads have dealt with this topic, the Kāṭhaka, the Maitrāyaṇīya and the Taittirīya.26 A fourth, the late Śvetāśvatara, has only adopted (and adapted) some Agnicayana verses in the beginning of its second chapter.
The internal aspect of the Agnicayana, however, does not only refer to a real substitution of the actual rite. It may also play a role in the threefold approach of the sacrifice: the ritualistic, the cosmic and the microcosmic. Of course the adhiyajña, adhidaiva and adhyātma interpretations are not confined to the Agnicayana, but it is especially in relation with this sacrifice that we find this threefold approach in the Brāhmaṇas.27 The gold man buried under the altar is Agni/Prajāpati/Sacrificer. In connection with what has been observed above it should be noted that the gold man is also to be located in the heart.28
The threefoldness of the Agnicayana also appears in the KaṭhU and has caused there many misinterpretations. Indeed, verse 17 triṇāciketas tribhir etya sandhiṁ trikarmakṛt tarati janmamṛtyū is rather difficult. I doubt, however, whether the various triads introduced in the translations and the notes29 have anything to do with the specific context: a particular Agnicayana. It should be borne in mind that the Agni of this rite is primarily single and has no connection with the three fires of the Āhitāgni. There is no threefold kindling. The idea that this particular Nāciketa altar should be piled thrice, does not make sense. All the triads of verse 17 refer to the threefold aspect of the Agnicayana. Every element of the ritual has a cosmic and a microcosmic counterpart and therefore the piling of the altar also takes place in the heart of the sacrificer.
In the preceding verse Death offers an addition to the second boon. The piling of the altar will be called Nāciketa30 and moreover he gives a sṛṅkā. The interpretation of this word is problematic.31 On the assumption that KaṭhU 1, 16–18 form an interpolation, the occurrence of this word in KaṭhU 2, 3 (sa tvaṁ priyān priyarūpāṁś ca kāmān abhidhyāyan naciketo ’tyasrākṣīḥ / naitāṁ sṛṅkāṁ vittamayīm avāpto yasyāṁ majjanti bahavo manuṣyāḥ) has been taken as a starting point by some interpreters. In this context it is said that Naciketas has despised the pleasant things of life which were offered to him and moreover that he did not accept the sṛṅkā which apparently is the obsession of most other people. The pleasant things to which this verse refers, were offered by Yama in 1, 23–25 and indeed rejected by Naciketas, since they did not compensate the original third wish. The sṛṅkā, however, is only an addition to the second boon and there is no reason to refuse it. Actually nowhere it is said in the first chapter that he did so. Therefore I do not believe that 1, 16 was interpolated by someone who was influenced by the contents of 2, 3. Rather I have the impression that the second half of 2, 3 has to explain the particular position of the sṛṅkā in comparison with valuable things mentioned in 1, 23–25.
The meaning of sṛṅkā may tentatively be approached by taking into account the adjectives anekarūpa (1, 16) and vittamaya (2, 3) which qualify it. Moreover it is assumable that imām in verse 17 refers to this very sṛṅkā rather than to the immediately following noun śāntim, since this pronoun denotes something which is present and near.32 If this is correct, the accusative imām depends on nicāyya, which some translators have construed with devam īḍyam.33 This would imply that eternal peace is produced by the sṛṅkā in connection with the action denoted by nicāyya. We should also take into account that just as the other additional boon (the name of the piling of the altar) it should have some relation with the Agnicayana. The combination of these data makes the ascertainment of the correct meaning more than a pure guess.34
The adjectives anekarūpa and vittamaya seem to denote something precious. This interpretation is supported by the commentaries of Śaṅkara and Madhva at least as far as 1, 16 is concerned. Whether the sṛṅkā is indeed a (gold) chain or necklace, as the commentaries assume, is uncertain. Probably Madhva’s association of śṛṅkāṁ (sic) and śṛṅkhalām was an “etymology.”
The connection between anekarūpa and gold seems to be acceptable. My supposition on this point was later confirmed, when I read Madhva.35 In my interpretation of anekarūpa I did not only compare bahurūpa (as was done by Madhva) but also pururūpa and especially viśvarūpa. The latter qualifies Savitṛ’s chariot (ṚV 1, 35, 4) and Sūrya’s (ṚV 10, 85, 20). In the same verse Sūrya’s chariot is explicitly called híraṇyavarṇa. Every part of Savitṛ’s chariot is denoted by the adjective gold and the whole chariot is called hiraṇyáya in ṚV 1, 35, 2. The same adjective viśvárūpa is also used in connection with the word niṣká in ṚV 2, 33, 10, an ornament which is definitely made of gold. Rudra, whose niṣká is viśvárūpa, is himself pururū́pa (ṚV 2, 33, 9) and he is described as decorated with gold. This niṣká perhaps is not just a “Goldschmuck” (Geldner) or a “Halskette” (Arbman 1922, 9), but a “Brustschmuck” (ibid. n. 1).36 The remarkable agreement between Rudra and the solar gods in connection with gold and with the epithet viśvárūpa, does not imply that this god should have any solar aspects in the Ṛgveda. Rudra’s gold is the gold of the charioteer or the chariot-fighter who wears it on his breast and has a chariot adorned with gold. Rudra is gartasád (ṚV 2, 33, 11), i.e. sitting on the throne of a war-chariot. As such the Ṛgvedic Rudra may be compared with the Maruts (sometimes regarded as Rudra’s sons) who are fighters “wearing golden ornaments on the breast”37 (rukmávakṣasaḥ). The war-chariot is also called rukmín in a comparison in ṚV 1, 66, 6. See also JB 2, 103 on a ratha which is rukmin and a charioteer who is niṣkin. Perhaps niṣka and rukma denote similar ornaments, when worn by men. The fact that a niṣka is some sort of breast-plate rather than a necklace seems to be proved by JB 2, 136 tad yathā niṣkaṁ śamalagṛhītam agnau prāsyāyoghanena sarvaṁ śamalaṁ nirhanyād.38 Apparently every chariot was associated with the chariot of the sun by means of the gold ornaments of the charioteer, the chariot-fighter and the chariot itself.
The connection between gold and sun implies that most of the symbolic functions of gold refer to the sun, to eternal life and light, to immortality. If now we can associate anekarūpa by way of similar adjectives like viśvarūpa and pururūpa with gold, sun and immortality, the sṛṅkā may be nearer to its final interpretation.
Evidence for the interpretation of the -rūpa-compounds as referring to colour and outward impression (“glitter”) rather than to form39 has been adduced above from the oldest Vedic literature.40 For the context under discussion evidence from the Upaniṣads is essential.
Prācīnayogya regards the ātman as the sun in ChU 5, 13, 1 and his interrogator Satyayajña Pauluṣi concludes eṣa vai viśvarūpa ātmā vaiśvānaro yaṁ tvam ātmānam upāsse / tasmāt tava bahu viśvarūpaṁ kule dṛśyate. Most translators misinterpret the adjective viśvarūpa and stress the aspect of manifoldness instead of making it refer to glitter, beauty and lustre. The specification of this bahu viśvarūpam in 5, 13, 2 (i.e. a niṣka and a pravṛtta, both ornaments made of gold) and the conclusion that this conception of the ātman only concerns the eye of the ātman seems to prove that glamour and glitter are meant. Rau (1974, 54) translates ChU 5, 13, 1 “Daher sieht man in deiner Familie viel vollkommen Schönes.” Here the outward appearance of gold and comparable beautiful items is expressed without implications of immortality.
Especially the sun receives the epithet viśvarūpa. Senart (1930) is wrong in translating the last words of ChU 5, 18, 2 tasya ha vā etasyātmano vaiśvānarasya … cakṣur eva viśvarūpaḥ by “(le soleil) qui fait tout apparaître est l’ œil.” This passage cannot be separated from ChU 5, 13, 1–2 (discussed above), where he renders eṣa (sc. ādityaḥ) vai viśvarūpa ātmā vaiśvānaraḥ, by “C’ est l’ infinité d’ aspects de l’ ātman vaiśvānara …” Nothing in the context indicates why the sun should be “manifold” (tr. Hume) or “allgestaltig” (tr. Deussen). The adjective rather refers to the lustre of the sun and of gold objects like niṣkas. In PrU 1, 7 the rising sun (equated with fire and prāṇa in the well-known threefold homology) is called viśvarūpa. In the next verse (also occurring in MaiU 6, 8) it is called viśvarūpa as well as “golden” (harin). In TU 1, 4, 1 Indra (the cosmic ātman, the sun?) receives this epithet.
The adjective explicitly refers to the ātman in ŚvetU 1, 9 and 5, 7. Here one might be inclined to interpret it as “der alle Gestalten annimmt,”41 since this ātman is the god present in everybody (every body). See also ŚvetU 6, 5 … taṁ viśvarūpam … īḍyaṁ devaṁ svacittastham upāsya (cf. KaṭhU 1, 16–17 sṛṅkāṁ cemām anekarūpām … devam īḍyaṁ viditvā nicāyyemām …) and PrāṇU 23 viśvo ’si vaiśvānaro viśvarūpo … “tu assumes tous les formes” (tr. Varenne 1960, 107). I doubt, however, whether everywhere this connotation of viśvarūpa can be assumed and whether this interpretation is correct at all. In MaiU 7, 7 viśvarūpa refers i.a. to the ātman, but this ātman is equated with the sun and the fire in accordance with the doctrine of the Agnicayana, which forms the subject in this part of the Upaniṣad. It is even possible that viśvarūpa especially refers to the flaming fire in eṣa ho khalv ātmāntarhṛdaye ’ṇīyān iddho ’gnir iva viśvarūpaḥ.42 MaiU 7, 7 concludes with a worship of the sun: tasmai te viśvarūpāya satye nabhasi hitāya namaḥ “Homage to Thee, of all forms, who art residing in the true Ether” (tr. Van Buitenen). It is obvious that the sun has only one form and that the doubtful interpretation “present in every body” (one rather expects viśvadeha) is hardly suitable here.
Sun, fire and gold make a variegated impression, because they are radiant. See also MaiU 6, 34 on the gold-coloured ātman present in the sun, the fire and the heart: hiraṇyavarṇaḥ śakuno hṛdy āditye pratiṣṭhitaḥ / madgur haṁsas tejo vṛṣā so ’sminn agnau yajāmahe. Especially in the case of gold the form does not change or vary at all; it is only the impression, the appearance, the colour that varies. That the highest god is viśvarūpa because he is associated with gold seems to be proved by MNU 287 and 290 namo hiraṇyabāhave hiraṇyavarṇāya hiraṇyarūpāya hiraṇyapataye … viśvarūpāya vai namaḥ “Hommage à celui qui … est couleur d’ or! À celui qui a l’ aspect de l’ or … Hommage, en vérité, à celui qui assume toutes formes” (tr. Varenne 1960, 73).
If now the compounds ending in -rūpa at least in several contexts denote persons and objects which have no more than one body or form and the colour or appearance seem to be expressed, one may ask why especially gold ornaments rather than multi-coloured, painted material are qualified by this epithet. I think that aneka-, puru-, bahu- and viśvarūpa do not primarily express that more than one colour is present. The analysis of the compounds points to variegation, whereas actually brilliance, lustre and glitter are meant. The reverse seems to be the case with citra, which means bright and bright-coloured, but in several contexts denotes something that is variegated, multi-coloured, manifold. Both citra and viśva(rūpa) are associated with the centre in the classifications.43 The deity situated in the centre and associated with the citra or viśva colour is Īśāna, who in some texts is also called viśvarūpa. The combination of four colours or of all colours in the centre is difficult. It might refer to something spotted and variegated, but this hardly applies to gold, fire and sun. Now it is interesting that according to ChU 3, 5, 3 the fifth colour or rūpa of the sun (after red, white, black and deep black) is described as etad yad etad ādityasya madhye kṣobhata iva. The viśvarūpa aspect of sun, fire, gold, crystal etc. is excellently expressed here. The viśva colour is not just the variegated colour of textures. The glitter denoted by citra, viśvarūpa, anekarūpa etc. forms the opposite of dimness, dullness, lack of lustre, monotony. The impression of variety and variegation is caused by the radiation produced by the objects qualified by these adjectives. Sun and fire produce this effect (there is movement, shake, permanent change: kṣobhata iva!!) themselves, other objects like gold and crystal depend on the light falling on them from different angles. In other contexts these adjectives are used metaphorically. The viśvarūpa effect makes a dazzling and bewildering impression especially in connection with the cosmic manifestation of a supreme god.44 For the association of visvarūpa and other -rūpa-compounds45 with gold ornaments we may also draw the attention to the fact that citra, the viśva colour, means ‘ornament’ in some contexts. The adjectives citra, bahu-, puru-, aneka- and viśvarūpa do not refer to a plurality of colours being present at the same time on the surface of something (e. g. an ornament). They denote the changing aspect of these objects. One may compare the proverb in which the policy of the king is describes as anekarūpa and as such is compared with a prostitute whose appearance (and behaviour) also changes continuously.46 Or is it the glitter of her many gold ornaments which makes her appear anekarūpā? Cf. Śakāra’s description of Vasantasenā: eśā śaśuvaṇṇā śahilaṇṇā … gaṇiādāliā (Mṛcchakaṭika, Act I, before vs. 51).
Since in KaṭhU 1, 16 the sṛṅkā is a concrete object which is handed over, we have to conclude that anekarūpa does not denote something which has many forms, but something which has the same lustre as sun, fire and gold. It might be a gold ornament, but in the context of the Nāciketa Agnicayana it may also be a gold object which in the threefold identificatory system has connections with the ātman of the Yajamāna on the one hand and with the sun on the other hand, i.e. it may also symbolize immortality and the victory over death (which Naciketas tries to obtain or learn from Death).
The assumption that the sṛṅkā is made of gold agrees with the qualification which it receives in KaṭhU 2, 3: vittamayī. Gold and gold ornaments also represent wealth.47 As has been observed above, the problem is the relation between the valuable things offered by Yama in KaṭhU 1, 23–25 and rejected by Naciketas and the likewise valuable sṛṅkā offered by Yama in KaṭhU 1, 16 and apparently not refused by Naciketas. Both are mentioned together in KaṭhU 2, 3. Now it is remarkable that in the enumeration of the pleasant things in 1, 23–25 gold is not missing. It occurs in the compound hastihiraṇyam next to cattle, sons, horses, a big house, girls, chariots etc. Gold is also mentioned in parallel enumerations of desired objects.48 The gold ornaments in these passage are pravṛtta, niṣka and rukma. One may ask what is the difference between these gold ornaments to which the compound hastihiraṇyam refers, and the presumably gold sṛṅkā. In my view the difference is based on the function. The pravṛtta, niṣka and rukma represent something beautiful and valuable here. If my hypothesis that the sṛṅkā has something to do with the Agnicayana is correct, the function of this gold object is different. Indeed, KaṭhU 2, 3 states that the sṛṅkā is vittamayī, but the text also contains a negation: naitāṁ sṛṅkāṁ vittamayīm avāpto. Hume translates “Thou art not one who has taken that garland of wealth” and he admits that “garland” is a conjectural rendering. However, “garland of wealth” is strange and the statement that Naciketas did not accept the sṛṅkā is rather surprising. The sṛṅkā was not a proposal (a substitute for the third boon) to be rejected, but a concrete and available object which was handed over (gṛhāṇa!) as an addition to the second (accepted) boon.
Since Naciketas apparently did not refuse to take delivery of the sṛṅkā, we have to conclude that he accepted it. The point is that … na avāptaḥ (object: sṛṅkām) and atyasrākṣīḥ (object: priyān … kāmān) are not synonyms. The first half of KaṭhU 2, 3 states that Naciketas abandoned the chance to get valuable things. The author realized that Naciketas indeed received a gold sṛṅkā and hastens to add that the sṛṅkā which he had actually received (avāptaḥ), was not obtained in the form of value or property (na vittamayīm … avāptaḥ). Yama says: “You do not have this sṛṅkā in your possession as a property of your own.” Note the difference between the aorist and the participle in -ta. Naciketas has to use the sṛṅkā, in the particular Agnicayana which is called Nāciketa.
The use of gold in this ritual is well known.49 Apart from the gold man the most important use of gold in the Agnicayana is the laying of a gold plate under the altar. The name of this plate is rukma according to the texts.50 Now it is interesting that this rukma is not only used in this ritual. It is also one of the gold ornaments like niṣka and pravṛtta which occurred in the enumerations of desired objects mentioned above.
This means that the rukma can be vittamaya as well as a ritualistic implement with a higher, symbolic value. It is my hypothesis that the sṛṅkā is a gold plate worn on the breast which may be compared with the rukma and the niṣka. These ornaments were hung around the neck and in connection with charioteers and chariot-fighters as well as the piling of the altar at the Agnicayana they represent the sun. It is especially the rukma which according to the texts was laid under the altar. For the particular Nāciketa altar a particular gold-plate called sṛṅkā may have been used. The rukma was worn on the breast of the initiated Yajamāna before it was buried under the altar. As the niṣka and the rukma are mentioned together in one and the same passage, we have to conclude that they are not completely identical. Caland (1919, 153, n. 6) equates niṣka and rukma. The symbolic function of the round ornaments worn on the breast may have been the same, their applications became differentiated. The bigger ones became breastplates worn around the neck with a pāśa not made of gold: the rukmas which were also buried under the altar. The smaller ones may have become coins: the niṣkas.51 The latter probably belonged to a gold necklace. About the sṛṅkā the information is scarce. We do not know how far the interpretation of the commentaries (“gold necklace”) is a guess. It might be some sort of niṣka with the function of a rukma in this context which concerns the Agnicayana. In order to ascertain the meaning and function of the sṛṅkā used as a rukma we have to examine the function of the rukma in the Agnicayana ritual and to see whether such a rukma can be substituted for sṛṅkā in the KaṭhU.
When the altar is piled up, first a lotusleaf is placed in the middle, which represents the subterranean waters.52 On top of this leaf the gold plate (rukma) is placed which represents the sun or Agni53 appearing out of these waters. This conception of Agni or the sun arising from the nether world is also expressed by the verse which accompanies the deposition of the gold plate: brahma jajñānaṁ prathamaṁ purastād …54 It is evident that this verse supports the identification of the gold plate and the sun. According to MaiU 6, 18 the īśa, the puruṣa who springs from brahman, is rukmavarṇa. The trinity of sun, fire and ātman which finds a synthesis55 in the concept of the īśa or Śiva or another highest god or highest principle, is also found in other texts, often with explicit reference to Īśa or Śiva and to gold or in connection with adjectives which in older texts qualify gold. We have already mentioned the uncertain meaning of viśvarūpa which on the one hand means “brilliant, glittering” (like gold) and on the other hand seems to refer to the presence in all living beings. Now it is remarkable that anekarūpa, the adjective which qualifies the probably gold sṛṅkā in KaṭhU 1, 16, is also used in connection with the Īśa in ŚvetU 4, 14: viśvasya sraṣṭāram anekarūpam … jñātvā śivaṁ śāntim atyantam eti. If now we compare KaṭhU 1, 16–17 … sṛṅkāṁ cemām anekarūpāṁ gṛhāṇa … brahmajajñaṁ devam īḍyaṁ viditvā nicāyyemāṁ śāntim atyantam eti, it becomes clear that the verses 16 and 17 belong together, as is also indicated by imām which can hardly be taken with śāntim. The link between the anekarūpā sṛṅkā (KaṭhU 1, 16) and the anekarūpaḥ śivaḥ (ŚvetU 4, 14) may be the viśvarūpa īḍyo devaḥ (ŚvetU 6, 5); cf. KaṭhU 1, 17 devaḥ īḍyaḥ.
Moreover brahmajajñam obviously refers to the verse brahma jajñānam (cf. n. 54), which accompanies the laying down of the gold plate, the rukma, which in my hypothesis is called sṛṅkā in this particular piling. Hillebrandt56 already connected brahmajajñam with the verse. He regarded it as some sort of Pratīka which referred to the beginning of the verse, just as māhitra denotes ṚV 10, 185, 1 máhi trīṇā́m ávo … The same should apply to devam īḍyam, but here the relation with a particular text were uncertain. Rau (1971, 162) follows Hillebrandt with regard to devam īḍyam: “Ähnlich etwa ṚV 10, 53 , 2 cd.” The weak point in this attribution is that this Ṛgvedic verse (unlike brahma jajñānam) has no connection at all with the Agnicayana. Moreover, why should knowledge of this more or less ritualistic verse without a specific function or meaning qualify someone for eternal peace?
In the parallel quoted from the ŚvetU (4, 14) knowledge of Śiva, the highest god according to that text, produces the same effect. Therefore Geldner’s interpretation “Weil er das zur Welt gewordene Brahman als den anzurufenden Gott erkannt … hat” (19282, 158)57 is preferable. The devaḥ īḍyaḥ is the sun, the manifestation of brahman, the gold plate, the fire, the soul, the īśvara. Knowledge of these homologies produces the śānti about which the text speaks. Mostly mokṣa is based on this sort of identifications.
However, I do not agree with Geldner in connecting imām with śāntim. His association of nicāyya with ciketi (“… und erschaut hat”) is debatable. Limaye’s edition refers to TB 3, 11, 8, 5 as a parallel (yò ’gníṁ nāciketáṁ cinuté yá u cainam eváṁ véda; i.e. again ci + vid) and observes: “here viditvā and nicāyya.” The difference between the two passages, however, is that in the Brāhmaṇa the two verbs have one and the same object (the altar), whereas in the Upaniṣad there are two objects (devam and imām, sc. sṛṅkām). On the other hand the contents of both passages are very similar. The sṛṅkā denoted by imām and the sun regarded as the īśvara are identical (and both are identified with the fire).
There are two possible interpretations of devam īḍyaṁ viditvā nicāyyemām. Either nicāyya refers to the deposition58 of the gold rukma (here = sṛṅkā), an action accompanied with the mantra brahma jajñānam …, or it denotes the identification of the sṛṅkā with the devaḥ īḍyaḥ (= the brahma jajñānam). Rau correctly connects nicāyya with imām, but his translation (1971, 162) “… [und] diese [sṛṅkā] erschaut hat” does not convince, as seeing the sṛṅkā does not free people from death or saṁsāra. The identification is essential. One may compare ŚvetU 2, 1 agniṁ jyotir nicāyiya (TS 4, 1, 1 nicā́yya), which Hauschild translates by “… das Feuer, als er es als Licht wahrgenommen hatte.” We have already observed that ŚvetU 4, 11 … tam īśānaṁ varadaṁ devam īḍyaṁ nicāyyemāṁ śāntim atyantam eti (“Wer ihn erschaut […] den Herrn, den gabenreichen, preisenswerten Gott,—der geht in jene Ruhe ein für ewig” [tr. Hauschild]) is a clumsy borrowing in which imām precedes the formula śāntim atyantam eti (= ŚvetU 4, 14), rather than a good parallel.
One may translate KaṭhU 1, 17 (second half) “having known that the brahman which is being born (in the east, i.e. the sun) is the god to be praised (i.e. the īśvara) and having recognized this (sṛṅkā) as this (deity) he reaches peace in eternity.” This threefold homology is also expressed in the first half of KaṭhU 1, 17. In the translation proposed here brahmajajñam has been interpreted as if the text would read brahma jajñānam in accordance with the mantra beginning with these words.59 However, this is against the metre.60
Concluding this treatment of the second boon given to Naciketas I translate some relevant (parts of) verses in order to show where my interpretation is different from Hume’s (quoted above) and from some other translations:
You are studying61 the fire-altar which procures heaven, O Death …
I shall teach it to you and you, Naciketas, must learn and understand the fire-altar which procures heaven. Know that … it is placed in the cavity (of the heart).
… And take this glittering gold-plate.
Having piled the Nāciketa fire on three levels (i.e. ritualistic, cosmic and microcosmic), having made a synthesis with these three (citis), having performed the ritual on three levels one transcends birth and death. One comes to peace in eternity, when one knows the brahman which is being born (in the east from the subterranean waters of the nether world) to be the deity who is to be honoured (as the Īśvara) and when one recognizes this (gold-plate) as the same [or: when one lays down this (gold-plate) under the altar].
O Naciketas, knowing this tripartite homology and piling this Nāciketa fire-altar with this knowledge one casts off the nooses of Death and passing grief one rejoices in heaven.
This, O Naciketas, is your fire-altar, which procures heaven …
The pleasant and the pleasantly looking objects of desire you have considered and, Naciketas, you have let them go. You have not obtained this gold-plate as your own permanent property, though it is something in which many people founder.62