• Gregory Shushan

A Near-Death Experience from Ancient India (Historical NDE of the Month)

The new Historical NDE of the Month is the ancient Indian story of Naciketas, who annoyed his father so much with his questions that he was sent to the underworld. There he met Yama, the god of death, who revealed to him the secrets of the fire altar ritual, rebirth, and the soul.

The story of the otherworld journey of a young boy named Naciketas is well known in Indian traditions. Though most famously recounted in the Katha Upanishad, dating to as early as the 5th century BCE, a somewhat earlier version of the story appeared in the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa. Both were religious-philosophical texts, foundational to later forms of Hinduism. It's a complex narrative in both versions, serving in part to explain the significance of a fire-altar ritual, though doing so in terms of the nature of the inner unchanging soul (atman) and the secrets of immortality.

The story of Naciketas is part of a stream of ancient Vedic descriptions of journeys to the otherworld, beginning with the earliest text of all, the Rig Veda, dating to at least 1500 BCE. In that account, a boy travels to the realm of the dead in a “chariot of the mind” in order to visit his recently deceased father. It appears to be a deliberately-induced visionary experience, however, without a near-death context. In a myth found in the Shatapatha and Jaiminiya Brahmanas (8th– 6th century BCE), the son of the deity Varuna is sent to the otherworld in order to gain knowledge. Only the story of Naciketas, however, has an apparent near-death context, and has protagonists who are both human. It may, however, have the same foundational roots as the earlier versions – but in any case demonstrates knowledge of NDEs in ancient India (as do medical and other texts).

Though the Upanishadic version adds many more details, it is also more widely known and easier to find. For this reason, I've used the more obscure Taittirīya Brāhmaṇai version. It's available to read for free on my Patreon page. https://www.patreon.com/posts/72567005