“The good (shreya) and the pleasant (preya) are two different things. They motivate a person to pursue two different goals. The one who embraces the good meets with auspiciousness. But the one who chooses the pleasant is lost.”
—Katha Upanishad 1.2.1
With this verse, Yamaraja, the Lord of Death, begins to unravel the mystery of immortality for his ardent student, Nachiketa. Yamaraja explains that we are constantly faced with choosing one of two paths: preya, the lure of pleasurable sensual enjoyment and temporary ego satisfaction, or shreya, the commitment to do that which is beneficial and good in the long run, that which will help us attain the lasting eternal fulfillment of self-realization.
When we live for only today, controlled by the desires and demands of our senses, we follow the path of preya, pleasure. On this path, Yamaraja states, we are blinded by avidya, ignorance, and cannot see our true nature, which is divine and eternal. Giving in to our senses gives us temporary pleasures, but it consumes our energy and ultimately leaves us feeling depleted and unfulfilled. No matter how many times we give in to our senses, they are never sated, craving more each time. Preya traps us in a vicious, never-ending cycle of births and deaths.
The path of shreya, goodness, Yamaraja continues, is a way out of the maze of worldly charms and temptations. Shreya is based on vidya, knowledge. It means having right understanding about the true purpose and meaning of life, and knowing that attaining such understanding requires commitment. We need to discipline our mind and senses, and live a balanced lifestyle: eat right, exercise regularly, sleep and wake on time, promote harmony and peace in our relationships, and do our spiritual practices daily.
To tread the path of shreya, set a goal—however small at first—and honor it no matter what. Each time you exert effort aligned with your higher intentions, you are practicing shreya—whether choosing to be tolerant of someone who has criticized you, or refraining from going out to party so you can get up and meditate in the morning.
This path is initially harder, and seemingly less enjoyable, but its effects are beneficial and long-lasting. Shreya leads us inward to the core of our being—to true happiness and peace—and eventually to freedom from the endless cycle of births and deaths.
More than 3,000 years old, the Katha Upanishad is one of the latest texts in the Vedic tradition. Written when Vedic culture had reached its darkest hour, this Upanishad encapsulates the entire range of yogic wisdom, and offers teachings on how to find higher purpose and meaning in life.
It is cast in the form of a dialogue between an accomplished master, Yamaraja, the Lord of Death, and a true seeker, Nachiketa, in search of what lies beyond death. The story begins when young Nachiketa’s father, in a fit of anger, gives him away to Death. Nachiketa waits at Death’s door for three nights without food and water before Lord Yamaraja receives him and grants three boons: his father’s peace of mind, the fire ritual that leads to heaven, and the secret to immortality.