Nachiketa, Not Faustus

Two Cultural Paradigms of Subjectivity and the Imperative of Choice*


By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


And hereafter, sir, look you speak well of scholars. – Doctor Faustus, Scene XII


He must awaken wonder who speaks that whom most do not even get to listen and whom most cannot know even though they listen. He who finds him must indeed be subtle and fine of skill. And he too must be astonishing who has received wisdom from such an accomplished and realized one.

– Katha Upanishad, Adhyaya 1, Valli 2, Shloka 7



Sometimes it is possible to choose our fathers. One such time is now.


We have to choose between Faustus and Nachiketa. But it requires, first, that we recognize our condition.


We are the lost race of Nachiketa, fostered and possessed by Faustus’s spirit. We have relinquished spirituality and embraced dis/simulation. The memory of our lineage lies buried under the spectacular etceteras of imposed paternity. We have long been dead and may remain eternally so if we do not rise up from the dead. If we do, we will enter immortal life. More important, though, is we will enter our life. But for that to happen, we will have to exorcise Faustus’s spirit - that has turned our existence into hell - from the house of our being.


We will have to excavate ourselves. We will have to realize we have been misfathered.


There is no obligation, despite the significance, to see the question of our having to choose between Faustus and Nachiketa as one of a choice between Them and Us: our skins are becoming increasingly porous and our boundaries ever more indefinite. The reclamation of our spiritual ancestry needn’t be reduced to a project of postcolonial cultural reclamation merely, though it may subsume that project. The choice involves matters more fundamental, more widely human.


The primordial attraction of Nachiketa and Faustus signifies their transcendence of specific historical-cultural matrices and elevation to the status of archetypes. Beyond dwelling on them separately, if one sets them in contiguity in the mind and harkens their mutual resonance, the consciousness can be pushed to a point where the questions of subjectivation and subjection begin to etch themselves in blood on the screen of being.




Faustus is the prototype and progenitor not only of the modern Western subject but also of a peculiar, increasingly common species of the contemporary Western (and of the Westernized Third World) academic giving performance as an inauthentic public intellectual. His craving for the spectacle, his hobnobbing with princes and popes, his fleeting moments of penitence each followed by deeper immersion in restless escapism, his illusory, vicarious self-empowerment -all these traits and habits add up to define him quintessentially.


Where is the real Faustus? Is he to be located out there in his own consciousness, or is he there in his momentary self-reflexive awareness? His entire tragedy gathers within the question of this location.


Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin

To sound the depths of that thou wilt profess;


From this cheerful first utterance to the terminal sorrow of


And Faustus’ custom is not to deny

The just requests of those that wish him well ....


in Scene xviii, we watch a lonely subject struggling in confusion to objectify himself. The struggle holds the seed of Faustus’s damnation as much as the promise of his redemption, but the promise is aborted because the attempt at objectification is spooked, literally. His affair with the spectacular/spectral haunts and dematerializes all his attempts at objectification. To him everything, including his subjectivity, seems to be a spectacle. He is unable to realize:


I think hell’s a fable. (Scene v)


Or we may consider his recourse to necromancy, to ghosts, to what appears but is not. This is in stark contrast to Nachiketa’s recourse to adhyatmavidya, the spiritual study, which points beyond the merely visible.


The inability to realize drives Faustus, as it does Eve, to seek to be more than human. He would not accept his mortality:


Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man. (Scene i)


He craves to escape from his human condition instead of facing it up and living through it. Impatience propels him into the “desperate enterprise” (Scene i) so that he would “try the uttermost magic can perform” (Scene iii). He turns to “fantasy” (Scene i), “sleep” and “conceit” (Scene xv). As a man who cannot wait to complete the sentence he happens to read in Jerome’s Bible, he is indeed far from the seeker (Nachiketa) who would patiently penetrate the signifier. His mind flits from object to object, unable to rest in itself and sink into the depths of its object. The affliction of perpetual restiveness that commits him to the surface incapacitates his thinking and reveals a disastrous mixture of sadism and masochism in his personality. The lack of any depth in his thinking can be fathomed from the metaphors of sexual violence doing duty for thought:


Sweet Analytics, ‘tis thou hast ravish’d me! (Scene I)


And again,


‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravish’d me. (Scene i)


By and by his mind, perversely exulting in suffering and infliction, sinks deeper into despair.


It is quite a paradox that his very inability to sink -his commitment to the spectacle- should drown him eventually. Indeed, the spectacle dominates the action as well the metaphorical tissue of the tragedy. Early on, in Scene i itself, Faustus is asking Cornelius to “show [him] some demonstrations magical”: the hunger for the spectacle as a sort of scientifically demonstrable evidence has a chilling irony. Soon afterwards, in Scene v, Mephostophilis, offers to “fetch him somewhat to delight his mind” and so Faustus would seek to interpret “this show”. When he dismisses hell as “a fable” (which, ironically, he would even visit) he is already head-deep in the “show”. He is completely immersed in hell through the agency of Mephostophilis, yet he refuses to acknowledge its reality. Mephostophilis even says in so many words that hell is a condition of subjectivity. But Faustus is unable to grasp this, having completely failed to objectify his condition.


In the presence of the Devil himself, the spectacle gets nastier and more real: the Devil arrives in person to show to Faustus the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins. The reality warps yet again and gets still more bizarrely unreal as the Sins undergo a magical trivialization under Faustus’s gaze. He expresses the wish to “see hell” (Scene vi) and is promptly promised a guided tour. Later, the Chorus reports his aerial travels over the great cities of Europe during which he has Mephostophilis for his guide (Scene viii). Presumably sick of sightseeing (the consumer’s easy and instant substitute for experience), he desires to be “an actor” in a “show” that would involve the Pope. What he subsequently does is vicious and mean playacting as he switches between invisibility and a false identity. Having become an actor, he is again sick and bored. Hence his next logical, and terminal, transformation is into an image, an ingredient of the spectacle.


In Scene xii, he fulfills the Emperor’s wish to see Alexander and his paramour. So far he is aware that the shades he is invoking are unreal. He tells the Emperor not to speak a word to the shapes when they appear. When the Emperor unmindfully steps forward to embrace the shapes, he warns him:


My gracious lord, you do forget yourself;

These are but shadows, not substantial.


Yet he forgets this himself when Helen’s shape is called up again (Scene xviii). In a moment of terminal transformation he steps into the looking glass, inviting sin to “grow into [his] nature”. He would have Helen’s shape  “extinguish” his self-reflexive consciousness. And as he plants a kiss on the lips of Helen’s shape, he engraves his own epitaph on the mirror:


Her lips suck forth my soul : see where it flies!


And he virtually disappears into the spectacle, sucked into its vertiginous abyss.


When the First Scholar meets him afterwards, he notices that Faustus’s “looks are changed” (Scene xix). Faustus rues he has brought himself to “die eternally.” The eternal death as the mirror image of Helen’s “immortal” kiss figuratively puts the seal on his terminal (eventual, virtual, spectral, spectacular) subjection/subjectivation. He has been symbolically transformed into an image in the spectacle, to be deep-frozen and stored perpetually in the fires of the hell he had once dismissed as a “fable”. The rag doll treatment that the devils mete out to him in his last moments is the culmination and metaphor of his disintegration.


The question of Faustus’s transformation involves questions of ontology and epistemology that may be described as Faustian. He ostensibly exists in space and time; that is how he can buy twenty four years of devilish licence on earth in exchange for an eternity –which he anyway does not believe in- of damnation. Logically (we must remember he has exhausted “Analytics”), once he enters eternal damnation it will not matter whether it is damnation or not for the immersion in eternity will preclude any sense of a (different) past. And just as time does not mean anything in the realm of eternity, it cannot mean anything in the absence of space either. As the collapse of time implies the disappearance of space, the annulment of space too means the evaporation of time. In Scene xvii, Faustus arranges to have unseasonable grapes instantaneously brought from the other hemisphere and served to the Duchess, an event in which space is terminated under the impact of instantaneity. In the absence of space, what should be the status of the four and twenty years he has bought? The answer is obvious.


Hasn’t Faustus been swindled then? Cornelius had not authenticated the power the spirits were said to confer on a practitioner of the forbidden arts:


The spirits tell me they can dry the sea

And fetch the treasure of all foreign wrecks,

Ay, all the wealth that our forefathers hid

Within the massy entrails of the earth.


The initial temptation was based on hearsay. Mephostophilis’s promise (“And then be thou as great as Lucifer”) was also likewise a transparent contradiction, for Lucifer’s subject just could not have equalled Lucifer. Yet Faustus allows himself to be cheated, expecting to find reason in the realm of the Devil. He thus confounds shades with reality and reality with shades. His eye, aporiatic, remains stuck on the mirror.


He is thus already (potentially) a shade, an image in the spectacle, a terminal/spectral subject. Hence the period of twenty four years with its tragedy happens to be, notwithstanding the spectacular extravaganza, only a spectral illusion. In fact, retrospectively considering, Faustus is himself ontologically a simulacrum, not a subject, and the Faustian epistemology is a dis/simulation, not a quest for disclosure and understanding.





Katha Upanishad opens with a prayer offered conjointly by the guru and his disciple. They seek protection and care from the Supreme and pray that their strength may increase and their wisdom shine brighter. Finally, they pray to remain free from mutual envy and malice.


While determining the ideal pedagogical relationship, the prayer also glances at the vices lurking in the academy. The hierarchical relationship is, paradoxically, a relationship essentially of equality. The guru remains a seeker even as he gives. The disciple is a co-seeker, which makes the relationship extremely precarious. The fall into malicious envy looms as a real possibility, against which the divine grace alone can reliably protect the two. And having subjected (that is, cast under) themselves to the Supreme, they are bound in togetherness by their faith.


Contrary to this, alienation lies at the basis of the Faustian pedagogical relationship. Faustus has to sell his soul in a cynical business transaction in which the principal determinants are temptation, intimidation and deception. There is no room for shared faith and mutual trust. Mephostophilis is neither a seeker nor a giver but a pimp of souls and vendor of cheap spectacles.


The ideal Upanishadic pedagogical relationship between the guru and his disciple in the Katha Upanishad is subsequently dialogically embodied in the relationship of Yama and Nachiketa. Faustus’s mentor would swindle Faustus of his soul, whereas Yama would initiate Nachiketa into the mysteries of the soul and afterlife. As the Lord of Death who teaches the lore of immortality Yama is the perfect teacher, for the perfect teacher – as Nietzsche’s Zarathushtra says – must point his disciple beyond himself. The disciple must exceed the guru.


This is a paradox though, for there can be no exceeding the Supreme. The moment of exceeding is but the moment of liberation, of breaking free from dependence. Faustus’s freedom diminishes progressively with Mephostophilis feeding on him as Satan’s chief parasite. Gradually, his megalomaniacal indulgence is debased to malevolent and frivolous childish play. The three boons that Nachiketa seeks, on the contrary, open into spheres of successively greater magnitude, with the last one trailing into the very infinity.


Unlike Faustus who is a solitary figure with no relational location in the community of people and who in a desperate effort to elude self-inculpation curses his parents, Nachiketa is a responsible son committed to his filial obligations. He tries to check his father when he notices his error. The first boon he asks of Yama is that his father may have his son restored to him and may be as happy as he had been before his son went to death. In the second boon he learns the secret lore of fire and so earns the passage to Heaven. For the third boon he demands a definitive understanding of the soul’s afterlife. He is in doubt and asks Yama to disclose the truth. His openness makes him eligible to learn the supreme secret whereas Faustus’s immodest pride shuts from him all revelation. Insincerely does Faustus dispose of his tearing doubt when, calling Hell a “fable” he willfully neglects the possibility of its existence.


Yama tests Nachiketa’s endurance long and deviously. Even the gods have found the supreme lore too subtle to receive and have given up trying to learn it. Let him choose empires, wealth and heavenly women. He can live as long as he would, and for ever young. But Nachiketa is comfortable with aging and death. Indulgence destroys one’s spiritual luminosity (tejas). And life without the light of the spirit is no life. He reasons clearly and simply. Wealth cannot satisfy a person; beautiful things, indulgence and pleasure are inconsequential; and it is Yama who determines longevity. Hence there is but one proper boon, the one he has asked.


Against Faustus’s nagging and dark doubt that dogs him to his death shines Nachiketa’s radiant self-faith. His mind has passed all turbulence and is profoundly settled. A staid man chooses wisely, he says. Between the good (shreya) and the seductive (preya) such a person invariably embraces the good. Avidya deludes. A person caught in the “matrix” of avidya thinks highly of himself. He cannot entertain the possibility of other worlds, of another existence. He is, as Faustus would put it, destined to “die eternally”. Most people chase appearances. They live immersed in the superficial. Rare are those who would seek and find the truth of the self (atma-tattva). And the truth dawns when one opens up to the other, when the self is overcome and consecrated to the Divine. In Faustus’s case, however, the self is radically closed - in a narcissistic relationship that is spuriously dialogic: not only does Faustus address himself with theatrical arrogance as another but also Mephostophilis turns out to be his self-projection (I led thine eye....) and no more.


While Faustus is entangled in the meshes of logic and not prepared to recognize that it has its limits and while Mephostophilis uses logic to subdue the recalcitrant Faustus, Yama affirms to Nachiketa the need to transcend logic. He even commends Nachiketa’s translogical wisdom, dwelling on the profundity and mystery of the spiritual in a style that reflects the starkness of the spiritual inscape. Not for Nachiketa are the seductions of the spectacular and superficial. As the seeker of the Supreme Lore fathoms the spiritual depths, he passes beyond sorrow and ego and attains the supreme felicity that fills a recipient of grace. He settles into imperturbable peace. Faustus, contrarily, spins faster and faster between the poles of excitement and depression, his manic-depressive mind hurtling towards absolute despair. Indeed, he has all the traits of one who, according to Yama, is incapable of spiritual realization: he is restless, given to evil ways and not gathered in himself. His sharp mind, hence, is of no avail. Restraint being the way to the realization, he stands no chance of escaping damnation. So enveloped is he in the noises of his increasingly desperate arrogance that Yama’s awakening call to humankind does not penetrate to him. Instead of using the mind as an instrument, as Yama teaches, to knock open the door of the spirit, Faustus reduces himself to a plaything of the mind.


“How is the Supreme disclosed?” Nachiketa asks. Yama answers, “Nothing can disclose the Supreme. The Sun, the Moon, the stars, the lightning and the fire are all incapable of disclosing Him. For it is the Supreme that discloses them all.”


Faustus would not comprehend this transgression of the universe of his logic. Yama’s mutiversality is incomprehensible to him. He probably wants a universal analytics of faith, which the available universe of erudition cannot provide him. Faith presupposes openness to the other. Nachiketa would attain the supreme liberation because he would open himself up completely: all knots absolutely undone.


Awe, which is evoked by the other, is hence the appropriate emotion for the spiritual seeker (“Great awful is the Supreme,” says Yama). But Faustus is destined to experience merely horror (as when he sees the Devil), for horror arises from the encounter of the self with its inadmissible aspects. Not transcendence into the Supreme but retraction is, therefore, the theme of Faustus’s final wail. That he is still intent on dis/simulation, on eluding himself is evident from the inventory of blames he babbles out to hang around others’ necks.




Let us return now to the question that flashed like lightning at the beginning and vanished. Why is it possible now to determine our paternity? Indeed, why is it even imperative?


The answer will be suggestive and sketchy and it will throw us back to the beginning.


Never before have our identities been so amorphous as these are now. True, insidious designs seem to be stalking us. Events, ideologies, intentions coalesce defiantly to stereotype the human subject. Yet the human subjectivity has never been, to inflect and use a term from Deleuze and Guattari, more chaosmic. Discomposition is rampant, driven by a wiry and melting interwinding of economics, technology and culture. Even as internationalism grows, the shadow of globalism too enlarges, hiding in its coils an unpredictable inheritance of imperialism. The human “being” suffers invasion and alienation from, among other things, cyborgisation. Speed, as the defining dimension of life, pushes the human being’s self-defining project of spiritual quest to the edge of abandonment. The seductive digital hell, with its endless replays and remixes of amusement, threatens to cannibalise the human spirit. Hence the urgency of the Nachiketa-like illumination, so that we may confront and attempt to fathom our human “being”, our being human. Beyond the spectaclist, spectacular, spectral Faustian cosmos shines the realm of mortality. With its secret of immortal life.


Marlowe’s Faustus is a premonitory tragedy pointing us to death, to mortality. Katha Upanishad initiates us into the lore of death (which the poor mad Faustus eschews) so that we may return immortal.


Works Cited

Katha Upanishad.

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe.




December 2000

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002


*Published in Chandrabhaga: A Selection of Indian Writing (New Series), No. 9, 2004, Pp. 19-28.