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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sunday musings: investment lessons from the Katha Upanishad

The Katha Upanishad uses a dialogue between the Lord of Death, Yama, and a teenaged spiritual seeker, Nachiketa, to provide answers to existential questions about life, death, existence beyond death, and emancipation from the cycle of life and death.

How did this dialogue take place? The sage, Vajasravasa, was performing a special ceremony (yajna) to attain spiritual enlightenment. As part of the ritual, he was giving away his worldly possessions. His young son, Nachiketa, noticed that only sick, weak and barren cows were being donated.

Worried that giving away useless cows would hamper his father’s spiritual progress, Nachiketa urged his father to give him away as well. Vajasravasa ignored his son’s plea. Nachiketa continued to pester his father about being given away. In a fit of pique, Vajasravasa said: “I give you away to Yama.”

In the olden days, the words of a brahmin – even if unintended - was gospel. So, Nachiketa found himself at death’s door. Unfortunately, Yama was away on business. Poor Nachiketa had to wait three whole days without food or shelter.

When Yama finally arrived, he was extremely apologetic for keeping a brahmin spiritual seeker waiting. To atone for his lack of hospitality, Yama offered the young boy three boons – one for each of the days he had to wait.

The first boon asked by Nachiketa was that his father should no longer be angry with his son, and attain peace of mind. The second boon claimed by Nachiketa was to learn the methodology of a fire sacrifice for attaining heaven.

Yama was glad to grant the first two boons, but was stumped by the third claim. The young boy wanted to know about life after death. The Lord of Death tried to dissuade the youngster – telling him that his whole life was ahead of him, and he would gladly provide worldly riches and long life for his yet-to-be-born grandchildren.

But Nachiketa would have none of it. He had no desire for material pleasures and riches, which are of no use because every one will die. The mystery behind death is what interested him. When Yama realised the young boy was serious about receiving his third boon, this is what he explained:

“One has to choose between perennial joy and fleeting pleasures in life. The wise understand that control of the senses and mental discipline – though difficult – can lead to emancipation and perennial joy. The ignorant take the easy way out by running after temporary sensory pleasures, and end up in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.”

Most small investors have not yet reached the disciplined mindset of Nachiketa. They tend to run after unknown small-caps and hot tips via SMS – hoping to get rich quickly. Some of these stocks may provide fleeting excitement and adrenaline rush by hitting three upper circuits in a row. But when the selling inevitably starts, they get stuck with low-quality stocks – and become long-term investors by default.

Whether one wants to progress spiritually or not, mental discipline and control of the senses will stand in good stead throughout one’s life. It works quite well for investments too. Making a financial plan, an asset allocation plan, steadily building a portfolio of fundamentally strong stocks and debt, and sticking to one’s plans through rain or shine is often a painful and unexciting process.

But once you go through the process, your portfolio gets set almost on auto-pilot. Your plans will tell you when to land (sell) and when to take off (buy). That is as close to investment nirvana that one can get.

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