Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (9)- Yajnavalkya-Kanda- Chapter I

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How to overcome the Defects in the Sacrificial Rites and their Results—Meditation combined with Rituals, the Means



The central portion of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is what we are now entering into which is called Yjnavalkya Kanda. The context of the discussion in this Kanda is the court of King Janaka who was a great knower of the Self. We are told that there were about sixty-four Janakas. Janaka is not the name of a person. It is a designation, say, the title like Collector. All these sixty-four were famous knowers of the Self; they were Atmajnanis and one Janaka, out of whom was of the Ramayana fame. Now, we are going to discuss the conversation between one such Janaka, and the Master, Yajnavalkya.

The present chapter deals with the same topic as the previous one viz. the identity of the Self with Brahman. In this we get rational arguments showing the unity of the Self. The Madhu Kanda was based on Sruti, the scriptural evidence stating the experience of the sages, whereas this Kanda elucidates the same subject by means of rational arguments.

Introducing this Kanda, Sankara says “When these two, scripture and reasoning, demonstrate the unity of the Self and Brahman, that unity becomes as evident as a fruit lying on the palm of one’s hand”. Experience through meditation is the final proof of this truth. Therefore, it is to test the meaning of the Srutis in the light of arguments (that is logic and reason) that this portion relating to Yajnavalkya, which is mainly argumentative or a rational presentation is commenced.

It occurred to the mind of King Janaka that he should know who was the most learned in his country. There were many learned people and sages, but 'who was the foremost'? He wanted to be initiated by the best among them. But how to find out the best? There were hundreds and thousands in the country. So, he thought of a plan. He arranged a huge sacrifice in his palace, and all great people, sages, saints and learned men were invited to participate in that great sacrifice, where he gave charities in plenty. This sacrifice was called Bahu-daksina, as much was given in philanthropy, charity and gift. It was an occasion of great rejoicing for all people.

Many people, thousands in number, came from all countries. The intention of the Emperor was that in this group of people who come in thousands to the sacrifice, the greatest of them also may be present. Now he thought, "I should find out some means of discovering the presence of the greatest of men in the court." After much thought, he announced in the open court of the palace, before all the thousands that had assembled there for the sacrifice, "Here are one thousand cows, great and beautiful to look at, milk-giving and very rich in their appearance, to the horns of each of which I will tie ten gold coins." Ten gold coins were tied to the horns of each cow and there were one thousand cows. He made the announcement; "The best among you may take all these cows. It is up to you to find out, who is the best among you. Anyone who is best among you may stand up, and take these thousand cows with so much of gold coins tied to their horns." Now, who can say; 'I am the best'. It was a very delicate matter.

1) Om. Janaka, Emperor of Videha, performed a sacrifice in which gifts were freely distributed among the priests. Brahmin scholars from the countries of Kuru and Panchala were assembled there. Emperor Janaka of Videha wished to know which of these brahmins was the most erudite Vedic scholar. So he confined a thousand cows in a pen and fastened on the horns of each ten padas of gold.

King Janaka performed a great Yajna known as Bahu-Dakshina where much was given in gift. Many great men from the Kuru and Panchala countries attended that sacrifice. Janaka desired to know who would be the best knower of the Truth among these people in that assembly. To come to a decision in this regard the king adopted a strange procedure. One thousand cows were brought and ten gold coins were tied to the horns of each of them.

2) He announced to the assembled sages: "Venerable brahmins, let him among you who is the best Vedic scholar drive these cows home." None of the brahmins dared. Then Yajnavalkya said to one of his pupils: "Dear Samsrava, drive these cows home." He drove them away. The brahmins were furious and said: "How does he dare to call himself the best Vedic scholar among us?" Now among them there was Asvala, the hotri priest of Emperor Janaka of Videha. He asked Yajnavalkya: "Are you indeed the best Vedic scholar among us, O Yajnavalkya?" He replied: "I bow to the best Vedic scholar, but I just wish to have these cows." Thereupon the hotri Asvala determined to question him.

He speaks now. "Great men, learned people. Who is the greatest knower of Truth among you?” None of them was bold enough to say: 'I am the best of the knowers of Truth'. Everybody kept quiet. Yajnavalkya, the great Master was in that assembly. He told his disciple, a Brahmachari (celibate), known as Samasravas: "Take these cows to my house."

Very strange it was! Everybody was surprised. How was this man talking like this? He simply called the Brahmachari and said; - 'take them to my house'. Samasravas was the name of the Brahmachari. "You take them," he said. Everybody was in a huff and raged in anger. All the Brahmins seated there were mumbling among themselves. Who is this man? How does he claim that he is the greatest? How does he think that he is the most learned amongst us? He has insulted us in public by taking these cows like this. How unceremoniously he drives the cows shamelessly away.

Janaka's chief priest, one known as Asvala, decided to solve this problem. 'How is it possible for this man to regard himself, in the presence of people like us, as the best knower of Truth', he thought. He decided to put questions and see what answers would come from Yajnavalkya and how he could answer such difficult questions which could not easily be answered.

Asvala, the chief priest of King Janaka stood up and told Yajnavalkya: "Yajnavalkya! You regard yourself as the best knower of Truth among us? Is it not so? Well, then answer my question."

Yajnavalkya says, “I prostrate myself before the greatest knower of Truth, but I am desirous of the cows. I have taken the cows because I wanted the cows, that’s all! And as far as the knower of Truth is concerned, I prostrate myself before him." Then immediately there was a volley of questions from Asvala to Yajnavalkya in the assembly and thus begins the discussion.

Asvala had the courage (owing to the patronage he received from the King, Janaka) to ask Yajnavalkya the questions not knowing the latter’s greatness.

Initially Asvla put four questions and they were duly replied by Yajnavalkya. But there were further questions. So he said, "I will ask you some more questions". Four more questions were asked. In all he put eight questions. Four have been answered; four more remained which were also answered by Yajnavalkya.

In this discussion the questions relate to the technical matters of rituals concerned with modalities and benefits of sacrificial rites that obtained in Vedic tradition at that time. Yajnavalkys could easily answer these questions because he was a master of the Vedic tradition. These questions and answers are more related to rituals than to philosophy. Therefore Sankara did not comment much on the passages of this section. We also pass over these mantras. However the central theme of these discussions is that by realizing the identity between the organs in the body, like organ of speech, etc., with their presiding deities such as the god of fire etc., one attains freedom although this freedom is not final. By meditation on these resemblances, one leaves off his individual and separate nature and identifies himself with the universal counterpart. Such attainment is the final freedom.

Asvala felt that every question was answered and that he could not put any further questions to this sage. He kept quiet and occupied his seat. The chief priest Asvala who put all these questions, the principal priest for the sacrifice performed by Janaka in his court, was defeated in the argument, because to every question which was so difficult to answer, Yajnavalkya gave an immediate answer on the very spot without any hesitation whatsoever. Asvala kept quiet. But though Asvala, the priest, kept quiet, there were some others namely Artabhaga, Bhujyu, Usasta, Kahola, Gargi, Uddalaka, Gargi, once again, and Sakalya, one after the other, who questioned Yajnavalkya. Among these questioners the lady philosopher, Gargi, occupies the pride of place.

These discussions form the subject matter of the following sections.



[To be continued]