[This essay originally appeared in the March, 2009 issue of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams’ Illustrated Monthly ‘Sapthagiri’ which is revised here].
Our great epic Mahabharata contains several famous episodes of high philosophical discussions one of which is called Sanatsujatiyam, meaning what has been taught by Sage Sanatsujata. It is in the form of a dialogue between King Dhritarashtra and Sage Sanatsujata, who is one of the Manas Putras of Lord Brahma. It forms part of the Udyogaparva of the epic. It is one of the three jewels in the Mahabharata on which Adi Sankara wrote commentaries, the other two being the Bhagavad Gita and Vishnu Sahasranama. Being a mini compendium on Brahma Vidya having deep implications, it attracted the attention of other commentators also like Nilakantha, Sarvajna Narayana and Vadiraja. In the modern times, this work has been translated by Professor Max Muller, the famous Sanskrit scholar from Germany in his ‘Sacred Books of the East’ Series.
Just before the Kurukshetra battle, King Dhritarashtra was very much disturbed by the happenings in the kingdom that signaled an impending destructive war. He called Vidura, his younger brother for moral support. Vidura tried to offer words of solace to the King by talking eloquently on justice, morals, fair play, and Royal Duties etc., and concluded that these things are not the ultimate end in themselves and that there is a higher goal in life beyond these which is called Immortality or amritatvam.
The word Immortality caught the imagination of Dhritarashtra who wished to know more about such higher truths from him. Vidura excused himself by telling the King that he is unfit to impart such knowledge because of his having been born of a lower class woman. So he requested Sage Sanatsujata, a Brahma Jnani, who had been his preceptor, to instruct King Dhritarshtra on spirituality particularly on Immortality and Ultimate Reality. This dialogue between the worldly Dhritarashtra and the divine sage Sanatsujata that came to be known as sanatsujatiya, turned out to be such an outstanding classic on the entire gamut of Vedanta Shastra on par with Srimad Bhagavad Gita that made Adi Sankara write a Bhashya on it.
Dhrtarashtra starts questioning Sanatsujata thus “O, Sage Sanatsujata, I hear that you are of the opinion that there is no such thing as death. On the other hand it is said that the Devas and Asuras practiced austerities and approached Prajapati to overcome death that will make them immortal. So of these two views, which is the truth? Is there death or is there no death?” Sanatsjata’s highly sophisticated reply to this eternal question is spread over four chapters glimpses of which are given below. It may be noted that a similar question was also put by the young boy Nachiketa to Lord Yama whose response occupies the whole of the Kathopanishad.