Episode 7 - Yajnavalkya in King Janaka’s Symposium - Part 1

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Yajnavalkya in King Janaka’s Symposium - Part 1

Hello friends and wish you and your loved ones a very happy Deepawali. After a hiatus for about a week or so I am back with a new story from Brihaddaaranyaka Upanishad. Today’s story will mark the beginning of one of the most important chapters mentioned in the largest of the Upanishads. The Madhukhanda portion of the Brihadda-Aranyaka Upanishad presents a series of dialogues and debates between the great Maharishi Yajnavalkya and other eminent scholars of ancient Vedic India such as Gargi Vachakanavi, Maitree, Uddalaka, Ashwala, Aartabhaaga and many others. This Upanishad not only provides insights into Yagnavalkya’s explanation of immortality, Brahman, Aatman and space and time but also feature a number of women scholars and philosophers of ancient India such as Maitree, the second wife of Yagnavalkya and Gargi Vachaknavi. It is also believed that a large part of this Upanishad was composed by Sage Yagnavalkya himself.Yagnavalkya’s debates with a number of scholars have been well documented in the Brihaadaaranyaka Upanishad. Since today’s story is on Yagnavalkya’s so for convenience I have divided it into three parts or episodes. Part 1 is about the challenge Yagnavalkya faces from scholars Ashwala and Aartabhaaga in the symposium, part 2 will be about the debate between Yagnavalkya and other scholars Bhujyu, Usasta and Kahola, and part 3 will describe the debate between with one of the greatest women scholar of ancient India, Gargi Vachaknavi, whose philosophical views are mentioned in Chaandogya Upanishad. So, hold on tight for an epic journey into the deepest thoughts of the sage Yagnavalkya. Part 1 - Yagnavalkya versus Ashwala and Aartabhaaga.Today's story begins in the courtroom of king Janaka of Videha. In my view, there may be several King Janaka throughout Indian epics and scriptures as they all belonged to the lineage of Janakas. We find King Janaka of Mithila in Ramayana who was the father of Sita. Satapatha Brahmana another ancient Indian scripture tells us that the name Janaka was assumed by the kings of the Videha kingdom. King Janaka was taken as an example in Bhaagawat Geeta in Chapter 3 verse 20 by Lord Shri Krishna. Then one of the kings, Janaka was a great philosopher and composed Janaka Gita. There is a mention of another King Janaka and his account with the great sage Ashtavakra In Ramayana, Janaka is said to be Mithila Naresh or King of Mithila, however, please note that Mithila is a city in the kingdom of Videha. We can safely assume that King Janaka of Ramayana is a different person as mentioned in today’s story in Brihaddaranyaka Upanishad. Let’s continue with the story. King Janka of Videha himself was very learned and a lover of philosophy. He wanted to organise a goshti or a symposium of learned scholars on the concept of Braahman. All respected philosophers, sages and scholars were duly invited. He well knew that humans by nature will not work without any profitable outcome. Being an idealist and believing in the theory of giving first and receiving afterwards, he announced a healthy package for the winner! He announced that the wisest of the scholar will win ten gold coins contained in the bags fastened in between the horns of a thousand cows. So the winner will take away ten thousand gold coins and a thousand cows as a prize amount. Sages, scholars and philosophers from far and wide attended the symposium. They all settled down in the king’s grand courtroom. The king announced the grand prize and said -“These thousand cows with ten gold coins tied to their horns are for the one who is the wisest among you all! Step forward and take them if you think you are the one!”The prize money was incredibly tempting for anyone. Everyone was truly tempted to claim the reward! However, it was also important that in such an assembly of the wisest of wise men and women, good manners and humility were valued the most. So none came forward and boasted to claim the award! The assembly was in silence. Each scholar looked at their counterpart if he or she wanted to claim it. Suddenly, a young scholar named Yagnavalkya stood up and told one of his disciples -“Dear Saamasravas, please drive these cows home!”Just to add here - the word “Saamasravas” means one who learns how to chant the Saaman. Thus this implies that Yagnavalkya is versed in all four Vedas.Let’s go back to the story…The student cracked a smile and prepared himself to obey the command of this guru. The student shouted -“Hail the prince among the sages!”The young scholar although was bit rude in his approach to claiming the award but was very courageous. As soon as he commanded his student to take away the cows and the gold coins… all other sages and scholars interrupted him. They came upon him like a huge barrier of the stone wall! One of the sages fumed - “The man is overconfident!” Another one shouted - “You believe you are the wisest among us?”Yagnavalkya smiled calmly, shrugged and said -“We all will bow to the wisest one among us! Don’t we?” Then after a pause, he said -“ but we know that we all are here for the cows and gold coins!”This answer irked the sages and scholars! They fumed after hearing the stark naked truth from the young scholar! “Let’s have a debate then, prove to us that you are worthy of those cows and gold coins! We have the best Hotr in the kingdom of Videha in Ashwala! He is the best Vedic scholar we have known. Debate with him!” Announced another sage.The royal priest Ashwala stood up. He was an expert in Karma-kanda, the ritual portion of Vedas. His main theorem was “Swargo-kamo yajeta” i.e. “the desirer of heaven should perform yagna or sacrifice!” He looked upon religion as it was a contract between God and man, in which man offers sacrifice to the gods and they in turn show their grace by elevating the sacrificer to the higher regions of enjoyment. Ashwala questioned Yagnavalkya -“Are you indeed the best Vedic scholar among us?”Yagnavalkya smiled, bowed and said with humility -“I bow to the best Vedic Scholar, I just want the cows and the ten thousand gold coins.”Ashwala then said “Then you must debate with me! If you win, you can have your cows!”Yagnavalkya smiled and sat down in padmasana. Ashwala questioned-“What happens to the departed spirits? In what kind of celestial regions do the departed spirits inhabit? Does it go beyond the clutches of Death?”Yagnavalkya smiled as he knew that, this is a limited vision of life and attainment of heavenly enjoyment is not the highest! He replied -“Fire transcends death. A Hotr or priest of Rig Veda uses speech or vaak to chant the mantras. So speech is the fire, with reference to the gods. This fire is Hotr, this fire is liberation. If the sacrificer looks upon them as ‘fire’, their divine form, it conduces to his liberation from death! This liberation that consists in looking upon in their divine aspect is also spoken of as the resulting emancipation - becoming one with the fire, which takes one beyond death that consists in attachment to limitations relating to the body and the elements.”Then Ashwala asked Yagnavalkya -“What support does the sky provide to the sacrificer to take him to the heaven?”Yagnavalkya replied -“Through the mind, through the moon, which is called Brahman. The mind of sacrificer is the Brahman. This mind is the moon, the moon is the Brahman, this moon is liberation, this liberation is emancipation.”In other words what Yagnavalkya meant was the mind of the sacrificer is the body and mind is the moon is with reference to the gods. The mind in the body is same as the moon among the gods. The sacrificer beholds the limited form of the Brahman among the elements, that of his own mind in the body as the unlimited moon. Through the support of the mind viewed as the moon he attains the heaven as a result of his rites. Or in other words he is released or liberated. Then Ashwala asked Yagnavalkya -“How many types of hymns will a Hotr perform during the yagna and which would be those?”Yagnavalkya immediately replied -“Three types of hymns”“Preliminary, Sacrificial and Eulogistic hymns. The preliminary hymns are chanted usually before a sacrifice, the sacrificial hymns are chanted during performing the sacrifice, the eulogistic hymns are chanted in praise of the deities.”Then Ashwala asked -“What do you win through them?”Yagnavalkya replied -“All this that is living in the three worlds through meditation.”Till now Ashwala’s questions were direct and the replies he received from his opponent were satisfactory. He decided to level up his nature of questions. He concentrated only on Rigvedic rituals and so he decided to stalk into other Vedas and their associated rituals. He asked - “How many kinds of oblations will the Adhvaryu priest offer in his sacrifice?”Yagnavalkya replied -“There are three kinds of offerings which an Adhvaryu priest will offer during Yajur Vedic sacrifice. Those that blaze up on being offered, those that make a great noise when offered and those that sink on being offered!”What Yagnavalkya meant is that materials such as wood and clarified butter blaze up when offered, this represents he wins the world of the gods, for this world shines. Materials such as flesh make a great noise when offered in Yagna, and this represents that he wins the world of the dead, for this world is full of uproar and the materials such as milk and soma sink to the earth when offered, representing that wins the world of humans, for this world is lower.Ashwala continued his questions -“Through how many gods does the priest from the right protect the sacrifice?”Yagnavalkya confidently answered -“One sir, that is the mind. The mind is indeed infinite and infinite are Viswadevas. Through this meditation, he wins the infinite world.”Here Ashwala had played a trick on Yagnavalkya while asking the question. He asked “how many gods” where the word “gods” is in the plural. In reality, only one god was involved in this yagna. He wanted to confuse Yagnavalkya by asking the question in the plural. Yagnavalkya correctly answered that the god was the mind as it is through the mind, through meditation, the priest does his sacrifices. Mind and speech are two ways of yagna. The priest rectifies his speech through mind, ensuring correct pronunciation of chants, and brings in silence whenever he needed to think on before reciting. Thus, the mind is that god through which the priest protects the sacrifice. It is also well-known that the mind is infinite and the gods identify themselves with this infinity.Now Ashwala changed his questions towards Sama Vedic rituals. He asked him -“Tell me Yagnavalkya, how many classes of hymns will a Udgaatr chant in a sacrifice and how are they associated with the body?”“Three classes sir, are Preliminary, Sacrificial and Eulogistical.” Replied Yagnavalkya as he continued his response -“The Praana - the vital force is the preliminary hymn, Apaana - the outgoing breath is the sacrificial hymn and Vyaana, the pervasive and expansive force which governs the movement of Praana is the eulogistical hymn” Ashwala asked again “What do you win through them?”The priest wins the earth through the Preliminary hymn, he wins the sky through the Sacrificial hymn and then he wins the heaven through the eulogistic hymn.”These responses silenced Ashwala. He accepted his defeat and sat down in his place. The scholars were spellbound to hear such deep and profound philosophy from the young scholar. Friends… if you remember in my previous podcast episode number 5, “The story of Praana” I have already explained about Hotr, Udgaatr and Adhvaryu. I hope you remember them. Just for convenience for the listeners who have tuned in today, Hotr is the priest who sacrifices using Rigvedic hymns, Udgaatr is the priest who sacrifices using Saama Vedic hymns and Adhvaryu priest who sacrifices using Yajurvedic hymns.So going back to the story, there was a pin-drop silence in the king’s courtroom. All scholars and sages looked at each other with inquisitive looks and wondered who will be the next to challenge Yagnavalkya. After a while, the sage Gaaratkaarava Aartabhaaga, the son of Sage Ritabhaaga from the lineage of Sage Jaratkaaru stood up! Everyone looked at him as he challenged Yagnavalkya. Yagnavalkya greeted the great sage with folded hands. Aartabhaaga questioned -“Can you tell me how many Grahas and Atigrahas are present?”Friends, just to make it simple here, Grahas means sense organs and Atigrahas means its respective sense. For example, if the eye is Graha, then sight will be the atigraha.Yagnavalkya didn’t waste a second to replied to this question. He promptly said -“There are 8 grahas and 8 Atigrahas, sir!”Aartabhaaga quickly asked him -“Then tell me what are those?”qYagnavalkya replied -“Praana the vital breath is a graha or sense organ which is controlled by atigraha, the “Apaana” or inhalation, for one smells odour through Apaana.Speech (Vaak) is a graha or sense organ that is controlled by “name” as the atigraha, for one utters names through speech. Tongue is one graha and that is controlled by taste as the atigraha, for one knows tastes through the tongueThe eye is one graha and is controlled by atigraha, color, for one sees colors through eyesThe ear is one graha and is controlled by sound as atigraha, for one hears sounds through earsThe mind is one graha and is controlled by the desire as atigraha, for one wishes desires through mindThe hands are indeed a graha and is controlled by work as atigraha, for one can perform any work using their handsThe skin is indeed a graha and is controlled by touch as atigraha, for one feels touch through the skin. These are 8 grahas and 8 atigrahas. “Aartabhaaga again asked Yagnavalkya -“Since everything in the world is born and imperilled and swallowed by death in the form of Grahas and Atigrahas so these are all the food of Death, then who is that god whose food is Death?”Yagnavalkya immediately responded -“Sir, the Fire is death! It is the food of water! The one who knows this thus conquers death.” Aartabhaaaga understood the wisdom of Yagnavalkya as he knew that if he had told Death’s food is Death then it would had lead to an infinite ebb and if he doesn’t mention it at all then liberation from death in form of grahas and atigrahas would not have been possible. Yagnavalkya said that Fire is death because it is destroyer of all however fire itself if put off by water. So fire becomes the food of water or in other words water’s food is death. When the water swallows the fire, it also swallows up the grahas and atigrahas and when it is destroyed liberation from relative existence becomes possible. Hence one who knows this actually conquers death. Then Aartabhaage asked his next question to Yagnavalkya -“Yagnavalkya so far you have impressed with your knowledge of scriptures and your philosophy, now can you tell me what happens to the grahas or organs when a liberated man dies? Do they go up with him?”Yagnavalkya replied -“No sir, when a liberated man who has known Brahman dies, his grahas and atigrahas or organs and senses are merged into him as a form of impressions and impel him into actions. The organs and senses or grahas and atigrahas become one with the Supreme Self or Aatmaan and attain identity with it. The body swells and is inflated and in that state he lies dead. So a liberated man after his bondage is destroyed does not go anywhere.” Aartabhaaga was not expecting such deep philosophy from a young scholar like Yagnavalkya so he continued to test him. “Yagnavalkya, when this liberated man dies what is that does not leave him?”Yagnavalkya calmly replied back -“Name, sir! The name is indeed the infinite and infinite are the Viswadevas. Everything else is merged into him as I said and only the name is left as it is eternal. The infinity of name is eternity and Vishwadevas possesses the infinity of name. One who has identified himself with Vishwadevas who possess the infinity of the name, he wins through this realisation that nothing less than an infinite world and he wins the infinite world.”Aartabhaaga was now short of his questions for the debate so he decided to ask him one last question -“When the Vocal organ or graha of a liberated dead man is merged in fire, the nose in air, the eye in the sun, the mind in the moon, the ear in the quarters, the body in the earth, the Aatman of the heart in the Supreme Self or Aatmaan, the hairs on the body in herbs, hairs on the head in the trees and the blood and seed are deposited in the water, where is then the liberated man?”This was indeed quite a deep and philosophical question for Yagnavalkya, he paused and thought for a while and replied -“Dear Aartabhaaga, give me your hand, we will decide this between ourselves and it cannot be done in a such a crowded place, let’s go outside of this courtroom and talk it out in between ourselves.”Yagnavalkya and Aartabhaaga came out of the courtroom and then Yagnavalkya said that there was only work and what they praised there was also work alone. Therefore one indeed become good through good work or evil through evil work. Only work takes up the repeated activities via organs and its senses and having accepted time, work, destiny and God as causes. Only by repeated work of grahas and atigrahas good work is enjoyed by following the scriptures. The harmony of scriptures and it alone leads to all that man aspires that. It becomes the opposite i.e. evil when they don’t follow the scriptures. The evil work subjects a man to sufferings through repeated births and deaths in moving and stationary bodies, full of pain, including lower animals, spirits and denizens of hell. As this Aartabhaaga was convinced with the knowledge and wisdom of Yagnavalkya and accepted his defeat and came back to his seat. Yagnavalkya being victorious in the debate with two eminent scholars was about to leave when suddenly he was stopped by Bhujyu the grandson of Lahya. Friends, this was the first part of the story of Yagnavalkya when he was challenged by many eminent scholars of ancient India. From a story point of view these are very simple dialogues between Yagnavalkya and others but in reality these stories present higher thinking and deep inner meanings. I have tried to explain some of these concepts while I narrated the story. One of the most important concept which was discussed in the story was about bondages in form of grahas and atigrahas i.e. sense organs and their senses. These together binds a man into more worldly realm. However, when he transmigrates and get liberated from this bondage by the virtue of death, he travels into the realm of death.He can also liberate himself from death as there is death of death i.e water. The liberated man dies, he does not go anywhere, everything about him is gone except his name. Though the bodies and the sense organs of those that transmigrate and those are due to be liberated at death are equally connected with their causes. The bodies and sense organs of the liberated are forever discarded, while those of the transmigrating set are repeatedly taken up to work and when exhausted, everything is destroyed except the name. This is liberation.In the next episode we will continue Yagnavalkya’ debate with other scholars. So stay tuned for more and until then…

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