by Swami Krishnananda
The central portion of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad is what we are now entering into. The context of the discussion in these two chapters 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, which is not the name of a man but the name of an office that he holds. According to the Bhāgavata and other Purāṇas we are told that all these sixty-four were famous knowers of the Self. They were Ātmā-j˝ānis. One Janaka, out of these sixty-four, was the father of Sīta of the Rāmāyana.
Now, we are going to discuss the conversation between the first Janaka, and the Master, Yāj˝avalkya. 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-Dakṣiṇa, 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.
Janako ha vaideho bahu-dakṣiṇena yaj˝eneje: By means of a great sacrifice known as Bahu-daksina where much is given in gift, King Janaka performed a great Yaj˝a. Tatra ha kurupᾱ˝cᾱlᾱnᾱm brᾱhmaṇᾱ abhisametᾱ babhῡvuḥ: In that sacrifice, many great men came from the Kuru and Pā˝chāla countries. Tasya ha janakasya vaidehasya vijij˝āsā babhūva: Janaka thought in his mind, he had a desire to know something. What was that desire? Kaḥ svid eṣᾱm brᾱhmaṇᾱnᾱm anῡcᾱnatama iti: Who is the best knower of the Truth among these people in this assembly was what Janaka wanted to know. Sa ha gavam sahasram avarurodha: One thousand cows he brought in front. Daśa daśa pᾱdᾱ ekaikasyᾱḥ śṛṅgayor ᾱbaddhᾱ babhῡvuḥ: Ten gold coins were tied to the horns of every cow.
Tᾱn hovᾱca: He speaks now. Brᾱhmaṇᾱ bhagavantaḥ: "Great men, learned people. Yo vo brahmiṣṭhaḥ, sa etᾱ gᾱ udajatᾱm iti: Who is the greatest knower of Truth among you?" Te ha brᾱhmaṇᾱ na dadhṛṣuḥ: None of them was bold enough to say: "I am the best of the knowers of Truth." Everybody kept quiet. Atha ha yᾱj˝avalkyaḥ svam eva brahmacᾱriṇam uvᾱca: etᾱḥ, saumya, udaja, sᾱmaśravᾱ iti. Yāj˝avalkya, the great Master, was in that assembly. He told his disciple, a Brahmāchāri (celibate), known as Sāmaśravas: "Take these cows to my house." Very strange it was! Everybody was surprised. How was this man talking like this? He simply called the Brahmāchāri and said "take them to my house". Sāmaśravas was the name of the Brahmāchāri. "You take them," he said. Tᾱ hodᾱcakᾱra, te ha brᾱhmaṇᾱś cukrudhuḥ: 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. Kathaṁ nu no brahmiṣṭho bruvīteti. atha ha janakasya vaidehasya hotᾱśvalo babhῡva: Janaka's chief priest of the Ṛg vedic type, one known as Aśvala, 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. Sa hainam papraccha: He decided to put questions and see what answers would come from Yāj˝avalkya and how he could answer such difficult questions which could not easily be answered. Tvaṁ nu khalu naḥ, yᾱj˝avalkya, brahmiṣṭho'sīti:á Aśvala, the chief priest of King Janaka stood up and told Yāj˝avalkya: "Yāj˝avalkya! You regard yourself as the best knower of Truth among us? Is it not so? Well, then answer my question." Sa hovāca: Yāj˝avalkya says, Namo vayaṁ brahmiṣṭhᾱya kurmaḥ: "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 is all! – gokāmā eva vayaṁ sma iti. And as far as the knower of Truth especially is concerned, I prostrate myself before him." Taṁ ha tata eva praṣṭuṁ dadhre hotᾱśvalaḥ: Then immediately there was a volley of questions from Aśvala to Yāj˝avalkya.
"Yāj˝avalkya! Now answer my questions. Yad idaṁ sarvaṁ mṛtyunᾱptam, sarvaṁ mṛtyunᾱbhipannam, kena yajamᾱno mṛtyor ᾱptim atimucyata iti: You know Yāj˝avalkya, that everything is subject to death. Everyone is capable of being destroyed by death, one day or the other. Not one among us can escape death. The sacrifice also will die. The one who causes the sacrifice to be performed will die. The materials used in a sacrifice are perishable. Therefore, the results that accrue from the sacrifice will also be subject to destruction. How can one escape death under these circumstances? How is it possible for the Yajamāna – the one who conducts a sacrifice – to free himself from this death that envelops everything and swallows everything? No one can escape death. Is there a way of escaping it? Now answer this question."
Yāj˝avalkya gives the answer: Hotrᾱ ṛtvijᾱ, agninᾱ, vᾱcᾱ: vᾱg vai yᾱj˝asya hotᾱ, tad yeyaṁ vᾱk. so'yam so' yam agniḥ, sa hotᾱ, sᾱ muktiḥ, sᾱtimuktiḥ: "This answer is very difficult. It is not possible to escape death as long as the sacrificer considers himself as an individual. As long as he thinks that he is a human being; as long as he knows that he has verily enough to perform or conduct a sacrifice; that he has many priests whom he can employ in the sacrifice; that he can go to the other world and enjoy the pleasures of heaven – if these are the ideas in the mind of the conductor of a sacrifice, naturally he cannot escape death. But, there is a way of escaping death by knowing the cause of death. If you know the cause of death, you can escape death. Why do people die? Because they are inharmonious with Truth, that is all. There is nothing more secret about it. It is the law of Truth that compels you to undergo certain disciplines for the purpose of putting yourself in harmony with its nature. And this process of discipline that is imposed upon you is called birth and death. It is a tremendous discipline that is compelled upon us by the law of Truth. We are irreconcilable; we cannot agree with anyone; we always disagree; we are independent; we each have a personality of our own; we assert ourself in everything. As long as this assertion of individuality is there and the Truth behind this individuality is not known, one cannot escape death. But, if you know the principles that govern the very existence and function of the individual, then you can, by a harmony with that Truth, escape death. What is this harmony that we are speaking of?
"There should be, simultaneously, together with the sacrifice, a meditation. A meditation should be there, coupled with the performance of the sacrifice. It is not enough if you merely offer oblations into the sacred fire. It is not enough if you give material objects in charity. It is already known that these are not the ways of escaping death. All things shall be swallowed by death. You must also have a simultaneous meditation performed together with the performance of the sacrifice, so that the sacrifice becomes an external symbol of an internal contemplation that is necessarily to be associated with the sacrifice. If the meditation is not there, the sacrifice is as good as nothing. What is the meditation?
"The chants by means of the Veda, which are effected through speech by the priest called Hotā who is the presiding authority of the Ṛg Vedic Mantras, have to be identified with the deity of speech. This identification can be done only in meditation. It cannot be done by any kind of action. Speech is controlled, superintended over and presided over by a deity that is the Fire Principle. If the Fire Principle which is the Agnī Tattva-Vaiśvānara, can be identified with him, then he, the Hotā, the priest, absolves himself from Mṛityu or death.
"There are four priests in a sacrifice. They are Hotā, Adhvaryu, Udgātr and Brahma. Hotā is the name of the priest who chants the Ṛg Vedic Mantras in a sacrifice. Adhvaryu is the one who performs the sacrifice, and he is connected with the Yajur Veda Mantras which are recited in the sacrifice. Udgātr is one who speaks the Sāma Veda Mantras in the very same sacrifice. And Brahma – the word Brahma does not mean the Absolute here – is the name of the priest who is the superintending authority over the Atharva Veda Mantras, whose function is to see that no mistake is committed by the other priests in the performance of the sacrifice, unwittingly. Now, none of these priests can escape death, and therefore the conductor of the sacrifice, the Yajamana, also cannot escape death – unless they perform a meditation inside. All these four priests should meditate, then only they can free themselves from death and also free the Yajamanā, the performer of the sacrifice, from death.
"The first meditation is the identification of all the hymns of the Ṛg Vedic Mantras with the principle of Agnī, together with the identification of one's own self as one with Agnī – Hotrᾱ ṛtvijᾱ, agninᾱ, vᾱcᾱ: vᾱg vai yᾱj˝asya hotᾱ. Ultimately, it is not a human being that performs a sacrifice. That is what Yāj˝avalkya tells us. It is not a priest that conducts a sacrifice. It is not a person; it is the principle of speech which is responsible for the recitation of the Mantra that gives meaning to the Yaj˝a or the sacrifice. And therefore, you may say that this sacred speech called the Ṛg Veda is really the performance – yᾱj˝asya hotᾱ, tad yeyaṁ vᾱk. so'yam so' yam agniḥ: This speech, which is sacred, and is this Veda, is conducted also by the horse-principle, the Universal Being, Vaiśvānara. Sa hotᾱ: He is the real conductor of the sacrifice. If you do not know Him, you will die. Sa muktiḥ, sātimuktiḥ: This knowledge is liberation. This is called Mokṣha. This is freedom from the trammels of death."
Aśvala, the priest, does not leave Yāj˝avalkya at that. "You have answered one question. I have seven more questions. Answer all of them if you want to take the cows like this, otherwise you bring the cows back."
"You have answered one question; I ask you another question. Yad idaṁ sarvam ahorᾱtrᾱbhyᾱm ᾱptam:á Everything is conditioned by the revolution of days and nights. Time appears as day and night. Sarvam ahoratrabhyam abhipannam: No one can escape this limitation imposed upon one by the movement of time in the form of day and night. Kena yajamᾱno'horᾱtrayor ᾱptim atimucyata iti:á How can the conductor of the sacrifice free himself from this condition imposed upon him by the movement of time in the form of day and night? What is the way?"
Then, Yāj˝avalkya gives the reply. "This can be done by the Adhvaryu, the other priest. Adhvaryuṇᾱ ṛtvijᾱ, cakṣuṣᾱ ᾱdityena: Just as the Hotṛ or the priest of the Ṛg Veda can free himself from death by identifying himself with the Mantras of the Ṛg Veda as again identified with the principle of Fire, the Adhvaryu or the second priest can overcome this limitation imposed upon him and others by finding the process of days and nights. How? By another kind of meditation which has to be performed. What is that meditation? He has to identify himself with the ultimate principle of perception which is the Sun – Sūrya; and it is the Sun – Sūrya who is the divine principle superintending over the eye. Then comes the great connection between the actual visible performance of the Yaj˝a by means of the Yajur Veda Mantras and the eye that sees the performance. This eye cannot function unless the Sun functions. This performance, the visible sacrifice, the Yaj˝a in front of you is nothing but an operation through the eye, and it is nothing if it is not properly superintended or presided over by the Sun. If the Sun principle withdraws itself from the eye, there is no perception, no Yaj˝a, no sacrifice. So, let the Adhvaryu identify himself with the eye, not the physical eye but the very element of perception, and that again is to be identified with the Sūrya-Tattva – the ultimate presiding deity over the eyes – Cakṣur vai yᾱj˝asya. After all, what is sacrifice? It is a process of visualisation, and this visualisation itself is to be regarded as a sacrifice. All perceptions are Yaj˝as that you perform through the senses, in the mystical Yaj˝a. Cakṣur vai yᾱj˝asya adhvaryuḥ, tad yad idaṁ cakṣuḥ, so'sᾱv ᾱdityaḥ: This is the Adhvaryu, ultimately. The performer of the sacrifice is Adhvaryu and he is the Cakṣu or the seeing principle, which in turn is ultimately the Sun. So, the Sun is the performer of the sacrifice. Then you become one with him. The moment you become one with him, you are freed from death. And the time factor in the process of days and nights will not work there. In the sun, there is no day or night. This is how freedom from the operation of days and nights and the time element is achieved. This is freedom from the trammels of death."
"Well; it is so. Then I ask you a third question."