The seeds of all subsequent spiritual attainments were sown in the Vedic age. Apart from the pastoral simplicity of the people, that age was marked by an integral view of reality and a holistic outlook on life. There was then hardly any distinction between the sacred and the secular, and all activities, including biological functions, were regarded as participation in cosmic sacrifice, yajna. Since life was a total consecration to the realization of the transcendent Reality, the contradiction between renunciation and involvement in life was not felt. The distinction between personal God and the impersonal Absolute, between bhakti and jnana, karma and yoga, and such other apparent dichotomies, which were to plague spirituality in subsequent ages, had not been formulated. The world was not looked upon as illusory but as an expression of the luminous Spirit. All these features of Vedic life were embodied in the rishi ideal.
One such Vedic rishi was Yājñavalkya whose very name commands awe and respect: Yājñavalkya, a great wonder, a myth personified. The Puranas abound in references to Yājñavalkya, and for this reason many scholars argue that there were several Yājñavalkyas of repute. Yājñavalkya’s life and work as described in various sources is presented below in a unitary fashion.
His name stands distinguished both in the Srutis and in the Smritis. Yājñavalkya is especially known for his unsurpassed spiritual wisdom and power. The recipient of the Shukla Yajurveda Samhita from Bhagavan Surya, the revealer of Brahma Jnana to Janaka, Maitreyi and others, Yājñavalkya hails supreme among sages of sacred memory.
Yājñavalkya was also a great Karmakandi. He caused many Yajnas to be performed and himself became the Acharya of those great Yajnas. He was a celebrated Srotriya and a Brahma-nishtha Guru.
Yājñavalkya was the incarnation of Brahma. Cursed by Shiva, Brahma incarnated himself as Yājñavalkya. He was the son of Brahmabahu, who was born of the limbs of Brahma. The Yājñavalkya Samhita—a well-known book of religious law compiled by Yājñavalkya—mentions that Yājñavalkya’s father’s name was Yajñavalkya. His mother was the sister of of Mahamuni Vaishampayana, the Vedacharya of the Taittiriya shaka of the Yajurveda. Yājñavalkya learnt the yoga scriptures from Vasishtha, son of Hiranyanabha Kaushalya. He performed penance at Mithila. He learnt the science of the Self from Hiranyanabha, a king of the Raghu Dynasty and a teacher of yoga. The rituals pertaining to dana or charity, shraddha or post-funerary rites, and purification of ritual objects; duties of the householder, caste duties, duties of the ascetic, and the like, included in the Garuda Purana, were codified by Yājñavalkya.
Mahadeva, Yājñavalkya composed the Yoga Samhita afer observing penance in the hermitage of the great sage Upamanyu. Yājñavalkya used to attend the royal court of Yudhishthira and was the presiding priest at the Rajasuya sacrifce performed when Yudhishthira was crowned emperor.
Once all the Rishis decided to form an association near the Meru mountain and made a rule that any Rishi who absented himself at the appointed hour should incur the sin of Brahmahatya (the sin of killing a Brahmin) for seven days. On that appointed day fell the Sraddha ceremony of Vaishampayana's father. Vaishampayana thought, "Somehow I have to perform my father's ceremony. If the sin of Brahmahatya comes to me, my disciples will observe the expiatory penance therefor". So Vaishampayana did not attend the meeting of the Rishis. And accordingly he incurred the sin of Brahmahatya.
Then Vaishampayana said to his disciples, "Now I have to expiate this great sin of Brahmahatya. Therefore, you all will observe, for my sake, an expiatory penance for seven days".
At once Yājñavalkya stood up and said, "O Guru! All these are poor-spirited young students. They will not be able to undergo such a hard penance. So, instead of all, I myself alone shall observe it in the manner in which nobody else can". Vaishampayana told Yājñavalkya not to undertake it alone. But Yājñavalkya persisted. The preceptor was offended at this audacious attitude of the disciple and said, "O proud one, you are very conceited. You get away from me. Enough of you who is disposed to despise wise Brahmins. Give back to me immediately whatever you have learnt from me".
Upon the order of the Guru, Yājñavalkya, the son of Devarata, vomited out the collection of the Yajus in the form of food. The other disciples ate that food taking the form of the Tittiri birds, because they were very eager to receive the same. They then had the direct revelation of those Yajurveda collections. As the Tittiri birds ate this Veda, it is thenceforth called the Taittiriya Yajurveda. It is also known as Krishna (black) Yajurveda on account of its being vomited substance.
Then Yājñavalkya determined not to have any human Guru thereafter. Thus he began to propitiate the Sun-God, Surya. Yājñavalkya worshipped and extolled the Sun, the master of the Vedas, for the purpose of acquiring the fresh Vedic portions not known to his preceptor, Vaishampayana.
Yājñavalkya said, "Prostration to the glorious Aditya, who in the form of the Atman, abides in all beings. I bow to Him who surrounds all like Akasa, who is one and not separated or distanced by limiting conditions. O Great God, O Creator, I contemplate upon that glowing sphere which lights and warms the whole world! O God who burns all miseries wrought by unrighteous activities, who burns ignorance which is the seed of activity! O Lord, I worship Thy lotus-like feet praised and worshipped by the rulers of the three worlds. Give me those portions of the Veda which are not known to others".
The Sun-God, the glorious Lord Hari, pleased with Yājñavalkya's penance, assumed the form of a horse and taught the sage such fresh portions of the Yajurveda as were not known to any other. This portion of the Yajurveda goes by the name of Shukla Yajurveda. It is also known as Vajasaneya Yajurveda, because it was evolved in great rapidity by Surya in the form of a horse through his manes. Yājñavalkya divided the Vajasaneya Yajurveda into fifteen branches, each branch comprising hundreds of Yajus Mantras. Fifteen of his disciples—Kanva, Madhyandina, and others—mastered these and became renowned as Vajis (fleet-footed, or of the horse lineage).
Yājñavalkya had two wives. One was Maitreyi and the other Katyayani. Of the two, Maitreyi was a Brahmavadini. When Yājñavalkya wished to divide his property between the two wives before starting for the fourth Ashrama of his life, Maitreyi asked whether she could become immortal through wealth. Yājñavalkya replied that there was no hope of immortality through wealth and that she would only become one among the many who were well-to-do on earth. On hearing this, Maitreyi requested Yājñavalkya to teach her what he considered as the best. Then Yājñavalkya elaborately described to her the sole greatness of the Absolute Self, the nature of Its existence, the way of attaining infinite knowledge and immortality, etc. This immortal conversation between Yājñavalkya and Maitreyi is recorded in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Once King Janaka of Videha wanted to know from which real Brahmanishtha to receive Brahma Vidya. In order to find out who was the real Brahma-nishtha, Janaka performed a huge Bahu-dakshina sacrifice to which all the Rishis from far and wide were invited. And he offered one thousand cows with their calves, all their horns being decked with enormous gold. Then he proclaimed to the assembled ones, "Whosoever is the best Brahmana amongst you may drive these cows home". None dared to get up and take away the cows as they were afraid of censure by the others. But Yājñavalkya stood up and asked his disciple Samasravas to drive the cows home. The other brahmanas were enraged. ‘How dare he call himself the best Vedic scholar among us?’ Ashwala, one of Janaka’s priests, asked Yājñavalkya, ‘Are you indeed the best Vedic scholar among us?’ Yājñavalkya replied curtly, ‘I bow to the best Vedic scholar. I just want the cows.’ Ashwala and several other brahmanas then proceeded to interrogate Yājñavalkya with abstruse questions. Yājñavalkya defeated them all by providing deeply insightful answers to their queries and then leaving them dumbfounded with such queries as ‘If someone pulls out a tree with its root, it no more sprouts. From what tree does a mortal (human being) spring forth after having been cut off by death?’
At the sacrifice of Janaka, there was an exchange of words between Yājñavalkya and Vaishampayana. But on hearing that Yājñavalkya had obtained a fresh Veda from the Sun-God, Vaishampayana was much pleased and he requested Yājñavalkya to teach that Veda to his own disciples also. Yājñavalkya consented and taught his Veda to the disciples of Vaishampayana. Similarly, he also debated with another of his teachers, Uddalaka, thus overcoming him.
In the end, Yājñavalkya took Vidvat Sannyasa (renunciation after the attainment of the knowledge of Brahman) and retired to the forest.
Yājñavalkya was a wonderful yogi and had a profound knowledge of the ultimate Reality—Brahman. He was also a great devotee. In the introduction to his book Ramcharitmanas, the poet Saint Tulsidas, one of the biographers of Sri Ramachandra, acknowledged the fact that Yājñavalkya narrated the story of Ramachandra to sage Bharadwaja. Tulsidas wrote: I am going to explain the message inherent in the beautiful story that sage Yājñavalkya narrated to the great sage Bharadwaja; let those who are righteous listen to that portrait with happy hearts.
Shambhu, the great deity, first composed the beautiful biographical story,Ramacaritamanasa, and was kind enough to recite it to Parvati. Later he recited it to Kakabhushundi when he realized that Kakabhushundi was a pious devotee of Rama. Sage Yājñavalkya, in his turn, heard it from Kakabhushundi and he sang it to the sage Bharadvaja. Both, Yājñavalkya and Bharadvaja, were both of them of equal intelligence and both of them were aware of the divine plays of Hari. These omniscient sages had direct knowledge of everything belonging to the past, present and future as if it were an emblica [the sour 'Indian gooseberry'] in the palms of their hands. The other righteous devotees of Hari (who knew of the divine plays and mysteries of God) listened to, recited, and explained His character in detail.
Yājñavalkya composed a handbook on yoga philosophy, named Yogi-yajnavalkya, wherein he expounded the philosophy of yoga in reply to a query from his wife Gargi. Incidentally, Gargi is introduced by Yājñavalkya as his wife in this book, though in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad she is a rival questioner. The introductory narrative runs thus:
The great sage Yājñavalkya, the foremost of the sages, was omniscient. His knowledge of Reality had made his mind completely pure; he devoted himself to constant meditation on God after he had attained the requisite knowledge of all the branches of learning. He knew the essential philosophy of the Veda and Vedanta thoroughly; he was especially devoted to yogic practices. He had conquered his senses, the emotion of anger, the love of food, his enemies, and thus had become the favourite of the brahmanas. He was always engaged in practising penance and meditating upon the Absolute. That handsome sage used to practise his everyday prayers and worship while staying in his hermitage. That great and noble sage, who had had the realization of Brahman, was always surrounded by brahmanas. He was calm, devoted to truth, spiritually attuned to all creatures, and an appreciator of everyone’s merits. The only purpose of his life was to do good to others. One day when this great sage, who was endowed with such virtues, was discoursing upon the nature of the Divinity to the distinguished sages, the noble Maitreyi, who was the greatest of women, and Gargi the foremost of those who had had the realization of God, entered the august body of sages and offered their salutations by prostrating themselves. Then Gargi started addressing the great sage Yājñavalkya.
Gargi said: ‘O Lord, you know the essence of all the branches of learning and are always engaged in work benefecial to all creatures. So I pray to you to duly explicate to me the philosophy of yoga with all its ancillaries.’
Yājñavalkya, being thus asked by his wife in the midst of the assemblage, glanced at all the sages and started speaking. Bhagavan Yājñavalkya said: ‘O Gargi, foremost among those who have realized Brahman, do please rise, God bless you. I am going to tell you the essence of that yoga which was explained by the Lord of Creation, Brahma, in ancient times. You should listen to what I say with a steadfast mind and complete attention.
‘One day Brahma, the creator of the entire universe, was resting on his lotus-seat, and I approached him and worshipped him with salutations and hymns. I asked him the very things that you are asking: “O Lord, O Master of the universe, unfold to me that great occult knowledge, with due solemnity, of the work which will lead me to everlasting liberation.” After I had said thus, Brahma, who is the Lord of Creation and the creator of his own self, was pleased to look at me and started discoursing on the philosophy of knowledge and the philosophy of action.'
The Preceptor of Jnana
Since time immemorial a particular type of mind has been very keen on discriminative dialectics. Perfection of this system resulted in the evolution of an independent system of yoga called jnana yoga. Doubts give rise to questions, questions goad one on to inquiry, inquiry involves argumentation, and it is through argumentation and debate that the validity of a theory is established. Thus, argumentation and dialogue constitute the driving force behind the establishment of the truth of any theory. A truth is termed eternal only when it has been tested by ardent aspirants as well as critics and agnostics.
For this reason, the highest truths have often been brought to light in the scriptures in the form of dialogue. Generally, such dialogues involve the preceptor, the one who knows the Truth, and the disciple who aspires after knowledge. In the Upanishads, the realization of the Self, or the Atman, and the experience of the identity of Atman and Brahman are described as the ultimate human goals. The means of achieving these goals has been stated thus: Atma va are drash-tavyah shrotavyo mantavyo nididhyasitavyo; the Self should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on, and meditated upon. The Vedantic sadhanas are: shravana, manana, nididhyasana—hearing, reflection, and meditation. The Truth is to be heard of from the guru and the Shastras, to be reflected on, and meditated upon. Manana, or reflection, is the process in which this argumentation and dialogue come in.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad there is an enlightening dialogue between Yājñavalkya and his wife Maitreyi, in which profound truths are discussed. Shastra enjoins that every man should give up the world when he becomes old. Yājñavalkya, having decided to renounce the householder’s life for the hermit’s, willed to divide his worldly possessions between his two wives. Katyayani was satisfied with her share, but Maitreyi asked her husband to confer the knowledge which would make her immortal. Yājñavalkya said to his wife, ‘My beloved, here is all my money and my possessions, I am going away.’ She replied, ‘Sir, if I had this whole earth full of wealth, would that give me immortality?’ Yājñavalkya said, ‘No, it will not. You will be rich, and that will be all; but there is no hope of immortality through wealth.’ Maitreyi continued, ‘What should I do to gain that through which I shall become immortal? Tell me that.’ Yājñavalkya was pleased. He said, ‘You have always been my beloved; you are more dear now because of this question Come, take your seat, and I will tell you; and when you have heard, meditate upon it’ .
With a view to teaching renunciation as a means to immortality, Yājñavalkya seeks to awaken detachment for worldly relations, wealth, and other attachments. He drives home the truth about the Self:
'Not for the sake of husband, is the husband dear, but for one’s own sake he is dear; not for the sake of wife, is the wife dear, but for one’s own sake she is dear; not for the sake of sons, are sons dear, but for one’s own sake they are dear; not for the sake of wealth, is wealth dear, but for one’s own sake it is dear; not for the sake of the brahmana, is the brahmana dear, but for one’s own sake the brahmana is dear; not for the sake of the kshatriya, is the kshatriya dear, but for one’s own sake the kshatriya is dear; not for the sake of the worlds, are the worlds dear, but for one’s own sake the worlds are dear; not for the sake of the gods, are the gods dear, but for one’s own sake the gods are dear; not for the sake of the beings, are the beings dear, but for one’s own sake the beings are dear; not for the sake of all, all is dear, but for one’s own sake all is dear. Therefore, the Self should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on, and meditated upon.' .
By the realization of the Self, through hearing, refection, and meditation all this is known. Only thus is it realized. When these three means are combined, only then is true realization of the unity of Brahman accomplished, not otherwise. The word ‘all’ emphasizes that the Self alone is dear, and nothing else.
The statement has been made that every love is selfishness in the lowest sense of the word: because I love myself, therefore I love another; it cannot be. There have been philosophers in modern times who have said that self is the only motive power in the world. That is true, and yet it is wrong. But this self is but the shadow of the real Self which is behind. It appears wrong and evil because it is small. That infinite love for the Self, which is the universe, appears to be evil, appears to be small, because it appears through a small part. Even when the wife loves the husband, whether she knows it or not, she loves the husband for that Self. It is selfishness as it is manifested in the world, but that selfishness is really but a small part of the Self-ness. Whenever one loves, one has to love in and through the Self. This Self has to be known. What is the difference? Those that love the Self without knowing what It is, their love is selfishness. Those that love, knowing what that Self is, their love is free; they are sages.
Yājñavalkya continues: ‘Whoever knows the brahmana as other than the Self, the brahmana deserts that being.’ Similarly, the kshatriya, the worlds, the deities, the beings, and the universe desert the one who considers them as being other than the Self. Therefore, ‘the brahmana, the kshatriya, the worlds, the gods, the beings, and all this are none but the Self, indeed’.
Everything is the Self because everything springs from the Self, is resolved into it, and remains imbued with it during the span of its manifestation, for nothing can be perceived apart from the Self. The Self, being pure Intelligence, makes everything intelligible.
Every time we particularize an object, we differentiate it from the Self. As soon as we get attached to anything in the universe, detaching it from the universe as a whole, from the Atman, there comes a reaction. With everything that we love as being ‘outside the Self ’, grief and misery ensues. If we enjoyed everything in the Self, and as the Self, there would be no misery or reaction. This is perfect bliss. How does one apprehend this ideal? In an infinite universe, how does one take every particular object and look upon it as the Atman, without knowing the Atman?
Yājñavalkya addresses this doubt next: 'When a drum or a conch or a vina resounds, the particular notes or sounds cannot be distinguished from the wholeness of the great sound, for the individual notes are nothing but indistinguishable components of the overall music. Similarly, all particulars perceived in the waking and dream states are underpinned by the Intelligence or Consciousness which is the very nature of the Atman. So waking and dream states do not exclude the omnipresent Atman; rather, these two states merge into the all-pervading Atman.
Again, just as different streams of smokes as well as sparks and flames issue forth from a fire kindled with wet faggots, in the same way the Vedas, Upanishads, history, mythology, arts, philosophical aphorisms, and their explanations—all emerge from Brahman, much like breath issuing from the nostrils.' .
Therefore, it may be understood that the universe, at the time of its origin, as also prior to it, is nothing but Brahman. Moreover, it is not only at the time of its origin and continuance that the universe, on account of its non-existence apart from pure Intelligence, is Brahman, but it is so at the time of dissolution as well. Just as bubbles of foam have no existence apart from the water from which they are generated, even so name, form, and activity, which are derived from pure Intelligence and again merge in it, are non-existent apart from this Intelligence or Brahman. Yājñavalkya illustrates this fact thus:
'As the sea is the one goal of all waters, the skin of all touch, the nostrils of all smell, the tongue of all tastes, the eye of all forms, the ear of all sound; the mind of all deliberations, and the intellect of all knowledge; as the hands are the one goal of all work, the organ of generation of all enjoyment, the anus of all excretory function, the feet of all locomotion, and the organ of speech of all the Vedas; as a lump of salt dropped into water dissolves in it and cannot be picked up in its original form, though its salinity is found everywhere in the water, even so the great endless infnite Reality is but pure Intelligence. The self emerges as a separate entity on the conglomeration of the elements, and is destroyed with them. On being merged into pure Intelligence, it goes beyond the bondage of the name and form that is its individuality.' .
These similes reveal the existence of objects as entities distinct from the Reality is a delusion engendered by contact with the limiting adjuncts of the body and the senses. These objects will ultimately enter their cause, the great Reality, the supreme Self—signified by the sea—which is undecaying, immortal, beyond fear, pure, and homogeneous, and which is pure Intelligence: infinite, boundless, without breaks, and devoid of the differences caused by the delusion born of ignorance. When that separate existence merges in its cause, when the differences created by ignorance are gone, the universe becomes one without a second, ‘the great Reality’.
Swami Vivekananda remarks: We get the idea that we have all come just like sparks from Him, and when we know Him, we go back and become one with Him again. We are the Universal.
Maitreyi became frightened, just as everywhere people become frightened. Said she, ‘Sir, here is exactly where you have thrown a delusion over me. You have frightened me by saying there will be no more gods; all individuality will be lost. There will be no one to recognize, no one to love, no one to hate. What will become of us?’
Yājñavalkya clarifes: ‘Maitreyi, I do not mean to puzzle you. When there is duality, then one smells something, one sees something, one hears something, one speaks something, one thinks something, and one knows something. But when to a knower of the Self everything becomes the Self, then through what—and what object—does one smell or see or hear or speak or think or know? How is it possible to know the knower?’,
All things through the Atman. The Atman can never be the object of knowledge, nor can the knower be known; because it is in and through the Atman that everything is known.
So far the idea is that it is all One Infinite Being. That is the real individuality, when there is no more division, and no more parts; these little ideas are very low, illusive. But yet in and through every spark of the individuality is shining that Infinite. Everything is a manifestation of the Atman. How to reach that? First make the statement, just as Yājñavalkya himself says: ‘The Atman is first to be heard of.’ So he stated the case; then he argued it out, and the last demonstration was how to know That, through which all knowledge is possible. Then, last, it is to be meditated upon. He takes the contrast, the microcosm and the macrocosm, and shows how they are rolling on in particular lines, and how it is all beautiful. All that is bliss, even in the lowest sense, is but the reflection of Him. All that is good is His reflection, and when that reflection is a shadow, it is called evil.
That one sweetness is manifesting itself in various ways. There is no sweetness but He. These ideas are very helpful to men; they are for meditation. For instance, meditate on the earth; think of the earth and at the same time know That which is in the earth, that both are the same. Identify the body with the earth, and identify the soul with the Soul behind. Identify the air with the soul that is in the air and that is in me. They are all one, manifested in different forms. To realize this unity is the end and aim of all meditation, and this is what Yājñavalkya was trying to explain to Maitreyi.
Yājñavalkya composed several texts including
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- Yājñavalkya Smriti
- Yājñavalkya Shakha
- Pratijna Sutra
- Satapatha Brahmana
- Skanda Purana, ‘Nagar Khanda’, 129
- Vayu Purana, 61.
- Yājñavalkya Samhita, 1.
- Vayu Purana, 88
- Skanda Purana,‘Reva Khanda’, 42.
- Bhagavata, 9.12.
- Garuda Purana, 93.106.
- Kurma Purana,25
- Mahabharata, ‘Sabha Parva’, 4.32
- Bhagavata, 12.6; Vishnu Purana, 3.5; Vayu Purana 60–1.
- Katyayani was also known as Kalyani
- Skanda Purana, ‘Nagar Khanda’, 130.
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.1–9.
- The Rāmāyana of Tulsidās, trans. A G Atkins (N Delhi: Hindustan Times, 1954), 1.28.
- Yogi-Yājñavalkya, ed. Upendranath Mukhodhyaya (Kolkata: Basumati), 1–5.
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,4.5.6.
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,2.4.1–4
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.5
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols(Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama,1–8,1989; 9,199 2.417.)
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.6.
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.7–10
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.11–12
- See The Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashram 2004), 256.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 2.419.
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,2.4.13–14.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 2.419–22.
Large parts of this article were taken from