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The Story of Yajnavalkya - Swami Ritananda

It was in the Vedic Age that the seeds of all subsequent spiritual attainments in India were sown. 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 Indian 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.

In this article we shall share a few glimpses of the extraordinary life of a Vedic rishi, whose very name fills our minds with awe and respect: Yajnavalkya, a great wonder, a myth personified. The Puranas abound in references to Yajnavalkya, and for this reason many scholars uphold the theory that there were several Yajnavalkyas of repute. Here we shall try to portray, in a nutshell, Yajnavalkya’s life and work in a unitary fashion, as we find it described in various textual sources.

The Man

Yajnavalkya was the incarnation of Brahma. Cursed by Shiva, Brahma incarnated himself as Yajnavalkya.[1] He was the son of Brahmabahu, who was born of the limbs of Brahma.[2] The Yajnavalkya Samhita—a well-known book of religious law compiled by Yajnavalkya—mentions that Yājñavalkya’s father’s name was Yajñavalkya.[3] Yajnavalkya learnt the yoga scriptures from Vasishtha, son of Hiranyanabha Kaushalya.[4] He performed penance at Mithila.[5]He learnt the science of the Self from Hiranyanabha, a king of the Raghu Dynasty and a teacher of yoga.[6] 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 Yajnavalkya[7]. Mahadeva, Yajnavalkya composed the Yoga Samhita afer observing penance in the hermitage of the great sage Upamanyu.[8] Yajnavalkya used to attend the royal court of Yudhishthira and was the presiding priest at the Rajasuya sacrifce performed when Yudhishthira was crowned emperor.[9]

It is said that once, not being able to decide who among the brahmanas assembled at his horse sacrifce was the greatest, King Janaka hit upon a device. He set apart one thousand cows with a large quantity of gold tied to their horns and then said to them: ‘I have dedicated all these things to the greatest among the brahmanas. He who is the greatest among you and the most profound scholar should accept all these.’ None of the brahmanas present dared to accept the offer.

Then Yajnavalkya, who was also present on the occasion, said to his disciple: ‘Dear amashravas, please drive these cows home.’ Samashravas complied. The other brahmanas were enraged. ‘How dare he call himself the best Vedic scholar among us?’ Ashwala, one of Janaka’s priests, asked Yajnavalkya, ‘Are you indeed the best Vedic scholar among us?’ Yajnavalkya replied curtly, ‘I bow to the best Vedic scholar. I just want the cows.’ Ashwala and several other brahmanas then proceeded to interrogate Yajnavalkya with abstruse questions. Yajnavalkya 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 afer having been cut of by death?’[10]

Yajnavalkya was one of the disciples of Vaishampayana. Once Vaishampayana asked his disciples to perform the Brahmavadhya penance for him. Yajnavalkya ofered to perform the penance all by himself. This boastful attitude annoyed Vaishampayana, and wishing to disown him, he said, ‘Return everything that you have studied under me.’ Obeying these words of his guru, Yajnavalkya returned the Yajur Veda ‘by vomiting it out’. Other sages, disguising as tittiras, partridges, partook of the Yajur Veda. From that has grown the famous Taittiriya branch. In the meanwhile, Yajnavalkya worshipped the Sun and gained access to a fresh set of Yajur Veda mantras which were unknown to others. The sun-god was gratifed by Yajnavalkya’s worship and assuming the form of a horse gave him the Yajur Vedic mantras that were in his possession. These Yajnavalkya divided into fifteen recensions known as Vajasanis. Fifteen of his disciples—Kanva, Madhyandina, and others—mastered these and became renowned as Vajis (fleet-footed, or of the horse lineage).[11] Later, Yajnavalkya compiled the Upanishads in accordance with the Vedas and explained them to King Janaka. He had a son from his senior wife Katyayani—she was also known as Kalyani—and his name was Katyayana. Yajnavalkya’s other wife was Maitreyi.[12]

The Devotee

Yajnavalkya was a wonderful yogi and at the same time he had 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 Yajnavalkya narrated the story of Ramachandra to sage Bharadwaja. Tulsidas wrote: I am going to explain the message inherent in the beautiful story that sage Yajnavalkya narrated to the great sage Bharadvaja; let those who are righteous listen to that portrait with happy hearts. Shambhu, the great deity, first composed this 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 devotee of Rama and was worthy. Sage Yajnavalkya, in his turn, got it from Kakabhushundi; he sang it to sage Bharadvaja. These two, speaker and listener (Yajnavalkya and Bharadvaja), were both of them of equal intelligence and equally fair-minded 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 [sic] 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 this Character.[13]

The Yogi

Yajnavalkya composed a handbook on yoga philosophy, named Yogi-yajnavalkya, wherein he expounds the philosophy of yoga in reply to a query from his wife Gargi. Incidentally, Gargi is introduced by Yajnavalkya as his wife in this book, though in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad she is a rival questioner. The introductory narrative runs thus:

The great sage Yajnavalkya, 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, and 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 Yajnavalkya.

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.’

Yajnavalkya, being thus asked by his wife in the midst of the assemblage, glanced at all the sages and started speaking. Bhagavan Yajnavalkya 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.[14]

The Preceptor of Jnana

Since time immemorial a particular type of Indian 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 to enquiry, enquiry 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 we fnd that in India, many a time, the highest truths have 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 afer 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.[15] 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 refected 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 Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi, in which profound truths are discussed. The Shastras in India enjoin that every man should give up the world when he becomes old. Yajnavalkya, having decided to renounce the householder’s life for the hermit’s, willed to divide his worldly possessions between his two wives. Katyayani was satisfed with her share, but Maitreyi asked her husband to confer the knowledge which would make her immortal. Yajnavalkya 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?’ Yajnavalkya 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.’ Yajnavalkya 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’ (2.4.1–4).

With a view to teaching renunciation as a means to immortality, Yajnavalkya 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, refected on, and meditated upon (2.4.5).

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.

What do we get then? Before us we find a curious philosophy. 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 infnite 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 diference? 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.[16]

Yajnavalkya 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’.[17]

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 infnite universe, how does one take every particular object and look upon it as the Atman, without knowing the Atman?

Yajnavalkya 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 diferent streams of smokes as well as sparks and fames 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 (2.4.7–10).

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 the 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. Yajnavalkya illustrates this fact: 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 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 (2.4.11–12).

The similes tell us that 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—signifed by the sea—which is undecaying, immortal, beyond fear, pure, and homogeneous, and which is pure Intelligence: infnite, boundless, with-out a break, and devoid of the diferences caused by the delusion born of ignorance. When that separate existence merges in its cause, when the diferences created by ignorance are gone, the universe becomes one without a second, ‘the great Reality’.[18]

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 recognise, no one to love, no one to hate. What will become of us?’[19]

Yajnavalkya 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 peak or think or know? How is it possible to know the knower?’,[20]

We know 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 we know everything.

So far the idea is that it is all One Infnite 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 you make the statement, just as Yajnavalkya himself tells us: ‘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 hows 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 refection, and when that refection 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 we have 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 diferent forms. To realise this unity is the end and aim of all meditation, and this is what Yajnavalkya was trying to explain to Maitreyi.[21]


We have seen that Yajnavalkya, a householder, was an ardent yogi, an unfinching devotee and an incomparable jnani. He stands as a paragon of the rishi ideal of the Vedic Age. In modern times it is Sri Ramakrishna who has revived this rishi ideal:

Though modern life with its enormous complexity and sophistication may appear to be far removed from the pastoral simplicity of the Vedic Age, sociological studies reveal that the general trend of present-day attitudes, concepts, and social orientations is towards homogeneity and integrality. Science, as a search for truth, has acquired the sanctity of religion, the discovery of the unity of matter and energy has reduced the diferences between the sacred and the secular and, while monks now feel compelled to get involved in social life, lay people are gaining greater awareness of the need for detachment, restraint, and contemplation. The modern man is in search of a holistic view of reality and an integral way of living. The ancient Vedic ideal of the rishi, if adapted to the conditions of modern life, can meet the present need for a composite ideal. This was what Sri Ramakrishna did through his life. His life was closer to that of the Vedic rishis than that of the other Avatars of Hinduism, full of heroic exploits. His teaching of the harmony of religions is essentially a Vedic concept revitalized to suit modern conditions. The Vedic sages considered the cosmos to be in a state of flux; Sri Ramakrishna regarded it as the līlā of the Divine Mother. Through his doctrine of vijñāna, Sri Ramakrishna has recaptured the integral vision of the Vedic seers who saw divinity shining through every object in the universe.[22]

Sri Ramakrishna’s consort, the Holy Mother Sarada Devi, too lived an intense spiritual life in the midst of the din and bustle of household life, in order to restore the spirit of the rishi ideal in this age. Her spirit of detachment was remarkable. Once a rich merchant named Lakshminarayan requested Sri Ramakrishna to accept a sum of rupees ten thousand for his personal use. Sri Ramakrishna, of course, would not accept any money. So he asked the Holy Mother if she would accept the same. On hearing this suggestion, Sri Sarada Devi immediately replied: ‘How can that be? The money can’t be accepted. If I receive it, it will be as good as you receiving it; for if I take it, I shall spend it on you; and hence it will amount to your own acceptance. People respect you for your renunciation; therefore the money can never be accepted.’

Sister Nivedita observed: In her [Sri Sarada Devi], one sees realized that wisdom and sweetness to which the simplest women may attain. And yet, to myself the statness of her courtesy and her great open mind almost as wonderful as her sainthood. I have never known her hesitate, in giving utterance to large and generous judgement, however new or complex might be the question put before her. Her life is one long stillness of prayer. Her whole experience is of theocratic civilization. Yet she rises to the height of every situation. [23]

Swami Vivekananda believed that ‘without Shakti (Power) there is no regeneration for the world. Mother [Sri Sarada Devi] has been born to revive that wonderful Shakti in India; and making her the nucleus once more will Gargis and Maitreyis be born into the world.’ [24]

Vedic Collectivism

In collective life, assemblies play an important part, and the art of speaking is much in demand. Sages pray that they may ‘speak loud’ in the socio-religious assembly—Vidatha. The newly married wife is told that she would address the Vidatha. Then there was the Sabha—the political council which required well qualified people. In the Yajur Veda there is a prayer that the prince should have for his son a sabheyayuva, a youth capable of playing his part in the Sabha or political gathering. Elsewhere there is a prayer for the ideal son: ‘To the man who offers to him, God Soma gives a heroic son—who is fit for work (karmanya), fit for home (sadanya), fit for the religious assembly (vidathya), fit for the political council (sabheya), and a source of glory to his father.’ Here is the ideal for the good citizen. A man must live beyond his individual sphere and contribute to collective life. Beyond the limited interests of the family and social group there was the wider interest of the state (rashtra), which was the concern of all enlightened people. Sages in the Yajur Veda declare: ‘We shall awake in the state, placed in the front line; vayam rashtre jagriyama purohitah.’ —Words from the Vedas, xcvi–vii


  1. Skanda Purana, ‘Nagar Khanda’, 129.
  2. Vayu Purana, 61.
  3. Yajnavalkya Samhita, 1.
  4. Vayu Purana, 88.
  5. Skanda Purana, ‘Reva Khanda’, 42.
  6. Bhagavata, 9.12.
  7. Garuda Purana, 93.106
  8. Kurma Purana,25.
  9. Mahabharata, ‘Sabha Parva’, 4.32.
  10. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.1–9.
  11. Bhagavata, 12.6; Vishnu Purana, 3.5; Vayu Purana 60–1.
  12. Skanda Purana, ‘Nagar Khanda’, 130.
  13. The Rāmāyana of Tulsidās, trans. A G Atkins (N Delhi: Hindustan Times, 1954), 1.28.
  14. Yogi-Yājñavalkya, ed. Upendranath Mukhodhyaya (Kolkata: Basumati), 1–5.
  15. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,4.5.6.
  16. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols(Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama,1–8,1989; 9,199 2.417.)
  17. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.6.
  18. See The Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashram 2004), 256.
  19. Complete Works, 2.419.
  20. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,2.4.13–14.
  21. Complete Works, 2.419–22.
  22. Prabuddha Bharata,91/12 (December 1986), 498
  23. Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him (Kolka Udbodhan, 2007),122.
  24. Complete Works, 7.484.

Originally published by Prabhuddha Bharata Sep 2008 edition. Reprinted with permission.