The Eternal Wisdom
The final chapter of Hari Prasad Shastri’s imaginative portrayal of the life and teachings of the sages of ancient India
Human life is subject to certain laws which must be obeyed. The purpose of law is the welfare of the details, if that is commensurate with the welfare of the whole. The individual exists for himself only so as to make himself fit to help the evolution of the whole. Whenever there is a conflict between the detail and the whole, the whole must have precedence.
The ancients organized human life on a basis of law which was absolute. Up to the age of twenty-four, one had to be a gatherer of knowledge, skilled in action, proficient in forming the right judgement and generally prepared for a life of beauty. An ancient philosopher has said that the object of education and training of the mind is to make the world look beautiful.
From twenty-four to the age of fifty was the period assigned to worldly pursuits in a legitimate fashion. The accumulation of rightly earned wealth, children, property and general well-being, were among the chief objects to be sought during this creative period of man’s empirical life.
At fifty years of age, householders, and even rulers, made over their business affairs to their sons and retired into the forest to contemplate and to pursue the deeper ends of life. A man could keep his wife with him and cultivate with her the inner life to help the progress of the soul. Worldly considerations were not allowed to interfere with the life of contemplation, study, the creation of literary works of beauty and upliftment, and the training of the mind so that it could meet any situation undisturbed.
At the age of seventy-five, a man was expected to renounce his wife and family, his dwelling and his library, his friends and all other worldly connections, to wander about as an itinerant universal man, conferring the benefit of his wisdom and spiritual experience on the younger generation. To own nothing, to belong to no particular creed, caste or country, and to embrace the whole world in spiritual love—this was the state called renunciation (Sannyasa).
This mode of life was complete. All friction in the home and society, the conflicts in one’s own being and in the external spheres, were avoided when this way of life was followed. Even tyrants were compelled to abdicate at the age of fifty; despots would adopt the universal life at seventy-five. The dominant factor was selfless benevolence and the good of the world.
Such a Sannyasi was also called a Parivrajaka; and when this homeless monarch of his own self had the inner vision of the universality of the Self, he became a paramahansa, that is, a destroyer of the darkness of ignorance in the hearts of countless others.
The wise live to illustrate the spiritual law in their own lives. Therefore Shri Yajnavalkya, now grown old in his physical body, decided to leave the world and become a Parivrajaka-sannyasi, a supreme renunciate.
He had already known the Truth. Now he could exercise his faculty of universal compassion and teach dispassion and detachment more effectively as a homeless wanderer. He would be like the sun coursing in the infinite sky, illumining the worlds and conferring a million advantages on living beings; like a cloud charged with pure water, showering it on the thirsty soil and feeding the springs and wells.
There are two ancient modes for adopting the life of sannyasa. They are called Vividisha, which entails an elaborate rite at which this new stage of life is conferred on a qualified disciple by a Guru; and Vidvat, which has no rule and which applies to one who has already known the One-without-a-second (Parabrahman) in his own integral being. He has only to shave his head, to discard his sacred thread and exchange his domestic robe for the unsewn garment of a monk. He carries a staff, called danda, made of bamboo, as a symbol of the unity of all life in that region which is beyond all conflict. Touching no metal, carrying no money, not staying under one roof for more than a night, living on alms once a day, the Yati (ascetic) lives in the world like a lion in a forest. This was to be the future way of life of the holy Yajnavalkya.
* * *
It was a morning in late October, on the day of the full moon. Apart from an occasional light breeze, the Himalayan valley of Shiva-Vana was quite calm. The flower garden of the hermitage still bore many blossoms of various tints and beautiful forms. The sky was clear except for a few patches of purple cloud that were floating on the wings of the wind, to disappear when they came in touch with the great Narayana mountain.
The disciples sensed that something extraordinary was to happen. They gathered at about three in the afternoon in the pine grove. Shri Yajnavalkya, scantily clad, carrying no manuscripts, walked slowly towards the grove, his eyes set on the ground some thirty yards in front of him.
As he came near, the whole assembly stood up and greeted him with ‘Jai’, three times. The rishi bade them sit down. One of the disciples unrolled a black antelope skin and the sage seated himself on it. A young brahmachari brought the maharishi’s coconut water vessel and placed it by his side.
After a few moments, bundles of manuscripts neatly wrapped in yellow cloth were brought to the spot by five disciples. Several drinking vessels, silver bells, silken turbans, gold lockets and other precious articles, carried on trays, were placed to the right of the holy Guru. He poured a little water from his vessel into an earthen pot, drinking slowly, and pronounced the words:
This is perfect, that is perfect.
From perfection comes forth perfection.
If perfection be subtracted from perfection,
‘My beloved friends, your course of instruction with me ends today forever. I have tried to share with you the divine knowledge which I received first from the holy teachers, then proved logically to myself, and finally confirmed by my own experience.
‘I have neither taught you anything fantastic, nor have I tried to impress you with my self-importance. My only aim in my association with you has been to help you to fulfil the supreme purpose of life.
‘Beloved ones, I have a few gifts for you. Do not take them as mementos or tokens of my loving relationship with you. If they are tokens of anything at all, they symbolize my feelings of gratitude to you. It is good to give, but it is also good to receive in the right spirit. You have looked after my cows. You have given kindly services to the holy mothers, Maitreyi and Katyayani, whom, owing to my own preoccupation with my spiritual thoughts, I have failed to serve adequately. Where I have failed, you have succeeded. You have stood by them in their hard work, in the time of their illnesses, and have been like real sons and daughters to them.
‘I am not really leaving you, for I meet you at the common centre of this circle of Sansara, where each of you in the form of a radius, so to speak, finally converges. It is an imperfection of love to think only of empirical meetings and external advantages, dwelling in the realm of time and space. Beloved ones, love is the life of the immolation of the sense of individuality in the infinite light of Self (Atman).
‘I hope you will do your duty to your families, your king, your brethren, to all living beings, to your ancestors, and also to the holy spiritual science, Brahmavidya. I commend to your attention the eighteen verses of the Isha Upanishad. Take them as your guide and see in them your Teacher, who was once known as Yajnavalkya. I adopt the mode of life of a parivrajaka yati, a wandering ascetic, which my duty as a brahmana enjoins. Tomorrow will be the ceremony of my farewell to the two devoted companions of my life, Katyayani and Maitreyi, to my dear cows and my beloved calves. I will say goodbye to these mountains and pine groves, and I invite those of you who care to attend to be present on this occasion.
‘I renounce all, even my name, my caste and my position as a Teacher. Beloved ones, help yourselves to these gifts which I give you today. Here are some valuable manuscripts; please study them and propagate their teachings. Those of you who desire to enter the life of a householder may take these other precious gifts which King Janaka and other wealthy disciples of mine have brought from time to time.
‘Brethren, do not be sorrowful, and also do not be happy. Keep your mind on study, and work for the good of humanity. Look around you and see how innumerable beings are suffering in ignorance (Avidya). Live to uplift them. Om Tat Sat!’
Silence fell on the assembly. A few sobs were heard. Tears were running down the cheeks of some of the older disciples. The saint Gargi was calm, and so were the others who had known the holy Yajnavalkya as he truly was.
* * *A cold wind has begun to sweep over the valley, and the birds have returned to their nests. The cows have been led quietly to the pasture. The calves have been taken to a larger fold where they are frisking playfully. In the large pavilion with its thatched roof, supported on bamboo pillars, sits the maharishi. Maitreyi and Katyayani are seated before him in an attitude of reverence. Shri Yajnavalkya says:
‘O Katyayani, let us meditate on the sun, the source of life and light for this planet. Let us realize Him in the midst of the mind; forgetting the inner and outer self, let us feel at one with the great sun. But this is only a preliminary step. After a while, meditating in this way, let us merge the sun in that higher Sun, called Consciousness, in which millions of our suns shine, without obscuring its light.’
Katyayani thus began to meditate. Maitreyi said: ‘O holy lord, I have meditated on you, and today you are the sole object of my meditation.’
‘Be it so,’ answered the sage. They all meditated for some time; then Shri Yajnavalkya said: ‘Today I leave this little home for the greater eternal home in which we move and have our being. O Maitreyi, take my cows, take all the gold which remains after gifts have been made to others.’
To Katyayani he said: ‘This hermitage is yours, with all its contents; the pastures, the calves and the remaining cows. All are yours. I make no condition. You may live as you like.’
Maitreyi said with great reverence: ‘O holy teacher, if death is the end of all our earthly possessions, they do not seem to be of any great use. A goat which is to be sacrificed tomorrow may be fed on the best food today, but if it is conscious of its coming end, how can the food be enjoyable? Of what use are kine, wealth, fame, or any other thing, as long as we have to leave the world involuntarily and unexpectedly? We do not want to go, yet it is forced upon us. This is not a very happy state of affairs. Tell me, my lord, what will make me immortal? My great problem is how to conquer death. How I long to experience the nectar of immortality, in which there is no coming and going.’
Shri Yajnavalkya smiled and said:
‘Immortality can be realized consciously in this very life, because the nature of the Self is immortal. O darling, all that functions in the realm of time and space is subject to change and is mortal. There is the higher realm of Atman, the Self of man, and once it is realized, immortality dawns as our birthright. You will ask how immortality can be realized. O darling, make the right quest and earnestly seek immortality over and above all transient and passing objects. Set your mind firmly on this quest and let it not be distracted by any allurement, attraction or promise. All the pleasures of the world, friends and possessions, fame and learning, health and good taste, are no better than the clouds passing in the sky.
‘O darling, the first essential of the science of immortality is the one persistent, all-consuming quest for Truth. Listen to teachings from many quarters; give your ear to those who claim to have known the science of immortality. Listen to one and listen to many with reverence, my darling. Then sift what is best from all that you have heard. By the faculty of reason you must come to the conclusion that the Self is the highest object of the quest. When you have found out the way, then tread it fearlessly. Meditate on the holy Truth of the immutability, all-pervasiveness, eternality and all-blissfulness of the Self. Meditate on it, talk about it to those who are your companions on the quest, and exclude all other conversation which binds your thought or soul.
‘That which is really important, my darling, is that you should cultivate the mode of mind which is helpful to the acquisition of the great vision: “Self is all; Self is real; nothing except Self exists.”
‘The mind, my dearest one, is dual in character; sometimes it runs after the flowers which are sure to fade away; sometimes it wants to clutch the rainbow. Tutor the mind daily. Reason with it to show it that all which is finite can give but passing joys.’
Maitreyi interposed, saying: ‘My lord, I have received nothing from this! Your speech is beyond my mind. The Self is neither this nor that. If it has no qualities, such as colour, extension, weight, gravity or any other attribute—then surely it is nothing! How then am I to perceive this ideal? Enlighten me, O my sole lord.’
Shri Yajnavalkya replied:
‘O darling, how can the knower be known? Your eyes see everything in the world which is to be seen, but they cannot see themselves. Your fingers can hold a pen, a needle and thread, the leash for the calves—but they cannot take hold of themselves. Such is that universal principle of light through which all else is seen, heard, tasted and so forth. Therefore, how can it be seen, heard or known?’
Maitreyi looked confused and said: ‘My lord, can we predicate anything about this Self? Is it not simply emptiness? Is it not almost nothing? If I cannot know its existence, how can I know that it exists? Have not the ancients imagined a principle which they have called the Absolute, and then just handed it down traditionally?’
Shri Yajnavalkya said:
‘Darling, it is not so. I have told you that the Self (Atman) is infinite, and anything that is conceivable, perceivable or imaginable, has its phenomenal existence in a mode of the Absolute.
‘O Maitreyi, do not say that Atman does not exist. It is that very principle which is making the statement that Atman does not exist! It is that which is asking the question. Atman is neither small nor great; it has no colour, no form, no attributes. It is free from the three kinds of differences.
‘It is by meditation that the Knower knows its Self. Know, my darling, that reason prepares the way but, fatigued in its quest of the Absolute, reason stops short. It is like an eagle that flies at the sun and, after going a few miles, grows fatigued and drops down to the earth. In this region, O Maitreyi, no duality exists. Therefore it is beyond the range of the intellect, which functions only in the realm of duality. Reason analyses, synthesizes, unites and separates; it finds the general among the particulars and discovers the law; but in the region where there is only pure existence (Sat), reason can have nothing on which to function.
‘O Maitreyi, it is a matter to be meditated upon. When, under the heat of one-pointed meditation, the outer shells of the mind begin to wither, and that part of the intellect which illumines an object is separated from its adjuncts, then what remains is something nameless, attributeless.
‘O Maitreyi, “That thou art!” As a lump of salt, dissolved in water, loses its identity and becomes water, so the refined and purified intellect, trained in concentration, dwelling on the Absolute, becomes dissolved in it. There, my darling, what can one think? What can one say? What can one feel? I assure you, O Maitreyi, that this region is not darkness; being free from limitations, it is not grief; being the Light of lights, there is no veiling in it. That thou art!’
As the holy rishi was talking to his wife, he was transformed physically. His whole body appeared like a flame, shedding the light of peace and wisdom. Maitreyi fell at the feet of her lord. The darkness dissolved. All was peace. The inner eyes of Maitreyi were opened and she realized the Truth of the statement of the holy rishi. But she could not give expression to what she felt. She was like a dumb woman eating lumps of sugar—how could she describe the taste?
In this way Shri Yajnavalkya conferred his grace on Maitreyi. Henceforth, she resolved to pass her life in contemplation of the highest. To Katyayani, the illustrious sage left his material wealth.
* * *This was the last day of Shri Yajnavalkya’s life in his dear hermitage. For fifty years he had lived there, taught his disciples and kept his cows. Kings had visited him in this spot, and the rays of the light of his knowledge had radiated far and wide. But everything in this world is passing and changing. It is useless to expect a baby to remain in its babyhood. Youth turns into age and age into the radical transformation called death. According to the law of universal change, called Maya, nations arise, come to the surface and play their allotted part. If they keep the law of harmony (dharma) their existence is full, prolonged and prosperous. Otherwise they sink into nothingness in a very short time. The maya of the Lord is understood when we grasp intuitively the nature of the ultimate reality.
A man casts a shadow; the shadow is known fully when the man is known, and not vice versa. He is wise who conforms to this law of change and, transforming his mind voluntarily into a higher and yet higher principle, conditioning his emotions, his will and his thinking faculty, brings his being into the universal rhythm.
All the disciples of the hermitage and the rishis who lived in the vicinity, had congregated in the valley in front of Shri Yajnavalkya’s home. Many sages were present in the assembly. Shri Yajnavalkya, his head now cleanly shaven, dressed in a flowing yellow robe and holding a bamboo staff in his hand, appeared among them and said: ‘Om namo Narayanaya, O holy ones.’ They saluted him with the same words. The great Yajnavalkya then gave his parting words:
‘My own Self in a multitudinous form, today I bid farewell to you! Farewell, O sacred pinegrove, O rocks, promontories, flowing rivulets, rolling streams! O birds, dear cows and calves—farewell! Farewell to learning, and even to Brahmavidya. Farewell to “farewell” itself!’
He bowed low and slowly walked out of the hermitage, like a golden swan swimming across a translucent lake. All stood silent in awe and reverence as the aged figure, diffusing light, slowly disappeared between two mountain ranges as he entered another valley. His shadow was seen for a short while, but that too finally vanished.
Maharishi Yajnavalkya had become an avadhut.