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Janaka and Yajnavalkya–1

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Section 89 of the Upanishads for Awakening

We come now to the lengthiest dialogue in any of the upanishads. Swami Prabhavananda ended his translation of the upanishad at its conclusion, evidently feeling that anything following it would be of vastly inferior value.

Wealth or knowledge?

“On a certain occasion, Janaka, king of Videha, having seated himself to give audience, saw the sage Yajnavalkya among his visitors and accosted him. Janaka said: ‘Yajnavalkya, what brings you here? Do you come for cattle, or for philosophy?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘For both, Your Majesty.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:1).

The great sages, whether past or present, always have a sense of humor. And they are not interested in how they look to others. I have seen both of these principles more than once in Swami Sivananda and other great yogis in India.

Humorous though it be, this verse has a real message: the intelligent yogi is interested in the total picture, both material and spiritual. It is ignorance that postulates an incompatibility between material and spiritual life. It is ignorance that creates the problem, not matter or spirit. After all, matter is a manifestation of spirit. Both Janaka and Yajnavalkya were rich in material possessions and in wisdom.

In America we have had two men that were equally successful in finance and spirituality: J. C. Penney, founder of “Penney’s” department store chain and James J. Lynn, whose many-branched multimillion dollar empire could not keep him from becoming one of this country’s greatest yogis and the successor of Paramhansa Yogananda as president of Self-Realization Fellowship. In India I met men of fabulous wealth whose whole mind and heart were centered in spirit-consciousness while working tirelessly for the welfare of the people.

As Sri Ramakrishna said: “If you can weigh salt, you can weigh sugar.”


“[Yajnavalkya said:] ‘I wish to hear what your teachers may have taught you.’

“Janaka said: ‘Jitwa taught me that the word [vak] is Brahman.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘As one who in childhood was instructed adequately, first by his mother and then by his father, and after that was initiated into the sacred mysteries by a sage–as such an one should teach, so has Jitwa taught you the truth when he said that the word is Brahman. For what could a person achieve without the word? But did he tell you about the abode and support of this Word-Brahman?‘

“Janaka said: ‘No, he did not.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘Then you have been only partly taught.’

“Janaka said: ‘Do you, then, teach me, O Yajnavalkya.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘The organ of speech is its abode, and ether, the primal cause of the universe, is its eternal support. Meditate upon the word as identical with knowledge.’

“Janaka said: ‘What is knowledge, Yajnavalkya?’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘The word is knowledge, Your Majesty. For through the word a friend is known, and likewise all knowledge, spiritual or otherwise. Through the word is gained knowledge of this world and of the next. Through the word is obtained knowledge of all creatures. The word, Your Majesty, is the Supreme Brahman.’

“Janaka said: ‘I give you a thousand cows with a bull as big as an elephant for teaching me.

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘My father was of the opinion that one should not accept any reward from a disciple without fully instructing him” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:2).

The power of Word, both conceptualization and verbal expression of concepts, is the distinctive feature of the human being, although many other species on earth use sound for communication. There is great power is speech for many reasons, some intellectual and some esoteric. Yajnavalkya points out that it is not enough to appreciate the power of word, but we must know that which gives word it power, what is its “abode and support.” He then tells us that it is the faculty of speech, the innate capacity of the human being for speech, that is the abode of word, for without the faculty of speech there could be no word expressed. Yet that is not the ultimate basis of the word. “Ether, the primal cause of the universe, is its eternal support.” Here, again, the Chidakasha is meant. Sound arises out of the element of ether, and the consciousness behind intelligent sound is the Chidakasha, the Self of the nature of Consciousness. So it is this Consciousness that is the origin of the Word-Brahman, the Shabda Brahman, that is also the inmost consciousness.

“My father was of the opinion that one should not accept any reward from a disciple without fully instructing him.” This tells us two things: Yajnavalkya possessed a spiritual lineage, a tradition with roots. Also he considered that partial knowledge was of little value.


“[Yajnavalkya said:] ‘I wish to know what anyone else may have taught you.’

“Janaka said: ‘Udanka taught me that breath [prana] is Brahman. He did not tell me about its abode and support.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘Prana is its abode and ether [akasha] its support. It should be meditated upon as dear. For life is indeed dear. The primal energy is Brahman.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:3).

When we breathe we live, and when we stop breathing, we die. That is why breath holds such a principal place in the practice of yoga. However, the breath is just the objectified physical manifestation of the inner movement of prana, the primal life energy within the human being. Prana is the force of life itself, but it, like the faculty of speech, has the Chidakasa as its origin and support. The prana is indeed dear, for it is the coin of life.


Now we have another of the same-word passages:

“[Yajnavalkya said:] ‘Tell me what more you have been taught.’

“Janaka said: ‘Barku taught me that the eye [chakshu] is Brahman. But he did not teach me its abode and support.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘Sight [chakshu] is its abode and ether its support. It should be meditated upon as truth. For it is by sight that objects are known. Sight is Brahman. What more have you learned?’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:4).

The word chakshu means both the physical eye and the faculty of sight. The eye is meaningless if one lacks the faculty of sight. And that, too, is rooted in the Chidakasha. Thus we see that all our faculties are but rays of the sun that is the Chidakasha.

The next few verses are going to follow this pattern: the teachers of Janaka will have named the material sense organ, and Yajnavalkya will explain that it is the faculty–and ultimately the Chidakasha–that is the attribute/power of Brahman.


“Janaka said: ‘Gardabhivipati taught me that the ear [shrotra] is Brahman.’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘Hearing [shrotra] is its abode and ether its support. It should be meditated upon as limitless. For sound is carried by space, and space is limitless. Hearing is Brahman.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:5).

There is a yogic aspect to this, since sound in the form of subtle inner hearing is the quintessential element of meditation practice. This faculty is rooted in the ether element which is all-pervading and limitless. Thus through working with sound in meditation we can access the all-pervading and limitless Consciousness that is Brahman.


“Janaka said: ‘Satyakama taught me that the mind [manas] is Brahman.’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘The mind [manas] is its abode and ether its support. It should be meditated upon as happiness. For by the mind alone is happiness experienced. Mind is Brahman.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:6).

Here the lower, sensory mind is being spoken of whose basis is the higher mind, the intellect (buddhi). The important principle is the fact that happiness is only in the intelligent mind.


“Janaka said: ‘Vidagdha taught me that the heart [hridaya] is Brahman.’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘The heart [hridaya] is its abode and ether its support. It should be meditated upon as the resting-place. For all beings find rest in the heart. The heart is Brahman.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:7).

The “heart” is the faculty of consciousness in the human being, and that rests within the greater Consciousness of Brahman.

Further teaching

“Janaka (descending from his throne and humbly addressing the sage) said: ‘I bow down to you. Yajnavalkya, please teach me.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘Your Majesty, as a person wishing to make a long journey furnishes himself with a chariot or a boat, so have you equipped your mind with sacred wisdom. You are honorable and wealthy, and you have studied the Vedas and learned the Upanishads. Whither then shall you go when you leave this body?’

“Janaka said: ‘I do not know, revered sir.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘I will tell you where you will go.’

“Janaka said: ‘Tell me, please.’

“Yajnavalkya said: ‘Indha is the Self identified with the physical self. Viraj, the physical world is his wife, the object of his enjoyment. The space within the heart is their place of union in dream, when the Self is identified with the subtle body, or mind. The Self in dreamless sleep is identified with the vital force. Beyond this is the Supreme Self–he that has been described as Not This, Not That. He is incomprehensible, for he cannot be comprehended; he is undecaying, for he never decays; he is unattached, for he does not attach himself; he is unfettered, for nothing can fetter him. He is never hurt. You have attained him who is free from fear, O Janaka, and free from birth and death.’

“Janaka said: ‘May that fearlessness come to you who teach us fearlessness. I bow down to you. Behold, this empire of Videha, and I myself, are at your service.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:2:1-4).

In reality, the liberated person does not “go” anywhere, but abides as the Self. Wherefore let us strive to know the Self and transcend all “coming” and “going.”

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Janaka and Yajnavalkya–2

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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