The next section of the upanishad is a marvel of wisdom that opens with some humor.
I want those cows!
“Janaka, King of Videha, on a certain occasion performed a sacrifice and in connection therewith distributed costly gifts. Among those who attended the ceremony were the wise men of Kuru and of Panchala. King Janaka observed them and wanted to find out which was the wisest.
“Now it happened that the king kept a thousand cows enclosed in a pen, and between the horns of every one of them were fastened ten gold coins.
“‘Venerable Brahmins,’ said King Janaka, ‘let him who is the wisest among you take away these cows.’
“The Brahmins dared not stir, save Yajnavalkya alone.
“‘My learned son,’ said Yajnavalkya to his disciple, ‘drive home my cows.’
“‘Hurrah!” cried the lad, and made for them.
“The rest of the Brahmins were enraged. ‘How dare he call himself the wisest!’ they shouted. At last, Aswala, priest to King Janaka, accosted Yajnavalkya, saying:
“‘Yajnavalkya, are you quite sure you are the wisest among us?’
“‘I bow down,’ replied Yajnavalkya, ‘to the wisest. But I want those cows!’
“Then Aswala began to question him” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:1:2).
As already mentioned, Janaka is considered the prime example of a “worldly” person who attained perfect knowledge. He is also considered the prime example of one who possessed great wealth. “Rich as Janaka” is the Indian equivalent of the West’s “rich as Midas.”
It was the custom for those who attended spiritual events to be given rich gifts, and it was obvious to all those at the sacrifice that the thousand cows and ten thousand gold coins strung between their horns were meant to be given to the one who could best expound philosophy and answer all challenging questions. (It may be that the ten thousand padas of gold mentioned in the text were not coins of one pada each, but covers with large gold knobs that were affixed to the cows’ horns.).
Those who attended the sacrifice were truly wise men, for they were also modest. When told that the cows and gold were for the wisest among them “they dared not stir.”
Yajnavalkya, on the other hand, was tactful. He told a student to take the cows to his home rather than claim he was the wisest–though he was, and knew he was. When challenged by Aswala he said: “I bow down to the wisest, but I want those cows!” In this way he masked his wisdom with humor that appeared to be simple greed. Saints often do this, pretending to be ignorant or unaware, hiding their true status from the truly ignorant and unaware (who, blinded by their ego, are always fooled by the ruse). Swami Sivananda often did this, as I witnessed myself. Only the wise dare to be mistakenly thought a fool.
Now there follows the questioning of Yajnavalkya.
How to overcome death
“Aswala said: ‘Yajnavalkya, since everything connected with sacrificial rites is pervaded by death, and is subject to death, by what means can the worshiper overcome death?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘By knowledge of the identity between the worshiper, the fire, and the ritual word. For the ritual word is indeed the worshiper, and the ritual word is the fire, and the fire, which is one with Brahman, is the worshiper. This knowledge leads to liberation; this knowledge leads one beyond death.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:1:3).
All relative things begin and end, are born and die, for they are appearances only. Everything that is connected with the fire sacrifice is perishable, including the fire itself–all are pervaded by death and subject to death. Obviously, then the sacrifice cannot lead to immortality. So how can we overcome (“go beyond” is the literal wording) death? The answer is simple: by knowing the non-dual Brahman Which alone is immortal and immortality itself.
What “eats” death?
“Aswala held his peace. But Artabhaga asked: ‘Yajnavalkya, everything is the food of death. Is there any power for which death is food?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘Indeed, yes. Fire devours everything, and fire, again, is the food of water. Similarly, there is a death to death. The knower of the truth of Brahman overcomes death.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:2:10).
Those who know Brahman have devoured death just as the eater of food transmutes it into his own body and lives on it. So death itself is the gateway of immortality to the yogi.
The liberated at death
“Artabhaga said: ‘Yajnavalkya, when such an one gives up his body, do his perceptive faculties, along with his mind, go out of him, or do they not?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘They do not. They merge in the final cause, the Self. The body lies lifeless, inflated, and swollen.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:2:11).
In relative existence we possess five levels. Artabhaga is asking if all but the physical (material) levels or bodies go along with the liberated individual at the departure from the body. Yajnavalkya replies that the pranic (pranamaya) and sensory-mind (manomaya) bodies also do not go along with the liberated person, but are resolved back into the universal energy from which they arose when he entered into relativity. We only take with us the buddhi (jnanamaya) and creative will (anandamaya) bodies which are causal in nature, the seats of intellect and intuition respectively. For the liberated are free forever of the physical and astral bodies, though they can take new ones on again if they elect to return to incarnation in the astral or physical worlds as avatar-saviors in those worlds.
“Artabhaga held his peace. Then Ushasta asked: ‘Yajnavalkya, what is the ultimate, the immediate Brahman, Brahman himself alone, directly realized as such, the Self which dwells within all?’ Yajnavalkya (pointing to his heart) said: ‘This, thy Self, which is within all.’ Ushasta said: ‘Which self, O Yajnavalkya, is within all?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘That which breathes in is thy Self, which is within all. That which breathes down is thy Self, which is within all. That which diffuses breath is thy Self, which is within all. That which breathes out is thy Self, which is within all. Again I reply: This, thy Self, which is within all.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:4:1).
Brahman is the Self within, the Self that enlivens and activates all through the functions of the five pranas. If we can trace back the pranas, especially through the breath, we will find the Self.
“Ushasta said: ‘As one might say, in distinguishing a cow from a horse, that the cow is the animal that walks, and the horse is the animal that runs, exactly so simple, so clear, O wise one, has been your teaching about Brahman! But tell me, I ask again, who is the ultimate, the immediate Brahman, Brahman himself alone, directly realized as such, the Self which dwells within all?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘This, thy Self, which is within all.’ Ushasta said: ‘Which self, O Yajnavalkya, is within all?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘Thou canst not see the seer of the sight, thou canst not hear the hearer of the sound, thou canst not think the thinker of the thought, thou canst not know the knower of the known. Again I reply: This, thy Self, which is within all. Anything that is not the Self perishes.’ Ushasta held his peace” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:4:2).
There is only one Self: the Self that cannot be seen, heard, thought, or known by the limited mind. It, being inside everything, is not an object of perception. If we take away all things only the Self remains, knowing Itself by Itself. Naturally this is not easy to grasp intellectually, because the Self is far beyond the intellect. Nevertheless, these truths can be known by the yogi.
“Kahola asked: ‘Yajnavalkya, what is the ultimate, the immediate Brahman, Brahman himself alone, directly realized as such, the Self which dwells within all?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘This, thy Self, which is within all.’ Kohala said: ‘Which self, O Yajnavalkya, is within all?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘That which is beyond hunger, thirst, grief, delusion, decay, and death.
“‘Having realized this Self, the sages renounce the craving for progeny, wealth, and existence in the other worlds, and live the life of mendicants.
“‘The craving for progeny leads to the craving for wealth, and the craving for wealth to the craving for existence in the other worlds. Thus there are two cravings–craving for a life of enjoyment here, and craving for a life of greater enjoyment hereafter.
“‘Therefore should a sage, when he has fully attained the knowledge of the Self, desire to live with that knowledge as his only refuge. When he has fully attained that knowledge, and realized it as his only refuge, he should devote himself exclusively to contemplation of the Self.
“‘He alone is the true knower of Brahman who directs his mind towards the Self and shuns all other thoughts as distractions.
“‘How does such a knower of Brahman act and conduct himself? Whatever he may do or howsoever he may conduct himself, he is free from craving, and is forever established in the knowledge of Brahman. Anything that is not the Self perishes.’
“Kahola held his peace” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:5:1).
Those who know the Self turn from the nonsense and ties of the world and lead the life of a bhikshu, a monk. (Although in modern times either “sannyasi” or “sadhu” is used to designate a monk, in earlier centuries “bhikshu”–one who lives on alms–was also quite common usage.) Those without ties, but with good sense, knowing this, lead that life from the beginning of their quest. Those that learn of the Self after they have tied themselves to the world and yet are wise, begin right away moving toward the life of renunciation and loosening those ties, anticipating the day when they will walk away into freedom. It is not unknown for a realized person to continue living at home but in total separation from any obligations that it might entail for others, and certainly utterly out of the entanglements of home life. Such a one was Yogiraj Sri Shyama Charan Lahiri, as a study of his life, especially in Autobiography of a Yogi, will reveal. Those who do not live exactly as he did are deluding themselves if they think they are like him.
Those who are Knowers consider that knowledge their only refuge, the only stable thing in their life, and live ever in meditation on the Self.
A lot of ignoramuses and scalawags claim to be enlightened and able to teach others the way of enlightenment, but Yajnavalkya tells us: “He alone is the true knower of Brahman who directs his mind towards the Self and shuns all other thoughts as distractions.” And: “Whatever he may do or howsoever he may conduct himself, he is free from craving, and is forever established in the knowledge of Brahman.” It is a pity that unlike Kahola they do not hold their peace.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Sutratman, the “Thread” Self