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Satyakama

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Section 75 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Now we come to a very interesting part of the Chandogya Upanishad which consists of stories of seekers who came to know Brahman.

A feature that will seem odd to Western readers is the instruction of some of the seekers by animals and even by the forces of nature. Any explanation I might give is purely speculative, but here they are: 1) The accounts are simply symbolic parables, the animals and nature forces symbolizing powers within the yogis. 2) These are not actual events, but dreams which the yogis had–this, too, is a matter of symbolism. 3) They are intuitions occurring to the yogis as they pondered the animals and the natural forces, wanting to understand the ideas behind them–for the universe is entirely ideational in nature. I do not think that any of these are very satisfactory, so I prefer to just focus on the spiritual teaching and let the rest go by, the way we crack the shell and throw it away, keeping the nut inside which is nourishing. One thing is, evident, though, the pure-hearted will be instructed by other means if human teachers fail to do so or even be available.

Truthfulness (satya), a foundation of yoga–as expounded in The Foundations of Yoga–is taught here in the story of Satyakama.

A case of identity

“One day the boy Satyakama came to his mother and said: ‘Mother, I want to be a religious student [brahmachari]. What is my family name [gotra]?’ ‘My son,’ replied his mother, ‘I do not know. In my youth I was a servant and worked in many places. I do not know who was your father. I am Jabala, and you are Satyakama. Call yourself Satyakama Jabala.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 4:4:1, 2).

This is no small thing. At the time of Satyakama it was essential for the teacher (acharya) to know the caste of the student, for the instruction given was according to the student’s caste so as to prepare him for his distinctive life within the society of that era. In this way children were prepared to live the life of Brahmin priests and teachers, Kshatriya administrators and warriors, and Vaishya artisans and merchants. (Shudras–servants–were not accepted in the schools, since education was deemed pointless for their mode of life.) It is true that in very ancient times a student’s caste was finally determined during his education, according to his aptitudes and inclinations, but he started out being considered of the caste of his parents. Later caste was solely a matter of heredity. Whichever era this story took place in, the father’s caste had to be known.

Complicating the whole thing was the matter of gotra. Gotra means clan, family, or lineage, and all the castes were divided into gotras. This, too, could determine what the student would be taught, because different gotras had their own dharma shastras–scriptures which set forth the social and religious rules for members of that gotra. Sometimes these texts governed such minutiae as the student’s style of hair, mode and color of clothing, and even the type of wood their staff should be made of and how long it should be. Those born completely outside such a system may consider this all meaningless complications, but it was not so at the time the upanishad was written, and we should realize the seriousness of all this, even if we do not feel the same way.

Anyhow, Satyakama needed to know his caste and his gotra. Since his mother was a servant, a Shudra, he would not be accepted anyway, and on top of it he was illegitimate–a total bar to assimilation by society on any level, including education. But Satyakama thirsted for knowledge, and with the single-minded intent of a child dared to approach the great sage Gautama, something even those of highest caste might hesitate to do.

Truth

“Thereupon the boy went to Gautama and asked to be accepted as a student. ‘Of what family are you, my lad?’ inquired the sage. Satyakama replied: ‘I asked my mother what my family name was, and she answered: “I do not know. In my youth I was a servant and worked in many places. I do not know who was your father. I am Jabala, and you are Satyakama. Call yourself Satyakama Jabala!” I am therefore Satyakama Jabala, sir.’ Then said the sage: ‘None but a true Brahmin would have spoken thus. Go and fetch fuel, for I will teach you. You have not swerved from the truth.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 4:4:3,4).

Here we see that character, composed of karma and samskara, was the basis for caste in the upanishadic age. Truthfulness is a prime trait of a Brahmin, as is indicated here. Though Prabhavananda translates: “None but a true Brahmin would have spoken thus,” the literal meaning is: “A non-Brahmin will not be able to say this.” This is extremely powerful, for it not only indicates that a true Brahmin is in such a purified state that it is impossible for him to not speak the truth–and speak it fully–it also indicates that a Brahmin will not have the egoity that would prevent him speaking truthfully and plainly regarding himself in all aspects of his life. For him there is no ego-based shyness or embarrassment of any sort. A Brahmin will never seek to hide anything about himself by speech or silence. As yogis we must seek to be perfect Brahmins.

The realization

Now I will summarize what is a rather wordy and sometimes obscure text. (You can read it yourself in 4:4:3 to 4:8:1-4, and you will see what I mean).

Satyakama, at the instruction of his guru, Gautama, lived some years in the forest. During that time, from various sources he learned in stages that the entire cosmos is a manifestation of Brahman, though only a “particle” of Brahman. Even though I say he learned this, it was not learning in the ordinary, intellectual sense. Rather it was direct experience gained in the depths of meditation. Thus Satyakama knew Brahman, and knew Brahman was manifesting as all the worlds, and at the same time transcending them all.

The return

“At last the youth arrived at the home of his master and reverently presented himself before him. As soon as Gautama saw him, he exclaimed: ‘My son, your face shines like a knower of Brahman. By whom were you taught?’ ‘By beings other than men,’ replied Satyakama; ‘but I desire that you too should teach me. For I have heard from the wise that the knowledge that the teacher imparts will alone lead to the supreme good.’ Then the sage taught him that knowledge, and left nothing out” (Chandogya Upanishad 4:9:1-3).

This reminds us of the radiant Buddha walking down the road after his enlightenment. Like Gautama, a Brahmin met him and also saw the divine radiance and asked him: “Who are you?” Continuing to walk on, Buddha simply said: “I am awake.”

Although he possessed the perfect knowledge of Brahman (Brahmajnana), Satyakama wisely asked that Gautama should teach him. For he knew that his perceptions might be either incorrect or incomplete, and he wanted to check them by hearing from the lips of an enlightened master. This is the way of the wise; they are always aware that they may not have perfect knowledge or experience. It is only the ignorant that insist they know the truth and have no need of testing.

As Dion Fortune remarked in one of her books, those who are deluded will hysterically insist on the veracity of their “revelations,” even being violent verbally and physically in defense of those delusions. On the other hand, a person who has had valid experiences and garnered true wisdom from them will speak of such things very apologetically–even hesitantly–frequently commenting that they realize their experiences may be delusions or they may be mistaken in their understanding of them even if they are real.

Because of his sobriety and humility Satyakama was worthy (and capable) of being instructed fully in the wisdom of the sages (rishis). And so he was.

Such is an ideal spiritual aspirant.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Upakosala

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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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