By M.S.N. MENON
In the 12th century b.c., six centuries before Mahavira and the Buddha, centuries before Confucius and Plato, 1,200 years before Jesus Christ and 1,800 years before Mohammed, there lived in this land a sage called Yajnavalkya. He was a native of Videha, the kingdom of the Janakas (land of Sita of Ramayana and the easternmost settlement of the Aryans), which was the most prolific in thinkers and scholars—of Gautama of Natyashastra fame, Kanada, propounder of the Vaisesika system of philosophy, Jaimini, founder of the Mimamsa system and Kapila, the author of Samkhya system of philosophy. But Yajnavalkya stood above them all as the author of the basic principles of Hindu philosophy, which have remained unaltered to this day. Hailed as the great teacher of Indian philosophy, he represented the highest ideals of Vedic thought. Yajnavalkya was the first historical personage to emerge from India’s hoary antiquity. He was a friend and contemporary of Kriti Janaka of Videha (not father of Sita), who is placed by historians in the 12th century b.c. And we know from Brhadaranyaka Upanishad that he called a congress of scholars to debate on certain philosophic issues and that Yajnavalkya defeated them all, carrying away the king’s price of 1,000 cows adorned with gold coins on their horns.
Yajnavalkya was challenged by no less than eight scholars, including his own teacher, Uddalaka Aruni, and Gargi, a woman. The Brhadaranyaka gives a detailed account of the contest, in which many of the philosophic questions of the time came up.
Yajnavalkya gave a profound discourse on the Absolute (Atman), after which, it is said, “Uddalaka held his peace.” And then Gargi wanted to know more on the nature of Brahmn. On this Yajnavalkya said that Brahmn is limitless in time and space, but in whom exists time and space. Brahmn is devoid of the attributes of matter such as gross or subtle, great or small… (it) is without taste, smell, eyes, ears, speech, understanding, without light or breath … The Brahmn is unseen, but all-seeing, unheard, but all-hearing, unperceived, but all-perceiving, unknown but all-knowing. On this Gargi told the assembled scholars: “No one, I am sure, can ever even dream of defeating him in any argument concerning Brahmn.”
Gargi then wanted to know the effect of rituals and Yajnavalkya replied that rituals had only “finite good”. Thus he reduced the importance of rituals at a time when the priestly class was trying to make themselves supreme.
Once Yajnavalkya asked the King, who was himself a great scholar, “Whither will you go after death?” As the King failed to answer the question, the sage himself said: “The soul after death goes nowhere; it has not been from the very beginning, nor does it become other than that which it has always been.” Paul Deussan, the famous German philospher, says: “We have no better reply to give even today.”
Yajnavalkya says: “A person consists of desires; as he desires, so he wills; as he wills, so his deeds and as his deeds, so his karma. But one who is free from desires and wants only to merge with Brahmn, he is already Brahmn. He may well say: ‘I am He’.”
Before he took to sanyasa, wife Maitreyi, who was well versed in Vedic studies, wanted to know more about immortality. He told her: “After death, there is no consciousness. There is ‘other’ only when there is duality. But after death, there is only Self. And Self merges with Brahmn and becomes immortal. It can no more have a consciousness of its separate existence.”
Hindus are proud of their great ancestors. They have given them a pre-eminent position in the world of men that can never be taken away.