What an Upanishad actually says about birth and behaviour

The priest’s son, with whom he went birdnesting and swimming, told him the names of the meters in play, which delighted the boy.
Picture credits: ANI
Picture credits: ANI

Long ago, in the forest-covered plains of western Kuru-Panchala, now known as Delhi-NCR, a book of lectures, stories and conversations was put together about the nature of the world and the proper goals of mankind. This grand old book is known as the Chandogya Upanishad.

They say it was the sage Uddalaka Aruni who compiled it millennia ago, comprising eight chapters. Its core idea is ‘The oneness of the One’—the Supreme Soul or life force is in everything, everywhere. The most famous words of the Chandogya Upanishad are ‘Tat tvam asi’, meaning ‘You are That’. This cryptic remark is understood as saying, ‘Since everything in the world is interconnected, you too belong to the Almighty.’

Notably, this Upanishad says that life is a celebration, a rather wonderful party, and the presents we bring to it are ethical behavior, goodwill to all, and the habit of truth. Glum, insincere or harsh behavior is not the correct way to repay prana, the life breath, thanks to which we are guests at the party of life.

So the Upanishad sets a high standard for people as individuals and not because of their ancestry. It tells us what became of a likely lad in a small settlement in western Kuru-Panchala.

His mother, Jabala, was a single parent who worked as a maid in several people’s houses. The little boy went everywhere with her and quietly observed all kinds of people in all kinds of homes. His mother had taught him not to touch anything and he never gave trouble. So nobody minded him trailing behind his mother.

When he was about eight years old, his mother took on a new job, helping the local priest’s wife clean and wash her home every day. The boy was no stranger to the sound of holy chants in the neighbourhood, which seemed to him a wonderful thing full of power and mystery. The hard-edged consonants rang in his ears with a deeply satisfying sound and he longed to know what they meant. He wanted to address the splendid gods himself on behalf of all, in those beautiful words and meters.

The priest’s son, with whom he went birdnesting and swimming, told him the names of the meters in play, which delighted the boy. At last he had a real piece of knowledge from that world.

“The Gayatri meter has 24 syllables. The Trishtup has 44. The Jagati has 48,” he murmured, dying to know more. One day, the priest’s son told him the first line of the Rig Veda, the very first line of poetry known to the world.

“Agnim eeley purohitam yajnasya deva rtvijam,” the boy crooned to himself by the banks of the Yamuna, “I praise Ignis, the chosen one, the priest, god, and performer of sacrifice.” The Yamuna gurgled softly in encouragement. “I want to study, I want to go to school,” he told the river and raced home before his mother could worry.

There were visitors the next week at the priest’s—students on their way to join the gurukul of a sage who lived nearby, Rishi Haridrumata Gautama. The boy’s heart beat fast. He followed them to the gurukul and saw that the rishi had a strong, sensible face and the Guru Ma, his wife, smiled kindly at the boys.

Waiting his turn, the boy went up to the guru and said, “Please sir, may I learn with the others?”

The teacher smiled. “Of course you may, if your parents permit it. Tell me your father’s name, my boy.”

The boy was dumbstruck. He did not know who his father was. His mother had never once mentioned it and he had never thought to ask.

“Sir, I’ll be back soon with the answer,” he said and turned to leave.

When he got home, the boy ran to his mother and said, “Mother, who was my father? They’re asking at school before they’ll admit me.”

“Do you want to leave me, son, and go away to gurukul?” asked his mother, a catch in her voice.

“I don’t want to leave you, Mother. But I must go to school. Please will you let me go?”

His mother looked at his desperate face and her heart melted. “You have my permission to go,” she said gently.

“But Mother, who was my father?”

His mother looked steadily at him.

“Listen carefully, my son. You have nothing to be ashamed of if you always tell the truth, however difficult it seems. The truth about us is that I am an orphan and was sent to work as a maid when I was a little girl. I worked in many places. I also had to personally look after guests. Sometimes this meant I had to sleep with them. And then I had you and decided to go away and work only where I had a chance of bringing you up without having to do that. This village has been our haven since then.”

“Mother! Who was my father, then?”

“I have no clue about your father, my son. My name is Jabala. Your name is Satyakama. So tell them at school that you are Satyakama Jabali, the son of Jabala.”

The boy looked at his mother in silence, trying to understand what she had told him. He smiled a sudden joyous, carefree smile and rushed back to the gurukul, his heart overflowing with love and respect for his brave mother. Let the guru reject him, he would look for another teacher or another.

But instead, the rishi looked hard at him and leapt up beaming. He hugged the boy and said, “Well are you named Satyakama, the one who loves truth. Such a one as you is meant to uphold an ideal to society, that it is not birth but character that makes you ‘highborn’. I salute your mother. You shall learn everything I can teach you.”

“And nothing was omitted,” says the Upanishad with satisfaction, “Yes, nothing was omitted.”

Renuka Narayanan

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