“Now, therefore, the description of the Divine: Not this, not this (neti, neti); for there is no other and more appropriate description than this-not-this.”                -Yájñavalkya

Among the countless sages that adorn the pages of Hindu wisdom Yájñavalkya is, by any measure, one of the most eminent. He was prolific, unorthodox, and sometimes  rebellious to Brahmin supremacy. Yet, one of the four principal Vedas, an Upanishad, the yoga philosophy, and other important texts are attributed to him as part of Hindu canonical literature. This shows that at one time many different perspectives and pronouncements were entertained in the fertile arena of Indic philosophical discourse.

Yájñavalkya is said to have been a pupil of at least three eminent sages of the tradition. One of them – Váshakala –  is said to have come from  a non-privileged strata of society. From references to the effect that he himself ate beef and derided ritual-sacrifices, it has been suggested Yájñavalkya also belonged to that group.

There is an interesting story in the lore according to which one of his gurus once wished to conduct a ceremony to which Yájñavalkya was invited to participate. The sage not only declined, but denounced the participating Brahmin priests in uncharitable terms. The guru was so upset by this affront that he ordered Yájñavalkya to return to him all the knowledge that had been  imparted to him. Whereupon Yájñavalkya threw up the digested knowledge – so says the legend – as a dark gastric outpour. Some of the rishis present at the scene metamorphosed into partridges (tittiri), and pecked on the vomit. Then they regurgitated it as what came to be described as a Vedic compendium from partridges: Taittiriya samhita.

Yájñavalkya had two wives: Maitreyí and Kátyáyaní to whom he once wanted to bequeath all his possessions before becoming a renunciant. “Sir,” inquired the wise Maitretí, “Will I attain immortality with all the wealth in the world?” “No,” replied the man of wisdom, “There is no promise of immortality through material wealth.” “Then please initiate me into the higher knowledge which you have,” pleaded Maitreyí. This parable is to convey that loftier levels in life are not achieved through material possessions: a running theme in India’s religious-cultural history.

Yájñavalkya is credited with an important insight in theology:  The nature of the Divine cannot be described in words. Known in the Western tradition as apophatic theology or via negativa, it defines God negatively by saying He is not this, He is not that. {See the quote above from the Brihadáranyaka Upanishad (II.3.6). This leads to the notion of the Ultimate as nirgunabrahman: the Quality-less all-pervading Principle: a recognition that the finite human mind cannot conceive of infinite and unfathomable Mystery.

The Brihadáranyaka Upanishad also records the following conversation between the sage Viddagdha Shakalya (VS) and Yájñavalkya (Y). (III.9.1-26):

VS: kati deváh, Yájñavalkya? (How many gods are there, Y)? Y: As many as are mentioned in the invocatory hymns of the scriptures, which is three hundred and three, and three thousand and three. (trayas ca trí ca shatá, trayas ca trí ca sahasreti). VS: Yes, but how many Gods are really there, Y? Y: Thirty-three. VS: Yes, but how many Gods are really there, Y? Y: Six. VS: Yes, but how many Gods are really there, Y? Y: Three. VS: Yes, but how many Gods are really there, Y? Y: Two. VS: Yes, but how many Gods are really there, Y? Y: One and a half. VS: Yes, but how many Gods are really there, Y? Y: One. (eka iti.) VS: Yes, but which are those three hundred and three and three thousand and three (which you mentioned earlier)?

At this point Yájñavalkya goes on to say that those are all manifestations of the thirty-three primary gods of the Vedic framework, and then he explains who the Rudras, the Ádityas, etc. are. When Yájñavalkya comes up with large numbers for Shakalya’s question, though the answer is based on Vedic statements, the latter does not to take him seriously. This suggests that it is not always wise to take what we read in the scriptures literally. The persistent questioning by Shakalya means that one needs to probe more and more to fully understand what the core meaning of it all is.

The final answer that there is but one God is as true as the initial one that there are more than three thousand gods, because the one God is manifest in countless different forms in air and water, earth and sky, in sun and moon and stars, for God is omnipresent: The Divine is implicit in every aspect of the perceived universe. This vision of a divine  unity behind the apparent multiplicity is at the core of Hindu vision. God is too grand and magnificent to be declared as One, and just left at that. To say that the Divine conveys Truth to only one Prophet is even more restrictive of the Divine for self-expression. Manifestations of God, whether as minute atoms or  mammoth stars, as mindless animals or thinking humans, as poets or prophets, are infinite.

Yájñavalkya was the first thinker in history to articulate a view of consciousness. In a dialogue on how we come to know about things in the world, he talks of the sun and moon fire and speech, and final to an inner light (the self) as the source of all awareness. In no other writing before this one (7th century BCE)  had there been even a mention of the ultimate source of knowledge.

Here was an extraordinary thinker about whom we know very little: where he lived and when or how he transmitted his insights. As per the lore, he was in the court of King Janaka of Ramayana. He is also reported to have been at the Rájasúya sacrifice performed in the Mahabharata. The two epics transpired in different eons.  The mixture of fanciful legends and anecdotal hearsay euphemistically called sacred history, give us only some legends: interesting but clearly imaginary..

22 June 2016


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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