Yajnavalkya Outside the Upanishad


The title of the talk this evening is ‘Yajnavalkya Outside the Upanishad’. He was the first great teacher of Yoga in the Upanishads, the first to teach the doctrine of karma. One of the two oldest Upanishads is thought to be about 600 B.C., so Yajnavalkya would have been at least that far back. There’s an extensive record of his teachings in the Upanishad. But there is also a reference to him in the literature outside the Upanishad and this is in the Jaina literature which is thought to be very early, about at least 300 B.C. There’s a passing reference to some of the great sages of the time who were not of the Jaina school, but they were extremely prolific in what they wrote and they did record with respect and reverence the teachings of some of the great sages of the other schools of the time. There are two references in one of the early Jaina classics. One is the teachings given by one who is not named but is called ‘the sage who carries the staff’. These teachings can be identified with some of the teachings which Yajnavalkya gave in the Upanishad. This is the Jaina account and this gives, because these are the words of a great man of the time, one can say, his central teachings. They’re brief and they give the teachings for which he was famous.

The sage with the single staff taught: “Right action and then clear intelligence is what makes liberation possible. Purusha, the great Self, is invisible, great, eternal, indestructible, unbreakable. It is within all beings and is far superior in every way, as the moon is to the stars.” Now we can see that this description of Purusha is close to what Yajnavalkya says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “In truth this great uncreated Self, Atman, is governor of all things, ruler of all, controller of all. It rests in all”. So this is a close parallel and it’s a confirmation that Yajnavalkya was famous for this teaching of the great Purusha, Self, which is within all, governs and controls all.

In the second reference, a name is given which is a dialect, a representation, of the name Yajnavalkya. The teaching is: “Having known that as long as there is desire for the world, there is the desire for wealth. Having known both these for what they are, one should go by the path of the cow.” This is one of the obscurities, but it does refer to a teaching of Yajnavalkya: “Go by the path of the cow, not by the Great Path. It was said by Janavaka, the Arhat, the Great One, the Rishi, the Sage, “He should consider the way, which is in accordance with the essence, which causes fruitful results. Let him obtain pure food, let him not chat to people to get it, nor be angry if he does not get it. He should consider the effects of anger, pride, delusion, and greed in himself and in others. He becomes the enlightened one, the calm one, free from evil, the tamed one, fit for liberation, the foremost. He will never return to samsara, the world of suffering”. Thus said Janavaka.”

We can see that this teaching, with its reference to wealth and the world, is similar to the Brihadaranyaka (3: v: 6): “That which transcends hunger and thirst, grief and delusion and death, knowing this very Self, the Brahmins renounce the desire for home, wealth and the worlds. The knower of Brahman, having known the texts should live as a child. Having known both texts and the child’s state, he should practice meditation. Having mastered meditation, and knowing what is not meditation, he becomes a knower of Brahman.” So this text again is close to what is recorded in the Jaina text, and it means what we already, in fact, know that this is a central teaching of Yajnavalkya.

The central teachings were, that there is the Great Self which is within all and transcends all and that one knows it by right conduct, and then by this renunciation of desire for wealth and the world, and then by this pacification up to meditation. The opponent says, “Well, if he’s a knower of Brahman before he begins studying the texts, mastering the texts and entering the child-like state and practicing meditation, he already knows Brahman. There can be no other knowledge”. Shankara meets this point as he does in so many places, which is often not noticed. He says, “No, knowledge can be disturbed. Although he knows Brahman, he still practices meditation so that the knowledge may become (what he calls) Supreme”. He says in his commentary that sometimes there can be knowledge which is not fully effective because of the perception of differences. And the opponent says, “No. You either know or you don’t know. It’s not a question of Supreme knowledge. You either know or you don’t know.”

© Trevor Leggett

Talks in this series are:

Part 1: Yajnavalkya Outside the Upanishad

Part 2: Know what is the central teaching

Part 3: Shri Dada was called the Saint Universal

Part 4: Karma is waiting for you

Part 5: Free from the desire for things

Part 6: Attempts to do good are counter-productive

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