The Rishi and the Brahmacharin
Rishi connoted the highest ideal of the teacher
In ancient India, the concept of the Rishi connoted the highest ideal of the teacher. The teacher was a Yogin, one who had realized or was a seeker of true knowledge that comes through the practice of Yoga, which was at that time a developing science and art of psychological concentration and perfection. The Vedic Rishis described their aspirations and victories in the form of Mantra, inevitable expression born out of innermost vision and realization.
The Vedic Rishis refer to their 'forefathers' as great pathfinders, and spoke of them in legends and myths in order to describe what they had achieved. For example, Parashara says: “Our fathers broke open the firm and strong places by their words, yea, the Angirasas broke open the hill by their cry; they made in us the path to the great heaven; they found the Day and Swar and vision and the luminous Cows” (Rig Veda, 1.71.2). This path, he tells us, is the path which leads to immortality. “They who entered into all things that bear right fruit formed a path towards immortality; earth stood wide for them by the greatness and by the Great Ones, the mother Aditi with her sons came (or, manifested herself) for the upholding” (Rig Veda,1.72.9). The meaning of these cryptic verses is that the physical being is visited by the greatness of the infinite planes above and by the power of the great godheads who reign on those planes. This breaks the
limits of the physical being, which opens out to the Light and is upheld in its new wideness by the infinite Consciousness, mother Aditi, and her sons, the divine powers of the supreme Deva or Lord. This was the meaning of Vedic immortality.
There are also references in the second hymn of the fourth Mandala to the seven divine seers, who are the divine Angirasas and the human fathers. Riks 12 to 15 describe the seven Rishis as the supreme ordainers of the world-sacrifice, and put forth the idea of the human being 'becoming' the seven Rishis, that is to say, creating them in himself and growing into that which they mean, just as he becomes the Heaven and Earth and the other gods; or, as it is otherwise put, man begets or creates or forms the divine birth in his
own being. As Rik 15 says: “Now as the seven seers of Dawn, the Mother, the supreme disposers (of sacrifice, which in psychological terms means self-consecration, the discipline by which the separative sense of egoism is destroyed), may we beget for ourselves the gods; may we become the Angirasas, sons of Heaven breaking open the wealth-filled hill, shining in purity.” These Riks bring out the idea of the human fathers as the original type of the great becoming and achievement.
The Veda as the Book of Knowledge
The word Veda is derived from the root vid, to know, and the Vedic Rishis looked upon the Veda as the Book of Knowledge. The Vedic Rishis discovered that the secret of victory lies in aspiration, which expresses itself in the form of burning flame, Agni. This burning flame rises higher and higher in our being, destroying impurities and obscurities, and there arise in us king
ideas, master-wills, intense prayers. There is then a response, and the doors of secret knowledge and power swing open giving birth to creative action or event. Victory is achieved our being with its imperfect thought, will and emotion, is filled with vastness, luminosity and unfailing energy. The immortal in us is realized and becomes manifest.
The Veda contains the secrets of this realization. It is the science and art of the inter-relationship of our earthly being with the powers around it and above it, and of the processes by which our imperfections can be remedied. The Veda is indeed a book of discoveries, a record of research that the ancient fathers and their initiates carried on by personal verification, re-discovery and constant enlargement.
The legend of the Angirasas
One of the most important legends of the Veda is the legend of the Angirasas. Its theme is the spiritual life of man but, to make it concrete to themselves and while veiling its secrets from the unfit, the Vedic poets expressed it in poetic images drawn from outward life. The Angirasas are pilgrims of the lights. They are those who travel towards the goal and attain to the highest, “they who travel to and attain that supreme treasure” (Rig Veda, 11.24.6). Their action is invoked for carrying the life of man farther towards its goal. The journey is principally the quest of the hidden light, but through the opposition of the powers of darkness it also becomes an expedition and a battle. The Angirasas are heroes and fighters of that battle, “fighters for the cows or rays of light and knowledge” (goshu yodhah). They discover the supraphysical power or being, the king of the kingdom of illumined intelligence (Swar), and they
seek his help. This being is Indra, who marches with them (saranyubhih), travellers on the path (sakhibhih), comrades, seers and singers of the sacred chant, and fighters in the battle. Strengthened by them he conquers during the journey and reaches the goal. The journey proceeds along the path discovered by Sarama, the hound of heaven, the intuitive power that sees that path directly, the path of the Truth, ritasya panthah, the great path, mahas panthah, which leads to the realms of the Truth.
The drinking of the soma wine as the means of strength, victory and attainment is one of the pervading figures of the Veda. The soma wine is the sweetness that comes flowing from the streams of the hidden upper world, it is that which flows in the seven waters, it is that with which the ghrita, the clarified butter of the mystic sacrifice, is instinct, it is the honeyed wave which rises out of the ocean of life. Such images, as pointed out by Sri Aurobindo, can have only one meaning: “It is the divine delight hidden in all existence which once manifest, supports all life's crowning activities and is the force that finally immortalizes the mortal, the amritam, ambrosia of the gods.” The Angirasas are distinguished by their seerhood, Rishihood. They are the fathers who are full of the soma, they have the word and are increasers of the Truth. The Angirasas have been described as those who speak rightly, masters of the Rik who place perfectly their thought; they are heroes who speak the truth and think with straightness and thus are able to hold the seat of illumined knowledge (vide Rig Veda, X.67.2).
The ancient Indian idea of the teacher is conceived in the light of the image of the Angirasas, and it is for this reason that the teacher came to be placed so supreme. The verses we have presented here give only a few glimpses of the aspirations and achievements of the ancient teachers.
The meanings of the Vedic verses are not fully understandable; therefore, a great deal of research is required to discover the secret of the Veda. To understand exactly what the Vedic Rishis achieved, the reader may refer to Sri Aurobindo's luminous interpretation in 'The Secret of the Veda'.
The Veda speaks of Agni, the divine Flame
The verses we have selected are hymns addressed to Agni, a word which is translated as power, strength, will, the god-will or the Flame according to the context. The Veda speaks of Agni, the divine Flame, in a series of splendid and opulent images. He is the rapturous priest of the sacrifice, the young sage, the sleepless envoy, the ever-wakeful flame in the house, the master of our gated dwelling-place, the beloved guest, the divine child, the pure and virgin god, the invincible warrior, the leader on the path who marches in front of the human peoples, the immortal in mortals, the worker established in man by the gods, the unobstructed in knowledge, the infinite in being, the vast and flaming sun of the Truth, the sustainer of the sacrifice and discerner of its steps, the divine perception, the Light, the vision, the firm foundation. We experience Agni as our upward aspiration, the will towards Truth, and the force that uplifts us from our limitations by renunciation, purification and right enjoyment. This aspiration, when it reaches its acme, is
what brings to us the victory — deliverance from falsehood into Truth, from darkness into Light, from death into immortality.
Knowledge of the hierarchy of the various worlds
One of the great discoveries of the Vedic Rishis was the knowledge of the hierarchy of the various worlds and the inter-relationship and interaction of the physical world with the supraphysical worlds. Based on this knowledge, they found and applied the means by which man in the physical world can attain perfection. In their system of knowledge, Agni is found to be the fundamental bridge between the lower and the higher, a messenger that travels and turns human aspiration into divine victory, a will that enables man to rise above human limitations so as to become a candidate for perfection.
Upanishads are also regarded as Vedanta
The Vedas were followed by the Brahmanas and Aranyakas. While the Brahmanas dealt with the ritualistic aspects of the Veda, the Aranyakas brought out the inner meaning of the teachings of the Rishis. The Aranyakas were followed by the Upanishads. The word Upanishad consists of three components, upa, ni and shad, where shad means to dwell, upa means near and ni means closer. Thus Upanishad means dwelling very closely to the secret knowledge. Upanishads are also regarded as Vedanta, which means the end of the Veda. The Rishis of the Upanishads attempted to recover the Vedic knowledge which had become obscured in the course of time. The language of the Upanishads is much clearer than that of the Veda, even though it has yielded to various interpretations.
There are more than two hundred Upanishads. But
the principal Upanishads are between eight and twelve. Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya and Shvetashvatara are the most prominent. The stories that we have selected below for this book are taken from the Chhandogya Upanishad and Katha Upanishad.
The Upanishads give us a clear idea of the ancient system of education and of the role of the teacher and the pupil. Some of the examples that are given here clearly indicate that the pupil was supposed to approach the teacher and seek instruction from him, that the good teacher judged the pupil by his truthfulness and the earnestness of his seeking, and that the good pupil was the one who chose the path of the good rather than that of the pleasant. The Upanishads also point out that the knowledge sought by the teachers and pupils was the knowledge that transcends appearances and seizes upon Reality through direct experience.
Student who has an ardent aspiration to learn and study
In the story of Satyakama, we have an illustration of a young student who has an ardent aspiration to learn and study. His first quality is truthfulness, and the teacher rightly accepts him, convinced that his truthfulness is sufficient evidence of his qualification to be admitted.
In the next story, taken from the Katha Upanishad, we have Nachiketas, a young brahmacharin, who is offered by his father to Yama, the god who controls and governs the kingdom of death. We are told that Nachiketas, seeing his father giving away old cows as
Knowledge of the secret of death
offerings to Brahmins, feels that his father ought to give something valuable and asks his father to whom he (Nachiketas) should be given as a sacrifice and offering. Thrice he asks his father, and his father, annoyed with his insistence, pronounces that he is offered to Yama. The young Nachiketas visits the abode of Yama, where he waits for three days for Yama's arrival. When Yama comes, he is pleased with Nachiketas for his patience and sincerity, and offers him three boons. Nachiketas first asks for his father's appeasement and his well-being, which Yama grants readily. Next, he asks for the knowledge of the secret of the fire of austerity. And, lastly he asks for the knowledge of the secret of death, of what happens to man after death and what really is the secret of immortality. Yama does not intend to give away this secret and offers him the choice of worldly happiness in the form of riches and progeny and success. However, Nachiketas is firm in his demand and rejects the choice offered by Yama. Yama is pleased with the steadfast adherence of Nachiketas to his noble search, and grants him the secret knowledge. The short extract presented here in this book is a dialogue between Yama and Nachiketas, in which Yama explains the distinction between the good and the pleasant, and points out that since Nachiketas chose the good in preference to the pleasant, he considers Nachiketas a worthy pupil who deserves to be given the secret knowledge.
The third story, taken from the Chhandogya Upanishad, contains a famous dialogue between Aruni and his son, Shvetaketu. There are three important elements in the extract. In the first place, we
What is it knowing which everything is known?
have here an illustration of the method of teaching by dialogue and personal experimentation. Secondly, the central question raised by Aruni is one of the most striking questions that every good teacher and pupil should raise: “What is it knowing which everything is known?” Thirdly, the answer provided to the question is perhaps the quintessence of India's entire approach to the problem of knowledge. In brief the answer is that the knowledge of essence gives us the foundation of all that is manifested, and that the quintessence of all phenomena is the inner self which is identical with that which transcends all and manifests all. Tat tvam asi, 'thou art That', is one of the great pronouncements of the Upanishadic knowledge, and Aruni explains this knowledge by various examples, so that the pupil can grasp it.
Scientific inquiry into self-knowledge
In modern times, science, after its triumphant discoveries and inventions, is slowly returning to the realization that knowledge depends very much on the knower, and that the most important object of knowledge is the self that is seeking knowledge. Schrodinger and others have come to the conclusion that this new orientation will press the scientific inquiry into the field of self-knowledge. Here we see the modern quest converging on the ancient wisdom.
In the fourth story, which is also taken from the Chhandogya Upanishad we have a dialogue between Narada and Sanatkumara. When Narada approaches Sanatkumara, Sanatkumara says: “Tell me what you already know; then I will impart to you what lies outside, it.” Narada replies enumerating a large number of disciplines of knowledge that he has
already learned. Sanatkumara points out that what Narada knows is only name and that there is something greater than name. This brings out the real distinction between learning and knowledge. The aim of the good teacher is to help the pupil liberate himself from the cobwebs of learning and to lead him to the luminosity of true knowledge.
India had developed a wide variety of disciplines of the sciences and arts
In connection with the story of Narada and Sanatkumara, it may be worth noting that ancient India had developed a wide variety of disciplines of the sciences and arts. It is difficult to say whether these disciplines developed during the Upanishadic age, but to some extent they surely did, and we have some information about the curriculum followed in Taxila, the most important seat of learning in ancient India. It is said that Taxila was founded by Bharata and named after his son Taksha, who was established there
as ruler. (Taxila was situated about twenty miles west of modern Rawalpindi). Apart from the Vedic knowledge, grammar, philosophy, and eighteen shilpas were the principal subjects of specialization. It is surmised that these eighteen shilpas were as follows: vocal music, instrumental music, dancing, painting, mathematics, accounting, engineering, sculpture, agriculture, cattle-breeding, commerce, medicine, conveyancing and law, administrative training, archery and military art, magic, snake-charming and poison antidotes, the art of finding hidden treasures.
Later literature mentions sixty-four kalas, which a cultured lady was expected to master. These included the art of cooking, skill in the use of body ointments and paints for the teeth, etc., music, dancing, painting,
garland-making, floor decoration, preparation of the bed, proper use and care of dress and ornaments, sewing, elementary carpentry, repair of household tools and articles, reading, writing and understanding different languages, composing poems, understand-ing dramas, physical exercises, recreation for utilizing leisure hours, and the art of preparing toys for children.
Devotion to the teacher
In the Upanishadic literature we come to know of a large number of good teachers and good pupils. In the selection presented here, there are Satyakama Jabala, Nachiketas, Shvetaketu and Narada. We may also refer to the traditional story of Uddalaka Aruni, the son of Aruna Gautama and father of Shvetaketu. Most of the important works of the period refer to him as an authority on rituals and inner knowledge. As a pupil, he is often cited for his devotion to his teacher. He was asked by his teacher to prevent the inundation of the ashram farm during a rainy day. Unable to plug a crack in the dam, he used his own body to plug the breach and thus prevented the inundation of the farm. The Chhandogya Upanishad makes reference to Krishna Devakiputra who received initiation and knowledge from his teacher, Ghora. He is indeed the one declared later to be the Lord Krishna. The Upanishads describe him as a student eager in his pursuit of knowledge. We may also mention Pippalada, a great sage in the Prashna Upanishad. Raikva is the name of the cart driver whom the King Janashruti approached for instruction. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we have a vivid account of the supremacy of Yajnavalkya. According to the story, Yajnavalkya's guru, Uddalaka Aruni, could not hold his own in a disputation with
him in a vast assembly of scholars from the entire Kuru Panchala country which had been summoned by King Janaka of Videha. The Upanishads contain other great names of teachers and pupils, such as Ashvala, Jarat Karava Artabhiga, Bhujyu Lahyayani, Ushasti Chakrayana, Kahoda Kaushitakeya, and Gargi Vachaknavi. We should also mention Maitreyi, a learned wife of Yajnavalkya, who 'was conversant with Brahman'. One of the famous dialogues in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi. This dialogue occurs when Yajnavalkya is about to renounce the life of a householder for that of a hermit, and he proposes to divide his wealth between his two wives, Katyayani and Maitreyi. But Maitreyi insists on his giving her instruction in spiritual wisdom.
According to tradition, Dhaumya was a great teacher, and stories are told not only of Aruni Uddalaka, one of his good pupils to whom we have referred earlier, but also of his other pupil Veda, who is reported to have himself become a very good teacher. Veda is especially noted for the devotion displayed by one of his pupils, Utanka. On the completion of his studentship, Utanka encounters every sort of experience and danger in order to procure the presents of Veda's choice before being free to leave his preceptor's home.
Another picture of ideal studentship is brought out in the story of Kacha and Devayani. Devayani's father Sukracharya was Kacha's teacher. She fell in love with Kacha, but he had taken the vow of brahmacharya and refused to enter into marriage with her. One passage in the Mahabharata gives Kacha's description of the life
he lived in that retreat of learning: 'Carrying the burden of sacrificial wood, kusha grass, and fuel, I was coming towards the hermitage and feeling tired, sat for rest under the banyan tree, along with my companions, the kine under my charge.' This brings out the fact that one of the traditional duties of the student was to tend his preceptor's cattle, and collect wood for fire and sacrifice, and this put him into intimate touch with Nature and subjected him to the influence and educational processes of Nature working through 'silent sympathy' as Wordsworth puts it. The Mahabharata gives the complete traditional story of Kacha and Devayani.
A number of books on the Upanishads are available. We have taken the extract from the Katha Upanishad from Sri Aurobindo's book The Upanishads. The other extracts are from the translation by V.M. Bedekar and G.B. Palsule.