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A Christmas message in the Upanishad

india Updated: Dec 24, 2011 22:24 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
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If we’ve got year-end angst, Yajnavalkya can fix it. That big bully has an answer to everything and sometimes we listen because he’s so much fun. Back to the Brhad-Aranyaka Upanishad, the Book of the Great Forest, where more vampires lurk than in Twilight, more rakshasas pounce than in the Ramayana and more warlocks spook us than in the dark wolf-woods of Mittel Europa. Except, none of them have fangs or funny hats. They assume the formless and therefore most fearsome form, of doubts. Doubts about the nature of life, what it’s all about, what’s the point, why us and meanwhile what should we do to pretend we’re doing something, can we fake it till we make it?

We must allow here that this was before anyone invented fun, modern things like malls, movies and alprax so the best the old seers came up with in the ‘pretend to do something’ department was to feed the fire ten kinds of gunk which they invested with deepest symbolism. I mean, if we skip the ritual bits, we get to the ideas.

In the Brhad-Aranyaka Upanishad, Chapter Four, Section One, the framework story starts with Yajnavalkya strolling into the court of King Janaka at Videha. Janaka, who’s seated giving audience, says upfront, “Why have you come, Yajnavalkya, for cattle or for subtle questions?” And Yajnavalkya says coolly back, “For both, Your Majesty.” What attitude, you think, and sit back waiting for something terrible to happen (too sindhoor serial, to think it’s coming all the way from BCE).

So they do one volley of existential Q&A and Janaka says, “I shall give you a thousand cows and a bull as big as an elephant.” And Yajnavalkya thinks, “But it’s too soon for gifts.” Section Two starts with Janaka getting off his throne with a polite “Please instruct me” and they talk about the nature of fear, with the whole court listening avidly. And Janaka says, “May you be unafraid yourself! Here I am and here are my people, listening to you.” Section Three (see how they cut it into episodes) begins with Yajnavalkya thinking, “I’m not saying another word,” but Janaka’s on a roll and asks about the nature of light. Section Four opens – wham - with the big question, “katama atmeti?” What are we really? And there you have it: “hrdai antarjyotih purusah”, ‘the light within the heart’. “Evam evaitat, Yajnavalkya,” says Janaka, “Just so”.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture