Upanishads Through Stories (1)

Sampadananda Mishra
10 min readMay 3, 2022

Upanishads are a profound record of the deepest spiritual experiences of the Rishis who by the power of their tapas could attain to higher realms of consciousness and realise many aspects of the Supreme Truth. Sri Aurobindo, the Rishi of India’s Renaissance, observed that the Upanishads are “…documents of revelatory and intuitive philosophy of an inexhaustible light, power and largeness and, whether written in verse or in cadenced prose, spiritual poems of an absolute, an unfailing inspiration inevitable in phrase, wonderful in rhythm and expression.” The contents of the Upanishads are presented in the form conversation between the Guru and Shishya/s. The deep realisations resulting from the intense tapas of the Rishis and the processes by which the realisations happened are well documented in the Upanishads and are often presented in the form of stories.

This is a humble initiative through which I intend to delineate the profound teachings of the Upanishads through the stories from the Upanishads. This is going to be a long series with selected stories presented with the explanation of the deeper meanings of the characters and events in the stories.

Story — 1

Satyakāma: The Seeker of Truth

[Chandogya Upanishad, 4.4–4.8]

[This is the story of a young boy who lived up to his name. His mother Jabālā had named him Satyakāma at birth. Satyakāma — the desirer or the seeker of truth. This is also a story of how anyone, who is sincerely intent on knowing the truth, not only comes closer to the truth and directly perceives the truth, but also becomes the truth itself. A story about tenacious pursuit of truth to become one with it.]

Long ago, difficult to say when, but truly long ago, it so happened here in this very land we call Bharata. There was a young boy, who carried within him an intense flame of aspiration of knowing the truth. It was a very special aspiration, fervent and pure. He longed to be taken under the wings of a Guru, who would initiate him into the world of true knowledge. But there lay a hurdle.

No guru or preceptor will initiate anyone into the world of knowledge if the seeker’s proper ancestry is not known. This posed an insurmountable challenge for the young boy. He simply did not know who his father was. One day he mustered courage and asked his mother:

“My dear mother! May I know who my father is?”

Jabālā, who had long feared this question, explained with a heavy heart,

“My dear child, I really do not know who your father is. When I was young, before you were born, I used to serve in many houses and attend to many guests. It was during such a time that I conceived you. So, I really do not know who your father is. But my name is Jabālā and your name is Satyakāma, let the world know you as Satyakāma Jābāla,”

Thus the truth of his origins were revealed to Satyakāma. An illegitimate child, anyone would say! But Satyakāma was not perturbed. The search for the truth was a pure flame burning intensely in his heart. Carrying this pure flame of aspiration for knowing the truth, Satyakāma went to a Rishi who lived in an Ashram in the vicinity. The Rishi, Haridrumata Gautama, was one of the greatest teachers of that time. Satyakāma approached him and prostrated at his feet expressing his wish to be initiated into the world of knowledge of the truth.

As per the tradition, Rishi Haridrumata Gautama first enquired about the young boy’s lineage. With no hesitation, without hiding anything, Satyakāma said:

“Dear revered teacher, before coming here I did ask my mother to tell me about my father. She told me that she had no idea about who my father was. When she was young, she, while serving at various homes, had conceived me. But she told me that her name is Jabālā and mine is Satyakāma, and the world will know me as Satyakāma Jābāla.”

Rishi Haridrumata Gautama was enraptured by the truth speaker. He said: “My dear child, none other than a true seeker of the truth can speak these words with such transparency. You have not deviated from the truth. Now, go and fetch the dry woods. I will initiate you.”

The intense desire in Satyakāma was no different from the driest of the dry woods — ‘arani’. Both ‘ready to catch fire’. All that was needed was a spark from the revered Guru !

Thus, Satyakāma carried within him every quality that was necessary to be initiated into the world of knowledge. The Guru, after initiation, led him to the cattle shed at the Ashram. There, he separated four hundred lean and weak cows from the herd and said,

“My dear child, herd these cows into the forest and take good care of them.”

Satyakāma bowed down at Rishi Haridrumata Gautama’s feet. He wanted to leave no stone unturned in excelling at the task assigned by the guru.

“I shall not return until these cows become one thousand” , Satyakāma said as he set about to herd the cows into the forest.

Rishi Haridrumata Gautama smiled and blessed the enthusiastic new disciple.

Now this might seem like a deviation from the spiritual education that Satyakāma sought at the Ashram. Instead of receiving knowledge in the Guru’s proximity, he was banished far away into the forest. But, Rishis follow no prescribed form of education. Instead, they transcend the ordinary norms and structures. A Rishi has true insights into what is required for the inner growth of a seeker. He knows fully well that the path to truth is unique to each individual seeker. A Guru understands the inner landscape of a student; how strong are his aspirations, the readiness and the maturity, the svabhāva and svadharma of the seeker that resides in the student and most importantly, the purity, sincerity and devotedness with which the student is willing to pursue true spiritual knowledge.

Satyakāma had all these qualities in him and all that he needed now was the solitude of the forest where he could contemplate by himself. Far away from the Ashram, in the forest, Satyakāma carried the living presence of his Guru within him. While tending to the cows, he engaged in an intense tapasyā. He lost count of the time as days, months and years passed by. Satyakāma was becoming deeply entrenched in the state of silence.

It thus happened that one day, when a vṛṣabha (bull) approached Satyakāma, he felt as though he was in the very presence of his Guru. He got up and prostrated himself in front of the vṛṣabha. Before he could raise his head the vṛṣabha said to him:

“Dear Satyakāma! The cows have become one thousand in number. As per your promise to your Gurudeva, you must now take them to the Ashram.”

Hearing this Satyakāma humbly said: “Yes, revered teacher, I will do as you say”

Vṛṣabha continued,

“Listen my dear child, I did not come here to only remind you to take us all back to the Ashram. Pleased by your tapasyā, I am compelled to reveal a part of the supreme knowledge to you. This knowledge of the Brahman must be known in its four aspects. I am now revealing to you the first aspect. Know that the Brahman is prakāśavān or the manifest One. This first aspect in turn has four limbs ; East (prācī) , West (pratīcī), South (dakṣiṇā) and North (udīcī). Through these four quarters, the Brahman appears as the manifest One or the prakāśavān. The One, the Indivisible, the Indescribable manifests as or in the four quarters and he who contemplates on these four manifest aspects of the Brahman attains to the state of Brahman and gets victory over all the manifest worlds.”

The bull or vṛṣabha as it is known in Sanskrit symbolises fertility, abundance, diffusion, generation, impregnation, and strength. When the power of tapas increases, it starts fertilising the consciousness and prepares it to hold the abundance of truth, Light, Dynamism, Love and Ananda. One starts shining as the Supreme Reality shines, manifesting as the four directions — East, West, North and South.

Finally the vṛṣabha said, “This is one pāda (quarter/foot) of the Brahman . The next aspect of the Brahman will be revealed to you by Agni, O dear Satyakāma!”

Leading the thousand cows, Satyakāma started his journey towards the Ashram of his Guru. As the sun set, he stopped for the night and made preparations for the fire for his ritual and sat facing east. With his mind in meditative state, pondering on the impressions he received from the vṛṣabha, Satyakāma invoked Lord Agni. He could now hear the voice of Agni speaking directly to him.

“Dear Satyakāma, I will declare to you the second pāda of Brahman. Know that the Brahman is anantavān or endless. Of this endless Brahman the earth is one quarter, the sky is one quarter, heaven is one quarter, the ocean is one quarter. This, dear friend, is another aspect of the Brahman, consisting of four quarters and this aspect is called anantavat (endless).”

The Earth (pṛthvī), the Space (antarikṣa), the Heaven (dyau) and the Ocean (samudra), all of these are symbolic representations of vastness, largeness and infinitude. One experiences the ānantya or infinitude or endlessness in all these four. That infinitude indeed is the nature of the Brahman and whoever holds this infinitude in one’s consciousness becomes endowed with the virtue of endlessness, he becomes Brahman, the endless, and attains the endless worlds of higher realms.”

Satyakāma bowed his head in reverence to Agni. Next day, at dawn, Satyakāma continued to drive the cows towards the Guru’s Ashram. He walked with the cows all day and at the end of the day, he kindled the fire again, added fuel to the fire, penned the cows and sat down near them behind the fire, facing east. All of a sudden, a haṃsa (swan) came flying and said, “Satyakāma! I shall teach you the third pāda of Brahman. Know that the Brahman is jyotiṣmān or the most Effulgent One. This aspect of the Brahman too consists of four things — the Fire (agni), the sun (surya), the moon (chandra), and the lightning (vidyut). In all these four O Satyakāma, see the Brahman as jyotiṣmān or the most Effulgent, the most Luminous One. Knowing the Brhaman as jyotiṣmān and meditating upon him as the Effulgent, one becomes effulgent in this world.” Then the swan told him that a loon would teach him the last or the fourth pāda of the Brahman.

The Fire (agni), the sun (surya), the moon (chandra), and the lightning (vidyut), all of them represent Light and Luminosity. Swan which is white, bright and shining, is the symbol of the liberated soul in the higher plane. According to Sri Aurobindo — “The swan is the Indian symbol of the individual soul, the central being, the divine part which is turned towards the Divine, descending from there and ascending to it.” To contemplate on a swan or even to see a swan in dream, symbolically means to open oneself to the Light. There is a beautiful dialogue between Yajnavalkya and Janaka narrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.3) in which Janaka asks Yajanavalkya to enlighten him about the light that illumines a person, the light that awakens and impels him to perform all that he does. And in his answer Yajnavalkya mentions that it is the Sun which alone is the source of all light and in the absence of sun it is the moon that gives light, in the absence of moon it is fire and in the absence fire it is speech and in the absence of all these it is the Self that is the light. Saying this Yajnavalkya enlightens Janaka about the Light of all lights.The Brahman as the Light of all lights (jyotiṣmān) is to be contemplated in the Sun, moon, fire and lightning. Thus, one becomes one with the jyotiṣmān Brahman and attains the realm of the supreme Light (vareṇyaṃ bhargaḥ/jyotiruttamam).

Next morning, once again, Satyakāma embarked in the direction of his Guru’s Ashram. Towards evening when the cows came together, he kindled a fire there, added fuel to the fire, penned the cows and sat down near them behind the fire, facing east. Then, a loon (madguḥ) appeared before him and said, “ Satyakāma! I shall teach you the fourth and last pāda of Brahman. Know that the Brahman is āyatanavān or the All-supporting. This part of the Brahman further consists of four quarters — prāṇa, cakṣu, śrotram and manas. One who knows him thus and meditates upon him as the All-supporting, becomes That in this world.”

A madgu or a Loon also known as the diver bird, is a metaphor for the spirit of diving deep. To realise the higher and deeper aspects of the Brahman one needs to dive into the deepest depth of oneself. It refers to approaching the realm of the unknown, which is no easy task; it requires much inner strength and courage. Satyakāma had this inner strength and courage because of which he arrived at a stage when the higher knowledge was revealed to him.

In this part, the Brahman is introduced to Satyakāma as the āyatanavān or All-supporting. This All-supporting Supreme Brahman, the Alone moves out of itself to create the worlds for its future habitation in the form of Purusha to support its own creation. He then creates dwellers within this habitat which are the various faculties of the consciousness through which the Purusha works out everything in the world. Among all these faculties the principal ones are the prāṇa or the Breath, cakṣu or the Sight, śrotram or the Hearing, and manas or the Mind. It is through these the Brahman makes itself known. Therefore, the madguḥ told Satyakāma that the one who contemplates on the Brahman as āyatanavān or All-supporting becomes the same.

After receiving this final part of the Brahmajnānam, Satyakāma finally arrived at the Guru’s Ashram with the thousand cows. The Guru, Haridrumata Gautam, asked him, “Dear boy, your face shines with the knowledge of Brahman. Who taught you this?”

Satyakāma narrated his encounters with the four teachers — Vṛṣabha (bull) who spoke about the prakāśavān Brahman, Agni (fire) who extolled the virtues of anantavān Brahman, Haṃsa (swan) who described the jyotiṣmān Brahman and finally the diver bird Madgu who waxed eloquent about the āyatanavān Brahman.

As Haridrumata Gautama listened intently to his student, Satyakāma bowed his head and finally said , “O bhagavan, I now request you to expound these to me personally. Because I know that the knowledge received directly from one’s own Guru makes all the learning perfect.”

The Guru as always presents to the disciple ‘the divine wisdom, which conveys to the student something of the divine ideal and makes the student feel the true relation of the human soul with the Eternal’. Rishi Haridrumata Gautama, the revered Guru of Satyakāma, enlightened him by reiterating the same knowledge, but expounded the concepts with subtler meanings to the earnest student Satyakāma.

And this is how Satyakāma, the truth seeker, obtained the absolute knowledge of Brahman from his Guru. Satyakāma himself later flourished as a great teacher of the Brahmavidyā.

©Sampadananda Mishra 2022

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Special Thanks to: Smitha Holehoddu Srinivasamurthy and Bijoyeta Sahoriya Das, two of my well-wishers in this journey.

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Sampadananda Mishra

Author, speaker and researcher on subjects related to Sanskrit, Indian Culture, Spirituality, Yoga and Education. SahityaAkademi and President of India Awardee.