Service to the Guru (I): Jabala Satyakama gets knowledge of Brahman

A number of years ago I was translating for Mandala Publishing, translating the Bengali articles of Srila Bhakti Promode Puri Maharaj. One of the last projects was for a book on Guru-tattva, which has never been published for various reasons. At any rate, the following is a chapter from that unpublished book. Since Guru-tattva seems to be a theme here. There are a couple of other chapters that I might publish here. This article is a bit long (4500 words), so I have divided into two parts. Part II will be posted tomorrow.

Service to the Guru:

Jabala Satyakama gets knowledge of Brahman

The Chāndogya Upanishad tells the story of how a young boy named Satyakama attained knowledge of Brahman. According to Shripad Shankaracharya, who has written the principal commentary to the Chāndogya Upanishad, “The purpose of this story is to teach that faith (śraddhā) and penance (tapas) are the two principal elements in the worship of Brahman.”

Indeed, it is about faith in the guru and the willingness to accept austerities in his service. Srila Rupa Goswami has written,

guru-padāśrayas tasmāt kṛṣṇa-dīkṣādi-śikṣaṇam
viśrambhena guroḥ sevā

First take shelter of a spiritual master. Then take initiation from him in the Krishna mantra and instruction from him in the three aspects of knowledge related to the path of devotion: sambandha, abhidheya and prayojana. Then serve the spiritual master with faith and devotion. (BRS 1.2.74)

The word viśrambha here means firm faith—and this is what Shankaracharya means when he says “faith and penance.” The spiritual master is to be seen as non-different from Krishna, his prakāśa-vigraha, or the form through which Krishna reveals himself to the world. When one has viśrambha, one serves the spiritual master in this knowledge, trusting that by so doing he can attain all success in his spiritual endeavors.

Srila Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami defines the word śraddhā as…

śraddhā-śabde kahe viśvāsa sudṛḍha niścaya
kṛṣṇa-bhakti kaile sarva-karma kṛta haya

…the firm and confident belief that by engaging in devotion to Krishna alone, all of one’s duties will be fulfilled (CC 2.22.62).

When describing the sequence by which one attains perfection in spiritual life, Rupa Goswami says ādau śraddhā tataḥ sādhu-saṅgo’tha bhajana-kriyā: “The progressive development of prema begins with faith (śraddhā), firm faith in the shastras and the teachings of sadhus.” The association of sadhus indicates taking shelter of a spiritual master, through which one can truly begin the process of spiritual life.

kono bhāgye kono jīve śraddhā yadi hoy
tabe sei jīva sādhu saṅga karaya
sādhu saṅga hoite hoy śravaṇa kīrtana

If by some good fortune a jiva develops faith, then he associates with devotees, in whose company he is able to engage in hearing and chanting about Krishna.

The word bhāgya when used in this context refers to the accumulated piety that has come from activities that lead to or awaken devotion. This usually takes the form of fortuitous association with devotees, or hearing the Holy Names, or something of that nature. If someone is predisposed to devotion through such contacts, then faith in bhakti will well up inside him. This leads him to seek out the company of devotees and through such company to engage in devotional activities.

nāham ijyā-prajātibhyāṁ tapasopaśamena ca
tuṣyeyaṁ sarva-bhūtātmā guru-śuśrūṣayā yathā

“I, the soul of all beings, am not as pleased by the performance of the prescribed duties of the four ashrams, i.e., sacrifices, service to the family, austerities and renunciation, as I am by service to the guru.” (SB 10.80.34)

In his conversation with his Brahmin friend Sudama, Krishna recalled how they had been blessed by their spiritual master as a result of a special service they had performed on his behalf.

"O Brahmin, do you remember what happened to us while we were living with our spiritual master? One day, his wife sent us to fetch firewood, and when we entered the vast forest, an unseasonal storm arose, with fierce wind and rain and harsh thunder. Then, as the sun set, the forest was covered by darkness in every direction, and on account of the flooding we could not distinguish high land from low. Constantly besieged by the powerful wind and rain, we lost our way amidst the flooding waters. We simply held each other's hands and, in great distress, wandered aimlessly about the forest."

The word paribabhrima (“wandered aimlessly”) can be taken in different ways. Sridhar Swami has derived it from a different verb root (bhṛ), which means “to carry.” Krishna and Sudama were carrying a load of cut wood as they had been asked by their spiritual master’s wife (or Guru Mother). So even though it was pouring rain and they were lost in the woods, they never thought for a moment of putting the wood down and abandoning the service they had been given.

When the sun came up the next morning, Sandipani Muni had all his students go out and look for the lost boys. When they were found he poured profuse blessings on them, his heart melting with gratitude for their sacrifice and compassion for the difficulties they had undergone.

Narottam Das Thakur was the son of a rich landlord, and yet he cleansed the toilet of his guru in order to obtain his mercy. Ishwar Puri was similarly ready to clean his guru’s body, to nurse him when he was sick and incontinent in his old age.

īśvara purī kare śrī-pāda-sevana
sva-haste karena mala-mutrādi mārjana

Ishwara Puri served his spiritual master’s lotus feet. He even cleaned his stools and urine with his own hand. (3.8.26)

Not only that, but Ishwar Puri comforted him by recounting the pastimes of Krishna, by singing songs about Krishna and Krishna’s names, thus making his last days as comfortable as possible. Madhavendra was so satisfied that he gave him the greatest blessing.

tuṣṭa haiyā purī tāṅre kailā āliṅgana
vara dilā kṛṣṇe tomāra hauka prema-dhana

Madhavendra Puri became pleased with him and embraced him. Then he blessed him, saying “May the treasure of love for Krishna be bestowed upon you.” (3.8.28)

The scriptures give many, many such examples of sincere service to the spiritual master and the resultant mercy given to the disciple by the spiritual master. So this story is about Satyakama’s commitment to his spiritual master and how he attained knowledge of Brahman through it. There is a saying, ājñā gurūṇāṁ hy avicāraṇīyā, “The order of the spiritual master is not to be questioned.” The spiritual master is connected to the Lord and one who is mindful in following the directions of his spiritual master is well positioned to receive God’s mercy. Thus it is said, guru rūpe kṛṣṇa kṛpā karen bhakta-gaṇe—“Krishna appears in the form of the guru to bless the devotees.” Through the guru, the Lord helps the disciple attain all perfection.

Satyakama takes shelter of his spiritual master

Once there was a boy named Satyakama, who was the son of a servant woman, Jabālā. Satyakama heard people say that those who wished to attain all auspiciousness in life should dedicate themselves to cultivating the knowledge of Brahman. He made up his mind that he would follow this path and go to a guru in order to be educated in the way of the Soul. Satyakama asked his mother Jabālā the following question:

brahmacaryaṁ bhavati vivatsyāmi. kiṁ-gotro nv aham asmi ?

Revered mother! I would like to go to live with my teacher, becoming a student and studying the sacred lore so that I can attain spiritual knowledge. Please tell me about my family lineage, so that I can properly identify myself. (Chāndogya 4.4.1)

In India, a Brahmin has to know his family lineage, or gotra, in order to be accepted as a student of the Vedic literature. In other words, Satyakama had to know the name of his father, at least, in order to get access to his guru's teachings. But his mother answered,

I do not know what gotra you belong to. When I was a young girl, I served many men. I was still very young when I had you, so I have no idea what your gotra is. My name is Jabālā and you are Satyakama. So you can identify yourself as Jābāla Satyakama, the son of Jabālā.

In the sentence, bahv ahaṁ carantī paricāriṇī yauvane tvām alabhe, Jabala explains why she did not know who her son’s father was. This sparse phrase leaves much room for speculation. Shankaracharya’s commentary therefore expands on it in the following way,

When her son asked her about his father, Jabala answered, “I don’t know in which gotra you were born.” Her son then asked, “Why don’t you know?” She answered, “In my husband’s house, I used to be so busily engaged in household work, serving guests and so on, and I was too absorbed in service to remember things like the gotra. Then I had you when you were still young and your father died. So now I am a widow and I never had the chance to find out your gotra. My name is Jabala and you are Satyakama. So you can tell your teacher that you are Jabala Satyakama (i.e. Satyakama, son of Jabala) when he asks you.”#

The Sri Vaishnava scholar Ranga Ramanuja Muni has also written a commentary to this Upanishad called Prakāśikā. His comments agree substantially with Sankaracharya:

She said, "I was so busily engaged in serving all the guests and visitors in my husband's house, serving the guru and others, that I never learned about my husband's gotra. I was very young when you were born, and so I do not know your gotra. So you should tell your guru that your name is Satyakama, your mother's name is Jabala, and you don't know your gotra.

So though some people who tell this story represent Jabala as a prostitute or an unwed mother, this opinion is confirmed neither by the great Shankara nor by Ranga Ramanuja. She was apparently a young widow.

Be that as it may, Satyakama Jabala approached his guru, Haridrumata Gautama, and said, “O bhagavan! I wish to live with you as a brahmachari. This is why I have come to you.” Sometimes in the Srutis, highly revered saints and sages are addressed as bhagavān. Though it is a title reserved for highly honored people, in this case it does not mean God.

As expected, Gautama inquired, “O gentle one, what is your gotra?”

Satyakama replied truthfully, “I do not know anything about my father’s family. I asked my mother and she told me, ‘I begot you when I was very young and was very busy serving in my husband’s household. Therefore I never found out the details about your father’s ancestry. My name is Jabala and your name is Satyakama. So give your name as Satyakama, son of Jabala.’”

Gautama then said to him, “My dear son, no one other than a brahmin can speak truth such as you have spoken. Therefore, O gentle one, go and bring wood for sacrifice. Because you have not avoided nor stretched the truth, but have spoken straightforwardly, I can understand that you are born of brahmin parents. So even though you do not know your gotra, your truthfulness testifies to your true brahminhood. So I shall gladly give you the sacred thread." And so Gautama invested Satyakama with the sacred thread in the upanayana ritual.

In this series.


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