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

This is the continuation of Part I. The author is Bhakti Promode Puri. I translated it 15 years ago. There is a sequel of stories about guruseva from Mahabharata, which I will post tomorrow.

Satyakama takes care of Gautama's cows

Gautama had a herd of cattle, many of which were weak and sickly. He selected four hundred of those that were in the poorest health and gave them to Satyakama, saying, “My child, please take care of these cows.”

Satyakama took the herd Gautama had given him and said, “Master, I shall not return home until these four hundred head have increased and become a thousand.” After saying these words with his hands folded, Satyakama paid his obeisance to his guru and left with the cows. He then began to feed them with the best grains, grasses and water that he could. He took them through woods that were safe from wild beasts, absenting himself from his guru’s ashram for several years. Gradually, the cattle regained their health and started to reproduce until they numbered a thousand, throughout which time Satyakama accepted the hardships of living in the forest and watching over the herd. All this was done in the spirit of a surrendered disciple.

tomāra sevāya duḥkha haya jata, seo ta parama sukha
sevā sukha duḥkha parama sampad nāśaye avidyā duḥkha

All miseries faced in the course of your service are actually the source of great happiness. The feelings of both happiness and distress arising from your service are riches, for they destroy the misery of ignorance. (Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Śaraṇāgati, 18)

The surrendered disciple accepts the order of the spiritual master without question. When the spiritual master sees such a sincere disciple, his heart becomes pleased. His pleasure makes Krishna’s pleasure possible.

When the herd of cattle reached a thousand head, the wind god Vayu entered one of the bulls and began to speak to Satyakama, “O Satyakama! Our number has now reached a thousand. You have made good your promise to your guru, so take us back to his ashram. But first I would like to say something to you about one of the feet of Brahman.”

Satyakama answered, “Please go on,” and Vayu answered through the bull, “'The eastern region is one quarter; the western region is one quarter, the southern region is one quarter, the northern region is another quarter. O gentle one, this is one foot of Brahman, consisting of four quarters; it is known as prakāśavat (“endowed with light”).”

The bull continued, “One who knows this and meditates on the foot of Brahman consisting of four quarters, by the name of prakāśavat, also becomes endowed with splendor in this world. In other words, whoever knows and meditates on this foot of Brahman by the name of prakāśavat, consisting of these four quarters, conquers the resplendent worlds.”

After having completed his instructions, Vayu said, “Tomorrow, the fire will tell you of another of Brahman's feet.” And with that, the bull fell silent.

The next day, Satyakama completed his daily rituals and then resumed driving the cows toward the house of his teacher. When evening fell, he decided to camp for the night. He penned the cows, then went to gather firewood, lit the fire, and then sat facing the fire and began to meditate on the words the bull had spoken to him on the previous day.

At that moment, the god Agni called to him from the fire, “Satyakama! O gentle one! I should like to instruct you in one of the feet of Brahman.”

When Satyakama humbly indicated his desire to listen, Agni said, “The earth is one quarter, the sky is its second quarter, heaven the third, and the ocean the fourth. This is the second foot of Brahman, consisting of four quarters. It is called anantavat (‘possessing no end’). One who knows this and meditates on this foot of Brahman consisting of four quarters and named anantavat himself has no end in this world, that is, he takes on infinite qualities. And whoever knows this and meditates on this foot of Brahman named anantavat, consisting of four quarters, conquers over unlimited indestructible worlds after his death."

Agni then said, "Tomorrow, a swan will instruct you in another foot of Brahman,” and fell silent.

On the morrow, Satyakama completed his daily rituals as before and then continued driving the herd toward the house of his teacher. Once again, evening fell before they could arrive and so he sought out a suitable place to camp for the night. He gathered firewood, lit the fire, sat down facing it and began to meditate on the words Agni had spoken to him on the previous day.

As he sat there, the Sun God appeared to him in the form of a swan. According to Shankara, the sun is also known as haṁsa, or "swan," because of its clarity and because it appears to fly in the sky. The swan began to speak, “My child, I shall instruct you in another foot of Brahman.”

When Satyakama humbly indicated his desire to listen, the swan said, “Fire is one quarter, the sun another, the moon is the third quarter and lightning the fourth. This is a foot of Brahman, consisting of four quarters and called jyotiṣmat (‘full of light’). One who knows this and meditates on this foot of Brahman consisting of four quarters and going by the name of jyotiṣmat becomes luminous in this world. And, after death, whoever knows this and meditates on the foot of Brahman known as jyotiṣmat, consisting of four quarters, conquers over the luminous worlds.”

Then the Sun God in the form of a swan said, “Tomorrow, a diver bird will instruct you in the last remaining foot of Brahman,” and fell silent.

The next day, Satyakama set off again with the cows onward. And when they came towards the evening, he again gathered wood, lit the fire and sat down. As he sat there, a diver bird, known in Sanskrit as a madgu, flew near and called, “Satyakama!” The madgu bird was in fact the personification of the life airs, or Prana.

He said, “Dear one, I will instruct you in the last foot of Brahman!” When Satyakama showed his enthusiasm to get his next lesson, the diver bird said, “Breath is one quarter, the eye is another, the ear yet another, and the mind is the last quarter. This last foot of Brahman, consisting of four quarters, is called āyatanavat (‘having a refuge or a place’). Anyone who knows this and meditates on this foot of Brahman, consisting of four quarters and has the name of āyatanavat, becomes possessed of a home in this world. (Or, as Shankaracharya interprets it, becomes capable of giving shelter to a great many others.) And after dying, he conquers the worlds that offer a home. These benefits come to whoever knows this and meditates on this foot of Brahman consisting of four quarters and given the name of āyatanavat.”

In this way, Satyakama received knowledge of the four feet of Brahman while walking to his guru’s house. Four times four make sixteen. The number sixteen or two to the fourth power is the sign of fullness. In India, if one says something has its sixteen parts, this means it is missing nothing.

Satyakama hears again the knowledge of Brahman from his Guru

When Satyakama arrived with his thousand head of cattle, his guru saw that his body was illuminated with knowledge. He asked him, “Satyakama, you are filled with light, like someone who has come to know Brahman. Who has instructed you in this knowledge? I should like to know."

Someone who has come to know Brahman is satisfied in his senses, has a smiling face, is free of worry and has a sense of fulfilment. Satyakama's guru recognized these symptoms and wanted to know where he had received this knowledge. Satyakama was devoted to the truth and so he answered without any hesitation, "Master, I was not given instruction by any human being, but by gods. Even so, please give me the instructions that I desire."

Acharya Shankara here comments that Satyakama's intention was to say, "Knowing that I am your disciple, what other human, no matter how learned, would dare to instruct me? In other words, there is no one in the world capable of instructing me other than you. Therefore, give me the instruction I desire. That is, instruct me in that for which I came to take shelter of you. What need have I of anyone else's instructions, be they gods or men? I care nothing for them."

Knowledge of Brahman is received from the spiritual master. The disciple who is single-mindedly devoted to the spiritual master is eligible to receive it. It is obtainable from the worshipable diksha guru through showing exclusive reverence, showing deep interest in the subject through asking questions, and through serving him devotedly. This is the process for receiving the spiritual master's mercy, and if one continues to follow the directives given by the spiritual master obediently, one will quickly be able to attain spiritual perfection. Though Satyakama had received instructions from Vayu, Agni, Aditya and Prana in the forms of the bull, the fire, the swan and the diver-bird, receiving a full understanding of the four aspects of Brahman, he did not consider his education complete as he had not heard it directly from his initiating spiritual master.

Therefore Satyakama said, "O Master! I have heard from other seers, who like you are equal to the Lord, that lessons taken from one's own acharya have the most auspicious results. So I implore you, please instruct me in the knowledge of Brahman."

When Haridramata Gautama heard these words full of sincere and affectionate devotion for him, he was greatly pleased and he unhesitatingly reiterated everything that his disciple had heard from the gods, not leaving any aspect of the teaching untouched.

After initiating Satyakama, the son of Jabala, Gautama had chosen the four hundred weakest and sickliest cattle he had and told him not to come back until the herd had grown to a thousand. Satyakama left his spiritual master and dedicated himself to the service of the cows, abandoning all thought for his own happiness and accepting all pain and difficulty without complaint. He never lost faith or his affection for his spiritual master, and by executing his service with diligence was able to win his guru's pleasure and blessings.

Someone who serves the spiritual master in this manner also attracts the blessings of the gods. Satyakama received instructions from the gods in a totally unexpected way, yet even though he had received knowledge of Brahman through their blessings, he could not think of himself as fully blessed until he heard the same knowledge from his own guru.

A disciple does not think much of the gifts of the gods without the blessings of his spiritual master. Indeed, the disciple has no interest in the mercy of Krishna himself without that of his spiritual master. He considers is to be a trick of the Lord. Krishna’s mercy rains down on the disciple through the spiritual master. Krishna without the guru, like Krishna without Radha, is an impossibility, like the sun without heat or light. As a result, Satyakama could only think of himself as fulfilled when he heard the transcendental knowledge directly from his own preceptor.

The lesson that we should all take from this, if we desire auspiciousness for ourselves, is to seek service to Krishna and his pleasure through service to the spiritual master, by making him his supreme worshipable object. A disciple’s qualification as a disciple immediately disappears as soon as he starts seeing even the slightest insufficiency in the guru’s appearance, virtues, learning, intelligence, eloquence, capabilities, class, spiritual realization or popular acceptance, or as soon as he feels doubt about these things. Thinking of the spiritual master as an ordinary human being is the offense known as disrespecting the guru. As soon as one deviates even slightly from obedience to the spiritual master, one will have no ability to advance even slightly on the extremely difficult path of spiritual life. All our efforts at sadhana and bhajan will be as meaningless as clarified butter poured onto ashes. The only means a genuine disciple can advance in the devotional life is through exclusive affection for the bona fide spiritual master. The following verse by Narottam Das Thakur is particularly important to meditate upon,

ki rūpe pāibo sevā mui durācāra
śrī-guru-vaiṣṇava rati nā hoilo āmāra

How will I ever get service to Krishna? I have no attachment to either the spiritual master or to the Vaishnavas.

What is Brahma?

In relation to this story from the Upanishad, it is worth saying a few things about the word Brahman. The immediate meaning of this word is not the same for everyone. Those who have attained knowledge, however, understand it to mean Krishna, the personal form of God, who is sometimes called “Param Brahma.” True knowledge of Brahma to be complete must also include sambandha, abhidheya and prayojana. Sambandha jñāna includes seven different categories of knowledge—the proper understanding of Krishna, Krishna’s energies, Krishna’s relationships, the individual soul, the individual soul’s bound and liberated states, and finally the inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference of the individual soul and God. Abhidheya jñāna is devotional service to Krishna, and prayojana jñāna is divine love for him.

kṛṣṇa āra tāṁra śakti traya jñāna
jāṁra āche tāṁra nāhi kṛṣṇete ajñāna

One who has knowledge of Krishna and his three potencies is completely free from ignorance about Krishna. (CC 1.2.96)

Krishna, the Supreme Brahman is self-manifest or self-luminous. This is the meaning of the first leg of the teaching that was given to Satyakama, which Vayu called prakāśavān. Though Krishna is unlimited, he appears before the devotee in a medium sized form; under the pressure of his devotee’s love, he becomes finite though he is infinite. Even so, his name, form, qualities and pastimes are spiritual, undivided and without end. This is the true meaning of the second leg of the knowledge of Brahman, anantavān. The third leg was jyotiṣmat (“full of light”). Krishna is as luminous and effulgent as a thousand suns, yet to his devotees, whose eyes are anointed with the salve of love, he appears in a gentle, spiritual form of eternity, knowledge and bliss. The final leg of this knowledge was āyatanavān. The word āyatana means place, home or refuge. Krishna’s abode is Vaikuntha, Goloka, or Vrindavan. The Lord of this transcendental, spiritual abode is āyatanavān.

The jñānīs who follow the philosophical path think of Brahman as without attributes or form, as composed of pure light. Though they are very taken by this concept, the devotees think of Krishna as possessing transcendental attributes, a spiritual form, name and pastimes.

In his teachings to Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu quotes the following verse from the Hayaśīrṣa-pañcarātra,

yā yā śrutir jalpati nirviśeṣaṁ
sā sābhidhatte sa-viśeṣam eva
vicāra-yoge sati hantu tāsāṁ
prāyo balīyaḥ sa-viśeṣam eva

Some passages in the Upanishads speak of the Lord as being without attributes, but then go on to establish him as possessing fully spiritual attributes. If one analyses the two kinds of texts, one will come to the conclusion that those establishing his transcendental attributes are stronger than the others. (Hayaśīrṣa-pañcarātra, CC 2.6.142)

Krishnadas Kaviraj explains this further in the following words—

sarvaiśvarya paripūrṇa svayaṁ bhagavān
tāṅre nirākāra kari karaha vyākhyāna
nirviśeṣa tāṅre kahe yei śruti gaṇa
prākṛta niṣedhi kare aprākṛta sthāpana

The Supreme Lord himself is complete in all divine majesty, but you describe him as formless. Those passages in the Sruti that say that he is impersonal are simply condemning a material understanding of his form and attributes and go on to say that his form and attributes are transcendental and free of mundane characteristics. (CC 2.6.140-141)

The impersonal conception of Brahman and the partial concept of Paramatma are both included in the full understanding of the Divine Person, the result of an incomplete perception of the Truth.

vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam
brahmeti paramātmeti bhagavān iti śabdyate

Knowers of the truth have ascertained that the supreme non-dual substance is named in three ways: as Brahman, as Paramatma and as Bhagavan. (SB 1.2.11)

Srila Kaviraja Goswami states the impersonal Brahman aspect of the Lord is only his bodily effulgence. So the idea of Brahman as full in sixteen parts, four in each of its quarters, prakāśavān, anantavān, jyotiṣmat, āyatanavān, just as the moon is considered full when it has all its sixteen parts, is demonstrated in this story from the Upanishads.

In this series.


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