Yajnavalkya: a Study in Personality



(The Central College, Bangalore)


When Tagore speaks of tireless striving stretching its arm toward perfection, and of the mind of man awakening into the heaven of freedom, he is explaining to us his idea of culture. We may regard his concept of culture as the integration and the coming to a head of all those impulses and ideals which ennoble life, Culture is the quintessence of group consciousness. The idea of culture may to a certain extent be modified by external factors, such as the environment and the way in which a people earn their living. But these influences, intellectual, social, and environmental, should be regarded not as obstacles to progress but as directing forces, which give the characteristic bent to man’s striving after perfection at different ages.


If we should regard culture as the flowering of the tree of life, we may regard personality as the fruit of it. Although the word personality is derived from the Greek word persona, which means a mask or covering for the face, it now comes to mean all those accepted impulse of an individual which distinguish him from others. The man whose impulses are scattered and chaotic is said to be lacking in personality, precisely because he is not a symbol of the racial will. But he who realises the infinite worth of the human soul, in all that he says and does, realizes in himself the worth of human personality. He sets the standard of human achievement, and becomes a light unto the ages. He is the visible embodiment of what the Upanishadic seers speak of as Purnam.


In the personality of Yajnavalkya, as given to us in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we get the nearest human approximation to this ideal of Purnam. Although we do not get a full length picture of this fearless seeker after Truth, the few snapshots that we get of him are sufficient to mark him as a being apart. These pictures not only bring out the mar but also reveal to us the general life of the age, against the background of the forest hermitages. They show to us various aspects of the philosopher, as the intrepid disputer, the royal preceptor, and the loving husband who preferred Truth to Beauty.


The scene of public disputation where Yajnavalkya gains the reward of wisdom should be regarded as the intellectual counterpart of a swayamvara, Yajnavalkya claims to be a lover of wealth and walks away with the prize even before the contest begins. It may be that he wished to draw the best out of his opponents. Or it may be that he allowed no false sense of modesty to stand between him and his sense of ultimate reality. He knows that he knows. It is this awareness of values in relation to the Infinite that marks him out from the crowd of opponents. We should regard these opponents as persons who have attained some amount of skill in dialectics, but they have confounded professional skill with ultimate wisdom. That is because they have confounded the means of living with the end of existence. It, is true that their professional pursuits have brought them into fragmentary contact with the Infinite, but they are lacking in that integral outlook which makes life itself an expression of the Infinite. That is why their attitude of mind is either ritualistic, as though life were a contract between man and God, or is guided by a love of ghost lore, as though the disembodied are likely to know more of God’s ways than the embodied. What they seek is comfort, with honour here and hereafter. The most interesting of these disputants is Gargi, the learned lady who tries to pin Yajnavalkya between the horns of a dilemma. In spite of their limitations, they give to us the general background of Aryan culture, and it is against this background of racial culture that the personality of Yajnavalkya emerges.


Scripture says that the Supreme has entered all bodies, from Hiranyagarbha to a clump of grass, but it remains merely other people’s experience so long as it is not felt in the blood. If Yajnavalkya were a mere encyclopedia of learning, he might have learnt as much as others knew, but that would not have given him any kind of preeminence over others. His superiority to others is due to the fact that he is temperamentally akin to the writers of Scripture. To him the goal and the path are alike familiar. It is this aspect of Yajnavalkya that is brought out in the scene of his conversation with the king. The one is a prince among philosophers, the other is a philosopher among princes. Both are interested in that which is life’s highest good. The philosopher makes King Janaka recall all that he has heard on the subject, and teaches him how to integrate all that in the light of life’s experience.


Yajnavalkya teaches mankind how to integrate the intellectual with the moral. There is a tendency to pursue either the intellectual or the ethical, to the exclusion of the other. That was where ancient civilisation split into the two great currents of thought: the Hellenic and the Hebraic. But the purely intellectual attitude to life lacks force, while the purely ethical lacks awareness. In either case, life becomes static. Yajnavalkya’s attitude to life bridges the gulf between the intellectual and the ethical. He shows to us that what is intellectually true is also ethically good. Holiness becomes identical with wisdom. Yajnavalkya is the path-finder of humanity, because he has assimilated in himself all the elements of racial culture.


He who lacks self-integration cannot know the Self as a whole. Yajnavalkya’s recognition of the infinite worth of the human soul is itself the sign of a well-developed personality. He has realised that the awareness of the Self is man’s dearest possession, but he excels himself by renouncing all for the sake of this Self, the summum bonum of life. There is a time to gain the good things of life. There is a time to give them up. In the first instance, man shows his mastery of the environment. In the second: instance, he shows his mastery of himself. The philosophy which Yajnavalkya preached taught him to renounce all for the sake of the Self. The two scenes which the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad gives us of his discourses with Maitreyi should be regarded as the supreme test of his life. Although these two scenes form together a single unit, they come far apart in the Upanishad. Perhaps the first scene represents that period of his life when he was held in the pleasing bondage of the rose-mesh of life. What a man chooses out of two nearly alike good things is a test of his personality. On the human plane, Maitreyi is dear to him. But to the truth-seeker, truth is even more dear. Like a skilful musician calling out the sleeping spirit of song, Maitreyi calls out, in language rich with emotional eloquence, his living concept of what is Purnam, and his renunciation of Maitreyi and of secular life should be regarded as a supreme sign of his love of the Eternal which he finds in Maitreyi herself. In the very act of renouncing, he stands out preeminent is the supreme lover.


Let us therefore, salute the great sage who is a symbol of what India once was, and may yet be.