VIDAGDHA, son of SAKALA
ON THE YAJNAVALKYA CONSTITUTION
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bk 3-9)
3003 Visvedevas and 33 Devas
Sakala's son, who had suffered burns perhaps because of his rashness, ignored the warning given by Gargi and asked Yajnavalkya how many Devas there were. The sage replied that the (Rgvedic) proclamations (nivid) praised three hundred and three or three thousand and three Visvedevas.
Sakalya agreed but wanted to know how many of them were Devas. Yajnavalkya replied that there were thirty-three Devas.
As Vidagdha persisted in repeating the query, Yajnavalkya reduced the number to six and then to three and then to two. Then he said that the number was one and a half and finally arrived at the number one. It is not sound to interpret that he arrived at monotheism after gradually reducing the number in the vast pantheon of polytheism.
Vidagdha wanted to know who the three hundred and three and three thousand and three Visvedevas were (3-9-1).
Composition of the assembly of nobles
Visvedevas were social leaders who belonged to the upper crust of the Vis, commonalty (manushyas). The thirty-three members of the governing elite of the Vedic times rose from the ranks of these leaders who were expected to implement the desires of the nobles (Devas).
According to Yajnavalkya this assembly had eight representatives of Vasus, eleven representatives of Rudras and twelve Adityas, besides Indra and Prajapati.
[This scheme differs from the conventional assembly of thirty-three nobles which had four groups of traditional nobles, Vasus, Rudras, Adityas and Maruts besides the three high officials, Viraj, Prajapati and Aditi.] (3-9-2)
Vidagdha was interested in knowing why there was a departure from that convention.
Vasus in charge of material assets of the larger society
Yajnavalkya explained that Agni (the official in charge of the scholars of the core society), Prthvi (the official in charge of the agro-pastoral commonalty), Vayu (the official in charge of the people of the open areas), Antariksham (the official in charge of the industrial frontier society of the forests and mountains), Aditya (the official in charge of the administrators, Kshatras), Dhio (the official in charge of the patriciate of the core society), Chandra (the official in charge of the intelligentsia of the frontier society) and Nakshatra (the official in charge of the non-combatants) were the eight Vasus.
All the material assets in the larger society were placed in their hands. They were hence known as Vasus (3-9-3). [The remark, the Vasus transform themselves into bodies and organs of all beings which serve as the support for their work and its fruition and also into their dwelling-places is irrelevant.]
Rudra and ten Pracetases and the later Vedic Constitution
The ten breaths (pranas) in a personage (purusha) and the individual (atma) are the eleven Rudras. When these go up from the body of the insentient commoner they make the latter weep. Hence they are called Rudras, according to Yajnavalkya. The five sensory organs and the five motor organs and the mind are said to be the eleventh breaths.
Rudra and his team of ten thinkers (who were also social organizers and leaders, purushas, and who were known as Pracetases) were meant by the term, Rudras. Their elevation to the status of nobles was welcomed with joyous tears by the commoners (3-9-4).
Yajnavalkya was discussing significant features of the new Vedic polity. He did not include the Maruts in his category of nobles (devas).
During the later half of the Vedic era, the socio-political constitution outlined by the ten Pracetases and approved by Rudra came into force. It covered the eight-fold society represented by the Vasus. The twelve Adityas implemented its provisions.
Earlier a cabinet of eight members, known as Adityas functioned under the mother figure, Aditi, as director. Aditi ranked next to Prajapati and the Prajapati was subordinate to Viraj, the head of the federal state of the larger society, which had eight sectors.
Yajnavalkya omits Aditi and Viraj from his list of thirty-three nobles. He places Prajapati, chief of the people, at the apex of the social polity and Indra next to him.
The Atharvan polity had a cabinet of eight members of whom Indra was the chief. While this system found favour with the editors of Manava Dharmasastra, Pracetas Manu who edited an Arthasastra preferred a cabinet of twelve ministers.
Kautilyan Arthasastra notes this recommendation.
Twelve administrators, Kshatras (Adityas)
Yajnavalkya welcomed the concept of twelve administrators (Kshatras) who had coercive power over all the social sectors. He had traced twelve fields as pointed out earlier. Each of these administrators must have presided over the cabinet for one month every year.
Besides the three social worlds, prthvi, divam, antariksham, agro-pastoral commonalty, urban patriciate, frontier society of forests and mountains, those dependent on water (apa) economy, open lands and moors (vayu), distant provinces (dik), combatants (kahatriyas), non-combatants nakshatra), jurists (agni), intelligentsia (soma) and the inert and unintelligent (tamasa) and thinly populated area in the interior (akasa) were represented by their internal unobtrusive controllers in this twelve member governing body.
They had the status of tejasvinis, leading lights. This should have averted the quarrels over which sector was more important than the others.
The Adityas carried (adadana) the responsibility for administration of the social polity. (3-9-5)
Roles of Indra and Prajapati
According to the editors of this Upanishad, Yajnavalkya told Vidagdha that the thunder that accompanied the lightning reflected the role that Indra played while the sacrifice, which the householder or the ruler performed, reflected the role of the father or the chief of the people, Prajapati. [It is not clear which of the two was superior to the other.]
The sage hints that Indra threatened to use coercive power and made the subjects obey his orders while the Prajapati enthused them to willingly sacrifice their wealth (pasu, cattle) for the welfare of the needy. (3-9-6)
Six Vasus, Agni, Prthvi, Vayu, Antariksham, Aditya and Dyau
Yajnavalkya omits Chandra and Nakshtram
Vidagdha then asked Yajnavalkya who the six devas mentioned by him were. Yajnavalkya enumerated them as the six nobles (devas) designated as Agni, Prthvi, Vayu, Antariksham, Aditya and Dyau. They belonged to the group called Vasus.
He omitted Chandra and Nakshatra, the representatives of the intelligentsia of the forests and of those who were not recognized combatants or administrators. This omission is significant. Yajnavalkya was not impressed with their claims to a place in the governing elite of the larger aristocracy (3-9-7).
Representatives of three social worlds as three devas
Vidagdha then asked him who the three devas mentioned by him were. [This has no relevance to the later concept of Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.] Yajnavalkya explained that (the representatives of) the three social worlds, lokas (divam or patriciate, prthvi or agro-pastoral commonalty and antariksham or frontier society of the forests and mountains) were the three devas.
In other words he would merge the role of Agni in that of Prthvi, that of Vayu in that of Antariksham and that of Aditya in that of Dyau. All the nobles (thirty-three in number) were members of one or the other of the three social worlds (lokas). (8).
Food (Anna) and Breath (Prana) essential:Two Devas
Yajnavalkya pointed out that consumption of food and breathing (anna and prana) were common to all. He meant by prana, the in-breath, that is, the air everyone inhaled. The two officials who were in charge of these two necessities deserved being treated as important functionaries (devas) of the enlarged social polity.
But Yajnavalkya's statement that Vayu (the wind, which blows everywhere) was one and a half deva perplexed Vidagdha for some said that it was one (whether it was the air outside the body or the breath inhaled). Yajnavalkya conceded that the two could be treated so but would notice a distinction between the two.
Five aspects of Prana, the one Deva
Yajnavalkya equates Prana with Beahma
The one deva, which he mentioned, is prana, the group of breaths (prana, apana, udana, vyana and samana), which are present in all living beings and have diverse functions. Yajnavalkya would equate it with Brahma. Others refused to give it a name and referred to it as That. (3-9-9).
[It has to be noted that the term, deva, is not to be translated as god. Radhakrishnans remark, The one God has different names, forms, activities, attributes and powers owing to differences of function is irrelevant here. Yajnavalkya was not trying to posit monism or monotheism.]
Vidagdha and Yajnavalkya on the role of Agni
Vidagdha drew Yajnavalkya's attention to the personage (purusha) who was involved in material pursuits as a member of the agro-pastoral commonalty (prthvi) and functioned as the representative of that social world (loka) and arbiter in civil disputes in his position as Agni.
This bright (jyoti) intellectual (manas) supported all individuals (atma) who were aware of their identities. Vidagdha pointed out that it was said that one who knew the traits and functions of this thinker was one who knew (the features of the social polity).
[The transliterations of this passage fail to bring out the dilemma that Vidagdha experienced.]
Yajnavalkya told him that he knew that personage (purusha) who was a human being with a body (sarira) and was not an abstract concept. Did Vidagdha, the son of Sakala, know the traits of the noble of the larger aristocracy (devata) who was the role model for this personage (who was essentially a commoner)?
Vidagdha had to agree that this devata was fit to be treated as having the status of an aristocrat (amrtam) (3-9-10). [It is necessary to notice the distinction between deva and 'devata. Neither term is to be viewed as referring to the immortal god. Both devas and devatas were human beings and so too were purushas.]
[Radhakrishnan's translation, I know that person, who is the ultimate support of every soul, of whom you speak. This very person who is in the body is he. Tell me, Sakalya, who is his god? The immortal, said he, is imprecise. He treats the two terms, deva and devata, as implying god and fails to note that an aristocrat was referred to as deva and a plutocrat as devata. Neither was a god.]
Vidagdha then drew his attention to the personage (purusha) who was sensual (kama) and whose social world (loka) did not go beyond the people dear to his heart (hrdaya) but who was a bright (jyoti) thinker (manas) and supported all individuals (atma).(11)
[Radhakrishnan translates this passage as: He who knows that person whose abode is desire, whose world is the heart, whose light is the mind, who is the ultimate support of every soul, he. Would be a knower fails to bring out its import.]
Yajnavalkya knew such sensual persons. Such a person too had his models in the larger aristocracy (devata). Vidagdha agreed that the members of this aristocracy and their admirers who were hedonists worshipped women (stri) as devatas.
Aditya as a devata
Vidagdha noted that the personage (purusha) who was interested in external forms (rupa) and belonged to the cadre (loka) of observers (chakshus) too had brilliant thoughts (manas) and supported all individuals (atma). One who recognized this aspect was a knower of social laws, he held.
Yajnavalkya agreed with this contention but said that the personage who held the position of Aditya fitted that description and that this personage had a place in the larger aristocracy as a devata.
Yajnavalkya agreed with the comment made by Vidagdha that the then incumbent to the position of Aditya was attracted by things and women who were beautiful though he was not guilty of erotic pleasures with women.
The devata ranked higher than a social leader, purusha but lower than a traditional noble, deva.
Vidagdha agreed that this was true (satya), that is, it was in accordance with the laws based on satya which required one to accept as true what all could observe as a reality. (3-9-12)
[Radhakrishnan fails to note the significance off the switch in reply from amrtam to stri and then to satyam.]
Vidagdha noted that the personage (purusha) who dealt with affairs pertaining to the insignificant people of the unobservable areas (akasa, ether as many translate) had to depend on reports brought in by the cadre of listeners (srotra). This personage too was a brilliant thinker and was a supporter of all individuals (atma). One who accepted the merit of this approach was a knower of social laws, he held.
Disa (dikpala) and aristocracy
Yajnavalkya did not dispute this stand but asked him who the devata, member of the integrated aristocracy who fitted this description was. This personage heard the pleas (srautra) of these persons and responded to them (pratisrautra).
Vidagdha replied that the representative of the people of the different directions (disa) on the board of governors, set up by the elite did perform this role (3-9-13).
[Radhakrishnan's translation, This very person who is hearing and who is in the echo is he. Tell me, Sakalya, who is his god? The quarters of space said he, fails to note the significance of this discussion.]
There were some sections of the population who were more inert and ignorant (tamas) than the above insignificant people. They too like the sensual (kama) persons were present in the deep (hrdaya) of the society.
Vidagdha was aware of the personage (purusha) who moved amidst them and who was a brilliant thinker and who supported all individuals (atma) who were not members of any social body.
Mrtyu and Board of Governors
Yajnavalkya agreed that this personage did support all who were not members of social groups and asked Vidagdha which official of the governing elite (devata) protected those who had to live under their own shadows.
Vidagdha replied that the official designated as mrtyu had to look after the needs of those people who were almost insentient.
[The sage was alluding to the outcasts whose shadows were not to fall on the people who abided by the laws.] (3-9-14) [Vidagdha was explaining the role of the official designated as mrtyu. The latter was not God of Death.]
Yajnavalkya was not impressed by the statement of Vidagdha that the people who were carried away by the beauty of the external forms were following the concept of reality (satya).
[The transliteration of this passage as: He who knows that person (purusha), whose abode is forms (rupa), whose world (loka) is the eye (chakshu), whose light (jyoti) is the mind (manas), who is the ultimate support of every soul (atma), would be a knower (vidyat) by Radhakrishnan, is non-instructive.]
Vidagdha had implied that beauty was truth and that only what was ugly could violate the laws based on truth.This was indeed a law based on Rta rather than on Satya.
Yama and Board of Governors
Yajnavalkya asked him to correct his stand, for every one considers oneself to be an ideal (adarsa) personage (purusha), a reflection of oneself as seen in the mirror. Vidagdha conceded that the personage (purusha) who insisted on external form (rupa) or orderliness of (social) structure and was raised to the status of a devata was an asur.
[Some commentators have translated asur as life or vital breath.]
This functionary of the Vedic polity must have been authoritarian like the feudal lords, asuras. Yama was such a functionary of the Vedic governing body (3-9-15).
Varuna and Board of Governors
Vidagdha then proceeds from the concepts of reflection in the mirror and beautiful forms to the concept of the place of those who lived beside water (apa, lakes and rivers). He held that the personage (purusha) who reflected the views of these people (loka) and who had deep feelings (hrdaya) was a great (jyoti) thinker (manas) and supported all the individuals (atma) who belonged to the fluid social sector of apa.
Yajnavalkya agreed with this stand and asked him which personage (purusha) who lived in water (apa) was the official (devata) on the governing body set up by the integrated elite.
Vidagdha had to agree that Varuna was this dignitary.Varuna (often translated as rain) too was treated as an asura, who enforced his authority as an ombudsman and protector of peace and the constitution of the Atharvan polity with an iron hand (3-9-16).
[Both medieval and modern commentators have failed to notice the deep significance for social polity of this debate between Vidagdha and Yajnavalkya.]
Prajapati and the Board of Governors
The concepts of sexual desire (kama), beautiful forms (rupa), sensuousness (apa) and reproduction through casting the semen (reta) in the womb of the woman are all connected with the affairs of the heart (hrdaya).
Vidagdha had learnt that the personage (purusha) who was in the semen and was one belonging to the section of the population, which went by the feelings of the heart, could be a bright thinker and also be a supporter of all intellectuals.
Yajnavalkya agreed with him and pointed out that this person was one who had a son. He wanted Vidagdha to point out which official of the board of governors (devata) of the integrated elite played this role. Vidagdha replied that Prajapati met this expectation (17).
Yajnavalkya pointed out to Vidagdha that the Brahmans who had assembled there had induced him to put questions to the former and test his mastery over Brahma, the constitution of the Atharvan social polity. He said that Vidagdha had been reduced to the level of a servant who removed the ashes at the end of the sacrifice (3-9-18).
But Vidagdha claimed to be a leader of the intellectuals (Brahmans) who belonged to the Kuru and Panchala lands (which were noted for their Gandharva and Apsara orientations). He continued to question Yajnavalkya who he acknowledged had scored over these intellectuals in the debate.
Vidagdha asked the sage to state in positive terms what the Brahma he knew was.Yajnavalkya declared that he knew the peoples and cultures of the different directions (disa) and the nobles (devas) who had established them on a sound footing (pratishtha). (3-9-19)
Officials in charge of populace in different directions
Aditya (east), Yama (south), Varuna (west), Soma (north)
Vidagdha then asked him to state which personage who had been raised to the level of a devata was located in the east and how he was supported. Yajnavalkya replied that the official designated as Aditya (Surya or sun) was looking after the peoples in the eastern areas and that his functions were dependent on the chakshu (eye, the institution of observers who resorted to empiricism to know the facts). The different structures (rupa), which are observable, have their base in the ability of the observer to observe the reality.
These pleasing structures are appreciated sensually by the heart (hrdaya) and are hence dependent on the latter. Vidagdha was satisfied with this reply. It was in tune with the Gandharva and Apsara orientations respectively of the Kurus and the Panchalas (20).Vidagdha then raised the same question with reference to the southern areas.
Yajnavalkya told him that the south (dakshina) was under the rule of Yama who expected total devotion (sraddha) to the noble works undertaken (as perceived in the sacrifices performed to please the deceased ancestors).
[It is imperative not to translate the term, Yama, as God of Death or as God of Justice.] These sacrifices (yajna) would be successful when fees (dakshina) were paid voluntarily to the priests who officiated at them.
Faith in the ability and sincerity of these priests must be present in the heart of one who performs these sacrifices.
The functions of Yama, the magistrate who implemented the rules governing prohibited conduct would be successful only if there was genuine faith in the voluntary sacrifices performed by those who were alive (3-9-21).
The Atharvan social polity was visualized as having four regions with the capital at the centre. These four regions, east, south, west and north, were under the guidance of Indra, Vaisravana, Varuna and Soma respectively. These four represented distinct social, cultural and political orientations.
According to the legends, Vaisravana (Kubera), the plutocrat, was the son of Visrava, a sage. The concepts, sraddha and Yama, bring into focus the role of the seventh Manu, Sraddhadeva or Vaivasvata who was earlier the ruler of the southern country, Dravida, and was known as Rajarshi Satyavrata.
Yajnavalkya adopts a scheme by which Aditya rather than Indra represents the east and Yama instead of Vaisravana represents the south. He has raised Indra and Prajapati to very high positions and in that process has omitted Viraj, the head of the federal state and Aditi, the director of the executive of eight Adityas.
Varuna represented the western region. He presided over a fluid state, which had a loose structure (vairupam) and a decentralized polity (vairajyam).
Yajnavalkya states that water (apa) supports this devata and that the seed (reta) that is strewn on the land supported water (the people whose economy was dependent on irrigation). The seed itself is cast because of the desire to perpetuate ones line. The newborn resembles the father. It seems as if he has slipped out of the fathers heart or is built out of his heart (hrdaya).
Vidagdha accepted that the interpretation given by Yajnavalkya, the scholar of Mithila was in consonance with the stand that the Kurus and Panchalas who followed the Atharvans were acquainted with (3-9-22).
Soma represented the northern region of mountains and forests where the sages who revered Rudra had their abodes.
The elders who had retired to their forest abodes and even the young students took the vow to speak only truth and got initiated in the ways shown by these sages.
Vidagdha wanted to know what satya (truth) was based on. Yajnavalkya said that it was based on what one felt (in his heart, hrdaya) to be the truth. It was not liable to be subjected to the procedure of evidences or logic. This reply impressed Vidagdha (3-9-23).
[It may be noted that Kasi and Mithila had newly emerged as centres of knowledge and valour. Kuru and Panchala were older ones.]
Viraj at the centre in Atharvan polity
The central region or the capital city had its own administration. In the Atharvan polity, it was directly under the Viraj, the head of the federal state. Vidagdha belonged to the Ganga-Yamuna basin where the Kurus and Panchalas had sway.
Its scholars treated this region to be the centre, dhruva, from where knowledge and culture spread in all directions.
The sacrificial pit where the fire was lit represented this centre and the four priests and their groups who sat around it represented the four regions and their distinct orientations as described in the previous aphorisms. Vidagdha wanted to know under which revered official (devata) this central region was placed.
[The practice of treating dhruva as the northern pole star was a later development. It is imprecise to say that dhruva meant the fixed direction or zenith or the mountain, Meru. Dhruva, the brother of Manu Uttama and son of Uttanapada and grandson of Manu Svayambhuva was a powerful ruler on his own merit. Like his father he ruled from Prachinabarhis in the Ganga-Yamuna basin. He was a follower of Narada, the great socio-cultural thinker. Narada was a Gandharva.]
Yajnavalkya for Agni, governor of the central region
Yajnavalkya replied that the official designated as Agni governed the central region and that his authority was based on his judicial pronouncements (vak) and that the latter was based on what he felt in his heart to be correct.
[The Brahmans of the lands of Kurus and Panchalas had earlier been Gandharvas who were the first to adopt the scheme of three household fires. I have pointed out elsewhere that Agni was the last of the eight officials to be recognized as an Aditya but he ranked only next to Indra. Indra presided over the house of nobles (devas) and Agni over the council of scholars (Brahmans).]
Vidagdha, a wrangler from the lands of the Kurus and Panchalas, was not satisfied with Yajnavalkya's stand. He asked the latter on what the heart (hrdaya) depended (3-9-24). Yajnavalkya reproached him for posing such a question.
What many describe as the inner self or atma is not dependent on any external factor. In other words, the sage refused to commit himself on the existence of the great soul, paramatma, and its influence over the inner soul, jivatma. If the heart or atma, which he referred to, were anywhere outside man the dogs would tear it to pieces, he said (25).
But Vidagdha would not yield to such brushing aside his questions. Did Yajnavalkya mean that the human body (sarira) supported the soul (atma) within it or that the two were inextricably linked? In either case what gave them permanence?
Atma and the pyramid of aspects of breath (prana)
Yajnavalkya answered that they depended on the air inhaled (prana, in-breath). The latter depended on the outbreath (apana) and on the apana depended, the diffused breath (vyana) and the latter on equalizing breath (samana).
The soul or the individual identity (atma) is dependent on this pyramid of aspects of breath that is inhaled. Its traits cannot be described in positive terms. Only by the method of null hypothesis, not this, not this (neti, neti) one can comprehend it. In fact it is incomprehensible, indestructible and unattached and unfettered. It does not suffer and cannot be harmed.
Brahma superior to the eight purushas who functioned as devas
Yajnavalkya advised Vidagdha to accept his interpretation (given in 3-9-23) that there were eight areas (ayatana), eight social sectors (loka), eight nobles (deva) and eight personages (purushas) and these had to be taken into account while tracing the underlying principles in the social pyramid.
The authority of this purusha, which has eight aspects, covers areas beyond these eight facets. Did Vidagdha know about that personage who was superior to the eight officials on the governing body of the enlarged core society?
He did not and he was beheaded, that is, lost his status as the head of the group of scholars from the lands of the Kurus and Panchalas. (26) Yajnavalkya noticed that none of the Brahmans dared to put him further questions. (3-9-27). He thereupon put them his questions.
A social leader (purusha) is like a mighty tree, with his hair resembling its leaves and with his skin its bark. When he is cut blood flows from his skin and when the tree is cut sap flows from its bark. His flesh is comparable to its inner bark and his nerves to its inner fibre, his bones to its wood and the marrow of his bone resembles its pith. After the tree is felled it springs up again from its root.
Brahma as the reviver of a decadent society
From what root does man spring forth when he is cut off by death (mrtyu)? It could not be from semen as the semen ceases to secrete when one dies. A tree also springs from its seed. After it is dead it certainly springs again. But if it is pulled up with the root, it will not spring again. If so, from what root does a mortal spring forth when he is cut off by death?
[Can a decadent society revive itself? Is not an outstanding personage who directs all the eight social sectors necessary to revive it?]
Yajnavalkya asserts that there is only one birth. After one is dead who can bring him back to life again?
Brahma and Vijnana
He told the scholars that by the term, Brahma, he meant a person who had acquired further knowledge (vijnana) by the process of extrapolation and application of the knowledge already gained through formal studies (jnana).
This gives him also immense joy (ananda). It is to gain these two, vijnana and ananda that a scholar offers material (rati) gifts (to the teachers). A jurist who stands firm on this interpretation, knows its implication (that is, what Brahma is).
[There is no need to introduce the concept of renunciation of desires or rituals.] (3-9-28)
Yajnavalkya had been asked whether he knew what was Brahman and had been offered a thousand cows and gold if he explained. But he declined to accept these material gifts, as he was a Brahman who knew himself. The interpretation that Brahman is the principle or the root of a new life both for those who practise works and for those who having relinquished works, stand firm in knowledge is not relevant to the debate.