Yogeeswara Yagnavalkya


Chapter 6: Yagnavalkya-Vaisampayana Debate


Yagnavalkya's fame as teacher of Vedas spread far and wide. A large number of aspiring students came far and wide to learn the Vedas. Yagnavalkya found it difficult to accommodate all of them in his own ashrama. Under the gurukula system in vogue in ancient India, the sishyas were to reside at the residence of the guru. Yagnavalkya set up a school adjoining to his ashrama. The students of three twice-born castes (see note1) were admitted to the school. The students included royalty and commoners and came from all sections of society. They were all treated alike and all of them compulsorily received training in the Vedas. But, depending upon their aptitude and suitability to the avocations the students desired to follow later on the life, special training in arts and crafts, warfare and other technical professions like medicine and engineering were also imparted to the students without distinctions of caste, creed and colour all of them living as equals in all respects.


Marriages between boys and girls were mostly based on professions but there was no taboo on inter-caste marriages, particularly wedlock between a higher caste boy and a lower caste girl. The marriages between a higher caste girl and lower caste boy were also permissible, such as a Kshatriya groom taking a Brahmin girl as life partner. Kshatriya girls were permitted to choose their husbands at swayamwaras without caste restrictions. As a result some of the students in the school run by Yagnavalkya were related to each other through inter caste marriages.


Yagnavalkya, though essentially an exponent of the Shukla Yajur Veda, as he was a master of all the Vedas, was teaching all the four Vedas to his disciples. In addition to the Vedas, the school had all the facilities to teach all the six Vedangas. Being a colossus of Shukla Yajur Veda he had more students for this particular Veda, compared to other Vedas. He himself was attending to the teaching of the students.


In his ashrama, Yajnavlakya used constantly to medidate on Brahman, the Supreme Being, the ultimate thing to be known. His own meditation and contemplation continued to be prolonged and deep. With the result his knowledge on these aspects was excellent and many learned persons used to come and discuss with him and learn from him. For example Visvavasu, a Gandharva, himself a master of the Vedanta Sastra, came to Yagnavalkya and held discussions with him about Atman, Paramatman and Sarvajna. He was extremely pleased with the result of the discussions and wondered at the erudition of Yagnavalkya.


King Janaka was reigning in the neighbouring kingdom of Videha. Janaka had known about the Maharishi Yagnavalkya and his ashrama at Janakpur. Being an ardent seeker of knowledge, Janaka was keen to meet Yagnavalkya and requisition his services for presiding as the chief priest over the Rajasuya Yaga, a religious ceremony at his palace. This is a special for worship in the honour of Almighty Sriman Narayan. He sent an important messenger to Yagnavalkya and requested him to come to Mithila with his sishyas and be in charge of the yagna. He also sent word that invitations had already been sent to all the eminent Rishis to participate in the yagna.


The Rajasuya Yaga was conducted in a perfect manner by Yagnavalkya officiating as the presiding chief priest. The whole yaga was performed with clat and grandeur, homas being done with utmost care and attention to the minutest details. Everyone in the congregation was wonderstruck at the facility with which Yagnavalkya was giving directions and getting the yaga completed in accordance with Sastraic sanctions and precepts. At the conclusion of the yaga, all the Maharishis were pleased and King Janaka honoured all the Vedantins by giving them handsome presents and gifts. King Janaka thanked all the great Maharishis for their grace in accepting his invitation and participating in the Rajasuya yaga and then inquired with the assembly of sages who amongst them was qualified to receive the Agra Pooja (the obeisance to leader of the Rishis assembled). Immediately there was heard in the assembly an asariri-vak, the voice of the heaven, that Yagnavalkya was the most deserving and qualified to receive the Agra Pooja. King Janaka offered obeisance to Yagnavalkya and offered him 1000 cows with 20 nishkas-gold coins- tied to each horn.


When Yagnavalkya ordered his sishyas to drive these cows home, Vaisampayana who was present along with his sishyas objected to the obeisance being paid to Yagnavalkya and challenged him to establish his supremacy. Subsequent to this a number of Rishis like Asvala, the Hotri priest of King Janaka, Arthabahaga, son of Ritabhaga, Bhujyu, grand son of Lahya, Ushasta Chakrayana, son of Chakra, Kahola, the son of Kaushitaka, Gargi, daughter of Vachaknu, Uddalaka, son of Aruna engaged Yagnavalkya in debate over the sastras and Vedanta etc. Most of the Rishis were convinced or could not argue any further with Yagnavalkya. Gargi after her debate with Yagnavalkya even praised Yagnavalkya for his clarity of thought and erudition. When Gargi was extolling the greatness of Yagnavalkya, the entire assembly of Maharishis felt enthralled. The whole gathering of sages, including those who were vanquished by Yagnavalkya, were lost in the wonderment of the scholarship and erudition of Yagnavalkya, for his clear exposition of the intricate truths about Brahman and openly expressed their sense of reverence and respect for him.


However Vaisampayana, due to his past prejudice and jealousy, could not appreciate the defeat of his colleagues and the praise of the Rishis. He finally challenged Yagnavalkya for a debate. Vaisampayana, alias Sakalya, raised a number of questions about divinities, Devatas and Purushas and ultimately about Supreme Divinity or Supreme Being. After answering each and every question of Sakalya when the debate went on to questions about Supreme Being Yagnavalkya cautioned Sakalya that his endless questioning was a vainglorious exercise, Sakalya might die in this pursuit and even his ashes would not reach his ashram. Not withstanding the warning Sakalya persisted with his questions about the eight forms of Purusha. Yagnavalkya explained each and everything and finally said: "The Supreme Being, during dissolution, reduces the universe to its causal state. The Supreme Being creates, preserves and destroys the worlds and transcending them remains as one finite final cause. This Supreme Purusha can be known only from the Vedas and Upanishads. Oh, Vidaghdha Sakalya, you asked me several questions. I am asking you but one question in return. Who is this Purusha? I bid you to tell me about this Supreme Being. If you do not clearly answer this question and tell me of that Purusha before this congregation, I declare and swear, invoking the power of my preceptor the Sun-God, that your head shall fall and roll off".


It was the Sun god of the creation, preservation and destruction, who cursed Sakalya through the speech of Yagnavalkya. Sakalya, not having the full knowledge of the Atman, did not know the Purusha. He remained silent without answering the question. Thereupon, as a result of the curse swore by Yagnavalkya, Sakalya's head got severed from his body, fell apart and rolled over. The Maharishis thought that it was improper for anyone to harbour ill will and animosity against a Brahmavetta and pick up endless quarrels with him because of personal differences. They bowed to him repeatedly in astonished respect for superior knowledge and scholarship. They felt that the unequivocal declaration in the Vedas that "one who has attained the knowledge of Brahman, the Atman of all beings himself becomes Brahman and the knower of Brahman, the Atman of all beings" had been proved and established once again, by the Sakalya-Yagnavalkya debate.


King Janaka was really put off by the turn of events and felt disappointed that such a unique congregation of Maharishis should end in the death of Sakalya. He requested Yagnavalkya to bring Sakalya back to life. Then Yagnavalkya went into dyana for some time and uttering the Purnarmana mantra sprinkled water from his kamandala on Sakalya called out "O Sakalya, get up".


Sakalya woke up as if from slumber and realised the mercy of Yagnavalkya for bringing him back to life and praised Yagnavalkya in slokas called "Prana Rakshana Stotra". All Rishis praised Yagnavalkya for his good grace and sense of mercy in conferring compassionate clemency on Sakalya. This stotra is found in Munikhanda of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Sakalya himself made 21 slokas and the rest of the Rishis made 17 slokas making a total of 38 slokas.


Sakalya at last has to accept and acclaim the truly great knowledge of his own nephew and desired that he be taught Soura Suktas by Yagnavalkya. Thereupon Yagnavalkya, in the place where he had consecrated the 12 images of Aditya, the Sun God, taught Vaisampayana the Soura Sukta. The grandeur and eminence of the exposition of Soura Suktas was greatly appreciated by all the eminent Maharishis.


Yagnavalkya was coronated with pomp and jubilation as BRAHMISHTA, with the approbation of the galaxy of Maharishis present and received all the honours including the 1000 cows with golden coins tied to their horns.