Uddalaka was a great sage. He had a son named Shve-taketu. But the irony is, the sons of great persons are not necessarily great. Fond of play, Shvetaketu always desired to have a good time with his friends and playmates. The time approached for him to be invested with the sacred thread and initiated as a brahmachari. That entitled him to study the sacred scriptures. But, ironically, Shvetaketu was not inclined to be initiated.
His father knew that youth is the right and ripe time for learning, especially for receiving knowledge of the scriptures. Indeed, a Brahmana is one who has received Brahmajnana, knowledge of the Ultimate Reality. However, to receive this sacred knowledge, one should practise self-control, celibacy, austerity and other virtues. Shvetaketu was far from practising these virtues. He whiled away his time in frivolous activities.
With a view to prevent all this, Uddalaka called his son and told him: “Shvetaketu! Our family has been one which has continuously been dedicated to the quest for truth. Our forefathers were all Brahmajnanis. This great tradition has to be maintained. I, therefore, suggest that you should go to the house of a worthy guru, render him whatever service he needs, and thereby, attain knowledge of the Self, the Absolute Reality.”
Shvetaketu heard his father’s suggestion and decided to follow it. He realized that this was not only his father’s desire but was also in accord with the family tradition. He understood that the mastery of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures, required energetic intellectual effort, extending over twelve years. Accordingly, he spent his Brahmacharya period under a competent teacher and studied the scriptures.
After completing his studies, when Shvetaketu returned home, it was found that in place of his earlier wayward behaviour, appeared a more dangerous quality: the pride of scholarship. This did not escape the attention of his father, Aruni Uddalaka. He was aware that Brahmajnana and pride were highly incompatible. A person stricken with egoism and pride cannot realise the Self (Brahman). Uddalaka now decided that not only should he test his son’s scholarship, but also teach him, simultaneously, the great virtue of humility.
One day he called his son and asked him: “My dear son! Have you been initiated into the knowledge of that by which whatever is unheard becomes heard, whatever is unthought becomes thought, and whatever is unknown becomes known?” All this meant that Uddalaka wanted to know whether Shvetaketu was initiated into the knowledge of the Self.
Shvetaketu’s knowledge of the scriptures was superficial and hence he couldn’t grasp the import of his father’s question. He wondered how it was possible that the unknown, unheard and unthinkable could come within the reach of thought and mind.
The sage understood that Shvetaketu was baffled. He, therefore, simplified the problem. He said: “Clearly, we cannot know every individual object, for the simple reason that they are limitless in number. But a generalised knowledge is entirely possible. For example, take a lump of gold. We make some objects with gold. Suppose we melt those objects again, don’t they reduce themselves to their earlier form, a lump of gold? This is the material cause. Then there is the goldsmith who makes the objects but is not himself an object. He does not himself become the objects. This is the efficient cause.” Uddalaka paused and asked his son: “Does this suggest a clue to your problem? Think again, think carefully and let me know what you know.”
Without carefully thinking about it, Shvetaketu replied, “Perhaps, my preceptor was not aware of this. Otherwise, he would have certainly told me. Therefore, it is for you to explain this matter further.” Though this could only be to escape a second phase of stay with his preceptor, it is obvious that Shvetaketu’s pride was snubbed. He understood that real wisdom is far from mere knowledge of words. Although they were the Vedic words, in short, humility and modesty are the foundations of jnana, wisdom.
Aruni Uddalaka now told his son the subtleties of wisdom. He said: “In the beginning of creation, only the One without a second existed. Then the One wished to become many. (1) First, the basic, primary elements of earth, water and fire (which includes air and space) arose. Then life manifested itself as plants, animals and human beings.
“Now that One entered everything as the Self and manifested Himself under many forms. In other words, the One, or God, (2) permeated in every moving thing that existed in the world. Therefore, it is clear that knowledge of the One implies knowledge of everything else.”
Shvetaketu, however, could not understand clearly how the One could become the many, and how the One remains unaffected. Moreover, he could not follow how the gross could come from the subtle. When he confessed to these nagging doubts, his father asked him to fast for a fortnight, living on water only. The result was, at the end of the fasting period, his memory faded. He could hardly recite even the Vedas. But, after nourishment through food, his memory came back. He was, again, his normal self. He realized that the mind also belongs to matter. Moreover, whatever is derived from something else cannot have its own independent existence. Thus, he felt that he was on the border of a great discovery.
His father’s teaching made Shvetaketu realize that what was needed is a change in the outlook towards Reality (drishti bheda). He now clearly understood that so long as one depends on the senses as tools of knowledge, one is on the material side of things only. Thus the Absolute cannot be grasped. However, Shvetaketu realized another fact: the Absolute cannot be outside us because, if it is outside, we might go on seeking and searching but never realize It. Moreover, if it is identical with ourselves— “ourselves” used in the limited work-a-day sense of the term, then there would be no need for any search at all.
All this leads us to realise that what is necessary to discover the Self is to assume the state of a Sakshi, the witnessing attitude. It is only with this attitude that one realizes or discovers—not only the nature of the Self (Atman) but also the profound truth that the Self (Atman) is itself the Absolute Reality (Brahman). That is, as long as one thinks of oneself as the body, one is a jivatman (the individual self) as opposed to the Paramatman, the Absolute Self. As the Self (Atman) is not a mere assemblage of parts, we cannot, making a distinction, divide it into Paramatman and Jivatman. The Atman is one and indivisible. And it is one’s absolute, ultimate nature. Therefore, we are identical with what we seek.
Shvetaketu also learnt that the best way to realize one’s witnessing Self—sakshi swarupa—is to examine one’s own three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Each later stage takes one from the gross to subtle. In this sense, sleep means merging into one’s real nature. However, it is only in the waking state that one should realize the absolute. Otherwise, one would revert to the normal consciousness of day to day life. This is very natural.
Aruni thus instructed Shvetaketu in the knowledge of the Self (Atman) as pure consciousness. After this when Aruni gave Shvetaketu the Mahavakvya “Tat Tvam Asi,” he realized as if in a flash of lightening, the full significance of that “great saying.” Tat Tvam Asi, he realized, as suggesting not only that “Thou art that Absolute,” but also that “All this is verily that Absolute Reality, Brahman.” In short, Tat Tvam Asi, “Thou Art That” and Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma, “All this is verily Brahman”, explain and expand the meaning and significance of each other. Since Consciousness (Chaitanya) is one and indivisible, the same consciousness animates both the individual and the entire Cosmos. It abides in all that is.
Shvetaketu absorbed the meaning and significance of the great truths. But he wondered how these two truths could be verified. As in science, every statement or truth needs verification. There should be a synthesis of knowledge and proof. Aruni understood this and told his son: “What you are thinking is right. Every axiom needs demonstrable proof to be declared a truth. If you carefully observe nature and the world all around you, you will see so many instances.”
Then he pointed out: When bees gather nectar from different flowers, or when the ocean receives water flowing from different rivers, the final product absorbs the individuality of the components, the constituent elements. So is the case with life. If one hugs one’s individuality, and thus cuts himself off from the universal existence, one lives in the world of isolation of relative values. It is only when one experiences the Truth that “I am one with all existence” that one realizes the Absolute as one’s own Self. In this way, what appears a block or a hindrance becomes a help. Name and form (the Upadhis) turn out to be modes of sadhana, a means of realization of the Truth of all existence as interconnected and interdependent.
Continuing his explanation, Aruni told him the example of a tree. When a particular branch of a tree is cut off, the entire tree does not cease to exist. It continues to exist until it is cut off totally. Similarly, one’s individuality continues in the form of samskaras, its subtle, basic tendencies. They reassert themselves, it is believed, from the previous birth. It is only when the individual realizes himself as chetana or consciousness that it becomes possible to experience his identity with all that exists. The universal awareness emerges only then.
All this was clear to Shvetaketu. But, his father suspected that he may still think all this is faith as opposed to reason. Shvetaketu must be made to see the truth of this: the truth that the universe we see, comes from the subtle, unmanifest form of that Absolute Reality called Brahman. He showed him the tiny seed of a huge banyan tree and cut it. The tiny core is almost invisible. But a whole forest of trees is potentially sleeping in that seed. Similarly, the potential manifestation of the entire Cosmos is there lying in the unmanifest Brahman, the Absolute Reality. The Absolute permeates the entire Cosmos like the warp and woof of a cloth.
Aruni showed another natural example to establish this point. When thrown into a pot of water, a lump of salt imbues every drop with its saltiness. It is saline whether it is tasted at the top, middle or bottom. Similarly, Aruni affirmed, “The flavour of Brahman, the absolute Reality, permeates all consciousness, down to the tiniest blade of grass. Life sleeps in matter, feels in plants, breathes in animals and comes to self-consciousness in the human being.” And Aruni clinched the matter, linking it to his son, and said, “That Absolute Reality Thou Art. You are one with it.”
Shvetaketu now realized that spiritual life and the experience it embodies are not creeds or dogmas. It is not a case of believing something which cannot be proved. In this way, faith, by itself, would be nothing other than mere opinions. Rational, reasoned belief makes faith a conviction, since it is based on experience. This is the reason why this conviction is called Aparokshanubhuti, the direct perception of the Truth. We cannot perceive it with the eyes of others—for such seeing lacks individual basis. Absolute Brahman is the reality that radiates in and through everything in the universe. And this fact is not a matter of opinion or faith but of direct experience.
The significance of this episode is clear: one should experience the truths of religious life oneself. This is done by observation and analytical understanding of what is observed. But, what is observed and analysed has to be an inseparable part of one’s consciousness. This consciousness includes the analytical dimension, but goes beyond to be part of a holistic awareness. In short, the spiritual dimension includes the scientific but gives awareness of the Cosmic Reality.