Honoring our Gurus: Learning from the life accounts of Rishis – V

Honoring our Gurus: Learning from the life accounts of Rishis – V

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In the previous article, I sketched the life accounts of Rishis like Satyakāma Jabāla, Angirasa, Shukadeva, and Uttanka. Now let us look into the life accounts of Rishis: Nachiketa and Yajnavalkya and Rishikas: Gargi and Maitreyi

Nachiketa, the Child Rishi

Nachiketa was a very inquisitive little boy. One day, his father performed a grand yajna, in which he invited several poor Brahmanas and gifted cows and bulls to them. The Brahmanas would have used the cows to give them milk, and the bulls to help them in farming activities. Nachiketa was upset to note that the animals being donated by his father were very old and useless.


He thought, “Perhaps my father can gift me to one of these Brahmanas. At least, the person who receives me will be satisfied and this will result in Dharmic merit for my father.”

He went to his father and repeatedly asked, “Dad, who will you give me as a gift to?” The father finally got very angry and said, “I will gift you to Yama, the Lord of Death.” The words came true immediately and Nachiketa died and his Jivātma arrived at the doorstep of the palace of Yama.

Unfortunately, Yama was away, collecting the Jivātmas of other dead creatures. Nachiketa waited for three days, till Yama finally arrived. Seeing the little boy, hungry and thirsty, Yama felt sorry and offered three wishes to Nachiketa.

Let us now read the wonderful conversation that followed between Bhagavān Yama and Nachiketa:


Nachiketa: My first wish is that my father gives up his anger towards me, and forgives me. When I return to him, I want him to recognize me and love me just as he had done in the past.

Yama: You are a very good boy. Even though your father cursed you to die, you still love him. I grant your wish.

Nachiketa: My second wish is to know about the fire (i.e. fire sacrifice) through which one can attain heaven, where there is neither sorrow, nor hunger and where everyone lives in peace and contentment.

Yama: I am pleased with your second wish. That fire, which you wish to know is none other Virat itself, which is the support of the world, and is hidden inside the intellect. From now on, it will be called as ‘Nachiketa Agni’ and those who perform it will attain heaven.

Saying thus, Yama proceeded to explain how to do the fire sacrifice, the class and number of bricks to be used, and the manner of arranging the fire.

Nachiketa: And now my most important wish. Some people say that after death, we no longer exist. Others say that after we die, a part of us still lives. Bhagavān Yama, you alone can know the truth because you and your messengers visit us when we are dying.

Yama: Nachiketa, I see that even though you are a little you are wiser than most adults. Please do not make me answer this question. In return, I will gift you all the things that make one happy – like palaces, chariots, toys, gold and so on. Please take these things instead, and do not insist that I grant your third wish.

Nachiketa: Bhagavān, all these riches like palaces and gold do not last forever. Someday, they all get destroyed. What is the use of my life if I cannot understand what happens to us after we die. Therefore, please do grant my third wish by answering this question.


Yama: Nachiketa, only a person like you who is not attracted towards pleasures and riches deserves to know the answer to this difficult question. Let me first explain to you what you are in reality. Think of yourself as a chariot. The most important part of the chariot is the master, who sits inside the chariot and travels from one place to another. The master is like your ātman, the soul. The chariot itself is like your body. The master has a charioteer who drives the chariot. This chariot is like your mind. The chariot is pulled by five horses, which are like your five senses – nose, ear, tongue, eyes and skin. The charioteer controls and steers the horses with the help of reins. Think of the reins as your intelligence, that helps you decide between the right and the wrong.

Nachiketa: I do not understand the meaning of myself as the chariot. Please explain more clearly.

Yama: OK. Tell me – what will happen if the charioteer does not control the horses properly, or if the reins are weak and keep breaking when the charioteer tries to pull them to control the horses?

Nachiketa: If that happens, the horses will each pull the chariot in different directions, and the chariot will not go much far. Or the ride will be very bumpy.

Yama: Exactly! Now you understand the whole thing well. If your senses, which are like the horses, are not controlled by the mind properly, they will keep pulling you in multiple directions. One moment, your nose likes to smell a flower and you will rush there. The next moment, your tongue will pull you in the direction of a delicious chocolate and you will rush there, forgetting everything else. Then, your eyes will attract you towards something else. This will continue to happen, and you will not go much farther because your senses, or your horses are not under control. So tell me, how can you control your horses, or your senses well?


Nachiketa: I think, I can answer that. First, the charioteer must be disciplined and trained. Second, it should have strong reigns, and must control the horses well.

Yama: You are correct Nachiketa. What this means is that to succeed in life, you must have an intellect that is disciplined like a good charioteer. Then, you must have a strong mind, like strong reins, that can control your senses like unruly horses. Now I have another question for you. What happens if the chariot breaks down?

Nachiketa: In that case, the master will ask the charioteer to get off with his reins. They will find a new chariot, and will fix the reins and the horses to that new chariot. Then, the master and the charioteer will sit on the new chariot, and carry on with their journey.

Yama: This is what happens in this world. Remember that I said that the chariot was like your body? When your body becomes old and dies, the ātman does not die. Instead, it moves out of the dead body along with the intellect, the mind and the senses, and then takes birth inside a new body.

Nachiketa: So what does that mean? Please explain to me more clearly.

Yama: What I am trying to say is this – when a person dies, it is only his body that dies. He, the ātman, does not die. The ātman along its intellect, mind, and the senses takes birth in another body. This is called rebirth.

Nachiketa: But surely, the master has a goal or a destination that he must reach.


Yama: Yes. The master has a final goal, and that final goal is Bhagavān. To reach that goal easily, it should have a good command over the mind. Also, the intellect should be disciplined, and the mind should be strong, so that it can control the horses perfectly and make them travel in the right direction towards the goal. If the senses are not controlled, and if the mind is not strong, or if the intellect is not disciplined, the chariot and master will keep going round and round in circles and along wrong direction. The master, the ātman will have to replace his chariot hundreds of times before he reaches the goal after a very long time.


Nachiketa: Thank you Bhagavān Yama. Now I understand the truth perfectly. I am not my body. I am the ātman, the master of my body. I must have a disciplined intellect. My mind must be strong. And my mind and intelligence must always control my five senses in the right direction. I must not become a slave of things that attract the senses, like junk food that pleases my tongue, gadgets that please my eyes, gossip that pleases my tongue. Instead, I must choose the right things so that I can quickly reach Bhagavān without too many rebirths.

Yama: Indeed, Nachiketa! You are a very gifted child. Now, I will return you to your father. Go back to earth, and live the rest of your life wisely with the knowledge that I have given to you.

On the earth, Nachiketa’s dead body came back to life after having been dead for three days. Nachiketa’s parents were overjoyed. His father was no longer angry with his son, and even forget how he had cursed him to die.


Rishi Yajnavalkya and Rishikas Gargi and Maitreyi

Maharshi Yajnavalkya was born in the town of Chamatkrapur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He learned all the four Vedas from different Rishis. Due to some misunderstanding, his Yajurveda teacher Rishi Charaka Vaishampāyana asked Yajnavalkya to return the knowledge Yajurveda that was imparted to him by the teacher. As a result, Yajnavalkya vomited the knowledge in the form of digested food. Other students of Vaishampāyana took the form of ‘Tittiri’ (partridge birds) and consumed the digested knowledge and hence this branch of Yajurveda came to be known as ‘Taittiriya Yajurveda’ and Taittiriya Yajurveda is today widely prevalent in peninsular India, and contains the famous ‘Taittiriya Upanishad’ within it.


Subsequent to this incident, Yajnavalkya meditated upon Sūrya (the Divine as a Solar Deity) to learn another version of the Yajurveda. It is said that Sūrya appeared in the form of a horse (‘vaji’) and taught a different version of Yajurveda to Yajnavalkya, which then came to be known as Vajasneya or Shukla Yajurveda. This new form of Yajurveda is highly systematic and thorough in its description of Vedic ceremonies. But the greatest claim to fame of Shukla Yajurveda is its inclusion of two of the greatest scriptures of Hindu spirituality, namely Ishavasya Upanishad, and the giant Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The latter especially contains Yajnavalkya’s spiritual discussions with his spouse Maitreyi, with King Janaka and with various other scholars.

In these discussions, Yajnavalkya comes across as an extremely eloquent and a spiritual person who responds to every question on the nature of the world, the secret of Vedic ceremonies, the nature of the jīva (individual soul) and the Supreme Being (Brahman) in a very systematic and detailed way. He also establishes the Sannyāsa (asceticism) as an institution within the Vedic Hindu Dharma. He is also very blunt when it comes to exposing priestly pretensions, pedantry and hypocrisy. Many of these discussions occurred at the court of King Janaka, the extremely generous/liberal and learned philosopher King who ruled Mithila, a kingdom in Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar. In one such spiritual conference, King Janaka offered 1000 cows with horns covered with gold to the greatest knower of the Supreme Being. Yajnavalkya called the bluff by asking his students to herd the cattle to his Ashrama (hermitage). The shocked scholars ganged up and challenged him to prove his scholarship before daring to claim the prize. Yajnavalkya responded ably to all of their questions and the debate becomes progressively heated.


Suddenly, a woman scholar Gargi mediates and says, “I will ask two questions to Yajnavalkya. If he responds to them correctly, we must all collectively accept defeat.” All the other scholars in Janaka’s court accept her proposal. She asks the questions, and is humbled by Yajnavalkya’s erudition and understanding. What stands out in this entire episode is the fact that all the scholars in the assembly were open to a woman representing them to present the wager to Yajnavalkya. This shows that in ancient India, women could be distinguished scholars of religion and spirituality, not merely in private, but also as public leaders. We can summarize the answers of Yajnavalkya to other scholars in the following words:

  1. There is only one Supreme Being who manifests in many different ways. He controls this entire creation not from outside, but from within it. He abides within all of us, but unfortunately, we do not seek to know Him. One should hear about Him from a competent Guru, then reflect about Him, and finally meditate upon Him. But before you embark on your spiritual journey, acquire the pre-requisites of detachment towards worldly pleasures, the ability to discriminate the eternal from the non-eternal, equanimity, faith, self-control and the like and overcome the desire for procuring wealth, progeny and fame.
  2. A person becomes good through good karma, and bad through bad karma. Our desires lead to resolves, which lead to Karma. And our karma has good and bad results. But no matter how much good karma we do, their fruit eventually comes to an end. Therefore, he is unfortunate indeed, who leaves this world without seeking to know the Supreme Being.
  3. The Supreme Atman (Innermost Self) cannot be destroyed, it was never born, because it is eternal. It cannot be described completely and adequately, because it is different from everything that we perceive through our senses. It is full of Bliss. A person who experiences this Atman behaves like an innocent child, who is free of guile, jealousy, enmity. And yet, he is full of inner joy, and free of worries and negative emotions.


In his old age, Yajnavalkya decided to become an ascetic and started dividing his property between his two wives – Maitreyi and Katyayani. But the former asked him, “Will this wealth make me immortal?” He replied, “No one can hope for immortality through wealth. It will merely make your life a rich person’s life.” Maitreyi responded, “Then of what use is your wealth to me? Give me the knowledge that will take me to immortality.” Yajnavalkya is very pleased, and he gives her a very detailed discourse on the true basis of love, which is the realization that we all have an underlying unity in the Supreme Being, who abides within the hearts of all of us, and unites us like a string unites several beads and gems into a single necklace. As long as we consider ourselves separate from others, ignoring this underlying unity, we can always rationalize not loving them, be they our spouse, parents, children, or friends. We must love each other for His sake and for our own sake. When we love or hate others, we in fact love or hate our own selves. Therefore, the true basis of love is realizing that we are not really different and separate from each other. It is through knowing this immanent Brahman that we become eternal, joyous and transcend death, sorrow, and ignorance.

This particular episode shows how Hindu Dharma acknowledges women as valid recipients and students of the greatest truths of our faith. India has honored the memory of Gargi and Maitreyi by naming colleges after them in Delhi and in other places.

In Jabala Upanishad, Rishi Yajnavalkya allows the right to become an ascetic to even a young student, provided he has no attachment towards worldly matters. He is also credited with the compilation of a code of Dharma (Yajnavalkya Smriti), which is marked by a very skillful construction of verses. In this work, the Rishi notes that noble intent is also a valid source of Dharma (somewhat parallel to the ‘Good Samaritan Law’ in many societies). He also defends the right of a sonless widow to inherit her deceased husband’s property.


Rishi Yajnavalkya is known as Yogeeshvara (the Lord of Yogis) in the Hindu tradition. His work on Yoga exists even today in at least three different versions. It consists of the Rishi’s instructions on Yoga to Gargi, which demonstrates that ancient Hinduism allowed women to practice this spiritual discipline.

Yajnavalkya’s teachings form the bedrock of Hindu spirituality. In fact, he was one of those Rishis, who placed spirituality at the very core of Hindu Dharma. His own life and teachings demonstrate that spiritual values are the source of religious/ethical norms, and the former are therefore more important than the latter.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Vishal Agarwal

Vishal Agarwal is an independent scholar residing in Minneapolis (USA) with his wife, two children and a dog. He has authored one book and over fifteen book chapters and papers, some in peer reviewed journals, about ancient India and Hinduism.