We find a number of characters like men, women, children, devas, rishis, etc. mentioned in the Vedas. Most of the time these are associated with several incidents/events too. Since Vedantins follow the anAditva and apauruSheyatva of the Vedas, a question arises as to whether these persons/events are fictitious or real ones. For, if we agree that they are real ones we look for a historicity, a time frame in which these events have taken place and the persons have lived. To take them as fictitious would leave us with a kind of disbelief in the Vedas itself, sometimes. Many would like to see these as arthavAda-s, eulogies, or AkhyAyikA-s or stories. For example in the Kathopanishad bhashya at the beginning itself Shankara mentions the story narrated in the upanishad as a background for the teaching of the Self, is an AkhyAyikaa for the stuti of the teaching/vidyA. Yet we see that these events/characters are not simply ignored to give the prime place for the teaching of the tattva. It would be interesting to see how Shankara has commented upon or used these characters/events in the Upanishads.
- In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.10 there is the teaching pertaining to the ‘creation’ of the Veda-s by Brahman. The mantra reads thus:
स यथार्द्रैंधाग्नेरभ्याहितात् पृथग्धूमा विनिश्चरन्त्येवं वा अरेऽस्य महतो भूतस्य निश्वसितमेतद्यदृग्वेदो यजुर्वेदः सामवेदोऽथर्वाङ्गिरस इतिहासः पुराणं विद्या उपनिषदः श्लोकाः सूत्राण्यनुव्याख्यानानि व्याख्यानान्यस्यैवैतानि निश्वसितानि ॥
//”As from a fire kindled with wet fuel various kinds of smoke issue forth, even so, my dear, the Rig—Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Atharvangirasa, history (itihaasa), mythology (purANa), the arts (vidyA), the Upanishads, verses (slokas), aphorisms (sUtras), elucidations (anuvyAkhyAnas) and explanations (vyAkhyAnas) are like the breath of this infinite Reality. From this Supreme Self are all these, indeed, breathed forth.//
Sri Shankaracharya, while commenting on this mantra, writes for the word इतिहासः of the Upanishad: ‘such as the dialogue, etc. between UrvashI and PurUravas – उर्वशी हाप्सरा.’ (Shatapatha brAhmaNa 18.104.22.168).
The Editor of this edition of the Bhashyam, Sri S.Subrahmanya Shastri, in the foot notes writes:
इतिहासः पुराणम् इत्यादौ भाष्ये वेदगत-अर्थवादरूपाणि पुरावृत्तानि ग्राह्याणीत्युक्तम् । भारतादीनामनादिवेदप्रतिपाद्यत्वासंभवात् ।
//By the terms ‘itihAsa and purANam’ of the mantra, the BhAshya intends to say: those statements contained in the Veda-s, as having ‘occurred’ in the ancient times are to be taken. However, the texts of the MahAbhArata, etc. cannot be regarded to be included by these Vedic terms as it would be unreasonable to hold that they have their source in the Vedas.//
- It would be interesting to note in the Kathopanishat, for this opening mantra:
// Vajasravasa, desiring rewards, performed the Visvajit sacrifice, in which he gave away all his property. He had a son named Nachiketa. // the Acharya starts the commentary with the words:
//तत्राख्यायिका विद्यास्तुत्यर्था । // The *story* there is by way of eulogizing the knowledge.//
Here is just one instance where Shankaracharya considers the UpaniShadic character Nachiketas as a ‘real’, human, character: In the UpaniShat there is a mantra 1.1.2 that says this Nachiketas is a ‘kumAra’, a small boy. Shankara comments: तं ह नचिकेतसं कुमारं प्रथमवयसं सन्तं अप्राप्तजननशक्तिं बालमेव ….( while still in the prime of life, still not adolescent, still a mere boy…) By the word अप्राप्तजननशक्तिम् Shankara means: the boy has not attained the capacity to procreate. Now, we see that the Upanishad is describing Nachiketas as a ‘kumaara’ and Shankara explaining it in these terms. It is evident that unless Shankara considers this character Nachiketas as a ‘real’ person, He would not give out such a down-to-earth explanation to inform us the physical stature of the boy. Such examples abound.
- In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Shankara often goes into an in-depth psychological analysis of the personalities involved. The Janaka-Yajnavalkya conversations offer a rich ground for Shankara to probe into the working of the minds of Janaka and Yajnavalkya based on a sentence of the Upanishad.
- In the Brahmasutra there is the ‘apashUdrAdhikaraNam (1.3.34-38). Here the first sutra is: शुगस्य तदनाद्रवश्रवणात् तदाद्रवणात् सूच्यते हि । Here a sentence from the samvargavidyA of the Chandogya Upanishad is taken up for discussion. ’अह हारेत्वा शूद्र तवैव सह गोभिरस्तु’ (छा.४.२.३) Here we have a word ‘shUdra’ in the form of addressing a King named jAnashruti. It would appear that the word shUdra applies to the King’s varNa. But the siddhAntin clarifies that such is not the case. The word has a derivative meaning and not the popular meaning here. On hearing the utterance of the swan, ‘Hullo, who is this one, insignificant as he is, of whom you speak as though he were like Raikva of the chariot?’, which was a personal disparagement for him, the King jAnashruti, grandson of Putra, was struck with grief (‘shuk’). Raikva hinted at this grief by using the word ‘shUdra’, thereby revealing his own power of ‘clairvoyance’. A few more derivative meanings of this word ‘shUdra’ are given in the Bhashyam to conclude that jAnashruti was NOT a shUdra in fact. The next sUtra goes on to prove that this king was indeed a kShatriya. Here the names of certain kShatriyas like AbhipratArin (son of Kakshasena) of the line of Chitraratha, a brahmachArin , Shaunaka of the line of Kapi and the incident when they were being served by a cook are discussed. In the context another shruti passage, from the Taittiriya brAhmaNa 22.12.5 is cited which gives the name of the KApeya-s and Chitraratha. And the bhashya says: for the people of the same lineage generally have the priests of a common descent.
- In the subsequent sutra 1.3.37 the episode of jAbAla is taken up to say: Gautama was inclined to instruct satyakAma when the absence of shUdrahood had been ascertained.
- In the ‘pratardanAdhikaraNam’ of the brahmasutra 1.1.28-31 we have yet another instance to show that the Vedic characters and events are taken up for discussion and determination of something that is not directly the teaching of Atma/BrahmavidyA. There is an episode in the KauShitaki upanishad where we have Indra the teacher giving instruction of the Self to pratardana, the famous son of DivodAsa. The discussion is about whether the teaching was that of prANa or a divine soul (devatA) or a jiva or the supreme Brahman. The adhikarana takes up various arguments to finally conclude that the teaching is about the supreme Brahman. In the run up to this the personality of Indira is taken up for analysis.
- In the Jivanmuktiviveka Swami Vidyaranya takes up for detailed analysis the events and details concerned with Sage Yajnavalkya, as reported in the Brihadaranyaka upanishad so as to determine the kind of person he was and takes up the conclusions of the analysis to establish the need for vAsanaakShaya and manonAsha for the experience of jivanmukti.
From a sample of such instances of the Advaita Acharyas’ bhashya-s we can conclude that the various characters and events discussed in the Veda/Upanishads are treated as though they are certain real ones and not merely fictitious ones deserving no significant treatment. Even though these characters and episodes are sometimes termed as ‘AkhyAyika-s’ occurring in the primary teaching of Brahman-Atman, a number of important corollaries are arrived at by analyzing these events/characters, that are not necessarily brahmavidyA. The determination of the term shUdra cited about stands as a fine example.
ओम् तत् सत्