The Story of Satyakama Jabala in the Chhandogya Upanishad, Part 1: Overview and Introduction

Sri Aurobindo comments on the story of Satyakama Jabala from the Chhandogya Upanishad: “The story of Satyakama is one of the most typical in the Upanishad.  It is full of sidelights on early Vedantic teaching, Yogic sadhana and that deep psychical knowledge which the writer took for granted in the hearers of his work.  So much knowledge, indeed, is thus taken for granted that it is impossible for anyone not himself a practitioner of Yoga, to understand anything but its broad conclusions.”

Satyakama was a great sage of the Vedantic times.  The story in the Upanishad begins with what appear to be his inauspicious status, but he was, as his name indicates a “lover of truth” (or “desirous of truth”), from the roots satya (truth) and kama (love or desire).  The story goes that he approached his mother to find out about his antecedents, as he wanted to become a disciple of a Guru to achieve realization of the Brahman.  His mother declared that his caste and clan was unknown as she had been a serving woman unto many households in her youth and she did not know who his father was.  She sent him along telling him that her name was Jabala and his Satyakama, so he should declare himself as Satyakama Jabala to the Guru, which he then did.

The Guru recognized his innate qualities by virtue of the fact that he recited what would be considered to be “shameful” lineage, being born to a serving woman who had had relations with numerous men in her youth and did not know the father or the lineage.  The Guru indicated that only someone with the qualities of a Brahmin, someone who was focused on achieving knowledge and truth, would provide such a response.  He therefore accepted him as his disciple.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Satyakama, as we gather from other passages, was one of teh great Vedantic teachers of the time immediately previous to the composition of the Chhandogya Upanishad. … It appears from this story as from others that, although the system of the four castes was firmly established, it counted as no obstacle in the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual advancement.  The Kshatriya could teach the Brahmin, the illegitimate and fatherless son of the serving-girl could be guru to the purest and highest blood in the land.  This is nothing new or improbable, for it has been so throughout the history of Hinduism and the shutting out of anyone from spiritual truth and culture on the ground of caste is an invention of later times.  In the nature of things the usual rule would be for the greater number of spiritual preceptors to be found in the higher castes, but this was the result of natural laws and not a fixed prohibition. … In sort the Gautama concludes that, whatever may be Satyakama’s physical birth, spiritually he is of the highest order and especially fitted for a sadhaka; he did not depart from the truth.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Chhandogya Upanishad, pp.349-366

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