The Story of Satyakama Jabala in the Chhandogya Upanishad, Part 3: The Realization

After a number of years tending the herd of cows, Satyakama was approached by a bull who indicated to him that the herd had now reached the required number of 1000 cows.  The bull then gave a teaching to Satyakama, followed by teachings from Agni, a Swan and from a “Water Bird”.  All of these are symbolic and all relate to a power of being.  The bull represents Indra, whom Sri Aurobindo calls the lord of Mind.  Agni, the “knower of all things born” represents the physical plane as its sovereign.  The Swan, or hamsa, is the symbol of the Sun, or supreme soul embodied in the world.  The “water bird” represents prana, the life-energy.  These four represent the “fourfold perfection” which we described previously.

Sri T.V. Kapaly Sastry, in Lights on the Upanishads, (pp. 48-50)  comments:  “They, each in his special line, offered to teach and taught him several aspects of Brahman; indeed, he learnt the truths by their grace, received the knowledge so well that when the teacher saw him later, his very person bespoke the light of Brahmic wisdom housed in it.  Joyous, the guru at the request of the disciple bestowed on him the blessings of the final touch for consummation, as if out of regard for the tradition that effective knowledge is usually propagated by the teacher to the disciple….  Satyakama in due course became an adept in his turn and specialised in more than one method of approach to the knowledge of Brahman.”

“The Gods of the Vedic pantheon — Agni, Vayu, Indra, Surya — are frequently mentioned as having a double function as nature-powers in the universe, … and as the lords of the senses, life, mind and other instruments of the soul within us …. Also we must not miss the significance of Satyakama receiving help from the Gods for Brahmavidya while he was under the care of the Guru for that very purpose.. ”

“In the Upanishads the gods are taken for forms of worship of Brahman, to meditate upon.”

We see in the story of Satyakama, the combination of an individual devoted to learning and embodying the highest principles of existence, someone who was dedicated to truth and who carefully followed the path laid out for a disciple to be accepted and receive the deepest esoteric teachings that lead to the realization of Brahman.  At all times he focused on the assigned task with concentration and perseverance, regardless of the obstacles or difficulties or time involved.  At the same time, he was under the guidance of his Guru, even though physically separated, carrying out the task that the Guru had set for him as his path of learning.  This was not a traditional path of instruction, but a practical one that forced Satyakama to find Brahman while remaining entirely involved in the issues of the manifested world.  He needed to understand the identity of the transcendent Brahman and the manifestation in the world.  As he continued his sadhana, he eventually recognised this truth and was thereby able to receive the teachings from the powers that preside over the different planes of existence that make up the world-creation, the powers of mind, life, body and soul.  He was not asked to abandon life, but to learn how to fulfill life in an integral and complete way, challenging his own mind, life and body to attain their perfection under the guidance of his dedicated soul.


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

The Story of Satyakama Jabala in the Chhandogya Upanishad, Part 2: The Sadhana

Having accepted Satyakama as a disciple, the Guru now tasks him with caring for 400 cows.  Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Instead of beginning the instruction of this promising disciple he sends him out with four hundred miserable kine, more likely to die than prosper and increase, and forbids him to return till he has increased them to a thousand.  Wherefore this singular arrangement?  Was it a test?  Was it a discipline?  But Haridrumata had already seen that his new disciple had the high Brahmin qualities.  What more did he require?  The perfect man is a fourfold being and one object of Vedantic discipline is to be the perfect man, siddha.  When Christ said, ‘Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ he was only repeating in popular language the Vedantic teaching of sadharmya, likeness to God.”

Satyakama’s task involved development of all the qualities required for attainment.  He was on his own, in the forest, with 400 weak cattle.  He was a young boy with no prior worldly experience in management, especially in the understanding of the needs of a large number of cattle, finding them the necessary nutrition, keeping them together, nursing them to a state of vibrant health, keeping them safe from predators, sorting out what to do about disease and weather impacts and thus, building a strong herd of 1000 cattle, which involves patience, time and dedication.  He lived an isolated life, had to also take care of his own health, deal with austerities in the form of reduced diet, simple shelter and clothing and the ravages of insects and risk of predators, deal with any issues of illness on his own, and learn how to live with himself in solitude and quiet.  Through this process, in his devotion to the Guru’s admonitions and his desire to attain spiritual realization, he made Nature his teacher, and through observation, receptivity and a quiet mind not filled with dogma, he was able to learn and grow.  We are not told how many years passed by while this process was developing, but it is clear that it was a considerable process over an extended time.

The concept of a perfect man being a fourfold being encompasses the sense that he has developed his mind, purified his vital energy, strengthened and brought under control his physical body and opened his soul to his spiritual truth of being.  The process undertaken by Satyakama succeeded on each of these levels, making him ready for the realization of Brahman.

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

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

The Three Syllables of Udgitha

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section Three, Verses 6-7:  “Thereafter verily ye shall worship the syllables of the Udgitha saying Udgitha and Prana is the first syllable, because one riseth up with the main breath and Speech is the second syllable, because they call Speech that which goeth forth and food is the third syllable, because in food all this Universe is established.  Heaven is the first syllable, the middle air is the second syllable, earth is the third syllable.  The Sun is the first syllable, Air is the second syllable, Fire is the third syllable.  The Samaveda is the first syllable, Yajurveda is the second syllable, Rigveda is the third syllable.  To him Speech is a cow that yieldeth sweet milk — and what is this milking of Speech?  — even that he becometh rich in food and the eater of food who knoweth these and worshippeth the syllables of Udgitha saying lo even this is Udgitha.”

Just as OM can be understood by the individual letters and the symbolic word as a whole, so also Udgitha (OM) is broken down into its component parts to be understood both in its part and as a whole.  In order to express both an outer and an esoteric meaning, the Rishis of the Vedic times went to the root significance of words and syllables.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The words udgitha and udgayati are words in instance.  … in Veda the preposition is still living and joins its verb or separates itself as it pleases; therefore it keeps its full meaning always.  In vedanta the power of separation is lost, but the separate force remains.  Again the roots gi and ga in classical Sanskrit mean to sing and have resigned the sense of going to their kinsman gam; but in Vedic times, the sense of going was still active and common.  … udgitha meant ascension as well as casting upward the voice or the soul in song.  When the Vedic singer said ud gayami, the physical idea was that, perhaps, of the song rising upward, but he had also the psychical idea of the soul rising up in song to the gods and fulfilling in its meeting with them and entering into them its expressed aspiration.”

He continues:  “This then is the meaning of the Upanishad thta OM, the syllable, technically called the Udgitha, is to be meditated on as a symbol of the fourfold Brahman with two objects, the “singing to” of one’s desires and aspirations in the triple manifestation and the spiritual ascension into the Brahman Itself so as to meet and enter into heaven after heaven and even into Its transcendent felicity.”

Sri Aurobindo has elsewhere described the symbolism of the heavens, mid-world and earth as representing the manifestations of mind, life and body.  With this key, the various terms defined herein can be understood.

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

Understanding the Middle Breath as Udgitha, OM.

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section Three, Verses 3-5:  “Thereafter verily ye shall worship Vyana the middle breath as Udgitha.  For when one breathes forth it is Prana, the Main Breath, and when one breathes down it is Apana, the lower breath.  Now this which is the joint and linking of the main breath and the lower breath, is Vyana — and Vyana, it is Speech.  Therefore ’tis when one neither breatheth forth nor breatheth down that one giveth utterance to Speech.  But Speech is the Rik — therefore ’tis when one neither breatheth out nor breatheth in that one uttereth the Rik.  And Rik it is Sama — therefore ’tis when one neither breatheth out nor breatheth in that one chanteth the Sama.  But Sama it is Udgitha — therefore ’tis when one neither breatheth out nor breatheth in that one singeth Udgitha.  Hence whatsoever actions there be that are of might and forcefulness as smiting out fire from the tinder or leaping a great barrier or the bending a stark and mighty bow, it is when one neither breatheth out nor breatheth in that one doeth these.  And for this cause ye shall worship the middle breath as Udgitha.”

Prana is recognised both the primary force in the manifestation, as well as the primary breath in the individual being.  In order to distinguish different internal actions, this Prana is denoted by different names based on the function it takes on in the body.  Vyana, the breath-pervasor, is the link between Prana and Apana, the main breath and the lower breath.  These verses focus on Vyana as the link between these other forms, and point out that Speech and chanting the verses of the Veda, and concentration on any intense function occur while one is holding one’s breath.  Holding the breath is a function of Vyana as it spans the gap between the inward and the outward breath.

If we observe ourselves closely, we note that whenever we concentrate intensely on anything we tend to hold our breath.  Many exercises in Pranayama include extended conscious control of the breathing with “holds” introduced between the intake and expulsion of air.  These holds can be of considerable length and are considered essential to gaining control over the movement of energy in the consciousness and the activation of the energies of the various chakras.  Note that pranayama practices by those without training or guidance can lead to severe disturbances to the health and wellness of the being, the body-mind complex, so it is important to understand the functions and the consequences of any actions taken in this regard.  What we are looking at here are the natural activities of the body and the breath when any strenuous focus or effort is undertaken, which shows us the role of the middle breath in moderating the link between body, vital force and mind.

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

Prana and the Sun of Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section Three, Verses 1-2:  “Thereafter concerning the Gods.  Lo yonder burning fire in the heavens, worship ye Him as the Udgitha; for the Sun riseth and singeth his bright hymn unto the peoples.  Yea he riseth, and darkness is slain and its terror — therefore shall he be a slayer of the terror and the darkness, he who thus knoweth.  Breath and the Sun are one and alike — for the one is heat and the other is heat, and they call Breath the mover and the Sun too they call the mover and also the mover that returneth upon his paths they call him — therefore ye shall worship both the one and the other as Udgitha.”

The Upanishads are closely related to the Veda and claim to be the “secret of the Veda”.  The Chhandogya Upanishad, one of the most ancient of the Upanishads, aligns closely to the Veda in its use of the vedic symbolism.  In his Secret of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo reveals the dual nature of the Vedic symbols.  There is an external sense that hides the inner, esoteric meaning of the teachings from those who are not prepared for the inner realisation.  The sun, in its esoteric sense, represents the light and power of consciousness.  Sri M. P. Pandit compiled statements of Sri Aurobindo in Vedic Symbolism.  The Sun is described as “The Godhead of the supreme Truth and Knowledge and his rays are the light emanating from that supreme Truth and Knowledge.”  “The Sun is the master of the supreme Truth — truth of being, truth of knowledge, truth of process and act and movement and functioning.  He is therefore the creator or rather the manifester of all things — for creation is outbringing, expression by the Truth and Will — and the father, fosterer, enlightener of our souls.”

We can see now how the Sun is equated with Prana, the force of creation in the universe.  Udgitha is OM, the syllable of the Eternal, both in its transcendence and in its manifested aspect.  The light and power put forth by the Eternal to manifest, and illuminate the worlds is that OM, Udgitha.  The light of knowledge removes the darkness of ignorance.   Terror arises from ignorance of the Oneness of creation, the darkness of consciousness that lets the individual believe it is separated from that Oneness.  The Taittiriya Upanishad reminds us “But when the Spirit that is within us maketh for himself even a little difference in the Eternal, then he hath fear, yea, the Eternal himself becometh a terror to such a knower who thinketh not.”  The Sun symbolises the illumination that overcomes the sense of separation with the knowledge of unity; thus, it overcomes the terror of the darkness of ignorance.

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

OM and Prana, the Power of Manifestation of the Eternal

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section Two, Verses 10-14:  “Angiras worshipped OM as breath in the mouth and men think of Breath in the mouth as Angiras because it is essence of the members of the body.  By the strength of Angiras, Brihaspati worshipped OM as Breath in the mouth, and men think of the Breath as Brihaspati, because Speech is the great goddess and Breath is the lord of Speech.  By the strength of Brihaspati, Ayasya worshipped OM as Breath in the mouth and men think of the Breath as Ayasya, because ’tis from the mouth it cometh.  By the strength of Ayasya, Baka the son of Dalbha knew the Breath.  And he became the Chanter of the Sama among the Naimishiyas and he chanteth their desires for them unto fulfilment.  Verily he becometh a chanter unto fulfilment of the desires of men who with this knowledge worshippeth OM of Udgitha, the eternal syllable.  Thus far concerning Self is the exposition.”

Shankara notes that Angirasa comes from the words “anga” and “rasa”, meaning the essence of the organs, or the Prana, which is the manifesting force of the Eternal, and one with the Eternal.  This provides the key to understanding the symbolism here.  Similarly, Brihaspati, the Lord of Speech, would also be a name that symbolizes the Prana.

If we go to the underlying sense of Brihaspati, In the Rig Veda, “Brihat” means great, or vast, as Sri Aurobindo has translated it.  “Pati” means lord.  So Brihaspati also is the Lord of the Vastness or Greatness, which again equates with the Eternal.

Speech proceeds from the Prana.  The name Ayasya comes from a root that means inexhaustible, and is also an epithet for Prana.  Once again, it comes back to the sense of worshipping OM as the Eternal, Prana as the Eternal, and in so doing, achieving all the results sought for in life and action in the manifested world.  It is important to note the last sentence provides a key in advising us that this discussion relates to the “Self”.


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

Worshipping OM as the Eternal Manifesting in the World as Prana

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section Two, Verses 7-9:  “Then the Gods worshipped OM as this which is Breath in the mouth and the Demons rushing against it dashed themselves to pieces; as when an object striketh against firm and solid rock, it dasheth to pieces upon the rock.  And even as an object hurling against firm and solid rock dasheth itself to pieces, so he hurleth himself upon destruction whose desireth evil against the Knower or whose doeth him hurt; for the Knower is as that firm and solid rock.  With this Breath one cogniseth neither sweet scent nor ill odour, for it hath flung Evil from it.  Whatsoever one eateth with this or drinketh, thereby it cherisheth the other breaths.  At the end and last when he findeth not the breath, the Spirit goeth out from the body; verily he openeth wide the mouth as he goeth.”

The “breath in the mouth” symbolically represents Prana, the original energy of the Eternal that manifests the universe.  While the breath in the nostrils is one of the subsidiary sense functions and thus, can experience both “good” and “bad” scents, the breath in the mouth is independent of this sense function.  The Eternal, worshipped as OM, in the form of its energy of manifestation is impervious to the action of fragmentation, division, individual desire which is what underlies the action of the demons called “evil” and thus, represents the true fulfillment of the aspiration of the higher forces in the evolutionary creation.

When this “breath” is present, there is life in the body and when it departs, then the body dies and disintegrates back into its constituent elements.

The “Knower” of this breath resides in the status of the Brahman and thus is not able to be misled or drawn out from his knowledge of the Eternal; thus making him impervious to the action of the demonic energies of the fragmented view of the lower nature seeking its own self-aggrandisement as if it is separate from the Oneness of the universal creation.

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

The Struggle Between Good and Evil in Human Psychology

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section Two, Verses 1-6: “The Gods and the Demons strove together and both were children of the Almighty Father.  Then the Gods took up for weapon OM of Udgitha, for they said, ‘With this we shall overcome these Titans.’  The Gods worshipped OM as Breath in the nostrils; but the Demons came and smote it with the arrow of Evil; therefore it smelleth both alike, the sweet scent and the evil odour.  For it is smitten through and through with Evil.  Then the Gods worshipped OM as Speech; but the Demons came and smote it with the arrow of Evil; therefore it speaketh both alike, Truth and Falsehood.  For it is smitten through and through with Evil.  Then the Gods worshipped OM as the Eye; but the Demons came and smote it with the arrow of Evil; therefore it beholdeth both alike, the fair to see and the foul of favour.  For it is smitten through and through with Evil.  Then the Gods worshipped OM as the Ear; but the Demons came and smote it with the arrow of Evil; therefore it heareth both alike, that which is well to hear and that which is harsh and unseemly.  For it is smitten through and through with Evil.  Then the Gods worshipped Udgitha as Mind; but the Demons came and smote it with the arrow of Evil; therefore it conceiveth both alike, right thoughts and unlawful imaginations.  For it is smitten through and through with Evil.”

The symbolism of the gods and the titans is tied to the internal focus and direction of the being, the force of impulsion of the individual either towards light, growth and advancement, increase of knowledge and oneness with the Eternal, or towards self-aggrandizement, egoistic fulfillment of desire and the darkness of the unenlightened vital nature.  The gods express their aspiration through focus on OM.  When this is applied, however, to the instruments of the manifestation, the sense organs and the mind, this focus is generally overwhelmed by the demands of the physical and vital nature.  This is called being “smitten with Evil”.  Evil in this sense is not a moral judgment, based on some specific social mores, but a description of the focus and direction and limitation of the being which tries to achieve its separate fulfillment from the rest of the creation of which it is a part and partial expression, in other words, a false or “unlawful imagination”.

This describes the difference between “good” and “evil” and the complexity of human nature with both an outward and downward urge and an upward and inward aspiration.

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

The Significance of OM for the Seeker of Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter One, Section One, Verses 9-10:  “By OM the triple knowledge proceedeth; with OM the priest reciteth the Rik, with OM he pronounceth the Yajur, with OM he chanteth the Sama.  And all this is for the heaping up of the Imperishable and by the greatness of It and the delightfulness.  He doeth works by OM who hath the knowledge, and he also who hath it not; but these are diverse, the Knowledge and the Ignorance.  Whatso work one doeth with knowledge, with faith and with the secret of Veda, it becometh to him more virile and mighty.  This is the exposition of the eternal letters.”

The references to the sacrificial chants of the Rig-veda, Yajur-veda and Sama-veda have, once again, a two-fold purpose.  The outer purpose is to explain the significance of OM in the rituals, the inner purpose is to remind the seeker that all of these actions are based in and founded upon the Eternal Brahman.

There is a debate then as to whether rote effort done in ignorance has the same result as a similar action done with knowledge.  The Vedic Rishis clearly indicate that knowledge makes the work more powerful and fruitful of result.  Either way, the power of OM is operative, as it is the Eternal Brahman.  We can see this in everyday work-life.  Some people work at a job as a mechanical or rote process and they tend to “get the job done” but do not grow or advance quickly as a result.  Others may undertake the same job, but with an intention and insight to understand its principles of action and apply them.  These individuals turn the job into a growth opportunity and advance more swiftly along the way.  Similarly, anything undertaken with ignorance of its action and goal is subject to deviations and errors that can mitigate to a great degree the end result.  By applying knowledge and insight, the result can come more directly.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “This then is the meaning of the Upanishad that OM, the syllable, technically called the Udgitha, is to be meditated on as a symbol of the fourfold Brahman with two objects, the ‘singing to’ of one’s desires and aspirations in the triple manifestation and the spiritual ascension into the Brahman Itself so as to meet and enter into heaven after heaven and even into Its transcendent felicity.  For, it says, with the syllable OM one begins the chant of the Sama-veda, or, in the esoteric sense, by means of the meditation on OM one makes this soul-ascension and becomes master of all the soul desires.  It is in this aspect and to this end that the Upanishad will expound OM.  To explain Brahman in Its nature and workings, to teach the right worship and meditation on Brahman, to establish what are the different means of attainment of different results and the formulae of the meditation and worship, is its purpose.”

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