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“Can I be happy, immortal and satisfied through things?” asks Maitreyī of her husband Yājñavalkya as he informs his wife that he is leaving the household to pursue the last phase of life, the phase of renunciation.
He is leaving, yet he made sure that her life is one of physical comfort.
This is the start of India’s oldest Upanishad the BrihadAranyaka Upanishad. With a husband and wife sharing a conversation about the deeper meaning of life.
There are 108 Upanishads. Extensions to the Vedas, which basically answer your most basic question: ‘who are you, and what are you suppose to be doing in this life?’
In the process it offers practices such as rituals to help bring about this answer.
Metaphors and insight into the connection between Earth and Stars, animals and humans, life and death are prevalent both in the Vedas and the Upanishads.
The BrihadAranyaka Upanishads is a beautiful example of such interplay.
Known as the Great Forest Upanishad, you also learn that these teachings are done through direct student and teacher connection. The power of the Internet today is its ability to present the Upanishads and a variety of commentaries, revealing the scope of their insight
When Yājñavalkya recognizes that his wife is actually interested in the subject of what is life really about, and does wealth and comfort equal immortality, he is astounded.
This theme that we must choose to know, that we must have the desire to discover what lies beyond this life is an important theme in the Upanishad.
While the main theme is the discovery of the Supreme Self, each chapter offers a different example of how this expresses itself in the universe and in human development.
When I first read the Upanishad I was astounded by the images and the ideas of this world as a sacrificial horse. Each part of the horse is important, as each aspect of the external reality is important. Yet there is something that is beyond the distinction of parts. The sacrifice itself is to reveal that which is unseen.
The second chapter, with the real life example through Maitreyī and her husband that continues to offer a glimpse into human and social condition through today.
Maitreyī is not lesser than her husband because she is a woman. Nor is she any less because she may not care about the question of life after death.
There is no judgment in Yājñavalkya response, only a deep excitement that his beloved is interested in the question of life beyond material wealth.
You are offered a glimpse that life 3000 years ago was not that different than life today. Most people still worry about physical comfort. In fact the Upanishad in some regards extols that one should spend 3 portions of their life in creating physical comfort, before choosing to retire and seek renunciation. That’s why Yājñavalkya shares with his wife: ‘I never expected you to ask me about such matters when I am leaving you with immense comfort and wealth.’
Though he is very honest and informs her that in fact, no physical wealth or comfort can alleviate the fear and doubt that lives in everyone, rich or poor.
He then begins to share with Maitreyī the secret of all things.
From this point the Upanishad goes into the connection between things that are temporary and things that are eternal.
That which we see with the eye, things that are controlled by time, ideas about ownership and possessions, all aspects that are temporary, and how to develop the skill to discover the eternal, that which never changes.
Where gender and class differences often plague the history in India and in the West, the BrihadAranyaka Upanishad stands not only as a testemant to the impermanence of things, but also to the fact that in ancient Vedantic times there was awareness that there is no difference, and no cause to create separation, based on gender or class.
There is only the desire to know what lies beyond this life or not.
That is a choice you make every moment in Yoga. Do you notice the fullness of life in your Inhale? Are you conscious of the life you have when you Exhale?
Are you aware of that place that is of light, truth, peace and joy that is constantly inside of you?
Such that when you find that center, and I find that center, there is only One of Us.
That is the meaning of the word Namaste.
The BrihadAranyaka Upanishad is the oldest Upanishad to define and describe this essence known as ‘One of Us.’
As the great Jewish Mystic and Rabbi “The Baal Shem Tov’ once responded to a heckler asking if the bible can be learned standing on one foot. The Rabbi smiled and said ‘indeed it can be! The entire bible can be summarized into: ‘do not do unto another what you would not do unto yourself. Everything else is a commentary. Now go and study!’
You must love yourself so deeply that there is no difference between you and another. Then there is nothing you will do to another person that you will not do to yourself. What a powerful statement of Love.
The power of Yājñavalkya love for Maitreyī shines as he shares with her the same secret the great Rabbi shared with the crowd.
The rest is commentary.
Now you go and study.