Friday, April 26, 2019

The Story of Uddalaka – Aruni

The story of Uddalaka-Aruni, the Vedic Rishi of Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, drawn from the Mahabharata.

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निधये सर्वविद्यानां भिषजे भवरोगिणाम् ।
गुरवे सर्वलोकानां दक्षिणामूर्तये नमः ॥

Salutations to Dakshinamurthy the Guru,
Who is the teacher of all the world |
Who is the doctor for all diseases
And who is the storehouse of all knowledge ||

One would be hard-pressed to find a better or a loftier conception of the philosophy and principle of Guru in all of human civilization than this. Perhaps of all the surviving cultures in the world, it is only Bharatavarsha that still cherishes and has maintained its sacred tradition of Guru-Shishya unbroken to this day. Indeed, the Guru-Shishya tradition is an outstanding, original gift that our Sanatana civilisation and culture has given to the world. There is a reason why this culture has dedicated an entire festival that celebrates this tradition: the Vyasa Purnima or the Guru Purnima. Indeed, there are an infinite number of stories, ballads, legends, and songs composed over at least three millennia extolling this sacred tradition.

One such story is that of Uddalaka-Aruni.

Our tradition reveres Aruni as one of the most exalted Vedic Rishis, whose discourses and meditations occur in the foremost Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya. The most famous Vedantic Mahavakya (great philosophical aphorisms or phrases), “Tat Tvam Asi” was said to be imparted by Aruni in a discourse to his son, Svetaketu in the ChandogyaUpanishad. The celebrated Rishi Yagnavalkya was a disciple of Aruni. Uddalaka-Aruni is also one of the Acharyas in the Sama Veda tradition.

This is the story of Uddalaka-Aruni, the Brahmacharin, the student before he went on to become a Rishi. It is a model, a motivation and an eternal inspiration. And a lived demonstration of our Guru-Shishya tradition, which Radhakumud Mookherjee has described so beautifully:

The teacher holds the pupil within him as in a womb, impregnates him with his spirit, and delivers in him a new birth. [this is the birth of knowledge]. This conception of education moulds its external forms. The pupil must find the teacher. He must live with him as a member of his family and is treated…as his son. The school is a natural formation, not artificially constituted…It is a hermitage, aid sylvan surroundings, beyond the distractions of urban life, functioning in solitude and silence. The constant and intimate association between teacher and student is vital to this education…the pupil is to imbibe the inward method of the teacher, the secrets of his efficiency, the spirit of his life and these things are too subtle to be taught.

This story of Uddalaka-Aruni occurs in the Paushya Parva of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata.

Rishi Ayoda-Dhaumya like all Vedic Rishis and preceptors taught and nurtured numerous disciples in his Gurukulam. Of these, three disciples were most notable: Upamanyu, Aruni and Veda. Aruni hailed from Panchala.

On occasion, Dhaumya was informed that there was a breach in the watercourse of his field as a result of which water would flood and destroy his crop. Dhaumya summoned Aruni and instructed him to look into the matter and to close the breach. Aruni bowed to him and hurried away as ordered by his Guru. When he arrived at the field, he saw that the breach was completely broken and that he could not repair it by the usual means and felt distressed at his inability to carry out his Guru’s orders. Aruni thought about it for a long time and finally found a solution.

He would himself plug the breach.

Accordingly, he walked up to the breach and lay down, his body acting as the embankment and wall preventing the water from flowing into his Guru’s fields. Evening descended and then night. Aruni lay in that position unmoving. Throughout the night. And the next morning.

In the morning, Dhaumya noticed that Aruni had not returned. He asked his other disciples where he was and whether anybody had seen him. One of the pupils replied, “Acharya, you had sent him to stop the breach in the field yesterday. We have not seen him since. I think he must have stayed back there.” So Dhaumya said, “Is that so? Then let’s all go there and search for him.”

Soon, all of them reached the field, looked around but couldn’t locate Aruni. Dhaumya called out, “Ho! Aruni of Panchala! Where are you? Wherever you are, come here!”  The moment Aruni heard his Guru’s voice, he replied from afar, “Acharya, I am guarding the watercourse with my body because there was no means to repair it and prevent the water from flooding and destroying your field. If I get up, the water will flood in and ruin your field. So I am sorry I cannot get up.” Hearing his voice, Ayoda-Dhaumya rushed to the spot and saw his young pupil blocking the breach with his body…for hours on end, braving the cold, bitter night and morning.

Dhaumya was overwhelmed by this pupil’s unwavering and unqualified devotion towards his Acharya and told him, “O Aruni, by this act of your supreme reverence, you have won over your Guru. You can get up now. And as a mark of you getting up and opening the watercourse, you shall be known as Uddalaka henceforth. Further because you have obeyed my words without a single question, you will obtain great fortune and respect in this world. All the Vedas and the Dharmashastras will shine within you!” As I mentioned in the beginning, this is just one among the countless such episodes of our unbroken Guru-Shishya tradition. When we observe this and contrast it with our own time, the true extent of our downfall becomes clear as daylight. To the extent that this tradition is thoughtlessly, routinely mocked in what is known as popular culture. One wonders what the contemporary definition of “culture” is if this abysmal state of affairs is known as “popular.”

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, and translator. Author of the bestselling "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." English translator of Dr. S L Bhyrappa's blockbuster Kannada novel, "Aavarana".