A Dialogue between Shwetaketu & Uddalaka – An Interesting Episode from Chandogya Upanishad

Our Upanishads have an interesting way to convey the Ultimate Truth. Very often they are written in the form of a dialogue between a Guru and his disciple. Chandogya Upanishad has a famous chapter(NO.6) which is presented in the form of a dialogue between Shwetaketu and his father Uddalaka. Here is a brief account of the interesting start to the chapter 6:

As was the norm during the Vedic period, Shwetaketu was sent off to learn Shastras under an able Guru. The study usually starts at the age of 12 and goes on for 12 years. Shwetaketu completed his 12-year study and returned at the age of 24 having completed the study of Shastras. He was a brilliant student and his mastery of Shastras was complete. And the best part was that he knew of his brilliance. So, when he returned home after the studies, he developed a great sense of pride and arrogance. He mastered all the Vedas and Vedangas(Phonetics,etymology,grammar etc). His sense of arrogance was quite evident from the manner of his talking and his body language. This was instantly noticed by his father Uddalaka. He knew of the brilliance of his son and was pretty certain about his accomplishments. But at the same time, he was a worried man since he could sense his son’s misplaced sense of pride from the way he was walking and talking.
Uddalaka considered various options to make him understand. Should he question on his learnings or start a discourse on his behaviour? Uddalaka knew that his son was capable of answering any question on Shastras or Grammar which he mastered. That would only make him more arrogant. So, he decided to ask a question on a subject on which Shwetaketu may not have an answer. What could that be, he wondered. Uddalaka at once realized that the subject that might be alien to Shwetaketu could only be one. That is, Vedanta. How could he guess? Uddalaka was quite confident that whoever studied and assimilated Vedanta would never conduct himself the way Shwetaketu did. Therefore, he decided to put a question on Vedanta. Again the challenge was to find an appropriate question which would serve as a door to understanding Vedanta. The following interesting dialogue takes place between Uddalaka and his son Shwetaketu.

Uddalka: Dear Shwetaketu, did you expose yourself to the knowledge from your Guru by knowing which everything else becomes known?(meaning the knowledge which is the basis and source of all knowledge)
Shwetaketu: No, I don’t think my Guru knew it. Otherwise he would have taught me.

This is a completely unwarranted and an even irresponsible response from Shwetaketu. Shankara, in his commentary, gives him the benefit of doubt and says humourously: Perhaps Shwetaketu was afraid that his father would send him back to his Guru for another 12 years of study. This response from Shwetaketu showed his lack of emotional maturity. The conversation went further like this:

Uddalaka: Dear Son, did you ask for this knowledge?
Shwetaketu: Pray tell, does such a knowledge exist?
Uddalaka: Yes, indeed.
Shwetaketu requested his father to teach him that knowledge.
Uddalaka, then, begins his teaching.

This episode calls for some analysis:
Firstly, Shwetaketu behaved like anyone else of his age. Knowledge brought in its wake arrogance. His father was quick to see this and became worried. Why? He knew that arrogance of knowledge is equal to ignorance – ignorance of the most precious knowledge. He knew that only people who are ignorant of Vedanta would exhibit such an arrogance. So, Uddalaka was quite sure that his son did not study Vedanta under his Guru. His first task was to see that his son learnt to be humble. How did he handle this? Had he asked him questions on what he already learnt and knew, he would only display his mastery further fuelling his pride of learning. So, he employed a clever ploy of asking a question about which Shwetaketu did not have any clue. The way Uddalaka framed this question was very interesting. As we have already seen, he asked his son:Did you expose yourself to the knowledge by knowing which everything else becomes known? Shwetaketu was instantly floored by this question and was all at sea. His reaction to the question completely exposed his immaturity. He said: ‘I don’t think my Guru knew it’. Not accepting this answer, Uddalaka persisted: Son, Did you ask for this knowledge(of Vedanta). At this point all his defenses crumbled. He felt humbled and inquired whether such a knowledge existed. Then Uddalaka begins his teaching.

As the tradition goes,the knowledge of Vedanta is not to be taught unless a student passionately seeks it.That also explains why his first Guru did not bother to teach him Vedanta, although he taught him everything else.

The rest of the teaching in this chapter is also in the form of a dialogue between the father and the son. These are amazing verses brilliantly handled and unfolded by Swami Dayananda Saraswathi in his lectures.

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Published in: on November 15, 2014 at 4:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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