Shvetaketu (श्वेतकेतुः)

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श्वेतकेतु || Shvetaketu, the son of Uddalaka (Aruneya or son of Aruna) was a Brahmana and the grandson of sage Aruni. He represents the quintessential seeker of knowledge. The Upanishads entail the journey of Shvetaketu from ignorance to knowledge of the self and truth (sat).

About Shvetaketu

Smritis refer to Shvetaketu as a Maharsi.

  1. Birth: Shvetaketu was the son of the sage Aruni or Uddalaka who was born in the Gautama clan. Shvetaketu had a sister named Sujata. Astavakra was her son by the sage, Kahotaka. Thus Shvetaketu was Astavakra's maternal uncle. Shvetaketu and Astavakra grew up together in Uddalaka's ashrama. (See under Astavakra) .
  2. Pride perishes: Under his father's training Shvetaketu became a great scholar. With the increase in his scholarship, he became very proud. The father who understood this called him to his side and asked him:- By studying all about what you can see, hear and understand, have you learnt anything about what you cannot see, hear or understand? Shvetaketu admitted that he did not know. Then Uddalaka explained to him the mystery of Paramatma (universal soul) which is without beginning or end. (Chandogyopanisad). Once an acarya named Jatukarnya became the priest of the Kings of KasI, Kosala and Videha. Shvetaketu who was angry at this complained bitterly to his father. Then Uddalaka reminded his son that priests should yearn for wisdom instead of being attracted by worldly pleasures.
  3. Acharya of Yajna Rules: In Kausitaki Brahmana, Shvetaketu is described as the Acarya of the rules of Yajna. He has laid down definite rules and procedures for priests officiating in Yaygnas along with introducing the different customs and practices to be observed by Brahmacarins and tapasvins. Early dharmasastra which prohibited food of sweet taste to Brahmacharins was repudiated by Shvetaketu (Gopatha Brahmana, 1.33 ; Sarhkhyayana Brahmana, 1.33).
  4. Author of Kamasastra: Shvetaketu abridged the original work on Kamasastra by Nandi, into 500 chapters. This was further abridged after some years by Babhravya. It was after abridging it again and adding Dattakacarya's "Vaisika" and Suvarnanabha's Samprayogika etc., that Vatsyayana composed his famous treatise Kamasutra. It can be said that the basis of Vatsyayana's Kamasutra was the works of Babhravya and Shvetaketu on Kamasastra.
  5. Marriage rules: It has been observed that the first person who raised his voice against the evils of drinking and adultery by the Brahmana community was Shvetaketu. There is a story in the Mahabharata about the fact which prompted him to bring marriage within the framework of law. Shvetaketu was Uddalaka's son, born to his wife by one of his disciples. (Mahabharata Santi Parva, Chapter 35, Verse 22). Once his mother was abducted by a Brahmana. This incident inspired him to make stringent laws insisting on monogamy for men and women.

Scriptural Context

The context of Shvetaketu appears in three principal (mukhya) Upanishads, namely, the

  1. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad S. 6.2.1 to 6.2.8
  2. Chandogya Upanishad S.5.3
  3. Kausitaki Brahmana S.1.

Shvetaketu is the recipient of the knowledge enshrined in the Upanishad mahavakya which appears in the sixteen chapters of the 6th section (Prapathaka) of the Chandogya Upanishad.

Mahabharata Santi Parva, Chapter 35, Verse 22 also talks about Shvetaketu's story.


The Five Questions

As per the छान्दोग्य उपनिषद् (Chandogya Upanishad) of the Sama Veda (5-3), Shvetaketu, once came to the assembly of Panchalas, whose reigning monarch was Pravahana Jaivali. The King asks Shvetaketu whether he was initiated in Brahmavidya or given ब्रह्मोपदेशः (brahmopadesha). To gauge his understanding of ब्रह्मविद्या (Brahmavidya) the king asks him the following five questions.

  1. From here (this लोक-loka) where do the people go (after death)?
  2. How do the dead come back?
  3. At what point do the paths of the देवयान (journey to the deva loka post death) and पित्रयान (journey to Pritr loka post death) get separated?
  4. Why do fewer jivatmas attain पित्र् लोक (loka of ancestors)?
  5. In Panchagni, पञ्चाग्नि. the fifth ahuti (oblation), how does Apa Tattva get the name of Purusha?

Shvetaketu thought himself to be a ब्रह्मज्ञानिन् (brahma jnani) yet did not have a clue to the King’s questions. The King so questions his claim to be a ब्रह्मज्ञानिन् and so humiliated, Shvetaketu returns home to question his father Uddalaka: Bhagavan, you claimed to have given me all knowledge, yet you did not?

Shvetaketu continued: I was not able to answer even one of the questions of that (kshatrabandhu-relative of kshatriya)? So saying he put forth the five questions posed by the King to his father. The Father replies: "I do not know the answer to these questions, if I knew, would I not tell you"? So both the father and son go to King Pravahna’s assembly to seek knowledge. The guests were received with hospitality and after that the King humbly requested,

Bhagavan (as a brahmin usually was addressed), you can ask for any kind of wealth that is within the means of a human being?

Here the implication is that the क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya can give material wealth to the Brahmana but ब्रह्मविद्या as per the prevailing वर्णव्यवस्था (social order) was usually respected as the brahmana’s domain. Notably, contrary to the still continuing popular perception invented by the EIC Indologists and their Indian Sepoys, वर्ण || Varna (translated wrongly as caste) was determined by संस्कार and not parentage.

But Shvetaketu and his father were not there for material wealth, they had come to receive ब्रह्मविद्या from the क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya King. Uddalaka humbly requested the King, Please bestow upon us, the answer for the questions you asked my son.

Before accepting Uddalaka and Shvetaketu as his disciples the King had to set down the rules as the reigning system did not allow knowledge to be imparted to

  • anyone who stayed outside the precincts of the गुरुकुल,
  • unfamiliar persons,
  • a person who lacks the अधिकार (aptitude) to acquire knowledge.

So the King requested Uddalaka & his son to stay at his palace. And through many years the King imparted knowledge to both Uddalaka & Shvetaketu.

Responses to these questions were provided through explanation of Panchagni vidya, which also included explanations of devayan (journey to the deva loka post death) and pitruyan (journey to Pitr loka post death) as well as of panca maha yajna. This was the explanation provided by the king as the essence of Brahmavidya

As an introduction to पञ्चाग्निविद्या, the क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya King told the brahmin,

"you are the first one amongst the Brahmans to receive the knowledge of this ब्रह्मविद्या, up until now it was known only to Kshatriyas."

This story clearly reveals that in the Vedic period even Kshatriyas were well versed in Brahmavidya debunking the Caste-system hierarchies of the East India Company Indologists’ insinuation that Brahmins' were the only custodians of knowledge.

References

  1. Puranic Encycolpedia by Vettam Mani
  2. The Mahabharata of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, Volume 1, location 5060
  3. Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads [1]. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. 1972.