[Advaita-l] Are Vedic Characters and events fictitious?

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Sun Jul 15 07:35:29 CDT 2012

We find a number of characters like men, women, children, devas, rishis,
etc. mentioned in the Vedas.   Most of the time these are associated with
several incidents/events too.  Since Vedantins follow the anAditva and
apauruSheyatva of the Vedas, a question arises as to whether these
persons/events are fictitious or real ones.  For, if we agree that they are
real ones we look for a historicity, a time frame in  which these events
have taken place and the persons have lived.  To take them as fictitious
would leave us with a kind of disbelief in the Vedas itself, sometimes.  Many
would like to see these as arthavAda-s, eulogies, or AkhyAyikA-s or stories.
For example in the Kathopanishad bhashya at the beginning itself Shankara
mentions the story narrated in the upanishad as a background for the
teaching of the Self, is an AkhyAyikaa for the stuti of the teaching/vidyA.
Yet we see that these events/characters are not simply ignored to give the
prime place for the teaching of the tattva.  It would be interesting to see
how Shankara has commented upon or used these characters/events in the

   - In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.10 there is the teaching
   pertaining to the ‘creation’ of the Veda-s by Brahman.  The mantra reads

स यथार्द्रैंधाग्नेरभ्याहितात् पृथग्धूमा विनिश्चरन्त्येवं वा अरेऽस्य महतो
भूतस्य निश्वसितमेतद्यदृग्वेदो यजुर्वेदः सामवेदोऽथर्वाङ्गिरस इतिहासः पुराणं
विद्या उपनिषदः श्लोकाः सूत्राण्यनुव्याख्यानानि व्याख्यानान्यस्यैवैतानि
निश्वसितानि ॥

//”As from a fire kindled with wet fuel various kinds of smoke  issue
forth, even so, my dear, the Rig—Veda, the Yajur-Veda,  the Sama-Veda, the
Atharvangirasa,  history  (itihaasa), mythology (purANa), the arts (vidyA),
the Upanishads, verses  (slokas), aphorisms (sUtras), elucidations
(anuvyAkhyAnas) and  explanations (vyAkhyAnas) are like the breath of this
infinite  Reality. From this Supreme Self are all these, indeed, breathed

Sri Shankaracharya, while commenting on this mantra, writes for the word
इतिहासः of the Upanishad: ‘such as the dialogue, etc. between UrvashI and
PurUravas -   उर्वशी हाप्सरा.’ (Shatapatha brAhmaNa

The Editor of this edition of the Bhashyam, Sri S.Subrahmanya Shastri, in
the foot notes writes:

इतिहासः पुराणम् इत्यादौ भाष्ये वेदगत-अर्थवादरूपाणि पुरावृत्तानि
ग्राह्याणीत्युक्तम् । भारतादीनामनादिवेदप्रतिपाद्यत्वासंभवात् ।

//By the terms ‘itihAsa and purANam’ of the mantra, the BhAshya intends to
say: those statements contained in the Veda-s, as having ‘occurred’ in the
ancient times are to be taken.  However, the texts of the MahAbhArata, etc.
cannot be regarded to be included by these Vedic terms as it would be
unreasonable to hold that they have their source in the Vedas.//

   - It would be interesting to note in the Kathopanishat, for this opening

// Vajasravasa, desiring rewards, performed the Visvajit sacrifice, in
which he gave away all his property.  He had a son named Nachiketa. // the
Acharya starts the commentary with the words:

//तत्राख्यायिका विद्यास्तुत्यर्था । // The *story* there is by way of
eulogizing the knowledge.//

Here is just one instance where Shankaracharya considers the UpaniShadic
character Nachiketas as a ‘real’, human, character:  In the UpaniShat there
is a mantra 1.1.2 that says this Nachiketas is a ‘kumAra’, a small boy.
Shankara comments: तं ह नचिकेतसं कुमारं प्रथमवयसं सन्तं
अप्राप्तजननशक्तिं बालमेव
….( while still in the prime of life, still not adolescent, still a mere
boy…) By the word अप्राप्तजननशक्तिम् Shankara means: the boy has not
attained the capacity to procreate.  Now, we see that the Upanishad is
describing Nachiketas as a ‘kumaara’ and Shankara explaining it in these
terms.  It is evident that unless Shankara considers this character
Nachiketas as a ‘real’ person, He would not give out such a down-to-earth
explanation to inform us the physical stature of the boy.  Such examples

   - In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Shankara often goes into an in-depth
   psychological analysis of the personalities involved.  The
   Janaka-Yajnavalkya conversations offer a rich ground for Shankara to probe
   into the working of the minds of Janaka and Yajnavalkya based on a sentence
   of the Upanishad.
   - In the Brahmasutra there is the 'apadhUdrAdhikaraNam (1.3.34-38).
   Here the first sutra is: शुगस्य तदनाद्रवश्रवणात् तदाद्रवणात् सूच्यते हि ।
   Here a sentence from the samvargavidyA of the Chandogya Upanishad is taken
   up for discussion.  ’अह हारेत्वा शूद्र तवैव सह गोभिरस्तु’ (छा.४.२.३) Here
   we have a word 'shUdra' in the form of addressing a King named jAnashruti.
   It would appear that the word shUdra applies to the King's varNa.  But the
   siddhAntin clarifies that such is not the case.  The word has a derivative
   meaning and not the popular meaning here.  On hearing the utterance of the
   swan, 'Hullo, who is this one, insignificant as he is, of whom you speak as
   though he were like Raikva of the chariot?', which was a personal
   disparagement for him, the King jAnashruti, grandson of Putra, was struck
   with grief ('shuk').  Raikva hinted at this grief by using the word
   'shUdra', thereby revealing his own power of 'clairvoyance'.  A few more
   derivative meanings of this word 'shUdra' are given in the Bhashyam to
   conclude that jAnashruti was NOT a shUdra in fact.   The next sUtra goes on
   to prove that this king was indeed a kShatriya.  Here the names of certain
   kShatriyas like AbhipratArin (son of Kakshasena) of the line of
   Chitraratha, a brahmachArin , Shaunaka of the line of Kapi and the incident
   when they were being served by a cook are discussed. In the context another
   shruti passage, from the Taittiriya brAhmaNa 22.12.5 is cited which gives
   the name of the KApeya-s and Chitraratha.  And the bhashya says:* for
   the people of the same lineage generally have the priests of a common
   descent. *
   - In the subsequent sutra 1.3.37 the episode of jAbAla is taken up to
   say: Gautama was inclined to instruct satyakAma when the absence of
   shUdrahood had been ascertained.
   - In the 'pratardanAdhikaraNam' of the brahmasutra 1.1.28-31 we have yet
   another instance to show that the Vedic characters  and events are taken up
   for discussion and determination of something that is not directly the
   teaching of Atma/BrahmavidyA.  There is an episode in the KauShitaki
   upanishad where we have Indra the teacher giving instruction of the Self to
   pratardana, the famous son of DivodAsa.  The discussion is about whether
   the teaching was that of prANa or a divine soul (devatA) or a jiva or the
   supreme Brahman.  The adhikarana takes up various arguments to finally
   conclude that the teaching is about the supreme Brahman.  In the run up to
   this the personality of Indira is taken up for analysis.
   - In the Jivanmuktiviveka Swami Vidyaranya takes up for detailed
   analysis the events and details concerned with Sage Yajnavalkya, as
   reported in the Brihadaranyaka upanishad so as to determine the kind of
   person he was and takes up the conclusions of the analysis to establish the
   need for vAsanaakShaya and manonAsha for the experience of jivanmukti.

 From a sample of such instances of the Advaita Acharyas' bhashya-s we can
conclude that the various characters and events discussed in the
Veda/Upanishads are treated as though they are certain real ones and not
merely fictitious ones deserving no significant treatment.  Even though
these characters and episodes ar esometimes termed as 'AkhyAyika-s'
occurring in the primary teaching of Brahman-Atman, a number of important
corollaries are arrived at by analyzing these events/characters, that are
not necessarily brahmavidyA.  The determination of the term shUdra cited
about stands as a fine example.



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