Monthly Archives: August 2019

Yajnavalkya, Father of Hindu Philosophy

The source of the entire stream of Hindu philosophical speculation can be traced to the Upanishads. And the outstanding philosophical figure in the Upanishads is Yajnavalkya for it was he who first laid the Hindu systems of philosophy with a scientific precision and logical rigour.1

Born to Devaratha and Sunandadevi, Yajnavalkya was a native of Mithila.2 He was a zealous student and acquired knowledge from distinguished rishis including Uddalaka Aruni and king Janaka of Videha. After his education, Yajnavalkya along with his fellow scholars travelled across the country to gain advanced knowledge and grew up to be one of the most eminent teachers and thinkers of his time.3

Yajnavalkya emerges victorious in the debate

Once in connection with the celebration of a horse sacrifice, king Janaka of Videha summoned to his court all the learned men of Kuru-Panchala country (roughly the region from Delhi to Lucknow) to meet in a conference for purpose of debate and discussions between the exponents of different philosophical systems and schools, so that the merits of each might be thrashed and brought out. Such a conference lasted for days together and the successful disputant, who could maintain his own philosophical position against all attacks and silence all criticism by his answers not only won for himself the first position among the philosophers of the times but won for his system and theories also a similar position acknowledged pre-eminence and popularity. At the conference under Janaka (which by the way perhaps our earliest literary conference) a rich reward of one thousand cows with their horns hung with gold coins was offered to the one who should be adjudged to be the most learned of the assembly.4

As a contender, Yajnavalkya in self-confidence without waiting for the judgment at once appropriated the prize and asked his pupil to carry it off. This assumption of superiority gave the signal for the debate to begin and no less than eight learned scholars one of whom was a lady asked Yajnavalkya with a variety of questions which was satisfactorily answered by Yajnavalkya. Among the learned scholars were Uddalaka Aruni who was Yajnavalkya’s teacher and Gargi Vachaknavi a learned lady. Others included Ashvala, Artabhaga, Bhujyu, Ushasta, Kahoda and Vidagdha Shakalya.5

A large part of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is but the record of the transactions of this philosophical congress so to speak, at which were developed and defined, by means of questions and answers, discussions and disputation, the theories and solutions of some of the most intricate problems and mysteries of life.6 The philosophy of Yajnavalkya may be summed up in the three following proposition-

  • The Atman is the knowing subject within us

  • The Atman as the knowing subject can never become an object for us and is therefore itself unknowable and

  • The Atman is the Sole Reality.7

Yajnavalkya the composer of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Traditional accounts mention that Veda Vyasa divided the Vedas into four; Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda and taught one each to his disciples, Paila, Vaishampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu respectively. Vaishampayana made 27 division of Yajur Veda and taught them to his disciples including Yajnavalkya. Once Vaishampayana was offended by some remarks made by Yajnavalkya and asked him to give back all he had taught to him. Yajnavalkya vomited all the Yajus and other disciples taking the form a bird, Tittiri consumed it. Therefore, that branch of the Vedas got the name Taittiriya. Later Yajnavalkya propitiated the Sun-god who appeared before him in the form of a horse and taught him Ayatayama or Vaajasaneya Samhita or Shukla Yajur Veda.8

N.S.Rajapurohit, a well-known researcher of Karnataka during pre-independence period and who used to publish his finding in Tilak’s Kesari dismisses the above account as nonsense and after critically interpreting the works of Sri Shankaracharya, Madhvacharya and Sayana says that Vyasa divided the Vedas into Rig Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda and taught them to Pailarishi, Jaiminirishi and Sumanturishi respectively. And to make the job of officiating priests in yajnas easy, he composed Krishna Yajur Veda or Mishra Yajur Veda, where the Samhita (mantra portion) and the Brahmanas were combined and taught it to Vaishampayanrishi. To distinguish the other Yajur Veda which had separate mantra portion and Brahmana portion, it was named as Shudh or Shukla Yajur Veda which Vyasa taught to Suryarishi.9

Another scholar Daya Krishna has also opined that there could be five Vedas. He argues that there is no such thing as the Yajurveda and we have either the Shukla Yajurveda or the Krishna Yajurveda. These are not treated as the shakhas of the Yajurveda and if one were to do so, one would have to point to some Mula Yajurveda of which they were the Shakas. And there is no such Yajurveda extant at present.10 If this is the case then there should be five Vedas and not four, he argues.11

According to N.S.Rajapurohit, while Pailarishi, Jaiminirishi and Sumanturishi founded new schools of their respective Vedas, Vaishampayanarishi and Suryarishi taught their respective Vedas to Yajnavalkya who in turn founded new schools of these two Vedas. Thus, as per the instruction of Vaishampayanarishi, Yajnavalkya taught Krishna Yajur Veda to Tittiririshi and others thereby establishing 86 schools of Krishna Yajur Veda and 15 schools of Shukla Yajur Veda.12 This implies that Yajnavalkya did not compose the Vaajasaneya Samhita or Shukla Yajur Veda but only the Upanishad portion of Shukla Yajur Veda, namely Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Date of Yajnavalkya

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, one Yajnavalkya Vajasaneyi is mentioned as a contemporary of Janaka who gave his daughter in marriage to Rama of Ayodhya. In Bhagavata Purana another Yajnavalkya is mentioned as learning Yoga from Hiranyanabhah who was the seventeenth in descent from Rama of Ayodhya.13 In Mahabharata we find one Yajnavalkya rishi assisting the great sage Vyasa as adhvaryu priest in the Rajasuya ceremony performed by Yudhisthira. In Vishnu Purana the disciple of Vaishampayana, Yajnavalkya is said to be the son of Vishnurata while Yajnavalkya of the Shukla Yajur Veda is said to be the son of Vajasaneyi Devarata.14 All these indicates that many Yajnavalkyas lived at different times and that Yajnavalkya like Janaka is the title or surname of a class and not the name of an individual. Except on such a hypothesis, all the facts in reference to Yajnavalkya and other rishis and Janaka and similar other kings cannot be reconciled.15

H.C.Raychaudhuri says that king Janaka of Videha was separated by five or six generations from Janamejaya, son of Parikshit and must have flourished two centuries after Parikshit.16 We know that Parikshit ruled after the end of Mahabharata war (3067 B.C. or 2449 B.C.) and probably Janaka lived around 2867 B.C./ 2249 B.C and as Yajnavalkya was a contemporary of Janaka, the former lived around the same period.

Was Yajnavalkya the author of Yajnavalkya Smrti?

It is said that the sages approached Yajnavalkya in Mithila and requested him to impart to them the dharma of the various varnas, ashramas and others and as a result Yajnavalkya composed the Yajnavalkya Smrti.17 But according to P.V.Kane, from the style and the doctrines of the Yajnavalkya Smrti, it is impossible to believe that it was the work of the same hand that gave to the world the Upanishad containing the boldest philosophical speculations couched in the simplest yet the most effective language. Even orthodox Indian opinion was not prepared to admit the unity of authorship in the case of smrti and the Aranyaka. The Mitakshara says at the beginning that a certain pupil of Yajnavalkya abridged the dharmashastra in the form of a dialogue. Therefore P.V.Kane says that the author of Yajnavalkya Smrti whoever he may be claims the authorship of the Shukla Yajurveda and the Yogashastra so as to glorify his work (Yajnavalkya Smrti) as the work of a great and ancient sage, philosopher and yogin.18 With regards to the Smrti containing numerous mantras of Shukla Yajurveda, Kane opines that it may due to the author being a student of Shukla Yajurveda.19

Lived a Philosophers Life

Yajnavalkya’s ashram was always open to the poor and needy for help and succour. Once there was a famine in the Himalayan valley and Yajnavalkya gave 200 ounces of gold to his disciple Brahmadutta to buy grains and other necessities and to take physicians with him to the affected area and render help.20 Yajnavalkya lived the philosophy he preached.21 The fame that he achieved as the first philosopher of his time did not bind him to worldly life. The quest of the Brahman, the ultimate truth led him to renounce the world and adopt the life of a mendicant.22 On the eve of his renunciation he called to his side his two wives to announce his intention and divide his property between them. One of his wives, Kaatyaayani accepted while Maitreyi questioned whether by the earthly possession she could attain immortality. Yajnavalkya replied that her earthly possessions could buy her pleasure but not immortality. For this Maitreyi requested Yajnavalkya to give her that which could give her immortality and received instructions on the doctrines of Brahman from Yajnavalkya.23

Thus, when his social service was accomplished and his philosophy was established, Yajnavalkya quietly retired to the forest to investigate further in solitary contemplation, the unknown and the unknowable.24 Yajnavalkya was one of the most typical embodiments of all that was best and highest in Vedic culture and civilization. He was one of the last Vedic rishis associated with the later development of Vedic thought and life as expressed in the elaborate literature of the Brahmanas and Upanishads.25


  1. R.K.Mookerji- The Rishis of India- Dayananda Commemoration Volume, Edited by Har Bilas Sarda, Ajmer, 1933, p.27

  1. Mandagadhe Prakash Babu- Brahma Jnani Yajnavalkyaru, Viveka Prabha (Kannada Monthly), March 2018, p.13; Sureshwar Jha- Makers of Indian Literature- Yajnavalkya, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1998, p.19

  1. R.K.Mookerji- Men and Thought in Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi, 1970, pp:3,4,5

  1. R.K.Mookerji- The Rishis of India- Op.cit, p.26; R.K.Mookerji- Men and Thought in Ancient India- Op.cit, pp:5,6

  1. Ibid

  1. R.K.Mookerji- Men and Thought in Ancient India- Op.cit, p.6

  1. Ibid

  1. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, pp:304,305

  1. Narayana Srinivasa Rajapurohit- Sri Yajnavalkya Mahamunigala Charitre (Kannada work), Dharwad, 1939, pp: 3,4,5,6

  1. Daya Krishna- Indian Philosophy, A Counter Perspective, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991, p.83

  1. Ibid, p.77

  1. Narayana Srinivasa Rajapurohit- Op.cit, pp:30,32,36

  1. Vishwanath Narayan Mandlik- Vyavahara Mayukha or Hindu Law, Asia Publication Services, New Delhi, first edition, 1880, pp:53,55

  1. Swami Mahadevananda Giri- Vedic Culture, University of Calcutta, 1947, pp:106,107

  1. Vishwanath Narayan Mandlik- Op.cit, p.52

  1. Hemchandra Raychaudhuri- Political History of Ancient India, University of Calcutta, 1923, p.18

  1. P.V.Kane- History of Dharmasastra, Vol- I, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1930, P.177

  1. Ibid, p.169

  1. Ibid, pp:181,183

  1. Sureshwar Jha- Op.cit, p.20

  1. R.K.Mookerji- Men and Thought in Ancient India- Op.cit, p.14

  1. R.K.Mookerji- The Rishis of India- Op.cit, p.28

  1. Ibid, p.29

  1. Ibid

  1. R.K.Mookerji- Men and Thought in Ancient India- Op.cit, p.3