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Satyakama - Kim-gotro'smi?

Jagat - Fri, 27 Aug 2004 02:52:17 +0530
I am translating a book on Guru tattva by B.P. Puri Maharaj at present. We probably all know the story of Jabala Satyakama, but this was the first time I read the story in the original, with Shankara's commentary and all. I found it poignant--across all those centuries, this passage, after Satyakama asks, "Revered mother! I would like to go to live with my teacher, becoming a student and studying the sacred lore so that I can attain spiritual knowledge. Please tell me about my family lineage, so that I can properly identify myself." His mother answered,

nAham etad veda tAta yad-gotras tvam asi | bahv ahaM carantI paricAriNI yauvane tvAm alabhe | sAham etan na veda yad-gotras tvam asi | jabAlA tu nAmAham asmi | satyakAmo nAma tvam asi | sa satyakAma eva jAbAlo bravIthA iti ||

[with the nuances of Shankara] "I do not know what gotra you belong to. When I was a girl, I worked as a servant (paricAriNI) [Shankara: in a rich man’s house. I had to not only do the housework , but to serve the guests and satisfy them in various ways.] So I slept with many men (bahu carantI). Then I had you (tvAm alabhe). But I have no idea who your father was. My name is Jabala and you are Satyakama. So you can identify yourself as Satyakama, the son of Jabala."

So sparse the Upanishadic text. You could almost write a novel from the unstated. How did she survive? How was she living and raising her son after leaving her master's house? (Maybe he wasn't even rich...) And how did she escape this brutal life in which she was expected to serve the sexual desires of every guest in need of a woman's body.

But what an eternal story!
Jagat - Fri, 27 Aug 2004 07:05:00 +0530
Now here's Puri Maharaj's take on exactly the same text and commentary. Completely different from mine. I guess I have a dirty mind. I did not read Shankara's commentary carefully, and this is the correct version.

evaM pRSTA jabAlA sA hainaM putram uvAca—nAham etat tava gotraM veda | he tAta ! yad-gotras tvam asi | kasmAn na vetsi ? ity uktAha—bahu-bhartR-gRhe paricaryA-jAtam atithy-abhyAgatAdi caranty ahaM paricAriNI paricarantIti paricaraNa-zIlaivAham | paricaraNa-cittatayA gotrAdi-smaraNe mama mano nAbhUt | yauvane ca tat-kAle tvAm alabhe labdhavaty asmi | tadaiva te pitoparataH | ato’nAthAhaM sAham etan na veda yad-gotras tvam asi | jabAlA tu nAmAham asmi, satyakAmo nAma tvam asi | sa tvaM satyakAma evAhaM jAbAlo’smIty AcAryAya bruvIthAH | yad yAcAryeNa pRSTa ity abhiprAyaH ||2||

When her son asked her about his father, Jabala answered, “I don’t know in which gotra you were born.” Her son then asked, “Why don’t you know?” She answered, “I used to be engaged in my husband’s house. Then I was so busily engaged in household work, serving guests and so on, that I was too absorbed in service to remember things like the gotra. Then I had you when you were still young and your father died. So now I am a widow and I don’t know your gotra. My name is Jabala and you are Satyakama. So you can tell your teacher that you are Jabala Satyakama (i.e. Satyakama, son of Jabala) when he asks you.

I must have heard that Satyakama was illegitimate somewhere, which must have influenced my reading. So why couldn't Jabala go ask her dead husband's relatives? Mysteries, mysteries.
Jagat - Fri, 27 Aug 2004 07:14:04 +0530
HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada:

Just like Jabala Upanishad. Satyakama Jabala. This Satyakama was the son of a prostitute. He was not a brahmana's son. So he wanted to become brahmana. So he went to Gautama Muni, "Sir, please initiate me. I want to become a brahmana." Shudras were not initiated. In the formerly... Shudras are common. Therefore Gautama Muni inquired that "What you are? Because I do not initiate who is not born of a brahmana father." So he said, "I do not know." "So go to your mother. Ask whose son you are." The mother said, "I do not know." So he came and he said that "Sir, my mother does not know whose son I am." So Gautama Muni accepted him as disciple because he was truthful. He saw that he has got the brahminical qualification, truthful. Everyone is not willing that to admit that he is the son of a prostitute. No. But he admitted, "Yes, my mother does not know by whom I was begotten." So this is qualification.

There are many instances. Just like Satyakama-jabala, a boy, Satyakama, he went to Gautama Muni: "Sir, I want to become your disciple." "Oh, very good. Are you brahmana or brahmana's son?" Formerly, in Vedic ways, nobody could be accepted as a disciple unless he's born in high class family, brahmana, kshatriya, vai¤ya--especially brahmana. So this question was asked, "Which family you belong to?" So he said, "I do not know what is my classification." "Now, who is your father?" "That I do not know." "Ask your mother." Then he went to his mother, "Who is my father?" "My dear boy, I do not know." So actually his mother was maidservant. So maidservants have so many men, and by whom she was pregnant she cannot remember. She also told the truth. And this Satyakama, he also came to Gautama Muni, he said, "Sir, my father, my mother also do not know who is my father." "Oh, that's all right. You are a brahmana, because you are truthful. You do not hide yourself, that 'I am a prostitute's son.' You say this is the position. 'I am plainly speaking that my mother does not know who is my father. I do not know!' " So because he was truthful... That is the symptom of brahmana. He accepted, "Yes, I'll accept you as my disciple."

Jagat - Fri, 27 Aug 2004 07:49:18 +0530
Just quickly checked Jabala Upanishad, Jabali Upanishad and Jabala-darshana Upanishad. No other version of the story is in them.
Jagat - Fri, 27 Aug 2004 09:49:10 +0530
The Sri Vaishnava scholar Ranga Ramanuja Muni has written a commentary to this Upanishad called Prakashika. His comment on this verse goes as follows:

ahaM bhartR-gRhe’thity-abhyAgatAedibhyo bahu-paricaryA-jAtaM carantI gurv-Adi-paricaraNa-zIlA ca satI tad dhy AsaGgena gotrAnabhijJaiva yauvana-kAle tvAM labdhavatI gotraM na jAne | ato jabAlAyAH putraH satyakAma-nAmAham asmi | nAhaM gotraM vedeti guru-samIpe brUhIty uktavatIty arthaH ||

Which pretty much confirms Shankara, except that he makes Jabala even more pious--serving the guru also. No prostitution or hanky panky there either.

The rest of the story goes:

Thereafter Satyakama Jabala approached Haridrumata Gautama and said, “O bhagavan! I wish to live with you as a brahmachari. This is why I have come to you.” Sometimes in the Srutis, highly revered saints and sages are addressed as “bhagavän.” In this case it does not mean God.

Gautama replied, “O gentle one, what is your gotra?”

Satyakama replied truthfully, “I do not know anything about my father’s family. I asked my mother and she told me, ‘I begot you when I was very young and was very busy serving in my husband’s household. Therefore I never found out the details about your father’s ancestry. My name is Jabala and your name is Satyakama. So give your name as Satyakama, son of Jabala.’”

Gautama then said to him, “My dear son, no one other than a brahmin can speak truth such as you have spoken. Therefore, O gentle one, go and bring wood for sacrifice. Because you have not avoided nor stretched the truth, but have spoken straightforwardly, I can understand that you are born of a brahmin family. So even though you do not know your gotra, your truthfulness testifies to your true brahminhood. So I shall gladly give you the sacred thread."

And so Gautama invested Satyakama with the sacred thread in the upanayana.
Bhrigu - Fri, 10 Sep 2004 18:36:32 +0530
I also recently translated that part of the Chandogya. Yes, Jagat, it's a great story! B.P. Yati Maharaja interprets it in the same way as Shankara, asking how a great person such as Satyakama ever could have been born out of wedlock. Personally, however, I feed that sanitising the story in that way takes out much -- if not all --of its drama. What is so bad about simply not knowing the gotra, compared to not knowing it because... Imagine Satyakama standing there in front of Haridumata and the other disciples!

And in any case, if she just never got the chance to ask, there must have been persons around who would have known, such as relatives, other brahmanas, etc.