What the story of Satyakama Jabala teaches us

Dimitrios Vassiliadis

satyakamaThe story of Satyakama Jabala  and sage Haridrumata Gautama, which appears in Chapter IV of the Chāndogya-Upaniṣad, is of particular importance as it teaches us the true meaning of the definition of caste in the Indian society. Unlike the strict Brahmanical interpretation that wanted only children of higher social castes to have access to spiritual education, this story shows us that what is really needed is a commitment to the truth, as only this makes one really a Brahman.

As a boy, Jabala Satyakama, is eager to study and goes to sage Haridrumata Gautama, requesting his permission to live and study near him. The teacher asks, “my dear child, what family do you come from?” Satyakama replies that he is of uncertain parentage because his mother does not know who his father is. Then, sage Gautama declares that the boy’s honesty is the mark of a true seeker and therefore he is a Brāhmaṇa, and  accepts him as his student. Later Satyakama Jabala will become a great wise man and the Jabala-Upaniṣad will be written in his name.

Like Gautama, Krishna determines castes according to the qualities of the people, but the latter adds also their works, without referring, however, to the birth, wealth or social position: “The division (vibhāgaśaḥ) of the four castes (cātur-varṇyaṁ)  was created by me (mayā sṛṣṭaṁ)according to people’s qualities (guṇa)  and activities (karma)…” Bhagavadgītā IV.13. Buddha goes even further by removing completely the birth-based caste system and declares:  “Not by birth is one an outcast (vasala); not by birth is one a brahman. By deed one becomes an outcast (vasala), by deed one becomes a brahman.” Vasala Sutta 21.

Similarly with the Pythagorean communities in Ancient Greece, we see in the above examples from the Indian tradition that the prerequisites for learning are the student’s qualities and character and not his social status. Enjoy the story of Satyakama in the following excerpt from the film Adi Shankaracharya (in Sanskrit with English subtitles).