Uddalaka to Shvetketu; Humble heroes have always won the war
The ego has always been one of the biggest impediments to the perception of reality. When the mind is filled with ego, it filters knowledge and information through the lens of personal biases. The ego tends to cling to belief and rigid ideologies, which doesn't make it easy for the mind to unlearn and relearn. It has been a topic of mentoring and counselling since antiquity. It has probably existed since humans started staying in social groups. Gods, kings, ordinary men, demons; there are various examples of excessive ego engulfing its beholder. Lord Indra, Ravan, Duryodhana, Hiranyakashipu, and Dhana Nanda, who wronged Chanakya are few limited examples, the list is long. In the Bible (New Testament) the story of fall of Satan as his devil's pride caused him to attempt to overthrow God and steal His glory is constant reminder of where the unleashed ego can take us. Greek mythology is full of stories of how Hubris or fatal pride was the reason for the downfall of several Greek heroes. All these stories pointed towards the philosophy that "Humble heroes have always won the war."
Indian scriptures and folklores have numerous such learning beautifully embedded in them, making us understand that how specific values have been relevant through the ages. Chandogya Upanishad (छान्दोग्य उपनिषद) is one of the prime Upanishad and the famous mahavakya; Tat tvam asi (तत त्वम असि) appears in this Upanishad in a dialogue between uddalka (उद्दालक) and shvetketu (श्वेतकेतु). The context leading to the need for this dialogue between Shvetketu and Uddalka is very significant. The situation, which led to a discourse by the father to his son, who had just returned from the Brahmacharya ashram, reflects the importance of specific Prerequisites for acquiring fundamental knowledge. Humility and absence of ego or Ahamkar( अहंकार) remain among the foremost qualities of a seeker of truth.
The dialogue between Shvetketu and Uddalka brings to the surface a sharp distinction between literacy or mastering academic curriculum versus education, which leads to character building. Mere knowledge or information about values is not enough; it must reflect through the knower's attitude and behaviour.
It so happened that Keeping with the traditions of the Vedic society, Uddalaka Aruni, the wise sage, sent his son Shvetketu to scholarly Gautam Rishi's ashram to pursue his brahmacharya ashram. During his Gurukul education, Shvetketu mastered various subjects like Vedas, grammar, language, astronomy, astrology, etc. He evolved as a good debater and orator.
During those times, there was a norm that the guru would take their able students to various debating platforms to showcase their wisdom and knowledge, bringing applause and praises to the teacher and the student. Over time, Shvetketu established his expertise in those debates, bringing name and fame to his guru and himself. However, with every win in the debating platforms, Shvetketu's pride swelled.
After some time, when the period of his brahmacharya ashram was over, he returned to his father's house. With a spark in his eyes, Uddalka received his son, who had made him proud with his academic achievements. However, within a few days, Uddalka observed a distinct feature of arrogance or ego (अहंकार) in Shwetketu. "As the sun reveals even the tiniest shadows, so do parents' eyes uncover every hidden truth". Uddalka, the wise sage, knew that arrogance or ahankar (अहंकार) ultimately weakens the personality and restrains the growth of an individual. Uddalka got anxious seeing his son, who was otherwise an able and competent person but surrounded by the dark cloud of ego, which would root out his acquired knowledge until now and obstruct his further pursuit.
Uddalka introspects and finally devises a strategy. He wanted a behavioural change in Shvetketu, which was possible only if Shvetketu realised that. This process of realisation needed the active participation of the student. So he devised a way that is akin to the didactic method. Like in didactic strategies, a teacher designs a system and plans to achieve specific learning objectives; similarly, Uddalaka designs a way ahead. He knew that Shvetketu was competent with all other subjects, and to make him realise his mistake would be difficult, but at the same time, Uddalaka was sure that Shvetketu did not know the essence of Vedas. He did not gather knowledge about Vedanta. The wise sage Knew that a person exposed to Vedanta would be humble and not arrogant. So he starts with his strategy step-wise.
Uddalka called his son and asked him, "Dear, Shvetketu, did you expose yourself to that knowledge by knowing which all is known? (the knowledge which is the basis of all other knowledge). The knowledge of that by which whatever is unheard becomes heard, whatever is unthought becomes thought, and whatever is unknown becomes known?" To this, Shvetketu said, "Is there any such knowledge ". He was baffled as he wasn't aware of such knowledge's existence.
Uddalka further simplifies the question and explains to him through an example, "Take a lump of gold. We make some objects with gold like jewellery, coins etc. Suppose we melt those objects again; don't they reduce themselves to their earlier form, a lump of gold? This is the material cause. Then there is the goldsmith who makes the objects but is not himself an object. He does not himself become the object. This is the efficient cause." Uddalaka paused and asked his son: "Does this makes sense to you? Have you been initiated into this kind of knowledge.?".
Rather than accepting that he is clueless about such knowledge, Shvetketu replied, "I don't think my teacher knew this, or else he would have told me." This reply further confirmed the resolve of Uddalaka, and it became all the more necessary to check Shvetketu's ego-ahamkara. Shwetketu wasn't even ready to accept that he didn't know; instead, he said his teacher might not know this.
However, as an ambitious scholar, he was disturbed that there was a knowledge he wasn't aware of. So he requested his father to expose him to this knowledge. His request initiated the long discourse on Vedanta which waas quite intense. Gradually Shvetketu realised that he still had a lot to learn, and his knowledge was limited in the limitless ocean of knowledge and wisdom. Those exposed to fundamental knowledge are humble with no ego and constantly strive to remove illusion and Maya from society. This realisation and learning made him humble, and his ego disappeared.
This context exposes us to the need for holistic education, the norm in Vedic society. The clear and loud message is that material prosperity or academic positions have no meaning if someone fails to inculcate the correct values. We are currently struggling with valueless material prosperity since material wealth and academic success are benchmarks of success. Ethics and morality are at stake in our professional and personal lives, so we are forced to look back to the past. Now there are open and loud discussions to initiate overhauling the entire education system. Teaching techniques and pedagogies like the didactic method were recognised formally in the 1900s but have been used since ancient times.
It also exposes us to the role of a parent as the true mentor. Even though Shvetketu was the celebrated student of his Gurukul, his father still realised that celebrating superficial glory would be detrimental to the child's future. Uddalka took action immediately and thoughtfully.
The importance of these values for a wise and knowledgeable man remained the same across different periods in history, as is evident from this shloka from Vidura Neeti and much later from Doha ( दोहा) of Sant Kabir, respectively -
न हृष्यत्यात्मसम्माने नावमानेन तप्यते। गाङ्गो ह्रद ईवाक्षोभ्यो यः स पण्डित उच्यते ॥
भावार्थ : जो व्यक्ति न तो सम्मान पाकर अहंकार करता है और न अपमान से पीड़ित होता है । जो जलाशयकीभाँतिसदैव क्षोभरहित और शांत रहता है, वही ज्ञानी है।
जब मैं था तब हरी नहीं, अब हरी है मैं नाही ।
सब अँधियारा मिट गया, दीपक देखा माही ।
भावार्थ: कबीर दास जी कहते हैं कि जब मेरे अंदर अहंकार था, तब मेरे ह्रदय में ईश्वर का वास नहीं था।औरअब मेरे ह्रदय में हरी ईश्वर का वास है तो मैंअहंकार नहीं है। जब गुरु ने ज्ञान का दीपक मेरे अंदरप्रकाशितकिया तो तब अज्ञान का सब अंधकार मिट गया । ज्ञान और अहंकार एक साथ कभी रह ही नहीं सकतेहैं।