By Swami Harshananda
Jābala Upanisad is one of the well-known minor Upaniṣads assigned to the Atharvaveda or the Śukla Yajurveda. It is in prose and mainly deals with the subject of renunciation and monasticism. Practically, it is the only Upanisad that allows a person to lead a sanyāsin life from the first or the second stage of life i.e., from the brahmacarya āśrama or the gṛhastha āśrama. The sole criteria required to lead this life is intense renunciation.
There are six khaṇḍas or sections in this upaniṣad. Each section contains one long passage in prose. Some versions divide these passages into smaller units. The total number of these units are twelve.
The Upaniṣad starts with a short dialogue between Bṛhaspati and Yājñavalkya. Bṛhaspati extols the greatness of Avimuktakṣetra. He calls it as Kurukṣetra also. It's greatness is mainly due to the fact that Rudra (Śiva) teaches the ‘tārakamantra’ (Rāmanāma) to all the jīva-s who give up bodies there.
The next section consists of the questions raised by the sage Atri and Yājñavalkya teaches the method of upāsanā or meditation on the avimukta (the Self) established between the varaṇā and nāśī. This is the meeting point of the world of gods and the world beyond.
While answering the questions raised by some brahmacārins or Vedic students, Yājñavalkya eulogizes the Satarudriya same as the Rudrādhyāya of the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. He also advises them to meditate on it and the names and the forms of Rudra described in it.
Janaka, the king of Videha, approaches Yājñavalkya and requests him to teach about sanyāsa or the life of renunciation. He first describes that how a person should proceed to the next āśrama or stage of life after completing the previous one. He also declares that one can even live the life of sanyāsa even from the earlier stages like brahmacarya or gārhasthya provided there is intense vairāgya or spirit of renunciation. This is followed by the details of sanyāsa procedure which include the ceremonial abandonment of the Vedic fire and repetition of the Praṇava or Om.
The reply to a question by the sage Atri forms the next section. In it Yājñavalkya replies that a sanyāsin need not wear the yajñopavīta since he purifies himself by ācamana, which is the procedure part of taking sanyāsa. The Upaniṣad permits religious suicide for the one who is disgusted with worldly life but is unfit or unable to take sanyāsa. Such a person can choose to die either from by drowning in water or entering into a blazing fire or even dying on the battle field. Taking sanyāsa mentally has also been permitted for those who are physically unfit for formal sanyāsa.
The last section describes the life-pattern of paramahamsas, the paragons of the monastic ideals. Persons who were designated to be such are:
Characteristics of Paramahamsa
Paramahamsa-s are the monks of the highest order and their general attributes are:
- They do not carry any external insignia of sanyāsa with them
- They move about freely and beg for the alms when hungry
- They live in deserted places like empty and forsaken houses, river-banks, hills, caves and so on
- They are always devoted to the ātman
- They give up their bodies without the least attachment to them
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore