Relationships and the Upanishad

Do you love your spouse? Do you love your child? Do you love your parents? Do you love your wealth? Do you love wisdom? Do you love power? Do you love god? Most of us would answer with a yes to at least a few of these questions, but according to a famous story in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.1-5) the answer is no.

As the story goes, the renowned sage Yajnavalkya had two wives – Katyayani and Maitreyi. Before a man retired from active public life and retired to the forests to meditate, he had to take permission from his wife (or wives). So Yajnavalkya asked his wife Maitreyi for permission to go away to the forest and enter into a new life-stage. He also wished to divide his assets between his two wives. Katyayani was his first wife but he loved Maitreyi more so perhaps that’s why he asked her first.

Yajnavalkya said, “My dear Maitreyi, I wish to retire from the life of a householder. Please allow me to make a final settlement between you and Katyayani.”

Maitreyi said, “O venerable one! If the whole earth, full of wealth, belonged to me, will I become immortal?”

“No,” he said, “your life will be just like any other person who has a lot of stuff. But immortality? You can never hope to get that from wealth!”

Maitreyi said, “What will I do with something that will not make me immortal? Tell me only about the means to achieve immortality.”

Yajnavalkya said, “My dear, I have always loved you very much and your words are so much in line with what I feel! Come, sit next to me and I will explain it to you. Listen carefully to what I have to say.”

She sat next to him and he began telling her the secret of relationships.

He said, “A wife loves her husband not for his sake, but for her own sake. A husband loves his wife not for her sake, but for his own sake. Parents love their children not for the sake of the children, but for their own sake. People love wealth not for its sake, but for their own sake. Thinkers and teachers are loved, not for their sake, but for the sake of the Self. Warriors and kings are loved, not for their sake, but for the sake of the Self. The gods, the worlds, the beings in the world, and everything else – they are not loved for their sake, but for the sake of the Self. Indeed, you must realize the Self. Hear it, reflect upon it, and meditate upon it.”

This passage from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the most illuminating episodes in our traditional texts. When we say that we love someone or something, we are basically projecting our choices, our ideas, and ourselves in them. The Cuban-American author Anaïs Nin quotes a line from the Talmud in her book Seduction of the Minotaur (1961) when she says, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” The sentiment is similar. In fact, some of the ancient Indian philosophers go to the extent of saying that there is no “as they are” in that there is no reality outside of our realm of perception. What we see, what we hear, what we think, and what we feel – these form our reality. Outside of our awareness, there is no reality. It simply doesn’t exist.

In the Vedas and the Upanishads, we often find that the verses have multiple layers of meaning. Yajnavalkya’s teaching to his wife is no different. At a basic level he is saying that we don’t love our spouses or children or wealth, but we love ourselves. A girl is dear to her father because she is his daughter. A man is dear to a woman because he is her boyfriend. A dog is dear to a family because he is their pet. A suit is dear to a man because it is his suit. The love in a relationship comes because of the Self and not because of the inherent quality of the other. In fact, love arises out of an intimate awareness. After all, can we love something we don’t know anything about?

But at a deeper level, he suggests that in the face of the atman—the inner, higher Self—none of these relationships are true. In other words, all these associations are temporary, transient, and bound to have an end. The connection with the inner Self, however, is permanent and eternal. One need not think of this as some esoteric idea connected to the soul and to rebirth. Just take the course of one human life. There is only person who is with you from your birth to your death and that person is you. Every moment of every day of every year of your life, you are your constant companion. Parents, family, friends, lovers, children, wealth, wisdom, power, gods – every one of them may change or vanish or perish, but you will still be there as long as you are around.

So Yajnavalkya basically talks about meditating on the nature of our true Self. First we begin to listen to ourselves. We reflect upon the nature of our Self. We understand more about it. Then we become more and more comfortable with ourselves. Slowly, we develop empathy for the other. We begin to help others in finding their true Selves. Indeed, that empathy will guide us through the most turbulent times in any relationship – most of all the fascinating relationship we all have with ourselves.

This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.

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Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.