There was once a young boy named Satyakama, who lived with his mother. His father had died many years ago, and they lived all alone. The young boy saw his friends being sent to the gurukul, where they would gain knowledge at the feet of the guru, and wanted to go to the gurukul too.
He went to his mother and said, “Mother, I want to go to a gurukul and gain knowledge like all other Brahmin boys. Please tell me our gotra (family name) so that I can inform my guru.”
His mother replied, “My dear son, when you were born, I was busy with household duties, and had no time to ask your father his gotra. Unfortunately, your father died soon after, and the two of us were left all alone. Your name is Satyakama, and mine is Jabala. So call yourself ‘Satyakama Jabala’. Tell your guru the entire truth and he will accept you as his disciple.”
Satyakama bowed to his mother and left for the nearest ashram. It was the ashram of the great rishi, Gautama. He told the sage his mother’s words, and the sage was pleased to see the truthful boy. He said, “You have proved that you are a Brahmin by your adherence to truth. Bring me the samith (sacred twigs of the peepal tree which are used as fuel), and I shall initiate you.”
Satyakama began his duties by fetching the fuel as instructed, and was initiated into brahmacharya – the celibacy stage of a Brahmin, with the Gayatri Mantra. Given the sacred thread, Satyakama took his place amongst the other Brahmin boys and began his education.
A few days later, the sage called him aside and gave him 400 lean and weak cows. “My son,” he said, “Take these cows to the forest and graze them. They are your charge now, so take good care of them.”
Satyakama, the ever obedient student said, “Sir, I will care for them well, and bring them back when they multiply into a thousand.”
With his guru’s blessings, he entered the forest with his herd, built a small hut for himself and a shed for the herd, and started his duties. He cared well for the cows, at the same time practicing the duties of a Brahmachari, and time flew. The cows grew fat on the lush green grass of the forest, and thrived on his love for them. Well fed and satisfied, the cows began to multiply, and soon there were many calves among them.
One day, a bull in his herd spoke aloud to him, “Satyakama, have you noticed that there are now a thousand of us here? It is time for you to take us back to the ashram. In return for the love and affection you have shown to us, I shall teach you one-fourth of the sacred truth about Brahman or God!”
The bull continued, “The east is part of the lord, and so is the west. So are the south and the north. The four cardinal points are the four parts of the Brahman. He is named ‘Prakasavan’ – the shining. This is all I can teach you. Agni, the lord of fire shall teach you more when the time comes.”
Thanking the bull, Satyakama collected the herd and started back towards the ashram of Gautama. He walked all through the day and stopped at night so that the cows could rest. After making arrangements for the herd, he lit a fire and performed his duties, and sat thinking of the lord.
Suddenly, he heard a voice. It was Agni – the lord of fire, speaking from the fire he had lit. “Satyakama!” it said, “I am here to teach you another fourth part of Brahman. The earth is a portion of Brahman, and so is the sky. The heavens and the oceans too are part of the Brahman. This portion of Brahman is called ‘Anantavan’- the endless. This is all I can teach you. You will learn another portion from a swan.”
Satyakama thanked the God of fire and continued his journey the next day. That evening, as he performed his evening duties by a river, a swan flew towards him from the river and said, “Satyakama, I am here to teach you another fourth part of Brahman. The fire you worship is one part of Brahman. The sun is one part and so is the moon. The Lightning is also part of the same Brahman. This aspect of Brahman is called Jyotishman – the luminous. This is all I know. You will learn the rest from another bird, a water fowl.
Satyakama thanked the swan and continued his journey towards his guru’s ashram the next day. That evening, after he performed his rituals and sat by a pond, a waterfowl appeared and said, “Satyakama, I am here to teach you the final fourth part of Brahman. Hear it and be blessed.”
The water fowl continued, “Satyakama, the prana, or breath, is itself a part of the Brahman. The eyes and its sense of sight are another part, and so are the ears and their sense of hearing. The final part is the mind and its thoughts. These are what make up the final one fourth part of Brahman, and this portion of Him is called Ayatanavan – the support. You now know the complete secret of Brahman.”
Satyakama thanked the water fowl and continued on his journey the next day, and finally reached the ashram of Gautama. Prostrating himself before his guru, he said, “Guruji, I have fulfilled my duty and brought back the cows which now number a thousand. Please accept them and give me your blessings.”
Gautama welcomed his disciple with open arms, and was struck by the luster on his face. He said, “Satyakama, you have performed your duty well and your face now shines with the luster of Brahman. You have surely gained the supreme knowledge. Tell me, how did you learn the secret of Brahman?”
Satyakama replied with folded hands, “Guruji, I learned about Brahman through beings which were not men. However, I have heard that it is only the knowledge which is gained through the guru, which is considered the true knowledge. Therefore, kindly instruct me in the true knowledge of Brahman, yourself!”
Sage Gautama replied, “My son, the knowledge you have gained is the result of performing your duties with diligence and sincerity. You have served your guru well, and it is this service which has gained you the ultimate knowledge. You have earned it well, and are blessed. There is nothing I can add to this, and hence your education is now complete.”
The story of Satyakama Jabala occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad, and teaches us that service towards our teachers, adherence to truth and sincere performance of our duties are the only paths towards the real knowledge.