This is a story about Uddalaka Aruni, the sage who lived in ancient India.
Aruni belonged to the kingdom of Panchala. Panchala was the name of an ancient kingdom of northern India, located in the Ganges-Yamuna Doab of the upper Gangetic plain, encompassing today’s states of Uttarakhand and western Uttar Pradesh.
When Aruni was a young boy, he was sent to study under the Sage Ayodha Dhaumya. Aruni was an average student in studies. All the other children always made fun of Aruni on this account. Dhaumya made a mental note of this but said nothing.
However Aruni was a very sincere student who would never question his Guru’s instructions however difficult they be. He always thought that if a task was assigned to him by his Guru, it was because that the Guru thought that he was the only one capable of doing the task and that it was an honour for him to do the task. Such was the deep respect he had for his teacher.
In ancient days, India followed the Gurukula system, wherein the students actually went and stayed in the ashram or house of the Guru and helped the Guru in all the household work and also learnt the knowledge which they went to seek. The students did all the washing of utensils, clothes, bringing vegetables, fruits and firewood, collecting them from the nearby woods and all the other work which could be done by them. They lived like a family member of the teacher’s family and the teacher in turn took care of them as a father would and also imparted all the knowledge they deserved to learn.
One particular day dawned with dark clouds and rumbling skies and Aruni remembered that it was his job that day to go and collect firewood for the kitchen. In his Gurukula, each student was assigned a particular job to do.
After offering his morning prayers, Aruni started off quickly to the forest nearby to collect wood. It seemed it would rain very heavily soon and he had to bring back a lot of wood without getting it wet as the ashram had to feed lot of children and they would not get dry wood in the rainy days that were to come.
As Aruni was leaving , his teacher called out to him, “Aruni” said he , “after you come back collecting wood, please see that the embankment of the canal near the field is strong, since if it rains heavily and the banks of the canal are breached, the whole of our rice crops will be washed away! As it is the canal is near about full.”
Many of the ancient rishis (sages) cultivated lots of crops like rice, barley and others around their ashram for supply of food grains to meet their demand for food. Here, Dhaumya had some rice crops, which would be lost if the waters of the canal entered the fields and with heavy rain threatening to pour, the Rishi had to take precautions.
“Yes Guruji” said Aruni, making a note mentally of this new task given by the Master. Off he was to the forest and started gathering the sturdy twigs and branches strewn around due to the heavy wind that blew the previous day. He had also to chop some branches of the dead trees. He had collected big bundles of wood and by noon, he was rushing back to the Ashram with the big bundles of wood. It had been very cloudy with heavy winds and as Aruni was nearing the Ashram, it started to rain lightly. Aruni remembered that he had to see the canal and he just turned around to see the canal flowing in full flow to the brim and trickles of water were flowing into the fields.
Aruni was alarmed. It had started to rain heavily. Quickly Aruni went into the Ashram and kept the wood in the covered shed meant for it. He was very hungry after the hard job of collecting but he could not afford to even think about food. The water from the canal had started trickling in and if the canal breached, the whole of the field would be washed away. “I cannot afford to let that happen” said Aruni to himself as he ran out to the fields picking up a spade. “Guruji has entrusted the work to me and I shall do my duty to the best of my effort”
When he reached the fields, he was alarmed. The water had started entering the fields through small breaches here and there and it had started to rain very heavily. With the spade, Aruni quickly tried to take mud from the sides and fill the breach but tap…tap.. tap… tap…taptap.. taptap.. , the rain fell in torrents with giant sized droplets that seemed to be challenging Aruni’s speed. He would fill mud in one spot and another started to leak , he would fill that and yet another spot would leak. Slowly the breach was about three feet and water was gushing in through the gap.
Aruni was distressed. He thought fast and in a flash decided that the best bank would be his body!! Yes, the breach was about three feet long and he was more than five feet tall. In a jiffy, he lay on his side along the breach. His body was firmly embedded in the soft mud and the water could not leak through. The rain slowed down but the water in the canal was gushing in full speed with water flowing into it from somewhere else.
Aruni was shivering and felt extremely cold. The hunger and fatigue combined with the cold water and chill had made his body numb. He had to wait till the flow in the canal subsided. He lay there like a log slowly losing his consciousness.
However the rain did not stop completely. It was late in the evening and the students had assembled in the prayer hall for the evening prayer. Dhaumya walked in and his eyes scanned the attendance. He knew someone was missing. Just as the prayer was over he realised it was Aruni who was missing.
“Where is Aruni?” he asked the students. “Has anyone seen him?”
The students looked at each other and one of them said, “Guruji, I saw him in the morning as he was going to the forest” Dhaumya was shocked. “Has he not come back yet?” he asked. With no reply forthcoming, the Rishi ordered a few students to accompany him. “Come on, get a lantern and come with me “ he said.
The night was dark and wet and the rain had stopped. It was water everywhere and the students , accompanied by Dhaumya took a lantern and went out. “Aruni…… O Aruni my boy! “ called out Dhaumya. There was no reply whatsoever. Suddenly Dhaumya remembered that Aruni was supposed to check the rice fields and so went near the fields. It was pitch dark, but no water had entered the fields. “Aruni…. Aruni…..” called out Dhaumya again. A very small moan came from one side of the field and as Dhaumya took the lantern up, he could see the boy Aruni, lying in the water, numb and cold with hunger and fatigue , but his mouth was murmuring “ Guruji…. fields … saved… no breach….”
Dhaumya realised what Aruni had done to save the crops and was moved by his deed. “Get up my son… “ he said to Aruni. Looking at Aruni’s reluctance to get up as he feared the water would enter the fields, he looked at the other students and said, “Boys , as Aruni gets up mend this bund with the spade”
On hearing these words, Aruni got up reluctantly but his body was too weak and he had to be helped by Dhaumya.The other students were shell shocked with Aruni’s action. Dhaumya was overwhelmed by Aruni’s sincerity. He embraced him and led him back to the Ashram.“You are now Uddalaka Aruni!” said the sage, conferring him the title of “Uddalaka” . “May all the scriptures come to you at your beck and call”.
That was it! Now Aruni could just call upon the scriptures and Vedas to come to him when he wished. After all the long years of hard studies, what other students could not achieve, Aruni achieved it through his single minded “Guru Bhakti”, which is devotion to the Guru.
Uddalaka Aruni went on to become one of the finest teachers and philosophers in his later years and his teachings are referred to in the Brihaddharanyaka Upanishad.