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The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad



Chapter IV: The Inner Reality

The Fourth Chapter is a direct conversation between Yāj˝avalkya and King Janaka, which goes deep into the subjects: how the practice of meditation can be faultless, how it could be integral, how the various instructions Janaka received from some teachers were partial, they were aspects of reality, and they were not definitions of the Total Reality; what happens to one in waking, dream, sleep and Mokṣha, or final liberation.

Whenever Janaka told Yāj˝avalkya that he was initiated by such-and-such a person into such-and-such a method of meditation, the sage immediately retorted it was only one-fourth of the Reality, and so not complete. What was it that was lacking in it? The three-fourths were wanting, and the sage supplied the three-fourths by saying that the divinity behind things and the transcendent superintending principles rising above the visible forms of things, as well as the experiencing consciousness or the meditating principle, are also to be taken into concentration, apart from the actual form of the object which we usually take as supports in meditation. This applies as a uniform law in respect of any kind of meditation on any object or concept. It is incomplete when the object alone is thought of. Everything that is responsible for its appearance is also to be considered in order that the meditation may become complete; otherwise, there would be distraction of mind. Every object is connected to various other factors which are invisible. Every object has a transcendent nature, apart from its physical quality. It is external; it is internal; it is also universal. So, all these aspects of a thing have to be duly considered before meditation is to become final, says Yāj˝avalkya in answer to the importunities of Janaka.

Then the sage goes deep into the questions of waking, dream and sleep, which are indications here of the presence of a vaster reality than is apparent in either waking, dream or sleep. It is the Light of lights – Jyotishām jyotiḥ. The Great Being which is the Supreme Reality, Brahman, is the Light with which everything is known. Our knowledge does not depend upon sunlight, moonlight, the twinkling of the stars, or the light of fire. Nothing of that kind! These lights are not the causes of our knowledge. Real knowledge is a new light altogether, which is internal, which is conscious and self-sufficient, which is self-luminous – that is the real Jyotis, Luminosity – and when every light fails, this Light will shine, and that is the Ātman of things. It cannot be known because it is not outside; it is not an object of the senses. It is not anything that can be comprehended by the faculties that are available to us. Thus it is that we are a failure in our attempts at the knowledge of the Ātman, while we are a success at everything else in the world.

The highest knowledge is also the highest happiness; this is a point which is driven home into the mind of King Janaka by Yāj˝avalkya. All our attempts, all our enterprises in this world are towards the acquirement of happiness, and no happiness in the world is permanent; it is all evanescent pleasure that we have here. It is evanescent because it passes away with the passing of the objects with which it is connected, with which it is identified. Our happiness is tied to the objects of the senses. We always try to find happiness in certain external things. Thus, when the objects pass away, the happiness also passes away. So, one cannot be really happy in this world. How can there be permanent happiness when there is nothing permanent anywhere? Everything upon which we pin our faith has to go one day or the other; not only does the object in which we put faith go, but we ourselves have to go. Naturally, then, there is a final catastrophe awaiting everyone some day. How can there be happiness ultimate in this world? But our very aspiration for permanent happiness is a symbol, an indication of its existence somewhere. It would not be possible for us to aspire for it, if it is not existent at all. Our mistake is that we seek it in places where it is not. It is not in the objects of sense. It is reflected in the objects but it is really not there, just as our face is not in the mirror. We can see our face in the mirror, but it is not really there inside the mirror. Just as the face is seen in the mirror, but it is not in the mirror, and we can mistake it for the reality of the face, likewise, happiness does exist, but it is not in the objects. It is only reflected in the objects on account of certain prevailing circumstances. We have to extricate the original from the apparent reflection and then we shall see that we have made a great mistake, a blunder in visualising the reality in the reflection, and clinging to the reflection as if it is the reality. The permanent happiness that we are aspiring after, the great bliss that we are seeking in this world, is not where we are seeking; it is elsewhere, behind us. It is not outside us, external to us. It is just another name for Universality of Being, the absoluteness of Reality. That is true happiness, Brahman, and for the purpose of the elucidation of the nature of happiness in its various levels, or gradations of manifestation, we are told that superior to the highest kind of human happiness conceivable, there is the happiness of the Gandharvas; beyond that is the happiness of the Pitṛis; beyond that is the happiness of the Devas, or the celestials; higher than the happiness of the celestials is the happiness of Indra; higher than the happiness of Indra is the happiness of Brihaspati; still higher is the happiness of Virāt; higher than Virāt is Hiraṇyagarbha; higher than Hiraṇyagarbha is Īshvara, and then the Supreme Being, Brahman. So, one can imagine where we stand. Our happiness is a little fraction, a finite reflection, a distorted form of the great ocean of Reality, which is Bliss itself in its essence. It is Sat, Being; It is Chit, Intelligence; It is Ānanda, joy.

In this Reality, the ordinary conventions, morals, rules, laws, principles, get transcended, for It is All-Inclusive Being.

Thus, we have, in outline, the Fourth Chapter of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad, which also concludes, once again, with the Maitreyī-Vidyā, the conversation between Yāj˝avalkya and Maitreyī, as it was studied in the Second Chapter.

The Fifth Chapter is entirely devoted to various descriptions of symbolic meditations. We are told here that different symbols can be taken as helps in meditation on Reality, just as we can reach the ocean through any river in the world. Inasmuch as the whole of Reality cannot be envisaged by the senses, or conceived by the mind, some visible form of It is taken as a prop in meditation. But the object of meditation chosen is not the end of meditation; it is only a means to a transcendence of the quality of meditation through that object. We have to rise gradually from the external symbol, the form of the object chosen, to its deeper implications which are subtler than the visible gross form of the symbol, and subtler even than what we can conceive as the subtle reality behind it. It has a transcendent form and when it reaches its highest state, it ceases to be an external object. The more we go deep into the nature of an object, the more do we realise its affinity with our own existence. But the more we conceive of its externality and grossness of form, the more also remote does it appear to be from us. The grosser is our concept of an object, the farther it is from us, and the more difficult it is to come in contact with it. But the deeper we go into it by insight, the more does it reveal its connection with us in its essentiality, even as we go into the depths of the ocean and realise the background of all the waves on the surface which are apparently different, one from the other. This is the principle behind these symbolic meditations. The items mentioned are ether, heart, truth, creativity, sun, mind, lightning, Vedas, Vaishvānara-Fire, Austerity, Prāṇa, Power, and the Four Feet of the Gāyatrī-Mantra. In fact, anything can be such a symbol, provided the principle of the technique is not missed.

We are also told in this Chapter that there are three great obstacles to spiritual approach and they are the weaknesses of personality, whether it is celestial, human or demoniacal. Every personality has defects of its own, a characteristic weakness, which has to be overcome by great effort; otherwise the finitude of that personality would get emphasised by the repeated acquiescence in its weaknesses. These have to be stepped over by deep meditation, the principles of which have been described in the symbolic methods mentioned.

The passion of the mind to run after objects of sense is one weakness. It is characteristic of everyone. The mind rushes to objects outside and it cannot rest quiet without them. The mind is always thinking of something outside – this is the weakness of a polished quality. Everything else comes after it. This weakness has to be tackled properly. Why does the mind run after objects? What is its secret? What does it expect from the objects? While history has shown that every attempt at contact with objects has ended in the misery of the individual, why is it that there is a repeated attack on the object by the senses and the mind? This is the organic weakness of individuality.

The other form of finitude or weakness is greed, the desire to appropriate everything to one's own self. People have no desire to share anything with others. The more one would like to have, the better it is. Each one is fond of one's own self, much more than one is attached to anything else. When the test is made, it will be found that one loves one's own self much more than anyone else. Finally, one would try to save oneself only, as when a catastrophe threatens a person. This is the principal greed, the love of one's own self, which manifests itself as greed for objects outside – wealth, property, acquisitions, etc. The more you have it, the still more do you want to have of it. It is an irrational trait in the individual to appropriate things, even those things which may not belong to oneself, justly.

The third weakness is the finding of joy in the suffering of others, the inflicting of pain upon others, cruelty of any kind, harm done to others. This is the demoniacal instinct, whereby we get enraged and commit violence upon other living beings. The tendency to wreak vengeance, do harm or injury, bring about destruction in respect of others, is a weakness – the worst one. Greed, by which one appropriates things to oneself, is a weakness, and attachment to things, the great passion for objects, is another weakness. As long as these weaknesses preponderate in oneself, spiritual aspiration is out of question, God-realisation is far from one's reach. So the Upaniṣhad, by way of an anecdote, or a story, tells us that the Creator, Prajāpati, Himself told the celestials, the humans and the demons that they should restrain themselves (Dāmyata), that they should be charitable (Datta), and that they should be compassionate (Dayādhvam). These were the instructions given by Prajāpati to his children – the celestials, the humans and the demons.

In connection with the injunction of meditation on the Gāyatrī-Mantra, it is enjoined upon the meditator that the first foot of the Mantra should be identified with the three worlds – earth, atmosphere and heaven; the second foot with the three Vedas – Rik, Yajur and Sāma; the third foot with the three vital functions – Prāṇa, Apāna and Vyāna; and the fourth foot with the sun. The result of such meditation is mastery over the worlds, proficiency in the higher knowledge, control above all living beings, and transcendent spiritual excellence. This Mantra is called 'Gāyatrī' because it protects (Trayate) one who recites it (Gāyan). Thus, the Gāyatrī is all the worlds, all the Vedas, all beings, nay, Reality Itself. Whatever one wishes through it, that does take place.

The stages of the evolution of man's desires and aspirations may be said to rise from his economic needs (Artha), to his vital urges (Kāma), from these two, further on, to the fulfilment of the Universal Law (Dharma) and, finally, the liberation of the self in the Absolute (Mokṣha). The last-mentioned, the longing for spiritual freedom, is, again, constituted of certain stages of approach to Reality. From the ordinary impulse to the doing of selfish actions, there is an onward, rather an upward, ascent to the performance of unselfish activity (Karma-Yoga), and then through the more inwardised stage of devotion, adoration and worship (Upāsanā), one finds the culmination of one's aspiration in total spiritual absorption by means of the higher knowledge of Reality and meditation on It (J˝āna).

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad purports to be a compendium of instruction on every one of these stages of the ascent of the soul to the Supreme Being. While the first four Chapters are confined pre-eminently to the elucidation of the nature of Reality (J˝āna) and Its Law as operating in the Universe (Dharma), there is a predominant emphasis on internal worship (Upāsanā) in the Fifth Chapter, to which subject it is entirely devoted. There is reference interspersed in different places, in some degree, to ritualistic performances as well as concrete meditations in practically all the Chapters of the Upaniṣhad.

The First Section of the Sixth Chapter is, again, a discourse on worship and adoration, the objects here being the supreme Prāṇa, the speech, the eye, the ear, the mind, etc., in their universalised forms. The superiority of the Universal Prāṇa over everything else is emphasised. The Second Section of the Sixth Chapter deals with the famous Panchāgni Vidyā, or the doctrine of the Five Fires, as taught by king Pravahana Jaivali to the Brāhmaṇa sage Gautama, in answer to the great questions: (1) Where do people go after death? (2) From where do people come at the time of birth? (3) Why is the other world never filled up even if many die here repeatedly? (4) How do the liquids offered as libations rise up as a human being? (5) What are the paths of the gods and the manes?

The Five Fires of the universal sacrifice mentioned here are the celestial realm, the atmospheric realm through which rainfalls occur, the physical earth or the world of living beings, the male, and the female, with all which, gradually, by succession, the souls, when they reincarnate, are supposed to get identified, until they enter the womb of the mother; i.e. the first urge for rebirth or the impulse to descend into grosser forms is supposed to originate in the super-physical realms, and then it grossens itself by greater and greater density through rainfall, the foodstuffs of the earth, man's virile energy and a woman's womb. On birth and after appreciable growth there is the natural tendency to work for ulterior gains, which produces effects (Apurva) causing the rise of the soul to other worlds after death here, only to bring about its descent to the lower worlds once again on the exhaustion of the force of the works done here.

However, those individuals who practise meditation on the Five Fires as universal forces and do not regard them merely as natural phenomena, getting subjected to them, go to the higher worlds through the path of gods (known also as the Northern Path), until they reach the region of the Creator. But those who do not perform such meditation, and are ignorant of the universal relatedness of all phenomena in creation and perform merely the so-called good works and charities known in this world as virtues, go after death through the path of the smoke (known as the Southern Path), only to return to the lower worlds on the exhaustion of the force of their merits. It is also added that those who do not go through either of these paths get reborn as animals, insects, etc., whose lives are either of utter ignorance and instinct or of immensely short durations.

The Third Section of the Sixth Chapter is devoted to certain mystical rites, explained in detail, intended to acquire earthly prosperity, wealth and glory in this world. Through the successful execution of these ritualistic performances, coupled with a sort of meditation as would be required in the context, the performer is expected to fulfil his desires for wealth and earthly glory (Artha). The Fourth Section, which is the conclusion of the Sixth Chapter, elaborates the mystical rites connected with the various stages of the procedure and process of childbirth, which includes a fairly detailed touch of the spiritual implications or the diviner aspects of ordinary love-making or the manifestation of the usual relationship between man and woman (Kāma). Uninformed students of the Upaniṣhad hold the erroneous opinion that the section dealing with the way of acquiring wealth and the romantic periods in one's social existence are unbecoming of an Upaniṣhad which is expected to deal with the nature of God, or the Absolute. The criticism arises from quarters having no knowledge of the connection of the temporal with the spiritual, or the interrelationship of every stage in evolution with every other stage, the higher stage at every level being implicit in the lower and the lower one getting illumined in the higher by the spotlight of knowledge. The spiritual is the vitalising value in the secular; which is what enables the latter, at the proper time, to evoke the deepest levels of even the mightiest genius. As stated earlier, the Upaniṣhad is a comprehensive text explaining the ways of an integrated life, pointing to ultimate perfection, as is abundantly made clear in the doctrine of the Five Fires – Panchāgni Vidyā – wherein the importance of every stage in creative integration is visualised in its relevance to the realisation of complete being.

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka is a great Upaniṣhad. The secret of life is revealed in it in various stages. It is a great meditation by itself, and it is an exposition of the internal meaning of the Vedas; it is real Vedānta. The other Upaniṣhads are expository in their nature; in fact we shall find that what is in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad is all-in-all. What is here, is elsewhere; and what is not here, is not anywhere.

Here is the foundation of Indian culture, we may say, which lays down that life is to be envisaged as a completeness and never merely in its partial aspects. The great message of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad in every one of its passages is that our sorrows are due to a partial vision of things and we cannot be happy as long as we are unable to entertain a total vision of anything. When we look at an object, we have only a limited vision of that object. When we look at our own selves, too, we have only a finite vision about our own selves. When we look at the world astronomically, physically, biologically, or chemically, we do not, even then, have a complete view of things. The Upaniṣhad tells us that everything has an external character, an internal nature and a transcendent reality. None of these can be ignored in the evaluation of that thing. When we ignore any aspect, then it cannot be called an insight into the nature of the thing. The plumbing into the reality of any object would be to enter into the basic essence of it, so that we shall realise in the end that the reality of anything is the reality of everything. If we can know one thing, we have also known everything, and we cannot know any single object in this world, ultimately, unless we know the whole of creation. There is no such thing as real knowledge which is partial; any true knowledge is complete, it is integral, it is totality of experience, and knowledge is experience. One of the points stressed here is that knowledge is to be a complete vision, and not a partial look; the other point is that knowledge is not information, it is not a function of the intellect, it is not a ratiocination of the understanding; but it is direct experience. Knowledge and experience are identical. That which has not become part of our being, cannot be called our knowledge. Knowledge is Being. This is the final message of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad.