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The Essence of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda


Ōm pūrṇam adah, pūrṇam idam, pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate;
pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya pūrṇam evāvasisyate.
Ōm Śāntih! Śāntih! Śāntih!

Om! That is Full. This is Full. From the Full, the Full does proceed. Taking the Full from the Full, the Full alone remains.
OM, Peace, Peace, Peace!

In all principles which guide human life, there are two aspects known as the ‘exoteric' and the ‘esoteric'. The routine of daily life is mostly guided by what we call the exoteric principles which have a working value and a validity within the realm of human action. In this sense, we may say, the values which are called exoteric are relative, inasmuch as every activity in life is relative to circumstances.

But, this exoteric mode of living, religious or secular, is based on another principle which is known as the esoteric value of life, because there must be some rationality behind our conduct in life, whatever be that conduct—religious or otherwise. Why do we go to the temple? Why do we go to the church? Why do we worship any god? Why should there be any kind of attitude at all? This is because there is a fundamental rock-bottom of a deciding factor, though it always happens to be inside and never comes outside before the vision of the human eye. The principle of ultimate law is always invisible, though its activity can be seen in outward life. When law acts, we can see how it acts. But law, by itself, cannot be seen with the eyes. Law is a general impersonal principle. This impersonal general principle of living, which is not subject to the changes of time, and which is permanently of a standard value, is known as the esoteric principle of life. And we have, thus, the aspects of exotericism and esotericism, both in religious and secular life, which means to say, there is an internal, secret, guiding principle as well as an outward manifestation of it in every form of life.

Now, primarily, at present, we are concerned with a very important subject, the principle of life which can guide every individual, whether of the East or of the West, of the North or of the South, of today or of tomorrow, under every condition. Is there such a principle? We have in the Dharma-Shastras, or the law codes and ethical mandates, mention made of Dharmas, known as Samanya-Dharmas and Visesha-Dharmas. ‘Dharma' is a principle of behaviour and action, a law, a regulating system. And it is Samanya, general, or Visesha, particular. The general Dharma or the generally applicable principle of life is called the Samanya Dharma, but that which varies from individual to individual, from one class to another class, from one condition to another condition, etc. is the Visesha-Dharma.

The laws of life are esoteric and exoteric, even as they are general and particular. All these divisions of law and principle are manifestations of an inviolable principle, that is, the ultimate principle of life which is impossible to grasp easily, inasmuch as our intellects, our minds, our personalities are all involved under certain conditions of living. We cannot extricate ourselves from the circumstances in which we are involved.

Though the invisible and the impersonal principle of life is impossible of grasp by conditioned intellects, yet it casts certain impressions upon every condition in life and it is seen to be working in me, in you and in everyone under every circumstance. So, it is possible for us to reach the impersonal and the ultimate principle of life through the conditions, the circumstances and the vicissitudes. The esoteric can be known through the exoteric. The super-individual can be reached through the individual, and conditions can be broken and the unconditioned reached.

In ancient times, masters and sages sat together in congregation, and discussed the problems of life of here and hereafter. What is life? What is this world? What is our duty? What are we expected to do, and in what way are we to behave, and so on. Is there a life beyond, or, is this life everything? Is this earth the evaluating principle of all, or is there something beyond? These questions were discussed in great detail, through centuries, right from the time of the Vedas.

We have, in India particularly, a series of records available of such discussions of ancient masters, which are given to us today in the form of what we call the Veda-Rasi or the lore of sacred wisdom, usually known as the Vedas. It is a book of wisdom, or we may call it a group of books of wisdom, records of such discussions, findings, realisations and experiences of various experts who have tried to dive into the depths of ‘being' and brought out the pearls from the ocean of existence, and proclaimed the value of it all, and the meaning of it, to everyone.

The Veda-Shastras are classified into the exoteric and the esoteric, as in the case of every religious lore. We have this distinction in Christianity, in Islam, and everywhere—the outward religion and the mystical approach to Truth. The Vedas are, therefore, a general term for this entire group of scriptures, which discuss by a long range of development of thought, every approach to Reality possible, from the lowest to the highest. These layers of approach, recorded in the Vedas, are available to us in the groupings, today known as the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The Samhita portion of the Vedas is constituted of hymns and prayers to deities, transcendent powers, spiritual forces, which guide the embodiments in the form of created beings. They are the summonings of the soul in terms of the higher spirits which were felt to be present in the depths of contemplation and visions of various kinds. These hymns, known as the Samhitas, in the Vedas, could be applied for two purposes—for meditation as well as for ritual. When they become instruments of meditation or contemplation, they are the contents of what are known as the Aranyakas; and when they become the guidelines for action, ritual, sacrifice and worship, they are called the Brahmanas. So, there are two developments in the Vedic thought—the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas, developed from the Samhitas, branching forth in two different directions—contemplation and action. But there was a time when the peak of experience spiritual culminated in a blend of all these, in what are known as the Upanishads. The Upanishads represent the quintessence of thought, the essence that is drawn out from the Vedic knowledge, and the honey that is sucked, as it were, from the body of knowledge—Samhitas, Brahmanas and Aranyakas—not representing conditioned life merely, but reaching the utmost of effort to discover the nature of the unconditioned Reality.

The seers of the Upanishads were bent upon entering into the kernel of Reality by casting off all vestures which condition human life, and attaining a kind of attunement with it. The unconditioned was plumbed and experienced. So, in a way, we may say that the Upanishadic texts are records of exclamations and experiences of Masters who set themselves in tune with the ultimate Truth. Such are the Upanishads.

It is a very strange word, —‘Upanishad,'—which is supposed to mean a secret knowledge, not to be imparted to uninitiates or the common public who are wedded to the exoteric approach only, who are totally conditioned in their life, and who cannot rise above the bias of sense-life and social regulations. Hence, the Upanishadic wisdom was kept very secret. It was never given to anyone except the near disciples who went to the Masters for training and underwent discipline for a protracted number of years, and made themselves fit to receive this knowledge which is unconditioned. That was the greatness of it, and that was also the danger of it—because it is unconditioned.

The Upanishads, therefore, are mystical revelations, secret wisdom; and, as the word denotes, they are supposed to be listened to, heard about, or learnt from a Master by one's being seated in front of him, beside him, near him—Upa-ni-shad. When the word Upa-ni-shad is split into its components, it is supposed to give the meaning: “A knowledge that is secretly obtained from a Master by one's being seated near him in holy reverence and obedience.” “Sit near” ;—that is the literal meaning of the term, Upanishad. Sit near the Guru, the Master and receive the wisdom by attunement, at-one-ment of ‘being'. This is the peculiarity of Upanishadic knowledge. It is not like science or art or any other exoteric learning that one can have in a College or a University. It is not a lecture that is delivered, but a wisdom that is communicated to the soul by the soul. That is the speciality of Upanishadic wisdom. It is a communication between soul and soul, and not merely a discourse given by a professor to students in a College. It is a Light that is made to commingle with another Light. So, the Upanishads were kept as greatly guarded secrets.

The texts, known as the Upanishads, are spread out throughout the range of Vedic literature, and each section of the Veda has its own Upanishad or Upanishads. The Brihadaranyaka is the most important of them; it is very rarely studied by people and rarely discussed about. The ‘Brihadaranyaka Upanishad' means the great forest of knowledge'. It is really a forest of every aspect of spiritual knowledge. One can find everything there, as one finds in a forest. And this Upanishad, particularly, is never studied by students, nor is it taught by tutors, because of its complicated structure, difficult to grasp, and not safe also to communicate if its meaning is not properly rendered. If its meaning is properly grasped, it would be the ultimate, unfailing friend of a person till death. It will guard you, protect you and save you, and provide you with everything, at all times. But if it is not properly understood, it can be like a sword in the hands of a child. So, this Upanishad has to be studied with great reverence and holiness of attitude, not as some book that you study in a library. It is not a book at all. It is Spirit that manifests itself, and not merely a word that is spoken. Such is the Upanishad, the Brihadaranyaka.

The Upanishad begins with a startling exposition of the very methodology adopted in the Upanishads. The method of the Upanishad is secret, esoteric and intended to go into the meaning of an action which is otherwise exoteric. The Vedas have one aspect, namely, the ritual aspect, the aspect of sacrifice, performance of religious ceremony, by the application of the Mantras of the Samhitas, as expounded in the section known as the Brahmanas. The Aranyakas go to the contemplative side of the Brahmanas, and tell us that a sacrifice need not necessarily be outward. It can also be inward; and the inward is as powerful as the outward. It can even be more powerful than the outward ritual. The ritual that is performed by the mind, say the Aranyakas, is more powerful in the production of effect than the ritual that is outwardly performed through the sacred fire or in the holy altar. The entire range of the Aranyakas is filled with this meaning, that mental action is a greater action than the external act. Its capacity is greater than that of external activity. Thought is more potent than word and deed. This principle is carried to its logical limit in the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are embodiments of different types of contemplation on Ultimate Reality, and so is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The beginning of the Upanishad is a contemplation on the inward meaning of a great sacrifice described in the Brahmanas, known as the Asvamedha Sacrifice. It is an external performance of a religious character for the purpose of achieving higher results in the form of celestial enjoyments, etc; but the Upanishad tells us that the proper approach to the aims of human life, such as ultimate satisfaction, delight, etc. would not be the method of the Brahmanas which is only symbolic, but there is a deeper approach which can be more easily affiliated to the nature of Reality than is the external action of the Brahmanas. The sacrifice of the Asvamedha—it is a peculiar term which signifies the consecration of a horse in a large ritual performance—was mostly undertaken by princes and kings in ancient times, for the purpose of name, fame, etc. in this world and heavenly rejoicing hereafter. But the Upanishad tells us that its meaning is something quite different. What we see with our eyes and what we do with our deeds are indicative of a deeper aspiration in our minds, and what we actually seek is not pleasure, not satisfaction in the ordinary sense, not power, not name, fame, because all these are transient. Everything shall end, one day or the other. What are these joys in heaven? What is this power in this world? What is this name and status? They are mirages; they are nothing but husk, because they pass like wisp of wind. And how is it possible for the soul of an individual to ask for that which is transitory, perishable and passes like a wind? Will any wise person ask for a perishable joy? How could anyone engage oneself in activities, performances, religious or otherwise, which are capable of promising only transient joys, which will rob us of all our strength, and, then, land us in sorrow most inconceivable? What is the real aspiration of the soul of the individual? What is it that we really ask for? What is it that we need? It is difficult to answer these questions. The child cannot answer the question: ‘What do you need?' ‘I want a sweetmeat, a sugar-candy, a toy.' What else can the child say? Such seems to be the answer of the untutored mind, the illiterate soul, sunk in the darkness of ignorance, which speaks in terms of name, fame, power, wealth and diversion and gain and pleasures; whether they are transient or not, it cares not. It asks for pleasure, which shall end in a complication from which it is difficult for one to free oneself.

The Upanishad promises us a freedom which is above the turmoil of all earthly existence. It can make us happy perennially under every condition, even after death—not merely in this life. In fact, the Upanishad assures us that death is not a bar, and not a fear. There is no such thing as death as we think of it. It is another kind of process which is intended for the chastening of the soul in its march towards a greater perfection; and perfection is what we ask for, not pleasure. This is what the Upanishads tell us, on which the Brihadaranyaka contemplates in vast detail.

To people who study this Upanishad at random, it may appear to be a hotch-potch of contents, as it incorporates diverse ideas, many thoughts, and several schools of thought are impregnated into the body of this scripture. But, in fact, it is so profound that to discover the sequence of thought present in it one requires some time and also some patience. There is a sequential development of thought of the Upanishad right from the beginning to the end. It is not an irrelevant jumble of various concepts of meditation or philosophical thought put into a single omnibus body. There is, really, no spiritual truth which is not contained in this Upanishad; it is a complete scripture by itself, and every other Upanishad repeats only what this has said in some way or the other. There is nothing new in any other Upanishad that is not found in the Brihadaranyaka. It is really ‘Brihadaranyaka'—a great forest of wisdom, a real ocean where you can find any kind of treasure, provided you are able to dive deep into it. If we can arrange all the thoughts of the Upanishad in some sequence, we shall find that the First Chapter of the Upanishad is actually the thesis of the whole Upanishad and the Second Chapter, to some extent, continues the same tradition, so that commentators are of the opinion that the First and the Second Chapters constitute what may be called the fundamental doctrine, of the Brihadaranyaka. This Section is also called the Madhu-kanda or the book dealing with the essence of the whole scripture.

The next two Chapters, the Third and the Fourth, are a logical development of this thought in a more polemical manner or philosophical way. These are thoughts which are not entirely new, but which have been already explained in a precise form in the first two Chapters, only now elaborated in a philosophical way in the next two Chapters, called the Yajnavalkya-kanda, or the Muni-kanda, as, sometimes, it is also called. So, we have in the first Four Chapters the entire philosophy in its basic sense—the thesis proclaimed in the first two Chapters and argued about in the next two Chapters.

The practical meditations which may be regarded as the natural outcome of this philosophical study are expounded in the Fifth Chapter. The Sixth Chapter is a very essential appendix to the whole body of the Upanishad, so that in these Six Chapters the entire objective of human life, the four Purusharthas, as we may say—Artha, Kama, Dharma and Moksha—all these aims of existence, are beautifully blended in their completeness and told as to how they stand in a mutual relation one to the other, how these objectives of life, Artha, Kama, Dharma and Moksha are four approaches necessarily incumbent upon every individual at some time or the other, in some degree or the other for the purpose of the highest integration which is Self-realisation or God-realisation.