The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is the primary book of the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophical texts. It is one of the oldest Upanishads and its name translates into “the Great Forest Book” (Sastri 29). Written entirely in prose form, this text is one of the more philosophical books of the Upanishads and largely comments on the nature of reality and the basic identity of atman.
The history and dates of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is still a somewhat debated topic. Through analyzing the linguistics used in the text, philologist Max Muller speculated that the text was written between 1000-800 BCE (Muller 333). Other estimates have been given around the same time period but due to the antiquity of the text it is difficult to confidently date the text.
The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad largely follows the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Yajnavalka is sage who is portrayed to be an important advisor in the court of Janaka. Through the stories of the Brhadaranyaka, Yajnavalkya comments on many philosophical issues including consciousness and perception, creation and self, and the laws of karma. The main virtues that occur in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad are self-restraint, giving, and compassion, or self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and merciful-benevolence (Sastri 16).
Some evidence suggests that the text was written in a ring composition, where themes are discussed in a cyclical fashion (Hock 279). Ring composition is commonly found in narratives that have a history of being orally passed through generation (Hock 279).
There is one story that is particularly interesting because it is told twice in the Brhadaranyaka with one version differing only slightly from the other. This story follows a conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi on the nature of knowledge. In one version Yajnavalkya uses the word “vijnyanam,” meaning “knowing apart,” and later in the same version uses the phrase “nothing but discerning knowledge,” to describe vijnyanam (Wood 7-9). In the other version of the story, Yajnavalkya uses the term “prajnyanam,” meaning “knowing before,” and “nothing but underlying knowledge,” (Wood 7-9). In both versions of the story Maitreyi is confused by Yajnavalkya’s comments and in response to her confusion Yajnavalkya begins a discussion on dual and non-dual ideas of knowledge. Duality of knowledge can be thought of as knowledge gained through perception and non-duality can be thought of in Cartesian terms; the only knowledge one can be certain of is the knowledge of self (Wood 6-8). With this, Yajnavalkya ends the conversation with Maitreyi and leaves her, along with the reader, wondering about the nature of knowledge, consciousness, and perception (Wood 6-8). The two versions of this story in the text offer evidence of ring composition structure perhaps, in this particular case, to portray a different concept to the reader (Hock 282). In the first telling of the story, Yajnavalkya responds to Maitreyi’s question of whether having wealth would make her immortal with a blunt “neti,” or “no.” This is different from the second telling where he answers her question with “neti neti,” (Hock 282). This respond is a clear allusion to the advaita refrain (Hock 282).
The advaita refrain is a passage that is found in multiple places in the Brhadaranyaka (Hock 280). The passage describes the nature of atman using negative definitive approach (Hock 280).
“This atman is “not (this), not (this)”; not comprehensible, for it is not comprehended; not destructible, for it is not destroyed; not attached, not fettered, (for) it is not (being) attached, it does not suffer” (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.26, Hock 280)
Another story involving Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi that is of interest is one concerning the absolute nature of the self. This conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi addresses the difference between true happiness and happiness that arises from the acquisition of material possessions. In this story, Yajnavalkya tells Maitreyi that he has decided to leave the householder stage of life and move onto the next stage, a stage of renunciation. He announces that he is going to divide his possessions between Mairtreyi and his other wife Katayani. In response to this, Maitreyi asks Yajnavalkya if she will be able to gain happiness from the acquisition of the property and, further, if it is possible to gain true happiness from the satisfaction and comforts that accompany material possessions. The story portrays Yajnavalkya as being very pleased with Maitreyi for asking such a question. He tells her that one cannot attain true happiness through the comfort and satisfaction through material possessions or anything that gives any comfort, including psychological or social comfort (Sastri 348-357).
Here, the conversation shifts to properties of material possessions. Yajnavalkya explains to Maitreyi that the laws of time give material possessions a temporal aspect and that things with temporal aspects cannot bring true happiness. Things that are exempt from temporal properties are what is needed to attain true happiness, and things of this nature are known a eternal or immortal (Sastri 348-357).
Another main concept discussed in the Brhadaranyaka is the nature of creation. The text describes creation as coming from one absolute self that existed before creation on its own (Wood 35). This portion of the text has many psychological and metaphysical aspects. The text asserts that in the beginning there was nothing and this is likened to darkness and light, with darkness being characterized by a lack of sensory perception and light being characterized by perception being possible. A metaphysical question that arises from this is how did something (the universe) come to be if in the beginning there was nothing? It is illogical to believe that something came from nothing, and the text addresses this through saying nothing is fully created but only transformed into something different (Sastri 308-315). The text also says that each person’s true self is the same as complete reality and because of this it is possible to understand reality through understanding the inner self, the emphasis here is on creation from self (Wood 26).
Another large part of the Brhadaranyaka is spent on the laws of karma. The text describes how the laws of karma predict one’s rebirth. The text describes karma as
“…after death we go to the next world, bearing in mind the subtle impressions of our deeds; and after reaping there harvest of such deeds, return again to this work of action. Thus, whoever has desire continues subject to rebirth.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.1-2)
Through this passage, the Brhadaranyaka sums up karma to say that rebirth is a product of one’s actions and desires in life, and rebirth will continue as such. Another passage describes the cessation of the rebirth cycle if one desire has been calmed (Brahamaprana 4). The latter part of this passage may be interpreted to mean that rebirth will cease if one has attained the highest form of realization, brahman. After attaining brahman, the text implies that the cycle of karma will stop.
This view is carried over into the description of death as well. Death is described as a state where one has no perception of the senses and one is detached from the physical body of life (Brahamaprana 6). The text articulates that all souls that have passed will momentarily stay in a state of light. Those who have attained realization will stay in this state, while those souls who did not attain realization will pass through karmic retribution until a future rebirth occurs (Brahamaprana 6-7).
References and Further Recommended Readings
Sastri, S.K. (1950) The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad with commentary by Sankaracarya. Advaida Ashrama: Mayavati Almora, Himalayas.
Singh, U. (2008) A history of ancient to medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century. Delhi: Pearson Longman.
Wood, A. E. (1996) Interpreting the Upanisads. East Anglia: Full Circle Publishing.
Radhakrishan, S. (1953) The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.
Brahmaprana, P (2001) “Vedanta: Death and Art of Dying.” Cross Currents, Fall 2001: 337-345.
Hock, H.H. (2002) “The Yajnavalkya cycle in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad” Journal of American Oriental Society 122(2), 279-286.
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Article written by: Brinn Lemke (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.
The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad
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