Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (13)-Yajnavalkya-Kanda-Chapter Iii

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The Number of Gods—Meditation on the Eight Persons and Their Corresponding Deities—Meditation on the Five Directions with Their Deities and Supports—Meditation on the Essence of the Vital Force—Comparison of Man with a Tree—Source of Rebirth or Creation Established as the Supreme Brahman


This ninth section of the Yajnavalkya Kanda deals with the dialogue between Yajnavalkya and Sakalya, another Sage in the assembly of Janaka. The questions raised by Sakalya mainly dealt with theological issues which were considered important at that time. Sankara merely gives a translation and a little explanation over them as they don’t contain any important philosophical or spiritual ideas.

The interesting part of this section is the way in which Yajnavalkya gave a philosophical view to the number of gods in our theology. Although we have a number of gods in theology, they all are essentially only one; that One is called by many names. That One is Prana, Life Principle. Prana is Brahman. It is also called THAT. This is the final conclusion of this section.


The section starts with Sakalya asking Yajnavalkya how many gods are there. Yajnavalkya puts the number at 3306. This is on the authority of the set of hymns called nivid, which are eulogistic invocations of gods. Yajnavalkya then explains that these 3306 gods are in fact only different aspects of gods which according to Vedic scriptures are only 33 in number. These 33 gods are also known as Vedic Gods as under.

Vedic names Their nature Number
Vasus Fire, Earth, Air, Space, Sun, Heaven, Moon and Stars. 8
Rudras Five sense organs, Five organs of action, and the mind. 11
Adityas Twelve months of the year. 12
Indra Symbol of vigour and strength personified by thunder. 1
Prajapati Symbol of sacrificial rituals. 1
Total 33

Yajnavalkya further explains that these 33 gods are in fact included in just six gods and these six gods are further reducible to three; and the three, to two. These two are Matter and Life Principle, Prana.

Yajnavalkya then says that the two gods can be reduced to one-and- a- half, Air. The reason for the fraction is because we all live only on Air and hence Air is more than itself entity which is more than one.

Apparently, the concept of god in the Upanishads is different from what we generally construe as God.

In a broader sense, the cause of a thing is the god of that thing. As there are infinite things in the universe there are infinite number of gods. Prana is the cosmic vital force that vibrates in every thing from subatomic particles to vast galaxies. In the ultimate analysis the infinite number of gods can be reducible to just one god – Prana or Life Principle. It is the sum total of all gods. Hence It is Brahman; It is called That.

Sakalya describes Brahman as that Cosmic Person, Purusha, who has many abodes which are enumerated by him. According to him this Purusha is illumined by the mind; he perceives through heart, eyes or ears which are said to be his worlds. This Purusha is stated to be the ultimate support of every soul. But Yajnavalkya identifies the presiding deities of each abode as under.

Earth Fire Immortality
Desire Heart Women
Forms Eyes Truth
Space Ear Quarters
Darkness Heart Death
Colors Eyes Life
Water Heart Varuna
Procreative Fluid Heart Prajapati

By these repeated questions Yajnavalkya becomes impatient and alleges that Sakalya is being used as a façade by the learned Brahmins assembled there as they did not have the courage to question him directly.

Sakalya expresses his discomfort at the contemptuous remarks made by Yajnavalkya. Thereafter in response to a series of questions by Sakalya, Yajnavalkya describes the presiding deities of the five quarters of Space together with their supports as follows.

East Sun Eyes, forms, heart
South Yama Sacrifice, offerings to priests, faith, heart
West Varuna Water, semen, heart
North Soma Initiatory rites, truth, heart
Zenith Agni Speech, heart

It will be observed that the ultimate support of all that exists in all the five directions of Space is the Mind (referred to as the heart here). Feeling disappointed, Sakalya asks “on what is the heart supported”? Yajnavalkya’s satirical reply is that obviously the heart is supported by the body.