Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2)- Madhu-Kanda- Chapter I

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Meditation on the Cosmic Person, Hiranyagarbha through the limbs of the Sacrificial Horse.

(N.B. Instead of reproducing the mantras, only their gist is given with an explanation of each of them to maintain brevity).

As is customary with the Upanishads of the other Vedas to take the starting point with some rituals, the first two sections of the Yajur Vedic Brihadarnayaka Upanishad are connected with the horse sacrifice (asvamedha yajna) for interpreting the same allegorically. 

The first section contains two MANTRAS which explain the mystical significance of the Horse Sacrifice (asvamedha yajna). The asvamedha, horse sacrifice, the most elaborate and important of the animal sacrifices in ancient India is interpreted in this and the next sections of the Brihadaranyaka Upansihad as of cosmic significance - a miniature reproduction of world order. The mantras in this section use the horse sacrifice to interpret the Cosmic Person, Prajapati (Hiranyagarbha or Viraj). A similar comparison of the parts of the animals to the various parts of the world establishing a cosmic correlation occur in the Vajasneyi Samhita (22-25) and the Atharva Veda (9-7). The idea of sacrifice as a means to account for creation goes back to the Purusha Sukta of the Rig-Veda (X.90.129) where from each member or part of the primeval (cosmic) person, Purusha, some part of the world is stated to have emanated.

In the horse sacrifice (asvamedha yajna) a horse is let loose and a security force of three hundred guards follow his track. If anyone hinders the horse’s progress, the guards will have to fight with him. When the horse completes a victorious circuit of the earth and returns to the capital, he is offered as a sacrifice and the king who performs the sacrifice assumes the title of sovereign, emperor. Thus the performance of horse sacrifice signifies sovereignty over the world. Here the ritual is considered to be symbolic of conquest of ego followed by sacrifice of self-interest. The horse sacrifice is considered as the highest sacrificial performance as it is generally performed only by the Kings.


The seekers are advised to meditate on such imagery (that is on Prajapati as represented metaphorically in the members of the horse) for attaining knowledge of Brahman. Giving a cosmic interpretation to the horse-sacrifice, it is used as a vehicle of religious faith. Different objects and phenomena of the universe are compared to various limbs and actions of a horse; for example, dawn is compared to the head of the sacrificial horse, the sun as its eyes, the wind as its breath, the year as its body, the heavens as its back, the aerial space as the hollow region of its belly, the seasons as its limbs, the months and fortnights as its joints, when the horse shakes its body it is compared to thunder, its stretching is compared to lightning  and so forth. This section is concluded by construing that the world has its abode in water.

At the horse sacrifice, two vessels are placed before and behind the horse. These former is made of gold and the latter made of silver and they are meant to hold sacrificial libations. They are called mahiman. They are symbolized cosmically as the eastern sea and western sea and also as the day and the night respectively.  The sea is taken as the Supreme Self and source of the creation of the universe. Water conveys the idea of subtle elements. It stands for all the five elements. Water is all-pervading.


This meditation, like regarding an idol as a deity, purifies the horse and raises it to the status of the cosmic person, prajapati. Although only kings are entitled to perform the horse sacrifice, anybody can get the fruits of this sacrifice, if he imagines himself as a sacrificial horse and meditates upon parts of his own body as different parts of the cosmic being which will give him realization.

Creation and evolution of the Universe – The concepts of Death and Sacrifice.


In the previous Brahmana (Section), the world-order was identified with the sacrificial horse and its resting place was said to be the Supreme Self which was described as the ocean. This section describes the process of creation of the world.


The first mantra says in the beginning that is before any manifestation of name and form there was nothing whatsoever in the universe. Everything was devoid of name and form. The creation was in a dormant state. Even the five great subtle elements were in their unmanifested state. There was neither cause nor any effect preceding creation, but all existed as a potential cause.

The mantra then says that the world was covered by death and hunger. Death means absence of life in its manifested aspect. Before life manifested in creation, there was total negation of it, a total non-existence of it, a total absence of it, which is described here as a state of death. Hunger is considered as another name for death because to satisfy hunger one has to destroy (kill) something else like animals or plants or crops etc.

Absence of life in its manifested aspect is not capable of thinking unless there is some cause which has properties of thinking. This cause is provided by the will power, ichcha sakti, of death. Impelled by this will power, death thought ‘let me have a mind’. Mind corresponds to the will power which is the characteristic of the life principle. Thus the life principle was generated which animated itself throughout. As a consequence of such animation, death disappeared as darkness vanishes because of the light. This animation of the life-principle has been figuratively stated as ‘He created the mind’.

Then the life principle went on worshipping; worship symbolizes the animation of kriya sakti, creative power. The will power and creative power led to an awareness of the activity of the mind and a feeling of happiness arising from such activity. They have been called fire and water respectively.  They are collectively called arka; arc means worship and kam means happiness. While the process of creation was thus going on, water was produced as an effect of kriya sakti.  The mantra concludes by saying that whoever thus knows the origin of fire and water, for him happiness is attained implying happiness is related to life principle.


In Vedanta, water is considered as substratum on which life subsists in this creation. Out of the primordial water sprang forth the embryonic state of the universe which solidified into earth. Thereafter, prajapati, the Creator, became tired and distressed because he separated himself from the Supreme Self, his abode, the stable of the sacrificial horse. His heat (taijas) and essence (rasa) then turned into fire.


After creation, both death and life principle, prana, became divided into threefold viz. the sun, aditya, (vital energy), fire, agni, (life) and air, vayu (space). The whole universe - the entire space with all its directions - is the cosmic body of self, the Atman. The mantra describes the different parts of the cosmic body as different directions of the universe.


Soon after the creation of cosmic organism, there followed creation of speech, union of speech and mind and creation of time. This is how the new-born baby in the form of universe sprang out of death. Every kind of life pre-supposes death as its cause just as the death of young age indicates the birth of old age. Death causes life to manifest as the saying “the child is the father of man” goes (the fatherhood is born out of the death of the childhood). The whole creation owes its origin to death. Death wanted to swallow the new-born babe because everything in the universe is always flying towards death (as Arjuna saw in the Viswa Rupa Darsana of The Lord in the XI Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita). The babe naturally cried in terror and the sound of that cry “bhan” became the first manifestation of speech.


Having manifested himself as time and space, He created the universe – Vedas, hymns, rituals, men and animals – by a combination of speech and mind (knowledge and will-power). The universe that emerged thereafter is like the cosmic body of the Self (Atman). Thus the process of creation is a form of his own self-expression. Whatever he projected, he was bent upon eating it. This statement indirectly means that whatever is born is subject to death.  This death is called aditi because it consumes all. He who knows that there is one all-pervading Consciousness in the entire cosmos becomes free from the clutches of birth and death which is metaphorically stated as becoming the eater of all the names and forms.


These two mantras interpret the sacrificial horse and the asvamedha yajna. The performer of the horse sacrifice purifies the horse by means of specific rituals and then lets it free for one year. In the same way the man should seek to perform a greater sacrifice for which he has to cleanse his entire being – senses, mind and nature. The sacrificial horse signifies the individual soul and the horse sacrifice is a symbol of purifying one’s mind from its animal nature and making it fit for higher attainments. In other words, one should perform the horse sacrifice to conquer oneself rather than conquer the others.


Asvameha yajna is a symbolic representation of sacrificing and conquering self-interest. Such a sacrifice is like the sun which shines and gives light to all throughout the year. This section has used the imagery of the horse sacrifice for identification of the Cosmos and concludes with an analogy between the horse sacrifice ritual and self-sacrifice.

The creator created a cosmic body out of himself through austerities and meditation. Thereafter he offered it as an oblation to himself. A horse is a symbol of that cosmic body. The implied message is that one should gain self-mastery by developing a spirit of sacrificing self-interest. Thus the sage of the Upanishad put the high philosophical truth in an aphoristic style. An important point that flows graphically from this section is that everything born in this universe is mortal, a food for Death.