The holy corpus of the Veda, which is the repository of eternal knowledge and wisdom, is divided into four Books, known as Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. In each of the four Vedas a distinction, has been made according to content and form viz., (1) Samhita; (2) Brahmana; (3) Aranyaka; (4) Upanishad.
The Samhita is a collection of hymns or prayers, to God in various manifestations, containing also formulae necessary in the sacrificial use of these hymns, known as mantras. The word ‘Samhita’ means a collection of the mantras belonging to a particular section of the Veda, which are either in metrical verses (Rik) or sentences in prose (Yajus) or chants (Saman).
The Brahmanas teach the practical use of the verses and the chants presented in the Samhitas. However, the Brahmanas, though they are supposed to be only sacrificial injunctions for purpose of ritualistic utilization of the mantras of the Samhita, go beyond this restricted definition and contain much more material, such as Vidhi (a directive precept), Arthavada (laudatory or eulogizing explanation), and Upanishad, (the philosophical or mystical import of the chant or the performance).
The Aranyakas are esoteric considerations of the practical ritual, which is otherwise the main subject of the Brahmana. The opening passage of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in which the horse-sacrifice is treated as a symbol, would serve as an example of how a ritualistic symbol and material is used as a cosmological concept for purpose of religious contemplation and philosophic meditation.
The Upanishads, except the Isavasya, which occurs in the Samhita portion of the Yajurveda, occur as the concluding mystical import and philosophical suggestiveness of some Brahmana or the other. The philosophical sections of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas are usually detached for the purpose of study, and go by the name of Upanishads, brought together from the different Vedas to form a single whole.
Tradition considers that the Brahmacharin, or the celibate student (which is the first part of the dedication of human life) occupies himself with a study of the Samhita; the Grihastha, or the householder (which is the second part of the dedication of life) is expected to diligently perform the rituals detailed in the Brahmanas in relation to their corresponding mantras from the Samhitas. The Vanaprastha, or the recluse, the hermit (the third part of the dedication of life) rises above prayer as a chant and performance as a ritual, and busies himself with pure inward contemplation of the more philosophical and abstract realities hidden behind the outward concepts of divinity and the external performances of ritual. The Sannyasin, or the spiritually illumined renunciate (the fourth and concluding part of the dedicated life) occupies himself with direct meditations as prescribed in the Upanishads, whose outlook of life transcends all-empirical forms, outward relations as also space and time itself.
Among the ten Upanishads, it is the Brihadaranyaka, Chhandogya, Aitareya, Taittiriya and Mandukya that rise above the level of ordinary instruction and stand as most exalted specimens of a direct encounter with Reality.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is like an omnibus, where anything can be found anywhere. It is a veritable research reservoir providing scope for intensive study by those who are pure in heart, sincere in their aspirations, and wholly devoted to lead a spiritualized life.
“The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the most detailed and magnificent revelation of the ancient philosopher-seers, which, in its six chapters packed with thought and revelation, provides to the students a practically exhaustive and concentrated teaching on every aspect of life, making it an indispensable guidebook to the student of literature as well as the philosopher, the religious devotee, and the mystical and spiritual seeker engaged in meditation for divine realization”. - The Divine Life Society, Rishikesh
It occupies a pre-eminent place among the Upanishads since it not only delineates the fundamental principles of Vedanta but also describes a number of upasanas or meditations technically known as Vidyas, religious rituals, sacrifices, mythology etc. It also throws light on contemporary society especially about the noble nature of kings, high status of women in the spiritual field and their erudition in Brahma Vidya. It touches on almost every issue relevant to human life, and rises to such heights of philosophic genius as may rightly be considered as the greatest achievement of the human mind in history. Hence the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad represents a landmark in the development of early philosophical literature of India. Adi Sankaracharya’s commentary on this Upanishad is considered to be a masterpiece of thought and language.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad forms part of the Satapatha-Brahmana belonging to the Sukla Yajurveda. It consists of three Parts or Kandas containing 6 Chapters or adhyayas which are further divided into 47Sections or brahmanas consisting in all427 Verses or mantras or kandikas which are all in prose. These three Parts are 1. Madhu Kanda which expounds the teaching of the basic identity of the individual and the Universal Self, 2. Muni Kanda or Yajnavalkya Kanda which provides a philosophical justification of the teaching and 3. Khila Kanda which deals with certain modes of worship and meditation or upasana. These divisions correspond to the three stages of religious life viz., 1. sravana or hearing the upadesa or the teaching, 2. manana, logical reflection, Upapatti and 3. nidhidhyasana or contemplative meditation, upasana.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the greatest of the Upanishads by its size as well as substance.
Adi Sankaracharya tells us that this Upanishad is Brihat, great, on account of its magnitude in form and meaning, length and profundity and aranyaka or forest because of its knowledge having been taught in a forest and the term ‘Upanishad’ denoting Brahma Vidya, the knowledge of brahman. The famous ‘Mahavakya’ “Aham Brahma Asmi—I am Brahman" is from this Upanishad.
By far, the Muni Kanda, which accounts for almost half the number of the mantras, is the important part of this Upanishad which contains the brilliant expositions of the sage Yajnavalkya on the philosophy of Atman/Brahman as also several other related subtle topics, proving that he can be considered as among the greatest thinkers of the world of any age.
RITUAL AND PHILOSOPHY
It will be noticed from the outline of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad given below that it deals with the rituals in as much details as the philosophy of the Brahman. Sankara explains:
The Veda as a whole has two wings, karma kanda, covering rituals and methods of worship and jnana kanda, covering philosophy, both helping man to realize what is good and avoid what is evil. But as the means to realize the highest good is the knowledge of Brahman, karma kanda and jnana kanda, ritualism and philosophy, have been made use of for achieving the purpose. Through the performance of sacrifices, other rituals and forms of worship laid down in the karma kanda portion of the Veda, a man’s heart becomes purified and he is then qualified to follow the disciplines of the jnana kanda or the Upanishads, the philosophical section of the Veda and thereby acquires the knowledge of Brahman. Thus karma kanda is an indirect help, whereas the jnana kanda makes possible direct experience of the Brahman. Hence we find the Upanishads follow the technique of super-imposing the philosophical ideas and implications on the rituals and sacrifices and thereby lifting the minds of the seekers from the lower regions of ritualism to the higher planes of sublime philosophy. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has employed this technique in full to convey its message which we will be observing as we proceed in our study.
AUTHOR’S OPENING REMARKS:
In presenting this great Upanishad, taking into account the temperament of the modern educated minds, their needs and interests, only those sections dealing with profound philosophy and spirituality relevant to them have been covered in detail while giving mere passing references to the other sections dealing with rituals and mythology etc. that are out of relevance to present day society. However, in order to enable the reader to have a comprehensive mirror-image of the Upanishad before him, a preview of its contents is given below. The reference to the mantras made in the following format (IV-III-20) indicates Chapter No. (IV), Section No. (III), and the mantra No. (20).