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Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

By T.N.Sethumadhavan, September 2012 []

Chapter :


The Senses and Their Objects — The Supreme Being as Death of Death


In this section Arthabhaga puts five questions to Yajnavalkya. They are:

1. The first question is about sense organs and their objects. These are called graha and atigraha which respectively means senses and the objects of the senses. Yajnavalkya enumerates them as eight – five organs of knowledge, two organs of action and the mind. The implied message is that these two sets stimulate each other and has a vice-like grip over each other.

2. The second question is about death of death. Death swallows everything. Is there anything that swallows death? This tricky question is answered by Yajnavalkya with the analogy of fire and water. Fire destroys everything but it in turn gets destroyed by water. So too, death is swallowed by Absolute Brahman.

3. When a liberated person dies what happens to his senses? The answer is that they merge in his Self. His physical body disintegrates but not his Self or atman which is immortal. In the case of a non-liberalized person his senses merge in the five primordial elements which results in rebirth.

4. What remains of a liberated person when he dies? His name only remains. His self becomes one with the Universal Self.

5. What is left of an ordinary person i.e. who is non-liberated? His works, good or bad, karmas which produce rebirth.



Another great sage was sitting in the assembly of Janaka who was a descendant of Jaratkaru and his name was Arthabhaga. Arthabhaga puts a question: "Yajnavalkya! How many Grahas are there, how many Atigrahas are there?"

"There are eight Grahas and eight Atigrahas," was the answer of Yajnavalkya.

"Yajnavalkya! Tell me, exactly what are these eight Grahas that you are speaking of and what are the eight Atigrahas?"

Here, in this section of the Upanishad, we come across a very important subject, in the answer Yajnavalkya gives to Arthabhaga; it is important from the point of view of Yoga practice and spiritual meditation.

Graha means the senses and Atigraha is the object of senses. It is called Graha because it grasps the object. Anything that grasps is called the Graha. In Sanskrit, the root Grah signifies the action of grasping, grabbing, holding, controlling etc. As the senses grasp objects, catch hold of them and make them their own, the senses are called the Grahas.

But the objects are called Atigrahas. They are greater graspers than the grasper, the sense itself. Why? If the sense can grasp the object, the object also can grasp the sense. They are like two wrestlers. One is catching hold of the other. A does not leave B; B does not leave A.

The senses will not leave the objects and the object also will not leave the senses. The more the sense grasps the object, the more does the object stimulate the senses. So there is a mutual action and reaction between the senses and the objects. The senses flare up more and more, irritated, angered and strengthened by their catching hold of the object. The strength of the sense increases when it catches hold of the object, and the object, in as much as it is capable of energizing the sense further and further on account of its coming in contact with it, is called a greater grasper. It grasps sense itself. So, the "Graha" is the sense, the organ of action and sensation; and the object thereof is the "Atigraha." 'How many are there?' "Eight are there," says Yajnavalkya. They are enumerated and explained as follows.

1. The Prana grasps. The Prana here does not mean merely the process of breathing. It is that vital principle or activity inside, by which smell is made possible by the nostrils. The Prana functions in an active manner through the nostrils and compels the nose, to ask for more and more of odor as its own diet, or food. And the Apana, which is another function of the vital breath, is the source of the variety of smell which we have in the outer world. And so the Prana and the Apana, jointly, can be regarded as the Graha and the Atigraha. Prana acts upon Apana; Apana acts upon Prana. And it is on account of this mutual action and reaction of Prana and Apana that we are able to smell and want more and more of the smell.

2. Speech is another Graha. Speech is the repository of all language, all words, all meanings etc. So, the principle of speech is the Graha which catches hold of all meaning through language; and language is that which stirs the speech by correlative action. So speech and the words that we utter through speech, everything that we speak, every meaning that we convey through any type of language spoken by word of mouth, may be regarded as Atigraha, or the counterpart of the Graha which is speech.

And likewise, all other senses are Grahas, and they have their own objects or their Atigrahas which whip them into action. These are 3. tongue and taste, 4. eye and forms or shapes, 5. ear and sound, 6. mind and desire, 7. hands and action, 8. skin and touch. Thus, these are the eight organs of perception and the respective objects of perception.

The senses fight with their objects and the objects fight with the senses to gain supremacy over each other. They finally kill each other, one day or the other. Everything is destructible; everything is subject to death. Nothing can be free from the jaws of death. Now, Arthabhaga asked Yajnavalkya: "Inasmuch as everything here is a 'food' for death which is that Devata, for whom death itself the food?"

There is no escape from death. Death swallows everybody as if it is food. But is there a death of death? Is there anything of which death itself is the food? Can you tell me who is death to death itself? What is death? Which Devata, which deity, which god can eat death in the same way as death eats everything, so to say? That means what is the death of death?

Yajnavalkya says: "My dear friend! You know that there is a death for everything, and one thing can be swallowed by another thing. Fire is an eater of everybody. It can burn and swallow and destroy anything. But fire in turn can be eaten up by water. If you pour a particular quantity of water, fire gets extinguished. So, in the same way as water can be regarded as an eater The Supreme Being is the swallower of death meaning that one can overcome death by resorting to the Supreme Being and before that stage no one escape transmigration. There cannot be freedom from birth and death; therefore there cannot be freedom from the consequent sorrows of life until and unless the great Reality is realized.

So, who is the death of death? Who is the eater of death? The Supreme Being, the Eternal, the Absolute, He is the eater of death, and no one else can eat death. He is the swallower of all grahas and atigrahas. When these fetters are destroyed – swallowed by death – liberation from relative existence becomes possible because as we have seen earlier the grahas and atigrahas are the fetters constituting the world of relativity. Grahas and atigrahas are removable fetters. This world of relativity can be negated by lifting our mind to a higher level.

Arthabhaga asks "Well, you say there is an eater of death, by resort to whom death ceases that is, there is freedom and liberation, emancipation. Then, what happens to the Pranas of this individual i.e. liberated man, when he attains liberation by freedom from the clutches of the senses and their corresponding objects, the Grahas and the Atigrahas? Do the Pranas of a realized soul depart from the body?"

Yajnavalkya replies “They do not depart from the body. In the case of the individual who has realized the Eternal Being, the Pranas do not leave the body by any aperture. They do not find an avenue to go out. They merge there itself i.e. in the Self”. If what you need is just under your nose, why should you move to a shop or a bazaar? Why do you go to any place if that which you require from that place is just here near you? That which one aims at in realization is just at the spot where one is, and therefore the Prana does not move out.

Why does the Prana in the case of an ordinary person or non-illumined man depart? Because of the desires of the individual to fulfill certain unfulfilled ones, which can be fulfilled only under conditions different from the one in which the body was living previously. And inasmuch as the conditions required to fulfill unfulfilled desires are different from the one in which one was earlier, there is a necessity to depart from the existing body and arrive at another body.

Chapter :

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