The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya)

by Swāmī Mādhavānanda | 1950 | 272,359 words | ISBN-10: 8175051027

This Upanishad is widely known for its philosophical statements and is ascribed to Yajnavalkya. It looks at reality as being indescribable and its nature to be infinite and consciousness-bliss. Ethics revolve around the five Yajnas or sacrifices. This book includes the english translation of the Bhāṣya of Śaṅkara. The Shankara-Bhashya is the most ...

Section I - Meditation on the Horse-Sacrifice

Om. Salutation to Brahman (Hiraṇyagarbha[1]) and the other sages forming the line of teachers who have handed down the knowledge of Brahman. Salutation to our own teacher.

With the words, ‘The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn,’ etc. begins the Upaniṣad connected with the Vājasaneyi-Brāhmaṇa. This concise commentary is being written on it to explain to those who wish to turn away from this relative world (Saṃsāra), the knowledge of the identity of the individual self and Brahman, which is the means of eradicating the cause of this world (ignorance). This knowledge of Brahman is called ‘Upaniṣad’ because it entirely removes this relative world together with its cause from those who betake themselves to this study, for the root ‘sad’ prefixed by ‘upa’ and ‘ni’ means that. Books also are called Upaniṣads as they have the same end in view.

This Upaniṣad consisting of six chapters is called ‘Āraṇyaka’ as it was taught in the forest (Araṇya). And because of its large size it is called Bṛhadāraṇyaka. Now we are going to describe its relation to the ceremonial portion of the Vedas. The whole of the Vedas is devoted to setting forth the means of attaining what is good and avoiding what is evil, in so far as these are not known through perception and inference, for all people naturally seek these two ends. In matters coming within the range of experience, a knowledge of the means of attaining the good and avoiding the evil ends is easily available through perception and inference. Hence the Vedas are not to be sought for that. Now, unless a person is aware of the existence of the self in a future life, he will not be induced to attain what is good and avoid what is evil in that life. For we have the example of the materialists. Therefore the scriptures proceed to discuss the existence of the self in a future life and the particular means of attaining the good and avoiding the evil in that life. For we see one of the Upaniṣads starts with the words, ‘There is a doubt among men regarding the life after death, some saying that the self exists, and others that it does not’ (Ka. I. 20), and concludes, ‘It is to be realised as existing indeed’ (Ka. VI. 13), and so on. Also, beginning with, ‘How (the self remains) after death’ (Ka. V. 6), it ends with, ‘Some souls enter the womb to get a new body, while others are born, as stationary objects (plants etc.), all according to their past work and knowledge’ (Ka. V. 7). Elsewhere beginning with, ‘The man (self) himself becomes the light’ (IV. iii. 9), it ends with, ‘It is followed by knowledge, work’ (IV. iv. 2). Also, ‘One becomes good through good work and evil through evil work’ (III. ii. 13). Again beginning with, ‘I will instruct you’ (II. i. 15), the existence of the extracorporeal self is established in the passage, ‘Full of consciousness (i.e. identified with the mind),’ etc. (II. i. 16-17).

Objection: Is it not a matter of perception?

Reply: No, for we see the divergence of opinion among different schools. Were the existence of the self in a future body a matter of perception, the materialists and Buddhists would not stand opposed to us, saying that there is no self. For nobody disputes regarding an object of perception such as a jar, saying it does not exist.

Objection: You are wrong, since a stump, for instance, is looked upon as a man and so on.

Reply: No, for it vanishes when the truth is known. There are no more contradictory views when the stump, for instance, has been definitely known as such through perception. The Buddhists, however, in spite of the fact that there is the ego-consciousness, persistently deny the existence of the self other than the subtle body.[2] Therefore, being different from objects of perception, the existence of the self cannot be proved by this means. Similarly inference too is powerless.

Objection: No, since the Śruti (Veda) points out certain grounds of inference[3] for the existence of the self, and these depend on perception, (these two are also efficient means of the knowledge of the self).

Reply: Not so, for the self cannot be perceived as having any relation to another life. But when its existence has been known from the Śruti and from certain empirical grounds of inference cited by it, the Mīmāṃsakas and logicians, who follow in its footsteps, fancy that those Vedic grounds of inference such as the ego-consciousness are the products of their own mind, and declare that the self is knowable through perception and inference.

In any case, a man who believes that there is a self which gets into relation with a future body, seeks to know the particular means of attaining the good and avoiding the evil in connection with that body. Hence the ceremonial portion of the Vedas is introduced to acquaint him with these details. But the cause of that desire to attain the good and avoid the evil, viz. ignorance regarding the Self, which expresses itself as the idea of one’s being the agent and experiencer, has not been removed by its opposite, the knowledge of the nature of the self as being identical with Brahman. Until that is removed, a man prompted by such natural defects of his as attachment or aversion to the fruits' of his actions, proceeds to act even against the injunctions and prohibitions of the scriptures, and under the powerful urge of his natural defects accumulates in thought, word and deed a good deal of work known as iniquity, producing harm, visible and invisible. This leads to degradation down to the state of stationary objects. Sometimes the impressions made by the scriptures are very strong, in which case he accumulates in thought, word and deed a great deal of what is known as good work which contributes to his well-being. This work is twofold: that attended with meditation, and that which is mechanical. Of these, the latter results in the attaiment of the world of the Manes and so on; while work coupled with meditation leads to worlds beginning with that of the gods and ending with the world of Hiraṇyagarbha.[4] The Śruti says on the point, ‘One who sacriñces to the Self is better than one who sacrifices to the gods,’ etc. (Ś. XI. ii. 6. 13, adapted). And the Smṛti: ‘Vedic work is twofold,’ etc. (M. XII. 88).

When the good work balances the evil, one becomes a man. Thus the transmigration beginning with the state of Hiraṇyagarbha and the rest and ending with that of stationary objects, which a man with his natural defects of ignorance etc. attains through his good and bad deeds, depends on name, form and action. This manifested universe, consisting of means and ends, was in an undifferentiated state before its manifestation. That relative-universe, without beginning and end like the seed and the sprout etc., created by ignorance and consisting in a superimposition of action, its factors and its results on the Self, is an evil. Hence for the removal of the ignorance of a man who is disgusted with this universe, this Upaniṣad is being commenced in order to inculcate the knowledge of Brahman which is the very opposite of that ignorance.

The utility of this meditation concerning the horse sacrifice is this: Those who are not entitled to this sacrifice will get the same result through this meditation itself. Witness the Śruti passages: ‘Through meditation or through rites’ (Ś. X. iv. 3. 9), and ‘This (meditation on the vital force) certainty wins the world’ (I. iii. 28).

Objection: This meditation is just a part of the rite.

Reply: No, for the following Śruti passage allows option: ‘He who performs the horse sacrifice, or who knows it as such’ (Tai. S. V. iii. 12. 2). Since it occurs in a context dealing with knowledge, and since we see the same kind of meditation based on resemblance being applied to other rites[5] also, we understand that meditation will produce the same result. Of all rites the greatest is the horse sacrifice, for it leads to identity with Hiraṇyagarbha in his collective and individual aspects. And its mention here at the very beginning of this treatise on the knowledge of Brahman is an indication that all rites fall within the domain of relative existence. It will be shown later on that the result of this meditation is identification with Hunger or Death.

Objection: But the regular (Nitya) rites are not productive of relative results.

Reply: Not so, for the Śruti sums up the results of all rites together. Every rite is connected with the wife. In the passage, ‘Let me have a wife....... This much indeed is desire’ (I. iv. 17), it is shown that all action is naturally prompted by desire, and that the results achieved through a son, through rites and through meditation are this world, the world of the Manes and that of the gods respectively (I. v. 16), and the conclusion arrived at will be that everything consists of the three kinds of food: ‘This (universe) indeed consists of three things: name, form and action’ (I. vi. i). The manifested result of all action is nothing but the relative universe. It is these three which were in an undifferentiated state before manifestation. That again is manifested owing to the resultant of the actions of all beings, as a tree comes out of the seed. This differentiated and undifferentiated universe, consisting of the gross[6] and subtle worlds and their essence, falls within the category of ignorance, and has been superimposed by it on the Self as action, its factors and its results as if they were Its own form. Although the Self is different from them, has nothing to do with name, form and action, is one without a second and is eternal, pure, enlightened and free by nature, yet It appears as just the reverse of this, as consisting of differences of action, its factors and its results, and so on. Therefore for the removal of ignorance, the seed of defects such as desire and of action—like the removal of the idea of a snake from a rope—with regard to a man who is disgusted with this universe of means and ends, consisting of actions, their factors and their results— having realised that they are just so much, the knowledge of Brahman is being set forth.

The first two sections beginning with, ‘The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn,’ will be devoted to the meditation regarding the horse sacrifice. The meditation about the horse is described, as the horse is the most important thing in this sacrifice. Its importance is indicated by the fact that the sacrifice is named after it, and its presiding deity is Prajāpati (Hiraṇyagarbha).


Verse 1.1.1

उषा वा अश्वस्य मेध्यस्य शिरः । सूर्यश्चक्षुः, वातः प्राणः, व्यात्तमग्निर्वैश्वानरः, संवत्सर आत्माश्वस्य मेध्यस्य । द्यौः पृष्ठम्, अन्तरिक्षमुदरम्, पृथिवी पाजस्यम्, दिशः पार्श्वे, अवान्तरदिशः पर्शवः, ऋतवोऽङ्गानि, मासाश्चार्धमासाश्च पर्वाणि, अहोरात्राणि प्रतिष्ठाः, नक्षत्राण्यस्थीनि, नभो मांसानि । ऊवध्यं सिकताः, सिन्धवो गुदाः, यकृच्च क्लोमानश्च पर्वताः, ओषधयश्च वनस्पतयश्च लोमानि, उद्यन् पूर्वार्धाः निम्लोचञ्जघनार्धः, यद्विजृम्भते तद्विद्योतते, यद्विधूनुते तत्स्तनयति, यन्मेहति तद्वर्षति, वागेवास्य वाक् ॥ १ ॥

uṣā vā aśvasya medhyasya śiraḥ | sūryaścakṣuḥ, vātaḥ prāṇaḥ, vyāttamagnirvaiśvānaraḥ, saṃvatsara ātmāśvasya medhyasya | dyauḥ pṛṣṭham, antarikṣamudaram, pṛthivī pājasyam, diśaḥ pārśve, avāntaradiśaḥ parśavaḥ, ṛtavo'ṅgāni, māsāścārdhamāsāśca parvāṇi, ahorātrāṇi pratiṣṭhāḥ, nakṣatrāṇyasthīni, nabho māṃsāni | ūvadhyaṃ sikatāḥ, sindhavo gudāḥ, yakṛcca klomānaśca parvatāḥ, oṣadhayaśca vanaspatayaśca lomāni, udyan pūrvārdhȧḥ nimlocañjaghanārdhaḥ, yadvijṛmbhate tadvidyotate, yadvidhūnute tatstanayati, yanmehati tadvarṣati, vāgevāsya vāk || 1 ||

l. Om. The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn, its eye the sun, its vital force[7] the air, its open mouth the fire called Vaiśvānara, and the body of the sacrificial horse is the year. Its back is heaven, its belly the sky, its hoof the earth, its sides the four quarters, its ribs the intermediate quarters, its members the seasons, its joints the months and fortnights, its feet the days and nights, its bones the stars and its flesh the clouds. Its half-digested food is the sand, its blood-vessels the rivers, its liver and spleen the mountains, its hairs the herbs and trees. Its forepart is the ascending sun, its hind part the descending sun, its yawning is lightning, its shaking the body is thundering, its making water is raining, and its neighing is voice.

The head of the sacrificial horse, i.e. one fit for a sacrifice, is the dawn, a period of about three quarters of an hour just before sunrise. The particle ‘vai’ recalls something well-known, here, the time of dawn. The similarity is due to the importance of each. The head is the most important part of the body (and so is the dawn of the day). The horse which is a part of the sacrifice has to be,purified; hence its head and other parts of its body are to be looked upon as certain divisions of time etc. (and not vice versa). And it will be raised to the status of Prajāpati by being meditated upon as such. In other words, the horse will be deified into Prajāpati if the ideas of time, worlds and deities be superimposed on it, for Prajāpati comprises these. It is like converting'an image etc. into the Lord Viṣṇu or any other deity. Its eye the sun, for it is next to the head (as the sun is next to, or rises just after the dawn), and has the sun for its presiding deity. Its vital force the air, because as the breath it is of the nature of air. Its open mouth the fire called Vaiśvānara. The word ‘Vaiśvānara’ specifies the fire. The mouth is fire, because that is its presiding deity. The body of the sacrificial horse is the year consisting of twelve or thirteen[8] months. The Word ‘Ātman’ here means the body. The year is the body of the divisions of time; and the body is called Ātman, as we see it in the Śruti passage, ‘For the Ātman (trunk) is the centre of these limbs' (Tai. Ā. II. iii. 5). The repetition of the phrase ‘of the sacrificial horse’ is intended to show that it is to be connected with all the terms. Its back is heaven, because both are high. Its belly the sky, because both are hollow. Its hoof the earth: ‘Pājasya’ should be ‘Pādasya’ by the usual transmutation of letters, meaning a seat for the foot. Its sides the four quarters, for they are connected with the quarters. It may be objected that the sides being two and the quarters four in number, the parallel is wrong. The aṇswer to it is that since the head of the horse can be in any direction, its two sides can easily come in contact with all the quarters. So it is all right. Its ribs the intermediate quarters such as the south-east. Its members the seasons: The latter, being parts of the year, are its limbs, which brings out the similarity. Its joints the months and fortnights, because both connect (the latter connect the parts of the year as joints do those of the body). Its feet the days and nights. The plural in the latter indicates that those[9] pertaining to Prajāpati, the gods, the Manes and men are all meant. Pratiṣṭhā literally means those by which one stands; hence feet. The deity representing time stands on the days and nights, as the horse does on its feet. Its bones the stars, both being white. Its flesh the clouds: The word used in the text means the sky, but since this has been spoken of as the belly, here it denotes the clouds which float in it. They are flesh, because they shed water as the flesh sheds blood. Its half-digested food in the stomach is the sand, because both consist of loose parts. Its blood-vessels the rivers, for both flow. The word in the text, being plural, denotes bloodvessels here. Its liver and spleen the mountains, both being hard and elevated. ‘Yakṛt’ and ‘Kloman’ are muscles below the heart on the right and left. The latter word, though always used in the plural, denotes a single thing. Its hairs the herbs and trees: These, being small and large plants respectively, should be applied to the short and long hairs according to fitness. Its forepart, from the navel onward, is the ascending (lit. ‘rising’) sun, up to noon. Its hind part the descending (lit. ‘setting’) sun, from noon on. The similarity consists in their being the anterior and posterior parts respectively in each case. Its yawning or stretching or jerking the limbs is lightning, because the one splits the cloud, and the other the mouth. Its shaking the body is thundering, both producing a sound. Its making water is raining, owing to the similarity of moistening. And its neighing is voice or sound—no fancying is needed here.


Verse 1.1.2

अहर्वा अश्वम् पुरस्तान्महिमान्वजायत, तस्य पूर्वे समुद्रे योनिः; रात्रिरेनम्
पश्चान्महिमान्वजायत, तस्यापरे समुद्रे योनिः; रेतौ वा अश्वम् महिमानावभितः
सम्बभूवतुः । हयो भूत्वा देवानवहत्, वाजी गन्धर्वान्, अर्वासुरान्, अश्वो
मनुष्यान्; समुद्र एवास्य बन्धुः, समुद्रो योनिः ॥ १ ॥
इति प्रथमं ब्राह्मणम् ॥

aharvā aśvam purastānmahimānvajāyata, tasya pūrve samudre yoniḥ; rātrirenam
paścānmahimānvajāyata, tasyāpare samudre yoniḥ; retau vā aśvam mahimānāvabhitaḥ
sambabhūvatuḥ | hayo bhūtvā devānavahat, vājī gandharvān, arvāsurān, aśvo
manuṣyān; samudra evāsya bandhuḥ, samudro yoniḥ || 2 ||
iti prathamaṃ brāhmaṇam ||

2. The (gold) vessel called Mahiman in front of the horse, which appeared about it (i.e. pointing it out), is the day. Its source is the eastern sea. The (silver) vessel called Mahiman behind the horse, which appeared about it, is the night Its source is the western sea. These two vessels called Mahiman appeared on either side of the horse. As a Hay a it carried the gods, as a Vājin the celestial minstrels, as an Arvan the Asuras, and as an Aśva men. The Supreme Self is its stable and the Supreme Self (or the sea) its source.

The vessel called Mahiman, etc. Two sacrificial vessels called Mahiman, made of gold and silver respectively, are placed before and behind[10] the horse. This is a meditation regarding them. The gold vessel is the day, because both are bright. How is it that the vessel in front of the horse, which appeared about (lit. ‘after’) it, is the day? Because the horse is Prajāpati. And it is Prajāpati consisting of the sun etc. who is pointed out by the vessel that we are required to look upon as the day.—The preposition ‘anu’ here does not mean ‘after’ but points out something.—So the meaning is, the gold vessel (Mahiman) appeared pointing out the horse as Prajāpati, just as we say lightning flashes pointing out (Anu) the tree. Its source, the place from which the vessel is obtained, is the eastern sea. Literally translated, it would mean, ‘is in the eastern sea,' but the locative case-ending should be changed into the nominative to give the required sense. Similarly the silver vessel behind the horse, which appeared about it, is the night, because both (‘Rājata’ and ‘Rātri’) begin with the same syllable (Rā),[11] or because both are inferior to the previous set. Its source is the western sea. The vessels are called Mahiman, because they indicate greatness. It is to the glory of the horse that a gold and a silver vessel are placed on each side of it. These two vessels called Mahiman, as described above, appeared on either side of the horse. The repetition of the sentence is to glorify the horse, as much as to say that for the above reasons it is a wonderful horse. The words ‘As a Haya’ etc. are similarly eulogistic. ‘Haya’ comes from the root ‘hi,’ meaning, to move. Hence the word means ‘possessing great speed.’ Or it may mean a species of horse. It earned the gods, i.e. made them gods, since it was Prajāpati; or literally carried them. It may be urged that this act of carrying is rather a reproach. But the answer is that carrying is natural to a horse; so it is not derogatory. On the contrary, the act, by bringing the horse into contact with the gods, was a promotion for it. Hence the sentence is a eulogy. Similarly ‘Vājin’ and the other terms mean species of horses. As a Vājin it carried the celestial minstrels; the ellipsis must be supplied with the intermediate words. Similarly as an Arvan (it carried) the Asuras, and as an Aśva (it carried) men. The Supreme Self—‘Samudra’ here means that—is its stable, the place where it is tied. And the Supreme Self its source, the cause of its origin. Thus it has sprung from a pure source and lives in a pure spot. So it is a tribute to the horse. Or ‘Samudra’ may mean the familiar sea, for the Śruti says, ‘The horse has its source in water’ (Tai. S. II. iii. 12).

Footnotes and references:


The being identified with the cosmic mind.


The five elements, ten organs, vital force (with its fivefold function) and mind (in its fourfold aspect). Or the tea organs, five vital forces, Manas and intellect.


Such as desires etc., which must have a basis, and this is the self.


The being identified with the sum total of all minds.


As in the passage, ‘This world, O Gautama, is fire’ (VI. ii. 11).


Earth, water and fire are the gross world, and air and the ether the subtle world. Their essence is the simple form of each, before its combination with the other four elements.


Represented by the breath.


Including the intercalary month.


A month of ours makes a day and night of the Manes. A year of ours makes a day and night of the gods; and twenty-four million years of the latter make a day and night of Prajāpati, equivalent to two Kalpas or cycles of ours.


That is, before and after the horse is killed.


Ānandagiri takes ‘Varṇa’ in the sense of colour or lustre, instead of syllable, in which case the night must be supposed to be a moon-lit one.

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