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 - The Infinity of Brahman

Verse 5.1.1:

ॐ । पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते ।
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥
ॐ खं ब्रह्म । खं पुराणम्; वायुरं खम् इति ह स्माह कौरव्यायणीपुत्रः; वेदो'यं ब्राह्मणा विदुः; वेदैनेन यद्वेदितव्यम् ॥ १ ॥
इति प्रथमं ब्राह्मणम् ॥

oṃ | pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidaṃ pūrṇātpūrṇamudacyate |
pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamevāvaśiṣyate ||
oṃ khaṃ brahma | khaṃ purāṇam; vāyuraṃ kham iti ha smāha kauravyāyaṇīputraḥ; vedo'yaṃ brāhmaṇā viduḥ; vedainena yadveditavyam || 1 ||
iti prathamaṃ brāhmaṇam ||

1. Om. That (Brahman) is infinite, and this (universe) is infinite. The infinite proceeds from the infinite. (Then) taking the infinitude of the infinite (universe), it remains as the infinite (Brahman) alone.

Om is the ether-Brahman—the eternal ether. ‘The ether containing air,’ says the son of Kauravyāyaṇī. It is the Veda, (so) the Brāhmaṇas (knowers of Brahman) know; (for) through it one knows what is to be known.

The supplement to the Upaniṣad is being introduced with the words, ‘That is infinite,’ etc. That Brahman which is immediate and direct, the Self that is within all, unconditioned, beyond hunger etc., and is described as ‘Not this, not this,’ and the realisation of which is the sole means of immortality, has been presented in the last four chapters. Now certain meditations, not mentioned before, of that same Self as conditioned and coming within the scope of words, their meanings, and so on—meditations that do not clash with rites, lead to great prosperity, and take one through a gradual process of liberation, have to be mentioned; hence the present chapter. It is also the intention of the Śruti to enjoin the meditation on Om as forming a part of all other meditations, and the practice of self-control, charity and compassion.

That is infinite, not limited by anything, i.e. all-pervading. The suffix ‘kta’ in the word ‘Pūrṇa’ (lit. complete) has a subjective force. ‘That’ is a pronoun denoting something remote; it means the Supreme Brahman. It is complete, all-pervading like the ether, without a break, and unconditioned. So also is this conditioned Brahman, manifesting through name and form and coming within the scope of relativity (the universe), infinite or all-pervading indeed in its real form as the Supreme Self, not in its differentiated form circumscribed by the limiting adjuncts. This differentiated Brahman, the effect, proceeds or emanates from the infinite, or Brahman as cause. Although it emanates as an effect, it does not give up its nature, infinitude, the state of the Supreme Self; it emanates as but the infinite. Taking the infinitude of the infinite, or Brahman as effect, i.e. attaining perfect unity with its own nature by removing through knowledge its apparent otherness that is created by ignorance through the contact of limiting adjuncts, the elements, it remains as the unconditioned infinite Brahman alone, without interior or exterior, the homogeneous Pure Intelligence.

What has been said before, viz. ‘This (self) was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew only Itself. Therefore It became all’ (I. iv. 10), is the explanation of this Mantra. ‘Brahman’ in that sentence is the same as, ‘That is infinite’; and ‘This is infinite’ means, ‘This (universe) was indeed Brahman in the beginning.’ Similarly another Śruti says, ‘Whatever is here is there, and whatever is there is here’ (Ka. IV. 10). Hence the ‘Infinite,’ denoted by the word ‘That,’ is Brahman. That again is ‘this infinite’ (universe)—Brahman manifested as effect, connected with the limiting adjuncts of name and form, projected by ignorance, and appearing as different from that real nature of its own. Then knowing itself as the supreme, infinite Brahman, so as to feel, ‘I am that infinite Brahman,’ and thus taking its infinitude, i.e. removing by means of this knowledge of Brahman its own limitation created by ignorance through the contact of the limiting adjuncts of name and form, it remains as the unconditioned infinite alone. So it has been said, ‘Therefore It became all.’

Brahman, which is the theme of all the Upaniṣads, is described once more in this Mantra to introduce what follows; for certain aids, to be presently mentioned, viz. Om, self-restraint, charity and compassion, have to be enjoined as steps to the knowledge of Brahman—aids that, occurring in this supplementary portion, form part of all meditations.

Some[1] explain the Mantra thus: From the infinite cause the infinite effect is manifested. The manifested effect is also infinite or real at the present moment, even in its dualistic form. Again, at the time of dissolution, taking the infinitude of the infinite effect into itself, the infinite, causal form alone remains. Thus in all the three stages of origin, continuance and dissolution, the cause and the effect are infinite. It is just one infinity spoken of as divided into cause and effect. Thus the same Brahman is both dual and monistic. For instance, an ocean consists of water, waves, foam, bubbles, etc. As the water is real, so also are its effects, the waves, foam, bubbles, etc.—which appear and disappear, but are a part and parcel of the ocean itself—real in the true sense of the word. Similarly the entire dual universe, corresponding to the waves etc. on the water, are absolutely real, while the Supreme Brahman stands for the ocean water. If the universe is thus real, the ceremonial portion of the Vedas is also valid. If, however, the dual world is but apparently so—if it be a creation of ignorance, false like a mirage—and is in reality the one without a second, then the ceremonial portion, having nothing to work upon, becomes invalid. This would only mean a conflict, for one portion of the Vedas, viz. the Upaniṣads, would be valid, since they deal with the Reality, the one without a second, but the ceremothal portion would be invalid, since it deals with duality, which is unreal. To avoid this conflict, the Śruti speaks of the reality of both cause and effect, like that of the ocean, in the Mantra, ‘That is infinite,’ etc.

All this is wrong, for neither an exception nor an option—which are applicable to qualified objects—is possible with Brahman. It is not a well-considered view. Why? Because an exception can be made with regard to some part of an action, where the general rule would otherwise apply. For example, in the dictum, ‘Killing no animal except in sacrifices,’ (Ch. VIII. xv. 1), the killing of animals prohibited by the general rule is allowed in a special case, viz. a sacrifice such as the Jyotiṣṭoma. But that will not apply to Brahman, the Reality. You cannot establish Brahman, the one without a second, by the general rule, and then make an exception in one part of It; for It cannot have any part, simply because It is the one without a second. Similarly an option also is inadmissible. For example, in the injunctions, ‘One should use the vessel Ṣoḍaśī in the Atirātra sacrifice,’ and ‘One should not use the vessel Ṣoḍaśī in the Atirātra sacrifice,’ an option is possible, as using or not using the vessel depends on a person’s choice. But with regard to Brahman, the Reality, there cannot be any option about Its being either dual or monistic, for the Self is not a matter depending on a person's choice. Besides there is a contradiction involved in the same thing being both one and many. Therefore this is not, as we said, a well-considered view.

Moreover, it contradicts the Śruti as well as reason. For instance, Śruti passages that describe Brahman as Pure Intelligence, homogeneous like a lump of salt, without a break, devoid of such differences as prior or posterior, interior or exterior, including the external and internal, birthless, ‘Not this, not this,’ neither gross nor minute, not short, undecaying, fearless and immortal—passages that are definite in their import and leave no room for doubt or mistake—would all be thrown overboard as mere trash. Similarly it would clash with reason, for a thing that has parts, is made up of many things and has activity, cannot be eternal; whereas the eternity of the Self is inferred from remembrance etc.—which will be contradicted if the Self be transitory. Your own assumption[2] too will be useless, for if the Self be transitory, the ceremonial portion of the Vedas will clearly be useless, since it will mean that a man will be getting the reward for something he has not done, and be deprived of the reward for what he has actually done.

Objection: There are the illustrations of the ocean etc. to show the unity and plurality of Brahman. So how do you say that the same thing cannot be both one and many?

Reply: Not so, for they refer to something quite different. We have said that unity and plurality are contradictory only when applied to the Self, which is eternal and without parts, but not to effects, which have parts. Therefore your view is untenable as it contradicts the Śruti, the Smṛti[3] and reason. Rather than accept this, it is better to abandon the Upaniṣads. Besides, your view is not in accordance with the scriptures, for such a Brahman is not fit for meditation. A Brahman that is teeming with differences comprising thousands of evils in the shape of births, deaths, etc., has parts like an ocean, a forest, and so forth, and is heterogeneous, has never been presented by the Śrutis either as an object of meditation or as a truth to be realised. Rather they teach Its being Pure Intelligence; also, ‘It should be realised in one form only' (IV. iv. 20). There is also the censure on seeing It as multiple: ‘He goes from death to death who sees difference, as it were, in It’ (IV. iv. 19; Ka. IV. 10). What is deprecated by the Śrutis is not to be practised; and that which is not practised (as being forbidden) cannot be the import of the scriptures. Since the multiple aspect of Brahman, in which It is regarded as heterogeneous and manifold is condemned, it is not to be sought after with a view to realisation; hence it cannot be the import of the scriptures. But the homogeneity of Brahman is what is to be sought after, and is therefore good, and for that reason it ought to be the import of the scriptures.

You said that one part of the Vedas would be invalid in the sphere of ceremonials because of the absence of the dual world, while another part would be valid in the realm of unity. This is wrong, for the scriptures seek to instruct merely according to existing circumstances. They do not teach a man, as soon as he is born, either the duality or the unity of existence, and then instruct him about rites or the knowledge of Brahman. Nor does duality require to be taught; it is understood by everyone as Soon as he is born; and nobody thinks from the very outset that duality is false, in which case the scriptures would first have to teach the reality of the dual world and then establish their own validity. (The unreality of the universe is no bar to the validity of the scriptures, for) even the disciples of those who deny the Vedas (and do not believe in an objective universe)[4] would not hesitate to accept the authority of their scriptures when they are directed (to do something helpful in accordance with them) by their teachers. Therefore the scriptures, taking the dualistic world as it is—created by ignorance and natural to everybody—first advise the performance of rites calculated to achieve the desired ends to those who are possessed of that natural ignorance and defects such as attachment and aversion; afterwards, when they see the well-known evils of actions, their factors and their results, and wish to attain their real state of aloofness, which is the opposite of duality, the scriptures teach them, as a means to it, the knowledge of Brahman, consisting in the realisation of the unity of the Self. So when they have attained that result—their real state of aloofness, their interest in the validity of the scriptures ceases. And in the absence of that the scriptures too just cease to be scriptures to them. Hence, the scriptures having similarly fulfilled their mission with regard to every person, there is not the least chance of a conflict with them; for such dualistic differences as scripture, disciple and discipline terminate with the knowledge of unity. If any of these survived the others, there might be a conflict with regard to it. But since scripture, disciple and discipline are interdependent, not one of them survives the rest; and when all duality is over, and only unity, the one without a second, the Good, alone stands, with whom is conflict apprehended? Hence also there is no non-contradiction either.

Even taking your position for granted, we have to say that it is useless, for even if Brahman be both one and many, there will be the- same conflict with the scriptures. That is to say, supposing we admit that the same Brahman has both unity and plurality like the ocean etc., and that there is no other thing, even then we cannot escape the charge of a conflict with the scriptures that you have levelled against us. How? For one and the same Supreme Brahman has both unity and plurality; being beyond grief, delusion, etc., It would not seek instruction; nor would the teacher be different from Brahman, for you have admitted the same Brahman to be both one and many. If you say, since the dual world is manifold, one can teach another, and it will not be instruction imparted to or by Brahman, we reply that you contradict your own statement that Brahman in Its twofold aspect of unity and plurality is one and the same, and that there is nothing else. Since that world of duality in which one teaches another is one thing, and unity[5] is of course another thing, your example of the ocean is inappropriate. Nor can we presume that Brahman, if It is one consciousness, as the ocean is one mass of water, will either receive instruction from, or instruct, anyone else. If Devadatta is both one and manifold, consisting of the hands etc., it is absurd to think that between his tongue and ear—both parts of him—the , tongue will instruct and the ear only receive, the instruction, while Devadatta himself will neither instruct nor receive any instruction; for he has only one consciousness, as the ocean is made up of the same volume of water. Therefore such an assumption will clash with the Śruti and reason, and frustrate your own object. Hence our interpretation of the Mantra, ‘That is infinite,’ etc., is the correct one.

Om is the ether-Brahman, is a Mantra. No direction for its use has been given elsewhere; the Brāhmaṇa here directs that it is to be used in meditation. ‘Brahman’ in this Mantra is the entity specified, and ‘ether’ is its description. In the term ‘ether-Brahman’ the entity specified and the description are co-ordinate, as in the expression, ‘A blue lotus.’ The word ‘Brahman’ without any qualifying word would mean any vast object; hence it is specified as the ‘ether-Brahman.’ The ether-Brahman is either the import of the word ‘Om,’ or identical with it. In either case the co-ordinate relation holds good.

Here the word ‘Om’ is used to serve as a means to the meditation on Brahman. As other Śrutis say, ‘This is the best help (to the realisation of Brahman) and the highest’ (Ka. II. 17), ‘One should concentrate on the Self, uttering Om’ (Mn. XXIV. i), ‘One should meditate upon the Supreme Being only through the syllable Om’ (Pr. V. 5), ‘Meditate upon the Self with the help of the syllable Om’ (Mu. II. ii. 6), and so on. Besides, the instruction can have no other meaning. For instance, elsewhere, in such passages as, ‘He recites the praise with Om, he chants the Udgītha with Om’ (Ch. I. i. 9), we know from the directions for use that the syllable Om is used at the beginning and end of the reading of the Vedas. But we do not see any such different meaning here. Therefore the instruction of the word Om here is for the purpose of presenting it as a means to meditation only. Although the words ‘Brahman,’ ‘Ātman,’ etc. are names of Brahman, yet on the authority of the Śrutis we know that Om is Its most intimate appellation. Therefore it is the best means for the realisation of Brahman. It is so in two ways—as a symbol and as a name. As a symbol: Just as the image of Viṣṇu or any other god is regarded as identical with that god (for purposes of worship), so is Om to be treated as Brahman. (Why?) Because Brahman is pleased with one who uses Om as an aid; for the Śruti says, ‘This is the best help and the highest. Knowing this help one is glorified in the world of Brahman (Hiraṇyagarbha)’ (Ka. II. 17).

Now, lest ‘ether’ should mean the material ether, the text says, the eternal ether, i.e. the ether which is the Supreme Self. Because the latter, being beyond the reach of the eye and other organs, cannot be perceived without some help, therefore the aspirant superimposes it with faith, devotion and great rapture on the syllable Om, as people superimpose Viṣṇu on images of stone etc. with carvings of His features. ‘The ether containing air, just the ordinary ether, not the eternal ether,’ says—who?—the son of Kauravyāyaṇī. The word ‘ether’ is primarily used in the senses of the ether containing air; so he thinks that should be taken. Now, whether it is ‘the eternal ether,’ meaning the unconditioned Brahman, or it is ‘the ether containing air,’ meaning the conditioned Brahman, in either case the syllable Om, as a symbol, becomes a means of realising It, like an image. For another Śruti has it, ‘The syllable Om, O Satyakarna, is the higher and lower Brahman’ (Pr. V. 2). The only difference is over the meaning of the word ‘ether.’

It, this Om, is the Veda, (for) through it one knows what is to be known. Therefore Om is the Veda or name (of Brahman). Through that name the aspirant knows or realises what is to be known, viz. Brahman, which is the object signified or designated by the name. Therefore the Brāhmaṇas know that it is the Veda: They mean that as a name it is intended as a means to the realisation of Brahman. Or the passage, ‘It is the Veda,’ etc., may be a eulogy. How? Om is enjoined as a symbol of Brahman, for it is co-ordinated with the word ‘Brahman’ in the sentence, ‘Om is the ether-Brahman.’ Now it is being praised as the Veda, for the entire Vedas are but Om: They all issue out of it and consist of it; this Om is differentiated into the divisions of Ṛc, Yajus, Sāman, etc., for another Śruti says, ‘As by a stick all leaves (are pierced, so all speech is pierced by Om), (Ch. II. xxiii. 4). Here is another reason why Om is the Veda—‘through it,' this Om, ‘one knows whatever is to be known’; hence this Om is the Veda. The other Vedas owe their Vedahood to this. Therefore Om, being so important, should be used as a means to self-realisation. Or the passage in question may be thus interpreted: It is ‘the Veda.’[6] What is it? That Om ‘which the Brāhmaṇas know’; for it should be known by the Brāhmaṇas in various forms such as Praṇava and Udgītha. If it is used as a means to realisation, the entire Vedas are practically used.

Footnotes and references:


The reference is to Bhartṛprapañca.


About the validity of the ceremonial portion of the Vedas.


This has not been particularly touched upon here.


Certain schools of Buddhism, for instance. Even they would act up to such teachings of their scriptures as, ‘Those who desire heaven should worship sepulchres of Buddhist saints.’


‘Advaitam’: This seems to be the correct reading, and not ‘Dvaitam.’


In this interpretation the inarticulate A is dropped from the text, the reading being, Vedo yam, etc.

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