An Encyclopaedic Upanishad

— Swami Vireshananda —

The main purpose of spiritual sādhana is to transcend physical understanding of reality and to raise our awareness to the realm of pure Consciousness. This is an extraordinary spiritual endeavour that takes us beyond the relative plane into a wonderful sphere of mystical revelations. It culminates in the discovery of non-difference with the Reality, which is tantamount to sarvātma-bhāva (identifying with whole existence). The study and contemplation of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is such a great intellectual exploration. It involves profound rational understanding blended with the enlightening intuition which takes us to the zenith of non-dual experience.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the most important of the Upanishads not only for its large size, but also for its all-encompassing encyclopaedic subject matter. According to Sri Kuppuswamy Shastri, a great Sanskrit scholar, the first section called Madhu Kāṇda conveys the main teaching of Advaita doctrine and is of the nature of upadeśa, direct instruction. The second section called Muni Kāṇda contains argument and explanation and is of the nature of upapatti, logic. The third section called Khila Kāṇda contains details of upāsana, meditation and allied spiritual disciplines.1

Atman—the Dearest Object of Meditation and Realisation

One of the primary teachings found in the Madhu Kāṇda is that Atman alone should be meditated upon and realised. The reason is twofold: 1. Philosophical and 2. Psychological.

1. Philosophical reason: It is Atman alone that existed even before creation. The real name for this Reality is ‘aham; I’, for it is that which represents the Reality in an individual also, apart from being the universal Reality. It is also the seed of the universe in its unmanifested state, which later manifests into nāma, name and rūpa, form, the visible universe. Hence the Upanishad declares:

स योऽत एकैकमुपास्ते न स वेद, अकृत्स्नो ह्येषोऽत एकैकेन भवति; आत्मेत्येवोपासीत, अत्र ह्येते सर्व एकम् भवन्ति । तदेतत्पदनीयमस्य सर्वस्य यदयमात्मा, अनेन ह्येतत्सर्वं वेद ।

He who meditates upon each of this totality of aspects does not know, for It is incomplete, (being divided) from this totality by possessing a single characteristic. The Self alone is to be meditated upon, for all these are unified in It. Of all these, this Self alone should be realised, for one knows all these through It, just as one may get (an animal) through its footprints.2

The term Atman implies Reality, the totality of existence. One should not meditate thinking Atman is in names and forms. It is because such a partial view does not reflect the Reality. The Atman, in which all the names and forms are unified, is alone to be contemplated upon and thereby realised. The Reality is that which is one, in which the idea of many is assimilated. One and the many are not different, since ‘many’ is but the apparent manifestation of the One, the absolute Reality.

2. Psychological reason: Atman is the ‘One’ in which the entire universe is unified. Atman is also the centre in which all the myriad functions of the human body and mind get unified. It is said that Atman enters the body extending itself up to the tip of the nail. ‘When It does the function of living, It is called the vital force; when It speaks, the organ of speech; when It sees, the eye; when It hears, the ear; and when It thinks, the mind.’3These names denote different functions of the same Atman. Whoever meditates on any of these different functions like the vital force, eye, and the like as Atman has a myopic view. Such an understanding is incomplete. One should meditate and realise the Atman alone, for it alone represents the totality of one’s personality.

The Upanishad also gives a more mundane reason as to why the Atman alone is to be meditated upon and realised. It is because, in the words of the Upanishad:

तदेतत्प्रेयः पुत्रात्, प्रेयो वित्तात्, प्रेयोऽन्यस्मात्सर्वस्मात्, अन्तरतरं, यदयमात्मा;

This Self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than everything else, and is innermost.4

The term ‘innermost’ is important in this context as no other entity is ‘innermost’ compared to the Atman, since it is the core of one’s being. What is ‘innermost’ is the dearest also. Hence, one should meditate on the Atman alone as dearest.

That is the reason why the sage Yajnavalkya teaches his wife Maitreyi: ‘It is not for the sake of the husband, my dear, that he is loved, but for one’s own sake (for the sake of one’s own self) that he is loved. It is not for the sake of the wife, my dear, that she is loved, but for one’s own sake that she is loved’ 5 and so on. He concludes: ‘It is not for the sake of all, my dear, that all is loved, but for one’s own sake that it is loved.’6

Then, Yajnavalkya briefly teaches the essence of sādhana and its great utility:

आत्मा वा अरे द्रष्टव्यः श्रोतव्यो मन्तव्यो निदिध्यासितव्यो मैत्रेयि, आत्मनो वा अरे दर्शनेन श्रवणेन मत्या विज्ञानेनेदं सर्वं विदितम्

The Self, my dear Maitreyī, should be realised—should be heard of, reflected on, and meditated upon. By the realisation of the Self, my dear, through hearing, reflection, and meditation, all this is known.

The later Vedanta teachers picked from this statement the three principal disciplines that form the bedrock of Vedanta sādhana. They are: śravaṇa, hearing about Vedanta truths; manana, reflecting upon them; and nididhyāsana, meditating on them. Through this, one realises Atman, the unity of all existence.


The Upanishad also explains the effect of realising the non-difference between the Atman that indicates individual consciousness and Brahman, the universal consciousness. This is termed Brahmavidyā, the knowledge of Brahman, through which one merges one’s awareness as a distinct individual into cosmic consciousness. Then one realises one’s individuality to be an apparent appearance of the universal Reality. This realisation one expresses through the words ‘aham brahmāsmi; I am Brahman’ through which ‘tasmāt-tatsarvam-abhavat; therefore, one became all’.7 On realising ‘I am Brahman’, one no longer remains in the shackles of one’s body and mind with separate individual existence. One identifies with ‘all’, the entire existence, and ‘becomes all’.

It is not that one who is not Brahman becomes Brahman on realisation. One is of the nature of Brahman even before such a realisation. One discovers one’s real nature to be Brahman, shedding the wrong identification with entities like body and mind, which are not Brahman. Sri Shankaracharya explicitly asserts that one who is not already Brahman can never become Brahman by whatever means.

Brahman—the Direct, Immediate Awareness

Muni Kāṇda, the second section of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is also called Yājñavalkīya Kāṇda. It is because sage Yajnavalkya’s teachings form the substantial part of this section. This section teaches the knowledge of Brahman through upapatti, logic or deliberation in contrast to Āgama or Upadeśa, the method of direct instruction, followed in the first section. Both the methods have the single purpose of revealing the unity of the Atman, the Reality.

Yajnavalkya states that Brahman is of the nature of purely subjective experience. The experience of the outside world through the senses and the mind is an intermediate experience. Such an experience is possible only through the media of senses and the mind and hence, it is termed parokṣa, indirect experience. However, the realisation of Brahman to be one’s own Self expressed through the statement ‘I am Brahman’ is sākṣāt, direct, and aparokṣāt, immediate. Hence, the Brahman is designated in the Upanishad as ‘yatsākṣādaparokṣād-brahma, ya ātmā sarvāntaraḥ; Brahman that is immediate and direct—the Self that is within all’.8

The Inner Controller

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad not only teaches the absolute facet of Reality to be that of pure awareness, but also underscores its immanent all-pervading feature which it calls antaryāmi, the inner controller. The physical unity of the entire existence is named ‘Sūtra’ and it holds together in unison the material of subtle bodies and gross bodies of all beings. The antaryāmi is the spiritual entity that is within and controls every being—animate and inanimate. The Upanishad gives several illustrations to make home this point. In the case of the earth, the grossest element, it says:

यः पृथिव्यां तिष्ठन्पृथिव्या अन्तरः, यं पृथिवी न वेद, यस्य पृथिवी शरीरं, यः पृथिवीमन्तरो यमयति, एष त आत्मान्तर्याम्यमृतः

He who inhabits the earth but is within it, whom the earth does not know, whose body is the earth, and who controls the earth from within, is the Internal Ruler, your own immortal Self.

Sri Shankaracharya explains that antaryāmi is the Saguṇa Brahman, the Brahman with the qualities, named Narayana, that is inside and controls. However, the central teaching here is that even the Saguṇa Brahman, in essence, is the Atman, (here in the sense of) the individual Self, which is immortal.

The inner Reality of each and every entity in the universe—gross or subtle—is but spiritual in nature. Also, this Reality is the spiritual core of every human being. This is what the Upanishad is expressing through the idea of antaryāmi.

The Inner Light

What is the nature of consciousness? Western thought, in general, says that it is the product of matter, while Indian wisdom says that it is the only Reality that exists. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we find an interesting conversation between Yajnavalkya, the teacher, and King Janaka, the student, on this topic of immense spiritual significance. King Janaka begins by asking: ‘Yajnavalkya, what serves as the light for a man?’ The teacher replies: ‘It is the sun’s light. It is through the sun’s light that one does all his functions.’ The student continues: ‘What serves as the light for a man when there is no sun’s light?’ ‘The moon’s light’, says the teacher. The fire plays the role of light when there is no moon’s light. The senses serve as light when there is no fire; speech, touch, sound, and smell give us knowledge of the external world at that time.

The conversation reaches its critical point when it is asked: ‘What serves as the light for a man when there is no light of sun, moon, fire, or the senses?’ Yajnavalkya says: ‘Ātmaivāsya jyotir­bhavati; the Self itself serves as his light.’ Here we can trace the evolution of the understanding of light. The external sources like the sun and moon give physical light; the sense organs cause knowledge in the mind; the Atman is the source of consciousness that acts as the milieu to physical as well as mental phenomena in a person.

Then the natural question will be ‘What is the Atman?’ Yajnavalkya replies:

कतम आत्मेति; योऽयं विज्ञानमयः प्राणेषु हृद्यन्तर्ज्योतिः पुरुषः; स समानः सन्नुभौ लोकावनुसंचरति, ध्यायतीव लेलायतीव; स हि स्वप्नो भूत्वेमं लोकमतिक्रामति मृत्यो रूपाणि ॥

‘Which is the Self?’ ‘This infinite entity (Puruṣa) that is identified with the intellect and is in the midst of the organs, the (self-efful­gent) light within the heart (intellect). Assuming the likeness (of the intellect), it moves between the two worlds; it thinks, as it were, and shakes, as it were. Being identified with dreams, it transcends this world—the forms of death (ignorance etc.).9

Some of the takeaways from the above teaching are as follows:

  1. Atman which is of the nature of consciousness is entirely different from the body-mind conglomeration.
  2. Atman which is self-effulgent light of consciousness is primarily felt in the intellect and then, throughout the body.
  3. Atman, without form of its own, assumes the likeness of intellect (popularly called liṅga śarīra, subtle body) and moves between this world and the next world.
  4. Atman, being disembodied, identifies with the body and seems to be moving. Being identified with the mind, it seems to be thinking. In the absolute sense, Atman does not have any functions.
  5. In the dream state, which is but transcending the waking state, Atman gives up its identification with body and senses, the products of ignorance—and creates its own dream world.

The Three States

Another interesting feature of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the way it shows how transmigration takes place. It gives illustrations of waking and dream states to this effect. The Upanishad says that the movement of Atman from dream state to waking state and vice-versa clearly demonstrates that Atman is not an entity confined to body-mind conglomeration. Hence, the transmigration from one body to another is feasible to Atman. Secondly, the empirical state of suṣupti, dreamless sleep, is described in the Upanishad as that in which one finds union with the real blissful Self. Hence, the suṣupti validates that such a state of bliss with full awareness is possible when one gets liberation. However, in dreamless sleep, one is not aware of the bliss one experiences due to ignorance.

The Upanishad also emphasises that the Atman, the seer, is clearly distinguishable from the seen, the object, in the dream state. ‘Atrāyam puruṣaḥ svayam jyotirbhavati; in that state, it reveals his own lustre by his own light.’10 However, the self-effulgence of Atman is not limited to the dream state only, as it remains the same in all the three states is.

स यत्तत्र किञ्चित्पश्यत्यनन्वागतस्तेन भवति, असङ्गो ह्ययं पुरुष इति

He is untouched by whatever he sees in that state, for this infinite being is unattached.11

The contention of the Upanishad is that the Atman is not touched by the good or the evil experienced in the dream or waking state. It is because, by its very nature, Atman is ‘unattached’. Atman remains unattached in the dreamless state also, as no good or evil is experienced in that state. The feeling of doing good or evil and enjoying happiness and miseries, their respective results—are all due to avidyā, the ignorance of the nature of Atman.

Bondage and Liberation

In Vedanta, the empirical state is called samsāra, the state of bondage, while the liberation from it is termed mokṣa. Brihadranyaka Upanishad graphically describes how a person dies with excruciating pain and enters into a new body with mental impressions. In contrast, the one with the knowledge of Atman and who has succeeded in crushing all his desires, is liberated, even while living in the body. This state is described in the Upanishad in glowing terms:

अथाकामयमानः—योऽकामो निष्काम आप्तकाम आत्म-कामो न तस्य प्राणा उत्क्रामन्ति, ब्रह्मैव सन्ब्रह्माप्येति

But the man who does not desire (never transmigrates). Of him who is without desires, who is free from desires, the objects of whose desire have been attained, and to whom all objects of desire are but the Self—the organs do not depart. Being but Brahman, he is merged in Brahman.12

It is the desires that propel one to transmigrate from one body to another. The man of knowledge relinquishes all his desires (akāmah) and so, never undergoes that process. In attaining Brahman, he has fulfilled all the desires (āptakāmah) and therefore, to him, there is no object of desire except the Atman (ātmakāmah). Sri Shankaracharya says that to such a person of realisation, all the objects of desire are but one’s own Self. That person becomes Brahman in this very life—not after the body falls—by getting rid of all the limitations like body, mind, and the like. After his death, this condition does not change since he or she has already merged into the consciousness of Brahman.


What we have presented in this essay so far, is but some glimpses of the colossal corpus of the knowledge enshrined in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Swami Vivekananda sums up this ancient wisdom when he explains the conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi, a part of this great Upanishad:

So far the idea is that it is all One Infinite Being. That is the real individuality, when there is no more division, and no more parts; these little ideas are very low, illusive. But yet in and through every spark of the individuality is shining that Infinite. Everything is a manifestation of the Atman.13


1 See Brihadaranyaka Upanishad with the commentary of Sri Shankaracharya, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1997), xii.

2 Ibid., 1.4.7.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 1.4.8.

5 Ibid., 2.4.5.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 1.4.10.

8 Ibid., 3.4.1.

9 Ibid., 4.3.7.

10 Ibid., 4.3.9.

11 Ibid., 4.3.16.

12 Ibid., 4.4.6.

13 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.419.

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