Text of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 01|02|03

Regarded as the most important of the Upanishads, the Brihadaranyaka is the defining text of Advaita Vedanta, the most austere and philosophical of the ancient Hindu religious paths. It is a hymn based on the Ashvamedha, or Horse Sacrifice, an obscure yet extremely important ritual which was performed each year by all kings, in which a horse, having been given free rein for the entire year, is brought back to the capital and sacrificed. The ashvamedha was used as a way of expanding the kingdom, because the horse would be followed by a brigade of soldiers who would conquer any territory it entered. However, the true import of the horse sacrifice is said to be illustrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which equates it to the mystery of the Universe: its creation, sustenance and destruction.

It is divided into three sections, or Kandas:

The Madhu Kanda begins with the equation of the sacrificial horse with the universe, and develops this theme in the form of a creation myth, following the stages of the emergence of the material world from the formlessness of Brahman.

The Yajnavalkya Kanda is in the form of a dialogue between Yajnavalkya, a philosopher in the court of King Janaka, and various other philosophers who are asking him questions about reality and the world and realization. It contains a famous dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi about the means of attaining Self-reealization.

The Khila Kanda deals with different forms of meditation, and delivers the Mahavakya ('great statement') which is considered to be the epitome of Advaita Vedanta - (I am Brahman), and the method of realizing this (neti, neti: 'Not this, not that' - meaning that no specific thing or thought is, itself, Brahman, but when you have negated everything, that which remains is Brahman, or realization of the infinite).

Read from a modern perspective, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad seems incredibly obscure, and, in places, very repetitive, due to the strangeness of the metaphors and the formal and ritual structure of the dialogues. However, it is fascinating to see the philosophical underpinnings of Vedic thought expounded in such a strange way. The Brihadaranyaka deals with the following topics among many others:

T.S. Eliot famously made reference to the Brihadaranyaka in the final section of his long poem The Waste Land, in which the thunder is heard to repeat the word DA three times. This syllable represents the words Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata, which Eliot translates as 'Give, Sympathize, Control'. These words appear in the Khila Kanda as the voice of the thunder and as adivce given by the master to his students: Give, Be merciful, Be subdued - in other words, the qualities of charity, compassion and self-control, all cardinal Hindu virtues.

Text of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 01|02|03

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