Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Teachings to Mankind

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद्) is one of the Principal Upanishads and one of the first Upanishadic scriptures of Hinduism. A key scripture to various schools of Hinduism, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is tenth in the Muktikā or “canon of 108 Upanishads”. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is estimated to have been composed about the 7th-6th century BCE, excluding some parts estimated to have been composed after the Chandogya Upanishad. The Sanskrit language text is contained within the Shatapatha Brahmana, which is itself a part of the Shukla YajurvedaThe Brihadaranyaka Upanishad influenced various Indian religions, and ancient and medieval scholars, and attracted secondary works such as those by Adi Shankara and Madhvacharya.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Meaning

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest of the Upanishads, the ancient Hindu spiritual texts that contain the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism. From Sanskrit, “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” translates as “Great Forest Book.” 

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad - YouTube
Atman – Brahman Explained in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Chronology of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The chronology of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, like other Upanishads, is uncertain and contested. The chronology is difficult to resolve because all opinions rest on scanty evidence, an analysis of archaism, style, and repetitions across texts, driven by assumptions about the likely evolution of ideas, and on presumptions about which philosophy might have influenced which other Indian philosophies. 

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Etymology and Structure

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is credited to the ancient sage Yajnavalkya but was likely refined by a number of ancient Vedic scholars. The Upanishad forms the last part, which is the fourteenth kānda of Śatapatha Brāhmana of “Śhukla Yajurveda“. It has six adhyayas (chapters) in total. There are two major recensions for the text – the Madhyandina and the Kanva recensions. It includes three sections:

  • Madhu kānda (the 4th and 5th chapter of the fourteenth kānda of Satapatha Brahmana),
  • Muni kānda (or Yajnavalkya Kanda, the 6th and 7th chapter of the 14th kānda of Satapatha Brahmana) and 
  • Khila kānda (the 8th and 9th chapter of the fourteenth kānda of Satapatha Brahmana).

The first and second chapters of the Upanishad’s Madhu kānda consists of six brahmanas each, with varying number of hymns per brahmana. The first chapter of the Upanishad’s Yajnavalkya kānda consists of nine brahmanas, while the second has six brahmanas. The Khila kānda of the Upanishad has fifteen brahmanas in its first chapter, and five brahmanas in the second chapter.

Contents of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

First Chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad starts by stating one of many Vedic theories of the creation of the universe. It asserts that there was nothing before the universe started, then Prajapati created from this nothing the universe as a sacrifice to himself, imbued it with Prana (life force) to preserve it in the form of cosmic inert matter and individual psychic energy. The world is more than matter and energy, asserts Brihadaranyaka, it is constituted also of Atman or Brahman (Self, Consciousness, Invisible Principles, and Reality) as well as Knowledge.

The Brahmana 4 in the first chapter, announces the non-dual, monistic metaphysical premise that Atman and Brahman are identical Oneness, with the assertion that because the universe came out of nothingness when the only principle existent was “I am he”, the universe after it came into existence continues as Aham Brahma Asmi (I am Brahman). In the last brahmana of the first chapter, the Upanishad explains that the Atman (Self) inspires by being self-evident (name identity), through empowering forms, and through action (work of a living being). The Self, states Brihadaranyaka, is the imperishable one that is invisible and concealed pervading all reality.

Second chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad starts the second chapter as a conversation between Ajatashatru and Balaki Gargya on the theory of dreams, positing that human beings see dreams entirely unto themselves because the mind draws, in itself, the powers of sensory organs, which it releases in the waking state. It then asserts that this empirical fact about dreams suggests that the human mind has the power to perceive the world as it is, as well as fabricate the world as it wants to perceive it. Mind is a means, prone to flaws. The struggling man faces, asserts Brihadaranyaka in brahmana 3, in his attempt to realize the “true reality behind perceived reality”. That is Atman-Brahman, inherently and blissfully existent, yet unknowable because it has no qualities, no characteristics, it is “neti, neti” (literally, “not this, not this”).

In the fourth brahmana, the Upanishad presents a dialogue between a husband and wife, as Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi, on the nature of love and spirituality, whether and how is Atman related to deep connection and bonds between human beings. Yajnavalkya states that one doesn’t connect with and love forms, nor does one connect or love the mind, rather one connects with the Self, the Self of one’s own, and one’s beloved. 

Third chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The third chapter is a metaphysical dialogue between ten ancient sages, on the nature of Reality, Atman, and Mukti. Paul Deussen calls the presentation of ancient scholar Yajnavalkya in this chapter “not dissimilar to that of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato”. Among other things, the chapter presents the theory of perceived empirical knowledge using the concepts of graha and atigraha (sensory action and sense). It lists 8 combinations of graha and atigraha:

  • Breath and smell,
  • Speech and name (ideas),
  • Tongue and taste,
  • Eye and form,
  • Ear and sound,
  • Skin and touch,
  • Mind and desire, and
  • Arms and work respectively.

The sages debate the nature of death, asserts the third chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and whether any graha and atigraha prevail after one dies. They rule out six, then assert that one’s ideas (name) and one’s actions and work (karma) continue to affect the universe.

Fourth chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The fourth chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad starts as a dialogue between King Janaka and Yajnavalka. It explores various aspects of the “Self exists” theory, its phenomenal manifestations, and its philosophical implications on soteriology. The Upanishad, in the first brahmana of the fourth chapter, states that the Self manifests in human life in six forms:

  • Prajna (consciousness), 
  • Priyam (love and the will to live), 
  • Satyam (reverence for truth, and reality), 
  • Ananta (endlessness, curiosity for the eternal), 
  • Ananda (bliss, contentedness), and 
  • Sthiti (the state of enduring steadfastness, calm perseverance).

In the second brahmana, the Upanishad explores the question, “what happens to the Self after one dies?”, and provides the root of two themes that play a central role in later schools of Hinduism: one, of the concept of Self as individual Selfs (dualism), and second of the concept of Self-being One and Eternal neither comes nor goes anywhere because it is everywhere and everyone in Oneness (non-dualism). This chapter discusses the widely cited “neti, neti” (नेति नेति, “not this, not this”) principle towards one’s journey to understanding the Self. 

Fifth and sixth chapters of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The fifth and sixth chapters of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are known as Khila Khanda, which literally means “supplementary section or appendix”. Each brahmana in the supplement is small except the fourteenth. This section, suggests Paul Deussen, was likely written later to clarify and add ideas considered important in that later age.

Some brahmanas in the last section of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, such as the second and third brahmana in the fifth chapter, append ethical theories, while the fourth brahmana in the fifth chapter asserts that “empirical reality and truth is Brahman”. In the fourth brahmana of the sixth chapter, sexual rituals between a husband and wife are described to conceive and celebrate the birth of a child.

What is Brihadaranyaka Upanishad? - Definition from Yogapedia
Contents of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Teachings to Mankind

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad has been an important work in Vedanta and it discusses many early concepts and theories foundational to Hinduism such as karma, Atman-Brahman, the Afterlife, etc.


The Bṛhadāraṇyaka contains various passages which discuss the beginning of the universe and its creation. A key figure in this process is the deity Prajapati, who creates the world through liturgical recitation, priestly sacrifice, dividing up his own body, copulation, and giving birth to various devas and demons.

One passage on the creation states: “in the beginning, this world was just a single body (atman) shaped like a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself.” The Bṛhadāraṇyaka goes on to state that this single body became afraid and wanted to have a companion, so he split his body into two, made a wife, and copulated with her to create all living beings.


The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad teaches the theory of atman (the Self), which is the eternal inner reality in a person. It is described by the Bṛhadāraṇyaka as follows:

This innermost thing, this self (atman)—it is dearer than a son, it is dearer than wealth, it is dearer than everything else…a man should regard only his self as dear to him. When a man regards only his self as dear to him, what he holds dear will never perish.

This self is also the source of all vital functions:

As a spider sends forth its thread, and as tiny sparks spring forth from a fire, so indeed do all the vital functions (prana), all the worlds, all the Gods, and all beings spring from this self (atman). Its hidden name (upanishad) is ‘The real behind the real,’ for the real consists of the vital functions, and the self is the real behind the vital functions.

The self travels through various worlds and takes up a body:

It is this person—the one that consists of perception among the vital functions (prana), the one that is the inner light within the heart. He travels across both worlds, being common to both. Sometimes he reflects, sometimes he flutters, for when he falls asleep he transcends this world, these visible forms of death. When at birth this person takes on a body, he becomes united with bad things, and when at death he leaves it behind, he gets rid of those bad things.

Self is not just something individual, since the Bṛhadāraṇyaka states:

When a chunk of salt is thrown in water, it dissolves into that very water, and it cannot be picked up in any way. Yet, from whichever place one may take a sip, the salt is there. In the same way this Immense Being has no limit or boundary and is a single mass of perception.

Furthermore, this self is an imperishable reality:

About this self (atman), one can only say ‘not—, not—’ (neti neti). He is ungraspable, for he cannot be grasped. He is undecaying, for he is not subject to decay. He has nothing sticking to him, for he does not stick to anything. He is not bound; yet he neither trembles in fear nor suffers injury.

And yet, it’s only by reflecting on one’s atman that one can gain knowledge:

You see, Maitreyi—it is one’s self (atman) which one should see and hear, and on which one should reflect and concentrate. For by seeing and hearing one’s self, and by reflecting and concentrating on one’s self, one gains the knowledge of this whole world.

Brahman and atman

Another term found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad is Brahman, and this is closely associated with the term atman. According to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, “in the beginning, this world was only brahman, only one.” Then Brahman, which was “not fully developed”, created the “ruling power” among the Gods and then it also created all the castes (brahmin, ksatriya, vaisya, and shudra) as well Dharma.

According to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, there are “two visible appearances (rupa) of brahman”:

  • One form has a fixed shape, is mortal, stationary, this refers to the body as well as things in the external world
  • The form other is without a fixed shape, is immortal, and is in motion. It also refers to “the person within the sun’s orb” as well as to “breath and the space within the body”. Furthermore, “the visible appearance of this person is like a golden cloth, or white wool, or red bug, or a flame, or a white lotus, or a sudden flash of lightning.”


One of the earliest formulations of the Karma doctrine occurs in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka which states:

‘He’s made of this. He’s made of that.’ What a man turns out to be depends on how he acts and on how he conducts himself. If his actions are good, he will turn into something good. If his actions are bad, he will turn into something bad. A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action. And so people say: ‘A person here consists simply of desire.’ A man resolves in accordance with his desire, acts in accordance with his resolve, and turns out to be in accordance with his action.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Hymns 4.4.5-4.4.6


The text also contains some speculations about the afterlife. In one passage, Yajñavalkya is asked what happens to a man who has died and he states that after death “a man turns into something good by good action (karma) and into something bad by bad action.”

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka also describes how the atman leaves the body at death and takes up a new life. The text describes the process as follows:

As a caterpillar, when it comes to the tip of a blade of grass, reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself onto it, so the self (atman), after it has knocked down this body and rendered it unconscious, reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself onto it.


The Bṛhadāraṇyaka includes hymns on virtues and ethics. In verse 5.2.3, for example, it recommends three virtues: self-restraint (दमः, damah), charity (दानं, daana), and compassion for all life (दया, daya).

तदेतत्त्रयँ शिक्षेद् दमं दानं दयामिति
Learn three cardinal virtues – temperance, charity and compassion for all life.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, V.ii.3, 

These basic Vedic ethical principles found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka later developed into the more complex yamas (ethical rules) found in various schools of Hinduism.


The verses in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka contain theories pertaining to psychology and human motivations. Verse 1.4.17 describes the desire for progeny as the desire to be born again. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad states a behavioral theory, linking action to nature, suggesting that behavioral habits make a man:

According as one acts, so does he become.
One becomes virtuous by virtuous action,
bad by bad action. — Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5

Ancient and medieval Indian scholars have referred to Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad as a foundation to discuss psychological theories, the nature of the psyche, and how body, mind, and Self interact. For example, Adi Shankara in his commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka explains the relation between consciousness, the mind, and the body.

The mind creates desire, asserts Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, with its basis in pleasure. The Upanishad suggests in the dialogue between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi, husband and wife, that one does not love an object for the sake of the object but for the sake of the subject, the Self (the Self of the other person).


The metaphysics of Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad often presents a kind of non-dualism or monism. For instance, in verse 2.4.13 Yajñavalkya asserts that everything in the universe is the Self. Some passages state that Brahman is the whole:

Clearly, this self is brahman—this self that is made of perception, made of mind, made of sight, made of breath, made of hearing, made of earth, made of water, made of wind, made of space, made of light and the lightless, made of desire and the desireless, made of anger and the angerless, made of the righteous and the unrighteous; this self that is made of everything.

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad looks at reality as being indescribable and its nature to be infinite and consciousness-bliss. 

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Popular mantras

Pavamāna Mantra

This is from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.3.28)

असतो मा सद्गमय । Asatō mā sadgamaya
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय । tamasō mā jyōtirgamaya
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय । mr̥tyōrmā amr̥taṁ gamaya
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥ Om śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ – Br̥hadāraṇyakopaniṣat 1.3.28


From untruth lead us to Truth.
From darkness lead us to Light.
From death lead us to Immortality.
Om Peace, Peace, Peace. 


Because of the above, I am confident that you have learned in-depth about Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  Its chronology, structure, contents, teachings, atman, brahman, popular mantras, etc. Now, that you have become self-sufficient in knowing the importance of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Henceforth, I believe that you will be adopting the values of such unique knowledge.

After reading this article, how would you rate it? Would you please let me know your precious thoughts? 

Frequently asked questions

Before posting your query, kindly go through the:

What is the meaning of Brihadaranyaka?

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest of the Upanishads, the ancient Hindu spiritual texts that contain the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism. From Sanskrit, “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” translates as “Great Forest Book.” 


Who is the writer of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad?

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is credited to the ancient sage Yajnavalkya but was likely refined by a number of ancient Vedic scholars.

What are the teachings of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad?

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣhad has been an important work in Vedanta and it discusses many early concepts and theories foundational to Hinduism such as karma, Atman-Brahman, the Afterlife, etc.




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