The Upaniṣads which usually form the last part of the Vedas and hence known as Vedānta (anta = end) contain the quintessence of Hindu philosophy. They deal with certain fundamental questions of metaphysics: the Creator, process of creation, nature of the created world, true and apparent nature of the individual, relationship between this individual and the Creator, goal of life and the path that helps achieving it.
Out of the ten or twelve Upaniṣads considered more ancient and important the Aitareya Upaniṣad is also one. It forms part of the Aitareya Āraṇyaka (adhyāyas 4 to 6 of the 2nd Āraṇyaka) of the Ṛgveda. Mahidāsa Aitareya who is mentioned in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (3.16.7) is the ṛṣi to whom this Upaniṣad was revealed.
The previous parts of the Āraṇyaka contain instructions regarding karma (Vedic rituals) and prāṇopāsanā (meditation on prāṇa, the vital breath or energy). Anyone who has performed these two seriously and sincerely will become fit for ātmajñāna (self-knowledge). This has been expounded in the next three (4 to 6) adhyāyas which comprise this Upaniṣad.
The Upaniṣad starts with a description of creation. In the beginning the Ātman alone existed. He reflected: ‘Let me create the worlds.’ Then he created four worlds: ambholoka (supercelestial region of waters), marīciloka (the heavens with their celestial lights), maraloka (the mortal earth) and āpoloka (the subterranean region of waters). Desiring to create the protectors for these worlds, he proceeded to create first, Virāṭpuruṣa (‘World-Person’)—an intermediate entity subsisting between the Ātman and the universe—whom he fashioned out of the waters. From him proceeded the organs of senses, then their corresponding functions and lastly the deities or cosmic powers corresponding to such functions in the cosmos.
The Ātman who can now be called Īśvara, made the Virāṭpuruṣa subject to hunger and thirst. Consequently the deities born out of him also became subject to the same limitation. On the request from the deities for a suitable locus from which they can act, he created the human body into which they gladly entered. Hunger and thirst which were left behind were also provided a place, but as an integral part of these deities.
On further reflection, realizing the need for ‘food’ by the Virāṭpuruṣa along with the deities, Īśvara created food articles like corn and animals. The Virāṭ-puruṣa was able to grasp this food only with the apānavāyu (the prāṇic energy responsible for digestion and excretion) and not with the other deities (or indriyas, i.e., faculties).
Since the body of the Virāṭpuruṣa could not live without the presence of the Ātman or Īśvara, he entered into it through the brahmarandhra (the aperture in the crown of the head).
The Upaniṣad then describes how the jīvātman (the ātman bound in the body) transmigrates, conception, birth and rebirth being his three kinds of births. It also quotes the great sage Vāmadeva who realised his true nature as the ātman, free from the shackles of bodies and senses, even while he was in the womb of his mother.
The last section describes Ātman or Brahman as ‘prajñāna’ (consciousness) because of whose presence only all experience is possible. One of the four famous mahāvākyas (great dicta) of the Upaniṣadic literature viz., prajñānaṁ brahma (‘Prajñāna is Brahman’) comes in this section (3.1.3).
Out of the several theories of creation given in the Upaniṣads, the one given here appears to be more enigmatic if not altogether inscrutable. However, a little reflection is enough to convince that it falls in line with the general philosophy of the Upaniṣads. The various accounts of creation given in the Upaniṣads normally fall into three categories: through trivṛtkaraṇa (triplication) as in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad; through pañcīkaraṇa (quin-tuplication) as in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad; and through the Virāṭpuruṣa (cosmic person) as here.
The purpose of creation is to give the unredeemed jīvas (individual souls) one more chance for redemption. This means that each of the jīvas must have a suitable body and a sphere of activity. The latter is provided by the various lokas or worlds, states of being, and the Virāṭpuruṣa forms the matrix as it were from which the former is shaped. Apart from the physical body, the sense-organs and the mind, located in it, form the basis of all activity. Hence their creation has also been des-cribed. The deities like Agni and Āditya mentioned here are the lokapālas, ‘protectors of the worlds’. They are the entities endowed with the power of maintaining order in the created worlds. At the cosmic level, each of them represents the totality or essence of that particular power manifested in creation. At the individual level, it is the controlling power of the particular faculty. For instance, Agni at the cosmic level represents the fire-principle, whereas the same at the level of the individual body represents the power of speech which illumines the dark areas of unknown fields of knowledge.
The ‘hunger and thirst’ of the deities is a sign of their incompleteness and hence indicates that they too have fallen into the ocean of saṁsāra (transmigratory existence). This is but natural since the whole of the created world, starting with the Virāṭpuruṣa himself, is within the realm of saṁsāra. Their ‘food’ is the corresponding object of sense, united with which, the deities feel satisfied.
See also UPANIṢADS.