Out of the three basic scriptures of Hinduism known as the prasthānatraya, the Upaniṣads rank first. In the group of the ten Upaniṣads the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya occupy a unique place since they not only delineate the fundamental principles of Vedānta but also describe a number of upāsanās or meditations, technically called Vidyās.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, as its very name suggests, is quite a large work (bṛhad = large, big) and forms an integral part of the well-known Śatapatha Brāh-maṇa which itself belongs to the Śukla Yajurveda. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa has two recensions—the Kāṇva and the Mādhyandina. The former has 17 kāṇḍas or sections whereas the latter has only 14. The six adhyāyas or chapters of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka actually form chapters 3 to 8 of the 17th kāṇḍa in the Kāṇva recension and chapters 4 to 9 of the 14th kāṇḍa of the Mādhyandina recension.
The adhyāyas are divided into khaṇḍas or brāhmaṇas, which again are subdivided into kaṇḍikās (similar to mantras). There are 435 kaṇḍikās distri-buted among the 47 brāhmaṇas of the 6 adhyāyas of this Upaniṣad.
There is another way of dividing this Upaniṣad. The first two adhyāyas form the Madhukāṇḍa, the middle two, the Munikāṇḍa or the Yājñavalkyakāṇḍa and the last two, Khilakāṇḍa. These kāṇḍas respectively deal with upadeśa (the teaching), upapatti (the argument) and upāsanā (the meditations and rites).
By far, the Munikāṇḍa, which accounts for almost half the number of the kaṇḍikās, is the most important part of this Upaniṣad. The sage Yājñavalkya, who is the principal person that appears here, has expounded brilliantly the philo-sophy of Ātman/Brahman as also several subtle aspects of related teachings. He can easily be classified among the greatest thinkers of the world of any age.
A chapterwise summary of the work may now be attempted.
The first brāhmaṇa known as the Aśva-brāhmaṇa, describes a special process of meditation wherein the various aspects of Prajāpati, the Creator, like kāla (time), loka (the various worlds) and devatā (the various deities) are advised to be superimposed on the different limbs of the horse chosen for the Aśvamedha (horse-sacrifice). This can transform—in a spiritual sense—the horse into Prajāpati himself. The ritual of the Aśvamedha itself can lead the performer to Brahmaloka or the world of Brahmā, also known as Hiraṇyagarbha. Though only kings are competent to perform this sacrifice, even others can attain to the same result by imagining themselves to be the horse and superposing the various items on themselves as described.
Agni-brāhmaṇa is the second section of this chapter. It deals with the manifestation of agni or fire from Prajāpati and the method of contemplation on it as Prajāpati himself. This leads to the fruit of mṛtyujaya or conquest of death.
The third is the Udgītha-brāhmaṇa. The udgītha is the second and the most important part of a sāman sung by the priest ugdātṛ in a Soma sacrifice. In this brāhmaṇa, the importance of prāṇa, the vital force, has been brought out by an allegorical story. The devas or gods wanted to conquer the asuras or demons by performing the Jyotiṣṭoma sacrifice. They employed sense-organs like the speech, the eye, the nose, and also the mind to sing the udgītha for them. The asuras, however, succeeded in contaminating them through selfishness, thereby defeating the purpose of the devas. However, when these asuras rushed towards the prāṇa, the chief vital force, they were destroyed. By meditating on one’s prāṇa, which is not only the real power behind the sense-organs but also the essence of the Vedas and a replica of the cosmic Prāṇa (also known as Prajāpati or Hiraṇyagarbha) one can attain to the world of Prajāpati. The speciality of this upāsanā or meditation is that it does not involve any rites or rituals.
The fourth khaṇḍa is known as the Puruṣavidha-brāhmaṇa. Before creation, the entire universe was within the body of Puruṣa or Prajāpati or Virāj, undifferenti-ated from him. He desired for a mate. As a result of his will, he projected out of himself another entity which split into two, the male part being Manu and the female Śatarūpā. By their union, not only in the human form, but also in various other forms, all the living beings, up to an ant, were created. He, however, remained as he was, unaffected. He then realized that the created universe of beings was also himself. Later, he created the gods like Agni.
Since the Puruṣa, the Supreme Self, has entered into the whole creation and exists in it like a sword in its sheath or fire in the wood, it is he who is being manifested through all the activities of the body-mind complex. However, the activities like speaking and the names like speech, are only nomenclatures born out of the various types of functioning. He is the inmost self in us and is unaffected by the sense of doership or actions or their fruits, which have been superimposed on him by avidyā or ignorance of his real nature. The sage Vāmadeva and many others like him, realized that they were in the ultimate analysis, the Supreme Self.
Then comes a classification of the gods. Agni is brāhmaṇa. Indra, Varuṇa, Soma, Yama and Īśāna are kṣattriyas. Vasus, Rudras and Ādityas are vaiśyas. Pūṣan is a śūdra. The human beings were born out of these four classes of gods. The Puruṣa or the Supreme Being also created dharma or righteousness (the Cosmic Law) to regulate them all. However, it is declared that an ajñāni or an ignorant person becomes an object of enjoyment for all. These ignorant ones are advised to discharge their debts to the gods and the others through the pañcayajñas or the five daily sacrifices. The Upaniṣad also says that it is desire that binds a person and it is meditation on the Ātman or the Self alone that can deliver him. One who fails in this has to suffer much.
The next khaṇḍa is known as the Saptānna-brāhmaṇa, the brāhmaṇa of seven foods. The first anna or food is the usual physical food upon which all living beings sustain themselves. Human beings have to consume food so that they can perform the prescribed religious rites which can give them the unseen results later on. If they do not perform these rites, they will be eating only sin. The second and the third annas are the huta and the prahuta sacrificial oblations and gifts given during the sacrifices. They are sometimes, identified with the two sacrifices Darśa and Pūrṇamāsa, meant for the gods. Milk is the fourth anna, specially meant for the animals.
The last three annas or foods, were kept by Prajāpati for himself. They are: vāk (speech), manas (mind) and prāṇa (vital force). Since they help him to create the worlds and sustain them, they are called ‘anna’. These three are then identi-fied with the three worlds, the three Vedas, the three beings (gods, manes and human beings) and so on. In fact they comprise the whole world. One who meditates upon them as limited, attains the finite world. If he meditates upon them as unlimited, he obtains the infinite world.
This Prajāpati or the Hiraṇyagarbha is himself the time. The Upaniṣad des-cribes how the various organs like vāk or speech, competed against one another but were overcome by fatigue. However, prāṇa or the vital force was not affected by it. Hence, the organs identified themselves with it and became immortal. Among the gods like Agni (fire), Āditya (Sun) and Candra (Moon), only Vāyu (air), the cosmic counterpart of prāṇa, could sustain itself in its work. If a person can meditate on the organs like speech which exist in all living beings and the elements like fire, which exist in this world, as identified with his own Self, he attains identity with Hiraṇyagarbha and live in his world.
The sixth and the last khaṇḍa, which is sometimes called the Uktha-brāhmaṇa, declares that the whole universe is nothing but nāma (name), rūpa (form) and karma (action). Like the three mutually supporting sticks, these three support one another and also help in manifesting one another. Since this universe is only an upādhi or limiting adjunct to Paramātman (the Supreme Self), anyone who is interested in it, will not be inclined to meditate on him.
This chapter, comprising six brāhma-ṇas, is more directly concerned with ātma-tattva or the knowledge of the Ātman. The well-known discourse by the great sage Yājñavalkya to his wife Maitreyī—which, incidentally, appears in the fourth chapter also, though shorter—forms the core of this chapter.
The first brāhmaṇa known as the Ajātaśatru-brāhmaṇa starts with the legend of Bālāki the proud one, a descendant of Garga and Ajātaśatru, the king of Kāśī. Bālāki proposed to Ajātaśatru to teach Brahman. However, what he taught was elementary and concerned only with the conditioned Brahman, like the Being resid-ing in the sun, the moon, the lightning, the ether, the air and so on. But Ajātaśatru knew better. He had realized the uncondi-tioned Brahman. So, he taught this to Bālāki. In deep sleep, all the sense organs like speech, are absorbed in their sources, the individual Self is merged in the Supreme Self, the unconditioned Brahman. It then resembles a child or a great king or a worthy brāhmaṇa, having reached the acme of bliss. The teaching ends with a statement that all the beings, all the worlds and all the gods emerge out of the Ātman, the Supreme Being, even as sparks spring from fire.
The next the Śiśu-brāhmaṇa and it speaks of the prāṇa or the vital force as a calf. Its body is its abode, the head is its special place, the vigour generated by food and drink is its post and the food itself is its tether. Seven deities like Rudra and Āditya are praising this prāṇa. One who knows thus, will never be without food.
The third is the Mūrtāmūrta-brāh-maṇa and it is devoted to the description of the two forms of Brahman. One form is gross, mortal, limited and perceptible. The other is subtle, immortal, unlimited and imperceptible. By superimposing these two forms, the Supreme Brahman is made conceivable. The words ‘neti, neti’ (‘not this, not this’) deny all limitations to Brahman and reveal its essential nature.
Next comes the Maitreyī-brāhmaṇa which starts with the story of Yājñavalkya and his two wives, Maitreyī and Kātyā-yanī. It stresses the need for saṁnyāsa or monastic life, to attain the Self. The sage Yājñavalkya, intending to embrace the monastic life, wants to divide his wealth between the two wives. However, Maitreyī, after learning that the wealth, and the Vedic rites performed with the help of wealth, cannot give her immortality, rejects the offer of wealth and opts for ātmajñāna or the knowledge of the Self. Yājñavalkya responds by teaching her that all the beings here like the husband or the wife or the children, as also wealth or the various worlds or the gods are dear to us only because of the Ātman or the Self in them and not by themselves. This Ātman has to be heard of (from a qualified teacher), reflected upon and meditated upon—these three being called śravaṇa, manana and nidi-dhyāsana—in order to be realized. As it is not possible to grasp the special sources of a drum or a conch or a lute without the grasping of sound in general, it is not possible to perceive anything in this world as different from Brahman, its basic reality. Yājñavalkya further asserts that even the Vedas have emerged out of it and that it exists in everything as homogeneous consciousness, even as salt exists everywhere in the water in which it has been dissolved. Perception of duality in this world is only apparent and has been caused by avidyā or ignorance of the Reality.
Madhu-brāhmaṇa, the fifth section, sums up the import of the first two chapters. There is an elaborate account of the Ātman or the Self which is the ruler and the king of all beings. Even as spokes are fixed in the nave and the rim of a chariot wheel, so are all beings, all gods and all worlds are fixed in the Supreme Self. The Sage Dadhyaṅ Ātharvaṇa taught this knowledge of the Self to the two Aśvins—the twin gods—through a temporary equine head. The brāhmaṇa ends with the essential teaching of all the Vedānta texts, viz., that the Self, though one, is perceived as manifold through māyā his inscrutable power.
Vaṁśa-brāhmaṇa, the last section of this chapter, gives the line of teachers beginning with Hiraṇyagarbha.
Whereas the Madhukāṇḍa, comprising the first two chapters dealt with upadeśa or āgama (the teachings), the Munikāṇḍa (also called Yājñavalkīya-kāṇḍa) consisting of the third and the fourth chapters, strengthens it through upapatti or yukti, or reasoning. There are nine brāhmaṇas in the third chapter.
The first is the Aśvala-brāhmaṇa. It starts with an interesting story. Janaka Vaideha, the great king, had just completed a big sacrifice—the Bahudakṣiṇa—to participate in which, a large number of brāhmaṇas from the countries of Kuru and Pañcāla had come. The King proposed to give away as a gift, a thousand cows on the horns of each of which had been tied ten gold coins, to the Brahmiṣṭha (the most learned in Brahman or the Vedas) among them. Though none of the assembled dared to accept the challenge, Yājñavalkya did. He even ordered his disciple Sāmaśrava to drive the cattle home! Naturally the assembly fell into a rage and all started questioning him. Aśvala who was the first to pose eight questions to him, was easily vanquished by the satisfactory replies of Yājñavalkya.
The Ārtabhāga-brāhmaṇa, the next section, starts with another Vedic scholar, Ārtabhāga, shooting six questions at Yājñavalkya who answers them all to the satisfaction of the questioner. The last of these questions deals with the problem of the destination of the soul of a dead person. Yājñavalkya takes Ārtabhāga to a secluded place and the two finally conclude that it is karma that decides the future life of the soul of a dead person. Good karma leads to noble births and bad karma to ignoble ones.
Bhujyu-brāhmaṇa, the third, states that even the best of karmas or rites results in transmigration and that even karmas accompanied by upāsanā or meditation cannot give mokṣa or freedom.
The fourth is the Uṣasta-brāhmaṇa. Uṣasta questions Yājñavalkya to tell him about Brahman which is sākṣāt (immediate) and aparokṣāt (direct). Yājñavalkya replies that it is the Ātman that works in the body through the five prāṇas or vital-airs. It is the seer and the knower and hence it cannot be seen or known like an external object.
The Kahola-brāhmaṇa follows next. A further description of the Ātman is given here, as beyond hunger, thirst, sorrow, delusion, old-age and death. The wise ones realize this Ātman and give up their desire for progeny, wealth and meritorious worlds. A realized soul is a realized soul irrespective of his conduct. His brahma-jñāna or knowledge of Brahman never ceases.
The sixth section, named Gārgī-brāhmaṇa, deals with the questions posed by Gārgī, the daughter of Vacaknu, and the ready answers given by Yājñavalkya. The questions concerned with the relative subtlety of the pañcabhūtas or the five elements as also the worlds right up to the Brahmaloka, the abode of Brahman. When she asks, ‘By what is the Brahma-loka pervaded?’ Yājñavalkya warns her not to proceed further since the nature of Brahman can be known only through the scriptures and the preceptor and never through logic or inference.
The Antaryāmi-brāhmaṇa is the seventh in the series. It is now the turn of Uddālaka Āruṇi to question Yājña-valkya. It concerns the ‘antaratama-sūtra’ or the inmost thread that passes through all the worlds and all the beings, holding them together. Uddālaka also asks about the Antaryāmin, the Being that dwells in all and controls them all. Yājñavalkya replies that Vāyu is that sūtra or thread. It is the Ātman that indwells all the worlds and all the beings. He resides in them and controls them whereas they know him not. He is the sākṣin or the eternal witness, the śrotṛ or the listener, the mantṛ or the thinker and the jñātṛ or the knower. However, he is not the object of cognition for any of the senses. He is the immortal Ātman. All else is perishable.
This is followed by the Akṣara-brāhmaṇa, the eighth section, wherein Gārgī puts two questions to Yājñavalkya. The first question is: ‘What pervades that (the sūtra) which is above heaven and below the earth as well as between them, and which was, is and will be?’ Yājña-valkya replies that it is ākāśa, the unmanifested ether. In reply to her next question as to what pervades this ākāśa also, he answers that it is Akṣara, the indestructible. He describes it through several words revealing its unique qualities: It is asthūla (not gross), anaṇu (not fine), ahrasva (not short), adīrgha (not long), atamaḥ (not darkness), anākāśam (not ether), acakṣuṣkam (without eyes), aprāṇam (without the vital force), amanaḥ (without mind) and so on.
It can be described only by such negative attributes since it can never be apprehended either by the senses or by the mind.
Yājñavalkya further avers that, verily under the command of this Akṣara (the Absolute) only the sun, the moon and all the heavenly bodies are held in their positions and perform their allotted duties. Rivers and mountains, quarters and directions and even time itself, keep to their duties. It is by the rule of this very Absolute that the lives of the human beings and the gods in heaven are being regulated.
He concludes by saying that the performance of any rite or ritual without knowing this Akṣara is a waste and that the condition of one who leaves this world without realizing this Akṣara will be miserable. But the one who leaves this world after knowing this Akṣara will be a knower of Brahman.
Śākalya-brāhmaṇa is the last section of this chapter . It conveys the immediacy and directness of Brahman by a reference to the different enumerations of the gods who are ruled by it. In reply to Śākalya’s question about the number of gods Yājñavalkya says that though there are tens or hundreds or thousands of gods they are the manifestations of but one God, Hiraṇyagarbha, who is the cosmic aspect of prāṇa or the vital force. This God is one and at the same time, the many. Hence, when the upāsaka (the worshipper) gets identified with Hiraṇyagarbha, he becomes all, the Self of all.
Finally Yājñavalkya asks the assembled brāhmaṇas whether they know the root from which a dead person is reborn, even as a tree that is cut off, springs up again from the original root. They were ignorant of it. The Upaniṣad itself declares that this root is Brahman, the consciousness and the bliss, the ultimate resort of all the human beings, be they the performers of rituals or the knower of Brahman.
This chapter comprises six brāhmaṇas. In the first, known as the Ṣaḍācārya-brāhmaṇa, Yājñavalkya poses some questions to the king Janaka Vaideha. The king in his reply states the characteristics of Brahman as he had learnt from six of his teachers. He posits Agni, Vāyu, Āditya, Digdevatā, Candra and Prajāpati, the presiding deities of speech, vital air, eyes, ears, mind and intellect, as Brahman. Yājñavalkya rules them out as only partial manifestations of Brahman.
In the Kūrca-brāhmaṇa, the second, Yājñavalkya describes the avasthātraya or the three states of consciousness which the embodied ātman experiences. Jāgrat (waking state), svapna (dream state) and suṣupti (deep-sleep state) are the three states and the soul while associated with these three states is designated as Viśva (or Vaiśvānara), Taijasa and Prājña. Though the terms used in this section are different, the interpretation given by the commentators leads us to this conclusion.
The third section is the Jyotir-brāhmaṇa, a fairly voluminous one, comprising 38 kaṇḍikas. The avasthātraya or the three states of consciousness, mentioned in the previous brāhmaṇa, is discussed in detail through yukti or logic and reasoning. For an ordinary human being endowed with the body and the senses, what is it that acts as a jyoti or light?—This is the question that Janaka repeatedly asks Yājñavalkya. Yājñavalkya lists them one by one as: the sun, the moon, fire, speech and ātman or the Self. When questioned about this ātman, associ-ated with the body and the senses, Yājñavalkya says that as a large fish swims alternately to both banks of a river, so this ātman, simulating the intellect, moves between the dream world and the waking world. Since the intellect is transparent and next to the ātman, it easily reflects the consciousness of the latter. Like a crystal glowing in the light of a lamp, the intellect also, though bereft of consciousness, appears to shine by the light or consciousness of the ātman, which alone is self-luminous. in fact the luminaries like the sun and the moon are able to shine only by the light of the ātman.
Then follows the conception of dream according to the Vedānta. In the dream state, the Self puts aside the gross body of the waking state and creates a dream-body comprising the impressions of the waking state. Dreams are not new experi-ences of the waking state. Sometimes they may reflect the experiences of past lives also. The objects of the dream state are then and there created by the mind. Though the Self is dreaming, he has no direct connection with the physical body. Hence it is not advisable to suddenly wake up a sleeping person as that may endanger his life or senses. In dream, the Self merely witnesses the results of good and bad actions but does not actually experience them or do anything.
The ātman or the Self then enters the samprasāda or the suṣupti state, the state of deep-sleep. He enjoys supreme peace and bliss in this state, since he has merged himself in the Supreme Self. This is the nearest approximation to the state of Brahman. However, avidyā or ignorance does persist even in that state, though in an unmanifested form.
Then follows a description of the sufferings of an aged or diseased body in order to rouse the spirit of renunciation in us. When the Self leaves the present body it takes up another, made ready by its own past work. This passing of the Self is analogous to the return of man from the dream to the waking state.
The Śārīraka-brāhmaṇa, the fourth section, gives a detailed description of the transmigration of the jīva or the Self. At the time of death it withdraws its sense-organs and comes to the heart. It then exits through one of the parts of the body. The potential results of upāsanā (meditation), karma (good and bad deeds) and vāsanās (past impressions) follow the jīva in its onward journey. It creates for itself a new body, even as the goldsmith prepares ornaments out of gold. Once the results of past deeds are exhausted, it returns to this world for new work. It should be noted that only a person with desires and cravings transmigrates and not the one who has no cravings. The latter is merged in Brahman, after casting off his body even as a snake casts off its slough. The knowers of Brahman alone become immortal. The others are miserable.
There is no duality or multiplicity in Brahman. One who sees it otherwise transmigrates from death to death. The seeker of Brahman should not reflect on many words which only cause exhaustion to the vocal cords. He should abjure all vain talk.
Other teachings given in this section are: The ātman in reality, is unaffected by good or bad deeds. Knowledge of this ātman alone can make a being a ‘muni’ or a sage. Seekers of liberation desire only the ātman and not the worlds of men, of the manes or of the gods. Hence they renounce their hearth and home and become monks. The ātman cannot be defined in positive terms. At best it can be described negatively as ‘neti’ (‘not this’). The knower of the ātman is never beset with the thoughts of rewards or punishments for his past actions. He is ever controlled, serene and free from desires. He sees the ātman in himself and all else also as his own Self. He is free from all doubts and evils, ever blessed and absolutely fearless.
The fifth brāhmaṇa—the Maitreyi-brāhmaṇa—is, for all practical purposes, a repetition of 2.4. The last section—the Vaṁśa-brāhmaṇa—traces the genealogy of the ācāryas or the teachers. As in the Madhukāṇḍa, here also, Hiraṇyagarbha is the primeval teacher.
With this, begins the Khilakāṇḍa, the ‘supplementary book’. The fifth chapter introduces some auxiliary meditations which do not conflict with the rites but lead to worldly well-being and also kramamukti or gradual liberation.
The first brāhmaṇa starts with the well-known śāntimantra (peace-chant) ‘pūrṇamadaḥ.’ The infinite universe has come out of the infinite Brahman. Even after realizing its identity with Brahman, Brahman alone is left, because the universe as sopādhika or conditioned Brahman has no real existence. The latter half deals with praṇavopāsana or meditation on Brahman with the Praṇava or Oṅkāra.
Prājāpatya-brāhmaṇa, the second, prescribes the cultivation of the three qualities of dama (self-control), dāna (giving gifts) and dayā (showing compassion) as a part of upāsanā or meditation by means of an interesting parable.
The third is the Hṛdaya-brāhmaṇa which eulogises the heart, the seat of the intellect. The fourth and the fifth brāh-maṇas enjoin meditations on the hṛdaya-brahman as Satya (the Truth) and its eulogy. Meditations on the different parts of its body are also described. The akṣipuruṣa (the ocular being) or the jīva and the ādityapuruṣa or the solar being are aspects of Satya-brahman. At the time of death, the solar being withdraws his rays and hence the dying man sees the sun as an orb without its rays.
The sixth called Mano-brāhmaṇa, enjoins a meditations on vidyut (lightning) and vāk (speech or the Vedas) as Brahman. The ninth recommends meditation on agni or fire as Vaiśvānara or Virāj. The tenth section known as the Gati-brāhmaṇa des-cribes the goals of the above meditations, which is, residence in Brahmaloka throughout the life-time of Hiraṇyagarbha. Tapo-brāhmaṇa, the eleventh, advises us to look upon illness or being carried for the funeral after death, as a tapas or penance, since it can destroy our sins. The twelfth section enjoins that anna (food) and prāṇa (vital force) should be meditated upon as Brahman. The thirteenth brāhmaṇa recommends meditations on the prāṇa as uktha (a recitation connected with Soma-yāga), yajus, sāman and kṣattra (the healer).
The Gāyatrī-brāhmaṇa, the fourteenth, describes a meditation on Brahman as possessing the Gāyatrī as the upādhi or limiting adjunct. The four pādas or quarters of the Gāyatrī are to be identified respectively with the three worlds, the three Vedas, the three prāṇas or vital-airs and āditya or the sun. This will result in various divine fruits.
The last section contains a prayer to Āditya or the Sun and Agni or the fire by a dying man, who has combined meditation with rites (jñāna-karma-samuccaya), for the removal of the obstacles to his journey on the uttarāyaṇa or the northern path, after death.
There are six brāhmaṇas in this chapter. Prāṇasaṁvāda-brāhmaṇa, the first one, demonstrates through an allegory that the prāṇa or the vital force, is the eldest and the best of all organs. Once, a dispute arose among the sense-organs like the eye and the speech, as to which of them was the greatest. Prajāpati when approached by them for the adjudication, ruled that the greatest among them was that organ by whose departure the body would be rendered more impure. The departure of vāk (speech), cakṣus (the eyes), śrotra (the ears), retas (organ of generation) and manas (the mind), one by one, did not make the body more impure. It continued to live. But, when prāṇa (also called mukhyaprāṇa) tried to depart, all the other organs also were pulled out of their places of residence. Hence it was decided that the prāṇa or the vital force was the best.
The second is the Karmavipāka-brāhmaṇa which teaches the Pañcāgni-vidyā or the Doctrine of the Five Fires. Śvetaketu, the proud son of the sage Gautama Āruṇi, goes to the court of the king Pravāhaṇa Jaivali to exhibit his learning. However, when the king puts him five questions, he is unable to answer any of them. Crest-fallen, he returns to his father and objects to his not having taught this subject. Since Gautama too did not know this science, he chooses to go to the king to learn it from him. The king teaches him Pañcāgnividyā or the Doctrine of the Five Fires. The five fires are: dyuloka (heaven), parjanya (rain), this loka or world, puruṣa (man) and yoṣā (woman). Householders who know this meditation on the Five Fires as also the hermits who meditate with faith on the Hiraṇyagarbha go to Brahmaloka by the Uttarāyaṇa, the northern path (also called Devayāna and Arcirādimārga) and will not return to this world again. But those who practise sacrifices and penances, and give gifts, will travel along the path of smoke (called Dhūmādimārga or the Dakṣiṇāyana or Pitṛyāna) to the Pitṛloka, the world of manes. After exhausting the results of their good deeds there, they return to this world. They rotate like a Persian Wheel in the circle of transmigration, till they attain the Devayāna or immediate liberation. The rest, the ignorant ones, are born as moths, insects and so on.
The third section called Śrīmantha-brāhmaṇa describes the rite of Śrīmantha (the paste for prosperity) as a means to attaining greatness and thereby, wealth, which is needed to perform the Vedic rituals. There is also the eulogy of this rite and the line of teachers.
The fourth section describes the Putramantha rite, by which a house-holder can get a worthy son or a worthy daughter. Only the performer of the Śrīmantha rite is eligible to conduct this rite.
The fifth, the last, section called Vaṁśa-brāhmaṇa describes the long line of teachers from Hiraṇyagarbha up to Pautimāṣīputra.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad occupies a pre-eminent place among the Upaniṣads not only for its size but also for its teachings. Almost all aspects of the teachings of Vedānta—Brahman/Ātman, creation, nature of the individual soul and its destiny, theory of karma, analysis of the three states of consciousness, various modes of Upaniṣadic meditations, characteristics of a liberated being—find a place in it.
The Upaniṣad also throws some inte-resting light on the contemporary society. Not only were there, great sages and men of learning, devoted to their respective fields of knowledge, they would also meet occasionally, either for disputation or for exchange of ideas. Noble kings like Janaka, Pravāhaṇa Jaivali and Ajātaśatru, who were themselves eminent men of learning, provided opportunities for such sages to gather in their courts and also rewarded them generously. Women, earnestly interested in Vedic learning, austerity or even self-knowledge had easy access to it, as shown by the instances of Maitreyī (a housewife) and Gārgī (a brahmavādinī, student of Vedic learning). The fact that Gārgī was also one among the sages that had assembled in the court of the king Janaka, and had dared to question Yājñavalkya, speaks volumes about the high status of women during the Vedic period. The myth that the ancient Hindus always craved for sons and looked down upon daughters has been exploded in the mantra 6.4.17 wherein the desire of the parents for a learned daughter (paṇḍitā duhitā) has been clearly stated.
The Upaniṣad also places frankly before us, examples of men of conceit, born out of their scholarship or high birth (eg., Dṛpta Bālāki and Śvetaketu) on the one hand and persons of great humility and culture who were never averse to learning from the others even though they may be inferior in the social hierarchy of those days (eg., Gautama) on the other.
References to the powerful horses of Sindhu country, to the chariots, kings and their big retinue, cows and gold coins as also to the various kinds of spiritual sciences and rituals bespeak of a high degree of civilization and culture.
One can safely say that the Bṛhadā-raṇyaka Upaniṣad represents a landmark in the development of early philosophical literature of India.