The Upaniṣads are the foundation of the Vedānta philosophy. Apart from the ten Upaniṣads, considered as very ancient and canonical, there are a large number of other works, also designated as Upaniṣads. Most of these belong to a much later period and are obviously the creations of the master-minds of the various sects to further their own views. The Bṛhajjābālopaniṣad is one such, of the Śaivite group. Assigned to the Atharvaṇa-veda, it comprises 8 brāhmaṇas or chapters. The total number of mantras—in verses, interspersed with long passages in prose also—is 178.

The Upaniṣad is concerned mainly with bhasma or the holy ash, dear to Śiva.

The sage Bhusuṇḍa was a great yogi but with a corvine body. Once Prajāpati entered into him in a subtle form and made him approach Kālāgni Rudra (one of the several aspects of God Śiva) with the question, ‘O Lord! Kindly tell me about the greatness of vibhūti or the holy ash and rudrākṣa (the berry of the tree Elaeocarpus ganitrus).’

The reply of the Lord as given in the first brāhmaṇa may be briefly stated as follows: Śiva has five faces: Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, Tatpuruṣa and Īśāna. From these emanated five divine cows named Nandā, Bhadrā, Surabhi, Suśīlā and Citravarṇā, all of different colours. The holy ashes prepared out of the dungs of these cows are known as—vibhūti, bhasita, bhasma, kṣāra and rakṣā.

The second brāhmaṇa starts with the question of Bhusuṇḍi about the rules concerning bhasmasnāna or a bath with the holy ash. The Lord replies by stating that this world itself is bhasma and it assumes several forms by being their antarātman or the inner Self. Here bhasma is identified with the Lord himself since he alone is left when the super-imposed world is negated, even as bhasma or ash is left when everything is consumed in the fire.

The world is called ‘agnīṣomātmaka’ since agni (the fire element) and soma (the moon element responsible for rasa or essence or juices) are its components in the cosmic sense. Agni and soma are also identified with the Śiva and Śakti. Hence the whole world is a product of the combination of Śiva and Śakti. One who realises that Śiva and Śakti are identical and also his own oneness with them, attains amṛtatva or immortality.

The third brāhmaṇa describes the process of preparing the vibhūti or the holy ash. The dung of which types of cows is to be selected and which to be avoided is stated first. After preparing small balls of the dung and drying them in the sun, they have to be offered into the fire with the appropriate mantras. The bhasma or ash collected should then be scented with certain dry powders, uttering the mantras as stated in the work.

The bhasma should then be applied all over the body, from head to feet, chanting the Pañcabrahma-mantras (Mahānārāyaṇopaniṣad 17 to 21) while doing so.

The fourth brāhmaṇa states the times of the day—like dawn, dusk and night—when bhasma can be applied. This bhasma should be applied as three lines on the forehead, with the three middle fingers after mixing it with the water from a conch. While applying it, one should think of the three aspects of God, Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva. The bhasma can be applied on other parts of the body also, like the chest, throat and nose.

The fifth brāhmaṇa gives some more details concerning the wearing of bhasma on the forehead and other parts of the body. The three lines have to be mentally identified with the three Vedas—the Sāmaveda, the Yajurveda and the Ṛgveda—in that order from the top to the bottom. The members of the three varṇas (brāhmaṇas, kṣattriyas and vaiśyas) should use the bhasma of the gārhapatya fire used for the Agnihotra sacrifice. The avadhūtas—the saints who have transcended the varṇa and āśrama system—should wear the ashes gathered from the cremation ground. The ashes obtained from a Śiva temple are sacred for all, without any distinction.

This is then followed by an eulogy of wearing the tripuṇḍra—the three lines drawn with the bhasma—by narrating the fruits that will accrue to the wearer. Then comes a castigation in strong terms, of those who have abandoned wearing the bhasma or who deride and harass the votaries that wear it.

The greatness and the miraculous powers of bhasma are recounted by the next, the sixth, brāhmaṇa. It can revive even dead persons if sprinkled upon the bodies with the Mṛtyuñjaya-mantra. It can destroy the sins of even the vilest ones and can grant knowledge even to Hari or Viṣṇu! The section ends with further eulogies of the knowledge taught here, called Bṛhajjābālavidyā.

The seventh brāhmaṇa is almost a revision of the earlier section. It also describes the birth of the rudrākṣa beads (the berries of the tree Elaeocarpus ganitrus) and the mode of wearing them. These beads were born out of the eyes (akṣa or akṣi) of Rudra, and hence the name rudrākṣa. One who wears them on his body attains infinite merit.

The last chapter—the eighth brāh-maṇa—states the results of reciting this Upaniṣad such as attaining purity, the capacity to assert the power of the elemental forces like fire and wind, conquest of death and all the worlds, as also getting the knowledge of all sciences. After death, the reciter attains the Supreme.