Excerpt from the Introduction to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad presents a comprehensive view of life, which includes both the
enjoyment of happiness in the phenomenal world and the attainment of the Highest Good, or
Liberation. The former is achieved through religious rites - called karma, or work - and the latter
through Vidya, or the Knowledge of the identity of the individual self and Brahman, or the Supreme
Self. The word karma in The Upanishads denotes primarily the sacrificial rites by which the
worshipper communes with the deities through the offering of oblations. Sometimes it also signifies
work for the public welfare (purta). Different deities (devatas or devas) are invoked in different
religious rites. Rites, in order to be fruitful, must be accompanied by appropriate meditations
(upasana) on the deities.
The deities who fulfill worldly boons are different manifestations of Brahman. It is really
Brahman who fulfills desires through these manifestations. The highest manifestation is Prajapati, also called
Hiranyagarbha, Viraj, and Prana. Prajapati supports the creation as the cosmic energy. He also dwells
in the embodied creature as the prana, or vital breath, and supports the body and organs. As energy
He pervades the entire creation; but his personal aspect is admitted by the scriptures for facility of
meditations by the worshipper. He is also meditated upon through such symbols as Om, the
Gayatri, the sun, the moon, the mind, and the prana in the individual. Through meditation one becomes like the
object meditated upon; therefore by meditating on Prajapati the worshipper realizes, in the end, his own
identify with all the created beings. This enables him to enjoy the highest happiness in the creation; he
overcomes the idea of separateness, which is the cause of selfishness, sin, and suffering. By propitiating
the minor deities, one enjoys finite happiness on earth or in the heavenly worlds.
It should be noted that the whole idea of rites and meditations is based upon the acceptance of the
multiplicity of worshipper, result, accessories, and deities. According to non-dualistic Vedanta,
multiplicity is the result of avidya, or nescience. Reality is one and without a second; the Knowledge of
Reality can be attained only through the realization of the oneness of existence. This Knowledge is the
final teaching of The Upanishads.
According to Sankaracharya, karma (including meditation on the deities) and the Knowledge of
Brahman, having altogether different aims, are fundamentally opposed to each other, like darkness and
light. They cannot co-exist. There is no relationship or meeting-ground between them, just as no
meeting-ground exists between darkness and light, or the mirage and the desert.
Yet there is an important place for karma in the realization of the Knowledge of Brahman. Karma,
which is dealt with in the Mantra and Brahmana portions of the Vedas, prepares the aspirant for
Knowledge, which is exclusively taught in The Upanishads.
A seeker after Knowledge must first understand that all worldly enjoyments - ranging from that
experienced by a clump of grass to that enjoyed by Brahma - are transitory because they all belong to
the realm of avidya. Next he must be ready to renounce all desire for worldly enjoyment. His soul, time
and again, has taken a body in the world of transmigratory existence and enjoyed the pleasures
obtainable there. And his experiences of the enjoyments in the higher worlds has been made possible
through the grace of the deities. After being satiated with all the experiences of the relative world, he
seeks the Knowledge of Brahman, practices such virtues as discrimination between the real and the
unreal, non-attachment to the unreal, restraint of the organs, control of the mind, forbearance with
regard to all physical afflictions, and reverence for the scriptures and the teacher. He also cherishes a
single-minded longing for liberation from the phenomenal world. And the teacher instructs
him about the Knowledge of Brahman, which removes the illusory notion of the world created by ignorance. The
destruction of ignorance is concomitant with Knowledge. No other discipline is necessary. This
Knowledge liberates one from the otherwise endless chain of rebirth in samsara.
Thus religious rites are not repudiated by The Upanishads, but recognized as a means of creating the
right mood for the practice of the higher disciplines. These rites also help the seeker to purify his mind
through the enlargement of his consciousness, and to practice concentration.
The importance of the practice of physical, mental, ethical, and spiritual disciplines for the realization of
the Knowledge of Brahman cannot be overemphasized. An intelligent person may derive emotional or
intellectual excitement from the reading of such statements as "I am Brahman" and "All is verily
Brahman." People are not wanting in modern times who glibly say, "Samsara is Nirvana," yet at the
same time are attached to worldly pleasures. But the true import of such statements can be understood
only by one whose heart has been purified in the fire of spiritual disciplines. The path has been
described in the Katha Upanishad as being sharp as the edge of a razor. The Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad warns the seeker to guard against such pitfalls as passion, greed, and violence, which are
inherent in the life of the world. The Chhandogya Upanishad narrates the story of the demon king who,
after being instructed by Prajapati, concludes that the body is Brahman, and asks his
followers to provide it with food and raiment and preserve it after death.
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Copyright © 1911. Reprinted by permission. All rights
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.
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