Om May no harm be done Here, May this desire be motivated by Love. May what is not beneficent wither to obscurity.


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Revised 29th March 2023.

Introduction to our commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The English translation of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad used here,   is a copy of an original 1934 translation by Swami Madhavananda used in a 1950 edition of   'Brihadaranyaka Upanishad - Shankara Bhashya translated by Swami Madhavananda'.   There are later editions of this book available at at the time of writing.If studying this Upanishad or reading the following commentary it is advised to have a copy of this book with Shankara's commentary because it is needed as the master reference.

These are the most recent details of the publisher to hand.
Swami Mumukshananda, President Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, Champawat, Himalayas.


Established Hindu society produced the realised Seers and Sages who wrote the Upanishads, which were associated with the Vedas, they in fact contained subtle higher knowledge of the non-dual nature of existence. If this subtle knowledge of the Upanishads were taught openly, they could be seen as being in conflict with some existing traditions.

Through their wisdom, the realised Seers understood that it risked being divisive for a Hindu society based on its acceptance that a god had ordained the cast system, to now be told that existence itself is singular, that only the one non-dual Absolute exists, and that the cast system with its gods, is merely the invention of the ambitious minds of men. Openly teaching Advaita-Vedanta, nonduality could cause difficulties and divisions within the very society that had produced the realised sages. So, here, within this Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we have a knower of Absolute truth teaching this higher truth secretly, through a Vedic horse sacrifice ritual which is based on the very ignorance the Upanishad wished to dissipate. But, For those people with the ears to hear this truth, and the strength to abide with it, through this upanishad they may move closer to divine unity (realise God).

Our interest in the Upanishads was brought about by our interest in philosophy in general. Although secular in its application, all philosophy we believe, will naturally lead to contemplation on the divinity of existence. This is so because philosophy itself means the love of truth and ultimately the desire to uncover the truth of this existence. Our philosophical practice and learnings were underpinned and developed through mindfulness and meditation techniques brought to us from India by the Hindu Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Our claim is that higher philosophical understanding reveals the knowledge of non-duality. Non-duality describes this existence as being a unity. At its foundation this means that God or the Absolute are identical to us, we are all one. The understanding of non-duality has also developed independently in the west. Buddha also came from the Hindu tradition and spoke of non-duality. In Sanskrit non-duality is called advaita, meaning not two.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is not only a religious scripture,  it is a philosophical work that naturally understands the scriptures and philosophy (though not necessarily religious practices or doctrines) behind all the great religions and would have no contentions with any of them. As an example if we may,  it is felt by us that the higher teaching presented by this Upanishad resonates with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible.  The wise Upanishads come at the end of the older Vedas,  and the wise, we feel, would interpret the Vedas through the Upanishads.  So also, the new testament comes later than the old testament and the wise would interpret the old testament through the words of Jesus.  Jesus teaches us to seek within to discover our non-dual unity with the existence of the Divine.

The Philosophical discipline within the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad explains in authentic logical terms,  mankind's first fall from grace into the ignorance of forgetting that was caused through desire.  Further, it is renewed desires which lead us deeper into the forgetting of the existence of the one non-dual Absolute,  Brahman,  or God.

The knowledge (sruti) revealed within this Upanishad,  it is said,  came with Creation,  which means this knowledge remains as the non-dual consciousness which also gives the experience of "our" birth into a universe from the bliss of Absolute Knowledge and Consciousness. The agents for receiving this higher knowledge and recording the Upanishads were the Rishis of ancient times.  Perhaps,  through this work,  the Rishis would have been called Prophets in our modern language.

Shankara in his commentary on this Upanishad said that it was  "composed for the sake of those who wish to liberate themselves from the world,  in order that they may acquire the knowledge that the Absolute Brahman and the individual are the same."  "A knowledge by which the liberation from the cause of the world is accomplished".

Although the horse sacrifice ritual may be the highest or greatest of all the rituals,  it is not the intention of The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to prescribe the performing of the horse sacrifice ritual nor indeed any of the rites and rituals which it describes.  This Upanishad does not glorify the material world.
Chapter 2 verses 16 to 19 tells the story of a sage (the Vedic Rishi Dadhyak) teaching higher knowledge through a horse's head disguise.  Dadhyak's ruse enabled him to safely teach the truth without angering the 'gods',  the 'delicate' truth being that man himself projected his own gods. Likewise here,  through using the horse sacrifice ritual the truth is taught that man's projected gods,  and the cast system are false.  All such phenomena, this Upanishad explains,  are merely projections of man's desire to flourish in the world.  It is desiring men who are the projectors of their own gods,  who become fearfull and angry in the name of their own gods, at hearing this truth. This Upanishad will explain that all such rites, rituals and gods came into being through mankind's needy desires caused by his experiencing feelings of incompleteness in his life,  these feeling are caused through his original forgetting and ignorance.

Ignorance at all times means the ignorance or forgetting of the fact of mankind's identity with the one true non-dual existence of the Divine,  God,  Brahman or the Absolute,  his true home. This is the only real ignorance. It follows, the horse sacrifice ritual itself and all that it is desired to produce,  represents the sum of man's ignorance or,  the totality of his forgetting that his true completeness exists timelessly with the Divine.

When this Upanishad speaks of 'glorious worldly results' its subtle or secret meaning is to highlight the unreality of all material forms,  which are only the inglorious result of achieving transient material objects of desire,  thus moving deeper into materialism,  which is the inglorious downside of an apparently glorious vital force.

There are 3 moments in the telling of this Upanishad where the highest truth of the one God or Absolute, and the non-duality of existence is revealed. The revelations of higher truth are brought about each time through the enlightened conversations between male and female, between Yajnavalkya who is the sage of this Upanishad and his wife Maitreyi who was a woman philosopher and prophet, and between Yajnavalkya and Gargi the daughter of a sage and a Vedic prophetess. Higher truth being reached from the union, or oneness of male and female is in keeping with Upanishadic teaching of Advaita, nonduality.

In chapter one we will have described for us the universe as formed from the objects of the horse sacrifice ritual, this is a ritual of desire.  The higher subtle meaning of this symbology is that the universe has no true existence,  its existence is transient and consists of name and form only.  It will be explained in subsequent chapters how the universe depends entirely on desire for its existence. Because the universe has a beginning,  it cannot be timeless,  therefore it is subject to entropy and decay.  This universe that began will have an end.

It is the purpose of this Upanishads to reveal that the Absolute,  God or Brahman is the one true existence,  and is beginning-less,  unborn and without cause,  is dependent on no other and alone exists timelessly.

Considering Adi Shankara's Bhashya,  what is the need for further comment?
Shankara's Bhashya is a complete verse by verse commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  But,  Shankara at that time realised the need to explain,  protect and promote the Upanishads and Advaita;  This was a task requiring his highly learned academic and logical disciplines to protect the Upanishads from political opponents (e.g. Mimamsa and Samkhya) and the rising criticism from Buddhism in general.  Buddhist criticism arose from their missunderstanding of the Buddha teaching on non-duality and the Upanishad seers teaching on non-duality. The teaching was the same but interpretations lacked understanding and subtlety. these missunderstandings mostly revolved around the use of the term 'self or Self' as being empirical or transcendetal. As such,  any subtle meaning of the sruti that requires the intuition of an open heart to see and accept,  which is a way of the sruti,  could not perhaps be entirely exposed. Shankar's provision for objections on the grounds of logic and the subsequent thorough dispatching of those objections reduces the ease of accessibility to Shankar's commentary because it is primarily designed to answer academic criticism.

Our commentary is to the point and exposes much of the subtlety of the sruti.  We have taken this path due to not being aware,  in our experience,  of its subtle knowledge arising in any conversation.

Subtleness needs time and association with the ways of the scriptures for that subtle meaning to be seen.  We feel this directness of our commentary may be of use at this time due to our modern way of living offering many reasons why we need not spend too much time on esoteric spiritual contemplation.  Dharma,  society's laws and its morals seem to offer us the assurance that through compliance with this way of life we will please God,  and therefore we will find God.  As righteous as such a way of life is,  it seems that Ultimately God is not found through well-meant action,  merit or work alone.  The Upanishads,  in particular the higher philosophical understanding of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad reveals that to obtain true liberation through the Divine,  that Divine Truth has to become consciously realised.  The process of realising this truth involves,  through grace, the hearing of this truth,  contemplating on what is heard and holding this truth in ones conscious daily life,  because all this takes place within consciousness.

The Upanishad teachings were originally an oral tradition and their format aided their correct transmission.  The word Upanishad means "to sit down near",  meaning to sit and listen to the sage passing on the teaching. This Upanishad needs to be read and contemplated upon,  in its entirety (but in particular the first four chapters, the last two chapters we consider to be part of the horse head disguise), many times,  in order to become attuned to its layers of subtle meaning.  By allowing one's ears to become accustomed to its archaic language and symbols greater clarity of understanding is achieved.

As far as we are aware there is no other complete verse by verse commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  The available commentaries tend to refer to sections or subjects in general.  It seems to us that aspirants reading the Upanishad for themselves might like to compare directly their understanding of any particular verse with another Advaitin. It is our conviction that this sruti reveals the highest wisdom that authoritively explains the reality behind all events for all time and that this would not be disputed by those of higher understanding.

Further to the above it is also our understanding that the philosophy of this Upanishad reveals that Existence is a singularity,  meaning that The Absolute or God or Brahman, or that which is held in the silence of the Buddha alone exists.  Our commentary is based on this understanding to reflect that light of Advaita or Non-Duality.

Due to its revelation of higher knowledge,  the study of this Upanishad should not be undertaken alone.  Gaining higher truth causes a phase of discomfort due to the necessary questioning of our former comfortable worldly identity,  this is natural and to be expected.  But,  if more profound discomfort is experienced then please stop reading this commentary and seek a teacher or the company of like-minded students,  really nothing will be lost.  Eventually all are destined to experience the sure knowing that all will be well because,  despite all words, feelings or fears to the contrary,  one just cannot,  in reality,  be lost within Divine unity. As previously stated,  the word ignorance in all cases of its use means the forgetting of one's true identity with the Absolute or God or Brahman,  the only real ignorance.

Chapter one deals with the forms of ignorance from the Creation of the universe through a vital force of desire (Hiranyagarbha),  to becoming the first born and the error of his gods of duality and all class or cast systems.

Guadapada,  in his famous commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad suggests that it is the nature of the absolute to make the creation cycle of the Universe manifest.  But,  whichever cause one accepts,  this Upanishad explains that it is the ongoing desire for worldly experience that maintains the appearance of creation.

Chapter two continues from chapter one by explaining how man's continuing desire for worldly knowledge due to his forgetting of his non dual identity with the Absolute,  becomes an imagined divine vital force.  From this vital force of desire man imagines a Brahman or god with material attributes, and proceeds to project or imagine further gods to oversee his desires.

Concerning the  "Vital Force"  it seems to us that the term could cause false impressions that last overly long:-
Swami Vivekananda,  in his Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda,  Lectures and Discourses,  cosmology volume 2 has said :-
"Prana you can call in English life,  the vital force; but you must not restrict it to the life of man; at the same time you must not identify it with Spirit,  Atman."
Taking from Swami Vivekananda's   statement support for the understanding that the vital force is not The Absolute,  God or Brahman then in proper terms of Advaita we do not see this vital force,  as being anything other than that due to Maya.
Reference also Gaudapada Karika Chapter 2 Verse 19. "Atman is imagined to be Prana (life)...This is the Maya of...Atman, by which he himself has been deluded".
Therefore,  we conclude,  No vital force exists materially or spiritually on its own.  There is no vital force of divine desire.

Due to the ignorance arising from forgetting the reality of The Non-Dual Absolute,  that it is free from all desire,  the ignorant assume that a divine vital force exists and it is the desire of the Divine that they work,   create and materially flourish in "their" life.  Therefore,  a vital force represents material desire for the worldly,  which causes and maintains material creation.  The sruti describing the effects of a vital force describes the desire of the person that has forgotten his or her identity with the Absolute,  God,  or Brahman.

Chapter 3 starts with the story of Yajnavalkya taking the prize of a thousand cows,  each with its horns covered in gold, which was offered by the Emperor Janaka,   for being the most knowledgeable and wise sage present. The ultimate purpose of this story is to prove that Yajnavalkya,  the sage of this Upanishad,  is the most erudite and learned of all the wise scholars present.  During the great debate the scholar Gargi shows herself to be a great sage in her own right and is Yajnavalkya's wisest interrogator,  indeed it is her insightful wisdom that finally gives Yajnavalkya the platform from which to pronounce the highest teachings of this upanishad.  As explained,  having eventually proven himself to be the greatest teacher of all those present, (therefore our greatest teacher also, is the intention),  Yajnavalkya then proceeds to teach all of us,  including the wise Emperor Janaka,  the truth of the non-dual Absolute.

Chapter 4 is the last chapter that comprises the Upanishad proper.  This chapter has Yajnavalkya continuing in his role as a teacher to complete the teaching of the Upanishad with Emperor Janaka as his student.  The famous conversation between Yajnavalkya and his astute wife Maitreyi is once again repeated, during which the highest truth of the non-dual Absolute consciousness is again revealed.

Chapter 5 & 6 differ to the content of the main Upanishad in that these last two chapters are more of a supplement or appendix, they are a collection of various ritualistic verses only. This commentator sees these last two chapters as being included only as part of the horse head disguise,  worn here by the writer of this Upanishad.

The aim of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is to lead one to Moksha,  liberation from the ties of this world.  The result of the karma or actions described in chapters 5 & 6 would lead to further desire for material experience within the world only.
Although we have focussed on the higher philosophy of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in our commentary it is not our intention to dismiss any of the associated described ritual teaching,  that is outside our understanding and ability.  This commentary is simply our way of discussing the reality of the Absolute.

The Seer of this Upanishad,  as said,  uses the symbology of the ancient Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) ritual to reveal the results of ignorance and desire.  The Ashvamedha was a royal ritual and its purpose was for prestige,  power and gain.  First the horse was consecrated according to the procedure prescribed in the Brahmanas under the auspices of a Priest.  Then the sanctified horse was allowed to roam free but watched for up to a year.  All the ground that the horse covered in that year,  or all of one sun cycle,  which symbolised the world,  the King would be right to claim as the fruits of his desires.  The horse would then be ritually sacrificed through which the king gained his desire for the world (rebirth into the universe).

This Upanishad is indeed a Forest of wisdom.  There are two paths through this forest each attaining different goals,  a re-birth experience into the material world or liberation from material bound consciousness.  The conscious experiencing of each path is described without judgement.  One path is not predictable,  it will take its own course,  and depends entirely on the light of Divine Knowledge being seen and accepted as the true guide.  The other path is well trodden and guided by Dharma and the material desires of mankind.  It is not assumed which path the seeker truly desires.

This forest is complicated and the paths meander without clear pattern often crossing without warning.  At these crossroads there are signposts but these can be understood only if you understand the goal of your true desires,  the signposts do not presume to say right way or wrong way.
If you enter this forest without a guide hoping you will recognise what it is you need when you see it you would likely continue travelling in circles for some time.

Kenneth Jaques


Maya   is illusion or the veiling power of the Absolute by which it manifests the world.

Manas   is the lower discursive processing mind,   it receives and knows only sensory input.   Manas needs to be supervised through Buddhi.

Buddhi   is the Higher awakened intellect of the heart.  Through a refined ability to discriminate it knows Truth and can decide.   Mind needs to be supervised by Buddhi.

Aum   is described by the Mandukya Upanishad  "A"   sounds the beginning of creation when all material existence was projected as Brahman;   "U"   represents the maintaining of this universe,   and   "M"   symbolizes the final part of the cycle of Creation when the Absolute Brahman reduces existence back to Itself alone.

Gunas   Three conceptual qualities named   "Gunas"   are generally accepted to be associated with the process of material creation.   They are named rajas,   (creative energy),   sattva, (an equilibrium of energy),   and tamas,   (a withdrawing of energy).   The entire process of creation is considered in terms of energy balanced between these states of Gunas.

Udgitha   A part of the Sama-Veda   (the holy syllable OM)   chanted as part of the sacrifice ritual.

Hotr   The hotr,   priest initiated the sacrifice ritual by inviting the gods to the ritual through chanting hymns from the Rig-Veda.

Adhvaryu   The Adhvaryu priest was responsible for the overall performance of the ritual.   He chanted hymns from the Atharvaveda and with his knowledge ensured that making offerings to the gods followed correct procedure.

Udgatr   The Udgatr priest prepared the ritual and sang hymns of praise from the Samaveda inviting the gods to attend.

Visvadevas   Regarding all of the gods of the Vedas.

Atigrahas   An Object that can be Sensed.   An attraction, through the sense organs.

Grahas   The tendency to detect and hold through that sense as a form of bondage or death.

Gandharva   Male nature spirits that can act as messengers between the gods and humans.

Ugras   The Ugras were those whose fathers were Ksatriya there name identifies them as violent.   They were known for their fighting strength.



Continue to Chapter One


Ohm   peace,   peace,   peace.



Kenneth Jaques Advaita Vedanta Philosophy Ashram. Original Content Creative Commons Agreement.