Brahmavidya (ब्रह्मविद्या)

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ब्रह्मविद्या || Brahmavidya (derived from the संस्कृत || Sanskrit words : ब्रह्मा || Brahma and विद्या || vidya (knowledge) ) is that branch of scriptural knowledge that gives the integral experience of everything from the standpoint of मोक्षम् || mokhsham (Liberation of आत्मा || Atma (soul) from birth and death cycle).

परिचय || Introduction

The Upanishads are Vedanta, the storehouse of knowledge in a higher degree even than the Vedas, with knowledge in the profounder Bharat's sense of the word, Jnana. Not a mere thinking and interpretation by the intelligence, the pursuit and grasping of a mental form of truth by the intellectual mind, but a 'seeing of it with the soul' and a total living in it with the power of the inner being, by a kind of identification with the object of knowledge is Jnana.

And because it is only by an integral knowing of the self that this kind of direct knowledge can be made complete, it was the self that the Vedantic sages sought to know, to live in and to be one with it by identity. The Upanishads are epic hymns of self-knowledge and world-knowledge and God-knowledge (Ref 5). In other countries philosophers try to apprehend the Truth on an intellectual plane. The Upanisadic inquiry is different, the purpose being to realize inwardly the Truth perceived by the mind or the intellect. 

The primary question that is often referred to in Upanishads or Vedanta is that of Origin of Creation. This is explained through the श्रुति || Shrutis, which is directly heard or experienced by intuition. The dharmic perspective views every action as Yagya, unlike the Western's who view action as Labour. Yagya means प्रीणनम् || prinanam (to satisfy). Performance of Yagna brings about complete mental, physical and adhyatmik development of a human being. It is a continuous activity that living beings offer to the दिव्य || divya (divine).

The royal sages - like Rama and Janaka were kings and at the same time rajarshi's or sages. They were engaged in activities of Material world as rulers and because of their austerities and wisdom knew this Yoga of the Spiritual world. The teachings of this yoga were lost by falling into the hands of selfish and unrighteous people. In the Bhagavadgeeta Srikrishna's divine word brings to light the brahmavidya yoga to the world. The leaders of a country possessing this knowledge of Yoga i.e. moral values of life, will percolate such values down the line into the society irrespective of the present day communities.

Here, in the Vedas - in the karmakanda - a way of life is prescribed for the seeker with actions and duties calculated to discipline and purify him. After leading such a life and eventually forsaking all action, all Vedic karma, he meditates on the truths of the Upanisads. Instead of being mere ideas of intellectual perception, these truths will then become a living reality. The highest of these truths is that there is no differnce between the individual self and the Brahman.

It is to attain this highest of states in which the individual self dissolves inseparably in the Brahman that a man becomes a sannyasin after forsaking the very karma that gives him inward maturity. When he is initiated into sannyasa he is taught four mantras, the four [principal] mahakavyas. The four proclaim the identity of the individual self (jivatman) with the Brahman. When these mahavakyas are reflected upon through the method known as "nididhyasana", the seeker will arrive at the stage of realising the oneness of the individual self and the Brahman. The four mahavakyas occur in four differnt Upanisads. Many are the rites that you have to perform, many are the prayers you have to recite and many are the ways of life you are enjoined to follow - all these according to the Samhitas and Brahmanas. But, when it comes to achieving the highest ideal, the supreme goal of man, you have no alternative to the Upanisads and their mahavakyas.

"The Brahman means realising the jnana that is the highest" (Prajnanam Brahma): this mahavakya occurs in the Aitareya Upanisad of the Rgveda. "I am the Brahman" (Aham Brahmasmi) is the mahavakya belonging to the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad of the Yajurveda. "That thou art" or "the Paramatman and you are the one and the same" (Tat tvam asi) is from the Chandogya Upanisad of the samaveda. THe fourth mahavakya, "This Self is the Brahman" (Ayam Atma Brahma), is from the Mandukya Upanisad of the Atharvaveda. (Ref 8)

This being the oversimplified version of the Brahmavidya, all the Upanishads in their own way proclaim their ways to attaining the Brahaman.

व्युत्पत्ति || Etymology

Brahma means the absolute universal reality derived from Sanskrit धातुः || dhatu (root) which is बृहि || br̥hi (to grow). Vidya means wisdom is derived from the dhatu which is विद् || vid (to know).

ब्रह्मविद्या के अभिरक्षक || Custodians of Brahmavidya

A क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya could teach vedanta to a Brahmana or vice versa. An example is Uddalalaka and Shvetaketu, both from the Brahmana वर्ण || Varna (social or economic status) learning ब्रह्मविद्या || BrahmaVidya (adhyatmik knowledge) from the क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya King Pravahana Jaivali. Chapter 6 of the छान्दोग्य उपनिषद् ॥ Chandogya Upanishad of सामवेद (Sama Veda, 5-3) is the most important section where the Atman or Brahman is explained through the Uddalaka and Shvetaketu samvaada or dialogue.

A similar event King Janaka of Videha also imparted the Agnihotra ritual to his adhyatmik teacher.

In Bhagavad Geeta Chap 4 Sri Krishna explains to Arjuna about the parampara of Brahmavidya or Jnaanavidya thus,

इमं विवस्वते योगं प्रोक्तवानहमव्ययम् |

विवस्वान्मनवे प्राह मनुरिक्ष्वाकवेऽब्रवीत् || (4.1)

imaṃ vivasvate yogaṃ proktavānahamavyayam |
vivasvānmanave prāha manurikṣvākave'bravīt || (4.1)

Meaning : I taught this eternal Yoga to Vivasvan (Sun-God); he taught it to Manu (the ancient law maker) and Manu proclaimed it to Ikshvaku (ancestor of Kshatriyas or Royal lineage of Rama).

एवं परम्पराप्राप्तमिमं राजर्षयो विदुः |

स कालेनेह महता योगो नष्टः परन्तप || (4.2)

evaṃ paramparāprāptamimaṃ rājarṣayo viduḥ |
sa kāleneha mahatā yogo naṣṭaḥ parantapa || (4.2)

Meaning : This knowledge was handed down in regular succession and known to the royal sages राजर्षयः . This yoga due to long lapse of time has been lost to the world, O Arjuna.

Brahmavidya In मुण्डकोपनिषद || Mundakopanishad

This Upaniṣad speaks about Ātmā and Brahma and also about the paths for attaining thereto; but the exposition herein is rather direct and precise. The postulations in the Upaniṣad are presented in the form of instructions imparted to one शौनक || Śaunaka, a great householder, by Sage Angiras.

Śaunaka approaches and asks Angiras, Lord, what having known does all this become known?”

भगवो, कस्मिन् विज्ञाते सर्वमिदं विज्ञातं भवति || (

Bhagavo, kasmin vijñāte sarvamidaṃ vijñātaṃ bhavati || (

Rushi Angirasa declares that mere knowledge of Vedas is not adequate to elevate a man to higher levels of awareness culminating in immortality. The superior knowledge that teaches about the transcendent entity knowing which leads to attainment of immortality.

यत्तदद्रेश्यमग्राह्यमगोत्रमवर्णंमचक्षुःश्रोत्रं तदपाणिपादम् |

नित्यं विभुं सर्वगतं सुसूक्ष्मं तदव्ययं यद्भूतयोनिं परिपश्यन्ति धीराः || (1.1.6)

yattadadreśyamagrāhyamagotramavarṇamacakṣuḥśrotraṃ tadapāṇipādam |

nityaṃ vibhuṃ sarvagataṃ susūkṣmaṃ tadavyayaṃ yadbhūtayoniṃ paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ || (1.1.6)

Meaning : That which is invisible, inconceivable, without lineage, without Varṇa, without eyes and ears, without hands and feet, and that which is eternal, all-pervasive, omnipresent, extremely subtle and undecaying – that is what the wise behold as the source of all beings. (As given in Ref 3)

This Upanishad makes a difference between ‘Para Vidya’ and ‘Apara Vidya’, and declares that it is the former by which Brahman is realized.(Ref 6).

Brahmavidya In छान्दोग्य उपनिषद || Chandogya Upanishad

This Upanishad occupies a special place with several illuminating dialogues between the teachers like Aruni, Sanatkumara, and Prajapati and the truth seekers like, Shvetaketu, Satyakama, and Narada respectively, the Upanishad helps us to discriminate between the reality of Being and the appearance of becoming. (Ref 6)

Shvetaketu (Aruneya or son of Aruni), a Brahmin, came to the assembly of Panchalas, whose reigning monarch was Pravahana Jaivali, to understand ब्रह्मविद्या || Brahmavidya.

Shvetaketu thought himself to be a ब्रह्मज्ञानिन् || brahmajnanin (knowledgeable about the Brahman) yet did not know the answers related to the King’s questions about Brahmavidya or vedanta. The King pointed out that a mere initiation or Brahmopadesa doesn't make one a ब्रह्मज्ञानिन्. Humiliated, Shvetaketu returns home and relating the incident, rebukes his father Uddalaka. Shvetaketu and Uddalaka's conversation reveals their lack of knowledge in the subject and hence their inability to answer any question of the kshatrabandhu or the King.

ब्रह्मविद्या सारम् || Summary of Brahmavidya

The 6th chapter of Chandogya Upanishad begins with a view to show that the Self in all is One. The dialogue between Svetaketu and Uddalaka is for the purpose of showing the gravity of the philosophy. After twelve years of Vedic studies Shvetaketu returns home thinking himself to be a ब्रह्मज्ञानिन् || brahma jnanin (knowledgeable about the Brahman). But Uddalaka seeing his son's pride asked him:

तमादेशमप्राक्ष्यः येनाश्रुतं श्रुतं भवति अमतं मतं अविज्ञातं विज्ञातं इति || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.2 & 6.1.3)

tamādeśamaprākṣyaḥ yenāśrutaṃ śrutaṃ bhavati, amataṃ mataṃ avijñātaṃ vijñātaṃ iti || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.2 & 6.1.3)

Meaning : Dear son, did you ask for that instruction by which the unheard becomes heard, the unperceived becomes perceived and the unknown becomes known?"

What the father asks about is the knowledge of the ultimate principle that cannot be grasped by the ordinary faculties of cognition. The implication of the phrase ‘unheard becomes heard, etc.’ is that this particular knowledge cannot be acquired by physical faculties of cognition. It is also indicated here that knowledge of Vedas is fruitless if, with it, one is not able to know the ultimate principle.

Shvetaketu was unaware of such a type of knowledge, though he had studied the Vedas properly. So he desired to know what kind of instruction that was. The father explains thus:

यथा सोम्यैकेन मृत्पिण्डेन सर्वं मृन्मयं विज्ञातं |

स्यात्वाचारम्भणं विकारो नामधेयं मृत्तिकेत्येव सत्यम्” || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.4)

yathā somyaikena mṛtpiṇḍena sarvaṃ mṛnmayaṃ vijñātaṃ syāt |

vācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ mṛttiketyeva satyam” || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.4)

यथा सोम्यैकेन लोहमणिना सर्वं लोहमयं विज्ञातं |

स्यात्वाचारम्भणं विकारो नामधेयं लोहमित्येव सत्यम्” || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.5)

yathā somyaikena lohamaṇinā sarvaṃ lohamayaṃ vijñātaṃ syāt |

vācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ lohamityeva satyam” || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.5)

यथा सोम्यैकेन नखनिकृन्तनेन सर्वं कार्ष्णायसं विज्ञातं |

स्यात्वाचारम्भणं विकारो नामधेयं कृष्णायसमित्येव सत्यं एवं सोम्य स अदेशो भवतीति” || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.6)

yathā somyaikena nakhanikṛntanena sarvaṃ kārṣṇāyasaṃ vijñātaṃ syāt |

vācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ kṛṣṇāyasamityeva satyaṃ evaṃ somya sa adeśo bhavatīti” || (Chan. Upan. 6.1.6)

Meaning: ‘That instruction, my dear, is just as:

(i) by a single lump of earth, all that is earthen becomes known as mere modifications expressed in names based on words, the truth being that all is earth only;

(ii) by a single ingot of gold, all that is golden becomes known as mere modifications expressed in names based on words, the truth being that all is gold only; and

(iii) by a single nail-cutter, all that is made of iron becomes known as mere modifications expressed in names based on words, the truth being that all is iron only’.

The implication is that there exists only one entity and all that is here is only modifications of that entity expressed in names and forms. If that entity is known, everything it manifests also is known. Upanishads consistently declare that Ātmā is this entity. It however does not mean that one who realises that entity would know all nuances of the physical world.

आत्म तत्त्वम् || Atma Tattvam

Ātmā is ‘SAT-CHIT- ĀNANDA’ (‘सत् चित् आनन्द’ – ‘sat-cit-ānanda’) in essence. SAT is that which does not have a state of non-existence (Bhagavad Gīta – 2.16), CHIT is pure, absolute consciousness and ĀNANDA is transcendent bliss. Why Ātmā, that is said to be the ruling force of the universe, is ‘SAT-CHIT- ĀNANDA’? Because, the whole universe is motivated, in all its activities, by the urge either to exist or to express or to enjoy. SAT denotes existence, CHIT denotes cognition and expression, and Ānanda denotes enjoyment. So, Ātmā is ‘SAT-CHIT- ĀNANDA’; it is only a logical abstraction of the urge behind all the actions in this universe. Chapter 6 of Chandogya Upanishad explains in great detail the concept of Atma.

From SAT the entire universe emerged. In 6.2.1 and 6.2.2 it is known that only SAT existed in the beginning and nothing else; from it, all came forth. In the beginning, तेजस || tejas (energy) emerged from SAT, from energy, water emerged and from water, अन्नम् || annam (food) emerged; it was from annam that all beings came forth (6.2.3 & 6.2.4).

Since from SAT, the three entities of energy, water and food emerged progressively resulting in emergence of beings, every being contains all the three; and they also contain the principle of SAT which sustains their very existence (6.3 & 6.4). Annam when consumed becomes three-fold, viz. the grossest becomes faeces, the subtlest becomes mind and the middle part becomes flesh. Water consumed similarly becomes urine, prāṇa and blood respectively. Energy in the same way becomes bone, वाक् || vāk (speech) and marrow. Thus, mind consists in annam, prāṇa in water and speech in energy (6.5.1 to 6.5.4 and 6.6).

In section 6.7

Uddālaka Āruṇi demonstrates to his son Śvetaketu without annam the mind does not work properly. Śvetaketu was asked not to take food for fifteen days; he did so and then, he was unable to remember the Vedas he studied. Later he ate and was able to remember all. Uddālaka concludes by asserting that mind consists in annam, prāṇa consists in water and speech consists in energy :

अन्नमयं हि मन, आपोमयः प्राणः, तेजोमयी वाक् || (Chan. Upan. 6.7.6)

annamayaṃ hi mana, āpomayaḥ prāṇaḥ, tejomayī vāk || (Chan. Upan. 6.7.6)

Uddālaka continues his teaching as in verse 6.8 by explaining what sleep means. In sleep one is fully possessed by SAT which is his origin :

स्वं अपीतो भवति, तस्मात् एनम्स्व पितीत्याचक्षते || (Chan. Upan. 6.8.1)

svaṃ apīto bhavati, tasmāt enam svapitītyācakṣate || (Chan. Upan. 6.8.1)

प्राणबन्धनं हि मन || (Chan. Upan. 6.8.2)

prāṇabandhanaṃ hi mana || (Chan. Upan. 6.8.2)

Meaning : In deep sleep, even the mind ceases to work and rests on prāṇa. When mind does not work, it is obvious that speech also will not work. So, in sleep, only prāṇa is active, apart from SAT, the origin.

In the 6.8.7 verse, it is clarified that that this highest entity is Ātmā which is subtleness itself and therefore, SAT, which, as we have seen, as the source of energy, prāṇa and annam, is implied to be a constituent of Ātmā. The declaration that on leaving from

here or, in other words, on shedding this body, every being merges into Ātmā, is a very important one. It scotches all talks about rebirth of the same individual. Personal identity is lost on merging with Ātmā which is an incessant, all-pervading entity, without a second.

स य एषोഽणिमा ऐतदात्म्यमिदम् सर्वं तत् सत्यम् स आत्मा तत्त्वमसि श्वेतकेतो || (Chan. Upan. 6.8.7)

sa ya eṣo’ṇimā aitadātmyamidam sarvaṃ tat satyam sa ātmā tattvamasi śvetaketo || (Chan. Upan. 6.8.7)

Meaning: ‘He (that Great Being mentioned in the previous verse) is absolute subtleness (subtle essence) which inheres in all that is here; that (all that is here) is Satyam, He (the Great Being) is Ātmā; you are that (Satyam), O, Śvetaketu.

This fact finds expression in Bṛhadāraṇyaka 2.4.12 also; again it is seen in 6.9 and 6.10 also. This sentence is seen repeated in verses 6.9.4, 6.10.3, 6.11.3, 6.12.3, 6.13.3, 6.14.3 and 6.15.3.Incidentally, it is the very phrase तत्त्वमसि || tattvamasi appearing here, that is designated as one of the four Mahāvākya(s) in the Upanishads.

In 6.9.3, Uddālaka explains to his son further about how personal identity is lost on being merged with the Supreme Entity as mentioned in 6.8.6, by citing the example of the process of making honey by honey bees. The bees collect nectar from various trees and make honey mixing all; when honey is produced, the nectar of a tree cannot distinguish itself from the nectar of other trees; its personal identity is lost. All beings, whether it be a tiger, or lion, or wolf, or a pig, or insect, or gnat, or mosquito, all continue their existence in the same manner.

This means that they exist as merged in the Supreme Entity without knowing their personal identity, as in the case of nectar of various trees in the honey. The verse is as follows:

त इह व्याघ्रो वा सिंहो वा वृको वा वराहो वा कीटो वा पतङ्गो वा दंशो वा मशको वा यद्यद् भवन्ति तदाभवन्ति’ || (6.9.3)

ta iha vyāghro vā siṃho vā vṛko vā varāho vā kīṭo vā pataṅgo vā daṃśo vā maśako vā yadyad bhavanti tadābhavanti || (Chan. Upan. 6.9.3)

सम्वाद || Discussion

In all humility, both Uddalaka and Shvetaketu go to King Pravahna’s assembly to seek knowledge. Offering all hospitality, the King humbly addresses Uddalaka thus: "Bhagavan (as a brahmin usually was addressed), you can ask for any kind of wealth that is within the means of a human being". But Shvetaketu and his father requested the क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya to impart ब्रह्मविद्या || Brahmavidya to them and accordingly the King lays down the rules or अधिकार || adhikaar (aptitude) to acquire knowledge.

Here the implication is that the ruler, Kshatriya, according to his dharma is bound to provide material wealth to a Brahmana for Yagnas but ब्रह्मविद्या as per the prevailing वर्णव्यवस्था || varna-vyavastha (social order) was usually respected to be in the brahmana’s domain. Notably, this is view is contrary to the presently continuing popular perception invented by the East India Company Indologists and their Bharat's Sepoys, Varna (translated wrongly as caste) was determined by संस्कार and not parentage.

Through the explanation of Panchagni vidya, which included explanations of devayan (journey to the deva loka post death) and pitruyan (journey to Pitr loka post death) as well as of panca maha yajna the king imparted the essence of ब्रह्मविद्या || Brahmavidya. As an introduction to पञ्चाग्निविद्या, the क्षत्रिय || Kshatriya King told Uddalaka, "You are the first one amongst the Brahmans to receive the knowledge of this ब्रह्मविद्या, up until now it was known only to Kshatriyas". Within the Bharatiya tradition, everyone irrespective of their Varna (social or economic status) had access to Divine Knowledge.

Hence "Brahmavid brahmana" was the definition given, One who knows Brahmavidya is a brahmana irrespective of the varna or gender.

This story clearly reveals that in the Vedic period, Kshatriyas were well versed in ब्रह्मविद्य debunking the Caste-system hierarchies of the East India Company Indologists’ insinuation that Brahmins were the only custodians of knowledge.


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