Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: Spiritual Wisdom Of The Great Wilderness

reviewed by Liz Burns 500H RYT
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Central to the religious framework of Hinduism is the highly celebrated Vedic Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads

Throughout history, notable figures like Swami Vivekananda and Adi Shankaracharya have contributed to the understanding and significance of the Upanishads by writing commentaries. 

In this article, we will give a comprehensive overview of the Brihandaranyaka Upanishad, and its importance today as one of the principal Upanishads.

We will take a look at the below:

  • What Are The Upanishads?
  • General Overview
  • Historical Context
  • Key Teachings And Principles
a mountain with a forest next to it

What are the upanishads?

Written in both verse and prose, the Upanishads are renowned for their beauty.

These texts constitute the final part of the original Vedic scriptures and are considered a vital component of the Hindu canon. 

While hundreds of Upanishads have been written and accepted as canonical, only a select few, referred to as the “principal” Upanishads, hold the utmost importance. 

The Upanishads primarily explore the relationship between cosmic reality, encompassing God/Brahman, divinity, and esoteric knowledge, and the subjective human experience of life. 

Within this exploration, they examine aspects such as the mind-body relationship, karma, meditative practice, and the concept of Atman. 


The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is actually the largest of the Upanishads, and centers on specifically the individual self (Atman).

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad serves as a profound treatise on the concept of Atman, encompassing the notions of the Soul and Self. 

This Upanishad delves into a wide array of subjects, including metaphysics, ethics, and the pursuit of knowledge (jnana).

outline of a head with rainbow lights around it

The profound teachings of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad have exerted a substantial influence on diverse Indian religions and have captivated the minds of ancient, medieval, and modern scholars.

The insightful commentaries of these scholars have served to deepen the understanding and significance of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s profound wisdom.

The narrative of the “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” primarily revolves around the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife. 

Within these stories, Yajnavalkya engages in profound discussions on philosophical subjects, including consciousness, origins of nature, karma, and the individual self (Atman). 

Additionally, the Upanishad encompasses passages that touch upon ethics, psychology, and metaphysics. In Hindu and yogic philosophy, true enlightenment is known as “samadhi“. This roughly translates as complete absorption with the divine or union with the divine. 

man sat in meditation in samadhi with lights around him

The Upanishad focuses on the understanding that true samadhi happens through experience: direct self-enquiry of Atman and Brahman.

The organization of this Upanishad can get a bit complicated, so here’s a breakdown:

  • The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has 6 chapters in total
  • Each chapter consists of six brahmanas each (specific instructions on Vedic rituals)
  • Each brahmana has a varying number of hymns or religious mantra

Let’s take a look at what the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us by chapter:

#1: Chapter 1

The Upanishad starts with a classic tale of Genesis, explaining the creation of the universe. It states how there was nothing before the inception of the universe, and then the deity Prajapati, through self-sacrifice, fashioned the universe from the void. 

The chapter goes on to explain how Prajapati endows the universe with his life force (which became prana), and ultimately preserves it as cosmic matter and individual psychic energy. 

The Upanishad, through this story, proclaims that the universe is constituted of matter, energy, and of Atman and Brahman.

woman sat under a tree with light shining around it

#2: Chapter 2

In the second chapter, we encounter a prose discourse on dream theory.

This discourse serves as an example that highlights a claim about the mind’s ability to perceive reality accurately as it exists, yet also simultaneously perceive an alternate reality based on self-illusion.

So, the mind is prone to flawed perception, tripped up by its own ability. Humankind struggles to realize the Ultimate Reality. 

Moreover, this chapter gives us a second discourse between Yajnavalkya and his wife on the subject of love and spirituality, reaching the conclusion that knowledge of Atman and Brahman is the source of “immortality” and infinite bliss. 

This mention of immortality is known as the Madhu Theory, an important teaching in Hindu philosophy.

person walking a footpath in the sky

#3: Chapter 3

In the third chapter, we see a larger discourse on metaphysical reality relating to Atman.

It also lists concepts of sensory action and sense (Graha and Atigraha) in these combinations:

  • Breath And Smell
  • Speech And Name
  • Tongue And Taste
  • Eye And Form
  • Ear And Sound
  • Skin And Touch
  • Mind And Desire
  • Arms And Work

Furthermore, the notion of karma is introduced, illustrating its impact on the universe. Additionally, the concept of all souls being interconnected and transcendent is explored. 

The text hints at the idea that the path of a yogi is characterized by the ability to embody simplicity and childlike qualities, while also being meditative and observant.

#4: Chapter 4

Chapter four gives us even more practical, tangible theory on ontology, and its philosophical implications, centered around the human soul.

This dialogue between Yajnavalkya and the King discuss the existence of the soul through six manifestations:

  • Prajna (consciousness)
  • Priyam (love, and the will to live)
  • Satyam (respect for the truth, comprehension of reality)
  • Ananta (endlessness, and the curiosity for the eternal)
  • Ananda (contentment and bliss)
  • Stithi (tranquil perseverance)
quote about reincarnation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The text delves into the very foundations of “moksha,” which encompass freedom, liberation, and self-realization. It presents a depiction of Atman-Brahman, where Yajnavalkya explicitly proclaims that knowledge is synonymous with freedom.

We also can see a principle to perceive Atman and Brahman, which is “neti-neti”, understood as not this, not this.

#5: Chapters 5 And 6

These final chapters of the Upanishad are referred to as Khila Khanda: the supplementary appendix section.

In this section, we see further exploration of Atman and Brahman, as well as a short foray into ethics.

One example is that it explains sexual rituals that must happen between a husband and wife to produce a child through conception. 

Historical Context


The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad holds a significant position as one of the oldest Upanishads in Hinduism.

Its precise chronology is challenging to determine due to its extended composition period and subsequent revisions. 

However, scholars generally attribute its creation to the period between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE, establishing it as one of the early Upanishads. 

woman staring out at the trees

Part of the Shatapatha Brahmana, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad provides commentary on the ritualistic practices found in the Yajur Veda. It consists of six chapters referred to as “Brahmanas,” each containing further divisions called “Kandas.”


The term “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” derives from the combination of two Sanskrit words: “Brihad” and “Aranyaka.” Understanding the etymology of these words provides insights into the meaning and significance of the Upanishad’s name. 

The word “Brihad” translates to “great” or “vast” in English. It signifies something of immense magnitude or significance. 

In the context of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “Brihad” refers to the profound and expansive nature of the teachings contained within the Upanishad itself. 

The term “Aranyaka” finds its origins in the Sanskrit word “Aranya,” which translates to “forest” or “wilderness.” 

a forest in the wilderness

Within the ancient Indian tradition, forests held a sacred significance as they served as spaces where spiritual seekers and sages would partake in contemplation, meditation, and philosophical discussions. 

Therefore, the inclusion of “Aranyaka” in the name of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad signifies its association with the ancient sages who dwelled in forests and the spiritual wisdom imparted in such serene environments.

The combination of these terms within the name “Brihadaranyaka” conveys the essence of spiritual knowledge that emerges from the profound insights gained through sacred contemplation in the wilderness.

Key Teachings And Principles

Like many other Upanishads, the sacred scripture directly instructs on various methods of meditative practice, Hindu rituals and practices, and also focuses on the importance of three yogic virtues.

1. Virtues

These virtues according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are meant to be cultivated by anyone walking on the “path” and following a yogic lifestyle. These virtues are:

  1. Generosity
  2. Compassion (for other living beings and your own body)
  3. Selfrestraint

If you are familiar with the Yoga Sutras, which form the foundation of many yogic practices, you will recognize that these virtues are also present in the Sutras as fundamental principles.

quote from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

For example we see generosity in the Yamas and Niyamas as below:

  • Asteya (non-stealing, yama)
  • Aparigraha (non-greed, yama)
  • Santosha (contentment, niyama)

Compassion as below:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence, yama)
  • Satya (non-falsehood, yama)

And finally self-restraint as below:

  • Brahmacharya (moderation of the senses, yama)
  • Saucha (cleanliness, niyama)
  • Tapas (self-discipline, niyama)

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad also presents us with the Pavamana Mantra, the ancient Indian mantra that is commonplace in asana classes.

2. Karma

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad also gives us a hugely detailed account of the scriptural knowledge of Karma and karmic action. 

This comprehensive overview of the concept of karma explores the importance of righteous action and ethical livelihood to ensure positive outcomes. As the Thai Buddhists say, the performance of merits and good deeds is good for you and good for others.

a class of meditators

3. Renunciation And Meditation 

The Upanishad also instructs on meditative practice, not with a specific formula to sit down with, but instead a highlighting of the significance of contemplation, self-inquiry, and introspection as key concepts. 

In conjunction with the conceptual approach to meditation and contemplation, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad suggests that we possess the capacity to exercise self-restraint and detachment from our desires. 

Therefore, embracing a renunciate lifestyle is considered conducive to attaining liberation and self-knowledge.

Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed reading about the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, why not check out our other 101 articles:

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Born and raised in London, Luke is a passionate writer with a focus on travel, yoga, philosophy, and meditation. As a certified yoga teacher having studied under a swami in Rishikesh, Luke now lives in India pretty much just practising yoga, meditating and writing articles! Luke's life arc has gone from somewhat turbulent to peaceful, and he considers yoga and meditation direct methods to sustain introspective insight to manifest peace and happiness, despite life's challenges. Luke's passion for meditation has led him to complete multiple meditation retreats, where he spent almost 40 days in silence in the last two years. He practices various meditation techniques such as Vipassana, Anapana, and Metta Bhavana, each adding to his knowledge and experience of the true self. Most recently he meditated in Jaipur, India, and before that lived for a short spell in a monastery with forest monks in Northern Thailand. To Luke, yoga is more than just a physical exercise; it's a way of life that helps him cultivate a stronger mind-body connection. As a young man with arthritis, Luke understands the importance of observing and controlling his body, and yoga has been a vital tool in his journey to better health and well-being. The practice of yoga has not only helped him manage his symptoms but has also given him a new perspective on life. Luke's love for yoga and meditation is not limited to a single tradition or practice. He's fascinated by the spiritual teachings of all types of religious philosophy, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity for their essence and wisdom. His passion for spirituality is what drives him to continue learning and growing, and share his knowledge with other people. Luke in his spare time is an avid chess player, cyclist and record collector. He also has experience with addiction, and so sponsors multiple people from different walks of life in their recovery programmes.

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