Introduction To The Aitareya Upanishad

Aitareya World View

by Jayaram V

The Aitareya Upanishad is one of the oldest of the Upanishads. Therefore, my book, the Selected Upanishads, begins with this Upanishad. It belongs to the Aitareya Aranyaka of the Rigveda. Verse from the last three chapters of the Aranyaka constitute the three chapters of the Upanishad with a total of 33 verses. The following is a detailed explanation of the composition of the Upanishad as taken from the works of Max Mueller.

The Aitareya-âranyaka consists of the following five Âranyakas:

The first Âranyaka has five Adhyâyas:

1. First Adhyâya, Atha mahâvratam, has four Khandas, 1-4.

2. Second Adhyâya, Â tvâ ratham, has four Khandas, 5-8.

3. Third Adhyâya, Hiṅkârena, has eight 2 Khandas, 9-16.

4. Fourth Adhyâya, Atha sûdadohâh, has three Khandas, 17-19.

5. Fifth Adhyâya, Vasam samsati, has three Khandas, 20-22.

The second Âranyaka has seven Adhyâyas:

6. First Adhyâya, Eshâ panthâh, has eight Khandas, 1-8.

7. Second Adhyâya, Esha imam lokam, has four Khandas, 9-12.

8. Third Adhyâya, Yo ha vâ âtmânam, has eight (not three) Khandas, 13-20.

9. Fourth Adhyâya, Âtma vâ idam, has three Khandas, 21-23.

10. Fifth Adhyâya, Purushe ha vâ, has one Khanda, 24 **

11. Sixth Adhyâya, Ko 'yam âtmeti, has one Khanda, 25.**

12. Seventh Adhyâya, Vâṅ me manasi, has one Khanda, 26.**

The third Âranyaka has two Adhyâyas:

13. First Adhyâya, Athâtah samhitâyâ upanishat, has six Khandas, 1-6.

14. Second Adhyâya, Prâno vamsa iti sthavirah Sâkalyah, has six Khandas, 7-12.

The fourth Âranyaka, has one Adhyâya:

15. First Adhyâya, Vidâ maghavan, has one Khanda (the Mahânâmnî's).

The fifth Âranyaka has three Adhyâyas:

16. First Adhyâya, Mahâvratasya pañkavimsatim, has six Khandas, 1-6.

17. Second Adhyâya, (Grîvâh)Yasyedam, has five Khandas, 7-11.

18. Third Adhyâya, (Ûrû) Indrâgnî, has four Khandas, 11-14

(9-11 are labelled Aitareya-upanishad and 6-14 are labelled Bahvrika-upanishad by vertical brackets in the original)

Of them, 10,11,12 Adhyayas marked with twin asteriks constitute the three chapters of the Aitareya Upanishad. According to Max Mueller the Aitareya Upanishad in its current form is derived from the fourth, fifth and sixth Adhyayas of the Second Aranyaka, whereas the Greater Aitareya Upanishad, also known as Maha Aitareya or Bhavrika Upanishad, comprises the whole of the second and the third Aranyakas.

The Aitareya Upanishad contains the early philosophical concepts of the Vedic religion regarding soul, creation, birth and rebirth. The First chapter deal with creation and describes how the worlds and beings emerged from the Self as it was alone in the beginning and desired to have company. The descriptions confirm to the early Vedic cosmology consisting of a four tier world, with heaven above, the earth below, the mid-region in the middle, and a world below the earth made up of waters.

After these worlds were created, he created the being or the Purusha by first creating various organs and then establishing them in the body of the being. What keeps them together inside the body are the thirst and hunger for food to which he made them susceptible. The source of energy for this creation was tapas or austerity. After creating the being with various organs and making them desire food and water, he created food. What grasps and distributes the food inside the body is the breath. Finally, after creating all these, the Self entered the body through an aperture in the head and became embodied in three places, the eyes, the mind, and the heart. Although the verse speaks about creation in cosmic terms, you can equally interpret it as the creation of being at the individual level.

The second chapter of the Upanishad describes the triple births of a humans, the first one is when the self enters the male body and becomes part of the semen. The second one is when the self enters the embryo in the female body, and the third one is when the being departs from here and reenters the world to take another birth. Thus, this Upanishad gives equal importance to both male and female in the birth of progeny. The third chapter contains the famous saying, "Prajnanam Brahma," mean Brahman is intelligence. The outer aspect of the Self in the body is intelligence. Because of it only a person is able to speak, perceive, think or act. Because of intelligence the worlds existes and because of intelligence only a person eventually achieve liberations and reaches the world of Brahman.

Thus the Upanishad reflects the early Vedic beliefs about creation, conception, rebirth and liberation. It occupies an important place in our understanding of the Vedic religion and its gradual transformation from a religion of sacrificial ceremonies into a religion of deep philosophical and mystic significance. The source of the Upanishad is an Aranyaka from the Rigveda. Hence, its basis is advanced ritual knowledge, but its purpose is to present the cosmic truths of early Vedic metaphysics regarding the Self, the body, the world, and rebirth, which makes it unique and valuable. The Upanishad also validates the belief that the concept of rebirth in Hinduism dates back to early Vedic period.

The following is an early translation of the Upanishad done by me. To avoid ambiguity in translating it I have taken a few liberties, without changing the original intent and purpose of the text. I hope the readers will keep this in mind when they read the translation. For the convenience of the readers, the translation of the Upanishad is presented in four parts which you can access from the following links.

Aitareya Upanishad Links

Chapter 1, Section 1 | Chapter 1, Section 2 | Chapter 1, Section 3 | Chapter 2 & 3


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