Introduction to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (The Upanishad of the Great Forest) is one of the oldest, one of the longest, and one of the most difficult to effectively understand due to the deep symbolism of its language harking back to the Vedic sages while we try to investigate its meaning by use of a logical intellectual process that eschews the type of intuitive symbolic presentation found here.  Sri Aurobindo translated a portion of this Upanishad from the first section, focused on an understanding of the Upanishadic view of the Horse Sacrifice (Ashwamedha).  He also provides a commentary on this section of the Upanishad which aids us in understanding the intention of the Rishi.  In his own commentary, Sri M P Pandit follows up with a review of additional sections of this Upanishad.

The Horse Sacrifice, as it has been described generally relates to an emperor seeking to assert his supremacy over all other kingdoms through a ritual in which a horse is turned loose and followed from kingdom to kingdom, and wherever it showed up, the king had to either express his subordinate status to the emperor, or else undergo a military conflict and defeat.  Once all kingdoms had been subjected, the horse would then be sacrificed with all due ritual.  Western commentators have generally taken the Horse Sacrifice to be some kind of outer animal sacrifice.  The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad presents an entirely different view, describing the horse into a symbol of the universal creation.  The sovereignty to be achieved through this understanding is the Oneness with the Eternal which is the goal of the Upanishads generally.

In The Secret of the VedaSri Aurobindo discusses the dual sense of the Veda, an outer symbol intended to maintain a cover over the secret esoteric teaching being communicated to those capable of understanding it.  In some places, the true inner sense cannot hide behind obscure symbols and is revealed through direct corerspondences, and that is especially true in the description of the Horse Sacrifice presented in this Upanishad.

As with any attempt to draw a comparison between a specific form or being and a universal conceptual framework, certain specific references may be hard for a modern reader to adopt using our critical mental framework.  The Upanishad is meant to be an intuitive model, awakening our insight, not necessarily our rigid intellectual methods.  The intention here is clearly to relate the microcosm to the macrocosm and tie together all of the creation into one integrated whole.

Sri M P Pandit states:  “The Ashwamedha commemorates, to the mystics of the Vedic tradition, a landmark in the inner evolution of man: it signifies his transcending the bounds of the ordinary material life in Ignorance and passing into the wider altitudes of the reign of Spirit.  The Life-Force, the dominating Power in the being of man, asva, is consecrated and delivered into the charge of the Gods who preside over the destinies of men and the worlds. The Horse, asva, signifying strength, force and speed in the symbology of the mystics, is the Universal Force of Manifestation at work in Creation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, pp.327-347 and M P Pandit, Upanishads: Gateways of Knowledge, pp. 185-193

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