Feyman Lectures on Physics

Jul 10, 2017

Transmigration and Rebirth in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad (BU) is one of the oldest and most important upaniShad-s of Vedic canon; and yAGYavalkya (YV) is the main sage and seer of this upaniShad. YV does not seem to support transmigration and rebirth. (He however, supports apophatic Atman=Brahman, and in that sense YV - whether he is historical or mythical person - is the proponent, and possibly the first protagonist of Kevala Advaita).

We will have to go trough YV's opinions in BU 2.4.12, 5.10-11, 3.9.28, and 3.2.11.

BU 2.4.12: idam mahadbhUtaManantaM apAraM viGYAnaghana eva | etebhyo bhUtebhyaH samutthAya tAnevAnuvinashyati, na pretya saMGYAstItyare bravImIti hovAcha yAGYavalkya ||

This infinite, unlimited, mahadbhUta (empirical Reality) is like a "massed consciousness" (self). (It) emerges from and is destroyed with these elements (e.g. body made of five gross elements). After death, there is no (individual) consciousness or self. This is what I say, my dear, so said yAGyavalkya.

(Continuity of self in transmigration is refuted making rebirth meaningless).

BU 5.10: yadA vai puruSho.asmAllokAtpraiti sa vAyumAgachChati tasmai sa tatra vijihIte yathA rathachakrasya kham | tena sa Urdhva Akramate | sa AdityamAgachChati | tasmai sa tatra vijihIte yathA laMbarasya kham | tena sa Urdhva Akramate sa chandramasamAgachChati | tasmai sa tatra vijihIte yathA duduMbheH kham | tena sa Urdhva Akramate sa lokamAgachChati ashoka-mahimam | tasminvasati shAshvatIH samAH |

When a man departs from this world, he goes to the (deity) air, who makes for him opening in his body like the hole of a chariot-wheel. He proceeds upward through that and comes to the sun, who makes for him an opening in his body like the hole of a tabor. He proceeds upward through that and comes to the moon, who makes an opening for him in his body like the hole of a drum. He proceeds upward through that and comes to a world where there is no grief (being without sorrow or sufferings is its greatness). He lives there permanently.

(This permanent grief-less abode - Brahman - is for all humans; why? .. see below)

BU 5.11: etadvai paramaM tapo yadvyahitastapyate | paramaM haiva lokaM jayati ya evaM veda | etadvai paramaM tapo yaM preta maraNyaM haranti | paramaM haiva lokaM jayati ya evaM veda| etadvai paramaM tapo yaM pretamagnAvabhyAdadhati | paramaM haiva lokaM jayati ya evaM veda ||

This is verily a great penance that a diseased person suffers. He who knows thus wins indeed a great world. This is verily a great penance that people carry a dead man to the forest. he who knows thus wins indeed a great world. This verily a great penance that they lay a dead man on the fire. He who knows thus wins indeed a great world.

(These penances are common to all humans - GYAnI and aGYAnI alike - and hence, according to YV, all humans go to the permanent grief-less abode. This is really an arthavAda - eulogy - of the ego-less Knower who does not expect special rewards post-release... This is explained elsewhere in the Upanishad(s). But then what is the axiological, ethical difference between GYAnI and aGYAnI apart from this knowledge of equality in death?.. see below).

BU 3.9.28: yatsamUlamAvRRiheyurvRRixaM punarAbhavet | martyaH svin mRRityunAvRRikNaH kasmAnmUlAtprarohati ||6||

If they pull a tree out with its roots, it does not spring again. (Then) from what root does man sprout after he is cut down by the death?

(The straightforward answer is: "there is no rebirth after death for the jIva". This is conformed by the following stanza. But then why one should realize Brahman? Answer is given in the same stanza)

jAta eva na jAyate, kOnvenaM janayetpunaH | viGYAnaAnandaM brahma rAtirdAtuH parAyaNam tiShThamAnasya tadvida iti ||7||

Once born (jIva) does not reborn (after death, because) who is to produce him again? To the living Knower (of Brahman, however), Brahman gives the best of gifts.. the Bliss of Knowledge. Hence know That (Brahman).

(Here there is no talk of transmigration or rebirth. The living Knower (jIvanmukta) is privy to Knowledge of Advaita which sees Self in all; and hence he is in possession of lasting peace (bliss) and freedom which is not available to the ordinary mortals).

BU 3.2.11: yAGYavalkyeti hovAcha, yatrAyaM puruSho mRRiyata udasmAtprANAH krAmantyAho3 neti; neti hovAcha yAGyavalkya:, atraiva samavanIyante, sa uchChvayati, AdhmAyati, AdhmAto mRRitaH shete ||

'yAGYavalkya', said (ArthabhAga), "when this man dies, do his organs (including internal organ or mind) depart from him or not?" 'No', said yAGyavalkya. They dissolve in him alone. (Only) the body swells, is bloated, and lies motionless in that state.

(Here, too transmigration and rebirth is denied. According Advaita tradition, this is supposed to be for liberated person. However, from previous references this should be applicable to all humans. This is usually read with BU 3.2.13 where YV eulogizes righteous karma and conclude that one becomes noble through righteous work and ignoble through unrighteous work. This is both the eulogy of righteous acts and the censure of unrighteous acts; it has nothing to do with transmigration and rebirth).

Contrary to all above references, YV from BU 4.3.35 to 4.4.9 teaches "transmigration and rebirth" as a purANa (old, established) opinion (BU 4.4.8) and not his own opinion. Possibly, YV was rather afraid of teaching his rather unorthodox positions vide BU 3.8.28, 3.2.11 etc. to king Janaka (see, BU 4.3.33: atra ha yAGYavalkyo bibhayAMchakAra, medhAvI rAjA sarvebhyo mAntebhya udaroutsIditi).

(Cf: (1) "The bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad" - original text with translation, notes etc by Sw. Jagadishwarananda and Sw. Madhavananda published by RK Math, Chennai; 1951; and (2) "Aupanishad Soukhya" (Marathi) by Dr.  K. L. Daftari with forward by Dr. V V Mirashi and introduction by Dr. G. K. Garde, published by Vidarbha Samshodhaka Mandal, 1957).