Aitareya Upanishad | Shankara's Commentaries



Here you can read Aitareya Upanishad with commentaries of the famous Hindu Advaita Vedanta Swāmī Shankara-Ācārya (788-820) online.

Aitareya Upanishad is contained in the Ṛig Veda and forms a part of the Aitareya Āraṇyaka. The Aitareya Upanishad is a short prose text, divided into three chapters, containing 33 verses.

It comprises the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters of the second book of the older Vedic text, Aitareya Āraṇyaka. It is one of the oldest and so called Classical 11 Upanishads.




Earlier than this was finished karma along with the knowledge (i.e. meditation on) the inferior Brahman (i.e. Hiraṇyagarbha).

The highest result, achievable through karma, as associated with meditation, was concluded with the meditation on Uktha. It was said,

This Brahman that is Truth is called Prāṇa; this is the only Deity” (Kau.ll. 2; Maitrāyaṇī, VII. 7);

“All the gods are but manifestations of this Prāṇa”:

Attaining identity with (Consciousness, the Deity, Brahman, Immortality, that is) this Prāṇa, one becomes united with the gods.”

Some people believe that the highest human goal consists in this merger in the Deity, that this is emancipation, that this is attainable through a combination of meditation and karma, and that there is nothing higher than this.

With a view to enjoining the knowledge of the absolute Self, whereby this (earlier) view may be refuted, this Upaniṣad says,

In the beginning this was but the absolute Self alone” etc. (I. i. 1).


How is it, again, known that the subsequent text is meant for enjoining the knowledge of the absolute Self, unconnected with karma?


Since no other meaning can be deduced.

Moreover, through such texts as “He subjected Him to hunger and thirst” (Ai. I. ii. 1) etc., it will be shown that the gods such as Fire, mentioned earlier, are included in the phenomenal world because of the defects of their hunger etc.

All that is subject to hunger etc. is within the phenomenal world, whereas the supreme Brahman is mentioned in the Vedas as transcendental to hunger and the rest.


Even if it be thus conceded that the knowledge of the absolute Self is the means for emancipation,

it does not follow that a non-performer of karma alone is qualified for this, since no such specification is heard of,

there being no mention in this Upaniṣad of any non-performer of karma (i.e. Sannyāsī) belonging to a distinct order.

Again, the knowledge of the Self is begun after introducing the rite called Bṛhatī-sahasra. Therefore it is the performer of karma who is in fact entitled to this.

Nor is the knowledge of the Self incompatible with karma, for the summing up (here) at the end conforms to what went earlier.

Just as it was stated by the (earlier) brāhmaṇa (portion) that Puruṣa, identified with the Sun, is the Self of all beings, mobile and immobile,

and as it was confirmed by the mantra (portion) in such texts as
The Sun is the Self (of the universe, moving and motionless)” (Ṛg. 1. cxv. 1),

similarly (here), too, the start will be made with
This one is the inferior Brahman, this is Indra” (Ai. III. i. 3),

and the conclusion will be,
All the creatures that there are, which move or do not move, are impelled by Consciousness
(Ai. III. i. 3).

Similarly, too in the Upaniṣad of the samhitā (portion) the Self will be spoken of as associated with karma in the text,

The followers of the Ṛig-Veda deliberate
on this very Entity in the hymn called Bṛhatī-sahasra
” etc. (Ai. A. III. ii. 3. 12),

and the conclusion will be with,
They speak of it alone as the Self in all beings” etc.

Similarly, too, the identity of the One that is referred to in “That which the bodiless conscious Self” is spoken of in “One should know That as identical with Him that is in the sun”.

Here, again, commencing with, “What is It that we worship as the Self?” (Ai. III. i. 1), identity with Consciousness Itself will be shown in “Consciousness is Brahman” (Ai. III. i. 3).

Therefore the knowledge of the Self is not disconnected with karma.

Counter Objection:

(On that supposition) the present text becomes useless because of tautology. How?

The Self having been ascertained by the brāhmaṇa (portion) in “O Ṛṣi, I am indeed Prāṇa”, and by the mantra (portion) in “The Sun is the Self” (Ṛig. I. cxv. 1),

it is useless to ascertain It over again by the brāhmaṇa (i.e. Upaniṣad portion) by raising the question, “What is It that we worship as the Self?” (Ai. III. i. 1) and then answering that all this is but the Self, and so on.

Opponent's view:

Not so, for no tautology is involved, inasmuch as this is meant to determine some special qualities of that very Self. How?

Of that very Self, as connected with karma, it is sought to determine some special attributes

such as (the power of) creation, protection, and dissolution of the world, or to present It as an object of meditation in Its unconditioned state.

To explain the second alternative:

from the fact that meditation on the Self (as such) was not enjoined in the context of karma, it might be inferred that the Self, that is (found) associated with karma, is not to be meditated upon apart from karma:

therefore the purport of the (following) text, beginning with “Ātmā" etc., is that the unconditioned Self, too, is to be meditated on.

Or since the Self is to be worshipped (both) as different and non-different (from oneself),

the same Self that is subject to the idea of difference in a context of karma is again to be meditated on as non-different outside (that) karma.

Thus there is no tautology.

Moreover, according to the adherents of the Vājasaneya Section (of the Yajur-Veda) there are the statements,

He who knows these 2, vidyā and avidyā, together, by crossing over death through avidyā, attains immortality through vidyā"' (Īś. 11) and

By doing karmas indeed should one wish to live here for a hundred years” (Īś. 2).

Not that mortals can have more than a 100 years as the fullest span of life, so as to be able to meditate on the Self after renouncing karma (after a 100 years).

And it has been shown in the Aitareya Āraṇyaka,
The span of a man’s life comprises as many thousands of days.”

Now the 100 years of life are packed with karma; and the mantra, “By doing karma indeed” has just been quoted.

Similar are the texts,

‘‘One should perform the Agnihotra sacrifices as long as one lives”,

One should perform the Darśa and Pūrṇamāsa
(new moon and full moon) sacrifices as long as one lives

and others, as well as,
Him they burn along with the sacrificial vessels”.

Besides, there is the Vedic text speaking of the 3 debts:

The Brāhmaṇa, from his birth is under the 3 debts” (Tai.S. VI, iii, 10)
(referring to the gods, Manes and sages)

As for the scriptural text dealing with monasticism etc., to wit,

“Knowing this very Self Brāhmaṇas renounce,... and lead a mendicant life” (Bṛ. III. v. 1., IV. iv. 22), it is eulogistic, meant to praise the knowledge of the Self.

Or it is meant for the disqualified ones (e.g. the blind, the lame, and others).

Vedāntists reply:

Not so; for when the supreme knowledge is achieved, there can be no idea of results, and so no action is possible.

As for the statements that “the knowledge of the Self comes to the man engaged in karma", that “it is associated with karma", and so on, they are wrong.

Action is inconceivable in one who has the knowledge of Brahman as his Self as comprised in the realisation,

I am the supreme Brahman in which all desires are fulfilled
and which is above all the worldly shortcomings

- and who has no idea of results because he feels no need for anything to be got for himself from actions done or to be done (by him).


Though he may not perceive any benefit therefrom,
he still acts because of the (scriptural) injunction.


No, for he has realised the Self that is beyond the range of injunctions.

It is a matter of experience that one comes within the scope of injunction so long as one feels the need for acquiring some desirable thing or avoiding some undesirable thing and seeks for a means thereof;

but not so the one who is of a contrary disposition and has realised the identity of the Self with Brahman that cannot be subjected to any injunction.

If a man who has realised the identity of the Self and Brahman has still to bow down to injunctions, even though he is beyond all mandates,

then there will remain none who is outside the pale of scriptural direction; and so all actions will become fit to be undertaken by all and sundry at all limes.

But that is undesirable.

Nor can he be directed by anybody, for even the scriptures emanate from him.

Not that anyone can be impelled by any sentence issuing out of his own wisdom. Nor is a well-informed master commanded by an ignorant servant.


The Vedas, being eternal, are independent, and hence have the mandatory power over all.


No, for the defect (of such an argument) has been already pointed out.

Even on this assumption, the defect persists unavoidably of every duty becoming fit to be indiscriminately undertaken at all times by all and sundry.


That, too, is enjoined by the scriptures:

(To explain): As performance of duties is prescribed by scriptures, so is the knowledge of the Self prescribed for that man of karma by the scriptures themselves.


No, for it is unthinkable that the scriptures should be prescribing contradictory things.

Just as heat and cold cannot both be averred of fire, so it is not possible to instruct association as well as dissociation with virtue and vice for the same person.

Nor are the desires to attain the delectable and to avoid the detestable, for oneself, created by the scriptures, for all beings are seen to have them.

Had these two been the products of the scriptures, they would not have been found in the cowherds and others, who are ignorant of scriptures.

The scriptures have to instruct about those things only that are not self-evident:

That being so, if the scriptures have produced the knowledge of the Self, opposed to (ideas of) duties that have been accomplished or are yet to be accomplished,

how can they again produce a sense of duty that runs counter to it,
like coldness in fire or darkness in the sun?


The scriptures do not certainly generate such knowledge.


They do; for the conclusion is made thus:

One should know thus: ‘He is my Self’” (Kau. III. 9),
Consciousness is Brahman” (Ai. III. i. 3).

And sentences such as,

It knew only Itself as 'I am Brahman’; therefore It became all” (Bṛ I. iv. 10),
Thou art That” (Ch. VI. viii-xvi), bear on the same idea.

And since the knowledge of the identity of the Self and Brahman, once it has emerged, is never sublated, its origination cannot be denied or pronounced erroneous.


With regard to renunciation, too, there is an equal absence of need, in accordance with the Smṛti,

(He has no object in this world to gain by doing action), nor by non-performance” (G. III. 18).

Those who say that after realising Brahman one must resort to renunciation are equally open to the same charge of absence of need.


No, since renunciation consists in mere cessation from activity.

The feeling of want follows from ignorance and is not inherent in any object, for this fact (of feeling of want towards an object) is in evidence in all beings.

Moreover, it is noticed that one acts through speech, mind, and body when one is impelled by thirst for desired results;

and by the text beginning with,  “He desired, ‘Let me have a wife’” (Br I. iv. 17),

and by the text,
Both these are but desires (for ends and means)” (Br, III. v. 1, IV. iv. 22),

of the Vājasaneya Brāhmaṇa, it has been emphatically asserted that sons, wealth, etc., that constitute the 5-fold karma, are comprised within desire.

Since the 5-fold activities of speech, mind, and body, arising from such defects as ignorance, desire, etc., cannot belong to a man of realisation because of his freedom from those defects,

his renunciation consists in mere absence of activity;
and it is not a positive something to be accomplished like sacrifice etc.

And that being a natural accomplishment of a man of illumination, no necessity is to be sought for it.

Not that any question can be raised as to why a person, who was (once) enveloped in darkness, does not fall into a pit, swamp, or brambles after the dawn of light.


Then it comes to this that renunciation follows as a matter of course and is not fit to be enjoined.

Therefore, if the supreme knowledge of Brahman dawns in domestic life, the passive man may continue in that state, and there need be no moving away from it,


No, since domestic life is a product of desire; for it has been clearly declared,

This much indeed is desire” (Br. I. iv. 17),
Both these are indeed desires” (Br. III. v. 1, IV. iv. 22).

Renunciation is defined as the mere absence of well-established relationship with sons etc. arising from desire and not as the mere moving away from that domestic life.

And so the inactive man of realisation cannot continue in the domestic life itself.

Hereby it is established that for an illumined soul there can be no acceptance of such duties as the service of the Guru, or (practice of) austerities.

Against this argument, some householders, shy of begging alms and afraid of ridicule, advance the following rejoinder, thereby making a show of their intellectual acumen:

Inasmuch as a mendicant, desirous merely of maintaining his body, is seen to subject himself to regulations about begging,

there may be continuance in the domestic life even for a householder who has become freed from both kinds of desires with regard to ends and means, but who has to depend on mere food and raiment for the maintenance of the body.


Not so; for this has already been refuted by saying that the constant habit of resorting to any particular house of one’s own is prompted by desire.

When there is no clinging to any particular house of one’s own, there follows begging alone,

as a matter of course, in the case of one who has no special inclination for turning to his own and who seeks for food and raiment under the impulsion of maintaining the body.


Just as (for a Sannyāsī) there are regulations with regard to engagement in begging for the sake of maintaining the body, as also with regard to personal cleanliness etc.,

so in the case of the householder, who has become illumined and free from desire,

there may be regular engagement in obligatory duties for the sake of avoiding evil in pursuance of the impulsion implied in the Vedic text enjoining karma for the whole life.


This has already been refuted by pointing out that the illumined soul is outside the range of injunction; besides, he cannot be impelled.


The injunction about obligatory duties contained in “One should perform the Agnihotra sacrifice for life” becomes meaningless thereby.


No, because it retains its meaningfulness with regard to the ignorant man.

As for the regulation about the activities of the mendicant, engaged in the mere support of the body, that regulation does not generate any action.

Just as no fresh motive is in evidence in the matter of quenching thirst for a man engaged in sipping water from the palm of the hand as a ceremonial act,

similarly in the matter of (rules for) begging, no other impulse is in evidence (apart from assuaging hunger).

It cannot be argued on similar grounds that in the case of Agnihotra, too, the activities are derived naturally and are regulated accordingly.


Restriction of even spontaneous activity is uncalled for when it serves no purpose.


No, since that restriction follows naturally out of past tendencies, and an overriding of them involves great effort.

From the fact that a fresh injunction of renunciation, despite its emergence as a matter of course (in the case of a man of illumination), is met with, it becomes evident that it is obligatory for the man of illumination.

And monasticism is obligatory even for the unillumined soul that hankers after emancipation. With regard to this matter, the sentence,

Therefore he who knows thus becomes self-controlled, calm” etc., (Br IV. iv. 23)

can be cited as authoritative.

Besides, such means for the realisation of the Self as physical and mental control etc., are incompatible with other stages of life.

And it is known from the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad,

“To those (monks) who had gone beyond the (4) stages of life he spoke well of that supremely holy Reality that is sought after by seers of Truth” (Śv. VI. 21).

And in the Kaivalya Upaniṣad (2) we find,

“Some attained immortality not by karma, not by progeny, not by wealth, but by renunciation.”

And the Smṛti says,

After attaining knowledge, one should have recourse to inactivity”, and

He should continue in that order of life (Sannyāsa)
which is conducive to the attainment of Brahman

Moreover, the practice of such disciplines as continence, in their totality, is possible only for those who have gone beyond the 4 stages of life, whereas it is impossible in domestic life.

Not that any inadequate means can lead to full consummation.

As for the kinds of realisation to which the karmas pertaining to the householder's life can lead, their highest result has been summed up as merger in the Deity (Hiraṇyagarbha), and that is within the worldly state itself.

If the knowledge of the Self were possible for people engrossed in karma, the conclusion there would not have been made with a result, (viz. merger in Deity), very much within the worldly state.


That is only the product of some subsidiary factor (associated with the higher knowledge).


No, for the knowledge of the Self relates to the Reality that is the Self and that is entirely opposed to it (viz. a subsidiary).

The means to the attainment of immortality is the knowledge of the Self which is the supreme Reality beyond all names, forms and actions.

If that knowledge remains associated with some secondary result (within the world), it cannot pertain to the Reality that is the Self from which is ruled out all distinctions.

And that is undesirable;

for in the text of the Vājasaneya Brāhmaṇa, beginning with “Where everything becomes his Self” (Br. II. iv. 14), all empirical dealings, involving actions, auxiliaries, and fruits, have been denied for the illumined soul;

 and by saying, “Where there is an appearance of duality” (Br. IV. iv. 14), the worldly state has been shown in the case of the unillumined soul opposed to the former.

Similarly, here, too, the text thinks,

I shall speak of that absolute knowledge of the all-pervasive Reality that leads to immortality

after I have dealt with the fruit that consists in the identity with the Deity, exists within the worldly state, and is constituted by things subject to hunger etc.”

For the unenlightened man, again, and not the enlightened one, do the 3 debts act

as impediments in the way to his attaining the worlds of men, Manes, and gods, as it is established by the Vedic text,

That world of men is to be conquered through the son alone” etc. (Bṛ. I. v. 16),
which determines the means for the attainment of the 3 worlds.

And for the man of illumination, craving for the world of the Self, the absence of impediment from debts is shown by

What shall we achieve through children” etc. (Br. IV. iv. 22).

So also there are the texts of the Kauṣītaki branch,

So the ancient seers, the Kāvaṣeyas, who had realised It, said
(‘Why should we study the Vedas?’)
” (Kau. II. 5) and

The ancient illumined souls, who knew It, did not perform the Agnihotra sacrifice” (ibid).


For the unillumined soul, then, there can be no monasticism before he clears the (3) debts.


Not so, because one does not become involved in debts before entering the householder’s life.

If one can become indebted irrespective of his obligation thereto, then all may as well become so, which (conclusion) will lead to undesirable consequences.

Even for one who has embraced the householder's life, monasticism is desirable as a disciplinary means for the realisation of the Self in accordance with the text,

“From the domestic life he should resort to that of the forest-dweller (recluse), and then embrace monasticism; alternatively one may embrace monasticism from the stage of the celibate, or the house-holder, or the recluse” (Jā. 4).

The Vedic texts speaking of performance of rites throughout life find the fullest scope among the unenlightened souls who do not long for freedom.

In (some recensions of) the Chāṇḍogya, too, it is found that for some people it is enjoined that the Agnihotra sacrifice can be given up after performing it for 12 nights.

As for the view that monasticism is meant for those who are disqualified (from performing karma), it is unsound, since with regard to them an independent injunction occurs in

He whose fire has been extinguished or who has not lighted it up (shall renounce the day he becomes desireless)” (Np. III. 77).

Moreover, it is a well-known fact that the Smṛti, in a general way, enjoin option with regard to, as well as adoption (in succession) of, all the stages of life.

As for the argument,

Inasmuch as renunciation ensues spontaneously in the case of the illumined soul, it is beyond the purview of the scriptures, and therefore it makes little difference as to whether he continues in domestic life or repairs to the forest”,

it is unsound, for absolute renunciation being a spontaneous result, there can be no persistence in any other order.

We pointed out that involvement in any other stage of life is a result of desire, and that renunciation consists merely in the absence of this.

As for wilfulness in the case of the illumined soul, it is entirely out of place, it being found among the extremely ignorant.

Moreover, seeing that even scriptural duties are known to be inapplicable in the case of the knower of the Self, they being too burdensome, can there be for him any (action through) heedlessness that arises from extreme non-discrimination?

Not that a thing perceived under lunacy or through eyes affected by Timira disease, continues to be exactly so when the disease is cured, that vision being contingent on the lunacy or Timira.

Accordingly, it is proved that for the knower of the Self there can be neither recklessness nor engagement in any other duty apart from renunciation.

As for the text “He who knows these two, vidyā and avidyā, together” (IĪś. 11), it does not convey the idea that ignorance, too, persists along with enlightenment for the man of knowledge.

What is the meaning then?

It is meant to imply that they cannot cohere in the same person at the same time, as for instance the ideas of silver and nacre cannot cohere in the same person with regard to the same mother of pearl.

For it is said in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad:

That which is known as vidyā (knowledge) and that which is known as avidya (ignorance), are widely contradictory, and they follow divergent courses” (I. ii. 4).

Hence there is no possibility of continuance of ignorance when knowledge dawns.

From such Vedic texts as,
Crave to know Brahman through concentration” (Tai. III. ii.),

it follows that concentration etc. that are conducive to the rise of knowledge, as well as activities like service of the teacher, are called avidyā (nescience), since they are the products of nescience.

Producing vidyā (knowledge) through them, one transcends death that is the same as desire.

Then the passionless man renounces all desires and achieves immortality through the knowledge of Brahman.

In order to reveal this idea the (Īśa) Upaniṣad says,
Crossing over death through avidyā, one attains immortality through vidyā'" (11).

As for the view that the entire span of a man’s life is stuffed with karma according to the text,

By doing karma indeed should one wish to live here for a hundred years” (Īś. 2),

that has been dismissed as relating to the ignorant, for otherwise it would be untenable.

And the argument was advanced that what follows (in the present Upaniṣad) is in line with what preceded it, and therefore the knowledge of the Self is not opposed to karma.

This view was disposed of by relating the 2 standpoints to the conditioned and the unconditioned Self, and this will be shown by us in the succeeding explanation.

Therefore the following text is commenced in order to reveal the knowledge of the oneness of the Self and Brahman that is absolute and actionless: