Aitareya Upanishad- Origin of the Universe & Man (Part-1)


Aitareya Upanishad is a common ground for philosophy and physics. It contains the mahavakya, the great aphorism “prajnanam brahma”, Consciousness is Brahman. Aitareya Upanishad identifies Consciousness as the First Cause of creation. This is forerunner of ‘Unified Field Theory’ or a ‘Theory of Everything’ which the modern physicists are trying to discover although the modern science does not recognize Consciousness as a factor in creation of the universe.

One of the oldest pastimes of man is to run the search engine of his contemplative and analytical faculties to find out the final answer to the riddle of creation of the universe. This question is not merely academic but it also assumes the colors of religion, philosophy, science and poetry.

We have answers to this enigma in every religion. We have scientific theories throwing up endless ever changing conclusions, the most path-breaking of which is Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” followed by Stephen Hawking and others. We have philosophers’ speculations and poetic imaginations. But the mystery of creation remains as much unfathomed and unsolved today as in the Vedic days. For a detailed analysis of the subject the reader may refer to my article entitled “Mystery of Creation - Some Vedantic Concepts” under the category ‘Vedanta’ available in this Website.


Creation is interpreted in the Vedas as a developmental course rather than as bringing into being something not hitherto existent. It was considered as an ongoing-process and not an event. The Purusha Sukta of Rig Veda paints a picture of the ideal Primeval Being existing before any phenomenal existence. He is conceived as a cosmic person with a thousand heads, eyes and feet, who filled the whole universe and extended beyond it. The world form is only a fragment of this divine reality. The first principle which is called Purusha manifested as the whole world by his Tapas.

This view gets crystallized into the later Upanishadic doctrine that the spirit or Atman in man (at microcosm) is the same as the spirit which is the cause of the world which goes by the name Brahman or Paramatman (at macrocosm). These theories are discussed in elaborate details in the following Upanishads Viz., Prasna, Aitareya, Mundaka, Taittiriya, Katha, Chandogya, Svetasvatara, Brhadaranyaka, Maitri, Paingala Upanishads besides the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Vasishtha. Among the latter Acharyas the contributions made by Gaudapada, and Adi Sankara to these thoughts are colossal. 

A brief quotation from the article “Cosmology in Vedanta” by Swami Tathagatananda published by Vedanta Society of New York given below brings out lucidly the perspectives of both Vedanta and modern science on this subject.

Quote--“A perceptive reader will find many striking similarities between the latest findings of  Astrophysics and ancient Indian cosmological ideas, of which Swamiji (Vivekananda)  says: " . . . you  will find how wonderfully they are in accordance with the latest discoveries of modern  science; and where there is disharmony, you will find that it is modern science which  lacks and not they."

Einstein writes that "cosmic expansion may be simply a temporary condition which will be followed at some future epoch of cosmic time by a period of contraction. The universe in this picture is a pulsating balloon in which cycles of expansion and contraction succeed each other through eternity."

The modern astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, writes: "At the big bang itself, the universe is thought to have had zero size, and so to have been infinitely hot . . . The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired."

The Vedas also state that creation is ongoing: what has been in the past is being repeated   in the new cycle. Stephen Hawking writes, "Thus, when we see the universe, we are seeing it as it was in the past." He further writes, "But how did he [God] choose the initial state or configuration of the universe? One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to know."

It is perhaps enough for the modern mind to know how great is the similarity. Vedanta does not support the "big bang" theory and its mechanistic materialism. We have merely cited certain common ideas to be found in both.
Brahman is the ultimate Reality. Brahman is impersonal-personal God. Impersonal God may be called the static aspect and personal God may be called the dynamic aspect of
Brahman. The static aspect Anid Avatam - as Rg-Veda puts it, "It existed without any movement." Brahman is truth, Consciousness and Infinitude. Knowledge, will and action are inherent in Brahman. God projects the universe by animating His prakriti (maya).

Astrophysics and Advaita Vedanta agree on certain points. Advaita Vedanta upholds the notion of the pulsating or oscillating universe. Creation is followed by dissolution and this process will continue ad infinitum. Science used the term "big bang" for the starting point of creation and "big crunch" for the dissolution of the universe.

The "cosmic egg” of Vedanta, which is like a point, is called singularity in astrophysics. The background material of the scientist cannot be accepted as the source of creation.  That is the biggest difference between the two systems. Science is still exploring and remains inconclusive but Vedanta has given the final verdict, which is unassailable. Unless there is one changeless Reality, change cannot be perceived at all”.--Unquote

We will now attempt to study the Aitareya Upanishad in detail. (We have already covered in full the study of the Prasna and Svetasvatara Upanishads and briefly the Mundaka Upanishad in this website).

Introduction to the Aitareya Upanishad
The Aitareya Upanishad belongs to the Aitareya Aranyaka and is a part of the Rig Veda. This Upanishad consists of 3 chapters; the first chapter has 3 sections and the remaining two chapters do not have any sections. In the earlier portions of the Aranyaka rituals for the attainment of oneness with Saguna Brahman and their interpretations are dealt with. It is the purpose of the Upanishad to lead the mind of the ritualist away from the outer cermonials to their inner meaning. Sankara points out that there are three classes of men who wish to acquire wisdom. The highest consist of those who have turned away from the world, whose minds are freed and collected, who are eager for freedom. For such seekers this Upanishad is intended. (The other two classes of people are those who want to become free gradually and those who care only for worldly possessions).

The first chapter describes the creation. It provides an allegorical description of the creation of the universe - as also of man – from Consciousness. It uses the word ‘Brahman’ for universal Consciousness and ‘Atman’ for individual Consciousness. These two words embrace all possible concepts about God and all known names of God without any contradiction whatsoever.

Atman alone exists as the sole Reality prior to the creation of all names and forms of the phenomenal world and during their continuance and after their dissolution as well. It projects the created objects through its wondrous powers of maya. The creation is the spontaneous act of the Creator who is not impelled by any desire or necessity. It is the projection of creator’s thoughts.

The stages of creation are as follows: the different worlds, the Virat (representing the totality of the physical bodies) ► ►the deities or Devas (who control the various organs) ►►the elements►►the individual bodies►►and the food by which these bodies are sustained. After creation the Creator enters into the bodies as their living self. Thus is projected the universe of diversity. Next the Upanishad deals with the refutation (apavada) of this universe in order to arrive at the Knowledge of Atman.


atha aitareyopaniShadi prathamAdhyAye prathamaH khaNDaH
Chapter I - Section 1
The Creation of the Cosmic Person


va~n me manasi pratishthita mano me vachi pratishthitamaviravirma edhi ..

vedasya ma anisthah shrutam me ma prahasiranenadhitenahoratran

sa.ndadhamyrita.n vadishyami satya.n vadishyami .. tanmamavatu

tadvaktaramavatvavatu mamavatu vaktaramavatu vaktaram.h ..

om shantih shantih shantih

May my speech be fixed in my mind, may my mind be fixed in my speech!
O self-luminous Brahman, reveal yourself to me.
O mind and speech enable me to grasp the truth which the scriptures teach.
Let me not forget what I learnt. Let me study day and night.
May I think truth? May I speak truth?
May truth protect me? May truth protect the teacher?
Protect me. Protect the teacher. Protect the teacher.
Aum. Peace! Peace! Peace! 

Mantra 1

om atma va idameka evagra asinnanyatki.nchana mishat.h . sa ikshata

lokannu srija iti .. 1..

In the beginning all this verily was Atman (Absolute Self) only, one and without a second. There was nothing else that winked. He (Atman) willed Himself: "Let Me now create the worlds".

It is the common experience that change can take place only upon a changeless base. The moving waters of a river should have a motionless river-bed. The moving train must have a rigid ground to move upon. Similarly, the world around us is ever changing and the continuity of change gives us the illusion of permanency to it. For this phenomenon of continuous change, we must have a changeless, permanent factor and all our scriptures are an enquiry into the existence and nature of that permanent Absolute Factor. This Upanishad is one such enquiry. In this Mantra the master says that ‘in the beginning’ i.e., before the manifested creation came into existence ‘Self alone existed’. It is just like telling in a cloth shop that before all the varieties of fabrics came into being all those were nothing but cotton.  In the same way we are told that before the manifested world got projected, it was all Consciousness alone, all pervading and eternal.

We must note here that the sage has deliberately used the word Atman and not Brahman. This can be explained by means of the example of foam. Prior to its manifestation foam was being called as water and after its manifestation it is called both as water and foam. The idea is that before the creation of the pluralistic world of objects, names and forms all that remained was the Self (Atman –individual Consciousness) which is nothing other than Brahman(Universal Consciousness) for there is no difference between pot space and universal outer space.

The Mantra adds that there was no other active principle or entity at that time in the Supreme. This means that the Supreme did not create the world of plurality out of some material cause that already existed like a potter making a pot out of clay that already existed. In the creation of the world the Supreme himself is the material and efficient cause. It also indicates that creation is a misinterpreted super-imposition upon the truth as the appearance of a snake on the rope is available to the disillusioned and confused person only. This is called adhyaropa in Vedanta.

How did the creation take place? He thought I shall indeed create the worlds. At the end of the cycle, the totality of beings living at that time remains in the form of vasanas or mental impressions. In the beginning of the next cycle, these vasanas are projected by the Supreme (who for this purpose is called Isvara) according to the quality of their past actions to seek out their fulfillment in the objective world to appear. The point to keep in mind is that although the creation is the will of Brahman, the resultant product is not based on His arbitrary whims and fancies but on the nature of past actions by the created persons.

Thus the story of creation in Aitareya Upanishad starts when there was nothing other than Consciousness, also called Atman, This One and Absolute Consiousness willed to create a world of multiplicity and relativity. Creation is a consequence of that Will Power, ‘Tapas’.

The philosophy of Atman is stated here in brevity in the form of a sutra. Later on, by the demonstration that names and forms are mere illusory superimpositions (adhyaropa) and then by their refutation (apavada) will be shown the unreal nature of phenomena and the sole reality of Atman.

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