Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana: The Oldest Known Upanishad and yet Forgotten

JUB makes important breakthroughs in our understanding of Om, prana, meditation and rebirth. 

Manish Maheshwari
| 14 min read
April 01, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa (JUB), is the oldest known Upaniṣad and yet not many people are aware of it. The primary reason is that the Vedāntins do not recognise JUB as a Upaniṣad and so awareness of it has been confined to the small circle of people belonging to the Jaiminīya tradition of the Sāmaveda. JUB is not a part of the eleven principal Upaniṣads commented on by Adi Śaṅkarācārya. However, sections 4.18-21 of the JUB took on a separate life of their own and later became Kena Upaniṣad.

It is unclear why this section of JUB was classified as an authentic Upaniṣad by the Vedāntins but not JUB as a whole. This is in marked contrast to Chāndogya-Upaniṣad, also part of the Sāmaveda but which did achieve the status of principal Upaniṣad. Not many people are aware that in our earlier records, Chāndogya-Upaniṣad was called the Chāndogya-Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa.1

The principal Upaniṣads were, as a rule, written under the aegis of a Vedic śākhā and were steeped in the cultural universe of the Vedic śākhā to which they belonged. The earliest Upaniṣads —Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya-Upaniṣad—are difficult to understand without knowing their Vedic background. Modern readers, unaware of such historical context, usually rely on the commentary of our famous Vedāntin āchāryas to interpret these ancient and often impenetrable texts. It was with the Vedāntic commentaries starting 7th century CE that these Upaniṣads began to circulate as an independent text unmoored from its traditional Vedic background.

JUB belongs to the Jaiminīya branch of the Sāmaveda, while the most famous Upaniṣad of the Sāmaveda, the Chāndogya-Upaniṣad, belongs to the Kauthuma-Rāṇāyanīya branch. Similarly, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad comes from the Śukla Yajurveda and forms the last chapter of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. Understanding this lineage helps us to understand the text as well. The terminology, the world view, the method of gaining liberation is different based on the Vedic branch that the Upaniṣad belongs to.

JUB, consisting of four chapters, was first translated into English in 1896 by Hans Oertel, an American Sanskritist. This is the only English translation attempted so far. Despite its status as the earliest known Upaniṣad, its academic study has been neglected in India. Textbooks on the Upaniṣads do not mention it and, as explained earlier, contemporary Vedāntic scholars do not teach it as part of their curriculum. I have been told that JUB is known and recited in a surviving Sāmavedic schools in Kerala but am yet to confirm it.

The Japanese Vedic scholar, Masato Fujii, is by far the most erudite scholar of JUB and his numerous papers on this text are indispensable.2 Understanding JUB also requires an in-depth understanding of Sāmaveda and familiarity with the technical terminology related to sāman chants, especially the gayatra sāman. I will not attempt to do that in this essay; instead, I will focus on just three important topics where JUB makes a seminal contribution to the further development of Hinduism: OM, prāṇa (breath) and rebirth. 

Om

For the Vedic poets, certain words or phonemes properly intonated have the potency to shape or alter our material universe. In the beginning, the world was sonic, presenting itself as both the unmanifest and the material universe. This primordial sound of creation is variously called akṣara, vāc, and brahman. Ṛg Vedic sutra 10.71 and 10.125 extol the creative role of vāc, the primal sound, as the mother of the universe.

However, the sacred syllable, Om, does not occur in the Ṛg Veda Saṃhitā. Om is mentioned for the first time in the older Saṃhitā portion of Sāmaveda (assuming Yajurveda came later). It is the Sāmavedic Jaiminiya Brāhmaṇa that first explicitly integrates the syllable Om into the inherited Vedic discourses on akṣara, vāc, and brahman.3 The Jaiminiya Brāhmaṇa also develops the idea that Om, as a sound, embodies the three Vedas, uniting a range of different Vedic recitational practices under a single rubric.4  

The JUB being a Upaniṣadic text, pushes the concept of Om towards ontology and transcendence. OM, proclaims JUB, is the essence (rasa) of the three Vedas. This essence cannot be reduced further. JUB says:

 (Om is) Indra, karma, imperishableness, the immortal, the manifold, the numerous, the all, the light higher than the all; righteousness, truth, distinction, decision which is not to be contradicted; the ancient all, all speech…

All this world are pin together by this syllable (Om). That same having pierced them flows tenfold, thousandfold, ten thousandfold, hundred thousandfold, millionfold, ten millionfold, hundred millionfold, billionfold, ten billionfold, hundred billionfold, thousand billionfold. As a flood flowing in different directions (proceeding) farther and farther becomes broader, even so this syllable proceeding farther and farther becomes broader.5  

Aside from the use of such staggeringly large numbers, this paragraph captures the Sāmavedic bards’ attempt to capture the infinity and profundity of the cosmic sound Om. The universe, according to the Vedas,6 manifested from subtle to the gross. The syllable Om, the subtlest of the subtle, is the very sonic essence from which the universe emerged and in which it is permeated. The chanter can understand the very nature of existence and attain immortality through the proper intonation and recitation of Om, says JUB.

Prāṇa and Meditation

Om, both as a cosmic sound and as a human chant, is intimately connected with prāṇa at an individual and at a cosmic level. Through the cosmic vibration of Om, the entire universe is pervaded with prāṇa. The prāṇa governs all the vital functions of man not just as an individual prāṇa of a living being but as the cosmic prāṇa which pervades the entire universe. Through this prāṇa, man as a microcosm is connected with the cosmos as a macrocosm: the speech connected with fire, the mind with the moon, the sight with the sun, and the hearing with the quarters.

All the vital functions of humans emerged from the prāṇa and, after death, the individual prāṇa will merge back into the supreme prāṇa, because prāṇa is the eternal substance that every life goes back into.7 This prāṇic teaching of JUB is a precursor to the Vedāntic idea of the unity of ātman and brahman. Though the later Upaniṣad will substitute prāṇa with ātman or brahman, the idea of a cosmic and individual prāṇa was the basis on which the ontological edifice of Upaniṣad is built.  

Prāṇa is also connected with the yogic teaching of prānāyāma. The practice of prānāyāma is required to harness the cosmic prāṇa through the human breath. The practice of prānāyāma is essential for internal cleansing and for focusing the mind which is connected with breath. 

Before the recitation or chanting of the Vedic mantras, the practitioner performs a kind of mental concentration (yukti) through the regulation of breath. The act of regulating the breath is connected with identifying one’s own breath with the breath pervading the whole cosmos.  Vedic scholar Fujji Masato, commenting on the regulation of breath during the sāman chant, points out: 

“The yukti is not just a mental preparation for the sāman-chant but is, so to say, the realisation of the transcendent sāman. As a means of this realisation the act of regulating breath also must be connected with the transcendental being such as the breath pervading the world.”8

The Upaniṣadic and later yogic literature is suffused with metaphysical speculation on the ontological status of this prāṇa and its role in achieving higher yogic cognition. The connection of the Vedic chant of Om with regulated breathing and mental concentration forms one of the bases of the early teaching of yoga in the Upaniṣads and the Dharmasūtras.

Rebirth

While the concept of rebirth is vaguely referred to in the earlier Ṛg Veda,9 it is only in the Jaiminīya tradition that we find the emergence of karma and rebirth as a coherent doctrine. In the Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa, as also the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, the deceased takes either of two paths available. In the first path, the deceased goes to the sun but, unable to go beyond, comes back to the moon. The moon is associated with rebirth, and it is the repository of all the good deeds and sacrificial activity that the person did in his life. Now drinking the rasa of his good deeds in the moon (or enjoying the fruits of his good deeds in previous life), the person comes back to the earth. This is the first path.

The second path is more complicated. It involves the role of Sāmavedic priests to recite and intone correctly the sāman chant to help the deceased to reach the path of the sun. The path involves a dialogue between the deceased and the cosmic entities. As shown below, the deceased passes through various cosmic entities before reaching the final goal:   

the earth → the fire → the wind → the intermediate region → the quarters → the day and night → the half-months → months → the seasons → the year → the heavenly Gandharvas → Apsaras → the sky → the gods → the sun ↔ the moon10

At the end of this path, the deceased reaches the sun, but has full freedom to travel between the sun and the moon, which means that the deceased has the option to stay in the sun (brahma loka) or come back to the earth by taking the lunar path. In the later Upaniṣads, the lunar path would be called the path of the fathers (pitṛayāna), which is the path of rebirth, and the solar path would be called the path to the gods (devayāna) the world of brahman from which there is no rebirth. The pitṛayāna is associated with the householder life and Vedic sacrifice, while the devayāna path is associated with asceticism and renunciation.11

In JUB, we see a glimpse of the idea of karma and rebirth discussed at length for the first time in Indian textual literature. The fact that that JUB suggests that your good karma stays with you after death and can be enjoyed later, and there is a path back to earth after the enjoyment of karma, foreshadows a very sophisticated development of karma theory in later Indian religious thought.  

Conclusion

In this essay, I have avoided all the technicality related to sāman chants and instead have teased out certain concepts and doctrines central to the Jaiminīya tradition of the Sāmaveda, which then became central to Hinduism. While modern Hindus tend to think of Hinduism as a monolithic entity, it is these specialised and largely forgotten traditions that provided the building blocks of what we call Sanātana Dharma.

These ancient Sāmavedic singers were both scholars and mystics. They have preserved the oldest surviving music tradition (10th century BCE) of Hindu civilisation and have influenced almost all the music that has emerged from India. It is the Sāmaveda tradition that made seminal breakthroughs in the science of prosody, melody and linguistics.

The Sāmavedic Upaniṣads—Chāndogya and JUB—are the metaphysical texts of the Sāmaveda tradition. Their monumental speculation on Om, its inner meaning and its connection to mind and prāṇa, has led to the development of Yogic meditation and the sophisticated tantric speculations on the emanation of cosmos from the primordial sound.  A few trained Sāmavedic sāman singers among the Namboodhris of Kerala and few scattered families in South India still maintain their thousands-of-years-old family tradition. However, modernity does not care for tradition, and we will have to see how long this ancient living tradition survives.

Manish Maheshwari is the curator and editor of Tattva. He can be contacted at manish@tattvamag.org. He tweets at @manish_tattva

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