How old are the Upanishads?

The Wisdom of Upanishads

by Jayaram V

The Upanishads are the heart of Hinduism. I was introduced to them by chance nearly forty years ago, and ever since my interest in them only grew. It was out of my interest I translated several Upanishads twice in the past. The first attempt was several years ago, and it was meant mainly for the Internet. In my recent attempt, which took me over a year, I translated 16 major Upanishads covering over 1700 slokas. For me the exercise was more like an active meditation with an opportunity to communicate with the best of the ancient minds and making sense of their universal vision of God and existence. In this section I want to share with you the wisdom of the Upanishads, whenever I am inspired to do so. I hope to present at least a few every month until my thoughts are exhausted or my interest has waned. I hope you will find them useful. Jayaram V

Please do not look for complete answers or information in these. They are fragments of thoughts which deal with only certain aspects of the chosen subject


How old are the Upanishads? I cannot give you a definite answer to this, just as I cannot tell you when the Vedas were originally composed. If you go by the European argument they were composed around 1000 B.C.E. However, if you go by the astronomical calculations mentioned in the texts, their composition might date back to about 5000 B.C.E. Not all the Upanishads are ancient and not all the verses present in them were composed during the same time. We also do not know how many versions or recensions actually existed in the past for each of the Upanishads

Therefore, you have a problem fixing their dates. To determine their date, you have to know when each of the verses was composed and when all of the Upanishad in its current form came into existence. Some hymns from the Vedas date back to prehistoric times when the Vedic civilization was believed to have existed on the banks of the River Saraswathi in the area where presently the Thar desert exists.

The same may hold true for some ancient Upanishadic verses, especially which were drawn from the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas. This is based on the observation that the most ancient hymns of the Rigveda mention over seventy times the name of River Saraswathi, while you do not find in them any reference to the River Ganga.

The 108 important Upanishads were composed at different times. Some verses in them are very ancient dating back to three or four thousand years while some are more recent, composed during the medieval period. Since the knowledge of the Upanishads was kept secret, and passed on from person to person, under an oath of secrecy, it was preserved in different forms by various families and teacher traditions, who belonged to different Vedic schools called Sakhas (branches).

Each Veda contains one or more Brahmanas and several Upanishads. Of the four Vedas, Rigveda, Samaveda and Yajurveda are considered the original triad (Triveda). Therefore, if you are looking for the most ancient Upanishads, you have to search for them from the Upanishads belonging to these three. Some schools bear the same names as the Upanishads such as Aitareyins, Kausitakins, Taittiriyakas and Kathakaas. These schools used the same Samhitas from the triple Vedas to teach the ritual knowledge, but followed their own curriculum with regard to the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

The knowledge of the Upanishads was taught to the students in the end, after they gained sufficient mastery in the remaining three. Since the Upanishads were to be taught in the end and kept most secret, we do not have proper records to know how and when they exactly originated. The Upanishads that we have today are not necessarily the same Upanishads the Vedic scholar used in ancient times.

What we have today are remnants and loose compilations created from many sources. For example, the Chandogya Upanishad is a compilation of verses from various sources including two Brahmanas from the Samaveda. The Katha Upanishad which we have today might be a later day recreation of the original text or a legend that existed in the Rigvedic period in which a father sacrificed his own son in a Vedic ritual (Naramedha).

Therefore, most of the Upanishads that we read today contain verses composed at different times. Some Upanishads do not form part of the Vedas and yet qualify as Upanishads. For example the Bhagavadgita is considered an Upanishad. The knowledge of the Upanishads is also found in some Puranas and many Tantras as conversations between divinities. << >>

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