A Brief Introduction to the Upanishads

Upanishad Teacher

by Jayaram V

Summary: This is a brief introduction to the meaning, importance, knowledge and the main teachings of the Upanishads."


The Upanishads constitute the end part of the four Vedas namely the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Hence, they are also known as Vedanta, meaning the end of the Vedas (Veda + Anta). They represent the highest thought of the Vedic religion, and so also Hinduism.

The Vedanta school of philosophy is derived mainly from the knowledge of the Upanishads only. It has many branches such as the Dvaita, Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita Advaita and so on. All these schools acknowledge Brahman as the highest supreme reality and the whole creation as his manifestation, emanation or projection, representing the alternate reality or the illusion (Maya). Understanding Brahman and our relationship with him is crucial to spiritualize our lives and achieve liberation by practising Dharma and exemplifying God’s eternal duties upon earth.

The meaning of the word Upanishad

Two possible, traditional meanings have been ascribed to the word Upanishad. According to the first, Upanishad (upa+ni+sad) means sitting near or down. It refers to the way the Upanishads were taught to the students in ancient India. The knowledge of the Upanishads was confined to a few teachers who were either Kshatriyas or Brahmanas. They directly passed on the knowledge in person to a few select students according to their merit and under an oath of secrecy.

Since the knowledge was taught to students who sat near the master, at a lower level or at his feet, while the master sat on a higher seat (asana), his teaching was called Upanishad. Since secrecy was associated with the teachings, the knowledge of the Upanishads is also known as the secret knowledge (gudha) or utmost secret knowledge (athi gudha).

According to the second interpretation Upanishad means the knowledge which destroys the bonds of ignorance and leads to liberation. The knowledge of the Upanishads is essentially the knowledge of Supreme Self (Brahman) and the individual Self (Atman). Knowledge of these two eternal realities is considered true knowledge or pure knowledge (sat), in contrast to the worldly knowledge (asat) which is temporary and which leads to ignorance, delusion and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. Since the knowledge of the Upanishads destroys ignorance, it is considered liberating knowledge. In his commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishads, Sri Shankaracharya suggested that Upanishad meant that which led to the highest bliss. What he probably meant was that the knowledge of the Upanishads would lead to eternal bliss by destroying bondage and suffering.

A third interpretation is also possible which leads to the same meaning. Upa, which is usually used as prefix to a verb or a noun has several meanings. It means an advice or the instruction of a teacher, reverence or worship and nearness or proximity in space, number, time or degree. Traditional interpretations of the Upanishad take the last meaning into consideration. If we go by the other meanings, Upanishads means an instruction or advice by a teacher  in close proximity from a higher ground of awareness (upa) to students sitting below (ni) regarding the destruction (shad) of ignorance, bondage, etc.

Knowledge and ignorance

The two types of knowledge are mentioned in some Upanishads such as the Isa Upanishad and even in the Bhagavadgita (which is considered by some as an Upanishad in itself). They are the knowledge of the rituals (karma kanda) and the knowledge of liberation (jnana kanda). They are also alternatively described as vidya and avidya (knowledge and ignorance). Vidya is the knowledge of the Self (jnanakanda), which leads to liberation and immortality. Those who attain it go to the world of Brahman by the sunlit path of immortal gods (devayana). Avidya is the knowledge of sacrifices, rites and rituals, including worldly knowledge, which helps individuals to appease gods and fulfill their desires. It leads to rebirth and suffering and extreme cases to punishment in the lower, darker worlds.

The Upanishads, however, do not ignore the importance of worldly knowledge and the obligations of worldly life, without which the world cannot continue. By renunciation of worldly life alone one does not have to practice spirituality to achieve liberation. One can live the life of a householder and still achieve the same goal by leading a wholesome and virtuous life. Hence, they urge people to practice balance and moderation and pursue both types of knowledge. One should pursue worldly knowledge (avidya) to perform obligatory duties and ensure the continuation of the worlds and the family lineage. Once those obligations are met, one should pursue spiritual knowledge (vidya) and strive for liberation.

The importance of Upanishads in Hinduism

The Upanishads played an important role in the evolution of ancient Indian thought. Many schools of Hindu philosophy, sectarian movements and even the later day religions like Buddhism and Jainism derived richly from the knowledge contained in them. Hinduism owes its philosophical depth to the knowledge of the Upanishads only. Otherwise it would have remained a religion of superficial rituals and rites and become vulnerable to superstition and obscurantism. Indeed, they were largely responsible for its popularity and philosophical and intellectual appeal.

If today Hinduism is able to attract the attention of many contemporary thinkers and scholars from diverse backgrounds, not only from India but elsewhere, the credit goes mainly to the spiritual and philosophical knowledge of the Upanishads and their ageless wisdom. Regarding them Schopenhauer commented thus, “The access to (the Vedas) by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century may claim before all previous centuries.” Upon reading the French translation of the Upanishads from Persian by Anquetil du Perron, he said, “It is the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.”

The age of the Upanishads

It is difficult to determine the age of the Upanishads. They were composed at different times and ages by different seers and scholars in the long history of Hinduism. Some like the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya and Kaushitaki Upanishads are the oldest, while some were composed during the medieval period up to 17th and 18th Centuries.

The oldest Upanishads, or at least portions of them, were probably composed during the early Vedic period when the Vedas themselves were in formative stages and the Atharvaveda, the fourth in the series, was yet to be formally recognized as a Veda. Some were probably composed in the later Vedic period. The oldest Upanishads are also probably re-renditions or fragments of the earlier Upanishads.

There is little doubt that the knowledge and philosophy of the Upanishads has evolved over time, through the contribution of many seers, masters and self-realized souls. As a result, they acquired greater depth and complexity for which they are known today.

There is also no unanimity as to their number. There might have been 300 Upanishads or so in the past. Most of them were lost due to the secrecy associated with them and the restrictions imposed upon their teaching by the tradition. The principal Upanishads are 108, of which the major Upanishads are about 12 or 13 namely Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka Taittiriya, Kaushitaki, Svetasvatara, Kena, Katha, Maitrayani, Isa, Mandukya, Mundaka, Prasna. About 30 or so are also classified as minor Upanishads since their knowledge seems to be derived from previous Upanishads.

The main teachings of the Upanishads

The Upanishads occupy an important place in Hinduism as an important branch of spiritual knowledge which is conducive to liberation. They along with the Bhagavadgita and the Vedanta Sutras are considered Prastanatraya, the triple means to the great journey of liberation. However, the Upanishads are not well structured or systematic. The same chapter or section may contain many ideas, loosely put together, without any correlation between one verse and another. You may also find in them repetitions and redundant information.

The following are the important topics and recurring themes, which are frequently found in most Upanishads.

Brahman

He is the universal, supreme Self, the highest God of Hinduism, who is the source of all and the destination of all. He is described as the indescribable, eternal, indestructible, mysterious supreme being who is both known and unknown, with form and without form, and transcendental and immanent.

Atman

He is the individual Self, an aspect of Brahman, who is pure, eternal, indescribable and indestructible in his transcendental state. In the field of Nature, he becomes the embodied Self (jivatma), experiences duality and undergoes numerous births and deaths until his liberation.

Prakriti

She is the material aspect of Brahman, who provides materiality, dynamism, diversity and change to the manifested reality of Brahman. She is the active principle of Brahman, divisible but indestructible, who manages the entire creation with her innumerable powers (shaktis) and deluding nature (maya).

Creation

The Upanishads contain many verses which describe how the creation happened. They describe Brahman as the source of all creation. According to them, creation was an act of personal sacrifice by Brahman. In the beginning, there was Brahman only. Nothing else existed. Then he became many and manifested the worlds and beings

Devas

The gods are aspects of Brahman. They may know him or may not know him or may know him partially. They play an important role in creation and represent Brahman in their highest and purest state. Their hierarchy in creation depends upon their knowledge of Brahman and purity.

Organs

The organs in the body are partial manifestations of Brahman. They are also considered devas in the microcosms of beings. They are vulnerable to evil influences and desire-ridden actions. Breath is their lord. They remain in the body as long as the body is alive. Upon death, they leave the body and depart to their respective spheres.

Sacrifice

The Upanishads describe the ritual sacrifices such as the horse sacrifices or the full moon sacrifices as well as the internal sacrifice such as Dhyana. They also contain descriptions of symbolic sacrifices such as sexual intercourse, breathing and digestion of food in the body. The sacrifice itself is compared to Brahman and different aspects of it are compared to different aspects of Brahman or his creation.

Aum

Upanishads such as the Mandukya contain references to the sacred syllable Aum and its correlation with Brahman. They describe Aum as Brahman in the form of word (aksharabrahma). Each syllable in it has a symbolic significance. They represent the different states and forms of Brahman. Since it is Brahman himself, by meditating upon it and chanting it one can become pure and attain liberation.

Death

It is one of the recurring themes in the Upanishads and described as one of the first manifestations of Brahman. Death rules our world. Hence, ours is a mortal world. He is the great devourer who devours everything and whose hunger is insatiable. All that exists here is his food and end up becoming his food. In the sacrifice of life, all beings become the offerings to the god of Death.

Yoga

References to Yoga are found in several Upanishads. Some Upanishads are also known as Yoga Upanishads since they exclusively deal with the theory and practice of yoga. Frequent references to Yoga in the Upanishads prove beyond doubt that the practice of Yoga is rooted in the knowledge of the Upanishads and integral to Hindu spirituality.

Rebirth

The Upanishads explain the process of rebirth, what happens when a person dies, how the soul leaves the body and departs to the world of ancestors, how it returns to the earth and takes another birth. They also explain the circumstances which lead to rebirth. According to the Upanishad both men and women play an important role in the transmigration of souls and both act as carriers.

Karma

The idea of karma is mentioned in some earliest Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They explain how desire-ridden actions subject the body to impurities and lead to the rebirth of the souls in the mortal world while those who indulge in most sinful actions fall down into the lower worlds and are reborn as worms and insects.

Liberation

The ultimate goal of the Upanishads is to help humans achieve liberation by overcoming their desires, ignorance and delusion. They explain the importance of cultivating purity through detachment and renunciation and by contemplating upon the Self. According to the Upanishads, liberation means freedom from birth and death.

Mahavakyas

The wisdom of the Upanishads is often condensed into short statements or phrases, which are traditionally used in spiritual discussions and contemplation. They are known as Mahavakyas. The Upanishads contain important Mahavakyas such as aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman), prajnanam brahma (Brahman is intelligence), tat tvam asi (you are that).

Apart from the above, the Upanishads also contain references to esoteric rituals, anecdotes about seers and sages, important conversations and dialogues about the Self or Brahman, references to historic events and ancient belief systems, social and religious practices, caste system, status of women, the nature of consciousness and types of spiritual knowledge (Brahmavidyas), etc.

Conclusion

The Upanishads elevate our thoughts and expand our awareness. They not only represent the unity and oneness of the whole existence but also remind us of our unity and oneness with Brahman. Since we are divine beings who possess the spark of Brahman and represent his consciousness and beingness as his aspects, it becomes obligatory on our part to live up to the lofty vision they represent and elevate our consciousness into still greater heights.

From the Upanishads, we learn this. A devotee may worship God in initial stages, but eventually he must overcome his limitations and become God in word and deed so that he manifests the best and the highest in him. Through perseverance, faith and purity he must transcend mortality and enter the realm of Brahman. This is the most important message of the Upanishads.

Truly, the Upanishads are the greatest contribution of India and Hinduism to the religious and philosophical wisdom of the world. There is no exaggeration in stating that even a cursory study of the Upanishads is bound to change our thinking and ways of living. They point to the possibilities and opportunities that await us in the spiritual realm. Unfortunately, although the knowledge of the Upanishads is now freely available to all, many Hindus still tend to focus on the knowledge of rituals rather than the knowledge of the Upanishads. It is probably how the world is meant to be. As the Bhagavadgita suggests, out of millions of people only a few feel inspired to pursue the knowledge of the Self and liberation.

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