Myths and Misconceptions About The Upanishads

The Wisdom of Upanishads

by 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

The Upanishads occupy an important place in Hinduism. They richly contributed to the development of philosophy, teacher traditions and ascetic movements in the growth of Hinduism. However, not many people have read the Upanishads or know the truths about them. Hence, there are misconceptions about what they are, what they contain, and what they teach. The following are a few popular misconceptions about the Upanishads which are worth noting.

1. The Upanishads are the end part of the Vedas. It is true that traditionally the Upanishads are considered the end part of the Vedas. However, many Upanishads are derived from the Brahmanas and Aranyaka and do not strictly qualify as Vedanta or the end part of the Vedas.

2. All Upanishads are part of the Vedas. This assertion is also untrue. Only the most important and classical Upanishads form part of the Vedas. Some of them are associated with the Puranas and the Tantras, and some are independent works. The Upanishads that we have today are complete rewrites or partial compilations of older Upanishads. Some of them use ancient names such as Svetaketu, Aruni or Yajnavalkya to gain respect and recognition, but they might have been created a few centuries ago during the medieval times from previous ones or based on the teachings of their teachers traditions.

3. The Upanishads are very ancient. This is only partially true because of the one hundred plus Upanishads that are officially recognized, only a few, about 15 or so are very ancient. Of them also, only a few verses may actually belong to the early Vedic period and the rest were added at different times. Some Upanishads may be just a few hundred years old.

4. The Upanishads are sruti, not man made. Technically you may conclude that since the Vedas considered sruti, the Upanishad also qualify as the same. However, while the Samhitas and Brahmanas remained largely unchanged and unedited since ancient times, the same cannot be said about the Aranyakas and Upanishads. As stated before the present day Upanishads are largely recompilations and came to us from different Vedic schools (shakas) and teacher traditions. Therefore we cannot say clearly which Upanishads constitute sruti and which do not.

5. The Upanishads contain the knowledge of modern astronomy and psychology. This is untrue or true only in a limited sense. The Upanishad provide an insight into the ritual and spiritual knowledge of the Vedas. They deal with not only the knowledge of Atman, Brahman, creation, and liberation, but also with the knowledge of sacrificial rituals, magical spells, sexual charms, conception, lovemaking, etc. In some respects they may present rudimentary theories of modern astronomy and psychology but we cannot really put them in the same category.

6. The Upanishads were composed by Vedic seers. The knowledge of the Upanishads came to us from different sources. Some of verses certainly the work of great seers and scholars. However, we cannot say the same about every Upanishad or every verse found in them. Many of them are loose compilations of ancient texts and teachings of ancient masters preserved by their schools. They may contain teachings and philosophy of the Vedic seers, but we cannot definitively say which of the verses or Upanishads were composed by them.

7. The Upanishads uphold the school of Vedanta. Vedanta is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. The school predominantly derives its knowledge from the Upanishads, and other parts of the Vedas. However, due to the ambiguous nature of the verses, they have been used by different schools and sub schools in Hinduism to validate their arguments and provide verbal testimony in support of their theories. << >>

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