By Subhamoy Das, About.com Guide
The Upanishads form the core of Indian philosophy. They are an amazing collection of writings from original oral transmissions, which have been aptly described by Shri Aurobindo as "the supreme work of the Indian mind". It is here that we find all the fundamental teachings that are central to Hinduism — the concepts of 'karma' (action), 'samsara' (reincarnation), 'moksha' (nirvana), the 'atman' (soul), and the 'Brahman' (Absolute Almighty). They also set forth the prime Vedic doctrines of self-realization, yoga and meditation. The Upanishads are summits of thought on mankind and the universe, designed to push human ideas to their very limit and beyond. They give us both spiritual vision and philosophical argument, and it is by a strictly personal effort that one can reach the truth.
Meaning of 'Upanishad'
The term 'Upanishad' literally means, "sitting down near" or "sitting close to", and implies listening closely to the mystic doctrines of a guru or a spiritual teacher, who has cognized the fundamental truths of the universe. It points to a period in time when groups of pupils sat near the teacher and learnt from him the secret teachings in the quietude of forest 'ashrams' or hermitages. In another sense of the term, 'Upanishad' means 'brahma-knowledge' by which ignorance is annihilated. Some other possible meanings of the compound word 'Upanishad' are "placing side by side" (equivalence or correlation), a "near approach" (to the Absolute Being), "secret wisdom" or even "sitting near the enlightened".
Time of Composition
Historians and Indologists have put the date of composition of the Upanishads from around 800 - 400 B.C., though many of the verse versions may have been written much later. In fact, they were written over a very long period of time and do not represent a coherent body of information or one particular system of belief. However, there is a commonality of thought and approach.
The Main Books
Although there are more than 200 Upanishads, only thirteen have been identified out as presenting the core teachings. They are the Chandogya, Kena, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka, Taittriyaka, Brihadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Isa, Prasna, Mandukya and the Maitri Upanishads. One of the oldest and longest of the Upanishads, the Brihadaranyaka says:
"From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!"
The crux of the Upanishads is that this can be achieved by meditating with the awareness that one's soul ('atman') is one with all things, and that 'one' is 'Brahman', which becomes the 'all'.
Who wrote the Upanishads?
The authors of the Upanishads were many, but they were not solely from the priestly caste. They were poets prone to flashes of spiritual wisdom, and their aim was to guide a few chosen pupils to the point of liberation, which they themselves had attained. According to some scholars, the main figure in the Upanishads is Yajnavalkya, the great sage who propounded the doctrine of 'neti-neti', the view that "truth can be found only through the negation of all thoughts about it". Other important Upanishadic sages are Uddalaka Aruni, Shwetaketu, Shandilya, Aitareya, Pippalada, Sanat Kumara. Many earlier Vedic teachers like Manu, Brihaspati, Ayasya and Narada are also found in the Upanishads.
The human being is the central mystery of the universe holding the key to all other mysteries. Indeed, human beings are our own greatest enigma. As the famous physicist Niels Bohr once said, "We are both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence." Hence the importance of developing of what is known as the "science of human possibilities." It was such a science that India sought and found in the Upanishads in an attempt to unravel the mystery of human beings.
Science of the Self
Today, we see a growing urge in everyone to realize the 'true self'. We are keenly feeling the need to make our knowledge flower into wisdom. A strange yearning to know about the infinite and the eternal disturbs us. It is against this background of modern thought and aspirations that the contributions of the Upanishads to the human cultural legacy become significant.
The purpose of the Vedas was to ensure the true welfare of all beings, worldly as well as spiritually. Before such a synthesis could be achieved, there was a need to penetrate the inner worlds to its depth. This is what the Upanishads did with precision and gave us the science of the self, which helps man leave behind the body, the senses, the ego and all other non-self elements, which are perishable. The Upanishads tell us the great saga of this discovery — of the divine in the heart of man.
The Inside Story!
Very early in the development of the Indian civilization, man became aware of a strange new field of human experience — the within of nature as revealed in man, and in his consciousness and his ego. It gathered volume and power as years rolled on until in the Upanishads it became a deluge issuing in a systematic, objective and scientific pursuit of truth in the depth of experience. It conveys to us an impression of the tremendous fascination that this new field of inquiry held for the contemporary mind.
These Indian thinkers were not satisfied with their intellectual speculations. They discovered that the universe remained a mystery and the mystery only deepened with the advance of such knowledge, and one of the important components of that deepening mystery is the mystery of man himself. The Upanishads became aware of this truth, which modern science now emphasizes.
In the Upanishads we get a glimpse into the workings of the minds of the great Indian thinkers who were unhampered by the tyranny of religious dogma, political authority, pressure of public opinion, seeking truth with single-minded devotion, rare in the history of thought. As Max Muller has pointed out, "None of our philosophers, not accepting Heraclitus, Plato, Kant, or Hegel has ventured to erect such a spire, never frightened by storm or lightnings."
Bertrand Russell rightly said: "Unless men increase in wisdom as much as in knowledge, increase in knowledge will be increase in sorrow." While the Greeks and the others specialized in the subject of man in society, India specialized in man in depth, man as the individual, as Swami Ranganathananda puts it. This was one ruling passion of the Indo-Aryans in the Upanishads. The great sages of the Upanishads were concerned with man above and beyond his political or social dimensions. It was an inquiry, which challenged not only life but also death and resulted in the discovery of the immortal and the divine self of man.
Shaping the Indian Culture
The Upanishads gave a permanent orientation to Indian culture by their emphasis on inner penetration and their wholehearted advocacy of what the Greeks later formulated in the dictum "man, know thyself." All subsequent developments of Indian culture were powerfully conditioned by this Upanishadic legacy.
The Upanishads reveal an age characterized by a remarkable fervent of thought and inspiration. The physical and mental climate that made it possible is the land of plenty that was India. The entire social milieu of the Indo-Aryans was ripe with great potentialities. They had found leisure to think and ask questions. They had the choice to utilize the leisure either to conquer the outer world or the inner. With their mental gifts, they had turned their mental energies to the conquest of the inner world rather than of the world of matter and life at the sensate level.
The Upanishads have given us a body of insights that have a universal quality about them and this universality derives from their impersonality. The sages who discovered them had depersonalized themselves in the search for truth. They wanted to go beyond nature and realize the transcendental nature of man. They dared to take up this challenge and the Upanishads are the unique record of the methods they adopted, the struggles they undertook and the victory they achieved in this astonishing adventure of human spirit. And this is conveyed to us in passages of great power and poetic charm. In seeking the immortal, the sages conferred the immortality upon the literature that conveyed it.
The Principal Upanishads
In the Upanishads we can study the graceful conflict of thought with thought, the emergence of more satisfactory thought and the rejection of inadequate ideas. Hypotheses were advanced and rejected on the touchstone of experience and not at the dictate of a creed. Thus thought forged ahead to unravel the mystery of the world in which we live. Let's have a quick look at the 13 principal Upanishads:
The Chandogya Upanishad is the Upanishad that belongs to the followers of the Sama Veda. It is actually the last eight chapters of the ten-chapter Chandogya Brahmana, and it emphasizes the importance of chanting the sacred Aum, and recommends a religious life, which constitutes sacrifice, austerity, charity, and the study of the Vedas, while living in the house of a guru. This Upanishad contains the doctrine of reincarnation as an ethical consequence of karma. It also lists and explains the value of human attributes like speech, will, thought, meditation, understanding, strength memory and hope.
The Kena Upanishad derives its name from the word 'Kena', meaning 'by whom'. It has four sections, the first two in verse and the other two in prose. The metrical portion deals with the Supreme Unqualified Brahman, the absolute principle underlying the world of phenomenon, and the prose part deals with the Supreme as God, 'Isvara'. The Kena Upanishad concludes, as Sandersen Beck puts it, that austerity, restraint, and work are the foundation of the mystical doctrine; the Vedas are its limbs, and truth is its home. The one who knows it strikes off evil and becomes established in the most excellent, infinite, heavenly world.
The Aitareya Upanishad belongs to the Rig Veda. It is the purpose of this Upanishad to lead the mind of the sacrificer away from the outer ceremonial to its inner meaning. It deals with the genesis of the universe and the creation of life, the senses, the organs and the organisms. It also tries to delve into the identity of the intelligence that allows us to see, speak, smell, hear and know.
The Kaushitaki Upanishad explores the question whether there is an end to the cycle of reincarnation, and upholds the supremacy of the soul ('atman'), which is ultimately responsible for everything it experiences.
Katha Upanishad, which belongs to the Yajur Veda, consists of two chapters, each of which has three sections. It employs an ancient story from the Rig Veda about a father who gives his son to death (Yama), while bringing out some of the highest teachings of mystical spirituality. There are some passages common to the Gita and Katha Upanishad. Psychology is explained here by using the analogy of a chariot. The soul is the lord of the chariot, which is the body; the intuition is the chariot-driver, the mind the reins, the senses the horses, and the objects of the senses the paths. Those whose minds are undisciplined never reach their goal, and go on to reincarnate. The wise and the disciplined, it says, obtain their goal and are freed from the cycle of rebirth.
The Mundaka Upanishad belongs to the Atharva Veda and has three chapters, each of which has two sections. The name is derived from the root 'mund' (to shave) as he that comprehends the teaching of the Upanishad is shaved or liberated from error and ignorance. The Upanishad clearly states the distinction between the higher knowledge of the Supreme Brahman and the lower knowledge of the empirical world — the six 'Vedangas' of phonetics, ritual, grammar, definition, metrics, and astrology. It is by this higher wisdom and not by sacrifices or worship, which are here considered 'unsafe boats', that one can reach the Brahman. Like the Katha, the Mundaka Upanishad warns against "the ignorance of thinking oneself learned and going around deluded like the blind leading the blind". Only an ascetic ('sanyasi') who has given up everything can obtain the highest knowledge.
The Taittiriya Upanishad is also part of the Yajur Veda. It is divided into three sections: The first deals with the science of phonetics and pronunciation, the second and the third deal with the knowledge of the Supreme Self ('Paramatmajnana'). Once again, here, Aum is emphasized as peace of the soul, and the prayers end with Aum and the chanting of peace ('Shanti') thrice, often preceded by the thought, "May we never hate." There is a debate regarding the relative importance of seeking the truth, going through austerity and studying the Vedas. One teacher says truth is first, another austerity, and a third claims that study and teaching of the Veda is first, because it includes austerity and discipline. Finally, it says that the highest goal is to know the Brahman, for that is truth.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is generally recognized to be the most important of the Upanishads, consists of three sections ('Kandas'), the Madhu Kanda which expounds the teachings of the basic identity of the individual and the Universal Self, the Muni Kanda which provides the philosophical justification of the teaching and the Khila Kanda, which deals with certain modes of worship and meditation, ('upasana'), hearing the 'upadesha' or the teaching ('sravana'), logical reflection ('manana'), and contemplative meditation ('nididhyasana').
TS Eliot's landmark work The Waste Land ends with the reiteration of the three cardinal virtues from this Upanishad: 'Damyata' (restraint), 'Datta' (charity) and 'Dayadhvam' (compassion) followed by the blessing 'Shantih shantih shantih', that Eliot himself translated as "the peace that passeth understanding."
The Svetasvatara Upanishad derives its name from the sage who taught it. It is theistic in character and identifies the Supreme Brahman with Rudra (Shiva) who is conceived as the author of the world, its protector and guide. The emphasis is not on Brahman the Absolute, whose complete perfection does not admit of any change or evolution, but on the personal 'Isvara', omniscient and omnipotent who is the manifested Brahma. This Upanishad teaches the unity of the souls and world in the one Supreme Reality. It is an attempt to reconcile the different philosophical and religious views, which prevailed at the time of its composition.
The Isavasya Upanishad derives its name from the opening word of the text 'Isavasya' or 'Isa', meaning 'Lord' that encloses all that moves in the world. Greatly revered, this short Upanishad is often put at the beginning of the Upanishads, and marks the trend toward monotheism in the Upanishads. Its main purpose is to teach the essential unity of God and the world, being and becoming. It is interested not so much in the Absolute in itself ('Parabrahman') as in the Absolute in relation to the world ('Paramesvara'). It says that renouncing the world and not coveting the possessions of others can bring joy. The Isha Upanishad concludes with a prayer to Surya (sun) and Agni (fire).
The Prashna Upanishad belongs to the Atharva Veda and has six sections dealing with six questions or 'Prashna' put to a sage by his disciples. The questions are: From where are all the creatures born? How many angels support and illumine a creature and which is supreme? What is the relationship between the life-breath and the soul? What are sleep, waking, and dreams? What is the result of meditating on the word Aum? What are the sixteen parts of the Spirit? This Upanishad answers all these six vital questions.
The Mandukya Upanishad belongs to the Atharva Veda and is an exposition of the principle of Aum as consisting of three elements, a, u, m, which may be used to experience the soul itself. It contains twelve verses that delineate four levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a fourth mystical state of being one with the soul. This Upanishad by itself, it is said, is enough to lead one to liberation.
The Maitri Upanishad is the last of what are known as the principal Upanishads. It recommends meditation upon the soul ('atman') and life ('prana'). It says that the body is like a chariot without intelligence but it is driven by an intelligent being, who is pure, tranquil, breathless, selfless, undying, unborn, steadfast, independent and endless. The charioteer is the mind, the reins are the five organs of perception, the horses are the organs of action, and the soul is unmanifest, imperceptible, incomprehensible, selfless, steadfast, stainless and self-abiding. It also tells the story of a king, Brihadratha, who realized that his body is not eternal, and went into the forest to practice austerity, and sought liberation from reincarnating existence.