The Upanishads – An Overview

The Upanishads are ancient texts from India. Upanishad is translated as “sit down closely” to listen to instruction by a teacher. However, Upanishad is also interpreted as “secret teaching” or “revealing the underlying truth”. The truths discussed on the Upanishads are the concepts expressed in the Veda’s the world’s oldest texts. 

Veda means “knowledge” and the four Veda’s are thought to express the fundamental knowledge of human existence. These works are considered Shruti meaning “what is heard”.  The Sages who composed the Veda’s were able to interpret the vibrations of the universe and shared their understanding orally before they were written down between c. 1900 – c. 500 BCE. 

The Upanishads

The Upanishads are thought to be the “end of the Vedas” or Vedanta. For they expand, explain and develop Vedic concepts through narratives and dialogues. These narratives and dialogues of the Upanishads encourage one to engage with these concepts on a personal level.  

There were apparently over a thousand Upanishads, but only between 180-200 Upanishads have been discovered.  Of these the most well-known are the 13 Upanishads which are embedded at the end of  the four Vedas. The four Veda’s are known as:

  1. Rig Veda
  2. Sama Veda
  3. Yajur Veda
  4. Atharva Veda

The Rig Veda is the oldest and the Sama Veda and Yajur Veda follow from it directly. The Atharva Veda takes a different course. All four Veda’s maintain the same vision and the Upanishads for each Veda addresses the themes and concepts expressed in that Veda. 

The 13 well known Upanishads are:

  1. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
  2. Chandogya Upanishad
  3. Taittiriya Upanishad
  4. Aitereya Upanishad
  5. Kausitaki Upanishad
  6. Kena Upanishad
  7. Katha Upanishad
  8. Isha Upanishad
  9. Svetasvatara Upanishad
  10. Mundaka Upanishad
  11. Prashna Upanishad
  12. Maitri Upanishad
  13. Mandukya Upanishad

The Upanishads deal with the individual’s place in the universe. and the related fundamental concept of the Universal Self known as Brahman. The Upanishads discuss the Atman, the individual’s higher self, whose goal in life is union with Brahman – The Universal Self. 

Central Concepts of Upanishads

Everyone carried a spark of the divine within them & one’s goal in life was to reunite that spark with the source from which it had come.

People moved and ate food and felt emotions and reproduced but, the  ancient Indian sages asked, “what was it that enabled them to do these things?”

They realised that people had minds, which caused them to think, and concepts of self, which caused them to feel. But they believe that this did not seem to explain what made a ‘human being a human being’. 

The sages’ proposed that there was a higher self within the body which they called  the Atman.  And this Atman was a part of Brahman within each individual. 

“Everyone carried a spark of the Divine within them and one’s goal in life was to reunite that spark with the source from which it had come.”

This realization of the Atman led to them to conclude that duality was an illusion. They believed that there was no separation between human beings and the Divine.  There was only the illusion of separation.  In the same way, there was no separation between individuals. Every one of us has this same divine essence within and everyone is on the same path, in the same ordered universe, toward the same destination. 

The Upanishads state that there is, therefore, no need to look for a God because the Divine is already dwelling within. This concept is best expressed in the Chandogya Upanishad by the phrase Tat Tvam Asi – “Thou Art That”. You are already what you want to become. You have to realize this.  

According to the Upanishads – the goal of life,  is self-actualization – to become completely aware of and in touch with your higher self – so that you could live as closely as possible in accordance with the Eternal Order of the Universe. Each individual was thought to have been placed on earth for a specific purpose which was their duty (dharma) which they needed to perform with the right action in order to achieve self-actualization. Your limited actions – karma was caused by ignorance of the good and failure to perform one’s dharma – correct action.

Karma resulted in suffering – and so suffering was ultimately the individual’s own fault. The concept of karma always meant that one’s actions had consequences which led to certain predictable results. The individual’s ability to manage his or her karma led one to success or failure, satisfaction or sorrow.

The transmigration of souls (reincarnation) was considered a given in that, if a person failed to perform their dharma – correct actions in life, their karma (past actions) would cause them to repeat the same patterns over and over again. This is often taken to mean the cycle of rebirth and death was known as samsara. However, one can find liberation (moksha) from samsara through the self-actualization – realising their true higher self – Atman.  Moksha united the Atman withBrahman.

The Principal Upanishads

These concepts are explored throughout the Upanishads through narrative dialogues. Western scholars equate the Upanishadic dialogues to the philosophical dialogues of Socrates as expounded by Plato.  

Other Western scholars have criticized the interpretation of the Upanishads philosophy arguing that they do not present a cohesive train of thought. The Upanishads vary in focus from one to the next and never arrive at a conclusion. 

Yet this criticism completely misses the point of the Upanishads which were not created to provide answers at all – but to provoke every individual to ask questions.

The Upanishads encourage every individuals to explore their inner selves through interaction with others who are doing the same thing.

dialogues are sometimes between teacher and student, husband and wife, and in the case of the Katha Upanishad, between a youth Nachiketa and a Death. In every dialogue, there is someone who knows a truth and someone who needs to learn it. The reader is encouraged to identify with the seeker. 

The Upanishads give you the ultimate answer in the phrase Tat Tvam Asi.  However, you cannot realise its meaning without doing the personal work to discover who truly you are as opposed to who you thinks you are. The Upanishads encourage every person to explore their inner landscape and to interact with the characters who are on a similar path.

Here are the 13 main Upanishads with a brief explanation of their teaching.

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: This is the oldest Upanishad and is embedded in the Yajur Veda. This Upanishad deals with the Atman – the Higher Self, the immortality of this Atman, the illusion of duality and the underlying unity of all reality.

Chandogya Upanishad: This is embedded in the Sama Veda.  It repeats some content from the Brhadaranyaka but here the narrative is expressed in metrical form. This is what gives this Upanishad its name.  Chanda is poetry or meter. Using meter, the concepts of Atman-Brahman, Tat Tvam Asi and dharma are further developed.

Taittiriya Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Yajur Veda.  It continues the theme of unity and proper ritual to realise this unity. It concludes by commending the realization that duality is an illusion, and everyone is a part of the same.

Aitereya Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Rig Veda.  The Aitereya repeats a number of themes addressed in the first two Upanishads but it does it in a slightly different way. The Aitereya emphasizes the human condition and joys of living in accordance with dharma.

Kausitaki Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Rig Veda.  It repeats themes addressed elsewhere but focuses on the unity of existence. Kausitaki emphasises the illusion of individuality which causes people to feel separated from each another.

Kena Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Sama Veda. Kena develops themes from the Kausitaki with a focus on epistemology. The Kena rejects the intellectual pursuit of spiritual truth. It claims that one can only understand Brahman through self-knowledge.

Katha Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Yajur Veda. The Katha emphasizes the importance of living in the present without worrying about past or future. It discusses the concept of moksha – liberation. 

Isha Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Yajur Veda.  the Isha focuses on unity and the illusion of duality. It emphasises the importance of performing one’s karma – limited actions in accordance with one’s dharma – right actions.

Svetasvatara Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Yajur Veda.  It focuses on the First Cause. Svetasvatara continues to discuss the relationship between the Atman and Brahman and highlights the importance of self-discipline as the means to self-actualization.  

Mundaka Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Atharva Veda. Mundaka teaches that personal spiritual knowledge is superior to intellectual knowledge.  The text makes a distinction between higher and lower knowledge with “higher knowledge” defined as self-actualization.

Prashna Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Atharva Veda. Prashna discusses the existential nature of the human condition. It suggests devotion as the means to liberate one’s self from the cycle of rebirth and death.

Maitri Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Yajur Veda.  Maitri focuses on the constitution of Atman. It discusses the various means by which human beings suffer and how you may achieve liberation from suffering through self-actualization.

Mandukya Upanishad: This Upanishad is embedded in the Athar Veda. Mandukya deals with the significance of the syllable of OM. Detachment from life’s distractions is important in realizing one’s Atman. Mandukya also discusses the different states of consciousness. 

Any one of the Upanishads offers the reader the opportunity to engage in their own journey to discover the Ultimate Truth.  Understanding the Upanishads reduces the distractions of the mind and to helps develop higher levels of consciousness. 

It is claimed that the more one engages with these texts, the closer one comes to Ultimate Intuitive knowledge. This is encouraged by a paradox – the inherently rational, intellectual, nature of the discourses are constantly contrasted with repeated emphasis on rejecting rational, intellectual attempts at apprehending the truth. Ultimate Truth cannot be understood, it needs to be experienced.   

How the Upanishads influenced the World

They were translated into Persian in 1615-1659 CE during the reign of Dara Shukoh a liberal Muslim prince who believed the Upanishads transcended all religion. He presented the works as “secret teachings” which revealed the final truths of existence.

The Upanishads were translated into Latin in  1731-1805 CE by the French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron. This brought the Upanishads to the attention of European scholars in 1804 CE. 

The first English translation of the primary Upanishads was done by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke .

The Upanishads garnered considerable attention throughout the early part of the 19th century.  They were appreciated by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who declared them the equal of any philosophical text in the world. Schopenhauer’s admiration for the Upanishads encouraged Western writers to borrow from the Upanishads in their work.

The American poet T.S. Eliot (l. 1888-1965 CE) used direct quotes from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad in his masterpiece The Wasteland (1922 CE).  

Somerset Maugham (l. 1874-1965 CE)  used a line from the Katha Upanishad as the epigraph to his novel The Razor’s Edge. The Upanishads were also central to his plot and the development of his main character.

The writers and poets of the 1950’s Beat Generation popularised the Upanishads in their works and this trend continued through the 1960s CE. 

In the present day, the Upanishads are recognized by scholars as the greatest works in the world. They continue to engage many modern seekers, searching for deeper meaning in life. 

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