The Upanishads are an assortment of philosophical texts at the core of Hinduism. Passed down from generations through oral traditions, they talk about the Hindu philosophical concepts and principles such as Karma (right action), Atman (true self or soul), Brahman (ultimate reality) and moksha (liberation from the birth and death cycle). They also contain Vedic doctrines that explain the process of self-realisation through practices such as yoga and meditation. Considered one of the greatest philosophical and religious works globally, the Upanishads have been a source of guidance and inspiration for people throughout generations. While they are the sacred texts in Hinduism, the Upanishads are a source of answers to philosophical questions for many thinkers.
The word ‘Upanishad’ derives from the prefixes’ Upa’ and ‘Ni’ and the root word ‘sad’, which means to sit. The prefixes Upa translates to nearness, and Ni translates to totality. Therefore, the world Upanishad can be inferred as ‘sit close in devotion’ or ‘sit at the feet of’. In general, it means to pay attention like a student who learns with great interest. Over time the meaning evolved to encompass students sitting close to a teacher and listening intently to the secret he has to tell.
Upanishads are also frequently imparted as the rahasya (secret) or the guhya (mystery). In tradition, the teacher wouldn’t impart the secret knowledge to the student who hasn’t proven his worthiness to receive it. The Upanishads meaning includes ability and the book, which contains divine wisdom. However, it is essential to understand that the body of texts which constitutes the Upanishads is not a congruent philosophy. Instead, they consist of perspectives, lessons and knowledge of different people who contributed to it.
Origin of Upanishads
The Vedas, the Hindu sacred texts, are broadly divided into two categories. The Karma-Kanda (the portion that deals with actions and rituals) and the Jnana-Kanda (the amount that deals with knowledge). While Samhita and Brahmanas represent the Karma-Kanda, the Upanishads describe the Jnana-Kanda. The Upanishads refer to as ‘Vedanta’, which means the end of the Vedas. Upanishads contain dense discussions of philosophical problems, and chronologically they arrived towards the end of the Vedic period.
Upanishads classify as ‘Shruti’, which means ‘what is heard’ in Hinduism. Therefore Upanishads’ content came as divine revelation to the sages, and the knowledge was transmitted orally between c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE.
What are the Principles in Upanishads?
The philosophy of Upanishads contains important concepts that are central to understanding the divine at the highest level by realising it in oneself. Here are some of the main Principles:
Ultimate Reality: It refers to the Brahman and how the Atman is the divine spark of the Brahman. The world: This principle refers to the doctrine of Maya and the state of Avidya in all people.
Individual Self: This principle deals with knowledge and ignorance of the Atman and the true self.
Ethics: This principle deals with the concept of Karma and the need for religion.
What is the Purpose of Upanishads?
While the Upanishads are books on the knowledge of the divine, their purpose is to induce spiritual discourse that would lead one to self-realisation. The Upanishads are fruits of Brahmanism, a religious-philosophical system centred on the Brahman. The Brahman is simultaneously the creator of the universe, and Brahman is too vast to comprehend intellectually or be expressed completely in words in its full glory. Therefore, spiritual aspirants were encouraged to directly experience the Brahman through realising their highest self, the Atman. The Atman can be thought of as the soul or divine spark which carries within part of the Brahman.
The highest purpose of life, then, is to pursue one’s duty (dharma) and perform the right action (Karma), which would eventually lead to self-realisation and liberation from the cycles of birth and death (moksha). Those who attain self-realisation through yoga and meditation come to understand the phrase “Tat Tvam Asi” or “Thou Art That”. The term means that you already are the divine Brahman you wish to attain.
There is a lot of speculation on the total number of Upanishads in the Hindu community. Unless Shruti’s support, no religious system is considered valid. Therefore, founders of new religious sects often tried to pass their ideas as Upanishads. In the Muktikopanishad, 108 Upanishads have been enumerated, from which only 13 are considered the most important from the Vedantic Perspective. Each Upanishad exists as a Shakha of one of the four Vedas.
|Rigveda||Shakala||Aitareya Upanishad Kaushitaki Upanishad|
|Samaveda||Kauthuma Jaiminiya Ranayaniya||Chandogya Upanishad Kena Upanishad|
|Yajurveda||Katha Taittiriya Maitrayani Hiranyakeshi (Kapishthala) Kathaka Vajasaneyi Madhyandina Kanva Shakha||Kaṭha Upanishad Taittiriya Upanishad Shvetashvatara Upanishad Maitrayaniya Upanishad Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Isha Upanishad|
|Atharvaveda||Shaunaka Paippalada||Mundaka Upanishad Mandukya Upanishad Prashna Upanishad|
Vedas in Upanishads
The term “Veda” means knowledge, and the information contained in these sacred texts relates to existence and its functions. The Vedas are considered some of the oldest religious works globally and are a compilation of the knowledge that sages attained over time. The Upanishads are the final chapters of the Vedas. There are four main Vedas, and the Upanishads are the most frequently read parts.
The Rigveda is the oldest of all the Vedas. Composed in Sanskrit around 1500 BCE, it consists of a collection of 1,028 poems grouped into what are called mandalas. The Rigveda was transmitted orally until about 300 BCE, written down.
Vedas of the songs and chants, Samaveda is the shortest of the set and is closely linked to Rigveda. It dates back to 1200-800 BCE and contains 1549 verses. It is a storehouse of musical chants and is thought of as the root of Indian classical music.
It means ‘worship knowledge’, and dates back to 1100-800 BCE, close to Samaveda. It contains chants that priests offer during rituals such as yagnas.
The name Atharvaveda is a reference to an ancient sage and knowledge. It dates back to about 1000-800 BCE and consists of the procedures for everyday conduct along with hymns and mantras.
What are the 13 Upanishads?
Here are the thirteen Upanishads, including the principal Upanishads, and a brief description of their central concepts:
1. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Originating from the Yajurveda, it is the oldest of the Upanishads. It talks about the duality of nature, the underlying unity of all reality, the soul’s immortality and the Atman as the higher self.
2. Chandogya Upanishad
Originating from the Samaveda, these Upanishads repeat what is said in the Brihadaranyaka and expand the subjects into a more material form. It further develops the concept of the Atman-Brahman and the individual already being the Brahman and the ideas of dharma.
3. Taittiriya Upanishad
Originating from the Yajurveda, the taittiriya Upanishad continues on the unity of all things and touches upon the ritualistic aspects of spiritual practice. It praises the ascension to the Atman and the realisation that the duality of the world is an illusion.
4. Maitreya Upanishad
Originating from the Rigveda, the Maitreya Upanishad contains some of the same concepts as in the first two Upanishads. However, it has a slightly different way of expressing it as it focuses on the human condition and the fruits of life according to dharma.
5. Kausitaki Upanishad
Originating from the Rigveda, Kausitaki echoes the same ideas in the earlier Upanishads but focuses on the unity of things. It lays a special emphasis on the downside of individuality and the feeling of loneliness that comes from the separation from God.
6. Kena Upanishad
Originating from Samaveda, Kena Upanishad develops ideas from Kausitaki epistemologically. It rejects the concept of intellectual pursuit of the Brahman, and that self-knowledge can only help in understanding it.
7. Katha Upanishad
Originating from the Yajurveda, Katha Upanishad gives practical advice on living life in the present without worrying about the future or the past. It also talks about moksha or liberation from the cycles of birth and death.
8. Isha Upanishad
Originating from Yajurveda, isha Upanishad focuses primarily on the illusion of duality and the unity of all things. It also emphasises the importance of Karma, which relates to one’s dharma.
9. Shvetashvatara Upanishad
Also originating from the Yajurveda, Shvetashvatara Upanishad deals with the First Cause. It also continues the discourse on Atman and Brahman and how to reach it through self-discipline.
10. Mundaka Upanishad
Originating from the Atharvaveda, the Mundaka Upanishad talks about the difference between intellectual knowledge and spiritual knowledge. It emphasises the superiority of the higher knowledge that comes from self-realisation.
11. Prashna Upanishad
Originating from the Atharvaveda, Prashna Upanishad deals with pondering the human condition. It suggests devotion as the means out of the cycle of birth and death.
12. Maitri Upanishad
Originating from the Yajurveda, the Maitri Upanishad focuses on human suffering and the concept of the soul, and it also suggests liberation from suffering through self-realisation.
13. Mandukya Upanishad
Originating from the Atharveda, the Mandukya Upanishad concerns the sacredness of the syllable “O.M.”. It also offers solutions to realising the Atman.
What are the Hindu Sacred Treatises?
The sacred treatises in Hinduism include:
1. The Vedas
The Vedas are the holiest and the earliest Hindu texts from 2000 to 1500 B.C.E. They contain instructional hymns and ritual texts, along with sections such as the Upanishads, which involve philosophical and metaphysical discourse. The Hindus revere Vedas as the foundational text for their deepest beliefs and practices.
2. The Puranas
The Puranas contain stories about the Hindu deities such as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Thought to be put together between 300 to 1000 C.E., the texts solidify some Hindu beliefs and the importance of several gods. Texts talk about the exploits of gods and see the return of some of the Vedic gods like Surya, Indira and Agni.
3. The Tantras
These writings originate from around the same time as the Puranas and contain ritual practices concerning various deities. Also known as Agamas, they have instructions on multiple aspects such as the design of temple sites, yoga, behaviour and other methods to harness the physical energies to achieve self-realisation.
4. Mahabharata and Ramayana
The Mahabharata and Ramayana are great epics among the most widely known Hindu texts. The epics contain archetypal stories and philosophical discourse with other moral content taught to children early.
What are Upanishads in simple words?
The Upanishads are the ending layers of the four Vedas, and they are considered the fruit of the knowledge of Vedas.
What are Upanishads and Vedas?
Vedas are the sacred Hindu texts that are sources of religious and spiritual knowledge. The Upanishads, also known as the Vedanta, are the ending parts of the Vedas.
Which are the Upanishads?
There are 13 important Upanishads:
- Aitareya Upanishad
- Kaushitaki Upanishad
- Chandogya Upanishad
- Kena Upanishad
- Kaṭha Upanishad
- Taittiriya Upanishad
- Shvetashvatara Upanishad
- Maitrayaniya Upanishad
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- Isha Upanishad
- Mundaka Upanishad
- Mandukya Upanishad
- Prashna Upanishad
What were the questions that Upanishadic thinkers wanted to answer?
The Upanishadic thinkers concerned themselves with understanding the most profound mysteries of existence. To the thinkers, the experience of the Atman/Brahman was the highest goal in life and the way to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death).
What is the meaning of Upanishad?
The word Upanishad translates to ‘sit close in devotion’ or to ‘sit at the feet of’.
How to pronounce Upanishad?
To pronounce Upanishad, break it into the sounds Oo-pan-ih-shadz.