Upanishads – General Overview


The meaning of the word Upaniṣad.

The word Upaniṣad is derived from the root sad with the prefix ni (to sit), and Max Muller says that the word originally meant the act of sitting down near a teacher and of submissively listening to him.

In his introduction to the Upaniṣads he says:

“The history and the genius of the Sanskrit language leave little doubt that Upaniṣad meant originally session, particularly a session consisting of pupils, assembled at a respectful distance round their teacher.”

Deussen points out that the word means “secret” or “secret instruction,” and this is borne out by many of the passages of the Upaniṣads themselves. Max Muller also agrees that the word was used in this sense in the Upaniṣads.

There we find that great injunc­tions of secrecy are to be observed for the communication of the doctrines, and it is said that it should only be given to a student or pupil who by his supreme moral restraint and noble desires proves himself deserving to hear them.

Śankara however, the great Indian exponent of the Upaniṣads, derives the word from the root sad “to destroy” and supposes that it is so called because it destroys inborn ignorance and leads to salvation by revealing the right knowledge.

But if we compare the many texts in which the word Upaniṣad occurs in the Upaniṣads themselves it seems that Deussen’s meaning is fully justified.

The composition and growth of diverse Upaniṣads.

The oldest Upaniṣads are written in prose. Next to these we have some in verses very similar to those that are to be found in classical Sanskrit. As is easy to see, the older the Upaniṣad the more archaic is it in its language.

The earliest Upaniṣads have an almost mysterious forcefulness in their expressions at least to Indian ears. They are simple, pithy and penetrate to the heart. We can read and read them over again without getting tired. The lines are always as fresh as ever. As such they have a charm apart from the value of the ideas they intend to convey.

The word Upaniṣad was used, as we have seen, in the sense of “secret doctrine or instruction”; the Upaniṣad teachings were also in­tended to be conveyed in strictest secrecy to earnest enquirers of high morals and superior self-restraint for the purpose of achieving emancipation.

It was thus that the Upaniṣad style of expression, when it once came into use, came to possess the greatest charm and attraction for earnest religious people;

and as a result of that we find that even when other forms of prose and verse had been adapted for the Sanskrit language, the Upaniṣad form of com­position had not stopped.

Thus though the earliest Upaniṣads were compiled by 500 B.C., they continued to be written even so late as the spread of Mohammedan influence in India.

The earliest and most important are probably those that have been commented upon by Śankara namely: Brihadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Aitareya, Taittirīya, Isa, Kena, Katha, Praśna, Muṇḍaka and Māṇḍūkya.

It is important to note in this connection that the separate Upaniṣads differ much from one another with regard to their content and methods of exposition.

Thus while some of them are busy laying great stress upon the monistic doctrine of the self as the only reality, there are others which lay stress upon the practice of Yoga, asceticism, the cult of Śiva, of Viṣṇu and the philosophy or anatomy of the body, and may thus be respectively called the Yoga, Śaiva, Viṣṇu and Śarīra Upaniṣads.

These in all make up the number to one hundred and eight.

The Upaniṣads and their interpretations.

The Upaniṣads formed the concluding portion of the revealed Vedic literature, and were thus called the Vedānta. It was almost universally believed by the Hindus that the highest truths could only be found in the revelation of the Vedas.

Reason was regarded generally as occupying a compara­tively subservient place, and its proper use was to be found in its judicious employment in getting out the real meaning of the apparently conflicting ideas of the Vedas.

The highest know­ledge of ultimate truth and reality was thus regarded as having been once for all declared in the Upaniṣads. Reason had only to unravel it in the light of experience.

It is important that readers of Hindu philosophy should bear in mind the contrast that it presents to the ruling idea of the modern world that new truths are discovered by reason and experience every day,

and even in those cases where the old truths remain, they change their hue and character every day, and that in matters of ultimate truths no finality can ever be achieved;

we are to be content only with as much as comes before the purview of our reason and experience at the time.

It was therefore thought to be extremely audacious that any person howsoever learned and brilliant he might be should have any right to say anything regarding the highest truths simply on the authority of his own opinion or the reasons that he might offer.

In order to make himself heard it was neces­sary for him to show from the texts of the Upaniṣads that they supported him, and that their purport was also the same.

Thus it was that most schools of Hindu philosophy found it one of their principal duties to interpret the Upaniṣads in order to show that they alone represented the true Vedānta doctrines.

Anyone who should feel himself persuaded by the interpretations of any particular school might say that in following that school he was following the Vedānta.

The difficulty of assuring oneself that any interpretation is absolutely the right one is enhanced by the fact that germs of diverse kinds of thoughts are found scattered over the Upaniṣads which are not worked out in a systematic manner.

Thus each interpreter in his turn made the texts favourable to his own doctrines prominent and brought them to the forefront, and tried to repress others or explain them away.

But comparing the various systems of Upaniṣad interpretation we find that the interpretation offered by Śankara very largely represents the view of the general body of the earlier Upaniṣad doctrines, though there are some which distinctly foreshadow the doctrines of other systems, but in a crude and germinal form.

It is thus that Vedanta is generally associated with the interpretation of Śankara and Śankara’s system of thought is called the Vedanta system, though there are many other systems which put forth their claim as repre­senting the true Vedānta doctrines.

Upaniads in Vedic literature

The ancient philosophers of India looked upon the Upaniṣads as being of an entirely different type from the rest of the Vedic literature,

as dictating the path of knowledge (jñāna-mārga) as opposed to the path of works (karma-mārga) which forms the content of the latter.

It is not out of place here to mention that the orthodox Hindu view holds that whatever may be written in the Veda is to be interpreted as commandments to perform certain actions (vidhi) or prohibitions against committing certain others (niedha).

Even the stories or episodes are to be so interpreted that the real objects of their insertion might appear as only to praise the performance of the commandments and to blame the commission of the prohibitions.

No person has any right to argue why any particular Vedic commandment is to be followed, for no reason can ever discover that,

and it is only because reason fails to find out why a certain Vedic act leads to a certain effect that the Vedas have been revealed as commandments and prohibitions to show the true path of happiness.

The Vedic teaching belongs therefore to that of the Karma-mārga or the performance of Vedic duties of sacrifice, etc.

The Upaniṣads however do not require the performance of any action, but only reveal the ultimate truth and reality, knowledge of which at once emancipates a man.

Readers of Hindu philosophy are aware that there is a very strong controversy on this point between the adherents of the Vedānta (Upaniṣads) and those of the Veda:

For the latter seek in analogy to the other parts of the Vedic literature to establish the principle that the Upaniṣads should not be regarded as an exception, but that they should also be so interpreted that they might also be held out as commending the performance of duties;

but the former dissociate the Upaniṣads from the rest of the Vedic litera­ture and assert that they do not make the slightest reference to any Vedic duties, but only delineate the ultimate reality which reveals the highest knowledge in the minds of the deserving.

Śankara, the most eminent exponent of the Upaniṣads holds that they are meant for such superior men who are already above worldly or heavenly prosperities, and for whom the Vedic duties have ceased to have any attraction.

Wherever there may be such a deserving person, be he a student, a householder or an ascetic, for him the Upaniṣads have been revealed for his ultimate emancipation and the true knowledge.

Those who perform the Vedic duties belong to a stage inferior to those who no longer care for the fruits of the Vedic duties but are eager for final emancipation, and it is the latter who alone are fit to hear the Upaniṣads.

The names of the Upaniṣads.

The Upaniṣads are also known by another name Vedānta, as they are believed to be the last portions of the Vedas (veda-anta, end); it is by this name that the philosophy of the Upaniṣads, the Vedanta philosophy, is so familiar to us.

A modern student knows that in language the Upaniṣads approach the classical Sanskrit, the ideas preached also show that they are the culmination of the intellectual achievement of a great epoch.

As they thus formed the concluding parts of the Vedas they retained their Vedic names which they took from the name of the different schools or branches (śākhā) among which the Vedas were studied.

=>> Read Full texts of the Earliest Upanishads yourself <<=

Thus the Upaniṣads attached to the Brāhmaṇas of the Aitareya and Kauṣītaka schools are called respectively Aitareya and Kauṣītaka Upaniṣads.

Those of the Tāṇḍins and Talavakāras of the Sāma-veda are called the Chāndogya and Talavakāra (or Kena) Upaniṣads.

Those of the Taittirīya school of the Yajurveda form the Taittirīya and Mahānārāyaṇa, of the Kaṭha school the Kāṭhaka, of the Maitrāyaṇī school the Maitrāyaṇī.

The Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad forms part of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa of the Vājasaneyi schools. The Īśa Upaniṣad also belongs to the latter school. But the school to which the Śvetāśvatara belongs cannot be traced, and has probably been lost.

The presumption with regard to these Upaniṣads is that they represent the enlightened views of the particular schools among which they flourished, and under whose names they passed.

A large number of Upaniṣads of a comparatively later age were attached to the Atharva-Veda, most of which were named not according to the Vedic schools but according to the subject-matter with which they dealt.