by Cristian Violatti
published on 22 January 2013

The name Upanishad is composed of upa (near) and shad (to sit). Etymologically the word suggests “sitting down near”: that is, at the feet of an illuminated teacher in an intimate session of spiritual instructions, as aspirants still do in India today. Often the teacher is one who has retired from worldly life to an ashram or “forest academy”, to live with students and sometimes with their families. These sages teach through question-and-answer sessions and by their example in daily living. The Upanishads record such sessions and the philosophies of these sages, but they have little in common with the philosophical texts from the western world such as Plato’s dialogues. Although we speak of them together as a body, the Upanishads are not parts of a whole, like chapters in a book. Each of them is complete in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent reality. Therefore, they represent not a consistent philosophy or worldview, but rather the experiences, opinions and lessons of many different men and women.

Themes & Origins

The five century time span of roughly 800 to 300 BCE effects the transition from Vedic to classical culture in Indian society. The early stages of this time span fit such tags as “later Vedic” or “post Vedic”, and the latter centuries qualify as “pre classical” or “early classical”. Although there is not full agreement  about the exact dates of the composition of the Upanishads, most scholars believe they were composed during the “later Vedic” period, between 800 and 500 BCE.

There are over 200 Upanishads, although the more important are 14 in number: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Kausitaki, Mahanarayana and the Maitri. They provide the basic source for most of Indian philosophy; all major philosophical themes are covered in their pages. In general they remain neutral among competing interpretations and they attempt to integrate most of the opposed views regarding philosophical and spiritual matters. 

Their purpose is not so much instruction as inspiration: they are meant to be expounded by an illuminated teacher from the basis of personal experience. In fact, one of the first lessons that the sages of the Upanishads teach their selected students is the inadequacy of the intellect. How can this feeble brain, that aches at a little calculus, ever hope to understand the complex immensity of which it is so transitory a fragment? Not that the intellect is entirely useless; it certainly has its modest uses when it deals with relations and things; but when it is used to unlock the great mysteries of life, the eternal, the infinite, then it simply has no use. The highest understanding, according to this view, comes from direct perception and intuition.

Unlike the Vedic literature, which tends to present rituals relevant to a specific culture, the Upanishads’ message is universal, as relevant to the world today as it was to India five thousand years ago. These texts have influenced important philosophers in the west, including Schopenhauer who acknowledges three sources of his philosophy: Kant, Plato and the Upanishads. “In the whole world, there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads”, said Schopenhauer. Will Durant wrote “The Upanishads are as old as Homer, and as modern as Kant.”

Basic principles in the Upanishads

It is in these texts that we start to see some serious philosophizing as thinkers engage in the basic questions of life, death, existence and knowledge; further, we also see the element of skepticism growing larger. Even though they do not offer a comprehensive system of thought, they do develop some basic principles. Some of these principles are samsara, karma, dharma and moksha. 

Samsara is reincarnation, the idea that after we die our soul will be reborn again in another body. Perhaps in an animal, perhaps as a human, perhaps as a god, but always in a regular cycle of deaths and resurrections. This concept might be foreign to the western intellectual traditions nowadays, but in the past, many influential figures in the west believed in it. Pythagoras, for example, founded a religion which revolved around the concept of reincarnation. Also the teaching of the Orphics taught about reincarnation. The cosmogony of Plato, which is found in a dialogue called Timaeus, mentions reincarnation as well: if a man lives badly, he will be born again in the next life as a woman and if he (or she) persists in doing evil, he (or she) will become a brute, and go on through reincarnations until at last reason conquers.

The idea of reincarnation could be attractive in some ways. It offers the possibility of fixing things that we could not get right in this life. If we make a serious mistake or if something went really wrong, there will be another chance to deal with it later on. There are scientific explanations for the phenomenon we call déjà vu, but reincarnation doctrine also offers an explanation for it: “perhaps you have been here before earlier on”. Also, those people who are born with gifts that seem to be beyond human capabilities (people like Mozart, James Joyce, Einstein), here also reincarnation can be used to explain such gifts: “perhaps you developed this skill during a number of lives”. Reincarnation also offers some sense of justice. Wealthier, healthier or smarter people exist because of the lives they lived in the past.

Karma literally means “action”, the idea that all actions have consequences, good or bad. The law of karma says that our actions determine the conditions of our next life. There is no judgement or forgiveness, simply a natural and eternal law. Therefore, reincarnation does not happen randomly: if we are good, we will be reborn in better conditions while if we are bad, we will be reborn in a worse condition.

Dharma means “right behaviour” or duty and it is typically associated with our social obligations. Each member of a specific caste had a particular set of obligations, and dharma relates to those obligations. For example, among the Kshatriyas or warrior class, it was considered a sin to die in bed. In other words, the dharma encouraged people of different social groups to perform their duties the best they could.

Moksha means “liberation” or release. The eternal cycle of deaths and resurrection can be seen as a pointless repetition with no ultimate goal attached to it. Seeking permanent peace or freedom from suffering seems impossible, for sooner or later we will be reborn in worse circumstances. Moksha is the liberation from this never ending cycle of reincarnation: there is a way to escape this meaningless repetition. But what would it mean to escape from this cycle? What is it that awaits the soul that manages to be released from samsara? To answer this question we need to look into some other concepts included in the Upanishads.

Some people might argue that these concepts have a negative aspect. Let us take for example the idea behind Dharma. It could be said that such an idea is a tool to keep social control, especially in the lower classes. However, there is also an element of compassion attached to these ideas, since karma says that a person less fortunate than us could be someone we loved in a previous life, or it could even have been ourselves in that situation. These concepts do not seem to be good or bad per se; it seems that all of them have the potential for being positive or negative depending on the way we look at them.

Atman and Brahman

Our essence, the Upanishads tells us, or the core of our own self is not the body, or the mind, or the individual ego, but Atman “The Self”. In all persons, all creatures, The Self is the innermost essence. It can only be perceived by direct experience through meditation. It is what we are at the deepest level of our existence. Brahman is the one underlying substance, the unchanging Absolute Being, the intangible essence of the entire existence. It is the undying and unchanging Spirit that creates and sustains everything. It is beyond all description and intellectual understanding.

The great insight of the Upanishads, possibly the most important of all, is that the Atman and Brahman are the same. The soul or force within us is identical with the impersonal Soul of the World. The innermost essence in any being is ultimately equal to what makes anything else. The connection between Atman and Brahman is spiritual. When moksha or liberation is achieved, Atman returns to the Brahman, to the source, like a drop of water returning to the ocean. The approach in the Upanishads is that it is an illusion that we are all separate: with this realization we can be freed from ego, from reincarnation and from the suffering we experience during our existence. It is interesting to note that the Vedic gods appear throughout the Upanishads, but they are presented as aspects of this single underlying Brahman. Moksha takes place when we are reabsorbed into Brahman, into the great World Soul.

How do we achieve moksha? Salvation comes from meditation, from introspection, from purity and from this mystic knowledge that behind all forms and veils the subjective and objective are one, that we are all part of the Whole. In the famous Chandogya Upanishad, we find the story of Uddalaka and his son Shvetaketu. During some time Shvetaketu went to study the Vedas and returns to his family after twelve years, very proud of what he learned, maybe a little arrogant. Uddalaka asks his son if he has gained the wisdom that allows him to hear the unheard, to perceive what is unperceivable, to know the unknown. Shvetaketu has no idea what he is being asked, so his father employs a series of metaphors to enlighten his son:

As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being.
There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are that Shvetaketu, you are that.

(Chadogya Upanishad IV.10.1-3)

In general, the Upanishads agree on the idea that men are naturally ignorant about the ultimate identity between Atman, that self within, and Brahman. One of the goals of meditation is to achieve this identification with Brahman, and abandon the ignorance that arises from the identification with the illusory or quasi-illusory nature of the common sense world.

These metaphysical concepts of samsara, karma, dharma and moksha are at the heart of the the three great Indic religions: Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Essentially, most differences between these religions are in the way these ideas are understood. Will Durant has a very interesting observation on the Upanishads and the worldviews in it:

Such a theory of life and death will not please Western man, whose religion is as permeated with individualism as are his political and economic institutions. But it has satisfied the philosophical Hindu mind with astonishing continuity.
(Durant, 415)

We could sum up the great insight of the Upanishads and the idea that the Self is in all by saying:

As the same fire assumes different shapes
When it consumes objects differing in shape,
So does the one Self take the shape
Of every creature in whom he is present.
(Katha Upanishad II.2.9)

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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  • c. 700 BCE
    Indian scholars codify and reinterpret Aryan beliefs to create the Upanishads texts forming the basis of Hinduism.
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