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Upanishads

Upanishads Essay - Critical Essays

Upanishads

Introduction

Upanishads

Vedic texts, circa seventh-fifth century B.C.

The Upanishads are ancient texts written in Sanskrit, representing the religious and philosophical tradition of Hinduism and India. Together with the Aranyakas the Upanishads are found at the end of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, and thus called Vedantas. Although traditionally, there are 108 Upanishads, in actuality their number is greater than two hundred if less ancient ones are included. Most scholars, however, consider ten to fifteen as the principal texts, and it is these that receive the majority of critical attention. The dates of composition of the various Upanishads cannot be determined except relatively and broadly; they are considered by followers as timeless. It is also impossible to determine who wrote the texts or how many authors were engaged in their composition. Critics believe that they were transmitted orally for centuries before being recorded in writing. The word Upanishad means to sit near, referring to the practice of a student learning at the feet of a Brahmajnani, a teacher who has become one with the Supreme Brahman. The word Upanishad may also be translated as “secret teachings,” and the contents of the Upanishads were indeed kept relatively secret until the sixteenth century, at which time they were translated into Persian and gained widespread distribution. In essence, the Upanishads state that one may achieve divinity here on earth by recognizing that one's own Atman or soul is infinite and divine. The earliest Upanishads predate Buddhism and not only influenced its development but other Asian religious traditions as well.

The oldest of the Upanishads are in prose and date from approximately the 7th century B.C. They include the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, and Kena. The Kena also contains a less ancient section, written in verse. After these come later Upanishads, written in verse, circa 6th century B.C.: the Katha, Isha, and Mundaka. These were followed by more Upanishads in prose: the Prashna, Shvetasvatara, Mandukya, and Maitri.

Major Themes

The overriding theme of the Upanishads is the effort to become one with the supreme being, Brahman, here on earth. The only way to achieve this liberation is by giving up one's own identity and recognizing the divinity of the inner self, the Atman. This is the ultimate goal of life and leads to eternal bliss. In addition, the Upanishads also discuss the creation of the universe and the nature of karma and reincarnation. They describe the nature of Brahman and how he is everywhere and in all things in the universe; they explain that it is possible to transcend both the intellect and the senses; they teach self-control, sacrifice, and the importance of meditating and chanting the word Om; answer questions about how life becomes connected to the human form; and discuss the three stages of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep, followed by the fourth stage of pure consciousness.

Critical Reception

The chief areas of critical interest in Upanishad studies are their history, philosophy, and influence. Many volumes of commentary have been published discussing the finer points of the philosophy. Paul Deussen provides an overview of the Upanishads. In his discussion of their history and significance, Deussen makes analogies to Christianity, stating that the Upanishads “are for the Veda what the New Testament is for the Bible.” He notes that both the Upanishads and the Bible stress a release from this existence—the Bible because “it is the realm of sin,” and the Veda because “it is the realm of ignorance.” Moti Lal Pandit looks into the etymology of the word Upanishad and notes the sense of urgency and competition present in the dialogues. Joel Brereton explains that the Upanishads played not only “a critical role in the history of Indic religion,” but also “still remain a major source of inspiration and authority within Hinduism.” David Frawley analyzes language and meaning and explains that the worldview present in the Upanishads is very different from that of modern times. Andrew O. Fort discusses the concept of achieving liberation on earth, as opposed to freedom after death. Rohit Mehta explains how the Upanishads are of value in modern society, indeed, that their message of wisdom is timeless. Shalini Sikka examines the influence of the Upanishads on W. B. Yeats's symbolism, while M. E. Grenander and K. S. Narayana Rao, in an essay on T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, analyze a portion of the poem that is imbued with Hindu and Upanishadic thought.

Principal Works

Aitareya (prose) c. 7th century b.c.

Brihadaranyaka (prose) c. 7th century b.c.

Chandogya (prose) c. 7th century b.c.

Kaushitaki (prose) c. 7th century b.c.

Kena (prose and verse) c. 7th-6th century b.c.

Taittiriya (prose) c. 7th century b.c.

Isha (verse) c. 6th century b.c.

Katha (verse) c. 6th century b.c.

Mundaka (verse) c. 6th century b.c.

Maitri (prose) c. 5th century b.c.

Mandukya (prose) c. 5th century b.c.

Prashna (prose) c. 5th century b.c.

Shvetasvatara (prose) c. 5th century b.c.

The Thirteen Principal Upanishads. 2 vols. (translated by Robert Ernest Hume) 1931

The Principal Upanishads (translated by S. Radhakrishnan) 1989

The Upanishads. 4 vols. (translated by Swami Nikhilananda) 1994

The Early Upanisads (translated by Patrick Olivelle) 1998

The Upanishads (translated by Shyam N. Shukla) 1999

The Upanishads (translated by Valerie J. Roebuck) 2000

Criticism

Paul Deussen (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: Deussen, Paul. “Introduction to the Philosophy of the Upanishads.” In The Philosophy of the Upanishads, translated by A. S. Geden, pp. 1-50. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1906.

[In the following excerpt, Deussen provides an overview of the Upanishads, discussing their history, composition, and ideological principles.]

I. THE PLACE OF THE UPANISHADS IN THE LITERATURE OF THE VEDA

1. THE VEDA AND ITS DIVISIONS

It will be remembered that our earlier investigations led to a classification of Vedic literature into four principal parts, which correspond to the four priestly offices at the Soma sacrifice; these are the Rig, Yajur, Sâma, and Atharvaveda, each of which comprises a Samhitâ, a Brâhmana, and a Sûtra. The Brâhmana (in the wider sense of the term) is then further divided by the exponents of the Vedânta into three orders, which as regards their contents are for the most part closely connected with and overlap one another, viz.—Vidhi, Arthavâda, and Vedânta or Upanishad. …

I. Rigveda. A. Samhitâ. a. Vidhi.
II. Sâmaveda. B. Brâhmana. b. Arthavâda.
III. Yajurveda. C. Sûtra. c. Vedânta. (Upanishad.)
IV. Atharvaveda.

A further preliminary remark is that each of the above twelve parts of the Veda has been preserved as a rule not separately, but in several often numerous forms, inasmuch as each Veda was taught in different S'âkhâs (literally, “branches” of the tree of the Veda), i.e. Vedic schools, which in their treatment of the common subject-matter varied so considerably from one another that, in course of time, distinct works were produced, the contents of which nevertheless remained practically the same. In particular, each of the three ancient Vedas (in the case of the fourth the relations are usually different) comprises not one Brâhmana, but several; and similarly there exist for each Veda not one but several Upanishads. On this subject more will be found below.

2. BRâHMANA, ÂRANYAKA, UPANISHAD

The link between the Upanishad and the Brâhmana with its very different spirit is as a rule not direct, but established ordinarily by means of an Âranyaka or “forest-book,” to the close of which the Upanishad is attached, or in which it is included. The name is given either because (as Oldenberg supposes, Prol., p. 291), on account of its mysterious character it should be imparted to the student not in the village (grâme), but outside of it (aranye, in the jungle) (cp. the narrative, Brih. 3. 2. 13, and the names rahasyam, upanishad), or because from the very beginning it was “a Brâhmana appointed for the vow of the anchorite.”1 The contents of the Âranyakas perhaps favour rather the latter conception, so far as they consist mainly of all kinds of explanations of the ritual and allegorical speculations therein. This is only what might be expected in the life of the forest as a substitute for the actual sacrificial observances, which for the most part were no longer practicable; and they form a natural transition to the speculations of the Upanishads, altogether emancipated as these are from the limitations of a formal cult. The connecting-link is never wanting where the written tradition of a S'âkhâ has been handed down unbroken (as is not the case with the Kâṭhaka, S'vetâs'vatara, Maitrâyanîya), for both the Aitareyins and Kaushîtakins of the Rigveda and the Taittirîyakas and Vâjasaneyins of the Yajurveda possess together with the Samhitâ their Brâhmana with Âranyaka and Upanishad. Even then, if in the schools of the Sâmaveda the name Âranyaka is not employed, yet there also the introductions to the Upanishads2 bear throughout the character of Âranyakas. This succession of ritual allegorical and philosophical texts, which is really the same in all the S'âkhâs, may be due partly to the order of thought adopted for the purposes of instruction, in which the Samhitâ would naturally be followed immediately by the Brâhmana (so far as this was generally taught, cp. Oldenberg, Prol., p. 291); the deep mysterious meaning of the ceremonies would then be unfolded in the Âranyaka; and finally the exposition of the Upanishads would close the period of Vedic instruction. As early, therefore, as S'vet. 6. 22 and Munḍ. 3. 2. 6, and thenceforward, the Upanishads bore the name Vedânta (i.e. “end of the Veda”). On the other hand it is not to be denied that the order of the texts within the canon of each S'âkhâ corresponds generally to their historical development, and that the position of the several parts affords an indication of their earlier or later date. If, however, these two factors that determined the arrangement, namely, the tendency to a systematic classification of the material for instruction and the preservation of the order of chronological development, do actually for the most part coincide in their result, this is very simply explained on the supposition that in the course of time the general interest was transferred from the ritualistic method of treatment to the allegorical, and from that again to the philosophical. Moreover, the separation of the material is by no means strictly carried out, but in all three classes, Brâhmanas, Âranyakas, and Upanishads, there are found occasionally digressions of a ritual as well as allegorical or philosophical nature. Especially noteworthy, however, and demanding explanation is the circumstance that, apart from this occasional overlapping of the subject-matter, the broad distinctions between Brâhmana Âranyaka and Upanishad are by no means always correctly observed; e.g., among the Aitareyins the matter of the Brâhmana extends into the Âranyaka, while with the Taittirîyakas the close of the Brâhmana and the beginning of the Âranyaka agree throughout, and the dividing line is entirely arbitrary. This state of things is to be explained probably only on the supposition that the entire teaching material of each S'âkhâ formed originally a consecutive whole, and that this whole was first in the later times distinguished into Brâhmana Âranyaka and Upanishad, on a principle which did not depend upon the character of the subject-matter alone, but which, though in general correspondence with it, was in fact imposed from without. Such a principle we seem to be able to recognise in the later order of the four âs'ramas, by virtue of which it became the duty of every Indian Brâhman first as brahmac'ârin to spend a portion of his life with a Brâhman teacher, then as grihastha to rear a family and to carry out the obligatory sacrifices, in order thereafter as vânaprastha to withdraw into the solitude of the forest, and to devote himself to self-discipline and meditation, until finally in extreme old age, purified from all attachment to earth, homeless and without possessions, free from all obligations, he wandered about as sannyâsin (bhikshu, parivrâjaka), awaiting only his spirit's release into the supreme spirit. In the instruction communicated to him the brahmac'ârin was put in possession of a rule of conduct for his entire future life. From the Brâhmana he learnt how, as grihastha, he would have to carry out the ritual of sacrifice with the aid of the officiating priests; the Âranyaka, as indeed is implied in the name, belonged to the period of life as vânaprastha, during which for the most part meditation took the place of the sacrificial acts; and finally the Upanishad taught theoretically that aloofness from the world which the sannyâsin was bound to realise in practice. Therefore it is said of him, that he should “live without the (liturgical) precepts of the Veda,” but yet “recite the Âranyaka and the Upanishad of all the Vedas.”3 And as ordinarily Âranyaka and Upanishad were blended together, so until quite late times, as we shall see, no strict line of demarcation was drawn in most instances between vânaprastha and sannyâsin.

3. THE UPANISHADS OF THE THREE OLDER VEDAS

As the Brâhmanas formed the ritual text-books of the Vedic S'âkhâs, so the Upanishads attached to them were originally nothing more that the text-books of dogma, a fact which accounts especially for the identity in them all of the fundamental thought, which is developed at greater or less length and with the utmost variety. The earliest rise of the S'akhas or Vedic schools, on which this community of the ritual, and with it the philosophical tradition depends, is to be sought in a time in which the contents of the Samhitâ were already substantially fixed, and were transmitted from teacher to pupil to be committed to memory.4 On the other hand the necessary ritual allegorical and dogmatic explanations were communicated to the pupils extempore, and from these subsequently the oldest Indian prose took its rise. The result was that the common material of instruction, which in its essential features was already determined, received very various modifications, corresponding to the idiosyncrasy of the teacher, not only in regard to execution and mystical interpretation of the particular ceremonies, but also because one laid greater stress on the liturgical, another on the dogmatic teaching. Hence it is that the Upanishads of the individual schools differ so greatly in length. In the course of centuries the originally extempore instruction crystallised into fixed texts in prose, which were committed to memory verbatim by the pupil, while at the same time the divergences between the individual schools became wider. It is therefore quite credible that Indian writers should have been able to enumerate a considerable number of S'âkhâs, in which each Veda was studied. But it is equally intelligible that of these many S'âkhâs the majority disappeared in the struggle for existence, and that for each Veda only a few prominent S'âkhâs with the Upanishads belonging to them have been preserved. We must limit ourselves here for general guidance to a mere enumeration of the eleven extant Upanishads of the three older Vedas, with the remark, however, that in the case of several of these it is doubtful whether they are correctly attributed to the S'âkhâ concerned. A further discussion of this point will be found in the Introductions prefixed to my translations of the sixty Upanishads. …

4. THE UPANISHADS OF THE ATHARVAVEDA

The case is entirely different with the numerous Upanishads which have found admission into the Atharvaveda. It is true that several of them trace back their doctrine to S'aunaka or Pippalâda, or even (as the Brahma-Up.) to both together; and according to the tradition communicated by Nârâyana and Colebrooke, not only single treatises, but complete series of Upanishads were attributed to the S'aunakîyas or Pippalâdis. But the contradictions of these accounts, as well as the circumstance that the most diverse Upanishads refer their doctrine to the alleged founders of the Atharvaveda S'âkhâs, S'aunaka and Pippalâda, suggest the conjecture that we should see in this little more than an arbitrary attachment to well-known names of antiquity; just as other Atharva-Upanishads trace back their doctrine to Yâjñavalkhya, to Adngiras or Atharvan, or even to Brahma Rudra and Prajâpati. Moreover the names of the Atharva-Upanishads (apart from a few doubtful exceptions, as Mânḍûkya, Jâbâla, Paidngala, Shavank) are no longer, as is the case with the Upanishads of the three older Vedas, formed on the model of the names of the S'âkhâs, but are derived partly from the contents and partly from any accidental circumstance. This proves that in the Atharva-Upanishads we must not expect to find the dogmatic text-books of definite Vedic schools.

Many indications (of which more will be said hereafter) point to the fact that the leading ideas of the Upanishads, the doctrine, namely, of the sole reality of the Âtman, of its evolution as the universe, its identity with the soul, and so forth, although they may have originated from Brâhmans such as Yâjñavalkhya, yet in the earliest times met with acceptance rather in Kshatriya circles5 than among Brâhmans, engrossed as the latter were in the ritual. It was only later on that they were adopted by the Brâhmans, and interwoven with the ritual on the lines of allegorical interpretation.

Under these circumstances it is very probable that the âtman doctrine, after it had been taken in hand by the S'âkhâs of the three older Vedas, was further prosecuted outside of these schools, and that consequently in course of time works were published, and have been partially at least preserved, which occupy a position as compared with the Upanishads of the Rig Sâma and Yajurvedas precisely similar to that of the Samhitâ of the Atharvaveda to their Samhitâs. And as at an earlier date hymns of various kinds found admittance into this Samhitâ, which were partly of too late composition for the older Samhitâs, and partly were despised by them; so now again it was the Atharvaveda which opened its arms to the late born or rejected children of the spirit of âtman research. The consequence of this generosity was that in course of time everything which appeared in the shape of an Upanishad, that is a mystical text, whether it were the expression merely of the religious philosophical consciousness of a limited circle or even an individual thinker, was credited to the Atharvaveda, or by later collectors was included in it without further hesitation. The regularity with which a given text reappears in the different collections forms, as far as we can see, the sole mark of its canonicity (if we may use the word in such a connection). Guided by this principle we have gathered together in our translation of the “Sixty Upanishads” all those texts which seem to have met with general recognition. Referring then for further details to the Introduction there to the Atharva-Upanishads, we propose here, for the sake of a general survey, merely to enumerate the more important of these works according to the fivefold classification which we have made of them.6

I. Pure Vedânta Upanishads.—These remain essentially faithful to the old Vedânta doctrine, without laying more definite stress than is already the case in the older Upanishads on its development into the Yoga, Sannyâsa, and Vaishnavite or S'aivite symbolism:—

Munḍaka, Pras'na, Mânḍûkya (with the Kârikâ);

Garbha, Prânâgnihotra, Pinḍa;

Âtma, Sarvopanishatsâra, Gâruḍa.

II. Yoga Upanishads.—These from the standpoint of the Vedânta treat predominantly and exclusively of the apprehension of the Âtman through the Yoga by means of the moræ of the syllable Om:

Brahmavidyâ, Kshurikâ, C'ûlikâ;

Nâdabindu, Brahmabindu, Amritabindu, Dhyânabindu, Tejobindu;

S'ikhâ, Yogatattva, Hamsa.

III. Sannyâsa Upanishads.—As a rule these are equally one-sided, and enjoin and describe the life of the Sannyâsin as the practical issue of Upanishad teaching:—

Brahma, Sannyâsa, Âruneya, Kanṭhas'ruti;

Paramahamsa, Jâbâla, Âs'rama.

IV. S'iva Upanishads.—These interpret the popularly worshipped S'iva (Is'âna, Mahes'vara, Mahâdeva, etc.) as a personification of the Âtman:—

Atharvas'iras, Atharvas'ikhâ, Nîlarudra;

Kâlâgnirudra, Kaivalya.

V. Vishnu Upanishads.—These explain Vishnu (Nârâyana, Nrisimha, etc.) similarly in the sense of the Upanishad teaching, and regard his various avatâras as impersonations of the Âtman:—

Mahâ, Nârâyana, Âtmabodha;

Nrisimhapûrvatâpanîya, Nrisimhottaratâpanîya;

Râmapûrvatâpanîya, Râmottaratâpanîya.

5. ON THE MEANING OF THE WORD UPANISHAD

According to S'ankara, the Upanishads were so named because they “destroy” inborn ignorance,7 or because they “conduct” to Brahman.8 Apart from these interpretations, justifiable neither on grounds of philology nor of fact, the word Upanishad is usually explained by Indian writers by rahasyam (i.e. “secret,” Anquetil's secretum tegendum). Thus it is said, for example, in Nrisimh. [Nrisimhapûrvatâpanîya] 8 four times in succession iti rahasyam, instead of the earlier usual form iti upanishad (as is found e.g. at the close of Taitt. 2 and 3, Mahânâr. 62. 63. 64). In older passages also, where mention is made of Upanishad texts, such expressions are used as guhyâ' âdes'âḥ,9paramam guhyam,10vedaguhya-upanishatsu gûḍham,11guhyatamam.12

The attempt to maintain secrecy with regard to abstruse and therefore easily misunderstood doctrines has numerous analogies even in the West. To the question why He speaks to them in parables Jesus answers, ὅτι ὑμι̑ν δἐδοται γνω̑ναι τὰ μυστήρια τη̑s βασιλείαs τω̑ν οὐρανω̑ν, ἐκείνοιs δἐ οὐ δἐδοται.13 Pythagoras requires of his pupils μυστικὴ σιωπή, mystical silence. A saying is preserved of Heracleitus, τὰ τη̑s γνώσεωs βάθη κρύπτειν ἀπιστίη ἀγαθή. Plato finds fault with the art of writing on the ground that it οὐκ ἐπίσταται λἐγειν οἐs δει̑ γε καὶ μή.14 And Schopenhauer demands of his readers as a preliminary condition that they should have grappled with the difficulties of Kant.

The same feeling inspires the warning repeated again and again in the Upanishads, not to impart a certain doctrine to unworthy students.

Ait. [Aitareya] Âr. 3. 2. 6. 9:—“These combinations of letters (according to their secret meaning, their upanishad) the teacher shall not impart to anyone who is not his immediate pupil (antevâsin), who has not already lived for a year in his house, who does not himself intend to be a teacher.”

Chând. [Chândogya] 3. 11. 5:—“Therefore only to his eldest son shall the father as Brahman communicate it (this doctrine), but to no one else, whoever he may be.”

Brih. [Brihadâranyaka] 6. 3. 12:—“This (the mixed drink, mantha, and its ritual) shall be communicated to no one, except the son or the pupil.”

S'vet. [S'vetâs’vatara] 6. 22:—“Give it (this supreme secret) to none who is not tranquil, who is not a son or at least a pupil.”

Munḍ. [Munḍaka] 3. 2. 11:—“None may read this who has not observed his vow.”

Maitr. [Maitrâyaniya] 6. 29:—“This most mysterious secret shall be imparted to none who is not a son or a pupil, and who has not yet attained tranquillity.”

Nrisimh. [Nrisimhapûrvatâpaniya] 1. 3:—“But if a woman or a S'ûdra learns the Savitri formula, the Lakshmî formula, the Prdanava, one and all go downwards after death. Therefore let these never be communicated to such! If anyone communicates these to them, they and the teacher alike go downwards after death.”

Râmap. [Râmapûrvatâpanîy] 84:—“Give it not (the diagram) to common men.”

The same explanation is to be given of the striking feature, which is constantly recurring in the Upanishads, that a teacher refuses to impart any instruction to a pupil who approaches him, until by persistence in his endeavour he has proved his worthiness to receive the instruction. The best known instance of this kind is Nac'iketas in the Kâṭhaka Upanishad, to whom the god of death vouchsafes the desired instruction on the nature of the soul and its fate only after the young man has steadily rejected all attempts to divert him from his wish.15 Indra deals in a similar way with Pratardana,16 Raikva with Jânas'ruti,17 Satyakâma with Upakosala,18 Pravâhana with Âruni,19 Prajâpati with Indra and Vairoc'ana,20 Yâjñavalkya with Janaka,21 S'âkâyanya with Brihadratha.22

From all this it follows that the universal tendency of antiquity, and of the circle which produced the Upanishads, was in the direction of keeping their contents secret from unfit persons, and that the Indian writers were practically justified in explaining the term upanishad by rahasyam, “secret.” Less easy is it at first sight to understand how the word upanishad has come to signify “secret meaning, secret instruction, a secret.” For upanishad, derived as a substantive from the root sad, to sit, can only denote a “sitting”; and as the preposition upa (near by) indicates, in contrast to parishad, samsad (assembly), a “confidential secret sitting,” we must assume, even if actual proof is wanting, that this name for “secret-sitting” was used also in course of time to denote the purpose of this sitting, i.e. “secret instruction.” Just as the German “college” has been transferred from the idea of “convention” to that of the subject-matter of instruction; so that in such an expression as “to read, to hear, etc. a lecture” the original meaning of college (from colligere, to collect) is altogether forgotten, as in the case of the Upanishads the original conception of “sitting.” Similar instances are quite common, as for example the θυσικαὶ ἀκροάσειs of Aristotle or the διατριβαί of Epictetus no longer signify lectures, conversations, but definite written compositions.

Another explanation of the word upanishad has been recently put forward by Oldenberg, according to which upanishad, precisely as upâsanâ, would have originally meant “adoration,” i.e. reverential meditation on the Brahman or Âtman.23 The suggestion deserves attention, but is open to the following objections. (1) The words upa + âs, “to sit before someone or something (in adoration),” and upa + sad (upa + ni + sad does not occur in the Upanishads), “to seat oneself before someone (for the purpose of instruction),” are, according to prevailing usage, to be carefully distinguished from one another. Even if in the older texts the linguistic usage was not yet rigorously fixed, yet in the Upanishads (as a glance at Jacob's concordance proves), upa + âs is always “to worship,” never “to approach for instruction,” and upa + sad always “to approach for instruction,” never “to worship”; and the reason for forming the substantive upanishad not from upa + sad, but from the rarer upa + ni + sad, was perhaps merely that the substantive upasad had been already adopted as the name of a well-known ceremony preliminary to the Soma sacrifice. (2) Even if mention is frequently made of worship of Brahman or the âtman, especially under a definite symbol (as manas, prâna, etc.), yet, strictly speaking, the âtman is not like the gods an object of worship, but an object of knowledge. Kena 1. 4 f.,—“that shouldest thou know as Brahman, not that which is there worshipped” (na idam yad idam upâsate); Chând. 8. 7. 1,—“the self (âtman) … that ought man to search after, that endeavour to know”; Brih. 2. 4. 5,—“the self, in truth, should be seen, heard, understood, and reflected upon, O Maitreyî,” etc. The two passages of the Upanishads also, which Oldenberg cites in proof of worship offered to Brahman, tell in reality in the opposite direction. In Brih. 2. 1, Gârgya declares his worship of this or that as Brahman, until finally the king breaks off the inquiry with the words, “with all that it is not yet known” (na etâvatâ viditam bhavati). Then he imparts the teaching concerning the deep sleeper, and closes with the words, “his upanishad” (secret name, not worship) “is ‘the reality of realities,’” i.e. the essence which is implied in all empirical existence. And if in Brih. 1. 4 the proposition is laid down that not the gods but the âtman alone should be worshipped, by this is to be understood merely a polemic against the worship of the gods, not a demand to “worship” the âtman as though it were only a god. This word is applicable, therefore, solely to the gods, and is used of the âtman only by zeugma,24 and the proof of this is found in what follows when it is said,—“He who worships another deity, and says ‘He is one, and I am another,’ that man is not wise.”25 Without, however, such a conception of the âtman as “He is one, and I am another,” which is here interdicted, worship is altogether inconceivable, but not perhaps knowledge by immediate intuition (anubhava). (3) An attempt to apply the hypothesis under consideration throughout to the existing facts would demonstrate its impossibility. Thus in Taitt. 1. 3 the secret meaning (upanishad) of the combination of letters (samhitâ) is explained, and this being concluded various rewards are held out in prospect to him “who knows these great combinations as thus expounded” (ya evam etâ mahâsamhitâ vyâkhyâtâ veda). Here merely a knowledge of the combination of the letters is required; there is no mention of any worship in the entire paragraph. Or if we take the certainly ancient passage Kaush. [Kaushîtaki] 2. 1-2, where it is said of the beggar, who knows himself as the Self of all beings,—tasya upanishadna yâc'editi, “his secret sign is not to beg”; it would be very difficult to say what suggestion of “worship” is found in phrases like these.

If the passages collected in my index to the Upanishads under the word Upanishad are examined, it will be at once evident that, taken together, they involve the meaning, “secret sign, secret name, secret import, secret word, secret formula, secret instruction,” and that therefore to all the meanings the note of secrecy is attached. Hence we may conclude that the explanation offered by the Indians of the word upanishad as rahasyam, “secret,” is correct.

II. BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE HISTORY OF THE UPANISHADS

1. THE EARLIEST ORIGIN OF THE UPANISHADS

The word Upanishad occurs with three distinct meanings as—

  • (1) Secret word.
  • (2) Secret text.
  • (3) Secret import.

(1) Certain mysterious words, expressions, and formulas, which are only intelligible to the initiated, are described as Upanishad. These contain either a secret rule for action and behaviour, as the na yâc'et of Kaush. 2. 1, 2, quoted above, or secret information on the nature of Brahman. When, then, the latter is described as satyasya satyam26, or tad-vanam27 (the final goal of aspiration), there is added, “thou hast been taught the Upanishad.” Of a similar nature are secret words like tajjalân,28 “in him (all beings) are born, perish, and breathe,” or neti neti.29 And when the worship of Brahman under such formulas is enjoined, it is not implied that upanishad signifies “worship,” but only, as already pointed out, that meditation on Brahman under these mysterious terms must take the place of the worship of the gods.

(2) The extant texts themselves, as well as the older texts underlying them, are called Upanishads. Accordingly in the Taittirîyaka school especially a section often ends with the words,—iti upanishad.

(3) Very frequently it is not a word or a text, but the secret allegorical meaning of some ritual conception or practice, which is described as upanishad; e.g. in Chând. 1. 1. 10,—“for that which is executed with knowledge, with faith, with the upanishad (knowledge of the secret meaning of Udgîtha as Om), that is more effective.”

The question suggests itself, which of these three significations is the original. We might decide for the third, and suppose that an allegorical interpretation was assigned to the ritual, and the Upanishad doctrine developed thence. This, however, apparently was not the case, and there is much to be said for the view that, as already observed above, the conceptions of the Upanishads, though they may have originated with the Brâhmans, were fostered primarily among the Kshatriyas and not within Brâhman circles, engrossed as these were with the ritual.

The Upanishads have come down to us, like the rest of the texts of the three older Vedas, through the Brâhmans. All the more striking is it, therefore, that the texts themselves frequently trace back some of their most important doctrines to kings, i.e. Kshatriyas. Thus, in the narrative of Chând. 5. 11-24, five learned Brâhmans request from Uddâlaka Âruni instruction concerning the Âtman Vais'vânara. Uddâlaka distrusts his ability to explain everything to them, and all the six therefore betake themselves to the king As'vapati Kaikeya, and receive from him the true instruction, the defectiveness of their own knowledge having first been made clear. In Brih. 2. 1 (and the parallel passage, Kaush. 4), the far-famed Vedic scholar Gârgya Bâlâki volunteers to expound the Brahman to King Ajâtas'atru of Kâs'î, and propounds accordingly twelve (in Kaush. 16) erroneous explanations; whereupon to him, the Brâhman, the king exhibits the Brahman as the âtman under the figure of a deep sleeper, prefacing his exposition with the remark, “that is a reversal of the rule, for a Brâhman to betake himself as a pupil to a Kshatriya in order to have the Brahman expounded to him; now I proceed to instruct you.” In this narrative, preserved by two different Vedic schools, it is expressly declared that the knowledge of the Brahman as âtman, the central doctrine of the entire Vedânta, is possessed by the king; but, on the contrary, is not possessed by the Brâhman “famed as a Vedic scholar.”30 In Chând. 1. 8-9, two Brâhmans are instructed by the king Pravâhana Jaivali concerning the âkâs'a as the ultimate substratum of all things, of which they are ignorant. And although it is said in Chând. 1. 9. 3 that this instruction had been previously imparted by Atidhanvan to Udaras'ânḍilya, yet the names allow of the conjecture that in this case also a Brâhman received instruction from a Kshatriya. Similarly Chând. 7 contains the teaching given by Sanatkumâra, the god of war, to the Brâhman Nârada. Here the former pronounces inadequate the comprehensive Vedic learning of the Brâhman with the words: “all that you have studied is merely name.”31 Finally the leading text of the doctrine of the soul's transmigration, which is extant in three different recensions,32 is propounded in the form of an instruction given to Âruni by the king Pravâhana Jaivali.33 The king here says to the Brâhman:—“Because, as you have told me, O Gautama, this doctrine has never up to the present time been in circulation among Brâhmans, therefore in all the worlds the government has remained in the hands of the warrior caste.”34

When we consider that the passages quoted discuss such subjects as the knowledge of Brahman as âtman,35 the knowledge of this âtman as the all-quickener,36 and the fate of the soul after death,37 that is, precisely the most important points of Upanishad teaching; that not only is the king represented in them as endowed with wisdom, but is expressly contrasted with the Brâhman who is ignorant or deluded; and that these narratives are preserved to us by the Vedic S'âkhâs, and therefore by the Brâhmans themselves; we are forced to conclude, if not with absolute certainty, yet with a very high degree of probability, that as a matter of fact the doctrine of the âtman, standing as it did in such sharp contrast to all the principles of the Vedic ritual, though the original conception may have been due to Brâhmans, was taken up and cultivated primarily not in Brâhman but in Kshatriya circles, and was first adopted by the former in later times. The fact, moreover, which is especially prominent in the last quoted passages, that the Brâhmans during a long period had not attained to the possession of this knowledge, for which they nevertheless display great eagerness, is most simply explained on the supposition that this teaching with regard to the âtman was studiously withheld from them; that it was transmitted in a narrow circle among the Kshatriyas to the exclusion of the Brâhmans; that, in a word, it was upanishad. The allegorical method of interpreting the ritual in the light of the âtman doctrine, though it may have been already practised among the Kshatriya circles, was probably undertaken on a larger scale after the adoption of the new doctrine by the Brâhmans. It would follow that the third of the above-mentioned meanings of the word upanishad as “secret import” (of some ritual conception) is probably in the first instance secondary. If we ask further, which of the two other meanings, (1) secret word, (2) secret text, is the more primitive, it would seem that a transition from the second to the first is with difficulty intelligible, but that the first passes into the second by a natural and readily comprehended change.

We may therefore assume that the doctrine of the âtman as the first principle of the universe, the gradual rise of which we have traced through the hymns of the Rigveda and Atharvaveda, was fostered and progressively developed by the Kshatriyas in opposition to the principles of the Brâhmanical ritual; whence the new knowledge was expressed in brief words or formulas, intelligible only to the initiated, such as tadvanam, tajjalân, satyasya satyam, samyadvâma, vâmanî, bhâmanî, etc. A formula of this kind was then called an upanishad, inasmuch as the condition of its communication and explanation was the absence of publicity. Such formulas were naturally accompanied by oral explanations, which also were kept secret, and from these were gradually developed the earliest texts that bore the name of Upanishad. The manner in which the formulas tad vai tad38 or vi-ram39 are discussed may serve as examples of such secret words accompanied by secret...

(The entire section is 14925 words.)

Rohit Mehta (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Mehta, Rohit. Introduction to The Call of the Upanishads, pp. 1-9. Bombay, India: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1970.

[In the following essay, Mehta provides an introduction to the Upanishads and discusses their value in the modern age.]

The cultural and spiritual heritage of India is both vast as well as rich. But there is nothing sectarian or regional about it. It is so universal in its appeal and so catholic in its approach that it belongs to the whole world. Its setting is no doubt Indian, but its content is such as to cover all aspects of human life, irrespective of geographical units and historical expressions. It is both universal and timeless and, as...

(The entire section is 3322 words.)

M. E. Grenander and K. S. Narayana Rao (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Grenander, M. E. and K. S. Narayana Rao. “The Waste Land and the Upanishads: What Does the Thunder Say?” Indian Literature 14, no. 1 (1971): 85-98.

[In the following essay, Grenander and Rao trace Hindu thought as it was incorporated in portions of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.]

Several years ago, in a report on a series of round table discussions by Indian and American thinkers, Richard McKeon included a passage which seems almost a gloss on the two last paragraphs of The Waste Land. Professor McKeon wrote:

The values to which art and religion give expression are universal, but the forms which those...

(The entire section is 4573 words.)

Moti Lal Pandit (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Pandit, Moti Lal. “Meaning of the Upanishad.” In Philosophy of the Upanishads: A Christian Understanding, pp. 17-22. Delhi, India: I.S.P.C.K., 1978.

[In the following essay, Pandit comments on the dialogue style of the Upanishads as well as on the actual etymology of the word upanishad.]

The meaning of the word upanishad is difficult to tell, for its etymology is doubtful. According to Max Muller, the term means “the art of sitting down near a teacher, of submissively listening to him” (from upa, below; ni, down, and sad, to sit).1 But, according to Sankara, the word is formed by adding the...

(The entire section is 1772 words.)

David Frawley (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Frawley, David. “Symbolic Language and Analogical Thinking.” In The Creative Vision of the Early Upanisads: Udgitha Adityasya, The Exalted Song of the Sun, pp. 56-104. Madras, India: Rajsri Printers, 1982.

[In the following essay, Frawley describes two different approaches to teaching found in the Upanishads and notes that in order to gain a deeper understanding of the writings, it is necessary to release one's modern world-view.]

Many different kinds of language are possible. There are many different possible levels of discourse within language. There are many different linguistic and perceptual orientations, various world-views according to...

(The entire section is 20874 words.)

Joel Brereton (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Brereton, Joel. “The Upanishads.” In Approaches to the Asian Classics, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, pp. 115-35. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Brereton presents the five paradigms embodied in the teachings of the Upanishads, stating that these principles are used to construct wholeness out of the multiplicity of the world.]

The Upanishads are early texts of the Hindu tradition which set forth the foundations of the world and the true nature of the self. They are formally quite diverse, for they include narratives, dialogues, verses, and the teachings of ancient sages. The principal...

(The entire section is 7427 words.)

Hermann Oldenberg (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Oldenberg, Hermann. Introduction to The Doctrine of the Upanisads and the Early Buddhism, translated by Shridhar B. Shrotri, pp. 1-21. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1991.

[In the following essay, Oldenberg provides background on Indian thought, including discussions of the Brahmana caste, sacrifice, and the otherworld.]

ENQUIRY INTO THE OTHERWORLDLY ORDER OF THINGS IN THE OLDER UPANIṣADS, THE LATER ONES (SāMKHYA) AND BUDDHISM

An enquiry into the otherworldly order of things behind and beyond this world, the related problems of death and everything that comes after death has seriously occupied the...

(The entire section is 11099 words.)

Andrew O. Fort (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: Fort, Andrew O. “Going or Knowing? The Development of the Idea of Living Liberation in the Upanisads.Journal of Indian Philosophy 22, no. 4 (December 1994): 379-90.

[In the following essay, Fort focuses on the Upanishads's treatment of mukti, or freedom, exploring the idea that it can be attained only after death versus the belief that it is entirely possible to gain liberation during one's life on earth.]

The idea of liberation while living or jīvanmukti has been much discussed in Advaita Vedānta and other schools of Indian thought. The notion of jīvanmukti found in Advaita was developed and elaborated over many centuries, and did...

(The entire section is 4903 words.)

Shalini Sikka (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Sikka, Shalini. “Yeats's Theory of Symbolism in the Light of the Upanisads.” In W. B. Yeats and the Upanisads, pp. 144-63. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

[In the following essay, Sikka discusses the influence of the Upanishads on W. B. Yeats's thought.]

Pythagoras planned it. Why did the people stare?
His numbers, though they moved or seemed to move
In marble or in bronze, lacked character.
But boys and girls, pale from the imagined love
Of solitary beds, knew what they were …

—‘The Statues’

As we have seen in the previous chapter, Yeats's lifelong preoccupation was to write poetry based on truths...

(The entire section is 6926 words.)