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.
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.
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.
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
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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.||...|
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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 such, applies to peoples of all ages and of all countries. It may be asked what indeed is the source from where such vast and rich heritage has come into existence—a heritage that has remained fresh and vital even though many centuries have rolled by since it made its first appearance in the dim dawn of time? One can say without the slightest hesitation that the source of this heritage lies in the Great Upanishads. The seers and sages of Ancient India, sitting under a tree, in a far-off forest, revealed fundamental principles of perennial philosophy to students who had gone to them with questions of deep and serious inquiry into the very nature of life itself. The Upanishads contain the essential principles of this Perennial—this...
(The entire section is 3322 words.)
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 expressions take are particular and grow out of the circumstances in which art and religion develop. The authors of the Odyssey and the Ramayana found their materials in Greek and Hindu conditions of life, conceptions of values, and literary forms; yet one need not be Greek or Hindu to appreciate either epic. Universal values cannot be separated from the particular matter—content or language—in which they are expressed, nor can they be reduced to one particular mode of expression. Understanding of aesthetic and religious values does not depend on discovering a unique approach to art or on establishing a universal religion. It is advanced, rather, by appreciation of different modes of expression and different attitudes of piety and...
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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 suffix kvip and the prefixes upa and ni to the root sad, meaning: that which destroys ignorance.2 If we accept this definition, then the term would mean that kind of knowledge (and not the texts) which destroy ignorance: thus gradually releasing man from the fetters of samsara. It is knowledge which would enable man to attain the state of undifferentiation. However, this definition is not only doubtful, but far-fetched. Sankara's definition does not seem to be the correct one if we follow the texts carefully. From the careful study of the texts of the Upanishads we know that these texts were considered something “mysterious” in the sense that some kind of “esoteric” knowledge was contained in...
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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 many ways of language. The way of language determines the way of perception. It is through language that we enter into the world and the world enters into us. Language is more than just the written language of conditioned society. Prior to that and behind that conventional language are more instinctual and more intuitive forms of language. All things are indeed forms of communication, as everything has a message. Everything thus has its unique meaning or name; and as that name or meaning is not a fixed entity but a process in time, everything has its own language. Thus the key to understanding anything is to discover its own language and learn it. Real language then does not involve defining, classifying or interpreting the things of...
(The entire section is 20874 words.)
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 Upanishads, which were composed probably between 600 and 300 b.c.e., constitute the concluding portion of the Veda, the most ancient and conventionally the most fundamental scripture of Hinduism. According to most reckonings, there are fourteen Vedic Upanishads, and these can be assigned a relative chronology on the basis of their literary form and language. The oldest are in prose. Among them are the Brhad Āranyaka, Chāndogya, Kauṣītakī, Taittirīya, and Aitareya Upaniṣads. A second, generally later group of Upanishads were written in verse. These include the Kaṭha, Iśā, Munḍaka, and Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣads. Finally, the youngest are also in prose, but in a style...
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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 minds of the Indian thinkers from very ancient times. We endeavour to describe here a few phases, which form a natural homogeneous unit, of the history of these thoughts.
They begin where the chaos of ancient concepts of life in the world and happenings clears up. These concepts emerge mostly from the primitive past, paving the way for the powerful idea of the Brahman, the Supreme Being. Here emerges, beside the hope of joyful afterlife in the company of divine world-rulers, an outsoaring longing for departing into the peaceful quietude of eternity.
This stage of development exists in those older texts which are attributed to the Veda and which are called ‘Upaniṣads’.
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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 not become a formal doctrine until after the time of Śadnkara, Advaita's founder.1 Still, the basic elements of the Advaitin conception of jīvanmukti can be traced back to the earliest Upaniṣads. There we find both the idea that one (or one's essential being) gains immortality (eternal life) in a heavenly realm only after leaving the body and the rudiments of a conception of liberation (and immortality) while living by knowing ātman/brahman identity.2 This liberation (mukti, mokṣa) by nondual knowledge takes one beyond both the life-and-death cycle of samsāra and any “physical” or material heavenly realm.3
Many scholars have noted that early Indian religious texts describe...
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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 …
As we have seen in the previous chapter, Yeats's lifelong preoccupation was to write poetry based on truths perceived in moments of revelation, “to discover and communicate a state of being.”1 Of the two, the first, “to discover,” related to the domain of the mystic, the second, “to communicate” was the responsibility of the poet. Yeats soon discovered that the latter was indeed a difficult task. He noted in his Memoirs a saying of Mohini Chatterjee: “I thought truth was something that could be conveyed from one man's mind to another's. I now know that it is a state of mind.”2 Mohini Chatterjee's philosophy was derived from the Vedas and the Upaniṣads. It held that the highest truth was beyond the intellect and really a state of mind. The Rg Veda explained that the seeker after truth becomes the...
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Chakravarti, Sures Chandra. “Fundamental Doctrines of the Upanishads.” In The Philosophy of the Upanishads, pp. 121-60. Delhi, India: Nag Publishers, 1935.
Attempts to debunk the view that the tenets of Buddhism are the same as the fundamental doctrines of the Upanishads.
Chari, S. M. Srinivasa. Introduction to The Philosophy of the Upanisads: A Study Based on the Evaluation of the Comments of Samkara, Ramanuja, and Madhva, 342 p. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2002.
Examines the most important philosophical passages of the fourteen principal Upanishads.
Deshpande, Uma. “Position and Status of Women in Early Upanisads.” Bharatiya Vidya 49, no. 1-4 (1989): 96-103.
Collects references to women in various aspects of life as they are presented in the Upanishads.
Edgerton, Franklin. “The Upanisads: What Do They Seek, and Why?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 49, no. 2 (June 1929): 97-121.
Contends that the central idea behind the Upanishads is that knowledge is the magic key to absolute power.
Elenjimittam, Anthony. Introduction to the Upanishads: Isa—Katha—Mundaka, edited by Anthony Elenjimittam, pp. 9–34. Bombay, India: Aquinas...
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