The Upanishads - Introduction

The Upanishads are surely among the world's most influential creative works. Not only did they play a large part in shaping Hinduism as it is today, but the debates that they helped to initiate also influenced, either directly or by reaction, the development of the other South Asian religious traditions, including Buddhism. In the last two centuries they have also begun to influence religious and philosophical thought outside Asian cultural areas. Probably at least half the people in the world have been affected in some way by the ideas of the Upanishads .

The word Upanishad, however we derive it, The word is derived from upa-ni-sad, 'to sit down close to'. Traditionally this has been taken to refer to a session of teaching, with the student sitting close to the teacher. Within the texts themselves, however, it often refers  to  another  kind  of  connection,  in  the  hidden correspondences between things (cp. Olivelle: 303). These two meanings are not necessarily exclusive. In Taittiriya 1.1.2-3 the relationship between teacher and student is given as one of the five 'great connections implies an esoteric teaching, concerned not with the outward forms of religion but with the inner meaning. Typically, an Upanishad recounts one or more sessions of teaching, often setting each within the story of how it came to be taught. A renowned spiritual teacher is about to leave the household life to live as a renunciant in the forest: one of his wives refuses her share of his wealth, and asks for knowledge instead. A serious young boy, taking his angry father at his word, goes to the house of Death: while there, he takes the opportunity to question the god about the after-life. A king sends his chamberlain to look for a great teacher of whom he has heard: he finds a rude and uncouth man, sitting scratching him under a cart.

The knowledge that is sought in these encounters is not aimed at material success or even intellectual satisfaction but at enabling the questioner to become free of worldly suffering and limitations: 'to attain fearlessness', 'to cross beyond sorrow', 'to dig up the supreme treasure'. There are several hundred works that have the status of Upanishads for some groups of Hindus. Many of these are late texts, expounding specialized ways of practice such as Yoga or Tantra, or teaching devotion to one great god or goddess. The Bhagavadgita is a devotional Upanishad of this kind, embedded within the Mahabh rata. It even keeps the traditional format, with Krsna as the teacher and Arjuna as the seeker for knowledge.

However there are thirteen texts, often called the 'Principal Upanishads ', which would be recognized by almost all Hindus as forming the foundation of their philosophy; and it is these which are translated in this book. Eleven are those on which the great philosopher Sankara wrote commentaries in the 8th-9th century CE. Preferred the neutral terms BCE and CE to BC and AD

He referred to several others, without commentating on them: one of these is the Kausitaki, which is now universally accepted among the 'principal' group. Radhakrishnan (1953: 21)

The Maitri or Maitrayam is sometimes included among the ‘principal’ Upanishads , and sometimes not. Patrick Olivelle's recent translation omits it. However it contains a wealth of material of significance for anyone interested in the development of Hinduism or of meditation, and I felt its inclusion here was necessary.

The Background

As is well known, the Upanishads form part of the tradition of religious literature The words ‘literature' and 'text’ here should not be taken necessarily to imply something written down: they are just less clumsy terms than the available alternatives. that is known as the Veda. It begins with the four Samhitas (often themselves called the 'Vedas') of the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Smaveda and Atharvaveda, each a collection of metrical prayers and hymns for use in the sacrificial ritual. The next phase is that of the Brahmanas, Bearing the same name as members of the priestly class. prose guides to the ritual for use by the sacrificial priests. Overlapping to some extent with the Brahmanas are the Aranyakas, which are concerned with the inner symbolism of the rituals. Often they take one of the rituals of the sacrifice and turn it into a form of inner contemplation. All these, together with the principal Upanishads , are regarded by Hindus as sruti, 'that which is heard', revelation, as distinct from smrti, 'that which is remembered', epics, legends, law books, etc.

Each Samhita has its own associated Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads , to create a formal structure of four Vedas each in four parts, each part being linked to one of the four stages (asrama) of a Brahmana man's life. As a young student (brahmacarin), he was expected to study the Samhita. As a householder (grhastha), he would carry out the rituals of the Brahmanas. When his children had grown up and had children of their own, he would retire to the forest as a vanaprastha, to enquire more deeply into the meaning of the rituals through the Aranyakas. At the end of his life he would renounce worldly things to become a sannyasin, and seek for the supreme reality through the Upanishads.

In the case of some of the early prose Upanishads , the connection is clearly ancient. For example the Brhadaranyaka is closely related to the Satapatha Brahmana of the Yajurveda, and is itself, as its name implies, an Aranyaka as well as an Upanishad. The first chapter of Book I, intemalizing the symbolism of the horse sacrifice, is typical of the Aranyakas.

But in the case of the later Upanishads , especially those attached to the Atharvaveda, the attributions seem more artificial, springing mainly from the desire to fit them into the fourfold structure. This in turn can be seen as part of a movement to domesticate the urge towards renunciation, by confining it to a stage of life when the seeker had already carried out his social obligations. The Upanishads themselves do not always share these priorities:

Desiring it {brahman) as their world, renouncers wander. Knowing it, the ancients did not desire offspring, for they thought, 'What is offspring to us, when the self is our world?' Leaving behind desires for sons, desires for wealth and desires for worlds, they lived on alms. For desire for sons is desire for wealth, and desire for wealth is desire for worlds: both are merely desires.

The trend in recent research on the Upanishads has been to rediscover their connection with the other parts of Vedic literature. This is important, but it should not lead us to minimize the originality of the Upanishads . The world they describe is not the pastoral society of the Vedic hymns, but a city-based culture deriving its wealth from industries such as weaving, pottery and mining, as well as from agriculture. The sages may be based in the forest, but they mingle with kings and princes. And although most people still have the perennial human concerns that we find in the Samhita, with creating a prosperous life for themselves and their families, others now question the satisfaction to be found in the whole realm of existence (samsara), and renounce the household life entirely. It is in fact the same world that we find in the early texts of the Buddhists and Jains.

Dating the Upanishads :

The date of the Upanishads is still a matter of debate. The view among most scholars is that the Samhitas of the Veda date back to about 1500-1000 BCE, the Brahmanas and Aranyakas to 1000 BCE on, and the Upanishads from about 700 BCE on. Attempts to set the whole body of literature further back always come up against the fact that the period of the early Upanishads clearly cannot be too far removed that of the Buddha and Mahavira, now thought by most scholars to have been active around 400 BCE.

It seems probable, at least, that the main teachings of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, attributed to the sage Yajnavalkya, are pre-Buddhist. (Parts of the rest are if anything older.) Yajnavalkya presents the doctrine of reincarnation as a new and unfamiliar one, whereas in the earliest Buddhist texts that we have it is already fully developed.

Bronkhorsts disputes this. He considers the Brhadgranyaka to be later than the Buddhist texts, explaining the difference in teachings by the different surroundings in which the two religions grew up: 'The former [Brhadaranyaka] was part of an esoteric movement confined to Brahmans who dwelt in villages; the latter [early Buddhism] centered in the cities.' This seems to conflict with the view of society portrayed in either group of texts. The Buddha is recorded as having debated with learned Brahmanas, and several of his chief monks were Brahmanas with a traditional Vedic education. It seems impossible to accept any theory about the dating of the Upanishads that depends upon such a slow movement of ideas, in either direction.

There is little internal evidence to link the Upanishads to historical events that are known from elsewhere. The most that we can say with confidence is that the material culture described in the earlier Upanishads appears entirely compatible with what the archaeological evidence tells us of the city-based culture of the 6th-5th centuries BCE.

Numerous kings and princes are mentioned but none whose dates are even approximately known, with the possible exception of Ajatasatru of Kashi, mentioned in both the Brhadaranyaka and the Kausitaki. Most scholars think that this is not the same as the Ajatasatru (Pali Ajatasattu) of Magadha, mentioned as a contemporary of the Buddha and MahavTra; though the Magadhan king is actually said to have became the ruler of Kashi in later life, when he conquered the states of the Vajjian confederacy.

The two Ajatasatrus are portrayed as markedly different in character. Though both are shown debating with religious teachers, the motive of the Ajatasatru of the Buddhist texts is a search for peace of mind, to allay his mental torment over the dynastic murder of his father. Bronkhorst identifies the two, explaining the discrepancies by dating the texts very late, after the details of his life had been forgotten.

(This seems improbable, in view of the memory training undergone by those who handed on both Vedic and Buddhist texts.) It is more likely that Ajatasatru of Magadha, 'son of the Videhan princess' (vedehiputta), was a later king, perhaps named after Ajatasatru of Kashi, an illustrious member of his mother's family.

It is possible to place the Upanishads in a rough sequence among themselves. The Brhadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya and Aitareya Upanishad are generally agreed to be the earliest. All have strong links with the earlier Vedic material, and are mainly in prose with verse passages. The Kausitaki Upanishad follows a similar format, though its versions of the material that it shares with the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya give the impression of being later reworkings.

The Kena, Katha, Svetasvatara and Mundaka seem to belong together. The last three are almost entirely in verse, the Kena in a mixture of verse and prose. All seem to anticipate later developments in Hindu philosophy, including Yoga, Sankhya and Bhakti. The Isavasya is generally thought to belong here, though its clear link with verse passages of the Brhadaranyaka suggests an earlier date.

The Prasna and Mandukya revert to the prose format, but contain ideas that seem to have later origins, particularly in their interpretation of the sacred syllable OM. The Maitri is a different case again. It seems to contain material from different periods, including a core that is related to the Taittiriya, but the main body of it is much later, and includes references to astronomical ideas that were probably not current until the 2nd century CE.

So we are brought back to the consensus view that the principal Uganisads were composed from about 700 BCE, perhaps incorporating some older material. The early prose Upanishads could well date from about 700-400 BCE, the verse Upanishads two or three centuries later, and the Prasna and Mandukya from the end of the last millennium BCE. The Maitri could have been put into its present form as late as the 2nd or 3rd century CE.

Key Concepts:

The Upanishads often teach through riddles, images and suggestions, rarely through statements of dogma. However, certain important concepts recur throughout.

Brahman was in origin one of a group of words and names which clustered around the idea of ‘priestly power' and its central manifestation, 'sacred speech’ Others include Brahma, brhat ('great’, as in Brhad-aranyaka), Brahmana, Brhaspati. It could mean sacred lore as a whole, or some particular powerful saying. It could be 'priesthood', either the priestly class as a whole or the power embodied in it, counterpart to ksatra, 'royalty', the power of the ruling class.

In the Upanishads all these meanings are still present, but the word has developed to mean the sacred power not just of some particular person, word or class, but of the whole universe: the first cause, absolute or supreme reality. There is an overlap in the different meanings, and sometimes we can only guess which was uppermost in the author's mind. The scholars of brahman {brahmavadin) of Svetasvatara I.I are certainly expert in the sacred lore, but they also seek the reality or first cause behind it.

Brahman is a neuter word, indicating the abstract quality of the concept. The masculine form is Brahma, referring to a male being who embodies the quality of brahman (in its various senses). In later Hinduism, the neuter and masculine forms are clearly differentiated. Brahman now refers exclusively to the abstract power, and Brahma to a creator-god with his own attributes and characteristics. In the Upanishads the distinction is much less sharp. In the chapters on creation in Brhadaranyaka I, the creator-figure seems to shift between the neuter power and the masculine deity. In the Kena, the neuter brahman takes an active part in the narrative, appearing before the gods as a mysterious being (yaksa).

Sometimes we cannot be sure which of the two is meant. The words differ in only a few of their grammatical forms, and in compounds they are indistinguishable. Does brahmaloka mean the world of the god Brahma, or the world or state achieved by a person who realizes brahman? In Book I of the Kausitaki, the two appear to be the same.

Another such complex term is atman, a word whose origin is disputed. Some consider that it was originally a term for the breath (which would make it a parallel to prana, below). In everyday usage it was the reflexive pronoun— myself, yourself, themselves, etc. In the Upanishads it becomes the subject of speculation: What is the self? Who, in reality, am I? It comes to be seen as a real, unchanging part within each changing being, just as brahman is within the changing universe. The existence of such an unchanging part was among the main points of contention between early Hinduism and Buddhism.

In the translation, atman appears both as 'the self, and as 'myself, 'oneself, etc. Where it seemed appropriate, the Sanskrit word in brackets have been added.

In the early Upanishads , the inner part of a human being is often called purusa, 'man' or 'person', rather than atman. (Generally the latter translation is used, to avoid the implication that it is exclusive to the male: for the authors of the Upanishads , every being contained both male and female aspects.) Here the inner reality is pictured in almost physical form as a tiny being moving inside the body, a 'dwarf', ‘a thumb in length', like a rice-grain or a barleycorn', yet mysteriously as large as space. Some of the texts envisage a series of purusas or atmans, of increasingly subtle form, from the physical body to the inmost self.

Prana means 'breath', that which gives life to every being. Within the body, it is said to divide itself into five, also called prana. The five pranas all have names derived from the verb an-, to breathe, with different prefixes denoting direction of movement. Unfortunately for the translator, ideas about their functions changed over time.

In later Hindu physiology, the functions of the breaths are clearly defined. The first is prana itself, literally 'breathing forth', as the process of breathing in and out: it is based in the chest, and has its seat in the heart. Apana, 'breathing awayl, is the lower breath, based in the intestine, thought to be responsible for the process of digestion and the elimination of waste matter from the body. Vyana, 'breathing apart, breathing in different directions', is the diffused breath, thought to pervade the whole body. Udana, 'breathing up', is the up-breath, based in the throat, and samana, 'breathing together', is the central breath, based in the navel. This system seems to anticipate the later theory of the cakras, in which energy flows are thought to be centred on particular points within the body.

In the Prasna Upanishad, the pranas are clearly described in these terms. In the Aitareya, too, the prana and apana seem to have their later roles. But in the earliest references, the situation is more complicated. Chandogya III makes sense only if we assume that the vyana means 'between-breath', the point at which the breath stops in mid-respiration, and prana and apana are the in-breath and out-breath or vice versa. In Brhadaranyaka I, prana is the organ that experiences scents, which would connect it to the in-breath, while in III.2 of the same Upanishad, it is apana that has that function. Elsewhere in the Brhadaranyaka there are traces of yet another system, with references to the 'breath of the mouth' (ayasya prana) and the 'middle breath' (madhyama prana), Because the translations of these words are somewhat speculative, I have generally added the original terms in brackets.

Apart from these technical uses, the word prana can also be used of the senses, of the bodily functions in general, and even of living beings seen as embodying the pranas.

The central importance of the breath in its various forms is repeatedly stressed, notably in the fable found in several Upanishads of the competition for supremacy between the human faculties, in which only the breath proves itself indispensable.

The Upanishads as Literature Many of the distinctive features of the Upanishads as literature are connected with their origins in an oral tradition. The literary devices that are used seem to be chosen primarily as means of conveying teaching. Perhaps the most striking of these devices is repetition, which takes several forms.

There are a number of passages that are found in different versions in more than one Upanishad. Such, for example, are the passages on the triumph of the breath, and on the two ways by which a person can go after death. Since each of the Upanishads was in origin a separate work, this is not so much repetition as a case of different authors drawing on the same fund of oral material and interpreting it in their own ways. Sometimes the same kind of repetition occurs within an Upanishad, as with the two different versions of the dialogue of Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi in the Brhadaranyaka, It is possible that both were originally separate versions of the same teaching, each handed down through a slightly different chain of teachers 16 However the authors of the Upanishads as we have it must have felt that both versions were distinct enough to include, and indeed, each contains material that is not in the other, though the second version is slightly fuller and more detailed than the first.

More typically, there is a deliberate use of repetition within an Upanishad for dramatic or teaching purposes. For example in Brhadaranyaka II.I, the sage Gargya attempts to teach Ajatasatru, but finds the king more than a match for him in debate. Gargya puts forward twelve different forms in which he visualizes brahman, each time using the same form of words: 'I worship as brahman the person who is in the sun', and so on through a series of twelve persons or purusas. Ajatasatru rejects each of these visualizations, not as wrong, since each is said to bring great benefits to the one who practises it, but as being inadequate as a way of understanding brahman:

Do not talk to me about him. I worship him as the topmost, the head and king of all beings. Whoever worships him as such becomes the topmost, the head and king of all beings.

The word translated here as 'worship' is upas, and these visualizations are often called upasana, an untranslatable word combining the ideas of meditation, worship and contemplation.It is derived from upa+as-, to sit close to, hence attend on or worship: Often the seeker is advised to contemplate something as a symbol or embodiment of something else, as in the first words of the Chandogya Upanishad: 'One should contemplate the syllable OM as the Udgitha’. Upasana is often used as a way of moving from grosser to subtler concepts of truth. Gargya is unable to do this, and in the end has to ask Ajatasatru to teach him instead.

Sometimes the repetition seems designed to act like the recitation of a mantra, putting the hearer in the right frame of mind for understanding to arise, as in Yajnavalkya's answer to Uddalaka Aruni's question about the nature of the 'inner controller'.

'That which, resting in the earth, is other than the earth; which the earth does not know; of which the earth is the body; which controls the earth from within: this is your self, the inner controller, the immortal.

'That which, resting in the waters, is other than the waters; which the waters do not know; of which the waters are the body; which controls the waters from within: this is your self, the inner controller, the immortal.

' And so on for twenty verses, through the rest of the cosmic powers, through beings as a whole, and through the faculties of the individual being: 'in relation to deities' (adhidaivatam), 'in relation to beings' (adhibhutam)) and 'in relation to oneself (adhyatmam), as these different levels are called in the Upanishads . Finally Yajnavalkya brings it all together:

It is the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought-of thinker, the unknown knower. Other than this there is no seer; other than this there is no hearer; other than this there is no thinker; other than this there is no knower. This is your self, the inner controller, the immortal: what is other than this is suffering.

These words are themselves picked up again in his next answer, to Gargi, so helping to bind the different chapters of Book III together. For their intended effect such passages have to be read in full, preferably aloud.

The favoured means of conveying teaching in the Upanishads is dialogue, which takes a variety of forms. Sometimes the situation is the expected one, with a seeker humbly asking a sage for instruction, but at other times there is an element of challenge or competition, as rival sages seek to test themselves against one another. Sometimes, as with Ajatasatru and Gargya, a less regarded person may prove more knowledgeable than a teacher who is reputed wise.

This way of teaching belongs to a tradition of verbal combat that is first found in the Brahmanas. The sage who wished to excel in it needed not only a profound knowledge of ritual and its meaning, but also powerful debating skills, and the ability to ask and answer questions in new and unexpected ways. Riddle and paradox are essential to this style of teaching, partly as ways of opening the hearer's mind to unfamiliar concepts, and partly from sheer delight, for 'the gods seem to love the mysterious, and hate the obvious. In the Upanishads , the riddle was particularly apt as a way of suggesting ideas about Brahman and atman which could not readily be conveyed in conventional terms:

  • The one for whom priesthood and royalty,
  • Both, are the rice And death is the sauce:
  • Who, truly, knows where he is?
  • Two birds, companions and friends, Cling to the same tree.
  • One of them eats the sweet pippala-berry:
  • The other looks on, without eating.
An important part of the sages debating skills was word play, often in the form of puns or punning etymologies. A typical instance is Brhadaranyaka I.3.25-27, where the ideas of property (sva), tone (svara) and gold (suvarna) are linked together through the similarity of their sounds. Such conceits, though playful, have a serious purpose. The authors were no doubt aware of the true derivations of these words, but regarded verbal resemblances as something more than coincidence. For them, it appears, the sound of a word had a genuine relationship to the thing it named.

Throughout the texts of the Upanishads we see the delight of the authors in the resources of the Sanskrit language, with its huge vocabulary, its versatility, and its wide range of consonants which make possible striking effects of assonance and alliteration. Such resources can be used not only for communicating abstract concepts, but also for more earthy purposes, as we see in the wonderfully scornful description of unworthy ascetics in Maitri VII. . . . vagabonds, wearers of matted locks, dancers, mercenaries, who have gone forth yet appear on the stage, renegades who work for kings, and so on . . .

The Appeal of the Upanishads:

This complexity of detail exists in tension with a powerful simplicity and directness. Stories are told with little scene setting or explanation, and the characters appear with the minimum of introduction, leaving us to judge them by their own words and actions. The prose is generally clear and unadorned, drawing on universal experiences:

As a caterpillar, reaching the end of a blade of grass and taking the next step, draws itself together, so the self, dropping the body, letting go of ignorance and taking the next step, draws itself together.

As a weaver, unpicking a pattern from her weaving, fashions another, newer and more beautiful shape, so the self, dropping the body and letting go of ignorance, creates another, newer and more beautiful shape . . .

Verse passages are generally in the simplest of the available metres, the anustubh ('sloka'), helping to make important teachings easy to memorize.

When all the desires that dwell In one's heart are let go, Mortal becomes immortal: One reaches brahman here.

In such passages, the Upanishads seem to speak directly to the heart of the reader, regardless of distance in time, place or background from the world of their authors. Both the complexity and the simplicity set the translator their own special challenges.

| Links |, All Rights Reserved