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Selections from the Upanishads

Selections from the Upanishads

Introduction

The Upanishads, literally "to sit down in front of," are philosophical ideas of the Vedic Indo-Europeans created in dialogue form and transmitted by gurus to students. They were memorized by rote learning, hence they are called smritis as opposed to the srutis, which were Vedic texts to be recited and heard. Collectively, they are also called Vedānta, "the end of the Vedas." They are not concerned with rituals or sacrifices but with abstract speculations about truth and reality, the knowledge of which would enable a person to attain release (moksha) from the cycle of birth and rebirth. They revolve around the concepts of Brahman (the Absolute) and āman (the Self or individual soul). They are mostly written in prose although a few are in verse. They are pre-Buddhist and the earliest were written in archaic Sanskrit but some are later compositions. There are 108 extant dialogues but Shankara (8th century), who expounded the monism of Vedānta through his "Brahman is reality, the world is illusion, and the soul is God," wrote commentaries on twelve of the thirteen Upanishads considered to be the original treatises. Each Upanishad was attached to a Brāhmaṇa, a supplement of a Veda. Representing different philosophic schools, some of the Upanishads expound monistic ideas, some stress the worship of a personal god, and others focus on the practice of yoga.

Yājnavalkya the sage had two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayani, and when—in the "Fourth Brāhmana"—he wished to make a settlement on them and depart on another phase of his life as an ascetic, his favorite wife Maitreyi asked him whether she would be immortal if the settlement he made on her would make her wealthy. When he replied that wealth would not bring immortality she asked him, therefore, what was the good of wealth? Instead he should give her knowledge. He was touched by this reply and informed her that she should see, know, perceive, and hear the ātman. Once she had understood that there was only consciousness of the Self and that nothing else was real then she would achieve immortality. With that he departed, content that his message—that the only reality was the one when the soul had joined in unity with the Absolute—had been understood.

Throughout the Upanishads the soul of the individual is identified with the soul of the universe and is considered the only reality. There were many ways to achieve understanding of this and renunciation was one of them. A life of asceticism was not absolutely necessary to achieve salvation—even rulers could realize Brahman—but if a mind was filled with material cares then it was very difficult. Thus, the renouncing of all pleasures, including the joy of family, was one of the ways to achieve salvation. This is the message of the "Fifth Brāmana."

In the "Sixth Brāhmana," the delightful conversation between the learned lady Gārgī and Yājnavalkya instructs her not to think too much and not to ask too many questions. This offers the Upanishadic message that salvation comes through an abstract and instinctual understanding of the reality of Brahman and not through sacrifices and good works. This reflects the Upanishadic method of explanation of the path to salvation. The nature of the ātman was not expressed in concrete terms but in negative ones as "not this, not that" (neti, neti). It was a totally abstract entity that could not be assailed. This is seen in the "Seventh Brāhmana," which heralded that an understanding of the path of salvation would lead to the freedom from all desires and that, in turn, would lead to unity with Brahma in a state of bliss that existed before creation itself.

Ś vetataku is one of the most familiar interlocutors in the Upanishads and his dialogues in the ninth through fourteenth khandu are some of the most endearing, most celebrated, and most cited. Ś vetataku was a conceited youth who had studied with brahmans for twelve years. In one renowned dialogue he was instructed to fetch a fig, to divide it, to divide the seeds, and to explain what he saw. When he said nothing, he was informed that what he missed was the essence of the fig and that the whole world had it as its soul. That was reality, ātman, and that too was Ś vetataku. In the parable of the salt in the water he was asked to place some salt in water and come back the next morning and explain where the salt was. When he said he could not find it he was asked to sip the water from two ends and the middle. He said that it was always the same but was told that it contained the finest essence which was the whole world, which was ātman, which was Ś vetataku.

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