Upanishadic Philosophy

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UPANISHADIC PHILOSOPHY The Upanishads are one of the world's great repositories of spiritual insight and wisdom. Composed orally by Indian sages as early as the ninth century b.c., they have attracted the attention of scholars and spiritual seekers the world over. They signal a personal, experiential, and at times mystical understanding of the cosmos, the divine, and the human self, which over the centuries many have found profound. Much of Hindu thought self-consciously sees itself as a development of Upanishadic teaching, which is regarded as shruti, divinely revealed truth carrying supreme authority. And outside Hinduism, thinkers as diverse as Dara Shikoh (the great-grandson of the Mughal emperor Akbar), Roberto de Nobili, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Ralph Waldo Emerson have all sung the praises of these texts. In fact, Max Müller, the German Indologist, referring to the Vedānta philosophy based on the Upanishads, spoke of it as "a system in which human speculation seems to have reached its very acme" (cited in Radhakrishnan and Moore, p. 37).

Etymological and Historical Contexts

The term upanishad is composed of the Sanskrit roots sad (sit), upa (near), and ni (a closed group) and represents an esoteric teaching imparted by a teacher to a group of students in search of sacred knowledge. The term also connotes the positing of correlations between entities and powers belonging to different spheres, and, through such equivalences, the drawing out of deeper meanings. Thus, for example, equivalences drawn between the human body and the cosmos point to notions of order, hierarchy, and balance. These connections are more suggestive and speculative than strictly logical, and represent poetic speculation rather than a rigorously applied method. Indeed, the Upanishads are explicit that such spiritual truths are not attainable through logical processes. "Not by reasoning is this apprehension attainable" (Katha Up, 1.2.4), for "words return (from Brahman) along with the mind, not attaining it" (Taittiriya Up, 2.9.1).

Such speculation follows certain intellectual and religious developments. The Upanishads both chronologically and thematically come at the end (anta) of the Vedas, and thus the teachings based on them are called Vedānta in both senses of the word "end": culmination, on the one hand, and the real meaning or fulfillment of Vedic teaching, on the other. What comes before them are the hymns and chants of the four Vedas: Rig Veda, Samur Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda, collectively known as the Saṃhitās (collections). These are followed by the Brāhmaṇas, a set of ritual instructions having principally to do with the sacrifices offered to the gods. These sacrifices were elaborate and often expensive, and those who either could not afford them or were unwilling for various reasons to perform them retreated to the forest in order to meditate on the spiritual meanings of these hymns and rituals. These allegorical renderings came to be known as the Āraṇyakas, or forest books. It is out of this complex development that the Upanishads emerged as a set of philosophical reflections on the preceding Vedic literature. They denote a subjective and contemplative turn away from ritualism and priestcraft to ontological musings about the nature of reality and the place of humans within it. These reflections were often expressed in a set of pithy formulas like the famous "tat tvam asi" (that thou art), which by their very nature call out for explication. It was this explication that the gurus would provide to students whom they considered spiritually developed enough to absorb it. Hence the distinctly esoteric tone that the Upanishads bear, at least early in the pedagogical tradition, when they refer, for example, to the "truth of truth" (Bṛhad Up, 2.1.20) or "the supreme secret" (Kath Up, 3.17). It is quite clear from many such passages that the teachings were not meant for the untutored.


So great was the prestige attached to the genre that over two hundred works call themselves Upanishads, including texts outside the Hindu tradition like the Christopanishad and the Allopanishad (secret teachings about Allah), which were composed in the medieval period. The Muktika Upanishad provides a list of 108 Upanishads, which has come to be regarded as canonical, although recent scholarship has increased that number slightly. These can be divided into two categories: the Vedic Upanishads and the later Upanishads. In the first group are the thirteen that are traditionally considered the principal Upanishads. In rough chronological order, they are: Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Īsa, Kena, Aitareya, Taittirīya, Kauṣītakī, Kaṭha, Muṇḍaka, Shvetāshvatara, Prashna, Maitri, and Māṇḍukya. Further classification can be done on the basis of sectarian orientation, textual features, and ritual development, but for our purpose, it is important to mention again that these Upanishads are all, though not exclusively, regarded as shruti, or authoritative scripture, and as apauruṣeya, or authorless, hence, revealed. They are traditionally attached to specific sākhas, or schools of Vedic interpretation. The former feature, that is, their revealed status, is not true—at least in terms of wide acceptance—of the later Upanishads, which are not as well known as the Vedic Upanishads, but are nonetheless important in their respective sectarian communities.

Central Teachings

Perhaps the most well-known teaching of the Upanishads is the equation of brahman and ātman, the ultimate reality with the transcendental self existing at the core of one's being. Brahman, derived from the root brh (to grow or burst forth), was first identified with prayer and, given the importance of prayer and sacrifice in maintaining the cosmos, was soon seen as the primary cause of the universe. Ātman, which originally meant breath, came to be identified with the essence of man, his self or soul. This divine or real self, however, is sharply distinguished from the jīva, the empirical or embodied self, which is finite. The speculative genius of Upanishadic thought is to effect the equivalence of two seemingly different ideas, one referring to the outer material world, the other to the inner psychic one. This in a sense is a continuation of the earlier Vedic habit of seeking homologies or correlations between the individual and the cosmos. Now, however, it pushes further to a "nondual" (a-dvaitic) unity. The conception of brahman, being objective and referring to the external world, is by its very nature hypothetical and lacking in certainty. The conception of ātman, by contrast, is free of these defects, but, as commonly understood, it is finite and hence cannot encompass the whole of reality. When the two conceptions are combined, however, a third conception is born, which is richer in significance and meaning than the two considered individually. Like brahman, this new notion of ātmanbrahman encompasses the whole world, but unlike it, it now acquires the certainty of personal existence. Like ātman, it is spiritual, but unlike ātman considered by itself, ātman-brahman is infinite. "That is the Upanishadic absolute—neither brahman or ātman in one sense, but both in another..The enunciation of this doctrine marked the most important advance in the whole history of Indian thought," says M. Hiriyanna (Outlines of Indian Philosophy, 1932, p. 58).

Various further accounts and descriptions are provided both of brahman and of ātman. Brahman, for example, may be regarded cosmically (saguṇa, with qualities) or acosmically (nirguṇa, without qualities). In the first case, brahman may be seen as evolving into the world, and the philosophical task becomes one of grasping the unity of the world in brahman. In the second, brahman is at most the logical ground of both subject and object, and the corresponding philosophical task becomes one of deconstruction, that is, of negating all qualities that may be ascribed to brahman, as in the famous doctrine of "neti, neti" (not this, not that), where the sheer indescribability of the Absolute in language is highlighted (Bṛhad Up, 3.8.8ff.).

It is also in this second (nirgunic) interpretation that the doctrine of māyā makes its appearance—māyā being the empirical world of space, time, causation, and substance, which is taken to be real by the ignorant, but is not really real. Opinion is divided about the degree of unreality attached to māyā—whether it is absolutely or only relatively unreal compared to brahman. Upanishadic thought is, however, firm in its insistence on going beyond the world of māyā.

The imagination of the Upanishadic sages moved thus in speculative and transcendental realms, rather than in empirical or natural-scientific ones. Underlying the flux of spatiotemporal reality is an eternal, immutable, and psychic reality, just as there is a deeper, timeless, and infinite self underlying the vicissitudes of the empirical ego. The equation of ātman and brahman is not a mere philosophical or dialectical move, but rather an intuitive one arising out of direct experience of ultimate reality. At this level, the ultimate is experienced as sat (existence as such), cit (pure consciousness), and ānanda (bliss). This experience also brings one moksha, or release from the saṃsāric world of phenomenal existence. The ultimate thrust of Upanishadic speculation is thus not so much theoretical as practical and soteriological—deliverance from the empirical world and from the cycle of karma and rebirth.

The path to such deliverance requires great moral and spiritual purification and preparation. To see the Self, one must become "calm, controlled, quiet, patiently enduring, and contented" (Bṛhad Up, 4.4.23). Most of the Upanishads concur that the best way to move toward moksha is through the practice of yogic meditation. The Vedic Upanishads often highlight the difference between such meditation and ratiocination, and emphasize the efficacy of the former and the poverty of the later (Katha Up, 6.9–11; Svet Up, 1.3). It is, however, in the later Yoga Upanishads that the details of yogic practice and ascesis are most clearly spelled out (see the Yogatattva and the Sandilya Upanishads).

The Upanishads touch on a great many other topics, from the different states of consciousness through death and rebirth processes to the cultivation of the virtues and attitudes needed for moksha. This is as one would expect from a heterogeneous collection of material culled from various sources at different times. Later philosophical systems and particularly the schools of Vedānta attempt to systematize them into more unified philosophies, but the Upanishads themselves are best regarded as spiritual texts, which, like the Bible in the Jewish and Christian traditions, serve as a wellspring for later developments. Even though in terms of composition they are remote in time, in terms of resonance and inspiration, they will always remain contemporary to spiritual seekers.

Joseph Prabhu

See alsoVedic Aryan India


Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1932.

Hume, Robert E., trans. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads. 1931. Reprint, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Keith, A. B. The Religion and Philosophy of the Vedas and Upanishads. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Nikhilananda, Swami, trans. The Upanishads. 4 vols. New York: Bonanza Books, 1949–1959.

Panikkar, Raimundo, ed. and trans. The Vedic Experience:Mantramanjari. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Radhakrishnan, S., ed. and trans. The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper, 1953.

Radhakrishnan, S., and C. Moore, eds. A Source Book in IndianPhilosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.