The Upanishads are a set of philosophical and didactic religious texts from India, the central lessons of which have been regarded by many as presenting some of the most fundamental elements of contemplative and mystical Indian religious sensibilities in general. The Sanskrit word upaniṣad —built on the root ṣad ("sit") with the prefixes upa and ni ("nearby")—is consistent with the traditional understanding that these texts originally were lessons given to students sitting at the feet of a learned master. The most influential of the Upanishads were composed in Sanskrit in both verse and prose form between the eighth and the second centuries b.c.e.; lesser-known works of this genre appear as late as the sixteenth century c.e. The major Upanishads have been translated into virtually all of the world's major languages and have become objects of study and sources of inspiration for people around the world.
European readers were introduced to these texts through the translation of fifty Upanishads into Latin by Anquetil Duperron in 1801–1802. They had considerable effect on such nineteenth-century philosophers as Arthur Schopenhauer, who maintained that the Upanishads were "the fruit of the most sublime human knowledge and wisdom." They also came to the attention of American philosophers and writers in the nineteenth century, primarily via various strands of the Idealist, Romantic, and Transcendentalist movements of Germany and England. (The opening lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1857 poem "Brahma" closely paraphrase verses from the Kaṭha Upanishad.) Interest in the Upanishads grew in the United States after such events as the visit by the Hindu philosopher-monk Swami Vivekananda, who was an influential participant in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and by the subsequent founding in 1898 of the Vedanta Society, which was one of the first Hindu-based religious organizations to be established in the United States. Selections from the Upanishads now regularly appear in courses offered by American colleges and universities, and their teachings often guide the spiritual practices of contemporary individuals and groups in the United States influenced by classical Indian thought.
Teachings of the Upanishads
There are many Upanishads, and they all present their own sets of teachings. Nevertheless, there are some core themes that find expression in the Upanishads as a whole. The central lesson of the Upanishads centers on the notion that all of the many and various beings in the constantly changing world are infused with and inwardly supported by a single, subtle, pervasive, powerful, and abiding divine presence that stands as the ultimate and true reality. Because it is the ground of all being, the essence of the absolute abides hidden, as it were, within all beings. A related and key lesson, therefore, is that the subtle essence of the human being is identical to the essence of the single and eternal world soul.
The Upanishads refer to this ultimate reality by several terms. Earlier Upanishads tend to call it brahman (hence Emerson's poem "Brahma") or atman. Brahman applies more typically to the pervasive nature of the godhead (the word literally means "expansive, powerful, great"). Atman refers to the presence of the absolute at the deepest level of one's being (atman literally means "self"). The two terms often appear in translations as Brahman and Atman, capitalized to mark the ultimacy of the unitary world soul.
Some of the later Upanishads teach that this Brahman or Atman is actually God, who resides deep within the heart of all beings. These theistic Upanishads variously identify God as Shiva ("the benevolent one"), Vishnu ("the pervasive one"), or the universal Goddess, the latter known by a number of names.
No matter what it is called, the ultimate ground of all existence is said by the Upanishads to be unified and indivisible. It is the "inner guide," "hidden mover," and "finest essence" of all things. The Chāndogya Upanishad repeatedly proclaims tat tvam asi, "thou art that"—the "that" here referring to the world soul and the "thou" referring to one's truest self, the self that is Atman. Similarly, the Chāndogya Upanishad declares that "the whole world is Brahman," while the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad notes that "Truly, the Brahman is this Atman" and leads the seeker to realize "I am Brahman."
These four lessons—"thou art that," "the whole world is Brahman," "the Brahman is this Atman," and "I am Brahman"—form what tradition has come to call the mahāvakyas, the "great teachings" of the Upanishads. The Kaṭha Upanishad notes that when one realizes the identity of inner self with the world soul, then one "is released from the jaws of death."
Upanishadic perspectives find succinct expression in these verses from the Īśa Upanishad:
[the divine self] moves. it moves not. it is far. it is near.
it is within all things, and yet it is outside all. one who regards all beings as within the self and the self as within all beings never turns away from him.
for one in whom all beings have become none other than the self of the knower: then what delusion, or what sorrow can possibly befall that one who sees the unity!
The Upanishads admit the difficulty of knowing an ultimate reality that is not defined or limited by time, space, and the particularities of personality. The KaṭhaUpanishad describes the path leading to this knowledge as "like a razor's edge." (The British writer Somerset Maugham drew on this phrase for the title of his 1944 novel The Razor's Edge, about a doctor's spiritual search.) The Upanishads hold that this eternal, divine presence within can be known through attentive listening to teachings given by one who has fully realized the identity of Brahman and Atman; through sustained contemplation of the deeper, inner dimensions of one's life; and through the spiritual practice of meditation. That the reverential turn inward to find the divine presence within through meditation is an important and effective spiritual practice is represented in the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad:
those who were skilled in the practice of meditation saw the autonomous power of the divine, hidden within its own qualities. . . .
the eternal one that rests in the self should be known; for, truly, there is nothing higher than this to be known.
. . .
just as the form of fire is not visible when latent in its source, but may be found over and over again by use of friction, so . . . by practicing meditation one may see the divine, hidden, as it were. . . .
holding one's body steady, and bringing the senses and the mind into the heart, one should practice meditation.
Upanishadic views in general recognize the value of the heart as the seat of the soul and abode of the divine presence that similarly dwells within all things, so it is to their hearts that the sages taught their disciples to turn. Indeed, to reach the true heart, and thus the divine self that dwells therein, is said to embrace all that exists. The Chāndogya Upanishad encourages seekers to remember:
truly, as far as the space of this [universe] extends, that far extends the space within the heart. within it are held both heaven and earth, both fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and the stars. whatever of him there is, and whatever there is not all of that is held within the heart.
Hume, Robert E. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads. 2nd ed., rev. 1931.
Mascaró, Juan. The Upanishads. 1965.
Olivelle, Patrick. Upanisads. 1996.
Prabhavananda, Swami, and Frederick Manchester. The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. 1990.
Pye, Michael. "Upanishads." In The Encyclopediaof Religion. edited by Mircea Eliade. Vol. 15, pp. 147–152. 1987.
Radhakrishnan, S. The Principal Upanishads. Repr. ed. 1978.
William K. Mahony
The major Upaniṣads are Aitareya, Bṛhadāranyaka, Chandogya, Īśa, Kaṭha, Kauṣītaki, Kena, Mahānārāyaṇīya Maitri, Māṇḍūkya, Muṇḍaka, Praśna, Śvetāśvatara, Taittirīya.
The Upanishads, literally teachings received while sitting at the feet of a master, are a set of writings produced in the first millennium B.C.E. in India, which had been the most important in defining the general perspective of that set of religions generally referred to as Hinduism. Transmitted to the West in the nineteenth century, they became a major source for contemporary belief in karma and reincarnation, and through Theosophy were integrated into the teaching of Western occult thought.
The first era of Indian thought was built around the Vedas, writings which suggest that India's ancient culture was built around the celebration of nature, the activity of the deities in the world, and the propitiation of the gods in acts of devotion, temple sacrifice, and the following of rules. The Upanishads represent a radical shift in perspective that developed around 1000 B.C.E. The authors of the Upanishads launched a search for the unifying reality behind the visible universe.
There are 13 Principle Upanishads, which summarize the whole of the teachings, and numerous lesser supportive documents. They critique the Vedas and are often referred to as the Vedanta, or "end of the Vedas. " Rather than outward acts of temple worship, the Upanishads call for an inward search for the ultimate principle of reality (called Brahman) and a mystical union with that principle. Brahman is the source of the visible world that goes through a continuous process of being created, sustained, and destroyed. Brahman is hidden by maya (illusion), that aspect of the world that conceals reality from us.
The essential mystical insight offered by the Upanishads is the identification of Brahman with Atman. Atman is the essential core of the individual self. The implication is that to reach the inner essence of oneself is to discover ultimate reality. It is upon this identification that disciplines of concentration and meditation and ultimately the practice of yoga are based.
According to the Upanishads, individuals are trapped in maya. Lost in maya, we face a continuous series of incarnations, the exact nature of any incarnation being the result of the consequences of actions in prior lives (karma). To escape maya one must focus upon reality, the yogic path being the ideal process for pursuing that focus. It is also recognized that such a focus can lead to selfishness. To prevent such an error, the Upanishads recommend the cultivation of virtues such as detachment and self-control, and call for the performance of one's social duties.
The Upanishads now exist in several translations in English and other Western languages, though the 1879 translation by world religions scholar Max Müller was the important early one which built support for Indian perspectives in the West. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda brought the teachings of the Vedanta to the West and established it throughout the Vedanta Societies that grew out of his work. Through the twentieth century, numerous commentaries on the Upanishads were published and circulated by the many Indian religions operating in the West. Equally important, insights from the Upanishads, freed from the texts, have permeated Western esoteric and metaphysical groups through which they have been popularized among a public unaware of their origin.
Beidler, William. The Vision of the Self in Early Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass, 1975.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953.
The Upanishads are a collection of sacred texts that form one of the foundations of Hindu religious thought. The most important of these texts, written between about 600 and 300 b.c., deal primarily with the nature of humans and the universe. Originally passed on orally, these works were eventually collected and written down by wise men called rishis.
The texts of the Upanishads are said to hold the "hidden meanings" of the religious practices and ideas presented in the Vedas, an older collection of sacred texts. Hindu beliefs based on the Upanishads are known as the Vedanta, which means that they came after the Vedas.
Rather than focusing on religious ritual and practice, the Upanishads are philosophical works that explore the nature of reality and meaning of life. One of their central teachings is the idea that behind the everyday world is a timeless, unchanging reality or spirit, called brahman, that is identical to the inner essence, or atman, of the human being. Unity with brahman and knowledge of the hidden reality behind existence can be achieved through yoga, which involves philosophical investigation and the highly disciplined practice of meditation.
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
The Upanishads also present the Hindu idea of reincarnation, in which individuals are reborn again and again as other living creatures. The main purpose of the Upanishads is to help individuals gain the mystical knowledge that will release them from this continuing cycle of death and rebirth.
See also Brahma; Hinduism and Mythology; Rig-Veda; Vedas.
Name of a class of texts in Indian literature that are appended to the Brāhmaṇas or treatises on the Vedic ritual and contain a more esoteric doctrine. Their teaching consists chiefly in setting up parallel series between ritual and nature or, more generally, between man and the world. Thus there are, according to the Chandogya-Upanishad, which is among the most interesting, not only three sacrificial fires, but five natural ones, called, respectively: "celestial world," from which Soma (the sacred liquor) is born; "thunderstorm," from which the rain comes; "earth," the source of food; "man," the source of semen virile; and "woman," from which comes the embryo. Such speculations are very old, for they have their analogues in Iran. The chief single equation is that between the principle of the universe and an invisible principle inside man.
See Also: vedas; hinduism.
Bibliography: a. s. geden and j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 12:541–548.