An Introduction to the Upanishads

The [I]Upanishads[/I] are one of the great wisdom books of the East. Like the Vedas of the ancient Brahmans or the [I]Tripitaka[/I] of the Buddhists, or even parts of the [I]Koran[/I] of Mohammed, the [I]Upanishads[/I] offer enlightened wisdom and insightful advice. Although these works are religious in nature, we mustn’t be tainted in our estimation of their astuteness by the religiosity of them. At their heart, all religions aim to bring out compassion, tolerance, love and brotherhood among us. If possible, we can siphon out the little gems of wisdom within this sacred book and leave the political and dogmatic aspects aside. All great works, such as this one, began with the burning desire of man to understand himself. Surely, just as some men or women have ventured into space to tell us more about the heavenly bodies in our Universe, some have dug just as deep into the human heart to find other universes therein, and lived to come back to tell us of their findings. The Upanishads is a book that offers answers to some of the deeper mysteries within.

The [I]Upanishads[/I] are a gift to the world from the Hindu culture. Sri Aurobindo describes them as the “supreme work of the Indian mind.” They were written by many different authors, from saints and sages, kings and paupers, sometimes even roaming poets with flashes of insight. Upanishad means ‘sitting down close to a guru.” They were composed between 800 and 500 BC as a furtherance of the Vedas in order to explore spirituality, and more specifically raising the mind form the depths of materialistic existence to the higher Self, a completely realized mind.

Most of the tools which the [I]Upanishads[/I] recommend are yogic in nature. Yoga is thought to have existed well before either the Vedas or Upanishads were written. It was well established on the Indian continent when these books came to be. Many think yoga to be at least four thousand years old as it is first mentioned in the [I]Vedic[/I] [I]Shatras[/I]. The [I]Upanishads[/I] cover key Hindu ideas including concepts such as karma, samsara, miksha, nirvana, the atman and Paramatman and Brahman (Absolute Almighty). Some describe the overarching teachings in this way, “When the sun rises, everyone begins his work in its light, but the sun does not make anyone act in any particular manner. The sun merely provides the light for all activity.” This is the realization of Brahma.

To expand on some of the key concepts in the [I]Upanishads[/I], we can begin by looking at karma. Karma is a concept of right action through which all endeavors we take on, including our work is given to something greater than ourselves, ideally Brahma. Another concept to expand on is called Samsara. This is the idea of a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth that we all are trying to escape. It includes the Buddhist ideas of suffering. Our samskaras, a similar word from Sanskrit maintains that we all hold within the energy and physical body, impressions of past lives and this one that prevent us from raising our consciousness. These are ways of being stuck, which we must clear from ourselves through yoga asana, Pratyahara, and pranayama, for example. Another concept is Miksha. It is the idea of liberation from this cycle of death and rebirth. Nirvana is the state of being we obtain compared to pure bliss, pure freedom and the pure beatitude that transcends the cycles of samsara. The atman and Paramatman are the smaller self and the larger transcendent self, which lives in a state of Nirvana and Brahman is the Absolute Almighty – the creator of all.

It is explained in the [I]Maitrayaniya Upanishads[/I] thusly, “Shadanga-Yoga - The uniting discipline of the six limbs (shad-anga), as expounded in the [I]Maitrayaniya-Upanishad[/I]: (1) breath control (pranayama), (2) sensory inhibition (pratyahara), (3) meditation (dhyana), (4) concentration (dharana), (5) examination (tarka), and (6) ecstasy (samadhi).”

The [I]Upanishads[/I] are named in several manuscripts, and in two important ones, we discover a discussion of the koshas or five layers of being. This is written about extensively in the [I]Taittiriya Upanishad[/I] and the [I]Mandukya Upanishad[/I]. The five layers of consciousness are named in Sanskrit as annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vijnanamaya kosha and anandamaya kosha. These are the five layers of objectivity which, in a gradational form, externalize consciousness. The grosser the sheath, the larger is the force of externality, so that when consciousness enters the physical body, we are completely material in our outlook, physical in our understanding and assessment of values, intensely body-conscious, and know nothing of ourselves except as this physical form. As the layers move into more subtleness, then we begin to experience the world through the larger mind. Some call it the mind of God.

There are many more yogic philosophies presented in the [I]Upanishads[/I] that have been reiterated in books like the [I]Hatha Yoga Pradipika[/I], for example. It is a treasury of Indian philosophy, but its wisdom transcends culture and geography. We may not understand Brahman as the Indian mind did, but we can begin to conceive of it through our own cultural lense. Sri S.N. Sastri explains the concept this way, “Brahman cannot be directly described by words because it has no quality, activity or relationship with anything else. A substance which has a quality, such as redness, bigness, etc, can be described by reference to that quality. A person who performs a particular activity such as cooking can be described by reference to that activity, as a cook, etc. A stranger can be identified by reference to his relationship with a known person. Because of the absence of any of these qualities, Brahman cannot be described at all by any words. The method of superimposition and subsequent negation has therefore to be resorted to.” Through our practice we can transcend words and understand the concept of Brahman from the heart. If we apply the teachings of the [I]Upanishads[/I] to our own yogic practice, we would be greatly benefited.


What are the Upanishads, and Overview

Christina Sarich

Some glaring errors indicating unbalanced research:

The Upanishads are one of the great wisdom books of the East. Like the Vedas of the ancient Brahmans or the Tripitaka of the Buddhists, or even parts of the Koran of Mohammed

Is the Koran considered a book of the East? Which parts of the Koran are wisdom?

If possible, we can siphon out the little gems of wisdom within this sacred book and leave the political and dogmatic aspects aside.

What political and dogmatic aspects?

They were composed between 800 and 500 BC as a furtherance of the Vedas in order to explore spirituality, and more specifically raising the mind form the depths of materialistic existence to the higher Self, a completely realized mind.

Not according to their own tradition. The Upanishads are written in Vedic Sanskrit and per our own dating the Vedic era began in the Indus-saraswati civilisation in 8000BCE. There is now introcontroverible and hard archeaological evidence that the start of the Vedic civilisation began well before 3000BCE. As per our precise dating by our finest astronomers classical age and who created our Hindu calender, the Hindu calender begins: began at midnight (00:00) on 18 February 3102 BC. And the date of the Mahabharata starts in 3137 BC. Archeaological evidence corrobrates the date of the Mahabharata, such as discovering the submerged city of Dwarika exactly where it has been described to be.

Yoga is thought to have existed well before either the Vedas or Upanishads were written.

Thought by whom? According to the leading international expert and author of 30 books on Yoga, Tantra, mysticism, Hindism and translater of the Yoga Sutras and Bhagvad Gita, George Feuerstein, Yoga undoubably begins in the Vedic age - called Vedic Yoga. There is nill evidence of Yoga prior to this.

Feurerstein demonstrated the Yogic practices which were in vogue during Vedic times. In those very ascetic practices were undertaken which consisting of ritual and meditation. The obvious rituals were the famous fire sacrifices where Vedic risis would congregate together around a massive fire altar built to precise specifications and and chant Vedic mantras while making offerings into the fire - this is known as karma khanda. The other practices they conducted were known as "tapasya" or Vedic meditation. Their meditations included visualizations of the deities and merging into them and direct meditation on the deities. This is the earliest from of Yoga known without a benefit of doubt.

The Vedic people understood life to be like a battle between forces of light and forces of darkness - the Arya and the Dasyus. These internal forces tore us apart from within. The aim of Vedic Yoga was to harmonize and balance the internal life by the churining of the internal ocean(the real meaning of the famous story of the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in the puranas) in order to transmute the internal life into something pure and noble.

The rudiments of Yoga can also be found within the Vedas in various suktas. One verse says, "Know the invisible string within the visible string" There is a verse saying, "The mind wanders into the past and the future, bring it back under your control"

I would have appreciated your article more had these errors not been present in your article. In the future please present a balanced and well researched article. If you are going to quote from the texts of another tradition, then what they have to say about their own tradition has to mentioned as well.

A few corrections of typos as the edit button has been disabled

  • In those times very ascetic practices were undertaken which consisted of ritual and meditation
  • This is the earliest form of Yoga known without an iota of doubt
  • If you are going to quote from texts of another tradition, then what they have to say about their own tradition has to be mentioned as well.

Omnipresence means God is in EVERYTHING, not just one religious view - including the Hindu one, although we can honor it as the one path of many. Yoga of this type - an awareness of this Omnipresence (or if you prefer, vast Nothingness from which all life arises) - is yoga at its core - and no one can ‘date’ that original idea - not even Vedic manuscripts - these are just one of the oldest spiritual books we can refer to. And - yes I stand corrected on the dates - they are much older than previously assumed - just as there is new research proving that the Great Sphynx in Egypt is at least 3-5000 years older than we originally thought. There are Upanishads that were written as recently as the 17th century, as they have been added to over time. ( The earliest form of yoga was meditation. When do you date the first meditation?

And FYI - I would never attempt to list the beliefs of every religion in an article about the Upanishads. If one finds a point that interests them, then they can take it upon themselves to delve deeper into it. I would not call it “unbalanced research.” I would rather not take the bait for a discussion on religion. That is a subject I will not broach because it is too full of dogma. To address your question, though, all religions, divorced from political and extremist views teach love, and an awareness of omnipotence. I don’t care to redress the many centuries of arguments over whose religion is “right”. Take what suits you and leave the rest. That is what discernment is for. To reiterate what I wrote in the first paragraph “At their heart, all religions aim to bring out compassion, tolerance, love and brotherhood among us.”

Nope, omnipresence does not mean god is in everything, it means that god is present in every point in space. How can god be present in a religious view? Religious pluralism sounds nice and feels good, but in reality is untenable. This is because different religions contradict each other:

Christianity and Islam consider Hindu and Buddhist beliefs as anathema: these include pantheism/panentheism, the pre-existence of the soul and reincarnation, the lineage of god-realised spiritual masters, the idolizing of god, merging with god or ultimate reality, the law of karma.

If we are going to be honest we cannot overlook such massive differences. The contradictions are pretty much polar opposites.

When was the first meditation? Do you really think the hunter-gatherer, surrounded by natural threats, struggling to survive, would have meditated? What sort of miracle of knowledge would take place to tell him to sit in one spot, regulate his breathing, withdraw his senses, assume an object and maintain it. We have no evidence of meditation or Yoga anywhere in the world, except in the Vedic tradition in India. This is the earliest evidence of the practice of Yoga and meditation.

There are some new-agers who try to make out Yoga has always been a global knowledge and trace it back to Atlantis and Lemuria, but this is nothing more than wishful and unscientific thinking. That said, the Vedic historical records do mention the Vedic knowledge has been on this planet for billions of years, and has been carried on from generation to generation. There have been 6 manvantaras(each manvantara is approx 308 million years: near the modern estimate of the time it takes for the solar system to go around the galactic centre) and each manvatara has a manu. Unfortunately, prior to 10,000 years ago we have absolutely no evidence these civilisations existed.

You claim that you do not want get involved in a discussion on religion. May I remind you what your article it is about, “Introduction to the Upanishads” What religion do the Upanishads belong to? Hinduism. So you are already involved in a discussion on religion.

You claim that if we strip each religion of the dogma, extremism and politics, then we find out all religions teach love, tolerance and compassion. Sure, if we strip Hilter of all the atrocities and extremism, then we will find he was a vegetarian and animal lover. Your statement is basically legitimazing deliberately taking a skewed view. Sure Christianity teaches love, tolerance and compassion, if you take out the OT. Sure, Islam teaches peace, love and compassion, if you convert to the religion, for others it prescribes the jizya tax and torture and slaying.

Take what suits you and leave the rest. That is what discernment is for

Nope, taking what you want to hear and ignoring the rest is called selective reading. It is recognised as a fallacy. If you are honest, you will report both the positive aspects and the negative aspects and give accurate and factual information. Patanjali has defined discernment as the ability to discern truth from untruth, self from not self, pleasure from pain(viveka) He also says that detachment and renunication of what not true, not self, and not pleasure(vairagya) goes hand in hand with discernment. These are known as the two wings of the bird, without one, it cannot fly. Simply put, it is about being very objective and factual and not allowing your biasses, speculations, personal beliefs, emotions cloud your intelligence and judgement. Krishna echoes the same in the Gita.

I think in this case you are allowing some of your new-age beliefs, speculations, emotions to interfere in your judgement. I have always told everybody: be honest, be factual, be objective and you will never go wrong. We need to report reality as it is, and not as want it to be. Not accepting reality as it is, plunges us into our imaginary worlds and takes us further from the truth.

My Master said: the gospels are talking about the truth … but the Vedas are the truth themeselves. Coming from a christian esoteric, isn’t this a magnificent communication ?

I often look up for things in the Upanishads concerning yoga.

Surya Deva, could you hear me if I 'd say to you something ? Can you really hear anybody but yourself ? What is more important ? To be right or to really learn something ?
You are a very rational, intellectual person. Should I trust this intellect to be open, to comprehend anything else that you already seem to know ?

Namaste Hubert,

For me satya is a foundational principle of my life. I hate lies, because I have been lied to by my own loved ones from the very beginning. So I decided to set an example and maintain honesty in my life: to be honest, to be objective and be factual. You can never go wrong in your life if you are honest. Honesty is the best policy. It’s a pity though how abundant dishonest people are in the world.

Now, if somebody makes a statement which I know to be blatantly incorrect, then I am going to correct that statement. Such as making claims Yoga predates the Vedas. I know for a fact that there was no Yoga before the Vedas, because there is no record of it. The only records we have are the Vedas themselves.

And the feel new agey claim that all religions are one. Again, I know for a fact this is not true, because each religion differs in its tenets significantly. In the case of Hinduism vis-a-vis Christianity and Islam, they are poles apart. Nor statements like, “All religions teach love and compassion” No, it is a fact that Christianity and Islam have doctrines of intolerance for members of other religions.

As I said earlier, we must report reality like it is, and not as we want it to be.