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Introduction to the Upanishads

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The Upanishads were written by sages of India between the eighth and fourth centuries BC. They are the final part of the Vedas and the basis for the philosophy of Vedanta, which means the end of the Vedas. The Vedas are the most ancient and sacred scripture of India; the name signifies wisdom. The Rig Veda gives the verses or hymns. The Yajur Veda has sacrificial formulas. The Sama Veda contains the melodies of the chants. The Atharva Veda is magic formulas. The four parts of the Vedas are the following: Samhita is the main part and has hymns, prayers, and litanies; the Brahmanas discuss the meaning of the sacrificial rites and ceremonies; the Aranyakas are forest-texts; and the Upanishads are the teachings of the sages on mystical experience. As part of the Vedas the Upanishads are considered revealed scripture.

The word Upanishad literally means "sitting down near" and implies studying with a spiritual teacher. The seven Upanishads presented complete in this collection are drawn from the twelve principal Upanishads and appear in what is considered their chronological order, the KENA, KATHA, and ISHA being considered pre-Buddhistic and thus from the eighth or seventh centuries BC. The name KENA comes from the first word which means "By whom." ISHA comes from the first word meaning "Lord." PRASHNA comes from the word for "question."

The gods referred to in these Upanishads are Agni the god of fire, Vayu the god of air or wind, Indra the god of heroic power and storms, Rudra a god of destruction and of healing, Savitri a sun god or goddess, Brahma the creator, and Vishnu the preserver. In the KATHA UPANISHAD 5 the city of eleven gates refers to the nine openings in the body, the navel, and the sagittal suture on top of the head, and in the SHVETASHVATARA UPANISHAD 3 the nine-gated city refers merely to the body's nine openings. The triad in MUNDAKA 1 refers to the first three Vedas, while the triad in SHVETASHVATARA 1 seems to refer to three aspects of God. In MUNDAKA 3 Vedanta means the end of the Vedas.

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KENA UPANISHAD

English version by Sanderson Beck

1. Know That to be God
2. Who Knows It?
3. What is this Spirit?
4. This is God

1
By whom directed does the mind project to its objects?
By whom commanded does the first life breath move?
By whom impelled are these words spoken?
What god is behind the eye and ear?

That which is the hearing of the ear,
the thought of the mind, the voice of the speech,
the life of the breath, and the sight of the eye.
Passing beyond, the wise leaving this world become immortal.

There the eye does not go, nor speech, nor the mind.
We do not know, we do not understand how one can teach this.
Different, indeed, is it from the known,
and also it is above the unknown.
Thus have we heard from the ancients who explained it to us.

That which is not expressed by speech,
but that by which speech is expressed:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not thought by the mind,
but that by which the mind thinks:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not seen by the eye,
but that by which the eye sees:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not heard by the ear,
but that by which the ear hears:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not breathed by the breath,
but that by which the breath breathes:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

2
If you think you know it well,
only slightly do you know the form of God.
What refers to you and what refers to the gods
then is to be investigated by you.

I think it is known.
I do not think that I know it well,
nor do I think that I do not know it.
Those of us who know this know it,
and not those of us who think they do not know it.

The one who has not thought it out has the thought of it.
The one who has thought it out does not know it.
It is not understood by those who understand it;
it is understood by those who do not understand it.

When it is known by an awakening, it is correctly known,
for then one finds immortality.
By the soul one finds ability;
by knowledge one finds immortality.

If here one knows it, then there is truth;
if here one does not know it, then there is great loss.
Seeing it in all beings,
the wise on leaving this world become immortal.

3
God won a victory for the gods,
and in this victory the gods were proud,
saying, "Ours is the victory, ours the greatness."
It knew this and appeared before them,
and they did not know what this spirit was.

They said to Agni, "O all-knowing one,
find this out, what this spirit is."

"So be it."
He hurried toward it, and it asked him, "Who are you?"

"I am Agni," he said. "I am the all-knowing one."

"What power is in you?"

"I can burn all things on earth."

It placed a straw before him. "Burn this."
He went at it with all speed, but could not burn it.

Then he returned and said,
"I have not been able to find out what this spirit is."

Then they said to Vayu, "O Vayu,
find this out, what this spirit is."

"So be it."

He hurried toward it, and it asked him, "Who are you?"

"I am Vayu," he said. "I am air expanding in space."

"What power is in you?"

"I can blow away all there is on earth."

It placed a straw before him. "Blow away this."
He went at it with all speed, but could not blow it away.

Then he returned and said,
"I have not been able to find out what this spirit is."

Then they said to Indra, "O giver of wealth,
find this out, what this spirit is."

"So be it."

He hurried toward it. It disappeared from before him.
In the same region of the sky,
he came across a very beautiful woman,
Uma, the daughter of the snowy mountains.
He asked her, "What is this spirit?"

4
She replied, "This is God,
and in the victory of God you glory."
Then he knew it was God.

Therefore these gods, Agni, Vayu, and Indra,
surpassed the other gods, for they came nearest to its touch
and first knew that it was God.
Therefore Indra surpassed the other gods,
for he came nearest to its touch
and first knew that it was God.

Of it there is this teaching:
this is like the lightning which flashes forth
or the blinking of the eye,
this teaching referring to the divine.

Now the teaching referring to the self:
toward this the mind appears to move,
and by it the will remembers constantly.
It is called "that prize."
As that prize it should be revered.
Whoever knows it thus is sought by all beings.

You asked me to explain the mystic doctrine.
The mystic doctrine has been explained to you.
We have told you the mystic doctrine of God.
Discipline, restraint, and work are its foundation.
The Vedas are all its limbs.
Truth is its home.
Whoever knows this, overcoming sin,
is firmly established in infinite heaven---
yes, firmly established.

Copyright 1996, 2002 by Sanderson Beck

This has been published in the WISDOM BIBLE as a book. For ordering information, please click here. This text is also available as spoken by Sanderson Beck on CD.

WISDOM OF CHINA AND INDIA Contents
KATHA UPANISHAD
ISHA UPANISHAD
MUNDAKA UPANISHAD
PRASHNA UPANISHAD
MANDUKYA UPANISHAD
SHVETASHVATARA UPANISHAD
Vedas and Upanishads ETHICS OF CIVILIZATION

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