BECK index

The Upanishads

Early Upanishads
Kena, Katha, Isha, and Mundaka
Later Upanishads

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The larger body of Vedic literature is divided into two parts with the four Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Samhitas and their Brahmanas making up the Karmakanda on the work of the sacrifices and the Aranyakas and the Upanishads the section on knowledge called the Jnanakanda. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads were tacked on to the end of Brahmanas, and the only three Aranyakas extant share the names of the Brahmanas they followed and the Upanishads they preceded: Aitareya, Kausitaki, and the Taittiriya; the first two are associated with the Rig Veda, the last with the Yajur Veda.


The Aranyakas are called the forest texts, because ascetics retreated into the forest to study the spiritual doctrines with their students, leading to less emphasis on the sacrificial rites that were still performed in the towns. They are transitional between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads in that they still discuss rites and have magical content, dull lists of formulas and some hymns from the Vedas as well as the early speculations and intellectual discussions that flowered in the Upanishads. The sages who took in students in their forest hermitages were not as wealthy as the Brahmins in the towns who served royalty and other wealthy patrons.

The Taittiriya Aranyaka tells how when the Vataramsa sages were first approached by other sages they retreated, but when the sages came back with faith and tapas (ardor), they instructed them how to expiate the sin of abortion. Prayers were offered for pregnant women whether they were married or not, even if the father was unknown because of promiscuity. Yet the double standard against women for unchastity was in effect, unless a student seduced the teacher's wife. Truth was the highest value; through truth the right to heaven was retained. Debtors were in fear of punishment in hell, probably because the social punishments in this world were severe---torture and perhaps even death.

The emphasis now is on knowledge, even on wisdom, as they prayed for intelligence. The concept of prana as the life energy of the breath is exalted as that which establishes the entire soul. Prana is found in trees, animals, and people in ascending order. Human immortality is identified with the soul (atman) not the body. Hell is still feared, but by practicing austerity (tapas) to gain knowledge individuals hope to be born into a better world after death or be liberated from rebirth. Non-attachment (vairagya) also purifies the body and overcomes death.

The essence of the Vedic person is considered Brahman, and the knower or inner person is known as the soul (atman). The guardians of the spiritual treasures of the community were called Brahmavadins (those who discuss Brahman). A son approached his father and asked what was supreme. The father replied, "Truth, tapas, self-control, charity, dharma (duty), and progeny."1

Early Upanishads

The term Upanishad means literally "those who sit near" and implies listening closely to the secret doctrines of a spiritual teacher. Although there are over two hundred Upanishads, only fifteen are mentioned by the philosophic commentator Shankara (788-820). These fifteen and the Maitri are considered Vedic and the principal Upanishads; the rest were written later and are related to the Puranic worship of Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu. The oldest and longest of the Upanishads are the Brihad-Aranyaka and the Chandogya from about the seventh century BC.

The Brihad-Aranyaka has three Aranyaka chapters followed by six Upanishad chapters. The first chapter of the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad describes the world as represented by the horse-sacrifice. The primordial battle between the gods and the devils accounts for the evil found in the senses, mind, and speech, but by striking off the evil the divinities were carried beyond death. The priest chants for profound aspiration, one of the most famous verses from the Upanishads:

From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!2

The primary message of the Upanishads is that this can be done by meditating with the awareness that one's soul (atman) is one with all things. Thus whoever knows that one is Brahman (God) becomes this all; even the gods cannot prevent this, since that one becomes their soul (atman). Therefore whoever worships another divinity thinking it is other than oneself does not know.

Out of God (Brahman) came the Brahman caste of priests and teachers and the Kshatriyas to rule, development through the Vaisyas and the Sudras. However, a principle was created as justice (dharma), than which nothing is higher, so that a weak person may control one stronger, as if by a king. They say that those who speak the truth speak justice and vice versa, because they are the same. By meditating on the soul (atman) alone, one does not perish and can create whatever one wants. Whatever suffering occurs remains with the creatures; only the good goes to the soul, because evil does not go to the gods.

The soul is identified with the real, the immortal, and the life-breath (prana), which is veiled by name and form (individuality). By restraining the senses and the mind, one may rest in the space within the heart and become a great Brahman and like a king may move around within one's body as one pleases. The world of name and form is real, but the soul is the truth or reality of the real. Immortality cannot be obtained through wealth, and all persons and things in the world are dear not for love of them (husband, wife, sons, wealth, gods, etc.); but for the love of the soul, all these are dear. The soul is the overlord of all things, as the spokes of the wheel are held together by the hub.

The principle of action (karma) is explained as "one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action."3 How can one get beyond the duality of seeing, smelling, hearing, speaking to, thinking of, and understanding another? Can one see the seer, smell the smeller, hear the hearer, think the thinker, and understand the understander? It is the soul which is in all things; everything else is wretched. By passing beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death, by overcoming desire for sons, wealth, and worlds, let a Brahman become disgusted with learning and live as a child; disgusted with that let one become an ascetic until one transcends both the non-ascetic and the ascetic states. Thus is indicated a spiritual path of learning and discipline that ultimately transcends even learning and discipline in the soul, the inner controller, the immortal, the one dwelling in the mind whom the mind does not know, who controls the mind from within.

The one departing this world without knowing the imperishable is pitiable, but the one knowing it is a Brahman. The following refrain is repeated often:

That soul is not this, not that.
It is incomprehensible, for it is not comprehended.
It is indestructible, for it is never destroyed.
It is unattached, for it does not attach itself.
It is unfettered; it does not suffer; it is not injured.4

The soul is considered intelligent, dear, true, endless, blissful, and stable. As a king prepares a chariot or ship when going on a journey, one should prepare one's soul with the mystic doctrines of the Upanishads. The knowledge that is the light in the heart enables one to transcend this world and death while appearing asleep. The evils that are obtained with a body at birth are left behind upon departing at death. One dreams by projecting from oneself, not by sensing actual objects. In sleep the immortal may leave one's nest and go wherever one pleases. In addition to being free from desire the ethical admonition of being without crookedness or sin is also indicated. At death the soul goes out first, then the life, and finally the breaths go out.

The soul is made of everything; as one acts, one becomes. The doer of good becomes good; the doer of evil becomes evil. As is one's desire, such is one's resolve; as is the resolve, such is the action, which one attains for oneself. When one's mind is attached, the inner self goes into the action. Obtaining the consequences of one's actions, whatever one does in this world comes again from the other world to this world of action (karma).

By releasing the desires in one's heart, one may be liberated in immortality, reaching Brahman (God). One is the creator of all, one with the world. Whoever knows this becomes immortal, but others go only to sorrow. The knowing is sought through the spiritual practices of repeating the Vedas, sacrifices, offerings, penance, and fasting. Eventually one sees everything, as the soul overcomes both the thoughts of having done wrong and having done right. The evil does not burn one; rather one burns the evil. In the soul's being the world-all is known. The student should practice self-restraint, giving, and compassion.

The Chandogya Upanishad belongs to the Sama Veda and is the last eight chapters of the ten-chapter Chandogya Brahmana. The first two chapters of the Brahmana discuss sacrifices and other forms of worship. As part of the Sama Veda, which is the chants, the Chandogya Upanishad emphasizes the importance of chanting the sacred Aum. The chanting of Aum is associated with the life breath (prana), which is so powerful that when the devils struck it they fell to pieces.

The religious life recommended in the Chandogya Upanishad has three parts. The first is sacrifice, study of the Vedas, and giving alms. The second is austerity, and the third is studying the sacred knowledge while living in the house of a teacher. One liberal giver who had many rest-houses built and provided with food said, "Everywhere people will be eating of my food."5

The soul in the heart is identified with Brahman (God), and it is the same as the light which shines higher than in heaven. Knowing and reverencing the sacrificial fire is believed to repel evil-doing from oneself. To the one who knows the soul evil action does not adhere just as water does not adhere to the leaf of the lotus flower. To know the soul as divine is called the "Loveliness-uniter" because all lovely things come to such.

The doctrine of reincarnation is clearly implied in the Chandogya Upanishad as it declares that those whose conduct is pleasant here will enter a pleasant womb of a Brahman, Kshatriya, or Vaisya; but those of stinking conduct will enter a stinking womb of a dog, swine, or outcast. Thus reincarnation is explained as an ethical consequence of one's actions (karma).

At death the voice goes into the mind, the mind into the breath, the breath into heat, and heat into the highest divinity, the finest essence of truth and soul. Speaking to Svetaketu, the teacher explains that a tree may be struck at the root, the middle, or the top, but it will continue to live if pervaded by the living soul. Yet if the life leaves one branch of it, it dries up; and if it leaves the whole of it, the whole dries up. Then the teacher explains how the soul is the essence of life and does not die, concluding with the repeated refrain that his student thus ought to identify with the soul.

Truly, indeed, when the living soul leaves it,
this body dies; the living soul does not die.
That which is the subtle essence
this whole world has for its soul.
That is reality (truth). That is the soul.
That you are, Svetaketu.6

Then the teacher placed salt in water and asked his student to taste different parts of the water. Just so is Being hidden in all of reality, but it is not always perceived. Just as the thief burns his hand on the hot ax when tested, the one who did not steal and is true does not burn his hand, so the whole world has that truth in its soul.

Speech is to be valued because it makes known right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Mind is reverenced, because it enables one to do sacred works. Will is valued, because heaven and earth and all things were formed by being willed. Thought is important, because it is better not to be thoughtless. Meditation is reverenced, because one attains greatness by meditating. Understanding is valued, because by it we can understand everything. Strength maintains everything. Food, water, heat, and space each have their values. Finally also memory, hope, and life (prana) are to be reverenced.

Those who take delight in the soul, have intercourse with it, and find pleasure and bliss in it and freedom; but those who do not, have perishable worlds and no freedom. The seer does not find death nor sickness nor any distress but sees the all and obtains the all entirely. The soul is free of evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, and thirstless. Those who go from here having found the soul here there is freedom in all worlds. No evil can go into the Brahma-world.

The chaste life of the student of sacred knowledge is the essence of the austerity, fasting, and the hermit life, for in that way one finds the reality of the soul. The soul must be searched out and understood. The Chandogya Upanishad concludes with the advice that one should learn the Veda from the family of a teacher while working for the teacher, then study in one's own home producing sons and pupils, concentrate one's senses upon the soul, be harmless toward all living things except in the sacrifices (The religion has not yet purified itself of animal sacrifices.), so that one may attain the Brahma-world and not return here again. The implication is that one may become free of the cycle of reincarnation.

The Taittiriya and Aitareya Upanishads were associated with Aranyakas of the same name. In the Taittiriya Upanishad once again Aum is emphasized, as is peace of soul. Prayers often end with Aum and the chanting of peace (shanti) three times. This may be preceded by the noble sentiment, "May we never hate."7 One teacher says truth is first, another austerity, and a third claims that study and teaching of the Veda is first, because it includes austerity and discipline.

The highest goal is to know Brahman, for that is truth, knowledge, infinite and found hidden in the heart of being and in the highest heaven where one may abide with the eternal and intelligent Spirit (Brahman). Words turn away from it, and the mind is baffled by the delight of the eternal; the one who knows this shall not fear anything now or hereafter. Creation becomes a thing of bliss, for who could labor to draw in breath or have the strength to breathe it out if there were not this bliss in the heaven of one's heart?

The Aitareya Upanishad begins with the one Spirit creating the universe out of its being. As guardians for the worlds, Spirit made the Purusha (person). Out of the cosmic egg came speech, breath, eyes and sight, ears and hearing, skin, hair, and herbs; from the navel and outbreath came death, and from the organ of pleasure seed and waters were born.

In the concluding chapter of this short Upanishad the author asks who is this Spirit by whom one sees and hears and smells and speaks and knows? The answer is the following:

That which is heart, this mind---that is,
consciousness, perception, discernment, intelligence,
wisdom, insight, persistence, thought, thoughtfulness,
impulse, memory, conception, purpose, life, desire, will
are all names of intelligence.8

All things are guided by and based on this intelligence of Spirit (Brahman). Ascending from this world with the intelligent soul one obtains all desires in the heavenly world even immortality.

The Kaushitaki Upanishad begins by asking if there is an end to the cycle of reincarnation. The teacher answers that one is born again according to one's actions (karma). Ultimately the one who knows Spirit (Brahman) transcends even good and evil deeds and all pairs of opposites as a chariot-driver looks down upon two chariot wheels.

A ceremony is described whereby a dying father bequeaths all he has to his son. If he recovers, it is recommended that he live under the lordship of his son or wander as a religious mendicant. This practice of spiritual seeking as a beggar became one of the distinctive characteristics of Indian culture.

A story is told of Pratardana who by fighting and virility arrives at the beloved home of Indra who grants him a gift. Pratardana asks Indra to choose for him what would be most beneficial to humanity, but Indra replies that a superior does not choose for an inferior. Pratardana responds that then it is not a gift. After bragging of many violent deeds and saying that anyone who understands him is not injured even after committing the worst crimes such as murdering a parent, Indra identifies himself with the breathing spirit (prana) of the intelligent soul (prajnatman). This breathing spirit is the essence of life and thus immortal. It is by intelligence (prajna) that one is able to master all of the senses and faculties of the soul. All these faculties are fixed in the intelligence which is fixed in the breathing spirit which is in truth the blissful, ageless, immortal soul.

One does not become greater by good action nor less by bad action. One's own self (atman) causes one to lead up from these worlds by good action or is led downward by bad action. The soul itself (atman) is the world-protector and the sovereign of the world. Thus ultimately the soul is responsible for everything it experiences.

It is mentioned in the Kaushitaki Upanishad that it is contrary to nature for a Kshatriya to receive a Brahman as a student. However, the Upanishads represent a time when the Kshatriya caste began to compete with Brahmans in spiritual endeavors. Though the Brahmans had control of the formal religion in the villages where the Kshatriyas controlled the government, by tutoring their sons and others in the forest the Kshatriyas developed a less ritualistic and traditional spirituality that is recorded in the mystical Upanishads.

Kena, Katha, Isha, and Mundaka

The Kena Upanishad consists of an older prose section and some more recent verse with which it begins. The word Kena means "by whom" and is the first word in a series of questions asking by whom is the mind projected, by whom does breathing go forth, by whom is speech impelled? What god is behind the eye and ear? The answer to these questions points to a mystical self that is beyond the mind and senses but is that God by which the mind and senses operate.

Those who think they know it well know it only slightly. What relates to oneself and the gods needs to be investigated. Beyond thought it is not known by those who think they know it. Beyond understanding it is not known by those who think they understand it but by those who realize they do not understand it. It is correctly known by an awakening, for the one who knows it finds immortality. It can only be known by the soul. If one does not know it, it is a great loss. The wise see it in all beings and upon leaving this world become immortal.

In the prose section this mystical Spirit (Brahman) is shown to transcend the Vedic gods of fire (Agni), wind (Vayu), and even powerful Indra, who being above the other gods at least came nearest to it realizing that it was Brahman. In summary the Kena Upanishad concludes that austerity, restraint, and work are the foundation of the mystical doctrine; the Vedas are its limbs, and truth is its home. The one who knows it strikes off evil and becomes established in the most excellent, infinite, heavenly world.

The Katha Upanishad utilizes an ancient story from the Rig Veda about a father who gives his son Nachiketas to death (Yama) but brings in some of the highest teachings of mystical spirituality, helping us to realize why the Upanishads are referred to as the "end of the Vedas" in the double sense of completing the Vedic scripture and in explaining the ultimate goals.

When Vajashrava was sacrificing all his possessions, faith entered into Nachiketas, his son, who asked his father three times to whom would he give him. Losing patience with these pestering questions the father finally said, "I give you to Death (Yama)." Nachiketas knew that he was not the first to go to death nor would he be the last, and like grain one is born again anyway.

When he arrived at the house of Death, Yama was not there and only returned after three days. Because Nachiketas had not received the traditional hospitality for three days Yama granted him three gifts. His first request was that his father would greet him cheerfully when he returned. The second was that he be taught about the sacrificial fire. These were easily granted.

The third request of Nachiketas was that the mystery of what death is be explained to him, for even the gods have had doubts about this. Death tries to make him ask for something else, such as wealth or long life with many pleasures, but Nachiketas firmly insists on his original request, knowing that these other gifts will soon pass away.

So Death begins by explaining that the good is much better than the pleasant, which Nachiketas has just proved that he understands. He wisely wants knowledge not ignorance, and Death describes how those who think themselves learned but who are ignorant run around deluded and are like the blind leading the blind. Those who think this world is the only one continually come under the control of Death. Death explains that this knowledge cannot be known by reasoning or thought but it must be declared by another. I interpret this to mean that it must be learned by direct experience or from one who has had the experience.

Death tells how the truth is hard to see, but one must enter into the hidden, secret place in the depth of the heart. By considering this as God one through yoga (union) wisely leaves joy and sorrow behind. One must transcend what is right and not right, what has been done and will be done. The sacred word Aum is declared to be the imperishable Spirit (Brahman). The wise realize that they are not born nor die but are unborn, constant, eternal, primeval; this is not slain when the body is slain.

Smaller than the small, greater than the great, the soul is in the heart of every creature here. The one who is not impulsive sees it and is free of sorrow. Through the grace of the creator one sees the greatness of the soul. While sitting one may travel far; while lying down one may go everywhere. Who else but oneself can know the god of joy and sorrow, who is bodiless among bodies and stable among the unstable?

This soul is not obtained by instruction nor by intellect nor by much learning, but is obtained by the one chosen by this; to such the soul reveals itself. However, it is not revealed to those who have not ceased from bad conduct nor to those who are not peaceful. Those who drink of justice enter the secret place in the highest heaven. Thus correct ethics is a requirement, and one must also become peaceful.

Psychology is explained in the Katha Upanishad by using the analogy of a chariot. The soul is the lord of the chariot which is the body. The intuition (buddhi) is the chariot-driver, the mind the reins, the senses the horses, the objects of the senses the paths. Those who do not understand and whose minds are undisciplined with senses out of control are like the wild horses of a chariot that never reaches its goals; these go on to reincarnate. The wise reach their goal with Vishnu and are not born again. The hierarchy starting from the bottom is the objects of sense, the senses, the mind, the intuition, the soul, the unmanifest, and the person (Purusha).

Though hidden the soul may be seen by subtle seers with superior intellect. The intelligent restrain speech with the mind, the mind with the knowing soul, the knowing soul with the intuitive soul, and the intuitive soul with the peaceful soul. Yet the spiritual path is as difficult as crossing on the sharpened edge of a razor. By discerning what has no sound nor touch nor form nor decay nor taste nor beginning nor end one is liberated from the mouth of death.

A wise person seeking immortality looked within and saw the soul. The childish go after outward pleasures and walk into the net of widespread death. The wise do not seek stability among the unstable things here. Knowing the experiencer, the living soul is the lord of what has been and what will be. This is the ancient one born from discipline standing in the secret place. This is the truth that all things are one, but those who see a difference here go from death to death like water runs to waste among the hills. The soul goes into embodiment according to its actions and according to its knowledge.

The inner soul is in all things yet outside also; it is the one controller which when perceived gives eternal happiness and peace. Its light is greater than the sun, moon, stars, lightning, and fire which do not shine in the world illuminated by this presence. The metaphor of an upside down tree is used to show that heaven is the true root of all life.

The senses may be controlled by the mind and the mind by the greater self. Through yoga the senses are held back so that one becomes undistracted even by the stirring of the intuition. Thus is found the origin and the end. When all the desires of the heart are cut like knots, then a mortal becomes immortal. There is a channel from the heart to the crown of the head by which one goes up into immortality, but the other channels go in various directions. One should draw out from one's body the inner soul like an arrow from a reed to know the pure, the immortal. The Katha Upanishad concludes that with this knowledge learned from Death with the entire rule of yoga, Nachiketas attained Brahman and became free from passion and death, and so may any other who knows this concerning the soul.

Greatly respected, the short Isha Upanishad is often put at the beginning of the Upanishads. Isha means "Lord" and marks the trend toward monotheism in the Upanishads. The Lord encloses all that moves in the world. The author recommends that enjoyment be found by renouncing the world and not coveting the possessions of others. The One pervades and transcends everything in the world.

Whoever sees all beings in the soul
and the soul in all beings
does not shrink away from this.
In whom all beings have become one with the knowing soul
what delusion or sorrow is there for the one who sees unity?
It is radiant, incorporeal, invulnerable,
without tendons, pure, untouched by evil.
Wise, intelligent, encompassing, self-existent,
it organizes objects throughout eternity.9

The One transcends ignorance and knowledge, non-becoming and becoming. Those who know these pairs of opposites pass over death and win immortality. The Isha Upanishad concludes with a prayer to the sun and to Agni.

The Mundaka Upanishad declares Brahman the first of the gods, the creator of all and the protector of the world. Connected to the Atharva Veda the Mundaka Upanishad has Brahman teaching his eldest son Atharvan. Yet the lower knowledge of the four Vedas and the six Vedangas (phonetics, ritual, grammar, definition, metrics, and astrology) is differentiated from the higher knowledge of the imperishable source of all things. The ceremonial sacrifices are to be observed, but they are now considered "unsafe boats," and fools who approve them as better go again to old age and death.

Like the Katha, the Mundaka Upanishadwarns against the ignorance of thinking oneself learned and going around deluded like the blind leading the blind. Those who work (karma) without understanding because of attachment, when their rewards are exhausted, sink down wretched. "Thinking sacrifices and works of merit are most important, the deluded know nothing better."10 After enjoying the results of their good works they enter this world again or even a lower one. The Mundaka Upanishad recommends a more mystical path:

Those who practice discipline and faith in the forest,
the peaceful knowers who live on charity,
depart without attachment through the door of the sun,
to where lives the immortal Spirit, the imperishable soul.
Having tested the worlds won by works,
let the seeker of God arrive at detachment.
What is not made is not attained by what is done.11

To gain this knowledge the seeker is to go with fuel in hand to a teacher who is learned in the scriptures and established in God. Approaching properly, calming the mind and attaining peace, the knowledge of God may be taught in the truth of reality by which one knows the imperishable Spirit.

The formless that is higher than the imperishable and is the source and goal of all beings may be found in the secret of the heart. The reality of immortal life may be known by using the weapons of the Upanishads as a bow, placing an arrow on it sharpened by meditation, stretching it with thought directed to that, and knowing the imperishable as the target. Aum is the bow; the soul is the arrow; and God is the target. Thus meditating on the soul and finding peace in the heart the wise perceive the light of blissful immortality. The knot of the heart is loosened, all doubts vanish, and one's works (karma) cease when it is seen. Radiant is the light of lights that illuminates the whole world. God truly is this immortal, in front, behind, to the right and left, below and above; God is all this great universe.

By seeing the brilliant creator, the God-source, being a knower the seer shakes off good and evil reaching the supreme identity of life that shines in all beings. Enjoying the soul, doing holy works, such is the best knower of God. The soul can be attained by truth, discipline, correct knowledge, and by studying God. Truth conquers and opens the path to the gods by which sages whose desires are satisfied ascend to the supreme home. Vast, divine, subtler than the subtle, it shines out far and close by, resting in the secret place seen by those with vision. It is not grasped by sight nor speech nor angels nor austerity nor work but by the grace of wisdom and the mental purity of meditation which sees the indivisible.

Whatever world a person of pure heart holds clearly in mind is obtained. Yet whoever entertains desires, dwelling on them, is born here and there on account of those desires; but for the one whose desire is satisfied, whose soul is perfected, all desires here on earth vanish away. This soul is not attained by instruction nor intellect nor much learning but by the one whom it chooses who enter into the all itself. Ascetics with natures purified by renunciation enter the God-worlds and transcend death. As rivers flow into the ocean, the liberated knower reaches the divine Spirit. Whoever knows that supreme God becomes God.

Later Upanishads

These Upanishads are being discussed in this chapter in their estimated chronological order. The previous group is from about the sixth century BC, and thus some of them are probably contemporary with the life of the Buddha (563-483 BC). This next group is almost certainly after the time of the Buddha, but it is difficult to tell how old they are.

The Prashna Upanishad is also associated with the Atharva Veda and discusses six questions; Prashna means question. Six men approached the teacher Pippalada with sacrificial fuel in hands and questions in their minds. Pippalada agreed to answer their questions if they would live with him another year in austerity, chastity, and faith.

The first question is, "From where are all these creatures born?"12 The answer is that the Creator (Prajapati) wanted them, but two paths are indicated that lead to reincarnation and immortality. The second question is how many angels support and illumine a creature and which is supreme? The answer is space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, sight, and hearing, but the life-breath (prana) is supreme.

The third question seeks to know the relationship between this life-breath and the soul. The short answer is, "This life is born from the soul (atman)."13 The fourth question concerns sleep, waking, and dreams. During sleep the mind re-experiences what it has seen and heard, felt and thought and known. When one is overcome by light, the god dreams no longer; then all the elements return to the soul in happiness.

The fifth question asks about the result of meditating on the word Aum. When someone meditates on all three letters, then the supreme may be attained. The sixth question asks about the Spirit with sixteen parts. The sixteen parts of the Spirit are life, faith, space, air, light, water, earth, senses, mind, food, virility, discipline, affirmations (mantra), action, world, and naming (individuality). All the parts are like spokes of a wheel, the hub of which is the Spirit.

In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad monotheism takes the form of worshipping Rudra (Shiva). The later quality of this Upanishad is also indicated by its use of terms from the Samkhya school of philosophy. The person (Purusha) is distinguished from nature (Prakriti) which is conceived of as illusion (maya). The method of devotion (bhakti) is presented, and the refrain "By knowing God one is released from all fetters" is often repeated.

Nevertheless the UpanIshadic methods of discipline and meditation are recommended to realize the soul by controlling the mind and thoughts. Breathing techniques are also mentioned as is yoga. The qualities (gunas) that come with action (karma) and its consequences are to be transcended. Liberation is still found in the unity of God (Brahman) by discrimination (samkhya) and union (yoga). By the highest devotion (bhakti) for God and the spiritual teacher (guru) all this may be manifested to the great soul (mahatma).

The short Mandukya Upanishad is associated with the Atharva Veda and delineates four levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a fourth mystical state of being one with the soul. These are associated with the three elements of the sacred chant Aum (a, u, and m) and the silence at its cessation. Thus this sacred chant may be used to experience the soul itself.

The thirteenth and last of what are considered the principal Upanishads is the Maitri Upanishad. It begins by recommending meditation upon the soul and life (prana). It tells of a king, Brihadratha, who established his son as king and realizing that his body is not eternal, became detached from the world and went into the forest to practice austerity. After a thousand days Shakayanya, a knower of the soul, appeared to teach him. The king sought liberation from reincarnating existence. The teacher assures him that he will become a knower of the soul. The serene one who rising up out of the body reaches the highest light in one's own form is the soul, immortal and fearless.

The body is like a cart without intelligence but it is driven by a supersensuous, intelligent being who is pure, clean, void, tranquil, breathless, selfless, endless, undecaying, steadfast, eternal, unborn, and independent. The reins are the five organs of perception, the steeds are the organs of action, and the charioteer is the mind. The soul is unmanifest, subtle, imperceptible, incomprehensible, selfless, pure, steadfast, stainless, unagitated, desireless, fixed like a spectator, and self-abiding.

How then does the soul overcome by the bright and dark fruits of action (karma) enter good or evil wombs? The elemental self is overcome by these actions and pairs of opposites, the qualities (gunas) of nature (prakriti) and does not see the blessed one who causes action standing within oneself. Bewildered, full of desire, distracted, this self-conceit binds oneself by thinking "This is I," and "That is mine." So as a bird is caught in a snare it enters into a good or evil womb.

Yet the cause of these actions is the inner person. The elemental self is overcome by its attachment to qualities. The characteristics of the dark quality (tamas) are delusion, fear, despondency, sleepiness, weariness, neglect, old age, sorrow, hunger, thirst, wretchedness, anger, atheism, ignorance, jealousy, cruelty, stupidity, shamelessness, meanness, and rashness. The characteristics of the passionate quality (rajas) are desire, affection, emotion, coveting, malice, lust, hatred, secretiveness, envy, greed, fickleness, distraction, ambition, favoritism, pride, aversion, attachment, and gluttony.

How then may this elemental self on leaving this body come into complete union with the soul? Like the waves of great rivers or the ocean tide it is hard to keep back the consequences of one's actions or the approach of death. Like the lame bound with the fetters made of the fruit of good and evil, like the prisoner lacking independence, like the dead beset by fear, the intoxicated by delusions, like one rushing around are those possessed by an evil spirit; like one bitten by a snake are those bitten by objects of sense; like the gross darkness of passion, the juggling of illusion, like a falsely apparent dream, like an actor in temporary dress or a painted scene falsely delighting the mind, all these attachments prevent the self from remembering the highest place.

The antidote is to study the Veda, to pursue one's duty in each stage of the religious life and practice the proper discipline which results in the pure qualities (sattva) which lead to understanding and the soul. By knowledge, discipline, and meditation God is apprehended, and one attains undecaying and immeasurable happiness in complete union with the soul. The soul is identical with the various gods and powers.

Having bid peace to all creatures and gone to the forest,
then having put aside objects of sense,
from out of one's own body one should perceive this,
who has all forms, the golden one, all-knowing,
the final goal, the only light."14

The means of attaining the unity of the One is the sixfold yoga of breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), attention (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and meditation (samadhi).

When one sees the brilliant maker,
lord, person, the God-source,
then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil,
the sage makes everything one in the supreme imperishable.15

When the mind is suppressed, one sees the brilliant soul which is more subtle than the subtle, and having seen the soul oneself one becomes selfless and is regarded as immeasurable, without origin - the mark of liberation (moksha). By serenity of thought one destroys good and evil action (karma). In selflessness one attains absolute unity.

The sound Aum may be used. Meditation is directed to the highest principle within and also outer objects, qualifying the unqualified understanding; but when the mind has been dissolved, there is the bliss witnessed by the soul that is the pure and immortal Spirit. But if one is borne along by the stream of the qualities, unsteady, wavering, bewildered, full of desire, and distracted one goes into self-conceit. Standing free from dependence, conception, and self-conceit is the mark of liberation.

The influence of Buddhism can be seen in the description of liberation from one's own thoughts. As fire destitute of fuel goes out, so thought losing activity becomes extinct in its source. What is one's thought, that one becomes; this is the eternal mystery. By the serenity of thought one destroys good and bad karma; focused on the soul one enjoys eternal delight. The mind is the means of bondage and release. Though the sacrificial fire is still important, meditation has become the primary means of liberation.

The Mahanarayana Upanishad is a long hymn to various forms of God with prayers for everything from wealth to liberation. At one point the author identifies with the divine light:

I am that supreme light of Brahman
which shines as the inmost essence of all that exists.
In reality I am the same infinite Brahman
even when I am experiencing myself
as a finite self owing to ignorance.
Now by the onset of knowledge
I am really that Brahman which is my eternal nature.
Therefore I realize this identity
by making myself, the finite self,
an oblation into the fire
of the infinite Brahman which I am always.
May this oblation be well made.16

The Jabala Upanishad, which is quoted by Shankara, gives a description of the four stages of religious life for a pious Hindu. Yajnavalkya suggests that after completing the life of a student, a householder, and a forest dweller, let one renounce, though one may renounce while a student or householder if one has the spirit of renunciation. Suicide apparently was not forbidden, for to the one who is weary of the world but is not yet fit to become a recluse, Yajnavalkya recommends a hero's death (in battle), fasting to death, throwing oneself into water or fire, or taking a final journey (to exhaustion). The wandering ascetic though wearing an orange robe, with a shaven head, practicing non-possession, purity, nonviolence, and living on charity obtains the state of Brahman.

The Vajrasuchika Upanishad claims to blast ignorance and exalts those endowed with knowledge. It raises the question who is of the Brahman class. Is it the individual soul, the body, based on birth, knowledge, work, or performing the rites? It is not the individual soul (jiva), because the same soul passes through many bodies. It is not the body, because all bodies are composed of the same elements even though Brahmans tend to be white, Kshatriyas red, Vaisyas tawny, and Sudras dark in complexion. It is not birth, because many sages are of diverse origin. It is not knowledge, because many Kshatriyas have attained wisdom and seen the highest reality. It is not work, because good men perform works based on their past karma. It is not performing the rites, because many Kshatriyas and others have given away gold as an act of religious duty.

The true Brahman directly perceives the soul, which functions as the indwelling spirit of all beings, blissful, indivisible, immeasurable, realizable only through one's experience, and manifesting oneself directly through the fulfillment of nature becomes rid of the faults of desire, attachment, spite, greed, expectation, bewilderment, ostentation, and so on and is endowed with tranquillity. Only one possessed of these qualities is a Brahman. This flexible viewpoint indicates that the caste system may not yet have been as rigid as it was later to become.

Although as the major teachings passed down orally from the century before the Buddha, the Upanishads don't tell us too much about the worldly society of India, they do express a widespread mysticism and spiritual life-style that was to prepare the way for the new religions of Jainism and Buddhism as well as the deepened spirituality and mystical philosophies of Hinduism. The values of the teachers and ascetics of this culture that has been likened to the New Thought movement of the recent New Age philosophy were spiritual and other worldly, but if they did not do much to improve the whole society at least they did not do the harm of the conquering Aryans.

A personal educational system of spiritual tutoring for adults developed, and individuals were encouraged to improve themselves spiritually as they gave and received charity. (When renouncing they gave to charity; then they accepted charity for basic sustenance.) The rituals of animal sacrifices were de-emphasized, and knowledge became greatly valued, especially self-knowledge. The doctrine of reincarnation made the sacrifices for a better life now or in the future eventually give way to the higher spiritual goal of liberation from the entire cycle of rebirth. Thus austerity and meditation became the primary methods of spiritual realization.


1. Taittiriya Aranyaka 10:63:1.
2. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad 1:3:28.
3. Ibid. 3:2:13.
4. Ibid. 3:9:26.
5. Chandogya Upanishad 4:1:1.
6. Ibid. 6:11:3.
7. Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:1.
8. Ibid. 3:1:2.
9. Isha Upanishad 6-8.
10. Mundaka Upanishad 1:2:10.
11. Ibid. 1:2:11-12.
12. Prashna Upanishad 1:3.
13. Ibid. 3:3.
14. Maitri Upanishad 6:8.
15. Ibid. 6:18.
16. Mahanarayana Upanishad 1:67.

Copyright 1996 Sanderson Beck

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Vedas and Upanishads
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